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?