Friday, April 18, 2008

The Big Thing

What is the one thing that we seek? What is the one single thing that dictates and motivates this industry? Financing? Is that your answer? No, financing is not what I’m talking about. Don’t get me wrong – financing is what is needed to secure the funding to actually shoot the picture; but financing is a byproduct of having all your ducks in a row. There is nothing magical about raising the financing for your film, it’s a matter of securing all the pieces you need to release the financing.

I’m talking about distribution, plain and simple. That is the big thing that I am working on. That is what has been driving me crazy, that is what I have been not talking about.

First and foremost let’s get one thing straight, I am not talking about digital distribution. I am not an advocate of digital distribution, nor do I think that digital distribution and to a certain extent digital technologies are not in our best interest. I’m not going to devote a lot of time to this topic because most of you either don’t care about the debate or are extremely pro-digital both as a shooting format and a distribution platform.

But I will say this much…many of you that call yourselves filmmakers. Many of you writers turned shooters and actors turned director/producer/editor that refer to the possibilities of these new “technologies” seem to think that it is all academic. You emphatically believe that some form of cosmic transitive property exists to prove that if you shoot inexpensively and distribute inexpensively that the aggregate number of films produced each year will increase – and these films will be “better” films with more inclusive narratives and more diverse casts. The promise of digital technology is to forever level the playing field so that anyone with basic means and a library card can participate. Now if you smoke a lot of weed for consecutive days while having anal sex with your girlfriend (Girlfriend…what’s a girlfriend) you’ll soon come to the conclusion that all these new camera’s available to all these new people who had been shut out of the industry and it’s discourse since its inception will usher in a renaissance of the artform. Gone forever would be the dreams and delusions of old white men who have lived privileged lives and seek to expand the influence of those lives through the media. This is essentially the promise of digital as a format and shooting methodology and it is digital distribution that is supposed to truly delivery this to the humble masses.

But what have we seen? What trends and types of behavior have we seen arise since the dawn of the Cannon XL-1? We have seen an explosion in the number of films being shot and submitted to festivals (Sundance had over 8000 submission this year, I last applied in 2006 - there were 4300 submissions then). Competition for grants and funding is so laughable that many don’t even consider it (not that this is a bad thing). Since a vast majority of the new entrants to filmmaking have little if any filmmaking experience it’s no surprise that the level of technical proficiency (read: prettiness) has decreased even faster than the pace of growth in filmmakers. And what has all this given us? What trends do we see?

1) Ample supplies of economically affordable equipment and inexpensive film stock (DV tapes) have created an environment where the average filmmaker feels that filmmaking is inexpensive and can be duplicated on a small scale for certain results.

This is in my opinion the most destructive part of the digital initiative. A film is a huge animal that eats constantly, that’s truly the only way to think about it. For example, assume that I call you one day and say that I’m buying a Polar Bear to keep as a pet. Now I’m not sure you can even buy a Polar Bear or if he can get a Visa and negotiate all the TSA/Homeland security shit to get into the States – but whatever; say I get it all sorted and I’m going to do it. How many pounds of fish do you think I’ll need to feed this polar bear every month? 300lbs? 300lbs is a lot of fucking fish to store for a month and guess what? A polar bear can hold 165lbs of food in its stomach. Needless to say I’d need a lot of fucking fish to feed my polar bear. The point is that there is no such thing as a small film. There is no such thing as spending a little money. Sure there is a difference between a $3K film and a $200MM film..but 60% over budget is 60% over budget – no matter what the base is. Things are going to get fucked up and things are not going to play out exactly as you have planned them…assuming that you actually had a plan and didn’t try to wing it. My point is that we should never, ever marginalize the massive physical, financial and emotional cost of shooting a film. This attitude is what has led to the downward slide in technical proficiency. There are a lot of things you could do other than shoot a modest short film (like put a new transmission in your car). Don’t underestimate the COST of your film.

2) In an effort to increase festival submissions and hence festival attendance, festivals have embraced low-cost DV films and often hold a film shot by an “amateur” or for lack of a better term “non-solely filmmaking as a career path” filmmakers to illustrate that there is nothing special or intrinsic about filmmaking.

I can’t begin to tell you how much this irks me. Det. Bud and I have had so fucking many conversations about why shitty films get made. Shitty films get made because shitty films get screened…it’s that simple. Festival directors seem to think their job is to give every filmmaker a voice and a means to screen their films because they made them. That’s altruistic bullshit. For starters the job of the festival is to protect the artform for losing its significance and its identity. It does this by only screening films…not TV pilots, not 1 act play that have been filmed, not dance numbers that have been films. The festival is the first real experience any filmmaker has with the “industry”. It doesn’t have to be the nasty, “fuck you – Pay me” thing that it is currently. Filmmakers, you do not get points for trying - just like rocket scientists…if the motherfucker doesn’t fly…you failed. When I go to a festival and a see a short film shot on DV that has a camera that shakes constantly, is shot at night with no additional lighting so we are sitting in the dark listening to voice and catching the occasional silhouetted figure, has extremely poor dialogue or has camera set-ups so poor that it’s often hard to make out what kind of room or structure the actors are in…when I see this…I know that things will only get worse. Sure, I shoot film…sure, I’m what they call elitist, a film-only guy who has the means to shoot it…whatever, call me whatever, but the fact of the matter is this. Camera placement does matter, refocusing and repositioning the camera in the middle of a shot is distracting, bad acting is intolerably, poorly lit shots are unwatchable. It is the festivals duty to prohibit these films from screening…this should be their basic function. But it isn’t and we all know why that is. Cause filmmakers like to send checks. And shitty filmmakers like to send lots of checks. The spending of money is so closely associated with this artform that it’s not that uncommon to meet a filmmaker that thinks their monetary expenditures justifies their artistic claims. And if all that wasn’t bad enough there is an agenda that we have to combat. That agenda is the new “personality” of independent filmmaking. I’ll put it to you like this: it’s a lot easier to sell copies of Filmmaker Magazine if the cover story is on a 58 yr old mother of 5 who woke up one day, shot a film, got accepted to Sundance and is now “in” the industry. Shit, I even wanna read that and I don’t normally care about 58yr old women unless I’m trying to fuck them. But my point is that it’s chic, en vogue to be a filmmaker now…especially one with no training. Festivals understand this (as do booksellers) and they cater to them. Still happy to be a filmmaker?

3) Though filmmakers have the means with which to tell any stories that they choose, they curiously tend to only write, direct and edit along the lines of the traditional Hollywood model in an attempt to break into the industry.

Ok, this makes me fucking laugh my ass off. So, my dear DV shooting, new agey, altruistic, love-thy-neighbor filmmakers – where is the diversity? Why is that even though you now have the means to shoot what you want, how you want and where you want (prettiness doesn’t matter, remember…it’s all about the story) that you don’t give us anything new? I can tell you why. Because newness comes from ideas and you don’t have ideas…you have desire. You have the desire to shoot a film and DV gave you the means. But if you’ve never really thought about film, never really thought about the cinema…then it’s going to be tough to bring something new to the cinema. But it goes even deeper than that. That’s just part of the problem…the real problem is that the Hollywood mindset and archetype is so deeply ingrained in your mind that you recreate it from memory. No, that’s not a joke. Just read Craigslist’s film/TV section and tell me how often you come across a female lead that’s blonde haired and blue eyed. Tell me how many gangster films are shooting, how many horror slasher low-budget horror films are looking for financing…a lot. I think the dilemma was how to use all this new shit to get hired by the people who hired the people who made the old shit…and then sell them some new shit. The problem is when we do get hired we tend to forget about the new shit and stick with the tried and true. I guess I have to be the first to say that a vast majority of the filmmakers that have flocked into filmmaking and have embraced digital have Lucas or Spielberg as their favorite director. I assume there are a few lover of James Cameron and Michael Bay out there as well. None of these directors are challenging the status quo, quite the contrary they are the status quo. I’m not trying to make you pro or con digital technology…I just want you to see what the fuck is going on. Where are the films about the stories that we never hear about? Where are the different points of view that were smothered by the Hollywood model? Where is all this pent up, artistic talent that the man has kept hidden?

The media archetypes that are sold to all of us, marketed to us dozens of times a second have an autoplay back feature. The beauty of the Starbucks commercial is that it makes you act and feel like you are in a Starbucks. The digital liberation has given many of us the means to recreate many of the images and themes that are repetitively sold to us. This is what we are doing, emulating the oppressive imagery that we sought to break away from. I

4) Filmmaking has become “something to do” in a certain amount of time - be it a summer vacation or a semester. The belief is that a majority of the skill set required to assemble a film can be learned in a relatively short period of time.

My main bone of contention is the feeling that filmmaking is no longer a lifelong vocation. You can play a guitar or a piano for a lifetime and not learn everything about the instrument but filmmaking which has vastly more moving parts and is so large that you can’t even see all of it in one glace, but you can learn all you need to know if a few weeks (or days if you take a weekend course. This is a dangerous idea for a number of reason but to explain it I think I need to compare this to other professions. You can’t just become an attorney. You have to go to law school and pass the bar. This is a physical barrier to entry in the industry that insures that only certain individuals will ever be able to call themselves lawyers. This is how we need to think. 5 million filmmakers looking for financing and release dates is nobody’s idea of a picnic. If we do nothing else as an industry we need to reduce our numbers. Yes, I said reduce our numbers. Less filmmakers means less people competing for financing and release dates. My degree is in economics and it’s about restricting the supply of filmmakers. I compete in the arena of first-time feature directors who want to shoot on 35MM. Believe it or not this is not a huge group of people. Sure all of us would like to shoot on 35, but how many refuse to shoot on anything else? Few of us. How many of my competition have shot a long form short (longer than 20 mins) on film? How many are looking for more than $2MM. I am in a small pool of applicants and that’s how I like it. We must remove filmmaking and its jargon from the lexicon of the average American. Filmmaking must become mysterious again. We need to put the curtain back up and not let them know how we make the magic happen. To refuse is to forever put a serious crimp in out importance and our earning potential…filmmaking is revolution, when will you realize this?

5) The act of producing a film and the reception and “successfulness” that the film receives have been forever divorced. It is now acceptable to shoot films just for the sake of seeing if it can be done…promotion of that work and concerns about how it fits into the overall body of film are not of consequence.

I guess our society is to blame for this and filmmaking is just a rather blatant example. There is a common belief that trying is what matters. This no doubt arise from a desire to de-emphasize winning so as not to marginalize all the children that are not overly athletically or intellectually gifted and may not “win” any type of competition. I can understand that…I don’t like it cause I’m an overachiever and I think it gives the less proficient and reason for their lack of proficiency so they don’t try that hard…but that’s just me. When it comes to filmmaking this is an extremely dangerous frame of thought. We make films to show them to people, Period! Any film that doesn’t not make it out of post or is never screened with any level of frequency (festivals, community screenings, conventions) is a waste of resources. I am truly amazed at people who shoot films and screen them only once or twice. Why is that? Does your film suck so bad that you are afraid to show it to people? Or are you too lazy to seek out screening opportunities because it’s so “hard” to do? Whatever your excuse it’s not good enough. There is no partial credit here. If your film didn’t get finished, you failed. If you didn’t submit to festivals…you are oblivious to why we make films. If you didn’t apply to enough festivals to get accepted to even one of them…then you lack the drive to be a filmmaker. This is what it is…if you think this sucks…then guess what, filmmaking sucks (yes, it’s true). Here, let me use myself as an example. I have to raise $4MM to shoot this feature. If I don’t do it, I’m a failure…plain and simple. Fear the failure, fight against it…it’s the only real driving force we have…so embrace it (…and you can still drink soy milk and fuck your vegan GF….But does she swallow meat eater cum? That’s the real question)

I’ve been meeting with movie theaters and discussing numbers. I have realized that Big Hit Productions is not a production company that distributes its own films, it’s a distribution company that shoots its own content. My big idea is to put together a coalition of theaters and 4 wall my film in my own limited release strategy. If I can get a screening agreement/distribution agreement…then I can release my financing…..

Ok… that’s enough for today… I guess.


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