How I Spent My Sundance Non-Vacation

To think I once got to see movies when I went to film festivals...

I had one film to share with folks this time around, Sean Durkin's MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, which I had the pleasure and good fortune to Executive Produce -- even still I did not plan to see any others.  I knew I was going to be too busy with the work that festivals have become for me.

The reception for the film was great -- which has generated a lot of meetings (and which has yielded some nice announcements ).  I forgot to read the latest Exec Prod job description though and did not realize it now means moderating press conferences.  Check out the video here, and let me know how you feel I did.

When I wasn't dealing and celebrating Sean's movie, I was doing my part to aid in the promotion of indie film.

Christine Vachon and I have been doing this talk show on and off now for several years, now dubbed KILLER / HOPE.  Hulu's got it up on their Sundance page. Please check it out while you still can (at least in all its glory). New episodes will be added daily throughout the festival.  Additionally, we were invited to talk to Eugene Hernandez for the local NPR station.  Gotta get the word out, but man does all that yapping, make for some seriously dry mouth.

But man, what a test of will power it is.  I admit I am an addict for great film, and even noble failures.  To be in Park City and to have booked myself into back to back meetings to extent that I am unable to watch movies, leaves me quaking and shaking.  I want to see some movies!

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Film Tax Incentives Need To Focus On Low Budget Production Too!

It is frustrating from an indie producer perspective that all film-centered tax incentives, both here in the US and abroad, are geared towards the higher budgeted films. It is totally understandable though, as the Hollywood & big budget fare bring in the most revenue and the most jobs. This sort of bias however, also limits the growth of local creative talent -- in fact you could argue that the bias to high priced production in tax incentives drives out the local talent and thus prevents creative communities from developing in the regions in which the incentives are supposed to help. Unless such tax incentive programs also focus on the sustainability of the creative community -- in addition to maximizing tax revenues and employment -- it will always be carpetbaggers who benefit from policy and not the local community. It is great when the local work force is all fully employed (remember those days?), and it is great when the local vendors have deal upon deal so they grow their biz and improve the infrastructure, but why limit our ambition to such basic needs as employment and monetary profit?

When the goal of policy is 100% profit & revenue motivated,  IMHO  it is generally a barrier to the creation of  the best work and consequently the sustainability of the individuals who make it. Supporting lower budget work through such policy benefits local community and the artists who are vested in the locale as a whole (not just in terms of how they save & make $$).

Why is it so important for government policy to focus on low budget media production as well as the biggest revenue & job generators in this sector?

  • Media artists create work inspired by where they live, the places & people they love and are intrigued by.  If the up & comings can't afford to shoot in a place, fewer films will be centered in local communities, and thus unfortunately as a result create a more generic impression of our country worldwide.  We need to help provide an understanding of our worlds that are not just motivated by the "sell" and mass market.  How will we build bridges to other communities throughout the world when all of our output is about reaching into people's wallet and the characters we portray aim to satisfy everyone?
  • Every film shot is a promotional tool to make it's setting a desired destination for all.  Movies are promotional tools for the tourist industry of the state.  We enrich the area where we set our work financially as well as culturally.
  • No one sets out to work on projects that are only profitable or employ huge crews.  It is a need to participate in work (and culture) that you are proud of, that speaks to you personally -- it is this quality that makes people chose to work for lower rates on our projects (I am told).  To keep a strong crew base, communities need a diversity of production to sustain individuals both creatively and financially.
  • Low budget films provide a way for crew members to advance their skill set by working at higher responsibility than they would elsewhere . Since depth of talent base is a decisive factor where a film shoots, larger films are incentivized to come to a location where they can find a crew and actor base with the required experience -- and as a result in benefits a community to make sure that crews can advance their skill set and not just get stuck at the lower end of a hiring heirachy.
  • Low budget films take more chances on collaborators in all categories, creating new "stars" and adding "value" in the process, and eventually attracting & generating new projects consequently.  If communities rely only on projects only generated outside their community, their prime tool to attract productions will be increasing the size of their incentives and thus limiting their revenues in the process; we all need home grown projects or else each incentive will be incentivized to exceed each other (and destroy the local benefits as a result).
  • Quality of life improves for all when we don't just do well, but also do good.  Incentivizing low budget production and nurturing home grown talent can be a source of civic pride -- which is part of the glue that drives and sustains any infrastructure.
  • Large budget productions must maintain the status quo.  Large budgets are justified by the tastes at the time they are made.  Large budgets are about the already proven.  If we believe in the necessity of a diverse culture, an inclusive culture, a culture of opportunity, we need to find ways to make sure we support low budget production.
  • And let's be real: from a business and recoupment perspective, it is hard to justify middle budget production (which these days I would define as $500K - $45M!) under the current revenue models.  New talent won't develop, new ideas and methods won't be sourced, unless we have a middle ground where transitional artist can experiment and grow. If we want to have a healthy film and media industry, we need to help stimulate low budget production.

Nonetheless, State Tax Film Incentives and other policies generally favor larger budgeted films.  In NY State we would not have a tax incentive if it wasn't for the coalition of studio owners who lobbied for the initial law, but not surprisingly they looked out (then, and continue to look out so now) for their own interest and required that every film have a day of work on a "certified" stage to qualify for the incentive -- up until the tax incentives passed, not one of my sixty films had ever shot on a real stage.  It also has been said that the approval process in many states is far more rigorous for low budget films than higher ones, and I imagine that there will eventually reach a court case in some state or another where a filmmaker proves this.  Granted, tax incentives are just one aspect of the bias to large budget films nation wide, but they are one that we can do something about.  The first step is convincing our communities that low budget work matters (which means we must advance beyond just financial analysis in determining our policy).

There are numerous policies that could be built into local film tax incentives that would help create sustainable film communities in those very same states or locales:

  1. Every state these days owns or controls various buildings and real estate that could be made available at reduced rates for low budget home-grown production.
  2. Similarly, film permit fees (like the ones NYC recently inacted) could be waived if a budget is below a certain threshold; ditto on requisite practices like NY State's tax incentive studio requirement.
  3. And why not reserve a portion of each state's rebate for local low-budget production and keep the carpetbaggers from siphoning off the whole kaboodle?

Frankly, it would be great if States and municipalities even focused on some non-funding activities to help their local film communities.

  1. Wouldn't it be great if film board websites actually promoted local filmmakers and technicians?  Local film schools could be recruited to shoot, edit, and post promotional videos championing home grown talent.
  2. Is there anything wrong with States playing matchmaker and introducing financiers and other entrepreneurs to the best and the brightest?  Many states now have incubators and other "proof of concept" matchmaking enterprises and wouldn't everyone feel indebted if the angels met the aspirants?
  3. And why stop at tax breaks, promotion, and matchmaking?  Whatever happened to subsidized housing and work space for artists?  Don't the creative class give rise to a higher quality of life for the rest of the community?  Why not require low cost housing for artists be part of any redevelopment plan?
  4. Why not help fund a teaching/lecture program that artists can participate in to not only help them survive but to also give back to the community at the same time?

I am sure that you can add to these lists.  Let's figure this out and build it better together.

Where are the governments that show they actually believe that culture is a valuable (even necessary) component to life?  Tell us, so we can begin the mass-migration now!

Scientific Study Proves That Indie Films Make Youths Smarter

Well, it would be nice if such a study existed, but I guess everyone figures "why bother to fund what we already know". Ahem... Classical music sales did skyrocket though when a study found it made kids smarter. The state of Georgia even passed a law providing classical music CDs for every newborn child. Imagine that, with each new spawn, parents would be given a copy of Hal Hartley's entire catalogue. Harvey Pekar could be come a household name if the standard baby gift was American Splendor. Okay, maybe such greats as Ballast, Wendy & Lucy, Goodbye Solo and the such may not be so good for teen psyches, but hey Stranger Than Paradise is still a good primer in on studied cool and Primer will surely drive a few truly innovative business ideas (and innovative filmmaking at that).

But isn't it time that we all came up with some good plans to encourage greater appreciation? I am all in favor helping to up the ante in terms of originality, resonance, artistry, and ambition -- and I do believe that better films yields more better films along with greater attendance and all related windfalls -- but I also believe that the more auteur related films someone consumes or is even exposed to, the more they want to experience more of the same. Where's the indie film promotion corner in our public libraries? Where's the list of recommend films for high school curriculums? Anyone care to start these projects, or is everyone to busy writing their screenplays? I can't believe anyone is still dreaming of fame or fortune and the reality of the hardship of the life of creative individual in this country is well known -- so what's the hold up to such action? Isn't it in our interest to encourage deeper appreciation of the art and craft we have given our lives to?