Ambition In The Best Sense (aka Lance Weiler)

I've had the pleasure of working with Lance Weiler for maybe two years now.  I love how he thinks.  I love how he takes that thought and transforms it into action.  Process is more key to what he does, than virtually anyone else I have worked with.  The journey is the destination.  He is willing to walk without knowing where it all might be going.  He is collaborative to the Nth the degree.  His vision for cinema truly knows no limits.

Wired Magazine singled him out this summer as one of the fathers of transmedia.  BusinessWeek credited him with changing cinema alongside Thomas Edison, The Warner Bros., and James Cameron.  Between his features, The Workbook Project, & DIY Days, the man is profoundly generative.

If you were in Sundance this past week (and even if you weren't), you probably witnessed how he infected Park City with a Pandemic.  Others certainly did.  Jamie Stuart shot this beautiful video for Filmmaker Magazine on Lance's Pandemic activities. FearNet has acquired his short which was screening at the fest. For those that like to hold their stories in their hand, you can follow it on Twitter here. AND  of course there is a website. Granted, I am producing the feature, but believe me when I tell you it is thrilling, horrifying, beautiful, and groundbreaking; it's a shame you have to wait until I raise the money to see it.

Christine Vachon and I also got to speak to Lance for KillerHope on Hulu.

Lance created this short as a style template for collaborators throughout the world to help capture the outbreak in their local territories.  Check it out and get filming!

Jamie Stuart On The Evolving World Of DIY

Ted:  I reached out to Jamie, and as he explains...

Since my earlier e-mail generated a bit of traffic and comments, Ted asked me if I'd be willing to write a follow-up that addresses some of the subsequent points raised. I won't be commenting directly to any commenters, but in a more generalized manner.

Just to note, though I tend to write in a straightforward manner, I'm not angry with anybody or viewing things in black & white. And while I used my own work and experiences as a viewpoint for much of the preceding entry, I don't want there to be any confusion: Insofar as DIY filmmaking goes, over the past half-dozen years or so, I've been incredibly privileged and lucky. As well, my e-mail to Ted was not "unsolicited" -- I've known Ted for nearly 5 years at this point, as he was one of the first producers to offer to look at one of my screenplays.

Some commenters have been unfamiliar with my work and wondered how it can be seen. My website is The Mutiny Company (www.mutinycompany.com). Most of my web filmmaking has revolved around press opportunities (filmmaker interviews, film festivals), and in using that as a centerpiece, I've then created narrative short films and web series based around these documentary situations, functionally blending reality and staged fiction. This form of filmmaking arose out of plain pragmatism. In 2001, I worked as Jami Bernard's assistant, and from 2002-2004 I co-ran the website MovieNavigator.org, for which I was in charge of interviews and essays. By the time MN ran out of gas, the web was ready for large amounts of streaming video, so I tried to convince the film publicists I knew to let me shoot video interviews. However, at the time, independent cameras were not allowed at junkets and web video was not considered legitimate. This started to change in 2004 when The Film Society of Lincoln Center gave me carte blanche to shoot a 14-part web series from The New York Film Festival. Aside from their house videographer, I was the only other camera regularly shooting at the Walter Reade Theater. That led to a 6-month series in 2005 on Movie City News that expanded the established narrative/press format. In 2006, I started doing videos for Filmmaker Magazine, and in 2007, I began contributing to FilmInFocus. This niche of filmmaking has allowed my work to be posted regularly on many major industry news sites and blogs, guaranteeing a certain level of exposure.

There have been two basic strategies in the initial wave of digital DIY filmmaking -- one group immediately made no-budget features that didn't receive distribution and subsequently went to the web to gain exposure, and the other chose to start on the web to build exposure before making a feature. I belong to the latter category. I think a lot of the feature filmmakers weren't ready yet, either technically or in terms of contacts, and the lack of initial distribution success is a testament to that. While I would love to have made my first feature already, I'd rather be patient about it and do it right than to just do it. In the meantime, I can continue to polish my craft, gain greater exposure and make contacts.

DIY filmmaking has been uniformly revolutionary to the filmmaking process. Nowadays filmmakers can own their entire means of production and distribution: Prosumer cameras, affordable post software and, finally, the internet or DVD as a means of self-distribution. The industry as a whole has offered a surface embrace of this while actively seeking an offensive strategy against it (they talked up user-generated content, but their real agenda was to shift established/signed talent to the web rather than to promote upstarts). One thing that first-gen DIY-ers have invariably influenced is marketing. Personally, I haven't been too impressed by most of the filmmaking itself, but nobody can deny the success of Four Eyed Monsters' use of every social networking tool under the sun or Joe Swanberg's (always denied) mumblecore movement. In both cases, people remember the marketing a lot more than what was being marketed, and the legit industry has imitated and absorbed their techniques.

While the first generation's filmmaking output hasn't been terribly ambitious on the whole, I'd be willing to bet that's going to start changing. The recession is going to force a lot of aspiring filmmakers to fend for themselves rather than working their way up through an industry in a downturn economy. I also think that as more ambitious films start being made and noticed, this approach will no longer be so derided but embraced. You'll start to see more and more that filmmakers and production companies will own their own digital equipment, thus dropping the budgets. Furthermore, the movies produced will start to shed excess weight (crew) and become more stealth in their operations.

In general, I like the idea that filmmaking has become more regional, in that films can now be made anywhere at any time, exposing audiences to places they're unfamiliar with. The reason I refer to what's been going on as "regional folk art" is because most of the examples of regional filmmaking haven't had the ambition to be anything more than slice-of-life films made for niches. In theory, this is a phenomenal development -- filmmaking is down to the pencil and paper. The problem is that in the past aspiring filmmakers sought to impress their idols by displaying a great command of craft, but currently, many filmmakers simply don't have that ambition. I think there's room for both -- and both approaches are important. My point is that one needs to feed off the other; we need breakouts that generate enough attention so audiences are then made aware of the smaller pictures. Right now, we just have the smaller pictures. It's really just a marketing strategy.

While I don't think it's incumbent upon the older generation of indie producers and execs to nurture the younger, I brought that issue up because I think a lot of them really wish they could. I believe that new filmmakers are the lifeblood of indie film. I just think that when the dependent phase opened up, with it went a lot of the so-called community pillars, and there was a chasm left in the nurturing pipeline. Unfortunately, this occurred just as digital DIY filmmaking took off, which further exacerbated the situation by creating a de facto economic gap. Now that the dependent bubble has burst, a lot of veterans have been writing essays about how the indie model is broken. They sound a lot to me like print film critics complaining about younger bloggers -- and we know who's winning that battle.

The generational changeover is happening slowly, but it is happening. People have learned the new landscape on their own, and they'll be fine. The most important thing is for the veterans to learn from the new guys rather than feeling threatened. To me, one of the biggest red flags of disconnect was when Sundance hired established filmmakers to create a series of shorts designed for mobile phones. The whole thing seemed like an attempt to seem up to date. Had they really been on top of things and wanted to promote new formats, they should've picked upcoming indie filmmakers that were already using the web to hold up as examples. As these things go, a shift is already underway at Sundance now.

I actually have a lot of ideas about how to integrate DIY filmmaking into the traditional process and how to promote it and profit from it, but for the time being, as I'm developing some models on my own, I'd prefer not to get into that. Hopefully, sometime soon as I put my ideas to work, I'll be better able to discuss them.

One final note. I don't think that most of us are really that far apart in how we view things. A lot of what's being debated is really semantics. And I appreciate that most of the comments to my initial ramble were civil and respectful. Hopefully, that will continue.

-- Jamie Stuart

Wassamatta With Indie Today?

I got this email from filmmaker/blogger Jamie Stuart, and thought it was a good spark for some discussion...

I just read your piece on the tax incentives and current state of NY indie film, and I thought I'd pass along a few general thoughts. I've observed for a little while now that there's a generational shift going on in the community, and within that, there's a host of issues.

1) The spark that fueled indie film in the '80s and '90s was the marketing concept of the "breakout" -- first time filmmakers establishing themselves with trademark styles and no money. These filmmakers were the poster children for the movement. Now, however, the paradigm has shifted to a situation where filmmakers are making small, dirt-cheap movies for niches and their friends; the debut film isn't as important so much as slowly building a track record. In this model, indie film has essentially become regional folk art. I think we need to return to the prior model, but there are some things holding that up. Like:

2) A lot of the pillars of the scene have fought their battles and moved up in the world. The "dependent" phase from the mid-'90s through the early '00s gave a lot of people a raise in options. Instead of struggling to make a movie for 6-figures or for maybe $1-2M, budgets swelled to $6M as a low, all the way up to $15-25M (some even higher). In this context, I think a lot of these pillars are self-admittedly not as in touch with new talent anymore, and they're glad they don't have to do guerrilla scrambling anymore. I recall a panel with you and Christine at Tribeca a few years back, where you both admitted that you were no longer in a position to find and nurture new filmmakers anymore.

3) I think we need to re-think how movies are made. Micro-features and DIY productions use crews in a much different manner than movies made for 7-8 figures, and I think producers need to study what people like myself are doing. For example, the NYFF46 series I created last fall was a 4-part non-linear sci-fi/action mind-bender -- it was made for an entire budget of $75, and at least 70% of the time, since I was shooting it while starring in it, nobody was even behind the camera. Now, I happen to think that under the circumstances, the project had pretty good production values. Not that I expect larger budgeted productions to use the exact method I did (they wouldn't have to if they had money), but there's got to be something that can be learned and adapted from what I and others have done.

4) Now, if you combine all of the above, you get another problem. It used to be that aspiring filmmakers started with a small budget, either on a short or a small feature, and that was used as a calling card to get a larger budget. The issue here is that due to the drop in budgets based on prosumer cameras and editing, producers don't seem to take those projects as seriously. What they mistake, however, is that you're getting an equivalent production value as before, only it costs a fraction of the amount. But producers aren't saying: "Wow! Look at what so-and-so did for so little. Imagine what they could do with a larger budget? I want to work with him!" Instead, they seem to be looking at the budget, and on that basis alone, writing it off: "Let me know when you've moved on to bigger things, but for now, you're a small fry."

5) The internet is not the savior. The internet is great for sales and marketing, but it's a lousy delivery method. The quality is terrible. I've never looked at the internet as anything other than a means to get exposure and establish myself -- so I can get OFF the internet and make real features. However:

6) Internet filmmaking still isn't taken seriously. It doesn't matter how good my work is or how good it looks, there are people who simply, either by virtue of the size of the player, or through general snobbishness, don't consider it serious filmmaking. I think a lot of the indie community still believes in the film festival model: If you're a serious filmmaker, you need to submit to festivals. They seem almost fundamentalist in this regard. And it's holding up progress.

All of that said, I'm still of the belief that the biggest problem in indie film right now is simply the product. When indie film was booming in the '80s/'90s, young people like myself were drawn to it because it seemed to be the most creative arena in filmmaking. Not now. Young people look to big FX blockbusters as the most creative arena. People now equate indie film with poor production values, cheap-looking handheld photography, amateurish acting, etc. They look at it as a joke. I approached the prospect of DIY filmmaking from the view that ambitious films could now be made inexpensively -- I've always used tripods, dollies, cranes, special FX. But DIY filmmaking on the whole went in the opposite direction -- small, handheld slices of life. And while that aesthetic certainly has its place, it's never going to find a larger audience, in my opinion. Until we shift out of this phase and DIY filmmakers start creating ambitious pictures at dirt prices, the movement will remain derided. And until the bigger people start lifting up the small, there's going to remain a major class divide.

best,
-J