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).