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November 30 at 10:49am

How Does All Of This Make YOU Feel?

Before The Economic Collapse, Before The Obama Change, And Before The Sky Is Falling, I was just thinking, looking, and wondering, how come it wasn’t different?  

How come when all the tools were available, when the means had become so inexpensive, when the information had been demystified, and the hordes had been well trained, how come their was no true alternative to the mainstream film culture?  Granted, a lot has changed since then and we have real reasons to hope, and reasons for concerned.  But what else is new?
This blog is only a few months old now.  I started it to focus on the tools, methods, and apparatus needed to bring about a Truly Free Film culture.  I have been neglecting the blog Let’s Make Better Films that I started at the same time to focus specifically on the content of those films — yet I hope to pay more attention to that in the months to come.  I also have promised Michael Tully, the editor over at Hammer To Nail to deliver my list of qualities of ambitious film for that site, which will delve into a similar area.  All of it will reflect on what I encouraged in the slowing down when I gave the “Thousand Phoenix Rising” speech at Film Independent.  Quality rises when we focus deeper and slow it down, although it is certainly not the only way to increase quality.  As the Hammer To Nail Awards list indicates this has been the strongest year in history for under $1M budgeted film in this country.  Quality is rising  and provided audiences can access this, the culture and it’s apparatus should improve too.
I get very inspired by all the new methods filmmakers are utilizing to access audiences and strengthen their relationships with the audiences.  But I know it can be daunting.  I know it feels  like a whole new slew of things we have to learn.  I also know it can be liberating.  But I also have been wondering how it makes filmmakers who are just starting out on the journey feel.  Luckily some people let me know.
Several years back I was surfing the web and came across the John Vanderslice video for “Exodus Damage” .   I was impressed and sourced out the director Brent Chesanek.  I found more of his work on the web and contacted him.  I suspected he lived elsewhere; little did I know he lived just across the river.  We met and I was equally impressed with him as I was with his work.  I look forward to his first feature ” Tall Slender Trees” — of course he needs to raise money for it first.  Maybe you can help?

Anyway, after watching the DIY NYC Dinner, Brent wrote me with his thoughts.  I will be posting them over the next several days as I think it adds another layer to the dialogue.
Brent writes:

I consider myself an art-house filmmaker and filmgoer. I am not so much interested in the farm league of independent film, as you astutely put it, nor am I interested in the new media methods of storytelling. I don’t even consider myself a storyteller. I see it more specifically and will try to be clear: art-house narrative feature filmmaker–there is a story involved, but with images and sounds overriding plot or character even, seeking the advancement of the film language through means exclusive to the the cinema. I will try not to separate myself as a viewer from as a filmmaker when I write this–I will try to keep my interests aligned and speak of my opinions as such, as they cannot be mutually exclusive in the pursuit of personal expression. Thus I assume there are other viewers and filmmakers with ideas on the same wavelength about what a film can be. (I know Lance Hammer is one filmmaker).

From my self-described perspective, I can think of two or three themes of the discussions as a whole these days, which arose in this dinner as well, that I think are off-putting to some art-house/auteur oriented filmmakers and thus maybe inhibiting growth and development in this area:

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When it becomes implied that new media dictates the content, I feel art-house filmmakers feel repressed or excluded–just as they would in a studio or other non-independent world. If we’re not careful, these discussions can lead to a message that something rather than the artist’s vision should be dictating the form, story and style of a film. Some of these discussions then become advocates of an anti-auteur film culture–suddenly we’re supposed to contradict the intentions of our career, or single film, or carefully nourished ideas on how a story can be told, or what stories are told. Contradictions which are essentially the nemesis of the independent filmmaker.

Stephen Raphael is right–there is a still a market for feature films as they are if they are as good as Ballast, and as long as discussions veer off into talks of how a film has to become an everlasting exposè into is myriad characters’ lives, providing alternate and unlimited content and so on, filmmakers and people like myself and Raphael will feel outcast and resistant. The beauty of Ballast and the films I cherish is their restraint. It goes back to something Bresson said: it’s what we don’t learn of characters that often makes them intriguing. To cast aside these ideas of restraint may be seen as nullifying film culture, language, and style of the past 100 years. The film many of us love and cherish IS in fact that passive thing that seems to be getting a bad rap the way the term elite has. Passive is not a negative term by default, and just as many people do not play fantasy football yet watch the game.

I’ve spent my adult life working to be a feature length narrative filmmaker with these ideals, and to hear that artistic path is no longer viable doesn’t automatically transform my ambition into being a webisode maker or a professional crowdsourcer who creates something in whatever media is new solely to feed an audience. Those things aren’t interesting to me personally, and if it’s a question of adapt or die, well, if what I love doing has to go away then what’s the point in adapting? If I transform into the storyteller using whatever media and marketing is the next big thing, then I’m doing something I don’t enjoy, and no audience will enjoy it either. We have to nurture and respect an artist’s choices and passions.

Musical content didn’t change because of the internet. Before and after there was a market for albums-pop, classical, jazz, hip hop, world, ambient, etc. Singles were always most popular, but all the internet did was ease access to one’s taste. The internet makes it easier to find the single and preview it, but I think the majority of people who recognize the artistic merit of an album will then gravitate towards experiencing that work as a whole. Those who did not care for albums and just wanted Top 40 have it better. Radiohead fans don’t care about owning just the single, they want the album, and the internet didn’t change that, nor did the internet nullify the album as an artistic expression. That market is still there. That part of the music/film analogy fits with films nicely. Too much talk focuses on altering one’s content when it should focus on distro.

There is still a market for feature films in their entirety between theatrical and ancillary outlets. I am only 28 and know plenty others and know there are teenagers who, like me, enjoy uncut feature length art films, so the market is not disappearing anytime soon. Too much of this talk assumes that. Too much talk is of the vanishing market and the falling sky in content. The market is vanishing because most films are over-budgeted, thus the market to recoup these funds is vanishing. I don’t think it’s because no one wants to watch films in their entirety. The emergence of television must have created similar discussions–the assumption that all must now make and aspire to television instead of how can film embrace its differences from television. The art film audience often enjoys these films because they can run counter to the lifestyle of absorbing six IMs and 50 emails (as mentioned at the dinner) and real-time stocks and daily breaking news events on CNN, (as Christopher Buckley recently mentioned)–endless filler and distractions disguised as content. An acute audience, often those arthouse films are seeking, are likely people who are aware of the rapid lifestyle and seeking a world of alternate leisure to counteract it. Art-house films have always been counter-programming to something, and the more they stay focused on that characteristic the better the films will be, and then the stronger the audiences will be.

The point should be made right away and strictly adhered to that the content and the art-house film will always have a market and all this discussion is done so in a way to validate these films rather than dictating their form or content. It’s taking too long to get there and there is too much dwelling on the alternate storytelling methods.

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November 29 at 10:58pm

Art House Theaters Unite!

In order for a Truly Free Film Culture to take hold, independent theaters have to organize and work together.  Well, guess what?  Good news!  It’s already happening.  

Imagine if a whole bunch of great theaters got together and decided they would accept bookings from independent and TFFilmakers.  Sounds logical, right?  But ask a DIY filmmaker turned distributor if they were able to get bookings beyond NYC’s Film Forum, The Laemmle Sunset, and The Walker & Wexner centers, and I will know that the filmmaker hustled and hustled some more for each and every one of those bookings — virtually to the point of collapse.  The sad truth is that currently to get bookings for legitimate theaters, most filmmakers have to hire an established booker to ink the deal — and man, that ain’t cheap.
But now it looks like that stranglehold may finally be broken.  And guess who’s shattering these chains?  Sundance!  Freedom is looming.  Three cheers for Sundance!  Truly:  hip, hip and hooray!  A convergence of art house theatres from across the nation is to be held January 13-15, 2009 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  And from the sounds of it, Indie/TFF/Arthouse exhibition is going to take a great leap forward.
The Sundance Institute Art House Project is a partnership with art house cinemas nationwide to build audiences and develop a supportive community of theatre owners committed to independent film. Wow. Not that we can relax just yet, but this project is a great thing for both filmmakers and filmlovers alike.
The Art House Convergence is presented in cooperation with the Sundance Institute. At the Convergence, Art House theatres from all over the U.S. will gather just before the Sundance Film Festival (January 15-25) providing a rare opportunity for art house theatres to network and discuss successful marketing, programming and business models as well as current issues facing independent theatres.

John Cooper, Director of Programming, Sundance Film Festival, explains “Our organizing principle is to increase the market for film exhibition by expanding the number and effectiveness of community-based, mission-driven theatres in local communities, large and small, nationwide.”

So who are these theaters?  Mark them down, and then add to the list!

BAM, New York, NY, www.bam.org
Belcourt Theatre, Nashville, TN, www.belcourt.org
Broadway Centre Cinemas, Salt Lake City, UT, www.saltlakefilmsociety.org
Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline, MA, www.coolidge.org
Enzian Theater, Orlando, FL, www.enzian.org
Hollywood Theatre, Portland, OR, www.hollywoodtheatre.org
International Film Series, Boulder, CO, www.internationalfilmseries.com
Jacob Burns Film Center, Pleasantville, NY, www.burnsfilmscenter.org
The Loft, Tucson, AZ, www.loftcinema.com
Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, MI, www.michtheater.org
The Music Box, Chicago, IL, www.musicboxtheatre.com
Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma City, OK, www.okcmoa.org
The Palm, San Luis Obispo, CA, www.thepalmtheatre.com
Pickford Cinema, Bellingham, WA, www.pickfordcinema.org
Rafael Film Center, San Rafael, CA, www.cafilm.org
Ragtag Cinema, Columbia, MO, www.ragtagfilm.com
Railroad Square Cinema, Waterville, ME, www.railroadsquarecinema.com
The Screen, Santa Fe, NM, www.thescreen.csf.edu

The conference will include a keynote address by John Cooper, Director of Programming for the Sundance Film Festival, as well as panel sessions on:
- How to use the not-for-profit business model to grow audiences for Art House films
- An exploration of new film distribution paradigms (participating in these panels will be Bob Berney, formerly of Picturehouse and Peter Broderick, Paradigm Consulting, Ted Hope, This Is That Productions — that’s me!)
- Innovative marketing and showmanship techniques
- Tutorials on emerging film exhibition and Art House theatre operations technology

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November 29 at 10:45am

Smelling The Coffee and Connecting The Dots

“Today you have to be like Leonard Bernstein,” said Mr. Kallman, “making sure everyone is hitting the right notes at just the right millisecond. The tipping point, if you will, is when everything converges and your timing with everything is impeccable.”

Finding the new business model for truly free film is not going to be easy.  It is going to take a lot of effort in all directions.  It is going to require developing new revenue streams where previously there was nothing.  It is going to take experimentation.  It is going to require a lot of trial and error.  And it is not going to happen overnight.
Truly Free Film and Indie Film has always been different from Hollywood product.  As an industry the specialized divisions have missed how significant the difference is.  The glue that might have kept an Indie ArtHouse Truly Free film community together has withered away.  Without this support there will be no gradual shift into the new paradigm.  It’s been a brutal year in terms of traditional film sales worldwide, and I don’t suspect it will get better.  Our “business” has to become something altogether different, something new.
This blog was started to help recognize what the steps could be to develop a new business model.  The I.A.T.F.F. community has to move faster than Hollywood as our margins have always been smaller and what might be small adjustments for Hollywood are seismic shifts for us.  It’s fortunate that we can learn from the hardships that the music and newspaper have had to endure.
It was reported in the NYTimes two days ago, that one record company, Atlantic, claims its digital sales have now surpassed its CD sales.  Furthermore Atlantic seems to have done this without any significant revenue drop in CD sales.  It is not clear whether this is the start of something positive or the exception to the rule.  Either way, there is going to be more hardship, before we get to harvest the real fruit.  The NY Times points out:  
With the milestone comes a sobering reality already familiar to newspapers and television producers. While digital delivery is becoming a bigger slice of the pie, the overall pie is shrinking fast. 

In virtually all these corners of the media world, executives are fighting to hold onto as much of their old business as possible while transitioning to digital — a difficult process that NBC Universal’s chief executive, Jeff Zucker, has described as “trading analog dollars for digital pennies.”

The reality that we all will have to work harder and move in numerous directions at once necessitates teamwork.  Not only do we have to work together, we will have to share what we learn along the way.  Many in the film industry have felt that privately held knowledge has been necessary for individual success.  If we don’t truly share information, there will not be an industry to work in.  Atlantic’s success optimistically can be viewed on what a concentrated effort might bring all of us.  It also illustrates what a vast undertaking it will be:

“I think we’ve figured it out,” said Julie Greenwald, president of Atlantic Records. “It used to be that you could connect five dots and sell a million records. Now there are 20 dots you can connect to sell a million records.”

Truly Free Filmmakers have more than those twenty dots to connect and that can not be done by working alone.  For each of those filmmakers fortunate to be selected for Sundance this year, they each need to reach for a different dot and pass it along to each other.

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November 28 at 2:00pm

Hope For The Future: Starting The List

What can I say?  I love lists.  I maintain many: My favorite things; Directors I want to work with; 100 Ways To Make A Million.  I am sure you’ve got own.

One of things on my List Of Why I Love Lists is that it is so easy to forget, and with forgetting can come despair, that is until we re-cognize what we already knew.  Lists lift us out of this swamp.  I don’t despair. I HOPE.
If this was the year that everyone believed the sky fell (and it did in terms of the unregulated greed based economic system our world has embraced for far too long), it will hopefully be recognized as the moment when we really entered the Free Culture Era.  But the hard things, the bad things, still attract our attention.  We will remember that 2008 is the year no one could sell their film.  We will remember that 2008 is the year that labor strife and cooperate greed conspired for a work shutdown.  I will certainly remember that it is the year that I did not have a film in production for the first time in 20 years.
But that is not the memory I want to have.  I want to remember 2008 as the year that everything started to change for the better.  We need to look and recognize all the positive signs for change that are out there.  
Let’s build the list of the reasons TFFilmmakers have HOPE FOR THE FUTURE.  Let’s make the list at least 52 entries long so we can get through this next year.  
Share with me some of your ideas.  Here’s my start (by no means in the order of importance):
  1. It is so easy to blog that everyone could have their own page in a matter of minutes.  I thought about having a blog for several months before I made the leap and then I was up and on it a matter of minutes.
  2. The more people are exposed to quality films (and culture in general) the more their tastes gravitate towards quality films.  I would love to see an actual study on this, but I was told it by one of the Netflix honchos in that their members gravitate to the “auteurs” the longer they’ve been a member.
  3. Committed Leaders To A Open Source Film Culture have emerged.  I have been incredibly inspired by all the work that those I have labeled as Truly Free Film Heroes have done.  Even more so I am moved by their incredible generosity in their sharing of all they have learned.
  4. The Tools To Take Personal Control are available, numerous, and fun.  There are more than I can list (but the TFF Tools List is a pretty good start).

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November 27 at 10:57am

How We Watch What We Watch

I look forward to Thanksgiving weekend as a time to catch up on my viewing.  I suspect I will see three or so films in the theater and the same amount on DVD.  I will probably watch a few video clips on YouTube and some trailers elsewhere on line.  

But I recognize I am not the normal American.  You probably aren’t either.  Last sunday’s AO Scott article on this subject had this nifty chart to accompany it.  Film in the traditional sense is at the bottom.

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November 26 at 12:13pm

What Financiers Want Now

Producer-turned-financier Dan Cogan and I worked together years ago on the classic geriatric swinger doc THE LIFESTYLE.  Since the, Dan has built a truly unique financing entity IMPACT PARTNERS, who provide a diverse group of investors committed to social change filmmaking with both regular deal flow and creative and logistic oversight.  Impact Partners has consistently placed films in the Sundance Festival, but more importantly is committed to having they both reach an audience and to facilitate change.  Their success speaks of Dan’s knowledge, and now he’s sharing it with you right here.  Listen up!

Dan writes:
It strikes me that this is a particularly important moment in the indie film calendar for the Truly Free Film movement. Films are being quietly notified about acceptances to Sundance. It’s a moment of excitement for filmmakers and financiers alike.

And so right now it’s especially important to remember that the great fairy tale sale is only going to happen to a few films. The rest will have to take the great boost of Sundance and turn it into something for themselves.

There has never been a better moment for filmmakers to do this, especially doc filmmakers who do social-issue films, which is mostly what we finance. But they have to know what they’re doing, and they have to be passionate and devoted to outreach as much as to filmmaking. When we finance a film, here are some of the things we look for:

1) Once we like a project, we want to know, Does the filmmaker have a plan for outreach to get to the film’s natural audience? In the age of DVD, streaming, download-to-own, etc., outreach around social issues related to your film has become deeply intertwined with distribution. Most docs, even great docs, may not be theatrical, but they can have huge potential for direct sales over the web to audiences who are part of a political or social community that the film addresses.

2) Don’t worry about preaching to the choir. Yes, it’s always nice to reach new audiences. But if Barack Obama’s campaign proved anything, it’s how powerful you can be if you really inspire your base. If you can turn people who care about an issue into people who will take the time to knock on doors, make calls, donate money, and ACT on their values, you can have a huge impact. The irony is, of course, that this preaching-to-the-choir passion you create can spill over from your core audience to infect completely new communities.

3) Indie filmmakers have to hustle as much after the film is done as they do to get it made. Directors have to get out on the road and do speaking tours, organize screenings in alternative theatrical venues, develop audiences and drive them to the theater or to their web sites, etc. The work is just beginning when the film is done. And you’re the one who has to do — not a distributor.

4) Actually, the work begins while you’re still making the film. The more you can work on outreach while you’re in production, the better. The goal should be to build partnerships with those in the community you’re making a film about during the filmmaking process, so that as soon as the film is done, you have devoted partisans who are invested in your film and want to help make it a success. You are building your audience as you make your film. I’ve learned a lot about outreach from Diana Barrett at The Fledgling Fund. Check out their site: www.thefledglingfund.org/

5) Make it easy for interested groups to run and publicize their own screenings of the film, and even let them make money off them, or at least break even. The best plan I’ve seen for this is Robert Bahar’s screening kit for MADE IN L.A. Check it our here: http://www.madeinla.com/get/host

6) In the old world, P&A made all the difference. Today, it’s about knowledge. Who are the bloggers who can get word out about your film? Where does your audience gather online? Etc. Today, knowledge is more valuable than money.

In this new world, the opportunities for success are in the filmmakers’ own hands. But filmmakers have to be willing to take on these challenges and not expect someone else to do the work for them.

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November 25 at 11:01am

The Search For The Word

I don’t know if any of you made it to the thirty minute mark of the NYC DIY Dinner Conversation Part One, but I got to one of my fave quests around that time.

I believe people can’t articulate what they really want until they know what to call it.  And here, the Big Consumer World has failed us again. How?  Well let me tell you.
When a seven year old says “Pokemon” they don’t think of just the cards, or the figures, or the game, or the television show, or the various feature film incarnations.  That seven year old sees the whole Pokemon UNIVERSE.  By having the word that describes their pursuit, the Pokemon fans know their desire is to participate COMPLETELY in that Universe.  The Completion Urge is able to know the path to satisfaction.
In mainstream media, only business terms exist to express a 360 degree approach to character and theme.  It’s called “brand management” or “the Franchise”.  THERE IS NO TERM FOR THE AUDIENCE TO USE TO EXPRESS COMPLETE IMMERSION IN STORY AS DEEPLY AND RICHLY AS IS POSSIBLE.  We need to coin a word.  Without a descriptive, desire will never be to be as complete as it might.  Any suggestions?

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