Posts Tagged ‘independent film’

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Prayer to a Vengeful God

August 20, 2010

Our new film, Prayer to a Vengeful God, is coming out in a couple of months. Almost everything about this movie has been an experiment: creatively, technically, and business-wise too. I’ll go into those elements in more detail, once people have a chance to see the movie.

Until then, here is a preview:

You can find out more about the movie at http://www.insurgentpictures.com and see a clip from the making-of on our Facebook page, located HERE.

You can also add Vengeful to your Netflix queue HERE.

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Paul James Vasquez 1954-2010

March 27, 2010

I met Paul James Vasquez when I was 16 years old.

I came to Dayton, Ohio’s Colonel White High School for the Performing Arts in the Winter of 1990, as a mid-year transfer from Atlanta. Colonel White had a unique artist-in-residence magnet program, which employed professionals in performing and visual arts, teaching their respective disciplines to children of promise from all over the greater Dayton area.

I came to Colonel White to study music, but the guidance counselor suggested I meet with the theater teacher, because she had ‘a feeling’ we’d get along.

I took the guidance counselor’s advice and walked over to the theater department to meet the teacher. When I entered the class room, I was broadsided by a chaotic crush of young thespians bustling around a 6’2″ tall man with long hair, a long beard, and a beret, dressed entirely in black, named Paul James Vasquez. In my 16 year old mind, I fully expected a thick French accent to come out of his mouth when he spoke. Sometimes a beret is just a beret. He was from New Jersey.

After class, my parents and I met Paul, along with his then wife Monica, and their infant daughter Victoria. After chatting for a half hour, Paul invited me into the theater magnet with no audition. When I asked if he was sure I could handle such a thing with no acting experience, he shrugged, pointed to my music background and said, ‘If you know one art, you know them all.’

A young Paul James Vasquez as “Gang Leader” bullies a vision-impaired Rutger Hauer in this 1980s b-movie classic, Blind Fury

On my first day of school, Paul invited me and group of other students, back to his house after school to help him with a radio play he and his friend were producing based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mask of the Red Death. They needed background voices for the crowd scenes.

I followed everyone back to Paul’s modest rental house down the street from school, making some new friends along the way. When we arrived at Paul’s place, I saw there was a Gibson 335 guitar leaning by his kitchen table. I asked if he minded if I play it for a few minutes.

According to Paul’s account of this event, years later, “… this fucking teenage brat comes into my kitchen, picks up my guitar, and proceeds to play circles around me…”. While I don’t remember playing circles around anyone, I do remember that Paul told me I should be playing Jazz, which I committed to learning shortly thereafter.

Paul was a guy that had a story or experience for every situation. As teenagers, we were always making declarative statements about this or that, and it seemed Paul was always there with a well-reasoned argument to the contrary. In retrospect, I think it wasn’t to make us think we were wrong, but rather to make sure we were always thinking. In class, he would engage anyone on any subject. For many of us, Paul’s class was the first safe place in our lives to have that level of open dialogue.

Paul believed in the value of elitism in the arts; that the work should always come first. He believed in the critical mind, and encouraged us to challenge conventions and ideas in our education and in our lives.

Paul left Colonel White in my junior year, moving his family to Texas. I stayed in touch with him over the years, updating him on my adventures in music, and would send him manuscripts of short stories and screenplays I wrote for fun. He was always encouraging me to read books and plays and explore as much literature as possible to inform my writing, rather than telling me what I need to work on or develop.

In 1993, Paul told me about The University of North Texas, which had an internationally recognized Jazz Studies program. He spoke of the amazing musicians he had met from that school and suggested I check it out. Within a few months, I won a performance scholarship to UNT, and was visiting Paul in Texas while making arrangements to attend.

I spent eight years in and out of Texas, attending college, playing music, and eventually teaching. Throughout that time, and as long as I knew him, Paul precipitated a great deal of trouble in his personal life. Even during Paul’s most difficult times, he always took an interest in my music, my written work, and my life.

In the late nineties, I started recording scored spoken word narratives based on my short stories. I remember meeting Paul in Dallas to play him the first of these experiments, and how excited he was to hear it. His critical suggestions helped shape what would become hour-long live scored monologues I wrote and performed with my band.

I moved to New York in 2001, to continue my music career. It was during this time I expanded my writing to full length novels. Music performance as a career began to fade for me. I wanted to do more, but didn’t know exactly what or how.

Later that year, I sent Paul a manuscript for a novel called The Local. Paul told me it was a pretty good book, but would make a better film.

In 2003, Paul moved to New York. I had started work on a screenplay called The Interventionist, and asked Paul to give me critical feedback and any ideas he might have. He loved the script, and was very happy to be involved in a creative project at that time in his life.

The Interventionist was optioned, and we began working with a group of producers to get the film made. I would direct and Paul would act in one of the principal roles.

During the ever-long development process, I produced a small feature called Vicissitude, starring myself and Paul. Vicissitude was a simple story, with elements from Interventionist and The Local. It was Paul’s first onscreen performance since the unfortunate Neurotic Cabaret. We had a great time making Vicissitude, and everyone was surprised (including us), that we were able to make something good with so little money or filmmaking experience. It was extremely empowering to know that our combined creative talents and skills, could see us through something so big with relative ease.

Paul James Vasquez plays “Teddy Bear” in this trailer for 2005’s Vicissitude


Even with Vicissitude in the can, The Interventionist was dying on the vine. Things were taking too long, and we were losing talent and resources. Not wanting to let momentum dwindle, Paul and I decided to make our 2006 feature JailCity. In creating JailCity, Paul and I collaborated on the characters, story and script. Paul ran the casting, as well as work-shopping the performances with the actors ahead of production. Paul also played Hector Ramos, Sr – one of the leads in JailCity.

At the end of 2006, JailCity won Best Picture at the New York/Avignon Film Festival.

Paul James Vasquez plays “Hector Ramos, Sr”, an old hood trying to save his grieving son (Nick Bixby) from mixing it up with the wrong people JailCity (2006)


In 2007, we produced The Local, based on my novel of the same name. Paul was originally going to play the part of Big Black, a murderous small-time druglord, but we decided at the last minute to give him the part of Joe, a well-meaning, but impatient ex-cop helping his friend recover his runaway daughter. We agreed that Paul could bring something special to the role of Joe, and it would be nice for him to play a part less thuggish for a change.

The Local was released in North America in October of 2009, and is currently available on DVD and online all over the world.

Paul James Vasquez, David F Nighbert, and Dan Eberle have it out under the bridge in The Local (2008)


Prayer to a Vengeful God (2010)

Paul James Vasquez in Prayer to a Vengeful God

Paul was always up for experimenting and pushing boundaries. In 2009, we went into production on Prayer to a Vengeful God, a feature-length contemporary drama, presented entirely without dialogue. Paul played The Transient, a formidable homeless man with a mysterious past. In my opinion, Paul’s performance in Prayer to a Vengeful God is a masterclass in screen acting. I know that he felt it was the best work he’d ever done on screen.

Throughout production of Vengeful, Paul was not feeling well. He suffered from severe shortness of breath, physical lag and discomfort. Paul’s role had extreme physical demands, including a sequence of seven fights which would be filmed over two brief shoot days.

We were all concerned for Paul’s health during the shoot. He repeatedly played it off as being old and out of shape, but ‘fine’. He soldiered through, and gave a fully committed and masterful performance throughout filming.

Soon after Paul’s scenes were wrapped, he called me to make sure I wouldn’t need him for any additional shooting. He and his partner Mariann knew something was wrong and were going to get him looked at. Soon after this conversation, Paul checked himself into the hospital. The doctors discovered he was in the advanced stages of kidney cancer. A condition from which he would not recover.

In the coming months, we completed the first major phases of post-production on Prayer to a Vengeful God. Paul was extremely proud of the film, and desperately wanted to share the achievement with his friends and family. On March 18th, I delivered the final cut of Vengeful to Paul’s hospital room in the ICU. He forced his loved ones to watch it with him many times over.

Paul died on Friday, March 26th. He was 56 years old. Our final film together, Prayer to a Vengeful God, will be released in the Fall of 2010.

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The Passive Participant

February 23, 2010

If you’re trying to get a project off the ground, you are going to encounter a great deal of rejection. Rejection hurts, but it’s a gift. Rejection frees the rejectee from wasting the most precious resource in film: Time. That said, there is nothing more dangerous to any film, or entrepreneurial endeavor, than the passive participant.

Whether you’re laboring to get your production rolling, or rolled out, you’ll find that most people you talk to in the movie business, aren’t in the movie business at all, they just want to be, or want to think they are. Streams of friendly people will tell you they are interested in your work, that they will get actively involved in moving it forward, and that they can have a positive impact on your progress. Unfortunately, more often than not, they aren’t interested, won’t get involved, and/or can’t help you – even if they wanted to.

The truth is, most conversations, meetings, and hoops we jump through to get a movie of any size made, seen, or sold, are dead ends. These time-consuming labyrinths are manned by seemingly well-meaning folks who enjoy meeting interesting, creative people, and sending them on wheel-spinning goosechases such as rewrites, recuts, and hunting expeditions for often unattainable people/organizations/resources, they themselves have no access to, or relationship with.

Why would they do this to us? I’m sure the logic is subjective, but usually it’s because they see themselves as above action, and live vicariously through the radical action of others.

‘Give Me Your Opinion’ versus ‘Give Me This Thing’
It’s a logical impulse to seek the advice of people you see as “further along” in the field to which you aspire. Asking an opinion is a natural icebreaker in any social situation because all people love to be heard. This approach makes sense if you actually want someone’s opinion, but it makes no sense if you simply want something from them. Simply put, “Give me your opinion of this script” is not “How can I get you to invest in this project”. The former puts the ball in their court to read a long document or listen to a pitch, and hopefully come to the conclusion you are fantasizing about. The latter puts the onus on you to own the conversation, and have your investment plan queued up and ready.

While it may seem obnoxious, business people appreciate forthrightness. It’s a common misconception that people of consequence want their asses kissed. They don’t – it’s a waste of time. It’s people of no consequence that want their asses kissed. Those people have all the time in the world to string you along with long, lazy meetings and (un)creative jam sessions that will wear you out and usually decimate any forward motion you once had. Avoid these people, they can only bog you down.

People who have power, on the other hand, do not want to play games. They may or may not opine on your work, but what they really want is for you to come to the point and quickly. Tell them what you have for them, what you want from them, and let them say yes or no. It’s not obnoxious, it’s honest, and it gets you where you’re going quicker (whether that’s further down the road with them, or onto the next pitch).

Asking opinions is usually a waste of time anyway. Most people’s opinions are based on nonsense, irrelevant ideas or logic, or a complete misconception of your work. It’s just plain wrong to think that any amount of experience makes someone an expert on your work. Your work is your work, good or bad. Obviously try to make it good, but some low-level production manager at a middling DTV production company isn’t going to help you make it better. He will tell you what he thinks your work should be, and will usually be wrong.

In the words of Joe Eszterhas, “Whether you’re talking about the studio executive or the actor or the cabdriver, you know, or the gofer or the gaffer …. they all think they’re writers, and they all want to change and rewrite what you’ve done.”

It’s one thing if you’re in a work for hire situation, but for God’s sake, don’t chase your tail on the orders of some stranger you think you need to impress. Particularly someone who isn’t bringing you money, or something else of immediate and quantifiable value. It costs a passive participant nothing to spin your wheels, but it can cost you all your formative years.

Conclusion
You have all the power and resources you need to do exactly what you want to do. Don’t waste time dancing for people that won’t get their hands dirty.

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Another Distribution Blog

January 23, 2010

As of this blog post (January 22nd, 2010), there are options for distributing films that didn’t exist as recently as five years ago. I’m sure the day is coming when many – if not most – independent filmmakers are releasing work on their own, rather than going through distributors and sales agents. There are a growing number of people blazing trails in this approach today, but I’m not one of them. This is not because I don’t believe in DIY distribution – I do – I just happened to have done it the other way (so far).

The Importance of Distribution

Many independent films do not fall neatly into a genre, category or have obvious demographic appeal. In my opinion, there’s not much point in making an independent film if it isn’t significantly different from the mainstream fare. This struggle to say something different is why independent films are so difficult to finance and market, but also why they are so loved.

In any the case, indie filmmakers need to do all they can to get their films in front of eyeballs. If you don’t get your work distributed somehow, nobody but your roommates will ever see it. If no one can see it, why make it in the first place?

Most indie films are made on the backs of generous people. I’m talking about the cast and crew, and anyone else who contributes time, money, space, etc. They aren’t working for nothing. Even in no-pay situations, your cast and crew are working for experience, credit, and hopefully recognition for being part of a great movie lots of people see and adore. If the cast and crew busted their asses for you, you really owe it to them to get the movie out there in front of people as best you can. Don’t let them down by blowing off the final stage of the filmmaking process.

To that end, always shoot for the widest release possible – the wider the better. Since we’re talking about independent film here, as opposed to what I term ‘dependent’ film – films that are made to order, with stars and focus groups and ad campaigns – the wider your distribution, the better chance you have of finding an audience for your unusual, different, quirky, never-been-done-before indie.

The process of a film finding an audience takes time, a great deal of grassroots effort, and actual US Dollars spent on marketing and publicity. Marketing is essential to the success of your distribution. There’s not much point of having a movie out if nobody knows about it.

Money

Money

The Distribution Deal

Note: Sadly, most films – indie or not – don’t get theatrical releases anymore. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll narrow the subject matter to home video and broadcast distribution only.

It’s never too early to think about distribution. If this is your first feature, you can begin seeking a distributor as soon as there’s a decent fine cut of the movie (just be sure to tell them what the missing elements are; temp audio, placeholder music, unfinished gfx, etc).

If you’re lucky enough to have had a film out before, you can leverage fundraising for production with a non-binding letter of interest from your current distributor (this is easy to get from them, assuming they like you). This also puts you in a stronger place to negotiate a better deal with someone else.

Domestic vs International
For the American indie, you’ll ideally have at least two distributors for your film: domestic (North America, Puerto Rico, Canada) and international (everything else). The latter is typically referred to as an international sales agent.

domestic distributor is actually an Honest to God distributor that can guarantee a release. Depending on who they are, they will likely have open-door relationships with retail outlets and aggregators who will basically buy anything they are selling, often in bulk and often without looking at it (see your local video store selection for details).

Domestic distribution contracts tend to be on the simple side, with a straight revenue split, and the deliverable requirements won’t be very stringent (one country, one language, one codec). Anymore, domestic distribution deals come with no advance, so you’ll pay out of pocket for any straggling deliverables that need producing (video formats, audio, legal, etc.), as well as marketing and publicity – smaller distributors don’t really market their no-cast films at all, instead relying on the filmmakers to get press, reviews and interviews they can use for box pullquotes, as well as publicize the actual release of the film.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of publicity. Without it, very few people will know your film exists. Even if you’re on the shelf of every store, and sitting on every server on the internet, nobody looks for something they don’t know about or haven’t heard of. Again, you can’t depend on your distributor to take care of this. They just won’t.

In general, domestic distribution is a straight forward, one-shot deal. You can expect your distributor to get your film in the stores and sites they regularly deal with. The distributor has the power to negotiate the licensing of your film with each aggregator, and are incentivized to make the best possible deal because that means more bread for everyone. Each outlet obviously has the right to reject a film for any reason, but they are really relying on the distributor to be the gatekeeper for the kind of content they like and can sell, so unless there is something really challenging about the content of your particular movie, you’re probably in good shape.

An international sales agent is exactly what it sounds like – a dude at a convention trying to hock your movie to buyers from all over the world. These big conventions are called film markets, and they are monster events that cost lots of money be a vendor at – this is why your sales agent is probably repping between 50-500 films at said market. The $10,000+ door fee is a drop in the bucket if they can sell even a chunk of their catalog to a hand full of territories.

International sales agent contracts are much more thorough and very deliverables-heavy. When you enter into a sales agent agreement, you are giving them the power to negotiate the deal without your input . Similar to a domestic distributor, but instead of negotiating with Target or Best Buy, the sales agent is negotiating with Italy or Dubai.

It’s for this very reason that your sales agent needs you to fork over so many expensive or labor intensive deliverables: textless tails on the feature, the trailer, any special features, all in NTSC, PAL, DigiBeta, HDCAM, 5.1 audio with split tracks for dubbing, dialogue list with timecode, music cue sheet, chain of title, E&O insurance, etc. Having these materials all at once allows the sales agent to sell the film to any territory at a moments notice, without having to go back to you for anything.

Sales agents almost always charge a film a $40,000ish ‘marketing fee’ off the top of any sales revenue – this is a fictional financial hurdle that the sales agent can use to a) bankroll the marketing of the bigger films they are repping, or b) never pay you because, on paper, the proceeds of your sales never overcame the marketing fee.

If you think this sounds risky, you’re right. The international distribution business is completely honor-system based, and the truth is, any company distributing film is as prone to skimp on a cash payout during the sales process as you, the indie, are in the filmmaking process. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying that’s how it is. In the words of a seasoned producer I know, speaking of a very successful international sales agent who happened to be a friend of his “…if he can screw you, he will.”

Working with bigger, more well-known companies isn’t necessarily going to save you from bad business practices. The truth is, every company, big and small, pays only the bills it has to, betting that the little guy won’t notice/won’t say anything/can’t go after them.  I won’t name names here, but a little research will show you that even the biggest independent film distributors are well known for giving $0 advances, and often never paying out.

If you think about it from the distributor’s point of view, it makes sense not to pay money for no-cast films. Much better to sit on whatever cash comes in and put it towards promoting the bigger projects that can generate more revenue for them. The little guys often suffer the “happy to be here” syndrome and don’t, or can’t, stand up for themselves.

Big Company Inc doesn’t have much incentive to keep the little guy happy. Statistically speaking, most people that make an independent film, don’t make another one, let alone become the next George Clooney. Why would Big Company Inc waste its time handholding Joe Schmo from Manhattan, Kansas when they have Clooney’s new miniseries on deck? A film company is no different than any other corporate entity, and corporate work is all about the smartest allocation of resources, minimizing liability and maximizing profits.

Leverage, or Lack Thereof
If you happen to get shafted by a distributor, you’ll find it’s very expensive to sue them effectively. Legal processes tend to drag on for a long time, incurring more expenses, and delaying life in general.

Legal action is really where the independent film-as-a-business fails. If you make a film for $10-20,000, it’s an amazing achievement to accomplish so much for so little, but the downside is, the financial stakes are very low. Indefensibly low. The issue here is that if the cash investment is too low, it’s simply not cost-effective to sue. Only through discovery could you find out just how much money your sales agent isn’t paying you, and frankly, it’s probably not much. It simply doesn’t pay to spend $50,000-100,000 suing a company over $15,000 in unpaid recompense – and that assumes you can prove they are holding out on you, which may not be so easy to do.

It’s for the above reasons that you shouldn’t license all your rights to just one entity. It’s best to break up the deals with different companies per territory. That could be a lot more variation in deliverable requirements, a lot more babysitting, and while it doesn’t guarantee your not getting screwed, the hope is that at least some of the companies you’re working with will be good to you.

DIY Distribution

Much has been made of self distribution, and not having done it myself, I can’t speak to how much more or less cost effective it is than licensing your rights to a distributor. My feeling is, like most things independent, whatever you save in cash spent, you pay for in extra manhours worked. Perfectly noble and worthwhile, if you determine its the best way to get your movie out. There are, however, some real-world roadblocks that seldom appear in discussions of self-distribution, that I think are worth taking into account if you’re thinking about going this route:

Dealing with Aggregators
Getting your film on the shelves of Target, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, Netflix, iTunes, etc., requires relationships. Cultivating these relationships is a full-time job unto itself. This is one of the reasons why most filmmakers license their films to distributors, rather than releasing it themselves. Distribution isn’t rocket science, but it is a business. A business built on hard work, delivering good product, and building credibility with vendors. A distribution company offsets operating and production costs by distributing a slate of films all at once, rather than one filmmaker/one film.

I know of amazing, profitable independent artists that wait over six months to get their work on iTunes, simply because they aren’t represented by a sales agent. The same is true for very successful and well known independent films that can’t on Netflix because they aren’t working with an intermediary.

The outlets rely on aggregators (who in turn rely on distribution companies, who in turn rely on film festivals) to act as quality control gatekeepers. Why? Because a) iTunes/Netflix/Whoever can’t or won’t watch all those movies themselves, and b) doesn’t want to negotiate separate deals with a million independent people who may or may not have their work properly protected, vetted, etc. Big Company Inc would MUCH rather negotiate with one entity representing a million films, that can at least affirm to have checked out all the films in its catalog.

It all comes down to the allocation of resources. The unfortunate result is that distribution companies take a percentage of your profits just for, uh… existing.

With DVD/Blu-Ray, its a bit different. The distributor is doing design and packaging work, covering production costs, and ultimately investing time and money in your picture. With online rights, they are simply handing over a drive on your behalf, and taking x% of y% into perpetuity.

It would be fantastic if there was a more streamlined way artists could distribute directly through outlets, but iTunes doesn’t want their catalog to look like a YouTube free-for-all, and they aren’t paying people to watch movies and listen to music all day, and determine production value and merit.

DIY distribution requires breaking through these corporate walls, building relationships with aggregators, and getting the work everywhere people look for movies. Otherwise, you’re relegated to a few fringe outlets and your website, which narrows your marketplace exposure.

PR/Marketing
Note: This responsibility applies to films released by distributors, as well as DIY-distributed. These days most distributors put the marketing onus on the filmmakers. Even if a distributor says they’re marketing your film, they really aren’t.

There are two types of films: films you’ve heard of and films you haven’t. A professional publicist will organize a promotional campaign, get screeners to movie publications, film blogs, local press, etc., and give you guidance on how to maximize exposure of your release. You should hire the publicist as soon as possible. Even if your release date isn’t official yet, start looking for the right person early. This gives you time to defining job expectations, talk strategy, and negotiate a fee.

There is no limit to the amount of money one can spend on PR, but it’s the difference between people knowing about your film, or not. It costs real money, not only to hire a professional, but to pay for production of screeners, presskits, postage, and hopefully a theatrical premiere event – even a three-day run at a local arthouse theater can garner mainstream press, versus a direct to DVD release.

Publicists trade on their relationships with the media, and have the ability to pitch your film to the right people in the right way. A good publicist has worked on films you’ve heard of. If you haven’t heard of any of the films on their resume, you should probably pass.

Art and Copy
Branding and identity, posters, DVD/Blu-Ray disc menu and jacket design, EPK and promotional print materials, all should be done by an actual graphic designer (re: someone that does it for a living).

Amateur design is extremely offputting, and tells people right off that they are looking at something cheap. Normally a distributor would handle this (to varying degrees of competence), so this is something you should put a great deal of care and thought into.

We can assume if you managed to get a script written, you’ll be able to write a summary of your film, a long synopsis, and a bio. Remember that the copy you put in your presskit is ad copy, not literature. Make it punchy and direct and as compelling as possible.

Mass Production / Inventory Management
Once you have your master files prepped, you can farm out mass production of DVD and Blu-Ray discs and packaging. This can be costly, but the more you produce, the cheaper it gets. You’ll also need to have a variety of digital encodes of your film, trailer and special features in several codecs – or at least the ability to manufacture them at will (ie, cozy relationship with a post house with lots of decks). If you’re offering your film as a digital download on your own site, bandwidth/hosting fees could be significant.

The above should satisfy a solid North American release of your indie, but you won’t quite be set up to sell international territories, arguably ‘where the money is’.

For selling international rights, you’d need all the standard international deliverables, documentation, etc., plus access to a film market or two. That means the pricy film market buy-in, setting up a booth, and doing the carnival barker routine.

I’ve known a couple people who have taken their indie to film markets like Cannes. One (who is so well versed in licensing and contracts, he may as well be a lawyer) sold every territory himself, and made very good money for his trouble. The other one spent thousands and thousands, and crashed and burned. Why? Because buyers don’t want to deal with the filmmakers. We usually don’t have a clue of how things are bought and sold, we don’t have the right deliverables, we don’t have E&O insurance, and most of all they don’t know us.

Taking on international sales, DIY-style is no joke. I’m sure people do it, but my suspicion is that its not for everyone.

Conclusion

Whether you’re dealing with a small domestic DIY release, or licensing worldwide rights to a distributor or sales agent, consider questions of marketing costs and expensive deliverables through the ROI lens – what it’s worth versus what it costs.

If you’re negotiating deliverables with a distributor or sales agent, don’t be afraid to push back, or force them to justify or delete a line item – they often bend or break on points of contention if it’s the difference between getting or not getting a film they want. Remember, it doesn’t cost them anything to tell you they need everything under the sun. How dumb would it be to mortgage your grandchildren’s kidneys to produce some obscure deliverable your distributor never even uses?

If the distributor isn’t paying you an advance – and these days they aren’t – you’re already doing them a huge favor giving them your film. Remember that. They work for you. If they really want your film, they will do what it takes to accommodate you, but only if you demand accommodation.

If you’re doing things on your own, there are major hurdles, but as with all things independent, there are infinite solutions to every problem. Everything you want to do has been done by someone else at least once before. You may not be able to duplicate their success exactly, but if you commit to making it happen, you’ll surely spot a path along the way.

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Optimism vs “Everything is Shit”

January 11, 2010

This Christmas, someone gave me a DVD called The Secret. I had never heard of it before then, but later learned it was a huge self-help juggernaut book/movie combo that made a popular holiday gift a few years back, particularly from mothers.

The Secret
The Secret posits a formula for material success in life, based on the scientific Law of Attraction.

I would describe the movie as part conspiracy film, and part get-rich-quick infomercial, slathered in motivational self-help rhetoric. It’s jam-packed full of re-enactments, often by fake historic figures, conspiring to keep The Secret, well, secret, so that only the powerful few can prosper, while the rest of humanity languishes in their miserable, unwealthy, yacht-less existences.

According to The Secret, if you visualize the material things you want, you will refocus your brain from the negative scourges of life (debt, your period, your face, your neighbor’s face), to the positive elements you wish you had (mansion, private plane, big TV, etc).

[above] What I thought this was a spoof of The Secret, turns out to be the trailer. Enjoy.

The Secret recommends supplementing your merchandise-centric thinking with something called a Vision Board, a kind of bulletin board of goodies that you spend a designated period of time per day staring at. By literally focusing your eyeballs on the yacht on your Vision Board, over time, you ingrain the presence of that object in your mind (I want the yacht, I want the yacht…) and by doing so, you turn yourself into a cosmic yacht magnet. Thanks to The Law of Attraction you are on an unstoppable collision course with the boat of your dreams!

Vision Board

Vision Board

I had fun watching this The Secret and while it didn’t turn me into a Secret practitioner, it did get me thinking about positive thinking, the impact its had on my work, and how easy it is to forget or dismiss its importance. Thinking positive hasn’t gotten me any yachts so far, but it’s definitely put me on a collision course with getting some movies made, which is pretty much the most important thing in my life.

Culture of Optimism
It used to be that the costs of making a film were prohibitive to all but studios, independents with wealthy friends, or the extremely ingenious among us. Now days, things are different. Because of the digital revolution, particularly the advent of 24p video, and increasing proliferation of low-cost HD acquisition, pretty much anyone with a few thousand bucks can make an indie movie if they want to.

With all the advancements in movie making technology, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that it still takes skill to make a movie anyone wants to watch. The quality of any movie is dictated entirely by the creativity and skills (or lack thereof) the filmmakers bring to the show. The fewer resources available, the more skill and creativity it takes to accomplish the mission.

Independent filmmaking is lousy with pushback: financial, institutional, municipal, personal, you name it. We can also assume most people making indies don’t, strictly speaking, “know how” to make a movie. So if an independent filmmaker doesn’t exactly know how to make a movie, and doesn’t have much money to hire people to help them, how the hell does the movie get done, let alone be watchable?

Creating any work of art starts with a strong affirmation that it will happen which is, by definition, positive thinking. In a big group project like film, the initial affirmation (re: this is going to happen) has to be powerful and unwavering. This will keep morale high and will bring forward the qualified and experienced personnel needed to get the thing done well.

The logic on this is obvious: Why would a seasoned cinematographer want to work with a less experienced producer or director that is totally down on themselves? Answer: They wouldn’t – and neither would you. It’s no secret that depressives are a drag, which is why they are not carried around on the shoulders of cheering crowds.

Skilled production people have better things to do than provide therapy sessions for the emotionally needy, especially in low/no-pay situations. It is up to you, the leader, to be strong and believe. Your strength and idealism has the power to bring forth everyone and everything you need to make your film happen. Simply establishing a forward-moving, can-do environment in a creative context can make even the most overqualified film practitioner excited to be a part of your project.

Production, Inc.
Many people roll their eyes when they hear terms like ‘corporate culture’. When I talk about corporate culture, I’m not talking about guys in blue buttondowns sitting around conference rooms drinking expensive coffee and saying phrases like “low hanging fruit”. What I’m talking about is any organized group of people that work together, and the behaviors and beliefs therein.

A film production is essentially a corporation. It has layers of bureaucracy that divide up the work in a tactical way to maintain a proper chain of productivity. The culture of that corporation is defined entirely by the standards set by leadership, in terms of the code of conduct, the rate of productivity, and an adherence to a defined, uniform standard of quality.

Setting a cultural standard is leadership. Lead by example, set a standard of affirmative fixation, and things start happening.

Going Negative: Don’t.
Anecdotally speaking, those who fixate on the difficulties of a task, don’t usually complete said task. Even if they do manage to power through, the results of their efforts are usually not excellent. Why? Because starting from a negative place corrupts the purity of the effort.

As a producer, starting from a negative will get you nowhere. Unless there’s a lot of money involved, a negative attitude will stop cold anyone from getting involved. Going negative during a work in progress plants seeds of doubt in the fortitude of your project, its leadership, and will weaken the resolve of even your most loyal followers.

Conversely, maintaining a positive attitude and focusing in on the things that are good, that do work, and the things you do have going for you, opens up avenues of opportunity you didn’t know existed. Why? Because the people around you are not repelled by your shitty attitude. In fact, they might just be inspired. The more inspired people you have around, the more people that can contribute, and open doors for you. I’m not just talking about more people to carry heavy stuff around, I’m talking about people who know other people, have stuff, have money, have time, and have a desire to participate in something inspiring.

On an independent film set, three inspired people can work miracles together. On the other hand, 25 people that don’t care and don’t want to be there will just eat all the food and leave. Not that helpful.

Sitting on a stump whining turns difficulties into impossibilities. Standing up and saying I’m doing this, brings an entire universe of possibilities into focus that you couldn’t see before because your thinking was corrupted with too many nos.

Reality
Things do not always go well, and sometimes no amount of positive thinking can help it. I don’t dispute reality. People go broke, people get sick, buildings collapse, riots break out, Acts of God take thousands of lives at once. All of these things impact our lives and our creative endeavors. It’s no excuse not to make art until you’re dead. To do that, you’ll need to believe in yourself and what you’re doing. If what you’re doing involves other people, you need to believe for them, and then they will believe too. Then, what is simply a belief, becomes a reality.

It helps to remember that our ancestors had it a hell of a lot worse than we do, and still managed to make some pretty damn good art – often under truly oppressive circumstances. How did they do it? They had faith in their vision, faith in their skill, and faith in their ability to acquire the skill necessary to accomplish the work.

Conclusion
Whether you’re making a movie, or a dog house, nothing ever goes as planned. You can look at this fact as a looming nightmare scenario, or as an opportunity to create solutions. I say acknowledge your obstacles and attack them with glee. Be enthusiastic and affirmative about what you’re doing at all times; demand it to happen – with or without a vision board.

Focusing on all the things you don’t have/can’t do/don’t know how to do is no way to get anything done – in film or otherwise. Nobody wants to hear excuses, and nobody likes a naysayer (except maybe another naysayer). What’s worse, is that negative energy will spread through your film company like crabs. Ask anyone that’s ever worked anywhere – once people get into a negative headspace, nobody wants to do anything but complain, leave, or both.

Resolve to acquire the skills, material, and personnel you need to get the work done to the best standard possible. Keep a positive attitude at every turn, no matter what obstructions come before you. Your poise and optimism will inspire the people around you to do the same, and your team will be an unstoppable force.

And buy my book, Muscles in Minutes.


Important Post Script: Fire negative people immediately. They will only screw up your production.

The independent film struggle is rife universal pushback: financial, institutional, municipal, personal, you name it. We can also assume most people making indies don’t, strictly speaking, “know how” to make a movie. So if an independent filmmaker doesn’t exactly know how to make a movie, and doesn’t have much money to hire people to help them, how the hell does anything get done?
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The Division of Labor vs “Chaos Reigns”

January 1, 2010

In any hierarchical or corporate structure, the division of labor is integral to the successful completion of any project or ongoing operation. The division of labor is defined by the assignment of specific job expectations to specific individuals (not to “teams”, but to actual humans). Good management properly divides labor to insure the best quality outcome.


The self-cannibalizing talking fox from Lars von Trier’s ANTICHRIST

Worst Practices
Without division of labor, there is no organization. Team members run around, chaotically plugging holes in the dike, or inordinate amounts of work are piled on a few unlucky individuals, while the others spin their wheels on meaningless tasks, or do nothing at all. In either case, the quality of the work suffers, and everyone goes home unhappy.

Some indicators of a poor division of labor in an organization may include the following:

  • People don’t know whose job is whose, including their own.
  • Things frequently don’t get done, or “fall through the cracks”.
  • A key individual leaves the team, and all productivity halts.
  • People are often angry or resentful.
  • People quit a lot.

Every situation is different, and most organizations require at least a modicum – if not a significant amount – of flexibility. People get sick, people drop dead, situations change, the show must go on. That said, even an Act of God is no excuse for an unfair distribution of work. Even the most laissez-faire anarchist knows it’s not fun trying to get a difficult job done in a disorderly environment. Most experienced managers will agree that the morale of an organization’s workforce is absolutely key in maintaining productivity, getting things done right, and preventing attrition of valuable human resources.

The Benevolent Dictatorship
In many ways, making an independent film is exactly the same as running a corporation. Only, its a corporation where everyone works very long hours, for little or no money at all. Such a proposition begs two important questions:

Question 1: Why are people working on my movie if I’m paying them nothing or nearly nothing?

Question 2: If everyone is working for nothing, why would I want to impose a strict management style – won’t they resent me for it and quit?

The simple fact is that in the context of a labor of love such as indie film, the division of labor is your greatest tool in maintaining high morale, because it maintains productivity. Productivity means the movie is getting done, which is why your people are involved in the first place. If the production is inefficient, or gets bogged down in nonsense, the movie stalls, and morale is damaged.

Why are people working on your film for nothing? Because they want the movie to exist. With this in mind, the greatest gift to the independent film cast and crew, is the film’s completion – with as few compromises as possible.

Won’t the crew resent being told what to do and mutiny? Not only will they not resent it, they will appreciate it and work all the harder. Not designating tasks, or allowing individuals to designate their own tasks, is to invite chaos. Chaos can only hurt your chances of getting the film done and done right. People want to know what needs to be done, get it done, and go home feeling they did a good days work. What people don’t want, is to guess what needs to be done, or be obligated to figure it out for themselves. This type of unstructured approach has no place on a film set, where everyone is under the gun at all times.

It’s for this reason, the definition of job expectations and the fair the division of labor should be enforced with an iron fist of benevolent dictatorship. That’s not to say you should be a dick to people – you shouldn’t. But you should not shy away from telling people exactly what to do, what not to do, and make sure they stick to it. Otherwise, you’ll get what you paid for, which probably ranges anywhere from ‘nothing’ to ‘not much’.

Creative Veto
One of the endless pits many independent filmmakers (including myself) fall into, is assuming that every person on set – who is so generously giving of their time and effort – is a creative collaborator. It’s extremely important to recognize that is not the case. To open that door is to open a gateway to hell, where valuable time is wasted fielding an endless cacophony of input from everyone within a 50 foot radius. When every participant is indulged, the result is a kind of Jersey Turnpike mixed drink of seemingly good ideas, stitched together into one giant Frankenstein bad idea. A compromise of good intentions, but still a compromise, and one that will hurt the film.

In most filmmaking situations, the creative process is enabled by three basic vocational tiers, ranging from the purely technical/logistical (line producer, G&E, loader, crafty), to the ‘techno-creative’ (producer, cinematographer, gaffer, art department, stunt coordinator), to the purely creative (writer, director, actor).

Obviously, all the tiers are important to the end result and require immense focus. Every player in the process must understand and acknowledge whether the ultimate purpose of their role is to create or to serve the creative vision (ie, if you are a camera loader, you are not there to direct the actors, you are there to make sure the film is safely loaded into/out of the camera).

Since most people have creative impulses, they will want to share their ideas, if invited to do so. This type of free-for-all is a breeding ground for accidents and oversights, even by the most experienced professionals. If you set up an open-door policy with creative input from a crew full of people that already have jobs to do, you risk splitting their focus and taking away from their primary job expectation, thereby compromising the quality of their work. Don’t allow it. Shut it down if it starts to happen.

Get Enough People and Give Them Jobs
On a classic film set, the producer is essentially the boss hog, who determines what needs to be done to execute on the director’s vision. The assistant director (AD) ‘runs the set’, calling people to set, keeping things moving, and generally facilitating the flow of business. The director is hopefully only dealing with creative decisions, working with his director of photography (DP), actors, and other departments to make the movie all it can be.

On an indie set, you may not have the luxury of an assistant director, line producer and senior producer, but your set will benefit from having at least one individual to act as an intermediary between the director and the crew, who can delegate tasks, monitor the division of work, and make necessary adjustments.

It’s taken me a long time to realize the importance of a crew, and all that it does to make a film better. I have done many jobs myself, through preproduction all the way through post and finishing, that would have been done better by people who were not me. Some may say this was out of necessity, and sometimes it was, but usually it was out of laziness to find the proper person to do the job right. There is no nobility in hard work if the work is for nothing, or makes the final product worse. The will to do many jobs is no excuse for splitting your own focus on whatever your chosen function is. Even the master ninja will get his ass kicked trying to take on ten guys at once. Your film deserves better.

In cases where a crew is comprised of inexperienced people, the producer should figure out what needs to be done, chop it up, and hand out work assignments. If it’s not clear who should do what, this would be a good time to ask the lead crewmembers for input (ie, ‘who needs help?’). Just be sure to keep your hands on the reins and be the one to have the final say on who does what. Maintain the chain of command, or you may find your set is being run by the DP, soundman, or special effects person, as opposed to the assistant director and/or producer.

If there are people present with nothing to do, invent something for them to do, or send them home. If you have people waiting to work (ie, castmembers), try to keep them far away from set. They will only distract your crew, especially if they are attractive.

Conclusion
It’s a fact of life that making an indie is going to be an exercise in compromise, in one form or another. The challenge is to make something creative and beautiful, under these strict parameters of necessity. Dividing labor equally and fairly among your filmmaking cohorts is the first step in making the very most of whatever resources you have available, and ultimately get your project completed, which is what’s most important. Those cast or crewmembers you told to shut up and do their jobs will forgive you at the premiere.

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Making an indie for it’s own sake

December 27, 2009

Every time I’m on the cusp of production, and things start spiraling out of control, someone always poses the question “why now?”, as in: “why are you making this film in May instead of June”, or “why not wait till next year?”, or “Why not just make a short film instead?”, “Why not wait till you have more: money, time, experience, help?”

‘Why make this film now?’ is a perfectly valid question, and the honest answer is determined by the filmmaking motivation itself. To get there, we’ll first answer the question ‘Why make this film?’

Why Now? / Why at All?
Speaking very generally here, solely for the sake of discussion, let’s say one of the following is the driving force behind the making of any movie:

1. Commission: An individual or business entity pays a sum of money for creative and/or production services (instructional or industrial, music video, advocacy, commercial, television, studio feature, etc).

2. Commercial Entrepreneurship: An individual or business entity embarks on an independent money-making action (Girls Gone Wild, Video Professor, etc).

3. Art for Art’s Sake: An individual or partnership embarks on a creative project simply to make said project, with no regard for economic or commercial benefit (Tarnation, Four-Eyed Monsters, etc).

Personally, I make films for reason #3. That’s not to disparage reasons #1 and #2, mind you. Being entrepreneurial and making money by filmic means is perfectly admirable, but for me, creating a construct to do so is no more interesting than opening my own convenience store or starting a landscaping company (both of which are also perfectly admirable).

I prefer instead to focus on making the movies I want to see, as honestly as possible, and to consider the economic viability of the work and how it should be marketed, after the creative process is complete.

[This, by the way, is not the only way to make a film, it’s just the way I do it. Many fine films have been made with a dozen writers, a room full of meddling studio executives, multiple focus groups, etc.]

So, if the answer to ‘why you are making the film?’ is Art for Art’s Sake, we’re back to ‘why now?’

Logic
If one cares about his art, doesn’t he owe it to the work to be patient and take whatever time he needs to build the proper infrastructure and assemble the resources necessary to make the film all it can be?

I understand why people think this, and for many projects – especially those that require immense resources to exist (animated, epic, FX-heavy) – it really might be the right thing to do. In my experience, however, this wide open, wait-for-the-right-time approach is a death sentence for a project getting off the ground, particularly when the purpose of the work is the work itself.

The problem with this logic is that in the context of making an independent production, an open-ended or distant shoot date, removes present adversity – a critical component in mobilizing radicals in any anti-establishment or underground operation (which all independent films are). More time rarely leads to more money, what it does lead to is wavering attention spans and the inevitable attrition of your co-conspirators.

Without conflict, there is no story. Without looming deadlines, there is no urgent scramble to make things happen. With no urgency, the challenge of the independent feature is diluted, and your people are no longer afraid or angry. Without fear and anger there is no hunger for action – the lifeblood of the independent feature.

Your intention may have been to make the best picture possible, but you ended up with no picture at all. No good!

Going Against Logic
If you’re doing Art for Art’s Sake, you must strike while the iron is hot. The heat is the thing that drives it, and you have to harness that energy and quickly turn it into action. Waiting is not only a wet blanket on smoldering enthusiasm, but it also means delaying the creation of content while time passes. The longer you wait, the less time you are alive, the less stuff you have created, and the less potential you’ve realized (because you’ve had less practice realizing it).

My thinking on this is probably informed by the fact that I was 30 years old when I decided I wanted to make movies for the rest of my life, so there’s always been a ‘time-sensitive’ component to my decision making. I also have a background as a Jazz musician, the practice of which is predicated on the creative process occurring in an unpredictable, precarious context (both harmonically, as well as lifestyle). Suffice it to say, the instability of indie film and all that comes with it, has never been that scary to me.

Some people believe making a film without proper resources, experience, all the right preparation, etc., will result in a bad film. This thinking is totally reasonable for those who do not make films, but a wrong-headed waste of brainwork for anyone who does. Overcoming this kind of doubt is the ultimate test of your fortitude as a filmmaker. If you aren’t strong enough to believe in your work from inception, to have not only confidence, but overconfidence, about your potential – if you do not (privately) believe you’re making the greatest film ever made – you should consider opening a convenience store or landscaping company. You’ll still get criticized, but the bloggers will probably not flame you for being self-indulgent, being an inept story teller, or making a film that is too dumb or too smart for its own good.

It is essential for practitioners of any artform to actually practice their artform. To create. If that means tolerating frequent criticism and ridicule from individuals who create nothing, suck it up. If you haven’t the sack to circumvent your own doubts, your fragile ego will never survive what’s to come if your film is ever released.

Filmmaking is not some sort of mysterious witchcraft that only super-human rocket scientists in Castle Grayskull can do. Filmmaking is comprised of regular human tasks, requiring regular human skills, each to be performed by a regular human being. You will learn in the doing. Skill is not magic or genius, or athletic gift. Skill is perspective, and perspective is only gained through experience.

To put it in even more aphoristic, Steven Seagal-like terms: If, over the course of five years, a martial artist only ever practices form and never spars, he will not fare well in combat, especially against an experienced opponent. If a martial artist has twenty fights a day in that same five-year period, chances are he will have a good perspective on combat, and, at the very least, approach a more experienced opponent with less trepidation and emotional interference for having experienced combat so many times before.

The other possible outcome to that story is that the guy that did 20 fights a day for five years, kicks the living shit out of all comers. Only God knows how you will fare as you pass though the thresholds of experience, but hiding yourself away from the challenge teaches you nothing.

Similarly, taking meetings does not teach you to be a better filmmaker. Nor does reading blogs, or books, or listening to people tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. I enjoy talking as much as the next blowhard, but nobody ever learned how to do anything, filmmaking or otherwise, by having a theoretical discussion about it.

The only thing that teaches any of us anything is the experience of doing it for ourselves, because the way each of us responds to a learning experience is totally subjective. Nobody, including ourselves, knows what we are capable of in this life. There is no reason not to assume the very best in ourselves and our potential. There is also no reason not to fight dirty, pull hair, bite, and kick our obstructions in the nuts, so we can achieve what we want in this world.

The Downside
Even the smallest features cost a lot of money and pride. If you only have a duct-taped video camera, one light, and $200 to make the feature of your dreams, you can still do it, but understand that what you lack in cash and gear, you and your colleagues will make up for in sweat and man hours.

You can get everything you need to make a movie for free if you shake enough hands and appeal to the right people in the right way, but that in itself is a fulltime job for everyone involved. Still, this is nothing you should shy away from. It’s done every day to great effect by much dumber people than you. Besides, there’s no greater character-building exercise than making something out of nothing. And if that something turns out to be something beautiful, the hard times will disappear from your memory… because it was worth it.

Conclusion
If you want it, do it.

Making a feature film under any circumstance is a God-awful, herculean task, but if you’re truly committed, and resolve to do whatever it takes to see it through to the bitter end, making your independent feature will be an incredibly rewarding, and life-changing experience.

Make the movie you want to watch. Use everything at your disposal to make it as good as it can be. Don’t wait. What you plan to do in some imagined future doesn’t exist. Make the film, and what you do now is forever.