Friday, December 26, 2008

...ever will?

"Now, I lie awake at night worrying if people who are making films as personal and indifferent to Hollywood commericalism as those by Gerardo Naranjo, Matthew Newton and Frank V. Ross will ever get to have a career anything like Steven Soderbergh's –– because before we can even wonder if they'll ever get to prove their mettle through the moderately-budgeted studio films which lead to the franchise blockbusters which result in the clout necessary to mount completely uncompromising 4.5 hour dream projects, we have to wonder if they'll ever see success on the level of the million-dollar Sundance sale." - Filmmaker Magazine blog, Spout's Karina Longworth

Roger Ebert tells "The Spirit" to F@#* Off

Copies from Roger Ebert's Blog: (


THE SPIRIT by Roger Ebert

"The Spirit" is mannered to the point of madness. There is not a trace of human emotion in it. To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material. The movie is all style -- style without substance, style whirling in a senseless void. The film's hero is an ex-cop reincarnated as an immortal enforcer; for all the personality he exhibits, we would welcome Elmer Fudd.

The movie was written, directed and fabricated largely on computers by Frank Miller, whose "300" and "Sin City" showed a similar elevation of the graphic novel into fantastical style shows. But they had characters, stories, a sense of fun. "The Spirit" is all setups and posing, muscles and cleavage, hats and ruby lips, nasty wounds and snarly dialogue, and males and females who relate to one another like participants in a blood oath.

The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) narrates his own story with all the introspection of a pro wrestler describing his packaging. The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) heroically overacts, devouring the scenery as if following instructions from Gladstone, the British prime minister who attributed his success to chewing each bite 32 times.

The Spirit encounters a childhood girlfriend, Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), pronounced like the typographical attribute, who made good on her vow of blowing off Central City and making diamonds her best friend. The Octopus has an enigmatic collaborator named Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), pronounced like your dentist.

These people come and go in a dank, desolate city, where always it's winter and no one's in love, and their duty is to engage in impossible combat with no outcome, because The Octopus and The Spirit apparently cannot slay each other, for reasons we know in a certainty approaching dread will be explained with a melodramatic, insane flashback. In one battle in a muddy pond, they pound each other with porcelain commodes and rusty anchors, and The Spirit hits The Octopus in the face as hard as he can 21 times. Then they get on with the movie.

The Octopus later finds it necessary to bind The Spirit to a chair so that his body can be sliced into butcher's cuts and mailed to far-off ZIP codes. To supervise this task, he stands in front of a swastika, attired in full Nazi fetishwear, whether because he is a Nazi or just likes to dress up, I am not sure. A monocle appears in his eye. Since he doesn't wear it in any other scene, I assume it is in homage to Erich von Stroheim, who wasn't a Nazi but played one in the movies.

The objective of Sand Saref is to obtain a precious vial containing the blood of Heracles or Hercules; she alternates freely between the Greek and Roman names. This blood will confer immortality. Fat lot of good it did for Heracles or Hercules. Still, maybe there's something to it. At one point, The Spirit takes three bullets in the forehead, leans forward and shakes them out. At another, he is skewered by a broadsword. Why, oh why, does he never die, he asks himself. And we ask it of him.

I know I will be pilloried if I dare end this review without mentioning the name of the artist who created the original comic books. I would hate for that to happen. Will Eisner.

The next question we need to ask ourselves is, "how did this happen?" Pure style of substance in this case.

Monday, December 15, 2008

From Community to Collective

For the past several months, I have been following all the trades, all the blogs, all the boards, all the magazines, and all the market studies devoted to Indie Film and all its many arms, and out of all the information out there, all of the facts, all the opinions, I've seen three quotes that sum up the three mindsets of Indie Filmmakers; "Indie Film is Dying," "Indie Film will rise again," "don't bother making films if you can't make something like The Dark Knight". Maybe it's the fact that I just finished a long stint doing basically the same thing for a distribution company (which will remain nameless because if things continue to go south there, it may be a resume killer), or the fact that I have a film shooting later this year and want to be in the know on everything as a responsible person, but I've been following and cross checking, re-referencing so much, missed so much sleep and cancelled so many dinners, I should market myself as a R&D guy for filmmakers. I have spent countless hours calling every contact I have in distribution and acquisitions to find out what festivals the companies have a presence at, what is selling, who is buying, and what is it being bought for. None-the-less, I have found some interesting results.

I recently expressed my thoughts on the matter a few weeks ago, but was unable to articulate it as well as I could have because I wrote it late in the evening during a battle with kryptonite-like insomnia. Before I spoke up again, I decided I had to become an ephemeral encyclopedia of the Indie community at large so I could better state my thoughts and understand the situation as a whole. With the community having so many arms, being so scattered and, by its very nature, so private, it is hard to gauge the full scope of events unfolding before us. There are only a few of us that have a better grasp and understanding of the situation at hand. Those of us with the drive and passion do seek out all that is in order to prevent what we fear will be the end of us as filmmakers, and thus, the end of our identity; yourself, Ted Hope and Indieoma currently being some of the few at the top of the totem.

On December 11th, Scott posted a link to Mike Curtis's blog, which had a very interesting post; "The Death of Indie as a Business Model". It was one of the better reads I've come across in the past several weeks, and in it, he address Ballast.

Ballast is a film that, among ourselves (the indie community), has met high praise and enthusiasm that I think equates the mentality of active Obama supporters in the two weeks before the election. However, it is in that "ourselves" where we become self-defeating and Kingloud's comment about it being a film that doesn't belong in theaters has a sad, sad hint of truth. We have to be honest with ourselves, most of the people that see Indie Films are those already within the Indie Community. The kids I went to High School with in Rhode Island, the people at the malls in Providence, the tourists in Times Square, or the patrons of a suburban Burger King are probably never going to know that Ballast exists, let alone see it. I asked around, this is what I found.

(Using three films as gauges; Ballast, The Squid and The Whale, Juno.)
*out of 50 people in each of the previously mentioned locations.

A) Have you heard of a film titled Ballast?
- Times Square: No – 50 / Yes – 0
- Providence Place Mall: No – 50 / Yes – 0
- Suburban BK: No – 50 / Yes - 0

B) Have you heard of a film titled The Squid and The Whale?
- Times Square: No – 45 / Yes – 5 (2 of the 5 has seen it)
- Providence Place Mall: No – 48 / Yes – 2 (Neither of the 2 saw it)
- Suburban BK: No – 50 / Yes – 0

C) Have you heard of a film titled Juno?
- Times Square: No - 3 / Yes – 47 (36 of the 47 have seen it)
- Providence Place Mall: No – 6 / Yes – 44 (40 of the 44 have seen it)
- Suburban BK: No – 5 / Yes – 45 (38 of the 45 have seen it)

(Also worth noting is that most of these people didn't know exactly what the term "Indie" means, and the most common answer was "artsy." The films most of them saw this year were; Wall-E, The Dark Knight, Tropic Thunder, Wanted and Death Race.

Each of these 3 films (Ballast, The Squid and The Whale & Juno) were made with 3 very different budgets. Each had a different target audience, while still hoping for as many people to see them as possible. Juno, economically speaking, was the big winner, especially in the mainstream. Each production knew how to use the technology and resources available to them and chose what they thought would be best for their goals.

Ballast is a film of self-distribution and no high profile talent; Lance Hammer knew exactly what he was doing in that regard, and he was right, the performances are wonderful. But Kingloud's comment holds water, compared to the films that most people saw this year, Ballast, unfortunately, does not have wide appeal. However, Hammer wasn't targeting the mainstream for his film. He was completely aware of what his project was and had a pretty good idea of who his audience was going to be.

The results of the poll were even more interesting when you put them into context as to how these people know about the films they see beforehand; TV Spots and Trailers. Only about 10 out of everyone polled knew of a film related website, and the answer for that was always Rotten Tomatoes. So how can an indie film compete with the Iron Man's and Michael Clayton's?

The Indie community supports itself, but that system is starting to break down, and the community is starting to fall apart, let alone the number of people who consider themselves to be in it and (without knowing it) find themselves changing the definition of "Indie". With all of this going on, it's easy to see why a great deal of people fear that Indie is dying out. We have to fix ourselves to fix the real problems. I try to attend as many film festivals as I can, and have been doing so for the past six years or so, and I've noticed, as I'm sure we all have, a changing dynamic.

The general feeling of support and camaraderie I once saw at festivals is fading into that of self-preservation. Yes, we would all like to see our films attain somekind of recognition at festivals when we submit them, but not everyone is going to win every time. Personally, I attend festivals for two reasons; 1. To experience the films that my peers are creating and learn how they're creating them. And 2. To meet and connect with my peers. Over the past few months, people have been increasingly introverted and less conversational. One director I talked to said that he was happy he was accepted into the festival, but was pissed that this once "Indie only" festival has now begun to screen studio projects (a trend that seems to be on the rise) and he is feeling pushed out and powerless, going on to mention that the "Independent Spirit Awards" are now just the "Spirit Awards". One of the studio films submitted to the festival actually won the audience award, and after seeing the director again after the announcement, he was devastated, not because his film didn't win the audience award, but because one of his peers didn't.

Thousands of films are submitted to the bigger festivals, like Sundance, Cannes, AFI, each year, but a lot of them are just clutter deluding the pool. I've noticed that in every blog, writers have been careful not to directly "attack" such films, but its vital that we recognize them for what they are; amateur films made by amateur filmmakers with no idea of what they're doing and no competent and experienced production team. The common thought among these people is "oh, I saw Crash, I have money, I'll make a film, I have friends who have worked on a local commercial or two, they know what they're doing." And I think the reason not many address this situation is that they don't want to feel elitist, or detrimental to themselves, because when we do that, we're no better the studios holding all the strings. If the bloggers attack one indie, they attack them all. The truth is, that's not the case. We have to continually encourage those who wish to be part of our community, but we also have to help them with objectivity and honesty. "it's a great idea, Mr. New Filmmaker, but you're not going to be able to pull it off effectively if you don't have X, Y and Z, but this is how you can get it."

It is almost certainly and solely because of this increased and readily available technology that the number of films being made each year increases, which increases the submissions to festivals. The indie film community must now start to become a collective. We need start opening more lines of communication. We must find not just new ways to reach our audiences, but new ways to reach our peers. There were blogs I only recently discovered that have been around for years, but I simply didn't know of them for whatever reason, and now that I've been subscribing to them I find myself with more and more viewpoints. How do we reach more of our peers than we already do? I don't know. I don't have that answer, but I'm looking for solutions.

But what about the rise? The studios are known for not taking an interest in films without "star power" or different budget tiers and production values. But, should one make a film with known and recognizable actors, with great sound and cinematography (or at least familiar to bigger audiences; the camera work in "Blindness" and "Cloverfield" seemed to confuse and turn off a lot of people I was at the theater with) and if the film does very well at the bigger known festivals then studios and distributors have no problem buying it up. The comment made by Curtis's friend who he quoted 10 million to as a figure and retorted back 20 instead, is fairly accurate. Studios just don't make movies for less than 10 million, or at least that's how it was a year ago when I went through that ringer, I guess its 20 now, but again, if your film does well, comes with a built in audience, already has great reviews, then its feeding time at the zoo for the bigger fish.

So long as the people who make the mainstream films control the mainstream media and advertising, it will be an almost impossible task to compete. There are smaller distribution companies out there, even catering just to indie films, but its clearly not enough. We have to look at what's working, and what isn't. Filmmaker Magazine has held what I consider to be the best attempt at asking these questions in its previous issue with a roundtable consisting of several filmmakers, and Ted Hope posted a video of a discussion about DIY. These are wonderful steps in the right direction. We're starting to see people form a collaborative whether they know it or not. I'm not saying the indie community all needs to gather in a circle, hold hands and divide up the work they get (that would actually be counterproductive) I'm saying that the current indie distributors and the indie filmmakers need to put personal goals aside for a short time and start working with each other to generate more ideas and do more analysis.

Sure, in some way we are all competing with one another, but we can't afford to ignore each other either. We can sit at a table, say our hellos, give updates on what we're doing, and yes, it is a very big step in the right direction, but we need to reach out to each other independently of pre-arranged discussions. We need to start to engage each other again at festivals. We need to comment on the blogs of our peers, offer thoughts to those who have questions; we have to police ourselves, because if we don't, the bigger fish will.

It helps to have a marketing plan and know who your audience is. One thing I'm surprised I don't see more filmmakers doing is finding somekind of social or awareness that is somehow connected or has something in common with one of the characters or themes in their projects. We know that if the film is decent enough, it does work, there is evidence all over the place; the most recent example being The Visitor, which reached out to a few groups dealing with amnesty and immigration. And as far as an audience is concerned, how Hustwit dealt with Helvetica, screening it with Design firms and schools for input and reception, that's a shining example of how to do it yourself. The film is on Blu-Ray, how many Indies can say the same? The most unfortunate thing, in my eyes, is that some filmmakers don't know the scope of their project, don't know what it is they really have, and that's a hard thing to do for most of us anyway, but if we really put the time and effort into it, we can find a goal, and find ways to reach it, whatever it is, whether it be more star power in hopes of a wider release, or more audience engaging content to stick to just a niche.

No matter what happens, the coming months are going to be uncertain. No one, NO ONE knows how things are going to turn out, how distribution will look in 2010, how festivals will change their politics, how accolades will be given out, there's just no way to know, unless of course, we shape the course ourselves. As a group, we look at the resources we have and find someway to make them work for the whole while still preserving our integrity as separate filmmakers, and oh yeah, its gonna be hard.

Studios are always going to be around, and Indie Films are always going to be around in some for or another, what's truly at risk, is their integrity. I have been at too many a pitch sessions and meetings to ignore the fact that first time filmmakers languish in giving over some creative control to a studio to fund the film, but, from once being on the inside looking out, I can honestly say that the studios are scared to death about the future. They are constantly worrying that we as indie filmmakers will find some way to circumvent them for distribution, that films like Ballast and The Dark Knight will one day play in the same Cineplex at the same time and they only have the rights to one of them, and I do believe that day will come. I honestly do.

People like Scott Macaulay and Ted Hope are leading the charge. Filmmaker Magazine is probably the widest spread medium that covers the indie community as well as it has been. I know that they will help steer us in the right direction, and because of their passion and our peers, I feel safe enough to be brave in these tough times, safe enough to make bolder films, to be part of something that holds up a mirror to society and says "yeah, that's you". And for that I am thankful.

Monday, November 24, 2008

An Honest Approach to Creation

The state of the Indie Film Community is in constant flux, and distribution is even more unpredictable. Several people throughout the community have varying views and opinions on the issue, and each of them reflect one common thought that we have yet to address: We can’t all win.

The first thing to do when starting any indie film production is to ask yourself the three most important questions that will decide the future of your project;

1. What kind of project is this?
2. What makes the project viable?
3. Who is my audience and how do I reach them?

These questions have no official “right” answers, and everyone who asks these questions of themselves and their project will naturally have vastly different answers, but I’d like to help layout some possible guidelines. In order to do this, we have to be brutally honest with ourselves.

1. What kind of project is this?
- Obviously, every project is not going to be There Will Be Blood or The Dark Knight. When it comes to Indie film, there are two films that I believe function well as opposite ends of the spectrum. Ask yourself, is your project more like Juno, or The Puffy Chair? Is it somewhere between? This leads us into question 2.

2. What makes the project viable?
- Looking at Juno, the budget was well above 1 million dollars, there were several recognizable actors attached as well as a reputable director and a good soundtrack. The project had a full crew, a moderate overhead, and because of all these factors, the production value of the film was very good. It was a quality film targeted for Theatrical Distribution.
- Looking at The Puffy Chair, the budget was small (15k), there were no mainstream recognizable actors or directors attached and there was a very, very, very small crew. The script was good, the story was good, the acting was good.

Chances are, your project is in line with one of these two films. Both went to film festivals, both did well, but, and this is key, both had experienced crew. Recently it was stated by several reputable sources that submission to Sundance has gone from 350 films to 3,500 films. Its no great secret that the contributing factor to that is cheaper and more efficient technology.

Not every film submitted is going to be of quality caliber. Most submissions are made on a shoestring budget with borrowed money, no credible talent, no marketing plan, no target in mind, and poor sound and lighting.

I’d love to be of the mindset that anyone can make a film, and, technically, that is the case, but not everyone can make one well. I will always support anyone in a film making endeavor, always, but I will also help them to understand their project, which brings us to the 3rd and last point.

3. What is my audience and how do I reach them?
- Some films, due to subject matter, come with built in audiences. Documentaries have their own niche, and their various topics have theirs. Narratives are divided into Genres, and each Genre has its own niche as well. Where does yours fit? If you don’t know, ask. Or, even better, do your own investigating. Does your project remind you, in some way, of another indie film? Look into how that project did, learn what they did, what worked and what didn’t, use it to your advantage. Share your information.

Have a festival plan, have a marketing plan. Find out if there are any organizations that might be interested in a theme, plot point, character or aspect of your project. See if they’d be willing to help you reach a greater audience, if there is any kind of collaboration possible. Brush up on the area you’re shooting in, see if there is any kind of local PR you can get involved in.

By researching the work of others, you get a better idea of what to do yourself. But you have to be honest; as film makers, one of the responsibilities we have is to be responsible for our funding. More often than not, we are stewards of other people’s money (our investors) and we have to make sure they recover what they put in. We can not afford to kid ourselves with our own projects. Second, and even third, opinions are important. As a whole, we can not afford to lose our integrity, we must strive to maintain and build on our community. We have to let Egos go, we can’t be selfish. Indie film itself is based on the belief that there is a community of talented, qualified and devoted people who work with each other to embrace and develop an art-form that they love. Let us not forget that, or we will fail.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Visitor – Why I Loved This Movie


A deeply moving drama built around longtime character actor Richard Jenkins, The Visitor is a simmering drama about a college professor and recent widower, Walter Vale (Jenkins), who discovers a pair of illegal aliens who were the victims of a real-estate scam living in his New York apartment. After the mix-up is resolved, Vale invites the couple--a young, Syrian musician named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Gurira)--to stay with him. An unlikely friendship develops between the retiring, quiet Vale and the vibrant Tarek, and the former begins to loosen up and respond to Tarek's drumming lessons as if something in him waiting to be liberated has finally been unleashed. All goes well until Tarek is hauled in by immigration authorities and threatened with deportation. His mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), turns up and stays with Vale, sparking a renewed if subdued interest in courtship. However, the wheels of injustice in immigration crush all manner of hopes in post-9/11 America. Vale soon realizes that he has unexpected anger over Tarek's plight, and the positive changes to his personal life that emerged from a deep involvement with his friend and Mouna might be the only legacy he takes from this experience.”

There are so very many great things to point out about this film, Thomas McCarthy’s direction, the cinematography, the score, the pacing, but the real reason I love this film is Richard Jenkins.

Jenkins, a familiar character actor (he was the dead father on "Six Feet Under"), is the full-fledged centerpiece of a film built around complex characters and subtle moments. His performance is marvelous, a perfect example of a talented actor fully inhabiting his character. Walter is reserved and self-repressed, which in many actors' hands would translate as "boring." But Jenkins makes us love the widowed, directionless Walter; his capstone moment towards the end of the film where he becomes a fountain of passion is so simply written, but Jenkins gives the words layers and layers of history.

The rest of the cast also gives very memorable performances (Abbass’s portrayal of Mouna was such a spiritual endeavour that I just about fell in love with the character) that are sure to keep them on the minds of many for the days to come. I highly recommend this film to anyone and everyone and hope that when awards season rolls on by, this Indie isn’t forgotten among the sea of reformulated studio pulp that usually dominates the season.

I Guess Hollywood Does Love YouTube

Several articles today have indicated that starting sometime in the next month or so, YouTube will have full length blockbuster Hollywood movies available to be viewed. For the better part of the last year, YouTube's parent company, Google, has been in talks with several studios about launching an ad-supported (of course), streaming movie service.

"It's not imminent. But it's going to happen. I would say you can expect to see it, if all goes well, sometime within the next 30 to 90 days," CNET News quoted one of the executives as saying. In July, Lionsgate, which has recently began leading the way as an upcoming purchase/distro platform for Indie films, agreed to give YouTube access to only short movie clips.

There are some circles which are sceptical about whether enough ads can be placed into a streaming movie to make it profitable and that too without overloading viewers with commercials. I am of the school of thought that you can't really enjoy a few select full feature films, or get their intended affect, from watching them on your computer, but, for some odd reason, I have no problem with streaming television shows... just the way my brain works.

While Google refused to talk to any news outlet in detail about the specific details, a company spokeswoman issued this statement: "We are in negotiations with a variety of entertainment companies. Our goal is to offer maximum choice for our users, partners, and advertisers."

I find this to be yet again, a double edged sword. On one (negative) hand, putting full features up on YouTube could potentially draw attention away from user created content. One the other (positive) hand, putting full features made by Hollywood on YouTube could legitimize Indie content with the mainstream on an even greater scale. I'm not expecting Eagle Eye or Iron Man to make it up anytime soon, as I think they may be too recent to post, but I am expecting something along the lines of Gremlins 2 or Exit To Eden to rare its head on the website.

One thing is for certain, YouTube has been a focal point in the way media is viewed, its given the entire world the best distribution platform known to man, short of telepathic images being broadcast into our head by Jean Grey or Charles Xavier, and I expect that YouTube will grow and change in more ways than we can imagine in the coming year.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Indie Film: The Great Dedication

“Is it worth it for me to do this anymore?” That was the questions I was asked a few days ago by a colleague, and a question that I eventually asked myself.

What she was referring to was her economical situation. Over the past several months, there have been more and more outlets for Indie Film Makers to showcase their work thru a variety of media, and mostly the Internet.

I firmly believe that the Internet is the most valuable tool in almost any endeavor today, be it Film, News, Business or Medicine. YouTube has revolutionized media, Google Videos has redefined how people access News Sources, and although Film has remained a constant, its politics have not.

The Film Community itself benefits most from the Internet, there are wonderful sites such as Indieoma, and KCRW, as well as blogs, such as Ted Hope’s Truly Free Film, Scott Macaulay’s Filmmaker Magazine Blog, and Mikel Wisler’s Cin-Posium. Each of these sites is an invaluable resource for news, cinematic analysis, and the discussion of ideas. Sites like YouTube, iFilm and AtomFilm are great showcases for shorts.

So why ask “if its worth it?” The question itself has a fundamental root that varies from person to person; “what are you seeking?”

An Indie Film Maker is making a film for one of two reasons; A) Creative and Artistic Expression resulting in wonderful discussion, and, if done well, merit; or B) Creative and Artistic Expression resulting in fiscal yield.

If you’re a Film Maker who is a choice B, then Indie Film is the hardest route to take and you’ll probably find yourself asking “Is it worth it for me to do this anymore?”. Each of the previously mentioned websites and blogs are nothing but supportive of Indie Film, but looking over their contents closely, it all points to a potentially disturbing trend; the end of Indie Features.

While shorts will always be around (they’re an essential resume tool as well as the ultimate creative outlet for anyone with a camera) Indie Features will most likely be trailing off. Both Ted Hope and Scott Macaulay have been championing Indie Features for years as well as offering invaluable insight into the Community, some of their recent entries have all mentioned potentially new ways to distribute a film, and most of them are not as profitable as some Film Makers would need them to be.

While I won’t spend too much time on the details of these new distribution avenues (Ted and Scott are much more articulate that I in their posts and certainly more interesting in their explanations) they are indeed very promising when it comes to attaining an audience. Things come into existence when they’re needed, so why the need?

Over the past two years the number of Indie Features made each year has almost tripled. There’s plenty of supply, but the amount of demand is never exactly written in stone. Recently, Paramount announced that it was closing its Indie Division, Paramount Vantage. The company has been harshly criticized for doing so by the Film Community at large. Several of the PV’s films were up for an Oscar Nomination this year, such as There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men (Winner of Best Picture). As to why they’re closing it, there are many thoughts on the issues, including the questionable reasons the company itself has publically stated, but one fundamental opinion that most people have is that the top brass simply has no idea what they’re doing and wish to target more formulaic and financially safer films.

The reason the number of films being made has grown is because the technology to make them has been accessible to just about anyone who wants it, but some argue that it devalues Cinema. To quote a line from The Incredibles, “I’ll give my technology to everyone, and when everyone is Super, no one will be.” Or , to a lesser extent, the Andy Warhol argument of how making multiple copies of a piece of artwork takes away from its “essence.”

But does an increasing number of Films made each year really devalue Cinema? I don’t believe that it does, although the concerns and arguments made by those who do are valid and do hold water. These new methods of distribution are mainly intended for the amateur and “lesser known” Film Makers, for films that may gain festival entrance but not attain the big distribution that they want, and for films that do not go to festivals at all.

While my colleague does understand this point, she feels that she is being strong-armed out of her goals by the larger studios and distributors. The films that she makes are of moderately considerable budget size (SAG Modified Lows or Lows) and have one or two recognizable actors in their cast. She has not had much luck with distribution lately, and as almost any Film Maker who has had their film successfully distributed can tell you, there are an almost infinite number of factors involved with attaining distribution, and later on, the right method and medium of distribution. The simple fact on whether or not the film is good or bad also has a lot to do with it, too, but that’s another topic to be discussed at a later time.

When making a Film with money from a private investor, or any investor for that matter, one should make sure that the budget is realistic and that you can get what you want for what you have. You can’t make a 5 million dollar film with no recognizable actors attached and a decent story with nothing unique and expect to attain distribution that will yield a 5 million dollar ROI plus whatever interest on the investment there was. I wish it were so, I really do, but you have to be pragmatic about Indie Film. I’d like to think that for 5 million dollars a film could attract some recognizable names looking for a payday. That would, of course, increase the films production value. Although you may or may not like it, sometimes that’s just how it works.

If you’ve done your homework and researched the market as well as the media, you’ll be able to find a successful, similar project made in a similar way and can build your model off of that.

One Indie Film my colleague often mentions is The Puffy Chair, (one of my favorites). Made for 15k and sold for 150k to Red Envelope. The film enjoyed wonderful reviews and accolades from several festivals, which naturally peeked interest in it and eventually attained the Duplass Brothers a distribution deal. But in order to understand how that happened, you have to understand how the film was made; there were no recognizable actors, an almost non-existent crew, and (most importantly) a very good story.

Short films will, unfortunately, probably never have the amount of merit in the mainstream as features do, which is a shame because we can all think of at least one or two movies that we know were atrocious and don’t understand how anyone could greenlight that piece of *#$t. And if you’re like me, you can’t really watch a full feature film comfortably from your computer, (though on that note, there are these nice little things called S-Video Cables that will solve the problem, look into them) or if you’re like David Lynch, you can’t watch a Film comfortably from your phone device, or, as he so eloquently put it in 2008, in (ironically) a YouTube video, “You can’t watch a *@#$%^&! Feature film on your *@#$%^&! phone, are you *@#$%^&! serious?!” Yes, I do believe watching a full feature film on your phone kind of ruins the experience, but I can certainly tolerate a 5 to 15 minute short.

Personally, I think its wonderful that new film makers have access to such things as YouTube and phone clips, it puts their work out there, gets it seen by an audience. And most of the people who make those kinds of films know exactly what they’re making and aren’t expecting the world as a result.

The simple fact of the matter is that making a successful Indie Film takes a great deal of dedication, passion and commitment from the Film Makers, as well as an understanding of the community (and, sometimes, the politics of the industry). It’s even harder to attain distribution. Its not easy to make a career out of this industry, it’ll wear you down, test you, break you and rebuild you. You’ll receive both positive and negative criticism that you must learn not to take personally. You must learn that delicate balance of loving what you do, but being critical of your work, and, most importantly, you must never, ever, ever, give up, because if you do give up, then it wasn’t worth all the effort in the first place, was it?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Viable Online Distribution of Indie Films

A growing problem for Indie Film Makers is distribution. While reputable Indie Film Makers have it easier than amateurs (though not buy much) when it comes to attaining distribution, the entire concept of distribution is almost redefined every month. The ideal placement that most Film Makers aspire to is Theatrical, and to a lesser extent, DVD. The most widely used form of distribution today is the online world, sites like Youtube, iFIlm, and various other "user" based sites, all free, which hardly, if ever, provide a financial yield to the Film Makers. Recently, however, that has changed with Gigantic Releasing, an online website where Indie Film Makers have the chance to post their films.

Mark Lipsky, Gigantic's president stated: "The picture quality is far superior to most other streaming sites today, the ticket price is utterly affordable, and there will be absolutely no advertising to get in the way of the film-going experience. Gigantic is introducing a sweeping change to the way movies are distributed, and this is just the first step." adding "Unlike other emerging sites, we are not simply ad salesmen aggregating content nor are we repurposing old content. We're an actual film distribution company doing what distributors have always done. We seek out and acquire titles that we believe will be viable in the marketplace, we work tirelessly to market and promote those films and now, by enabling first-run national access, we will be dramatically expanding the market as well as reinvigorating the existing audience for independent fare."

The price for each film is $2.99 for unlimited 3-day online access. Gigantic also offers free content from the company's existing database of work.

This is an extremely wonderful new way for film makers of all kinds to gain the credibility and exposure they seek. If you're like me, you may find watching a film on your computer a little uncomfortable, but with the new stream rates and such compu/tv breakthroughs such as AppleTV or even an S Video cable, you can send the image to your television to enjoy a more "cinematic" experience. Gigantic is a company that we should all be watching closely, because they may very well be the future of distribution, and at the very lease; a part of it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Rhode Island Film Community: What the ****?

I was born and raised in Rhode Island. I believe in Rhode Island. I fear for Rhode Island.

For the past six years I’ve been working in the Film Industry in and around New York City in several different capacities and several different positions. I learned more than I ever thought possible and it was truly the best experience of my life so far. One of the projects I worked on in New York provided an opportunity for me to return to, and work, back in Rhode Island. I couldn’t be more excited. I took the job, came back to the state, and due to extenuating circumstances, the project fell thru and didn’t happen. I would have instantly returned to the city, but instead I stayed in Rhode Island because I had met and formed a partnership with a local production company and began development on a collaboration with them.

While my partners in the production company are very talented and capable, the rest of the film community was… well, there’s room for improvement.

The Fundraising Nightmare

While raising money for our project, we had an extremely fruitful first few weeks, approaching several investors from our own resources, all of which have never invested in film and were excited about the project and opportunity. When we began approaching potential investors who have invested in film once or twice before, and eventually any potential investor after our initial first round of fundraising, we were met with slight animosity and quickly dismissed out of hand.

Why? Why was this the case? The answer, it turns out, is remarkably simple. A handful of local film makers have proven less than capable, made several films for large sums of money and were unable to pay their investors back, then, after two of three of these instances, announced even more projects, the dates for those projects, the actors “attached” to those projects, and ultimately failed in following thru on any of them, thus destroying the integrity of local film makers in Rhode Island.

The state loves when larger studio films come in from out of state, but is less than thrilled when local film makers attempt to make a film. And I don’t blame them at all, how could I when every project announced or attempted by this same group of people falls apart and the ones they did make failed to return their financiers investments? However, there are a handful of qualified and capable local film makers that suffer because of it.

One of these film makers recently made a film for 8 million dollars. I was fortunate enough to have a free pass to the premiere where I went to see it and I left with only one conclusion: “That was not an 8 Million dollar film.” Sure, that’s what they spent, but that’s not what it could have been made for. It could have been made for half of that, even less. Undoubtedly, a lot of the money went to attaining the big name actors they had in the film, and it did, but after getting my hands on a copy of their working budget to see where the money went, I was almost insulted. While there were both Union and Non-Union cast and crew members, most of the department heads were paid far above the standard for a film of that budget size and there were several line items in the budget that were far too high for what they were. And after looking at their crew list, a little more of why the budget was the way it was became more apparent, which I will get into a little later.

The decision to make the film at that price shows clear inconsideration for their investors. This group of film makers has made and sold several films that have attained national distribution over a decade ago, which, I would think, would give them the foresight to understand the scale, scope and expectations of their current projects. This project in question was not terrible, it was a good film, the acting was wonderful, cinematography was creative, but the story itself was far from unique and riveting, and the characters were less than interesting. Yes, I am aware that is simply MY opinion, and I stand by it.

The reason I state that, is that for the past year I have been totally immersed in market research, distribution statistics, buying costs and all kinds of numbers that make me feel less like a film maker and more like an analyst, but it is valuable information none the less. If they had been knowledgeable in the same material, they would have said to themselves: “hmmm, this budget is far too high, lets see where we can make it for less” I would imagine that had to have known they were not going to sell the film at a price to recoup its cost. If they didn’t, that means, to me, that they were not responsible film makers and hoped for the best (and we all hope for the best, but when handling invested monies, we have a responsibility to be realistic and knowledgeable) OR they took advantage of their investors and did not care that their investors would most likely not make their money back.

The Crew Pool

Now, why was the budget so high? I don’t have the whole answer to that question, but I have part of it. As previously mentioned, their department heads paid far above standard salary in comparison to projects of similar size and scope. But, also to note, all of the department heads were from out of state; out of New York and Los Angeles. The fact they’re from out of the area does not upset me, in fact, I completely understand it, there simply is not enough experienced crew in Rhode Island for every position on a film, although, that doesn’t HAVE to be the case.

Recently, the state put a cap on the Tax Credit available to projects shot in the state. While the amount of big budget projects flowing thru the state is not vast, it could very well be. Politics aside, by putting a cap on the Tax Credit, the state essentially said “we’re fine with the way things are”

Studios and Production Companies look for Tax Credit Incentives when wanting to shoot in another state, and if the 15 Million is already taken, they’re most likely not going to shoot in Rhode Island. Basic economics; more projects means more jobs, means a demand for crew, means more chances for growth and the ability to train crew.

I’ve had several conversations with people I’ve worked with in the past who are no longer open to the idea of bringing their projects here because of the Tax Credit Cap and the lack of properly trained crew. Sure, there are plenty of Union Crew around the area, and the Union is a wonderful thing, but, as any major film region will tell you, you can’t have a film composed entirely of Union crew, the regulations of so many crew combined will eventually hinder the project in time, which will eventually raise costs.

Where Do We Go From Here?

So how does Rhode Island regain its integrity within the larger film making community? First, I’d suggest dropping the cap, but that is not within the immediate reach of the local film community.

Aside from that, the first and most immediate thing I would do is to stop publically announcing projects and dates when your funding is not yet secured. This seems to be the constant and most common problem. Naturally when people constantly announce that they’re going to do things and never get to them, they’re going to lose credibility. Announcing that your developing a project is more than fine, announcing that you are going to do it, drawing attention and publicity to yourself and the project when, technically, there is no project, is a very bad idea. I know most people are excited to announce a project they’re proud of, tell the world they’re hoping to do it, but remember there’s a difference between HOPING to do it, and actually doing it.

Another suggestion would be for local film makers to utilize the vastly talented crew and acting pool that the state has. They’re not big pools, but they can be cultivated and nursed. Each of them is eager to be part of something, but they need to be given the chance. Utilize them as much as possible; otherwise they will leave the state for more regular work. I did.

The Rhode Island Film Community has a chance to become something great, to bring regular work here, one cable series and two films a year isn’t enough for someone to plant roots in the area, but if film makers put their heads together, put aside their egos and plans, they can come up with limitless po