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The end of the year has become a bit overwhelming in terms of "Best Of" lists. We evaluate things so much in terms of quality (or at least attempt to), but I hear very few people speak of true pleasure. Quality and pleasure often are not the same, but these end of the year list camouflage that a bit. We don't go to or watch movies just because they are good. We love films because they are fun — and it's never just the content that makes the experience so great. It's the company and the context.
What was the most joyous experience of the year for you, for me? Since this blog is really only about film, I am going to have to leave out most of what's on my more expansive list (and after all that stuff is still a private matter, isn't it?), and instead focus only most on my most joyous cinema experiences of 2011 — and for that matter experiences that didn't involve my own movies (as the festival premieres of MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, COLLABORATOR, and DARK HORSE were all pretty damn wonderful). It's a pleasure to do so in that remembering, recognizing, bring it all back and more so.
THE SKIN I LIVE IN: My wife and I saw SKIN in Karlovy Vary, which has to be one of the loveliest places to screen a film. If you have a chance to go, don't delay. It's a spa town, nestled in a valley, with a wonderful hotel, and an extremely well-curated selection. The main theater there is huge — I think 4000 seats but I am not sure. The screen is colossal none the less. Gigantic. And the people love movies; students camp out in the hills to attend screenings all week. SKIN was a hard ticket to get, even with a festival pass. I begged for days, succeeded, but then got confused on the time and we almost missed it. It was hot that day, very. We ran along the river through crowds of tourists and the only seats were on the floor up front. The kinkiest film that Hitchcock never made loomed above us as we caught our breath and tried to cool down. Each twist and turn above us was a total surprise. I was appalled in the best way on a regular basis. And when the leopard scene occurred, well, very few films ever blow my mind but Pedro does constantly. I can think of no other filmmaker who has been such a pleasure to watch him become a true master. When Vanessa and I left the theater we couldn't stop talking about it., As much as I loved the movie, I loved far more that I had someone to share it with who felt so much like I did, and that we had experienced it together in such an over the top way.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: My son and I saw APES opening weekend. We've seen all the Planet of The Apes films — except the Tim Burton one because I thought it sucked. But we've only seen them on video. When I was a boy I collected the Planet Of The Apes cards with my dad, in anticipation of seeing it together, but due to complications, that never happened. My expectations for this one were pretty low, due to Burton's debacle. Low expectations helps everything always and the movie soared well beyond my measly expectations. Andy Serkis' turn is one of my fave of the year, and drew me into that movie like few this year. The bridge sequence captures what I imagine the exhilaration of revolution to be (along with the humor of the stupidity of mankind that is always fun to be reminded of). But the real pleasure of movies is always social, and just hearing my son say how much he enjoyed it, helped me recognize how much I have enjoyed sharing so much with him. In many ways, the movie completed a circle for me that I had not yet recognized wasn't closed.
WITHOUT: There are a few people who did an awesome job tipping me to under-appreciated films this year, but primarily Kim Voynar (who sent five or so great works to me) and Michael Tully, who via Hammer To Nail does so regularly. I think it was Kim who recommended Mark Jackson's WITHOUT to me though. I watched it alone, in my apartment, with no real context of what was to come. I have a HD projector that fills one wall in our apartment so the image towers over me when I watch. It was summer and the city was quieter than usual. Left alone, like the character, to figure out what was going on or not. As much as I love work from emerging directors and noble failures that reach high (not always to succeed), I confess I am jaded enough to not anticipate controlled, disciplined, ambitious, original work from a filmmaker or film that I have no clue about. At that time, Kim (or was it Tully?) had been the only one to recommend it. WITHOUT is some of the strongest work this year. Afterwards, I sat there still on the couch wondering what is wrong with our indie film infrastructure that this film isn't being celebrated as it should be, and how I am going to have to work so much harder to do so.
THE DISPOSABLE FILM FESTIVAL: I got to be a judge for this San Francisco festival this past year and it was another great marriage of subject and setting. All the films in the selection were hand-crafted gems made on a shoe-string budget. They represented the diversity and quality of individual artist today. If they were not inspiring enough, the festival is held at The Castro Theater, one of the greatest houses to worship cinema ever built. I had never been there and it is so gorgeous. When I travel, despite not being at all religious, I can not help but visit churches and be amazed with what worship, devotion, and conviction can achieve. Sitting in The Castro seeing such handmade work, I wanted to go on a global pilgrimage to all the great movie palaces, before it's too late. Sign me up for that tour if you hear of it, okay?
MARGARET: Hands down, Kenneth Lonergan's film is the best American film of the year. Great work not only does not get seen, but often not even released. Even when it was first released, I had my doubts. I couldn't believe that a film by this writer/director, with that cast, could be any good and not have been screened for so long. Shame on me. The movie was a wake up call. I saw when it came along a second time. I had just gotten MoviePass and was delighted to see the theater where it was playing on their list of cinemas; it meant I had no risk. The great thing about a subscription theater service is I can try out movies like never before — the only thing I am sacrificing is time. But I digress. Or maybe not. Maybe it was because I accepted the movie with no preconceptions, but I was so thrilled at the quality of the writing & performance. Naturalism is currently my fave cinematic aesthetic and Lonergan used it to make the micro epic, and he did it so bravely, warts and all, I felt I knew each of his characters or at least passed them on the street. I saw it with my wife, and as we left the theater, fully engaged, I thought of all the great films we experienced together and felt that despite how close this excellent film came to never being screened, that life was actually good and everything will be okay and I must never forget how fortunate I am.
GENRE VIDEOS AT HOME ON THE COUCH WITH MY FAMILY: I hate to admit it but I think this may trump my cinema going highlights. I am one of the lucky few who has a great video store less than a block away (Allen's Alley). Be it DOCTOR WHO, AIRPLANE!, V FOR VENDETTA, A.I. or ATTACK THE BLOCK some of my most fun came courtesy of DVDs, good company, comfortable environments and the pause button. We are going to have to work harder to make theatrical exhibition the must-see entertainment I'd like it to be. And I suspect that this is the year that I cancel my Netflix subscription too.
So, tell me, what were your most enjoyable cinema experiences of 2011?
By Orly Ravid
Dynamo Player is one of the many DIY options we've looked at with close interest over the past year, (See Felicia Ptolemy's Review HERE and Rob Millis' Introduction to the Dynamo Player HERE. Is 2012 the year that it takes off for the indie and artist direct communities? It may very well be, and if so, we can have Orly Ravid of the Film Collaborative to thank once again. Today, she sits down with Dynamo's founder and discusses further evidence of it's success and some of the do's and don'ts of the platform.
The Letter “D”
D: Distribution, DIY, Dynamo Player.
I got educated more all about how it works, with owner Rob Millis who I finally met in person at IDFA in Amsterdam. A fine gentleman indeed.
I usually recommend a filmmaker work with at least two DIY options to give customers a choice and just to not have all one’s eggs in one proverb.
Rob explained why Dynamo serves its filmmakers well. He noted its “designed with presentation and high quality” and that the “filmmaker's brand is in front.” It’s not just about the Dynamo brand.
Dynamo can handle any of the popular video standards and offers viewers up to 1080HD quality, a clean crisp presentation and as many extras as one can pack in. Hence it’s a good alternative to DVD, but with the instant gratification of an online rental.
A filmmaker once remarked that the issue with DIY is the “TRUST FACTOR”:
People don’t trust too many places with their credit cards and feel safer with big companies that have built a solid reputation. Well at Dynamo, and some other DIY services, the payment method is secure. Rob Millis explains:
“The key is payment process and protecting information”. Dynamo does not handle any payment information directly. They rely only on PAYPAL and AMAZON. Dynamo does not receive any of that confidential information so as not to risk anything going wrong. They just confirm that one is approved rather than handling payment info.
What about GENRE?
What kind does Dynamo work with and which ones do well with the service:
Most of their success is with DOCUMENTARIES.
“They have the highest value and there are a lot of reasons for that,” noted Millis.
“Entertainment for its own sake is competitive and as soon as it’s online one is competing with mainstream studio product. DOCS have a hook for those interested in the subject matter and hence people are willing to pay for it”.
“Dramas are harder to sell. The marketing for them needs to be more powerful than that for docs. Docs are also EVERGREEN. Dramas die off as soon as the marketing stops and are very competitive. There are hundreds of love stories but only one or a couple docs or at most a few about any given specific topic”. Millis concluded “One can sustain sales for a doc”. However Dynamo still accepts all kinds of films.
In fact the first-ever film rented on Facebook was a Zombie film (“Stag Night of the Dead”) hosted by Dynamo that played on the page for $1.99 and then dropped to $0.99 as a special sale.
DYNAMO DIY RULES | DO’s & DON'TS:
“The most obvious rule is to be in touch with your audience, especially on Twitter & Facebook”. Millis elaborated that in a more vague sense it’s best to put oneself in a viewer's shoes. “Think of them as consumers… Recognize that people have a million options. Film needs to be well-presented and easy to consume, make it easy and possible for them to choose your film instead of all their other options”. I also note this to filmmakers about theatrical releases and suggest they remember how many choices people have for how to spend their time and money.
Millis exclaimed the “BIGGEST MISTAKE FILMMAKERS make is believing that their film is beautiful enough to compel people to watch it just because the trailer reflects that to some extent.” A poorly designed website will not do! "Think about it as a product that is being sold and that you are competing for really valuable time when your audience has a million other really good options available".
Right now iTunes current releases are $6.99 RENTAL for 2 days New Releases for OLDER TITLES it goes down as low to $1.99 or $2.99. Millis thinks iTunes is pricing things correctly. The Dynamo mean average sale price for all sales is approximately $4.00, including shorts and music videos, that amount to approximately 1% of all sales are below $1.99.
Millis told an anecdote that taught the moral of not making content seem too cheap. There’s so much for free online and people judge what is priced like a discount bin, hence the $0.99 rule, which is, most of the time, $0.99 makes your film look cheap!
$9.99 seems at the top of what works and sells well. Dramas do well $1.99 – $4.99 (“they see a strong drop off on either side of that,” Millis noted). Documentaries can be priced higher – he sees solid sales all the way up to $9.99The best range is $2.99 – $6.99 for most films, except for big films or those with a serious marketing team behind them.
Of course it’s always hard to predict what will work or not. For long tail, mid tail, smaller filmmakers the difference between sales of $5.00 and sales of $10,000 in a month is based on the work done with the audience and a good looking player.
Great films with A-list talent sit idle all over the internet because nobody knows they exist, while independent titles that strike a chord with the audience can catch on fire overnight with just a little bit of communication and an appealing web page.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
The timing varies, as one would expect because strategies and distribution needs vary. People sometimes do a first release with Dynamo and then stop to do theatrical and DVD and then start again, or others do it later on in the process and get on Dynamo only at the tail end of the sales.
A film that has been heavily pirated can still do good business because the film looks good this way and one can add compelling extra features. One can read about an example of this: UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US (see her Guest Post on Ted Hope's blog.
What’s the MOST $$$ made for any one DIY film on Dynamo Player?
This information is regarding Independents, DIY only:
$20,000 per film MAX if it’s an independent and with small marketing team. It won’t be bigger unless you have serious marketing experience. But Rob Millis encourages: “don't give up even if you have no traction in beginning, you just may have not hit critical mass yet”.
“I can tell you that sales typically taper off slowly for documentaries, continuing at a rate of perhaps 10-20% of the original month. If a doc did $10,000 in online rentals its first month, with some dedicated online promotion, then you might expect sales of $1,000-$2,000 per month several months later.
Dramatic features are a different animal, and you can expect major sales drops after promotion stops. A lot of residual interest depends on star power and search results, but dramas get stale faster.
Regarding dollar values, I can’t really give a solid estimate in any way that wouldn’t be misleading. No matter what number I give, every filmmaker then expects to reach that number. My biggest hesitation is attributing an estimate to Dynamo specifically, which always makes people really excited or really disappointed about Dynamo. In reality, it’s about the marketplace, and the online rental market can certainly support revenues of 7-figures for independent films. There really is no limit, practically speaking.
For instance, Louis C.K. just produced his own comedy special and did over a $1mm in sales using PayPal and direct downloads in about a week. He’s a well-known comedian, but this was a mid-budget shoot completely financed and marketed by Louis, totally independent. I certainly think his sales numbers would be at least as good if he had used Dynamo, but the success or failure would still lie mostly with his ability to convert the audience.
Beyond that we’re talking about differences of probably 10-50% between different platforms, depending on the customer experience.”
Dynamo is proud to note that its sales are growing overall, significantly. To find out more about Dynamo email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit DynamoPlayer.com to see an introductory video and sign up.
Orly Ravid has worked in film acquisitions / sales / direct distribution and festival programming for the last twelve years since moving to Los Angeles from home town Manhattan. In January 2010, Orly founded The Film Collaborative (TFC), the first non-profit devoted to film distribution of independent cinema. Orly runs TFC w/ her business partner, co-exec director Jeffrey Winter.
By Audrey Ewell
2012 is going to be the year of truly free filmmaker experimentation. 2012 is going to be the year of cross-platform collaboration. And 2012 is going to be the year of filmmaker to filmmaker collaboration. I don’t know how much of this will be true, but I know I wish all of it will be, and so far, there is no clearer indicator that all will be true than The 99% Film. We’ve heard from Audrey Ewell, one of the film’s collaborators, and we know she always has progressive and provocative ideas, so why should this time be any different. Today Audrey shares with other some of the new ways she and her team are making use of some of the plethora of options that are out there to enable us to truly build it better together.
Crowdfunding a Collaborative Film: Repurposing a Distribution Platform into A New Fundraising Tool.
99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film began as a spontaneous project, and thus it began with no funding at all. While it might seem like a poster-child for crowdfunding opportunity, this film actually has some unique obstacles: for starters, many people who support us also support the Occupy Movement, and their spare dollars go straight to them. Our film is not part of OWS; although some of our 75+ filmmakers identify as part of it, we are a separate, independent project, and we receive no Occupy funding.
Additionally, donations to OWS itself dropped off markedly after the first heady days (when it seemed as though time had stopped at the moment in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film Network when Peter Finch’s Howard Beale led the city in a chorus of “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” only to resume in reality 35 years later at Zuccotti Park). Plus, with the otherwise lovely Christmas season turning potential funding into slippers and iPads, crowdfunding has been no picnic. We now emerge from the holidays with about two weeks left to hit our goal of $17,500. Two critical weeks, because make no mistake: we need those funds to keep going.
Before I get to the new tool we’re test-driving, let me back up for a second to talk about our overall strategy. First, we put together an outreach team: Stephen Dotson and Kari Collins on Twitter, Laura Alexander on Facebook, Annie Riordan doing direct outreach to influencers and organizations who might help spread the word, Ginger Liu on newswires, blog and social (non fb & twitter) outreach, and me on press releases, blog outreach, and traditional press.
But really, nobody wants to write about your damn Kickstarter campaign, so you have to find ways to make it newsworthy. I set this up as a five-week campaign (with the expected week of Christmas drop-off in the middle). Week one outreach was about the film itself; the collaborative nature and the way our process mirrors OWS got us some press that might be difficult for a more standard doc to achieve.
For week two, Billy Miller (one of our filmmakers, also a curator) gathered our first round of rewards: artworks by 12 contemporary artists. We contacted and posted to hundreds of art blogs. Then we added a fresh round of artists/works (a lot had already been nabbed) and let that slide over Christmas into week 3: when Aaron Aites, my film partner and also the main man behind the band Iran, worked with Kyp Malone (of Iran, TV on the Radio, and Rain Machine) to put together a slew of music rewards. Signed records and artworks from Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), John Dwyer (Thee Oh Sees), Wayne Coyne (Flaming Lips) and many more fueled a new round of targeted outreach, but still, so much ground to cover by Jan 13th!
So when Darcy at Constellation got in touch to propose a new venture, combining their social screening platform with our Kickstarter campaign, I had to wonder if this might be a peanut butter and chocolate crowdfunding moment. I’d checked out Constellation when they launched; they mix classics (Grey Gardens, Rashomon) with newer and noteworthy indie films (Food Fight, Trouble The Water, Marwencol) and there’s a social element to the screenings: pre-set times to make it a group experience, Q & A’s with filmmakers, and chats with the audience. In their words:
“Constellation is your online movie theater. Just like a traditional theater, users purchase tickets to attend scheduled showtimes of films, or create their own showtimes. However unlike other online platforms, watching movies on Constellation is a social experience. Users can invite friends to showtimes they’re attending and watch together. Many movies are presented by VIP hosts, such as the films’ directors, actors, or other notables, who appear live in the online theater to answer questions from the audience during and after the film. “
So Constellation’s interested in working with Kickstarter (and presumably other crowdfunding sites) projects, and we’re interested in reaching our goal; we agreed to be the first to try it out. Although reluctant to divert our attention while in the thick of making the film, we think there’s a place for this in our fundraising strategy.
So this January 7th at 7:30 pm EST we’re holding a screening of 45 minutes of footage that’s been shot for our film, on Constellation.TV. It’s not a work-in-progress, and Constellation have been respectful of our need to not use that language, but it is a chance for our backers and others to see some of the material we’re working with, and to talk to us as we’re shaping the film. (They also let us lower the ticket price, and gave us half-off codes for our Kickstarter backers, plus free codes so all 75 of our filmmakers can be present – woo-hoo!) It’s a chance for us to get some feedback, build our audience, and possibly even meet new backers.
I don’t know how well this platform is working for finished films, but that also depends on each filmmaker’s goal with it (as with any distribution outlet). But it’s good to know that Constellation is open to this sort of fundraising event. I learned, while theatrically distributing my last film, Until The Light Takes Us, that event-izing really helps. So if you’re interested, this is the direct link to the screening: www.constellation.tv/99percent. Or if you need a reminder like I do, here is the Facebook invite. (Oh! And proceeds go toward our Kickstarter campaign!)
If this is successful, it could be a new tool in the indie filmmaker’s funding kit. So wish us luck; better yet, check out the screening, ask questions, and by all means, please invite a friend.
Audrey Ewell is a filmmaker living in Brooklyn, NY with her film partner Aaron Aites. They recently made the award-winning film Until The Light Takes Us, and they’re now working on a thriller called Dark Places. The 99% Kickstarter page is here.
By Russel Sheaffer
Back in college when I wanted to lead a revolution, I studied political theory. I dropped out of college the first time because I wanted to put my ideas into action. I dropped out of college the second time — this time film school — for the same reason. I loved studying though, and I particular loved philosophizing about the process, but I was afraid I might talk so much, think so much, write so much, I could lose my capacity to do. I didn't want to deconstruct things so much that I may not be able to build them. Maybe I didn't need to fear it so much. Today, filmmaker/academic Russel Sheaffer blogs about the merger — they type that makes us all richer — where ideas — the big kind — take action.
As I sit in Bloomington, Indiana grading my undergraduate class’ work and desperately trying to finish two papers of my own for PhD seminars (one on the impact of New Queer Cinema on the representation of male sex workers and the other on the links between the work of Kathryn Bigelow and Miranda July) I am simultaneously trying to schedule a trip back to Manhattan to film some experimental segments with a few groundbreaking artists from the Filmmakers Cooperative. I seem to be constantly locked between the worlds of academia and production, attempting to connect the two while, all too often, being told by other filmmakers that they don’t mesh. Well, I disagree.
In fact, film theory and academic critique have been extremely important in shaping the oppositional and experimental realms of cinema for decades (think: feminist film theory and practice) and there have been many mainstream filmmakers who have taken an especially heavy interest in areas like theory, history, and preservation.
What happens for both the academic world and the filmmaking world when academic projects are media-making projects? What happens when a PhD dissertation has a filmmaking component? For the first time in my academic career, I have noticed that some film studies departments are getting excited about graduate students who are serious about mixing practice and theory—the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington has been extremely supportive (as was the Department of Cinema Studies at NYU). The University of California at Santa Cruz has a graduate documentary program (and B. Ruby Rich). If you are an independent filmmaker / academic / graduate student, these are the sorts of connections and support systems you need and now is the time for you to explore these avenues. Let your academic and filmmaking worlds collide. An academic department that doesn’t see practice as a valid application of theory (and vice versa) is a department that you will not be able to flourish in.
My first experiences in allowing academic theory and practice to intersect in a fundamental way have been MASCULINITY & ME, a short experimental film, and (most recently) THE FORGETTING GAME, a 70-minute documentary. It was just over two years ago that two friends (Pulkit Datta and Jim Bittl) and I started thinking about THE FORGETTING GAME while watching the U.S. propaganda film THE WALL, which tells of the heartache, pain, and personal loss that the Berlin Wall was causing overseas. As would be expected from a propaganda film of the time, THE WALL essentalizes the conflict into a simple understanding of west = good / east = bad in a way that particularly struck us that Thursday evening. While it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge and bring light to the atrocities of any conflict situation (and THE WALL certainly serves that purpose), it seemed particularly dangerous to negate any nuance in the characterization of East and West (especially in relation to our current international conflicts).
All throughout my childhood, I had heard the story of a little girl who had been peacefully released by the East German government in 1963, a prospect that the propaganda from the time would have never allowed. How could this have happened in such a political climate? I contacted the Red Cross, who facilitated the transfer, to find out more. They had no clue what I was talking about. Pulkit contacted the Ministry for Inter-German Relations (who, supposedly, keeps track of these sorts of things). They had no idea what he was talking about either.
In response, we started researching, found the little girl (now an absolutely fascinating woman), and went out to tell the story of how she had gone from Doberlug-Kirchhain, Germany in 1963 to the present day, where she lives in Wasilla, Alaska. It has been the wildest two years of my life and has taken me all over the world (Wasilla, Berlin, San Diego, Portland, and Port Townsend amongst many others). And, since we never had money, we used a lot of airline miles.
Financing an independent (and especially academic) passion project is something I’ve spoken to a lot of filmmakers about, and it’s always a struggle. Add in an interest in making it a semi-experimental historical documentary and you’ve got all sorts of funding challenges. On a particularly difficult day a few years ago, while working on the documentary A SMALL ACT, Jennifer Arnold turned to me and said something to the effect of, “you know, we aren’t in documentary to get rich” and, honestly, truer words have never been spoken. The same can be said about academic filmmaking at the moment—we do this because we love it, not because we think we are going to get rich doing it.
It seems obvious, but you have to make sure you work your budget in the most unorthodox ways sometimes. Stay with friends (a cheap hotel room is still money you don’t have), travel on airline miles (we saved thousands of dollars by flying with Delta and then using the miles from one flight to pay for the next), borrow gear (our original Canon 7D was borrowed), trade your time for other people’s time (we are all trying to make our projects and we all need to be ready to scratch each other’s backs), work with friends, and beg for whatever else you need.
Also, if you are in an academic department, utilize your status within your university (especially if you are a graduate student) in everyway you can. If your institution offers any production classes (even if you are not a part of the course, teaching the course, or even in the department that’s offering the course), you may be able to get free gear rentals. Apply for academic grants and travel funds—film projects can be academic projects, they can be ways of exploring and researching academic themes, and we need to remember that those lines of support (both emotionally and financially) are open to us, too. Once your film is completed, explore a university tour as an exhibition outlet; independent films that come out of an academic frame of mind have serious potential to find both audiences and funds (often in the form of screening fees and honorariums) by returning to the academic setting.
In reality, none of this is new. Our academic forefathers and foremothers have paved the way for us (Jean-Luc Godard and Barbara Hammer, anyone?), but let’s keep pushing and see where we can get with an “academic cinema.” University departments are just beginning to see the potential for a new sort of work that blurs the boundaries of practice and theory, and we can be at the forefront of a new way of thinking about filmmaking. If you are a young, indie filmmaker, consider what the academy can offer you and your filmmaking. If you’re a young academic, think of the possibilities for critique that filmmaking can provide. If you are a seasoned pro, please explore these new avenues with us—we need you. It’s going to be an uphill battle, but the potential for new ways of seeing the world around us is phenomenal.
For more information about THE FORGETTING GAME, please go to: www.theforgettinggame.com
For a trailer for THE FORGETTING GAME, please go to here.
Russell Sheaffer is an experimental film and documentary maker with a strong academic background. He received his Masters in Cinema Studies from NYU and his films have screened both nationally and internationally at venues such as the MoMA, UCLA, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Torino GLBT Film Festival, Boston LGBT Film Festival, and the Anthology Film Archives.
By Jane Weiner
No one ever said filmmaking was easy (at least I don’t think so). That said, what is required to get a film to completion sometimes awes me beyond comprehension. I can not think of a better testament of faith to think we can reach the place where is our work is projected in front of an auditorium of people. Sometimes people I meet think it just comes down to the material. But when a beautiful inspiring work about one of cinema’s key figures requires so much effort, even technology to change, it demonstrates the opposite. Without the courage and commitment of the artists behind the work, many great movies would remain incomplete. Today, Jane Weiner shares with us some of trials and tribulations behind her latest film.
It’s madness. Yes, it is completely crazy to have launched a Kickstarter campaign while working 70+ hours/week in the editing room. More nuts was to pretend that we could make regular video updates (as simple as they are) when we’re pushing the clock to complete RICKY on LEACOCK in time for a festival roll-out in early 2012.
Yet, we launched it, so we’re trying… and, it’s no exaggeration to say that this is like doing three full-time jobs at once!
RICKY on LEACOCK is a film that I started shooting in 1972 using a prototype of the MIT Super 8 Synch Sound System designed by Jon Rosenfeld and Al Mecklenberg. I sought out Richard Leacock at the ‘Summer Institute’ (held that year at the U of New Hampshire) because I was interested in the new ‘small-format’ filmmaking system that he was developing at MIT. I didn’t know Ricky except for references in film history books – and, at that time, the major reference was Robert Flaherty and LOUISIANA STORY. So, after seeing Leacock’s films, I became fascinated by the fact Leacock’s mentor had been Flaherty and that, after launching the Cinema Vérité period with Drew, Pennebaker, Macartney-Filgate and Maysles, his obsession was now to make film equipment smaller and more available to young people; being a young person who was benefiting from this experiment, I proposed to make a documentary about him. He agreed on two conditions: 1) No interviews and 2) that I shoot on small format i.e., Super 8.
But to make a film about a filmmaker, one needs to obtain rights to certain examples of their former work – in this case, clips from Flaherty, Drew Associates, Pennebaker, NBC, CBS, ABC, etc. Quite daunting. And, as a novice filmmaker, I never imagined what the response might be from the funding organizations. NEA was automatically out because Leacock was the head of the panel that decided on filmmaking/Media grants. All others just laughed: A film shot on Super 8 with no formal interviews about a major filmmaker? Ha, ha, ha.
But I pressed on, following Leacock to his father’s banana plantation in the Canary Islands (location of his first film) and then on to Paris to meet Henri Langlois, Chris Marker, Carole Roussopoulos, and others. In the USA, many were mocking Ricky’s obsession with small-format filmmaking, but not in Europe. It was refreshing and encouraging – but this didn’t help the financial situation.
Back in the States, Jeff Kreines (who was 17 or 18 years old at the time) helped out enormously. We worked together; he’s a fabulous filmmaker and, in those days took very good sound when I was shooting and, when I couldn’t be there, on his own initiative, captured the extraordinary and memorable sequence of Ricky and Ed Pincus at MIT.
But, eventually it became obvious it was time to put this unfunded project in storage and go out find a real job.
Every decade or so, I pulled out the proposal and show it around…
You get the picture.
Flip forward several decades. Ricky’s dream comes true. Small-format filmmaking is a reality, readily available to almost everyone.
After retiring from MIT, Leacock met Valerie Lalonde, whom he called the love of his life and moved to France. Here, he re-launched his filmmaking career and, with the support of French and German television, started experimenting in small-format video. He revamped Hi8 cameras to suit his needs – changing to super-wide lenses, adding a side-window viewfinder – long before anyone else. While most other serious filmmakers were cautiously ‘looking into’ the relative quality of video versus film, Ricky jumped in with both feet and, once again, was way ahead of the times…
By the early ’90s, we were both showing our films around, so we ran into each other quite frequently. At a film festival, he once loaned me his camera to shoot events and conversations with Jonas Mekas, Ross McElwee, and others. In 1995, I made an educational program about the digital revolution for French TV and went out to his home Normandy to shoot him at work on his last film, A MUSICAL ADVENTURE IN SIBERIA. In 1998, for a ‘Thematic Evening’ on Arte about the opening of the Euro Tunnel between France and the UK, I arranged that Leacock-Lalonde be commissioned to make a charming and remarkably prescient environmental film, LE TROU DANS LA MER that, by the way, has never been screened in America (DER – Documentary Educational Resources is releasing ‘The Paris Years’ on DVD – films made by Richard Leacock and Valerie Lalonde between 1989-2009).
Then, in 2005, I decided to seriously re-launch my own film. Ricky had written his life story and, totally fascinated by digital innovations, had decided to release his autobiography – not as a book but rather, what he called a DVD-Book – wherein, while reading along, one could immediately access the films he made reference to by simply clicking on an icon. This idea came to him, he said, because reading about filmmaking was like reading about tasting wine: How do you describe a taste? A still image from a movie doesn’t tell you what’s happening in the sequence and describing it always falls short of actually watching it. Most publishers scoffed at him (he wanted the impossible), but one said that he’d found the solution (‘holy grail’ were his exact words) to a problem that has always plagued film study literature. However, since Leacock did not own the rights to most of his work, licensing the 100 film clips would be a challenge.
So, I made a 20-minute DVD sample and, once again, I shopped around my film proposal. However, except for seed money from the LEF Foundation, everyone else said ‘No’.
Why? The head of a major film institute told me privately that my film was to ‘arty’; the heads of two major TV documentary series said Leacock was not well enough known, plus they found my approach was too offbeat and risky. Bottom line: Come back and when your film is finished.
But, in order to finish, I needed cash: I had 15 hours of Super 8 footage (with synchronized audio on 16mm mag) that had to be transferred to digital. And, while I could do almost all the other jobs, this was beyond my means.
I don’t see my film as arty or offbeat, although in some ways, it is very personal: We see Ricky (and others) in situations that are unexpected. As I mentioned before, when I started this project Ricky declared that he would not do any interviews. There was a reason behind this for, although Ricky gave interviews to anyone who asked, privately he mocked TV crews who would come in with their big cameras, lights, and tripods and ask him to sit down and talk about Cinema vérité.
However, sometimes you need to find a way around these ‘rules’. There came a moment in 1974, when I realized I needed words from him about his past – so, Jeff Kreines and I took a Super 8 camera and Nagra over to his apartment and, in the middle of preparing dinner, asked him to just sit down and just tell us the story of his life. He had 30 minutes. We didn’t ask any questions or prompt him in any way and, as a result it’s especially dynamic, pure storytelling.
Also, in my film we see Ricky doing things: Teaching, grocery shopping, cooking, fussing with technology, editing, etc. Nothing is ever ‘faked’ or set up. I would just show up and shoot…
Years went by, Ricky was getting older and, after being seriously injured in a fall down a flight of stairs, his memory was failing fast. Last year, he made one last trip to the Telluride Film Festival to screen Monica Flaherty’s sound version of her father’s film MOANA (1926), which he had helped make happen in 1975. I screened a work-in-progress of my film there, with Ricky in attendance. Everyone was quite moved and it was incredibly well received, even in its unfinished state and, without the original footage shot in the early 1970s.
Following Telluride, having spent years sending out proposals, making DVD samples, paying for everything, I was truly penniless. I knew I should have listened to sage advice from a filmmaker friend who told me I was on a futile mission because, he said, film biographies are rarely financed while the person is still alive. Winter was coming; I couldn’t heat my apartment or pay the rent. Friends helped keep me alive, but I’d lost all hope.
Re-enter Jeff Kreines. Jeff, whom I’d not seen in 35 years, is the inventor of the Kinetta Film Archive Scanner (see Kickstarter Update #8) – an amazing machine designed to gently transfer ANY film format to 4K digital without using the treacherous sprocket pull-down claw that rips and destroys celluloid made fragile by age or bad storage conditions. By total chance, in October 2010, I discovered that AS’Image, a postproduction house (literally next door to my apartment) was awaiting delivery of a Kinetta. Jeff arrived in Paris on Easter Day 2011 and, thanks to AS’Image’s generous ‘in-kind’ participation, we started the transfers…
Sadly, one month before Jeff arrived, Ricky Leacock died on 23 March 2011, so he never got to see how marvelous his Super 8 Synch Sound invention looks on the large screen.
On the day he died his legendary fame, which broadcasters didn’t trust, was evidenced in the hundreds of obituaries around the world. At the memorials at Lincoln Center and MIT, friends and family finally were finally able to view segments of the newly transferred Kinetta footage. Several people generously offered private donations to help match a grant that finally came from the same media fund that he had started and once headed.
In the last 6 years, having raised less than one-fifth of the actual budget, we desperate to finish.
How do you make a feature-length film on less-than-nothing?
Here’s how: My co-producers say the ‘thank-you’ list on the closing credits is much too long. I say my biggest fear is that somebody’s name might accidentally be left off. Someone important, someone who gave something or did something that really made the difference. Of course, after 40 years, a no-budget film would not exist were it not for a lot of help from friends. It could be no other way. And, I have to say I am deeply indebted and extremely grateful to everyone – so many have contributed so much – it’s impossible to list here – but, hopefully, one day soon you can read the credits!
If we continue working this crazy schedule, Sebastián Eyherabide (my WONDERFUL editor) and I believe we can get to a fine cut edit by the end of December.
However, in order to release we need to locate the masters of some 60 film clips, conform, color correct and find someone to do the sound editing and mixing, etc. And, malheureusement, these kinds of expenses require we that spend real cash money…
So, we’ve turned to Kickstarter and, boy, it’s a killer.
Less than two weeks left to finish the film. We’re SOOO close! Almost there by doing double-time in the editing room and a Kickstarter campaign running at the same time.
The most wonderful response from Kickstarter is that people love the video updates — plus, it seems that festivals are watching, too. We’ve gotten several requests in the last couple days from major festivals wanting the film.
After all these years, it’s coming down to the same thing as always – perseverance, endurance and the help of dear and new friends. None of us could do it without the support of everyone else in the community. Ricky’s ideas on small format cameras, technology and how to make a documentary resonate stronger than ever, and the community that has supported his work has been incredibly supportive of my struggle to get this film out to the world. I hope to share it with you soon.
Since her first film, “7th Street Depot” (1971), Jane Weiner has made many films; her credits include SILVERLAKE LIFE, JUPITER’S WIFE, HOME PAGE, RAVI SHANKAR, and THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF BEES — all international co-productions. LA CAMERA PASSE-PARTOUT and RICKY on LEACOCK will be released in 2012. Her next film, LES ABEILLES DE VEZELAY is an up-close portrayal of an agricultural community set on defending itself against the onslaught of chemicals.
By Peter Broderick
HopeForFilm has had the pleasure of hosting several of Peter Broderick’s prior newsletters, but today’s is extra-special, working as a continuation of Jennifer Fox’s illuminating posts on MY REINCARNATION crowdfunding campaign. My filmmakers mistakenly think of the crowdfunding platforms for financial purposes, but as Peter points out, it works to build community, involve audiences, and generate publicity and a true sense of ownership.
MY REINCARNATION shows how a well-executed crowdfunding campaign can be used to maximize distribution. In addition to enabling the funding of the theatrical rollout, the campaign increased awareness among core audiences, generated substantial press coverage, and facilitated partnerships.
I’ve known and admired the film’s director Jennifer Fox for many years, and consulted with her on the distribution of her remarkable series, FLYING: CONFESSIONS OF A FREE WOMAN. As tenacious as she is talented, Jennifer has learned, during more than 30 years of independent filmmaking, that it’s “change or die.” After exhausting every familiar fundraising route from grants to pre-sales for MY REINCARNATION, she tried crowdfunding as a last resort.
Filmed over twenty years, MY REINCARNATION is a documentary about her teacher, the Tibetan-trained Buddhist master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and “his Italian born son who refuses to accept the destiny he inherited from birth.” Although the film was technically completed and being shown at international festivals, Jennifer still needed $100,000 to pay the bills she’d amassed finishing the film after a producer defaulted on that amount.
MY REINCARNATION became a crowdfunding milestone. Through a 90-day campaign, Jennifer and her team raised $150,456, three times the official goal of $50,000. 518 backers gave an average donation of $290, more than any film had ever averaged on her crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter. The average was so high for two reasons. The film attracted two associate producers at $10,000 each (one of which was a group of 50 people living in China). The campaign also offered valuable one-of-a-kind rewards, such as a hand-painted Tibetan chest and a unique statue of the deity Vajrapan, which were available to contributors who gave between $2,500 and $7,500. Contributions were received from 32 countries and more than two-thirds of the money came from abroad.
There is much to be learned from this crowdfunding success. Jennifer contributed seven articles to Ted Hope’s Indiewire blog detailing her 42 crowdfunding tips. They should be required reading for anyone planning a serious crowdfunding campaign. Here are two of the essential lessons:
==> Build a strong team that can put in the necessary time and effort. While filmmakers should be centrally involved in a crowdfunding campaign, they need a substantial amount of help to maximize the effort. Jennifer spent 50% of her time on the 90-day campaign. She had three teammates – a staff member who spent 50% of her time on the effort and two part-time women (compensated by a percentage of the money raised). They handled key tasks including adding fresh content to the website, managing outreach to organizations, and expanding the mailing list.
==> Make a detailed budget for the campaign. This should include the site fee (Kickstarter charges 5% if you meet your goal, IndieGoGo charges 4% if you meet your goal and 9% if you don’t); the payment processing fee (3-5%); the cost of creating, acquiring, and shipping rewards; and any staffing fees. There are also likely to be some defaults in contributors’ payments (Jennifer’s were 2%). If you use a fiscal sponsor, which allows donations to be tax-deductible, there will be an additional fee of 5-7% (IndieGoGo waives its fee if you use one of its partner fiscal sponsors). Jennifer estimates that the total costs of her campaign will be between 20 and 25% of the money raised. It would have been higher if she had been compensated for the enormous amount of time she devoted to the campaign.
MY REINCARNATION is now playing in theaters around the U.S. It opened theatrically in New York City in October, five months after the crowdfunding campaign concluded in late May. It has already been shown or booked in 40 theaters, and was in its seventh week in New York when this went to press. It will surely play 60-70 cities through next April and Jennifer is hoping to reach 100. Erin Owens of Long Shot Factory is booking the film theatrically.
The crowdfunding campaign of MY REINCARNATION facilitated its distribution in ten key ways. The campaign enabled Jennifer’s team to:
==> 1- BUILD AWARENESS AMONG CORE AUDIENCES. Jennifer believes the key to Kickstarter success is a strong, reachable core audience. MY REINCARNATION has two sets of core audiences. One is centered on Namkhai Norbu’s 8,000+ students around the world (they are connected via a listserv and many also meet in local groups). This audience also includes other Buddhists, as well as spiritual, new age, and yoga groups. The second core audience is centered on Jennifer’s fans and supporters, who she has nurtured over many years and films. This audience also includes documentary lovers and independent filmmakers.
==> 2 – GROW A NETWORK OF SUPPORT. This network consisted of all of the contributors to the Kickstarter campaign plus people who were unable to help financially but contributed their time and effort. These supporters helped by blogging and eblasting. The most active ones were recognized online on the Donors Wall and onscreen in the film’s end credits.
==> 3 – ACCELERATE EFFORTS TO BUILD PARTNERSHIPS. Jennifer explained that the crowdfunding campaign “got us into outreach mode early.” Her team made a major effort to develop partnerships with organizations, including Tibet House and the Tibet Fund.
==> 4 – GENERATE SIGNIFICANT PRESS COVERAGE. During the campaign Jennifer shared her crowdfunding tips in her seven-part series. When the campaign ended with such spectacular results, she and her teammates widely distributed a press release and got significant coverage. Jennifer also wrote an article for The Huffington Post.
==> 5 – EXPAND AND REFINE THEIR MAILING LIST. Over the years Jennifer had developed a personal mailing list of 6000 names. Her team worked hard to expand this list of individuals and organizations, starting with California and New York and then moving on to other states. Jennifer’s list has now grown to almost 10,000 names.
==> 6 – IMPROVE THE FILM’S ONLINE PRESENCE. The team started with a solid website which they expanded with fresh content and videos, including outtakes of the film. They utilized user-contributed content through the website’s “share your story” section. They also made excellent use of the film’s Facebook page, which attracted many people from around the world.
==> 7 – RELEASE THE FILM THEATRICALLY. $15,000 from the crowdfunding revenues seeded the theatrical rollout. Jennifer harnessed the excitement created by the Kickstarter results to find the additional money needed for theatrical from a combination of donors and loans.
==> 8 – BOOST INTEREST AMONG DISTRIBUTORS. Erin from Long Shot Factory explained that many of the exhibitors she approached were already aware of the film. She cited the Kickstarter results to show that there was already an audience for the film. The crowdfunding success also helped get the attention of festival programmers.
==> 9 – STIMULATE SEMI-THEATRICAL AND EDUCATIONAL DISTRIBUTION. Following theatrical, MY REINCARNATION will have a strong semi-theatrical release during which nonprofits and universities will arrange special event screenings. Jennifer is also perfectly positioned to do her own educational sales based on the relationships her team has built with groups and organizations.
==> 10 – FACILITATE TELEVISION, DVD, AND DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION. The increased awareness of the film will foster DVD and digital sales, as well as boost the viewership for its POV televisions premiere. The DVD, which is not yet available, is already viewed as a collectible.
As MY REINCARNATION makes clear, a successful crowdfunding effort can jumpstart a film’s distribution. It accelerates everything that will eventually be done to foster distribution, including making a trailer, reaching out to possible partners, building a network of support, generating press awareness, and refining the mailing lists and web presence. Instead of waiting until the film is nearly done and trying to do all of this in the weeks or months before its release, crowdfunding can give filmmakers a year or two head start.
A crowdfunding campaign can also provide invaluable information and feedback, enabling filmmakers to better define their core audiences, determine the best avenues to reach them, and refine the positioning of their films.
When MY REINCARNATION’S Kickstarter campaign reached a tipping point, things began to snowball. They raised $60,000 during the final five days of the campaign. Jennifer’s team has been able to maintain the momentum from the campaign into the theatrical release and should be able to continue it through the next stages of distribution.
Filmmakers should design their crowdfunding campaigns to power their distribution. While their short-term goal is to raise money, their ultimate goal should be to create a long and vibrant life for their film.
© 2011 Peter Broderick
Peter Broderick is a Distribution Strategist who helps design and implement customized plans to maximize revenues for independent films. He is also a leading advocate of crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, championing them in keynotes and presentations around the world. You can read his articles at www.peterbroderick.com
By Shruti Ganguly
Collaborative features are in the air. Friday we glimpsed the end of auteur culture with Audrey Ewell's post on the documentary The 99 Percent Film. What happens though when the collaborative film is an omnibus narrative? Are twelve more auteurs born into the world?
How are we going to navigate this new future of team-based filmmaking? What are the Best Practices we have to put in place. Producer Shruti Ganguly shares some lessons she's learned from working on James Franco's latest concoction.
Collaboration is synonymous with filmmaking and one can often find quotations from filmmakers and writers regarding this aspect – David Mamet describes filmmaking “as a collaborative process. Bend over” while Coppola “[likes] to say that collaboration is the sex of art because you take from everyone you’re working with.” Often collaboration occurs between directors, producers and their creative heads, but what happens when one feature film is crafted together by 12 different directors, where characters overlap, stories integrate, and themes repeat? This opportunity arose in a Tisch 3rd-year Directing class that James Franco was teaching this fall. Each of the 12 students selected a poem to adapt from Tar, a collection of poetry by Pulitzer prize-winning poet, C.K. Williams, and then the short film scripts were brought together to create, Tar, the feature film.
As one of the producers on the project, I often describe Tar as the love child of Paris, Je T'aime (working with multiple directors on a common theme), I’m Not There (different impressions of the protagonist as seen through various stages in his life) with Tree of Life (our primary aesthetic reference), with the production schedule of TV – where directors worked with the same cast and crew, crafting ‘episodes’ or scenes.
Based on our experience, and given that we will be doing this class again in the spring, with new directors and new material (another Tisch 3rd-year Directing class), these are some of my takeaways when it comes to collaborating in this way:
Set the tone early on: Directors will have their own interpretations of similar material, and this of course, is what makes their own storytelling styles unique, but it is important that for projects that belong to a ‘whole’ that everyone agrees on a certain tone. This enables everyone to set off in the right direction from the first step. In the case of Tar, James, provided the students with visual and story references. The suggested viewing included Tree of Life, Hunger, Who's That Knocking at My Door, Au Hasard Balthazar and Stranger Than Paradise.
Be familiar with each other’s material: In class and online, we provided feedback to each other regarding the treatments and the scripts. Not only was this input helpful to each director in his or her development process, it also allowed everyone to know the direction their peers were moving towards, and in turn, how their piece fit into the overall project. It is important to also have these discussions in person – that’s when we could provide feedback in the best way, as opposed to our initial online conversations.
Establish themes: In the development process, resounding themes (visual, story and character) came up – from the protagonist’s issues with women and mortality, American capitalism and destruction, to images of airplanes, windows, lips and masks. By discussing these together, directors were then conscious of how to incorporate these elements into their own stories.
Form an overall creative team: Instead of each piece having its own DP, producer, art department and so on, which would probably dissect the film further as well as become a bigger financial strain, we established a creative team that could aesthetically connect the films together. We had two DPs (also Tisch students) who each filmed 5-6 projects, one main production and costume design team, who established the worlds of the films (and in turn hired their crews for the projects) and two line producers who were assigned to each DP and their slate of films. On Tar, we had Team Pedro and Team Bruce named after the DPs and our classmates, Pedro Gomez Millan and Bruce Thierry Cheung, respectively. Each team ended up having its own way of functioning and scheduling, and given the very demanding actor and academic schedules, this allowed us to have a parallel and simultaneous shooting schedule. Essentially we shot most of Tar within two weeks, where each film has 2 full days of shooting.
Communicate: This is the most basic and important aspect of collaboration but it is still the hardest to follow. On Tar, we created a Google group, so questions and ideas were shared in a forum, encouraging people to be on the same page, and also be aware of general concerns. And even then, there tended to be some confusion at times. But at least together, answers were found.
Give each piece its independence: While being aware of the bigger picture, it is also important, especially for a project like this one, to allow each film to have its own breathing room – where something unique and special from the director’s own style is upheld and celebrated. Else why have multiple directors craft a feature film? Now in the post-production process, each director is responsible for putting together his or her own film initially, and then we will have a supervising editor who will look at all the pieces together and connect them.
Set a timeline: It was important for certain deadlines to be met – whether it was turning in a new draft or providing feedback to finishing and viewing test shoots. (James asked each director to film and edit a complete test of their scripts, which we then viewed and critiqued. And this proved very helpful when it came to reworking scripts and stories). For the most part, the directors turned in their material and ideas in a timely way, which enabled us to move through the semester and consequently shoot the film when we had planned. Missing or not following deadlines could have proven detrimental to Tar, given that each piece was so closely related to one another.
Be flexible, embrace change: Coming off of our 2nd-year films, where we managed every single aspect of our short films, we found ourselves in situations we couldn’t necessarily control – Shooting in a locations that worked within the budget better, to switching Day for Night, given an actor’s availability, to cutting out entire scenes last minute if, in collaborating with the actors, we felt that a beat could be achieved within another scene. While this was also a new style of working for many, and at times frustrating, it also was liberating – to make the best of a situation, and then trust the performers to do the rest.
This class and film was an experiment. It was challenging as we were creating something in a way that had never been done before, especially within an academic system. But after wrapping principal photography, it has been infinitely rewarding and as we begin our post-production process, I am certain we will create a beautiful movie together – one that stars James Franco, Mila Kunis, Jessica Chastain, Michelle Williams, Henry Hopper, Zach Braff, and Bruce Campbell, filmed in and around Detroit, Michigan.
Shruti Ganguly is currently enrolled in NYU’s dual-degree program in film production, where she will receive an M.F.A. from the Tisch School of the Arts and an M.B.A. from the Stern School of Business, with a focus on Social Innovation and Entertainment/Media/Technology. Before starting at NYU, Shruti was a producer at NYLON Magazine, heading their TV department. Shruti continues to direct and produce music and fashion videos, while running an cinema advocacy group, EchoChamber, she co-founded with her producing partner Smriti Mundhra.