Sunday, November 10, 2013

Things I learned at the IFP Filmmaker Conference: Day 5

OK, so it's obviously taken me way too long to chronicle this IFP conference, which was a month and a half ago now.

I actually wasn't around for all the panels on the final day, as I had a train to catch. However, I still managed to snag a few final pearls of wisdom.

#5. The Internet is the opposite of movies in many ways.

This observation came from “interactive art director” Jeff Soyk, one of the contributors to a panel on Hollow, an interactive website devoted to sharing stories from a struggling West Virginia community. He said that film and the Internet were “contradictory experiences,” pointing out that the web is a more information-driven medium with a shorter attention span. He added that developing the Hollow project meant getting away from the auteur approach, and developing the story as a team. (Hollow also involved giving camera equipment to the community members, and training them in how to use it, so that they could tell and record their own stories for the site.)

#4. Sound is an overlooked and underappreciated aspect of film.

This also came up during the Hollow panel. The project's creators found that sound design and music was essential in contributing a mood to the experience. One of the contributors named the addition of the music as marking the point when the project finally felt “real.”

My extreme delay in completing my IFP write-up means that this ties in with a similar point I heard yesterday at the Buffalo Dreams film festival, during a talk from Paige Davis of the distribution company Alternative Cinema. When an audience member asked about common mistakes that low-budget filmmakers make, she stressed the importance of good sound. She said that filmmakers are often so caught up in the logistics of getting the movie made that they don't give audio the attention that it needs.

You may have already heard it said that audiences will forgive a crummy picture (and even accept it as a style) but are less tolerant of crummy sound. But it's worth repeating anyway.

#3. If you've already shot your movie, think of a pitch that describes what you know you have.

Nancy Abraham of HBO Documentary Films said this during a panel on the art of pitching documentary films, but I suspect it applies equally well to narrative films.

This point is actually somewhat dear to my heart. I've met people who can come up with a catchy-sounding one-word premise, but don't know how to develop it into actual characters and scenes. Whereas a lot of my ideas come from something a bit more esoteric – a theme or mood I want to express, or a genre I want to play with – making it a challenge to figure out how to explain the story to people in a simple way that makes it sound compelling. I did several drafts of Saberfrog before getting to the point where I could easily sum up the premise of my little road movie: “An aging slacker goes on a road trip to find old friends because voices in his head tell him to.” (And if memory serves, the voices in his head weren't even in my original outline.)

#2. Anyone doing any sort of media needs to collaborate with people in different disciplines.

This came from Brent Hoff of the new Made in NYC Media Center, a venue that was on the verge of opening to the public at the time of the conference.

That point is something else I've been learning through experience. Being a filmmaker isn't just about knowing how to write a script, block a scene, or choose lenses. You need to know about business. You need to know about the Internet and social networking. You need to know about promotion. And while I've enjoyed wearing a lot of hats on my past films, I've found that not all of these areas are strengths of mine.

#1. Filmmakers should look at other measures of success besides box office and Facebook likes.

This came up during a curious talk by Debika Shome, representative of a big-data organization called the Harmony Institute panel. Shome introduced her talk by discussing several possible measures of success and impact – not just box office and Facebook likes, but also awards, critical response, and the number of press articles covering the movie.

Shome was promoting the idea that you should think about “optimizing” your work, and evaluating its effectiveness in tangible terms. This seemed to be a potentially controversial area: One audience member criticized the idea of equating impact with popularity and performing statistical number-crunching when developing a project, saying “This is what Hollywood does” and implying that this approach was incompatible with the indie spirit of doing something original and personal.

Shome responded by discussing the documentary film Waiting for Superman, about the problems in the U.S. educational system. She said that the Institute studied what “frames” and metaphors did and didn't resonate in audiences and press. If you pick an approach that doesn't resonate with the public, she said, then even a hard push might not be successful.

General thoughts …

Whenever I return to NYC for one of these events, I'm always struck by how the artistic community's attitude has changed since I was a student there in the 1990s.

The idea that being unhappy or helpless makes you deep was mercifully absent. It was smarter to be clever and to do something and make a difference.

Obviously not everyone has changed with the times. During that week (but not while at the conference), I overheard some nerds complaining – only half-jokingly – that being able to look stuff up on the Internet makes it harder to have arguments about trivial knowledge. To me that says something: some people would rather feel that they're right, rather than take the effort to learn and correct themselves. Today, I feel like the old snobbiness of “I know something obscure that you don't, I'm part of this exclusive scene” has sort of vanished in the Internet age, when theoretically anyone can know anything if they bother to look it up.

(Of course, maybe the new challenge will be to try to reintroduce value-through-scarcity. As of this writing, I am possibly the only person who has seen both the rediscovered Orson Welles film Too Much Johnson and the new Troma film Class of Nuke 'Em High Part 1, because I attended exclusive regional premieres of both.)

Everything at this conference was very positive and high-functioning. No one really gave in to the low-achiever pastime of complaining incessantly about conservatives – and those who did were motivated to make documentaries! Even the criticisms of Hollywood were fairly low-key and determined to find the silver lining – discussing what we as indie filmmakers can do, not what we can't do.

Being in NYC, among smarter and more creative people, did a lot to recharge me. Years after leaving school, I've encountered more and more people who complain about the status quo without ever quite seeming to consider that anything better could be possible. It's easier to bitch about how your favorite franchise isn't satisfying you than it is to show interest in anything new.

But it seems that younger, smarter, niche audiences do want something new. They want compelling ideas. They want community. Everyone at this conference assumed – perhaps naively? – that the web is a place where people are positive and constructive. It's only dumb “mainstream” stuff that is dependent on old or aging brands, aimed at an ever-more-arrested audience that only wants more of the same.

But maybe these themes are region-specific. In cities like New York, the emphasis is on being big and important and influential and cutting-edge. In Rochester, there's more of a middle-class culture of learning the existing rules and following them, and being grumpy when someone doesn't. In rust-belt areas like Buffalo or Pittsburgh, there's more of a gritty underdog attitude, in which artists either embrace horror and exploitation genres or become underground and avant-garde.

So it's been quite the learning journey this fall.

But now it's time to move on to what I should be doing – which is developing some new stories. November is National Novel Writing Month, and I had planned to spend it finishing the writing of these damn novels. The month is now one-third half over and I haven't had the time to do much. So time to buckle down and do some writing...

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