Is Art Sabotaged By Thinking About An Audience From The Start?

I have been falling behind on my blogging; I admit it.  Luckily, information never goes away. Nor is there anything like a shortage of things that need to be said.  We have so many hurdles to jump in the indie film world.  Or is it walls to break down?  Even after we made it through once, the same challenges face us again.  Even when one or two lead the way, the path gets overgrown immediately, and the rest seem to be lost all over again.  So here's to the better late, than never camp, a post on some old but still relevant news...

There is a good post from several weeks back on Spout "Five Thoughts on Independent Filmmaking from SXSW".  There's a lot in it that merits further discussion, but one thing said by indie distrib Richard Abramowitz leapt out at me: “It’s always a delicate situation to talk to filmmakers about finding their audience beforehand,” Abramowitz said on a panel about self-distribution. “Presumably, you’re making art. To think about the end user in that particular way is kind of a corruption of the process. It’s the producer’s responsibility to work off the director and understand who the audience may be.”
This could be considered a nicely condensed version of Brent Chesanek's post(s) here several months back, and certainly captures the thoughts and attitudes of many I know and have heard. I get it.  It makes some sense to leave art to the artists, business to the business types, marketing and distribution to the relevant experts, right?
I don't feel this attitude captures the realities of the time.  In my humble opinion, and particularly for the independent filmmaker, you are not being responsible or realistic if you keep thinking your job is simply to build it (and then to trust that they will come).  You need to build the paths and bridges to get the people there.  You need to have the pen to keep them there once they have entered the field.  You need to have the apparatus to help them tell their friends and family to join them.
You don't need to do it alone though.  You just need to find the right people to collaborate with and a plan on how to get them to work with you (money helps).  Sure it would be great to find a producer who knows all of this already (and yes this is what they should be teaching in producing programs at the "film schools"), but I have always found there to be far fewer producers than there are writers and directors who are looking for the help.  Presumably all filmmakers work a very long time prepping their films.  Unless they are working in the studio world, all filmmakers invest a tremendous amount of time without any promise of financial return.  With all that energy and effort, doesn't it make sense to figure out how the work may actually reach an audience?
I am not a marketing expert, but my thoughts on marketing have helped get many of my films made.  Before pitching the financiers, we try to come up with the different handles on how we will get an audience in to see our film.  This effort is for naught if they don't respond to the script in the first place, but once they want to meet, I better have an answer to those standard questions of who is the audience and how do we reach them.  If I can come up with ten or fifteen decent approaches, the financiers assume their marketing team can up with a host of even better strategies.  
Every step in filmmaking and marketing is a collaborative effort; it is our responsibility to help our collaborators do their jobs better.

What's Needed Now? Chesanek contemplates

Brent had some thoughts to the question of what's needed now:

I completely agree about what's needed. If you notice, Pitchfork is a conglomeration of so many sections, from lists to music videos to interviews, etc., that it becomes a one-stop shop for visitors, or at least a magnificent starting point to news, reviews, features, interviews, videos, etc.

This could be done for our community, but adding a local basis with subdomains. So NYC film events and reviews of films playing here is one subdomain, LA, Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia, Orlando, Austin are others. They could all share content but arrange it based on the local scene and screenings and then could add local content.

Getting audiences to a specific time and place to see a film is just as crucial as getting them a review of that film. Imagine a public iCal or Google Calendar with film schedules, not showtimes necessarily, but dates and schedules, so we can see, for example, The GoodTimesKid is playing only FOUR DAYS this week at Anthology while Pleasure of Being Robbed is playing for the next 10 days at IFC. One calendar with all the theaters' schedules. Is there anything like this?

Right now in Google Reader I have all these feeds in a folder. But the problem is that things disappear as I read them, and then articles and features don't get the face time that they do on Pfork or in a more traditional magazine format. So I read a Hammer to Nail review and then the next day I don't have that review or that screenshot from the film there to remind me that the film is playing, nor do I have a schedule of how long I have to see that film. RSS readers and scroll-down blogs are magnificent, but again, they don't lend repeated viewing--they're designed to do the opposite.

Pitchfork is setup so well I prefer going to it rather than subscribing to its feed. It encourages browsing and promotes repeated viewing of its features. I think for our purposes, Pfork is arranged better than content in an RSS reader or scroll-down blog. If I go to Pfork, I get new content as well as another reminder of that record they loved and reviewed 3 days ago–while I didn't have time to seek it out and listen then, I do today. The more we see something, the more inclined we are to look into it or at least remember it.

Building something like this for my own use is possible if I scour the web daily and go crazy coding something myself or figure out how to customize iGoogle or My.Yahoo, but maybe it could be stronger if there was one central build of it, at least for each metropolitan area. I know the web is very much about letting users decide on their content, but I think it'd be more effective in promoting the lesser-talked about films if it was moderated by a party with that goal. Pfork is still not user-generated in the least, but it's absolutely a community and beyond, because record stores notice their sales heavily correlate with Pitchfork's content and because there is such a large anti-Pitchfork crowd.

I ask again, is there anything like this?
--Brent Chesanek

Slowing It Down: Chesanek's Counterpoint Concludes (Part 6 of 6)

Brent concludes...

Another scary thing about the NYC DIY Dinner discussion is that essentially it's asking filmmakers who've likely just worked for several years for no money to now take further losses and develop things they have no intrinsic passion for, just so that thing they do have passion for gains validity. 

Filmmakers like me already spend 70% of our time looking for permission (ie funds) to make our films from people perhaps not in the best position to be gatekeepers, and now that looks to be expanded to 90% or more. Our pay just went down, as if we were making enough to subsist on to begin with. Already, incomes in this country have been relatively stagnant for 30 years despite rapid growths in technology and productivity in most industries. 
We're all expected to do more for less money. That seems exponential with independent film, and as I said, we're now going to have to figure out how to do that part of it we love even less often for less money.

How do we improve this? Your idea about helping each other is a start. I suppose if it weeds out the ones with fleeting delusions of grandeur and dreams of wealth, that will help. If it means less films are fast-tracked, more time is spent on each film, then each becomes that much more focused and worthwhile in terms of individuality and distinction, then there is something to be hopeful for.

It's Two Separate Schools: Chesanek's Counterpoint (Part 5 of 6)

Brent continues...

This discussion can't proceed forward until the two schools of thought here are separated. One school says traditional narrative is dead and new storytelling methods MUST be applied to new distribution models, while the other realizes there is still a market for narrative feature films that can be accessed through new technology and distro models.

If you want to expand your so-called brand while creating "content" and label yourself as a "creative" (in reality, it's not a noun) or just want to create infinite ways and media for telling a story, then you're in this field, so these are some options, these are the issues. If so, then it's likely none of these marketing terms seem pejorative to your craft.

But many do find these terms pejorative. If you lean towards uninterrupted, feature length art films that show restraint and dexterity in the information provided to an audience, believe in the quality of a screening environment, are not about pushing as much content and info as possible but rather about expertly pursuing a craft you and many others still love but realize there are new opportunities for these works to be seen, then there is this discussion over here, these are the issues on this side of the situation.

These two worlds remain very closely aligned in discussions, and it seems not fully distinguishable from each other just yet, but also not completely on the same page. We need to clearly delineate and grow from there, learning from both sides but never assuming these schools are the same.

Lance Weiler Responds To Brent Chesanek

Scott Kirsner wrote a book called “Inventing the Movies” which details the history of cinema from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs. Within the book he describes three types of people - those who innovate, those who persevere and those who sit on the sidelines waiting. When I read your critique of the NYC DIY Dinner it is clear you fall into the preservation camp. Personally, I love films and prefer to see them projected when I can and when it makes sense. But I also grow tired of watching filmmakers struggle to get their work seen and to sustain. And the sad truth is that many talented filmmakers have fall prey to exploitation.

The reality is that the system is overloaded. Everyday 50,000 more videos are uploaded to YouTube. There are more choices (tv channels, countless blogs / sites, dvds, VOD etc.) that compete for peoples time. Theatrical bookings are very difficult. I know, I’ve personally booked my films into art-house and independent cinemas across the country. I’m a fan of independent cinemas and even though my work has cross-media components it will always have live event elements, and those live events will include theatrical screenings.

But this I think is our key difference and correct me if I’m wrong. But I don’t consider myself a filmmaker – I don’t shoot on film, I don’t cut on film and I don’t work on a single medium anymore. I believe in story and the emotional connection that an audience experiences from great writing, strong direction and wonderful acting. But I also believe that the form is changing and that is what excites me. It’s not one way or the highway. It’s a reality. Art forms change and audience’s relationships to the way stories are told change. The birth of 16mm cameras ushered in cinema verit. Desktop systems and advances in imaging technology have empowered a diversity of voices that have never had access. Last month, I was in Copenhagen for a film festival and I connected with friends from all over the world, many who I met online or via social networks. One friend is from the Philippines. In the last 12 months there’s been an explosion of DIY filmmaking there - doc, narratives, experimental works. The films are unique, artful and passionate. But yet they have not been seen here in the states. We live in a global film community, it is not just about the US it is about allowing voices to be heard all over the world. The social networks and online outlets that you consider to be nothing more than popularity contests are so much more. They are a voice, a way for people to connect. Yes some people use them for status but others use them as a way to understand other cultures and share experiences. It’s not a contest its a connection.

And when it comes to brands let us be honest. Many of the films that you love from well know writers and or directors were brought to you by some brand some where along the way. It might have been a critic, a well know film festival, or the publicity machines that rollout films both big and small or maybe even the art-house theaters that screened them. The fact of the matter is that “filmmakers” need to take some time to understand how various aspects of the process work. If you want to be a good director you need to understand the roles of your collaborators. And similar to how you crew up for a film ( producer, production designer, dp, ad, gaffer etc.) when we discuss the role of technology or branding or marketing we are calling attention to a part of the process that needs new “crew” positions. We’re not saying that an individual “must master” them or they are destine to fail. What we are saying is that if you ignore or consider it to be someone else’s duty or job then often you will be disappointed with the results. What is often ironic is that I’ve know many filmmakers who entered into deals with distributors only to find themselves doing a loin of the share of the work anyway. In some cases out of despration when they realized for whatever reason that their film wasn’t getting the push that it really needed. It is about understanding what is needed and having an open discussion about it. That way new processes can be discovered. Learning from each other is what will make the stories better, our work stronger. We need to build an infrastructure that will in turn help to establish a foundation for a truly free film community.

We are standing at an unprecedented time in history. We can for the first time reach and communicate directly with our audiences. There doesn’t have to be gatekeepers or middle men or filters. It can finally be about connections. People connecting to the stories that move them. So in some ways maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed by the possibilities - many within the industry are. But in uncertain times some amazing things have been innovated. In the economic downturn of the 70’s, apple computer which started in a garage and was born out passion, creativity and a desire to empower people. The beautiful thing is there are no rules, no right or wrong way. There is just progress. In the end the audience will decide what they want to see, how they want to see and where they want to see it. So I say its time to innovate and seize the opportunity instead of waiting for someone else to shape the future for us.

And Brent I’m more than happy to answer any technical questions you may have. And over at the Workbook Project we have a number of folks who know how to use social media, build audiences, create brands and release films in alternative ways - all of them would be willing to do the same. DIY DAYS, the Workbook Project and From Here to Awesome are based on open source philosophies, ones that encourage community and sharing. That being said, now seems like the perfect time for this new emerging truly free film community to help each other make great films - we just need a little bit of innovation to make it possible.
- Lance Weiler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chesanek's Counterpoint (Part 3 of 6)

Personally, I was initially resistant to social networking for a couple reasons. One was that it feels like a celebrity culture or popularity contest. I can see that my friends have hundreds and hundreds more Facebook friends than I do. So I see their friends count and think, wow, they should make a movie instead, since they have more people who'd go see it. Only it's usually superficial friendship, just as popularity and celebrity appeal is. So then I think, is this person I'm asking to be friends with really my friend, do I really want to catch up with them after ten years out of high school, or am I only requesting their friend status because I know that once my film comes out I can put a message on their Facebook wall? If I want to be honest with myself, then how do I come to terms with having to strive for superficial popularity, something I jettisoned in high school as I was, well, coming to terms with not wanting it and forming my artistic temperament? Is this still a world where the most popular people are offered the widest financial rewards and/or avenues of self-expression, just like Hollywood, television, and high school? Is art film no longer a venue for the introverted artist seeking personal expression in a way that maybe socially he or she could never achieve? Isn't that the core of art and artistic language? Aren't a large amount of artists poor with social skills--choosing to express themselves other ways--probably for a reason that manifests itself in their work? Do we not care to hear their voices? Of course we do, but if this audience building is truly as it is shaping up to be, how do these artists with less than impeccable social skills compete?

As a viewer I'm not a populist. I seek out artists and works with dexterous intent, control over form, style, and content that shows the artist knows his or her stuff as well as has a distinct individual voice. How do we preserve and embrace our individuality if all we're doing is becoming advertisers who seek popularity? If auteur-driven films is one's passion, audience participation in their creation is a tough sell at any meaningful level. I'll see Lance Hammer film or a Bresson or a JP Melville film, but not a crowd-sourced film because of what it will lack: a singular honest soul.

I guess the point here is, how do we clearly, firmly, and concisely establish that the net should not be determining the content nor the artist's temperament, that films like Ballast will always have a market, that artists are always needed and appreciated for their individuality? The fear and resistance comes when feature length art-house filmmakers start hearing their content must be dictated by a market and then their film is only valid if they're famous in some way.

-Brent Chesanek

How Does All Of This Make YOU Feel?

Before The Economic Collapse, Before The Obama Change, And Before The Sky Is Falling, I was just thinking, looking, and wondering, how come it wasn't different?  

How come when all the tools were available, when the means had become so inexpensive, when the information had been demystified, and the hordes had been well trained, how come their was no true alternative to the mainstream film culture?  Granted, a lot has changed since then and we have real reasons to hope, and reasons for concerned.  But what else is new?
This blog is only a few months old now.  I started it to focus on the tools, methods, and apparatus needed to bring about a Truly Free Film culture.  I have been neglecting the blog Let's Make Better Films that I started at the same time to focus specifically on the content of those films -- yet I hope to pay more attention to that in the months to come.  I also have promised Michael Tully, the editor over at Hammer To Nail to deliver my list of qualities of ambitious film for that site, which will delve into a similar area.  All of it will reflect on what I encouraged in the slowing down when I gave the "Thousand Phoenix Rising" speech at Film Independent.  Quality rises when we focus deeper and slow it down, although it is certainly not the only way to increase quality.  As the Hammer To Nail Awards list indicates this has been the strongest year in history for under $1M budgeted film in this country.  Quality is rising  and provided audiences can access this, the culture and it's apparatus should improve too.
I get very inspired by all the new methods filmmakers are utilizing to access audiences and strengthen their relationships with the audiences.  But I know it can be daunting.  I know it feels  like a whole new slew of things we have to learn.  I also know it can be liberating.  But I also have been wondering how it makes filmmakers who are just starting out on the journey feel.  Luckily some people let me know.
Several years back I was surfing the web and came across the John Vanderslice video for "Exodus Damage" .   I was impressed and sourced out the director Brent Chesanek.  I found more of his work on the web and contacted him.  I suspected he lived elsewhere; little did I know he lived just across the river.  We met and I was equally impressed with him as I was with his work.  I look forward to his first feature " Tall Slender Trees" -- of course he needs to raise money for it first.  Maybe you can help?

Anyway, after watching the DIY NYC Dinner, Brent wrote me with his thoughts.  I will be posting them over the next several days as I think it adds another layer to the dialogue.
Brent writes:

I consider myself an art-house filmmaker and filmgoer. I am not so much interested in the farm league of independent film, as you astutely put it, nor am I interested in the new media methods of storytelling. I don't even consider myself a storyteller. I see it more specifically and will try to be clear: art-house narrative feature filmmaker--there is a story involved, but with images and sounds overriding plot or character even, seeking the advancement of the film language through means exclusive to the the cinema. I will try not to separate myself as a viewer from as a filmmaker when I write this--I will try to keep my interests aligned and speak of my opinions as such, as they cannot be mutually exclusive in the pursuit of personal expression. Thus I assume there are other viewers and filmmakers with ideas on the same wavelength about what a film can be. (I know Lance Hammer is one filmmaker).

From my self-described perspective, I can think of two or three themes of the discussions as a whole these days, which arose in this dinner as well, that I think are off-putting to some art-house/auteur oriented filmmakers and thus maybe inhibiting growth and development in this area:

- 1 -

When it becomes implied that new media dictates the content, I feel art-house filmmakers feel repressed or excluded–just as they would in a studio or other non-independent world. If we're not careful, these discussions can lead to a message that something rather than the artist's vision should be dictating the form, story and style of a film. Some of these discussions then become advocates of an anti-auteur film culture--suddenly we're supposed to contradict the intentions of our career, or single film, or carefully nourished ideas on how a story can be told, or what stories are told. Contradictions which are essentially the nemesis of the independent filmmaker.

Stephen Raphael is right--there is a still a market for feature films as they are if they are as good as Ballast, and as long as discussions veer off into talks of how a film has to become an everlasting exposè into is myriad characters' lives, providing alternate and unlimited content and so on, filmmakers and people like myself and Raphael will feel outcast and resistant. The beauty of Ballast and the films I cherish is their restraint. It goes back to something Bresson said: it's what we don't learn of characters that often makes them intriguing. To cast aside these ideas of restraint may be seen as nullifying film culture, language, and style of the past 100 years. The film many of us love and cherish IS in fact that passive thing that seems to be getting a bad rap the way the term elite has. Passive is not a negative term by default, and just as many people do not play fantasy football yet watch the game.

I've spent my adult life working to be a feature length narrative filmmaker with these ideals, and to hear that artistic path is no longer viable doesn't automatically transform my ambition into being a webisode maker or a professional crowdsourcer who creates something in whatever media is new solely to feed an audience. Those things aren't interesting to me personally, and if it's a question of adapt or die, well, if what I love doing has to go away then what's the point in adapting? If I transform into the storyteller using whatever media and marketing is the next big thing, then I'm doing something I don't enjoy, and no audience will enjoy it either. We have to nurture and respect an artist's choices and passions.

Musical content didn't change because of the internet. Before and after there was a market for albums-pop, classical, jazz, hip hop, world, ambient, etc. Singles were always most popular, but all the internet did was ease access to one's taste. The internet makes it easier to find the single and preview it, but I think the majority of people who recognize the artistic merit of an album will then gravitate towards experiencing that work as a whole. Those who did not care for albums and just wanted Top 40 have it better. Radiohead fans don't care about owning just the single, they want the album, and the internet didn't change that, nor did the internet nullify the album as an artistic expression. That market is still there. That part of the music/film analogy fits with films nicely. Too much talk focuses on altering one's content when it should focus on distro.

There is still a market for feature films in their entirety between theatrical and ancillary outlets. I am only 28 and know plenty others and know there are teenagers who, like me, enjoy uncut feature length art films, so the market is not disappearing anytime soon. Too much of this talk assumes that. Too much talk is of the vanishing market and the falling sky in content. The market is vanishing because most films are over-budgeted, thus the market to recoup these funds is vanishing. I don't think it's because no one wants to watch films in their entirety. The emergence of television must have created similar discussions--the assumption that all must now make and aspire to television instead of how can film embrace its differences from television. The art film audience often enjoys these films because they can run counter to the lifestyle of absorbing six IMs and 50 emails (as mentioned at the dinner) and real-time stocks and daily breaking news events on CNN, (as Christopher Buckley recently mentioned)--endless filler and distractions disguised as content. An acute audience, often those arthouse films are seeking, are likely people who are aware of the rapid lifestyle and seeking a world of alternate leisure to counteract it. Art-house films have always been counter-programming to something, and the more they stay focused on that characteristic the better the films will be, and then the stronger the audiences will be.

The point should be made right away and strictly adhered to that the content and the art-house film will always have a market and all this discussion is done so in a way to validate these films rather than dictating their form or content. It's taking too long to get there and there is too much dwelling on the alternate storytelling methods.