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Sundance from the Inside

Sundance from the Inside

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I’ve always
considered myself an independent. An independent actor, writer
and director. Most
importantly, I consider myself an independent thinker. John Cassavetes,
the patron saint of independents, always has a devotional candle
of inspiration burning in my home.

I’m also a doer. i have two scripts I’ve written
that I’m in love with and trying to get through the starting gates.
Script number one, The Good Life, is about the last days
of a 1973-era roller derby team (essentially Nashville on
wheels). Script number two, Dirty, is Goodfellas meets
the Los Angeles Police Department. Both scripts have been entrants
in the various major screenplay competitions—Sundance, the Nicholl
Fellowship, Austin and the like—and have finished as finalists
in all of the above. While that’s all very exciting and encouraging,
I still haven’t had anyone threaten suicide if they’re not able
to turn my scripts into movies.

These scripts now occupy that horrible netherworld between my
imagination and the big screen. Most people (your mother, for instance)
would tell you what a great accomplishment it is to have successfully
written a feature-length screenplay in the first place. My reply?
Bullshit. The bottom of my desk drawer is a cauldron of molten
metal because my scripts are on fire and burning a hole. This creates
a nasty dilemma: How do I get these things made into motion pictures
and then seen by actual audiences?

Problem number one: an unknown
actor-writer-director is not going to get the screenplay out
of the drawer and onto
the screen. No
amount of candle burning or wishful thinking is gonna help. That’s
what producers do. Problem number two: by my callous estimation,
most producers are at best well-fed sharks with attention deficit
disorders; at worst, they’re bottom-feeding, bottom-line company
men with nothing, save a blinding creative void, dangling between
their hairless legs. They’re guys with no ethical dilemmas, forever
trying to make Ben Affleck vehicles as long as it pays the Barneys
bills. Nothing against Barneys, but I’m not in this just to make
money; I want to make movies. I want to be De Niro, Chayefsky and
Kurosawa all rolled into one dramatically hissing hand grenade.
I want to change the world.

To mount such an assault on the
collective numbness that is our culture, one needs a small army
of support
personnel to make it
happen. And it all boils down to money. You’re gonna need lots
and lots of money to back the attack. How do you get your hands
on it? You can sit around all day waiting for providence to come
knocking, or you can go out and get some. But where do you start?

In these situations, I find it helpful to invoke the divine and
ask the question: “What would John do?” That, friend, was
my liberation—my moment of clarity: Cassavetes would tell me to
get off my dead ass and quit waiting for the financing fairy to
stick a fat check under my pillow. He would pour us each a vodka
straight, anoint me producer and command me to go forth and make
my movies. So I wrote a check and went to the Sundance Independent
Producer’s Conference to get myself a little of that producer’s
stuff.

By the price tag, you’d think that producer’s stuff was plated
in gold. A trip to the conference will set you back about $1,200,
not including airfare. Yet for your investment, you’ll be nestled
in the bosom of a glorious mountain, gasping for breath at several
thousand feet above sea level. There’s even a murmuring trout stream
that runs smack through the grounds, making for a relaxed, Zen-like
setting. The rustic, somewhat funky accommodations are first-class
and the food is great and plentiful. There’s even an Old West-style
saloon, The Owl Bar, on the grounds, ready to host your end of
the day boozing and schmoozing.

Director Brian O’Hare (center) on set of his film Mistreated,
with some of his cast and crew, Summer 2003.

Evenings usually start off with
a bang, courtesy of one of the many open bars sponsored by the
good folks at the
Sundance Institute.
At the very least it would be possible to have a great four-day
escape here, hiding out in some of the world’s most prime real
estate with a lot of interesting people. And while it’s easy enough
to be seduced by the appeal of free beer and ravishing vistas,
the real dividend on your investment is earned by meeting motivated
doers like yourself and access to some of the biggest players in
the indie film world.

Generally, the caliber of conference
participants is exceptionally high. Admission to the conference
is competitive,
and the Institute
does a pretty impressive job of sifting through the applicants.
Only about 30 percent of applicants are selected. This helps reduce
the number of people more interested in getting the “I was there” souvenir
T-shirts and tote bags to carry around their overdue library books.
The majority of participants seemed very focused on getting at
the nuts and bolts gospel of making independent film happen.

Of course, the forging of producer
brotherhood wasn’t limited
to the conference itself. Bonds were effortlessly created through
the shared housing. The bonding inevitably led to war stories of
defeat and hard won victories while trading punches in the bare-knuckled
world of independent moviemaking. My housemates, Tim Breitbach
and Eric Koivisto, had the Alfred P. Sloan Award-winning feature, Dopamine,
at the 2003 Sundance Festival, which they developed through the
Institute’s Filmmaker’s Lab. These were guys who had done the hard
work and been through the maze, and were anticipating a November
theatrical release as a result. Being surrounded by this level
of experience was inspiring and often made for dynamic panels and
small group discussions.

The schedule of events was tight,
with most days beginning at eight and ending sometimes near midnight.
According
to Geoffrey
Gilmore, Sundance Festival Director, the Institute’s number one
desire is to maximize the bang for your big buck. And you do get
a lot for your buck. Three screenings were held. The first was
Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation with producer Ross Katz
and ICM’s Bart Walker doing a question and answer session. The
second was François Ozon’s Swimming Pool, the subject of
a seminar with Focus Films’ Jack Foley. Foley, president of theatrical
distribution for Focus, did a marketing and distribution case study
for the film. The Focus team presented an in-depth breakdown that
illuminated the difficulties in controlling and predicting the
theatrical success, and the general strategies and standards they
use as films get released into the commercial marketplace. The
third film, shown on the final night, was Wayne Kramer’s The
Cooler
, with producer Sean Furst and distributor Tom Ortenberg
in attendance.

Seminars ranged from financing
the independent film, which focused on alternative financing
strategies, to the
challenge and commerce
of documentaries and music coordination. The inclusion of a documentary
session was really helpful, because the documentary remains an
area of universal appeal to almost all independent moviemakers,
yet is one of the least understood, in terms of commerce. A session
on casting would have been valuable—especially given the importance
of foreign pre-sales to getting a film made, but that was missing
from the program.

In the “Art of the Pitch,” you stood naked at
a microphone before a firing squad of industry vets. Comments
included: “Is this a comedy? Nobody’s laughing.
You pitch a comedy, somebody better be laughing!” It
wasn’t personal, of course, just business. The indie
film world’s not the church fun fair; everyone doesn’t
win a prize.”

The mother of all sessions had
to be the “Art of the Pitch” seminar.
The session ended up being a “Scared Straight” episode for young
producers, as you stood naked at a microphone for three minutes
before a virtual firing squad of industry veterans. Of the 30 or
so pitches made, only about three well-prepared souls made it through
without visible wounds. Bullets flew indiscriminately, with such
sobering advice as: “Is this a comedy? Nobody’s laughing.
You pitch a comedy, somebody better be laughing!” It wasn’t
personal, just business. Afterward, there was much grumbling and
bleeding vanity to be assuaged. But the independent film world’s
not the church fun fair; everyone doesn’t win a prize.

Despite much evidence to the
contrary, most of the panelists seemed very personable and approachable.
Being
stuck on the side of a
mountain for four days with nowhere to go can be a great strategic
advantage for the motivated indie producer. You could corner Killer
Films’ Katie Roumel or The Sundance Channel’s Paola Freccero after
a session and arrange to sit down with them next to the stream
and discuss your project. Away from the office, freeways, family,
etc., these people had no excuses and nowhere to go. They were
trapped. You just can’t put a price tag on that kind of access.
In Los Angeles or New York, you might be just another annoying
nuisance with an agenda. But here? You owned the place—at least
for the four days. The smart ones came prepared and took advantage.

Overall, the Producer’s Conference was a very inspiring, worthwhile
experience. It’s almost unbelievable that the Institute should
be so interested in helping indie moviemakers get their projects
made. They could have easily worked a lot less; had a few seminars,
collected a few checks and called it a day—but they didn’t. It’s
obvious the Sundance Institute is passionate about independent
film, acting as a facilitator between artistic vision and raw business
muscle. It also removed much of the intimidation inherent to diving
into the shark tank, revealing that these hardened gatekeepers
were indeed human beings eager to join forces for a good project.

William Morris’ Cassian Elwes said he’d been involved with 15
or so films ranging in budget from the low hundred thousands to
$25 million. That’s quite a statement of commitment. Some, like
HBO Films’ Maud Nadler, said she accepted and read all scripts
sent to her. Gary Winick, director of 2002 Sundance Best Director
Award-winning Tadpole, has committed to producing ten $300,000
digital films a year through his InDigEnt Films. It’s pretty inspiring
that all these people are committed to making good films—and that
so many of your peers will be added to the ranks of co-conspirators.

The Conference demystified much
of the black magic surrounding the process of producing a film,
and put some
power into the hands
of the independent producer. The conference also empowered you
to seize and embrace the role of producer. It proved that “artist” and “producer” can
be said in the same breath without choking. It awakened the belief
that you can take charge of your creative destiny; it made
you realize that the power ultimately lies within yourself. I’m
not gonna sit around and wait ‘til I grow up to make my movies.
I don’t have to. I have the power. Saint John would drink to that. MM

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