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!

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