Monday, September 30, 2013

Things I learned at the IFP Filmmaker Conference: Day 1

OK, last month's post was nonsense, but I was too busy to write anything more meaningful.

This month has been busy too. I went to IFP's annual Filmmaker Conference this past month, and learned a hell of a lot. While I don't know if I'll have time to write up the depth of coverage I gave last year – and you can read someone else's notes anyway – I'll share with you some of the more memorable lessons I learned on each day of the conference.

We'll start with six things I learned Day 1 ...

#6. Comedy can be challenging to sell internationally, because it's culturally specific. That's why depressing or violent films sell internationally.

And you thought foreign audiences were just these gloomy snobs.

#5. There is a film festival devoted to Internet cat videos.

It's called the Internet Cat Video Festival, or CatVidFest for short, and it's based at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Its curator, Scott Stulen, spoke about the festival, which has drawn huge crowds.

Here's their Facebook and Twitter, and their website (they're coming to Rochester in December!) and at some point I would love to listen this SXSW seminar with the amusingly alarmist headline "Is This the End of Art?"

#4. If the storytelling is good, we feel the characters are like us. If the storytelling is poor, or has an agenda, we feel the characters are inscrutable.

That's actually a quote (or paraphrase) from George Saunders' book The Braindead Microphone. I confess to being unfamiliar with Saunders or his book, but a panelist dropped that quote during a panel about Call Me Kuchu, a documentary about LGBT issues in Uganda. I'm sure the panelist brought up the quote for its relevance to documentary filmmakers, but to me it seems even more relevant to fiction writers and narrative filmmakers.

At a different panel, this one on web comedy, moderator Todd Sklar said something not entirely different. He said that a key to a successful web series is having relatable characters, so that viewers who know people like that will want to share the series with other people.

#3. There are still new stories to be told. Just not in Hollywood.

A “New Black Voices” panel of African-American indie filmmakers brought up some interesting issues. One of the panelists, director Terence Nance (An Oversimplification of Her Beauty) said: “Even white films have trouble getting made. Nothing gets made out there unless it was on a lunchbox ten years ago.” Another panelist, director Shaka King (Newlyweeds) made a seemingly opposing observation: “There's been a shift where people don't know what happened ten years ago.”

But the moderator, writer Tambay Obenson, made what I thought was the most memorable remark as the panel ended. He commented on an article he'd read somewhere (after some Googling I think it's this Guardian piece by Paul Schrader) that complained about “narrative exhaustion” resulting from every story having already been told. Obenson said that his thought when reading this was “Maybe for you, white man. You've seen the complete breadth of your experience. But our stories haven't been told.”

I laughed loud and long at this, to the point where a black woman sitting in front of me turned around and stared at me in bafflement. But it wasn't mocking laughter. I was laughing because he was absolutely right.

I've always hated people who say “there are no new stories to tell.” Without exception, they are always people who have no ideas themselves, who have nothing to say and no stories they want to tell, and they are seeking some cosmic excuse for their own lack of talent or imagination.

But just because Hollywood keeps disinterring dead franchises, doesn't mean you have to be as dumb as they are. Tell the stories that haven't been told.

#2. People are still making original work. Just not at the movies so much.

Because I went to a big-name film school at a time when NYU- and USC-trained directors were still lionized, a part of my subconscious has been clinging to the old “get noticed by the system” model. And film buffs love to mourn the lost golden age of the film-brat 1970s and Indie-wood 1990s. But several panelists talked about the Internet and web series the same way people used to talk about independent film – as a venue for original and personal work.

It's strange. Hollywood seems more dependent than ever on old properties that, as Terence Nance put it, have already been on a lunchbox. Yet in the constantly-shifting indie world, I sometimes feel like my training in older formats and traditions can be liabilities.

At the web comedy panel, Todd Sklar said that he was always losing work to people who just made a short, or do web comedy. He said losing a feature directing job to someone who's only done shorts and web series, when you've done two features, is frustrating … but it makes sense, because shorts and web series can be watched more easily as samples of someone's work.

Sidenote: The week after the conference, I drove to Squeaky Wheel in Buffalo for a screening of the new indie film Computer Chess, a comedy-drama set in 1980 and filmed with vintage black-and-white video cameras from the era. During conversations after the screening, I overheard a film student say that he's studied big Hollywood movies, but now realizes he's probably never going to make big Hollywood movies and so he should study more indie films.

I'm glad that guy learned that lesson at a younger age than I did. And I'm glad I'm finally learning it too.

So stop complaining about how scripted cable TV shows have made people stop caring about movies. Make your own online movies … or series.

#1. It's all about the audience … or is it?

Listening to the advice given by the various panelists this year, I sensed a tension between the more traditional view of filmmaking (especially of the indie variety) as a vehicle for personal expression, and the idea that content really needs to have an audience in mind that can be expected to engage with that content. I guess that's the big difference between old and new media.

But the day's closing keynote speech by producer Jon Kilik seemed to suggest that filmmaking is – and has always been – full of contradiction. Responding to the famously pessimistic speeches made by Steven Soderbergh, and by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, about the imminent death of Hollywood cinema, Kilik said such end-of-industry predictions have been made before, but that there are now more ways to make movies and to get people to see them.

“For every tentpole,” he said, “there's a young filmmaker with a small cast and crew to create a uniquely personal vision. For every sequel, there's something fighting to be born. It's never been harder and it's never been easier – and it's probably always been that way. … Don't take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Have both confidence and doubt – it keeps you awake and alert.”

As if trying to reconcile the needs of the audience with the needs of the auteur, Kilik also stated: “The only way to truly connect with an audience is to be as personal as you can be, and share that vision onscreen.”

To be continued ...