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 ...

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