Should We Accept That Indie Film Is Now A Hobby Culture?

I don't intend to get down on hobbies here; I love building model rockets with my son, but I don't harbor any fantasies about earning a living from doing it (well, I do have a plan for a BowlOfNoses Summer Camp, but...).  Thing is, there once was a time when all my friends earned a living making and sharing independent features.  It didn't feel like a hobby then, but now it does. I wonder if anyone still earns a consistent living making indie films?

Okay, the sales markets of Sundance & Toronto have increased my hopes that the economic situation for filmmakers will improve and, yes, "earning a living" is a relative phrase.  True, many still are paying most of their bills from working in the film biz, but I suspect that either it is at a level 50% lower than it was three years ago, or else the company that pays them is earning substantially less than they were years back and just hasn't passed the losses on to their employees beyond staff reductions.  Yes, there are still some folks who hit a vein and get a windfall, but don't mistake that good fortune as a career.  I have seen highs and lows, but I don't see consistency any more.

It's not all doom mind you. Some people are adapting well to the current situation, working on lower budgets, and creating a variety of forms -- but the earnings are at a much different level.  The need to find ways to subsidize one's creative passions has become more urgent than ever before.  Speaking fees and consultancy gigs have become a necessary part of my balance sheet.  Academia is growing more appealing by the day.

People used to toss off that Indie Film was the province of the rich or the young, as a way of saying that there was no long term survival path, but that was said most frequently by those that somehow had managed to embed themselves in the process -- and thus contradicting their statement by their very existence.  Those days are gone though.  Indie film is only a viable stopover station and then only for the young and the rich.  I am at a loss of how someone can earn enough to live in NYC making the kind of movies I did for the last two decades.  It requires  something completely different.

I wish it was as simple as scaling down.  As budgets come down so do the stories and the styles by which they are told.  Miracles occur on a regular basis and we are all treated to some beautiful work, but generally speaking, we are watching Norma Desmond's words become our reality.  As Indie's stories get really small, not only does the audience follow suit, but the hope of a recovery becomes slimmer and slimmer.  Part of the appeal of cinema is that it exposes the expansive nature of our lives -- and that still is hard to do on a six or five figure budget (but not impossible).

There are many reasons to think, even to believe, that there is an alternative to this dark vision.  Mike Ambs was right when he mused that the short form online crowd was building their side of the bridge much faster than the indie film side.  As true as that may be, it ignores the fact that that progress is rarely done professionally.  Yes it is done passionately, but it still requires those so driven that they have found an alternative way to afford a creative life than financial support from the industry they focus on.

When people speak of "profit" as the holy grail when speaking of "saving" indie film, they focus on the money because they want to survive.  When people choose to make indie films, I don't think they are ever really hoping to get rich, they just want to be able to survive doing what they love.  Granted, very few are willing to live at subsistence levels in order to be an artist, but they still want to make a living, and hence they need to "profit" from their work.  And right now I would wager that less than one percent of those that create indie films, "profit" from their work.

What is going to happen to the swarm of experts we've developed over that last two decades when we ultimately accept that the business is dead?  As long as we are willing to drive the transactional price point to zero, artist will not support themselves by their practice?  Do you really want to earn your living exploiting those whose passion prevents them from creating consistent work?  Just because some are privileged enough by their reputation or wealth to aggregate libraries not by compensating at a respectable value, but by being the only legitimate option, does that mean that they should?

It is going to take a lot of thought and experimentation to get us on track towards a sustainable film industry of diverse and ambitious work.  It is going to take a lot of patience.  It is going to take a lot of collaboration.

How I Spent My Sundance Non-Vacation

To think I once got to see movies when I went to film festivals...

I had one film to share with folks this time around, Sean Durkin's MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, which I had the pleasure and good fortune to Executive Produce -- even still I did not plan to see any others.  I knew I was going to be too busy with the work that festivals have become for me.

The reception for the film was great -- which has generated a lot of meetings (and which has yielded some nice announcements ).  I forgot to read the latest Exec Prod job description though and did not realize it now means moderating press conferences.  Check out the video here, and let me know how you feel I did.

When I wasn't dealing and celebrating Sean's movie, I was doing my part to aid in the promotion of indie film.

Christine Vachon and I have been doing this talk show on and off now for several years, now dubbed KILLER / HOPE.  Hulu's got it up on their Sundance page. Please check it out while you still can (at least in all its glory). New episodes will be added daily throughout the festival.  Additionally, we were invited to talk to Eugene Hernandez for the local NPR station.  Gotta get the word out, but man does all that yapping, make for some seriously dry mouth.

But man, what a test of will power it is.  I admit I am an addict for great film, and even noble failures.  To be in Park City and to have booked myself into back to back meetings to extent that I am unable to watch movies, leaves me quaking and shaking.  I want to see some movies!

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What Does This Decade Offer As An Opportunity For Indie Film? (Pt 3 of 3)

I have been rambling/ranting the last two days about Indie Film's missed opportunity over the last decade.  Where are we headed now? If we missed an opportunity over the last ten years, do you know what it was?  We missed the opportunity to make indie film a sustainable culture and business. I earned a good living for over fifteen years, but I don't expect to do that now or even going forward -- if I am even going to stay in Indie Film, that is.  It is going to take an awful lot of work from a great number of people to bring that squandered opportunity back. Are the people out there, who are willing to do that work?

Do you know why we missed that opportunity to make Indie Film a sustainable enterprise?  Because we all were/are selfish, focused on own short-term success, chasing a hit, not devoted to the long term or the community.  The filmmakers, the performers, the artists and the craftspeople all feel as if we've behaved as selfishly and as greedilyy as the bankers who have virtually destroyed this country.  Yes, a great number of people give a great deal back, but that is not enough.  Instead of building a system that works for a wide and diverse populace, we all went out and just got ours. We squandered a great opportunity.

7,000 films a year are purportedly made in this country annually -- and generally all are made with the  same lack of rigor or controls that the financial sector enjoyed and used to deliver us into this toilet of an economy.  We don't really try to make better films, just to make our films.  We don't try to communicate to audiences, we just try to get their butts into the seats.  The film business does not know their audience, let alone try to nurture it into a community.  We continue to do business based on anachronistic concepts of content scarcity and control instead of realities of surplus and access.

But perhaps that can be the old way, right?  There still can be a new way.  It is not too late for a real change. Isn't that why you are reading now?

Does every new decade begin with the huge surge of hope that I now feel as this one's second year dawns?  Everyone once was wondering what the 00's were going to be about.  There seems to be no doubt now that digital connection & disruption were -- and still are -- the defining qualities of that decade gone by, but in terms of the art, the infrastructure, the individuals I am still wondering what, who & where it all was.  What happened to that opportunity we had?

Am I bummed? Yes, but I am also again filled with hope as to the opportunity we have if we work together to make it better. I can see some Brave Thinkers, and I know there is tremendous room and opportunity for a hell of a lot more.  I want to see the castle walls over run even if there are more doors open now than ever before.

This is your time.  This is every one's time. There is a brand new good machine (even better machine?) to be built that will deliver an exhilarating  ride.  Let's not have the engine stall out for another ten years, please.

What Happened To Indie Film Over The Last Decade? (Pt 2 of 3)

Yesterday, I started my reflection on the last decade of American Indie Film.  I will conclude it tomorrow (I promise).  Today, I wonder what opportunity did we miss over the last decade.

There wasn't really ever a transfer of power in the film biz, was there?  During the growth of AmerIndie, Hollywood remained a business of blockbusters.  Yes, previously underserved audiences got full on banquets of offerings as the menu of filmed entertainments grew more diverse, but the clamoring  hordes born from  the niches didn't climb the castle walls as some have claimed; the same power sat on the same throne as before.  Fanboys & geeks were inevitably the masters once Hollywood embraced the logic of tent poles -- so there is nothing surprising about their current reign.  And yes, Hollywood's current crop of top directors were born from that indie big bang of the nineties, but for those directors, Indie always seemed more like a training ground than sort of a manifesto.  And the power in the Hollywood system, still rarely rests with the directors.

What is it that happened between Indie's growth in the 1990's and now?  What did the last decade do to the hopes and dreams of  The Indie Wave?  When Indie kicked into gear, I thought the Art Film was firmly grounded as one of the American genres.  It sure has lost ground with fewer practitioners than I ever dreamed possible.  Is that a function of market-based realities?  Surely the drive and ambition that fuels Todd HaynesKelly Reichardt, and Ramin Bahrani must linger in others.  So many still create without any audience/market in mind (7000 films/year in USA - a market that reasonably consumes 600), I don't think I can blame neo-liberal/late capitalism for this one, alas.

Is the absence in the cultural mindscape of a new wave of Art Film a symptom or character trait of those that came of age in the last ten years?  I refuse to think we are lacking in those that aim for art over success (not that those are incompatible...). Mumblecore and YouTube's unadorned reality based creations certainly have their ambition, even if formal presentation is not generally one of them.

I have  often felt that in the last ten years we became A Culture Of Distraction.  Everything competes for our time and focus, and we get trained to shift rapidly from one attraction to the next (and you know what? We are damn good at it!).  Navigating the onslaught, positioning ourselves to withstand the winds of everything that passes us by, becomes a necessary goal.  We need to find our filters and our discovery tools.   We need to stop skating on the surface, and learn to love to drill down deep.  Now is not the time for simple sensation, but thoughtful understanding.

Slowly we build defenses and tools -- make choices.  It is this move from impulse to choice that I hope partially defines the present moment and the next.  But I still wonder, what is the choice that most creative types make?  Does survival (and financial well-being) dictate everything? If people knew they could have a different sort of cultural industry, would they change their behavior?  Are they every really going to be ready to do what is truly needed to ensure a diverse and open culture?

Still I wonder though: was an opportunity for a truly free film culture missed in the decade that just slipped by?  Audience changed, but our methods and work didn't.  The leaders never embraced the community, be it the creators or those that appreciate the work.  The business never evolved beyond the "sell".  Instead of pushing the product through, we could have created a two-way flow.  I saw my opportunity two decades ago, and despite that (or because of it) kept telling myself: I NEED TO PREPARE FOR THE NEXT WAVE.

But really I just rode it out instead, doing what I had been doing.  Was it really ever going to be enough to deliver a good story well told for the right price?  Was it ever right to focus on the product without much attention to the infrastructure that both delivered and dictated its substance.  When we sold Good Machine at the end of 1990 I kept telling myself that now was the time, and I kept telling myself thatevery three years until we got to the Now.

I feel good about all the movies that I helped make this past decade, but I also feel the responsibility to help find a way to make more diverse and ambitious work a sustainable industry -- and I know that THAT can not be driven by individuals.  We have to build it better together.

Was the tornado of digital disruption too great to ever get a real focus on what that would be?  Did the filmmakers that would have led the charge, simply go elsewhere in this expansive online universe?  Or did the noise everyone was making simply just cancel each other out?  Was there too much going on for anyone to get traction?  It can't be that we lacked the political impetus; surely the establishment of the greatest disparity in wealth since The Great Depression should have been enough to send the masses to the barricades.

But it wasn't.  What happened?

This rant will conclude tomorrow.  Thanks for reading!

Tic-Toc: Thinking About Generations & Opportunity (Pt 1 of 3)

I was reflecting at the end of the year.  It got me to this three part post.  I offer you my apologies in advance for any rambling.  Stay tuned for the posts to come tomorrow and Saturday.

I graduated from high school in 1980, the year often associated with when the Hollywood Business fully became the Blockbuster Business.  When I graduated I thought I had a revolution to run (even if I wasn't prepared to run it), but I didn't get around to finding the film business for a few more years.

I was fortunate in the timing of my professional &  artistic pursuits that I could benefit from the DIY aesthetic, the approach of the first wave of punk rock (circa 1977), and political events like the class antagonism of the Reagan Years, and the fear & consequences of the AIDS epidemic.  Add to that the prevailing post-modern, multi-culti, deconstructionist sway of academia, the birth of a new distribution platform (VHS video), and Hollywood's abandonment of the complex and personal.  What could have been a more perfect storm for the coming wave of American Indies?

Circumstances gave me and my generation of filmmakers opportunity (even if some paid a high price).  Has such an opportunity come again over the next thirty years?  Did we miss it?

As fortunate as I have been, I think it does not compare to the opportunity appearing before us now. The transformation away from an entertainment economy based upon control and scarcity to an Age Of Access And Surplus is seemingly too mind-blowing for most -- other than the young -- to even comprehend.  In terms of the film business, it all gets to be reinvented right now (other than maybe, the blockbuster side of things).

We will go down wrong paths.  Hell, we ARE already going down wrong paths.  But so f'n what?  We will find our way eventually, and those that get us there are going to get a nice long ride no matter where they sit (not that the twenty year ride I got wasn't a sweet one too!).

But what has happened in between the time that me and my compatriots marched on to the field, and now, as the young rebels swarm across every nook and cranny?  Where were the revolutionaries in between over the last decade?  What were the transformations?  What did I miss -- despite it being presumably right before my eyes?

Stay tuned for part two tomorrow!

181 Renewed! Indie Filmmakers Rejoice!

Why does this matter? Zak Forsman tweeted it nicely: " if tax payer is in 35% tax bracket and the film's shot in a state with a 42% credit, investor's eligible to get 77% of her investment back."

To go a tad deeper, Zak Forsman posted it well:

Minutes ago, I received this email from my friend and fellow filmmaker, Justin Evans.

Dear Film Professionals -

Section 181 has finally been renewed! The new Tax Bill was signed into law by President Obama earlier today. The tax law includes Section 744, which includes language that replaces IRS Section 181's expiration date of December 31, 2009 with December 31, 2011.

http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-111hr4853enr/pdf/BILLS-111hr4853enr.pdf

Here is what this means:

  • Any money spent on qualifying domestic film production* in 2010 now qualifies for the Section 181 tax write-off.
  • Any money spent on qualifying domestic film production* in 2011 will also qualify for the Section 181 tax write-off.
  • There is no gap in Section 181 protection...which means all the fear and worry that someone might have begun a project in 2009, somehow didn't get the financing in place and investors invested in early 2010 can now breath a sigh of relief.

Read all of what Zak has to say about it here. Thanks Zak!

Brave Thinkers Of Indie Film, 2010 Edition

We have a bit of a redundancy in the recognition of those that create good work, but that good work does not end with what is up on the screen -- which is the part that everyone seems to want to write about.  I feel however that we must recognize those that focus not just on the development and production of good work, but those that commit themselves to ALL of cinema, including discovery, participation, appreciation, and presentation -- what I consider the other 4 pillars of cinema.

Last year at this time, I put forth a list of inspiring folks, people who by their acts and ideas were giving me the energy to keep striving for a better film culture and infrastructure, one that was accessible to all, and slave to none. We are closer to a truly free film culture this year than we were last year, and I remain optimistic that we can be a hell of a lot closer next year than we are today, thanks in no small part to the 40 I have singled out these two short years.

This list, like last year's, is not meant to be exhaustive. Okay, granted I did not get to the quantity to the 21 Brave Thinkers that I did last year, but the quality is just as deep.  Regarding the lesser amount, I don't blame the people -- I blame the technology (of course).  I wish I had better tools of discovery that would allow me to find more of the good work and efforts that are out there. I know I am overlooking some BTs again this year. But so be it -- one of the great things about blogging is there is no need to be finished or even to be right (although I do hate it when I push publish prematurely -- like I did with this -- when it is still purely a draft).

I know I can depend on you, my dear brave thinkers, to extend and amend this work into the future.  I do find it surprising how damn white & male & middle aged this list is.  And that I only found two directors to include this year.  Again, it must be the tools and not the source, right?  Help me source a fuller list next year; after all, it is as Larry K tweeted to me about regarding who are the most brave these days: "Those whom you don't know but who continue, despite the indifference of all, to create work that is authentic,challenging and real."  How true that is!

Last year I asked and stated: "What is it to be “brave”? To me, bravery requires risk, going against the status quo, being willing to do or say what few others have done. Bravery is not a one time act but a consistent practice. Most importantly, bravery is not about self interest; bravery involves the individual acting for the community. It is both the step forward and the hand that is extended."

This year, I recognize even more fully that bravery is a generosity of spirit, as well as a generative sort of mind.  It is extending the energy inside ourselves to the rest of the world.   I often get asked why I blog (or why so much), and I have no answer for those folks.  It can't be stopped, for I believe if we love the creative spirit as much as the work it yields, if we believe we create for the community and not for the ego, how can we not extend ourselves and turn our labor into the bonds that keep us moving forward.  In other words, no one can afford to create art and not be public (IMHO).  If you want a diverse and accessible culture of ambitious work, you can not afford to simply hope it will get better -- you have to do something (or get out of the business, please).

So without any further adieu, here's my list of the nineteen folks who have done more on a worldwide basisto start to build it better together, to take what remains of a crumbling and inapplicable film culture & infrastructure, and to try to bring it into the present. They all share a tremendous generosity and open spirit, embracing participation and collaboration.

This is no longer a world of scarcity and control. These nineteen have begun the hard work of designing a new world of film based on surplus and access -- and the resulting community that grows from that --, and their actions and attitude give me hope for what is to come.

  1. Wendy Bernfeld - The transformation from an entertainment economy designed around scarcity & control, to one built for surplus & access requires new business models and new sales models.  Filmmakers struggle with this more than anyone as most of the sales agents still push for the deals that deliver them the highest return for the least amount of effort.  This is not so for Wendy, whom through her company Rights Stuff has started the task of moving towards the short term non-exclusive license world this new world requires.  Furthermore, Wendy has shared her knowledge both on my blog and at speaking engagements the world over.  Her openness and forward thinking is an example for all of us.
  2. Peter Buckingham - Until the UK shuttered the Film Council, Peter ran their innovation fund.  Perhaps it's just that I sit in America, but to think of  a public official who is so committed to moving both the dialogue and the process forward as Peter, is no easy feat.  Peter helped launch the UK's Digital Cinema Initiative.  His insight on the possibilities of meta-datat are always inspiring.  We could use an ample dose of his high energy leadership on our shores if we are going to get some real things done here.
  3. Edward Burns - Although he has more access to the Hollywood machinery than most, for his latest film, Nice Guy Johnny, Eddie not only went the no-stars micro-budget route, but he set out to distribute it himself from the start.  With no marketing or advertising spend, Eddie has enjoyed a revenue return far in excess of his investment.  As much as I admire his courage and commitment, it his openness about the process that I find most inspiring.  In festivals, colleges, and even The Today Show, Eddie has shared his frustration and hope.  He's also consistently looked for new ways to help people discover his work.  His Homage Trailers, where he remakes trailers of classic movies using footage from his own film, are filled with wit and humor and not to be missed.
  4. Efe Cakarel & The Mubi Team Of the folks listed here, Efe may be the one I am most remiss about not listing last year.  The former Auteurs -- now Mubi -- remains the most robust community of film fans on the web, while being a dynamo curator of quality film on a global basis.  Yet, it seems good that I overlooked Efe and his Mubi team last year, as the transformation to Mubi and their extension onto the Playstation platform gives film fans more access than I could have previously imagined.  The challenge of bringing quality work to the community and generating discussion remains large, but these folks are leading the way.
  5. Henning Camre - President of the Think Tank on European Film and Film Policy,  former head of both the Danish Film School and UK's National Film and Television School, and the Danish Film Institute, Henning is pushing through the necessary change in the Scandinavian Film Industry -- but it is a ripple that will resonate throughout the world.  I got to participate in the Think Tank as was deeply impressed at the quality and depth of the presentations and organization.  No one ever likes to volunteer for the heavy lifting, but Henning has several times over.  Change only comes when we recognize the pain of the present outweighs the fear of the future, and Henning's clarity of vision towards the new reality has no equal on our shores.  He embraces both the new and the old, the conservative and the radical, subscribing to the reality first, probing beneath the perception to unearth the hard facts about access and practice.
  6. Sheri Candler When you believe in something you want to share it, right?  Sheri embodies this statement like few others.  Her commitment and faith in audience and community building is contagious.  An avid user of social media, it is hard to miss Sheri in the virtual world, as she lends her voice, heart, and hand to filmmakers trying to sort out a way to connect and build the necessary bridges. Added bonus for following Sheri?  Her ideas are good and well thought out!   Last year's Brave Thinker, Jon Reiss attests: "I met Sheri just over a year ago after I had just finished Think Outside the Box Office – where else – but on Twitter. She reached out to me, as she does with countless others, and since our first meeting has been an invaluable partner – passionate, incisive and always on the hunt for new ideas and new people that can help filmmakers (myself included) connect with their tribe and help solve the problems facing us all in this challenging time. Her tireless engagement and generosity sharing her wisdom and discoveries is a constant inspiration to me and should be to all in our community."
  7. Adam Chapnick CEO of Distribber.com, a company that places film and TV content on digital sales platforms such as iTunes, Netflix and Amazon for a flat fee while allowing filmmakers to keep 100% of their revenue.  As Adam said in his HopeForFilm post: "Distribber was created to help rights holders maximize the payback from their work and investment.  More specifically, Distribber was conceived as a solution to several persistent complaints from filmmakers and other creative rights holders about distributors in general and aggregators in particular."  Distribber, and Adam's efforts, are key tools in the building of a middle class of artists who own and profit from the work they create.
  8. CineFamily - When it comes down to email blasts that I love to receive, nothing rivals Cinefamily's.  Bold programming, well presented.  As curators, they expand my knowledge.  As a hardened New Yorker myself, these Losangeleans give me a reason to long for the west coast.  They show us all how to use the web, and use it well.  In an era and city of mass conformity, they show that it is still both set & setting, programming broadly to the narrow, with verve and attitude. Sure this kind of stuff goes over in quirk capital's like Austin, but little did I suspect LA to deliver so much fine weirdness. To quote their own site: "The Cinefamily is an organization of movie lovers devoted to finding and presenting interesting and unusual programs of exceptional, distinctive, weird and wonderful films. The Cinefamily’s goal is to foster a spirit of community and a sense of discovery, while reinvigorating the movie-going experience. Like campfires, sporting events and church services, we believe that movies work best as social experiences. They are more meaningful, funnier and scarier when shared with others. Our home is the Silent Movie Theatre, one of Hollywood’s most beloved and beautiful cultural landmarks. There, The Cinefamily will provide a destination spot for Los Angelenos and others to rediscover the pleasures of cinema."
  9. Dylan Marchetti & Variance Film - I may not have heard more filmmakers praise a distributor this year, than Dylan.  Furthermore, I don't know of a distributor who maintains such an accessible and vocal presence online, thinking aloud, and engaging the community on the search for a new model that could serve the widest definition of film.  Working on a flat fee basis versus a percentage of the gross, committed to a firm code of ethics, committed to 100% transparency in accounting, and 100% control for the filmmakers at all times, Dylan is a true partner in the emerging artist/entrepreneur economy.
  10. Thomas Mai - I have had the first hand pleasure of sitting in the audience as Thomas pitches filmmakers on the power of social media and the new era of truly free film ahead of us.  I have seen the skeptical grow empowered from his presentations.  Thomas, a former sales agent, has taken his rant on the road, sharing his insights with audiences worldwide.  From a base in Brazil, Thomas has used a shaky internet connect to distribute his lectures across the global.  And he has given quite a few public speaking tips along the way, not to mention writing well-shared posts for HopeForFilm. You can check out one of his lectures on his site www.thomasmai.net.
  11. Karol Martesko-Fenster Brian Newman summed it up well, about Karol: "While he is no newcomer to the scene, having either founded or been part of the founding of a great part of the indie scene (Resfest, Filmmaker Magazine, indiewire) he continues to reshape it at Babelgum. Under the direction of Karol, Babelgum has been licensing (i.e. paying real money) work from independents who push boundaries. Whether it's funding the Workbook Project, helping Sally Potter to be the first filmmaker to release a feature on a cellphone (day and date with it's festival premiere) or funding the "prequel" docs leading up to the film "Bombay Detective," Karol is pushing the field forward with the development of new artistic practices and business models."
  12. Thom Powers Founder of Stranger Than Fiction, programmer at TIFF, co-founder ofCinema Eye Honors, this year Thom expanded his base still further as one of the founders of the DOC NYC fest.  Few have done as much to further the community and appreciation of film in NYC.  He has helped to build an energetic and passionate doc community, and never stops thinking about how to extend it further.  A man with a mission if there ever was.
  13. Casey Pugh We need to facilitate collaboration between the tech and filmmaking worlds.  Having been involved in building the Vimeo player and then Boxee, Casey's already done a lot (and I think he is only 26).  An Emmy award joined his list of accomplishments this year, and the cause of this award, is my favorite film of the year, Star Wars Uncut.  I am eager to see his latest project, VHX launch in the months to come, as I am confident it will be another step forward for a truly free film culture.  Casey sees the big picture, the full definition of cinema.  In his work he's building the ramps and bridges connecting the six pillars of cinema: discover, development, production, participation, appreciation, and presentation.
  14. Orly Ravid & The Film Collaborative - A not-for-profit film distributor has long been a dream of mine, but it took Orly and her team to actually do it.  For a truly free film culture to exist, sustainable enterprises must be built that facilitate the connection between unique work and audiences on terms that go beyond profit.  THE FILM COLLABORATIVE is the first non-profit, full-service provider dedicated to the distribution of independent film.  Not much more to be said, but Orly's demystification of the sales and distribution processes, a refreshingly open approach to the numbers and realities of the distribution effort, via her blogging have gone a long way to helping filmmakers across the globe understand the world we are living in.
  15. Michel Reilhac of Arte France I asked Brian Newman about Michel: "Michel has probably embraced the "new paradigms" of the film/media world better than anyone else, and he speaks and writes about it with an eloquence sorely lacking in the field. For just one example, see his "Gamification of Life" speech at the Power to the Pixel forum.  He has helped transform Arte France into a leader in the support of transmedia, even pushing them to think about how this affects their daily work. He is also a mentor and friend to many filmmakers, helping them find and tell their stories in both new and old ways - but always better. But what most endears me to Michel's work was his recent decision to stop funding conferences and training, instead giving more money to filmmakers to push the field forward by experimenting in their craft. Great idea: less talk, more action." Amongst many round-breaking projects are their award-winning documentaries, Gaza-Sderot and Prison Valley -  beautiful examples of new approaches to story-telling using the web and interaction.
  16. Mike Ryan - Perhaps no post on indie film initially infuriated me as much as Mike's Filmmaker Mag piece on the "current preoccupations of the indie film scene".  I strongly disagree with Mike's blame-it-on-the-audience and build-it-and-if-it-is-good-they-will-come approach, but as the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to month, the necessity of his central message of needing to be driven by the art and not the business resonated in deeper and deeper ways with me.  It is a brave thing to say, particularly as a producer, that you do not care if something makes money and that the art comes first. Mike leaves no doubt that he is  a man of bold visions and strong opinions; he is not afraid to speak truth to power.  He is both rigorous and playful in his thinking, and he invests it in new projects and filmmakers, not because of the business or opportunity, but because he believes that what they have to say and how they choose to say it is important.  American Indie would not be the fertile ground it is these days without Mike's efforts, but his efforts don't end there: Mike helped to co-found HammerToNail with both Corbin Day, Michael Tully, and myself; Mike helped start an initiative in Memphis to train underprivileged youth in film, and Mike has trained many another up and coming producer.
  17. Yancey Strickler & Perry Chen Of any one on this list, Yancey and Perry are probably the only ones whose creation has moved from an object to a verb.  In certain circles I have heard Kickstarter to stand in for crowdfunding.  Although they are not the only game in town when it comes to mobilizing the community to put worthy projects into being, they've certainly been among the most prominent.  Mark Rosenthal of Rooftop Films makes their commitment clear: "It’s brave to share your creative dreams with the world, to put your faith in people, to seek support from strangers. Everyone who’s putting their films and albums and paintings and gizmos on Kickstarter is taking a chance that people will like what they’re doing. But it takes other brave people—like Yancey and Perry—to spend years of their lives building the site and enabling the community to build. Great job, guys."
  18. Timo Vuorensola PowerToThePixel's Liz Rosenthal said: "Timo Vuorensola is a film director from Finland and an early advocate of crowd-sourcing and social filmmaking. His first feature, the sci-fi comedy Star Wreck: In The Pirkinning was several years in the making. He and his team built an active community of 2,500 around the making of the film . The community co-created around 50% of what made it into the final film, They helped with aspects of casting, writing, music, 3D modelling, CGI effects, translating the film into more than 30 languages. It has since achieved cult success, his evangelical community helping spread the word and has been downloaded over 8 million times through official torrents whilst the team sold DVDs and merchandise of the film. Timo launched wreckamovie.com, a new web service that enables filmmakers to build and collaborate with online communities around their films.Timo’s second feature, the sci-fi comedy, Iron Sky, which tells the story of Nazis who come from the Far Side of the Moon, is due to be released in 2011 and has a budget of 6.5 million euros. Fans have already been able to help with ideas in Wreckamovie and helping to fund the movie by buying merchandise, donations and also offering a chance to invest in the movie and share its possible profits."
  19. Rainn Wilson As I stated the other day: "Rainn gives back in a big way. I am a bit in awe in how generative and generous this man is. There's a reason why he has over 2 million twitter followers and it's not just because he's really funny. He cares about things. He cares about people. He cares about process. He's thoughtful."  If you haven't ever checked out Soul Pancake, a site he helped found, nows the time.  I got to know Rainn this year as he both Executive Produced and starred in SUPER (which I produced with Miranda Bailey).  It was Rainn's tweet that he and "James Gunn were going out with a low budget f'd up Watchmen" that drew me to the project.  His commitment to social media definitely played a big role in the financing and sale of the film.  Through Rainn's commitment to a better world, he is inadvertently building a better model both for film and us as individuals.

I recognize that many of these folks have written for HopeForFilm, but it is something that I encourage people whom I admire to do (even some that I don't!).  There are also some on this list that are good friends, but I like to socialize with such types, so what can I say?  Some people on the list are folks I have or have had business with, and some I plan to have business with in the future, but the same holds true for the professional sphere as is in the personal -- when people do good things, I want to get to know them.  Is that at all surprising?

I remain thankful a great deal this year including making one film and selling another.  This list is my thanks to some of those who inspire me.  We can build it better, together.

P.S.  I solicited nominations this year from last year's Brave Thinkers.  David Gertz went as far as to write a whole post on the companies that are doing the work that will allow a new infrastructure to take hold.  Check out his post here.

Save The World AND Expand Indie Film's Market

I got a kick out of Hollywood's Reporter's recent article on the WikiLeaks cables. There they put forth the realization that George Clooney, Desperate Housewives, and Late Night With David Letterman do more to prevent jihad than the $500M the US State Dept dumped into funding the TV station in Saudi Arabia. I have long thought we damn the perception of America by only allowing the market to decide what films travel overseas. Okay, granted that is a bit of an oversimplification, but when so much money is spent marketing The Studios' product, the overseas audiences basically get to see that Americans like to drive fast and blow shit up. I know we are a wee bit more diverse than that.

If the films from Sundance or any other regional festival were given away to developing nations, the people of the world would have a much different impression of whom we are, culturally speaking. Okay, maybe they'd think we are a bit obsessed with coming out and perhaps made up of predominately junkie moms trying to go straight, but they still would be presented with a much greater tapestry.

If the US State department funded a giveaway of US Indie films, not only would Indie's have access to audiences, communities, and markets that they currently struggle to find, but hey, what's so funny about getting a little world peace in the windfall?

Secrets Revealed! Hal Hartley On The Lessons Of THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH

Today, the 20th Anniversary edition of THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH becomes available.  You can order it here on director Hal Hartley's website.  This little film, put in the can for around $55K, and finished for about $125K, launched many a career (Hal, Adrienne Shelly, Edie Falco, Robert John Burke, Kelly Reichardt, Nick Gomez, Danny Liener, Bob Gosse, Whitney Ransick, Mike Spiller, Sarah Cawley, Chris Rogers and many more).  It changed my perspective on getting things done, on not waiting for others' acceptance or approval, and to instead use the power and will we all need to maintain.  I am confident it holds many lessons still for us all and am eager to leap into it again.  But what does it's creator have to say?   Hal speaks:

A friend asks me what, after twenty-two years, I might have learned (or not learned) from making my first feature film, The Unbelievable Truth, in 1988. What did I learn? The same thing I always learn (borrowing from Henry Miller): make films the way you like and die happy. What didn't I learn? Everything. That's why I'm still at it, I suppose.

What is the hardest thing about being an indie film producer today?

I get asked this question a lot: "What is the hardest thing about being an indie film producer today?" It is worth doing a much longer post on, listing all of the problems we all face.  But as I said, I get asked this a lot, and I don't think they are looking for 75 or more answers (I have those up here and here).  Usually folks are looking for the short answer.  This is that answer, or rather at least, how I answered it today. The pay has dropped significantly while the job description has increased ten fold, and the demand for both services and advice have increased even more. We producers are expected to (and must) source and develop new material, package it with talent, put together a production plan, and then find a way to finance it. Of course we have to execute those plans at the highest level possible, all the while dealing with the unique personalities that flock to indie film production, but we are also expected to then put together a marketing plan, distribution strategy, social media outreach organization, and festival plan – and probably raise the funds for all of that (or figure out how to do it without funding).  We need our own community built from the start and we have to provide them with meaningful contact, satisfying information and content, and the opportunity to collaborate together.  On top of all of that, most of this is not a science and the workable business model for indie film in this day and age has not yet evolved and certainly has not been shared. To just discover the tools for this requires more hours than there are in a day. Oh yeah, and we don’t get paid for any of these endeavors until the full film is financed – and then we are asked to reduce our fees regularly. The only way to survive is too work on some many projects simultaneously, you are unable to give each project the attention you want. And I did mention that most of the folks that you collaborate with along the way adopt an approach that they must be your top priority at all times?

Not that I am complaining.  It is a good life (just not a good job).  I am not building widgets (well, okay I am building widgets to help, but I am not JUST building widgets).

That's the short answer.  For today.  And check out the replies to this question on my Twitter feed & FaceBook page(s).  A lot of good conversation out there.  We can build it better together.

Panel Speaking Today: Woodstock Film Festival

Today, Saturday October 2nd at 2P, I will be participating in the NEW DISTRIBUTION PARADIGM panel at the Woodstock Film Festival.

The 21st century brought with it extraordinary advances in the way that films are distributed. The advent of the Internet, cable and satellite television and on-demand services now allows a viewer to choose exactly how and when they watch a film. This change in dynamic between the work and the audience has allowed many films a chance to shine that would have otherwise been denied. In turn this has opened up a whole new world of cinema for the public to enjoy, making such changes incredibly valuable and worthwhile. This panel will discuss the remarkable leaps forward that have been made in the world of film distribution and look ahead to what the future may hold.

My fellow panelists are an esteemed crew: Richard Abramowitz, Bob Berney, Edward Burns, and John Sloss.  I hope you can join us.

Order tickets here: http://www.woodstockfilmfestival.com/festival2010/panels.php?cat=Panel

The Douchebag Process: A Look Inside

Guest post by "Douchebag" writer/director Drake Doremus. We actually shot "Douchebag" in two separate sessions over the course of a year and a half. The first time we went out we had a very specific outline from which the actors improvised from and the second time we had a loose script with lines actually written.

The first scene in the film for instance where Sam is laying in bed with Steph was mostly written and shot during the second session when we knew exactly how to set up the film. A lot of the rambling lecture scenes -- like the scene on the beach about kites, the credit card fiscal responsibility scene, and the scene about our hands not being designed to tear flesh -- were all shot the first time out when we had more character than story.

It wasn’t until after editing the first session’s material that I knew the exact pieces we needed to finish the story. The filmmaking process was very exciting and challenging for me but also very creatively freeing because I could keep writing and coming up with ideas after I'd shot, the film kept evolving that way and there was always a way to make things better. It's really the only way I would work now I think. I learned so much.

In pre production a lot of what I was doing was watching Woody Allen films. I really admire him and his process on his films. I hate it in movies when actors wait for people to finish their lines before they speak. He really has a way of making things seem real and unrehearsed.

I read somewhere once that thirty percent of his film budgets are dedicated to reshoots and pick ups. That sure is a luxury but I sure love the idea of knowing you’re gonna shoot more and no matter what get it right for what you were trying to make.

I love that he makes at least a movie a year it seems, I’d love to be able to do that. I just shot my third feature this past June called Like Crazy and I’m very excited about it. It’s the story of a seven-year long distance relationship between a young man in Los Angeles and a young woman in London. It was mostly improvised from a fifty page outline, so I’m continuing to use this format. I’m cutting that now and I’d love to do my fourth in 2011. It’s hard to keep going so fast but as long as I have ideas that I’m passionate about I won’t stop.

After I’ve shot and have time to reflect and gain perspective on where the story wants to go, in a way it tells ME where it wants to go. The footage we had on Douchebag spoke to us and the rest of the story just kind of filled itself in and it was very clear at a certain point of what we needed. The story was always about two brothers and one was always getting married and they always went on the road to find Mary Barger so it was really just finding a support structure that finished telling that story. The ending for instance was literally filmed last on purpose always knowing that we wanted to build up to that and find what it was last just like the characters do in the story.

I guess you could say I’m always striving to find everything organically. I never want anything to feel forced or on the nose. I love subtly and and organic characters who are reacting genuinely to their environments and the scenarios that are thrown at them. That was always my goal on Douchebag. I love those moments on set when the camera is rolling and the actors don’t realize it for a while and then the scene starts organically without an ”action” or a mark being hit. There’s nothing more exciting then when the actor and the character become one.

To back track to the start of this whole thing…I was in the edit room with Andrew Dickler (who is a picture editor and not an actor, in fact never had acted ever before in his life) in 2007 and about a month in to working It hit me that I had to make a movie about him. It was a lighting in a bottle type moment. I had known Ben Jones since we were 16 doing plays in my mom's theater basement and I had this idea that the two would have an anti chemistry, if you will, where there would be this natural conflict onscreen. The two become friends but always had the perfect onscreen anti chemistry. I always knew they had to be brothers at odds. The road trip aspect came later, It was much more interesting than the brothers sitting in a room and talking for 80 minutes.

I think the autobiographical part spawned from my real life relationship with Andrew in real life. We became fast friends but I always found myself in intense conversations about things with him that I never discussed with anyone else before, like weather figure skating was a sport or a dance contest and his opinion after he learned that I did not have a credit card and of course listening to his theories about eating meat and the environment. The character Andrew plays in the film is a very exaggerated version of himself and that was always the plan. Given that Andrew had never acted before I was and still am blown away at his ability to commit to the moment.

Check out the DOUCHEBAG trailer.

Friend DOUCHEBAG on Facebook here.

Relish these reviews (and see it this weekend!):

"A bubblingly sharp, fresh, dark and winning comedy! A minimalist Sideways." - Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

"Surprisingly hilarious and cutting, this lo-fi comedy about two ill-matched brothers reconnecting while looking for one's old sweetheart is distinguished by sharp dialog and terrific lead performances by Dickler and Jones." -New York Magazine

"Smart, surprising, and funny! Hollywood could learn a few lessons from this indie sleeper." - Leonard Maltin, Maltin on Movies, ReelzChannel

"Dickler gives an inspired comic performance!" Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York

"Refreshingly original! Tremendously effective." -Metrosource

Drake Doremus, 27, a graduate of the American Film Institute, is the youngest fellow to be accepted into the program at the highly lauded institution. Doremus' first feature film, SPOONER, premiered at Slamdance in 2009 and Won Best Feature at the Louisville International Fillm Festival, Mt. Rainier, Sonoma International, Newport Beach International and Lone Star International in Dallas. The film will be released theatrically by Moving Pictures in January 2011.

Doremus’ second feature film, DOUCHEBAG premiered in dramatic competition at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews.  The film is being released by Red Dragon and Paladin and will open in New York on Friday October 1st, followed by Los Angeles on the 8th and several prominent cities throughout October.

Doremus recently completed principle photography on LIKE CRAZY, his third collaboration with Jonathan Schwartz of Super Crispy Entertainment.  LIKE CRAZY stars Anton Yelchin (STAR TREK, TERMINATOR SALVATION), Felicity Jones (THE TEMPEST, CEMETARY JUNCTION) and WINTER’S BONE sensation Jennifer Lawrence.  It will be completed in 2011.

Independent Film's Path To A Viable New Business Model

Guest post by Jeffrey Ballagh, lead strategist for Novacut (Note from Ted: I have not used Novacut, but heard what they were aiming for and asked Jeffrey to explain it to all of you.)

The future of distribution and funding for independent film relies on the Internet. The technology to forge a new business model for independent film success is out there, but it needs nerd champions to build a venue where artist-to-audience commerce can thrive. To thrive, that venue must be the condensation point for the independent filmmaking community. For that to be possible, that venue needs a strategy for reaching critical mass and a damn good draw for filmmakers' attention. This is what we know, and this is Novacut.

The spark? A pro-grade video editor that's free and designed from the ground up to exploit recent advances in technology and community - to name a few: digital production, HDSLR cameras, online collaboration, and cloud computing. We think that should get the attention of a few filmmakers.

The Landscape

Fundamental change has shifted every aspect of the filmmaking business: production, distribution, and most importantly how filmmakers can expect to make money from their craft. The new landscape is one of phenomenal opportunity fraught with incredible peril. Production costs continue to drop with advances in digital production, but more importantly, the old business model has evaporated with online distribution. Filmmakers now have an unprecedented opportunity to express their artistic visions and reach audiences directly. But online distribution also means there is no way to effectively stop a film from being available to everyone for free.

Where We Stand

With no way to prevent a product from being used for free, how can it be paid for? Economics has a few standard answers and there are compelling alternatives, but the dust has yet to settle and the market has yet to reach its final shape (author's background: 1/2 nerd + 1/2 economist). The traditional answers to the free rider problem are patronage or government subsidies. These are not the only answers. No one yet knows the best approach for fans and artists to meet in the marketplace and both get what they want, but it is only the mechanics of the market that must be sorted out.

To an inspiring degree, fans are showing they are ready and willing to directly support artists. Current examples are in their absolute infancy. Film/video projects on Kickstarter have raised nearly $4 million since the site first appeared. That's not a huge budget, but it has been accomplished with a new funding model on a site that has only existed for 1.5 years.

Promising alternatives include financing through complimentary business and a unique threshold pledge system. For complimentary business, think of monks making wine to support the monastery. Fortunately for film, there are options for supporting business related to the art, merchandising for example. The threshold pledge approach is a unique option for goods that can be freely copied. Also known as ransom publishing, distribution is withheld until a specified amount of money is raised. Nobody has access until the bills are paid, once they are, it's free for all.

What's Ahead

The aim is not to supplant traditional distribution. The aim is to be the single best destination for alternative distribution. A venue that artists can make their primary target or a next best alternative for projects not finding their place in mainstream channels. The distribution venue that rises to the top in this space must attract both the artists and audience needed to reach critical mass. Most importantly, it needs a path to reach that critical mass and way to draw filmmakers. Simply having a technically capable solution will not make a site the destination that everyone naturally turns to.

To be the primary venue for distribution outside the traditional market, we must be a venue full of great content and a venue where artists make money. To ensure great content means engaging artists with a unique draw, initially that is the editor. From there, we fan the fire with learning and collaboration resources to make a home for the leading community of independent filmmakers. Finally, that community takes its work to market on a platform for successful commerce. A platform that can accommodate any new funding approach, so the market can quickly help decide what works and what does not.

The New Ground Rules

On licensing, if anyone can get your film for free, the only sensible licensing scheme is to distribute with no restrictions on copying and reuse. I realize this rubs some people the wrong way (it used to rub me the wrong way), but in the new era, attempting to enforce all-rights-reserved copyright is a business disadvantage for anyone without a team of lawyers. With no feasible technical approach to stop reproduction and sharing, the only option is to attack legally. That takes lawyers and they are not cheap. Which approach is cost efficient - a market with profits that depend on copyright enforcement via legal channels or the venue that makes money despite unrestricted distribution? If you want to understand the future for copyright licensing, Lawrence Lessig is required reading. He lays it out far better than I ever could, plus his work is of the rare sort that is equally genius, entertaining, and inspiring. Specifically, hit up Remix and Free Culture - pretty sure a couple chapters will convince most anyone. You can buy the books or (Lessig puts his money where is mouth is) download them legally for free here and here.

There are other sites that aim to build the market that makes online distribution financially successful for independent film, but technology and intentions are not enough in vying for Internet prominence. Novacut stands alone with a singular path for achieving a viable marketplace and a powerful draw for getting the process started.

Jeffrey Ballagh is a developer, economist, and lead strategist for Novacut. Seeing powerful forces reshape the world of film and video, he and the Novacut team gathered to put their entire energies toward the goal of building a new infrastructure for independent film and video commerce. Novacut Kickstarter / Novacut Blog

Christine Vachon on the State Of The Indie Film Union

Okay, so the traffic is sometimes louder than the dialogue, but hey, this is Indie!  I had wanted to partake in this interview that David Poland did at TIFF this year.  There was only one hour when Christine and I were both in Toronto though, and it took a bit longer to close the SUPER deal than I had anticipated.  Christine and David paint a pretty good picture of what things are like for  indie producers these days.

9/21 Update:  Seems like the link I found for this kind of jumped the gun.  It came down as I was watching it.  I assume David Poland will post soon on the MCN website.  And hopefully the video will work again.  Hope hoping here...

Update 9/21 #2: It's up on MCN, but I can't embed it for some reason

The Hard Truth: Filmmaking Is Not A Job

Unfortunately if I sought to get compensated for the work I do, my movies would not get made. If I sought to get paid like normal people are, I never would have been able to produce any of my films. I have been fortunate enough to have made about sixty films in about twenty years. I am not foolish enough to think I was the deciding factor in bringing good ideas into cinematic being, but I do know that certain practices of mine, have helped significantly.  Yes, it is also true that good work begets other good work, and a track record certainly helps -- particularly a track record of profitability -- but generally all of my films depend on two things to get made: 1) superior quality of the material, and 2) the willingness of the collaborators to make great sacrifices.

There's more though on why these films have happened; there have been commonalities amongst all the films that have helped significantly in their getting made.  I have to repeatedly go out on the limb, believing in the film and the filmmaker for years on end, with no remuneration, pushing to make the project better, figuring out how in the hell to bring more "value" to it, shopping it, strategizing and the like.

I am highly selective in my choices to get involved with a project and as a result some of my movies get made and it usually only takes 3 years of my unpaid labor to do so. And then generally after we get the films financed, and the budget locked, I far too often have to make further sacrifices with my fees and "perqs".  I am not complaining; these are my choices.  My eyes are open.  But when I talk to other producers, particularly new ones, often they don't believe it.  Being a film producer requires abandoning the concept that you work for a living.

My first five or six years in the business I had jobs.  I exchanged my labor, ideas, and relationships for the ability to survive.  I came from very modest means, put myself through film school, and sacrificed most things so I could get the movies I wanted to see done (cue violins please). And yes, occasionally along the way, I did some things generally to pay the bills or support my company.  If I had pursued a job or security initially though, none of it would not have gotten done.  If I had pursued money over responsibility and knowledge, my life would have taken a much different path.

We live to work, we should not have to work to live -- but we do & maybe it is because most don't realize part one.  Reading in The New York Times how 37% of Americans between the ages of 18 -29 are not in the work force, makes me wonder if they are all becoming producers.  I have not had the guarantee of a salary since generous overhead deals for producers went by the wayside.  This is also not a complaint.  This is my choice to use my labor to build the culture that I want.

I state all of this now because filmmakers of different sorts have also stated to me that they don't want to do certain things when they are not getting paid for it.  Unfortunately I think that means, at least in terms of today, that their movies will not be getting made.  Well, maybe not so for those few true geniuses out there, but what are the rest of us to do?  Stop making movies?  I have watched movies not happen because of small budget discrepancies.  I have made errors seeking too much money for my films, and witnessed their death as a result.

I am not endorsing the practice of exploiting people for their labor.  Yet, I support people making the choice of using their labor, albeit not at it's proper value, to deliver the culture they want.

Yes it would be great if there were some support structures in America beyond academic institutions that helped those that did not dabble in the most commercial of creative choices to support themselves.  Although, when I get to travel to the different countries, some of which have had film cultures benefit greatly, from the subsidies to the arts, I often find cultures with more rigid rules than ours as to what is "finance-able" film.  I have seen how subsidies may provide for employment across all categories, but also how they diminish the will for many to invest their labor for the sake of  growth or supporting an artist they believe in.

Still though it would be nice to get a little help or acknowledgement beyond the marketplace that your work matters.  Maybe first though, all of us need to demonstrate that we value and want a diverse and dynamic culture.  Maybe we need to work a little harder letting those values be known.  We need to show that there are communities throughout this land that love ambitious film and will vote with their time, labor, and dollars to bring it to their friends and neighbors.  Paying artists directly for their work will go a long way to making filmmaking a legitimate option when it comes to choosing how to earn a living in this country.

And in the meantime, we all have to continue to make real sacrifices to get our work done.  Either that or take a real job.

Writing For A Low Budget (Pt 2 of 2): THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED

Today's guest post is from writer/director J. Blakeson.  J's THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED opens TODAY!!!  If you haven't read yesterday's part one, please read that first. As I was writing I was always looking for tricks to make the film even cheaper to shoot. But I had a strict rule that they also had to make absolute sense to the story. I smuggled quite a lot of tricks in. Here are a few of them...

  1. After the opening sequence, each character only has one costume. And they are very easily manageable costumes (ie. track suit and boiler suits), so if we had to shoot this thing at evenings and weekends over a few months, then the costumes would be easy to manage and very replaceable from high street stores.
  2. I used props over and over again (the gun, the keys, the bullet) to maximise their cost-effectiveness and reduce the need for more props.
  3. I made the location an abandoned apartment so we didn’t have to fill it with furniture.
  4. I had the characters cover the windows of the apartment with wood  to hide what they are doing from the outside world – but also because it meant I could shoot daytime scenes at night and vice versa (a nifty trick lifted from Kevin Smith’s “Clerks”).
  5. I put ski-masks on Vic and Danny and a hood over Alice for a lot of the action. Of course this works because Vic and Danny want to hide their identity and keep Alice passive, but it also meant that if we got any “name” actors for 2-3 days, we could shoot all their scenes on their faces in that time and shoot the rest (wides, over-shoulder, out of focus in the background etc) using stand-ins wearing hoods and balaclavas...

However, I never actually needed to use these tricks whilst filming – thank god. There are no stand-ins for actors and we shot on a sound-stage rather than in my apartment. And this happened because I got lucky. Cinema NX read my script and loved it. They decided to take a gamble on me and agreed to let me – a first-time director – helm the film (I was once told by a producer that a first-time director “is like cancer to financiers”). I’ll always be grateful to Cinema NX for giving me my break (especially as 40 other companies read the script and passed). So Cinema NX put up all the money to make the film. And I got myself an actual budget. Sure, it was low, but it was way more than I could have ever afforded on my own. So luckily I didn’t have to make the film the way I’d originally intended. I didn’t have to put my hand in my own pocket.  And I got to build a set. I got an amazing crew. I got fantastic actors. I got to shoot my film exactly the way I wanted without compromising for budget.

So was all my penny-pinching on the page a waste of time?

No.

Because the reason it all happened the way it did is precisely because it was written for no budget.  Not only because Cinema NX saw it was achievable, and a worthwhile gamble, but because writing it for no budget meant that we could make a really good version with a low budget. As the limitations had been set on the page, we didn’t have to compromise while we were shooting it. We just had to concentrate on making it the best it could be.

In short, by embracing my budget limitations in the writing stage, I protected myself during the shoot. Plus I had to use my imagination more as I wrote it. And that can only be a good thing.

-- J. Blakeson

“The Disappearance of Alice Creed” is out in selected theatres Friday August 6th www.thedisappearanceofalicecreed.com

Twitter: twitter.com/jblakeson twitter.com/FindAliceCreed The Disappearance Of Alice Creed trailer

Part One: Writing For A Low Budget

Writing For A Low Budget: THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED

Today's guest post is from writer/director J. Blakeson.  J's THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED opens tomorrow, and is the latest in a glorious wave of incredibly strong genre films from all over the world that have graced our shores of late, including  MOON, THE SQUARE, BRONSON, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, and THE PROPHET.  This is part one of a two parter that will finish up here tomorrow. Part Two is here. No-one was going to give me money to make my film. That was a near certainty. I started with that fact in mind, then I began writing the script. People are always telling budding film-makers to” write something that can be achieved on a low budget”.  That sounds like pretty good advice, but it’s also dangerous advice. Because it assumes you’ll actually somehow manage to get yourself some kind of a budget at all– albeit a low one. It presumes someone will actually put their money into your movie. And that tempts you into trying to squeeze a bigger budget movie into a smaller can. This is a mistake. Because the end result will most likely be a scrappily made, cheap-looking movie that needed more money behind it. What these advice-givers should tell you instead is this: write for no budget at all. Write as if you were going to make it yourself with your own money. Write as if every frame of film was coming out of your own pocket.  Only then will you realise just how expensive even little things are. Like feeding an extra actor for 4 weeks. Or blowing shit up. Explosions sounds like they should be cheap and easy, but actually they’re expensive and complicated. So don’t blow shit up. Concentrate on what you already have and what comes for free. Story and character are free. Dialogue is free (except recording and filming it isn’t... so avoid being too self-indulgent on the speechifying, because you’re only wasting your own money). But always remember that writing within your own limitations doesn’t mean you have to be less ambitious with your movie. It actually means you have to be more ambitious, just smart about it. Look at films like “Primer” or “Brick”. They’re both ambitious as hell, look and feel cinematic, but cost next to nothing to make.

When I wrote the script for “The Disappearance of Alice Creed”, I assumed that if I wanted to direct it myself, I would probably have to pay for it myself. So I knew I had to keep it small and contained. Even before I had a story, I had a set of rules...

  1. Use 1 location for 90% of the film.
  2. Only have 3 characters
  3. Don’t write anything that I couldn’t achieve myself on my own money.
  4. If you use a prop, keep using it over and over (because why source and pay for something that will be only screen for just under 2 seconds?)
  5. Keep it simple. But make that “simple” as complex and difficult as possible.

But why these rules? Purely practical reasons: There are only three actors (and not, say, 4 actors) in my film because I happened to know 3 actors who might agree to be in the film. The reason I wrote most of the film’s action in an apartment is because I live in an apartment. So I had a free location. No expense. You get the idea...

And with these rules in mind, I started thinking about a story that would be as dramatic and cinematic as possible. With limited locations and actors, there is a risk it will feel like a stage play rather than a film. So I wanted a story that would lend itself to cinematic sequences and set-pieces rather than extended talky scenes. Very quickly I thought about a kidnap story. Not only was it immediately understandable (no  “Inception” style exposition scenes needed to describe the hard-to-understand jobs of the protagonists... everyone knows what a kidnapper does. Everyone understands the stakes from page 1), a kidnap story also has drama and tension inherent in it from the get-go.

So I started writing.  And as I was writing the script, I enjoyed having the limitations I set myself. It was like a game. It gave me boundaries to push against. Gave me a strict focused framework within which I was free to do anything I wanted.

But all the time, in the back of my mind, was the fact that I had to make it for no money. So I set all the exterior action in manageable locations – places that required no extras and where I could probably shoot with a skeleton crew without permits (if need be). So instead of setting it in crowded streets or train stations, I set it in wasteland, empty car-parks and abandoned warehouses. Of course all these locations make narrative sense in the movie, but this is only because I chose a story that works for these kinds of locations. This is one reason why early on in the script process, I decided to not show all the usual moments you see in a kidnap film – police, phone-taps, a money-drop in a crowded place – because I simply knew I couldn’t afford to shoot them with my own money. But then I embraced this idea and made it the defining characteristic of the film. Instead of trying to hide the confined nature of the film, I played to it. I’d always loved the fact that “Reservoir Dogs” was a heist movie in which you never saw the heist. So I decided my film would be a kidnap movie where you don’t see any of the kidnap (or rather, you don’t see the stuff you expect from a kidnap movie). And when I decided to go that way, the idea came alive for me.

End of Part One.  Part Two concludes tomorrow with "Tricks To Make It Even Cheaper!".

“The Disappearance of Alice Creed” is out in selected theatres Friday August 6th.

www.thedisappearanceofalicecreed.com

Twitter: twitter.com/jblakeson twitter.com/FindAliceCreed

The Shape Of Things: Towards A New Organizational Structure

Today's guest post is courtesy of James Fair. When I wrote ‘Linearity is the Enemy’ for Ted last month, I briefly mentioned how I felt the ‘family tree’ style organisational structure of filmmaking could look more like a ‘mind map’. I want to clarify my point a little further and follow it with why I think it is relevant.

In Figure 1, I have drawn what many consider to be the model that represents filmmaking structure best. It is a hierarchy of roles that symbolises where the responsibility lies. At the top are the people responsible for the most things, and they then delegate sections of that responsibility to other people ‘below’ them who then assume the responsibility as a proxy. This model is established, tried and tested, and works. It has evolved over time, adding new responsibilities as they emerged, like the sound department. The model was defined early on and has survived political, social and technological changes worldwide. But is it the best model?

What would constitute the best model? The one that generated most profit? The one that enables the greatest artistic vision to unfold? The one that turned out the most films for the least money, i.e. quantity over quality? Could the best model be the one that reduced the time between concept and completion to months not years? Despite filmmakers working on a project-by-project basis, with numerous different outcomes and motivations, there is currently only one model that consistently gets used. It gets used because it is established, regardless of whether it is the best for the job.

When faced with the challenge of shooting, editing and then screening a feature film in three days as part of the 72 Hour Movie project, I could simply adopt the same model and insist that everyone just works harder and faster than they normally would. Instead, I reassessed all of the responsibilities that would need to occur within the project and reassigned them to whom I felt could do them best. I admit that I have built much of these on the basis of the skill sets that I know various people within my crew possess, as opposed to a model that was built with no knowledge of the crew and then forced onto any given individual. Still, I have altered the roles from their usual titles and given them new responsibilities and remits, designed to support the task of making a film within a short timeframe. As the traditional ‘director’ for example, I have given myself the horribly managerial sounding ‘Project Leader’. I am supported and work closely with Gary Hoctor, the Project Manager (the closest thing to a producer). The strange titles go on throughout the crew, from the obvious (transcoder) to the obscure (shadows). The titles aren’t important – it is the fact that the new roles do not carry the same responsibilities as the existing roles, and therefore they require new titles.

I visualise this organisational structure to be different from the existing model (see Fig.2). Instead of being situated at the top of the project with a series of people ‘underneath’ me, I visualise the Project Manager and I to be at the centre, surrounded by the crew. The roles split out to various other roles, but unlike the vertical communicative routes of the old ‘chain of command’ system, there is a horizontal communication that I believe reflects our collaborative effort more truly. The visual impression of the existing model looks much like a river, with a source and a flow of responsibility towards a delta of runners. It is linear and sequential. The visual impression of the new model reflects a whole entity, in which we are ‘in it’ together, and the process is collaborative. Obviously there is some semblance of order and priority otherwise it is chaos. There is a greater emphasis placed upon the opinion of those closest to the centre, but the need for feedback is factored in to the model, so that the Project Leader or Manager has a greater idea of the effectiveness of the whole effort. I’ve witnessed disgruntled runners as the greatest catalyst of on-set problems under the existing model, damaging morale whilst finding no way of resolving their concerns.

You can dismiss these models as idealistic rubbish if you wish. I imagine I am inviting blog abuse from some of Ted’s readers! You may feel that the design of the model is insignificant as filmmaking operates quite flexibly anyway. I’d agree, but I believe that the titles and the models are not being portrayed as flexible; they are being portrayed as fixed. However you learn about the industry, from educational institutions through to informal training on the job, you are taught ‘how the industry works’, as if it is an unchangeable entity that evolves through necessity to cope with whatever demands are placed upon it. You start at the ‘bottom’ and you work your way ‘up’. Why do we not question it more openly instead of adopting it without a second thought? Yes it may already work, but what if it could work better?

Thinking differently about the organisational structure means that we might think differently about the process too. A major difference between the existing model and the model that I visualise is that my performers are a part of my crew. I don’t perceive them to be a separate entity just because they are in front of the camera. Perhaps it is the existing distinction that means we treat them differently, and probably why few film schools in the UK teach directors how to work with actors, preferring instead to teach technology. We may begin to think of directors and producers differently too, perhaps like the captain of a sports team instead of a great individual artist (who don’t always give credit to their collaborators). Who knows what differences may emerge from thinking about it differently?

Of course, when our 72 Hour Movie project ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ goes up onto IMDB as a result of the Melbourne International Film Festival screening, we will have to switch responsibilities back to their nearest equivalent titles, just because the roles are fixed upon their database. This fixed way of thinking means that others may never do things differently, even if it could hold more opportunities for filmmakers.

James is a lecturer in Film Technology at Staffordshire University and is currently in Australia, where he is preparing the 72 Hour Movie project ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’. The 90-minute film will be shot and edited in three days and then screened to an audience at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Visit www.72hourmovie.com or www.facebook.com/72hourmovie for more details. He openly admits he can’t draw diagrams very well.

Why Producers Are Valued

Ages ago, I wrote a post about why Producers matter. All of that hold's true, but none of it is why we get hired. In these days when jobs are scarce and many a long time cohort is looking at new enterprises or a new career, I find myself often reminding my brethren of the simple truths of what "they" want from us. Producers are respected for six things I figure:

  • Validation - Your support of them means that the project is real (or at least they think it will mean that for others).  It may be it's own category, but I think the "Cover Your Ass" criteria is a subset of this; those that are in the employ by others, need to make sure they have someone else to blame or deflect off when SHTF.  That someone is often you.
  • Taste - Whether it's picking or crafting; be it a slant towards commercial or critical success; and whether it is the financiers or the creators doing the selecting, your work matters, and should be protected where ever possible.  Your past represents where you want to go in the future.  What you've done won't go away and it speaks about what is NEXT for you.
  • Access & Relationships - Its not just who you know, but also how much they want to pick up the phone when you call.  People pay for contact and efficiency.  In getting things done, you want to make sure you are also working to make it all go smoother, faster, better in the future.  Work not just for the now but for the later too.
  • Integrity & Trust - As both keeper of the purse and warrior at the front lines, you are asked to manage both the art and the financial.  Both require leaps of faith by those who say yes, and we can expect that to be  followed by constant careful consideration - what have you done both before and during is how you get to earn  and maintain their support and commitment.
  • Cost Control Skills - maybe in times of wealth and growth, execution takes precedent, but I think I have lived through such times (and we certainly are not in them now!), and granted I may be corrupted by the prism I look through, but first and foremost those that surrender the capital want to know you can turn off the spigot.  More for less is what people always want and it is the producer's responsibility to give it to them.
  • Experience - Everyone's looking for the shorter path.  They need a guide.  That is the producer, and you must learn the way.

I don't know if there is really anything else. And I certainly don't mean that these six reasons are WHY we should be valued -- just that this is why we are.  Whenever I say this sort of stuff though,  I am surprised I don't get more arguments. I wish we were valued for our storytelling skills and our dramaturgy know-how.  I am confident that I make scripts, movies, and campaigns better, but it is very rare that this is raised as the reason that people bring projects or money to me.  I wish that would change...

I am also very proud of the overall financial record of my films.  I feel that I have learned at what price point projects must be produced at to deliver a positive return.  Yet again, people generally prefer that films are delivered on time and on budget (as opposed to make more money than they cost).  I hear people often state that at the end of the day no one will ask if it came in on budget or schedule, just that it if it made money -- but that has never been the case for me.  And you would think that in this world where everyone appears to be profit motivated that they would care more if one's work was profitable than if it was any good, but it doesn't seem to be that way at the end of the day.  I make movies that are both good and structured to make money -- but that isn't what drives new work or funding my way.   Maybe profits matter when someone is making the commitment, but on initial meetings when people speak about the reason they came through the door, it seems to still be about quality only.  Maybe it is that only big profits matter?  Is it all size and not ROI when it comes to returns?

Film Tax Incentives Need To Focus On Low Budget Production Too!

It is frustrating from an indie producer perspective that all film-centered tax incentives, both here in the US and abroad, are geared towards the higher budgeted films. It is totally understandable though, as the Hollywood & big budget fare bring in the most revenue and the most jobs. This sort of bias however, also limits the growth of local creative talent -- in fact you could argue that the bias to high priced production in tax incentives drives out the local talent and thus prevents creative communities from developing in the regions in which the incentives are supposed to help. Unless such tax incentive programs also focus on the sustainability of the creative community -- in addition to maximizing tax revenues and employment -- it will always be carpetbaggers who benefit from policy and not the local community. It is great when the local work force is all fully employed (remember those days?), and it is great when the local vendors have deal upon deal so they grow their biz and improve the infrastructure, but why limit our ambition to such basic needs as employment and monetary profit?

When the goal of policy is 100% profit & revenue motivated,  IMHO  it is generally a barrier to the creation of  the best work and consequently the sustainability of the individuals who make it. Supporting lower budget work through such policy benefits local community and the artists who are vested in the locale as a whole (not just in terms of how they save & make $$).

Why is it so important for government policy to focus on low budget media production as well as the biggest revenue & job generators in this sector?

  • Media artists create work inspired by where they live, the places & people they love and are intrigued by.  If the up & comings can't afford to shoot in a place, fewer films will be centered in local communities, and thus unfortunately as a result create a more generic impression of our country worldwide.  We need to help provide an understanding of our worlds that are not just motivated by the "sell" and mass market.  How will we build bridges to other communities throughout the world when all of our output is about reaching into people's wallet and the characters we portray aim to satisfy everyone?
  • Every film shot is a promotional tool to make it's setting a desired destination for all.  Movies are promotional tools for the tourist industry of the state.  We enrich the area where we set our work financially as well as culturally.
  • No one sets out to work on projects that are only profitable or employ huge crews.  It is a need to participate in work (and culture) that you are proud of, that speaks to you personally -- it is this quality that makes people chose to work for lower rates on our projects (I am told).  To keep a strong crew base, communities need a diversity of production to sustain individuals both creatively and financially.
  • Low budget films provide a way for crew members to advance their skill set by working at higher responsibility than they would elsewhere . Since depth of talent base is a decisive factor where a film shoots, larger films are incentivized to come to a location where they can find a crew and actor base with the required experience -- and as a result in benefits a community to make sure that crews can advance their skill set and not just get stuck at the lower end of a hiring heirachy.
  • Low budget films take more chances on collaborators in all categories, creating new "stars" and adding "value" in the process, and eventually attracting & generating new projects consequently.  If communities rely only on projects only generated outside their community, their prime tool to attract productions will be increasing the size of their incentives and thus limiting their revenues in the process; we all need home grown projects or else each incentive will be incentivized to exceed each other (and destroy the local benefits as a result).
  • Quality of life improves for all when we don't just do well, but also do good.  Incentivizing low budget production and nurturing home grown talent can be a source of civic pride -- which is part of the glue that drives and sustains any infrastructure.
  • Large budget productions must maintain the status quo.  Large budgets are justified by the tastes at the time they are made.  Large budgets are about the already proven.  If we believe in the necessity of a diverse culture, an inclusive culture, a culture of opportunity, we need to find ways to make sure we support low budget production.
  • And let's be real: from a business and recoupment perspective, it is hard to justify middle budget production (which these days I would define as $500K - $45M!) under the current revenue models.  New talent won't develop, new ideas and methods won't be sourced, unless we have a middle ground where transitional artist can experiment and grow. If we want to have a healthy film and media industry, we need to help stimulate low budget production.

Nonetheless, State Tax Film Incentives and other policies generally favor larger budgeted films.  In NY State we would not have a tax incentive if it wasn't for the coalition of studio owners who lobbied for the initial law, but not surprisingly they looked out (then, and continue to look out so now) for their own interest and required that every film have a day of work on a "certified" stage to qualify for the incentive -- up until the tax incentives passed, not one of my sixty films had ever shot on a real stage.  It also has been said that the approval process in many states is far more rigorous for low budget films than higher ones, and I imagine that there will eventually reach a court case in some state or another where a filmmaker proves this.  Granted, tax incentives are just one aspect of the bias to large budget films nation wide, but they are one that we can do something about.  The first step is convincing our communities that low budget work matters (which means we must advance beyond just financial analysis in determining our policy).

There are numerous policies that could be built into local film tax incentives that would help create sustainable film communities in those very same states or locales:

  1. Every state these days owns or controls various buildings and real estate that could be made available at reduced rates for low budget home-grown production.
  2. Similarly, film permit fees (like the ones NYC recently inacted) could be waived if a budget is below a certain threshold; ditto on requisite practices like NY State's tax incentive studio requirement.
  3. And why not reserve a portion of each state's rebate for local low-budget production and keep the carpetbaggers from siphoning off the whole kaboodle?

Frankly, it would be great if States and municipalities even focused on some non-funding activities to help their local film communities.

  1. Wouldn't it be great if film board websites actually promoted local filmmakers and technicians?  Local film schools could be recruited to shoot, edit, and post promotional videos championing home grown talent.
  2. Is there anything wrong with States playing matchmaker and introducing financiers and other entrepreneurs to the best and the brightest?  Many states now have incubators and other "proof of concept" matchmaking enterprises and wouldn't everyone feel indebted if the angels met the aspirants?
  3. And why stop at tax breaks, promotion, and matchmaking?  Whatever happened to subsidized housing and work space for artists?  Don't the creative class give rise to a higher quality of life for the rest of the community?  Why not require low cost housing for artists be part of any redevelopment plan?
  4. Why not help fund a teaching/lecture program that artists can participate in to not only help them survive but to also give back to the community at the same time?

I am sure that you can add to these lists.  Let's figure this out and build it better together.

Where are the governments that show they actually believe that culture is a valuable (even necessary) component to life?  Tell us, so we can begin the mass-migration now!