By Melanie Coombs FIRST TIME AT THE FEST: 20 Guidelines* for a successful Market or Festival (*Producers don’t do Rules; ‘everything is negotiable’)
Over the last decade I have assisted new Producers as they attend their first market or festival. Here are 20 tips to help you enjoy the event while looking after yourself, your project and your professional reputation.
1. PRODUCING IS NOT COOL – tragically for us all, if you haven’t been completely humiliated you probably haven’t really financed your project. Be warm, not cool, and be all the things that make you a Producer – an Advocate, an Enthusiast, an Eccentric, a Charmer and an Artist.
2. PRODUCING IS NOT A COMPETITIVE SPORT – help each other. It is so rare that you are ever genuinely competing with your fellow producers - you have different taste, projects, Directors and are approaching different investors at different times. By working as a friendly colleague you will not only help others but will get their help in return. And you wont be alone as you go about the often frightening business of pitching into the marketplace for the first time.
3. DO NOT PITCH UNLESS ASKED TO DO SO. I know you think “That is why I am here…”, but trust me, people will ask. Despite how it seems at first, everyone wants to meet new talent at these events, so hold back, don’t throw yourself at people (I know of one young man who pitched to a Sales Agent at the urinal – sure it’s memorable and everyone was talking about him, but I don’t think they were talking about his film!). Do take advantage of organised pitching sessions, networking events and accidental meetings. Have a ‘lift pitch’ ready: one line to drop into casual conversations that people can then pick up on. (ie. Dog Daze: He hates dogs, She’s a vet, It’s a romantic comedy). Otherwise see this ‘non-pitching time’ as ‘networking with producing colleagues and market information gathering time’. You do not have to pitch to everyone you meet – less is more.
4. PROTECT YOUR BRAND FROM YOUR EGO! You are your own Brand; we are in an industry where art and business intersect, so how you act in relation to others is a KEY part of your companies profile and reputation. Your ego will tell you to get out there, be a star and make a splash! Your Brand needs you to do that in a measured, strategic and consistent way.
5. BE PASSIONATE, CONFIDENT AND DETERMINED, NOT PAINFUL, DESPERATE AND PIGHEADED. Passion is probably the most overused word in the industry, so don’t use the word, be it! Don’t tell me your project is passionate, funny, clever, or brilliant - show me! Let me tell you that your project is hilarious, inspired, ground breaking and magnificent. Let me tell you that you are hiding your light, and that you need to meet this investor or that who will love your project. Tenacity is a core producing skill but that does not mean hassling people. Do you think you are the first and only producer to pitch them the biggest, best project ever? Be humble and confident. Think of dating; do you want to talk to the desperado, who’s in your face buying you drinks you don’t want, boasting about how rich, connected and important they are, and then telling you how great you’ll look on your wedding day? OR the quietly confident person who’s standing back a little looking like they can’t wait to dance? With you. Be that person. Get the opportunity to show them how you dance. That means surviving rejections with humility, so that you are ready to show what great moves you’ve got.
6. CRY, BUT NOT IN PUBLIC. We are not making chairs; if a chair wobbles, all agree it must be fixed. With films we are turning ideas, literally Dreams, into a real physical product to be made, bought and consumed. We do CARE about our precious dreams - we’ve worked so hard to get them to this point – our colleagues and loved ones have shared our dreams and now someone has pointed out the ‘wobble’. And it’s true. Not only are we disappointed, but we are also going to disappoint all of those who have invested in our dream, everyone from our Writer to our Grandma. And so you will HURT, and that is OK. In fact I’d worry if it doesn’t. Go away into a private space and cry if you need to let the hurt out. Do it in private, alone or with a very close friend (not an industry colleague), rather than embarrass yourself in the marketplace.
7. DON’T GET YOUR MEAT WHERE YOU GET YOUR POTATOES. Festivals and markets can be great fun, we can often enjoy a drink or 5, and if unattached we may want to have a ‘festival fling’ all of which is fine amongst consenting adults – but do make sure you’re not getting messy with someone who you want to do business with. Especially if you are a woman - the double standards tragically still exist - so you don’t want a ‘reputation’ if you want to be taken seriously as a Producer.
8. PAY INTO THE ‘GOODWILL BANK’ AND REAP THE REWARDS. Be the most fun, kind, polite and generous. People like to be with fun people. People don’t enjoy anxious, scary, annoying, irritating, draining, or emotionally unstable people. Of course we are all ALL of these things from time to time, but do put that stuff aside and be FUN. Lend others a hand, a band-aid, a pen or an introduction to a financier or potential co-producer. And if you are polite people will remember - especially if someone has declined your pitch or project. By all means swear and bitch in private but face to face politely thank then for their time. You want to be able to open that door again and see a smiling face to greet you. Share power and information. Everyone you are meeting is part of the world-wide film community. Be the way you want others to be.
9. ALWAYS BE NICE TO THE SUPPORT STAFF. Lots of people are not; and it’s so easy to be friendly, it costs nothing. They will remember when you need help to send an urgent email or have locked your phone inside the conference venue. Remember they are all very likely aspiring filmmakers too. And if you make a good impression they will remember you when their career takes off and they are in a decision-making role.
10. LISTEN, THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING YOU DON’T KNOW. This is especially important when getting bad news. They have already made their decision and it’s a NO. They will not change their minds in this meeting – especially if you are defensively talking at them. Listen, work out if you want to work with them, hear what they are saying. Are they actually telling you that you’ve pitched to the wrong part of their company? Are they telling you that you need to do more work? Are they telling you about the current state of the market? Let them do the work. And if you are really finding it painful, just focus on the spot between their eyebrows – it seems like you are looking at them and gives you the opportunity to internally regroup until you can listen properly again.
11. MAKE YOUR PROJECT UNDENIABLE – know what you don’t know. Work out why someone would say NO to your project and answer that question. And do it again and again – budget, cast, crew, script, marketing potential. Find the weak spots – easily identified when you are pitching, as you can literally SEE when they are loosing interest – and address the issues. We need to be faster, smarter, braver and more agile to stay in this game.
12. DON’T BE AFRAID TO DROP YOUR PITCH. You’ve arrived at the market to pitch but, in the first meeting or two the investor asks you lots of questions you can’t answer. What this means is that actually you are not ready to pitch. Stop, you are much better off not pitching that project at this market. You really only get ONE chance to pitch a project. Stop now, so that you can pitch properly later. Use the time you have to investigate what other opportunities there are for this project and other projects on your slate. If people ask you what you are doing say: ‘I have a number of projects at various stages of development so I’m doing my market research and networking’. Give them the broad brush strokes of your project but say “I will bring it back to you when it’s ready – we are still working on the package”. This is entirely legitimate – and in fact more of us should do it and it’s great to prep yourself by attending a market prior to pitching.
13. VALUE YOURSELF – how look after your self tells others a LOT. Dress well (and comfortably – leave the stilettos at home unless you really can walk ALL day in them with no blisters), stay at a ‘nice’ place close to the centre of the action, AND don’t talk about being poor, struggling, desperate and insecure – once again we are almost universally all of these things at times, but we are also amazing alchemists who turn dreams into reality and we deserve treats when we are out selling our wares. Want to pitch like a Princess? Treat yourself like a Queen!
14. DO NOT LIE. I know… it just slips out.. “Oh yeah, I saw that film/know that company….” This is a lose/lose scenario – nothing good is going to come from this conversation. No one has seen every film ever made, nor knows everything about film history, culture, financing and the international industry. And people enjoy telling you things they know.
15. DO NOT EXAGGERATE. Do not say you have Hugh Jackman or Nicole Kidman in your film UNLESS you really do have a signed letter from them or their agent (you lucky thing!). You will be found out and then you and your project and all your future projects will be dismissed. Remember your project is wonderful in it’s own right. You’ve got it to this point. You’ve packaged it with cast and crew as best you can. Don’t promise what you can not deliver. You will only disappoint.
16. DO ADMIT WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW. In fact most of the time it’s good to say you don’t know (even if you kinda do). Letting others tell you how things work empowers others as ‘people who know’, which makes them feel good and starts a relationship of information exchange. No one knows everything. We are all still learning. Be open.
17. DON’T LET ANYONE LIVE IN YOUR HEAD RENT-FREE (courtesy of Shaun Miller, of Shaun Miller Lawyers). Sometimes despite our best efforts we have conflict in our lives, and we build the agents of these conflicts into monsters in our heads. Sometimes they have really wronged us, or we have wronged them, but in either case what is thinking about them doing for you and your project NOW? Nothing? Kick them out of your head - make room for the new opportunities!
18. DON’T HANG ONTO REJECTION AND PAIN. If you are Producing you will be hurt. But you have a choice. Let it dominate your thinking and thereby effect your ability to participate in the marketplace OR… Acknowledge it and let it go. Literally, just decide not to think about it. Don’t start acting Paranoid. Even if people are out to get you… (that is very unlikely, actually, as mostly people and organisations are too busy with their own agendas) …acting the victim will do you no good.
19. DON’T SLAG ANYONE OFF UNTIL YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHO YOU ARE TALKING TO. We all need to let off steam sometimes, it’s human nature, but watch where, how and with whom you do this. It’s a small world so make sure you know not only whom you are talking to but also who their friends are, who they share an office with, who they are married to...
20. HAVE THE 2ND THING TO SAY. So, exciting, you are going to meet a hero (and yes we are all still fans!). You have been introduced, you say lovely things about how much you like them/their work/their ethos, they say thank you…. And then you freeze up! Unless you have the 2nd thing to say. Doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful. Just has to be something that can start a conversation or allow them to end the moment. Do not compare yourself to them. Do not try to get them to read your project. Just tell them exactly why they are SO amazing and then say the second thing. Flattery is universally enjoyed, so the clearer you are in describing precisely why I am magnificent, the more likely it is that I’m going to want to talk, even if being rushed off by PR staff.
Finally: Don’t overwhelm yourself, have fun and enjoy this experience. You are at an event where people love film as much as you do. That is cool.
Melanie Coombs has produced award winning shorts, animation, documentaries and features since 1999 under her Melodrama Pictures banner. HARVIE KRUMPET won 2003 Academy Award ® for Best Short Animation. The animated feature MARY AND MAX opened 2009 Sundance, won Grand Cristal at Annecy and the Asia Pacific Screen Award APSA Best Animated Film 2009 and released worldwide. Melanie was awarded Screen Producers Association of Australia SPAA Feature Film Producer of 2009 Award. Melanie is now joint CEO of OPTIMISM FILM with Alicia Brown and Mish Armstrong. www.optimismfilm.
by Katherine Bruens
I work professionally as a Producer and Production Manager in the advertising industry and independent film world here in San Francisco. I am also one half of a partnership that has produced three micro budget features here. Rather than become frustrated that the market in San Francisco has demanded that I spread my attention between these three worlds, I’ve embraced this hybrid. This market gives me a way not only to maintain my freedom to usher forward new personally driven works, but it also allows me to produce media through a broad spectrum of strategies, sometimes with vastly different amounts of money. What’s more, in the end these projects are all trying to achieve a similar result.
CXL, my partner Sean Gillane and my current feature, is just starting its public life with a local premiere at the San Francisco Film Society’s Cinema by the Bay, while our first film Corner Store is delivering to its final distribution outlet with Hulu. Thus I feel I am in an interesting place to look both back and forward at our experiences producing and developing audiences for these local films in relation to the spectrum of possible strategies and budget categories I have been a part of professionally here in San Francisco.
The following is a collection of some of my thoughts and experiences dealing with how to produce a film by recognizing that yes, all projects need resources, but that while of course they can be purchased for money, they can also be developed through relationships and time. What's more, when money is lacking, and it always is, look to the potential value of the resources around you and the potential value you have to offer in the project itself.
From top to bottom and beginning to end, making a film takes a lot of resources, this we know. This is what makes the production process both so challenging and so potentially beautiful. It’s important to remember that each project has a unique set of needs and resources, perhaps its best to begin thusly:
1 Assess your resources and strategize the best way to satisfy those needs
2 Choose a production style and timeline that accommodates the valuable resources around you (your own time and energy included)
3 Offer what you have in exchange, which in many cases is a real stake in the project you are working on;
4 Deal with the remaining hard costs applying all the same
Perhaps these are obvious when read, but I want to push the particular point of doing this as early as possible, especially when money is the resource most lacking.
A lot of the initial feedback for CXL has been anchored in praise over the uniqueness of the ideas and the success achieving these ideas in the final product. This praise is gratifying in part because the project was designed to do just that.
When we started CXL, the director Sean Gillane and I spent time examining the resources (money, time, relationships) that we had available to us and created a script and production strategy that utilized those resources, rather than chasing resources that we had no access to. By beginning this way we were able to ensure that this film would 1) be completed and 2) be completed to our standards and expectations.
Perhaps a micro-budget example will help to illustrate the point:
I want to make a narrative feature and know I don’t have the money to pay for a casting director and subsequently to pay my talent. Do I a) give up and cast myself knowing I have no training, or b) go to a local theater performance and scout for talent that would be interested in working with me for the experience? By choosing the latter, I have used my time and relationships to get my film the talent it deserves and have substituted time and relationships for money. Moreover, in order to cast this highly capable actor as the lead in my film, I need to ensure that he can fit our production schedule into his life without being financially affected. My calendar will need to shift to make sure that the value of this relationship afforded me can make it to the screen.
The process repeats itself with locations, crew and post-production personnel.
At this point another distinction must be made that applies to micro-budget, but perhaps just as much to Low-Budget as well. There is a world of difference between calling up, say, a director of photography and asking if they can come work for 30 plus days for you on your feature for free, versus grabbing a coffee with someone who is a shooter whose work you love and saying “I have this project and I’d love to show you the script and see what you think.”
You have a project that is empty of personnel and hungry for the checks and balances a creative team should give it. Why not approach someone with a blank canvass of possibility? How would they like to be involved? What do they think your project could value from?
If you have an LB or ULB project keep in mind any added value you can give your team by inviting them to be part of a collaboration. This will supplement the drop in pay they will ultimately need to agree to and will help you assemble your human resources while improving your film in the end. I can tell you from experience that nothing will piss off your crew more than treating them like hired help when they came on despite the rate for the love of the game.
Even in advertising I can approach crew for a job and ask if they can help make my budget work in this or that way if, say for example its a new client for them and they feel as though helping out will help them get more work in the future.
When indie filmmakers get wind of what commercial budgets are like, it can be a shocking and sometimes infuriating experience. But when I have the opportunity to look back on this spectrum of production, it is no surprise that commercial budgets could have me spending 500K on a couple of days of shooting. This content has to be delivered in breakneck speeds. With weeks or even days to assemble what without money could/should take months, the cash keeps things moving. Oh yeah, and the client gets the final word.
So what of the hard costs in indie? When I began Corner Store, all I had was my time and access to a subject I was sure would make a wonderfully interesting documentary. After my own ducks were in a row I reached out to two parties, a camera owner to help me shoot some test footage, and a friend interested in film who had a history of event coordination. Both became interested in their own right and organically became part of the team. With that I could begin to create the infrastructure to help us raise the money for the hard costs of equipment and our travel costs to Palestine.
The same principles apply to your supporters as when assembling your production team. I have the great pleasure of being able to say that in our two largest live fundraising events for Corner Store we were able to raise first $6,000 in one day and subsequently $12,000 in one day to supplement the thousands we continued to raise along the way on and offline. I could write a lot on how this was accomplished, but one thing I can say here is it was not done by expecting that people would care about my project and sitting back to let the funding come to me. The burden was on me to create relationships with leaders in communities I felt would see the most value in what I was doing and, just as with my crew, showing them how their help would be crucial to what would become our shared goal.
By allowing them access to the creation of the film I was inviting them to share in the subsequent feelings of success. Whatsmore, by treating each and every person like a member of our team by the time the film was released we had supporters there to fill every theater and feel as though they were part of the collective effort to push the film out into the world.
All of this, as previously stated, is the beauty and the burden of film. Even as I’m sure my future experiences will more clearly mold these ideas and I can only hope will usher in many more, at this particular vantage point I wish to highlight two main take aways;
1) When you want to build something, anything, a strategy should take precedence above all else. This seems inordinately obvious when applied to most industries, but should be considered just as important in the creation of the most collaborative art form available.
2) Money is just one kind of resource, and I’ve never seen any production be successful through money alone.
BIO: Katherine Bruens is a local Producer and Production Manager in both Advertising and Independent Film in San Francisco. Her directorial debut Corner Store, a documentary feature, gained a strong local following and enjoyed glowing reviews from local news outlets as well as the New York Times. With Corner Store in distribution internationally and a digital deal with HULU in the works, she is focusing her energy on partner Sean Gillane and her current feature, CXL while beginning to develop their next project with their ever growing San Francisco team.
I recently did some lectures in Australia & New Zealand. Being asked to speak, gives me a chance to reflect. One or two days of 6-7 hr marathon lectures leads me to want to be able to sum it all up. This exercise in summation is one of futility, but that does not stop me from trying. What have I learned over the years? What can be done to make better films? What can be done to make a better film industry and culture that actually supports & benefits the creators and appreciators of ambitious and diverse film? How can our culture actually lift up our world? I don't pretend to know the answers, but I have fortunately learned some things (and I believe in sharing, declaring, and collaborating).
- Start with yourself. Do the work on you before you begin the project. As detailed as you will be on the script, be as focused on yourself regarding your values, your passions, your methods, your actions, your past, and your hopes. Have you made a list? Do you know what it is you love and need?
- Always try to understand what someone wants or does not want, and do they have the ability or opportunity to know the difference. This is necessary for the characters on the page, collaborators on a project, audiences who might attend the film, your potential investors, everyone. This is the White Hare problem: do they know the difference from liking what they get vs. getting what they like?
- The only constant is change. Don't take your eyes off of that change. Are you standing too close to see it? Don't settle into thinking there is an absolute right way for doing something (unless it fully embraces the constant of change).
- The film industry is about people keeping their jobs. In any system, those in power are motivated to maintain the status quo. You can not expect the leaders to take you into the changing world.
- Art, artists, audiences, and technology change far quicker than markets or industry. Opportunity rests in the gap in between.
- Help the change be evolution, not devolution. Don't exploit it, but enhance it. You'll be happier for it -- even when the temptation/money in the other direction is quite large.
- Cultivate the dark side, Luke. Paranoia is a producer's friend. By fantasizing about all that may go wrong, you can craft solutions from preventing them from occurring. Good fences make for good neighbors. When you can see the worst, you cherish the best that much more.
- There is frequently a gulf between need and desire -- that's where you can find business.
- Consider. Declare. Evaluate. Revise. Repeat. Consider. Declare. Evaluate. Revise. Repeat. Consider. Declare. Evaluate. Revise. Repeat. Consider. Declare. Evaluate. Revise. Repeat. Shall I say it again?
- Take responsibility and make responsibility a goal for others too. Accept it when it is available, but encourage others to move into it too. Don't hesitate.
- Be prolific. Be generative. Be a maker. Find a way to live a creative life (recognize that you don't need to have a creative career to have a creative life). The more you create the more opportunity you will have to create. Work begets work. Once you do something good, they will be afraid you will do something better -- that is a negative power that creates positive opportunities.
- Know you will fail, despite as hard as you should try to avoid it. Embrace the failures as part of the process. Try again, now armed with your new knowledge that the experience has gifted you.
- We can not do it all if we do it alone; we can build it better together. Keep your eyes open for, and be receptive to, good partners. Don't forget they change though; today's solution will not likely apply tomorrow.
- Stop acting analogue; be digital. It no longer is about completion and perfection; it is world of evolution that requires collaboration.
- It is all process. Fixed and finite, completed or defined -- they are rare things. This too shall pass. Don't be hard on yourself. Move on. Get over it.
The wise ones always find the better way to say it. Gandhi nailed it with "Be the change you want to see". It took him seven words to express what takes me about six hundred.
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.”
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.
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:
2. Discovery (this is where the conversation about a film starts, the generation of audience awareness)
4. Post -production
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.
4. Integrity to the Concept
7. Joy of Doing
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).
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 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.
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.
I have given a few interviews around my new mission as the San Francisco Film Society's Executive Director. I recently spoke to Cinesource and we discussed a bit about where we are now and where we could hopefully go. It is always such a challenge because the existing businesses are invested in the status quo -- even when that is predicated on propping up a world that is no longer here.
I said: "The business of film has been oriented around the concepts of scarcity and control—where 50,000 titles can come out every year," Ted points out. "It would take nearly a century to [showcase] just a single year's output of films.”
“The film industry has not been able to keep up with what the tech industry has brought to the forefront. The business has been stuck in ways of doing things that are not good for business. Transformations need to occur to create a sustainable investment class to continue to help filmmakers market to the new niches.”
Hope would like to see business practices around scarcity make way for a “super abundance” of quality content, a super niche content world, where filmmakers can market freely to that special someone fascinated by their subject and style, although he admitted that engaging with communities is not a frictionless practice yet.
Read the whole interview here.
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!
Ah, the windfall of public speaking. My two stop tour of Sydney & Auckland generated a lot of material. I did a handful of interviews with some very knowledgeable journalists/filmmakers. They have been coming to print and pixel. I spoke to Fiona Milburn from Transmedia NZ for the big idea on several subjects. You can read the whole article here. Amongst the questions I was asked about collaboration:
The key to collaboration is: the acknowledgement of what you don't know; respect for the experience and contributions of others; and a general level of openness and discovery. I don't think that changes. It is still at the core of everything. However, what is exciting is the move away from geo-location based collaboration. You no longer need to gather in the same spot.
Traditional collaboration was certainly very fruitful, but we now have tools that allow for different ways of working. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the first time I was aware of work done in a decentralised manner. Due to differing time zones, the film had teams of people working on VFX 24/7 around the globe. And, the visual effects coordination involved somebody working with these globally diverse, individual teams of contractors. Now this form of collaboration is accessible to all of us.
One of the difficulties with these new forms of creating and consuming is that, until they’ve seen it done, many people don't know how to do it. Thus, when somebody “gets it,” they feel like a pioneer. And, they’re easy to recognise. The history of pioneers tells us that they're the ones with arrows and swords in their back.
Currently, the folks who've done well in film are those who’ve lived through the period of capital intensive creation. It’s a different era now, but our experts, the people who have delivered the current proof of principle, are used to working in that format. It’s the new creators who will be the new leaders and thinkers. They are going to be pioneers and, unfortunately, some of them will be sacrificed.
There's a lot more in the article on story world building, transmedia, and finding a new way forward. Read it: http://www.thebigidea.co.nz/news/blogs/transit/121245-a-new-way-forward-for-cinema
Courtesy of Screen Australia, you can now have access to everything I know about producing. I gave two days of lectures in Sydney at the end of August, and the mic ran into a recording device. It's just audio so you don't get to see my colorful outfits or all the nifty slides I never prepared, but it is the next best thing to being there.
You can get them here.
Episode 1: Grasping The New Paradigm
Episode 2: A New Business Model For Indie Film
You can also download them from the iTunes store here.
But I have to warn you: the lectures were each 6 hours long. Screen Australia have done us the courtesy of keeping each one to around 30 minutes. We did not want the liability of blowing your mind. You will have to come to a class sometime for that privilege.
I've written about this before, and I am sure I will write about this again. It keeps coming up, both with my own projects and with those I consult on. I think it is really simple and it is based on both experience and common sense.
It is my belief that there is only one chance to show a script where it will have real impact -- and that is when it can be portrayed as "inevitable". That is usually when there are both talent and finance commitments -- the two components that make a dream real for the industry.
The ideal time to submit a project is when there is enough in place to create the perception of inevitability but also room to bring in others to enhance a deal. Why not make things better if you can?
The folks you are submitting to, need to both cover their ass (i.e. not look foolish) and be urged to act. They need to be able to both visualize your dream, and still have room to add theirs on to it.
You are a filmmaker. Maybe you are a director. Maybe a producer. Well, whatever you are, what if you didn't have to make the movie you've been trying to make so long with so much effort? Well, you really don't. We often work so hard for so long trying to get our precious films made that we also often lose sight of the fact that all creation is a choice. How can we prevent ourselves from forgetting that there is a right time for every choice? And sometimes that time has passed us by.
Sometimes the process of putting our movies together has gone on for such an extent, we've moved on from the reasons that we wanted to make the movie in the first place.
What makes a movie important to make? And important to make right now? What are the factors that require us to make it now? What should we ask ourselves, before pushing blindly ahead yet again? It's important to make a film when it is truly most important to us -- sounds logical enough, but I think we forget that when we are engaged in the process. If we don't want to lose sight of what is needed to make a great movie, we have to make sure we don't lose sight of why we want to make the movie. It is never enough to do something just because we can. Most people think the question is "why not make this movie?" but it should be the positive version: you need to know why you should put your labor in service of a work. I am sure there are many more good reasons, and I hope you will offer them. Here's 15 to get you started.
- You emotionally connect with the material. When you try to talk about it, your eyes well up. There's that thing about it that you connect to in such a deep way that it changes how you feel. Stop trying to explain it -- just do the damn movie and get on with it already.
- I want to make movies that are about the time that I am living in, whether or not that is the time they are set in. I don't believe that movies are reflective of our time just because they are made in our time. That certain something, that observation that is truly defining -- sometimes expressed consciously, sometimes not -- is a reason to make the movie now. If that reason is not there, maybe it is a reason not to proceed.
- I want to make movies that compel people to discuss them afterwards. I often have felt that the definition of art is that it won't leave you alone -- it demands to be debated. When I find something I know people will have a wide range of opinion on, it gets me excited. I love imagining the arguments between friends and love ones that an idea, or an expression of that idea, can spark.
- Sometimes it's enough to go on an adventure. Making movies is an addictive process as each one is different with a new team and a new set of problems and opportunities. That's thrilling. Movie making is consistent set of discoveries. How great is that? The challenge of a particular film can sometimes be enough to encourage it to get made or for one to participate in it. There are some projects that have certain challenges to the physical making of it, that gives you the confidence to believe that something new will be discovered in the process.
- The production of some films is guaranteed to be a journey into the unknown or the uneasy -- both being fertile ground for self-discovery or self-actualization. Whether one is a creative person or one who excels at supporting creative people (or maybe a bit of both) the challenge of the unknown, of what one may be fearful of, or even queasy about, is an opportunity to go further, to test one self and become more as a result. Sometimes it is worth it.
- I think movies can change people. I want to make films that can change people. I have always been drawn to stories that help us relate to people we might feel we have nothing in common to. Movies allow people to walk a mile in another man's shoes.
- Certain movies and subjects help us to discuss, confront, even understand subjects and themes that we otherwise have trouble knowing how to talk about. Movies put subjects into the cultural discussion.
- Some stories have to be told. Others have been told so many times before, I am not sure why we are returning to them yet again. Beautiful work, incredibly personal work, work of honest emotion and truth -- I get why they need to be told. Work that exposes what is really going on, or shows another point of view -- yes, that too. There's so much out there that needs to be told in fact, I really wonder why our business and culture keeps on with the redundant and unnecessary.
- You have a relationship with the director or producer or actor or financier that is important to you. People matter and working with those you like is a pleasure that is hard to match. That said, you shouldn't do a movie as a favor, or else you will probably regret it.
- The instigating artist, be it writer or director or producer, needs to be championed and/or supported. There are some artists that you can see that we need (aka the artist for our time) but have yet to be given the chance; you can tell though that they will make great work, even if what you are being offered is not quite that. Still you must do it.
- The film could transform how a participating artist is perceived. Now, I have not encountered a film yet that I wanted to do for the actor or the cinematographer or another collaborator, but I can imagine it could happen.
- I think movies can change the world. I know that they have. I don't really think any of mine have. And that kills me. I have been at it a long time. I need to give this a real try.
- You are the one -- or at least one of the only ones -- that can really help this to happen. It's good to be needed, isn't it?
- You will make it better if you get involved. The importance of this diminishes I think the more you get done. And of course, this one doesn't matter if some of the other reasons aren't fulfilled first.
- You like it. This is the final reason on this list and it is last for a certain reason. I don't think it is ever enough to go through the challenge of making and marketing a work just because you like it. It takes more, usually something else from this list. That said, I can imagine that something will one day find me that I am compelled to make simply because I can.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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.
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:
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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- Identity - Who are we? Who are they? Why are we unique? Why are we the same? What's not to celebrate?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Curiosity - Does it need to be this way? Could it be done another way? Why them? Why then? What lies beneath?
- 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.
- 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.
by Blake Ashman-Kipervaser (producer)
As a film producer I find that each production I work on has its own unique set of challenges and the process can feel a bit like a roller coaster ride at times. Yet somehow things always seem to work out, and hopefully after its done you feel you've learned something or become stronger at what you do. With STARLET undergoing finishing work and getting ready to be released later this year I've thought back on some of the recent close calls and other experiences we survived during the making of the film and how fortuitous many of them seem to be in hindsight. Here are five examples which I hope will help other filmmakers in some shape or form.
1. The right place at the right time
While developing another project STARLET director Sean Baker,
executive producer Shih-Ching Tsou and DP Radium Cheung shot tests with a DSLR camera and a vintage Iscorama anamorphic lens adapater Sean had purchased on Ebay. The results looked promising. We thought we’d be able to use the adapter on the STARLET shoot even though we'd changed cameras to the Sony F3. As it turned out when we finally had a chance to test the F3 with the Iscorama adapter the results were not acceptable. This left us in a major bind scrambling at the last minute to find a set of anamporphic lenses that a) were available and b) were affordable. Both equally challenging! The risk being that if we couldn’t find anything that worked we'd have to compromise by shooting the film in the flat 1:85 format instead of scope 2:35 which Sean and Radium had always envisioned.
A year earlier while researching options online Radium found a person who appeared to rent and sell anamorphic lenses. We got back in touch with him and it turned out he was living in a trailer park sixty miles north of LA and had one set of lenses available for rent. When we visited him at the trailer park we looked at the lenses and sure enough they were the real deal. Russian lomos from the 70's but in perfect condition. Despite the fact that they weighed a ton they were great lenses. He explained to us that he had acquired a stockpile of Russian lenses just after the fall of the Soviet Union. Sort of a right place, right time situation. He was introduced to the right contacts in Moscow and went back several times to purchase more. He'd been making a living off renting and selling them for the last 20 years. We were lucky he had this one set available. When we went back to him during post for a reshoot he had already sold them.
(l to r) Shih-Ching Tsou, Sean Baker, and Adam Kolkman at the trailer park testing a lens.
2. There are others out there just like you
Our script included a few scenes in which some of the main characters play a first person shooter style video game. We needed to find a game that would allow us to use their footage in the film, and for a reduced price. Because STARLET does contain some explicit content we tried to only approach companies that wouldn’t have a problem with this. We had an ally who is well connected in the video game industry help make the initial calls for us. After receiving rejections from the first couple companies approached we learned of one that seemed excited about working with us. They gave us permission to use their footage and we filmed it off the monitor during production. Contractually we agreed to show them the scenes with their footage in the final edit before they signed off so they could be sure we weren’t depicting their game in a derogatory way. Very deep into post-production we sent them clips of those scenes and everything seemed to be ok. They sent an executable copy of the agreement to our attorney which I signed and sent back. Then all of a sudden they came back and insisted we show them the entire film. Once they saw the sex scene in the film they pulled out (no pun intended). Due to the corporate nature of their business they just couldn’t be associated with something so risque. Ironically, they create games for adolescents that revolve around killing everything in sight.
As you can imagine this was an extremely stressful situation for us. We were warned by our contact in the game industry that we wouldn't be able to find anyone else. However, we refused to believe that as we knew that the game community has just as many independent creators as the film community. It had to be a good opportunity for somebody! We searched Kickstarter and IndieGoGo for crowdfunding campaigns and sent messages out. Within a couple days we connected with Jason Welge of Panzer Gaming Studios who responded enthusiastically to our request. He was psyched about having his game ‘Left to Rot’ appear in the film. And it worked perfectly for us. It was a win win for all.
3. Dreams do come true
Our co-lead character Sadie is an elderly woman living in the Valley. Initially we wanted to cast an aging starlet for the role. Along with our casting director, Julia Kim we approached several famous actresses for the role. We got one of them on board. It was an exciting moment in our pre-production. But just as quickly as we got her attached, she dropped out. Ultimately, we weren’t able to meet her budget needs. Around the same time our executive producer Shih-Ching Tsou was exercising at a YMCA in West Hollywood when she discovered Besedka Johnson. When she approached Johnson and asked her if she’d ever acted, Johnson’s eyes lit up and she responded “I’ve never acted but I’ve always dreamed of it.” A few days later we auditioned her for the role and she immediately won us all over. We cast her and the rest is history. At SXSW she was awarded a Special Jury Recognition for her performance. She told the audience at the premiere "Dreams do come true".
4. Strike quickly when opportunity knocks
During pre-production while we were out scouting one of our locations, Talent Testing Services, a very well-known adult film performer Manuel Ferrara was on his way out as we were walking in. Sean had been considering him for an important role in the film and had mentioned this to me a few days earlier. Shortly after Manuel exited the clinic, Sean leaned over to me and whispered “That was Manuel, should I go follow him and talk to him about the film?”. I nodded yes and Sean chased him down in the parking lot. When Sean returned a few minutes later he gave us the good news that Manuel said yes.
5. Divine Intervention
One of our greatest challenges during the making of STARLET was finding a car for our lead character, Jane. We wanted something with some character, a little beat up, and a little outdated, but nothing over the top or quirky. It also had to have working air conditioner as we were shooting in the Valley in August which is hot as hell, and it needed to be automatic for our actress. That last condition we failed to make happen. We spent several weeks searching used car lots, rental places that specialized in renting damaged cars, as well as asking all of our friends if they knew of anything. Finally we found something that worked. A late nineties Saturn. We paid too much but by that time we were desparate. And we had exhausted all our other options. We later found out it had a lein on it too but that’s another story...
The car lasted us a couple good weeks of shooting before it broke down, erupting with heavy smoke while I was driving to set on the 405. We were exremeley aggravated at the thought of throwing more money into trying to fix it, after already having spent too much to begin with. Later that day, while shooting a scene, our DP Radium Cheung was framing a shot, looking into the lens when he saw an identical looking car stopped a red light in the deep background. He yelled “That’s our car!!” I literally ran into the intersection and pitched the female driver the possibility of renting it to us for the rest of our shoot. Amazingly she agreed! If that hadn’t happened I’m not sure what we’d have done.
As these stories suggest, filmmaking is not for the faint of heart. Those 5 lessons only scratch the surface of what we’ve had to overcome to make STARLET. One final lesson is that sometimes, even when the stars align, you still need help to get to the finish line. We were very fortunate to have premiered the film at SXSW and received positive responses from audiences and critics alike. This led to a N. American distribution deal with Music Box Films – a company whose work we admire and who believes in our film. It also led to Rezo Films acquiring the film for international sales. Both of these companies are taking a risk on STARLET and will have to work hard to ensure that it finds its audience. There is no easy path for true independent films.
That is what brings us to Kickstarter. We have been short on funds for a while as we’ve tried to take the film to completion. Due to lack of time and money we screened the film at SXSW before having done a proper sound design and mix, and color correction. We licensed only festival rights for the music. We went into debt just to be able to attend the premiere. And now we need your help. We will be able to get this film out there in the way that we also intended if we are able to meet our goal on Kickstarter. We hope that you will be interested in supporting our project and our future filmmaking efforts.
Blake Ashman-Kipervaser is an independent film producer based in New York. STARLET premiered at SXSW 2012 and will be released later this year by Music Box Films. They are currently raising finishing funds on Kickstarter. Please visit their page here: http://kck.st/Lt62Ay to support the film.
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.
- Avoid 15 Passenger Vans as they are the most dangerous vehicle on the road.
- Provide housing when someone has worked an excessive day.
- Recycle bottles and cans.
- Print less. Use less paper.
- Email Call Sheets
- Provide production packages (shooting schedules, breakdowns, lists, etc.) on line.
- 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.
- 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.
- Make more of the process transparent. What have you got to hide? Openness facilitates trust.
- Make sure interns receive an educational experience and are not exploited as free labor.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
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
23. Do your research
24. Build a coalition
25. Establish your brand (what makes you unique)
.... 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.