If We Speak With Honesty, Will People Listen & Respond?

Today's guest post is from filmmaker Matthew Porterfield. Matt's contributed before, and his feature PUTTY HILL opens tomorrow. We had the good fortune to screen it recently at our screening series and had a packed house that all stayed for the Q&A. Matt blends a variety of techniques, from documentary and observational camera, to the more experimental. A portrait of a small town but through a Nan Goldin-ish eye, it is not one to miss. It’s been a long and winding road, but this week PUTTY HILL opens theatrically in New York City.

PUTTY HILL spent the last year touring festivals and was picked up along the way by Cinema Guild, who will handle all U.S. rights, beginning with a theatrical rollout on February 18th at Cinema Village. We’re very happy to be in such strong hands and feel confident that our timing is right: if Sundance is a barometer for the state of indie film, audiences are embracing stories about America outside the mainstream.

That said, it’s hard for a little film to get noticed without substantial buzz. I remember back five years, when my first feature, HAMILTON (2006), opened at Anthology Film Archives the same day HALF NELSON hit theatres. I went around the LES with my wheat paste and posters trying desperately to find some free space beside the ubiquitous Ryan Gosling, hoping to share some of that limelight. Or, I think of Stockholm, when HAMILTON played right after a sold- out screening of OLD JOY and I thought, this is good: a perfect double feature until OLD JOY ended and everyone left the theatre but me and 11 people (one of them Ryan Fleck). Point is: I like these movies and I think audiences that like these movies will like my movies.

So how do I connect with them? I’m not certain there’s one answer, but I’m hoping PUTTY HILL will prove we’re doing something right this time around. No matter how limited our resources or reach, it’s a fact that audiences beget new audiences. It’s called word-of-mouth.

So far, this has been at the core of a fairly simple strategy: make good work, share it with everyone we can (friends, filmmakers, programmers, press), and let it speak for itself. If it speaks with honesty, people will listen and respond.

For the theatrical premiere of PUTTY HILL next week, we hope to cultivate the dialogue that’s taking place around the film and carry it into the theatre. Each weekend night, Cinema Village will host three post-screening discussions with the filmmakers and some very special guests, friends of the film from inside and outside the industry. The idea is to join new audiences in conversation with audiences we’ve found along the way.

I hope you, reader, will join us opening weekend. Bring your friends! The events culminate Sunday the 20th with a celebration at Lit Lounge, featuring some of the best music coming out of Baltimore right now: Co La, Dustin Wong, and Dope Body, all collaborators on PUTTY HILL.

You come to my indie, I’ll come to yours.


Friday 2/18

Saturday 2/19

  • 5pm screening: conversation w/ Jeronimo Rodriguez (NY1 News) and Matt Porterfield
  • 7pm screening: conversation w/ Richard Brody (The New Yorker) and Matt Porterfield
  • 9pm screening: conversation w/ Amos Poe (filmmaker) and Matt Porterfield

Sunday 2/20

  • 5pm screening: conversation w/ Amy Dotson (IFP) and Matt Porterfield
  • 7pm screening: conversation w/ Chris Keating (Yeasayer) and Matt Porterfield
  • 9pm screening: conversation w/ Jem Cohen (filmmaker) and the PUTTY HILL crew

Matt Porterfield studied film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and teaches screenwriting, theory, and production in the Film & Media Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University. His first feature, Hamilton, was released theatrically in 2006. Putty Hill premiered in 2010 at the Berlinale's International Forum of New Cinema.

Wondering Why Music Licensing Is The Way It Is

The NYTimes has a nice article on Matt Porterfield's truly free film PUTTY HILL. I got to moderate a discussion around the film last year after its Berlin premiere and again this year for our screening series at Goldcrest -- yet the movie had a significant change during the time that passed. The Times piece touches upon it: The Rolling Stones wouldn't even enter into discussions about licensing "Wild Horses" to Matt and his team.

Why is it if you are an artist whose art is singing other people's songs, our culture has worked it out in the most frictionless way manageable? But if you are an artist whose art is filming artists whose art is singing other people's songs, you have to go to herculean tasks to gain permission?  Filmmakers are required to go through a much more difficult process to practice their art in this instance.

To sing another artist's song, you pay a royalty on record's sold (and in countries outside the USA, even when it is performed in a public context). To film an artist performing a song, be it theirs or someone else's, you can't simply pay a royalty, you have to get permission. In the case of PUTTY HILL, this lead to a costly reshoot to replace The Rolling Stones. Now some may say, why film this to begin with if you don't have permission, but what if your style is, like PUTTY HILL's, a combination of fiction and doc, where you are trying to capture the world as it is when it is, and that includes someone singing "Wild Horses"? Shouldn't we find a way for our culture to be inclusive and allow this to happen?

On "The Devil And Daniel Johnston" some great scenes of Daniel covering others' compositions could not be included in the film precisely because of this reason.

Maybe someone can explain the logic behind this for the rest of us...

Display Your Value: You Are Different From Them

I was reading on Estsy an article by Stacey Brooke that gives  recommendations to their community on how to help buyers recognize what they are getting when they purchase a hand-made item, and I couldn't help but feel that a lot of it is readily applicable to the world of Truly Free Film. We are talking about hand-crafted personal work, not assembly line market-driven product. Truly Free Film is "a different thing entirely" from Hollywood.  Brooke sums it up well:

Your products aren’t the blue arugula created on an assembly line by workers paid far too little and shipped across the country to big box warehouses who take all the money and credit for your blood and sweat. You make things and sell things you put your soul into. You need to impart that message to your buyers. You need to show them — it’s a whole different thing.

What she discusses is also so true about truly free film.  Brooke & Etsy suggests to their sellers to document their process and post videos.  In the film world, this is our "behind the scenes" video.  Generally filmmakers just call this "additional content".  Yet, as pointed on Etsy, these videos help audiences and buyers recognize why a work is distinct.

They encourage their community to "bolster their descriptions" about what they are selling, to explain the process in detail.  With a complex work like a feature film or cross-media project, this is not simple by any means.  Yet the more we understand what an artist set out to accomplish, what they discovered, what their influences were, how things shifted over time -- the more we are allowed into the creative process -- the more we will feel intimate with the artist(s).  The move we feel intimate with the artist(s), the more we are likely to promote  and curate their work.

I personally love it when film gets personal.  It's one thing to do it with the content, but for me, being of the mind that cinema is really everything that surrounds a particular feature, it's something a whole lot more, when the personal is illuminated in the process.  I love the post that Matthew Porterfield did about his film PUTTY HILL because it felt truly heartfelt for me.  It was intimate.  That is another thing that all these Kickstarter campaigns do for me: they keep it intimate.  I see their success and failure measured

Matthew Porterfield On Truly Collaborative, Egalitarian, & Economical Filmmaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Matthew Porterfield