Thursday, November 26, 2009

Story-telling: Back to the future....

It's Thanksgiving Day '09. Almost 10 a.m. and my Mom and Dad are here at my home. My Mom is prepping the meal for later and my dad is eating his pancakes, which he obsessively makes and eats about 5 days a week. It's one of the most beautiful LA days of the year and I'm enjoying this early and still part of a lovely day of gratitude. But my mind drifts, as always, and here I am at my blog - while I have the opportunity. I'm thinking about all the friends coming by later and the stories we'll be swapping throughout the day, over dinner and even later during drinks.

And it reminds me how much I love story-telling. This is the essence of my attraction to filmmaking. But filmmaking for me is story-telling taken to another level with all kinds of opportunities for embellishment, texturing and layering. And when those opportunities are fully explored, cinematic story-telling does NOT, for me, need to have an obvious beginning, middle and other words, a traditional narrative. Of course, all stories, no matter how experimental or artsy-fartsy have a beginning, middle and end, just by virtue of the basic physical reality of them starting and ending at some point, with the middle being,...well,...the middle. But stories don't always have to follow traditional three-act structure, where things are set up in the beginning, complicated in the middle and resolved at the end.

As I've said, there are all kinds of ways to tell a story and for me, the stories - and characters within that story - that are most interesting never completely resolve. They are stories and characters that raise questions and explore issues, rather than place some neat and tidy bow on life's complexities. Now, because life is so difficult and demanding, I understand that the majority of movie-goers crave fantastical distraction in their cinema and, in the end, often like to have all of their fears abated and dreams vicariously fulfilled onscreen in simple, clean, heart-warming fashion. They want their films to be like a warm, fuzzy blanket - but one that feels new and familiar at the same time.

There is definitely a need for those kind of films. But I feel like supply far exceeds demand, so that other ways to experience cinematic story-telling have been completely crowded out. So much so that many movie-goers are desperately hungry on both a conscious and unconscious level for something new and different. Yet, they are also confused by alternative ways of telling stories because they are not used to them. In a sense, they need an orientation - or, actually, a re-orientation - to story-telling that falls outside the bounds of the dominant story-telling paradigm. I say re-orientation because there was a time when the dominant story-telling paradigm was very different. Ancient and biblical myths and stories, upon which most of Western story-telling tradition is based, are very complicated pieces of story-telling. Sometimes, they are even surprisingly messy and sprawling with conflicted "heroes" that are far from one-dimensionally "good" - often engaging in behaviors that are downright horrific by modern standards.


Clearly, most modern audiences feel that a story isn't a story if it doesn't have an obvious point. I don't completely share that sentiment, but I don't completely disagree with it, either. The bigger issue for me is HOW we come to understand the "point" of a story - which I believe has changed dramatically over time, with the means to understanding a story having been bleached out and homogenized by the pressurized washer/dryer combination of popular culture and commerce. In what has become the traditional story-telling paradigm, a main character has a problem and most resolve it by the end of the story. It always gets resolved, of course, and the point of the story (or "message" if the story is heavy-handed) lies in how that main character - or the forces of nature that guide the character - resolves the problem. But telling stories in this way has not always been the case. Ancient myths and stories were often epic in nature with no clear resolution. The story-telling journey was strewn with all kinds of metaphorical nuggets that you could pick up along the way or on any number of story-telling side-roads. It was filled with complication and contradiction, leaving so much of the story open to interpretation, thus demanding an investment of thought on the part of its audience. In other words, the story was about the journey, not the destination (or resolution).

Now, of course, when I speak of the traditional modern paradigm, I am speaking about films because that is where it is most prevalent. Books can use the art of words and imagination to take you into deep, interior spaces. And music is, well, music. It's called music, not lyrics with sounds. And, of course, musical lyrics can indeed be poetry. No, this traditional story-telling epidemic flourishes in the filmmaking universe. But, of late, there has been a bit of relief coming from a rather unexpected source - television. Cable television shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Carnivale, BattleStar Galactica, Big Love, Mad Men and more, are kind of taking us back to the ancient ways of story-telling. The "heroes" are, without exception, flawed. The situations are complicated and never easily resolved, with tough, even brutal, decisions being made - and actions taken - at every turn. And each of those decisions/actions mean something on a spiritual level. Something more is at stake than just the action itself. The stories play out over a long period of time allowing the space for gradual character development and surprising character turns as well as many side-roads, subtle parables and metaphorical anecdotes. At the end of their cable runs, nothing is ever cleanly resolved, just at a point where there is nothing left to say....and much to consider.

These beautifully written and made shows put most "independent cinema" to shame. Yet, they are still somewhat constrained by the demands of commerce and small-screen presentation, despite how far they manage to push those constraints. A big-screen masterpiece on the order of, say, Fellini's "8 1/2" or Tarkovsky's "The Mirror" makes it abundantly clear how far we can go in cinematic story-telling ambition and excellence. But let's not put too much pressure on ourselves. If I could leave this earth having been responsible for even one of the above-mentioned cable t.v. masterpieces (and any of the many others that have come before them throughout the years), I would indeed be a very contented fellow.

So, how do we go about creating this level of work - telling these kind of stories? Well, as always, immerse yourself in great works - music, art, books and movies while living life fully and observing (and deeply considering) the natural rhythms and complexities of it all. But, beyond that, a good first step might be to go back to the future. Meaning, re-discover the classics. Re-read the ancient myths and stories and get a feel for their structure and complexity - and get a feel for the way metaphors and ideas are integrated into the overriding narrative. By reaching back to them, we will be propelling ourselves forward to the future of story-telling. Because that future is not in new technologies (i.e. blogging, ARG's, transmedia, etc., etc.) and the instruments of delivery. The future is in the stories themselves. It is in the fresh, distinctive ideas and story-telling modalities that exist within each and every one of us. And to get the full breadth of that potential we may need to reach way back to what has been somewhat forgotten and bring it back into our consciousnes as a guide to our story-telling future.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The DIY life

I went to the latest LA DIY Days conference ( at the Downtown Independent Theater (a VERY cool venue, by the way) late last week. And, as usual with these new media-type things, I left with my head spinning.


It was organized by a bunch of wonderful peeps I know headed by the very cool, very smart filmmaker Lance Weiler, who is a bit of a tech genius and DIY evangelist. Lance also runs the Workbook Project ( and applies his passion and intelligence to not just exploring the technological possibilities that exist for filmmakers, but also to disseminating these new tools (and information) in as open a way as possible. In keeping with that, DIY DAYS was, of course, free to the public.

For me, Lance's opening summation of what exits in the online world for DIY filmmakers and how to think about those tools was the most concise and directly relevant presentation (aside from Jon Reiss's presentation on alternative film distribution).

But because Lance is so extraordinary, he is a poor example of how to succeed at DIY. Because the frank truth is that not everybody can handle the DIY life. For those of you who don't know, DIY is the (obvious) acronym for Do It Yourself. Which, of course, is about true independence and geared to those who recognize that there is much to be gained by taking complete control of your filmmaking life. Lance schedules these conferences to bring together people who have taken the DIY path - in one form or another - and/or can offer insight into how to best support the DIY life from various perspectives, but predominantly from a technological standpoint.

I won't go into the details about what I learned...because I can't. I tried to take notes, but I'm a lousy note taker when I am absorbed by something and even worse when I'm uninterested. And there was a equal balance of both for me at the conference. Mostly, I was left feeling a bit overwhelmed at the amount of things I could be doing (and guiltily felt that I SHOULD be doing - if there were 47 hours in each day) and that there is obviously much I have absolutely no interest in doing. But that's as it should be. These ideas are not meant for everybody. And, in fact, the DIY life itself is certainly not meant for everybody.

It is very important to think about the positives and negatives of the DIY life. The main positive, for me, is a sense of control. Although, if you are a filmmaker and depend on strong audience reaction to your work, there's only so much control you can have. But there is a lot. And you are not constantly waiting for someone to give you permission to do things or come to your rescue when you are doing them wrong. You do things on your own schedule, in your own way and learn from your own mistakes - with the support of your chosen team, of course. DIY doesn't mean you have to work in a vacuum. Quite the opposite, actually.

The main negative for some is the sense of insecurity - the lack of financial and structural stability that goes with with doing things on your own as opposed to being under the care of a large company or benefactor. But I think there is just as much insecurity - financial or otherwise - in being at the mercy of some thing or someone other than yourself. No, the biggest negative for me is not insecurity. It is the amount of f&#@ing work that has to be done!!

And I'm no slacker. But I'm sitting at this conference thinking "Where in hell do these people find the time to do all of this?!!" What Lance manages to accomplish with his own work simply boggles my mind. Not only is there tons of necessary research to figure out all the new tools and do-dads, but once you lock on to them, you need to figure out how to use them. Then, most demanding of all, you need to then actually use them. As you all know, just finding time to write this blog kicks my butt. How do I also, Facebook and Twitter and Flicker and Digg and create viral videos and create interactive games to support my films and crowdsource and crowdfund and stage/schedule webinars and online film screenings and do sponsor tie-ins and brand myself and podcast and yadda, yadda, yadda?......

Also, some of this stuff is just too much or too far outside the scope of my interests - thus becoming a whole other job or career in itself. There was a discussion about "transmedia" - storytelling/entertainment that makes use of multiple media platforms to "extend" the story - creating a kind of marriage of online and offline environments that also include cell phone calls and text messages....and maybe more. Basically, the "story" is flying at you from all angles. For me, however, the idea of a created or imagined universe imposing itself on your life so completely - even if by choice - sounds like nothing more than an expensive and complicated form of schizophrenia. There was also talk of Alternative Reality Gaming (ARG) - which is definitely an interesting, interactive form of story-telling, but it is a completely different FORM of story-telling than the forms of story-telling that most excite me. It is not the way of all things, simply an additional means to tell a story that will not work well for all stories. My friend Saskia Wilson-Brown, one of the organizers of the event, agreed, making the point that placing too much importance on these new media alternatives would be like telling Picasso at some point in his career that painting is passe and he should just be focusing instead on multi-media installations.

Finally, there was some discussion of using the new tools to build or "find your audience" and create work that speaks specifically to them. I think that is terrific as long as it is an audience that responds organically to the kind of work I want to do. Some of what I heard, however, sounded gimmicky and felt more like I'd be chasing an audience - looking for an opportunity to pander to them. I know there are strong niche communities out there - apparently, there is a huge knitting community that is woefully under served - and I know I can probably make a fine living figuring out ways to make life interesting for them. But if I do not have any interest in making 3-D knitting movies or creating immersive online knitting games and communities or twittering about the latest knitting news, then there is no passion in any of it for me. If I have no real passion for those niche communities and/or I am not expressing myself in a form that works for me, then it is all pointless.

And, anyway, does any of this work? Hard to tell from the examples that are out there. All this new-fangled stuff is still in its infancy and some of the people that have been successful are complete one-offs. Meaning, it worked for them and their idea, but is not necessarily applicable as a model for others to follow. But, I gotta believe that some of it does indeed work. Of course, some of these things are more useful for a certain kind of work and not very useful for other kinds of work. If Tarkovsky were still alive making films, I don't see him tweeting every hour to drum up support for his films and his "brand" or building a promotional video that he intends to go "viral". But I can indeed see him blogging and podcasting and having a Facebook fan page and crowdfunding and a few other things.

Here's the three key things I took from it all:

1. You have to decide if you have the stuff for the DIY approach - including having the willingness to embrace all the stresses of doing it on your own (and appreciating the joys, as well).

2. You must have some clear idea of what you want to create. Once you know that, it will give you some clarity as to what DIY tools will best support your creative goals. Know what you want to make and use the tools accordingly.

3. Not all flavor-of-the-week websites or cool, new online techno-toys are right for you and your project. Some of these things only speak to a certain kind of user - which may be people who will not respond to your work. Lance put up a chart that showed a demographic breakdown of online technology users and seniors fell to the absolute bottom. So, if you are doing work geared toward seniors, you can tweet your little heart out and it won't do a lick of good in attracting your potential audience.

But if you are stubbornly iconoclastic and determined to do things your own way - if you have the sweat and mettle to make it happen - then there is great stuff out there to support you. Just use the tools - and your time - wisely. What's exciting is that new technologies are giving us the option of taking responsibility for our own success - or failure - and learning/growing from either result without third-party filters that may cloud our ability to gain maximum benefit from the experience. This, for me, is what true independence is all about.

End Of The Year To-Do List

1. Make a to-do list.

2. Continue fundraising for Filmmakers Alliance (FA).

3. Continue working on our gargantuan secret web project.

4. Finish re-conceiving the new FA with Amanda and the FA board.

5. Continue working on the Ultimate Filmmaker Competition.

6. Shop for and cook an amazing Thanksgiving meal for my Mom and Dad and various friends.

7. Finish planning/organizing the big B-Day party on Dec. 12th.

8. Submit my new short "My Last Day On Earth" to more film festivals.

9. Keep working (albeit incrementally) on my new script.

10. Write the bible for my spec cable series idea.

11. Plan trip to Sundance and other festival-related travel for 2010.

12. Schedule film-related conferences and events and consider what they truly mean to the future of independent filmmaking.

13. Write a new blog (does this count?).

14. Start looking for new FA headquarters.

15. Check in with the various projects with which I'm involved - especially "The Revenant", which should definitely find meaningful distribution...

16. Try and figure out who currently has the distribution rights to my first feature "The Dogwalker" and determine what the f^&% is going on with it.

17. Read and watch the 8,559,377 scripts and films given to me by friends and filmmaking acquaintances - then give feedback.

18. Make time to help others on their films.

19. Decorate my house for the holidaze.

20. Be grateful for the life I've had...and am having.

More hope from Hope....

Here are two more posts from Ted Hope. I know you all can just go to his blog, but just in case you are too foolish to go there on a regular basis, I will continue posting some key posts of his here...

The Twenty New Rules: What we all MUST TRY to do prior to shooting

I am prepping a new film with the shortest amount of time I have ever had to prep a movie. It is also one of the more ambitious projects I have been involved in. There is so much to do I can't afford to squander any time (luckily I have been prepping some blog posts in advance, so this doesn't take time -- it expands time!). The short prep is also unfortunate because now is a time that the producer has to do even more than ever before.

My To Do List may be more of a Wish List these days. Instead of doing everything I think I should be doing, I have to focus first on what absolutely needs to be done to get the film in the can.

Now is the time we should be doing things differently; yet given the opportunity to make the film I want, with the cast I want, even at a fraction of the budget that I want -- how can I let that opportunity go by?

Having more options and better tools, doesn't solve everything by any means.
These times are tough indeed. Everyone knows it is hard out there for an indie filmmaker, particularly for a truly free filmmaker. Most would acknowledge that it is harder now than it has ever been before. Few have revealed (or admitted) how the current situation will change their behavior. I think right now, with reality staring me in the face, I can only speak about what I wish I could do. There is still a big gulf between thought and expression. How does the present alter what we all wish to do on our films?

Personally speaking, I would say we need to evolve the definition of what it means to be ready to shoot a film. Granted, more can always be done on the creative level and that is certainly worthy of discussion, but here -- on TrulyFreeFilm -- we are discussing the apparatus, the infrastructure, the practices that can lead to a more diverse output, robust appreciation, business model, and sustainable practice of ambitious cinema. So, what would I do if I really had my shit together? I have been trying to answer this and share my thoughts along the way.

Today's version:
  • Recognize it is about audience aggregation: Collect 5000 fans prior to seeking financing. Act to gain 500 fans/month during prep, prod., post processes.
  • Determine how you will engage & collect audiences all throughout the process. Consider some portion to be crowd-funded -- not so much for the money but for the engagement it will create.
  • Create enough additional content to keep your audience involved throughout the process and later to bridge them to your next work.
  • Develop an audience outreach schedule clarifying what is done when -- both before and after the first public screening.
  • Curate work you admire. Spread the word on what you love. Not only will people understand you further, but who knows, maybe someone will return the good deed.
  • Be prepared to "produce the distribution". Meet with potential collaborators from marketing, promotion, distribution, social network, bookers, exhibitors, widget manufacturers, charitable partners, to whatever else you can imagine.
  • Brainstorm transmedia/cross-platform content to be associated with the film.
  • Study at least five similar films in terms of what their release strategy & audience engagement strategy was and how you can improve upon them.
  • Build a website that utilizes e-commerce, audience engagement, & data retrieval. Have it ready no later than 1 month prior to first public screening.
  • Determine & manufacture at least five additional products you will sell other than DVDs.
  • Determine content for multiple versions of your DVD.
  • Design several versions of your poster. Track how your image campaign evolves through the process.
  • Do a paper cut of what two versions of your trailer might be. Track how this changes throughout the process.
  • Determine a list of the top 100 people to promote your film (critics, bloggers, filmmakers,etc)
  • Determine where & how to utilize a more participatory process in the creation, promotion, exhibition, & appreciation process. Does it make sense for your project to embrace this?
  • How will this project be more than a movie? Is there a live component? An ARG? An ongoing element?
  • How can you reward those who refer others to you? How do you incentivize involvement? What are you going to give back?
  • What will you do next and how can you move your audience from this to that? How will younot have to reinvent the wheel next time?
  • What are you doing differently than everyone else? How will people understand this? Discover this?
  • How are you going to share what you've learned on this project with others?
As I've said, I know I am not doing all of these yet on my current production, but that leaves me something to strive for the one following. The goal is to keep getting better, after all. But man, I wish I could be doing more!

The desire to do more is so huge, but time and resources limit me, limit us. Sometimes it feels like an accomplishment to at least get the film financed. Still though, I can't claim to be doing my job (producing) well if I am not doing all of these. I have to do better. I know it is even harder on smaller jobs. Still though, as much as our job descriptions keep expanding as our salary level decreases, this list is what we must accomplish. Or at least it is the list I think we need to accomplish right now.

I am going to shut up now and get to work. There's too much to be done.

15 Ways To Show Your Collaborators You Appreciate Them

As an indie film producer, what can you do to show appreciation for all those that are helping you make your film?
  1. Do your job well. Make a film everyone is proud of. Give the team memories that they were lead well.
  2. Provide timely information and decisive actions, as clearly as possible. Don't try to hide anything. Don't sugar coat; speak truthfully about the situation -- reality may not be pretty, but presenting it clarifies your mutual trust.
  3. Recognize how well your collaborators do their jobs and show how much you appreciate them. Show respect. You can't make this film without them; they chose to join you and you are fortunate to have them.
  4. Learn everyone's name. Learn something about them. Take interest in their lives. Remember & celebrate their birthdays. Thank them for their work.
  5. Demonstrate that you are concerned for your crew's health. Provide vitamins and sun screen. Can you provide flu shots on set? When someone is sick, send them home.
  6. Have a true commitment to safety. If working long hours on location, provide overnight accommodations. Don't let people drive when they are over tired. Really have a safety meeting each day.
  7. Good food is quickest route to someone's heart. Provide thoughtful craft service: healthy food, fun food, new food, fresh food. Work with your caterer to make sure people are getting what they want.
  8. Provide a constructive work environment. Keep the workplace clean and orderly. Don't joke around camera. Don't let people read in view of others. Give everyone access to information.
  9. Don't contribute to a bad world. Help your team recycle. Don't force them to waste due to their work situation. Use less paper.
  10. Bring some fun into their world. Provide entertainment or education at lunch breaks. Do "dollar days" at the end of the week.
  11. Let them help the world at large. Organize a blood drive at lunch during production, a toy drive, or coat drive during the winter months. Get absentee ballots when they will be working during election periods.
  12. Adopt and post/display strong anti-discrimination, anti-sexual harassment policies.
  13. Help them enjoy themselves. On location, provide an extensive entertainment list for all visiting crew and cast, including restaurants, theaters, medical, specialty stores, massage, and directions. Organize some group outings during non-working hours.
  14. Go that extra distance to make things better for the team. On location, provide laundry service. In booking travel, always enter everyone's Frequent Flyer miles. Provide direction books in all vehicles.
  15. Recognize everyone as a key part of the process. Get them the tools they need to do their work well. Screen dailies and invite everyone. Create a blooper reel to screen for crew. Give them posters, DVDs, t-shirts. Inform them as to the progress of the production. Allow them to comment on the website.
When I have asked for some of these things from past production teams, I have occasionally met with some resistance. "I am a production manager, not a camp counselor!" "These people are adults; they should be able to take care of themselves!".

I don't agree. Everyone works hard. We need to show that we appreciate it. It's funny though, when I put this question out there to the Facebook & Twitter worlds, I think people mostly recommended alcohol and backend points. Money and booze, maybe that's all it takes...

The State Of Media

My friend Brian Newman discussing the State Of Media and being the smart, articulate, insightful guy that he is....