g The Film Panel Notetaker: March 2009

Monday, March 30, 2009

2009 Cinema Eye Honors Winners

A sold-out crowd attended last night's Cinema Eye Honors at TheTimesCenter in New York, hosted by co-chairs Thom Powers and AJ Schnack, who made a grand entrance sporting Mardi Gras regalia, as seen in Margaret Brown's The Order of Myths. Stay tuned for my notes from the mid-awards ceremony roundtable discussion moderated by Powers that included the previously mentioned Ms. Brown, The Betrayal - Nerakhoon co-directors Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath , Man on Wire director James Marsh, and My Winnipeg producer Jody Shapiro.

Here is the list of last night's outstanding achievement winners for nonfiction filmmaking:

Debut Feature: Up The Yangtze (Yung Chang)

Graphic Design and Animation: Waltz with Bashir (Yoni Goodman & David Polansky)

Music Composition: Waltz with Bashir (Max Richter)

Outstanding Editing: Man on Wire (Jinx Godfrey)

Outstanding Cinematography: Encounter at the End of the World (Peter Zeitlinger)

Audience Choice Award: Up the Yangtze (Yung Chang)

Outstanding Production: Man on Wire (Simon Chinn)

International Feature: Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)

Outstanding Direction: Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)

Outstanding Achievement in Non-Fiction Filmmaking: Man on Wire (Dir: James Marsh; Prod: Simon Chinn)

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Self Distribution Not All By Yourself @ SXSW, March 15, 2009

Self-Distribution Not All By Yourself
Sunday March 15, 2009 at 1:00pm
Austin Convention Center, Austin, TX.

Scott Macaulay, Editor, Filmmaker Magazine

Richard Abramowitz, Abramorama
Caitlin Boyle, Paradigm Consulting/Semi-Theatrical Distribution Consultant
Chris Hyams, Founder & CEO, B-Side Entertainment
Jon Reiss, Hybrid Cinema, Filmmaker & Consultant

As specialty film subsidiaries dry up and smaller distributors close up shop, self-distribution has become a much more viable option for the filmmaker. "Self-Distribution Not All By Yourself", moderated by Filmmaker Magazine editor Scott Macaulay, explored the many avenues and options for the filmmaker to self-distribute. Macaulay was inspired to give the panel its title following a conversation with Peter Broderick, in which Broderick said that no one truly distributes their movie by themselves.

The panel took a look at the expanding venues by which a filmmaker can self-distribute their film, and the panelists represented a diversity of venues by a which a filmmaker could exhibit their film: Jon Reiss is a documentarian who self-distributed his last movie, Bomb It; Richard Abramowitz has worked as a distribution consultant for over twenty years; Caitlin Boyle also works as a Semi-Theatrical Distribution consultant, working with filmmakers on finding the best venue for their work, whether it be a public library or an art house.

Macaulay began the panel by refuting a common assumption about the distribution process that filmmakers and the general public seem to have:

"The old way was that you'd take your film to a film festival, it gets picked up, the company that distributes your film buys all the rights, and they would provide for theatrical, DVD, etc., etc....The models we are talking about today are very different from the old model that used to exist for filmmakers. Filmmakers need to realize that it never really existed in the first place--that maybe it existed for about five percent of the people."

Caitlin Boyle reassures filmmakers that just because your film doesn't get picked up for distribution, that doesn't necessarily mean your film is a failure. "Doing it yourself and alternative models of distribution shouldn't be considered to be a failure, or what you do when you're groveling up from being knocked down. I think a lot of people are releasing their films theatrically by themselves, melding traditional distribution schemes with alternative distribution schemes, trying a little but of everything and making sort of a comprehensive plan, and exercising more control."

If anything, both Hyams and Abramowitz see filmmakers bypassing more traditional distributors and either releasing films themselves, or through a company like Hyams' B-Side. Self-Distribution gives the filmmaker more control of the outcome. Hyams points to the success of Super High Me, a non-fiction parody of Supersize Me starring Doug Benson which premiered at the 2008 SXSW. Between the premiere and April 20th, B-Side and the filmmakers managed to book 1,100 screenings in 820 cities with their "Roll Your Own Screening" distribution plan. They have since sold 65,000 units on DVD, and $1.4 million in DVD sales. The total spent on marketing? $8,000.

Macaulay suggested that filmmakers consider thinking about their distribution strategy early on. "I really recommend thinking about that while you're writing your script. Especially narrative--there's so much stuff now that you can do on the web to develop an audience, and also with documentaries. It will really help to figure out who your markets are. 'Where am I going to sell this? Who am I going to sell this to?' I know this sounds like a Hollywood way of thinking, but it's not. It's a smart way of thinking about your audience."

Theatrical self-distribution can be cumbersome, but there's still a payoff. Says Reiss: "I don't regret what I did. It was a lot of work, but my DVD company is very happy that I did what I did."

Q: How much does the P&A (Prints & Advertising) cost to the value of releasing films?

Hyams: We'll be releasing 15 films this year. Part of that is when you lower the risk, you can take on a fuller slate. If we had to put up $250,000 or $500,000 for every film, it would be a lot harder to take something on. One of things we try to have is aligned expectations. If for whatever reason that doesn't work, and those films don't do [the business] people hoped for, at least you don't go too far into the hole in the process. Frankly, we are in a position to take more chances on movies we think there's an audience out there for.

Erin: One book aimed at would-be filmmakers titled From Reel to Deal advises against self-distribution. While the author acknowledges that filmmakers often get low and sometimes unfair deals, he says, "attempt self distribution and you'll spend your entire life in small claims court trying to collect from each and every theater owner." Have you ever had a problem collecting money from theater owners?

Reiss: I'm the smallest fish, so I should probably talk. I was actually shocked everyone paid within two weeks. There was one guy I had to nudge--he had the biggest check. That came about a month after the screening. I was shocked I got paid. I think partially because he was working with a chain, and I've had films distributed by bigger chains who didn't pay. I dealt with the small independent cinemas, and I got paid.

Abramowitz: I can speak on the other end. I've rarely had trouble getting paid from the chains. They just put the money into the system, and they pay you. You may not get the amount you want, and it may not be as quickly as you want it to be. It's an honest count--the chains check themselves to make sure their local managers are honest.

Boyle: I've worked with everyone from tiny public libraries to large universities to art houses, and I have the same story: no one has ever been more than a few weeks. Everyone has been eager to pay.

Abramowitz: And you can get these people to pay in advance.

Boyle: They all pay in advance. They even pay without having seen the film.

Abramowitz: It's important to get counsel from someone who's done it before. John just said that he's remarkably lucky--he was incredibly persistent. Knowing which theaters to play, and which not to. There are people I have not done business with in 20 years because they don't pay. Ask around, ask other filmmakers. Check the theater's website, and which theaters play those types of movies. Check three films that are similar to yours, and you'll see 80% of the same theaters there. You'll get a sense that they're regularly playing these kinds of films, and that they're treating the filmmakers with some degree of honor.

Hyams: Another question that might be a better one is, "What do home video distributors pay?" Without naming names, there are those that do, and those that are notorious for not paying. I would encourage you that if you haven't done a home video deal, talk to other filmmakers who have and find out if they've paid, and how prompt they are. That's going to be the bigger bulk of the money coming in. Some of them make a business of sitting on their money as long as possible.

Q: How do you manage expectations for you and the filmmaker? You look at 65,000 units for Super High Me, which is great. But have you ever though, "I could've done 100,000!", or, "Why didn't I do 100,000?"

Hyams: Netflix's original estimates were around 20,000. Docs don't sell--we beat expectations pretty dramatically on that one. We have had cases where filmmakers' expectations are so out of wack that I concluded that it wouldn't be a good idea to work with them. I think it's really important to have aligned expectations up front, and to be happily surprised if it succeeds that. Docs on home video is a tough business, but 5,000 units is doing pretty well. 10,000 is doing better.

Boyle: My personal philosophy is that your film has value. Don't give your film away for free all the time. I see it as being a matter of raising expectations, but staying realistic about it. I think that a lot of filmmakers sort of undercut themselves. I meet people whose expectations are very low, very modest. They often give their movie away for free, or formulate it without a plan. I'm constantly saying to people, "You should be charging for that!" People will not bat an eye having to pay admission. I work in a different way [than the other panelists]. I often struggle with too low expectations, not too high. I'm constantly being a cheerleader.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking (Expanding?) Film Critic Profession @ SXSW, March 14, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking (Expanding?) Film Critic Profession
SXSW Film Festival
Austin Convention Center, Austin, TX
Saturday, March 14th, 2009
Notes by Erin Scherer


Gerald Peary, Director: For The Love Of Movies, Film Critic for The Boston Phoenix


Marjorie Baumgarten, Senior Film Editor/Critic, Austin Chronicle
Shawn Levy, Film Critic, The Oregonian
Karina Longworth, Spout.com
Scott Weinberg, Cinematical, FEARnet

"What is the current state of film criticism?" Is the question moderator Gerald Peary sought to answer in this panel. He opened the panel by saying:

"It's in the best shape that it's ever been in, because there's so many critics, critics for every taste. There are more good critics now than at any point in American history, but at least in the print world, there are critics getting kicked off right and left. It's a shrinking, shrinking world in which many critics who have had their jobs for many years are being laid off, and the papers are disappearing, all part of being the end of the print world."

Peary recalled the story of a "art film" distributor calling him, ranting that "ten, fifteen years ago, every major city had a solid critic who everyone trusted. A "soft critic" who liked art films. Nowadays, the critics are writing for other critics, and not the general public, and web people have no influence at all."

Scott Weinberg commented that if the distributor had to rely on reviews to sell their movies, that they were probably not a very good distributor, then added:

"The question that irritates me is, "What is an art film? Is Benjamin Button an 'Art Film?' Is Slumdog Millionaire an 'Art Film'? Guess what? Friday the 13th is an 'Art Film'! Some people created it, it's a piece of art. I don't get these designations."

Much of the panel was devoted to the impact of the web on film criticism.

Both Weinberg and Karina Longworth responded to the distributor's rant that web critics lack relevance by mentioning that filmmakers actually want to have their films reviewed by bloggers like themselves, if mainly for publicity. Longworth stated that she was often "drowning" in requests for reviews.

In the past, it was much more difficult to obtain press credentials, due to the lack of legitimacy of blogs and irresponsible web reviewers.

"A lot of times, people are writing reviews to get invited to the next junket. Those sites I have a problem with--the sites that are only helping the marketing along without any honest insight or negativity," Weinberg said.

With more festivals and events willing to let bloggers in, Karina Longworth has seen the status of the web critic improve over time. "That was a big problem, in like, 2005. Now, not so much. Cannes is the only one that won't give me press credentials as a blogger."

Weinberg mentioned that "What I think is cool about the blog world is that the more CNN mentions a blog, the more people like Karina and my fellow bloggers earn more respect as columnists, bloggers, and writers. Right now, I think it's still anybody in in the basement with a keyboard can write, "I LOVE The Watchmen, LOL."

Yet the future is a little more bleak for print critics: Shawn Levy, Marjorie Baumgarten, and Peary all commented on the shrinking size of their reviews: they used to be able to print 800 to 1,000 word reviews; now they're lucky to print 500. Peary pointed out that as newspaper critics have cut their staff, film critics are often among the first to be cut. Peary cited an article from Variety that mentioned that 28 Critics have lost their jobs over the past several years.

Even with the opportunity of everyone and anyone to review a movie on the web, Longworth and Weinberg do not feel threatened.

"It's not just anybody writing," Longworth stated. "There's a difference between going to the movies casually, and writing a blog post about it, and someone who is dedicated, whether it's something they do in their free time, or as a profession. There's a process of natural selection: people who have something to contribute become a major part of the discussion very quickly."

Overall, they concluded that the presence of film critics can help stimulate the conversation on films, especially ones that don't get wide releases. Critics have a breadth of knowledge on the subject they're writing about, and at their best, can function as a Consumer Reports for the potential ticket buyer (or badge holder).

As Karina Longworth established: "Our goal is to get comments. Our goal is to get people talking."

Natasha Vargas-Cooper: I'm a film critic for eonline.com. I have a question that we all get asked: Do you watch movies twice?

Baumgarten: Hardly ever. There's never the opportunity. Sometimes I'll watch a movie Tuesday Night, and have a review in by 10:30 the next morning.

Vargas-Cooper: Sometimes I get a comment like, "You need to see the movie again!"

Baumgarten: I'm not the Pauline Kael type of "I don't want to see it a second time. I don't need to."

Weinberg: There are so many films I haven't seen, so if I'm going to pop in, like Nightmare on Elm Street again, why not watch Peeping Tom again?

Q: I would like any of you to address the question of availability for audiences. You go to a film festival. You see ten good films, but if I don't live in a major city, or if the film is not released on DVD, your review may sound great, but I may take no action because I can't see it.

Weinberg: If you really like a film, we want you to be frustrated. We want you to send e-mails to the filmmaker and pester them and ask, "When can I see it?" We don't want to literally frustrate you, but if there's an independent film I love that might not go anywhere, I'll treat it like There Will Be Blood.

Longworth: I'm kind of in the habit of pestering people I know in distribution, so I yell at them about movies.

Q: In the last few election cycles, I have seen a maturation of political blogs. Some are hybrid, some are print and web, and some have been just web. But in the last four years, the blog of record has become a reality, as far as who's available to the sources, what sources make themselves available to them, and also being read regularly, I'm wondering where film criticism stands in its evolution.

Peary: I just talked to Michael Barker from Sony Classics, where he's going to places like The Huffington Post into having a film critic, which they don't have right now.

Longworth: They don't have their own freelancers. They don't pay anybody.

Weinberg: I was reviewing for like, six years before anyone paid me. I figured I was paying my dues, I was honing my craft.

Q: For the better part of 30 years, Americans had Siskel and Ebert on their television screens every week. You have political shows, you have sports shows, and every other sort of panel show. Why do you think we're living in an era right now where there are only two shows devoted to film criticism, and both of them feature members of the Lyons Family?

Peary: We live in a very philistine, very anti-intellectual culture, and that's impacted our film criticism. Film critics are looked on too suspiciously by most of the public: "Why don't you like movies? Can't you just enjoy a movie? Why do you have to criticize it?"

Levy: I don't think that it's a natural thing for television to have criticism.

Q: But sports shows have it all the time!

Longworth: That's an argument, that's not criticism.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

"Skills Like This" - Sneak Preview Screening - March 13, 2009

Skills Like This
Sneak Preview Screening
92Y Tribeca
New York, NY
March 13, 2009

Monty Miranda’s Skills Like This, which won the Audience Award at 2007’s South by Southwest Film Festival, is being released theatrically in New York on March 20 at Angelika Film Center through Shadow Distribution. Skills Like This is a comedy shot entirely on location in and around Denver, Colorado, about 25-year-old Max who realizes his dream of becoming a writer will never come true. Maybe Max should have attended IFP’s Script to Screen Conference last weekend instead of resorting to his newfound pastime of crime…well maybe not, or there wouldn’t be a funny movie for me to go see. Last night, I attended a sneak preview screening at 92Y Tribeca where the film’s star and screenwriter, Forest Hills, Queens, native (got to give props to my borough) Spencer Berger, spoke during a Q&A with the audience moderated by Steve Ramos.

Ramos started by saying that a lot of writers write about what they know, but being that Berger hails from Queens and the film is set and shot in Colorado, Ramos asked Berger if the story was inspired by something he may have discovered or learned. “I haven’t robbed any banks,” Berger quipped. The things closest to him in the film are the relationships between his character Max and his friends.

At Vassar, where Berger attended college, was he more classically trained as opposed to comedy, the harder of the two? Apparently not. Berger said most of the acting he did at Vassar was sketch comedy. He wasn’t a member of the drama department, but actually was a music major. So how would he describe Skills Like This? Berger called it a comedy where the main character is convinced that he’s in a drama. “Basically, I’m pretty sure that Max thinks that he’s in the fifth act of Hamlet the whole time, while everybody else is in some sort of whacky bizarro world,” he said.

At SXSW in 2007 where Skills Like This won the audience award, the film didn’t get picked up for distribution right away. It would be another two years before its release. Why did the process take so long, Ramos asked? Berger said he’s stopped complaining about it, because he’s just happy that they got to even make it in the first place and now it is finally coming out. At SXSW, they felt good about the film’s win and thought it would be a piece of cake from that point on, but the next year was really torture. “Nobody passed on it, but basically one after another, some bizarre event would occur where a distributor would get interested and someone who was in charge higher up would get replaced and the deal would fall through,” he said. They finally got their distribution deal a little over a year around May of 2008, and they still had to wait another 10 months till now before it's finally hitting theaters on March 20.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

One-on-One Q&A with Daryl Wein, Director - "Breaking Upwards"

One-on-One Q&A
Daryl Wein, Director/Co-Writer/Producer/Actor
Breaking Upwards

In anticipation for his narrative feature directorial debut, Breaking Upwards, at SXSW this weekend, Daryl Wein participated in a One-on-One Q&A with The Film Panel Notetaker. Wein's documentary Sex Positive debuted at last year's SXSW.

Q: Can you tell me a little about Breaking Upwards, how it all began? What's the story behind it?

Wein: Breaking Upwards was inspired by an open relationship I was in with my girlfriend (and co-star/writer/producer), Zoe Lister-Jones a few years ago. As a means to ultimately separate, we decided to strategize our break up over a period of 12 months. It was neurotic and insane, but somehow worked for us and, rather than process the insanity of it all, I immediately entered filmmaking mode, and saw a totally unique but entirely relatable story that I wanted to share. I felt like we had seen enough relationship movies about the moment a couple falls in love. I was more curious about how you grow apart with someone, and what it’s like to negotiate that space. There was also an aspect of frustration that fueled it, as I had been seeing a lot of films that were supposed to be representing my generation in complicated relationships that I felt were falling short on a lot of levels; craftsmanship being the most obvious.

Q: The promos for Breaking Upwards are very clever and hilarious. Zoe is super funny. Did you write and direct the promos yourself? Who came up with the concepts?

Wein: Zoe wrote all the promos, and we alternated directing them. She conceived all of them and then, because there was a lot of post production involved in the three greenscreened promos, I added some final touches during the editing process. Because we have no money, and no publicist, we decided to create a viral marketing campaign on our own. We've had so much fun making them, and the response has been overwhelming. It seemed foolish not to take advantage of the marketing capabilities that the Internet now lends to anyone and everyone. It's pretty amazing.

Q: Had you seen Arin Crumley's and Susan Buice's Four Eyed Monsters, which is a fictionalization of their then real-life relationship? Did that have any influence on you for Breaking Upwards? Are there any other films or filmmakers who have influenced your work?

Wein: I did see Four Eyed Monsters. When I heard about that movie, I got really excited. I thought it was really cool what they were doing. Posting the movie on Youtube was awesome. Using technology in all the ways it did was awesome. Being a real couple was awesome. Basically, they took the whole do it yourself model to the next level. It definitely inspired me. I love to see my peers elevating the form. I can't say it directly influenced me, but it lies somewhere in my subconscious for sure. Our aesthetic is definitely different though. I like to use more actors it seems, more structured story...etc. As far as films that influenced me in relation to Breaking Upwards, I would say they are: Manhattan, Jules and Jim, Annie Hall, Water Lillies, Brief Encounter, Good Will Hunting, Amelie, Badlands, Days of Heaven, Moonstruck, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Me You and Everyone We Know.

Q: I recently went to the Upright Citizens Brigade for the first time to watch an improv show. From watching the trailer, it seems like you and Zoe might have some improv or sketch comedy in your funny bones? Is Breaking Upwards completely scripted, improvised, or a bit of both?

Wein: It's completely scripted. Zoe, our co-writer Peter Duchan, and I spent over a year finessing the script. It was really important to us to infuse every character with their own energy and arc. And to have the piece be highly structured. That said, once on set we all did a bit of improvising, as actors are won't to do, but for the most part we stuck strictly to the page.

Q: Sex Positive, your feature documentary that debuted at last year's SXSW Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize at L.A. Outfest, is about 1980s gay S&M hustler turned AIDS activist Richard Berkowitz who contributed to the invention of safe sex. How did you get involved in the making of that film, and what was it like to transition from making a documentary on a serious topic to a seriously funny narrative feature on the topic of a straight couple breaking up?

Wein: I met Richard Berkowitz at Zoe's mother's house in Brooklyn for their annual feminist Seder. Zoe had told me about his life, and her mother, a video artist named Ardele Lister, told me I should read his book. So knowing nothing about that time in history, I was immediately captivated. And Richard is such an amazing subject, after our first (6 hour!) interview, I knew I had a great film in the making.

To move on to Breaking Upwards was a nice shift of pace. I think more than the change in tone, the most intense transition was on a producerial level. Making a documentary for nothing has its challenges, but to make a narrative feature using a SAG contract, esteemed theater actors, acquiring insurance, permits, etc...all the logistics of it on top of acting, writing and directing was seriously overwhelming. But I think in terms of story, it's always important as a filmmaker to explore what you know and what is foreign to you. So I'm happy to have begun balancing the two.

Q: What was it like developing an all original soundtrack for Breaking Upwards that Zoe wrote lyrics for and you both sang on?

Wein: It was really fun, but like all things indie, a huge amount of work. Our friend Kyle Forester composed all the music, and is a genius, so we really owe it all to him. But the process basically entailed Zoe writing the lyrics, sending them to Kyle along with a general idea for the style of the song she was looking for. He'd compose it and send it back to us and then a dialogue would ensue. We spent a lot of days in the studio, driving Kyle crazy, but Zoe and I are both serious type A folk so we had to make sure every detail was perfect. We're really proud of the soundtrack, which is now available for download on iTunes. We'll also be selling copies at SXSW after our screenings.

Q: What's next after SXSW? Do you have any other projects in the works?

Wein: We have a few in the works, but I'll have to keep you posted once they're fully formed.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Script to Screen: Inside the Development Process - March 7, 2009

Tips from the Pros: Inside the Development Process
March 7, 2009
New York, NY
Producer Mike Ryan lead another producer, a screenwriter (the very jovial and enthusiastic Kelly Masterson) and a couple of development executives in the discussion about what else, but development, the process of reading and evaluating scripts that may or may not be eventually produced and brought to the screen. The following are highlights from that discussion.

Mike Ryan, Producer, Old Joy

Quentin Little, Producer & Former Development Exec, HDNet Films
Kelly Masterson, Screenwriter, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead
Cordelia Stephens, Development Exec, Belladonna
Angela Lee, Development Exec, Vox 3

Ryan: How can companies be approached with scripts? What is your experience with this process?

Little: We look into the type of material they have and what their mandate is…We make sure you’re very specifically demographically targeted…It’s a lot harder for us to accept unsolicited submissions. They may however read unsolicited queries. You can send in a query letter. It’s a sense of your project, but not the script…You want to narrow it down to a short and concise couple of sentences…Be sure you’re capturing the essence of it.

Stevens: Our submission process is fairly open. We really read all the query letters that are sent. We don’t read unsolicited scripts…I really don’t like to get a query letter in the mail, I liked to get it emailed…It’s really important that the query letter tells about the script in a way I can read it in a few seconds. I’m getting dozens of query letters every week, probably five or six every day…From all of those query letters, we probably select one or two scripts a week that we’re going to bring into the company. We’re also getting scripts sent in by agents…It’s a big mistake to give too much or too little information…I just want to make a point that this is a marketing process. Is this film good and will it make money…because that’s the game. The marketing process culminates with the distributor…When you’re submitting that query letter, I’m convinced that (the film will) get somebody into a movie theater on a sunny afternoon.

Lee: We also don’t take unsolicited scripts…Another venue for getting in touch with development execs is getting your project accepted into events like the IFP Market. It’s an amazing event that’s using new voices that I wouldn’t otherwise heard of and then have relationships with.

Ryan: As a screenwriter, what’s your process of approaching companies?

Masterson: Two years ago, I was exactly where a lot of you are…I was a playwright for 20 years. I made all the mistakes that these people are telling you not to. I sent out scripts. I did everything I could. I came to events like this. I targeted people like Angela and gave them 30 seconds of my time with my log line…The most important thing that will change your life is getting the movie made. I got there two years ago. It took a long time to do…Now I have an agent and a manager…I have pet projects, things that are still very close to my heart that I spend a lot of time on…If you believe in your script, that’s the movie you want to get maid, find the right people. It sounds very simple, but it’s not at all.

Ryan: Once the query letter has been written and a development executive is interested, what can the screenwriter expect in that first meeting? What’s the next step?

Lee: It depends on how far along we like the script…Let’s say for example, we’re happy with where the script is at, we see that there’s potential, there’s interest in the marketplace…the decision makers at the company agree to the vision of your project and bring it on…we’ll do the meet and greet. At that point if we’re happy with it we’ll probably start to negotiate the option…At our company, we’re going to either be able to make it, fund raise for it and get it to production pretty quickly. Our company would not focus it on...numerous years…I would say we’d option it for a year to 18 months.

Stevens: It’s maybe important to explain how options actually work…It gives a production company the exclusive rights to try to raise money and attachments to that script. You may not get paid very much when a project is optioned…We take projects at different stages. We want to meet the writers to get a sense if they’re somebody we want to work with…It’s sort of a dating process.

Audience Question: Should you trust someone to option your script for $0?

Ryan: The Door in the Floor is a good example. It was optioned for $2. Why…because Ted Hope said ‘this is a tough sell. I need to invest my time and money to get this and it could take six months of my time and money to get this to somebody like Jeff Bridges. If you believe in me and I’m not subsidized by a studio and I’m going to go with this vision of the script…and I’m going to invest my time, I need it for zero.”

Little: Keep in mind, even at Guild minimum, you’re looking at a couple of thousand dollars per a year to 18 months. Work that down by hour, that’s minimum wage. It’s pretty minor. I don’t think it’s a sign of bad faith.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

IFP Script to Screen - Writers in Collaboration - March 7, 2009

Writers in Collaboration
March 7, 2009
New York, NY

Writer/Director Ira Sachs (Forty Shades of Blue, Married Life) moderated a discussion on the collaborative writing process. He started the conversation by saying that everything he does is about how well he works with other people. “There’s almost nothing that isn’t about trying to negotiate between your own instincts and what you share and look for from others…This panel is about how you work communally, but still have a vision.” Below are highlights from the discussion with writers who collaborate with either a partner or a team for film and/or television.

(Photo by Brian Geldin)

Ira Sachs, Writer/Director, Married Life

Ryan Fleck, Writer/Director, Sugar & Half Nelson
Todd A. Kessler, Co-Creator, “Damages”
Daniel Zelman, Co-Creator, “Damages”

Sachs: How did you start working collaborators?

Fleck: (Anna Boden and I) started working together in film school…I started helping her with her projects, she started helping me with mine, giving me notes on the scripts that I was working on…I directed Half Nelson, but she was always there, very much involved with that. On Sugar, we co-directed that together.

Kessler: Daniel, Glenn and I, Glenn’s my brother so I’ve known him for a long time. Daniel had been a friend of ours since college…Basically, we’re writing and producing television. That’s something an individual can’t do alone…We do 13 episodes a season so that’s 13 scripts. Sometimes scripts are written in a week…one person can’t write that much…The core of our collaboration was that we wanted to work together and not have to bring in other people. If anyone has seen Damages, you’re aware that there’s a lot of betrayal and manipulation and narcissism…all the things that we experienced working with other people. So we wanted to limit some of that and the three of us got together.

Sachs: How do you work in the writing stage?

Zelman: There are two different phases. There’s the writing that begins prior to the season’s beginning…the first season was the pilot…The three of us sit in a room and just talk a lot and discuss what we’re interested in. It really begins with a character. Damages began with the character played by Glenn Close (Patty Hewes)…We began by discussing her and what it was we wanted to explore through her. It really just becomes a brainstorming session…Once the season is up and running, that’s the second phase…We divide up the script and we all write pieces of that script and then we pass our pages back and forth…There’s a lot of re-writing of other people’s materials. We kind of create a factory mill where every scene goes through every writer. We feel that by the time it goes through that process, it’s better than it would be than with any one of us.

Sachs: How are each of the collaborations you’ve worked on different? What’s worked best for you?

Kessler: On The Sopranos (for which Kessler wrote during seasons 2 and 3), David Chase is the creator of the show and was kind of infamous for having very long stretches of time between each season…The more time you have, the better off you are because you have more time to think about the stories and the characters. Because you had to generate so much material so quickly, you’re able to read books and live lives and see what’s going on in the world that you can bring to the work…We would start with David coming back. He’d have these long sheets of paper, episodes 1-13…He would have these mileposts in the season, the second season for example, the character of Big Pussy, would die by the end…There were these long arcs and it was our job as writers to help fill in those spaces. That’s something we’ve put to use on Damages, what we call tent pole scenes.

Sachs: One of the things I realized collaborating with co-writers on screenplays is you get systems into place. How can those systems be helpful and how can they also inhibit creativity? How did you work together with Anna?

Fleck: When we started writing Sugar, we needed to get out of the city. It was really distracting. The McDowell Colony (where they went) is a great place to go…If you don’t have the luxury of going away somewhere, just start writing…When Anna and I worked together, there was no science, no pattern…We typically separate…We come up with an outline…come up with the main beats and then we’ll separate and start writing the scenes…We’re usually not writing together until we’re re-writing.

Audience Question: How do you avoid legal problems amongst collaborators? What degree of trust do you need to have?

Fleck: I think when you’re first starting, there’s a degree of mistrust…I think that’s healthy to have…You don’t need a lawyer to get everything worked out on paper. Ultimately, that’s not going to matter…unless there’s millions of dollars at stake, you’re not really going to go sue them.

Zelman: I totally agree with what you’re saying that at the end of the day, a lawyer for contracts are not going to protect what most needs to be protected…It’s almost like a spiritual question…There is so much time and energy put into doing these projects, that it’s like a marriage. If you just don’t feel a fundamental trust with the people you’re collaborating with creatively, it’s a leap of faith…You just have to be committed to each other and understand that you’re going to splice through those moments. If you don’t have that faith, it’s a very dangerous place to be.

Audience Question: How did you work with your co-writer on Forty Shades of Blue?

Sachs: I worked with a co-writer named Michael Rohatyn, who was not the co-writer on my next film (Married Life) who was Oren Moverman. The process for me is generally I have an idea for something that I’m interested in. I often take a good stab at a first draft myself just to try to get as much of the instinctual things that are personal. The more autobiographical stuff tends to come out alone. I think that’s true for my co-writers as well. I send them off to go write at certain times…For me it’s very important as an artist and I project this as well for my co-writer, that they have the space at a certain time where they are just playing with their own memories and ideas and that they don’t need to verbalize everything to me for it to become something that I want to see on the page…One of the biggest challenges of collaboration is, and it’s the same with an actor, I try to talk very little to the actors, except when I need to…I want to see what they’re going to bring me. That’s a very good part of collaboration, trying to tap into what that person has that you don’t have.

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IFP's Script to Screen Conference - Conversation with James Schamus - March 7, 2009

Conversation with Keynote James Schamus – CEO, Focus Features
March 7, 2009
New York, NY

(Scott Macaulay & James Schamus. Photo by Brian Geldin.)

Focus Features CEO James Schamus makes his second appearance here at The Film Panel Notetaker (his first being at the Woodstock Film Festival last fall) with my notes taken in a packed hall at the New York Film Academy Saturday morning during IFP's Script to Screen Conference, which was created to help aspiring and working screenwriters explore new opportunities. Filmmaker Magazine Editor-in-Chief Scott Macaulay moderated Saturday’s conversation with Schamus. The discussion moved a bit beyond the script writing process, so here I will focus (bah dump bump) on the elements of the conversation that may be most helpful for the screenwriters reading this blog.

Macaulay’s first question was, how do you know what a screenplay is, to which Schamus replied, “It’s completely a business plan…American screenplays are essentially 124 pages begging for money…The scripts are moving into predetermined generic modules…On the other side, the fantasy side, there is the writer/director mode…all of us live somewhere between the two ends of that spectrum…On that spectrum, you are doing something that serves as an object…The problem of getting too far on the (writer/director side) of the spectrum…a screenplay in the production context is 123 pages of advice and if the advice is a little hazy or if someone stops taking the advice…once you stop taking your own advice, everybody stops, too…The key to making a movie well…is that everybody on the set is making the same movie.”

To elaborate on the writer/director paradigm, Macaulay noticed that fewer directors seem to be going down this path. Macaulay asked Schamus if he’s noticed this, too, and if so, why does he think so? Using Ang Lee as an example, Shamus said, “Ang was never a writer/director. He was always a filmmaker. That definition seemed in and of itself sort of liberating a couple of years ago, became actually quite constraining…That said, writer/directors are still clearly the DNA that will never rinse down American independent cinema…You can be a non-writer/director and still be an auteur…(that) came out of (France’s) Cahier du Cinema writers who were not writing about themselves…they weren’t filmmakers yet. They were writing about filmmakers who had household name recognition…What they were doing was using auteur theories to excavate the idea of the director as the central signator…inside the Hollywood system and use that wedge open a completely different appreciation of cinema.”

With Focus’s upcoming release of Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre, Macaulay asked Schamus how Focus got involved with working with a first-time feature filmmaker. Schamus said, “We continue to adapt our business to audiences. In this case…an audience that’s open to a first-time filmmaker…To me what’s exciting about Sin Nombre besides how masterful and amazing the movie is…how do we create a Latino audience in the United States? We saw his short, which he was developing at the Sundance Lab [More about screenwriting labs, contests & worshops in a near future post here]…We’re really an internationally oriented company…80% of my day is spent on movies that are circulating across the globe.”

And what about Schamus as a screenwriter himself, mostly working on adaptations with Lee, Macaulay asked. “With Ang, it’s literally whatever I can find that will scare the shit out of him,” Schamus revealed. “I actually really like Hollywood movies. I like the system. It’s an incredibly interesting cultural machine.”

Opening the conversation to the audience, one person asked the perennial question, how does one submit a project to the company? Schamus recognized that the answer is a “Catch 22” saying “you need representation…If I accepted an unsolicited manuscript; my own lawyers will now sue me.” Later someone asked if it’s best to come to Focus with the complete package of a producer, director and a star, to which Schamus replied, it varies. “It usually means someone we believe internationally, in a territory other than the United States, somebody who has a bit of a profile that we can leverage.” And for people looking to work as spec script writers, Schamus said, “Spec scripts are for people who want jobs. That genre only functions in the Hollywood context …There’s no spec feature market (for example) for European art films…It’s basically the Energizer Bunny approach.” And finally, does age bias really exists for screenwriters? “For whatever reason, there is a bias against older writers, except there are a handful of A-listers. Part of it is, if you actually establish yourself as a writer-for-hire let’s say by your 30s, that business is fairly lucrative…and then, after 10 years…that’s it.”

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

2009 Gen Art Film Festival Line Up Revealed

Today, Gen Art Film Festival presented by Acura announced the line up for their annual seven-day shindig of one feature, one short and one par-tay per day to take place at the newly refurbished Visual Arts Theater, which The Film Panel Notetaker recently visited. Derick Martini’s Lymelife with a star-studded cast including 30 Rock’s Alec Baldwin, a couple of Culkins, Cynthia Nixon and more opens the fest on April 1, along with Topaz Adizes’ short Trece Años, which premiered at Sundance back in January.

Check out my notes from the 2007 Gen Art Film Fest Panel, Media Ecology, which I put in my top 10 panels of that year. Will this year's panel live up to that highly informative moment in notetaking history? Only time will tell. Panels taking place at the festival this year are expected to be announced soon. In the mean time, please peruse the feature and short slate below.

Opening Night
Wednesday, April 1

Feature: Lymelife
Directed by Derick Martini
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Kieran Culkin, Rory Culkin, Jill Hennessy, Timothy Hutton, Emma Roberts and Cynthia Nixon

Short: Trece Años
Directed by Topaz Adizes

Thursday, April 2

Feature: Gigantic
Directed by Matt Aselton
Cast: Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, John Goodman, Edward Asner and Jane Alexander

Short: Adelaide
Directed by Liliana Greenfield-Sanders

Friday, April 3

Feature: Peter and Vandy
Directed by Jay DiPietro
Cast: Jason Ritter, Jess Weixler, Jesse L. Martin, Tracie Thoms and Noah Bean

Short: Bridge
Directed by Hillman Curtis

Saturday, April 4

Feature: My Suicide
Directed by David Lee Miller
Cast: Gabriel Sunday, David Carradine, Mariel Hemingway, Brooke Nevin and Nora Dunn

Short: Acting for the Camera
Directed by Justin Nowell

Sunday, April 5th

Feature: Punching the Clown
Directed by Gregori Viens
Cast: Henry Phillips, Ellen Ratner, Audrey Siegal, Matthew Walker, Guilford Adams, Wade Kelly, Evan Arnold, Mik Scriba, Mark Cohen

Short: Asshole
Directed by Chadd Harbold

Monday, April 6

Feature: Picture Me: A Model’s Diary
Directed by Ole Schell
Cast: Sara Ziff, Ole Schell

Short: Veer!
Directed by Patrick Barry

Closing Night
Tuesday, April 7

Feature: Finding Bliss
Directed by Julie Davis
Cast: Leelee Sobieski, Matthew Davis, Donnamarie Recco, Denise Richards, Kristen Johnston and Jamie Kennedy

Short: Boob
Directed by Honest

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Monday, March 02, 2009

One-on-One Q&A: Ry Russo-Young, Writer/Director, "You Wont Miss Me"

One-on-One Q&A with Ry Russo-Young,
Writer-Director, You Wont Miss Me
Interview by Erin Scherer

Ry Russo-Young's latest film, You Wont Miss Me, premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. The film stars Stella Schnabel, who collaborated with Russo-Young on the story. You Wont Miss Me follows Shelly Brown, a 23 year old recently released from a mental institution. The film was shot using a variety of mediums, including 16mm, Super 8, Mini DV, and High Definition, in order to, to quote Russo-Young, "speak to our entire visual existence today".

Russo-Young's previous feature, Orphans, won a Special Jury Award in the Narrative Feature Competition at the 2007 South By Southwest Film Festival. Orphans is now available on DVD alongside Russo-Young's 2005 short, Marion on Carnivalesque Films. You Wont Miss Me will also be playing at this year's SXSW, with its first screening Friday, March 13th at 9:30pm the Alamo Lamar Theater, Theater 2.

The following interview took place as a phone conversation on the morning of February 23, 2009, the day after the Oscars. Erin's method of recording the conversation was pretty dubious, holding a shotgun mic to a speakerphone, but she did the best she could.

Erin: Having done a lot of searches of you on Google, it sounds like you have been involved with the arts from a pretty early age. What were your first forays into the arts? Did you take dance lessons? Theater? Describe some of your earliest artistic endeavors.

Ry: When I was a little kid, I was really into imaginary things, playing pretend with outfits and kind of imagining an alternate world.  So when I got into acting when I was an early teenager, like 12 or 13, it was very similar to the imaginary things--only now there was a word for it, it was called acting.  Then I got into photography when I was in high school.  I've always been interested in the arts, it just felt natural to me.

When I got into photography, I was shooting photographs of narratives, and when I discovered film, it made a lot of sense.  All of my loves kind of came together.

Erin: Looking at your website, I noticed you made your first movie in 16mm before you were even out of high school. How did that come about? Was it sort of an independent study, a senior thesis, or was it just something you did on your own in the off hours?

Ry: Actually, my high school had a filmmaking course, where you could shoot on 16mm, and so I did that in my high school filmmaking class. I don't know if they still have it, but it was part of a class I took in school.

Erin: On top of making movies, you've done mixed media and performance art as well. Can you explain some of the projects you've done, and what they are about?

Ry: I have this project called "Peep Show" that's a series of short films shot on Super 8. Each one is a collaboration with a specific idea. Each person does some kind of sexual show. They design the show with me, and then they perform it. Then it will be installed in a gallery as a bunch of tiny holes in the wall that you look through, and you see all these little shows that are sort of like the older peep shows. It's like a projection of people's sexual fantasies through the lens of a camera.

That's one project I've done. Another project is called "The Middle Ground", where I align my family history with "Little Red Riding Hood", and I try to combine them. It was a show that had a lot of video on it, and audience participation, and it was about growing up, leaving your family, falling in love, understanding relationship dynamics, and how fairy tales inform how you see romantic relationships.

Erin: In Marion, you re-enact Psycho on three seperate screens. How did that idea come about, and why did you decide to re-enact Psycho?

Ry: I was watching Psycho at the time, and was really into it, and I've always been really into Hitchcock. I just kind of got the idea while watching it. I was studying it the way a student of film would study it, look at how people are doing things, and I was doing that with Psycho. I was especially fascinated with the lead character, the way she was sort of a female archetype, and the way [Hitchcock] has characters killed so early on in the film, and the controversy surrounding that. I was watching Psycho and just got the idea.

Erin: You wrote Orphans in the year after you graduated from college. Did you think that you would likely be shooting it yourself?

Ry: Yeah. When I wrote it, I wrote it to be made. I definitely though I was going to be the one to...well, not necessarily shoot it myself, be behind the camera (I had a DP), but I knew that I was going to make it for no money, and probably shoot it within the same year. It was written to be made.

Erin: But it took a little while longer to shoot it.

Ry:There wasn't that much of a gap between writing and shooting.

Erin: How did you decide to shoot it in Jeffersonville? Did you go location scouting, was it a house you kind of knew about, or did you happen about it one day?

Ry: What happened was that I was working at a vintage clothing store at the time. I'd gone up to the boss' house--the boss had a house up in Jeffersonville and I had gone to her house for the weekend. It was kind of a magical house in the summer. We had a pool, we were swimming, and and we just had an amazing time up there. I found the house really, really inspiring. There was something about the location, and at the same time, that's when I was writing Orphans. I think I subconciously, without even realizing it, started imagning it being set in that house the whole time while writing it. After I finished it, I sort of realized: that is the house. And so then I went up and scouted the house and the location, as well as a few other houses, and ended up shooting in that house.


Lily Wheelwright and James Katharine Flynn in Orphans.

Erin: One of the stars of Orphans, Lily Wheelwright, died just days after the movie's premiere at South By Southwest in 2007. What was your relationship with her prior to Orphans? I know you attended the same school together. Were you close friends, or mutual acquaintances?

Ry: In high school, she was someone I knew. She was friends with people I was sort of friends with. We were different ages. I knew a lot of people that knew her.

The around the time I was making Orphans, I actually asked my high school drama teacher to name the ten best actresses that came out of my high school that were within the age range of what I was looking for, and she named Lily's younger sister, Josephine. So I auditioned Josephine, and I thought that she was too funny, and the character kind of has a more innate sadness about her. She said to me, "Well, my sister's acting these days. You should audition her." And I auditioned Lily, and I thought that Lily was perfect for the part. She had the quality that I was looking for.

Erin: How did you come to cast James Katharine Flynn? I know you worked with her in Marion. Did you write the role of Sonia with her in mind?

Ry:After writing Orphans and making Marion, I knew I wanted to work with James Katharine Flynn, particularly because she was so good in Marion. I didn't write the part for her, though.

Stella Schnabel in You Wont Miss Me

Erin: The casting of someone with a legacy might usually be to attract funding for a film, but you and Stella basically grew up together.

Ry: Lola [Schnabel, Stella's sister] was my childhood best friend, and Stella was her younger sister...another weird younger sister. Shortly after Orphans, Stella told me she was acting. I'd never worked with Stella before. I knew her, but she was a different age than me, so she wasn't like my childhood best friend. I thought she would be interesting on camera. I just felt, "Let me run a test and see what I can do with her." We got together, and made a character of Shelly Brown. I interviewed the character for about five hours on video, with my cinematographer shooting. What happened was that I went home with the footage, edited the interview down, and started writing the script, the story, based on the original interview.

Erin: I haven't seen the movie yet, but Karina Longworth, in her review, had this to say about the movie:

Writer/director Russo-Young and co-writer/star Stella Schnabel remind us how rare it is to see a film about the inner life of a beautiful, troubled young lady without the objectifying filter of the male gaze, without the beauty and the trouble fusing into a fantasy cipher of a postmodern damsel in distress.

A trend in recent, more mainstream independent films have had this character that's almost become a stock character: this sort of adorable, quirky girl that captures the heart of the male protagonist. Natalie Portman's character in Garden State is the most notorious example I could think of. Did you have that type of character in the back of your head when you were putting this together?

Ry:Once you'll see it, you'll definitely understand that this character is far from those quirky kind of indie-type girls. In some ways, it's actually an antidote to that character.

Erin: That's what I meant, actually.

Erin: Why did you choose to shoot this on multiple formats?

Ry: I chose multiple formats because I felt that it would be the best way to capture this character, and the way you're looking at this character from all these different angles, and all these different situations. It gives a more generous portrait, who she really is and what she's about. I wanted to show the diversity in different ways of looking, and the formats are part of that. One minute, she's being the sweetest person in the world, and the next, when she's being cruel to someone. It's about the way you see those things, and how the emotional temperature of the scene is carried through the actual texture of the medium it's shot on. Does that make sense?

Erin: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense--

Ry: It also changes your way of looking. Like if you're looking through a magnifying glass, looking at something straight, and if you're looking at it over the hill, it changes the way you're seeing things.

Ry Russo-Young (left) with Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs

Erin: How did you get cast in Hannah Takes The Stairs?

Ry: I met Joe on the festival circuit, at the Chicago International Film Festival when I was there with my short, Marion. Basically, we kept in touch, and then he asked me if I wanted to do it.

Erin: What was it like working with Joe?

Ry: It was good! It was a lot of fun!

Erin: What filmmakers have inspired you in the past? You mentioned Hitchcock a little bit earlier.

Ry: That's a really hard question to answer, because it really depends what I'm working on at the moment. It all sort of depends on what I'm interested in making, and what I'm watching. For example, when I was making Orphans, I was watching a lot of Bergman. Bergman definitely inspired me. And I guess for You Wont Miss Me, I was watching more--actually, you know, I don't know what exactly inspired me. I think it was more documentaries in general, a general cultural moment in the time we are living in, with everything like the implication of YouTube and reality television to the banal.

Erin: Are you working on anything else right now?

Ry: Yeah, I'm in the early stages of a new movie.

Erin: Are you willing to share some details, or would you rather wait until later?

Ry: I'd rather wait until it's more developed.

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