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.
Posted in Storytelling festival screenwriting
I have been getting an amazing amount of emails lately inviting me to conferences and lectures where the hosts want me to fork over copious amounts of cash to learn from their panel of experts. Can’t you already learn from these same experts at The Workbook Project or DIY Days and it’s free? These are two examples of places where musicians, filmmakers and gamers can read, listen and watch, educating themselves in an open environment, the latest trends in many things creative.
Yes I believe that experts should be compensated for their time, but some times these experts aren’t being paid for their time at such conferences, even when the audience is asked to pay a couple hundred bucks to attend. Yes there is value in networking at such conferences but what is the real benefit? Is it worth the price tag? Maybe there needs to be yet another evolution in Lance Weiler’s mega-info-platz-site, The Workbook Project, where creatives can skype/conference call with experts at a given time per week. The creatives than can donate money on how worthy they feel the expert’s information was.
This brings me to another growing problem in the indie film scene particularly. The abundance of everyone putting out their shingle as a producer’s rep. There was a time when producer’s reps actually did something for filmmakers. Bob Hawk and John Sloss have excellent reputations as well as a number of others (Submarine, WMA, Jeff Dowd, Abramowitz, established agencies). But there are others who do not. FILMMAKERS DO NOT PAY AN HOURLY RATE FOR CONSULTING. A true producers rep/consultant will represent your film to potential buyers and take a percentage of the sale, much like agents do. There are a number of people saying they are producer’s reps/consultants who are not helping make sales or the film for that matter. Instead they are billing/collecting filmmakers scarce capital, pocketing it and getting very rich. THIS IS A SHAM!!!
Here’s my example: I met producer rep/consultant at a conference in NYC a couple years back. We exchanged cards, he asked to see my film that I was working on. I sent it to him. After review, he called me and we chatted. Three weeks later he sent me an invoice for his time for watching my film and the phone calls he made to me. What the @#%&!!!!! Needless to say I told him to shove it. Do not fall into this trap. Do not sign anything and do not pay them. This is complete B.S.!
True producer’s reps will watch your film or project and evaluate whether or not they want to get involved. Not every film is right for every rep. The same is true with agents. Do not become discouraged. Keep trying. If they pass, ask if they could suggest someone who may be right for the project. Listen to what they have to say and make changes. Do not pay them for this. It’s unfair. Think for a moment. A producer’s rep has the potential of making a considerable amount of money on the sale of your film if they deem it worthy. You want someone who is going to fight for you, not have their hand in your wallet.
Posted in INDIE FILM CAPITALSIM Uncategorized
Taking some more hiatus from the software side of things, I wanted to continue talking about some filmmaking techniques.
THE LOST CHILDREN is a pretty ambitious story to attempt on a low budget. It has aliens and hidden lairs and a massacre. These things are not easily accomplished on a budget as low as ours. It’s only due to the dedication of my cast and crew, and the help from some friends, that this film is possible at all.
Lessons in art direction
I am blessed to have an Art Director who is an artist in his own right. He’s a perfectionist, not because he’s well paid, but because he takes pride in his work. This film could not have been done without him. We learned a while back that art direction is often the most critical piece left out of micro-budget films. So this post is to encourage everyone to think about it.
Lesson 1: Location, location, location
When you’re able to get hold of good locations, your art direction is handled for you. And in ways you could never ever accomplish on a small budget. We needed an abandoned insane asylum from the 19th Century. We would never be able to fake this. So we had to find one. We wound up using an abandoned prison in Philadelphia.
- Prison Cell
All of this stuff was in the place when we got there. The only art direction we added were props specific to our story. But when we got in and saw the location, we realized nothing else would need to be done. We got miles and miles of production value for free. Or I should say, included in the location fee.
Likewise with the location below. Clearly we would never be able to fake or build an observatory. But again, miles of production value built in.
- Josh at the Observatory
Sub-Lesson 1.1: Cinematography is 50% art direction
Many in the low-budget film community obsess over cameras. They should be obsessed with art direction. If you have budget for either a RED and a so-so art director, or an AF-100 and a good art director, always, always, always, always choose the latter. What you point the camera at in the first place buys you a lot of cinematography. Again, on micro-budget productions this is a way to get more production value out of your budget.
Sub-Lesson 1.2: The city is already art directed
If you are lucky enough to be living and working in NYC, you have the world’s greatest backlot at your fingertips. Permits are free. You can shoot all over the place. On a low budget, you get a lot of production value for next to nothing:
- Bklyn Heights shot from an early short
The same lesson can be applied to any city you live in. I know in Ohio where my mom lives, many small towns have some great main-streets, old factories, barns. Use them.
Lesson 2: Be specific
Just as in scripts and acting, and everything else, the choices you make in art direction should be specific to the story. On our set, you could walk into Jared’s office, examine the things on his shelves and desk, and never know it was a movie. Each and every thing in this set has meaning to the character and story.
This symbol is very specifically designed, each element having a meaning:
- K’Taan Symbol
And this is becoming more important than ever, as your movie may move beyond the screen into other media. There might be some little thing on screen that winds up playing out more in shorts, the website, etc. So you have to know exactly what that thing is. Take the time to make every detail very specific.
Lesson 3: Smoke it up!
A little fog goes a long way. We’ve been using this for a long time. Now fog machines can be purchased at any halloween store. Hell, I got mine at a $.99 store in Brooklyn. They can also be purchased at places like Guitar World. They go for about $40 now, and they will come in sooooo handy.
- El Cheapo fog machine from $.99 store
Professionals use something called a hazer, which more evenly spreads the smoke. So when you crank up your el-cheapo smoke machine, make sure you have a big piece of cardboard around to waft it into an even pattern.
Now, you can use this fog for a couple of things. First off, it can help make your location look creepy as hell. But it can also be used like the Hollywood people use it, to diffuse light and give depth and atmosphere to a location:
- Blade Runner Master of Haze
Blade Runner is of course an extreme example, but I just saw the hazer used on the HBO show “Bored to Death”. In the Old Town bar. Once you know about it, you’ll start seeing it everywhere. And it’s an effect you can apply yourself for very little money.
Or you can use it just to make yourself look like a bad-ass:
- Bad-ass Mark
Makin’ guts: Practical effects on set
One scene in THE LOST CHILDREN involves a massacre. This means blood and goop and guts. The fun stuff. These things can be composited in after the fact, and I have seen some low budget films do that. But I don’t really have that skillset in house, so it would raise the budget. It was much more cost effective to do these EFX on set.
I had researched a bunch of tutorials on the web, and you can find them too with Google. But the technique I settled on for making our entrails, is this:
1) Get some skin-colored liquid latex and paper towels. This latex can be had from Halloween shops, or of course professional make-up suppliers. But these days, it seems like Halloween shops have nearly everything you need for a film.
- Ben Nye Liquid Latex
2) Get a paint brush and some pretty smooth surface. I’ve seen plexi-glass recommended, but I used a shelf from Ikea. It’s laminated, so will not soak up the liquid latex, yet allows for some imperfections. In all things guts, imperfections are your friends. Paint the liquid latex over your surface. It can be pretty thin. Don’t sweat trying to make it smooth and perfect, just get a good membrane laid down.
3) Then get a hair dryer and blow that stuff dry. Otherwise, you’ll be sitting there all day.
4) When it’s dry it will look like rubber. It might seem like it got transparent, but don’t worry about that, it’s all good. Take the paper towels and roll them up into sort of thin sausages. The length can vary. Again, not perfect is perfect.
5) Once you have the paper towel sausages, put them on one edge of the latex and roll the latex over them, as if the latex is the sausage casing. Roll it up until your paper towels are contained in the latex casing. Use several paper towel sausages so that you get some intersect points, as illustrated in the photo below.
6) Repeat until you have all the guts you need. This can be time consuming, even with the hair-dryer, so make sure to give yourself enough time. I think I spent about 8 hrs making the guts I needed for…2 people. But you can re-use them in several shots, I think. I don’t know how they keep, because we only needed them for one shoot-day.
You can add more layers of latex, if you like. I think we did two per entrail. But the end result looks like this. See how it looks like there are three sections? That’s due to three paper towel sausages.
- Latex guts
Now, add some blood mixture, tear open a shirt, and Voila! Actually, I had made a sort of…plastic-bag-bed-gut-holder under the actor’s shirt, so he wouldn’t have to sit there with it on his skin. It also made clean-up easier, which saves time on set. Reads great on camera and gives people a jump. Even on set, people walking into the room would jump when they saw this.
Skulls: Everyone has one, but how often do you get to play with it?
One of our shots involves a pile of skulls. This is one department where Halloween stores will not save you. If they do have skulls real enough to pass muster, they will cost you an arm and a leg. Okay, bad joke. Instead, I found a great website: http://www.skeleton-factory.com. You want bones, they got ‘em. And cheap. Here you can buy skulls of many qualities at various prices. I chose the cheapest, knowing that the fog and the muck, etc would cover up any imperfections. These run $8.95 each. I got 10 for our shoot.
- Insert Yorick joke here.
Rip all the hardware off. You will need to sandpaper some ridges, maybe putty up some cracks, spray paint them. depending on how they will be seen. But if you don’t mind putting in a little elbow grease, these are a fantastic solution for the micro-budget filmmaker. Here’s how they came out in the film:
- Skulls in shot
Okay, that’s it for now. Send questions if you have them. I am talking to my art director about writing something as well, detailing some more of his processes.
Posted in The Lost Children creative collaboration production journal
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
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?
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?
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.
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.
Posted in Storytelling audience festival promotion