Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Call For Creative Invention

Filmmakers Alliance is about to launch a crowdfunding campaign so I'm working an an accompanying video that will include clips of great independent films. As I was considering which films to include, I noticed I had a decided preference for earlier work over more recent films.

Then, last night at our Echo Park Film Center screening of short films, I found what impressed me most about the films we selected was the amount of formal experimentation/invention that was in evidence in most of the films. And so it then dawned on me that my response to - actually, my hunger for - creative invention was also behind my preference for older indie films.

As I tracked back through the years looking at indie films, I noticed a distinct decline in the amount of creative risk-taking in the breakout, award-winning or otherwise popular indie films. Now, this may be less a comment on the types of films that filmmakers are willing to make than it is a comment on the types of films that get recognition, show at festivals and/or manage to acquire some type of distribution. I simply may be missing a lot of innovative filmmaking simply because the films are inaccessible to me. But I doubt it. I know enough people in the filmmaking universe to know if a truly distinct film is floating around out there. So, although I suspect this creative timidity is, nonetheless, the result of a few different forces working in unison, I am going to address the contribution (or lack thereof) made by my community - filmmakers.

I don't have to see every film at every festival to know that filmmakers almost always "play it safe". And when they do choose to take risks, they often do it recklessly - without proper preparation. I often hear filmmakers say they want to make the kind of films that made a creative impression on them - which typically means they want to mimic the style and structure of films that have been around (and been mimicked by others) for many years. It's rare to find filmmakers who are excited about using cinema to communicate their own distinct perspective on the world - how they tell stories, how they see things, how they hear things. We all do each of those things differently. But some of us just don't know it. Or, we know it, but have difficulty celebrating it or accessing it creatively. We are content to be impressed by other people's distinctiveness and then try to replicate it in our own filmmaking. This is actually not a bad way to go as you are developing your creative muscles and exploring your own cinematic voice - as long as you are being ambitious in selecting your cinematic models. But it's important to be cognizant of where another filmmaker's voice ends and yours begins. At some point, you have to distinguish yourself from what has come before by expressing who you are now.

Why is any of this important? I've asked and answered this question before but I feel it needs to be constantly and vigilantly asked and answered. When you have those weak moments when you just want to "get through the day" creatively or when you feel this or that frame of film is "not so important", you can remind and re-energize yourself with this answer: your films are your life legacy. Like it our not, anything we create that won't be immediately destroyed (such as a sandcastle), is our legacy - creative and otherwise. Most art lives long after the artist is gone and defines them on many different levels. If you are content to create a legacy of telling stories - even very good stories - in a way that has been told by others thousands of times before, then this call for creative invention is not meant for you. But if you want a legacy of making films that explore all of the unique properties of cinema employed in service of your distinctive creative vision, then you need to answer this call.

Also, from a "make a living" perspective, creative experimentation/invention is important if you envy the career of a David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch or Todd Haynes or even a David Fincher. To get there, you have to take risks. In today's tough times, just being "good" is not good enough. You need to be uniquely good. If you aren't a skilled hustler (as many filmmakers are), then you need something else to distinguish you from the pack. And if you are truly a filmmaker, that "something else" should be evident in your work.

How does one creatively invent? How does one find their unique cinematic voice? And how does one do any of that stuff successfully (without producing a creative trainwreck)? Well, I've blogged on this, too, in the past, but again, they are questions that can be asked and answered over and over. At the risk of repeating myself, here are just a few general guidelines to follow:

  • Know your art. Familiarize yourself with great, distinctive filmmaking. No what has come before - not to copy it, but rather to invert/subvert it, rework it, expand it, transcend it or completely avoid it.
  • Be aware of yourself outside of filmmaking. What kind of perception of the world do you have? What kind of idiosyncrasies/fears/crazy thoughts/compulsions/etc. do you have? What kind of sense of humor do you have? In general, of course, what things are "special" about you?
  • Create on multiple levels. Think about image. Then think about EVERYTHING in that image. Think about sound. Then think about every level and kind of sound that can support your film. Think about story. Then think about all the things the story can mean directly or metaphorically. Think about the humor and/or emotional dynamics. Then think about what they convey about the deepest, most complex issues inside and outside of yourself. Etc., etc. Some of this stuff happens naturally on a subconscious level whenever anyone chooses to create something. But artistic intention can be powerful and compelling when it is masterfully in evidence.
  • Always consider the inverse of any creative decision. And if not the complete inverse, than some altnernative approach. Don't just grab the most obvious and safe way to build a story, conceive of a shot, light a scene, etc. Be bold. Break the "rules" (but usually good to know them first).
  • Think critically of your work. Take feedback from people whose creative perspective you respect. Then take a breath and seriously consider it no matter how much it may rub you the wrong way. But most importantly, be your own most stringent critic. If you don't see what's not working before others do, then you are either too close or just not looking close enough.
  • Know the difference between being courageous and being stupidly stubborn. When you take risks or do something unusual, a lot of people will be put off by it. They will tell you it's not working and that you need to change it. But you have to remain strong and courageous in your creative decisions if you are truly creating with clarity and singularity. On the other hand, you may be stubbornly holding onto something that simply isn't working the way you believe it is. Don't be panicked if you don't think you can always know the difference between courageous vision and blind stubborness. Stepping back for a bit of time helps. As does feedback from people who really get what you're trying to do. But sometimes you can only know through experience. So, when in doubt, stick with your own decision, but be willing to learn from it.
  • Don't be afraid to "fail". Fail is in quotation marks because there is no failure in taking creative risks. The only way you can truly fail is to either not try anything at all or to continue doing the same dumb thing over and over.
So, if you are conceiving a film and have been compelled to read this far, then please answer the call for creative invention. The risk is it's own reward. And your distinctive creative energy will be a legacy not soon forgotten or ignored.

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CINEREACH Summer Grant Cycle is open! Deadline June 9th 2011!

CINEREACH Summer Grant Cycle is open! Deadline June 9th 2011!

Click HERE for more details!
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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Guest Post: Ava DuVernay “What Color is Indie?”

I'm reposting another guest post from Ted Hope's Blog. Coincidentally, this is from someone I know independently of Ted - fellow filmmaker Ava DuVernay - who articulately expresses something I've noticed/felt for a very long time.....

“What Color is Indie?”

My name is Ava DuVernay and I just completed a 7-week theatrical release of my film I WILL FOLLOW in 20 major US cities, including NY and LA, without studio or corporate backing and no formal P&A. The release was accomplished throughAFFRM, a black film distribution collective that I founded. Have you heard of us?

I may incorrectly assume that most of Ted’s readers have never heard of AFFRM, or I WILL FOLLOW, or the excellent black film orgs that make up the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement—for which AFFRM stands.

Why do I think that? Because we haven’t cracked that American indie establishment circle. You know, the Tribeca-Indiewire-IFP-FilmIndependent-SXSW-Lincoln Center of it all. The gate-keepers to the mainstream indie treasures. We haven’t had their attention. So we might’ve slipped by you.

It’s weird. Some new group pulls off an $11,235 per screen full-run simultaneously in multiple cities with absolutely no formal P&A, no four-walling, no touring, no service deal on their first try, and enterprising filmmakers and film pros don’t want the skinny on how? Maybe you just hadn’t heard. We’ve had full features in NY Times, LA Times, CNN, NPR and USA Today, but not one inquiry from the many DIY, DIWO, new distribution panel programmers or experts? The circle is tight.

With AFFRM, we sought to take the DIWO approach a step further, to give it infrastructure and branding. To align like-minded regional black film organizations and push them to go beyond their existing mission, to a renewed vision with national reach. It worked. Like, really worked. And we’re anxious to share what we learned, and to learn from others. But if you only get your news, views and film picks from the circle, you don’t know about us – and others like us.

My point is… you’re missing stuff. Many lovely films, many talented filmmakers and maybe a new idea to add to the discussion on how to move film distribution forward without corporate permission. I’ve been astonished by how many black filmmakers and film pros have approached us in the last few weeks about how we did what we did. Several dozen. And further astonished by how many of my non-black counterparts have approached. Zero.

Makes me think, what color is indie? I mean, what does it take to be of color and truly considered authentic American indie? To have done something seen as meaningful to the circle of the American independent film establishment, both artistically and as a business model. Like, if I don’t participate in what a good pal calls “white people festivals”… am I indie enough? Do you take my film as seriously because I chose to world premiere at Urbanworld in NY instead of submitting to Tribeca? If I don’t run my film through the labs or diversity initiatives of a recognized institution… do I not have that cool indie cred you need to see my movie with its beautiful black cast? I wonder.

I understand wanting your indie film product of color vetted through the proper channels. I get it. But just be aware that that is what you’re doing. Be aware that your indie is handpicked by a select few. And be clear that your indie is very white boy in view. Not a bad thing. White boys like all kinds of cool stuff – other white boys, white girls and the occasional thing of color that speaks to their sensibilities as white boys. But be real, that’s limited.

It limits you from hearing new marketing and distribution ideas, meeting filmmakers and experiencing films outside of this establishment construct, outside of the circle. You’re missing some good new stuff and ignoring success stories from many folks of color (See: I Will Follow or Mooz-Lum) or are by folks who are just downright colorful (See: Audrey Ewell’s Until The Light Takes Us and Bob Ray’s Total Badass). It’s not progressive. And it isn’t what I feel most people who love, support and live indie film really want. I don’t think its purposeful hateration. I think its just this lull of curation and prestige and, to be quite honest, laziness. Whatever it is… its affecting the whole business. And its far from positive.

If these statements makes you proclaim that I’m trippin’ and “there IS no circle”– then I’m happy that I’m not talking to you. Really am. Thrilled, in fact. And I invite you to see my film about a grieving black woman shot in Topanga Canyon that Roger Ebert called “one of the best films he’s seen about the death of a loved one.” You’re just my kind of audience member.

If on the other hand, these statements coax you to admit that you haven’t gone to a non-establishment fest or seen a film not featured in Filmmaker Magazine in years, then I invite you to step outside and take a look. Be like a couple of folks at Sundance Institute who’ve reached out to us to share and compare notes. Or the folks that head up RiverRun where I was invited to sit on the jury a few weeks back. Those RiverRun people take their mission of inclusion seriously, working to connect with the black community in Winston-Salem by leaping out of theoretical planning meetings and into bold action. They presented a special festival panel at the local historically black college this year, on which I was pleased to participate. I wondered if it was the first foray of a non-ethnic film festival at an HBCU? First I’m aware of. It was super impressive. And its what we all need to be thinking about.

Bottom line: It would benefit us all to be conversing and connecting. It’s not too late to break the boundaries of what you think this thing called indie should be, should look like. For instance, I dig that Indiewire, after years of really poor connection with black independent cinema at large, has wooed the wonderful team at ShadowandAct.comto be part of its blog network. It’s a step in the right direction for iW amidst an ongoing, challenging lack of coverage of black fests and black and brown indies on the main site.

This post is not meant to be a ball buster but a spirited call-to-action. There are new ideas, new paths for distribution, new films and filmmakers you’re missing if you only look from inside. There are riches in the niches. Both monetary and cosmic. Heck, you love indie film! You care about its future! So why not step outside and look around? Its nice out.

Here’s the opening weekend video of the thousands and thousands and thousands of people who came out to AFFRM’s inaugural release for I WILL FOLLOW in March. Quite a spectacle that you may not have seen or heard about. But now… you know.

Thanks for the invite, Ted.

—Ava DuVernay

VIDEO: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOiuV6uYvas

Ava DuVernay is a filmmaker and film distributor from Los Angeles, California. Her Twitter is @AVADVA. More on AFFRM at www.affrm.com. More on I WILL FOLLOW atwww.iwillfollowfilm.com


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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Distributor ReportCard from The Film Collaborative

The following is a repost from awesome consultant Sheri Candler. Check out her blog!

Distributor ReportCard from The Film Collaborative
By Sheri Candler
My friends at The Film Collaborative have devised a resource for indie filmmakers to use called the Distributor ReportCard. According to their site "Distributor ReportCard™ gives filmmakers and producers a chance to SCHOOL THE DISTRIBUTORS. Write reviews, share your experiences and learn from other filmmakers' successes or mistakes.
Simply click on one of the distributors to the left and you'll be taken to the info page for that distributor. All information is gathered from their respective website and is not based on a TFC review. Speak your mind. Create or join a discussion about a specific distributor."

Some have expressed confusion over how to use the site, so this blog post should explain how to use the Distributor ReportCard.

You are welcome to share experiences, good and bad, and if you don't see the name of your distributor, you can add it. While I know that many filmmakers are afraid to leave negative comments about their distributors, we will be a stronger community if we all share the knowledge we have. I think a resource like this is invaluable to helping all of us make more informed choices.

Let TFC know what you think. Leave a comment on the blog post or on their Facebook page

Online Distribution: 10 Lessons from Dynamo Player

This is a direct link rather than a full repost. Definitely click on it and read more great distribution info!

Online Distribution: 10 Lessons from Dynamo Player

Sunday, May 1, 2011

San Francisco Film Society Announces New Grant For Doc Features!

The San Francisco Film Society has just announced a NEW documentary feature grant (see link below)!!

The grant is for doc features in post production. $100k per grant round (for the next 3 years). Letter of Inquiry opens June 17. Open to filmmakers nationwide!!

This means SFFS is granting more than $800k in 2011 which is pretty exciting news all round!!

Please pass this on to anyone you think would be interested: