The Triumphant Return of Good Machine

Yes, it is true.  Good Machine is back.  But in a new and improved form.  Perhaps we should have done a press release, but I thought I should do it here instead.  Press releases are so yesterday.

If you went to Sundance, perhaps you noticed the secret stealth return of our so-called 90's powerhouse.  Or if you were at the Golden Globes, it must have caught your eye.  Hell, even if you just watched the Golden Globes.  If you missed all that, certainly by perusing the Oscar noms, something should have caused a bit of stir.  I've been waiting for some sharp newshound to break with the story, but nope.  So here's the real buzz...

The Good Machinists seem to have now taken over indie film.  The only difference between back then and now is that like any good thing, Good Machine the company achieved its own obsolescence.  The Good Machinists each have their own shop.  Call it, the decentralized approach. But look at what Good Machine achieved just this month.

My former assistant and partner, former head of production, Anthony Bregman, nabbed the biggest sale (I think) at Sundance for his production MY IDIOT BROTHER.  I haven't checked, but also think he's giving Mr. Rudin chase for the title of Most Prolific Producer (when I asked Ant his secret, he replied "Have four children, and you don't have a choice: you have to produce!").  His credit list also includes recent collaborations with many former Good Machine directors, including Nicole Holofcener and Bob Pulcini & Shari Springer Berman.

Good Machine's 2nd initial hire, and the first employee to enter the producer ranks, Mary Jane Skalski, had one of the best received films of the Sundance fest in her 3rd collaboration with Tom McCarthy, WIN WIN.  But why stop there?  She was also in the elite club of Sundance twofers, with the fest opener and competition stand out PARIAH, which Mary Jane Executive Produced -- and Focus just announced that they picked up.  No rest for the weary, eh?

The whole time Anthony was a partner at This is that, and even some of the time he was at Good Machine, he had one assistant, and a remarkable one at that.  With Bregman's new company, Likely Story, Stefanie Azpiazu has taken on Executive Producer duties (what are those exactly, btw?).  She holds that credit on Jesse Peretz's MY IDIOT BROTHER, as well as several others, including last year's Sundance opener, PLEASE GIVE (and this year's WGA nominee).

Another former assistant of mine, now the head of hottest international sales company in the entire universe (aka FilmNation), Glen Basner, recently decided to expand his company's portfolio into the specialized arena.  Awhile back he told me he had found something that should spark.  But I think 12 Oscar nominations for THE KING'S SPEECH is an outright bonfire.

Of course, my fellow Good Machine founder, the legendary erudite Mr. James Schamus, is always expected to do well, and last year -- back before Sundance returned as a sales market -- , he picked up a nice little title in THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, and now has four Oscar noms for his label.

The founder of Good Machine International, David Linde, could well have decided to take some time off after running a studio, but as long as there's great movies to make, I don't think David will be taking a break.  Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu may be the most gifted filmmaker out there, but his films are challenges, thankfully.  But that means they will never be easy to get made, but luckily he has a Lava Bear on his side.  David EP'd this year's entry to my top ten list, BIUTIFUL and yes, as a result has some more Oscar noms to his credit.

Anne Carey, my partner at This is that, did not go to Sundance this year.  But that did not stop The Hollywood Reporter from naming her on their Indie Hit List the hottest producer there:

THE PRODUCER

Then: Lawrence Bender
On team Tarantino since Reservoir Dogs, he has also handled Oscar-winning pics like Good Will Hunting and An Inconvenient Truth.

Now: Anne Carey
The former WMA agent toiled at Good Machine before partnering with Ted Hope on pics including Adventureland and The American.

And why not, her tenacity and genius, did yield the "coolest" film of the year in THE AMERICAN, which happened to enjoy the distinction of being the only This is that production to grace the top of the box office charts.  (PS.  Hey Anne: that wiki needs some updating!  And: Hey HRptr: she wasn't an agent, she just worked there!)

Unfortunately, Good Machine can't take credit for WINTER'S BONE, but that won't stop me from trying.  After all, Ang Lee's fantastic RIDE WITH THE DEVIL might have been Good Machine's biggest financial flop (despite being a great movie), but it was the first film to be adapted by WINTER BONE's novelist Daniel Woddrell.  Okay, it's a stretch but certainly it speaks a tad of our mutual fine taste for the man's prose and stories (even if Ms. Granik has turned down our efforts to work with her!).

Okay, so this does leaves some Good Machinists still unaccounted for, but after winning some Globes last year, Ross Katz is entitled to some time off.   Interestingly enough, Ross should take the reigns on a film Bregman is producing and Basner is arranging the financing on; the film, by title only is a mash up of several of our former projects, THE AMATEUR AMERICAN.  One of Mr. Schamus' former assistants, Jawal Nga, has been active on the producing front, with last year's Sundance hit HOWL and prior Grand Jury Winner FORTY SHADES OF BLUE to his credit.  And of course there's a squad of GMers doing great things behind the scenes too, some that will no doubt start some bonfires of benevolence in short order.

Me?  Well I already told you how I spent my Sundance non-vaction a few days ago (I've put a few updates into it if you want to check back) and how inspiring it was for me this year.

All in all, though, I must admit it is pretty swell to see the trees those seeds have sprouted.

A Return To Cool: Anton Corbijn's THE AMERICAN

Watching my business partner's production of Anton Corbijn's THE AMERICAN the other night, I was struck by how few truly cool American films there are.  The American is certainly one, but cool is an aesthetic that few truly dare to tread.  The cool that I refer to, is not something that is just neat or novel.  My cool differs from the way my son uses the word. Cool is a committed style.  Cool is a discipline.  Cool embraces both content and all the elements of execution.  In a cool movie, everything other than cool is truly secondary, and ideally non-existent.  Cool movies thrive on an existential protagonist.  Cool is about the sustain and not the flash.

What are the cool American films of relatively recent vintage?

  • The American
  • The Limey
  • Stranger Than Paradise
  • Out Of Sight
  • Jackie Brown

This list is far from complete.  What have I forgotten?  Yet, the real question is "why are there so few truly cool films?".

The Good Machine No-Budget Commandments

Back in the day, before I had This is that, I had a production company called Good Machine. James Schamus and I founded it together, and we later partnered with David Linde. Mary Jane Skalski and Anthony Bregman were also partners, and we had the good fortune to work with a host of other talents including my later partners Anne Carey and Diana Victor, and Ross Katz, Glen Basner, Heta Paarte, Lamia Guelatti, Melinka Thompson-Gody, Jean Castelli, Kelly Miller, Dan Beers, Eric Papa, Jawal Nga, and many other later-legends to be. As good as the films we made, as great as the individuals we got to collaborate with, we also had a genuine fondness for memos and how-to's. If you come to my office these days, it looks like a FEMA site; we are going paperless, and I am sorting through the files, finding many choice nuggets. My madeleines.

One day, way back when, I went into to speak to a NYU grad class and I felt I would feel more substantive if I had something to hand out (btw I believe The Savages director, Tamara Jenkins was in that class). That was the start of the Good Machine No-Budget Commandments. James and I revised them here and there, and I am pretty sure, that Mary Jane and Anthony tossed more than a suggestion or two.

My surprise in reading them today is that no where do they say "The budget is the aesthetic."  That had seemed like the mantra at times.  We get pretty close with #4, but not as dogmatic.

They hold up today. I still subscribe to the full set of notions.  Here they are, for your critique and comment, in their dusty glory.

1. Write to direct. A screenplay, especially a no-budget screenplay is a very loose blueprint for a film – ultimately every choice you make will compromise something else.

2. Write for what you know and for what you can obtain. This goes for actors, locations, animals, and major propping or set dressing. If your friend owns something, anything, write it into the film.

3. Remain flexible. Recognize the essential element in a scene and allow it to take place in a variety of locations or circumstances.

4. Choose an aesthetic that will capitalize on the lack of money (i.e. period anachronisms, monochromatic color schemes, etc.). Invest meaning in everyday commonplace things – make an orange a totemic object John Ford would be proud of.

5. Don’t over strive. Don’t try to show how much production value you have (you don’t have it, so you’ll either fail or unbalance your film). A film that people say is “well produced” usually means that the story didn’t have much going for it. Keep the story aligned with the budget.

6. Don’t limit yourself to too few locations – it’s a dead give away of lack of dollars. I like the number eight.

7. Use everything more than once. You’ve already paid for it, so use it, use it, use it.

8. Write for a very limited audience – your closest friends. Do not try to please anyone – crowd pleasing costs.

9. Write to cut it back later. You can trim to subtlety.

10. Contradict the above commandment and only write what you know you absolutely must shoot.

11. Keep it simple. You can learn how to do the impossible on your next film. No dogs. No babies. “Business” is expensive. Keep it controllable.

12. Keep it intimate. Dialogue and close ups are cheap.

13. Make the most of a day’s work. It’s easier to get a commitment for one day than it is for a week. Exploit people’s willingness to give a day.

14. Ignore everything listed above if it doesn’t further the story.

Response To An Open Letter From FilmUtopia's Clive Davies-Frayne

Clive Davies-Frayne, bugged by my endorsement of Scott Macauley's brilliant, slightly-tongue-in-cheek, letter from the future, took the time on his Filmutopia site, to write an open letter to me.

I love how conversations can grow and flourish these days, across borders, opening our minds to different perspectives and greater understandings. I am a big believer that this sort of discussion is the way that solutions are found. Although I know I won't be able to make a habit of answering such open letters, but since Clive got this started I thought I would keep the ball up in the air a bit. Clive asked the following question (and a few more), and I will do my best to answer.
Is distribution really the biggest problem facing the independent movie sector?
I don't really subscribe to the all-or-nothing approach, but distribution, and it's cousins the marketplace and marketing, are definitely among the issues. The indie sector has flourished over the last twenty or so years. These movies weren't being seen previously although they still got made. We've watched their box office, and the expectation there of, soar. The folks who distribute mainstream indie product have gotten incredibly skilled at their job at getting the word out about the films they select. But the filmmakers themselves have only recently started taking responsibility for some of this task.
Building all filmmaker's skills at marketing and publicity is certainly one of the tasks before the community these days. If you ask me this should be an equal emphasis and film schools and advocacy/support organizations. It's interesting that there are many labs for content creation but none on marketing and distribution. If the last decade in indie film was about the demystification of the development, production, and sales process, then this next period will hopefully do the same for discovery, promotion, presentation, and appreciation.
Getting the word out about non-mainstream or mass market indie work is a huge problem in the industry. If you are a true indie film lover and want to know what is new and good, where do you go? All these films show up at film festivals all over the country, but are soon forgotten. Newspapers don't cover them. How do you know where to even learn more about them? I started a website called HammerToNail to do something about it. There, filmmakers write about the films they love. We don't publish the negative reviews because there are enough haters already out there. I personally don't publish reviews because I have too much on my plate already and it is not where I think I can be most effective.
I do think it is crucial we all take a big hand in getting good work seen and spoken about. I encourage audiences to do this regularly. I encourage all filmmakers to take on the role of curator. I started a screening series with my partner Anne Carey and the good folks at Goldcrest in NYC. We have screened over twenty films this year. We send out about 1000 invites to these screenings to "influential media types" where we write a personal letter explaining why we admire the film. The theater only sits about 60 so it doesn't compromise box office potential but builds the base of early adopters. I generally run the Q&A afterwards. AFTERSCHOOL was one such film that we screened which later got a small theatrical release. I sent an email blast to 120 NYC directors asking them to support each other and this film specifically and agree to run Q&As nightly at the theater to build an audience; I conducted one Q&A myself. We all have to band together to get the word out if great work is to flourish.
Screening series and review blogs are extension of the work I have done on film juries and mentorship programs. I do as much of these as I can. It is exhausting and a big time commitment. I enjoy each of these a great deal. I wish I could do more of it but I am still trying to figure out how to earn a decent living. It's interesting that when I do such things in other countries, there is often government support, but here it is always pro bono. It becomes a time management issue where I often have decide where I am getting paid (it never is substantial enough to say "one for me, one for them").
I maintain another blog called TheseAreThoseThings. It is a curatorial blog where I talk about the films, music, and other things I love. I wish I could do more of this but man am I busy. I try to bring more attention to the things I love, particularly to the things that I feel might be overlooked. I could use some more help on this. You might be right though Clive; beyond these blogs, screening series, and Q&As, perhaps there is more that I could do in general to promote other people's work. I would like to be more efficient and successful at getting the word out. I look forward to any suggestions people have about how to do this.
It's true that we need much more discussion on what makes work good or at least better. I wrote up a 32 part article called "Qualities Of Better Film" on a column called "Let's Make Better Films" on HammerToNail. It was a lot of work and some folks found it helpful. I admit I was disappointed that it didn't generate more discussion. I develop a great number of projects. I have probably produced more films by first time directors than anyone else; it's more work focusing on new directors and new writers and is not as financially rewarding as other approaches. I do it because I love new voices and new approaches. Four of our scripts have been nominated for Oscars. I think this is both because we know when to push harder to get something "right" and because we also know when to leave well enough alone. Suffice it to say though we usually go through thirty or so drafts on a script. In the years I spend developing a project I don't get paid; I do it on faith that we will get to where we need and others will recognize the necessity of getting the work made.
Ultimately, I think what generates good work is simply making better work. I have been involved in over 60 films. I think they are pretty good. At times I fight so hard to make them better (in my opinion) or make sure they get seen, I damage some relationships in the process. I know this is not good for my "business" but I think it is good for the business over all. Getting movies made and getting them out to the audiences doesn't come from anything other than good and thorough work. I started with no connections or any money or any real knowledge, but I did have a great love of cinema and I took both an appreciative and critical approach. I work hard to make sure I am inspired about work in general today as I was when I started. I hope to make another 60 or so films, and to both make them better and to work better. I think that labor will have a greater effect than anything I can ever say.
As I said before, I helped found HammerToNail. The work that has been done there has not been seen as widely as it deserves, but it has been very inspiring to me. Generally traveling the film festivals and viewing the submissions that come into my company (did I say we get over 3000 annually), I find three or four directors that I think will develop substantial bodies of work. Due to the filtering the HammerToNail crew did for all of us, last year I recognized at least eighteen new directors (from America alone)whose work I will follow their every move of. Good work is being made and talked about, you just need to work hard to find it and use the right tools. Spreading the word about those tools seems to be what people need most right now.
Regarding self-distribution and whether it makes sense for films of certain budgets, you are right in saying that it doesn't. But I do believe it could. The point is that the model is just now being built and it is the entire communities responsibility to build it. There has always been a self-defeating attitude amongst certain creators that they can't get involved in the business or promotion. It is an absolute necessity that they do in my opinion. I have always approached budgets as something the market sets. We don't have government support for the arts in my country so I have not had the luxury of any other way of thinking. To design a film that requires a cost that can't be recouped is irresponsible and generally will have a devastating effect on all of us. We need to rebuild the model from the bottom up. We have to design our work for a price that justifies experimentation. When we find success, we can then build on top of it.
There's a lot more to be said on all these topics. I am glad you found THE SAVAGES and I will certainly check out the film you recommend. I wish I had time to keep on writing but I have to surrender my computer to my nine year old son who wants to tell his friends about what he's learned in the last 24 hours about Bakugan and the Lego mini-fig he just customized. And besides I have some scripts to read and some movies to make a bit better. Thanks for the letter and the discussion. I do think we can solve all this working together, provided we get a little help from some friends.

Adventureland: Working With The Team

Pt 2 (of 3) of my NY Film Academy discussion on Adventureland. Mostly about the release, and what it was like about working with the various cast and crew. There is a fair amount on working in the studio system, at least what little I know about it...