By Saskia Wilson-Brown, May 2nd, 2011

In 2009, as a reaction against an increasingly corporate-ized and fractured media landscape, I decided to start an independent film screening series. My friend and colleague Georgi Goldman was also enthusiastic about the idea, and together we began running a monthly film series in Los Angeles: Cinema Speakeasy.

The purpose of Cinema Speakeasy was to be the filmic equivalent of the slow food movement  (but a heck of a lot less boring). We aimed to process films rather than quickly consume them. Positioning CS a not-for-profit organization, I was quite set on divorcing ourselves from the intervention of brands and sponsorship in the belief that – in this particular case – other people’s marketing strategies would corrupt our intention. Thus, we were to serve as advocates for the arts in a space that was separate from corporate commerce, all while showing people a good time.

With that said, we also hoped to create an alternative and non-inflated marketplace for independent film cause let’s get real for a second: We all have rent to pay. Willingly forgoing corporate support, and not keen on the virtual trumpeting that is crucial for successful IndieGoGo or Kickstarter campaigns, we needed to find alternate ways of creating this self-sufficient revenue stream for ourselves and our filmmakers. We hoped, simply, to survive – and to help filmmakers survive – without selling out. To do this, I believed that we needed a few things: A consistent audience, good programming, and a low overhead. Attaining those things, then, became the organization’s main goals.

We are now approaching Cinema Speakeasy’s second anniversary, with a recent expansion into San Francisco with the wildly popular CS:SF events. I wanted to share some of what we have learned in running this film series over the course of the last two years: The things that have allowed us to survive (and perhaps even modestly thrive?) in a very bad economic climate for the arts. Here, then, are my golden rules for running an independent film screening series.

Golden rule number one: Maintain a not-for-profit attitude, but make sure the organization can pay for its expenses.

When we started CS I plastered ‘we give all our revenue to the filmmakers and the venues’ all over the place. In retrospect, this was a mistake. Although we have maintained that policy thus far, we are going to change it for the simple reason that we need to pay for things like web hosting, promotional materials, advertising. If we don’t pay for those things, we limit our reach, which does a disservice to the filmmakers when no one shows up to their screening.

Having said that, it’s no secret that it’s devilishly hard to make a living while staying independent. So forget about making money, at least for the first 3 years, but don’t forget to apportion a part of whatever comes in to your organization’s survival, and to share the rest!

In practice: Don’t quit your day job, and NEVER get into personal debt for the sake of the organization. If you can’t afford to do the event, consider a different approach where it doesn’t cost so much. Keep overhead low, and be sure to split the revenue at the door between yourself, the venue, and the filmmaker – but always split the money that has come in AFTER deducting the expenses incurred in promoting the screening.

Golden rule number two: Plan for low audiences, and set realistic expansion goals.

Something I learned from my days at the Silver Lake Film Festival is that a too rapid expansion = a guaranteed disaster. It always pays to underestimate the amount of people who will show up. Slow but steady wins the race, when it comes to non-profits, and small is often more fun anyways: It’s better to have a packed-feeling small room than an empty-feeling big room.

In practice: For the first year of Cinema Speakeasy we stayed at a small venue (the amazing Echo Park Film Center) that seated about 60 people. Once we had created a consistent series of events, we dabbled with larger venues through special one-off high-profile screenings.  Now, almost two years in, the organization has expanded to San Francisco (with monthly events run there by a trio of uber-dames: Fhay Arceo, Allison Davis and Kate Sullivan Green), and we are starting to regularly expand to new larger venues in LA. Our larger events, which we typically do at a rate of one per quarter, are working because we have slowly built the audience to support this expansion, and because we are cautious and conservative about numbers and expenses.

Golden rule number three: Keep your eye on quality

It’s one thing to have a democratic approach, it’s quite another to show any old thing. That’s what YouTube is for.

Do not forget to maintain a level of quality. If you show ‘bad’ films, even your best friends will stop showing up, not to mention strangers. You won’t be able to grow an audience, and you will ultimately do a disservice to the filmmakers whose work you show.

However, if you gain a reputation for showing good content- as independent as you please but always to a certain standard (those standards are yours to decide) – you will gain a following and people will be honored to be included. It’s curation, and you can interpret it as you will, but do not forget to set standards – whatever they may be for you – and stick to them.

In practice: This is a golden rule I have had a hard time with, myself, and it’s only through my colleague Georgi’s prodding that I’ve begun to see the light on the value of saying no no no. It’s very hard to balance open access with good content, but it must be done.

In practice, also, if you have a lot of filmmaker friends who you want to support through your organization, consider implementing a ‘friends and family’ sub-series- an open call facet to your screening event, where you provide an audience to people just starting out, or whose work is challenging. Keep it separate from the main curated event, and do these at small venues.

Golden rule number four: Be open to oblique approaches

Be open to other mediums as a way of bringing attention to film, and this sometimes may include non-indie film. We’ve found this to be an excellent way to bring new audiences to our programming. Although every effort should be made to engage fellow filmy types, do not focus entirely on the indie film community. It’s small, it’s self-referential, and it’ll limit you.

In practice: Cinema Speakeasy has partnered with art galleries, music venues and other such entities to create two-part programs around a film. For instance, we did a potato-type ransom note workshop at a local gallery in Los Angeles (Machine Project), and partnered with a local design community (Kernspiracy) to get people interested and thinking about typography. This was all in support of our screening of Kartemquin Film’s ‘Typeface’.

This, and other oddball events such as the Tranimal Makeup Workshop (that we produced, and was curated by artist Austin Young, as a part of our ‘Ultra Fabulous Beyond Drag’ screening event), have been incredibly successful at bringing new types of people to our events, and many of them have come back and proposed some awesome ideas of their own.

Guerilla menu inserts

Golden rule number five: Get the F off the internet, already.

Marketing. The evil reality of doing anything that requires other people in this age of brands and buzz.

One thing’s for certain, and all the talk about ‘the power of social media’ notwithstanding, I’ve found there to be a fairly low correlation between Facebook or Twitter followers and butts in seats. It’s easy to hit ‘like’, but it’s a very different experience to get in the car, look for parking, feed the meter, walk a few blocks, and watch an unknown movie. Put simply: A lot of online participation is not a guarantee that people will show up.

What makes people do THAT is good programming, the potential to meet sexy new people, and (with some exceptions) traditional media support. Not sure why, but in our experience a write-up in the local weekly means a full house, 152 retweets does not. Maybe it has something to do with reaching new people rather than the same people you already communicate with online all the time. Or maybe it’s because people trust traditional media cause they’re better curators.

In practice: Instead of focusing all your efforts on creating buzz online, just BE awesome, focus on showing your audience a good time and on actual word of mouth, and consider traditional publicity for the larger events. Use social media as a complementary strategy, but not THE strategy.

We at CS also tend to engage in teenage-like ‘marketing’ such as sticking handwritten flyers in menus at hip diners, posting stickers everywhere we can get away with it, and generally trying to get attention in the real world. It seems to be working so far, is viral in a way more tangible way, and – mainly – it feels authentic to who we are.

Golden rule number six: Allow the organization to have a life beyond you, but set the rules early

If you succeed with your organization, people will come and want to be involved. You need these people for the organization to succeed. But never forget to make sure you maintain control of your organization’s overall trajectory and vision.

What this means is that you need to set the grand vision early (a mission statement and an organizational bible will help with this exponentially). But you also need to allow for expansion, changes of ownership, in short, whatever it takes for people to want to be involved, and are able to create and implement ideas. It’s basic good management skills, and it’s probably the one thing that will keep you up at night as you grapple with your own ego, sense of insecurity, etc.

One thing’s for sure: If you impose your vision in too draconian a manner, you will lose the very people who can help propel the organization to the next level. BUT, if you do not retain some leadership, you can lose control of the organization’s vision. Not an easy thing to balance.

In practice: When I had the idea to start a film series and call it Cinema Speakeasy, I had a certain vision in mind. When the organization’s current Executive Director Georgi Goldman officially came on board – right before the first screening event – she also had a vision. We were colleagues at work and used to confrontation and adaptation, so we simply confronted and adapted our ideas to one another. Together, we set a certain tone for the organization- and we set it early.

This is, and will, serve the organization well as it enters our current expansion phase. For instance, Cinema Speakeasy’s San Francisco edition was started and is run largely autonomously by its co-directors Fhay Arceo, Allison Davis and Kate Sullivan Green (FAK!) – who have final say in their programming, venues, marketing language, etc.

But, they still also use the visual ‘brand’, as it were (set by our brilliant creative-director-of-sorts Micah Hahn), and stick to the tone of the organization, as well as certain programming guidelines. Thus they maintain an approach that is in line with the larger CS organization- and in fact, take it to the next level of cool – but still act independently of the larger organization in many arenas. It’s a balancing act, and it works out very well if you pick your partners well. Which brings me to…

Golden rule number seven: Partner judiciously

Be picky. That’s all there is to this. There are a bazillion horror stories of what can go wrong if you pick the wrong partners- and I can categorically say that I’ve lived through just about all of the bad scenarios.

As a general rule, when approaching partnerships, it helps to think of what this person/organization can bring you right now, rather than what they could potentially bring you down the road. Keep it real, and keep a focus on your current needs.

In practice: Cinema Speakeasy partners creatively with like-minded folk – not too corporate, arts-centric, and who also have their shit together. We try to find oblique approaches, as well, by teaming up with oddball venues, creating cross-promotional partnerships with groups that wouldn’t usually be so excited about indie film, etc etc etc.

I could write five pages on this, so will leave it at this: Be judicious, work with people who are like-minded, and always write out (and agree to) the terms of the partnership early on.


2009, 20 people. 2011, 300 people.

Golden rule number eight: Expect defeat, and then expect success

If your role is to advocate for film by finding new audiences for the indies, then your goal is quite simple: Get people in seats. Simple, right?

The truth is, there’s no science or method to what will bring people in, all these golden rules notwithstanding. A front page write-up in the local paper will definitely help, but chances are that won’t happen for awhile, especially if you’re in a big city with tons of other competing things going on. A celebrity helps too, but that also gets really cheesy really fast, and can turn into a sort of Faustian deal with the devil, right quick.

In practice: If you want to maintain and grow your audience but don’t have access to tons of press, pay really strict attention to how you present your organization both online and offline, program with an eye towards quality (see rule #3), partner with awesome people and organizations (see rule #7), make every event fun, sociable (and a little raucous), and KNOW that you will occasionally have a occasionally super empty theatre. It’s no biggie. We’ve all been there. Just smile and take amazing photos of the three people who showed up.

Golden rule number nine: Just keep going

When I was in graduate school for fine art, one of the tutors told me that in a class of 20, at graduation all 20 are practicing artists. In five years, about 10 are still practicing artists. In 10 years, 5 are still making their work. But in 20 years only one will be making his work, and that one person will probably be well-known.

Consistency pays off, especially in a field where so many people give up early. Make sure you are in a position where you can maintain your organization in the lean years (see rules 1 and 2), and keep the faith.

As they say in Havana: SUERTE, chicos!

More info about Cinema Speakeasy can be found at cinemaspeakeasy.com. A list of other amazing film programs that are thriving and surviving here in the US and abroad can be found here.

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Posted in audience creative collaboration distribution event festival

Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.

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By Zak Forsman, November 12th, 2010

I have had several conversations with fellow filmmakers in the last six months around the idea that most American independent films are severely underdeveloped and suffer from extensive pacing issues. After making an honest appraisal of my own work, I have turned my focus from issues of discovery and distribution to that of creative development (and financing). It’s my humble opinion that less discussion is needed around methods to (effectively) coerce an audience toward your film and more is needed on crafting good, solid, innovative stories that are irresistible to an audience.

I’m a moderator over at a popular filmmaking community and discussion board called DVXuser.com and help facilitate a free and open online short film festival there three times a year. Each fest is defined by a theme or genre: from loss and love to thrillers and westerns. This time, we’ve decided to renew its focus toward good solid storytelling technique so our members can exercise those muscles a bit. We recently decided on a genreless and themeless turn as FictionFEST.

In writing the rules and guidelines, we included some principles that I wanted to share with you. I looked at some of the principles that serve as a foundation for my story development and find a lot of value in revisiting them from time to time.

THE PRINCIPLES OF FICTIONFEST

FOUR QUESTIONS – Does your story acknowledge the following questions: Who is your Protagonist? What are they after? Who or what is in their way? And what are the consequences if they fail?

IS IT HIGH CONCEPT? – Without famous actors and the luxury of a 90 minute running time, short films benefit greatly from placing the concept first. If it were pitched as a feature, would it attract a star and name director? If someone else made this, would you watch it based on the logline alone? In short, is your story the star?

WHO DRIVES THE PLOT? – The Antagonist typically steers the plot and the Protagonist reacts to increasing levels of threat. When searching for a story, consider defining the person or force working against your main character as a foundation to build the rest of the story upon.

A CLEAR MOTIVATION – Do we know what your Protagonist wants from the beginning? And are we on board with him/her? Do we care?

THEME – What is the central question of your story? A definitive answer to that question with a “yes” or “no” will conclude it. In a short film about a dirty cop, your theme could be: can justice prevail untarnished?

GET IN LATE AND GET OUT EARLY – To avoid pacing issues, in each scene ask yourself what point is the absolute latest I can jump into the scene and the earliest I should leave it. Do we need to see the character walk into or leave the room, or introduce themselves to the other characters in the scene? What happens if they are already underway by the time we join them? Is anything lost? Look at the beginning and ending of your scenes and ask: Is it essential? Is it dramatic?

UNIFY INTERNAL & EXTERNAL CONFLICT – Does your protagonist have to confront an internal issue in order to solve an external problem? For example, must your main character learn the meaning of love before he’s willing to fist fight his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend? Must the cyborg rediscover what it means to be human before he can save all of humanity? Unify the internal and external.

PRIVATE, PERSONAL & PROFESSIONAL THREADS – A fully-realized Protagonist can be illustrated by three levels of problems: private, personal and professional.

PRIVATE: Conflict known only to your main character.
PERSONAL: Conflict known only to characters close to your main character.
PROFESSIONAL: Conflict known to all or most characters in the story.

In a work of short fiction two of the three may be greatly minimized, but consider the value in a set of obstacles that confront your Protagonist on multiple levels. For example, say that your superhero must defeat the plans of the villain (professional), keep his love interest safe from harm (personal), AND avenge the death of his parents (private).

AVOID CLICHE ACTION & EXPOSITORY DIALOGUE – Have we seen this before? If so, consider doing the reverse. When you find yourself faced with a cliche, re-consider the following questions for each scene: Who wants what? What happens if they don’t get it? And why now? If you find yourself writing dialogue between two characters about an off-screen third, consider dramatizing that information instead. How can we show that rather than tell it? As an exercise, if you deprive your characters of speech, how would the scenes play out dramatically? Now knowing that, how would dialogue elevate it?

Certainly, there is much more that could have been considered and included. But I think this serves as a pretty good foundation to build upon. I suspect many would acknowledge these as fairly obvious points for “a good story, well told”, but frankly, it’s not showing up in a lot of the work I see out there. If you’d like to flex your storytelling muscles, please join us over at FictionFEST, read the rules and start a discussion thread for your film. The deadline isn’t until mid-March 2011 and you’ll find the community there to be engaging and supportive. It’s a filmmaking community unlike any I’ve been able to find online.

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Posted in Storytelling festival screenwriting

Zak Forsman is an artist-entrepreneur whose emotionally-charged motion pictures are known for highly authentic performances and beautiful compositions. They have been praised by Ain’t It Cool News as “Brilliant” and “Absolutely Gorgeous” and by Filmmaker Magazine as “Very Accomplished, Amazing.”

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By Saskia Wilson-Brown, October 20th, 2010

We live in a world with immediate access to any content we want, whenever we want it–and a lot of it. With cheap production tools and omnipresent distribution outlets, anyone with a laptop can make films, and a lot of people seem to want to.

Hot on the heels of this expansion in our content supply comes the debate surrounding how best to sort our creative surfeit. It goes without saying that independent filmmakers are going to continue to increase in numbers. Movies are going to continue to compete for audiences on yet more distribution platforms. We – as an industry – thus need to develop good systems to help promote their discovery, and much of the discussion around these systems has centered on DIY distribution and marketing strategies. But there is a fundamental part of the puzzle that is missing, put to evidence by the fact that most filmmakers are having difficulties – still – finding their audience.

Curation has become fundamental to the issue of audience building. Indeed, it can serve a crucial role in corralling attention spans in what Lance Weiler dubs the “digital attention economy”. To that end, a new crop of curators have come to the fore in an attempt to create new access points for filmmakers. But how are their efforts helping to further promote, support and sustain independent filmmakers, if at all?

NEW CURATORS

Among the most prominent contemporary curators is Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice and, more recently, streetbonersandtvcarnage.com. A maverick curator/producer hybrid, he is devoted to a simple and intuitive premise: “I basically do exactly what I’ve always been doing: making jokes and picking fights [and showing] stuff I like.”

McInnes amassed a following largely through word-of-mouth while building the Vice platform, and – aware of the value of consistency – he remains loyal to the stylistic idiosyncracies that first informed his success. He also, however, recognizes the audience as his core obligation by placing priority on how his content decisions are affecting them. Alternately stated: “I think it’s important to do shit other people haven’t already done to death. I’ve been accused of being conservative in the past but it’s only because ‘Bush is stupid’ and ’Obama rules’ is flogging a dead horse. Give people something new to think about. As far as I’m concerned, [this] is about social commentary and stimulating some kind of discussion.”

The value he places on his audience perhaps forces McInnes to engage in the dictionary definition of gate-keeping. He has to make choices, and he excludes. Influenced by his online-only practice, where he differs perhaps from the gatekeepers of yesteryear is in his encouragement of immediate conversation, through comments functionality, mostly: “Whenever I see sites without the option for comments I think, ‘You are old and you don’t really use the Internet very much,’ [...] It doesn’t engage people. It’s all about participation.“

With similar intentions to McInness, Jonathan Wells, founder of ResFest and co-founder of Flux (along with his partner Meg Wells) explains his practice as one dedicated to uncovering fresh voices: “I love discovering new talent and really enjoy sharing their work with an audience. [At RESFEST] we sought to expose international work that hadn’t been seen in the US as well as amazing independent work that wasn’t being screened in festivals or on television.”

Wells is very aware of the role his personal preferences play in his selection process, but he also nods to adapting his practice to the needs of diverse audiences:  “Filmmakers who use unusual techniques and compelling storytelling to further their story in a novel way is what I’m always looking for. That said our outlets have different programming needs.”

It is no different at larger institutions such as Sundance. Todd Luoto, a shorts programmer for the festival, defines his group’s curatorial methods as “[to] collect the most interesting, moving, touching, funny, innovative and fresh content out there [...to] show diverse stories and sensibilities. We want to challenge an audience as much as we want to make them laugh or be moved.”

This focus on innovation is tempered by Luoto’s awareness of the inherent relativity of curatorial prerequisites, and again, the needs of the audience: “The criteria can change, and has – in my experience – with regional festivals. Sometimes there are issues that resonate a bit more with a certain crowd or culture.”

Mike Plante, programmer for CineVegas and Sundance (and a consulting programmer for a number of smaller organizations such as Los Angeles’ Cinefamily), yet again confirms the need to balance discovery with audience awareness.

“A good programmer […] goes out and finds those great films that did not send their DVD in. Even for Sundance, there is a lot of outreach to the underground. [...] It’s different for each fest, as to what could show [but] the one thing the film has to do is ‘work.’”

Several areas, then, enjoy mutual accord: The desire to push the envelope, to discover new content, to address the needs of diverse audiences, and to show what is ‘good’. In one sense, this can be heartening for filmmakers – clearly there is a hunger for new films and a number of intelligent well-versed curators to champion them. But this paradigm also relies on one individual’s conception of what makes a ‘good’ film- a truly impossible concept to categorically define. Thus, this enthusiasm for new content can quickly start to feel hollow if no one wants to curate your film into a program.

Does the discriminative aspect of curation, then, create insurmountable problems for filmmakers? Is there something nonetheless to be gained?

THE CURATOR’S DILEMMA

General consensus in the DIY movement holds that exclusion is not to be tolerated -and contemporary curators are well aware of this issue. Luoto, for instance, is the first to admit that “[Curating] movies is a subjective art”.

Compounding the issue is the scarcity of openings in curatorial programs, as Brent Hoff, editor and co-founder of Wholphin DVD wryly explains. “We only have so much space on a DVD and viewers only have so much time to watch movies… This is a problem of time itself and it affects all aspects of life.  We can’t do or see everything there is to do and see in life.”

“On the flip side, it’s that limitation which gives a [platform] its prestige and identity, as no filmmaker probably wants to screen at an event that selects just about everything and anything” furthers Luoto.

Indeed, any experience wading through unfiltered content shows us that we benefit from some sort of qualitative exclusionary practice. Yet, paradoxically, no one wants to be excluded. Therein lies the curator’s dilemma: How do you serve filmmakers while simultaneously shutting them out?

SOLUTIONS?

One solution around this problem are processes such as online aggregators and crowd-powered tools (evident on websites like Digg.com). Indeed, there is no shortage of spots for exhibition on the internet, and the usage levels for this model are very high- certainly higher than attendance at festivals or screening series. But, by moving from an individual vision towards automated processes favoring the intelligence of the crowd (or the targeted information provided by data), and by excluding the peculiarities of personal taste, these solutions run the risk of creating some supremely ineffectual and dull content discovery experiences– what Jaron Lanier calls “the blandest possible bible”.

The advantage, of course, is that crowdsourced or aggregation models can provide a way past the gatekeepers, for filmmakers. But, they do so by erasing real connection. Further, lacking the ability to contextualize content, these solutions ultimately do filmmakers a disservice by placing their work alongside (and therefore equal to) random internet ephemera. A thoughtful short film about a family’s Christmas is placed on equal footing with a home video of a kitten playing with Christmas wrapping paper. Vute as kittens are, this is typically not the company an independent filmmaker wants to keep.

Thus the individual curatorial model finds itself ever more relevant in our current landscape simply because it can contextualize work in way that algorithms cannot. As Lance Weiler puts it, a trusted (and informed) individual voice is the most effective recommendation engine: It most powerfully activates its audience’s faith in the content it is endorsing. Supported by their knowledge of the independent film landscape, these curators search out, draw parallels and contextualize content in a way that allows for better connection with the audience, and can program films that others might brush off.

Wholphin’s Brent Hoff confirms this, saying that as much as he’s had to exclude content, he’s also “found and chosen things other people have passed on.” Luoto furthers: “It’s not just about selecting safe films that everyone in the audience will love, but constructing a lineup of stories we really believe should be seen.”

These curators become advocates for the content they believe in, their exclusionary practices notwithstanding, in a way no algorithm can emulate.

CONCLUSIONS

The unavoidable but alarming curatorial subjectivity – compounded as we have seen by the scarcity of space on any given platform – may possibly yet be further counterbalanced by an increasing profusion of those platforms. This, of course, serves filmmakers by creating ever more opportunities to connect with new audiences in a meaningful way, as we have seen, through tight and thoughtful film programs. The increase in what Jonathan Wells calls ‘boutique platforms’ can help complement a film’s lifespan – shepherded to new groups and sub-cultures by trusted individuals who understand their audiences’ needs.

Although independent curators cannot yet pretend to the reach achieved by aggregation-based internet properties or by some of the larger festivals, they can still perhaps make up for the relative paucity of their audience numbers by the greater depth of their influence. Individual curation, inevitably, works with a simple goal: To present film that counts. If all is done right, the audience will have a better chance to find and connect to those films.

Instead of decrying the gatekeepers, we should all be trying to emulate them.

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Posted in Storytelling audience festival promotion

Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.

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By Lance Weiler, May 24th, 2010

With 40k in hand Wyatt McDill and Megan Huber set out to make a first feature on their own terms. Having spent a few years pushing a script through development hell they came out on the other side wanting to “just make a movie.” The end result is a DIY voyeuristic web thriller entitled Four Boxes

THE STORY: Trevor, Amber and Rob run Go Time Liquidators – an ambulance-chasing eBay auction business. In a dead man’s destroyed suburban house they start watching a bookmarked surveillance-cam website:fourboxes.tv. If fourboxes.tv isn’t just more internet BS, then a crazed creep they call Havoc is building enough bombs to, like, kill everybody in the U.S.

Designed to embrace and work within the confines of an internet experience the films stars Justin Kirk from (Weeds). Four Boxes enjoyed a festival run with stops at SXSW in 09 and has just recently returned from the Cannes Market. This fall Wyatt and Megan will stage a hybrid release of Four Boxes with a mix of touring, VOD, along with few special internet surprises. We caught up with the husband and wife filmmaking team to discuss the project and the freedom that can be found by working within your limitations.

Step into the world of Four Boxes

Download Adobe Flash Player.

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Posted in Storytelling biz distribution festival podcast screenwriting transmedia

Lance Weiler is the founder of the WorkBook Project and also a story architect of film, tv and games. He's written and directed two feature films THE LAST BROADCAST and HEAD TRAUMA. He's currently developing a number of transmedia projects.

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By Saskia Wilson-Brown, April 21st, 2010

How small festivals can be the future of meatspace film distribution

In the past several years I’ve had the opportunity to participate in and listen to a lot of conversations about the shifting role of film festivals, particularly as those shifts apply to mid to high level independent festivals. There are a number of conflicting opinions on the role of film festivals – from ‘they’re useless and will die’ to ‘they are the future of theatrical’. In truth, all theorizing aside, nobody knows the role film festivals will take over the course of the next few years because nobody know how time-based media will evolve. I do, nonetheless, believe that they can retain their relevance… if they adapt.

What follows here are the last of four thoughts that came to me about the functionality of film festivals, and in no particular discursive order.

Thought 3.

What festivals should do to better serve their communities.

The motivations that guide independent film festivals vary wildly: Whereas some were founded solely to develop industry in a second-city environment, others take radical stances against the industry altogether, shifting their focus towards serving their local creatives instead. Others, still, strive to function as arts-based businesses, leveraging sponsorships and ticket sales in an attempt at joining the ranks of corporatized culture-hawkers.

It is hard to generally classify the purpose of pre-existing film festivals, then, as their needs and motivations are often so divergent. One can nonetheless begin to make an attempt at creating a sort of style guide outlining some pragmatic ways that festivals can better serve independent filmmakers and artists, their contradictory purposes notwithstanding.

Based on several conversations had with such luminaries as Lance Weiler, Brian Newman, Paul Rachman, Peter Baxter, Lisa Vandever, Roger Mayer and others, here is the beginning of a list of how festivals can better help independent filmmakers.

NB. I see the following 5 points as responsibilities, not suggestions. I believe that arts organizations, due to their very nature of being the cynosure of dialogue and thought, have the responsibility to guide that discussion in the correct, honest direction.

I. Manage Filmmaker Expectation (No dangling carrots)

Too often festivals obliquely play into a system based on false promises and permission-based access. In this, they encourage and fail to manage filmmaker expectations, and inevitably end up with some seriously disappointed filmmakers on their hands.

It is crucial for independent filmmakers to understand how the system actually works, and to understand, also, that there are alternatives. It is therefore crucial for a festival to actually explain what they are to expect – from an industry point of view- from inclusion in the festival.

Action point: Clarify what will and probably won’t happen at the festival with your filmmakers along every step of the way, from the call for submissions to the acceptance letter.

II. Be transparent:

If a filmmaker, however naively assuming that his independent festival of choice has scads of dollars to throw at promoting his screening, throws up his hands and lets the festival do all the work, imagine the shock and dismay he may feel when finds his big premiere empty. Conversely, if a filmmaker is aware that the festival has no marketing budget, he might be inclined to engage in a little marketing of his own, and in so-doing will support the festival’s efforts (with the happy accident of helping ticket sales, to boot).

My point is this: Anyone who’s worked a festival knows that they are damn hard to run, and are often on the verge of collapse. BUT: Most filmmakers and attendees do not realize this. In order to – again – temper expectations and ensure a good experience for all, it is simply a question of a festival engaging in a little transparency in its affairs. Open books and open access (within reason, of course) can be positive for several reasons, most saliently in helping people know what to expect of you- what you are capable of providing as a festival. It also allows a community to help where they see problems or deficiencies.

Action point: Clarify and publish your budgets, be clear about shortcomings and explain how your community (including your filmmakers) can help fill them.

III. Educate:

With transparency in festival affairs and transparency about the reality of what to expect, festivals also have a responsibility to provide their filmmakers with information about alternative solutions for independent film. This can be done simply by shifting the focus away from old-industry panels towards realistic, functional and educational seminars centering both on the ‘art’ side of the filmmaking process and, of course, the business.

There are several areas that are drastically changing with the advent of new(ish) technologies: New fundraising stratagems (crowdsourced); New storytelling techniques (transmedia); New production processes (crowdsourced); New distribution strategies (online, VOD, etc); Open culture

Action Point: Taking a cue from The WorkBook Project’s DIY Days, create open access educational seminars around the new models in distribution and fundraising. Make the information available online.

IV. Develop access to new distribution models

In addition to educating filmmakers about new models for film production and distribution, festivals should also provide optional distribution solutions for its filmmakers in new media platforms, VOD and theatrical. These should allow filmmakers to exploit their rights piece-meal, monetize their films and gain new audiences, with the appui of the festival’s curatorial credibility behind them.

This is a hugely lengthy topic to go into, but for examples of festivals that are attempting to do this, take a look at a few examples: Slamdance’s deal with Xbox; Sundance’s deal with YouTube; Tribeca’s recent VOD deal

Action Point: Use your festival’s organization cachet to broker deals for your filmmakers, and offer those deals as optional systems to complement their distribution strategies.

V. Share resources and organize year-round community screenings

Imagine a scenario where the audience winner at Nashville FF is given a 15 city theatrical run through community screening programs run by Nashville FF partner fests.

In line with the previous point, festivals could increasingly work together to further four-wall film exhibition through year-round screenings, and by combining marketing and local resources with other festivals.

In turn, by leveraging partnerships with other arts organizations and venues worldwide, festivals can help their filmmakers reach wider audiences, and also provide them with a de facto theatrical release. Of course, the benefits of partnering reach beyond only helping filmmakers, as these sorts of partnerships can help spread a festival’s brand, vision, and curatorial voice- in turn allowing for higher levels of sponsorship or- better yet- more participants in its next crowdsourced fundraising campaign.

Action Point: Organize year-round screenings in your community. Make friends with your colleagues and organize film exchanges. Share resources and programming.

All these points, to me, demonstrate one overarching fact: In order for an independent arts community to thrive, it must take a conscious stand to stop trying to emulate a corporate business methodology of exclusion, competitiveness and opacity.

In copying a system that, really, has little to do with how we as independents actually work, festivals are unwittingly incorporating all the nasty little habits that are anathema to thriving collaboration and creativity: Status-based ranking systems for humans (‘VIP’ passes, for instance), one-way payment systems, the obsession with celebrity attendance, fearful and covetous business practices. In following this approach, of course, we effectively stop innovation and discourage the development of new collaborative systems altogether.

In servicing the arts, a festival services the arts community in all its forms – even those it sees as its competitors. One will never exist without the other.

Thought 4.

How to sustain without selling out: An exercise in ego management.

In the last several posts I’ve argued that film festivals should take a step away from the commercial approach and should adopt a community-centric view in their strategic direction.

Maslow's pyramid, as applied to film festivals

However, if we apply Maslow’s taxonomy of human needs to film festivals, it becomes quickly apparent that it’s all well and good for festivals to try to better serve their communities, but when they’re barely surviving, simple basic needs end up perforce taking precedence.

Most independent festivals function at the ‘safety’ level of the pyramid—trying to securely retain theatre space, staff, volunteers, film submissions… It’s hard for these hard-working people to discuss the philosophical approaches towards how they serve filmmakers (the top of the pyramid) in these tenuous circumstances.

Running & funding a film festival

Consider the bare mimimum needed to run a festival: Theatre rental; Projectors, seats & screens, if you use alternate spaces; Special decks (beta decks, for instance); Liability insurance; A budget for marketing (banners, festival programs, lanyards and passes, any further visibility needs), and a budget for the design thereof; A publicity and advertising budget to garner submissions and audiences; Transportation; Online operations (email, url, web design & maintenance, submissions tracking); Staffing (Fest director, programming director, submissions manager, volunteer manager, ticketing manager, print traffic manager & runners, sponsor liaison, filmmaker liaison, venues manager… etc.)

Festivals are, in short, pricey. Looking to fill these basic needs without going out of pocket, most festivals survive through four options for revenue sources: Public funding, ticket & merchandise sales, submission fees and sponsorships (private and corporate).

Unfortunately the United States happens to be a government that has piss-poor public funding for non-profit arts institutions, so the European model of public funding is, for the most part, out of reach for US based festivals.

Similarly, ticket and merchandise sales are helpful, but usually provide a tiny financial drop in the big bucket of need. If you take an average independent festival—7 days long with 3 screenings a day in a 100-seat house, selling tickets at an accessible $9 each- the festival stands to bring in $18,900 IF EVERY SCREENING IS SOLD OUT. More realistically, they can probably hope to bring in about half that.

Looking at submission fees- say a small independent festival gets 800 submissions in (it’s usually less for most festivals) and charges an average of $30 per submission, it stands to make an income of $24,000. Though distasteful to many, submission fees nonetheless become the bulk of the funding.

In this climate, then, it is not surprising that most festivals immediately turn to sponsorships, which have proven in some instances to be very helpful. However, this is an approach that is problematic on many levels, not the least because it turns festival directors into glorified salesmen. Further, still, corporate sponsorship is a double edged sword.

Both support and interference in the arts, corporate sponsorship, when done wrong, turns an inherently let’s-talk-about-art sort of experience into a hyped-up advertising vehicle, potentially void of substance. Also, in today’s world of ‘branded content’ and ‘online properties’, it DOES bears reminding: Corporate Sponsorship is cheesy. Nothing says independent film more than a miniskirt-clad alcohol-wielding would-be actress imploring you to try her company’s vodka. Right?

Though there are many examples of sponsorship deals that do not force the festival to scream “AUDI!!!” from the rooftops, it remains a fact – to me – that corporations should not be our answer to the Medici. One might correctly point out that ulterior motives existed from time immemorial (the Medici were really into self-image, after all- a sort of precursor to the obsession with branding and corporate image), but the ulterior motives of late are just too base. Neither lofty, nor profound, our experience of philosophy and thought evolves into an experience of commerce. ‘What do you think he meant by his reference to Nietzsche in that one piece of dialogue?’ turns into ‘Oh, shit! They’re giving free Nikes away down at the filmmaker lounge! Do you have the right pass to get in?’

So: How can festivals survive without selling their souls?

I believe the answer – the way to survive without selling our souls – is in a crowd-sourced / crowd-powered film festival – a no/low sponsor film festival that is small, community-driven, and community-funded. This is possible to achieve, and would additionally be a solid step towards empowering the festival’s audiences and participants through transparency and involvement.

This would require a few action steps:

- Think about what you want to accomplish with the festival—what you think you should provide to the arts community and how you can best provide it.
- Band together with local community groups as partners to share expenses or trade assets, band together with other festivals to create larger incentive and reach
- Create comprehensive, community-based micro-donation strategies to meet goals, as they arise.
- Maintain your relationships with your community through transparency, accessibility, invitations to curate/ host screenings/ participate in whatever way it sees fit.
- Embrace your role as a community-based organization by lowering the klieg lights, ditching the red carpet and toning down the ego.

    Festivals taking ownership of their small part of a bigger whole means that they allow themselves to expand more organically and buoyed by bigger better support systems. Not trying to be the next Tribeca implies a level of humility and restraint that many festival directors would probably rail against, but one must ask oneself, how does raising $500,000 for an exclusive red carpet premiere of the latest Big-Studio schlockfest really help independent film? Is the ‘visibility’ one gains from this type of event more helpful for the festival and its filmmakers, say, than that gained by having a series of smaller open screenings in venues that are invested in the success of the film they are showing?

    Festivals with high overhead are festivals that are forced to toe the line- spending the lion’s share of their time wooing and maintaining sponsors. Smaller festivals – I would argue – actually have it a lot better than they typically think. Yeah, they’re not raking in the dough, but their overhead is controllable, and they can focus on programming and their community.

    There’s this ‘marketing guru’ called Seth Godin who wrote: “Big used to matter. Big meant power and profit and growth. [...] Today, little companies often make more money than big companies. Little churches grow faster than worldwide ones. [...] Small is the new big because small gives you the flexibility to change the business model when your competition changes theirs. [...] A small church has a minister with the time to visit you in the hospital when you’re sick. [...] Small is the new big only when the person running the small thinks big.” (Seth Godin, ‘Small is The New Big’, Portfolio, 2006)

    How does this apply to us in the fest world? Simple: Provided that the festival director is OK with slow growth, small fests are in a position of power vis-à-vis the increasingly irrelevant behemoths. Enjoy!

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    Posted in audience festival promotion

    Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.

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