Notes from IFP’s Independent Filmmaker Conference 2009
Fashion Institute of Technology
New York, NY
The theme over the weekend was “Making Your First Feature,” something a lot of the attendees could probably relate to, as when the moderators asked who in the audience was a filmmaker, almost everyone raised their hands. Many of the panelists on the stage were established filmmakers or producers, even people in distribution and exhibition, who were more than willing to share their experiences. Topics ranged from exhibiting films online and in alternate venues such as arthouses, to getting your screenplay read and sold, to finding music, and coming up with a plan to build and sustain your career.
While many filmmakers aspire to have their films play theatrically, the topic of the first panel I attended on Saturday was called “Big Ideas for the Small Screen,” which is more or less the web nowadays and not so much an actual television. This was the first of a couple of panels that Mary Jane Skalski (Producer, Next Wednesday) and Jamin O’ Brien (Producer, Worldview Entertainment) moderated. The panel was comprised of people working in or making content for the web including Eric Mortenson (Head of Content - Blip.tv), Craig Parks (Vice President, IFC Digital Media), Jeff Marks (Bright Red Pixels), actor Anslem Richardson (Like So Many Things), and Marc Lieberman (Producer, The Onion News Network).
O’Brien began by asking what drives each of the panelists to develop, create, and produce projects specifically for the web, and Skalski alluded to how there seems to be more people watching web content these days than going to see a theatrical film release. Richardson, who worked on a short film that was eventually turned into a seven-episode series on IFC.com, said the web is a great way for independent filmmakers to get things out there, and suggests honing one’s skills online, because if you fail, at least you didn’t spend a lot of time and money. Lieberman, who works with The Onion News Network, which has been around for three years and stems from The Onion newspaper and is a large brand attracting audience to the web, said what’s changing is that there are now job opportunities for producing web content that weren’t there before. Mortenson said at Blip.tv, they work with several shows that consistently get three million views a month.
O’Brien added to Skalski’s earlier hypothesis by asking if web content is replacing the need for filmmaker to make 35mm films, replacing that idea with a much less expensive and accessible medium and more exposure. Marks, who began his career in Hollywood, said around the time of the digital revolution, he and his production partner could have their own Final Cut or Canon XL1 and start making their own films. And around the time the iPod video came out, they started making web video, which presented an opportunity to take what they’ve made and find an audience for it. Fast-forward to today, and Marks said that a lot of what’s on the web now is a one-trick pony or gag. To him having content on the web is not just about getting viewership, but also cultivating talent and give opportunities to be discovered and find work.
O’Brien asked, what is working on the web, what have the panelists had success with, and what are they looking for or hope to see next? Lieberman said The Onion News Network makes two-minute videos that have more of a story arc, and not just one beat. He cites his DP who is making a short series with his 90-year-old grandmother about Depression-era cooking, which got a book deal. It’s about creating a show about whatever you like to do and creating content around that. Mortenson agreed with Lieberman, saying that was a perfect example because there’s no competition for that show. On Blip.tv, shows like Morning Swim Show and Momversations get a lot of views, because of their unique topics.
Skalski and O’Brien were back to moderate “Script to Screen.” On the panel were Jody Hotchkiss (Producer – Cockeyed), Geoff Betts (Business Agent - Writers Guild of America, East), Darrien Michelle Gipson (National Director, SAG Indie), Robert Siegel (Entertainment Attorney - Cowan DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP), and Joshua Zeman (Producer – Ghost Robot Films).
Skalski began by asking how one can introduce his or her screenplay into the world, what are people looking for, what are some first steps? The first thing that Hotchkiss always looks for is a personal response to a story, such as in a newspaper or magazine article. “Something where you feel, Oh my G-d, that should be a film!” he said. If the feeling isn’t there, it’s hard to go further with it. Zeman said it’s really important to develop your pitch by pitching to your friends first and finding out what people respond to.
Skipping ahead to later in the discussion, Skalski asked Betts how people can register their scripts with the WGAE. Betts said everyone who’s written a script should register it with the Writer’s Guild, which protects your idea and concept. Siegel added that everyone should also submit his or her scripts to the U.S. Copyright Office. And what of obtaining the rights to literary or found material, Skalski asked. Hotchkiss answered that the best way is to first approach the author or journalist of the source material. Strike up a relationship, so there’s sympathy to be free and clear to depict the real person and get a “right to depict” release, which acts as your insurance. Siegel added that it could actually be a little more complicated than that to option or purchase the rights, as sometimes you have to deal with exclusivity.
And to backtrack a little earlier in the discussion, in terms of casting, Skalski turned the table over to Gipson, asking how SAG Indie works. Gipson explained that once you’re ready to cast your film, make sure the people you’re casting are SAG or professional actors to use the website, which is www.sagindie.org, and download the preliminary information form. The site tells you how much your actor will cost you. This lead to Skalski’s next question being, how do you determine your budget? Siegel replied that the first thing to do is get a line producer or production manager to do a real budget.
Now that you have your film completed it’s time to lay down the music and score, but whom do you go to for the rights? This issue was touched on in “Music: The Bastard Child of Post-Production,” moderated by Doreen Ringer Ross (Vice President, Film/TV Relations - BMI), who allowed the audience to jump in with questions, as opposed to waiting toward the end of the moderated section of the panel, which I thought was cool. On the panel were some of the greatest names in film and film music including animator Bill Plympton (Director - Idiots and Angels), Brook Pimot (VP, Creative & Marketing [Film & TV Music] - Cherry Lane Music Publishing, Inc.), composer David Shire (Composer - Zodiac, Norma Rae, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Saturday Night Fever), and music supervisor Randall Poster (Music Supervisor - Away We Go, Jennifer’s Body, Revolutionary Road).
Ringer Ross threw the first question out to Plympton, asking him about making his first feature and the experience in getting the music. Plympton said for his first film, “Your Face,” he knew nothing about music, though it was a musical. In the film, a male character was to sing a song, but he could only get a female singer, because she was free. It was his first usage of music in a film. For future films, he used musicians that he knew personally. In 1990, halfway through production on his film “The Toon,” he ran out of money, so he had to release it in two separate sections. Later on in the discussion, Ringer Ross asked what kind of music Plympton likes to receive. He said he prefers to listen to an entire song, not just a sample MPEG. He prefers acoustic to electronic music, and plays music while he draws. One audience member asked Plympton, what is his etiquette in working with composers? Plympton said he once had a problem with a composer, who kept changing the lyrics, and he’s since then stopped using him, but they have still remained friends.
Ringer Ross asked Poster how he began his career as a music supervisor. Poster said he wrote a script with a friend about the demise of a college radio station, “A Matter of Trees,” which was invited to Sundance. At the time, college radio was transforming into alternative music. They recorded music for the film and made a record deal. His ambition became to work with great filmmakers instead of making his own films every couple of years.
In terms of when a music publisher steps in, Pimont said a music supervisor comes to her for a song to use in the film and negotiates a price to use it. Sometimes it is too low, so she runs the offer by the writers. Some publishers won’t even look at an offer if it is below a certain amount. Ringer Ross asked what’s happening with dollar amounts on licensing fees? Pimont said there is a lot of value in getting a song placed in a film or commercial. Poster stated the example of how Tom Waits does not allow his music to appear in commercials. He is aggressive in asserting his legal rights, but does show support for worthwhile projects. Poster said the artists him or herself is not always completely in control, and warns that all artists should cover their bases, and not rely on a casual approval. Plympton said this happened to him on “Idiots & Angels,” where he had to wait till the last day to finalize his mix. Ringer Ross mentioned that musician Moby gives his film away to independent filmmakers via Moby Gratis. She asked Shire, as a composer, what he thought of artists giving away their music for free, and he jokingly replied that he’d be thrilled to know his music is being used at all. Shire recalled earlier in his career when there was a composer’s strike in Hollywood. The issue was that composers wanted the rights to the cues they had done.
Moving onto Sunday, the first panel of the day I attended was “Arthouse & Alternative Venue Programming” moderated by sales agent Josh Braun (Submarine Entertainment) and Heather Winters (Producer/Partner - Studio On Hudson). On the panel were Ned Hinkle (Creative Director - Brattle Theater, Boston), Mark Elijah Rosenberg (Artistic Director – Rooftop Films), and Josh Green (Vice President, Distribution – Emerging Pictures).
Braun asked the exhibitors about their venues differ from one another. Green said Emerging Pictures shows movies from traditional distributors. They wait to see how a movie opens in New York. It’s really an affiliate network with a program based on individual audiences and geography. They also play one-night only special event films where they might have live/interactive Q&As, and sometimes two days later, the film comes out on DVD. Emerging Pictures does not acquire any rights to the films. They’re just an exhibitor. As for the Brattle Theater, Hinkle said they are a repertory or “calendar” house, which literally means they print a calendar with films that only play for one or two weeks. The theater has a reputation of programming quality films, and targeting a film-savvy audience. Rosenberg said Rooftop Films accepts submissions of films from November through March, and they sometimes even look at rough cuts. Their model is to make each screening an event that is unique by matching the film with a venue and neighborhood. For example, they screened “Trouble the Water” last year in Harlem. For “No Impact Man,” they had an eco-carnival before the screening.
Winters asked each how they support filmmakers, in terms of promoting their films through marketing and publicity? Green said Emerging Pictures has very little marketing costs because each local cinema has their own publicist who works on site. Rosenberg said Rooftop Films handles each film on a personal, hand-on case-by-case basis. Their ability is to help filmmakers. They even recommend films to other festivals and will put filmmakers in touch with distributors. Hinkle said that filmmakers need to be an accessory to their own marketing force. They should put time and money aside to go on tour with their films, which could help them ultimately get a larger run. Rosenberg added that filmmakers need to work on their Q&A skills. There’s nothing worse than an awkward Q&A. Filmmakers are representing their films and should be interesting and fun about it, instead of awkward and shy.
So you’ve got a couple of film under your belt, but you’re looking to get to the next step in your career. How do you keep making a living as a filmmaker in this tough economy and how can you plan for your future? This question was addressed in “Paying the Bills: Sustaining Your Film Career” moderated by Esther Robinson (Filmmaker/Journalist - Filmmaker Magazine, Thatgrl Media - A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and The Warhol Factory), who has been writing a series of articles for Filmmaker Magazine about sustaining one’s career. On the panel was Rose Troche (Writer/Director - Go Fish, The Safety of Objects), Thatgrl Media (Writer/Director - The Complications - Children of Invention) , Jesse Epstein (Filmmaker - New Day Films - Wet Dreams and False Images) and Reva Goldberg (Communications and Fellowships Manager - Cinereach).
Robinson began by saying that there is a level of economics that happens behind the scenes of filmmaking, but filmmakers don’t necessarily have access to it, but organizations such as IFP are helping out. Robinson asked each panelist for a one-word description on how they are all making it work. Their answers: Goldberg – “relationship-building”; Epstein – “Tapas” or “Dim-Sum”; Chun – “Compartmentalization”; and Troche – “TV”.
Robinson asked all what it was like starting out in the business, and what they thought their lives would be. Troche said her first job directing in television was on “Six Feet Under.” She said more people probably watched that one episode than all three of her films combined. There’s a lot of compromise that goes along with working in TV. When she started, she didn’t know anything, but she wanted to be challenged. Chun said in the early 1990s, there was a renaissance for independent films. He didn’t want to go to grad school. Instead he made a schedule to direct no-budget short films every six months, and took short-term work in between films such as painting portraits. Epstein said she started working on films in the art department and taught documentary filmmaking to young people. She took two years off to attend NYU, which led her to shoot her first in a series of three short documentary films, which she distributes through New Day Films.
Goldberg added an extra word to Robinson’s earlier “one-word” description saying “patience” and “be nice.” Troche seemed to disagree with the “be nice” part saying she thinks it’s about ambition and tenacity. Troche also advised not to get into a job that takes up all your time if you want to make your own film, because it’s a “selfish business.” [***Personal note: I agree to a point. It’s certainly not easy to work a full-time job and make a living as a filmmaker at the same time, but if you’re struggling financially, how do you make money to pay the bills without having some sort of job? Not everyone is a trust-fund baby, not to imply that this is what Troche was saying, because she certainly didn’t, but I know a lot of filmmakers who have full-time jobs that while they’re not at the level of Troche, are able to make their films, maybe not as fast as they’d like, but at least they’re making them.]
A question from the audience was if they have a five-year plan. Robinson said she plans everything in five-year increments. She tries to be clear about what is good for her films, tries to stay solvent and not go into debt. She also wants to have health insurance. Troche said it would be nice to not think about money constantly. Robinson concluded that filmmaking is a life-long practice and you do have to have a long-term plan.