Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Lessons learned in 2014

"[E]very time somebody opens their mouth they have an opportunity to do one of two things—connect or divide. Some people inherently divide, and some people inherently connect. Connecting is the most important thing, and actually an easy thing to do. ... I’m shocked that there are so many people that live to divide."
-Joss Whedon, 2013

"I want to spend time doing films and exploring ideas, with the opportunity to fail - which you don't have in the professional film business. You've got to win every single time, and it's very difficult because you end up making very safe movies: you know this works, so you do it. ... I want to try making some films that I'm not really sure will work or not."
-George Lucas, 1981

* * *

At the end of 2013 I wrote what I thought was one of my best posts to this blog. Then, some weeks later, I discovered that it had only gotten about a dozen hits (it’s had more since then) … and that the new blog entry I was about to post covered very similar ground.

So I took it as a sign that maybe this blog had reached its natural end. It had begun as an online tie-in to my then-new indie film Saberfrog, and I also used it to discuss topics that I felt were related to the movie. By 2014 the movie had been out for a while, and I figured it was time to move on.

Saberfrog still pops up anew from time to time – opportunities still arise to sell some additional copies to interested viewers. But in 2014, my focus has switched to an older project that I am now remastering – a Super-8 stop-motion animated sword-and-sorcery film that took me two years to make as a teenager, and that had languished forgotten for decades.

I spent much of 2014 reconstructing this old project – transcribing my old handwritten script into Celtx, getting the Super-8 footage digitally transferred, making a temporary soundtrack to sync with the rediscovered visuals.

Rediscovering this project has been an emotional experience. Whereas Saberfrog was the angst-ridden tale of an adult trying to get his life back in order, this older project was the more innocent work of a teenager who had his whole life ahead of him, and was absolutely confident of his purpose in life.

I felt that reviving this older project would be a way of reconnecting with my less jaded self, who believed wholeheartedly in a life of filmmaking, before adulthood intervened. It was an opportunity to set aside the cynicism I’d developed in recent years, and return to the joy and optimism and positivity that originally fueled my passion as a young filmmaker. I also set up a crowdfunding campaign with a friend of mine, after doing as much research as I could on the brave new world of social media and online fundraising.

Unfortunately, both I and my crowdfunding partner ended up going through major job changes at the time, and I was therefore unable to devote the necessary time and energy to promotion. Prioritizing my new day job was a major reason why I failed to commit more passionately to the campaign.

But it was not the only reason. Even after all the groundwork I’d done, I found myself extremely hesitant to promote the project on the Internet, even though I knew (from telling strangers about it in person) that this was a project that would probably interest people. I had to think hard about why I now had such cold feet.

I realized that – for the first time in my many years, off and on, as a filmmaker – I was now afraid of the audience. That fear was holding me back, and I needed to overcome it once and for all.

* * *

Like many teenagers, I was a bit of a misfit and an introvert. But I loved movies, and I loved sci-fi and fantasy. And it seemed like those things came from a world that was somehow better – a world of artists and thinkers, a smarter and more tolerant community than the “mundane” world of regular people who weren’t fans.

When I first became an aspiring filmmaker, it was a time when people loved movies, and admired and respected filmmakers. Creating an entire world from one’s own imagination, and sharing that personal vision with an audience, was a celebrated achievement. Filmmakers were praised for pursuing their own visions, rather than allowing focus groups and studio conservatism to tell them what they could and couldn’t do.

Today is actually not a bad era for movies. Mainstream Hollywood has fully embraced the once-marginalized world of geek culture, creating ambitious and interconnected stories. Independent films continue to explore brave new territory. VOD has made acclaimed, limited-release films available even to people without specialty theaters in their neighborhoods. And even if none of that were true, DVDs and Blu-rays and VOD continue to make the riches of the past as available as those of the present.

And yet, nowadays I often sense a deep hatred and resentment of movies and the people who make them.

When people badmouth certain films and filmmakers – as well as other storytellers working in TV, literature, or comics – they do it with such a swell of pride, as if the highest demonstration of intellect was to be unmoved by a creative work.

That is not an attitude I’ve ever identified with. Even as a kid, I always thought that seeking out and appreciating the good work was more important than dwelling on lesser work.

And the people who made the good work were my heroes and role models. I always respected people who did the work more than I respected people who could only find fault with the work of others.

Has Internet culture turned this value system upside down? Is it now the social role of artists and storytellers to simply be punching bags for people whose self-esteem needs a boost?

I hope not. Especially when promoting this new (old) project, I want to believe that audiences are open and accepting, that they will give a movie the benefit of the doubt instead of deciding in advance that it sucks.

* * *

I guess I’ve always seen sci-fi/fantasy movies as a more expensive type of experimental film. Movies like Star Wars and Tron and The Dark Crystal seemed like someone’s personal, creative vision – passion projects that a studio was somehow convinced to pay for.

When I was real little – we’re talking late 70s / early 80s – the line between mainstream and experimental was a lot blurrier. Underground filmmakers did animation for Sesame Street. Oddball short films were regularly shown to the public, projected on 16mm in schools and libraries, or used as filler between movies on cable. Stand-alone animated specials would show up randomly in prime time. UHF stations and fledgling cable networks showed any obscure movie or foreign TV show they could get their hands on cheap.

That great churn of the weird and wild and unexpected had just as much impact on my interest in filmmaking as the more universally recognized hits like Star Wars. You would see these strange things as a kid, not knowing where they came from or who made them or why they were being shown. Maybe years later, you could finally look them up on the Internet or ask someone else if they knew what the title was. But the stuff you remembered less well would always be out of reach, and probably not easily available on video even if you could identify it.

Maybe a part of me is still wedded to that time when movies were mysterious and magical, when seeing a movie was an ephemeral privilege. Perhaps the permanence of home video was what enabled the modern nerd instinct to collect and categorize and rationalize. Like a villainous computer in an old Star Trek episode, we now try to explain away anything strange or unexpected as simply incorrect or impractical.

I guess I still crave the experience of seeing a movie I don’t know that much about, in a dedicated cultural venue, in the company of actual humans who shared my curiosity enough to go see it too. You don’t get that by watching a movie at home on VOD. Even with video stores you had to go somewhere, browse the shelves, and talk to the weirdo behind the counter.

Roger Ebert once pointed out that Starbucks offers not just coffee, but also a trip away from the office. He meant this as an analogy to argue that Netflix and video on demand would not supplant the experience of going to video stores. But clearly he was wrong – a lot of people are happy to watch movies at home, or on portable devices, without having to go someplace or interact with other people.

Is that antisocial attitude now manifesting itself in the tone of Internet culture?

* * *

In the last few years I’ve been to a fair number of independent filmmaker conferences, and read many articles about indie filmmaking, in an attempt to keep up with a changing industry.

One of the major messages that keeps coming up is that filmmakers need to be marketers and self-promoters. The days of a Kubrick or Kurosawa being allowed to concentrate simply on creating his art, and let distributors and critics do the work of convincing people to go see the finished product, are over. With the decline of brick-and-mortar cultural hubs (not just video stores, but also record stores and bookstores), it’s become more important for the artists themselves to maintain an online presence. You need to be on social media. You need to engage with your audience in a personal way.

But to me, interacting with strangers on the Internet is a daunting prospect. The Internet is where people seem to drop all real-world pretense of civility and politeness, and vent their frustrations and hostility at length. And major media outlets feed this climate with their clickbait headlines, generally phrased in terms of disdain and rejection: Why You Shouldn’t Watch This Movie, Why You Should Stop Watching This Show, Why This or That Person is a Hack or a Jackass.

Perhaps it’s mainly the big Hollywood productions and franchises that generate that kind of hostility, while smaller independent production are relatively safe. But should artists really stay small – never leaving the garret or the garage – to be safe from criticism? Is that really how we should think? Are we not supposed to be bold and strive?

* * *

The original Star Wars was one of the films that inspired me to become a filmmaker. I certainly enjoyed watching it as a kid, but when I was old enough to read accounts of how blown away people were in 1977 – by the opening shot, by the cantina scene, by the jump to hyperspace, by Han’s heroic return at the end – I thought, I want to do that. I want to make something that amazes people. Not by making a Star Wars fan film, but by learning the craft well enough to come up with something of my own that would have a similar effect.

Is that still a realistic goal today, when so many people seem to hate movies before they even come out? Or does it only seem that way on the Internet?

* * *

These thoughts have led me to at least one positive lesson. I never thought of myself as particularly social or outgoing or extroverted. But Internet culture has forced me to realize how comparatively well I thrive in real-world situations. When I introduce myself to strangers, I hear myself speak with much more charm and confidence than I ever feel when I’m brooding in isolation, staring at a computer screen, reading hostile text written by trolls.

This revelation has motivated me to go to the movies more often than I’d been doing lately, and to attend social and cultural events even when I’m not quite in the mood. The Internet might often seem like a race to the bottom, but the real world is a place where skill, accomplishment, and distinctiveness are still somewhat valued. And realizing this has helped me to reconnect with humanity in a way that the Internet – seemingly designed to connect people – has not.

When you go to a movie, you have to leave the house. You are watching, on a big screen, something that took a lot of effort and expertise to complete.

And more often than not, it tells a story of a goal-driven person who accomplishes something difficult.

(Maybe that's why Internet trolls hate movies.)

So that refuels me as an audience member. But what about as a filmmaker? In the digital age, what kind of film can you still reasonably aspire to make, that has enough of a sympathetic audience to make it worthwhile?

* * *

I think a mistake I’ve made in this ol’ life is looking mainly to the big successes for inspiration. I was a precocious filmmaker at an early age, and I went to one of the most celebrated film schools. So I’ve allowed myself to believe that I was destined for big things, and that if I didn’t achieve that then I was not successful.

But there are other frames of reference, and other models of success. Completing projects is success, regardless of their scale or profile. Doing what makes you happy, no matter what other people think, is success.

You can make something very commercial, and be dependent on the approval of a large number of strangers … or something low-budget enough that you don’t need everyone’s approval.

The purpose of being an independent artist is not to keep up with the Joneses, or to bow to peer pressure, or to try to appease audiences who don’t get it. The purpose of being an independent artist is to be true to yourself, to be unique and different, and to have faith that there are audiences who do get it.

And if I do better in real-world situations than I do online … well, then I should tell more people in the real world about my work, and show it to them.

The audience is however many people you can get to be interested, in whatever walk of life, online or in reality, whether it’s 50,000 or 500 or 15.

Just make your art, and be happy.