MovieMaker Magazine https://www.moviemaker.com The Art & Business of Making Movies Wed, 13 Jan 2038 20:00:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 110313819 Second Time’s Not the Charm: Even If Your First Film Found Success, Making Your Next Won’t Be Any Easier https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/news/second-times-not-the-charm/ https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/news/second-times-not-the-charm/#respond Sat, 27 May 2017 00:51:20 +0000 https://www.moviemaker.com/?p=47612 It took seven years to finish my first feature documentary, Finding Hillywood. It was with trepidation that my husband and I decided to make our second film, Big Sonia. We hoped that doors—and pocketbooks—would open widely this time around. We also assumed our relationships with festivals and funders would streamline the process and perhaps allow us […]

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It took seven years to finish my first feature documentary, Finding Hillywood.

It was with trepidation that my husband and I decided to make our second film, Big Sonia. We hoped that doors—and pocketbooks—would open widely this time around. We also assumed our relationships with festivals and funders would streamline the process and perhaps allow us to complete the film under five years. But we were very, very wrong.

Despite our best efforts, and the success of Finding Hillywood on the festival circuit, our second film has been just as challenging, albeit in ways that we didn’t see coming. Here are just a few lessons learned and universal truths I figured out along the way.

No, It’s Not Easier. But That’s OK

This goes against all rational thought, but making your second film is not necessarily easier. Funding and grants are eternally unpredictable so just because you’ve made one film successfully, there are no guarantees that funding your second film will be any easier. Yes, you have credibility because you’ve proven that you can finish a project, but I still have plenty of people ask, “Is this your first film?” Settle in, get ready for the marathon, and have confidence that although it might not be easier, having one film under your belt will give you the confidence to get through the second one.

Leave Your Expectations at Home, and Be Open to Happy Accidents

Many people who we thought would help on a large scale will not return our emails, and many people who we met randomly along the way contribute the most. The festivals that we thought we would get into (because we had a relationship or pitched there) rejected our film and the ones that we’ve never heard of are offering screening fees and covering travel and accommodations. Leave every expectation at home and be ready for whatever opportunities come along—making a documentary truly is the “wild west.”

Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday sets up to shoot a scene of Big Sonia. Photograph by Gloria Feinstein

Documentaries are Rarely a Commercial Success… But You Do Have Options

Every agent (and many distributors) will tell us “We love your film, but we can’t sell it.” The offers we’ve received don’t include much of a minimum guarantee, if any at all. So how do you make a living creating documentaries, or just break even? Take matters into your own hands and hold onto your rights as long as you can… unless a deal comes along that you can’t refuse! Look for ways you can sell merchandise and other items alongside of your film (like books, t-shirts, soundtracks) to generate cash while you’re waiting for the right deal.

Don’t Take the First Offer

We did this with our first documentary and it came back to haunt us. In our experience most larger companies stop answering emails and phone calls as soon as your contract is signed. Shop around for the right partners who make sense for your particular film. Do you want to work with a reputable distributor who has hundreds of titles or small boutique company? Which distributors are best suited for your content? Do your research and talk with other filmmakers before you sign a deal—this will save a lot of headaches and resentment down the road. Filmmakers will generally tell you if they’re happy with their distributor and you can ask candid questions to help narrow down your options.

Raise Money to Hire People Smarter Than You

I exhausted myself on our first film because I was afraid to spend money. When you’re constantly fundraising to stay afloat, it’s tempting to try and do every job yourself. To get to the finish line, however, you need a team who you can pass the baton to. And why wouldn’t you want the best person for each job? Identify your strengths and weaknesses and hire people smarter than you to fill in the puzzle. This will actually save time and money in the long run.

Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday prepare to shoot a scene from Big Sonia 

Go With Your Gut. Always

At every work-in-progress screening we received a million pieces of contradictory feedback. It’s tough to learn how to filter the comments and the only thing that helps is experience. Go through the process but try not to take it personally—remember, you’ve already made a film and not everyone can say that. The scenes that we fought the hardest for are the ones that everyone loves the most. Instincts matter. Isn’t that what got us into this industry in the first place?!

This is Not a Labor of Love

I cringe when people use the term “labor of love”. My grandmother actually calls filmmaking a “labor of labor” and it’s probably the one thing we agree on. I love what I do for work but I also love other things like vacations and whales, and chocolate lava cake. Making a film is the same as running a business, and you wouldn’t open a business that doesn’t make money, would you? Think of each film as its own business—you can love what you do and make a living at the same time. (See points one through six above!)

You’re Worth It

After we finished our first feature, I was eager to screen it at as many festivals as possible so I packed a duffel bag and prepared to live on the road for a year like a traveling salesperson. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough confidence to ask for screening fees at every event and I learned that most festivals don’t make the offer up-front. I felt that since it was my first feature I didn’t “deserve” a fee, but in hindsight this doesn’t make any sense. Festivals truly do have limited budgets but there wouldn’t be any festivals without films and filmmakers! Festivals charge money for tickets to see your film. Always try to negotiate a screening fee or ask to have travel and accommodations covered so you can attend—you’re worth it! MM

Leah Warshawski produces documentary-style features, television, commercials and branded entertainment in remote parts of the world. Her first feature, Finding Hillywood, won 6 awards and screened at more than 65 festivals. Leah co-founded rwandafilm.org, a “LinkedIn” for Rwandan filmmakers supported by Bpeace and The Academy of Motion Pictures. When she’s not on a plane, you can find her swimming, hiking and dreaming of whales.

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Criterion Crash Course: Moviemaking Lessons From Criterion’s Woman of the Year https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/series/criterion-crash-course/criterion-crash-course-woman-of-the-year/ https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/series/criterion-crash-course/criterion-crash-course-woman-of-the-year/#respond Fri, 26 May 2017 22:19:01 +0000 https://www.moviemaker.com/?p=47587 Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance. How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD […]

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Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance.

How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD packages, from the film itself to its special features, as weapons in a moviemaking arsenal. Explore the moviemaking lessons from these packages—gifts that keep on giving.


Woman of the Year (1942)

At the time that it was made, 1942’s Woman of the Year would be the third collaboration between director George Stevens and star Katherine Hepburn, after having worked together on Alice Adams in 1935 and Quality Street in 1937. In that five year gap, Hepburn’s status as box office poison had swung the pendulum in the other direction, thanks to the success of George Cukor’s adaptation of The Philadelphia Story in 1940, featuring Hepburn in the same role she had performed on the stage the  year before. With her career back rolling, she and George Stevens set out to make Woman of the Year, the start of a lengthy on screen and off screen partnership between Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

Following the courtship and subsequent marriage between two newspaper writers—Tess (Hepburn), a political columnist, and Sam (Tracy), a sports columnist—Woman of the Year attempts to examine the personal and professional complexities of marriage, especially when the two characters are in the same industry. It’s about two very different people trying to make it work, with the film serving as a blueprint for many romantic comedies to come after.

The Criterion Collection’s release of Woman of the Year includes a new interview with George Stevens, Jr., an archival interview with the director from 1967, a new interview with George Stevens biographer Marilyn Ann Moss, a new interview with Claudia Roth Pierpont on Katherine Hepburn, a full length documentary from 1984 called George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey, another documentary from 1986 called The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katherine Hepburn, a trailer, and an essay by Time Magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek. Criterion’s new edition of this classic film is an invitation to watch one of the formative proto-working couple romantic comedies.

Lessons in Gender Politics in the Romantic Comedy

The gender politics of Woman of the Year are, shall we say, very much of their era, with a lean toward the progressive, given its historical context. Spencer Tracy’s somewhat masculine writer Sam is defined by his interest in sports and his visible disdain for intellectualism. The fundamental issue within the relationship between Sam and Tess is Tess’s negligence to their family in comparison to the attention she pays to her own career. It’s worth noting, though, that few films of the studio era, and particularly within the genre of the romantic comedy, would dare try to put the husband and wife on equal playing ground. They most certainly would not allow a wife to succeed professionally and out do her husband in this way.

Important to all of this is the ways these two characters navigate power. Throughout, Hepburn’s Tess is professionally more powerful than Sam is, but he attempts to maintain the home as his domain of power because the newspaper won’t work as such. Pre-Mr. Mom, and post-Sam’s infatuation and initial proposal, Stevens casts Tracy and the primary home keeper and caregiver, ostensibly. He’s not happy about that, and the interactions fostered by this inequity of power and the placement of it isn’t funny. Mildly amusing, but not funny. I think that’s intentional.

George Stevens Jr. notes that his father hated the term “screwball comedy” because it had the connotation of being about silly antics featuring a kind of fantastical quality that ultimately obscures the emotional truth of the picture. Stevens and his screenwriters Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin attempt to find more pathos in the drama of relationship that is struggling to function in a very straightforward sense.

Left to right: Fay Bainter, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Minor Watson in Woman of the Year. Photo courtesy The Criterion Collection

Lessons in Screen Chemistry

Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are both excellent actors. They were both (allegedly) together. Impossible to manufacture is genuine screen chemistry, which Tracy and Hepburn had in spades. That Woman of the Year serves as their first joint venture makes it feel almost like the first “date” between them, filled with the boiling emotions of giddiness, joy, and longing; and yet, the performers are so skilled that they can easily play out the dissolution of a marriage.

Both Hepburn and Tracy’s eyes light up in ways that few actors’ do when they look at one another. Stevens positions his camera to gaze in over the should shots, leaving much of the other person in the frame, as if their entire body feels the electricity of the chemistry. When Stevens has his actors lean into the repartee of the dialogue, they bat back and forth like tennis pros.

In the documentary included on the Criterion disc, The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katherine Hepburn, the actress discusses her eagerness sell the outline that would become Woman of the Year and her desire to work with Tracy, in spite of having not met the actor prior to shooting the film. As she was trying to develop the picture, she found out Tracy was busy in Florida shooting The Yearling, but due to weather conditions, was able to have her people talk to Tracy about doing the film. Even before ever working together, Hepburn knew that there was something inimitable about their would-be dynamic, and about Tracy’s persona on the screen. Neither could ever know the lasting impact of their partnership.

Lessons in the Working Romantic Comedy

The core to Woman of the Year is how a working relationship functions, in the sense that both parties are working professionals, and how that effects their personal lives. Tess is taken seriously in few ways that professional women would have been on the screen at that time—with notable exceptions, such as Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. The work that both Tess and Sam do is important to them, and their talent at their respective jobs is partially what attracted them to one another in the first place. It’s an example of the ambiguity of having two people working similar yet different jobs, with the jobs themselves having almost fundamentally different demographics and levels of respects (in this film, at least).

More broadly, the working dynamic between Tess, who becomes so successful that she becomes the titular Woman of the Year with a teletype in the room adjacent to the bedroom, and Sam, whose job is mostly static in the film, becomes a competition of domination. This sort of competitive dynamic informed many of the Spencer/Tracy films, and those films in turn would influence work like The Holiday, 13 Going on 30, Broadcast News, The Devil Wears Prada—all films in which women must choose between work and love.

Woman of the Year ends on a somewhat ambiguous note, with Tess failing spectacularly at the “wifely duties” Sam thinks she’s been ignoring and with him conceding that she should be “Tess Harding Craig”, the perfect amalgamation of who she wants to be and who he wants her to be. We don’t know, nor do we ever get to see, what that means for either of them professionally. This was the ending that was picked (against Hepburn’s wishes) over the original ending, where Sam goes missing and Tess briefly takes over his column for an article.

Left to right: Spencer Tracy, George Kezas and Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year

Special Features

George Stevens Jr. fondly remembers the way his father shaped his films, finding a happy medium between being a studio collaborative director and an auteurist visionary, overseeing script development to the shooting and release of the film. It’s clear that the desired precision of the film finds it way into both the script and the direction of the film, though it feels as if Hepburn and Tracy are in a league of their own. Marilyn Ann Moss calls Stevens the “Walt Whitman of film” and the various permutations of sensibilities he went through, from works like Penny Serenade to Shane, the scholar arguing it was his versatility of his frames and his films.

In the archival interview with Stevens, he recalls that Hepburn was “extraordinary!” He repeats this several times, waxing poetically about her professionalism, her poise, and her voice, almost implying that her talent was beyond direction. In spite of the nine producers that had their hands on the film’s screenplay, Stevens credits much of the inventiveness and strength of the screenplay to Hepburn herself.

Hepburn scholar Claudia Roth Pierpont talks about how the angularity of the actress’s body and mind informed the sharpness of her acting, arguing that she never disappeared into a role but instead used it as a vessel for a distinctly and transparently feminist approach. Discussing the ups and downs of her career, Pierpont talks about the consistency of her progressiveness and strength. Hepburn continues to set the standard for daring acting.

The Takeaway

George Stevens is rarely remembered for his comedies, Moss says, partially due to his chameleonic filmography. But Woman of the Year, however rooted deeply in the era’s sense of progressive and feminist politics, remains an important work in trying to navigate the complex waters of intimacy and work, and what role the two have with one another. Stevens, Tracy, and Hepburn all have fun playing with the reversals and stereotypes of gender and work. A high point in all three of their careers, Woman of the Year puts a journalistic spin on some scenes from a marriage. MM

Woman of the Year was released by The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD April 18, 2017. All images courtesy of The Criterion Collection. 

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A Fellow Conspirator: One of Werner Herzog’s “Good Soldiers” Takes Us Inside His Moviemaking Workshop https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/news/werner-herzog-workshop-cuba/ https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/news/werner-herzog-workshop-cuba/#respond Fri, 26 May 2017 20:05:37 +0000 https://www.moviemaker.com/?p=47533 “I used to think of myself as a pilgrim, though now I am trying to be a good soldier of cinema.” That’s Werner Herzog, taking part in a Q&A session with students and professors at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión (EICTV), a film school housed in a former military base in Western Cuba. […]

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“I used to think of myself as a pilgrim, though now I am trying to be a good soldier of cinema.”

That’s Werner Herzog, taking part in a Q&A session with students and professors at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión (EICTV), a film school housed in a former military base in Western Cuba.

“Some of the participants on the workshop I am leading here have tried to refer to me as professor, though I do not allow this. If they refer to me using a title, I tell them it must be mi colonel!”

Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión (EICTV) Workshop Participant Ben Garfield. Photograph courtesy of Black Factory Cinema

I am one of the participants in the workshop that Colonel Herzog is referring to and, in the days to come, I will be making a short film under his mentorship, as will 54 others. We have been selected from more than 500 applicants and have forked up €4,250 to be here… though a day ago, ahead of our first session together, we still weren’t exactly sure what we’d signed up for.

Herzog is quick to clarify the task at hand: “Each one of you will deliver a film by the end of these 10 days. No excuses. I am serious.”

When I submitted to join this workshop, I wrote about my first encounter with Herzog’s work: watching Fitzcaraldo at the London’s BFI Southbank at age 17. There was Klaus Kinski as the eponymous lead character, frenetic and obsessed, dreaming of building an opera house in the jungle and willing to go to any length to make it happen.

It stuck with me for some time afterwards. What had I just seen? I have since revisited that film many times and have reveled in many others from Herzog’s repertoire of fiction and documentary features. The people in his movies seem to be made of different stuff. They dream big, and they dream weird. To get an insight into his process as well as receive his feedback on my own work was too good an opportunity to pass up (I was eager to hear his stories about working with Nic Cage, too).

Following early morning chats with my fellow curious filmmakers over coffee and omelette sandwiches (or “sandwich con todos,” in my awfully basic Spanish), we stroll across the idyllic EICTV film school grounds to the lecture theater for our first session. Herzog, dressed functionally with sturdy black shoes, as if he’s about to begin a day’s work at a welding factory, lays down our objective, and begins sharing some of his own stories about filmmaking. He tells us about the quick turnaround for his death-row focused documentary Into The Abyss, which he only shot six and a half hours of footage for: “And I didn’t speak to a single one of the interview subjects until I met them for the filmed interviews.”

Somebody points out that he made the film with 40 years of experience already under his belt, and perhaps it would be more challenging for us to achieve the same level of brevity and focus with our projects. Could he share a story of a failure from earlier in his career, perhaps? “No,” is the response, “I have always made films this way.”

Werner Herzog lends a helping eye behind the lens

We don’t waste any time getting to work. That afternoon, a bus takes us to visit our locations, where permissions have been pre-arranged to allow for us to shoot. Havana is off the menu; instead, we are to keep things local. We visit a small beach community, a dilapidated old textile factory, and various parts of San Antonio de Los Banos, a small town with a population in the region of 45,000. I am from London, so it’s not in my nature to start chatting to strangers in the street, though things are clearly different here. I make a conscious effort to drop my inhibitions and start passing out “good afternoons” to the locals (“buenas tardes, buenas tardes”). The response I receive is warm and welcoming.

San Antonio carries that air of Groundhog Day that Cuba is well known for: Not much changes from one day to the next. People pass a lot of their time hanging out on door stoops and park benches.The weathered buildings, classic cars and well-maintained plant life provide the backdrop for this. In addition, the internet is only available in the central square, where one hour’s access costs the equivalent of $1.50 (not exactly cheap in Cuban wage terms).

In the coming days, many of the locals become the stars of our films. Sometimes they act for us, improvising dialogue scenes about depressed pigs refusing to eat, or romantic rivals that have placed secret curses over each other. Other times, they share intimate stories in documentary form. One man breaks down in tears during an interview about his time in jail, while another, 92 years young, sings a love song to a lady he had long been enamored with.

Herzog’s advice about how to approach our new neighbors pays dividends: “You are looking for fellow conspirators,” he tells us. “These are people out there who have been waiting for you and your camera to arrive. These are the ones you are looking for, and need to cast.”

Herzog and a student hang out in between shooting under the Cuban sun

As we go about our filmmaking missions, Herzog shares his time between us. We pitch our ideas in group sessions and then book in for one-on-ones to discuss things in more depth. After we shoot, he sits down with us to look through our footage and deliver his verdict. He’s not shy about telling us the direction he feels our stories should go in, often suggesting scenes. For example: “And then he must look at the window and shout ‘Where are you Maria, my love!’ Do this, trust me. Then you will be in business!”

Some members of the group feel we have missed out by not seeing Herzog in filmmaking action. We don’t experience how he might command a set or communicate with actors. Instead, we get an abundance of feedback and advice, always delivered succinctly and poetically. Things like: “It should be the audience who cry, not your protagonist,” and, “If you are looking for a second set of twins for your movie, you should start by asking the first set of twins. Twins usually know where there are more twins to be found.”

Herzog shares his secrets with his workshop members

Occasionally, we also feel his wrath. This happens to me when I ask whether another filmmaker is intending to use an image in her film as a metaphor. “No!” he intervenes, “metaphors are for literature, they do not belong in cinema. This is a common misconception amongst young filmmakers.”

Combined, all of this advice has the effect of taking the shackles off of filmmaking. Common industry practices go out the window. There will be no meticulous preparation for our films, nor should we aim to shoot from the hip and build our stories afterwards in the editing room. The mission is clear: Forget everything you might have learned in film school. Go out there, follow your poetic instincts, and bring back signs of life. What’s more, play an active part in it. Create moments: “Don’t be a fly on the wall, be the wasp that stings!” And don’t try to be too clever. Film theorists and critics will always read their own meaning into things, as will every audience. Leave them to that.

And sidestep all bureaucracy! On the final day of the workshop, the production company who organized it, Black Factory Cinema, asks us to sign distribution agreements for our films. When I tell them that I don’t have my passport number to hand, Herzog seizes my form and makes one up for me.

“Werner, no!” the organizer pleads.

He brushes it off: “Believe me, this does not matter.”

We all complete our mission: Each one of us has a film to hand in at the end of the 10 days (some even hand in more than one). My film, a documentary about three children who are obsessed with Harry Potter, is made in a way that I would not have attempted before. No script, no internet-led research, and no preparatory discussions with the film’s subjects. I had notes on my phone with the key themes, some ideas for scenes, and the rest was devised on the day, even axing our main location early on on a gut feeling. It is liberating. It feels like filmmaking in the method that an artist might paint, or a jazz musician might improvise.

At the EICTV school there is a tradition for famous directors to write departing words of wisdom on the walls. While many have used paint to do this, Herzog settles for a pen, finds a corner and, in Spanish, writes his departing epitaph, as small as possible: “Every man for himself, and God against everyone.” He then addresses us with our next mission: Go forth, keep making films, and under no circumstances should you ever do another workshop or film class, or even attend a talk by another filmmaker, ever again.

For 10 days we lived in a bubble. Now it’s time to head back to reality, and confront the tide of an unstable, ever-changing world. MM

Ben is a writer-director based in London, UK. You can find a selection of his documentary and fiction films to view on his website. All images courtesy of Black Factory Cinema.

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La Isla Bonita: Idyllic Martha’s Vineyard Proves a Perfect Backdrop for International Cinema at This Festival https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/festivals/la-isla-bonita-marthas-vineyard-international-film-festival-international-cinema/ https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/festivals/la-isla-bonita-marthas-vineyard-international-film-festival-international-cinema/#respond Fri, 26 May 2017 18:22:16 +0000 https://www.moviemaker.com/?p=47530 Richard Paradise, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, is no greenhorn when it comes to the film festival business. Since building the society from the ground up two decades ago, he’s founded not one—not two—but five annual film festivals, the crown jewel of which is Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, coming up on […]

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Richard Paradise, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, is no greenhorn when it comes to the film festival business.

Since building the society from the ground up two decades ago, he’s founded not one—not two—but five annual film festivals, the crown jewel of which is Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, coming up on its 12th year.

A boyhood love of classic film spurred Paradise to run a movie series as a college student in Wisconsin, but a long professional detour into magazine publishing prevented him from pursuing a career in film full-time. Later in life, he and his family fell in love with the tiny island of Martha’s Vineyard after only a weeklong vacation.

“My wife and I sort of looked at each other and asked, ‘Well, why not here?’” he says.

It was here, in his own personal paradise, that Paradise was finally able to devote himself to his first passion. Since starting Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival in 2006, he’s added an environmental film festival to his repertoire, as well as Spectrum, an LGBT+ festival that had its successful debut earlier this spring. We caught up with him to chat about the bumps he’s faced along the road, the allure of the Vineyard, and creating the perfect film festival experience.

On His Long Path to Film Festival Success:

“When I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard 20 years ago, I created a summer film series showing classic films, still using 16mm prints because the boardroom style projectors were very expensive at the time. I did that for about three years, then petitioned to get myself a nonprofit status as a film society. I did this, of course, as a volunteer endeavor while I was still working in magazine publishing. Eventually, it evolved into a year-round weekly series.

Slowly, our nonprofit started gaining steam in the community. We started selling membership. In 2006, I decided to hold the first Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival. Once a week was not enough—there are too many great foreign language films. And to this day we still focus on world cinema. Ninety percent of the films we show take place in other countries and have subtitles. The film festival is a way to see other places, people, and cultures without leaving your community.

The biggest obstacle has always been venues. For many years, from 2006 to 2012, finding legitimate venues was always a challenge. We jumped around. We used a community theater, but it was ill-equipped, so I had to bring everything except for the screen. We sort of went around the island utilizing spaces that weren’t necessarily made for movies, but were set up for public gatherings. Some of them were quite large. I remember one time we had 1,000 people show up for a locally made film in an open amphitheater. We tried to use the local downtown movie theater that was only open seasonally to show commercial movies, so getting them to let us show film festival movies was always a challenge, and then it closed. Year to year, I never knew if I would get this venue or that venue.

Audiences fill one of MVIFF’s theatrical venues

Five to six years ago, our organization completely changed when we were able to raise the money and work with a private developer to build the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. It’s state-of-the-art: DCP projections, stadium seating, great lobby, great viewing. We went from showing films once a week to showing them seven nights a week at the film center. We’ve also in the past few years become operators of two historic movie theaters that are totally renovated. So we actually run three theaters as a nonprofit film society in addition to doing several film festivals.

In a nutshell, we’ve gone from this little volunteer nonprofit with an annual budget of $80,000 to having a budget of over $1 mil. this year for running these theaters. Of course, five to six years ago, I was able to give up my publishing career—which I was happy to do—and do this full time as the executive director of the film society.”

On the Appeal of the Vineyard:

“We’re not the only ones who have come to the Vineyard and fallen in love with the ambience, the natural beauty, the water, the community. What I’ve found to be true is that the people who work here at the Vineyard are serious people. They’ve traveled around the world, but they’ve found that Martha’s Vineyard is the place they want to be. Maybe it’s only a couple of weeks they can be here, but it’s a special place. Culturally speaking, the people here are very curious. They’re also very financially supportive of the arts. There are several cultural art organizations on the island that are supported by donors, and it’s because this island is so supportive of the arts that our film center has succeeded.”

On His Ideal Audience:

“I want to attract people who love world cinema, people who are open to explore films from other countries and cultures. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m sure you’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t want to read my movie,’ meaning they don’t want to watch a movie with subtitles. But what I always tell people is that if you’re not open to watch a foreign language picture, you’re missing out on 90 percent of the movies produced in a given year. You’re missing out on some fabulous cinema if you’re only sticking to English-language films.”

On Curating the “Film-Plus” Experience:

“I work with a whole host of small boutique distributors and sales agents to provide what we hope are cinematic gems from around the world. Some of these films do go on to get nominated for an Oscar in the foreign language category. These are film festival winners. These are films that have been shown in 15 to 20 different film festivals internationally, and they’ve won awards. I go to Sundance, Tribeca and a Latin American film festival each year in Colombia to find films that I think our local audiences will absolutely love.

My main concern is to provide the best possible world cinema experience for our audiences. If we can help expose them to new artists, filmmakers from other countries, and if those filmmakers can join us here, even better. I’d say we’re an audience-centric festival.

We try our best to provide a film-plus experience. We utilize local resources when we can. If we had a film related to death and dying, we’d reach out to our local hospice, and invite someone to come and talk after that film. If we had a film dealing with the environment, we’d reach out to local conservation societies, and get spokespeople to talk about that film. On [May 18], for example, we showed [What the Health], and we teamed up with a local café that’s vegan and a proponent of clean health. We did dinner and a movie with them, and they were there to talk after the film. We try to add some extra element to every showing.”

Paradise with Sharon Stone, recipient of the 2016 Martha’s Vineyard Film Society’s Global Citizen Award

On Alternatives to Festival Workshops and Panels:

“During the festivals, we’ll often have a filmmaker lunch. Sometimes we can bring in industry people—directors, actors—on vacation at the Vineyard to be involved in something casual. We’re having lunch in a beautiful home on the ocean, say, and we might get three or four industry people. Last year, we had lunch at a house overlooking the Gay Head Cliffs. We had four documentarians, including Morgan Neville, who won an Academy Award two years ago for 20 Feet from Stardom. We had some other people who fund documentaries. And it was just this casual picnic lunch. We do stuff like that, but it’s not a formal workshop where we’re trying to get people to come to sit in a class.”

On What He Wants the Society to be Known For:

“I think as a body of work—with the film society, festivals, film center and historic movie theaters—we want to be known as the organization that provides the cinema experience for people visiting and living in Martha’s Vineyard. Over the last five to 10 years, it’s been amazing, the outpouring of goodwill that’s come our way from people who have attended our festival or attended our screenings or listened to a speaker or gone to a youth program. We just did our first LGBTQ festival at the end of April; that was a big success. We brought in a whole new community of viewers and interested people.

We consider ourselves blessed that we are well-loved and respected and appreciated. This is what I hear all the time: we provide a fabric of the cultural life at the Vineyard, and if we weren’t here, we would be greatly missed. That gives me the most satisfaction. It’s not about how many people show up at a festival on a given night or even how many members we have, though that is a reflection of it. But to hear people say that their cultural life would be less without our organization, that is what’s most satisfying to me.” MM

Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival runs September 5-10, 2017. For more information, visit its website.

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Gay, Incidentally: Gay Characters Don’t Need to Hook Up Just Because They’re Gay, Handsome Devil Points Out https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/moviemaking/directing/handsome-devil-gay-incidentally-hook-up/ https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/moviemaking/directing/handsome-devil-gay-incidentally-hook-up/#respond Thu, 25 May 2017 23:42:02 +0000 https://www.moviemaker.com/?p=47497 There is nothing coy about telling a story about two young men who aren’t straight, where those two men don’t hook up. Nothing coy at all. In my life, I have had many gay friends that I’ve never wanted to sleep with, and who have never wanted to sleep with me, and it never felt […]

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There is nothing coy about telling a story about two young men who aren’t straight, where those two men don’t hook up. Nothing coy at all.

In my life, I have had many gay friends that I’ve never wanted to sleep with, and who have never wanted to sleep with me, and it never felt like much of a sacrifice to either party. When it came to making my feature Handsome Devil, I was determined that the story would run along the tram lines of a buddy comedy, because even if you believe both the young leads are gay, or not straight (by no means a certain thing, itself), then the fullest expression of that friendship, of homosexual friendship, of any friendship is… friendship. No more and no less. Why can’t someone be gay in a story like that?

The dominant narrative of mainstream and alternative cinema alike is romantic, be it the eight million boy-meets-girl stories, or boy-meets-boy exceptions, as in the sublime Weekend and last year’s sensational Moonlight, or girl-meets-girl as in Blue is the Warmest Color or Carol. Leaving aside the hegemony of the romantic narrative of every hue, the buddy movie remains the least invigorated subgenre of all—sadly still powered more often than not by childish and reductive gay panic which, way more than being offensive, is just dreary.

When it comes to orientation, we no longer live in the age of black and white, so the job of films—mainstream and alternative, comedy and drama—is to explore and prod at that ambiguity. If homosexuality is an identity, then only part (an important part, but only a part) of that identity revolves around sexual activity. So why can’t someone be gay in a buddy comedy? I loved the sensational Other People so much because of the authentic, “felt” subplot of the friendship between John Early’s and Jesse Plemons’ gay characters. It reminded me so much of me and my friends. I love stories of male friendship and no one can tell me that they are not a story worth telling—precisely because they occur so often in the real world, yet have been seen relatively rarely onscreen. If people have trouble with the seeming ambiguity of a platonic friendship involving one or more LGBT characters, then it only makes the telling of that story more worthwhile.

Fionn O’Shea as Ned and Nicholas Galitzine as Conor in Handsome Devil

In Handsome Devil, when Conor and Ned first bond, it is in their dorm room, down the middle of which Ned has built a “Berlin Wall” made of wardrobes, books and other items to keep Conor away from him. We lit this room softly, with each sitting on beds on either side in perfect binary symmetry, and as the boys begin to talk, they begin to “see” each other through a gap in the wall. In this scene as throughout the film, there is no black and white—a visual rhyme for the idea that in life you can be anything, and that one needn’t pick a side. In fact the only time you see black and white are in the opposition’s shirts in the final match. Our cinematographer Cathal Watters, designer Ferdia Murphy and grader Matt Branton worked hard to work the blue and yellow palette throughout, along with lenses that give the film a slightly milky look that I so love.

As the scene plays out, the boys intuit that they’re not that different and the incidental song playing from Ned’s side begins to assume greater narrative importance. Originally it was “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” by Them, but that felt too melancholy. For a while it worked with “A Pair of Brown Eyes” by The Pogues, but ultimately a song more directly concerned with attraction better served the ambiguity of the scene. Men are attracted to their male friends, attraction is a part of the equation of friendship. “Desire As” by Prefab Sprout and, in particular, the lyric “desire is a self-figured creature who changes her mind” makes people feel something between the boys that is enjoyable to create and then play away from.

At certain juncture in their best work, my favorite filmmakers seem to know what the audience is thinking and then respond to that assumption on the audience’s part in a way that wrong-foots them and implicates them deeper in the action. Take one of my favorite buddy movies, Sideways, by Alexander Payne. After a set-up in which we identify so deeply with weary Paul Giamatti’s predicament, he steals money from his lonely mother and, because of our identification, we steal that money just as much as he does. We are implicated.

In the scene from Handsome Devil in which Ned discovers Conor’s secret and they play guitar together, I wanted to read Ned’s insecurity in tandem with his fondness for, and possible identification with, Conor’s predicament. I’m a disciple of Billy Wilder’s screenwriting rules and this scene is a classic mid-point, in which what one considers the direction of the film to be reversed. Handsome Devil is not a coming-out story, but a film about male friendship. I always accepted that this film would be known by those walking into the cinema as “the gay rugby player film” and in writing a screenplay it’s vital to know what information isn’t yours to withhold.

Directing the scene, it struck me that, very often, young men have a deeply ingrained aversion to maintaining eye contact with each other, to be alone in close company, in a moment that might convey signifiers of romance. We men enjoy displacement activities—watching sport, playing golf, driving—for the lack of pressure that direct eye contact often presents. In the scene I remember asking Fionn O’Shea to look at—to really study—Nick Galitzine as they sing in this scene. It took a few goes (“Look at him, Fionn. Look at him!”), but Fionn is a very mature and sensitive guy, and I think there’s something provocative about the open-ness of his gaze in that moment. Added to that, the song they’re singing is “Think For a Minute” by The Housemartins, in which the singing is so febrile that it would feel like the ultimate othering or feminizing part for any young man. In other words, perfect. Whoever or whatever you think Ned is at that point is who Ned is. And if you don’t know, so much the better!

Any film with sports in it lives and dies on the quality of the sport. This film was always going to conclude with a rugby match but, unlike the real annual school’s rugby final in Ireland, I felt this one had to take place under lights, at night, and we searched long and hard for a stadium with one stand and nothing but foliage on the other three sides. Not only does it feel more gladiatorial and dramatic, but the film was a low-budget one and this improved our chances of making the bleachers seem packed with extras. (They weren’t!)

Ireland’s most capped rugby player, Brian O’Driscoll, is a friend of the production and choreographed eight or nine written moves the boys could run over and over again. More than that, though, he commanded the kind of respect and attention earned over a decade and a half of being Ireland’s greatest sporting hero. Everyone listened. Our Steadicam operator was strapped into a Gator (those wee trucks that carry off injured players) and away we went. It took four nights to shoot—four out of a 25-day total shoot in a film of 1.1 million-euro budget. My great fear was that the action would read as staged, and with respect to all involved in it, Invictus was mentioned more than once as what we didn’t want. Friday Night Lights held up as our exemplar.

Cast and crew of Handsome Devil on set

Everybody can feel what’s going to happen at the end of a movie like this—that is the point. Some people alighted upon the ending of this film as a “fairy-tale ending” or one that was somehow weakened by its narrative propulsion towards a clear outcome. But not everything needs to be subverted in order to make a progressive argument. For me the film is a comedy or comedy-drama, and an outcome of that nature is subversive precisely because of its adherence to convention. To me it ought to be the entire point of an LGBT comedy film in 2017.

Our stories belong in mainstream story telling arena just as much as they do along the margins. Besides, the ending of Handsome Devil represents an eminently achievable outcome for any young LGBT kid who holds the line and stays true to their own identity. Why not? We shouldn’t classify happy endings in our community as being out of reach or belonging in the realms of fantasy in any way. For too long our narratives have been framed dramatically with desperately sad endings. What would a negative outcome here offer us that hadn’t already been offered by the bleak, traumatic gay narratives of decades past? We ought to reject the assumption that our stories need to be flagged as “mature” or rendered in dramatic form, or that our queerness necessitates an expression that is inherently marginal. In 2017, it is time for everyone, ourselves included, to think differently, and to use different lenses to tell our stories. MM

Handsome Devil opens in theaters and On Demand June 2, 2017, courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures.

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Total Transparency: My Film Bread and Butter Has Almost Recouped Its Expenses—With These Revenue Streams https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/moviemaking/total-transparency-bread-and-butter-revenue-streams/ https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/moviemaking/total-transparency-bread-and-butter-revenue-streams/#comments Thu, 25 May 2017 21:44:07 +0000 https://www.moviemaker.com/?p=47561 I am 32 years old. I am 32 years old. I am 32 years old! I avoid disclosing my age. All the time. And I’ve done this for years. People never ask but if they did, I would never tell. I’ve always felt compelled to hide my age. I have this unsubstantiated fear that when […]

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I am 32 years old. I am 32 years old. I am 32 years old!

I avoid disclosing my age. All the time. And I’ve done this for years. People never ask but if they did, I would never tell. I’ve always felt compelled to hide my age.

I have this unsubstantiated fear that when people find out I am 32, I’ll become less relevant in their eyes. I put my Facebook age as 81 to avoid my “friends” finding out. I’m being ridiculous. 32 is a fine age, I love it so far, and why should I be afraid of a number?

It’s the same for my weight. I weigh 146 pounds.* Don’t tell my mother. It’s a secret between you and me. I never say my weight aloud. It’s even more terrifying than my age. Why? I have no idea.

So then, why am I telling you all of this? In spite of my behavior, I believe in my heart that transparency (for data and between people) is a good thing.

Maybe if I were more honest about my weight and age I would better accept these aspects of myself and move on. There’s something incredibly powerful about transparency. With the rise and success of social media, there’s a lot of compare and despair in the world, with people often only documenting their best selves. We need to document both the good and what we may secretly perceive (albeit incorrectly) as the bad. So we can all grow and learn in context.

Working in the Creative Distribution Initiative at Sundance Institute, a good number of questions from filmmakers revolve around this topic of data transparency. “Where can I send my investors when they ask about VOD numbers?” “What should I expect when I have my digital release?” My hands are often tied. I’m not sure where to send them, but we’re trying to change that.

Why are there so few resources to share regarding data transparency? Unspoken paranoias about revealing personal information, confidentiality clauses in distribution contracts and the idea that un-ideal numbers will brand a film as “small” or “unsuccessful” are all reasons why data does not get out into the public as often as it should.

Unfortunately, lack of data transparency has an equally important unintended effect: Lack of data makes it very hard to define what genuine personal success can be. I just made a movie, Bread and Butter. We did not have a theatrical run. I have no other digital distribution numbers to compare it to, so how do I find out my place in this world as an independent filmmaker? I am a filmmaker but my job at Sundance Institute is to help empower other filmmakers. So, I give you this, my fellow filmmakers: Let my film serve as your point of comparison because there are so few case studies out there for digital releases.

Candidly, I’m not allowed to share all the data about the film’s success throughout its release. However, I am working with my distributor, The Orchard, to reveal as much information that I can. (For a fully transparent case study from The Orchard, please check out their breakdown of Cartel Land.)

First things first — I am a microbudget filmmaker with a good amount of resources from my days at USC film school, but I am not a millionaire, nor am I secretly best friends with Katy Perry. I have my reach but a lot of what I did in order to my make first feature happen was rely intensely on the support of friends and family through crowdfunding, and ask a lot of people for help who were not, but quickly became, friends and family. I could not afford a social media manager, a publicist, a film booker. By the skin of my teeth we made our SAG ultra-low-budget feature for around $100,000 (all in). This budget included a crowdfunding campaign of around $36,000, two credit cards, a savings bond from my childhood that appeared out of nowhere, all of my income and two small investments.

Knowing the resources that we made our film with, let’s go through the windows of our release to better ascertain why this film is a successful release — especially considering our resources.

Transactional Video on Demand

Because our film did not have a theatrical release, we felt transactional VOD (TVOD) was going to be our sweet spot for distribution.

After talking with my distributor, I was told that we had a solid success in TVOD, but not a major success.

Additionally, we achieved promotion through strong marketing assets: trailer and poster as well as some feature articles targeting our audience of young women (here and here). I also went ahead and reached out to reviewers myself to get more coverage on the film (here and here).

Something to consider here, in addition to the importance of assets, is the push for pre-sales. The more pre-sales you can garner for your title (on iTunes), the more likely iTunes will promote your title. Focus your resources (if they are limited) during this time.

Our “solid success” means the world to me. New people were introduced to the title who had never heard of it before. Well done, Bread and Butter.

Actors Christine Weatherup and Bobby Moynihan, writer-director Liz Manashil and crewmember Dan Marino on the set of Bread and Butter

Cable VOD

In our first six months we were in the top 20 of all titles on cable VOD, including those with a theatrical release. While this sounds pretty impressive to me, it was branded as “middle of the pack.”

I talked with The Orchard, and they told me that our success in Cable VOD was entirely based off of marketing assets. Our pitch to Cable VOD platforms was entirely trailer and poster.

Takeaway: I’ve been told that casts that skew favorable toward older audiences do better on Cable VOD.

Subscription VOD

Subscription VOD (SVOD) has been incredibly challenging for us because of the fact that the SVOD market is so focused on titles that had a theatrical release. Unless a title has an A-list cast, a lot of nontheatrical titles aren’t picked up by SVOD platforms.

However, one year into our release, we have been picked up by two SVOD platforms—one with a global footprint: Hulu. This does not happen very often. Usually the SVOD window happens three to four months after your transactional premiere. This was 15 months, and we were only successful because our distributor kept spreading the gospel about our film.

I am a firm believer that this SVOD deal happened because The Orchard pitched us for a year, and due to the reach and recognizability of our cast.

Takeaway: Miracles can happen. Never give up on your film.

Airlines

Something that was very surprising to all of us was the fact that we got two international airline deals—which is something incredibly rare for titles without theatrical distribution. I’m under the impression we owe this all (again) to our marketing assets and our cast. I’m of the opinion that the fact that we were a comedy (and often branded as a romantic comedy) was helpful as well.

Revenue

I’ve gotten permission from The Orchard to share with you that our title has currently grossed (a little over a year after the film’s release) $96,000. Let me be clear: This is for a nontheatrical title. We did not premiere at Sundance Film Festival. We did not have a budget for any marketing help outside of our distributor. Also, let’s be clear that this is gross revenue (meaning TVOD and cable VOD take a cut, and so does our distributor).

Ultimate Takeaway

People ask me why I push people to make microbudget content. This is why. Without the resources for a publicist or a film booker, we still grossed close to the actual full budget of our film and we are still making money daily. However, my goal for the film was to make art that I cared about and to start my career. Accomplished.

There’s more to come. We’re selling DVDs and Blu-rays off our website (which my editor Bruce Novotny pushed to create) and I am shipping. Every single DVD or Blu-ray has a coloring book page designed by Jenny Weatherup, the sister of our lead actress. There’s a chance for more revenue, but ultimately, this is a net win for us. Emotionally, we’re all in a place where we feel our film succeeded.

Our film, Bread and Butter, is a digital success. A digital success you’ve never heard of.

Let’s break it down.

  • Our film cost $100,000 to make
  • We grossed $96,000 a little bit more than a year into our release (and we’re still making deals)
  • Our distributor did have a marketing spend but we invested in no other resources outside of that (other than me running our social media campaigns and newsletter)
  • We got two airline deals, two SVOD deals, and decent promotion of transactional and cable VOD
  • We’re operating in the black with the distributor’s marketing spend and heading toward eventual recoupment in terms of our expenses

In an age where people debate the utility of making independent feature films, there is hope.

Last Pieces of Advice

The goal for these personal confessions as well as my distribution transparency is—above all—to make you feel a tad more comfortable about sharing your film’s success with the world.

The more data we have out there for public consumption, the more we can learn about how to connect content to audiences. These strategies could benefit artists in all mediums, we just need the data to support the research. There’s a lot I could not share. The more data that is out there, the more transparency will be acceptable.

Make a movie and be open about how you are making it. Contribute to a culture where information is shared and not coveted.

Here are some final pieces of advice to better evaluate your film:

  • Compare apples to apples. Don’t compare yourself to The Lobster if you don’t have a massive marketing spend. In order to evaluate if your film was a success, look to the reach of similar titles with similar resources.
  • Never underestimate the importance of a good trailer, a good poster and a cast with reach. Never settle for less.
  • Success is what you make of it. Are you happy? Did more people get to see your movie? You are a success. MM

*Liz’s weight has changed since writing this article.

Liz Manashil earned her B.A. in Film and Media Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, and her M.F.A. from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Post graduation, Liz spent several years as a film critic for the PBS/Hulu series Just Seen It (which she also helped produce and direct). Overlapping this, Liz worked with distribution guru Peter Broderick. Her debut feature, Bread and Butter, was called “an absolute must-watch for women everywhere” by HelloGiggles. It was released by The Orchard and can be seen on VOD nearly everywhere (including Hulu). Liz is currently in pre-production on her next two feature films and lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Laura Palmer. She works with Chris Horton and Jess Fuselier in Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Initiative.
Photographs by Amy Taylor.

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A New Indie Model: The Founder of Chicagoland Shorts Program On Why the Shorts Business Must Change https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/moviemaking/indie-filmmakers-chicagoland-shorts/ https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/moviemaking/indie-filmmakers-chicagoland-shorts/#respond Thu, 25 May 2017 19:12:44 +0000 https://www.moviemaker.com/?p=47502 The short film occupies an awkward place in contemporary American cinema. Unlike the short story, which is widely regarded as a bona fide art form, the short film is often thought of as a cheap or aspirational version of the real deal: the feature film. For most filmmakers, a short film basically functions as a […]

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The short film occupies an awkward place in contemporary American cinema.

Unlike the short story, which is widely regarded as a bona fide art form, the short film is often thought of as a cheap or aspirational version of the real deal: the feature film. For most filmmakers, a short film basically functions as a work sample, with the hope that this will lead to other professional opportunities.

In the past decade, we’ve witnessed an explosion of amateur short films, which has been accompanied by a steady growth in film festivals and online platforms for exhibition. But most filmmakers, including myself, have struggled to translate this exposure into something tangible and sustainable for our careers. We are a class of creatives increasingly resigned to being paid in likes, views and festival laurels.

As one festival programmer recently remarked to me, indie films are the new poetry: Most people do it with little to no expectation that they’ll ever be able to do this for a living. Art for art’s sake. There’s certainly nothing wrong with making short films simply for the love of doing so, but most of us cannot afford to keep making films just as an expensive hobby. At a certain point, we either need to start making money from it or we need to stop doing it altogether.

Chicagoland Shorts moviemaker Emily Esperanza

My own journey through filmmaking—while certainly not a headline-grabbing success story—has taken me from being an avid hobbyist to someone who actually makes a living doing it. The short film has been at the heart of my journey, and it continues to be.

A few years ago, I was stuck in your typical indie filmmaker funk. As I traveled from one festival to another, every filmmaker seemed to tell the same tale of woe. Year after year, we’d spend thousands of dollars making our films, plus thousands more applying and traveling to festivals. Then, we’d return home with little to show for it but a hangover, a huge credit card bill and some business cards from people we’d never talk to again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

My response to this self-destructive (and financially unsustainable) cycle was to upend the way I engage with the film marketplace. Instead of paying a submission fee to film festivals in the hopes of screening there, I decided to curate my own shorts program and pair my films with other films I liked. We could charge festivals and venues a screening fee for the privilege of showing our work. And we could generate further exposure and revenue through Video on Demand and DVD sales.

Chicagoland Shorts is now an annual program, touring the country from coast to coast, from Phoenix to Seattle to Detroit and New York. The thematic thread connecting all the shorts is Chicago. All of the films in the collection are made by Chicago-based filmmakers, many of whom are challenging stereotypes and Hollywood conventions through their stories, identities and filmmaking techniques. Our goal is to raise the profiles of all the participating filmmakers and to provide them with a platform for new opportunities.

Qihui Wu’s short film “Chosen People,” part of Chicagoland Shorts Vol. 3

Admittedly, Chicagoland Shorts still costs more money than it generates, but the direct and indirect benefits have far outweighed the costs. The program has resulted in numerous collaborations between participating filmmakers, as well as lasting friendships and a growing professional network for all involved.

For me, Chicagoland Shorts has yielded so many professional opportunities and rewards, it’s hard to adequately recount all of them. It led to my first opportunity to produce a feature film. It has connected me with programmers and curators around the country. It has also been the cornerstone of Full Spectrum Features, the film company I founded and continue to run. Launching this program has been infinitely more beneficial to my career than all of my previous film festival experiences combined. The difference, I believe, is less about the specific choices I made, and more about a fundamental shift in my thinking. I started to work with my fellow filmmakers to build something beneficial for all of us, rather than only competing with them in a zero-sum game.

The underlying philosophy of Chicagoland Shorts is that independent filmmakers no longer have the luxury of just making a film and letting someone else deal with the distribution, promotion and monetization of that film. (Did they ever have this luxury?) In order to make a living as filmmakers, we need to create our own opportunities and assert our place in the filmmaking ecosystem. In other words, independent filmmakers need to actively participate in every phase of a film’s lifecycle, and we need to get over the ludicrous idea that marketing and sales will corrupt us as artists. If you can’t sell your own films, why expect someone else to?

My suggestion isn’t that all filmmakers should create their own traveling shorts program, or that curation or running a festival is the way to success. Filmmakers have their own paths, and there are many different ways to challenge the status quo. The point of telling you about Chicagoland Shorts is, one, to encourage you to rent or buy it, of course, and two, to provide an example of upending the rules of the game in your favor.

I also want to emphasize the importance of cultivating our shared interests as independent filmmakers. Too often, we only think about ourselves and our own projects, and regard someone else’s success with jealousy and suspicion. To put it bluntly, independent filmmakers can be some of the most self-centered and self-absorbed people around. However, instead of competing with each other to gain access to the traditional gatekeepers, we should be focused on building a film economy that we own and control together, putting us in direct contact with audiences who want to watch (and pay for) our movies.

“Selfie,” a Chicagoland Shorts film by Valia O’Donnell

All of this may sound lofty or even delusional, but I’m certainly not original in saying any of this. (If you haven’t already, read Ted Hope’s book Hope for Film.) Too few of us are thinking about what a stable independent film economy might look like and what we could do to bring that about. It seems most aspiring filmmaking are actually trying to not be independent, desperately clamoring for someone to punch their ticket to Hollywood.

The reality, however, is that the filmmaking establishment doesn’t owe us anything, nor are they particularly interested in giving anything up. We have to demand every little scrap that we get. Submitting our films to festivals, agents, distributors, etc., and hoping they invite us to the party is not enough. Let’s figure out a better plan. MM

Chicagoland Shorts Vol. 3 screens at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago on May 30, 2017. Top image from Elliott Chu’s “Grandma and Me Dancing with Hibari.”

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First Draft: Understanding the Promise of the Premise Through Nocturnal Animals, Groundhog Day and Black Mirror https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/series/first-draft/honor-your-premise/ https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/series/first-draft/honor-your-premise/#respond Thu, 25 May 2017 16:50:45 +0000 https://www.moviemaker.com/?p=47424 In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting. Save the Cat practitioners will be familiar with the phrase “the promise of the premise.” Blake Snyder used it to describe the screenplay beat he called “Fun and Games,” in which the crux of the action offered within the screenwriter’s […]

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In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting.


Save the Cat practitioners will be familiar with the phrase “the promise of the premise.” Blake Snyder used it to describe the screenplay beat he called “Fun and Games,” in which the crux of the action offered within the screenwriter’s premise really comes into bloom.

But, the premise, of course, has to keep paying off until the end, and it is important for writers to understand how a fully explored premise can make for a more deeply satisfying story. And how an underexplored premise can jeopardize the effectiveness of our screen storytelling.

In this article, then, I will explore how to fulfill the full promise of your script’s premise. This article contains plot spoilers for Nocturnal Animals and the Black Mirror episode “Hated in the Nation”.

Amy Adams as Susan Morrow in Nocturnal Animals. Photograph by Merrick Morton/ Courtesy of Focus Features

In the overall very good Nocturnal Animals, the premise has layers of thematic integrity. The ex-wife of a struggling writer finds herself drawn into the seamy world of his novel, as she sets its terrifying fictional events off against her perhaps unfair treatment of him in the past.

The premise contains big issues of ambition, the submerging of one’s creativity, and most conspicuously, notions of masculinity in an increasingly violent world. However, at film’s end, rather than playing out these threads in a way that leaves the themes resonating, the filmmakers choose to close on a kind of “gotcha”, wherein the book’s author leaves the heroine hanging in a “screw-you” response to her lack of appreciation of him and of herself.

This ending sells out the rich texture of the premise, and leaves us with a distinct feeling of “wait…that’s it?” We were prepared for so much more by a script that was firing on a lot of cylinders, but because the premise didn’t deliver on its promise, we were left with less.

In my previous analysis of the streamlining of the Groundhog Day story from early draft script to its final screen version, it came to light that Groundhog Day was a premise (man relives the same day over and over) so demanding of follow-through that its early drafts included far more permutations of the premise than were even needed.

As a film, it got it just right. It left out certain specifics, most notably why its protagonist was cursed or how many actual days he spent in his purgatory. But it followed such a clear path, of a man who is the living definition of insanity (making the same mistake over and over and expecting different results), that when it ended, it had played out the premise exactly as was appropriate. When our hero’s day finally ends, we share his catharsis.

Bill Murray as Phil in Groundhog Day. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Science fiction, perhaps more than any genre, demands the full throughline promised by its premise.

The Lobster, for example, does a fine job of exploring all the ramifications of its premise. But it is a story driven by symbolic meaning and an approach rooted more in avant-garde theater than in conventional storytelling.

The genius (a much-overused word that certainly seems to apply in this case) of Black Mirror is that it uses traditional storytelling to paint a landscape of the supposed future so clearly resembling where we are now that the parallels are impossible to ignore.

In lesser hands, this kind of cautionary tale could easily become a preach-fest, but Black Mirror delivers episode after episode of cogent commentary, mixed with riveting storytelling.

And the reason this show pulls it off is that its writers always give the premise its due, making sure to play out all the logical ramifications of the concept. Honoring it, if you will, in a way that seems to place the premise itself at top priority over any other aspect of the script. Once again, this could be a recipe for disaster, but the level of finesse is admirable. Plot and character both serve the premise in an inextricable, symbiotic way.

For the purposes of focusing our analysis, the subject here will be the final episode of season three, “Hated in the Nation”. But one could handpick practically any episode of Black Mirror and find that this adherence to premise fuels the narrative in extremely effective and interesting ways.

As a brief aside, consider the program’s first-season opener, “The National Anthem.” Since the idea behind the episode arises only moments into it, it will not be too much a spoiler to divulge it: When a fictional member of the Royal Family is kidnapped, the ransom demand is that the Prime Minister have sex with a pig live on television.

I remember realizing how much I would come to love this series when I realized that its writer, Charlie Brooker, not only succeeded in undercutting the potential for a ridiculous (and impossible to sustain) farcical comedic approach, but laid out an agonizing series of genuinely moving events that seemed like they could actually happen given the “promise of the premise.” Even a devastating epilogue is added to allow us to think about the human toll of this on-the-surface “absurd” premise.

Rory Kinnear as Michael Callow (R) in Black Mirror season one episode “The National Anthem.” Courtesy of Netflix

But perhaps the pinnacle of this approach is “Hated in the Nation.” Imagine, as a writer, being tasked with combining commentary on internet hate, government surveillance, and the extinction of the bee population. One can imagine the amount of ham-fisted, statement-laden storytelling that could result from such a concoction.

Indeed, even using the word “commentary” as an aspect of screenwriting creates a minefield of don’ts. But because Mr. Brooker honors the premise and tracks his story backward from the logical extension of this multi-themed narrative, everything falls into place. The stakes keep raising, and the urgency of the stakes has everything to do with staying true to the premise.

The first key part of the premise that must be integrated—and not simply tacked on as an environmental critique, as some less developed premises might attempt—is the existence of tiny mechanical bees that have been designed to pollinate plants, replacing the now-extinct bee population, and so keeping our ecosystem intact.

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The Regional Film Centers of America: Four Institutions That Have Shaped Independent Film For Decades https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/moviemaking/regional-film-centers-of-america/ https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/moviemaking/regional-film-centers-of-america/#respond Wed, 24 May 2017 23:40:04 +0000 https://www.moviemaker.com/?p=47343 In 1967, movies were changing. Studio executives watched as The Graduate, made for $3 million, sold more tickets than Dr. Dolittle, made for $17 million. Bonnie and Clyde, made for $2.5 million, creamed Camelot, made for $13 million. During this pivotal year, Sheldon Renan wrote a small slim paperback which entirely sidestepped the question “what do […]

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In 1967, movies were changing.

Studio executives watched as The Graduate, made for $3 million, sold more tickets than Dr. Dolittle, made for $17 million. Bonnie and Clyde, made for $2.5 million, creamed Camelot, made for $13 million.

During this pivotal year, Sheldon Renan wrote a small slim paperback which entirely sidestepped the question “what do people want to see?” by instead addressing the question “what do people want to make?” Renan’s book An Introduction to the American Underground Film was about movies made by individual artists working alone or nearly alone. While the big studios were making enormous turkeys, searching for the key to the hearts of their lost audiences, his book was about tiny movies made on no budgets by obscure artists very far from Hollywood.

Renan influenced generations of directors. The heart of his book is a series of portraits. He writes:

“Jack Smith is an anarchist, and his films break all the rules of film art. They go too far, and they do it on purpose. They are too scratchy, too nervous, too vulgar, and at times too beautiful.”

The writing glows with admiration. Who wouldn’t want to become one of the cinematic explorers Renan describes? The films he catalogs range from under a minute to over eight hours. Some use animation, some use found footage and some don’t even use cameras. Yet, all seem to have been made in response to a dare: Bet you can’t do this. Renan writes about them as an insider, but remains matter of fact, explaining that underground films are not seen because no one wants to see them:

“For good or for bad, the underground filmmaker is a man alone. But he is free to decide. This is a prerequisite to the making of art.” 

At one time called “experimental,” then “avant-garde,” Renan predicted this branch of American filmmaking would next be called “expanded cinema.” (Just how much it would expand, he had no idea!) Whatever we want to call it, he says, it has always been with us. We don’t seem to be able to live without it. The diversity and unpredictability of independent, sometimes actively noncommercial filmmaking is essential to the vigor of American cinema.

James Gray, the director of The Lost City of Z, talked about this in a recent interview in Vulture:

“If the audience only gets to see Marvel, then they only want Marvel, and then if they only want Marvel, only Marvel is made. I don’t even have a problem with Marvel. The problem is not the specifics of each movie, the problem is it’s the only movie you can see now in a multiplex, and when it’s the only game in town, you’re looking at the beginning of the death throes of an art form.”

In 1970, Renan made a proposal to the National Endowment of the Arts: Why not support a network of film centers spread across the country? Why not bring a wide range of documentaries, foreign films, art films, underground and avant-garde films to regional audiences? His logic was the same as Gray’s: If we want American cinema to thrive, we have to make sure young artists see films which represent the full range of expression of the art form. Four regional film centers, in Berkeley, Portland, Chicago and Detroit, were funded through this initiative. They still serve audiences, and inspire filmmakers, today.

After his tour of duty at the NEA, Renan became a filmmaker himself, working on a wide range of projects as writer, director, producer (or all three). The Killing of America, a 1982 documentary co-directed with Leonard Schrader, was recently released on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD. His classic guide, An Introduction to the American Underground Film, can be found at archive.org.

 

Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

2120 Oxford Street, Berkeley, CA 94720

The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in 2016

Senior Film Curator: Susan Oxtoby

Mission: “BAMPFA inspires the imagination, ignites critical dialogue, and activates community engagement through art and film, and other forms of creative expression.”

Affiliation: University of California, Berkeley

Year Founded: 1967; moved into Berkeley Art Museum in 1971

Theater Size: 220 seats

Admission: $7 members; $8 discounted categories; $12 general; second feature on the same day $5. Free gallery admission with screening ticket.

Hours: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays 11 a.m – 7 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Works With: UC Berkeley, San Francisco International Film Festival, Hollywood Foreign Press Association

Signature Programs: Committed Cinema, featuring artists whose films and videos arise out of political conviction and aesthetic innovation to explore vital and urgent issues of our times; annual Les Blank Lectures. The Film Library and Study Center is one of the major film reference resources in the country.

Signature Series: Afterimage: Filmmakers in Conversation with Film Critics; Alternate Visions (avant-garde films); African Film Festival

Past Retrospectives: Michelangelo Antonioni, Stan Brakhage, Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel, Jacques Demy, Claire Denis, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, George and Mike Kuchar, Akira Kurosawa, Ida Lupino, Guy Maddin, Chris Marker, Nagisa Oshima, Marcel Pagnol, Satyajit Ray, Roberto Rossellini, Raúl Ruiz, Kidlat Tahimik, Agnès Varda, Dziga Vertov

Through These Doors: Errol Morris, Steve Starkey, James Schamus, Les Blank, Guy Maddin, Emiko Omori, Lucy Massie Phenix, Veronica Selver, Nathaniel Dorskey, Jerome Hiler

Good To Know: “We often hear from established filmmakers that BAMPFA was the first venue to screen their work, so we are known for spotting talent.”

 

Northwest Film Center

934 SW Salmon, Portland, OR 97205

Equipment rentals at the Northwest Film Center. Photograph by Jason Quigley

Director: Bill Foster

Affiliation: Portland Art Museum

Mission: “Founded to encourage the study, appreciation, and utilization of the moving image arts”

Founded: 1971

Theater Size: 375 seats at 1219 SW Park, in Portland Art Museum

Admission: $9, $8 members

Hours: Check schedule online

Works With: Portland State University, Marylhurst University, Pacific Northwest College of Art

Signature Programs: A certificate program offering classes in video and film production, including sound recording and editing, screenwriting, post-production, animation, and stop motion animation; access to equipment, screening opportunities, and fellowships

Annual Festivals: Northwest Filmmakers Festival, Portland International Film Festival, Portland Jewish Film Festival, Reel Music Festival

Through These Doors: Gus Van Sant, Bill Plympton, Will Vinton, Joan Gratz, Jim Blashfield, Harry Dawson, Mark Gustafson, Chel White, Rose Bond, Joanna Priestley, Gus Van Sant, Matt McCormick

Good To Know: Portlandia producer David Cress studied documentary filmmaking here, with lead faculty member Bushra Azzouz.

 

Gene Siskel Film Center

164 N. State St., Chicago, IL 60601

A busy screening at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center

Director: Jean de St. Aubin

Affiliation: School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Mission: “GSFC exhibits a range of carefully curated film art in technically excellent facilities, and educates the audience, setting film in an historical and cultural context through courses, lectures, panel discussions, and publications, and through research and collections.”

Founded: 1972

Theater Sizes: 197 seats; 61 seats

Admission: $11, $7 students, $5 School of the Art Institute students

Hours: Check schedule online

Works With: School of the Art Institute of Chicago, DePaul University, Loyola University, Columbia College

Signature Programs: Movie Club (post-screening discussions); Neighborhood Night with $6 admission; Hollywood On State (Oscar Party + Chicago Filmmaker Awards); Panorama Latinx.

Annual Festivals: Black Harvest Film Festival; Stranger Than Fiction (documentary); Asian American Showcase; Chicago Palestine Film Festival

Through These Doors: Steve James, Bob Hercules, John Woo

Good To Know: “The Gene Siskel Film Center offers theater rental during non-programming hours at very reasonable rates. Our facility is perfect for Kickstarter or Indiegogo screenings, press or publicity screenings, or even just to test the exhibition quality of your film! Special independent filmmaker rates are available for non-admission screenings during non-programming hours.”

 

Detroit Film Theatre

5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, MI 48202

The Detroit Film Theatre is a preserved 1927 movie palace. Courtesy of Detroit Free Press

Director: Elliot Wilhelm

Affiliation: Detroit Institute Of Arts

Mission: “Dedicated to cultivating awareness, appreciation, understanding and knowledge of the cinematic medium and its history”

Founded: 1974

Theater Size: 1,150 seats, in a perfectly preserved 1927 movie palace

Admission: $9.50, $7.50 members

Hours: Check schedule online

Works With: Wayne State University’s Department of Film and Communication Arts; College for Creative Studies; Digital Arts, Film and Television; Oakland University; University of Michigan

Signature Programs: Annual field trip to the Toronto International Film Festival; DFT Animation Club

Annual Festivals: FREEP Festival, sponsored by Detroit Free Press; Michigan Student Film and Video Festival

Through These Doors: Jerry Bruckheimer, Paul Feig, Jake Kasdan, Sam Raimi, Ted Raimi, Heidi Ewing, Sue Marx, Doug Chiang, Jim Burnstein, Bruce Joel Rubin, Kurt Luedtke, Elmore Leonard, Elvis Mitchell, Armond White, Mike Clark, Frank Bruni

Good To Know: The Samoan bodyguard named Elliot Wilhelm in Be Cool (2005), played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is Elmore Leonard’s sly tribute to the director of Detroit Film Theatre. MM

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On Demand and Supply: Brush Up on Digital Distribution Basics, Courtesy of Leading Aggregator Distribber https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/spring-2017/on-demand-and-supply-brush-up-digital-distribution-distribber/ https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/spring-2017/on-demand-and-supply-brush-up-digital-distribution-distribber/#respond Wed, 24 May 2017 18:46:26 +0000 https://www.moviemaker.com/?p=47505 Distribution is the end goal of every moviemaker, yet for many the slog of getting a film onto a screen—any screen—can be wearing. Could you ever fall in love with the distribution process? Nick Soares, a former filmmaker and current CEO of online distribution company GoDigital, argues yes. GoDigital merged with self-distribution service Distribber in […]

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Distribution is the end goal of every moviemaker, yet for many the slog of getting a film onto a screen—any screen—can be wearing. Could you ever fall in love with the distribution process?

Nick Soares, a former filmmaker and current CEO of online distribution company GoDigital, argues yes.

GoDigital merged with self-distribution service Distribber in early 2016 to become a full-service aggregator for Video on Demand platforms such as iTunes, Amazon and Netflix. An aggregator encodes, packages and delivers films for VOD, and pays filmmakers revenue from VOD platforms. Until a few years ago, the platforms worked directly with filmmakers, but as the landscape changed and On Demand expanded, they began working with aggregators to vet the content, technically and creatively. Distribber is one of the two preferred aggregators for Netflix and delivered the 2016 Oscar-nominated shorts to the streaming giant.

Soares produced five feature films—“titles for which we did traditional distribution,” he says. “The films made it to major video retailers, but we never saw a penny. I built Distribber to be the tool I wish I had.” Taking an active role in your film’s digital distribution is a key success factor in your work. Soares has some advice to get you informed and keep you motivated in the long haul:

Start Planning Early

“Filmmakers should think about distribution on day one, in pre-production,” says Soares. “Build a dedicated fanbase from the beginning—let them see your blood, sweat and tears—because it will get them ready to buy. You want those initial sales in order to rank better on platforms like iTunes, and you need to have a decent chunk of sales on the first day in order to rank better. The higher the ranking, the more potential for people whom you don’t know to buy. That’s the goal: people who don’t know you watching your film and leaving great reviews.”

Windowing is Essential

“Before you get going, understand windowing—i.e. what platforms to release on and when,” says Soares. “For instance, you don’t want to release on a Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) platform like Netflix, where users pay a monthly fee to stream video, at the same time as Transactional Video on Demand (TVOD) like iTunes, where users pay per single video download, because they will cannibalize each other. Our data shows that first releasing on TVOD and then waiting a 90-day window before releasing on SVOD provides enough time to monetize your title on the transactional platforms. The initial sales from TVOD typically plateau within 90 days.”

Tap into the Data to Fine-tune a Campaign

Soares: “The only way to understand the behavior of your users is through data. We provide day-to-day reporting on iTunes for moviemakers to track their sales, which is especially important if you are spending money on a marketing or social media campaign, because you can adjust your strategy based on sales. Moviemakers can also track their conversion rates (the percentage of users who visit your page and buy your film) on Distribber. We also track where the user came from with a referral link which reveals how users are finding their film.”

Decide Between a Flat Fee or a Revenue Percentage

Typically, an aggregator charges moviemakers either a percent of their revenue (generally 10-15 percent) or a flat fee. “Distribber charges a flat fee,” says Soares, “so if the film does well, the filmmaker keeps 100 percent of the revenue. Our goal is to foster moviemaking as a lifestyle and empower moviemakers to continue to work: With successful movies, money flows back to them, so they can be out there making more.”

Of course, the cost difference for the moviemaker depends on a film’s online success—if a film is on VOD and makes zero, the moviemaker is out the flat fee. Distribber’s yearly fee is set based on the platforms selected and parameters about the film itself. Soares cites a success story: “Range 15, a 2016 movie by Ross Patterson, used us to get onto iTunes. It got up to the number-two spot in iTunes, and made over $300,000 in the first month. Patterson kept 100 percent of the revenue. Now he has generated over seven figures.”

Director Ross Patterson on the set of Range 15 (about a group of veterans fighting off the zombie apocalypse), which was placed on iTunes by Distribber. Courtesy of Street Justice Films

Collect Your Best Assets

“Moviemakers need five crucial assets: video and audio files, the trailer, artwork, closed captions files and metadata,” says Soares. “Once you have all of those, uploading to Distribber is easy: They select the platforms that they want, upload their assets, and select a release date.”

Moviemakers need to stop seeing digital distribution prep as a necessary evil and start thinking of it as an extension of their work. Fundraising, marketing, and finding an audience are the keys to a successful release—and digital distribution touches upon each of those steps. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2017 issue.

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