Sundance Sale Dissection: Septien

Today's guest post is from attorney and sales rep George Rush.  It is part one of two. George handled the sale of Michael Tully's Septian to IFC's Sundance Selects. I have worked as a lawyer or a producer’s rep on hundreds of films over the years, and this experience has made me quite skeptical about the business model for independent producers.  The business is worse than it has been historically, but it is still the same very basic model.  You produce a film, a distributor exploits those rights.  You are good at creating content, they are good at marketing.  Hopefully those two things come together to benefit both parties.

I’m a hyper skeptic of producers essentially acting as their own distributors because generally they aren’t strong in both skill sets, and thus something usually suffers.  So I usually assume a producer is good at producing, and try to leave it at that.

Most of what I work on is low budget films with few if any stars.  Ten years ago, I considered a low budget film under two million dollars.  Today, I consider it under $500,000 and believe if you do something for a larger budget without a truly bankable cast, you are being reckless with your budget.

The distribution business has become tougher and they are paying less for content, and thus budgets go down correspondingly.  So how can you make something quality for under $500K—most people fail at this effort and there is a glut of so so films that just can’t compete with larger budgeted film—they are clearly inferior.  Indeed, most festival films in this budget range will never see the light of day beyond the festivals.  However, I don’t know how, but some people do.  It takes an extremely resourceful producer and director who is willing to take some chances to pull it off.

Enter Michael Tully’s Septien.  I hadn’t met Michael before, but I was somewhat familiar with him from Hammer to Nail.  He called me up and said he had a fucked up film that got into Sundance Midnight section.  As I listened to him, it didn’t sound like a genre film, but something that defied categorization.  He sent me a screener, and I really had no expectation when I popped it in.

I had worked on plenty of fucked up films, but most were weird for the sake of being weird and really didn’t have a life beyond a slender contrarian audience.  So I watched Michael’s film and it was fucked up, but it wasn’t weird for the sake of being weird.  There was something strange, unsettling, and wholly original about it.  I watched it again, and I was sold.  I loved it.

I lack a poker face, so I’ve found that trying to sell a film I didn’t like was pretty clear to the buyers.   I only rep a film if I am actually into it, and I loved this one. So I was in, but the film had challenges.  The first was how to characterize this film in a nutshell and who the audience was.  The film did not fit neatly into box.

I came up with a lot of ways to describe Septien -- but my refernces often veered into more obscure things like Dogtooth and Henry Darger.  Cool things for sure, but not exactly elements that scream big audience.  I also felt like the audience would be cool indie kids and would build buzz from there.  I know distributors have a difficult time reaching audiences under 30.  That audience is accustomed to watching things digitally for free.  Our challenges for the film are the indie audience skews older (my parents love The King’s Speech), and that for a distributor, this film would be as hard to market as it was for me to describe.

What to do?  Check back tomorrow for part two.

For another angle on why 38 Films -- Some dark -- Sold At Sundance 2011, check out Anthony Kaufman's article here.

George Rush is an entertainment attorney and producer’s rep in San Francisco.

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.

Eddie Burns Learns To Love Doing It DIY

Michael Tully of HammerToNail has a really great interview with Edward Burns on his path from small to medium to sorta big and then back again.  It's filled with the kind of insights that can only be offered by those that have been there -- and are willing to be truly honest, with both themselves and us.

I remember when we were at Tribeca, and John Sloss, who I’m sure you know, has this new venture called FilmBuff, who is our distribution partner with this film. And he gave me an argument, but not so much for VOD. Maybe five years ago, I had this movie called Looking For Kitty. And the movie got one tiny, tiny distribution offer from THINKFilm. It was one of those no advance partnerships, and we had made the movie for a quarter of a million dollars. John said, “Look, you’re gonna sell the movie for nothing and they’re gonna own it, just so you can satisfy that part of your ego that wants the film to be released theatrically.” He goes, “If you were to just go straight to DVD, you could make your money back. And maybe make some more money.” At the time—this was maybe ’04 or ’05—my ego wouldn’t allow me to do it. So, we sell the film to THINKFilm, get no money, we’re supposed to have a partnership, and we’ve never seen a red cent from it. Years later, when we’re presented with the same kind of offer for Purple Violets, now iTunes is up and the iTunes movie site is in their infancy. And we thought, “Look at how bands are delivering their music directly to their fans. Maybe there’s a way for us to try and do that with the film.” And we did. I don’t have the numbers exactly right but I think it was like a nine-month exclusive window for iTunes. And we did surprisingly good business there.

Flash forward three years later to Nice Guy Johnny. Two different things happened. We knew what we could make at iTunes even if we didn’t have the kind of “stars” and well-known faces that we had in Purple Violets, which certainly helped. So we said, “Let’s just think the lowest possible number we can do on iTunes. If we’re even gonna entertain theatrical, someone needs to beat that number.” But we never even got there, because John then said to me, “Remember back to Looking For Kitty. This is the moment. We can sell your film for theatrical distribution, and you’re gonna open up on four screens in New York and LA, like you did with Looking For Kitty, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed that if this company has enough money to market the thing, we might make an impression, and you can expand to the next level of a platform release. If we do well there, maybe, maybe you can go on and expand fully.” He said, “Or, you can release your film onto VOD and be in 46 million living rooms, in that moment when you’re doing all of your press.” I heard that, and I was like, maybe if I was a young guy and this was my first film, I don’t know that I would be willing to forego theatrical, because you do fantasize about having your movie play in theaters. I don’t want to say “I’ve been there, done that,” but most times I’ve ended up disappointed with how the films were handled theatrically. As my producing partner says, “There’s nothing special about a specialized film release.” We just thought, we’ll take our film and we’ll do the most aggressive film festival tour we’ve ever done. And that’ll satisfy the need to see it in theaters, sit in the back row with an audience, hear the laughter, and get the thrill of theatrical out of that. But financially, it just made absolutely no sense to try and sell the film to an audience theatrically. And those were all of the things that played into embracing this model.

THANK YOU EDDIE.  There's a whole lot more of it on HammerToNail.  Check it out.

Talk Back To "The Take-Back"

Although there is certainly a lot of "truth in the jest", HammerToNail's Tully's plea to end all the blah-blah-blah of film panels on how-to-social-media-ize-your-film-to-glory and Stop-the-sky-from-falling-by-old-white-guys (I am on one this week!) is still written as humor: no one really needs another manifesto (and I live to write a manifesto each week). Yet... The Take-Back has gotten a good deal of Talk Back. I think many of us fall on both side of the fence: tired of the same old, same old, and desiring to figure out some way to get the conversation started. Let's face it: we need to figure out how to get people to talk about culture in a more meaningful way. Still though, Tully's started a lot of good dialogue on film panels and their relevance. Now Brian Geldin of The Film Panel Notetaker has chimed in. Check out his post and lend your voice to the discussion.

Matthew Porterfield On Truly Collaborative, Egalitarian, & Economical Filmmaking

Matthew Porterfield directed 2006' HAMILTON.  His new film PUTTY HILL debuts in Berlin on February 18th.  I was really impressed with Hamilton and leapt to the call when I heard he was using Kickstarter to finish the film.  I also asked him what he was up to.  The following is his response, and represents TFF's first joint post with HammerToNail (additional photos available there).

2009 was the summer of my liberation. After three years developing a script I never made and marketing it to a sleeping industry, I declared independence and made a film without permission.

This film, my second feature, Putty Hill, will premiere this month in Berlin as part of the 2010 International Forum for New Cinema. It marks a fresh approach to American regional cinema that stands apart from the romantic, anthropological, and formally conservative examples that have emerged on the art‐house circuit in the last few years. This has little to do with my talent and everything to do with our means of production. Truly collaborative, egalitarian, and economical, the traits of our model appear in stark contrast to the division of labor and totalitarian authorship characteristic of most film productions, even those made on the smallest scale, still beholden to a model developed off the Pacific coast and commodified in the dead shadows of Manhattan.

As a commodity, independent film has failed. Yet, regional cinema, of all the arts, has the greatest potential to achieve something close to objective reality, if such a thing exists. Its ontological value cannot be denied. Yet, in order to reach its potential, regional cinema must be freed from the confines of the old marketplace and made in a manner that honors its subjects, its audience, and their environment as authors and players in a collaborative process of production and distribution.

Perhaps this is nothing new. We’re learning as we go. But, I’ll proceed as if our process is novel in these times, and for the sake of argument, if nothing else, detail the progression of Putty Hill from conception through development and into the early stages of distribution.

Putty Hill was born from the ashes of a full feature script called Metal Gods, which chronicled a week in the lives of a group of marginalized kids in Baltimore City who live and love heavy metal. I wrote it with my collaborator Jordan Mintzer. Determined to make our sophomore effort a memorable one (after our critically‐ acclaimed but relatively hidden first feature, Hamilton), we worked hard on developing a regional story with universal themes. In 2007, we began casting and assembling the ingredients to shoot in the summer of 2009. Money was a big concern – our low budget estimate was $350K ‐‐ and we peddled the project to everyone we knew and many we didn’t, inside and outside the industry.

In September of 2008, the screenplay was accepted to participate in IFP’s Emerging Narrative Program at Independent Film Week. This opportunity provided us with a chance to sit down with independent producers and financiers, and we had many meetings, friendly and informative, which resulted in broad smiles, handshakes and even some business cards. We followed up as best we could, but unquestionably, the most valuable thing that came from the week was a grant in the form of a camera rental from IFP and Panasonic. Going into Putty Hill, when we finally put Metal Gods aside, this was all we had: a camera, $20,000, and 12 days to shoot.Because we couldn’t find financing, our hand was forced, and there wasn’t the time to develop a new feature‐length screenplay. We decided instead, since we had cast, crew, and locations in place from our time spent in pre‐production on Metal Gods, to move forward with a five‐page treatment crafted from the experiences and environments familiar to the team we had in place. I hoped it was a feature, but was hesitant to call it one, having not directed such a brief and open scenario before.

In essence, Putty Hill wasn’t much on paper. It was an outline, a skeleton that my dedicated cast and crew, and the community at large through their unending support, brought to life. Each of us on production, from my students at the university where I teach, to my cinematographer, Jeremy Saulnier, were equally invested and involved in the success of the project. Every actor was non‐ professional; our AC was also the Head Gaffer; one of my producers had never worked in film before, neither had our script‐supervisor; my wife was the costume designer; our editor had never cut a narrative feature; local businesses donated food, services, and equipment; people took off work and didn’t get paid. Writing this, I realize I’m describing the familiar clichés of the low‐budget indie film experience ‐‐ it’s nothing new. Where this project differs from the norm can be seen onscreen, in the product, which honors the contribution of every component member of production. If nothing else, I’m confident of that. Plus, it’s sexy as fuck.

Though we’ve been invited to premiere at the Berlinale and SXSW, Putty Hill is unfinished. We’ve amassed over $10K in credit card debt, none of which has gone to compensate our post‐production team for their services. In addition to debts owed, we have large festival and marketing expenses mounting, upwards of $20K.

If our production followed the Pedro Costa model, let’s say, our post and distribution strategy follows the Four Eyed Monsters model, thanks in large part to Kickstarter, a site developed under the influence of the fundraising and marketing strategies originated and implemented by Arin Crumley. In keeping with our objective to focus on the local while reaching the widest audience possible, we’ve mounted two successful fundraising campaigns in Baltimore, Maryland, which have raised over $5K. These, in conjunction with the Kickstarter campaign, have helped us reach our projected goal of $10K in just one week. But that’s less than half of the money we estimate we need to complete Putty Hill and ready it for exhibition.

Ultimately, our methods of working and our limited resources have allowed my team the freedom to stay open to the potential for magic, which only appears when things are left to chance. There are no rules to follow to guarantee the emergence of magic (which, in turn, leads to an audience’s experience of surprise), but there are a list of things to avoid. I won’t go into them here, but you might guess what they are. Or maybe they’re different for each of us. As in life, when we wish to be free, we must be willing to break the rules and work outside the system, even in the face of poverty and obscurity. I make $20K a year, yet I’ll continue to pay my collaborators first. How about you, filmmaker? What do you make?

-- Matthew Porterfield

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.

List: Blogs That Will Review Undistributed Films v1.0

All of these blogs got recommended to me as being open to reviewing unreleased film.

I have placed the name of the individual who recommended next to the blog.

http://brendonbouzard.com/blog/ Brendon Bouzard

http://cinemaechochamber.blogspot.com/ Brandon Harris
http://wwww.cinematical.com Tze Chun
http://www.cinevegas.com/blog/ Christophe Lepage
http://d2dvd.blogspot.com/ Bill Cunningham action,horror, pulp,sci-fi, thriller
http://www.filmthreat.com/blog/ Christophe Lepage

http://www.hammertonail.com/ Ted Hope

http://www.sf360.org/blogs Christophe Lepage
http://www.slashfilm.com/ http://www.slashfilm.com/
http://www.spout.com Tze Chun & Christophe Lepage
http://twitchfilm.net/site/ Tze Chun

PLEASE NOTE: I have not confirmed this acceptance policy with any of the sites. Please confirm on your own and let me know.
This will be an ongoing to-be-revised list. Check back for updates.

WANDA's Barbara Loden (& John & Yoko)

Indie Film has not progressed very much in 38 years.  I finally caught up with Barbara Loden's 1970's WANDA last night.  It would feel pretty damn fresh today.  It ranks up there among the American Indie greats that's for sure, particularly among the great debut features, and the ones that the director also stars in.  It made me wish that we had somewhere we could go where we could get an immersive course in Loden's life.  If you know, let me know.
I couldn't resist a trip to the Mike Douglas Show, co-hosted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.  First off I learned Loden was married to Elia Kazan.  The struggles she faced as a female director are as real today as they were then.  Except back then you had the most famous creative couple in the world promoting her work.  And they were great & daring artists too; there is no equivalent today.

There's been a lot of good writing done on the film, including this from driftingclouds and filmmaker Mary Brownstien's piece from HammerToNail.  I was really struck by the quality of the performances and Loden's willingness to let the camera linger.  You can tell she is working with a tiny crew (4 people evidently) and the level of intimacy she achieves is a marvel. The budget, back in the day, was $115,000.  It is required viewing.

8/31/10 Update: The New York Times just reported that WANDA is being restored.  Time to rejoice!

Carson Mell: 1 pt C. Burns, 1 pt. P.K.Dick, 1 pt. just him

David Lowery's HammerToNail review of Carson's Field Notes From Dimension X created that hunger that couldn't be filled.  Dimension X was no longer on the Sundance iTunes sight.  

Luckily, the man's got some of his other work up to be dug.  Monsters, rock, and loneliness has always been cocktail to tickle my tuesday.  I can't wait to see Mell's feature debut.  Dang, I may have to go buy his book just to tide me over.


The Writer from Carson Mell on Vimeo.

Definitely check out The Devil In Denim too