Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Art, Life and Blogs

"Write what you know!" is a common and meaningful axiom in writing. The point being that you are expressing authentic truths in your life and detailing authentic situations instead of making up a bunch of bogus crap that you truly know nothing about. Even great fantasy writers draw from their own inner experiences (and obsessions) in creating their fantasy worlds and in crafting the deeper thematic threads that underlie their stories.

We at FA urge filmmakers to do the same. If it isn't your life or story, it should at least be a story/life you to which you feel a personal connection. And if it is complete fantasy, hopefully it is a reflection of things that exist deep inside you. Because if it isn't personal for you, it won't be personal for us (the audience). It is important to know, however, that sometimes, that can get you into trouble.

Take this blog, for instance. I very much want it to be an open and honest reflection of my life as a filmmaker and of all the things I've learned in that life (or as much as possible). But it is not my life. It is merely a creative (I hope) and subjective reflection of certain elements of my life. That's what all art is (not that my blog is art, but it is a creative endeavor of sorts). Art can never be truly authentic unless there was some possible way to allow the audience to actually live the life you have created for them. But that isn't possible. So, what we are actually creating is the feeling of authenticity. Not authenticity itself.

In my blog, there is indeed the a sense of authenticity, but there is also plenty of creative subjectivity that is expressed through through the thoughts and impressions that form my particular perspective on the world. And that perspective is not always kind to the focus of my musings. Quite frankly, it is sometimes filled with entertaining (again, I hope) dysfunction. And, finally, there are actual human beings (not characters in a movie) that are being described - and sometimes insulted - by that particular perspective.

I kinda trashed Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited" in a blog, then met him briefly at a screening afterward. Some of the way in which I trashed the film was also a bit unkind to him personally - though certainly not nasty or abusive. It was simply not something he'd be overjoyed to read, even if he found it useful feedback. But I don't know him at all personally. And what little bit I did see, seemed very nice. When I met him, he was as gracious and friendly as if he'd never even read my blog. That's because he didn't. Let's face it, nobody reads this blog except you.....or so I thought.

Awhile back, I did one of my "Day in the life..." or "Week in the life..." or maybe even "Month in the life...." pieces (soon I'll be doing a "Year in the life..."). In it, I made a passing reference to an encounter with a writer/filmmaker who also happened to be a porn actress. It was unkind and dismissive. She read the blog. She was not happy. She sent me an email to express her understandable displeasure.

My initial reaction was one of surprise - first, that she'd actually read it (honestly, I was also flattered), but secondly, that she would be upset by it since I had absolutely no objectivity about what I'd written. So, I went back and re-read it, putting myself in her place. And it was easy to feel the full impact of her upset.

Naturally, I apologized. I also tried to explain myself. I made the point that I am communicating things from a particular perspective and it is not necessarily "true-to-life". The people I identify in my blog, in essesence, become "characters" - even if they are real live persons - that represent ideas and issues I face in my life as a filmmaker. Somehow, none of that made her feel better. I'm not surprised.

The fact is, I failed to acknowledge that she truly is a creative being, even if that creativity is a bit raw and restless. And it is clear that she is attempting, through that creative work, to reach beyond the perceived limitations and imposed judgements surrounding her life choices. And she reached out to me as earnestly as she knows how. And although I responded to her genuinely in our email exchange, I used her as nothing more than creative fodder for my blog. And I did it with a bit of dismissive indignation.

So, naturally, she was hurt by what I'd written. For that, I am truly sorry. She also feels crushed by my perceived lack of support. For that, I do not take responsibility. Because, in the end, I have to say that I still stand behind what I wrote, even while feeling sorry for the pain it has caused her. And I say this knowing full well she will be reading this. In fact, I'm sending her a link to it. So, let me explain that comment, for her benefit, as well as yours. Although I doubt what I am about to say will make her feel any better.

My blog is a work of creative energy that demands creative choices. And sometimes those choices are tough. I certainly don't feel good about making anyone feel bad, but that was not my intention. It was an unfortunate consequence of a desire to express an authentic perception. The fact is, I was struck by what I perceived as dysfunction in my original encounter with this filmmaker. It is not a objective judgement, just a subjective perception. And that is what I wanted to convey in my blog. She thus became a "character" in my blog, representing a larger thematic idea.

It was not a very "human" choice....more of an intellectual one. And, upon reflection, not the best choice. Not because it hurt her (although I am truly sorry for that), but because a "human" choice is always a better one creatively. That's because humans are far more complex and interesting than any theme or thesis my limited intellect chooses to support. Had I mentioned that she was indeed a creative being and had indeed reached out to me earnestly, it would have been much more complex and emotionally affecting.

But that would have been for another (better) blog. This one was what it was - a brief paragraph about something that happened to me during the course of a week. And I conveyed what struck me most about that encounter. Does this mean I don't support her creativity and creative work? Does this mean I don't respect her feelings? Absolutely not. I do respect her as a person and as a creative being. But I do feel that there is some damage in her psyche (not that there isn't in mine) and it struck me as a microcosm of a much larger issue in the filmmaking universe - one that I chose to convey as I did.

And I don't want to run from that perspective. I don't feel that I "branded" her publicly as I never betrayed, nor will betray, her identity. But I did identify her in a way she could clearly recognize. And, given that she's identified herself, I guess I wish she could step back and really "see" herself or, at least, see the personal and larger affect of a proposition such as the one she'd offered. And then, if she so chooses, stand behind it fully. My reaction has no bearing whatsoever on her creative energy. She is a meaningful creative being no matter how I might respond to her approach to soliciting creative support. She is a meaningful creative being no matter how "damaged" or "dyfunctional" I may perceive her. She needs to know that and not need me to tell her that.

I say this because it is true for all of us. We need to stand up for our work and our choices. We may learn from them and make different choices in the future (hopefully). But we should struggle not to be offended by the reactions of others - be they friends, family, critics, programmers or...bloggers. They do not and should not affect who we are in our essence. My reaction should not affect what this filmmaker needs to do creatively. And I can honestly say, that as sorry as I am, her reaction will not affect what I feel I need to do. That reaction is the price we all might pay at one time or another for "writing what we know".

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

THE CONVERSATION - this weekend!!



This week-end, pioneers at the forefront of change in cinema, video, games, media and technology are coming together to share ideas, insights, and innovations. The focus is on new tools, new distribution channels, and new rules.

The format of the gathering will be experimental: rather than a traditional conference, short talks and demos, "fireside chats," and roundtables will spark a dynamic series of overlapping conversations.

All this will happen at UC Berkeley's renowned Pacific Film Archive theater over this coming Friday and Saturday. It's a conversation that will bring together media-makers and technologists to share experiences, discuss, debate, and map out the future together.

Some of the topics they'll touch on, and the people who'll lead the conversation, are listed here. But we also want to invite you to suggest other topics ... ones that you want to see added or address yourself.

Just added to the speaker list: Legendary independent film producer Ted Hope and Dean Valentine, CEO of Comedy.com, former CEO of UPN and President of Walt Disney Television.

And: Event organizers Tiffany Shlain and Scott Kirsner talk about where The Conversation might go:

We hope you'll join us later this week...

Digital Strategies for Social Issue Filmmakers

Actually, the below is good info for ANY filmmaker...

Reprinted with the generous permission of Scott Kirsner.

Scott Kirsner’s recommendations from the ITVS Digital Initiative: Report from the Field:

Top Five Connection-Creating Strategies

  • 1. Start a blog or create a bare-bones website to generate awareness of what you’re up to; this can be a way for potential collaborators, sources, funders, and DVD-buyers to get in touch with you early on.
  • 2. Participate and post in existing online communities related to your film’s topic.
  • 3. Maintain a database of everyone who you’ve interviewed or who has offered help during production, so you can let them know when the film is finally finished.
  • 4. Consider ways to allow interested parties to get involved with your filmmaking process; some filmmakers have “open-sourced” their research, having others contribute by shooting far-off locations and interviews, and even some editing.
  • 5. Think about posting some clips/excerpts from your rough cut on video-sharing sites to begin building an online presence for your film. Provide links back to the film’s site or to your blog.

Top Five Marketing and Promotion Strategies

  • 1. Leverage the lists and websites of membership organizations related to the topic of your film to communicate with viewers who may be interested in seeing/purchasing it.
  • 2. Connect with bloggers who cover the issues in your film, offer them interviews, review copies of the DVD or embeddable clips from the film.
  • 3. Collect email addresses (and ideally ZIP codes too) from the visitors to your film’s website; you can notify them when the film is playing in theaters or on TV, or when it becomes available on DVD or as a download.
  • 4. Post clips on video-sharing sites or social networking sites, with links back to the film’s main site; this can help introduce it to new audiences.
  • 5. Consider allowing Internet users to remix or “mash up” parts of your film, or create their own trailers for it. This adds their perspective to the work and, ideally, helps it reach a broader audience.

Top Five Distribution Strategies

  • 1. Make sure DVDs are available when audiences are most interested in the film: during the theatrical run, during festival screenings and at the time of the first TV broadcast.
  • 2. Consider producing at least two versions of the DVD, at two different price points: one for general audiences and a second version for educational/group use, with discussion guides and supplemental material.
  • 3. Carefully evaluate distribution offers that wrap up digital rights with theatrical or home video rights. What will the distributor do in the near-term to generate revenues with those rights?
  • 4. Focus digital distribution efforts on outlets with already-established audiences (such as Apple’s iTunes or Amazon.com’s Unbox); if working with a newer outlet, negotiate for premium placement on the site and additional promotion.
  • 5. Whether selling DVDs or digital downloads/rentals with a business partner, insist on regular reporting of sales figures and the ability to audit them.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Ted Hope: How The New Truly Free Filmmaking Community Will Rise From Indie's Ashes

Reprinted from IndieWire from an address given at Film Independent's Film Forum.

How The New Truly Free Filmmaking Community Will Rise From Indie's Ashes
by Ted Hope (September 27, 2008)

I can't talk about the "crisis" of the indie film industry. There is no crisis. The country is in crisis. The economy is in crisis. We, the filmmakers, aren't in crisis.

The business is changing, but for us -- us who are called Indie Filmmakers -- that's good that the business is changing. Filmmaking is an incredible priviledge and we need to accept it as such -- and accept the full responsibility that comes with that priviledge.

The proclamations of Indie Film's demise are grossly exaggerated. How can there be a "Death Of Indie" when Indie -- real Indie, True Indie -- has yet to even live?

Yes, there's a profound paradigm shift, and that shift is the coming of true independence. The hope of this new independence is being threatened even before it has arrived. Are we going to fight for our independence and can we even shoulder the responsibility that independence requires? That is: will we band together and work for our communal needs? Are we ready to leave dreams of stardom and wealth behind us?

When someone says "Indie is dead," they are talking about the state of the 'Indie Film Business,' as opposed to what are actually the films themselves. They can say "The sky is falling" because for the last fifteen years, the existing power base in the film industry has focused on films fit for the exisiting business model, as opposed to ever truly concentrating on creating a business model for the films that filmmakers want to make.

Ted Hope at Film Independent's Filmmaker Forum. Photo provided by Film Independent.

This is where we are right now: on the verge of a TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE, one that is driven by both the creators and the audiences, pulled down by the audience and not pushed onto them by those that control the apparatus and the supply. We now have the power and the tool for something different, but will we fight to preserve the Internet, the tool that offers us our new freedom? Can we banish the the dream of golden distribution deals, and move away from asking others to distribute and market it for us? Can we accept that being a filmmaker means taking responsibility for your films, the primary responsibility, all the way through the process? That is independence and that is freedom

Indie, True Indie, is in its infancy. The popular term "Indie" is a distortion, growing out of our communal laziness and complacency - our willingness to be marketed blandly and not specifically. Our culture is vast and diverse, and we need to celebrate these differences, not diminish them. It's time to put that term "Indie" to rest.

Independence is within our reach, but we but we have to do what we have never done before: we have to choose.

It's a lot like the Presidential election. And it's also a lot like the way psychotherapy works: we have to ask ourselves if the pain we are experiencing presently is enough to motivate us to overcome the fear inherent in change itself.

We have to change our behavior and make that choice. We have to choose the type of culture we want. We have to choose the type of films we want available to us. We have to choose whether the Internet is ours or the corporations. We have to choose whether we decide for ourselves whether a film is worthwhile or whether we let those same corporations decide. We have to choose who our audiences are and how we are to reach them. We have to choose how we can all best contribute to this new system. And as we act on those choices, we have to get others to make a choice too.

For the last fifteen years our Community has made huge strides at demystifying the production process and providing access to the financing and distribution gatekeepers. Some call this democratization, but it is not. This demystification of production was a great first step, but it is not the whole shebang. In some ways, understanding the great behemoth that is production is also a distraction. It has distracted us from making really good films. And as it has distracted us from gaining the knowledge and seizing the power that is available to us. We have learned how to make films and how to bring them to market. We now have to demystify how to market and distribute films, and to do it in a way truly suited to the films we are making and desire to make.

Don't get me wrong the last fifteen years have been great. The Indie Period - as I suspect history will call it --- has brought us a far more diverse array of films than we had previously. It got better; we got more - but that is still not freedom. We are still in a damn similar place to the way it was back when cinema was invented 100 years ago. And it's time we moved to a new term, to the period of a Truly Free Film Culture.

If we want the freedom to tell the stories we want to tell, we all have to start to contribute to build the infrastructure that can support them. We need to step back from the glamour of making all these films, and instead help each other build the links, articulate the message, make the commitments, that will turn us truly into a Truly Free Film community. We have to stop making so many films.

The work before us is a major readjustment that will require many sacrifices. We must redesign the business structure for what the films actually are. We have to recognize that a Truly Free Film Culture is quite different from Studio Films and even different from the prestige film that the specialized distributors make. But look at what we gain: we will stop self-censoring our work to fit a business model that was appropriated from Hollywood and their mass market films to begin with. We will reach out to the audiences that are hungry for something new, for something truthful, for something about the world they experience, for something that is as complex as the emotions they feel. We can let them guide us because for the first time we can have real access and contact with them.

Presently, we are divided and conquered by a system that preys upon our dreams of success, encouraging us to squander collective progress on false hopes on personal enrichment. We follow the herd and only lead reluctantly. If we want Truly Free Films we have to stop dreaming of wealth, and take the job of building the community and support system.

For the last decade and a half, we have been myopically focused on production. Using Sundance submissions as a barometer, our production ability has increased eight and half times over -- 850% -- from 400 to 3600 films in fifteen years.

C'mon! What are we doing? Wasting a tremendous amount of energy, talent, and brainpower - that much is clear. If the average budget of Sundance submissions is $500K, that means the aggregate production costs are $1.8 billion dollars a year. That's a hell of a lot of money to lose annually. And you can bet the Indie World isn't going to get a government bail out like Wall Street and the Banking Industry have.

We need to recognize the responsibility of telling unique stories in unique ways. We are frequently innovators and groundbreakers, but that brings additional responsibilities. Working at the intersection of art and commerce, requires consideration for those that come after us. It is our responsibility to do all within our power to deliver a positive financial return. If we lose money, it will be a lot harder for those that follow us. With a debt of $1.8 billion per annum you can bet it will be a lot harder for a lot of people. And it should be - but it didn't need to be.

We don't get better films or build audiences by picking up cameras. Despite this huge boom in production, the number of truly talented uniquely voiced auteurs produced annually remains unchanged. What's happened instead is the infrastructure has rusted, the industry has failed to innovate, and we are standing on a precipice begging the giant to banish us into oblivion.

There is a silver lining too this dark cloud of over production that they like to call The Glut. As a young man I never found peace until I moved to New York City; the calm I found in New York, is explained by a line of Woody Allen's: "in New York, you always know what you are missing". What's great about a surplus of options - and we have that now, and not just from movies, but from the web, from books, from shows - what's great is that you have to make a choice. You have to commit. And you have to commit in advance.

The business model of the current entertainment industry is predicated on consumers not making choices but acting on impulses. Choice comes from research, from knowledge, and from tastes. Speak to someone from Netflix, and they will tell you that the longer someone is a member, the more their tastes move to auteurs, to quality film. Once we all wake up and realize that with films, as frankly with everything, we have to be thoughtful. We have to make it a choice, a choice for, and not an impulse.

We are now in a cultural war and not just the red state/blue state, participate vs. obey kind, not just the kind of cultural war that politicians seem to want to break this country down to. We are in a culture war in terms of what we get to see, enjoy and make. The Lovers Of Cinema have been losing this war because the Makers have invested in a dream of Prince Charming, content to have him sweep down, pick us up and sing that rags to riches refrain even if it comes but once a year to one lucky filmmaker out of 3,600.

So what is this TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE I am proposing? It is one that utilizes first and foremost the remarkable tool that is The Internet. It is the Internet that transforms the culture business from a business that is based around limited supply and the rule of gatekeepers to a business that around the fulfillment of all audience desire, and not just the desire of mass audiences, but also of the niches.

We have never had this sort opportunity before and the great tragedy is that just as we are learning what it means, forces are vying to take it away from us. The principal that all information, all creators, all audiences should be treated equally within the structure that is the Internet is popularly referred to as Net Neutrality. The Telecos, the Cable Companies, and their great ally, the Hollywood Motion Picture Studios and the MPAA are now trying to end that equality. And with it you will lose the opportunity to be TRULY FREE FILMMAKERS. But they are not going to succeed because we are going to band together and organize, we are going to save the Internet, and keep equal access for all.

A TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE will respect the audience's needs and desires as much as it currently respects the filmmakers. A TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE recognizes film as a dialogue and recognizes that a dialogue requires a community. Participants in a TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE work to participate in that community, work to get others to participate in that community. We work to get others to make a choice, to make a choice about what they want to do, what they want to see. We all become curators. We all promote the films we love. We reach out and mobilize others to vote with their feet, vote with their eyes, and vote with their dollars, to not act on impulses, but on knowledge and experience.

A TRULY FREE FILMMAKER -- be they producer or director -- recognizes their responsibility is not just to find a good script, not just to find a good cast, a good package. A TRULY FREE FILMMAKER recognizes that they must do more than find the funding, and even more than justifying that funding. The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER now recognizes their responsibility to also find the audience, grow the audience, expand the audience, and then also to move the audience, not just emotionally, but also literally: to move them onwards further to other things. Whether it is by direct contact, email blasts, or blogging, whatever it is, express what you want our culture to be.

The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER also recognizes that knowledge is power, and not ownership. The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER recognizes that others, as many others as possible, sharing in that knowledge will make everything better: the films, the apparatus, the business, and the just plain pleasure of participating. We are walking into new territory and we best map it out together.

The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER is no longer bound to just the 5 or 6 reel length. The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER is no longer bound to projection as the primary audience platform and is not stuck on the one film one theater one week type of release. The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER recognizes that just because there is no user term, no audience term, no consumer term for the cohesive cross-platform immersive experience, does not mean that we don't want that. A child understands that when you say "Pokemon" you mean not just the films, or tv shows, but also the cards, the games, the figures, the books. And a child understands that when you say "Brand Management" or "Franchise" you are just looking for ways to separate you from your wallet. We need to define that term to help the audience recognize what it is they want, what it is that we now can create, own, and distribute independently.

It is this thing that we once called the Independent Community that is the sector that truly innovates. The lower cost of our creations allows for greater risks. It is what we used to call "indies" that have innovated on a technical level, on a content level, on a story telling approach, and it is this, the TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE that will innovate still further in the future of distribution.

With the passion that produces 3600 films a year, with just a portion of those resources, we can build a new infrastructure that opens up new audiences, new models, new revenue streams that can build a true alternative to the mainstream culture that has been force fed us for years. We are on the verge of truly opening up what can be told, how it is told, to whom it is told, and where is told. We can seize it, but it requires that we embrace the full responsibility of what independence means.

Independence requires knowing your film inside and out. Knowing not just what you are choosing to do, but what you have chosen not to do. Independence comes with knowing that you have fully considered all your options. It is knowing your audience, knowing how to reach them - and not abstractly, but concretely. Let's make the next ten years about seizing our independence, killing "indie" film, and bringing forth a Truly Free Film Culture.

Thank you.

Ted Hope


Ted Hope has produced over 50 independent films. He takes particular joy in first features, having produced 14 of them. His extensive list of credits includes, "The Savages," "American Splendor," "21 Grams," "Lovely & Amazing," "Human Nature," and "Happiness.