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.

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