This is a series of posts delving into the gory details of what it takes to produce an independent film. Covering the entire process — from development to fundraising, production, distribution, online strategies and beyond — they will be written in real time, from first hand experience, as I go through the process of producing a feature-length documentary.
WTF IS A FILM PACKAGE, AND HOW DO I MAKE ONE?
A few weeks ago I posted about some legal issues and paperwork that you needed to get going for your production. That’s all well and good, but there’s no use in having all your legal stuff worked out if you don’t have a story, and — of course — a really good film package.
What follows is all information I’ve gleaned from various sources- including the internet, several lawyers, and my colleagues and friends in the industry. Most important is, however, to do your homework. There are a million ways to skin a cat, what works for me may not work for you and etc.
First and foremost, it’s important to clarify to yourself what the purpose of your film package is. Usually this purpose is quite simple: To sell the film to investors during the development and fundraising process.
For me, the package also has a secondary purpose: To serve as the repository for a topline production strategy- a strategy I will refer to over and over as the production intensifies. Call it psychological support.
Since the document then functions as a strategy AND as a sales document, writing it becomes quite the art. It needs to be snappy yet thorough, exciting yet substantial, sexy yet functional. Mainly it needs to be able to appeal to a broad variety of personalities and levels of professionalism. Big investors – if you can persuade them to look at your little project in the first place – will be looking for researched information and thought-out storylines combined with something with SOME level of marketability, and will quickly sniff bullshit if you haven’t done your due diligence. Conversely, if you are going a DIY route, your micro-funders on Kickstarter or IndieGoGo will most likely be more into the vision and the context rather than the research and marketing- the art and originality of it, as it were.
Your package will seed every fundraising effort you make, and given the diverse personalities and interests it will be sent to, it may be tempting to produce different packages for different people. I’ve found, however, that it’s best to make one master document, and just pick and choose what information you want to send out – but always from the same source.
One more word of advice: I once heard the gore horror film director Herschell Gordon Lewis say that – in fundraising and marketing – you sell what people want to see, but you make what you want them to see. In other words, compromise a bit and throw in a few nods to the larger world (and even to their questionable taste), but never forget your core vision. That’s what the film will be about, in the end, no matter how you spin it in your package.
Without further ado, here are the most important elements to include:
Some sort of snappy image: This can be something that inspired the film, or, better yet, preliminary key art. This will be the cover of your package, so it needs to be eye-catching. If you don’t have key art yet, use a nice image but do yourself a favor and ask a designer friend to quickly look the first page over- and then take their advice. Film is a visual medium, and your package should look good.
**On that note: Be sure to put a little attention into your formatting and typefaces. Keep it classic, simple, and for the love of god use a typeface that people want to look at for 40 pages.
Title: ‘But my title will change’, you say. Well, yes, it will, but it’s very important to give the people you are reaching out to some way to refer to the project, even if it’s something clunky ‘Untitled Carina Nebula Documentary’.
Logline: Something lively and terse that manages to define your film in a nutshell, for quick reference. There is conflicting information on the length of the logline, but I tend to keep it at about a sentence (or two). Most importantly, it should somehow manage to speak to the premise, as well as the main plot point of your film. Think of how you would explain the project if you were yelling out your window to that distribution exec from Paramount that is stuck at the same red light as you.
For inspiration: Look at http://www.writersstore.com/writing-loglines-that-sell for examples, or try your hand at the random logline generator (which produces really shitty loglines, but is sort of fun nonetheless).
Synopsis (250 word version, 500 word version): Most grant applications will request a synopsis between 250 and 500 words. To be safe, and although people disagree with this, I have found that it’s a good idea to write both a short and a long synopsis.
The short should cover the main plot points, introduce the primary characters, and get to the heart of the story points for your film- including the ending. If you’re working within a three act structure, your synopsis should reflect the main points of each act, giving about a paragraph per act.
The long version can be peppered with a little more context giving stuff- the things that make your project beautiful or unique or different, from a story point of view. The long one is the one you should aim to use the most.
Here are some more links to information written by some better informed people on the topic: ‘How to Write a Synopsis‘ by Nathan Bransford; A breakdown of a synopsis by Rachel Shirley; and a page on the WGA site that lists a series of links for screenwriters.
Project Background (400 words): Give a little history of how this project came about. Your history with the subject, for instance, or the genesis of the formation of the core team on the project. This section can serve to elucidate the passion of the filmmakers, and sell the reader on the commitment you have shown to the project thus far.
Treatment (3 pages): This is the scene-by-scene breakdown of your film, and is almost impossible to do to satisfaction with a documentary, given how many unknowns there are. Nonetheless, you should have a good idea of how your film would look in a perfect world, and this treatment can reflect that blue-sky vision. It’s also an excellent exercise in trying to firm up the structure of your story, and ideally would be a scene-by-scene breakdown of the film in its entirety.
This is also the place where you can include a paragraph (or two) speaking to the style you intend to shoot in. A quick-cut Guy Ritchie approach? Or a long and lingering meditation? Verite? Black and white, or saturated colors? This is a good opportunity to get the reader’s visual imagination flowing. Here’s a link to a very informed article by Marilyn Horowitz on the topic.
Transmedia (as long as needed, if needed): How deep you want to get into shoring up a transmedia strategy for your film? And what would be this strategy’s primary purpose? Is your transmedia campaign designed to complement and further the storyline? Or is it just a fancy euphemism for creative marketing (in which case just put a little ‘transmedia’ section in your marketing segment and call it a day)? What sort of other media are you capable of using?
These are relevant questions, and this segment will be huge, tiny, or not exist at all depending on what you want to do with this. Just remember: A t-shirt line or a marketing-heavy comic book does not a (good) transmedia campaign make. Look at the work of Lance Weiler, the writings of Mark Harris on Workbook Project, Zenith the film, or The Cosmonaut project for inspiration.
Target Audience (250 words): Research your target audience, and be as specific as possible. Don’t write things like “This is a film that will appeal to women.” What kind of women? Urban, white, latte-drinking, art museum membership-holding social butterflies? Rural Native American truck-driving family-loving social workers? Age, location, interests, professional levels, etc. all play a part in potential audiences. Truth? Chances are that the people who will be interested in your film are the people most like you, so start there. Define who you are, exactly, and expand outwards.
In the US, I like to refer to the PRIZM Segmentation system, that divides people into insanely accurate classification segments like ‘Bohemian Mix’, ‘Money and Brains, and ‘Young Digerati’ It’s not as available online as it once was, but you can get a taste of their subcategories by typing in your zip code at this website, and looking at the types of people in your immediate neighborhood. In the UK the ACORN system is widely used to define social groups.
Topline Distribution Strategy (2 to 3 pages): Just what it sounds like. People who invest in your film will want to guarantee one of three things: that it’ll get made (your micro-funders or your family), that it’ll make money (an investor who expects a return), or that it’ll get seen by as many people as possible (a corporate sponsor whose logo is plastered across your credits).
Thus, you need a strategy for distribution, beyond ‘get into Sundance and sell film for five million bucks’, that at least sets a realistic plan for how to attempt to meet all three of these goals. Also, be sure to include DIY strategies so that you have a back-up plan that you can implement on your own with a lot of elbow grease. Refer to any of the articles on workbookproject.com for reference.
Marketing Strategy (2 to 3 pages): As above. How do you plan to present and sell your film? How do you plan to harness audiences? The marketing strategy will, perforce, tie into the distribution plan. For instance, if you are going a DIY route, marketing must start early and be geared towards engagement and a sense of investment. However, if you are doing television distribution (and have the pre-sales to guarantee it), the marketing will be mostly covered by the TV execs who bought your film, and can be kept to a minimum (but, in my opinion, never ignored completely).
In my experience, there are so many excellent films out there, that it’s increasingly hard to get people’s attention. The more you do by way of engaging your potential audience the better off you are (short of bombarding your long-sufferingTwitter followers with constant updates on a project that is not even close to completion). This is an art, it needs to be effective without being heavy handed, and it needs, crucially, to reach beyond your immediate social circles. So – again – do your research, and branch outwards: Don’t market your project to other indie filmmakers. They’ll be there to support you, but there aren’t enough of us to sustain a deeper success.
Fundraising Strategy, with deadlines (2 pages): Yikes, the belly of the beast, or the crux of the problem of filmmaking. This strategy will, of course, change all the time. Start this section off with your goal and deadlines in one sentence: “Goal: Raise $XXX,XXX.XX over the course of the next XX months, broken down into X deadlines.” Then, simply write out your deadlines, how much you wish to have raised by the relevant dates, and how you plan to raise it. Simple. Ha.
Be sure to include both DIY and other fundraising methods (such as regional pre-sales, government subsidies, corporate sponsorship, private investors and whatever else you can attain). I’ll be writing a big post on this next month, so will leave it at that, but in the meantime, read this very informative article by Edward Jay Epstein on Hope For Film.
Projected Production Timetable (1 page): The four sections of a production should be represented here: Development, Pre-production, Production, Post-Production. If you are doing a concerted transmedia phase to your project, add that in as a fifth phase of production, probably between development and pre-production. Write down the deadlines for each phase, and the periods you are allotting to each phase of production, as well as what you will accomplish in each phase.
Key Personnel: No more than a 250 word bio for each person, including the director (if one is assigned to the project already), the producer(s), the art director/production designer, the cinematographer, and the bios of any key subjects or actors who have already committed to the film. Basically, the core creative and business team.
Advisor Bios: Keep this short, if you include it at all, but if you have made one film or less, definitely consider having a team of advisors. I try to build a team of advisors with each project- because I am young and ‘emerging’ (to put it kindly) and I know that I don’t know everything and need help. There’s no shame in it, and anyone looking to support your project will be happy to know that you are supported by the benefit and learning of more experienced people.
Budget Summary (1 page): A topline budget summary – broken down into categories. Read Christine Vachon’s excellent book ‘Shooting to Kill’ for a fantastically detailed breakdown of a budget.
Legalese (more pages than you will ever care to read): Your attorney will want to get a lot of info in your package—mostly surrounding disclaimers and not guaranteeing anything and etc. This is something you must include if you are trying to be serious about raising a lot of cash, and it’s in your best interest to protect yourself and qualify the expectations.
OK, that’s it. Easy right? Bear in mind that different entities require different elements when considering potentially funding your film. But if you have all the above written out, you should be pretty much covered with whatever you try for.
As a final aside: Regarding the written part of the film. If you have developed the film, written the treatment, the script or even just the synopsis… I strongly encourage you to register it either with the WGA (costs $20 for non-members) or the Copyright office (costs $35).
And finally, here’s a link to another online article about writing a film package, that I found to be a pretty good read. Good luck!
Next post: Fundraising strategies for the money-illiterate (who hate sales).
Read my last 2 posts in this series: ‘DEFINING ROLES’ and ‘GETTING YOUR DUCKS IN A ROW PART 1: LEGAL AND PAPERWORK’
Posted in education production journal
This is a series of posts delving into the gory details of what it takes to produce an independent film. Covering the entire process — from development to fundraising, production, distribution, online strategies and beyond — they will be written in real time, from first hand experience, as I go through the process of producing a feature-length documentary.
You can read the last post, ‘DEFINING ROLES’ here.
GETTING YOUR DUCKS IN A ROW: LEGAL & PAPERWORK
This three-part post will consist of a step-by-step plan to get you ready to start further development and pre-production on your film.
Today I am posting about production development, specifically, about the legal issues and paperwork you should have as you start development. This is a phase called ‘production development’, and for a producer, it is almost as important as the creative development process.
A note that this is all information I’ve gleaned from various sources- including the internet, several lawyers, and my colleagues. Most important is for you to do your homework, and MOST important: Consult a lawyer.
The first goal of the production development phase is to be sure you are all set from a legal standpoint to start fundraising. This phase, of course, would be happening concurrently or perhaps slightly after the creative development phase, as there is no point in creating the paperwork for a film with no story.
Thus, step one, of course, is to obtain the services of a lawyer. Ideally, the lawyer will be open to working pro-bono until you have your first round of funding in, but if not, pay for one. It is worth it – at this stage – and will save you headaches later on.
An LLC for your film, through which you can take money and pay money out, and locking in the core production partners in an operating agreement (which will elucidate who is primarily responsible for what, and who is contributing what- this can include intellectual property such as a script or an idea, money, time).
An LLC will also provide you with an EIN (Employee Identification Number) and allow you to track your expenses for the IRS.
Please note that there are potential issues with an LLC if you intend to crowdsource some of your funds. It is too complicated to try to explain here, but be sure to mention this potential fundraising strategy to your lawyer, and she can look into it for you.
Contracts or deal memos for your existing partners, elucidating deal points and revenue share, as well as intended title in credits. This includes the core team of people and any peripheral people you have milling around the idea – including yourself!
If you do not have time to create these contracts or deal memos, and your partners are chomping at the bit to start hustling, either tell them they have to wait, or BE SURE to — at the very least– write out the deal points in the interim. It also helps acknowledge at this point what they have brought to the film thus far, as well as to set expectations for what you hope they will bring to the film in the future.
Below are some examples of some deal points you may or may not want to include, that I have come up with. Please remember that I am not a lawyer, and it is a WAY better idea to consult your lawyer than just to copy these. I, for one, am consulting mine.
In the meantime, these are some things you can look into offering.
Commission: X% of monies raised
It is important to note that – in most cases – this should not include a percentage of in-kind donations or services that do not result in cash in your bank account. This is because it will be impossible, for instance, to pay off X% of a free camera rig valued at $20,000 if you have $0 in the bank.
Equity: X points in film (thereby X% of profit made as a result of distribution and merchandising, just distribution, just online distribution, or however you want to divvy it up)
Points are typically percentages of NET profit of the film AFTER everyone has recouped their costs. Read here for more information: http://forums.creativecow.net/thread/17/867840 or http://www.indietalk.com/showthread.php?t=10545
Payment: Salary of $XX,000.00 contingent upon the production receiving its full budget of $XXX,000.00
Be sure to note what happens if the production doesn’t meet the full budget. For instance you could offer a percentage deal: If the production brings in 70% of the full budget, the production will pay out 70% of the salary amount, and so on.
Title/Credit: For example, an ‘Associate Producer’ Credit in the titles
Be sure to note that this title will be contingent on the meeting of an expectation, so you don’t get into the typical indie trap of people claiming titles they’ve done nothing for. Conversely, you can set higher expectations with the potential of a ‘better’ title, so if the individual over-performs, they are duly recognized.
For instance, you could specify that a given title is contingent on such things as:
- Successful raising of a certain amount of money
- Providing goods and services equivalent to a certain amount of money, such as equipment, core team members, facilities, etc.
- Staying with the project for a duration of XX months, with an expected contribution of (name contribution here, typically goods, money or services)
Acknowledging existing and future contributions:
As part of this process, be sure to take the time to set expectations for the people whose involvement you are considering for the film. These can be anything from art direction to distribution consulting. But, be specific – and yet remain open to things shifting as people’s involvements shift. It’s good to have a escape clause, too, something that gives you an out if they do not lift a finger, or gives them an out if they hate the direction the film is taking.
As part of this expectations-setting process, it could also be helpful to craft a little email in anticipation of the contracting process—if only to clarify what someone has felt that they have already given to the production. It saves people feeling unacknowledged, and saves you – as the producer – from any lack of clarity as to what people are thinking.
In other words, better to discuss it now than to suffer acrimony, later.
Here’s a little exercise that you can do with everybody involved in the film to make sure you are all on the same page. It feels corporate as hell, but it’s helpful nonetheless.
Have them all fill out the following three sections:
- What you have contributed thus far
- What you intend to contribute later
- What you expect from the production.
For instance, for my role in the project I am working on, some things that I feel that I have given thus far include:
- Strategies Expertise, specifically: Marketing, distribution and fundraising
- Expertise in the form of authored documents, specifically: Film package and budget, grant applications and related authored documents
- Story genesis and co-development
- Providing human contacts that have led to these successes and developments).
Things I intend to contribute further include:
- Overseeing all facets of the film including: Scheduling, staff, financial, locations, etc
- Overseeing marketing and distribution strategies for the finished film
My expectations from the film are:
- Profit share through a percentage of the total net income, as a result of merchandising, distribution, etc.
- ‘Producer’ title, ‘Story By’ title
- Creative/ Marketing and Distribution control, split as per negotiations
III. NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENTS
In this time of intellectual property, and if you are at all attached to making the idea you have developed, this is crucial. The signed NDAs will serve as a record of who has heard the idea, and can help you track its dissemination in the world. Make sure your partners also understand this, and provide them with copies to have the people they pitch the film to sign.
And of course, use your common sense. Don’t be draconian, but be vigilant.
Next, I will post about CONSTRUCTING THE FILM PACKAGE. Stay tuned.
Posted in education production journal
Michael Margolis is the President of Get Storied, an education company that teaches people how to feel, think, and see in narratives. As an evangelist for storytelling and the creative process, Michael works with clients ranging from Audubon, Omnicom, and Zappos.com . Michael is also author of Believe Me: a Storytelling Manifesto for Change-makers and Innovators, which is available as a complimentary digital download.
WorkBook Project: How do you see storytellers adapting to changes in authorship and the realities of a participatory culture?
Michael Margolis: Ownership is a false and outmoded concept. If you’re a Digital Native, you accept that everything you do online is recorded, and therefore shareable. You naturally borrow, adapt, and remix. Anyone who is creatively using the web, can’t help but recycle existing ideas, graphics, and concepts. It’s just inevitable. In a word of infinite knowledge, everything is a derivative in some fashion. We have to learn to let our egos get out of the way.
WBP: What are some of the interesting approaches that you’ve seen in regards to storytellers embracing these changes in authorship?
MM: Don’t get me wrong, we all deserve to be compensated for our hard work and efforts. What people will pay for is packaging the idea in a variety of formats, from freemium content to deluxe packages and premium experiences.
Especially if you’re trying to make a name for yourself. Since trust is low, you have to break through the noise and lower the risk of trying/experiencing your content. Musicians, book authors, and consultants all embrace this concept.
Consider the Gift Economy – which is a primal human instinct to offer gifts as the social lubricant of relationship building. In indigenous culture, gift economy is a demonstration of status and power. You are so confident and secure in your position, that you can share your bounty with others. That’s how you build and gather a tribe in today’s information overload environment. Give away something of high perceived value, and through familiarity and rapor – the money will follow.
WBP: In your opinion what’s the value of creating a personal brand and what’s the best way to go about it? Can you give us 5 things to consider?
MM: Perception is reality. You already have a personal brand: it’s called the stories that people tell about you. So whether you’re thinking about it or not, people are forming an impression in their mind as who you are, what you stand for, and what they share in common with you. Personal branding from a story perspective is about inviting people into relationship.
1. What do you want to be known for? (how can you embody that?)
2. What is your back story? (We want to know where you come from)
3. What are you willing to fight for? (People want to hear a point-of-view.)
4. What imperfections can you share? (quirks, vulnerability, make it real)
5. What myth or archetype do you embody (think of a persona others will relate to)
WBP: It’s been said that story will drive the next generation of social networking and app development can you explain why?
MM: We have entered the Age of Storytelling. Because in a era of infinite knowledge, we are struggling to find real meaning and understanding. As humans, narrative is how we make sense of things. Narrative is how we express ourselves. And narrative is how we connect with each other. There’s no accident that storytelling is a huge cultural meme reshaping the landscape of media and communications in all forms. There is a movement a foot to rehumanize business and culture. It’s no wonder our more basic human technology, storytelling is at the center of the equation.
WBP: What’s thing that you’ve learned the hard way that you wish someone would have told you?
MM: The old adage – that we teach what we need to learn most. In my case, storytelling is my medicine. My father is an inventor and my mother an artist – so living in a world of possibilities always came easy. I also grew up across many cultures, and in the process often felt lost in translation. As a social entrepreneur, I experienced my share of success and failure. Yet, I could never shake the feeling of being misunderstood. No wonder, I’ve devoted the past decade on decoding the role of narrative in our work and lives. Sort of like – we create the drama we seek. Yet, as I continue to imbibe my medicine, I not only heal myself, I heal the world. And thus take a few steps further in fulfilling my mission.
So, what’s the riddle you’re trying to solve? Get clear on what’s driving you forward, what fuels your curiosity and passion. There’s a new level of clarity that emerges when you learn how to shape the stories that shape you. We are no longer a victim of our own story. Instead we get to reinterpret the arc of our lives as we see fit. That’s the heart of reinvention.
WBP: Why the Reinvention Summit and why now?
MM: We’re in the midst of a dramatic shift. Just about everyone I know is in the midst of reinvention. redefining their careers, rethinking values, revitalizing an organization, or rebuilding community, etc…Talking with thousands of people over the past year, I discovered how reinvention is the new normal. The old assumptions of how the world worked are no longer true. For one, job security is an illusion. So why not follow your passion and live your truth? Unfortunately, most of us don’t have a vocabulary for how to navigate through the reinvention process, or translate that desire into a sustainable economic path.
Connect that with the power of storytelling and its ability to reinvent our world. Narrative is the fundamental language of reinvention. So we all need to learn and deepen our knowledge of narrative principles. That’s the intention behind the Reinvention Summit: 2-weeks, 32 sessions, 400 participants, who all believe that story is core to their work and mission.
We’re gathering a new tribe of storytellers: change-makers, marketers, creatives, innovators, and seekers – who see storytelling as fundamental to their work and mission. And in the process, the Summit is breaking out of the silos - exploring the role of narrative across a range of topics: branding, marketing, social change, community building, transmedia, career development, spiritual growth, social media, and more. Its a bold experiment to expand the discussion and re-story possiblities.
Hope you’re readers decide to join us, they can still register and join midstream. Sessions are also all recorded for playback. www.reinventionsummit.com/program
Posted in education event experience storytelling
Since I launched my latest film, “Billboard, an Uncommon Contest for Common People!” along with my Indiegogo fund raising campaign, people have balked at the amount of money that I’m attempting to raise, $300,0000. I scratch my head at this, and wonder why filmmakers do not disclose their true budgets, what their real cost was to take their movie to market? This means including scripting, preproduction, production, post production, prints (yes virtual prints in our digital age), marketing, advertising, etc.
What is the benefit to tell people, that you made your movie for a paltry sum? Is this just showing people how cheap you are? How crafty you are? How fiscally responsible you are? By reporting deflated numbers, you build up the hopes of so many aspiring filmmakers to enable them for failure by lying to them. Is this inflating the risk reward model? Something is just wrong with this. Could Weiler and Avalos really make and distribute their film “The Last Broadcast” for under $900? I wonder how they printed call sheets and scripts or got the drive space to edit the film? Or Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi” for $7,000? Did this include transportation to and from Mexico? Did the filmmakers behind the reported $15,000 “Paranormal” include salaries in their budget? Or was Kevin Smith’s movie “Clerks” really made for $26,000? I’ve shot a lot of film in my day and I know what it costs to strike a print. Was music even included in this? I wonder why so much attention is drawn to movie budgets. Who really gives a shit. We only have a fiduciray responsibility to our funders, not one another. Does bragging about how cheap you made your film for, really make a difference? Can we celebrate the birth of a movie without needing to tell people how much it cost?
What if Picasso put a “made for tag” on all of his pieces of work? In art and filmmaking, there is the inherent value perception, what you think something is worth, this is the business behind the art and certain perimeters drive the price. What if every year we had an auction where filmmakers and distributors fill a room and every film is auctioned off just like at Sotheby’s? Imagine the feelings in that room.
Should filmmakers take a salary as they create their work? In every business plan I have ever read, there has always been a line item for the entrepreneur’s salary, if not, I would raise the question, how are you or this project going to survive? Why is our budget exclamation so important to our industry? You seldom hear, it took company Y to produce product G. Then you also have the reverse, people inflating their reported budgets because they want to drive up a distribution sale. Budget reporting is all over the place and there is little truth in the numbers.
Can we all be more accurate in our budget reporting, if we feel the need to report how much it cost us to make our latest work? I feel that it would level the playing field. Filmmakers may even get more money for their films, even if it truly only cost them $50k.
ps. here’s a little diddy about fund raising that my friends at Lehigh helped me make: Top 10 Reasons to fund Billboard over Politicians
Posted in education transmedia
Today’s post is from guest writer Jessica King — a filmmaker and teacher whose goal is to tell stories that are at once familiar, uncomfortable, demented, and exhilarating. In this vein, she and her partner, Julie, are currently writing & producing a feature-length thriller for director Phil Holbrook and have been tapped to adapt a naughty memoir by author Kevin Keck.
Independent Film in the Classroom
Recently Ted Hope wondered whether viewing more independent film might make kids smarter. He pondered why there isn’t more of a concerted effort to teach young people about independent film, asking, “isn’t it in our interest to encourage deeper appreciation of the art and craft we have given our lives to?”
As a high school Film Studies teacher for the last 8 years, I can’t go so far as to say teaching students about independent film will make them smarter, but I’d argue that it can make them more intelligent movie viewers. The same is true for teaching them to watch classics, like Citizen Kane or Night of the Hunter. Or foreign films, like All About My Mother or Band of Outsiders or In the Mood for Love.
The trick is that you have to teach them how to watch films first, how to understand the unique language of film. Young people today are used to the language that Hollywood speaks: big explosions, big emotions, big stars. If you want to challenge that, you need to get to the root of film language first.
Before I delve into how to teach film language, I’d like to address a very common problem in terms of students learning about and being exposed to film in a high school setting. Film Studies courses are typically offered as English electives. Most English teachers are barely trained to teach English in a meaningful way (university teaching programs don’t usually focus on the technical aspects of reading or writing – diction, detail, imagery, syntax, tone), let alone film. Instead, English teachers are often talented, enthusiastic people who LOVE literature, which means that they want to talk about themes and characters and feelings, but not about how a text creates meaning and establishes purpose. As a result, many teachers who end up in Film Studies teach film as an extension of literature, showcasing them as visual novels. I find this extremely problematic. My film curriculum, on the other hand, considers, from its core, film as a distinct artistic medium.
In any Film Studies course offered at the high school level, the first thing I must do is disabuse my students of the notion that they are going to spend the next 9 months watching The Hangover and How High. I do this by starting with a brief history of film. As soon as I say the word “history,” they know that Bad Boys II is probably not going to be on the agenda. I spend about two weeks covering the major technological and business developments in film. Through both lecture and video, we uncover the Lumiere Brothers and their Cinematographe, Edison and his Kinetoscope, the invention of sound and color, as well as the significant developments of the Hollywood studio system from the early silents through The Code and the subsequent rating system. My primary goal in the beginning of the course is to get my students to understand that a) film is an expensive and technologically driven business and b) old films had technological and cultural limitations and, therefore, one’s expectations should be adjusted accordingly when watching.
The rest of the first semester is devoted to understanding how films tell stories both in terms of narrative structure and film language. First we look at the difference between classical narrative and non-classical-narrative film, noting, of course, that non-narrative doesn’t necessarily mean that the narrative elements aren’t in place, but that they may not be presented in the traditional manner. For this unit, I’ve compared Stage Coach with Memento and Bringing Up Baby with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This initial comparison helps students immensely in terms of understanding that some films require a little bit of work to piece together. They eventually find that as long as they know what the narrative elements are, they have a chance of putting together a very satisfying puzzle.
Next, we delve into hard-core formalistic study. I do a unit on mise-en-scene. Although this term can be problematic, I start with the traditional (and narrow) definition, which basically encompasses set-design, costumes, props, etc; then I expand the definition to include framing, composition, etc. This leads to my next section, cinematography (black and white first, and then color), and, finally, editing.
In each of these units, I try to teach without overwhelming the students. However, you’d be surprised at how much they can absorb. For instance, in the cinematography unit, we start by learning about shots, angles, lighting techniques, framing devices, etc. Then we watch a film where many of those things are particularly notable. I often like to start with something by Orson Welles, as he was such a master of technique. I’ve shown Citizen Kane, A Touch of Evil, and The Lady from Shanghai. My students don’t love these films, which is fine because we’re not there to like or not like the films. They do learn, however, that lighting, framing, and camera angles are powerful communicative tools that affect mood and establish themes.
This intense, semester-long focus on film language both excites and bothers my students. It excites them because it makes them feel smart; it bothers them because they start seeing it EVERYWHERE. They constantly come to class saying that they are annoying their friends and family by pointing out various camera angles or discussing how the slow-paced edits are intensifying the suspense and manipulating the audience’s emotions. And this tells me that I’m doing my job.
When second semester hits, we take a much broader focus. Now that the students understand how films convey meaning, we ask the question, “To what purpose?” I generally frame second semester within the guise of Commerce vs. Art. We cover the invention of the blockbuster film by learning about the New Hollywood films of the 1970’s and the arrival of Jaws. We look at the business of Hollywood, film genre, auteur theory, independent films, foreign films, and documentaries.
Perhaps one of my favorite units of the year is the independent film unit, in part because it addresses a major elephant in the classroom. I teach in an urban school, traditionally one of the most ethnically diverse in Chicago. I am often one of maybe 3 or 4 other white people in the room. Movies, on the other hand, are very WHITE, as the film industry, both in Hollywood and the indie world, is dominated by white men. This is not a political rant; it’s just an observation. While I try to choose films with more ethnically diverse casting all year long, it isn’t easy – the reasons for this would require an entire essay to itself.
When I get to the independent film unit, I frame each film within the lens of spectatorship. We begin by exploring simple questions about our viewing practices:
Why do you watch films?
Who do you identify with in most films?
What happens when you see people that you identify with portrayed in a positive way vs. a negative way?
Who is often left out of our cultural productions, and what are the implications?
In answering these questions, a very simple fact emerges: most of my students rarely, if ever, are exposed to films that feature characters whose appearance or lives in any way resemble their own. As a result, they believe that movies are not meant to represent them and, on a deeper level, that they are not meant to be represented. They also believe that movies are only meant for escapism and entertainment. After uncovering these ideas, I show them examples that combat those notions.
We watch three independent films from within the past year or so (I like to keep this unit and my Hollywood unit very current). Over the years, I’ve included such films as Ballast, Chop Shop, Amreeka, Raising Victor Vargas, Real Women Have Curves, Talk to Me, George Washington, and Waitress, and I’ve seen amazing results. The students are immediately drawn into these worlds. Although some resist these movies because of the slow pacing or lack of fiery explosions, the majority perk up. They’re seeing something rare: black people, brown people, women people, young people, immigrants, or poor people who look or act or sound like them or other people in their lives. They’re seeing stories worth thinking about because the story is primary. This matters.
By the end of the school-year, most of my students report that they no longer enjoy Hollywood films the way they used to. They ask for lists of films or directors to keep exploring, and they thank me for opening their eyes to a world of film, and a way of understanding film, that they’d never known existed.
Posted in education