So I’ve created my own personal directing website that has a ton of my filmmaking info, my bio, my reel and other cool stuff like storyboards, concept and comic book art, and some photography. There’s also a link to buy the Lilith DVD or download. It’s a work in progress, but it’s pretty fun.
It’s been awhile since my last entry so it’s worth the time to revisit my first entry on business plans, discussing THE BIG IDEA. With our business plans our main objective is to stand out from the crowd. Why are our movies worth attention? Why are they special? What makes them different?
It’s not enough to simply write a screenplay that no one’s ever seen before. That’s the central pillar, the main building block, but it’s insufficient to present to someone and have them invest money into. The environment of the industry and audience must be in prime position for your film to really work from a business standpoint. You have to create a compelling argument that there is a small, moving window of opportunity that your film can capitalize upon.
As an example, I’ll use the remarkable film Upstream Color by Shane Carruth. I met Shane in 2005 at the Sundance Institute, a year after he’d won the grand jury prize for his $7,000 masterpiece Primer. He had a lot of ideas in his head and he was clearly an extremely intelligent man, and I couldn’t help but get excited about what he was proposing. Shane told me that before he made Primer he’d met with an accident and spent a significant amount of time in the hospital, and it was in that solitude where he watched classic films on Turner Classics, and they collided with his background in mathematics. Over lunch he described an idea of separate people building a collective being, a type of Modern Prometheus. Hard core science fiction stuff, but with the spiritual energy of a Malick, Tarkovsky or Bergman. It was the nascent seeds of what would become his project A Topiary, which, eight years after I met Shane, was still struggling to find funding, despite the support of Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher. Word is that the film’s gotten a new life.
Shane is a smart fucking dude.
With A Topiary in flux, Shane instead made Upstream Color, a remarkable meditation on the interconnected spiritual energies of beings. It’s a film that, had I been an investor, I would have casually dismissed as arthouse filler, a “movie” in the loosest sense of the word, and a film from a recluse Sundance-wunderkind whose previous work made a tiny profit and has a cult following.
Upstream Color is a movie that has no precedent, something like it doesn’t exist, and it’s screenplay is so unconventional that it takes little to no effort for it to differentiate itself from the pack. But it’s also too unconventional, to the point where its obtuseness can scare off investors because perplexing, reflexive and highly-artistic work has limited boxoffice appeal. At least that’s what one’s initial reaction to the screenplay would be.
But this is where Shane is also a smart businessman. He’s presented us Upstream Color (which he is self-distributing, out of choice) at a very special time, in a small window of opportunity where it can thrive.
I come from the food industry - my dad worked in fermentations and I worked in genetics - and one constant barometer as to the readiness of a product was the mantra of “time, temperature, and pH.” I find that this also applies to assessing the readiness of a film.
Time. Pretty self-explanatory. There has to be a time for everything. In food terms it’s how long something has to ferment, ripen, age or come to peak condition. One can look at the current environment and see that the timing for a well-made science fiction film is perfect. We’re absolutely on the cusp of a scientific renaissance, and interest in space, physics and astrophysics has reached an all-time high. Be it from Sheldon Cooper joking about condensates on The Big Bang Theory to last week’s discovery of DARK MATTER (no big deal, right?), space and the old notions of science fiction are on the tips of everyone’s tongue. Throw in a dose of nuclear Armageddon via North Korea and we’re in full science fiction prophesying mode.
The trend is there - the trailers for two major releases Joseph Kosinki’s Oblivion and Neil Blomkamps’s Elysium have dawned upon us and it’s a sign that the money people feel science fiction is bankable, if for a brief time as we don’t know how these films will perform. Upstream Color is being released at a time when the anticipation for new science fiction is at a fever pitch, which makes it ideal.
Temperature. Hot or cold? Not so literally. The temperature is the general emotional landscape of an audience, whether or not they are ready to take on heavy material, or if they want something twee and escapist. Two years ago I would have judged the audience not ready for heavy, introspective fare, because only mindless offerings of action and CGI were proving profitable. The game-changer was the release of Tree of Life, which despite its metaphysical bent and Malickian musings, managed to turn a healthy profit and sell tickets. The years saw successful films that questioned morality and ethics (Zero Dark Thirty) and that were meditative in nature (The Life of Pi), so if I were stretch out on a limb, I could, at reasonable expense, think that audiences are indeed in a place for a reflective piece. Even films like Django Unchained and Lincoln, despite the former’s blood-splattered action and the latter’s overwhelming star power, are both mirrors upon society and the choices we collectively make.
I look at the trends in television, where Game of Thrones, Homeland and Boardwalk Empire - three very engaging programs that are all more about inherent nature than spectacle, are telling me that human/ humane stories are the current temperature. In Upstream Color we are tapping this degree, delving into the human heart and its place in the greater fold.
pH. This can be a little more difficult to ascertain. In scientific terms, pH measures the acidity or alkalinity of a given substance, ranging from 0 to 14. Swing to either end of the spectrum and you have an extremely corrosive substance, and at 7 you are at perfect neutrality (i.e. water). In terms of film, the pH of an environment, to me, is the measure of provocativeness - how much can you push an audience before they revolt. On the acidic scale, we have films like Irreversible, movies that are prickly and eat away at everything we know. On the caustic side we have movies like Spring Breakers, gooey and yet still corrosive. In the middle we have movies like The King’s Speech, inoffensive to anyone and smooth like water.
Where are we now? I’d say somewhere right before Spring Breakers, not quite 14 but rather a 10-11. I make this assessment because we’re being inundated with terrible news everyday. Our economy sucks, we’re on the precipice of nuclear war with North Korea, our debt is increasing, our air toxic, our citizens shooting one another and our schools failing. The news is acidic, and our basic desire is to reach a stable place, a neutrality. So to make something acidic into water, you have to add something that is basic in nature. Something that is corrosive to eat away the nastiness but yet still has the potential to reach neutrality.
A film like Upstream Color is that. It’s a film that eats at you, but in a gentle way. It asks provocative questions of existence and compatibility and does so to rid ourselves of acidic anxiety.
In assessing pH, determine if your film is the element that will drive an audience towards neutrality, which is appeasement. If the audience is already neutral, then is it the kick in the ass to knock it out of the comfort zone?
So with the combination of these three elements, you will find the readiness of your work, the window of opportunity that has a limited time to capitalize upon. As of this writing, my business sense tells me that Upstream Color will be a resounding success because it has a great idea, and it addresses all three of the aforementioned elements of readiness. I would invest in it and stand behind it wholeheartedly. It is ready, and was determined to be ready by its maker.
This is super important to determine because you want to present a confluence of elements in the environment that will exist only for a short time. Invest now, or lose this opportunity forever. Time limits and small windows light a fire under the asses of both the filmmakers and investors alike. You’ll want to present your film as something that needs to be be made now, and if an investor sleeps on it, a smarter one will pick it up and make a ton of money because they took advantage of the market forces that the film was so primed to take advantage of.
Note again that we haven’t even written a single word of our business plan yet. This is all prep work for the writing, which is actually the least labor intensive part. Once you have your idea and strategy figured out, the writing will be the easiest part of all. But you have to have a good idea and strategy, or else you’ll be wasting your time. Spend time on these, because they are the crux of your work. A screenplay cannot be financed if it has no purpose (the idea) or place (readiness) in the world. Rationally justify your screenplay’s existence and you’ll find people to be convinced to take a look at it. To simply birth a story and declare it important just because it’s yours will mean years and years of knocking on doors and being met with failure. You have to make people care about your work, and for them to care, they must have a rationalized incentive to get involved.
In our next installment, we’ll start gathering empirical data and a strategy, and then maybe, MAYBE we’ll actually start writing this thing.
Prepare to be underwhelmed. I finally got around to transferring my very first student film - my first formal film that I’d ever made - to a digital format. I hadn’t seen this for almost twelve years (I made it fourteen years ago), and my cheeks were burning with embarrassment as I watched it.
Not that it’s a bad film, in fact I still quite enjoy it. It’s just so raw, so amateur, so incredibly pretentious (nods to Chris Marker, Stan Brakhage, Emile Durkheim). But it also shows a lot of things that would become a hallmark of how I make films. The first was the theme of parallel worlds and regrets, of lives and loves wasted. It’s something I’m very much drawn to. There is the appearance of an archon, which I wrote about extensively before and has made an appearance in almost all my films.
And finally, it was fun to see the roots of my ambition, my desire to make big films despite budgetary and technical limitations. Abstract Origins had a budget of $100, of which $75 of it went towards 16mm film stock and processing. My script required New York City to be empty, a ghost town. My film professor looked at me and said “you can’t do this.” He told me that Cameron Crowe had just filmed “Vanilla Sky” with Tom Cruise in Times Square, and they’d spent over a million just to clear a few NYC streets. It was the first time any instructor had told me that, and it fueled the beginnings of my blatant disrespect for authority. I told him I could do it. Defiantly. This was a story I needed to tell. I had a way to do it (note this was before digital filmmaking, Final Cut, After Effects, etc., all I had was a 16mm Arriflex and a Steenbeck flatbed editing table at my disposal). He looked at me and said “if you can pull this off, you should quit film school and go and make a feature film right away, and I’ll be the first to support you.” We shook hands, and a few weeks later, an empty NYC showed up onscreen. (The film also has a shot of me at the World Trade Center, exactly two years before 9/11 - I will cherish this footage). My professor wrote my recommendation to the Sundance Institute a few years later.
Everyone’s gotta start somewhere. I’ve come a long way, with still a very long way to go.
See a theme forming here? It’s a fairly dirty part of not only the American film industry, but also American business in general, which is is the exploitation of young people seeking jobs and the giving of no-pay internships.
When I was starting out in the film business, I needed an in. Somehow, somewhere. I had an incomplete film education and had never made a film before, so my resume was pretty nonexistent, unless some film crew needed a high-level molecular biologist somewhere. So I looked on a few websites that needed interns and PAs and interviewed for a PA job on a local filmmaker’s short film.
It was exciting. The director was an “award winning” filmmaker and the project was being funded by Florida State University’s MFA program. It was a healthy budget for an MFA short, and was being shot all over Chicago. A nice, domestic-issue script and the director was very nice. Since I didn’t have much of a resume or a reel, I’d spent the previous week drawing up sample storyboards and spec art direction/ production design concept art. If it’s one thing I could do, easily, it was draw and demonstrate my artistic taste and ability. I got the call that I was hired as an art department PA. For no pay.
The pay thing was a downer, but I was just happy to be on a film set. I showed up for pre-production meetings on time and was full of enthusiasm, and I always did more work than what was asked of me, ahead of schedule, and done with an exquisite sense of detail and pride. My father always taught me that if something is going to have my name on it, it’d better be the best work I can possibly produce, if not better.
The art director took notice of my work ethic and gave me more tasks to do, which I more than devoured. This new work involved me driving all over town, sourcing items to pick up for the art department. Which required me to go through about two tanks of gasoline per week. And a tank of gas costs about fifty bucks in Chicago, and I was on the gig for two weeks, so in all I had to spend two hundred bucks on gas alone. I asked the producers if I could get reimbursed for my gasoline expenditures, and they said their wasn’t any money for it, and that everyone was making sacrifices for the picture.
During the course of those two weeks I ended up spending about three hundred dollars out of my pocket, and truth be told I made the most of it. Despite working twenty hours a day and not getting paid for it, I got the attention of the director and she ended up writing a recommendation for me for another gig as a storyboard artist, a gig that paid, but paid pennies for very expensive and time-consuming work.
I look back on those experiences and realized that an unpaid PA position is essentially producers asking you to pay part of the production out of your pocket. You shouldn’t be having to pay money and still not get paid - that’s not being unpaid, that’s being exploited.
But what about what you get in return? Experience! Resume building! Networking! This is all true. But you shouldn’t have to pay for it, because you are exchanging your time and your talent for it, and those are worth a lot of money.
The scary part is that if we demand to be paid, there are a million other people who are willing to do work without pay, and willing to pay out of their pocket to be on a set. It’s the nature of the business - there are a lot of young filmmakers and not enough films being made to accommodate them. And it’s not only in film - America is being run on unpaid and low-pay interships (and not on Dunkin Donuts) - employers have figured out that there are young people coming out of college with debt and who are willing to take on work without pay in hopes that it’ll lead to a solid, paying job. Sometimes it happens, many times it does not, because there’s just another wave of interns willing to take your shitty unpaid position. Lena Dunham captured it perfectly in the pilot of Girls (the only part of the pilot that I liked):
It’s definitely a quandary, one that I’ve found difficult to solve. The problem lies on both the employer and the employee, but I have to say that the fault lays mostly on the employee. We shouldn’t be agreeing to work for free. But what about opportunities and experience? We need them, and they will generally come at a no-pay position. But here’s the difference. No-pay shouldn’t mean money coming out of your pocket. We need to insist that no-pay means working at cost.
Working at cost means that you’re working at a break-even level. Your transportation, food and any expenses related to the production are covered by the producers, and not by you. You’re not making a profit or a salary, you’re simply covering your costs. This is something I learned to ask for, and believe me it wasn’t easy to muster up the courage to do it.
This is where as artists we have to learn to be better negotiators. We think that we’ll find an agent or manager someday who’ll do the negotiating for us, but at some point we’ll get hosed and we’ll also have to negotiate with said agents and managers in the first place. If your goal is to become a professional filmmaker, then you’re going to have to learn basic business sense. But more then business sense, you have to build your own sense of self-worth.
We’re often led to believe that we need producers/ studios more than they need us. After all there’s so few of them, and so many of us. Which is true, no doubt. But in your mind, you can’t simply accept that you’re of little value. You have talent, you have a viewpoint, and you have demonstrable skills that back up your value. You are seeking money because you are a prize. The money isn’t the prize, you are. Money is only a commodity - a lot of people have it and it can be got from a variety of sources. But there’s only one of you. You are the prize, a producer should be lucky to have you.
Of course you don’t ever say that to a producer. You demonstrate it. You pitch yourself as valuable, that your time is valuable, and that you understand how tight the resources are but that you need to at least have your costs covered, that no money should come out of your pocket to make this film. Or else you’ll find other work.
It’s tough to walk out the door - we tend to take a “I’ll do anything” approach to our first jobs, and that’s more fear acting above all else. But you’ll find that when you take a stand, people will respect it. You’re not being unreasonable in asking to work for cost. Sure you’ll pay for gas to and from a set, but anything beyond that has to be recouped. You’ll get fed, you’ll get credit. You’re working for free, and not at a loss. This is a reasonable thing to take a stand on.
It’s not arrogant to take a stand, but you’ve got to be able to back it up. Your work has to be strong, and if you believe you are a prize, then demonstrate it in action. If you suck at your job and act like a prize, then you’ll get kicked to the curb and will never find work. Know the truth and what you are capable of. If you’re not willing to put in the time, work and effort, then you’re not worthy of being hired.
Life on the bottom rung will always feel like exploitation, but it only becomes exploitation if we are losing money out of our own pockets. The fight to protect our rights is being diminished by our fellow filmmakers, who are willing to take work and indirectly pay producers for it. It’s a bitter pill to swallow when you see them on a set and you’re not there. So we need a collective conscious of working at cost. It’s our responsibility to change the minds of employers, who will continue to exploit as long as people are out there willing to work for negative costs.
This is not an easy problem to solve. Competitiveness and desperation are hard forces to fight. But it’s simply a matter of taking a stand. America needs to run on ingenuity, fair competition and innovation. Not on price wars, because nobody wins a price war. As long as there’s someone willing to undercut the price of the next guy (re: CHINA), there won’t be enough to sustain anything, exploitation leads to slavery, and it will all collapse. This is the very real danger, and to fight it starts with taking a simple stand for yourself and your self-worth.
You are a prize, not a commodity. You have value. You have meaning. You are worth every penny. Make it so.
Everything Counts (Pasadena Rose Bowl Version)
Played 90 times
3rd Anniversary of the ‘Lilith’ Blog!
Music for a Black Celebration:Everything Counts (Live) by Depeche Mode.
Three years, 550 posts and 51k followers later and we’re still going strong. Frankly when I started this blog I had my own doubts whether or not I’d be able to sustain 2-3 original posts per week, knowing my penchant for writing a lot and that I insist on not repeating myself. I’ve tried to make every post meaningful, entertaining and informative, and I’ve hope you’ve enjoyed them.
One of the truly satisfying parts of this blog is the interaction I’ve had with young filmmakers over the years. I’ve had both student and beginning filmmakers who are readers of this blog send me scripts, ask for business advice on fundraising and crowdsourcing, and even a few who just needed a sounding board for the natural frustrations that this business fosters. There are eleven young filmmakers from this blog who I regularly keep in touch with, all of whom started their relationship with me by simply sending me a message.
Of course what made me want to help these specific eleven is that they demonstrated the sheer passion, drive, dedication and work ethic that it takes to make it in this business. When they share their thoughts with me, they let me know of the work they’re doing and the efforts they’re making to be better. Their efforts, energy and desire to succeed motivates me as much as this blog motivates them. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. Maybe we can devise a name for this group someday.
This blog continues to grow and I continue to grow along with it. If you’ve been with me from the start you’ve seen me through a feature and two short films, and I’ve got my next feature on the way, which I do hope to be writing about shortly. I’ve wondered whether I should re-brand this blog to suit my next feature, but I’ve decided to keep it as ‘Lilithfilm,’ because the spirit of ‘Lilith’ is the spirit of how I want to make films, and I don’t ever want to change that. I cherish the freedom I had on ‘Lilith’ - the freedom to express myself without censor, the freedom to make films on my terms, the freedom to make mistakes by my own hand. That is the spirit of ‘Lilith’ - the spirit of independence.
As we start year four of this blog I want to continue to discuss our craft and the evolution of it. As I review my old posts I can see that I’ve already modified my thinking and approach to writing, directing and producing. There are missteps I made on ‘Lilith,’ on ‘7x6x2’ and my other films, moments that have opened my eyes to new techniques and ideas, and I will continue to share my findings. In that sense I want this blog to slowly evolve from a document of filmmaking into a filmmaking lab, where we experiment with ideas and bounce them off one another. I hope to bring more young filmmakers into the fold and expand beyond eleven dedicated artists, people who know that filmmaking is so much more than buying a DSLR and expensive gear.
Filmmaking is a fine art, a craft and a way of life. Our goal is to become professionals, where we have something unique to say and we get paid to say it. If film is in your blood, then you live for it and know what you must do to make it happen. I’m just happy to be by your side on your journey.
Lastly, I’ve had the great joy of not only chronicling my own growth and experiences as a filmmaker on this blog, but I’ve also had the tremendous privilege of watching my fellow ‘Lilith’ collaborators grow and spread their wings as well, and they have in spades. They are as much a part of this blog as I am, and on behalf of myself, Julia Voth, Bianca Christians, Lili Reinhart, Nancy Telzerow, Jeremy Kendall, Spencer Kim, Lauren Ondecker, Damon Taylor, Faroukh Mistry, Kristen Adams, Eric Morrell, Will Brooks and Alap Momin (aka dälek), Chris Stangroom and the rest of the insanely talented artists that I get to call dear friends in the ‘Lilith’ family, we thank you so much for three years of continual, loving support.
It all comes to a head (or does it?) in this final installment of Julia Voth’s Resident Evil-universe webseries Project S.E.R.A.. In this final episode, we learn that intrepid agent Gillian Ames has a big heart, and that the world she lives in is a hell of a lot more complicated than what she bargained for.
The series leaves a lot of questions that need answering in Season 2, so let’s make sure there is a season two by sending some serious traffic to the site. Click on the video and watch the video, and help spread the word. Julia, Derek Theler and Ben Howdeshell have worked super hard on this, let’s make their efforts all worth the while! It takes a village!
I tried. I really did. Despite my abject hatred of musicals (check that- Broadway musicals/ showtunes), I stuck to my goal of trying to watch all of the Oscar Best Film nominees and popped my Academy screener of Les Miserables into my DVD player.
I couldn’t last thirty minutes. It was dreadful, horrible, screechy, wide-angle-camera-up-the-nose bad, just plain awful. I slapped myself in the face a few times during Russell Crowe’s “singing” and then fast forwarded to Anne Hathaway’s Oscar-bait single take song which was one of the most cloying, manipulative and pandering pieces of film I’ve ever had the displeasure of watching and hearing. It’s not for lack of heart or effort on behalf of the performers - they’re trying their hardest, bless their hearts - it’s that they’re burdened with such horrible material and creative decisions that it could be Placido Domingo singing and it wouldn’t make a difference.
Just plain bad. Hollywood at its very worst, and a slap in the face to the original MGM musical spectacles of the heyday. A lie committed to celluloid, built to please those unwilling to think and force-fed feelings, there isn’t a sincere frame in this entire movie (or at least the part that I saw). A misfire on almost every account. Blah.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, dir. by Alison Klayman, USA, 2012.
As a college activist, I knew the gentle art of making a mountain out of a molehill. In 1998 we held a demonstration at the Capitol Building in Colorado over the treatment of the murder case of Matthew Shepard, and we crossed over a boundary and got pushed back by a police officer. The officer was just doing his job, and one of our group took that little incident and spun it to an act of state totalitarianism. We had to temper his political ambitions, but nonetheless it served our cause well.
Of course there are very legitimate acts of police brutality as well, and while it may be a greater indicative of the power dynamics displayed in the classic Stanford Prison Experiment, there’s a very fine line where the acts of the individual are representative of the acts of the entire state. It takes a lot of work and diligence to determine that.
Which is why my respect for Chinese artist/ activist Ai Weiwei is so tremendous. I’d been aware of his political art after his defiant stand against the Beijing Olympics (he designed the ‘Birds Nest’ stadium, and contended that the management of the Games were in conflict to his desire and design of open democracy and access), but I was not aware of his actions on the ground, outside of his art. Weiwei has waged a very public war on the internet against the Chinese government, using his blog and Twitter account to actively document the supression and censorship of anyone who dares to question the authority of the state.
Wewei doesn’t reserve his judgement for the Chinese only…
The tipping point is achieved when Weiwei is assaulted by a Chinese police officer, an attack that results in Weiwei having to go to the hospital and having surgery on his skull. In the way Weiwei documents his ordeal, it’s easy to label him as a public martyr or social pariah, but the fact of the matter is that he was there and it happened to him, and it happened to him because he was trying to provide testimony in court to defend a friend and fellow activist.
This makes for a fascinating character study, as Weiwei spins his political activism into his public persona. His image is as important as his cause, and vice versa. A very interesting shade is his own personal ethics, which are subtly challenged in the film. Weiwei challenges the ethics of the state, and yet he himself has crossed an ethical boundary, having fathered a son with another woman, despite being in a committed 16-year marriage. It is an interesting juxtaposition, as director Alison Klayman compares Weiwei’s treatment of two legal institutions - marriage and media - and prods for Weiwei’s infraction of both. He is dismissive of his infidelity as “something that just happens,” a man who simply made a poor judgement. Any opponent of Wewei would suggest he is being a hypocrite, that he holds himself to a different moral standard than others.
It couldn’t be further from the truth. Wewei accepts his infidelity, and celebrates his ability to publicly state his infidelity. He is not proud of it, rather he is proud he can at least express his fallibility, and no government should be able to silence that right.
The reviews of the film call it words like ‘incendiary’ and ‘intense’ and I found it to be neither, rather I found it to be an intriguing character study, one which paints the portrait of a man whose cause to the freedoms of the many is almost an act of digital narcissism. It is unclear whether Weiwei craves the spotlight, but his heart is always in the right place. A fascinating documentary.
Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste; Galaxie 500 1979-1991, Sergio Huidor and Various, UK/ USA, 1979-1991.
I’ve had this 2-disc set sitting on my shelves for almost three years and never got around to watching it. I’d been a fan of Galaxie 500 since high school, amidst my love of all things shoegaze at that time, taking in bands like My Bloody Valentine, The Stone Roses, Wire, Jesus and Mary Chain, His Name Is Alive and Miranda Sex Garden. These bands always had such amazing music videos, almost abstract collages of color and ghostly images. The early videos of Galaxie 500 made an impression on me, as they often used rather morbid found footage and used different video techniques to create dirty loops and noisy texture. It fit perfectly to the music, and was one of the earliest pure marriages of sound and image that I’d experienced in my life.
On this set (issued by uber-cool label Plexifilm), there are the handful of videos directed by friend-of-the-band Sergio Huidor, but there’s another disc-and-a-half of live performances by the band, many of which display the beautiful waves of guitar that the band was able to build. The guitar solos, in particular, are of outstanding, simple and transcendent quality. The last time I was so enamored with live guitar playing were the solos by Robert Smith on The Cure’s Live in Orange concert film and the live performance recordings of Billy Corgan and Smashing Pumpkins. These are solos where the guitar doesn’t take center stage, rather it drives the song into a new direction, being as evocative as any vocals or chorus. Galaxie’s solos on the BBC live footage is particularly beautiful, to the point where I felt inspired to write new stories and rewrite my old ones. These are the sounds of emotions. Breathtaking, and a reminder of how absolutely powerful the dwindling (some might argue already lost) medium of the music video and concert film really is.
Besides Lilith there are some real deep cuts in here, including footage from my first feature, 19 Revolutions and a ton of sneak-peek footage from 7x6x2, my collaboration with graphic novelist Paul Pope. Enjoy!
First and foremost, massive congrats to Lilith actress Lili Reinhart, as her film Toy’s House, which is in dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance, was just acquired for distribution by CBS Films. Lili’s worked super hard and this is a huge step in her career, and I can’t wait for what the future holds for her.
Toy’s House is one of many high-profile acquisitions that have occurred early in the schedule at Sundance, with films fetching prices in the $4-9m range from both major and upstart distributors. The trend is very promising and exciting for all of us involved in film.
Ever since the recession began in 2006 (has it been that long already?), the days of high prices for film acquisition at Sundance and other film markets like AFM, Berlin and Cannes had all but dried up. Distributors didn’t have cash to borrow from banks and what they could pay wasn’t anywhere near able to cover the cost of production. As the years progressed, the number of acquisitions plummeted into the single digits. Not only did this mean that less films were finding quality distribution, it had a much more detrimental effect upon film investment. If films were not able to find distribution, then what possible vote of confidence could be given to an investor to put money in a film. As distribution dried up, so too did confidence - and therefore money - in new films to be made.
I know this because I made Lilith at the peak of the financial desert. My efforts to sell the film were consistently met with the same story - “we like the film, we just don’t have any money to give you for it.” Luckily I found a distributor, but I was indeed lucky. Very lucky. There were so many films - great films - made in the past five years that have fallen victim of the financial landscape. In addition there were so many great scripts that even despite having high-profile directors and actors attached to them, simply could not find funding because of the lack of confidence in film distribution.
This might seem puzzling given that the theatrical movie business has posted a record financial profit in 2012. It blew the previous figure out of the water, this despite fewer films being made, acquired and released. As with every year, ticket prices have gone up, but the real factor of profitability was the foreign market. Films recouped as much as three times their domestic box office abroad, and it’s been an absolute godsend for the studios. With digital delivery and projection, P&A costs were slashed dramatically, and countries that relied upon 35mm projection would simply receive prints cycled through other countries.
But note that this success was seen predominantly by big-budget studio tentpole films, movies that had a pedigree or built-in audience. These movies were relatively easy sells in foreign markets - James Bond is an international commodity and Skyfall bolstered the appeal by being a well-made and well-told story. It also pandered to its target market by setting itself in China. The Avengers was an actioner that could translate across cultures, and reaped the benefit of almost a decade of films that had a built-in audience. These were slam-dunk calculated risks, and as a result of smart choices and smart filmmaking, the profits were there to be taken.
‘Skyfall’ in China.
But not everyone can afford to make The Avengers or Skyfall, and selling a film like Wuthering Heights or We Need to Talk About Kevin internationally is a deadly proposition. So while the studio tentpoles flourished, smaller and independent films struggled mightily. But despite this, producers got smarter and made films that took a page from the studios, focusing on genre filmmaking and reducing their costs. A film like Looper grabbed science fiction by the horns, leveraged a rising star in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and took advantage of Chinese distribution by incorporating it into the narrative. But for every Looper there are a few dozen Lilith’s, small indie genre films that have niche appeal and require niche distribution that is woefully underfunded. In the past six years the number of niche distributors has plummeted, with many of them buckling under financial pressure and closing their doors. With the loss of niche distribution, so too did the money for investment in independent films dry up. Throw in the changing environment of digital / streaming distribution (Netflix pays out little to nothing for indie filmmakers), and it’s been a really, really tough ten years for independent film.
But the recent acquisitions at Sundance give a signal that the times are changing. Money is flowing at a rate that is unheard of in the past six years, and when distributors spend money, investors are more inclined to put money into the system. It’s basic business - you put money in places where it can turn a profit. The onus is still on the distributors to make money at the box office, but they wouldn’t pay for these films if they didn’t feel they couldn’t be sold. It also means that filmmakers are getting smart as well, trimming their costs of production and negotiating star salaries down or offering participation on the back end. Lili’s film - besides being reviewed favorably as funny and charming - has a cast that can sell, with Nick Offerman and Alison Brie rounding off a very polished and talented cast. A cast like that five years ago would be unaffordable on an indie budget, but producers have adjusted to challenging times, as have actors, who realize that less films being made means less available work, and to participate on a quality project on a reduced salary means the potential for greater returns is multiplied.
If investors see that smaller budget, smartly made genre films with magnetic, well-assembled casts are making money, they’ll be more inclined to invest in them. And that’s a very, very good thing for independent filmmakers. It makes me excited for the future. I’m glad that I’ve been able to weather the storm and still somehow make quality movies during that time period, and I’m looking forward to the brighter future. It’s no free pass - we’ll have to be smarter than ever because while investor confidence will be rising, it doesn’t mean they’ll be less cautious. In fact investors will be all the more cautious because they have to find projects that fit this current environment. The economy hasn’t recovered, it’s only showing signs of it. But a smart investor knows it’s important to strike early, and strike intelligently. So we have to be intelligent with what we present. Study the trends and make them your own. See what’s selling and innovate on them, make them high concept and low budget, and I guarantee you’ll get a nibble of interest.
Time to strike is not when the iron is hot, but when it’s just heating up. We’re at that stage right now, so let’s get to work!!
Sundance Institute trained, journeyman molecular biologist with bonus producing, writing, editing and directing skills. Amateur film historian, unapologetic liberal Tarkovskite with fierce cooking skills and a penchant for unusual stories. I hope you like my writing and find it useful.