Film Independent Forum 2016: Effie Brown and Sam Esmail Talk Diverse Content, Writers’ Room Democracy and More

Effie Brown, producer of Real Women Have Curves and Dear White People, and Sam Esmail, writer and creator of Mr. Robot, were the keynote guests for the 2016 Film Independent Forum at the Director’s Guild in Los Angeles.

Each guest speaker wrestled with a number of pertinent questions about the current state of the independent film business at the annual weekend-long affair, which hosted an array of case studies, panels focusing on practical and pragmatic solutions to indie moviemakers’ ongoing struggles and other fruitful networking opportunities.

Brown was rightly propelled into public consciousness when she sparred with Matt Damon over racial disparity in film production during the fourth season of Project Greenlight, making her a prime candidate to weigh in on the fight to produce authentically diverse content. At the Forum, Brown shifted the focus of her rousing address toward, in her words, more “dramatic and grandiose” calls to action to resonate with moviemakers’ needs when navigating pivotal career choices.

In conversation with moderator Mark Olsen of The Los Angeles Times, Esmail reflected on his disappointment with the current state of independent film authorship (though not all of it, he concedes, is moviemakers’ fault) and finding the right balance in the writers’ room between “democratic” collaboration and a top-down model that gives a film’s or series’ creator the proverbial last word.

Here are some takeaways from Brown and Esmail’s keynotes:

Forget the “mental mindfuck” of “what making it looks like.”

Imposter syndrome, Brown says, crept into her psyche and threatened to sabotage her career as it began to take shape. “That was a big one: ‘Am I a fraud? Do I deserve to be here?’ That mental mindfuck is exhausting, and it kept me apart from instead of a part of.” Brown’s challenge to forum attendees to rid themselves of self-judgement set the tone for a reconsideration of what leadership positions in the industry actually entail. “Nobody has it together, has all the answers,” she said, adding: “Everyone who’s gonna get up here today and speak are doing the best they can with what they have.”

“What are you doing here and why are you doing it? You have to know the answer to this.”

The chances of waking up one day to find yourself surrounded by people you hate, working without purpose, are greatened, Brown said, when you fail to identify the “what” that defines your self-ascribed role in the moviemaking industry and the “why” that will guide you in fulfilling that role’s needs. “If you don’t know the answer to this, the chances are you are going to take an insurmountable amount of shit throughout your career,” Brown said. “It’s so easy to get knocked off your path by those who can commandeer you into their ‘what and why’ if you don’t know what your ‘what and why’ is.”

There’s no more time to “talk about” diversity. “We need to be about it.”

“It is an honor and I am grateful,” Brown said when acknowledging her newfound role in the public sphere to voice the concerns of underrepresented minorities in art and entertainment, “but I’m exhausted. Too many times I find that I’m talking in rooms like this. We are the converted. We are people of color, or women, or woke white men. We need to stop talking about it and we need to be about it. We know the dismal stats. We know that it’s not fair. We know that it doesn’t make any type of business sense to exclude us. We know this. So what are we gonna do about it? It’s time for us to step into action.”

Of the many possible pathways to progress on the diverse content front, Brown emphasizes the necessity for leaders in the production of such content to “hire, mentor and invest:” Hire those out there already qualified; mentor those who are capable until they are prepared to enter the workplace; and invest in others’ projects that share similar social and artistic objectives.

Indie moviemaking is really struggling.

“There’s this game that I play with all my other film nerd friends where you have to pick your favorite director that had their debut in that decade,” Esmail recalled when asked about what motivated him to make his directorial feature debut, Comet. “So in the ’60s my friends would pick Scorsese and I would go with Woody Allen; ’70s, some people would pick Spielberg and I’d go with Lynch… Then you’d get to the ’90s, which was this big boom for indie filmmaking and you’ve got Tarantino, PT Anderson, Wes Anderson, Aronofsky, Spike Jonze… and it’s like, ‘Who the fuck do you pick?’ Then you get to the aughts and it dropped. It was hard to pick one, and it wasn’t that competitive. Even now, indie filmmaking is really struggling.”

Though he notes that his fairly damning assessment of the industry climate is in part “due to the fact that the marketplace has become a lot more international,” Esmail raises a nagging question about the indie community’s current crop of contemporaries: Can the next generation of creatives cite an auteur whose influence is deeply felt in our rapidly changing multimedia landscape?

Even with great writers’ room chemistry, be prepared to make major creative decisions alone.

“The singular vision thing ultimately comes down to you,” Esmail said, commenting on the executive decisions he’s had to make as creator in the writers’ room of Mr. Robot. “It’s not necessarily a democracy. If the room doesn’t have a consensus, it tends to be that, but someone has to make a choice on what is that best idea.” Heed Esmail’s words when preparing to go into a collaborative environment that may inevitably plateau when oversaturated with byproducts of brainstorming. “There are times when you’re in the writers’ room and people want to go in a certain direction and you know in your heart of hearts that’s not the right way to go. You just have to veer off and take it to another place.” MM

The 2016 Film Independent Forum ran from October 21-23, 2016 at the Directors Guild of America, Hollywood, California.

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