Saturday, December 10, 2011

Movie Review: The Muppets

Some years ago, during the Park Ave Fest, I was walking down the street with some friends and I noticed some guys sitting on the roof of their house, drinking beer. I pointed and joked, “Look. Drinks are on the house!” A complete stranger in front of me then turned around and told me that my joke was terrible.

What that guy didn't know was that I didn't really write that joke myself. I stole it from 1979's The Muppet Movie, which I genuinely believe is one of the greatest films of all time, and was certainly a huge influence on Saberfrog.

I learned a lot from that movie as a kid. It basically taught me the concept of the pun (at that age I didn't know phrases like “drinks are on the house” and “fork in the road”, and needed to have their double meanings explained to me) and thus has much to answer for, as my family and friends would doubtless agree. It also introduced me to the grown-up world in subtle ways – it was definitely the first film I ever saw to depict characters going on a date, or to show guys bonding over their relationship troubles.

The Muppet Movie achieved the impressive juggling act of being simultaneously a family-friendly comedy, an origin story, a work of postmodernism before that was cool, and the last of the 1970s existential road movies. Without making a big deal of it, Jim Henson and company succeeded in making a big-screen version of Don Quixote (a task that both Orson Welles and Terry Gilliam have been defeated by). While I enjoyed the jokes and slapstick as a kid, the film had some deeper themes that have only grown deeper as I get older.

If you've seen the film (and if you haven't, you owe it to yourself), you know that Kermit leaves his swampland idyll when a conversation with a displaced talent agent inspires him to go on a quest to Hollywood with the goal of “making people happy”. Along the way he assembles a gang of followers and friends, only for their car to break down, stranding them in the desert. Kermit wanders away to have a soul-searching conversation with himself (onscreen he's actually talking to another Kermit, something else I needed explained to me as a kid). “They believed in me,” says a guilt-ridden Kermit about the family he's assembled. His doppelganger replies, “No, they believed in the dream.”

As a kid, this scene was just cryptic and weird. But as an adult (and filmmaker) who's actually experienced that kind of responsibility, it hits a nerve. That's genius, but what's even more genius is that the film is able to handle such profound themes without taking itself too seriously. (Kermit and friends are set free from their dilemma by a light-hearted, breaking-the-fourth-wall gag.)

An even greater moment occurs at the climax, (sorry to give away the ending of a 32-year-old movie, but it's your own fault for not having seen it yet) when Kermit and friends finally reach the promise land and enter the office of a studio executive, played by Orson Welles. Kermit says he's come here to be “rich and famous.” There's a long, awkward pause, after which Welles tells his secretary to “prepare the standard 'rich and famous' contract for Kermit the Frog and company.” While most of the Muppet gang erupts into cheers, the camera zooms in on Kermit just looking stunned.

This ending, to me, is as mysterious as the ending of Kubrick's 2001. Did Kermit win or lose? Why did his goal change from “making people happy” to becoming “rich and famous”, and did the studio head approve or disapprove? Was the casting of Orson Welles – who so famously fell short of his early promise in Hollywood – meant to be significant in some way, or was it just another celebrity cameo?

So I'm obviously pretty hardcore about The Muppet Movie. I can't claim to be that extreme a fan of the Muppets in general, though. I was into The Muppet Show as much as any other kid, but that show didn't seem to get played on TV much after it was canceled (it never had the syndicated afterlife of, say, Star Trek or The Twilight Zone), so the Muppets kind of faded from my awareness as I grew up.

But then, I'm not Jason Segel, who has apparently spent his life obsessed with the Muppets, and has spent years' worth of energy and clout trying to get a new Muppet movie made from his own script, which has now resulted in The Muppets.

A lengthy article in Entertainment Weekly last month described how Segel had to interrupt a readthrough of the script so he could step out for a moment, because hearing Kermit utter dialogue he had written reduced him to tears. (And frankly, it chokes me up just to type that.) Yet the article also quoted some Henson-era Muppet veterans, including Frank Oz, expressing disapproval of some of the humor in Segel's script. There are plenty of fanboys who are obsessed with something and yet have no insight into what made it good – would Segel turn out to be one of them?

Begin actual review here:

I've seen almost nothing Segel has been in, so I have no prejudgment about him one way or the other – to me, he's just some dude who really, really cares about the Muppets. So I gave him the benefit of the doubt. And I have to say, I think he did a pretty good job.

The previous Muppet movies seemed to follow the approach of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, etc. in that each installment was self-contained and had no continuity with previous installments. (As a kid, I was annoyed when The Great Muppet Caper claimed that Kermit and Fozzie were brothers who grew up together, contradicting the origin story given in The Muppet Movie.) The Muppets, on the other hand, takes the unusual – and moving – approach of recognizing the past. The Muppet Show is acknowledged as a long-cancelled TV show, and the Muppet Movie origin story is treated as canon; the “rich and famous” contract from that film plays a key role in the plot.

The film's probably-autobiographical opening scenes introduce Gary (Segel) and his brother Walter, who happens to be a puppet (I won't call him a Muppet, for reasons that become clear if you see the film), who grow up as huge fans of Kermit and the gang. During a trip to Hollywood with Gary and his girlfriend (Amy Adams), Walter overhears a scheme to tear down the Muppets' abandoned theater to drill for oil (due to a loophole in the aforementioned “rich and famous” contract), so the trio set out to reunite the Muppets so they can raise money to save the theater.

Perhaps the simplest way to praise The Muppets for what it is is to point out what it's not. The film was preceded by trailers for several other upcoming kids' movies. The trailer for the new Alvin and the Chipmunks movie made a big deal out of the chipmunks performing Lady GaGa's “Bad Romance” (as if mentioning a familiar song was by definition side-splitting) and also featured a group of female chipmunks doing a booty-shaking dance. The Mysterious Island trailer showed Dwayne Johnson getting hit in the face with feces from a flying monster. The trailer for a new pirate movie from the Aardman animation studios in Britain had a man raising his kilt and waving his (presumably bare) ass in someone's face while saying “Feast your eyes!”

I don't mind a kid's movie getting a bit raunchy here and there. But the fact that that kind of humor is so prominently featured in trailers indicates that this is what Hollywood thinks family entertainment should be – bathroom humor, sexual innuendo and lame pop culture references. What parent wouldn't want to take their kids to see that, right? I haven't seen a lot of the Muppet stuff made after Henson's death, but some of what I have seen seemed to fall into a similar trap: trying too hard to be risque, and being too reliant on pop-culture quoting rather than doing actual jokes.

The Muppets is making a clear effort to be more old-fashioned and wholesome, and the style of humor (especially the breaking-the-fourth-wall gags) did remind me very much of The Muppet Movie. It manages to be genuinely funny and anarchic without straining to be cynical or offensive. Segel may be more famous for his work in R-rated comedies, but he plays his role with a boyish innocence that I found entirely convincing. It's no surprise to say that Amy Adams does just as well, since her role as a live-action Disney princess in Enchanted proved that she was born for this kind of thing.

The loss of that bygone innocence in modern culture is a noticeable (if unsubtle) theme in the film, and one would almost guess that the contrasting trailers preceding it were actually designed to be part of the movie, like the fake trailers at the start of Tropic Thunder. Whatever Frank Oz and his colleagues were objecting to in Segel's script, it either didn't make the final cut or must have come across differently on the page than it did on the screen.

It was also a huge relief that the pop culture references were few and subtle. I only spotted three – to Scarface, Dirty Dancing and The Devil Wears Prada – and they were all subtle enough that someone who didn't get the reference wouldn't have noticed the joke at all. (In fact, I only recognized the Devil Wears Prada reference because I happened to see part of that film at my girlfriend's house the night before.)

That's how you do it – as a secret wink to the people in the audience who get it, while leaving everyone else to just enjoy the movie on its own terms. That's better than just re-enacting, at length, a scene from someone else's movie in the belief that this is an acceptable substitute for writing your own material. I know some audiences have a Pavlovian reaction to any quotation from something in their own DVD collection, but to me that's the nerd equivalent of a fart joke. So kudos to Segel for taking the high road.

There were some things in the film that bothered me. First, the enormous emphasis on Gary's and Walter's fannishness kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Creative people used to be role models, not just idols worshipped from afar. But ever since Generation X took over the culture, there's been more of a sense that being imaginative and creating your own characters and stories is something that other people do, not something you could do yourself. In The Muppet Movie, the old-time ventriloquist act of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy had a brief cameo, presumably because Henson was a fan. I can't help but think that if Henson had been a Generation X-style fanboy like Segel, he would have made a film about trying to get Bergen and McCarthy to perform again, rather than being inspired to create his own family of characters. The Muppets would never have existed.

My second problem is that I found the film's premise a bit morally dubious. It's supposed to be awful that the villain (played by Chris Cooper) wants to tear down the old Muppet studio to dig for oil. But as far I can tell, Kermit just left that place to rot. I realize it's just a movie and that you gotta pick something as your MacGuffin. But when the heroes ended up arranging a telethon to raise $10 million to save the theater, to me that seemed like a lot of money to ask from the public to save a building that, again, the Muppets couldn't be bothered to take proper care of in the first place.

Perhaps both of these problems are really the same problem. The Muppets identifies more with the fanboy newcomers than with the title characters, and because of this we're given virtually no backstory as to why the Muppets left showbiz and drifted into obscurity. The film seems to regard them as victims of fate, left behind by an uncaring world rather than being capable of controlling their own destinies. For me that wasn't enough. I wanted more of an in-universe explanation for why these characters parted ways in the first place, since their reconciliation is meant to be emotionally significant.

Of course, a real-world factor in the Muppets' gradual decline was probably Jim Henson's death. I'm not saying Segel necessarily had to use that specifically (although that might have been interesting; Henson clearly exists in this film's universe, as photos of him appear in a couple of shots). But because Segel's script puts the Muppets on a pedestal instead of relating to them as heroes (as the previous films had done), there was perhaps a missed opportunity to deal with some more grown-up themes such as loss and regret and broken friendships. Giving these beloved characters real, adult problems, ones that their former child audience might find themselves relating to as grownups, might have made this film a true successor to The Muppet Movie instead of just being pretty close.

But perhaps it comes close enough. The fanboy aspect of the story does pay off emotionally through the story of Walter, who starts out wanting the Muppets to enter his world but ultimately gets to enter theirs. His climactic contribution to the story is an act of Napoleon Dynamite-esque randomness that you could actually imagine Jim Henson writing. I also liked that this film, like The Muppet Movie, had a scene in which Kermit tries to reason morally with the villain, who turns him down. There were one or two character moments that were just as moving as that desert scene I mentioned from The Muppet Movie, but I won't tell you about them (because I've already forgotten what they were).

And Segel does work the nostalgia angle pretty well. After spending my adult lifetime not thinking much about The Muppet Show, it was astonishing to see the show's title sequence and song recreated in the full glory of 35mm, and to see Scooter pop his head into the dressing room to say “15 minutes to curtain...” and to remember how deeply these conventions were ingrained in my skull through childhood repetition. There is also a performance of “The Rainbow Connection” that is perhaps a bit too obviously calculated to bring a lump to the throat of anyone who grew up obsessing over The Muppet Movie, except that it entirely succeeded at this (at least in my case) so, you know, well played.

Speaking of music, I guess I could mention that I wished the songs in the film were just a little bit better. I thought I hated musicals as a kid, but many of my favorite films – The Muppet Movie included – had musical numbers. It turns out that what I really hated wasn't the idea of people breaking into song. It was the sappy, cutesy tone of so many crappy kid's movies, plus the fact that the songs often sucked. (Whenever a new cartoon TV special aired, I was always annoyed if there was a lame song, because it meant losing precious minutes of a twenty-something-minute special that could have been spent instead on jokes, or at least storytelling.)

Anyway, the songs in The Muppets are okay (and the film tries to milk some humor out of acknowledging the strangeness of people bursting into song), but I didn't find many of them all that catchy. Although Leonard Maltin thought that the songs in The Muppet Movie weren't that great. So who knows? Maybe these new ones will also become classics with age.

I might also mention that one of the film's funniest gags – involving someone who has no desire to work with the Muppets – might have been even funnier if they hadn't picked a celebrity who, in real life, seems like someone who would jump at the chance. (I've tried to think of someone who would sell the joke better, though, and I can't do it, so maybe the filmmakers couldn't either.) And if the Muppet News Flash newscaster had had something heavy fall on his head (as happened almost every time he gave a newscast on The Muppet Show), I would have cheered out loud in the theater, so that was another missed opportunity.

OK, I'm pretty much nitpicking at this point. But the fact that I'm still digging seems like a good sign. So often we see mediocre films only to shrug our shoulders and say, “Yeah, that was OK, I guess.” If you find yourself analyzing a film to death, that probably means that it spoke to you on some level, even if you're just poking holes.

Perhaps the neatest thing about The Muppets is its absolute willingness to embrace the style and tone of its own franchise. It's rare to see this done, or even attempted. When something that was popular years ago makes an unexpected comeback, it's usually been overhauled in order to appeal to a completely different audience. Ronald Moore's Battlestar Galactica, Russell T Davies' Doctor Who and J.J. Abrams' Star Trek were clear attempts to remodel has-been brands to appeal to viewers who hadn't previously cared, and the old guard just had to get used to the changes in tone, budget, shooting style, and special effects technology.

I'm usually critical of fans who are stuck too far in the past and can't accept change. We should embrace change. But we should also embrace tradition. There is something very satisfying about seeing, for a change, something new that actually does play by the old rules, that is unashamed of the past and unafraid to be the thing you remembered. The Muppets takes the perhaps-radical view that kids today aren't that different from kids back then, that both generations can like the same thing for the same reasons, and that the values of that bygone time are still valid.

So well done, Mr. Segel, for making your dream come true, and for making an entertaining film.

Just one question, though: Where the heck was Robin? You bring back one-joke characters like Lew Zealand but you leave out Kermit's nephew? So much for trying to make a family film.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Movies, politics, and Time Lords

Well, a lot's happened since my last blog post. I haven't had much time to work on the novel or a new script, although I'm getting a little bit done here and there.

Last month I started a new job, which I'm enjoying a lot. It's kept me very busy, though, so once again the demands of a day job left me not being quite in the mood to participate in the Little Theatre's marathon of Halloween films. I wasn't in a funk like last year, though, and at least I went to a couple of the shows.

One was of a film called Scumbabies, a hipster musical comedy that reminded me of two surreal 80s cult films, Forbidden Zone and Meet the Hollowheads. If you haven't heard of (or didn't enjoy) either of those films, you might not be the audience for this one. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it myself, but I was happy to see an original, oddball film that didn't cling to a comic book formula.

I also went to the Little's Halloween-night showing of locally made short films, about half of which were the same ones they showed last year. This fact, plus the news that next year's 360|365 film festival might not happen due to lack of funds, could make one pessimistic about the vitality of the Rochester film scene.

But Scumbabies was directed by a local filmmaker, and both that and The Beast Pageant prove that there's interesting work being done around here, even if it's not coming from the expected places. Every once in a while you hear about a middlebrow, medium-budget indie drama (with a B-list actor) that is supposedly going to “put Rochester on the map,” and while I wish any such production well, I gotta ask: Did Evil Dead put Detroit on the map? Did Clerks put Red Bank on the map? It's not about the cities, it's about individual filmmakers with unique, idiosyncratic visions.

Speaking of New Jersey, I got to support a fellow filmmaker that same week. At the IFP conference back in September, I met Kevin J. Williams, the Trenton-based director of a documentary called Fear of a Black Republican. The title and premise appealed to me (I had put conservative black characters in my last two feature-length movies), and I wanted to see the film, so I had encouraged Kevin to screen it in upstate New York. About a month later, he screened FoaBR at Squeaky Wheel in Buffalo and at a church in Rochester, and I got to see the film in both venues.

The first time I saw FoaBR, I thought it boldly challenged the views of people on both sides, criticizing the racism of some white Republicans as well as the cultural conformity of some white and black Democrats. But the second time, I saw the film more as a centrist plea for balance, bemoaning the over-domination of Democrats in urban areas and extolling the virtues of the two-party system.

The audience reaction was also different both times; the Buffalo crowd was liberal and skeptical, while the Rochester crowd was conservative and approving. It's inspiring to see a fellow indie filmmaker get his work out there to the public and get a response, and I'm glad I got to play some small part in the process.

Finally, I'd like to mention that today is the 48th anniversary of Doctor Who. Last year at this time, I blogged about the impact that Doctor Who had on me as a teenager, but I mostly talked about how I felt about it as a fan. I only briefly touched on what I learned (and continue to learn) from it as a filmmaker.

It's easy to mock the original series for its limited production values, but over the years I've really learned to appreciate the craft that went into these old episodes. Much of the original Doctor Who was, in fact, quite technically sophisticated for its time, pushing the envelope in terms of what could be done electronically and on videotape.

And the more I learn about the conditions under which these episodes were made, the more admiration I have for the fact that they were made at all. An early-70s story, “Colony in Space”, recently came out on DVD, and from the text commentary I learned that it wasn't until the eighth season that they were able to dub the audio during post-production. This means that for the first seven years of the show's production, the music and sound effects had to be played during shooting, and timed with the actions of the actors and cameramen.

“Colony in Space” also features a moment that, for me, sums up the magic of the old series. Near the end of this story, the Doctor (then played by Jon Pertwee) encounters the wizened alien ruler of a ruined city that houses a deadly super-weapon. The Doctor's archenemy, the Master, wants control of this weapon so that he can rule the universe, and offers to share it with the Doctor so that he can use its immense power for good.

The alien creature consists of a crummy little puppet body, topped by a rubbery monster-mask worn by an actor who is sticking his head through a hole in the set. The poor actor needn't have bothered; the mask is so crude and inarticulate that I originally thought it was a hand puppet. Yet when this Mr. Show reject vows to destroy the super-weapon, and himself with it, to prevent it from falling into evil hands, the Doctor gently replies, “Not only does justice prevail on your planet, sir, but infinite compassion as well.”

It's a tribute to Pertwee's acting ability that he is able to sell this, and the moment is genuinely (if unintentionally) profound. To you and I, this alien creature is just a really bad special effect. But the Doctor doesn't judge by appearances, and sees this creature for what it truly is – a wise, benevolent life form worthy of respect. The Doctor's intelligence and morality give him a deeper understanding of what's good and bad, right and wrong, meaningful and trivial.

This and so many other scenes in the old series are saved by the heroic efforts of classically trained British actors. This is the aspect of the show that I savor most as an adult, but I get the sense that in modern Britain there's been something of a backlash against the stagy, educated-sounding acting style of old. I once read a magazine quote (either from showrunner Russell T Davies, or from one of the producers) boasting that the new series would be fresh and new and modern and that the age of hammy, middle-aged British character actors was over.

To this American fan, though, old-school British acting is a superpower. It can take a silly script and fill it with gravitas, it can take a ponderous script and fill it with wit and charm. It can bestow upon crummy puppet aliens a sense of justice and infinite compassion. To see “hammy, middle-aged British character actors” remain unflappably dignified amidst papier-mache sets and unconvincing aliens is genuinely thrilling.

And when these same actors are given scripts and production values worthy of them, stand the hell back. I recently used a day recovering from a cold as an opportunity to watch the entirety of “The War Games”, the epic swan song of Pertwee's predecessor Patrick Troughton. “The War Games” is one of the all-time classics, for the sheer scale it implies through a handful of sets, some period costumes, and a map claiming to show additional story realms never featured onscreen.

The team of villains in this story run the gamut of RADA-trained awesomeness: the War Lord, played with marvelous understated menace; the War Chief, a wild-eyed madman whose go-for-broke death scene had me applauding; the Security Chief, whose accent-slash-speech-impediment would make Emperor Palpatine proud; and Captain von Weich, whose stereotypical Germanic monocle and Blofeld-ish dueling scar make him the original Dr. Evil, but funnier.

Even when the ingenuity of the production team wasn't enough to redeem a low budget, I still cherish old-school Doctor Who for its ambition. Nowadays, everything has to be technically perfect, and no one tries anything if they're not absolutely sure they can make it work. Everybody colors inside the lines now, resulting in TV and movies that are slick but tame.

By these modern standards, old Doctor Who is fearless. If the production team wanted to have a mile-wide squid-monster attacking a refinery, or a Concorde jet landing on prehistoric Earth, or giant ant-people battling flying giant-butterfly people, they would go ahead and do it, whatever the result looked like. When the new Doctor Who series first brought back the Doctor's oldest enemies, the machine-like Daleks, they made do with one Dalek in some guy's basement. While this turned out to be a clever bit of setup, it reminded me that the old episodes never let budget limitations stop them from regularly deploying giant armies of Daleks, even when they had to resort to cardboard cutouts or shop-bought toys to make up the numbers.

I think that British fans have rather less appreciation for this aspect of the show, and regard its homemade quality with some embarrassment. Even the makers of the original series, when speaking on DVD commentaries and documentary extras, often lament the low budgets they had while envying the greater technical resources available today.

And every time they talk that way, it's a knife in my heart. If anything, my admiration for these rickety episodes has only grown with time. Whenever another old-school Doctor Who adventure comes out on DVD, I look forward to watching it with new eyes. As I continue to develop my own skills as a writer and low-budget filmmaker, these old episodes give me a fuller appreciation for what can be conjured on a small budget.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

IFP conference, Day 5

DAY 5 – September 22

By the final day of the conference I was getting a little worn out, so I got to the conference a little late. The first panel I attended in its entirely was titled “Webumentary: Online Releasing and Transmedia Extensions”. The major themes, which seemed to resonate with earlier panels, were: 1) Think of film festivals as your theatrical release, since they attract reviews and critical notice, but 2) be aware of non-theatrical venues for getting your film seen.

Panelist Amy Slotnick, formerly of Miramax, said to make sure you have a trailer and a poster, and to create awareness of your film through a blog and a website. She pointed out venues for renting your film online, such as Distribber and Vodo. Another panelist, attorney Bob Seigel, said to make sure to get releases and clearances, and to go to the American University website to find a writeup of proper guidelines for fair use. Ryan Davis, social media director at Blue State Digital, said to think of everyone who worked on your film as a brand ambassador, and to have their email addresses.

Wendy Levy, strategist for Tomorrow Partners, said to think about your story in a “non-agnostic” way, meaning that a 90-minute feature film might not be the only platform for telling it. She said to consider online and interactive outlets in order to reach “the people formerly known as your audience”. Jason Spingarn-Koff, who made the film Life 2.0, announced that the New York Times is soliciting short video pieces to display on their websites as op-eds; this triggered a lengthy debate about whether political “advocacy” would be permitted in these pieces, and what the definition of “advocacy” actually was.

I was kind of surprised to hear a documentary panel steer into a discussion of gaming and interactivity. Levy described some projects about trafficking or vaccination, in which users could use a mobile tool to enter information about troubled areas in a comunity-generated map. During the Q&A, someone said that in his/her experience, kids found documentary-based games did not have enough levels, posing the question: How do you measure the effectiveness of games, and are the games the right way to go?

Levy said this was a great question, but didn't quite seem to answer it; she did, however, say that at a games panel last year at Berkeley, someone said that games have fought the culture war with cinema, and won. She said that “smart games” have a reputation for being clunky and expensive, and did not have the prestige of, say, Grand Theft Auto. (She added that she would love it if Grand Theft Auto had a secret layer where, when you pick up a bimbo, you can take her to the women's shelter.) “Your documentary can be on Xbox now,” she said. “If you can make something simple and impactful and cool, that's the way to go.” She also mentioned the game World Without Oil, which was played by many people and generated a lot of data.

Davis highly recommended Jane McGonigal's book Reality is Broken, about how game mechanics shape our lives. I haven't read this book yet, but apparently its thesis is that games provide motivation and rewards that are lacking in real life, and that therefore games could and should be used to structure people's thoughts and actions to become more positive and productive. I've read a range of reviews of this book, from positive to negative. The most scathing I think was in Filmmaker magazine of all places; the critic found it lamentable that one would need to build a game to enable one to perform certain basic life tasks. Having spent my own life pursuing artistic, academic and career goals, I'm somewhat troubled by the suggestion that motivation and rewards exist in games but not in real life. But I haven't read the book myself, so I could be getting McGonigal's thesis wrong.

The next panel was arguably the best: “How to Mobilize an Audience”, which consisted of a motivational lecture (and Power Point presentation) by Paola Freccero of Crowdstarter. Freccero's main theme, which she repeated several times throughout her presentation, was “Get over yourself.” She said the biggest problem facing independent filmmakers isn't piracy, but obscurity; if you're being pirated it means people are interested! She said the way to spread awareness of your film is to show it, and while a traditional theater screening still beats showing the film on a TV or iPad, any darkened room will do. She discouraged four-walling (renting a movie screen yourself), saying that your favorite cafe might be a better place to show the film.

Frecerro said that you have to preach to the choir – by which she meant screening the film for your core audience – before reaching the masses. The audience for a film may not always be obvious, but she defined the “core” audience as family, friends, and people who worked on the film in front of or behind the camera, and the “masses” as strangers who would be interested in the subject matter and/or genre.

In terms of marketing and publicity – specifically the trailer, artwork and synopsis – Freccero said that it doesn't matter what you want, it matters what is useful or interesting to the audience. She said you might want to get someone else to develop these materials. She also suggested having test screenings – get friends of friends to a screening, or use a secure online streaming platform to show it to other people – and use a site like Survey Monkey to solicit feedback.

Freccero cautioned against the expense of parties, T-shirts and other publicity materials; while they might be fun to do, you should ask yourself whether these things will help you directly reach your audience. She said to have a website, even if it's not fancy, and that trailers, clips, photos and Q&A sessions from screenings should be “shareable, embeddable, emailable, postable, tweetable, retweetable.” She said you should try to capture the name and email address of everyone who comes into contact with the film. She added that because filmmakers are often too “sheepish” to ask viewers or organizations to help publicize the film, you might want to get someone else to perform this task.

If there's a website where your core audience hangs out, offer the site exclusive content. She also said that the best time to get an audience mobilized is when there's an end in sight (i.e. a showing), rather than trying to get people excited about a film that won't come out for years. If it does take longer than expected, show humor and humanity on your website by apologizing for the delay.

When asked how to generate an audience in the first place, Freccero said to try and convey the idea to people that if they like a certain subject, they will like your film, and to make your online presence about that subject, not just the movie. You can't take the attitude of “My film is unique, you have to see it to understand it.”

For the remainder of the day, IFP scheduled panels in different rooms at the same time, making the attendees have to choose to attend one panel or the other. However, panels in the main room were being streamed live online, so I decided to try an experiment: I would attend panels in the secondary room, but through the magic of wireless technology I would also listen to the streamed panels in the main room. The effect of this was like the Mike Figgis movie Time Code, where your attention shifts among the different simultaneous storylines, focusing on one and then another.

I attended a panel on post-production solutions for independent filmmakers. Jeremy Chilnick, of the documentary Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope, discussed how a Marriott Hotel suite at Comic-Con served as the production office and edit suite for the film; 13 camerapeople would film the convention, then every day the filmmakers would screen the day's footage (“dailies” to us professionals) and make decisions. Other panelists discussed similar experiences when they were able to begin editing each day's footage immediately, in mobile or unconventional locations.

Avid Media Access seemed to be the tool of choice for these panelists. A feature called “script sync” was discussed, allowing the editor to take dailies, then drag-and-drop onto the script, and the tool will identify where those lines appear. Another feature called “phrase find” was praised for making it easy to find certain words in footage. I didn't know what they were talking about in either case, but they said these were particularly useful tools for documentarians.

Chilnick stressed the importance of backing up your material. (He said that he does triple backups of his digital footage, and also records it to analog “because I'm paranoid!”) Another panelist, Matthew Parker, said to figure out your workflow before you start, not a week in. The panelists generally said that you shouldn't skimp on post-production; panelist Andrew Weisblum said that it almost always ends up costing more in the long run if you don't follow a proven standard, or at least thoroughly explore and test your process.

The panelists discussed final file formats (DCP, EasyDCP) that I've never worked with. They also recommended some books for editors: The Lean Forward Moment by Norm Hollyn, Dream Repairman by Jim Clark, and an unnamed book by Walter Murch (probably In the Blink of an Eye). Additional tools they mentioned included Dreamcolor, an $1800 color correction tool; Lightworks, an open-source video editing program; and the streaming device Slingbox.

During the above panel, I was trying to listen to the panel in the other room, where Indiewire's Eugene Hernandez was interviewing two women responsible for the success of the documentary Bill Cunningham New York. I confess to not getting much out of this panel, since the post-production panel seemed more interesting me, as well as actually being in the same room as me. So my experiment was off to a weak start.

A panel called “Music Matters: Driving Your Narrative Through Music” was an anomaly in the conference, in that it was about actual filmmaking technique rather than marketing or promotion. I didn't take a lot of notes on this one because it was mostly stuff that, as a film music buff, I kind of knew – music sets the tone, absence of music can be important too, and music can play against the nature of a scene to change its meaning.

Meanwhile I listened to a panel about new venues for documentary filmmaking, including VOD. A panelist said that the documentary “bubble” had burst, and said there are so many documentary films that “there's no place to put them anymore. But you can do it yourself. Don't make as many of them as you have. If there's not a burning need to tell the story, don't.”

I don't know how many people were on this panel or who said what, but I learned a few things. I learned that major distributors such as Netflix might pay $180,000-$200,000 but that you'd give up your ancillary digital rights for a long time, whereas Blockbuster, Microsoft, and Google are acquiring nonexclusive rights to films, so you can work with a digital aggregator or sales agent. (In fact, I learned that those big guys won't talk directly to filmmakers and prefer to go through an aggregator or agent.)

One panelist comment echoed Frecerro's panel earlier in the day: “It's still important to establish an identity for your film. How is the average or discerning customer even going to find the film if there's no identity created for the film? Showmanship, communication, publicity, marketing ... If a film doesn't have a subject that can be communicated, if you're not prepared to do that from the very outset, create assets, communicate and get others to communicate – how are you going to get people to find out about it?”

This panel partly overlapped with the final panel of the day, which posed the question of whether issue-related documentaries are “Preaching to the Converted”. Some by-now familiar themes made a last stand here: know your goal, know your audience and how to find them. Clara Aguilar, president of programming at ITVS, discussed a why-do-we-celebrate-Black-History-Month documentary called More than a Moment; she said that the filmmaker made a mobile app to designate significant places in black history, as a complement to the film and to get people to think about issues. “He thought of this late, but really you should think of it early,” she said.

So what did I learn from this epic week?

Know your goals with the film.

Know your audience and how to reach them.

As an indie filmmaker, you can't do everything, especially not publicity. Get someone else to do it, so you can concentrate on filmmaking.

You can make a no-budget film, establish credibility, then work your way up to having producers and name actors.

Your work should somehow belong to the audience, not just you the creator.

All of that wisdom didn't come cheap, but now you get it for free!

Have a good night.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

IFP conference, Day 4

DAY 4 – September 21

The fourth day of IFP's filmmaking conference was mainly devoted to documentary filmmaking. When attending this conferences in previous years, I'd always skipped the documentary panels, but this year I decided it behooved me to learn about all aspects of independent filmmaking. I'm glad I did, since some of the advice supposedly specific to docs seemed equally applicable to narratives (and probably vice versa).

A common theme in today's panels was discussion of a successful recent documentary called Buck, about a soft-spoken cowboy with the ability to calm abused horses (he became an advisor on the film The Horse Whisperer), and whose homespun wisdom apparently grew from his own troubled relationship with his authoritarian father. I hadn't really heard of this film – I think it played at the Little Theatre in Rochester, but I knew little about it besides its nondescript title. It was apparently a big hit, though. Unlike a lot of documentaries that are either esoteric or politically divisive, this was a feel-good film about decency and healing, and appealed to a range of audiences.

The first panel was a discussion with indie producer Andrea Meditch, who spoke about several recent documentaries including Buck; Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man (which apparently came about when Herzog noticed the raw footage being edited for a Discovery Channel production at the same editing house he was using); and Man on Wire, about a man who walked between the Twin Towers on a tightrope back in the 70s. I arrived at Meditch's panel late, but she seemed to talk largely about the role that editing and post-production played in telling the “story” of a documentary. She said that a documentary had three versions – the movie in your head, the movie you have the experience of shooting, and the movie you actually shot – and that it was the role of the editor and producer to “intervene” and make the movie work. She also said that, to tell its story coherently, a documentary may require certain signposts (or “tentpoles”) in the form of narration or graphics, but that if you took these out and the movie still “works”, then the story is working.

During the Q&A, Meditch was asked whether she made decisions from the “head” or the “heart”. She answered, “I'm always looking at heart. If you can't engage audiences at level of heart, you're gonna lose them.” Perhaps paradoxically, she then stressed the importance of structure, and pointed out that Man on Wire had three or four different story threads that interweaved until the moment when he goes on the roof. “Move away from just what happens,” she said, “to what that means in terms of their lives and our lives.”

Meditch said that documentary filmmakers can and should learn a great deal from narrative filmmakers: “Just turning on a camera and saying 'I'll follow this' leads to a lot of footage” which then needs to be sorted. She said that when seeking a documentary subject, she looks for potential for nuance or layers. Man on Wire, she said, is about how this country's changed in the last 25 years, and what it means to be 24 years old now compared to then, rather than just being about the person walking on the wire. “Think about what your film can mean in a larger context,” she said.

Asked about common mistakes in documentary filmmaking, she said that too many documentaries are “one-note” and speak only to a single, limited audience. “Who do you want this to resonate with?” she asked, pointing out that anyone can now pick up a camera and make a documentary, and that your film needs to be of the highest quality possible in order to stand out. Like some of the narrative panelists, she said that when you finish a film, you're not even half done; from the outset of a project, you need to think about what you're trying to achieve with the film and how plan to get it “out there”, and that if you don't think about these things, you'll only make one film.

Asked if she'd ever written a book about producing, Meditch said that she had not, but recommended a book on the subject called Producer to Producer by Maureen Ryan. Asked what advice she would give her younger self, she said, “Do it with joy, do it with other people, try to reach out to other people. I've been able to follow my curiosity about the world and bring these stories to a bigger audience. Find people you like work with. Enjoy it. It's actually fun! Sometimes.”

The next panel was a pitch session similar to the one from the day before, but for documentaries instead of narrative features. The panelists came from various organizations that funded documentary work; they included Ryan Harrington of the Tribeca Film Institute, and Judith Helfand of Chicken and Egg. The panelists said that, when being pitched to, they were looking for unique, untold stories with compelling characters. Harrington said that it was also important to communicate where you are in the production cycle and how much money you were looking for. Helfand added that when pitching you should talk a little about yourself – how you discovered this story and what kind of special access you have.

The first documentary pitch was about a now-defunct Washington, D.C. jazz club whose CBGB-like history had been archived in the form of VHS recordings. The pitch got a mixed response from the panelists, who gave advice on how to shape the story and emphasize the human stories. One panelist, Dori Begley of Magnolia Pictures, warned against making what one film critic called “an illustrated Wikipedia page.”

The second pitch, a film about blind sailors, was well-received for the human-interest subject matter and for the passion with which it was pitched. The third pitch, a film about people on different continents and their relationships with their environment (this one had been filmed but needed finishing funds), was somewhat shyly delivered, and Helfand found this aspect sympathetic; you need confidence, she said, but not everyone has to be a “used car salesman”. Begley suggested emphasizing a theme that seemed implied but glossed over in the pitch – that some of these people had a Herzog-like madness in their fixation on the environment. Helfand and Harrington said not to use the word “environmental”, which they said was a “kiss of death”.

A panel about fundraising stated that documentary funding tended to be incremental, with small amounts from local sources such as historical societies and arts councils, perhaps of $500 or $1000; large lump sums were rare and tended to come late in the process. Sundance, Tribeca, Cinereach, Chicken & Egg, CPB, NEH, NEA, Ford, and ITVS were all named as possible funding sources. Searchable online resources the panelists named included,,,,, Beyond the Box, IFP, and (EDN, an organization who publish a guidebook, and who the panelists recommended becoming a member of).

The panel slowly shifted focus to distribution and promotion. The panelists recommended attending events such as Independent Film Week, Real Screen Summit, Sunny Side, Sheffield, MIP, and MIPCOM in order to network and make connections. One panelist quoted a Scottish filmmaker as saying that going to pitch events felt like being a pole dancer, but with less dignity. The panelists recommended going to these events as an observer at first, and that such events were part of the early stage of promotion and marketing; no one walks away from these events with a check in their pocket, but if you do a good pitch, you will make a connection and may be able to make a successful deal later even if your current pitch doesn't lead to a deal in the next two months.

The next panel was devoted specifically to Buck; they showed a trailer, which finally helped me understand what the fuss was about. The panelists, who worked on the film, said that the film resulted from 300 hours of footage, a year of post-production (10 months of editing, about 2 months of sound mixing), and a budget of over $1 million that was provided by people who cared about Buck. The film appealed not only to horse lovers but to therapists, and had strong word-of-mouth. The film comes out on DVD and VOD on October 4 (this Tuesday), so maybe I'll finally get to see this thing for myself.

A panel on post-production stressed the importance of knowing what deliverables you need to have, which may include E&O (errors and omissions) insurance, releases, a press kit and publicity images. If you're trying to get into a festival or are selling to a broadcaster, you need to know what they need and when they need it, and work backwards from that so you can deliver in a timely manner.

Keiko Deguchi, a film editor for narratives and documentaries, said that the editing process on a documentary goes more smoothly when the footage is well-shot and has decent coverage; slightly flawed footage could take him four months to finish, but footage with more serious problems could take nine months.

Postproduction supervisor Francis Power told a story about how not to do post-production. He worked on a film that had several different directors of photography, resulting in a hodgepodge of shooting styles; the film used a then-recent camera, Sony EX1, that was not yet fully supported by Final Cut Pro; and the film went through several different editors. The resulting technical difficulties stretched the post-production process over a year and a half, although he felt that under more ideal conditions it could have been accomplished in six months.

Mike Jackman said that his company, the lab Deluxe, relies on studios for their “bread and butter” but that they try to be accommodating towards students and indie filmmakers (“the future”); sometimes studios cancel or delay a slot, which the lower-budget filmmaker can take advantage of. He recommended starting post-production during pre-production – shoot a minute of test footage, bring your camera to the post house, know what editing system you want to use, and know what your final format will be. He also pointed out that individual title cards, rather than scrolling credits, are often more practical; fixing a typo in a single title card is more cost-effective than having to redo an entire scrolling credit sequence.

Deguchi said that, as an editor, it helps when the director has a clear idea of what film needs to be. The director may have big ideas for the film, which may not be apparent in the actual footage, but that provides him with a guide; his task is to find that material in the footage. Other parting words of the wisdom from the panel were: know what file sizes you'll be working with (Power recommended 720p proxy), organize your drives well, and name your files in a way that you can understand.

The final panel of the day had the title “In the Documentary Ghetto”. The panelists admitted disliking this title, and shifted the debate to whether documentaries are part of the larger indie film community or are a separate world unto themselves. Like other panels, the subject turned to the continuing importance of film festivals vs. the possibilities of self-distribution and self-promotion through venues such as iTunes, Amazon streaming, Hulu, Netflix, Sundance Now and YouTube. The moderator, Christine Gaines of Withoutabox, asked whether self-distribution is just for filmmakers who can't get into the major film festivals or find traditional distribution, or whether it really is a viable option. The response was that it depends on the film.

David Courier, programmer at Sundance, said that having a festival strategy is important. Know what festivals you could plausibly get into and that would serve your film well. Have your A list, your B list, your C list, like applying to college. Know your calendar; if you premiere at Full Frame, for example, you won't be able to play at Sundance, which wants premieres of its own. (Each festival has its own mission: Sundance is about discovering new talent, Cannes is about known auteurs with their new films, with some discoveries as well, and Toronto is in between.)

Courier also offered some more basic wisdom: Make sure your DVD plays all the way through. When communicating with a festival by email, put the film's title in the subject line and don't include any fake friendliness – just get to the point! He stressed the importance of such issues by pointing out that Sundance receives 4000 feature submissions a year, more than half of which are documentaries.

Another panelist, Thom Powers of the Toronto International Film Festival, said to make sure you have a great image to represent the film in the program book, so that (say) The Wall Street Journal will pick an image of your film when covering the festival. He also said that, when submitting an in-progress film to festivals, send your best possible version; if you can't get the film finished in time then maybe you should have waited, since you only get one chance to make a first impression.

Much of this advice seemed to apply to filmmakers of any stripe, not just documentarians, so I'm glad I chose to attend the entire week this year.

NEXT TIME: I attend the best panel of the week, then manage to attend more than one panel at the same time (sort of).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

IFP conference, Day 3

Another flashforward – Wednesday night I drove to Buffalo for some lectures on filmmaking. The speakers included writer-actor Frank Rossi, who had stories to tell about breaking into Hollywood; DIY filmmaker Peter McGennis, who said that there was no one perfect way of making a film; and experienced crew member Chris Santucci, who I actually worked with on a corporate project many years ago.

Having just spent a whole week attending filmmaker panels, I probably wouldn't have gone to this as well, but I'm glad I did because it gave me a flashback to my film school days. I've gotten so used to do everything myself in the DIY manner, it was good to be reminded of the days when I had aspirations to break into commercial studio filmmaking.

It's because of this event, though, that I didn't continue my blog yesterday. Anyway, back to the IFP conference ...

DAY 3 – September 20

The first panel of the day had the inspirational title “Paying the Bills”. Panelist Ursula Lawrence of the Writers Guild of America touted the advantages of joining the Guild, while the other panelists talked about the struggle to get by when making a film. One of the panelists, producer Gil Holland, said that he once made a movie for $250,000 and sold it for over $1 million, but didn't see any actual money for nine months, which left him living on credit cards and getting his phone turned off, etc. He also said it takes three to six months to break into an industry where people prefer to hire their friends.

Another panelist, Antonio Campos (no idea if I spelled that right – my program booklet has gone missing), mentioned the cliché that every waiter is a struggling actor, and that filmmakers should be prepared to pay their dues similarly, pointing out that Christopher Nolan made his first movie over six months of weekends. He also said to “accept that you're going to have credit card debt,” and that if you want a life with more stability, benefits and a regular paycheck, you should do something else.

Speaking of his NYU film school days, Campos said that in film school, the connections you make are more important than the classes you take; if you surround yourself with enough talented people, one of you will make it, and hopefully he or she can help you and others. On a similar note, Holland said that you should be adding points to a “favor bank” so you have people to call when you need them.

Campos' most memorable quote was “I always believe things will work. As bad as things seem in the moment, things will work out if you keep going.” He also discussed the “danger” of getting too comfortable doing paid work, and realizing one day that you never took the plunge of making your movie. This advice sounded a bit reckless given the current economy, although I sort of agree that things “work out” if you do your best and are reasonably smart and adaptable. Holland pointed out that there are jobs within the industry that are less precarious than filmmaking, such as being a film lawyer. (During the Q&A, someone quoted Werner Herzog allegedly saying that filmmakers should go to business school, not film school.)

The next panel was called “How to Craft a Pitch” and consisted of three aspiring screenwriters pitching their projects to the panelists (as they would to a producer or investor), who then gave their opinions on the pitch. The lessons conveyed in this panel seemed to be to keep it short and clear, convey what budget level you're aiming at, and mentioning examples of films in the style you have in mind. Have a log line – one sentence that sums up the movie.

This was followed by a panel devoted to the recent indie comedy Terri by writer/director Azazel Jones, who discussed his career progression from making lower-budget films. Jones had some advice that I wrote down as: “It's important to like the work you're doing. God forbid you make something you don't like and it succeeds. You think it'll buy you the chance to do what you want, but it doesn't work like that. They'll want that again, and you'll be surrounded by people who like what you don't like. It's hard to pick your battles, but to pick a battle is important. Have something to say that no one can say but you. Hopefully that will make you irreplaceable.” Again, that might not be the most responsible career advice, but without that kind of idealism we don't get independent films.

The last panel was about getting an agent, and the advice all seemed to boil down to the importance of networking and meeting people. Lucy Stille of Paradigm (the agency that represents indie writer-director John Sayles and author Dean Koontz) discusssed the “six degrees of separation” theory and said that getting in touch with someone might be easier than you think. So there was no great magic bullet given out here, except to be connected socially in the field. Agencies secure clients by referral, and by going to festivals looking for talent. Agents don't generally accept unsolicited manuscripts from strangers, although NYC agencies are apparently a bit more indie-friendly.

Actually, Stille seemed to have most of the best and clearest advice on this panel. “It's easier to say no than yes,” she said, and therefore the closer a script is to being a movie the more likely it is to get noticed. If a script shows up from a writer who's talented, her agency may put the writer with a strong development producer who can help the writer make the script into something marketable. When an audience member asked when was a good time to seek an agent, she said that when you have a film in a festival you should have another script written or in progress, in order to have something to present or pitch to an agent.

One panelist – I don't remember who – said that if you start with one type of film (such as a small, contained thriller), your next proposed project should have a similar tone at a slightly bigger budget, but within that genre you can add new elements. “If you change [genre] too much, people won't know what to do with you. If you have more experience and people know you, you may then be able to say you have a different idea. You have to have another script started even if it's not done. If I ask what you want to do next, and you say 'I don't know', I'll be less impressed with you.”

Later that evening was a presentation of excerpts from indie features being developed by IFP. I missed the beginning of this show, and probably for this reason saw more documentaries than narratives. Frankly the docs impressed me more, but there was one narrative that (based on the excerpt shown) stood out from the others. Pervertigo, from a mohawk-rocking writer-director named Jaron Henrie-McCrea, had a wildness lacking in some of the more earnest projects surrounding it. The scene I saw consisted of a guy secretly videotaping a girl in the house next door, only for her to notice him and sic her steroidal boyfriend (and his posse) on him. After seeing these muscle-bound, 1980s-high-school-movie-villain type dudes chase the guy down, threatening him with over-the-top violence and yelling "perv" over and over while the boyfriend rips the camcorder apart with his bare hands(!), I knew this was a movie I wanted to see in its entirety.

NEXT TIME: Post-production topics rear their head as the conference switches its focus to documentaries, and I learn that a documentary I never heard of is apparently quite heartwarming.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

IFP conference, Day 2

In yesterday's post on IFP's annual filmmaking conference, I neglected to mention that Troma legend Lloyd Kaufman was in the audience. At first I thought maybe he was seeking some wisdom like the rest of us, but of course he was present because his wife Pat Sweeney was a panelist. Sorry for the omission. Yet it seems fitting to bring up Lloyd Kaufman at this point, since the first panel of day 2 had another known genre filmmaker, Larry Fessenden, as a panelist.

DAY 2: September 19

The first panel, featuring Fessenden as well as producer/author Jon Reiss (Think Outside the Box Office), was about producing. Reiss said that you should think about marketing and distribution from the very inception of your project. Don't tailor the film to an audience, but think about who is the audience for your film and what are your goals: To change the world? To find a large audience? To change your career?

Although the panelists had practical talk about producing, they maintained an emphasis on artistic integrity. Reiss stressed the importance of knowing who the audience for your film is and figuring out how to reach it. Panelist Mike Ryan of Greyshack Films said that for his recent female-centric Western, Meek's Cutoff, he had to tell the investors how the movie would make its money back, and he said that “every woman who listens to NPR will see this.” The panelists also cited the recent film Note by Note, about the making of a Steinway piano, which appealed not only to piano fans but furniture makers. Fessenden discussed a film he made about a chef who seeks revenge against a critic, which didn't quite fit the horror genre but was enjoyed by “foodies”.

“Cinema is about communication,” said Fessenden. “Marketing is about supporting that communication. You can't make an alternative-minded film and then market it aggressively without a sensitivity to what that film is about.”

The panelists, particularly Reiss, also stressed the importance of setting aside money and resources for marketing and distribution. “I say half [of the budget] to get people thinking about this,” said Reiss. He also emphasized the importance of commitment: “If you're in this business to make money, I suggest you have better things to do with your week than be here ... You need to be passionate.” He described the long odds of getting into Sundance, where about 3000 feature films are submitted every year, only 200 actually get in, and only about 40 get distribution deals. (“And they're not good deals,” added Ryan.)

Reiss has coined the term “PDM” (producer of distribution and marketing) as a new crew position that low-budget films should have. His view is that filmmakers – who aren't always socially adept – should concentrate on making films, and leave the outreach to a PDM. He also suggested that a film about a particular subject to reach out to fans of that particular subject, not just a filmgoing audience.

The subject of four-walling (renting a theater and collecting all the income yourself) came up. Reiss said that each film has different needs, and that these days you should think beyond movie theaters. Fessenden said he preferred to split the box office with the theater owners rather than rent the theater. Fessenden also referred to reviews, newspaper articles, and the blogosphere as “free advertising.”

The next panel was specifically about self-promotion, and featured publicist Sheri Candler, publicist Adam Kersh, filmmaker Ava Duvernay, and IFC's Ryan Werner. Candler's advice was that “Self promotion is about helping other people ... Many filmmakers are shy and don't want to gladhand. Give your audience things they're interested in ... Be someone they want to talk to. Spend less time talking about yourself and more on what you think they'll be interested in.” Duvernay had similar advice: “Your pitch is for your film, not yourself. You're nothing without your film … Your pitch needs to be less about 'me and my friends made this' but what it's about, who the audience is, why it's important.”

Kersh and Werner recommended hiring a publicist, and to do so as early as possible, although Candler said that at a smaller festival the filmmaker could be his/her own publicist. At this point, visible tension arose between Werner, who stressed the need to debut your film in a major festival like Sundance in order to get noticed; and Candler, who pointed out that not every filmmaker would be able to do so.

Candler's advice was that you need an audience before you get money. Know your goal, whether it's to get industry attention, or to change the world, or get the film seen (which may not mean money). That helps you figure out your audience and how to market/distribute them. At the script stage, bear in mind who will love your film and how to find them. She also warned against selling all of your rights to a distributor, so that you can still sell copies of the movie yourself.

The next panel was by “distribution strategist” Peter Broderick, who repeated themes introduced by Reiss and Candler: Know your goal, whether it's to make money back, to make another film, to entertain, to open a dialogue with others, to build a fanbase, to educate and motivate, etc. and to know which goals are primary, secondary and tertiary. Getting the film seen or getting top-tier premiere are not goals, just means to an end. He defined the three main reasons to make an indie film as: Maximize revenue, maximize career, change the world. He added that there's only one reason to be an indie filmmaker today: “because you can't help yourself.”

Broderick also said that filmmakers should not try to do everything themselves, and should have a distribution team as well as a production team. He discussed crowdfunding, and said that the building of an audience was more important than the fundraising.

Next was a case study about the distribution of Kevin Smith's new film Red State. As you may know, Smith chose to self-distribute the film rather than sell the rights to a distributor; he controversially announced a plan to auction the distribution rights at a Sundance event, only to declare that he would be doing it himself (look on YouTube for video of that event). David Dinerstein, representing the film on this panel, said that if there'd been a distributor who really wanted the movie, they would have heard about it before this event.

The release of Red State began with screenings at 15 venues in the U.S. and another 5 in Canada, each with a ticket price of $60-$100 but hosted by Smith in person. (I almost went to the one in Toronto, and a DVD was to be included in the ticket price.) The film earned $1.1 million from these shows alone. The film was then released on VOD, followed by another screening (40 theaters showing the film simultaneously) where Smith responded to audience questions sent by Twitter. (I attended the Rochester screening on Sunday.)

A panel about music seemed to consist largely of the high-powered panelists (including composer George S. Clinton) telling war stories about the 60s and about famous people they've worked with, but ended with the advice that, to get music for your indie film, you should give a struggling local musician a chance instead of buying music from a library.

The day concluded with a panel featuring Sundance's Keri Putnam and Tribeca Enterprises' Geoffrey Gilmore. They discussed the changing role of film festivals, which Gilmore criticized for having “too many people with this color hair”, pointing to his own graying head. He said the future would be in new narrative forms, such as games. He recommended reading the Future of Film blog on Tribeca's website.

Even by this second day I was noticing certain themes repeating in the panels, but it was useful and informative nonetheless. Later that evening was a book launch for Sheri Candler's book Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul, which is available as a free download until the end of this month.

NEXT TIME: panels on how to pitch and how to get an agent, plus a crazy movie I saw a preview of.

Monday, September 26, 2011

IFP conference, Day 1

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the first public screening of Saberfrog. I could have blogged something about that, but instead I spent yesterday evening at the Little Theater for a public showing of Red State, followed by a streamed Q&A with its writer-director, Kevin Smith.

Smith's famously rambling, anecdotal style meant that he only managed to answer about five actual questions, but along the way he offered some inspiring pearls of wisdom. Smith claimed that he had “no discernable talent” and that his film career resulted from “will over skill”. He also made the inspirational statements that “Failure is just success training” and “There's no such thing as incorrect self-expression.” He was eagerly trying to encourage the audience to do what he did and make their own films, and their own art, even in the face of nay-sayers.

It seemed a fitting way to end a week spent in New York City attending IFP's annual independent filmmaking conference. There were five days of panels and I took tons of notes each day, which I'll try to recap in this blog each day this week. I had a good time and learned a lot, so I figure I might as well share the knowledge.

DAY 1: Sunday, September 18

While most panels were roundtable discussions of current topics, some took the form of conversations with particular individuals about their own work within the filmmaking community. Sunday began with a talk with Micah Green and Dan Stineman, from the film finance department of the famous talent agency CAA. They discussed the recent Toronto International Film Festival, which is one of the primary film markets next to Cannes and Sundance. They defined “independent” as a film not owned or controlled by a studio at any point from development to distribution. They discussed alternate financing models that were emerging, in which studios invest in films that have indie financing, since studio executives do want to make authored, visionary films even if their corporate structure doesn't normally encourage it.

Green took the view that “independent” was a financing concept (which Stineman slightly disputed) and said that there's a danger in assuming that a film made in a certain way was automatically better. His advice was to recognize the market, and create your project in a way that is informed by the market; it's okay to just do art for art's sake as long as your financiers (who may be you) understand that. It's irresponsible not to look at the market and be working at a budget level that's realistic for that. He described the recent trend in “microbudgeting” – films made in the low 6 figures or even 5 figures – which is a way to make a movie without established stars or genre. Examples he cited included the Duplass brothers, who didn't want to spend three years chasing investors, and would rather make a movie on their own terms even if it had lower aesthetic quality; and Lynn Shelton, who made a low-6-figures movie that sold at Toronto.

They stated that the greatest successes at Sundance have been in the low-6-figure budget range, including The Brothers McMullen, Napoleon Dynamite, Super Size Me, El Mariachi, and Pi. Bigger budget Sundance hits like The Kids Are Alright and Little Miss Sunshine are the exception; the latter was almost was developed in the studio system.

They also stressed the importance of having something to attract distributors and audiences, such as stars or perhaps a known director. To anyone trying to start their directing career, they suggested microbudgeting, but said that the challenge of this is finding money from friends and family, and then figuring out how to convince actors and/or foreign buyers. A film by a first-timer won't get investors without a producer (such as Christine Vachon or Ted Hope) who's made similar films that were commercial and successful; “don't even think of approaching financing until you've done that.” The next step is to get at least one star to bet on you.

The panelists said that your budget should be right for what you're doing; if you're trying to launch your directing career, you should be pursuing friends and family, not bigger sources, for money. They again said to consider microbudgeting, making a film that costs $2000 or $5000 or $10,000, to show your ability to direct actors and move the camera; this can then be used as a “calling card: for future projects.

During the Q&A, they stressed the importance of having a good pitch in order to stand out from the crowd. They said your first movie should be affordable, and before approaching them you need to get a producer with a track record who can express his/her belief in you.

The next panel was on crowdfunding, the process of soliciting numerous small donations to your project through venues such as IndieGoGo and Kickstarter. I was interested to notice that one of the panelists was Jennifer Fox, who I recognized from a late-80s indie-film documentary To Heck With Hollywood! that I saw in college. (That film profiled several aspiring indie filmmakers and their then-recent projects; Ms Fox had a documentary called Beirut: The Last Home Movie.) Fox admitted that she didn't enjoy the crowdfunding process or the self-promotion it required; inviting thousands of people into her project was “scary”, but she realized she was inviting them into an exchange, giving people the chance to be part of a creative endeavor.

Panelist Steven Beer pointed out some pitfalls. He said if you're sloppy you can incur tax liability. His advice was to understand that crowdfunding is a gift, a no-strings-attached grant, and that the people who give should have no expectation of return on investment, except maybe a T-shirt, a DVD, or a visit to the set. He said to be upfront and don't give the impression that they'll make money if you make money. He also said that the money raised from crowdfunding should not be taxable income, and that you should raise money through a company (which has the screenplay rights), not as an individual.

Fox said that crowdfunding works when you can really target your audience and find a segment willing to give money; her father-son film My Reincarnation targeted a Buddhist market, for example. She also said “you have to make sure your film has people that will look for money for you.” She pointed out that with Kickstarter you lose all money raised if you don't meet your goal, but that this can encourage people to give, and to help you meet your goal in the final days of your campaign.

The panelists discussed the time and effort involved in a crowdfunding campaign. Filmmaker Rodney Evans said he worked 5 hours a day for 30 days on a recent crowdfunding campaign. He said Kickstarter has a “project update” feature that let him update his blog; Fox said she regularly put up new videos, wrote seven articles for IndieWire, and wrote 50 pages worth of updates.

At the end of the panel, I asked Fox whether one should use multiple crowdfunding platforms or stick to one. She said stick to one, because it would be too much work to do several at once.

A later panel had the theme “Making Your First Feature”. As a case study, they used the recent film Kinyarwanda, a $250,000 feature about genocide in Rwanda, with the filmmakers present to discuss the production. I didn't feel I needed this panel as much, but director Alrick Brown – a teacher at NYU and Rutgers – was full of inspirational quotes: “I'm sorry of hearing filmmakers say 'I can't.' The question is how.” “We artists get cocky and think that because we made something people will go. You have to build your audience. Making the movie is only half the battle.” He stressed the importance of figuring out the script ahead of time; quoting Helen Keller, he said that pencil and paper are cheap and patient, but people aren't.

Brown's closing monologue was great: “Ladies and gentlemen, your first feature film will not be given to you. Take it. Take it from the universe. Process over product. If you create a process with people you respect, the product becomes a bonus. And make movies that matter, that you care about. You're spending money, days, time, people, missing people – don't do that for gimmicks and bullshit. If you're gonna use people, give them something to hold onto. Whether you're political or not, you're saying something. Make something that matters, please.”

A panel on transmedia (spreading a storytelling experience across multiple media platforms, such as those online) featured Lance Weiler (who's become known for this type of work) and Ingrid Kopp from the filmmaking organization Shooting People. Weiler was typically evangelical on the subject (“This is like the silent era of filmmaking, where we are starting to realize what we can do”), while Kopp pointed out the possibilities for documentary work. Another transmedia artist on the panel, Braden King, said “This is an exciting time. If there's parts of your project that don't fit traditional film narrative structure, this is a new way to organize your thoughts.” The panelists cited and as online resources on this topic.

The final panel of the day had the title “The Hot Button: Is Indie Filmmaking a Career?” One of the panelists, indie producer Ted Hope, amusingly contradicted his surname by asserting that having a career in indie film was no longer realistic due to increasing competition, falling budgets, and the rising cost of living. He said you now have to be independently wealthy to be able to pursue the unpaid internships necessary to break into the industry. Another panelist, Mynette Louie, felt it was still possible; she herself had saved up money so that she could spend a year trying to break into the industry, and ended up in a full time job at the Hawaii film commission, where she earned enough money to be able to then spend another year looking for other opportunities. She admitted that a recent DIY self-distribution experience was very difficult and that she didn't want to do it again.

Hope conceded that we currently are in “very exciting times and scary times” due to the rise of new digital platforms but the relatively low 5- to 6-figure offers that filmmakers are getting, which make it difficult to justify making films on larger budgets.

The moderator asserted that making a project can get you job as a lobbyist or professor – “you make money for something next to the thing” - which sounded a bit parasitic to my ears. It's common for American liberals to lament the lack of funding for the arts, so it was refreshing when a Danish woman in the audience said that she respected the American system and asked whether the US film industry would be the same if producers were paid a lot whether they made films a lot. Hope, responding to this, admitted that in societies where art is subsidized, there are governing boards and bureaucracies who only support people like themselves.

When asked for advice during the Q&A, Louie said to manage your time well and make sure you have enough staff to help you. Hope said to gather information on the community that builds around your film, and not to lose touch with them. Hope also recommended not having a script over 100 pages, and said he had no patience for spelling errors or lack of proper format. He said you should be able to think of transmedia marketing hooks for your movie, even if some of your ideas are nonsense.

NEXT TIME: panels on self-promotion and distribution, plus a panel about the release of Red State!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The past and the future

I recently stumbled across this short article quoting Roger Ebert's lament at the lack of original (i.e. not a sequel or remake) films being made in Hollywood today, a frustration I basically share. However, the article attracted commenters who disagreed with Ebert, and they made some good points: that in tough economic times people will spend their money on stuff they know they'll like, and that “the good stuff” does still exist but is to be found on television.

And so the culture clash between Cahiers du Cinema/Criterion Collection guys (for whom film is an art form that should express a personal vision, despite genre restrictions) and Comic-Con guys (who are loyal to a genre or series, not to any particular medium) continues.

When I go to the movies I like to see something new, not just continuations of a franchise. I get tired of the idea that movies exist solely to reenact situations and characters that are already familiar. Where I disagree with the Eberts of the world, though, is the knee-jerk assumption that anything part of a series is a lazy cash-in. We're now in an age where larger stories are being told across multiple volumes, with more characters and more complex backstory. A hell of a lot of ingenuity goes into telling these kinds of stories, and I don't think self-contained one-offs are going to enjoy a similar degree of public affection any time soon.

Time for a segue: One of the commenters complained about the “laziness” of Hollywood filmmakers and used George Lucas' constant tinkering with Those Movies as an example. It's interesting how people are so annoyed with Lucas nowadays that they will even resort to insults that don't fit reality. Doubtless you've heard that Those Movies came out on Blu-Ray yesterday, with even more changes. (An article about that, also with some interesting dissenters in the comment section, is here). I don't have a Blu-Ray player anyway, but the sample revisions that leaked onto the Internet in the past few weeks (assuming they're legitimate, which they might not have been) didn't impress me much. Whatever you think of the various CGI-era add-ons, though, I don't know how any objective person could call it “lazy” to keep spending more time and money reworking a movie. In one clip I saw online, a shot in Return of the Jedi of Artoo and Threepio approaching Jabba's palace has been changed from a static shot to a slow dolly shot. This presumably required somebody (or a team of somebodies) to create and render a CGI replica of that long-ago-demolished set, just to make a three-second shot look slightly more interesting. Lucas' priorities might be questionable at this point, but I can't really call that “lazy”.

I feel like Lucas has had enough opportunities to make whatever artistic, technical or continuity-related touch-ups he thought were necessary, and that enough is enough. In the past, though, I've always defended the other special-edition changes to Those Movies. I watched the originals so many times as a kid, and became so overly familiar with them, that I actually welcomed anything to make them seem fresh and different again. Everything I've heard about the Blu-Ray release sounds like this is finally a bridge too far even for me, but maybe this too is a blessing. Maybe we've watched these movies enough. I know I have.

I think of all the self-described geeks of a certain generation, who wore out their VHS copies watching the same damn space opera trilogy over and over as kids because the world they lived in was too difficult for their younger, more awkward selves to cope with. I hear their constant online lament that the ability to reenact that exact experience yet again has been taken away, because the earlier version of that trilogy has been withdrawn. And I want to ask them: What are you holding onto? Do you really want to be back there? Do you still want to be that pitiful person you were? Is this a remotely healthy attitude to adult life, or is it holding you back?

Instead of “saving Star Wars, maybe someone should save Final Cut Pro instead. This is somewhat old news that I haven't gotten around to blogging about before now, but ... you may have heard that a new version of Apple's beloved video editing program has been replaced by a new release, Final Cut Pro X, that has a bit too much in common with Apple's freebie intro-level program iMovie for some tastes. The real controversy, though, is that the previous edition has been withdrawn from the market (barring whatever copies they have left) even though FCP X is not backwards-compatible with previous versions and is missing too many features that professional editors consider essential. (I played with it at the Apple Store a week or two ago, and to me the most glaring omission was lack of a Save As feature.)

As someone who still owns Final Cut Pro 6, this doesn't affect me directly right now … but it will, because like a certain spoof-meme dictator, I have over ten years of projects that I won't be able to do anything with when the day comes that my current computer dies. (Older FCP versions apparently won't run on the latest Apple operating system.)

It's another of those end-of-an-era moments. When Final Cut Pro first came out, it meant that, for the first time, you could have professional editing capabilities on a consumer budget. The end of the previous, truly “pro”, version of Final Cut Pro now seems to kill the last remnant of the 90s dream that Joe Shmoe with 2 dollars could compete with Hollywood films. Apple's new mission seems to be to make it easier to be a consumer but harder to be a creator, which seems to violate the “Think different” campaign they used to have.

But enough about the past. How about the future of filmmaking? Well, that's what I'm hoping to get in on. IFP's Independent Filmmaker Conference starts tomorrow, and I'll be there to attend panels, network, learn new things, and generally re-infuse myself with indie spirit and enthusiasm. I'm planning to take loads of notes, which I'll be sharing with you here on this blog. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Escape to New York

“How many times have you heard someone say,
If I had his money, I could do things my way?
But little they know that it's so hard to find
One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind.

Once I was winning in fortune and fame,
Everything that I dreamed for to get a start in life's game,
Then suddenly it happened, I lost every dime,
But I'm richer by far with a satisfied mind.”
-Johnny Cash

I spent this past weekend in New York City, visiting my old college friend Greg. It was the first real vacation I'd given myself in quite a while, and I needed it.

I've had a love/hate relationship with New York City since my NYU days, but I think the balance has finally toppled into the “love” category. I love Rochester too, but life in a smaller city does sometimes have its limits. You can reach a point where it feels like you've done it all; you're always doing the same things and seeing the same people. (As the “You know you're from Rochester” Internet meme list put it, “You can go to any mall on Saturday and see at least 5 people you either work with, went to school with or dated.”) Whereas New York City is bottomless. There's always someplace you haven't gone and something you haven't done. Your horizons are constantly expanding.

I enjoyed NYC as a student for that same reason, but I also instinctively hated its snobbery, hostility and aloofness. But either those aspects of NYC have faded over the years, or I'm secure enough as an adult not to be so sensitive to it, or both.

Greg and I assisted with the shooting of a documentary that a mutual college friend was directing. We also went to a Rooftop Films screening. I'd submitted Saberfrog to Rooftop Films and was rejected, but anyone who submitted got to attend a Rooftop screening event for free, and Saturday was the closing show of their summer series so the timing was right. The show was a collection of short films, introduced by live music. The films they showed were a little on the heavy side, and I would have preferred to see more films of shorter length (they showed just six films, two of which were about 25 minutes), especially since the show ran late and we chose to leave before the end (we're gettin' old, Jake). But it was still an enjoyable experience, and I particularly liked It's Me, Helmut, a 12-minute dark comedy from Germany that consisted of a single elaborately choreographed shot.

Sunday morning we had brunch with another friend, an RIT student who had directed me in one of her student films and was currently home in Brooklyn for the summer. After that we hung around Greenwich Village, reminiscing about our college days and revisiting old haunts. I was pleased to discover that Kim's Video was still around; I'd heard they were going out of business, but in fact they had merely consolidated and moved to a smaller location on 1st Avenue.

Walking past Theatre 80 on St. Mark's Place brought back memories of the days when it showed cheap double features of classic films, before it reverted to a local stage venue following the death of its owner. It was at Theatre 80 that I first saw Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Walkabout, and Monty Python's Life of Brian, among others.

I mention these particular films because it was at Theatre 80 that I discovered the golden age of 1970s cinema, an era that NYU film classes strangely avoided while I was there. The professors seemed to have a strong bias towards foreign-language and experimental work from the 1960s or earlier, and to even be shown a film made in color was extremely rare.

There were other aspects of NYU film school that frustrated me at the time. I was a sci-fi freak who wanted to make adventure stories and comedies, whereas NYU was more of the “Lucas and Spielberg ruined movies” school of thought, and seemed to prefer films that were long on realism but short on storytelling.

But like most college kids, I was a work in progress and had a lot to learn about the world, and I think both NYU and NYC provided an experience that benefited me in the long run. I wish I'd been more mature at the time, and able to take better advantage of the rich environment around me. But I guess that's how you learn and grow – by having experiences you weren't quite ready for.

Actually, now that geek culture has become so dominant and omnipresent, I find myself yearning more for indie films and dramas, and for art that is about something more than just pop culture references.

We also passed the legendary Strand Book Store that Sunday, and whatever other plans we had for that day quickly went out the window. I felt like a college kid again, roaming the endless aisles of books for something that would further expand my horizons. Among the books I picked up was Steven Soderbergh: Interviews. I'm not actually that familiar with with this filmmaker's work (I've only seen Schizopolis and Gray's Anatomy, two of his least-known films) but I'd enjoyed other books in the same series devoted to other directors, so I grabbed it.

Which brings me to one of the most satisfying aspects of the trip. In addition to all the other fun we had that weekend, I somehow managed (thanks to all that time spent on trains and subways) to read three entire books. All three were related to filmmaking, and all three replenished me in different ways.

The first was DSLR Cinema by Kurt Lancaster, which described techniques for getting a cinematic look from modern digital cameras. Cinematography used to be my weakest area as a filmmaker, but I've made strides on more recent projects, and now feel prepared to do even better work in the future.

The second was Think Outside the Box Office, a book about indie distribution (and self-distribution) by Jon Reiss, whose seminar of the same title I once attended. As an indie filmmaker, I know there's not much point in making more films if I can't figure out what to do with the films I've already made, so this book also filled a gap in my knowledge.

The third was the aforementioned Steven Soderbergh: Interviews. This book of published magazine interviews, spanning 1989 to 2000, almost reads as an avant-garde novel with Soderbergh as its self-loathing protagonist. Perhaps because of my limited knowledge of the films themselves, the book really seems to be about Soderbergh as a person, struggling to avoid the one-hit-wonder trap of his successful first film (which, like Saberfrog, was a product of the writer-director's own personal problems); stumbling into that trap anyway because of the perverse career choices he made over his next few films; and finally achieving a well-earned winning streak of mainstream successes while making peace with himself at the same time. It seemed like the perfect note to end the weekend on.

After this trip, I feel like I've regained the enthusiasm and optimism that inspired me to become a filmmaker in the first place. I'm no longer mourning bygone eras and missed opportunities. I feel like I've finally shed the burden of the past. I feel rejuvenated, and ready to move forward with future projects.