The 21 Brave Thinkers Of Truly Free Film 2009

Earlier this year, while looking at Atlantic Magazine's list of Brave Thinkers across various industries, I started to wonder who are of this ilk in our sector of so-called Independent Film.

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.
Frankly though, I think anyone that commits to creating film, particularly independent film, and specifically artist driven truly free film, is truly brave... or at least, insane. It is a hard road out there and growing more difficult by the day. All filmmakers getting their work made, screened and distributed deserve recognition, support, and something more significant than a good pat on the back from the rest of us. As great their work is both creatively and in terms of the infrastructure, it's easy to lose sight of how fragile all this is. Our ability to create and screen innovative and diverse work is consistently under threat.
It is a truly great thing that this list of BRAVE THINKERS is growing rapidly; I first thought it would be ten, then twenty. I expect we will see some new folks joining this list in the months ahead. I know there are those whom I've forgotten that deserve to be included here. This list, although it includes many artists, is about those who are working and striving to carve a new paradigm, to make the future safe for innovative and diverse work, to build an artist-centric content economy. The TFF Brave Thinkers lead equally with their ideas, actions, and generosity. They set examples for all of us and raise the bar. These are indie films true new leaders, and for those that think they are in power, those that are just starting out, or those that want to find a new angle on industry you work in, you should make sure you meet these folks in the coming year, because they are redefining the way we fund, develop, create, define, discover, promote, participate, curate, and appreciate that thing we still call cinema.
  • Franny Armstong - After making THE AGE OF STUPID via crowdsourcing funds, Franny also looked to the audience to help distribute her film, creating IndieScreenings.net and offering it up to other filmmakers (see The Yes Men below). By relying fulling on her audience from finance to distribution, Franny was able to get the film she wanted not just made, but seen, and show the rest of us to stop thinking the old way, and instead of putting faith in the gatekeepers, put your trust in the fans.
  • Steven Beers - "A Decade Of Filmmaker Empowerment Is Coming" Steven has always been on the tip of digital rights question, aiding many, including myself, on what really should be the artist's perspective. Yet it remains exceedingly rare that individuals, let alone attorneys, take a public stand towards artist rights -- as the money is often on the other side.
  • Biracy & David Geertz - Biracy, helmed by Geertz, has the potential to transform film financing and promotion. Utilizing a referral system to reward a film's champions, they might have found a model that could generate new audiences and new revenue.
  • Peter Broderick- Peter was the first person to articulate the hybrid distribution plan. He coined the term I believe. He has been tireless in his pursuit of the new model and generous with his time and vision. His distribution newsletter is a must have for all truly free filmmakers and his oldway/newway chart a true thing of beauty.
  • Tze Chun & Mynette Louie - Last year, the director and producer of Children Of Inventiondecided that they weren't going to wait around for some distributor to sweep them off their feet. They left Sundance with plans to adopt a hybrid plan and started selling their DVD off their website. They have earned more money embracing this new practice than what they could have hoped from an old way deal. As much as I had hoped that others would recognize the days of golden riches were long gone, Tze & Mynette were the only Sundance filmmakers brave enough to adopt this strategy from the start.
  • Arin Crumley - Having raised the bar together with Susan Buice in terms of extending the reach of creative work into symbiotic marketing with Four Eyed Monsters, along with helping in the design of new tech tools for filmmakers (FEM was encouraging fans to "Demand It" long before Paranormal Activity), co-founding From Here To Awesome, Arin launched OpenIndie together with Kieran Masterton this year to help empower filmmakers in the coming months.
  • IndieGoGo & Slava Rubin - There are many web 2.0 sites that build communities, many that promote indie films, many that crowd source funds, but Slava & IndieGoGo are doing it all, with an infectious and boundless enthusiasm, championing work and individuals, giving their all to find a new paradigm, and they might just do it.
  • Jamie King - The experience of giving away his film "Steal This Film" lead Jamie to help build VODO an online mechanism initially built to help artists retrieve VOluntary DOnations for their work, but has since evolved to a service that helps filmakers distrubute free-to-share films through P2P sites & services, building on this with various experimental business models. Such practices aren't for everyone, but they are definitely for some -- VODO has had over 250,000 viewers for each of its first three releases in 2009 -- and the road is being paved by Jamie's efforts.
  • Scott Kirsner - Scott's book Friends, Fans, & Followers covered the work of 15 artists of different disciplines and how each have utilized their audience to gain greater independence and freedom. Through his website CinemaTech, Scott has been covering and questioning the industry as it evolves from a limited supply impulse buy leisure buy economy to an ubiquitous supply artistcentric choice-based infrastructure like nobody else. His "Conversation" forum brought together the tech, entertainment, & social media fields in an unprecedented way.
  • Pericles Lewnes - As a filmmaker with a prize winning but underscreened film (LOOP), Peri recoginized the struggle of indie filmmaking in this day and age. But instead of just complaining about it like most of us, Peri did something about it. He built bridges and alliances and made a makeshift screening circuit in his hometown of Annapolis, MD, founding The Pretentious Film Society. Taking indie film to the bars with a traveling projector and sound system, Peri has started pulling in the crowds and getting money back to the filmmakers. A new exhibition circuit is getting built brick by brick, the web is expanding into a net, from a hub spokes emmenate until we have wheels within wheels within wheels. Peri's certainly not the only one doing it, but he brings an energy and passion we all need.
  • Cory McAbee - It's not enough to be a talented or innovative filmmaker these days. You must use the tools for entrepreneuarial activity that are available and you have to do it with flair. We can all learn from Corey. His films, his music, his live shows, his web stuff -- it all rocks and deserves our following and adoption.
  • Scott Macauley - some producers (like yours truly) write to spread the gospel, happy just to get the word out, not being the most graceful of pen. Scott however has been doing it with verve, invention, wit, and style for so long now, most people take his way wit words as a given. Not only is it a pleasure to read, the FilmmakerMagazineBlog is the center of true indie thought and appreciation. It's up to the minute, devoid of gossip, deep into ideas, and is generally a total blast. And the magazine is no slouch either. And nor are his films. Can we clone the man?
  • Brian Newman - After leaving Tribeca this year, Brian has showed no signs of slowing down, popping up at various conferences like PttP and the Flyaway Film Fest to issue missives & lectures helping to articulate both the problems facing indies these days along with starting to define how we will find our way out. Look to Brian to be doing something smart & exciting in the media world in 2010; somewhere someone smart should find a way to put this man to work shortly, but here's hoping he does it on his own so we can all benefit from his innovative ideas.
  • Nina Paley - In addition to successively adopting an "audience distribution" model for her film Sita Sings The Blues, Nina has been incredibly vocal about her experiences in the world of "free", helping to forge a path & greater understanding for other filmmakers. And now her film is getting traditional distribution at the IFC Center in NYC (and our whole family, including the 9 year old spawn, dug it!)
  • Jon Reiss - After adopting the DIY approach for his film Bomb It, Jon chose to share the lessons he's learned in ever increasing ways, from his blog (and this one), to articles for Filmmaker Mag, to finally to the must-have artist-centric distribution book THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX OFFICE. Anyone considering creating a truly free film, this book is mandatory reading first. Full disclosure: I penned an intro to Jon's book.
  • Mark Rosenberg - What does it take to create a new institution these days? Evidently quite a bit, because I can only think of one in the film space and that's Rooftop Films. Mark curates and organizes with a great team of folks, who together have brought new audiences new films in new venues. NY is incredibly fortunate to be the recipient of Rooftop's work, but here's hoping that Mark's vision spreads to other cities this coming year.
  • Liz Rosenthal - There is no better place to get the skinny on what the future for film, indie film, truly free film, artist-centric film, and any other form of media creation than London's Power To The Pixel. Liz founded it and has catapulted what might once have been fringe truly into the mainstream. Expanding beyond a simple conference into a year round forum for future forward media thought, PttP brainstorms, curates, and leads the way in transmedia creation, curation, & distribution. Full disclosure: I was PttP keynote speaker this year.
  • Lance Weiler - In addition to being a major force in both Transmedia thought, DIY distribution, and informative curatorial,with his role in Power To The Pixel, From Here To Awesome, DIY Days, & Radar web show but his generous "Open Source" attitude is captured by The Workbook Project, perhaps the most indispensable website for the TFFilmmaker. He (along with Scott Kirsner) provides a great overview of the year in tech & entertainment on TWP podcast here. It's going to be in exciting 2010 when we get to see him apply his knowledge to his next project (winner of Rotterdam Cinemart 2009 prize and now a participant in the 2010 Sundance screenwriters' lab). Full disclosure: This is that has signed on to produce Lance's transmedia feature H.I.M.
  • Thomas Woodrow - As a producer, Thomas has embraced the reality of the marketplace and is not letting it stand in his way. There is perhaps no other producer out there who has so fully accepted the call that indie film producing nowadays also means indie film distribution. He's laying out his plan to distribute BASS ACKWARDS immediately after its Sundance premiere through a series of videos online. Full disclosure: I am mentoring Thomas vis the Sundance Creative Producing Lab.
  • TopSpin Media - As their website explains: "Topspin is a technology platform for direct-to-fan maketing, management and distribution." They are also the tech behind Corey McAbee's activities and hopefully a whole lot of other filmmakers in the years behind. Founded by ProTools' creator, Peter Gotcher, and Shamal Raasinghe, TopSpin is a "white label" set up thathas the potential to usher in the Age Of Empowerment for the artist/creator class. Today it is primarily a tool for musicians, but expect it to migrate into filmdom fully pretty damn soon.
  • The Yes Men - The Emma Goldman ("If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution") TFF 2009 Award winners for keeping both politics and film marketing fun, these pranksters hit all the fests, winning awards, and using it to launch their own distribution of THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD. Bravery's always been their middle name, but they are among the first of rising tide of filmmakers willing to take for full responsibility for their film.
Who did I forget? I know this list is very US-centric, but I look forward to learning more of what is going on elsewhere in the days to come. Who will be our Brave Thinkers for next year (if I can muster the energy to do this for another year, that is)? What can you learn from these folks? May I humbly suggest that at the very least, you do whatever you can to find, follow, and converse with these folks in 2010. The more we learn from them, the better off this film industry will be, and, hey: it may turn out to be a good new year after all.

Ten* Filmmakers I Would Crowd Fund*

In celebration of Arin Crumley & Keiran Masterton's success using Kickstarter to fund development of OpenIndie.com, I thought I would launch my annual grants. Or rather my annual promise of grants. Money! $ For Films! Free!*

If any of the following filmmakers had a crowd funding page for their next film (provided the film was $300K neg.cost or less), I would donate some money to get it made. And I would encourage others to do so.
Who would you fund?
I know there are more than ten* I could have listed, but I thought this was a good start, and you have to draw the line somewhere. Plus, being an indie film producer in a land that does not demonstrate that it values what I do, I don't have enough cash to go beyond this list! And even still, my contribution would not be significant financially; it would be more of a vote of support in hopes that others would be encourage to support the culture they want. I would give in order to become part of their team, to hear what they are up to, to get updates.
I listed artists who have are all early in their careers -- but have already directed a feature. I listed filmmakers whom I was confident could deliver a whole lot for a little. I listed filmmakers whom I am not already involved with.
Yet before I gave to any of these filmmakers, I would want to see a commitment to building audiences PRIOR to filming -- say a pledge to not commence until they had collected 5000 unique fans. I would want to know that they had a plan to market and release their film that went beyond bringing it to festivals and hoping for the best. I would want to know that they would set up an e-commerce site on their websites -- and that they had a website (which they refreshed with regular content). And of course I wouldn't transfer the money until they had reached their goal in pledges. Then I would gladly give money to them to get that next film made (and not ask for anything in return other than the satisfaction of having helped).

What's The Future Of Film Look Like?

I don't have that answer and I will leave it to the others (at least for today) as so many are offering options:

Each day I have been experiencing and encountering new ideas and new practices; All of it is pretty damn thrilling. So what if we are racing forward even if we don't know where we are going. I am loving it.
Like I said, I don't know, but I do believe that some of these tools will change some things significantly.

You-Centric: The Future of Browsing from Carsonified on Vimeo.

That's Aza Raskin from Mozilla. And this is an attempt to explain Google Wave:

What are the other five tools that will make sure tomorrow does not look like today that I should be posting about?

Tools: Organizing Audiences

Mike Hedge pointed out to me that we now have a major distributor using Eventful to organize screenings on a local level. Back when Adventureland was released, I few fans found me to let me know that they had organized screening groups on MeetUp. Both of these are powerful tools, that the indie film community needs to make more use of.

And of course, let's not forget where we first heard of this sort of thing. Arin & Susan paved the way for Dreamworks... ?! Let's make sure this kind of thing becomes an indie filmmaker staple.
Imagine that when a filmmaker announced that their film is going to debut at a major film festival, that in addition to launching their trailer and going into a new phase with their blogging they also utilized these tools to aggregate audiences on a local level. There might be a film that was able to go on a tour immediately following the premiere taking the work directly to the core. I wonder what sort of impact it would have with the old school distributors to hear that a filmmaker already had thirty or more dates that the fans themselves requested.
Filmmakers could motivate fans to organize these screenings and to recruit audiences by offering a wide variety of incentives from exclusive music downloads to Skype Q&A's afterwards. Film clubs could easily do the same. Heck, so could distributors. We have an Indie Film Promotional Army out there, already armed, and waiting for the call.
When I look at the number of tools we have at our disposal (check out the list on the right to start) that filmmakers are still underutilizing, I feel like we have all been given crate loads of matches but we still all live in the Dark Ages.
I would love to hear of some filmmakers direct experiences utilizing these specific tools.

Arin Crumley Responds To Art House Convergence Keynote

Four-Eyed Monsters' Arin Crumley commented on my recent speech over at IndieWire.  I reprint it here for your reading pleasure:

Great Talk Ted!

So here are the big picture to-do items from this talk:

• We need a third party entity to handle payments between exhibitors and filmmakers. (Note this is a very delicate thing as it has the potential to be totally corrupt if it’s not a non-profit organization or some how decentralized.)

• We need a repository of information that filmmakers share with each other. (workbookproject.com is the start of this.)

• Exhibitors need to get digital projection and digital delivery systems installed. There are some missing standards still since DCI seems like overkill. But it is possible to have dual systems, DCI for big films and plug another cable in to bypass that system to play back WEB delivered HD content.

• We need to protect the open freedom we currently have on the internet so that it can be used build social connections around film and so it can be used to get HD files to the theaters. We made a video about this you can see here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JP_3WnJ42kw

• We need the mechanism in which exhibitors and filmmakers can mine audiences and know who sees your film or comes to your movie theater.
In my mind this is simple, we just allow people to bookmark films they want to see and review films they’ve seen and have all that data be structured along with geo stamps. That way anyone online knows the films in each city people want to see. Then those people could ask to be notified based on variables they define. So they could set a service up that looks at the films they want to see and the local calendars and they could set an alarm that goes off when the two synchronize.

All of these ideas have been part of the think tanks we’ve been doing with From Here to Awesome and DIY DAYS and are simply awaiting sponsorship or funding to actually build the above missing components. Anyone who wants to jump on board with this effort should email fromheretoawesome (at) gmail (dot) com with your thoughts and what you can contribute and lets make this happen.

Ted can give us hope, but only if we all work together can we make these ideas a reality.

Arin Crumley
co-founder
From Here to Awesome
co-director
Four Eyed MOnsters
Director
As THe Dust Settles

We Need A Community That Respects Artists' Intent: Chesanek's Counterpoint (Part 4 of 6)

Brent's critique of the NYC DIY Dinner continues...
Still by the third video, the discussion is about filling a marketing niche or void, not telling a personal story in innovative ways. It feels like it's just making a film about a new subject in the same way, something I react very strongly against. 

Eleven minutes in to Part 3 you take on this point very nicely. Mr. Crumley especially seems to be missing the drive that many art-house filmmakers have. We're not particularly smitten with "creating content" or being web gurus or using all these marketing and advertising processes and terms (to some they're thrilling and exciting; to others, they're a necessary step but not what drives us in our work). 
And now there is an entirely new skill set to be learned, again another gatekeeping process. We no longer have to know how to expose film using an Aaton and splice film on a Moviola; the tools are simpler to use and attain, but now we have to learn additional tools. The tools are changing but they are now tools that we must master that we don't necessary enjoy using and that don't even affect the integrity of our product itself. Instead they affect the integrity of our "brand," as if we were Maxwell House or Lysol. 
The successful filmmaker is not the skilled filmmaker but the skilled marketer? Why bother reading theory or watching old films when one can take marketing classes and develop a web platform to screen something?

Unfortunately right now, when Arin Crumley and Slava Rubin make certain points, I don't feel they're talking to me or to the other people who are in independent film because they -- the filmmakers -- are  neither good at nor interested in marketing or commodities-focused careers, nor are they interested in being cool or popular--which is the image of a new-media-social-networking-guru-web-celebrity.

Further, I am not hearing a director with a distinct artistic vision when Arin talks at this dinner, and I'm unfortunately not interested in his films because of their popularity -- popularity based on Arin's new pioneering new distribution and crowd participation methods. So if I'm not his audience, then perhaps his audience isn't mine, and so my thinking then becomes one of retraction and distancing myself from the new mechanisms. Also, when Arin talks about reaching an audience, I feel like he is capitalizing on his marketing expertise to profit off them, not putting his soul on film--which is where my taste lies. I appreciate his work for filmmakers, but when he starts leaning towards telling a filmmaker how to be a filmmaker, he'll have trouble getting his message across.

Lance Hammer is clearly an artist with a distinct vision, an artist whose film I saw multiple times at Film Forum and recommended over and over to friends, posting on my website and Facebook to GO SEE THIS FILM. Same with Pleasure of Being Robbed and Wendy and Lucy. I've still not seen or heard anything from the makers of Four Eyed Monsters that makes me take interest in their work or view them as an artist. I've only heard that their distribution is what makes them impeccable. Cart before the horse?

I know Arin is very intelligent and successful in his own way, but some of what he says comes off as disrespectful of that thing so many of us fell in love with and have chosen to devote our lives to as viewers and filmmakers, and unaware of that much of the things we're told we must do to our films are things we find less than appealing and against the films' nature. 

As you've said many times, people gravitate to art-house films the more they're exposed to films. But some of the discussion seems to be saying that these art-house films are not wanted in their current form, what is wanted is a new You-Tube video game user-created content industry. But that's not the case. 
And by then using terms pilfered by the advertising world, much of this talk seems to present the idea that the idea of a 90-140 minute art film playing uninterrupted is dying along with the old distribution models. I'm sure the intent is honorable, but the first impression and unfortunately probably a lasting one is that this talk makes art-house film makers and lovers, the very ones who need these new distro models, feel outdated, unwanted, and unimportant. As if: "Be a video game and webisodes and extensions of your film or you have no place in film." This message feels very, well, George Bush. You're with us or you're against us. Join or die. Etc.... not about building a community that respects an artist's intent–especially if that intent is to run against the new media/ ADD generation trends. I know that's not the case, but only after carefully thinking through all the voices and claims being made.

NYC DIY Days Dinner

A whole bunch of us got together for food, drink, and lots of blab about the way this world of film is changing -- and now you can join us!  

The good folks at The Workbook Project made this happen with a little help from their friends of course.  Come join Lance Weiler, Arin Crumley, Susan Buice, Lance Hammer, Faye Dunaway, Paul Rachman, Stephen Rapael, Slava Rubin, Joseph Marin, Jennifer Kushell, and of course myself.  This is just the intro segment.  Two more to come.  
I was mentioning this dinner to my friend Christine Vachon, telling her how I thought it was a good idea it was, a lot of fun, quite informative, and how well it was shot.  Christine's response was "Did anyone get a word in edge-wise?".  In this episode I don't start to rant until the 27:27 mark, so you be the judge.