Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Mad Boy, I'll Blow Your Blues Away. Be Mine.
Your Dark Hair Ihsan Part 1
Your Dark Hair Ihsan Part 2
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Let's face it, mainstream film-goers rarely see shorts since they have long since been removed from commercial movie theater programs. So, if they don't catch them online, at festivals, on public television, or, occasionally, on a few cable networks, they may never see them. And, most often, when they do see shorts online (I mean real shorts, not clips of cats coughing up furballs), they are seeing comedic shorts that, although entertaining, rarely explore the full artistic potential of the short film.
And since there is very little institutional support for short films, there is little encouragement for audiences to seek them out. Unlike many nations abroad, our government - on the local, state or federal level - does not see the cultural value of filmmaking and therefore provides almost no financial support for it. There are no regional or national short film funds here to develop cinematic excellence and an audience's appetite for these films, as exists elsewhere. And there is very little philanthropic or foundational support (unless the film supports some broader social cause), either, because filmmaking in America, as a whole, is either deemed too commercial for arts support or not commercial enough for corporate support. American short filmmakers are largely left on their own to cobble together their short films and drum up audiences for them.
Film industry types have more opportunities to see short films than the mainstream public since filmmakers often use them as calling cards and send them to agents, managers, producers, production companies, studio execs, etc. But short films don't get much more respect in the industry universe - arguably even less, relative to how responsive the industry should be to short films. Short films are films. They are a different animal than feature films, NOT less of the same animal. They have their own intrinsic aesthetic and value. And they CAN BE MONETIZED, but after many years of lame attempts, the industry still seems to have no idea how to do it. Also, it is part of many industry professionals job to seek out new talent, and short films are the most accessible (the short length makes it easier to watch) and dynamic way to display a filmmaker's talent and potential. In some ways, even more dynamic than a feature film because you can take risks with a short film that you cannot always take with a feature film. But I know many filmmakers who've made not just one, but many beautiful, brilliant short films and still haven't gained any industry attention nor any professional opportunities.
Instead, industry types gravitate to any garbage that generates "buzz" or gets millions of hits on YouTube - then scratch their heads when the films and/or filmmakers they harvest from these dust-bowls turn out to be duds. And when newspapers like the L.A. Times publish an article like this one: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-ca-shorts-20100509,0,3025079.story - which basically praises studio "opportunities" created by short films, it sends the wrong message to filmmakers and further demonstrates why the industry - and the media that covers it (especially the L.A. Times) - is so damned misguided/ignorant, arrogant and, frankly, dysfunctional. The film referenced in the article, "Panic Attack", is nothing more than a sequence from a big-budget CGI-heavy action film. Yet, because it garnered nearly six million hits on YouTube (and was done cost-effectively, I imagine), it scored a big $30m studio deal for the filmmakers. Not to begrudge the filmmakers. They are obviously very skilled at this sort of thing and I celebrate their good fortune. But frankly - and I hope the filmmakers themselves would admit this - there is almost zero story-telling in evidence (although some excellent editing) and very little original vision (beyond the monster/alien CGI work).
See for yourself:
If this trend continues, we can probably soon expect Paramount Pictures and their ilk to offer the world fresh new cinematic masterpieces like "Cat Coughing Up Furball 2: This Time, It's Personal" armed with the dubious pedigree of 8 billion YouTube hits.
And the festival world is not too much better. Many festivals screen shorts, but they often treat the films and filmmakers like filmdom's ugly stepchild. Yes, you get to see your short in front of an audience, but rarely does a short filmmaker see any benefit beyond the screening. Of course, the screening is pretty awesome, but only when it is properly marketed. And short film Q&A's are almost always improperly managed. They typically show the whole program of shorts then make all the filmmakers stand up and take questions as if they all made one big film together. The first film in the program is a distant memory and any film that does not have popular appeal is usually not discussed at all (unless the filmmaker's friends offer comments/questions). They should screen a short, then have the filmmaker(s) come up and discuss it, then show another, then talk, then another, etc. This way each film is special and the screening itself feels like an event. And that's part of the problem, festival planners need to see shorts as event-worthy. Short filmmakers are almost never flown out to festivals and lodged as are feature filmmakers, no matter the size of a festival's budget (Savannah Film Festival is an awesome exception).
But now disrespect for the art of the short film is reaching into programming. Short film programs are more and more beginning to look like compilations of slicker versions of their YouTube cousins. Clever and/or snarky sketches often displace daring cinema. The jury award for best short film at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival went to "Drunk History". What?!! That it was even programmed in competition is a big head-scratcher to me. With its celebrity-driven premise, it's not like it needs to the promotion. Therefore, a film that does need the promotion doesn't get it. Don't get me wrong, the "Drunk History" series is a very clever, funny series of "Funny Or Die" sketches. But the jury award for best short from the largest and most prestigious American independent film festival? What kind of message does that send to filmmakers in terms of encouraging them to strive for cinematic daring, ambition and excellence? I don't think I even need to answer that.
But perhaps the place where short films are most alarmingly undervalued is among filmmakers themselves. I rarely hear filmmakers discuss short films as stand-alone works of art/cinema. There is almost always an agenda attached: to gain attention for themselves, to raise interest in a feature film, to learn more about filmmaking, to use as a stepping stone to making larger commercial projects, to get into festivals, to meet the opposite sex, etc. Now, these are all great reasons to make a short film and I often use some of them to encourage people to get busy making films. But none of them alone - or even all of them put together - should be anything more than secondary goals. The first and foremost goal should be to make a great film and/or to challenge yourself creatively in the process - no matter what kind of film you are making: narrative, doc, animation, comedy, horror, thriller, art film, etc.....Only by taking this approach will your secondary goals ever stand a chance of being realized.
Some filmmakers avoid short films altogether or make them only with the sense that it is a necessary evil/task on the road to making a feature. They rob themselves of so many opportunities, but most importantly, from the joy of doing the very thing they are most passionate about. I made a feature film ten years ago called "The Dogwalker" and have done three short films since then - "Infidelity In Equal Parts", "Transaction" and "My Last Day On Earth". Not for any other reason than I wanted to make the best film I could make (and had the means to make).
Below: Logan Lozier and Daisy O'Bryan in "My Last Day On Earth"
And if you can't do a fully realized, fully budgeted short film, then conceive of something you can do inexpensively using cheap, but professional-quality filmmaking tools. However, take it equally seriously. The art is in the ideas, not in the cameras, set design, lighting and other toys/tools we too-often think is absolutely necessary. At Filmmakers Alliance, we encourage filmmakers to do what we call "sketchbooks". Sketchbooks are just small pieces you shoot with a few fellow filmmakers that you put together for no money - or as close to nothing as you can get. The idea is to keep the cost barrier so low that you have no excuse not to make them. If you are a filmmaker, you need to make films. And if you can't afford a polished short film, then make a sketchbook. Admittedly, FA sketchbooks are often YouTube-quality "workshop" pieces, but they are, nonetheless, intended to seriously explore meaningful ideas and cinematic techniques - allowing yourself to grow as a filmmaker along with giving yourself the pleasure of the filmmaking process.
But, most importantly, you are a filmmaker, no matter the length of the film. And success as a filmmaker lies in making films. Shorts are accessible because of their abbreviated length - and the lower costs associated with that shorter length. But the short film is also an art form unto itself - just as the short story is in comparison to a novel. And because of the short film's distinct nature, you can take all sorts of creative risks and fully explore the nature and texture of cinema in a way the cost and commercial demands of a feature film rarely allows. Short films are an amazing cinematic creative opportunity - one that should NEVER be shortchanged by filmmakers. Take your short films seriously if you ever hope for your life as a filmmaker to be taken seriously by others.
Here's a few places to see various great, interesting and/or entertaining shorts (and there's many more places if you just look around the net):
Monday, May 17, 2010
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
First of all, I'm kinda stunned that it's already full Spring - the first decade of the new millenium passed 4 1/2 months ago - along with my 50th birthday (in December, actually). Wow! It feels like time is moving at light speed. I celebrated the big 5-0, back in December, in high style, with a massive party (shared with my twin brother Andre, of course, as well as my former partner in crime Amanda and the FA Holiday party) at dear friend Cain DeVore's gothic, never-ending-renovation manse.
Me on the bongos during "open mic" portion of the big b-day bash...
But although I partied like it's 2012, it was, nonetheless, an obvious over-all milestone time for reflection. So, of course, I've been thinking a lot about my life since then, and in regard to this blog, specifically my life as a filmmaker. And in the end, all my introspection has only left me terribly conflicted.
I love the support work I do through Filmmakers Alliance (FA) and proud of the things we've accomplished over the years. But independent film as a whole is facing some major changes and challenges and FA is mirroring this transitional angst in its own way. The issues on a global (indie film universe) and local (FA) level are both external and self-generated and, in no small way, also contributed to by filmmakers themselves. However, the challenges simply make me more determined to make FA financially solvent and to help build a paradigm that allows individual filmmakers to make films that are realized at the utmost level of their creative potential while those films also sustain them financially.
However, all of this effort cuts into my own creative time. Not just projects I write and direct, but others I can produce for friends or support in some other hands-on way. Am I simply distracting myself - perhaps even hiding - from realizing my own creative potential? And why would I do that? Lack of confidence in it, perhaps? Don't know the answer for sure. I only know that, for now, I am using every tool and technique in my power to make sure I give myself creative time and maintain a balance of energies between support and creativity....then see what happens. I can't complain too much - for all its headaches, my "day job" is also my passion and directly supports my creative/filmmaking life.
In the meantime, I'm just doing my thang. There are certain key events and festivals I always attend, never knowing how, or even if, they will lead to some beneficial opportunity for FA or the larger indie filmmaking community or simply myself. I don't mean to sound mercenary, but with limited time, I unfortunately can't do too many things that wind up being just a fun vacation. Independent Film Week in New York is one of those events that I always attend for many reasons and I was there again in September 09. I did a write up on the 08 incarnation (http://filmmakerslife.blogspot.com/2008/09/independent-film-week.html) that's still relevant.
Me and the gang at the Florida Film Commission's Wasabi Party during Independent Film Week 09.
But I must say, the 09 version, provided a very tangible sense that something is amiss in the independent film universe. Of course, something has been amiss for awhile. I and many others have been speaking about it for years and I allude to it in my previous Independent Film Week write-up. But as long as filmmakers were making films and events/festivals/screenings/celebrations were cranking full throttle you could easily stick your head in the sand, letting independent film's issues remain abstract, theoretical or resting somewhere on the horizon. However, there was no escaping a sort of gloom hanging over things in September. The event was even more scaled down in 09 than the scaled down version in 08. There were few parties and side events and no formal awards presentation. The conferences felt somber and a bit stale. It seemed everybody knew indie film is suffering through some serious problems, but no clear idea how to address them. I made the most of it because I saw films, partied with filmmakers (including my friend Jen Arnold whose film, "A Small Act", was terrific and meaningful) and I was in New York. But it felt like I was painting by the numbers a bit while something more important (although I have no idea what) needed to be done.
That same feeling haunted me again at Sundance. It is another never-miss event for me because there is so much and so many all in one place. After a fun, freezing but ultimately fruitless fundraising jaunt in NYC over the holidays - which also allowed me the opportunity to have my first cross-country private jet ride (definitely the way to travel if you have the chance) and witness my first and last bull-riding show (all part of making "connections") I was very excited about hitting Sundance.....even though my short film was rejected :). Having had short films there in the past as well as being a participating organization through FA, I am a big fan of Sundance and the people that run it - including the new festival director, former head of programming John Cooper. I very much wanted to see what he would do with it in his hands. I expected to see much of what I love about the fest sans all the extraneous b.s. And that's exactly what I got. Due to an across-the-board sponsorship crisis, it was indeed scaled back...and for the better. In many ways, the fest this year was a huge success - strong programming and, over-all, much cleaner and clearer in focus than its been since I started attending. And, of course, I had fun, as always.
The gang, again - although slightly changed - at Sundance 2010.
But, as I said, there was definitely a palpable lack of something in the air emanating from those outside the central fest experience (festival workers and filmmakers). Indie film veterans were gloomy. Non-fest filmmakers seemed to be a generally cynical lot while other attendees were impatient and critical. Industry professionals were exhausted and workmanlike. Parties were crowded, as usual, but uninspired. Again, I can't exactly put my finger on it, but something was, and is, amiss.
That off-kilter energy may have just been my own projection, because there was plenty amiss in my own backyard. FA was suffering through it's worst financial crisis in a very long time. On top of it, member participation and productivity was very low and not very inspired. Amanda, as Executive Director and partner in all things FA, was meanwhile overly stressed by the demands of single-handedly managing the daily life of FA - including skirting financial ruin daily and putting up with my....well,....me. I was unsure what annoyed her more, me being around or me rarely being around. Most importantly, her own creative productivity needed the attention it deserves (she's a VERY talented filmmaker). Ultimately, she made the decision to leave FA. I know it was a tough choice for her, but a necessary one. I truly wish her the very best. I don't expect to find anyone as awesome as Amanda to take on all of this stuff, so I'm working it all out another way. Amanda was nothing less than a gift from the heavens and I'm truly blessed to have had her for a partner for as long as I did.
But she won't be too far away as she is one of the producers of the winning film from our Ultimate Filmmaker Competition - "Walrus Eating Baloney" by Benjamin Bates. The final five were all awesome films and the filmmakers were terrific. I truly hope they all get made and will help as much as possible in making that happen. But Benjamin is a force of nature, his script is fantastic (it also won the script award at Independent Film Week 08) and we know it can be made for the prize fund ($200k). Again, not that the other films weren't equally deserving. It was a tough choice, but this one just seemed the best choice for us. If we could find a way to get all the other great films made and distributed, independent film might begin to redefine itself dynamically. Too many potentially great films get left on the page while far more mediocre projects get made. As my previous blog (a reprinted article by Mike S. Ryan) pointed out, the bottome line issue facing indie film right now is its inability to distinguish itself compellingly from the mainstream or from strong cable programming. And that issue begins, obviously, with the type of films that are being financed, made and distributed.
So my current mission is to attack that issue while making my life and work at FA more manageable and sustainable. Our main approach to achieving these goals is through the creation of what we've been calling FA Global (described and referred to in earlier blogs) - a place for filmmakers to connect, organize, develop, fund and manage projects, access resources and education, share ideas and resources, and anything that can be done to support filmmakers online. A one-stop, online destination for filmmakers, Quite ambitious. Obviously, we can't do this all ourselves. But with the right partners, totally possible. It's what I've mostly been trying to raise money for. Been getting small bits of $$ to push things incrementally forward while still waiting for the big check to come in. And it will, I have no doubt. In the meantime, I've been meeting with dozens of potential partners. A lot of cool stuff out there, but bringing it all together in one place has been quite the challenge....
We're also attacking FA's (and independent film's) issues through education. We are hosting a big, one-day seminar August 1st that is exactly as titled - The Independent Film Master Class, which I'm very excited about. If we are going to keep independent film vibrant, we can't just discuss the issues theoretically, we need to provide filmmakers with a real, practical road map for creating successful indie films. We hope this will prove a valuable first step - with more, detailed seminars to follow closely behind this one.
Beyond that, I'm also doing the daily FA stuff - struggling to adjust in the wake of Amanda's departure. Vidyut Latay, who was an intern and is now Associate Director, has taken on a number of key tasks. Which is great, because production activity at FA seems to be on the upswing. Monthly meetings have been well-attended and vibrant and we've had a number of awesome screenings at the Echo Park Film Center. All good! Now, VisionFest is already right in front of us and the massive work on that needs to start getting done right away. Sheesh.
I was able to enjoy a stint as a juror at The San Francisco International Film Festival, which is a great fest run by the well-funded San Francisco Film Society. The programming is excellent, of course, because the new head of programming is the lovely, wonderful Rachel Rosen, most recently the former programmer of the Los Angeles Film Festival. I had a blast and loved my fellow shorts jurors, filmmaker Kelly Duane and film critic Robert Abele. The shorts were, over-all, very strong and, although selecting favorites was very tough, we were very happy with our choices. I've developed some strong opinions about short films and fimmaking (going to do a blog soon about them), so it was great to be enthused about what I got to see.
San Francisco International Film Festival gang. Left to right: Audrey Chang, Kelly Duane, Rachel Rosen and Robert Abele.
On the creative front, I submitted my newest short, "My Last Day On Earth" to just a handful of festivals I'd already attended including the biggies. Didn't get into the biggest fest, but got into one of my definite faves - The Ashland Independent Film Festival. I drove up to Ashland, Oregon from L.A. and picked up my parents in San Francisco on the way. As usual, it was a blast.
At Ashland Independent Film Festival talkin' filmmaker stuff with...well,...filmmakers!
I love the festival staff and all the locals I've come to know after going to the fest 6 of the nine years its been in existence. Ashland's a great city, too. Of course, it was great to be there with my peeps, who also had a great time. It's great to be at festivals as a filmmaker, even if I kinda sometimes feel like I'm wasting time (I should be working, shouldn't I?). You make a film for an audience and its great to get the opportunity to experience it with them. And it reminds you that with all the drama and distraction around filmmaking and film-related events, it really boils down to the films, themselves, and the relationship they forge with an audience. And the Ashland fest has terrific audiences - full screenings and fully engaged peeps.
I've also been working more diligently on the script for my next feature (ten years after the first!). I still do the twice-weekly, early-morning 4-5 hour writing sessions with Sean Hood, but I've been horrible about dedicating that time to actual creative work. I usually end up using that time to answer emails, write proposals, tweak the business plan, etc., etc. In other words, work. I rarely even use the time to work on this blog. But I joined my friend (and fellow FA member) Hanelle Culpepper's accountability group - which takes place in 8 week chunks. Group members share their 8 week goal then establish weekly goals. Each week, you get them done. If you don't participate consistently and/or consistently fail your stated goals - you're out. I've made my goals ALL about my script and it's been great. The group totally kicks my ass - in a sweet, supportive, but firm way - and makes sure the script moves forward. I should have the first draft done after the next 8 week stint. Hooray for me!!
So, that's pretty much the whole, up-to-date ball of wax. I'm in NYC right now doing the usual - fundraising and building partnerships. But planning and organizing from afar, as well. And, of course, writing, too. Things are moving. Things are happening. Despite my conflicted feelings, I'm full of optimism. Maybe it's just because it's Spring. But, together, I feel we are beginning to, and definitely will, lift the cloud of doom and gloom hanging over indie film. Yes, I can feel it. I can feel some beautiful things starting to bloom this Spring....
- We cannot logically justify any ticket price whatsoever for a non-event film. There are too many better options at too low a price. Simply getting out of the house or watching something somewhere because that is the only place it is currently available does not justify a ticket price enough. We still think of movies as things people will buy. We have to change our thinking about movies to something that enhances other experiences, and it is that which has monetary value. Film’s power as a community organizing tool extends far beyond its power to sell popcorn (and the whole exhibition industry is based on that old popcorn idea).
- The Industry has never made any attempt to build a sustainable investor class. Every other industry has such a go-to funding sector, developed around a focus on the investors’ concerns and standardized structures. In the film biz, each deal is different and generally stands alone, as opposed to leading to something more. The history of Hollywood is partially defined by the belief that another sucker is born every minute. Who really benefits by the limited options for funding currently available other than those funders and those who feed those deals? We could build something that works far more efficiently and offers far more opportunity.
- The film business remains the virtually exclusive domain of the privileged. Although great strides have been made to diversify the industry, the numbers don’t lie. The film industry is ruled by white men from middle class or better socioeconomic backgrounds. It is an expensive art form and a competitive field — but it doesn’t need to a closed door one. Let’s face it: people hire folks who remind them of themselves. These days everyone needs to intern and the proposition of working for free is too expensive for most. Living in NYC or LA is not affordable for most people starting out. We get more of the same and little progress without greater diversity. And although I essentially mentioned this last year (#36), the continued poor economy limits diversity even more now.
- There is no structure or mechanism to increase liquidity of film investments, either through clear exit strategies, or secondary capital markets. The dirty secret of film investment is that it is a long recoupment cycle with little planning for an exit strategy. Without a way to get out, fewer people choose to get in. Who really wants to lock up an investment for four years? Not investors, only patrons…
- Independent Filmmakers (and their Industry advisors) build business plans based on models and notions selected from before September 15, 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed and everything changed. It is not the same business as it was then and we shouldn’t treat it that way. Expectations have changed considerably, probably completely. Buyers and audiences’ behaviors are different (those that still remain that is). Products are valued at different levels. We live in a new world. Our strategies must change with it.
- The film business remains a single product industry. The product may be available on many different platforms, but it is still the same thing. For such a capital-intensive enterprise to sell only one thing is a squandering of time and money. Films can be a platform to launch many different products and enterprises, some of which can also enhance the experience and build the community.
- We have done very little thinking or discussing about how to make events out of our movies. The list seems to have stopped at 3D. There’s only been one “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and the first one is very very old. Music flourishes because the live component is generally quite different from the recorded one, and the film biz could benefit from a greater differentiation of what utilizes different platforms.
- We ignore film’s most unique attribute. As demonstrated by how little of people’s online time is spent watching content (30%), we know that people want connectivity & community more than anything else. There used to be film societies, just like reviewers once placed films in cultural context — we need to recreate a community aspect to film going. If you wonder why people don’t go to the movies more, it is not as much about the content, as it is about the lack of community. Without that, why not just stay home to watch? Film’s strongest attribute is its ability to work as a community organizing tool. Film forces us to feel, to think, to engage — let’s not ignore that.
- Independent film financing is still based around an antiquated foreign sales model despite the fact that all acquisition markets are collapsing and fee levels shrink market to market. This old model is centered around stars’ perceived value — an attribute that has been less reliable than ever before. There has got to be a better way than the foreign sales estimate model, but no one talks about it, or even admits to needing one. The participants that get most hurt by this are the investors who take the advice of the “experts” that this is the way it’s done. It used to be done this way, but we have to move on before we burn to the ground.
- Filmmakers don’t own their audiences yet (and few even attempt to). What will happen when agents start to cut deals for their clients who have 1 million engaged fans, people who will pre-order their content, promote it passionately, and deliver more of their friends? There is a shift in the balance of power about to happen, and those that have prepared for it, amassed their followings, will be able to change the conversation significantly.
- We’ve failed to develop fetish objects to demonstrate one’s love of cinema. The only merchandise we sell is “fan-boy” toys. We need to come up with items that demonstrate their owner’s sense of style and taste. Beyond the books of Tashen, what is there? We can do better. Such products manufacture desire and enhance identification with the art form. We need to streamline the process of the transformation of leisure time into both intellectual and social capital (i.e movie going and its byproducts). How do we identify, reward, and encourage those that appreciate our work?
- Creators, Distributors, and Marketers have accepted a dividing line between art and commerce, between content and marketing. By not engaging the filmmakers in how to use marketing tools within their narrative and how to bring narrative techniques to marketing, we diminish the discovery and promotional potential of each film. We limit the scope of our art by restricting it to the plane of the 90 minute product. Movies should find us early, lead us to new worlds, bridge us to subsequent experiences, connect us to new passions and loves, help us embrace a more expansive definition of cinema, life, and self.
- We don’t recognize that one of film’s greatest assets is its ability to generate data. Filmmakers and financiers should be insisting on owning the data their films generate. It is an incredibly valuable commodity. The VOD platform allows for tracking of where and when and who in terms of the business, yet this data is restricted to aggregators not creators. When you license something for a small fraction of its costs, shouldn’t you share in everything that it generates?
- We fail to utilize the two years from greenlight to release to market our film and build our audiences. Despite having the key economic indicators(i.e. stars & concept)in place at the time of greenlight, we underutilize that two year period when we could be sourcing fans, aggregating them and providing them with both the ramps and the bridges necessary to lead them to our work and then carry them to other new work.
- Why can’t our Industry develop more stars? The talented actors exist, but they don’t have “value”. Why is it that we don’t have more serious actors who are worth something financially? Isn’t it just about giving them the roles that help them build audiences? Why don’t we encourage more actors to take more risks in terms of the characters they portray? Audiences, filmmakers, financiers would all be better served by industywide initiatives to launch more talent. Say what you will about the studio system of old, but they were damn good at developing new talent.
- We need a greater embrace of innovation and experimentation in terms of both business models and building communities. We keep doing things based on the status quo long after the practice has stopped being fruitful. People are so fearful of failing publicly that new approaches are shunned. This is a perception and PR problem as much as it is a structural one. Filmmakers should have the will to fail, and take risks (but be practical about it).
- We allow consumers to think content should be free but it is okay that the hardware they play it on is very very expensive. All the entertainment industries allow the hardware manufacturers to have policies that encourage such thinking. They get rich and it grows harder to be a creator by the day. People only want the devices because there is so much great stuff to play on it. Why is the balance of wealth so misguided here?
- We – neither the creators, audiences, or their representatives – don’t make a stink when aggregators get rich, and the content creators live on mere pittances. It’s not just the product but also the services that have flourished on the labor of the creators. Instead of growing angry we have been embracing those that gather and not those that grow. Again, we need to look at the inequity here and re-evaluate how the equity is dispersed.
- We don’t insist that our artists are also entrepreneurs. We don’t encourage direct sales to the fans. We don’t focus on building mailing lists. This needs to be as much an accepted “best practice” as it needs to be part of every art school curriculum. We can’t keep producing artists and not prepare them to survive in the world. Passion without a plan to support it can only lead to exploitation.
- We have failed to engage constructively with other industries that we should be aligned with, most obviously, the tech world. Why is only SXSW where film, music, and tech meet? Can’t we do better? The music industry has The Future Of Music summit, but there is nothing similar in the film world. The facilitators at the agencies rarely know who’s who in terms of web and tech designers.
- Where is the simple site where you can get whatever you want whenever you want however you want it (other than what the bootleggers offer)? Why do we let the thieves beat us at our own game? Soon it will be too late to win the people back. The fact that the one place that comes close is ultimately in the business of selling hardware — and the industry seems okay with that — shows how we can’t see the forest for the trees.
- Where are the new curators? The ones with a national or international audience? Why have we not had a more concentrated industry/community wide effort to give a home to all the fired film critics? Is it that we are afraid of the bad, just like the studios are afraid of social media and film future exchanges because they are worried about negative buzz? We just need to make better movies and treat people well and then there is no negative to spread, right? Anyway, with such a plethora of great work being made we need to offer audiences better filters to sift through it. What’s up with our collective failure to deliver more Oprahs, individuals whose support will lead to action?
- The majority in the film industry are essentially luddites and technophobes, barely aware of the tools we have available to us to enhance, economize, and spread our work. How can we teach our industry how to use what has already been invented (and then focus on everything else we need but don’t have yet).
- We don’t encourage (or demand) audience “builds” prior to production. Why shouldn’t every filmmaker or filmmaking team be required to have 5000 Fans prior to greenlight?
- We know incredibly little about our audience or their behavior. We spend so much making our films without really knowing who our audiences are, why they want our product, how to reach them, or how they behave, or how they are changing. Does any other industry think so little and so late about their audience? Does any other industry do such little research into their audience? Shouldn’t we all be sharing what info we have?
- There is no major, visible, high-level “non-partisan” free-thought film industry think tank and/or incubator to consider new models, new approaches, and enhance audience appeal while inspiring both government and private investment, developing “best practices” to maximize revenue and audiences, expanding aesthetic methods, and facilitating the creative dialogue internationally. IFP and FIND do their part, as do festival institutes but we need something that can consider the bigger problems than that of just US “Indie” filmmakers…
- Where’s that list on best practices for preventing your film from being pirated? Shouldn’t all producers know this? I know I don’t and I can’t name another producer who does.
- The Industry has no respect for producers. Granted, this might sound a tad self-serving, but producers’ overhead, fees, credits, and support are under attack from all fronts. Yet, it is the producers who identify and develop the material and talent, package it, structure the finance, identify the audience, and unite all the industry’s disparate elements. All the producers I speak with wonder how they are to survive and remain in the business.
- Let’s face it: we are not good at providing filmmakers with long term career planning. Whether it’s financial planning, secondary professions, or just ongoing learning — we don’t really get it, and that sets artists up as future prey. As an industry, and as a class, creative people get stuck in a rut quite easily, and are the hardest dogs to teach new tricks.
- With our world and industry changing daily, shouldn’t we have come up with a place where we learn the new technology or at least hear of it? One that is welcoming even for the luddites. The tech sites speak their own vernacular which is a tad intimidating for the uninitiated.
- Where’s the embrace of the short-term release? With digital delivery here, can’t we get in and get out, only to return again and offer it all over again? The week-long booking of one film per theater limits content to that which appeals to the mass market. Niche audiences are being underserved, and money is thus being left on the table and some highly appealing menus not even being considered.
- Film Festivals need to evolve a hell of a lot faster. Festivals need to ask what their value-add is to both the filmmaker and the audience. One or two could ask that of the industry overall too. Now that we recognize that festivals are not a market, and that filmmakers have to do a tremendous amount of work ahead of time in order for them to be a media launch, the question remains what are festivals and who do they serve? The everything-to-everybody style of curating films no longer works. The run-of-the-mill panels have become dull and boring. The costs associated for filmmakers attending are rarely worth the benefits they receive. Film Festivals need to be rebuilt. There are a lot of good ideas out there on how to do it, but not enough have been put into practice.
- The past ten years of digital film are going to vanish. We do little to preserve not just the works, but also the process and documents behind them. Digital is not a stable medium. We have a migration and storage issue in terms of keeping access up to date. Those films that currently exist in digital format only, won’t stand the test of time. Film remains a better format for archival purposes. We need to take action soon if we are not going to see our recent culture get out of reach.
- We don’t encourage advocacy around the issues that affect us. How many film industry professionals could rattle off the top ten government policies that affect their trade? Why don’t our various support organizations, unions, guilds, and leaders list issues and actions at the top of their website? Are we all so afraid or so unaware?
- Okay, it’s a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face, but it seems to me that film industry folk spend less time going to the movies (and I mean seeing films in the theaters) than the average bear. Going to the movies should be viewed as a political act. Support the culture you want with your dollars.
- Most of the bootlegging that I encounter comes from within the industry itself. I recently heard of a manager who asked the studio execs and his Facebook friends to send in the bootlegs of his Sundance prize winning client’s film — and he got over 70 back; they all unfortunately were an early cut of the film too. I admit I get a lot of free DVDs from agents & managers, and I admit I make dubs for my directors so they can see actors — but I have started to donate to crowdfunding campaigns to try to balance it out. We have to come up with a uniform practice and commitment to avoid the Industry supported bootlegging.
- So few of us have determined what we love, not just in film, but also in the world in general. The more we have defined our tastes, the more we strive to bring them into existence. The more we know what we want, the greater our defenses are against that in which we do not want to participate. Where are the filmmakers who can list the things they think can lead us to make better films? If more filmmakers, distributors, and executives conversed more publicly in both the art and the business, the bar for all of us would be lifted higher.
- We love to read, talk, and engage more about the business than we do about the art. Some of this comes perhaps because we have more forums for the business than the aesthetics, but it is much harder to get a conversation going about creative issues than it is about financial. I’m just saying…
And for those of you who missed it, this is last year's list of 38, which, sadly is still relevant, for the most part...
- Too many leisure options for film to compete without further enhancing the theatrical and cinematic experience.
- Too many “specialized” films opening to allow such films to gain word of mouth and audience’s attention.
- Too many films available and being distributed to allow films to stay in one theater for very long, making it more difficult to develop a word of mouth audience.
- Lack of access — outside of NYC & LA –to films when they are at their highest media awareness (encourages bootlegging, limits appeal by reducing timeliness).
- Distrib’s abandonment (and lack of development) of community-building marketing approaches for specialized releases (which reduces appeal for a group activity i.e. the theatrical experience).
- Distrib’s failure to embrace limited streaming of features for audience building.
- Reliance on large marketing spend release model restricts content to broad subjects (which decreases films’ distinction in marketplace) and reduces ability to focus on pre-aggregated niche audiences.
- Emphasis on upfront compensation for star talent creates budgets that can’t reasonably recoup investment.
- HP&W fringe levels at too high a level to allow low-bud production to benefit from know how and talent of union labor.
- Lack of media literacy/education programs that help audience to recognize they need to begin to chose what they see vs. just impulse buy.
- Collapse of US acquisition market requires reduced budgets for filmmakers, and thus resulting in limiting content.
- Collapse of International sales markets requires reduced budgets for filmmakers, and thus resulting in limiting content.
- Foreign subsidies for marketing of foreign film makes reduces buyers’ acquisition appetite for US product.
- Foreign subsidies for foreign productions contribute greater budget percentage than US tax rebates do, allowing foreign productions to have larger budgets and thus more production value and expansive content — thus making it harder for US product to compete.
- Recession has reduced private equity available for film investment.
- Credit crunch has reduced ability to use debt financing for film investment.
- Threat of piracy makes library value of titles unstable, which in turn limits investment in content companies and reduces acquisition prices, which in turn reduces budgets, which in turn limits the options for content — so everybody loses.
- No new business model for internet exploitation at a level that can justify reasonable film budgets.
- Lack of community embrace of new creative story expansion models that would facilitate audience aggregation and participation (to seed, build, drive audiences).
- Emphasis on single pictures for filmmakers vs. ongoing conversation with fans has lead to a neglect of content that helps audiences bridge gaps between films and that would prevent each new film to be a reinvention of the wheel for audience building.
- Panic due to the 15 year promise of crystal clear downloads over internet despite the reality that it still has not developed — allowing the fear to move to a business practice of inactivity.
- Bootleggers have developed a platform that allows audiences to simply download whatever they want where ever they want whenever they want — something that the film industry has yet to do.
- Loss of job for newspaper based film critics reduces curatorial oversight which lessens word-of-mouth and want-to-see.
- Reliance on synopsis style reviewing fails to provide enriching cultural context for film and thus reduces audience satisfaction.
- Lack of marketing/distribution knowledge by filmmakers limits DIY success.
- Indie filmmakers mimic Hollywood’s obsession with regurgitating past success models, by regurgitating past festival hits’ story-lines or navel gazing. Cinema is 100 years old but we still tell the same stories in the same ways. Audiences get bored, move on, play video games.
- Amer-Indie filmmakers are only recently starting to look at non-US-centric stories that can “travel” into international territories.
- America has no funding for the arts so filmmakers have to develop material based on pre-existing markets instead forward thinking inspiration.
- America has no co-production treaties (other than Puerto Rico’s Letters Of Understanding) that allow filmmakers to access foreign soft money subsidies.
- The specialized distributors force exhibitors to program for full week runs, preventing them from developing local community audience or niche programs on off nights.
- The truly independent exhibitors are not yet developed into a collaborating organization that would allow true independent features to be easily booked nationwide.
- There is no independent collection and disbursement agency that could allow DIY distribution to take hold.
- Filmmakers still believe that festivals are first and foremost markets and not media launches.
- The ego-driven approach to filmmaking vs. one of true collaboration generally yields lower quality of films and greater dissatisfaction amongst all participants.
- Lack of real role models who represent integrity and commitment to the craft (in order to inspire others).
- Corporate hierarchy and access that is driven foremost by privilege (college, connections, class) limiting diversity and new content and approaches.
- Inability for filmmakers to influence iTunes editors to promote their work.
- Lists like this make the foolish despair.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Reprinted from FILMMAKER Magazine - Spring 2010
Producer Mike S. Ryan challenges the current preoccupations of our independent film scene.
Call me crazy, but I don't think distribution is the greatest problem facing independent cinema right now. Distribution is a problem, but it has always been. Returning investment is perennially difficult, but even when we had a few exceptional profit leaders most films lost money. The brief heyday of what seemed like a profitable indie industry was just a bubble, like dot-com and real estate. Bubbles typically self-inflate with the hot air of the people inside, spewing gas to mask secret truths. In the case of independent film, it is this: uncompromising, quality work that exists outside the mainstream has only ever been profitable for a few.
Today most of us in independent film are looking for new ways to justify investment in our movies. DIY output deals, VOD and niche marketing seem like the new hot ideas. And recent successes with new platforms are a true sign of hope. Our expectations are adjusting to reality; innovative, passion-driven films are finding their audience again. What concerns me, though, is not the slow, vague emergence of new business strategies but the idea that filmmakers need to adjust their ideas to conform to these so-called new models.
Post-screening, filmmakers are used to hearing from potential distributors: "Great film, but we're not seeing the poster." In other words: "We're passing because we don't know how to market this." These distributors don't believe they can interest a mass audience in original, unclassifiable films. Today that marketplace concern has not only become more intense but is almost accepted as a justified reaction to difficult movies. And it's not just distribution execs but also the press and even other filmmakers who retreat to this mind-set, dismissing innovative work that seems alien to our commercial marketplace.
Roger Corman was famous for mocking up one-sheets before his films rolled camera. Today, filmmakers are told to have Constant Contact lists of their target audiences on their hard drives before their first days of filming. The required strategy is to first launch a Facebook page, make your fans your "audience" and allow their swelling numbers to serve as your green light. And, then, as you shoot, make sure these fans don't get away by marketing your film through Twitter updates, blog posts, and other forms of social-media messaging.
This is indeed a great strategy for certain films - but not all films allow for such easy niche preconceptions. While defining a film's possible marketing plan early can be helpful, a promising marketing plan should not justify a film's existence. And, more importantly, the lack of one should not designate a film as worthless.
Developing content and nurturing auteurs should be our top concern, not figuring out distribution models or revenue schemes. The whole purpose of independent film is to make films that aren't prefabricated to hit a target audience of someone else's devising. In fact, it's that kind of market-centric thinking that puffed up the bubble with derivative films; it's those goals that made indie go flaccid in the first place.
Audience-driven content posing as truly independent film has numbed the audience that is hungry for innovative work. Powerful statements told in direct, aesthetically challenging and possibly uncomfortable ways are what mark visionary work. The outer margins are where true visionaries live, and the fact that these artists may not reach the mainstream is not sad; it should be embraced. I'm not interested in dragging everyone I know to the new Bela Tarr film. Bela Tarr is not for everyone (his work is actually for very few), but it is exceptional work, and it deserves to exist, despite the fact that Bela does not have Facebook or Twitter accounts. I've heard it said that because filmmakers like Todd Solondz and Jim Jarmusch don't have readily-defined young audiences reachable through all these various wired platforms that their work is considered less relevant today than the latest viral sensation. Frankly, I find that a sad and scary opinion.
I worry that the traditional gatekeepers - the festival programmers, the critics and the producers - are starting to ignore the cultivation of true visionaries by wholeheartedly drinking this niche transmedia Kool-Aid. If gatekeepers start to agree that the only way to make indie film relevant again is through new forms of community outreach then there is a chance that films that alienate and aren't crowd-sourced huggable will be passed by. I fear that in the rush to embrace new methods of promotion and distribution that worthy yet seemingly unpromotable films will be completely ignored. If festivals get behind day-and-date VOD or free YouTube multiplatform releasing then isn't there a chance that these fests will pick films that best lend themselves to these new screening platforms? Films catering to easily distracted Web surfers and not contemplative theatergoers? Likewise, are there producers passing on strong work because it can't be broken into Webisodes and streamed on YouTube?
Some films do not lend themselves to viewing on computers, phones or in loud crowded rooms. The extreme margins is where the true groundbreaking work is done; it's always been that way, and no amount of crafty virile Twitter DIY distribution chatter is going to change that fact. Films that make their marketing campaigns their highest priorities are audience-driven films and these are the films that have historically alienated viewers hungry for visionary work.
I am not into indie film because I like being part of an indie "community." I don't help make bold, boundary-pushing work because I want to connect to or be part of a group of outsiders. Though this group can help spread the word, it's not the reason I work on these films. I am into indie film because no other medium can express my feelings about the world. It's because I don't get what I need from mass culture that I seek it in the margins. I don't crave mass acceptance nor do I dream of it. And I would hate to see the young artists who would otherwise make the boundary-pushing work of tomorrow not do so because they haven't impressed gatekeepers with their viral marketing plans.
There is a problem with independent film today, but it's not that filmmakers don't have access to the marketing tools they need. If we create strong innovative work audiences will come, and in turn, new forms of profit will evolve. But if we start by encouraging filmmakers to please as wide an audience as possible then we will destroy what is alive and essential about alternative cinema. New distribution strategies are inevitable, but we should not allow our search for new platforms to dilute the content or crush the dreams of our next generation of auteurs.
There are some brilliant films out there today that are having a hard time finding an audience. This isn't the filmmakers' fault. It's the fault of the youth audience whose minds have been melded by the corporate consumer-entertainment machine. What was potentially indie film's next greatest audience didn't materialize because it never learned about true rebellion, what counter culture means and where it is often found. It's often conjured up and cultivated under smelly overpasses by angry outsiders, not in corporate-sponsored high-tech think tanks by salaried media trend experts. Films like Happiness, American Splendor, Safe, Gummo and, recently, Ballast are films that were not made to imitate a preexisting popular Hollywood model. These are films that were made because they resembled no other prior films. It used to be that bold unconventional visions like those were the raison d'etre of indie film culture. It was those visions that made indie cinema essential viewing for any self-respecting young anti-establishment non-conformist free thinker. Today those films would be considered "undistributable."
Perhaps it's not the youth audience's fault, though. Even if they are looking for it, young people today actually aren't able to associate outsider perspectives with most current independent cinema. Market forces are so shaping independent content that we have castrated the whole reason indie got started in the first place. "Independent" alt culture helped kill itself by distracting its audience with the petty bourgeois aesthetics emboldened by a decade-long onslaught of overpriced Sundance-launched quirk. We need to get back to the heart and soul of what it means to be independent and stop chasing the mainstream dragon; it was a pipe dream to begin with. We need less sweating over what we think the audience wants and to focus more on the people who could care less and are busy right now marching to their own fucked-up, out-of-time drummers. The indie film industry as it has been defined since Sex, Lies, and Videotape is dead. Hallelujah. Let the inmates run free.
By my definition, "indie" means not being afraid of rejection. If you are a filmmaker who has no idea who in the world would ever want to see your movie then there is a pretty good chance that you are on the right road to creating something truly groundbreaking. You are our true future.