Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Things I learned at the IFP Filmmaker Conference: Day 4

Before we begin, a bit of a flash-forward. Since returning from the IFP conference I've continued to take advantage of learning opportunities back in Rochester. I've been taking some classes in how to make movies with a DSLR, how to use the animation program After Effects, how to format a book for self-publishing, and how to write a novel in 30 days. (The latter is just in time for National Novel Writing Month.)

But a couple weekends ago I reached a point where I thought – you know what? Learning and absorbing and recharging is all well and good, but there comes a point where you gotta start producing. I've drank enough and it's time to pee. (Maybe not the most tasteful metaphor, but oh well.)

There must be something in the air (hopefully not the smell of pee), because yesterday IndieWire posted this article describing filmmaker Ava DuVernay's keynote speech at the Film Independent Forum voicing similar thoughts:

“You're in info-gathering mode. You come to these gatherings and think, "Am I interested in this? Can I do this? What is this about? What is this whole independent film thing? How do I get it done?" ... I rarely meet people who tell me what they're [actually] doing. I often meet people who ask, "Can you help me?" or "How do I do this?" ... All of the time you're spending trying to get someone to mentor you, trying to have a coffee, all of the things we try to do to move ahead in the industry is time that you're not spending time working on your screenplay ... All the time you're focusing on trying to grab, you're being desperate and you're not doing. You have to be doing something.”

So soon enough, I'm going to be doing something. I'm going to have DVDs of Saberfrog for sale at the Buffalo Film Expo this coming Sunday. I'm going to see if National Novel Writing Month can be an opportunity to make progress on my spin-off novels. And I'm in the early stages of getting some of my old films remastered. So I need to finish this series of blog posts that I started last month, so I can have next month clear for other projects.

So anyway, stuff I learned on Day 4 …

#5. It's now legal to raise money in the way that people have been doing anyway.

On September 23, it became legal for producers to publicly solicit investments for films. Presumably this is in response to crowdfunding, through which people have been, you know, publicly soliciting investments.

#4. Crowdfunding money counts as income, NOT as donations.

During a soft-money panel, panelist Cameron Keng raised various legal issues regarding crowdfunding that he had previously outlined in a Forbes article called “Could Kickstarter's Policies Trigger An IRS Tax Audit?” This article is well worth bookmarking, but Keng's strongest statement during the panel was that the money you raise by crowdfunding is income, not donations. You will pay tax on it, and if you make a mistake then you will get an IRS audit. If the person giving money is getting something in return, such as a DVD or a T-shirt, then it's not a donation. Even getting credit in a film can be argued as getting value.

Also, fellow panelist Dianne Debicella of Fractured Atlas, pointed out that a fiscal sponsor can hold the money for you for the next year so that you don't pay tax on it in the current year. The panelists plugged their blog, Filmonomics, where more info about the economic issues of filmmaking is available.

#3. Information about digital projection formats is actually available.

Panelist Graef Allen from Dolby Laboratories gave a panel on how DCP (the modern digital format that has replaced 35mm for theatrical exhibition of films) actually works. She said the slides from her presentation were available at Sundance's Artist Services website. I went there and couldn't find them (let me know if you can) but fortunately http://www.thefilmcollaborative.org/blog/2013/01/the-independents-guide-to-film-exhibition-and-delivery-2013/ has much of the same information.

DCP is a collection of digital files, which are shipped to theaters on a physical hard drive. A composition playlist (CPL), which is basically an XML text file, determines what combination of video, audio and subtitles to play. The drive containing a DCP can hold 4 or 5 different dubbed/subtitled versions of a movie, and the theater will play whichever version they booked.

The video (JPEG 2000 codec, aspect ratio 1.85 or 2.39) and the audio (WAV files, uncompressed, sample rate 48kHz, 24-bit depth, 5.1 audio) are separate files, with a container file in .mxf format. If you want subtitles, those are written in a separate format called CineCanvas XML.

To prevent piracy, DCPs need an encryption file called a KDM in order to play. The DCP is shipped to the theater by a courier (such as FedEx, UPS, or DHL) on a CRU Dataport HDD drive, and the KDM is sent by email.

Converting your video to DCP can be challenging due to a variety of technical issues. If your source video has an HD aspect ratio, or isn't 24 frames a second, or if the audio isn't properly calibrated for cinemas (too loud or quiet), conversion will be difficult. Also, watching the movie from beginning to end on its drive is essential for testing.

If I understood the presentation correctly, a common workflow for transferring a finished movie to DCP is going from your original format (which may be tape or QuickTime) to DSM (digital source master) to DCDM (digital cinema distribution master, where individual frames are separate uncompressed TIFF files in XYZ format) to JPEG 2000.

If you're lost by now, it might not help to add that the color space is DCI P3, mapped to XYZ. But we're all going to have to learn this stuff, since 100% of theaters are supposed to be digital-only by 2015.

#2. Artwork is important for publicity.

A panel on publicity artwork ran home the point that indie films often neglect to generate art materials, or at least decent ones. (Guilty.) You need to look at the two or three days when your actors are in costume and makeup on the principal set, and set aside half a day with a good photographer to get group shots and individual character shots. You should get shots from the front, the side, and a three-quarter view.

In addition to simply having the necessary materials, you should make sure they send the right message for the film. If it's a comedy, the artwork should be funny. You need to think about the logo, font, photographic style, and overall feel. Figure out what audience you're aiming at, and what would appeal to them visually.

#1. Again, know your audience.

A couple panels that I missed most of due to a schedule conflict had a couple good nuggets that stuck with me. David Larkin, CEO of the indie film portal GoWatchIt.com, pointed out that the much-criticized gatekeepers in the film industry are less powerful now, but the downside is that without their help you have to find new ways of finding your audience. He said “don't make the film for an audience, but know who the audience is.” One of the producers of the music documentary Sound City said that you need to consider what is unique about your film, and what are the assets that will bring it attention.

By this point in the week my brain was getting full, but I still had one more day of learning ahead of me. (Or half a day, since I had a train to catch)

To be continued ...

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Things I learned at the IFP Filmmaker Conference: Day 3

Sorry it's taken me a while to get to part 3. I've been (you guessed it) busy. Catching up on work, and on my own writing, since returning from this trip.

Anyway, after the heaviness of Day 2 of the conference, with its emphasis on the real world and how we're all being screwed by larger forces, it was good to hear about things that are more fun. Such as …

#5. Alec Baldwin is a real person.

As I walked to Lincoln Center that morning, I passed a poster promoting a series of film screenings at the center, for which the music would be played by a live orchestra. (One of the films in the series, fittingly enough, was 2001: A Space Odyssey.) I lingered at this poster just long enough to notice that the artistic director of the series was Alec Baldwin. “Hmm,” I thought. I continued to walk around the corner toward the entrance … and happened to see the man himself getting out of a car, carrying a duffel bag and looking dog tired.

No, I didn't bother him. I figured he was on his way to work and didn't need to be hassled. And thanks to the wraparound sunglasses I was wearing, I was able to pretend I didn't recognize him. Frankly, I was surprised he was by himself. I didn't think someone that famous would have the luxury of being able to walk around in public unaccompanied.

There's not much point to this story, except I just wanted to say … I saw Alec Baldwin.

#4. Humor is still good.

The first panel of the day was basically an interview with Derek Waters, creator of the short film that became the Comedy Central series Drunk History. The moderator, Brent Hoff, had previously given an award to that film (which had already been on the Internet) instead of one of the “films about Cambodian children with diseases caused by corporations”, a decision that apparently still makes people angry to this day.

If you haven't seen it, the premise of Drunk History is simply that a (genuinely) drunk person tells a story from the history books, intercut with actors solemnly acting out the drunkard's crude account. Waters said he got the idea from noticing that drunk people always want to tell stories. So he thought of something that people would never tell when drunk – in this case history, which is often told seriously and with no passion. His theory was that there are three stages of being drunk:
  1. You're my best friend, life is great!
  2. Have I ever told you the story I just told you ten times?
  3. I'm a terrible person, life is terrible.
(He said that the second and third stages are when you need to be recording.)

He said that a brand new idea made out of something people are familiar with is what tends to be popular. Slightly contrasting this, he also advised the audience to “make stuff you believe in” and said that any time you put your voice out there it's a success, even if only ten people see it.

This panel helped buttress my belief that it's OK to do what you believe in, and that it's OK for indie cinema to be silly.

#3. You should make more material than just the film.

In a panel on building “buzz”, one panelist pointed out that “your audience has an insatiable desire to watch short clips.” Another panelist, Marc Schiller, said that filmmakers should be developing more original content for the web, but that they aren't doing this because they're just trying to get their film finished. (Though he did point out that for documentary filmmakers this is easier, since they already have more footage than they can use in the finished film.) He said that you can't make this stuff at the last minute, when the film is finished – it needs to be part of the process.

This isn't a new idea. Way back in the day, I remember reading somewhere that during the making of Jurassic Park, they filmed extra material for use in a CD-ROM. And I think they shot extra scenes during the making of the Matrix sequels for use in the tie-in video game. But I guess indie filmmakers are still catching up to Hollywood in this area.

This gets us into the area of that familiar buzzword “transmedia”. Instead of just having the film, you can have added material providing additional character development.

#2. Apparently, there are still reasons for an indie filmmaker to shoot on film.

Even as a native of Rochester, and as the child of a father whose 29-year career at Kodak put me through film school, I approached the “Want the Film Look? Shoot Film” panel with skepticism. Although I'm starting to miss the experience of watching actual film in public, I don't miss it much as a filmmaker. To me the rise of digital video cameras is the greatest thing to happen to indie filmmakers since the invention of the Bolex. When you shoot on video, you don't have to check the gate, you don't have to worry about the camera scratching or eating your film, you don't have to hope that the lab doesn't wreck your footage. As a film student, I had to worry about all of these things. Then I got my grubby mitts on a miniDV camera in 1999, and never looked back. And neither did nearly everyone else.

But the panelists had plenty of reasons not to give up on film. One is that it simply has a higher resolution than even the best video cameras. While high-definition is taking the leap from 2K to 4K, film is more like 6K, is still a reliable basis from which to create master copies, and lacks the compression issues that occur with high-definition video.

The panelists also approved of film because of the discipline it imposed. For them, the short time limit of a film reel and the unwieldiness of film equipment requires crews to be more organized and efficient.

I personally can do without the unwieldiness of film equipment – I'd rather be able to shoot quickly, and spend more time working with the actors rather than being muzzled by technical restrictions. But I can't argue with the fact that film looks better, and has remained a stable standard even as video renders one format after another obsolete.

One more point that did surprise me – the panelists said that the “video village” separating from the directors from the actors was actually slowing the process down. The ability to instantly review your footage has apparently interfered with the filmmaking process, allowing everyone to look at the last take rather than allowing the DP to maintain autonomy.

I've personally never been on a set with that kind of setup. But about a year ago, I did see a documentary about the making of David Cronenberg's recent film Cosmopolis, and was kind of shocked to see my hero Cronenberg entombing himself in a video suite in a completely different room from the actors, rather than being on the actual set when the cameras rolled. He appeared to be entirely happy with that working method, but where's the fun in that?

#1. The making of the story can be the story.

“There's an audience not just for your product, but for how you make your product,” said moderator Ward Emling on a panel about local film offices. In the earlier “buzz” panel, the documentary Our Nixon – made of old home movies from the Nixon administration – was cited as an example of how the creation of the film can be the story that interests people. The narrative of you creating the film, with you as the central actor – that has the power to gain free exposure and get audiences to identify with the film's journey.

I wouldn't have thought that that kind of auteurism was still in fashion at all. But as Marc Schiller put it, “you can only say 'go see my movie' so many times.” You have to get the audience to identify with something, and if they haven't seen the film yet, then I guess it makes sense that the filmmaker him/herself has to be the warm-up act.

While Day 3 gave me a lot to think about, Day 4 would turn out to be the real crash course.

To be continued …

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Things I learned at the IFP Filmmaker Conference: Day 2

The second day of panels at IFP's annual filmmaker conference was basically Documentary Day. While I'm not primarily a documentary filmmaker myself, I learned at a previous year's conference that many lessons intended for docs apply to narrative filmmakers, and vice versa. So here are five things I learned on Day 2, followed by some general thoughts.

#5. Don't wait until after the US festival circuit to contact foreign distributors. By then it's too old.

That advice came from Cat&Docs' Catherine Le Clef during a panel on international documentary sales. I don't have much to add to this, but it sounds like good advice.

Dogwoof's Andy Whittaker also had some catchy advice about contacting distributors. He said that “I'm emailing you because this film is perfect for you” is a better introduction than “Here are three films.”

#4. Pick a story that the news media is excited about, and you'll have no trouble getting press.

This lesson came from filmmaker Penny Lane, who was speaking from experience. She's the director of Our Nixon, a recent documentary based on newly unveiled home movies from the Nixon White House. Lane and her filmmaking team found that, even decades after the fact, the news media still has enormous interest in Richard Nixon because … well, because the Nixon era made heroes out of journalists.

One could argue that this lesson is a cynical one that depends on the media not being as impartial as one might hope, but it was an interesting point nonetheless.

#3. When crowdfunding, you should already have an email list of people to contact, and you should also give people a reason to care.

I personally have not yet taken the crowdfunding plunge. My previous films have been funded on the 1990s credit-card model (“debt funding” I've since learned that it's called). The main thing that even I know about it is that IndieGoGo lets you keep the money you raise even if you don't meet your goal, whereas Kickstarter does not, and for that reason IndieGoGo is considered by many to be the more appealing option.

But the Our Nixon gang helped explain the appeal of Kickstarter. Producer Brian Frye said that Kickstarter was a better-curated site, and that its purpose is not solely for raising money but also for finding an audience and teaching artists to be entrepreneurial.

Self-promotion and publicity have tended to be weak links for me, but I often hear people say that crowdfunding is as much about building an audience as it is about raising money. Frye's comments helped to clarify that point. He also pointed out that people aren't interested in your need for money; you need to have a story that they care about and want to share with others.

#2. Documentaries still have the power to piss people off.

Many artists like to think of themselves as rebels challenging conventional society and traditional modes of thinking. The history of art is full of works, from The Rite of Spring to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, that pushed against established boundaries of form, language, or taste. I'm old enough to remember the furore over films like David Lynch's Blue Velvet, Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, or Todd Haynes' Poison.

And if you're a documentary filmmaker, then you can be a muckraking journalist as well as an artist, and thus double trouble. Except that I wasn't sure anyone still cared.

By now we know that most documentaries are going to be about (as the creator of Comedy Central's Drunk History put it later in the week) “Cambodian children with diseases that were given to them by big corporations.” I guess Fahrenheit 9/11 was kind of a big deal at the time, because for a while it seemed like maybe it wasn't going to be released. Except that it was released, and most people probably knew where they stood on the issues before they even set foot in the theater. We've heard it all before. Haven't we?

A panel with the agitprop title “When Documentaries Disturb the Power Structure” addressed issues of compromise and self-censorship. The discussion centered largely around Park Avenue and Citizen Koch, two documentaries that became political hot potatoes due to their criticisms of zillionaire David Koch, a significant funder of the public television outlets where the films were intended to air. (I hadn't previously heard about these films or their controversy, but a fuller account is here.)

What made the panel especially lively was the presence of a ringer: documentarian Eugene Jarecki, who was apparently added to the panel late (his name didn't appear in the printed program). Jarecki declared that “the system knows no language but its own violence” and that “revolution is a tapestry of individuals”, and dismissed the very topic of the panel as “self-centered and stupid. With democracy under siege, so much power in central government and wealthy influence, who cares about the filmmaking community? There's a community of humans!”

But it was during the Q&A that things got really good. The first audience member to speak was in fact a PBS representative, who sarcastically referred to herself as one of the “podunk” PBS executives (as one of the panelists – probably Jarecki – had characterized them) and ended up arguing with Jarecki. She defended PBS, saying that PBS does air films on controversial topics, and asked, “Is PBS for diversity? Or is it just a venue for viewpoints beloved by this room?”

I'm not a very political person most of the time, but I know entertainment when I see it, and this was a hell of a show.

But Jarecki, for all his alarmist anger, ended on a positive note, saying that America's “hard-won meritocracy of crazy, passionate people” produces better documentaries than the BBC, who crank them out as a machine. “When you stop people from seeing something,” he concluded, “you increase the value of the moment when people see it.”

#1. The acclaimed documentary Leviathan looks like it might be a bit of an ordeal.

While perusing the calendar at Squeaky Wheel in Buffalo some weeks ago, I was intrigued by the writeup for a screening – actually scheduled for this coming Thursday as I write this – of a film called Leviathan. Despite the film's potentially dry subject matter (“the North Atlantic fishing industry”), its avant-garde approach earned it glowing notices from The New York Times, the Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Filmmaker Magazine (which called it a “game-changer”). I read all this and thought, “Hmm, sounds like something different. Maybe I'll check it out.”

One of the hidden joys of IFP's annual conference is that people who a film guy like me might have heard of, but would never expect to see in person, are just there, as panelists. (The first year I went, Moby was a panelist during a discussion about music. Yup, Moby.) So imagine my surprise when the director of Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, gave the closing address for the day.

LC-T's speech expressed scorn for many aspects of modern documentary filmmaking – from its emphasis on 'story', to the use of editing and music to 'infantilize' the audience, to the narrator to tell you what things mean, and conversely the liberal effort to make a film's subjects into heroes or martyrs. I personally found most of these complaints a bit pretentious ... but someone in the audience went “Wow” at end of the speech, so maybe he knew his crowd.

Anyway, the cheese at the end of that maze was a ten-minute excerpt of Leviathan. “Oh cool,” I thought, “a preview of a movie I was thinking of seeing.”

Basically, Leviathan is a film shot on a fishing boat, largely at night, with tiny portable video cameras strapped to people's heads in order to capture their point of view while they're working. Based on the excerpt shown at IFP, the film seems to be based on the What the Hell Is Going On Aesthetic. The dark, grainy footage (what is this big strange furry thing moving around – oh, that's the fishing net) and poor acoustics (in which the human voice is indecipherable among unearthly mechanical noises) combined to create something suitably surreal and eerie, and made me kind of understand why Film Comment would call it “the best horror film of the year”.

However, I can't see myself sitting through an hour and a half of this, and what I saw seemed to make a mockery of LC-T's pontification just minutes earlier. If you're the kind of person who expects documentaries to inform rather than obfuscate, or at least make it possible to tell what you're looking at and what people are doing or saying, you might be too bourgeois and reactionary for this movie.

From what I saw of Leviathan, I would describe the film as The Tree of Life meets Trash Humpers. If that description tells you nothing (or sends you running from the room screaming) then you may not be its ideal audience. Still, I respect that someone out there is marching to his own drummer, whether it speaks to me or not.

General thoughts ...

The role of marketing – for the purposes of fundraising as well as publicity – was unavoidable by this point in the conference, and it kind of made me question whether indie filmmaking is really serving any kind of need. Instead of offering the original vision that people have been waiting for, you have to market to an existing viewpoint in order to be successful. You have to find an existing niche. So we all have to become studio heads in a way, whether we want to or not.

It also occurred to me that so many of the marketing strategies advocated in this community seem to assume that the audience consists of cutting-edge, social-media-savvy hipsters. Certainly there are a lot of people in the world like that, but there are also a lot of people who don't even have a smartphone. So you need to not only know your audience, but also know how they communicate. And after years of hearing about transmedia, it occurred to me that transmedia projects really depend on audience involvement and input to even exist as intended – unlike a stand-alone movie, which is a stable, tangible thing regardless of the size or engagement level of the audience.

These were all heavy thoughts, perhaps appropriately for a day devoted to nonfiction. The next day would begin on a very different note.

To be continued ...