Everything I Know About Producing, Pt.2

Yesterday, we ran part one.  All of this is courtesy of Andrew Einspruch and Screen Hub. And of course Screen Australia who brought me to Sydney for a two day lecture last month. Today: part two.  (P.S.  There are 98 more parts to this lecture but it requires a few more trips to Sydney before I can spit it out!)

by Andrew Einspruch

"For Hope, who is a producer is pretty simple. It is the person there from the beginning of the project to its end." Daunting but true, and Andrew Einspruch tracked his definition for being there down to his feeling for percentages. 

As Ted Hope made abundantly clear on the second day of Hope for Film, effective feature film producers have to know a lot of stuff, and have to keep at it to learn more. Here’s a brief list of things he rattled off:

- Dramaturgy and script development
- Breadth of available actors and crew
- How to maintain the line during production
- How to elevate a project during its creation
- A solid business and financial background in the media space so you can determine the value of what you are creating, and then do that evaluation.
- Who the foreign sales companies are and their reputations (Hope’s own list has 72 on it).
- The meanings of the various film festivals, and what it means to launch at one vs. another.
- How to manage the 90+ territories that are out there (generally sold as about 60).
- The different digital platforms that are out there, and how they can help you sell your film.
- Having big opinions on marketing and distribution, and the wisdom to know you are not always right.
- What brings people together to create an audience.

It is an overwhelming list of knowledge and understanding. “The nice thing is that there is probably no one out there that can answer all those questions,” said Hope. “But it doesn’t stop you from striving to hit it and to try to have the best practices available to you.” 

As a producer, you also have to think through contingencies. “Dark paranoia is the producer’s best friend,” said Hope. That is, your ability to fantasise about how things can go horribly wrong helps you create strategies to prevent those problems.

Hope spoke of trying to determine whether a script was ready to go or not. “No one ever says, ‘I love that script. I wish there was more of it.’” When his collaborators think the project is ready to go out, he often exerts one more step, and that is to try to cut another 10% of the script and of the budget - more than anyone thought possible. “The shorter a project is, the more inevitable it is that it will happen, and the more people believe that script is ready to be made. But good luck. It’s hard.”

Some of his guidelines for working out if the script is ready include:

- You’ve cut that extra 10%.
- In hindsight, you see the intent of every action and every word is understandable and explainable.
- You now what the characters are truly feeling throughout, and expecially at the end.
- All action is influenced by action that has occurred before it or by their psychological makeup.
- There is specificity on the page throughout the process. You are world-building when you make a movie, so have you as the scriptwriter determined what makes up the world, and done so with brevity and poetry, making it a good read?

Hope emphasised the need for the producer to totally be across the script, because that is part of what he described as building a sense of inevitability around the film (mentioned in the previous article). “Before go out and raise money for your film, before you start to submit it, really try to drill down and understand your personal emotional connection to the characters, to the themes,the way it’s being told, what the directors wants to accomplish - know it better than you think anyone else can know it. That is how you communicate the inevitability of that movie being made,” said Hope.

Hope pointed to one of his blog posts, The 99 Recommended Steps For Making Good Movies. It is a good template for doing what you can to make sure the movie is a decent one. Here are the first twelve steps:

1. Maintain wonder & love for the world & most/some of the people.
2. Recognize the barriers & be empowered by my desire for change.
3. Find an inspiring idea & the correct collaborator for it.
4. Maintain love & respect for the film industry.
5. Develop script.
6. Fall in love with project.
7. Get non-financier, non-buyer industry types to give feedback on script.
8. Maintain wonder & love for the process.
9. Further develop script.
10. Maintain respect for collaborator(s).
11. Identify audience & market for project.
12. Enhance my enthusiasm for potential of the results of audience engagement with ambitious cinema.

It goes on from there, all the way to 99, which is, “Do it all over again, but do it a little bit differently.” It is not all hard work. Step 80 is “Celebrate.”

A fair bit of time was given to the topic of the producer-director relationship. Hope likes to work with a range of directors, because that feeds him as a producer. But it has to be a good fit. Some directors want a collaborator - someone to tell them the truth and work toward what is best for the film. Other directors want a producer is a general, executing what the director wants and reinforcing the righteousness of their decisions. Hope said he uses the book The Art of War, which some people have adopted as a kind of filmmaking manual, as a kind of litmus test. He’ll mention the book, and if the director says, “That’s it!”, he knows that is not someone he wants to work with.

He spends time determining if the director is compatible. Can you get a sense of their values? How will they perform under pressure. Do they have a significant other that has lasted a while? Can you have an enjoyable dinner with them? What are they like if you invite them to your home for dinner and to meet your family? How does the person present themselves on social media platforms? Or, as his friend, producer Christine Vachon, half-jokingly asks, “Do they have a long-term, meaningful relationship with a living thing?”

All of these clues help him work out if he can work with a particular director.
Hope also talked at length about the integrity of the producer credit. Too often, people get producing credits, but don’t really act as producers and you see the result when there are eight (or fifteen) people credited for producing a film. 
For Hope, who is a producer is pretty simple. It is the person there from the beginning of the project to its end. That’s it. His rule for himself is that if he dips below 50% of being there for the film, he does not deserve the credit “producer”, and would more likely opt for executive producer. “If everyone tried to live up to that line of 50% or more engagement being required to get that credit, we would have a credit that actually means something.”

 

This is the second part of a two part article by Andrew Einspruch for ScreenHub.  If you are a member of that organization you can read the whole thing here.

Screen Hub is “The daily online newspaper for Australian film and television professionals.” Their web site for the link is http://www.screenhub.com.au.

Andrew Einspruch’s indie Australian film company Wild Pure Heart Productions has created the feature film Finding Joy and the documentaries 2012: This Sacred Earth and 7 Days with 7 Dogs, and is currently working on the low budget feature The Farmer. Andrew can be found on Twitter as@einspruch and at andreweinspruch.com.


Everything I Know About Producing, Pt. 1

As you might know, I was in Sydney,Australia courtesy of Screen Australia to do a Two Day Workshop on Producing, entitled HopeForFilm. Screen Hub journalist Andrew Einspruch took careful notes -- and he and Screen Hub kindly agreed to share it with you.  Thanks.  Here's Day One:

by Andrew Einspruch

Let’s start with how the movie world has changed. As Ted Hope phrased it, the first hundred-plus years in the film world were marked by three characteristics that no longer apply. “The business was built around a belief in the scarcity of product, that we have to control where people see and engage with that content, and that the only way they will do is impulsively, without education or knowledge beforehand.” 

This antiquated model has fallen over. Today’s producer faces a world marked by three opposite characteristics; superabundance, total access, and informed choice. According to Hope, your movie is not just squaring off against 50,000 other features produced in the world annually (in a market that can handle, at best, around 500-600). Thanks to the digitisation of the world’s back catalogue, your humble film is also competing again Kurosawa and Fassbinder and Scorsese and all of the other greats (plus the not-as-greats) across time. That ignores the bazillion hours of material uploaded to YouTube with every breath you take.

Basically, you’re screwed.

Well, maybe not.

According to Hope, if you can rejig how you think about the work, culture, and about community, there is plenty of opportunity. If you target a narrower audience than is typical for the average Hollywood franchise, and address things that they want, and if you can reach them, then you have a chance. The idea of moving people from being an audience to being more of a community is a core concept. Think about the first screening of a new feature film. Who usually gets to see it first? Family and friends. And what is their usual response? It is warm and supportive, because that is how they want to treat you. So what about expanding this to a wider set of people? If you can engage your audience along the way, and make them more like your family and friends, then you can give them the same chance to embrace you and your work warmly when it comes out.

This idea is part of what Hope described as a new definition of what cinema is. An inveterate maker of lists, Hope gave 14 elements to what a modern definition of cinema (or the cinema process) should include, and that if you truly address all of these components, you would be making cinema for the current times. The first aspects are the familiar ones taught in every film school:

1. Development
2. Discovery (this is where the conversation about a film starts, the generation of audience awareness)
3. Production
4. Post -production
5. Marketing
6. Distribution

But the other eight are perhaps less obvious additions to the definition:

7. Engagement and aggregation, where you engage the audience and bring members of a community together.
8. Extensions, versioning and iterations, where you allow the film to evolve over time, and repurpose it for different experiences.
9. Participation with the audience, which is where you engage directly with your community.
10. Collaboration with other artists – think mashups.
11. Appreciation, where you can provide people materials that help them understand and engage with the film – a function that used to be the realm of critics, but has fallen away.
12. Presentation, where the film is changed to reflect the context where it is seen – think the difference between cinema viewing and mobile phone viewing.
13. Value , where the audience gets value from the film beyond mere distraction.
14. Transitioning and migration, where you take the audience member and move them from one experience to another, say from watching a documentary about an endangered species to actually doing something about it.

Hope also encouraged producers to think about how they fit into the world of film business and where their loyalties lie. Is it to the business? To culture? To themselves? To the film? To the community? Where your priorities are will affect what decisions you make, and how you engage with the filmmaking process.

Hope advocates this kind of self-knowledge as a key having a long, successful career in the business. “This is the most important advice I can give, and I am always surprised by how little it is done,” said Hope. “It has helped me tremendously to remain mindful in the intense chaos of getting your work made, produced, completed, and distributed. And that is, simply, trying to remember what it is you love about movies. What defines, for you, what makes a movie great, or better than the rest?”

This question lies close to Hope’s heart, as it was through the process of working out the elements of a great film that he fell in love with his wife. The result? Another list. Here are the first dozen elements on Hope’s own list, and you can see the rest in the article on Hope posted called 32 Qualities of What Makes a Good Film, where he goes into detail on each.

1. Ambition
2. Originality
3. Innovation
4. Integrity to the Concept
5. Discipline
6. Truthfulness
7. Joy of Doing
8. Singularity
9. Communication of Themes
10. Clarity of Intent
11. Synthesis of Style and Themes
12. Application of Techniques

The whole list is worth checking out, and provides excellent food for thought. But more than that, Hope uses these qualities as a way to work out what is going right or wrong on a project, as well as providing a foundation for his work in development.

Hope spoke at length about the various qualities that a producer needs, like the ability to manage relationships (whether with creatives, financiers, or sales agents and distributors). One key is to understand how to control the flow of information. Hope learned the value of this from producer Scott Rudin (The Social Network, No Country for Old Men), who often asks, “What good will come from doing this now?” Managing the flow of information can help create a sense of urgency around a project. Holding on to certain pieces of information (such as who might be attached to a project) can help you control the perception others have of what you are doing.

Returning to the quandary of how to produce in this era of superabundance, Hope spoke of retaining rights and addressing niche audiences. But doing so means the responsible filmmaker must work to lower budgets. That is because the returns, while more likely to flow to the producer, will be smaller than a Hollywood tent pole franchise. 

But how do you produce low budget features effectively? By understanding that micro-budget filmmaking is a different beast. You are not competing with Hollywood. You are going into different territory. In that territory, you have to work faster and smarter. Many, if not all, of your actors will probably suck, or at least be inexperienced. Your stories will be character-driven, and probably have a contemporary setting. You have to shoot very, very fast, using fewer takes and/or setups. And you have to learn to make assets of what others might see as liabilities (like flat acting or crummy sound or limited locations).

Here’s another list: >The Good Machine No Budget Commandments. Good Machine was Hope’s first company, and these rules help him guide micro-budget filmmaking:

1. Write to direct.
2. Write for what you know and for what you can obtain. 
3. Remain flexible.
4. Choose an aesthetic that will capitalize on the lack of money.
5. Don’t over strive.
6. Don’t limit yourself to too few locations.
7. Use everything more than once.
8. Write for a very limited audience – your closest friends.
9. Write to cut it back later.
10. Contradict the above commandment and only write what you know you absolutely must shoot.
11. Keep it simple.
12. Keep it intimate.
13. Make the most of a day’s work.
14. Ignore everything listed above if it doesn’t further the story.

The above points are fleshed out in the full article.

The age of superabundance also means that films can be different lengths. “70 minutes is the new 80, which is the new 90,” said Hope. Movies can be shorter, and we can leave behind the 90 minute construct, which Hope said was based on selling popcorn and what the human bladder could tolerate.
Hope is also a big believer in sharing, pointing to Hollywood’s tendency to celebrate success, hide failure, and hoard information. He noted that in other fields (like science), failure is a key part of eventual success. Scientists try things, make mistakes, and share their information so that science can move forward. “If we want to get it right, if goal is to get out of the situation we are in now where good movies don’t’ get seen, because that’s the fact, then we have to start to work together, make mistakes, share the information, and move it forward to find what the new model is,” said Hope.

He talked at length about how to get your script read, but prefaced his comments by asking why, in this day and age, you would want to have that happen. “Really, just go make it. You can make movies for $50,000. So why look for someone’s approval? You want to get a script read? Go make a movie. You should be making a lot of films. Go make your movie.”

Hope pointed to an article that set the tone called I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script by Josh Olson. Having said all that, know that someone like Hope gets five scripts or more a day, and that his house and office are littered with unread scripts. He suggest that if you want someone to read yours, you should first reach out to them through social media or blog commenting. Establish yourself as someone who is interested in who that person and what their interests are. Figure out how you might be able to help them, but at least recognise that they are a human being who is overwhelmed with scripts. Understand what their life is like. Do the work to get to know the person ahead of time, and then personalise your approach to them and treat them like a human being.

Oh, and use proper script layout (including font sizes and margins), grammar and spelling. It matters. 

Plus, shorter scripts are more likely to get looked at. Hope said he would read 80 pages before he read 120.

And don’t send cookies or be cute. That does not come across as professional.

Finally, there’s a word you want to build into your vocabulary as a producer: “inevitability”. Hope encouraged everyone to try to build in a sense of inevitability to their films, whether it is during development or packaging or financing. The feeling others should get is that this is a project that is going to get made, and that there is an opportunity for them to be part of it, but that won’t last forever.

How do you create that sense of inevitability? “Hard work,” said Hope. It is about being prepared, progressing the project, and having answers to the questions that might get asked. 
What does that hard work look like? There is no one answer, but it could include (but not be limited to) things like:

• Have look book.
• Have all of your short documents – log lines, one paragraph synopses, one-page synopses, three-page synopses.
• Shoot a mood reel.
• Know your ten preferred actors in order of preference.
• Have a film budget.
• Have film schedule.
• Have your foreign sales estimates.
• Know what kind of deal you want for the movie.
• Know what comparable films are out there are.
• Know your audience.
• Know what festivals you want to target, why, and in what order.
• Know when you want to shoot, and where.

All of these things can help create the sense of inevitability that others will find compelling.

This is the first part of a two part article by Andrew Einspruch for ScreenHub.  If you are a member of that organization you can read the whole thing here.

Screen Hub is “The daily online newspaper for Australian film and television professionals.” Their web site for the link is http://www.screenhub.com.au.

Andrew Einspruch’s indie Australian film company Wild Pure Heart Productions has created the feature film Finding Joy and the documentaries 2012: This Sacred Earth and 7 Days with 7 Dogs, and is currently working on the low budget feature The Farmer. Andrew can be found on Twitter as@einspruch and at andreweinspruch.com.


Why I Chose To Lead The San Francisco Film Society

To effectively serve, preserve, embrace and enhance film and film culture, we must examine, participate, and evolve the broadest definition thereof. Film, as an art, culture, community, business, and science is consistently evolving – it may be a cliché, but it’s a fact that film cultures only constant is change. Film’s evolution needs to be embraced and experimented with --not feared.

Large well-financed interests are heavily committed to maintaining the status quo and as much as those corporate and business entities are the filmmakers' & film cultures' allies, those who love film first for the art and culture must act for the artists’ interests over those of pure profit. It’s a difficult balancing act that must be maintained, as alliances must be built so that business can enhance art. For the promotion of film culture, artists and their work -- and their ability to sustain themselves -- must remain the focus of all support and cultural organizations.

Film, and any program to support it, can never be only local, national, or international in scope. A film organization must embrace all three of these aspects as they influence and shape one another. Organizations need to serve locally, recruit, reach, and build nationally, and collaborate internationally. The health of film culture comes with the recognition of this interdependence.

The disruption of the film industry and culture, prompted by the digital revolution, requires a radical rethink of how our support organizations may best serve their constituencies. The cost of creation, execution, and marketing & distribution, within film culture & business has shrunk to such an extent that most barriers have been virtually removed, opening up opportunities for new explorations of form, content, engagement, and appreciation.  Opportunity will never be the same as outcome though, and a pro-active force is required to move access towards execution.

Media literacy is thankfully on the rise and the dependence on a one-off feature film business model is on the decline – a double-headed transition that could usher in the end of the era of feature film form dominance and the birth of over-all content utility. Artists need encouragement & support to adapt their practices and work to extend into multi-form and cross-platform approaches, while simultaneously striving for real-world career sustainability.

As much as the technology, art, artists, and audiences have embraced some of these changes, the industry and market however have resisted them. This gulf offers a wealth of opportunity. However, a reception for change doesn’t necessarily carry with it the ability to do so; artists and their supporters lag behind the development of technology and require new training and knowledge to utilize it. The world’s economic crises and recessions – with their resultant industry & government based capital limitations -- further limit new business models and art forms from developing, let alone taking hold -- without some positive outside intervention.  We must find ways to be more inclusive (and profitable!) for the private sector.

The divide between the haves and have-nots in the arts is reflected by the difference between Hollywood’s focus on tent-poles and Indieland’s reliance on micro-budgets, with the under-funded and artistically adventurous threatened with extinction unless brave new initiatives are undertaken.  I exaggerate not -- when I speak to my producing brethren, they are usually on the cliff's edge, ready to throw in the towel.  The art of filmmaking should not be relegated to hobby status.

Film is no longer a viable career choice for new artists, or those who want to facilitate them; instead everyone must now seek out secondary support occupations to pursue their passions (or be blessed by birth or patrons). The strategicly-wise among them have already embraced a shift from individualized creative expressions to more collaborative ventures. Long-range planning and infrastructure-building need as much, perhaps more, attention than the commitment to the individual visionary work.  The shift from a product business model to that of a relationship with the people formerly known as the audience (to lift from Lance Weiler's phrasing) is a huge transition that won't be easy.  I won't ask others to do what I myself am not willing to both do & exemplify.

Our entertainment economy, and the art it supports, was built upon the concepts of scarcity and control, but today’s reality is one of super-abundance and access – the exact opposite. To survive and flourish, today’s artist/entrepreneurs -- and those who support them -- must all embrace practices that extend beyond the core skills of development, production, and postproduction of their art and work – and even reach beyond the attention and practice of marketing and distribution. To flourish in these complex times, our film community must commit to a comprehensive strategy that emphasizes the full definition of cinema. We must embrace a comprehensive program of discovery, engagement, participation, collaboration, appreciation, presentation, value-exchange, and community-transitioning. These aspects are equal necessities for all participants to master if we are to enjoy a sustainable, diverse, and ambitious film culture.  We need to develop best practices for this, providing support and direction.  We can do this, but someone has to lead, and will never be an individual or a single organization -- but it's time is now.

Our art, culture, and support organizations must pivot to emphasize these needs, while also encouraging the experimentation that can lead to the best practices. Our emphasis on promoting success, while ignoring the "failures" that we could really learn from is simply wrong-headed. Despite my passion and commitment towards bringing new and ambitious work to the screen, I can not in good faith continue a project by project focus, as I feel that as personally satisfying as that has been, all of our ability to do so in the future will be severely limited without a widespread commitment to institute new changes and support.  If all of us just continue to look out for our individual projects, we are fucked.  We can't just keep making movies without giving equal attention to the overall infrastructure.

I trust that I am not alone in this new commitment and that I can count on the full and long term support of others in this mission. It is the reason that I wanted to come to San Francisco and lead the Film Society. I have always produced films in a manner that conserved costs but expanded ambition, and that is a view I will bring as I pivot my attention towards infrastructure, programming, services, and education.  We will build it better together.  There has never been a better time to be a story teller or an artist/entrepreneur -- we can not squander this opportunity.

Good bye NYC.  Hello Bay Area!

Indie Spirit Award Nominations Due Tomorrow

Now in it's 28th year, the Film Independent Spirit Awards recognize the achievements of American independent filmmakers and promotes the finest independent films of the year to a wider audience.

Regular deadline is tomorrow: September 18
SUBMIT TODAY

Final Deadline: October 16

For entry forms, rules and regulations, frequenty asked questions and to submit a film, visit SpiritAwards.com

 

Indie Film: How It Started & Where It Is Headed

I was on the radio in New Zealand in support of Big Screen Symposium a couple of weeks back. It was a very good interview, if I do say so myself.  The interviewer knew his stuff and I had enough coffee to be pretty sharp. Check it out:

http://podcast.radionz.co.nz/atm/atm-20120906-2000-at_the_movies_for_6_september_2012-048.mp3

I start at around the 12:20 mark.  And dig the deep tones of my nasal honk...

Traditional Indies Vs Truly Free

When I was in Australia & New Zealand recently, I was asked by Screen Hub journalist Andrew Einspruch to explain what I meant as the difference between Traditional Indie Film and my favorite phrase "Truly Free Film":

 I think it is one of consistent evolution and transformation to some degree. I come from America, and that’s my perspective. In America, the process of indie film creation has always been, essentially, to write for the market, whether people really think it through or not. I think it interferes, or at least enters and influences, their work process.

We don’t have any state funding in America for cinema; there’s no subsidised system. So when a film is produced, it is often made with the intent that it will be sold to a buyer/distributor, and ideally one of the studio-controlled specialised division.
Even in a film that is 100% private equity financed, those that create it tend to self-censor to some degree in an effort to make sure the film can sell to one of these well-capitalised entities.

Traditional indies had a fuzzy line, I think, in terms of what was determined as independent or not. It was mostly defined more as independent of spirit, being that of a singular, authorial voice, rather than one of a business term, of being fully privately financed or not.

Even still, whether they were financed by a studio or by a multi-national corporate division or whether they were 100% private equity, the film inevitably came out through one of these companies, or at least through one of their ancillary arms. The rights to film no longer resided with the filmmaking team – the artist or those that support them. 

As a result, what has developed is a system in the States where it is really hard for the artists and the people that support them to really benefit from creating their work at an independent level. It might be promoted well, the creators might be enhanced, but it is very rare that they actually profit from that procedure, other than the initial sale.

For the 1990s and up until the early 2000s, sometimes that initial sale was quite profitable. But once the companies started to slim down, once the cost of marketing went up and up, and then certainly after 2008 and the world financial collapse, the world changed. That type of return on investment from an acquisition price no longer was at the same level. The filmmakers, the infrastructure that supported them, and the business structure did not truly adapt to a way that allowed artists and those that support them to eventually profit from them.

So when I draw a distinction between those that might develop their work independently and sometimes fund their work independently, but still be in a process where they surrender all their rights to a licensor of the film. It once would once be presumed that in exchange for that surrender, you would get a nice profit on your investment. Now frequently you see people surrendering those rights for a promise of future revenue, where the acquisition price is for a small fraction of the negative cost of the film. When I started in the business, frequently you would get 50% of your negative cost out of the US. And then it was still considered good if you could get 25%-30%. Now you see the acquisition price is frequently 10% to zero of the negative cost – yet still requiring a long-term licensing of the rights, like 10, 15, 30 years. And t would still involve a profit share very much based on those old models, sometimes only a small percentage of some of the ancillary rights.

So that’s what I mean when I talk about the traditional indies versus those who are “truly free”. Those are the artists, and the people who support them, who look at a model where they would retain ownership of their rights, or license it only on a short-term basis. Instead of looking at a surrender, they look toward how they can practice a much deeper engagement with their fan base, with their community. And they look at what benefits can come of that over the long term. 

So instead of a model that leads to a one-off mentality – build it, then invent the wheel again, and then reinvent it after that, and then reinvent it one more time – instead of working that way, they work toward something that is more of an on-going conversation with their community – actually moving audience toward being community, seeking participation and trying to provide greater value than just entertainment or distraction. 

With that, the scale might actually drop. Without the capital-intensive, mass market backing of these large, well-funded entities, you can’t hope for such a large return. But you can be sure of having a greater percentage of that return come to you. So modelling your film on a smaller scale, and not looking to a mass market, you’re not self-censoring and trying to write for a film that can be worthy of a multi-million dollar ad buy, and having to speak to everybody. Instead, you’re looking to speak perhaps to a smaller audience far more directly, resonantly, and deeply. With that is an opening up of subject matter, of stylistic experimentation, and a moving away from the dominance of the feature film form business model and one-off reinventing the wheel mentality. Instead, you are trying to find something that is far more sustainable and built precisely around that community engagement.

A big part of what goes into my overall thinking, is that time and time again you see artists, audiences and technology changing far faster than markets and industries can even hope to keep up with. That’s always an opportunity that’s there. But it’s very hard to bring things along because we build systems that want to survive. Those systems have a logic where they have to reward the status quo and change is really hard. Yet all those that create for it, consume it, appreciate it, and deliver it, have advanced beyond the utility of that industry or market.

That’s where we are now. And that’s what allowed me to get started and make 2/3 of the movies I’ve made in my career – just that ability to look at the American film system, really the international film system, and say, “Wait a second, it’s already changed, and you’re not changing with it.”

I had good fortune of moving to New York right when the American Independent Wave started. Directors like Spike Lee, the Cohen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch were all making their first features in New York when I arrived there. These films made their money, 100% of their costs, from international revenues. Yet their value was set solely from the privilege of having access to the largest consumption market in the world, the US. So it was perceived that they would be established there, and essentially have their marketing launch from there. But at that time, there was only one company, Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax, that had a business model that was made to exploit that. 

The cost of entry to doing that was relatively small, and I was able to build my first company, Good Machine, predicated on that notion, that with the presumption of an American release, we would be able to cover 100% of our costs of an auteur-driven cinema from the international marketplace. And so we had to listen to what those audiences wanted, and design our films for that, and in exchange, we were able to fund our movies with virtually no capital of own to put into it.

I think we are at a very similar moment of transformation, where that gap between the evolution of audiences, technology and artists has far surpassed the market and industry again. It is up to those who are flexible and nimble to point their way to new business models that can fund a whole new wave of creativity.

It’s exciting. But there are still a lot of problems, bridges and ramps that need to be built to give the creative community the courage to step over these new waters, but that gap between what needs to be done, and somebody’s desire and willingness to do it is a really creative field that is normally referred to as “business”. There’s lots of opportunity there than can really open the way for lots of interesting work. 

This is the first question in an interview that I did with Andrew Einspruch for ScreenHub.  If you are a member of that organization you can read the whole thing here.

Screen Hub is "The daily online newspaper for Australian film and television professionals." Their web site for the link is http://www.screenhub.com.au.

Andrew Einspruch's indie Australian film company Wild Pure Heart Productions has created the feature film Finding Joy and the documentaries 2012: This Sacred Earth and 7 Days with 7 Dogs, and is currently working on the low budget feature The Farmer. Andrew can be found on Twitter as @einspruch and at andreweinspruch.com.

Ten Rules On The Producer's Role In Development

On one hand there's the methods we use to develop scripts, and on the other there is the process.  In the method we ask the questions, finding what works with the writer, director, and story.  The process is what happens in between those questions and where the relationships are born.

What is it that we want to accomplish in the development process?

  1. We learn in the process that "development" is not just making the story or script better; it is about learning or unearthing what is important to your director.  Find those big ideas, and protect them for the rest of the process.
  2. It is about gaining & securing confidence and trust in each other.  The movie won't work unless you achieve this; if you can't, it probably is not one you should stay on.
  3. In the development process we create a common language, a short hand for what we are trying to do and what we really mean when we say a certain thing.
  4. The producer asks a series of "what if..." questions to see where the story might go.  You don't have a choice unless you know the choice exists. 
  5. As decisions are made, it is the producer's responsibility to reveal the repercussions of the choices, both creatively, to the process, and in business terms.
  6. Ultimately we want the director and writer to be "lost in the head" of the story.  We can't expect them to follow each thread as to how it may play out on a practical basis.  That's the producer's responsibility to reveal it.
  7. Protect the characters, protect the relationships, protect their world.  In doing so, you are also protecting the audience.  Often when someone has something they want to say, they bend rules to try to get their point across.  Logic can suffer.  Emotional truth can fall by the wayside.  Whatever is not your writer or director's top priority, should become one of yours for the benefit of the film and those involved.
  8. Speaking the truth about choices is not the same as opening the flood gates.  Managing the flow of information without playing your partners is an instinctual art that can not be taught; the craft can only come from experience.  I found that it helps to pause before sharing a realization and ask what good comes from discussing it now, and really examining where the creative flow is headed at the tim.  You can always make notes to discuss later, and difficult choices have a way of addressing themselves over time.
  9. Through the development process, you learn both what you all want to happen in front of the camera, but often also what the director wants to happen behind the camera.  These closed door discussions reveal a great deal what  the public creative side of things will later be.
  10. The process continues until there are no more questions that can be asked that haven't been answered (and are relevant).

What have I left off?

 

It All Begins Somewhere

I went to NYU Film Undergrad with the idea I was going to be a director. I got a scholarship, and the school encouraged me, but I felt that my destiny as a director was to be but a hack. I could get things going, but I was just regurgitating others' ideas (ah, if only that was enough to stop most...). Sure, imitation is a path to learning, but I was impatient too. If I couldn't be brilliant, I at least wanted to be around brilliance. I pivoted.

Although I loved editing, in the years BA (Before AVID), the road to cutting was organizing trims and I wanted a hell of a lot more action than that. Three years of being a PA though didn't get me any closer to the art department -- which was plan #3.

I had strong opinions though, and was no more in agreement with the way my jobs were organized than I was about the scripts. I could see people needed some help when it came to producing. Unfortunately, no one seemed interested in promoting me from the bottom right to the top. Nonetheless, Life Plan #4 (which really was FILM Life Plan #4 -- as politician, community organizer, labor leader, rebel rouser & agitator had already been contemplated) was born.

So I formed my first company. Here's the letterhead, recently fished out of the recycling. I already had the idea of a no-budget film fund. I had the list of my initial directors -- which included Hal Hartley, Nicole Holofcener, Ang Lee, and Kelly Reichardt. I hadn't yet met James Schamus. I was using "Bella Machina" as a mailing label to the various nut job newsletters I subscribed to, but there wasn't yet a Good Machine.

Luckily I never incorporated "Aberrant Films" and wasted some cash on taxes. But that stationary gave me confidence to say I was a producer. And it was cheaper than business cards. I only had to sneak on over to the photocopier in a pal's office, and viola! I was legit.

Does The World Need Another Decent Movie?

By Julien Favre With the world economy on the brink, the current environment has rarely been so tough for independent filmmakers. To get our films made and, even more so, to see them sold and/or distributed, is getting incredibly challenging. Foreign sales estimates for low budget independent films are a tenth of what they used to be pre-2008, and let's not be fooled by the numbers. We will be happy if we sell at all, even for symbolic numbers. From a filmmaker's perspective, we have entered a dichotomous world: a shrinking pool of independent films do well; most don't make any significant business. It is now as if there is only room for one indie hit per year. If you are not that film that everybody wants, you barely exist and your business footprint will be close to zero.

Now, you can look at this situation in two different ways. One way is to adjust to the market and give it what it wants, or can economically bare. This means making genre films that still have somewhat of a market and will recoup as long as they are technically sound and are made for the right price. You can also continue to make "art house" films (for lack of a better word) as long as you don't spend more than $80,000 making them, since this is what you can realistically hope to net from world wide sales if the film turns out okay and has a decent festival run.

But the other way to look at these dire market conditions is to ask ourselves: does the world really need another decent film? The elephant in the room is that most films are bad or average. Back when the economy was strong and there was a theatrical and DVD market for indie films, decent films used to do well enough to justify the venture from a business standpoint, but not anymore.

Even if no filmmaker or producer sets out to make yet another average film, we would be lying to ourselves if we were claiming that we never went in production on a film knowing full well that the script needed another pass, or praying that an average director would turn a good script into a great film, or that we would be able to cut around bad performance.

But the reality is that there is no room for average films anymore. There isn't even much room for good movies unless they are backed by heavyweight distributors. We can lament about how unfair, how scandalous it is that our labour-of-love films don't sell and nobody sees themt. Or we can accept the reality of the market and raise the bar of what we produce.

A month or so ago, someone asked me WHY i was a producer. I am so used to people asking me WHAT a producer is, but I was taken aback by this very simple question, and I didn't know what to say. Producing is so much part of me that I cannot contemplate doing anything else, but that doesn't answer the question.

But I realized after the fact that the WHY question is fundamental, and even more so considering the difficulties the indie film world is facing today. Since we are certainly not doing it for the money (and in most cases unfortunately not even for our investors' money), then why are we doing it? Not for the hours, obviously. Producing is not the healthiest or stress-free occupation. And from a human standpoint, it is rarely satisfying either. As a function of what we do, we are at the receiving end of all grievances and rarely get any recognition when things do go well because, you know, all is normal then…

So why are we doing it?

Because there is nothing like the experience of watching an amazing film and being devastated, blown away, changed by it. For me, it started with Akira Kurosawa's Ran. I remember being unable to speak for the rest of the day, and trying to find a way to merge with that world, keep it alive in my head, escape in it.

So deep down, this is what has been driving me: I want to hurt the audience with beauty, emotionally wreck the viewers by exposing them to true art. This is the WHY. This is why I want to make movies. But I guess this is very easy to lose sight of this as we struggle with the reality of the business, and making a living, and deal with the pressure of "producing something" to justify being a producer.

In an oft-quoted letter to his friend Oskar Pollak, Franz Kafka wrote: "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? ...we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us."

Of course, creating truly great art is incredibly difficult, and depends on so many factors, most of them beyond our control as producers. It is likely beyond most producers' or filmmakers' ability actually. There are plenty of competent people, but true talent is scarce. And even with the best intentions, the highest artistic integrity, there is never any guarantee of success.

But our responsibility, more than ever, is to try, to be intransigeant with content, to look at our slate with a cold heart and ask ourselves: does this movie really need to be made? And why? Would I honestly go see it if I wasn't the producer? It is so hard to get something made that making something, anything, seems like an achievement in itself. But it is not good enough, not anymore.

And in answering these questions, let's be honest. If what we read is not truly great, not really original, not inspired, if the demo-reel we are watching is average, if the ending doesn't quite work, let's keep working, let's keep writing, let's keep looking for the right creative partners and the right elements.

So rather than lament the lack of opportunities, our response as producers to these dire times should be to try and make better films, make great films, not just good ones. Films that will get seen, and distributed, regardless of the market conditions, the weather, venus' transit or what other movie is being released that week.

There is no room for good anymore, but simply making good movies is not why we got into this anyways, so maybe this is our opportunity to become who we always wanted to be, and do what we always aspired to: make films that break the frozen sea inside.

Julien Favre is a producer at DViant Films, an independent film company based in Los Angeles and Toronto. The company's latest release, Martin Donovan's Collaborator, opens at the Egyptian in Los Angeles this Friday.

COLLABORATOR opens theatrically in Los Angeles tomorrow (Friday, July 20th) for a limited one week run.  Screening times here.

As of this writing COLLABORATOR is 82% "Fresh" at Rotten Tomatoes.

How To Watch Collaborator:

10+ Things To Think About If You Want To Make Better Films

I watch a lot of films. I think I watch about 250 a year. I also watch a lot of films that never come out, that most audiences never get access to. I learn a great deal from the "noble failures", the films that have ambition but just miss the mark fully in execution. I honestly like these films and find pleasure in watching them, but I also know that most people like their entertainment and culture to be in a more perfectly realized state -- even if most of us don't have the resources to bring our work to that state. I think most people's taste is shaped by their training; we learn to like what we get -- unfortunately.

Yet I also think there are some things that always connect and strike a chord with the audience.  These universal pleasures are not story tricks or character traits per se, but  themes we discover in the stories that move us most,  concepts that help people relate and engage with the work we watch.  Yet, since it is summer, the movies that come to most of us are designed to separate us from our wallets; the movies of summer are supposed to be what most people want.  I go to check them out with the rest of the hordes, and I walk away with less than I entered with.  I am not just talking about the loss of money and time either, I have lost some of my spirit.  The filmmakers and the financiers, the huge team of collaborators responsible for getting the work in front of people, all seem to forget some of the good stuff.  Shouldn't we all be asking ourselves what really matters?  I think the answers still can be very entertaining.

Years ago, I had a sit-down with the filmmaker Michael Moore.  I confessed to him that I had formerly been a community organizer and felt a bit foolish sometimes having devoted my life subsequently to getting films made and seen.  I wanted to return to politics and bring about some change.  Michael stared at me a bit confused.  The room was silent for a minute before it reminded me that all my films were political:  that by giving characters respect and depth, by allowing the audience the room to make up their own mind, by demonstrating a commitment to quality and art -- verses just profit and dreck -- I was doing something very political.

I do try to think about the world, about the power of my labor and what I can add to the world.  I ask myself: "what is needed?" Sometimes these themes infect my stories and projects.  Sometimes they effect my polices and methods.  Sometimes they shape my commitments and relationships.  I think they make my films better.  I think they could make your life better too.  I think if we let them into our lives and art and business, we will build a better world together.  At least I am willing to hope that they all will.  And give my life, labor, and love to the effort to prove they might.

What am I talking about?  I am not really sure honestly, but I am happy to give a try to articulating it further.  My list's not in an order, and I am sure to miss some very important things.  I will fail.  I will get it wrong. But isn't that what a conversation is all about: a group endeavor to unearth something greater?

  1. Empathy - Making movies is a privilege.  Our path and those of others could have easily gone a different way with a little bit of influence, good or bad.  There will always be so many good movies yet to be made because all characters can be related to.  Until you can walk in another's shoes, you are not ready to begin the journey.
  2. Justice -Bryan Stevenson's Ted Talk speaks well of the connection we feel when we see and combat injustice in the world.  What could ever be a greater good?
  3. Change/Growth - It is so easy to get stuck in a rut.  It is so easy not to see the forest for the trees.  It is hard to keep a perspective on things.  We can't stand still.  I don't think we can do it alone.  We need to check to make sure we are always moving forward, and are loved ones are doing the same.
  4. Emotional Truth - People forget how to live.  We model ourselves on the world around us.  The surface of things takes precedence over the depth if don't commit to digging deeper. Simple is not what we are.  Go further. Creation requires an acceptance of responsibility for and with what is delivered.
  5. Identity - Who are we?  Who are they?  Why are we unique? Why are we the same?  What's not to celebrate?
  6. Specificity - There is a universal aspect to the culturally specific.   There is freedom in the commitment.  Freedom requires responsibility.  Limits expand horizons.  Make a commitment and embrace it.  Generalities, including this one, are all lies.
  7. Compassion - It is not easy.  It is not fair. No one has earned it.  We make mistakes.  The nature of human kind is to fail.  So get over it and let your heart lead your mind and body.  We can all relate.
  8. Generosity - It is not a zero sum game.  There is more than enough for everybody.  Getting yours does not means they can have more or get their first.  If we reach out and provide, everyone accelerates.  Nothing else feels better than giving it away.
  9. Curiosity - Does it need to be this way?  Could it be done another way?  Why them? Why then?  What lies beneath?
  10. Ambition - We all need something to aspire to and that is the role of art.  We show ourselves and everyone else what we could be.  If we refuse to settle, we lift everyone up with us.
  11. There is no end.  No list will be finished. No film truly completed.  It's an ongoing story with many authors, collaborators,  participants, and proselytizers.  We are mayflies on the windshield of history.  Evolution is the way of everything.

Kickstarting for Theatrical Distribution: Pro’s & Con’s

by Sara Kiener

One day we’ll say “I remember the film industry before crowdfudning existed,” and newcomers will drop their jaws in disbelief. Kickstarter has made a quick and lasting impression on the industry, opening doors for filmmakers who have reached the end of their fundraising and grant writing ropes. Countless movies have been made that wouldn’t have been made without Kickstarter - many of which have left a significant mark in the festival circuit, in theaters and in our homes. One of the more recent trends that I’m intrigued by is the bevy of films Kickstarting to raise funds for theatrical distribution. Urbanized, My Reincarnation, Tchoupitoulas, Detropia and, more recently, Taiwan Oyster, Starlet and The Waiting Room (the latter 3 are currently active) have been green-lighting their own theatrical releases. With their success, I'm sure many more filmmakers will follow suit in the coming months.
Whether you’re raising funds for a portion of your budget or you're trying to get your movie seen on the big screen following a robust festival reception, here are some factors to consider before you launch:Kickstarting to MAKE a movie:

  • Pro's
    • The obvious pro here is that you get money to make your film.
    • You also get to connect with your audience before your film even exists.
    • If you run a tremendously successful campaign, you’ll be noticed by festival programmers, producers, talent and distribution companies.
    • Through the process of your campaigning, you get to weed out you “good” outreach ideas from your “bad” outreach ideas, and you can use this data to inform your outreach and marketing efforts later on in your films’ release. Crowdsourcing is your chance to try anything and everything, and learn how to connect and engage with your audience so come screening time, you’ll have a slew of email addresses and Facebook fans to tell about your exciting news, in a tried and true engaging way.

  • Con’s
    • You HAVE to connect with your audience BEFORE your film exists. You have nothing (or very little) to show to your fans. If you do get backers, it’ll be months and months before you can show them a completed project and, by then, they may have lost interest in your project.
    • If you run a mediocre or not very successful campaign, you won’t be noticed by festival programmers, producers, talent and distribution companies. If they do stumble upon your less-than-awesome campaign, you may look disorganized or as if there is no built-in audience for your project down the line.
    • If and when the time comes that you need more money to finish your film/distribute your film/travel with your film/create key art for your film and so on, you may have already tapped out all your favors and asks via Kickstarter.

Kickstarting to DISTRIBUTE a movie:

  • Pro’s
    • The obvious pro here is that you get money to distribute your film and hold on to your theatrical rights.
    • You also get to connect with your fans RIGHT before you unleash your film onto the universe. If you’re lucky and smart, you’ll Kickstart with a theatrical plan in mind so that you can announce theatrical details throughout your campaign.
    • You get to SELL a finished product to your fans. Digital downloads, DVDs, tickets and community screenings (what people want!) are just a click.
    • If you run a tremendously successful campaign, you’ll be noticed by exhibitors across the country. Once upon a time, regional theaters looked to New York opening weekend grosses to decide if they would book a film. What if they looked at your Kickstarter grosses instead?
    • You get to weed out you “good” outreach ideas from your “bad” outreach ideas, as you gear up for your theatrical outreach. So by the time you’re 2 months out from your opening date, you already have a slew of partners waiting and ready to pounce on your promotions.

  • Con’s
    • Somehow you have to finance your film to completion without Kickstarter. Good luck!
    • If you’re Kickstarting to raise funds in order to hire a team to distribute a film (bookers, designers, publicists, grassroots outreach, etc.), you have to WAIT until you have the money in place before you can hire them. It can be a tremendously stressful situation to be in.
    • If you blow your film industry coverage and buzz on your festival circuit and your Kickstarter campaign, who will you turn to in order to create buzz for theatrical? Be mindful of the delicate balance - on the one hand, you need some industry press talking about your kickstarter campaign so that you can hit your goal and release the film. On the other hand, you need some industry press talking about your film right before theatrical, to help get butts in seats when the day comes.

Of course, there’s no right or wrong time to crowdfund. It just depends on what you want to get out of the experience, besides money. As you prepare for your crowdfunding campaign, be mindful of how the above factors may impact your films’ long term trajectory. And then hold your breath and hit the "launch" button!

Sara Kiener is the co-founder and marketing director of Film Presence which has implemented grassroots outreach and social media campaigns for over 30 films as they've prepare for their theatrical, DVD, broadcast, festival premieres and Kickstarter launches. Film Presence places an emphasis on organizational partnerships and community building. Highlights include the 2011 Oscar Nominated WASTE LAND and 2011 Oscar Nominated HELL AND BACK AGAIN. Twitter: @SaraKiener @FilmPresence

Film Production Methods: The "Better" Way Vs. The Easy Way (In 15 Steps)

Two years ago I wrote a blog post "Ten Things We Should All Do On Our Productions".  I would like to do a sequel to that post and would love your suggestions as to what those things now should be.  I do think the old list fully applies, but I am confident we can add to it.

One of the ten things that was on that list was doing things the "better" way vs. the "easy" way.  We so love completing tasks we often cave into just getting things done.  But if we all worked together to lift the bar higher, no one would tolerate many of the practices that are currently considered "acceptable". So why not work together to raise the bar higher?  How about I start with a list of:

15 Things We Can All Do On Our Film Productions That Would Make Life & Art Better, Safer, & More Satisfying.

On that original post, I listed the seven following ideas as examples of the "better" way.

  1. Avoid 15 Passenger Vans as they are the most dangerous vehicle on the road.
  2. Provide housing when someone has worked an excessive day.
  3. Recycle bottles and cans.
  4. Print less. Use less paper.
  5. Email Call Sheets
  6. Provide production packages (shooting schedules, breakdowns, lists, etc.) on line.
  7. Crew Lists as Address Cards so they can instantly be input in one’s phone.

Looking at this list, it made me wonder what other practices could be done even "better".  I challenged myself to come up with another 8, to bring my list to 15. I had to do it over my morning cup of coffee -- as that is the only time I can ever find to blog.  It would be great to get this list to 30, but to do so I need your help -- and few more mornings.  For now though, it's not too bad to be armed with a list of 15. Please let me know if you succeed in doing any of these on your productions.

  1. Hire people who are not like you, who come from different backgrounds, who have had different opportunities, are different genders, politics, race, class, beliefs than yourself.
  2. Make more of the process transparent.  What have you got to hide?  Openness facilitates trust.
  3. Make sure interns receive an educational experience and are not exploited as free labor.
  4. Give people a true day off.  Restrain yourself from sending emails or making calls one day a week.  Instead gather those needs, requests, ideas, and hold onto them for 24 hours before sharing them. Emergencies do happen, but a well-rested team performs better.
  5. Don't tolerate abusive, inconsiderate, discourteous, or impolite behavior.  Talented people often get away with a lack of civility.  It creates a hostile environment and there is no need for it.  What if we started calling everyone out on it?
  6. Share something you create with another production.  We often give away our remaining "expendables".  We give away crew lists and such other basic info.  What more can we share?  Can you create a new form and then distribute to the community? Have the location photos all gone up in a communal database?  What if you met for 30 minutes with another production that was just starting to prep when you were about to start principal photography and discussed what you could pass on.
  7. Actively try to get jobs for your top five performers on the cast or crew -- particularly if they are not well-known yet.  Don't just take the talent with you.  Promote them to others; maybe help them get an agent or other representation.  Don't wait for new productions to call, but call them.  Write those letters of recommendations in advance and give them to the superstars to take with them.
  8. Provide all collaborators with some piece of ownership in the work.  The industry likes to say that backend doesn't matter, but they still refuse to give any of it away.  If even a small fraction of the net profits is given en masse to the crew and cast, I am confident it will have a positive effect on the production.  My best experiences have all been when a large number of the team had an ownership position.  Granted some times this backfires a bit; way back when when on The Wedding Banquet we distributed a significant share of the profits to the cast and crew despite not being contractually obligated to do so -- yet a group voiced that we were not doing enough (and I wonder how many times in the subsequent years they received anything from anyone else).  It also sometimes can not be mandated due to the other financing concerns -- so there are many reasons why it is not done more often. I just know I am going to try to do it more often going forward (and encourage others to do likewise too).
So what do you have to add to the list?  Let's build it better together.

 

 

Producing Rules For Hard (aka All) Times

I had the pleasure of participating on a producing panel at the Athena Film Festival back in the second week of February.  For once I got to be the token male.  It was an excellent group with Mary Jane Skalski, Nekisa Cooper, and Susan Cartsonis. The moderator was Lisa Cortes, and she was one of the best moderators I have ever had (festival programmers take note!).

I started tweeting out the advice that was said by all on the panel.  This was about both how to get your movie made and how to survive in these times.  They got tweeted and passed around by others but I have collected them here for you now too.  Sorry for the delay in posting!

1. Set the agenda

2. Beware of their unexpressed agenda

3. Use passion to open doors

4. Find your community & activate

5. Create tools now for use later

6. Be honest in your communication

7. Walk on tightrope w/ conviction

8. Be strategic

9. Don't ask for permission

10. Embrace fullest definition of cinema

11. Help ppl envision themselves as a force of change

12. Know the someone u make the movie for

13. Find a way or make 1

14. Let the audience ripple wider

15. Create atmosphere of inevitability

16. Must hv great intention

17. Be authentic to yourself

18. Be distinct in marketplace

19. Make sure you have friends to support you emotionally

20. Look beyond the feature film form

21. Support each other

22.

23. Do your research

24. Build a coalition

25. Establish your brand (what makes you unique)

Ted Hope

TedHope

The Indian Independent Film Industry: Where Do We Go Now?

Guest post by Ritesh Batra

Where do we go now? A somewhat reasoned rant on the Indian Independent Film Movement and the business of Indian Indie film.

There is something in the air in Bombay, everyone’s talking about it. Sometimes it feels very real, and at other times it feels more like Yeti- the mystical creature somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas, many of have seen his footprints in the snow, no one seems to have met the guy or lived to tell the tale. It was pre-maturely named the Hindi new wave by festival directors in the West. It was expected to arrive sometime in 2009, just after Slumdog Millionaire, the Slumdog effect, but it did not quite materialize then. The following years, 2010 and 2011 were good years for Indian Indies with some travelling to major film festivals and even pulling in good numbers in the local box office. Yes, something’s definitely in the air, the water has pulled back and exposed all the artifacts on the sea floor- shells, fish carcasses, water bottles, rocks, even Ganesh idols that refused to melt, etc., people have walked in and are eyeing all these things with curiosity and this big Hindi New Wave is expected to come and sweep them off of their feet anytime now. But guess what, its not coming anytime soon, because unlike tsunamis, film movements take time to mature and bear fruit, a set of visionaries and the convergence of fortuitous events turn it into an industry, an ecosystem that can only develop organically.

It brought a smile to my lips recently when I saw a screenwriting class advertised, to be held in New York City, ‘the craft with an eye to the Indian Independent Film World’, its like selling Yeti t-shirts in all sizes, including triple XL  - Yeti’s own size! But it’s a good thing; it means that the Yeti that is the Indian Independent Film has left his footprints in the snow again recently. People will come out and sell Yeti mugs, t-shirts, mouse pads shaped like footprints in the snow. But more importantly, the explorers, the visionaries may just find Yeti now, now that they have one more clue. When that happens, the real Indian Independent Film Movement will become an Industry.

The conflict of the modern and the traditional that defines our lives more and more everyday and the angst that comes from it will spur stories and storytellers. There will be the quintessential Indian Independent Films one day they will be a true reflection of the idea of India and the Indian life at this moment in time, and there will be people lining up to watch them as well, either in dedicated indie film venues or on their i-pads. But it’s not going to be easy to get there, not as easy as selling Yeti Foot Print Shaped Mouse Pads.

To build and sustain a viable Independent Film Industry in India we need an ecosystem. This ecosystem of studios/financers, production houses, filmmakers with truly independent voices, talent development programs, festivals with real curatorial authority, dedicated venues for indie film/exhibitors, independent film press to solely review indie films and only report on specialty film box office, and most importantly - organizations and institutions dedicated to audience building - The audience that will buy the tickets/ DVDs/ downloads/ merchandise/ what have you, and pump the monies into this ecosystem.

But before we come to that, what exactly is an Indie film?

Indie in the West is a non-studio funded film, or a film with bold themes or one that goes into unchartered territory, is truly experimental, etc. There will be 3 or 4 definitions of an ‘Indie Film’ in the West. In India, it is more complex. “How complex is your complexity?” put that on a t-shirt. “India - our complexity will boggle your complexity’s mind” put that on the back.  In India, there are as many definitions of Indie film as our Gods have hands and our demons have heads. The definition of ‘Indie Film’ depends on the person you ask – some will say it is a film without songs, other like to say an Indie film is an ‘issue based film’ which could mean anything from ‘it is a bad script where all the subtext  - the aforementioned issue, is summarized in scrolling text or voiceover at the end’ to ‘a film without songs’, other definitions doing the rounds are an Indie Film is a festival film/at times black and white for good measure/ made by so and so/ starring this, that or the other/etc. etc.. Among audiences an unspoken consensus seems to have emerged – “an Indie film is a low budget film with no stars that may or may not have songs peppered in its narrative, it is likely that it will be slow-paced, it may deal with a current affair, and it will surely have a beginning, middle and end. “

A highly scientific poll of my family, friends and neighbors generated this last definition. I am skeptical about everything usually, including and not limited to Elvis’s passing, but for the sake of argument lets assume that this definition is accurate. Why is this dangerous to our very existence as filmmakers or players in the Indie World? It is simple really; our audience has a very broad and loopy definition of our product. By audience I don’t mean foreign film festival audiences, I mean the local audience that is our Bimbo bread and Amul butter. The audience that decides whether we get to buy real diapers for our kids or just pretend to be eco-friendly and use hand washed cloth diapers over and over.

This broad and loopy definition results in too many films being clubbed into the ‘Indie film’ category. If the audience thinks every low budget, non-song, slow paced, issue based feature is an ‘Indie film’. We are developing our audiences with a good ‘Indie Film’ and killing it with the 10 bad ones that will follow until the next good one comes along. We will go 1 step ahead, 2 steps back, and no prizes for guessing where we will end up. We will end up hand washing cloth diapers.

Why does the Indian audience have such a broad and loopy definition of the Indian Indie film? Because there are not enough tastemakers, curators, festivals with real curatorial authority, reviewers, gurus, filmmakers, etc. telling the audience what an ‘Indie Film’ really is. It may be low budget or medium budget, may or may not have stars, stripes or songs in it. But it is essentially a good story well told, that asks questions rather than gives answers, and for that reason it will live in your conscience long after you have left the theater. Hence you must purchase the ticket and provide us with our bimbo bread, amul butter and real diapers. Indie in India has very little to do with its funding model, it is content with an independent spirit. The difference between the Bollywood film and the Indian Indie is just that – the quintessential Bollywood musical gives the audience what they expect, and the Indian Indie ideally gives them what they least expect but hopefully want. The other difference is that the Bollywood apparatus like a true industry is very good at defining its product, hence making it ‘commercial’, and the Indian Indie World is not. If I don’t tell you what it is that I am selling to you, why would you buy it from me? Therefore, when you tell someone in Bombay that you are a filmmaker, the first question they ask it – “Commercial or Indie?” The obvious implications being that the Indian Indie film is not a commercial enterprise, and yes you can marry my daughter but only over my grave.

So what does this indie ecosystem need to look like? No matter who we are in this ecosystem - studios/financers, production houses, filmmakers with truly independent voices, talent development programs, festivals, venues for indie film, independent film press, organizations and institutions dedicated to audience building…we have work to do. Currently, our Indie ecosystem works much like our cities - Everyone cleans and jazzes up their own home while ignoring the common spaces that bind our lives together.

What we don’t have & need…

1. Festivals with real curatorial authority, or just festivals with distinct and unique personalities – Film festivals that matter have a vision, and a visionary helmer, a person who sets the tone, and makes sure that the bouquet of films that the festival is going to offer up to the festival audience that year is going to collectively say something about their World and reality at that moment in time. Coherence. That is what draws audiences in and over time makes the festival relevant to the local audience and a real curatorial authority. The mark of quality or aura that these festivals with real curatorial authority provide films and filmmakers, what if we had a festival like that in India?

Indian filmmakers have a common gripe – a film that went to Oberhausen, Tribeca, Rotterdam, Fribourgh and other premier film festivals, but they have no clue what would be a fitting festival for the film in India. I know that the film is a strange and funny take on life so festivals like Rotterdam and Oberhausen that encourage unique perspectives and weird views of the World we live in are good platforms for it, but what are the unique personalities of our local film festivals?

Many of our local festivals are trying to bring the hottest films on the festival circuit to India, have great panels and master classes, and a great international guest list. But few are trying to develop their own unique personality and curatorial style, to make sure all these films collectively say something to our local audience. Our homegrown SXSW/ Sundance/ Tribeca with an independent spirit and a platform that would help Indian Indie filmmakers unlock and access our own local audiences.

2. Savvy indie film marketers - I saw a film on a flight a few months ago called “Rocket Singh - Salesman of the Year”. It was deftly written, well directed, the performances were great, and overall in my humble opinion no less than ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ - another slice of life film that took the American Indie World by storm a few years ago. It is a big Indian studio film with a big star, but it had a true independent spirit in that it was a reflection of our times and moral conflicts, a good story well told where there were no stock characters, no villains but real people with real conflicts. If that film had fared well at the Indian box office, it would have done more for Indian Indie film than many ‘Indie Films’.  Perhaps it should have been positioned as an Indian Indie that can cross over. Had it crossed over to western audiences and then come back to India with accolades, it would have done better business? I don’t know, but it’s worth speculating. The example I am using is subjective of course, I like this film, others may not, but surely we all agree we need good marketers who can take a good story well told and sell it to a relevant subset of our own audience.

3. Dedicated venues – It is very heartening to see many screening series and organizations trying to build up our film culture. Sundance’s Film Forward program recently came to India, and PVR theater chain’s Rare initiative gets talked about as well. But the key missing piece in this whole ecosystem is the dedicated venues for Indie Film. Where do I go to buy my ‘Khosla Ka Ghosla’ mug, my DEV D hip flask, and DVD set of the Apu Trilogy that is on sale during the Ray retrospective? In a city like Bombay with real estate going through the roof, a dedicated venue may not be viable, but in smaller towns? In Indore, Pune, Banglore, Hydrabad, others? The IFC Center in New York is perhaps not raking in the moolah for IFC but it provides their films with a much-valued theatrical release, and it’s a space through which they nurture their audience. It’s not possible to monetize a community of film lovers without giving them their go to places to commune – become a community and grow.

4. Development – As a writer your only currency is time, you have nothing else really. You have clear choices to make, should you work on an that unauthorized or authorized remake some has offered you, should you write dialogues for someone else’s picture (in India the dialogue writer is often different from the screenwriter, because screenplays are written in English, dialogues in Hindi/other local language), or should you toil away at a story that has been nagging at you to come on the page? Should you distil this story through your life experiences and risk the effort to come up with a good story well told? But wait a minute, you have bills to pay, bread to buy, maybe even butter. Stories are like buses. When the story bus hits you, you have to put it down on paper and give it the love, the attention, the toil, and the compulsion it deserves. If you don’t, the bus takes off, looking for another storyteller. Do this enough times, and this is every Bombay writer’s biggest fear – the God given receptors you have to observe the human behavior around you and bring it to your stories will dim, that story bus will stop coming if you let it go enough times. Talent is not democratic. Very few have it. So why don’t we have mechanisms in place to protect those who do?

The concept of ‘development’ does not exist in the jargon of most producers and studios in India.  But what if it did?

Who we don’t have enough of…
1. Uncompromising storytellers, uncompromising reviewers, and an uncompromising audience – How many times have we heard or read this – “that was good for an Indian film” or “I went with low expectations so I liked it” or someone gave me this gem recently “even though it was clearly a rip off it had a very Indian spin to it”. If we don’t hold each other and others accountable for lazy writing and unbridled stealing then we deserve the sub par content that is served up to us.

Slowly, a set of mainstream reviewers, portals and independent blogs are gaining traction, dearcinema.com, longlivecinema.com are among the sites that are dedicated to the Indian Indie and not only provide a place to commune but also try to keep everyone honest.

2. A personal connection to our stories – Enough said. This was a big year for India at Cannes, we had 4 Indian Films in various sections and festival side-bars. The World wants more, and we should want more from ourselves.

3. Producers who can navigate international markets and the festival landscape – Why is this important to create our own local ecosystem of Indie film? If our stories travel to international markets, and our films travel to international film festivals and have major sales agents on board that can sell them in international territories. That flushes dollars back into our indie ecosystem, the monies that will sustain this ecosystem. It also helps to set up co-productions wherein foreign producers who have produced content for the World markets come on board as creative stakeholders. It helps to raise the bar on content, and enhance the universal core of our stories. How many people can this story talk to? 1 billion? 6 billion? In the future, the future Mr. Gittes, the film will have a longer long tail, it will be consumed on multiple platforms long after what we now know as windows (Theatrical, Satellite, TV, Hotels & Planes, DVD, everything broadband) are exhausted. Films that will make full use of this longer long tail will be stories with a strong universal core, stories that can speak to 6 billion because the creative team – writer, director, producers, and actors were able to go deep and find something that everyone can hang their hat on.

4. Talent Development Programs – While this is the most obvious need in any industry, it is the hardest one to nail.  We need more Talent Development Programs for writers and directors devoid of the usual suspects. We need many more safe places for writers to develop their craft.  A talent development program for nurturing savvy producers in navigating co-productions and alternative funding and distribution models is perhaps an even more critical need of the hour.

The arrival of Sundance in India via Mahindra is great step ahead to shine the light on and to nurture writers. The National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) has been visionary with the NFDC- Binger Screenwriters lab, now in its fifth year and the Film Bazaar. Both the lab and the Film Bazaar have become launch pads into the international markets for projects with a universal take on the Indian experience. The Film Bazaar attracts programmers from the major film festivals and all the major sales agents and showcases Indian Indie projects like they have not been showcased yet.

5. Visionaries & disruptors – People in the creative process and in every step of the journey of the film that question why we do what we do in the way we do it.

What does an alternative distribution model look like in a country with a billion people and the most rapidly growing middle class in the World? And the fastest growing cell phone market in the World? Can a piece of the specialty film business in India be a volumes business? And more questions even more interesting than these. The thing about visionaries and disruptors is that they don’t always know the answers but they have the exposure and receptors to ask the right questions. You cannot track Yeti down without asking questions.

6. Audience building initiatives – In this entire ecosystem of the future Indian Indie film business, the people/person/entity/organization that may own the biggest piece of pie, is the one that invests in audience building today. The one that helps to gather, collect, nurture the audience under a virtual or physical roof will likely also be the one to monetize them effectively.

Where do we go now…

There are overlaps of course throughout this value chain that goes from writers to exhibitors. For example, most Financers in India are also Producers. And the curators and tastemakers are not just festivals but also the press and Indie stalwarts who tweet, but no single part of this ecosystem can exist for too long without the others being alive and well. There is the potential for huge rewards throughout the Indian Indie value chain but it is clear that all the links need to function if we want to expand our local audiences and tell our stories to the World.

India is in flux. And its not an organized and controlled flux akin to China, it is leaps and hops, spurts and bursts, backwards and forwards. It is a screenplay with the most erratic pacing, and us – the characters that live the screenplay that is India, have seen the biggest scams, the biggest income gaps, the biggest dreams and the biggest nightmares come alive all at once. Attitudes and tastes are evolving fast. What is a taboo today, won’t be one 6 months or a year from now. You can’t write this stuff and yet we must. The Indian Indie film World has the unique privilege to document our society at a time like no other, to not only commune with each other but also commune with our audience. To tell them that we don’t know how to deal with this stuff either, but here’s a story about it, we are all in this together.

Ritesh Batra is a writer/director based in Mumbai.  His feature script 'The Story of Ram' was part of the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors labs in 2009. His new feature feature 'The Lunchbox' was selected for the Cinemart 2012. 'The Lunchbox' will be shot on location in Mumbai in 2012.

Recommended Reading: Mynette Louie's "Innovate Or Die"

It took me a week but I finally caught up with Mynette Louie's IFP Blog Post "Innovate Or Die".  She does an excellent job at capturing the Indie Producer's life at this point in our cultural era.  More importantly, she makes a fantastic and necessary plea to us all:

"let’s put our  heads together and figure out how to sustain not only ourselves, but ultimately, the art that we love so dearly, and the diversity of artistic voices that make it. There is a better way, and we’ve got to find it soon."

Read the whole post here.

Failure For The Win: The Video

We learn more from failure than we do success. As a community however we only publicize our successes, and we hide our failures. We should take a page from the world of science, and realize successful experiments can only come about by the collective sharing of failure. The Vimeo Festival gave Ed Burns and I an opportunity to get that ball rolling last weekend. If you missed it, tune in, here.

Indie Filmmaking: You Have To Have Faith

by Christopher J. Boghosian A few months ago, I plopped down on my couch, let out a deep breath and involuntarily uttered, "It takes so much faith."

The best definition of faith I could find comes from the New Testament: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Although this verse is referring to spiritual faith, it perfectly captures the faith we need to pursue an independent filmmaking career. Because unlike a Starbucks employee who is guaranteed myriad customers and a steady paycheck, us indies must stand on our own two feet; even marketing and distribution has increasingly become our responsibility. We are entrepreneur-artists, a calling that demands "assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

What strikes me most about the New Testament verse is its implication that a need for faith is relative. First, grander things require more faith. In the same way it takes more faith to sink a 3-pointer versus a layup, it takes more faith to produce a historic epic versus a one-location horror film. Second, faith is relative to one's power over things; the more leverage you have, the more you can secure. Third, the harder you work and the longer you persevere, the better your odds of success. So it seems a need for faith can be decreased by elements within our control.

But alas, as we all know, there are things beyond our control in independent film; things many believe are much more important to having a thriving career. I'm talking about profitability, public opinion, and professional advancement. I'm also talking about the thing that scares me most: talent. These truly are "things hoped for...things not seen," which will always demand faith! Sure, we can control them to a certain degree; however, they will forever elude us. (How many times have we seen a celebrated filmmaker produce a critical and box office dud, causing the public to question his/her viability and talent?)

I'm convinced the true worth of faith lies within the filmmaker as a source of strength, energy and hope. It feeds the filmmaker's soul, compelling him/her to continue onward, despite the odds. Without faith, fear will quickly overcome and defeat even the most ambitious of dreams. In fact, I'm beginning to think that fear is diametrically opposed to faith; complete assurance and conviction is fundamentally devoid of fear.

I've been pursuing a career in independent film for a few years now and, quite honestly, I'm tired, physically and emotionally. After numerous short films and a feature, I'm confident that I can control quite a bit; however, the elusive things like public opinion and talent are wearing me down. Just the other day I received another film festival rejection letter, one more punch in the gut, adding to my exhaustion. So it's no surprise when I plop down on the couch and utter, "It takes so much faith."

Where does faith come from? How can we have more of it? We can start with the things within our control, e.g., embrace your limitations, broaden your network, work hard and don't give up. And for the things ultimately outside our control, well, let's choose to believe rather than doubt. It's as simple as a choice: fear or faith. Might as well pick the more constructive of the two, right?

Living on student loans as a first-year law student, Christopher realized it was now or never, so he packed his bags and returned to his hometown, Los Angeles, to make movies. Since then, he has fathered multiple short films, a feature and a super-cute baby boy! You can see what else he's up to at FollowMyFilm.com

A Partial Letter, Catching An Old Friend Up To Where I Now Am

.... Still trying to make independent movies, but with each new day it seems more and more like an antiquated process. I am sure future anthropologists will not know what to make of the digital remains of the indie film scene. Will it feel more like a religion than a business? The "passion industries" is a nice phrase for cultural creation that is only within the reach of the young or rich; camouflage comes in many colors.

I have had a good run, producing more films than virtually anyone else. And I believe better films (okay, maybe I am biased, but..), and ones with more consistent returns, but damn! It is harder now to justify investment or commitment than ever before -- even when the tools have improved and the talent pool grown like never before.  Film, like all the culture economies, has been turned on it's head, but unlike the others, since the work at the top still delivers a return, our leaders and corporations act like business is as it's always been.

On the other hand, I am still creating things. I do get to do a fair amount of excavating too, trying to make the process more transparent and open. I get to feel good about that, but it is very frustrating watching what I love crumble away. I see many people with their fingers in the leaks, but few that want to build a new city higher up on the hill, let alone those that want to make that new one run on sustainable systems with open access to all.

I am lucky. I got to do what I loved when I was young. I made that commitment and by the time I grew up (maybe two decades after I was an adult), I was not only using my labor in service of what I loved, cared about, and prioritized, but understood how fortunate I was and fragile it all was, and gifted with that I could demonstrate my passion and commitment to another person by the time I encountered that someone I wanted to devote myself to. Still though we don't get the time to celebrate all of this; even the thirty minutes we find at the end of the day seems like an incredible feat to achieve. There's so much to fix. I have never been one to need perfect; I can love the cracks and the leaks -- I find them the personality of a place, but I need life's handyman to come in and sand down some rough edges.

I feel under siege by "weapons of mass distraction", working like I have several start-ups -- and admittedly I do -- but at this age I am working harder than ever, and certainly for less return. The pull towards more time to reflect grows constantly. I want not just my work, but also myself and my life, to be a reflection of all that I love and care about.

I am well. I have ten or so movies I am trying to make. It is a bit heart-breaking that some may never happen. There was a time when I had confidence that all my projects would get made. I was wrong, but I think the confidence was well-earned. I have earned more confidence since then but the world has changed faster than the industry, and it doesn't pay the same dividends that it used to.