Sunday, December 20, 2009

Approaching the Festival Circuit

If a filmmaker has a documentary short (less than 30 minutes) or feature how should they approach the "festival circuit?"

A matrix:

If the film has a television sale and/or theatrical deal in place:
-they should let the distributor handle it. festivals don't matter.
-they should be certain the film is cleared for Emmy, Oscar, Peabody, Dupont awards.
-they should see if they can coordinate some festival showings at "A" festivals to help with the theatrical release or television marketing. "A" festivals like: Cannes, Berlin, London, New York, Toronto are all excellent.
-Most festivals don't matter.

If the film does not have a television sale and/or theatrical deal in place:
-they should STOP and SHOP the work to find a sale BEFORE doing a festival.
Films are worth more not finished than finished since distributors and networks have different needs, markets, deals for works in process v finished works.
-I would ask the filmmaker why they made the sale without a deal (or deals) in place in the first place.

Trying to sell a show at a festival as a finished work is not a good idea.

The Festival "circuit" does not exist. It's not a business for the filmmaker, it's only a business for the festival.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The "Big Gloom" or Becoming a Feature Film Director

I wrote the following for Howard Suber and Ken Suddelson's UCLA class on Producing in early November.

Howard one of the my professors from the UCLA doctoral program is team teaching one of the few courses offered anywhere dealing with the business of the movie business. FTB-289B "Strategy" Sending dozens of provocative e-mails to his students and former students, he has encouraged an on-line debate

I took the hook and wrote about how difficult it is to become a feature film director. The posting follows:

You just got the money question:

"I'm a directing student, and I wanted to get your thoughts on strategy from a directing standpoint.."

When I wrote the article the "Training of Directors from School to Screen" in the early 1980s it seemed there was a 10 to 15 year process of moving from graduating film school and becoming a feature director. While we could always point to one or two a year who "made it" more quickly, on the whole, the process takes a long time. A long long time.

Today, almost 30 years later, I'd tell this student to go to business school or law school or any graduate program that would enable him/her to make a living--since it's more or less a closed shop. With at least 100,000 directors coming out of film schools since 1980 and Hollywood releasing a few hundred films a year and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, the Scotts, Woody Allen and others not retiring, almost no new slots open up.

As a producer, the last thing I'd do is hire a first time director or actor. They bring nothing to the deal. I start with Oscar winners or nominees. I need a filmmaker or a star who can bring money into the deal.

The big lie is that there is work or that making theatrical films is a career. One of my colleagues at USC called theatrical feature making a "hobby." He nailed it. As I ramp up to do my next series (documentary) for television I am hiring a number of "first time" directors as "story producers/shooters" a good start but the director is a fellow with gray hair.

Payne, one of your examples made his first feature 11 years after his short film CARMAN was released. He was 35. At 38 he did ELECTION, 41 ABOUT SCHMIDT and SIDEWAYS 2 years later. What's wrong with this picture? Payne is really talented both as a writer and director and 20 years after graduating from UCLA film school he's made 4 pictures.

You also mention Sacha Gervasi another major talent, faculty member at UCLA. 44 years old. His film writing is first rate. His film ANVIL might get an Oscar nomination. Started UCLA screenwriting in 1995. His career is moving along at rocket speed. 14 years from UCLA to his first feature.

My nephew less than a decade out of an unprestigious undergraduate college as a business major is well on his way to being a millionaire working as a buy side investment banker. I interview students who are applying for admission to Columbia Business School, if they go, when they graduate in 2 years, many will start with $200,000 salaries a year. This is not to say everyone should go to business school--the point I'm trying to make is that where do you go after spending a few years getting an MFA in film? Where are the jobs? the opportunities? It was like that when I got my MFA from NYU in the early 1970s. It's like that for my Peter Stark Producing students, except many have jobs since they move from their internships into the industry. They just don't make b-school kinds of starting salaries.

Howard, I am not a cynic. I want to see everyone make a living, live the dream, but things are pretty bleak. Film school does help students get skills, this class is one of the few in the world (at a film school) that seems to be dealing with the business of the industry--but let the truth be told.

--One needs more than just raw talent.

--One needs more than just socialization skill sets.

--One needs a huge amount of luck.

and then it's still likely a 15 plus year wait.

As someone who has mentored a number of filmmakers to Oscars, I can say that seems to be a good way to get some attention. Better than Sundance (which is not very helpful), but still not the gold ticket. I think a good thing to do is to tell the students to approach becoming a director as a "hobby" and then they will be miles ahead. Making a good short film might help, producing some money making features might help, writing some money making features might help--but this is a long way to an uncertain end.

Hope this is helpful.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

NO LIES on SIN-E-FILE and post by Peter Rinaldi

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

SIN-E-FILE ( lies)

"I have the sin of the cinephile" - Jean Luc Godard

This posting originated on the Film of the Month Club blog, where this month's film lies is my selection. As such it is my duty to write an introductory post. Which is what follows.

(If you are about to read this having NOT seen the film lies
, I would advice you do so before reading further. Watch it below) lies - a film by Mitchell W. Block from Direct Cinema Limited on Vimeo.

In 1972, Mitchell W. Block was working as the Line Producer on Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. This left him little time to complete a full-scale film of his own, which was required to get his MFA from NYU. As he writes in The Truth about NO LIES, he thought he “should do a work that would be ‘easy’ to make. Limited locations, interior practical location, a short shoot, few actors, low shooting ratio, no period costumes, no score, etc. Keep it really simple.” The result is sort of a cinematic miracle.

In the spring of 1995 I was in a similar situation. I was a film student at the School of Visual Arts in New York. I had just completed my third year project, a film that seemed to polarize the class and faculty. Having had little money and not enough sufficient time to devote to a full scale production, I conceived an idea that involved basically a woman against a wall.

I showed it to my boss at the time, documentary filmmaker George Nierenberg. When it was over he didn’t have a lot to say about it, instead he starts to scan his towering piles of VHS tapes in his living room. “You have to see this documentary”, he tells me. “Documentary” is what he calls it. He doesn’t tell me anything more.

When lies was over, I was so shaken by it that I hadn’t noticed the credits. George and I started talking about it. When it became apparent to him that I hadn’t seen the end credits, he told me what they said(the woman played by Shelby Leverington, etc.) and I didn’t believe him. He replayed the tape. Okay, “The filmmaker put that there so as not to embarrass the woman”, I concocted. There was no way this was acted. I couldn’t believe it. Once I watched it again, knowing now that this was, indeed, a performance, I was blown away.

Is it really necessary to go through the process of thinking you are seeing a moment captured on film that occurred in reality, and then, at the end, realize that it was manufactured like most films? How much does this play in its potential appreciation? This can be a point of discussion, but, regardless, it is how I experienced it, so it is, in turn, how I presented it to people when I showed it, on a VHS tape copied from George's.

I showed it to everyone in my life. “I have a documentary to show you. It is only 15 minutes.” I don’t remember all of the reactions but once in a while, it knocked someone out. What was it about this film that impacted us?

When the Film of the Month Club started, I dreamed of being able to present lies, but I knew that it wouldn’t be worth it if we didn’t get Mitchell Block involved. I reached out to him and he graciously granted my request to put the film online so it would be available to us and he agreed to an interview.

In our interview, which I will post later in the month, I tried to find out from him if he intended to trick the audience from the beginning or did he realize, after it was made, that he had a fiction that looked impeccably like fact. After all, there is nothing in the film that leads the audience to the understanding that what they are about to see is real. Block doesn’t outright lie, like other fake documentarians do, by presenting written or spoken documentary style, fact-like information (like Peter Greenaway’s The Falls). Even so much as a date at the beginning would imply non-fiction. Some, however, might consider the title to be the written info that puts the viewer in the mind-frame of “fact”. So, can Block really be called a trickster simply because of the title? What is even leading us to believe that Block’s intention is to fool the audience at all?

Well, lies played at the 1974 Flaherty Seminar, a place where people generally expect to see a documentary. It caused controversy and discussion on what “real” is in film and the emotions wrapped around such notions. If Block didn’t conceive the film as a trick, it certainly was one now. As George Nierenberg and others have theorized, there are three “rapes” that occur with lies; the offscreen rape of the woman, then the figurative one inflicted on her by the “cameraman”, then we, the audience are taken advantage of by Mitchell Block. I would take this a step further and say that Block can’t do the act alone. In my case, Nierenberg himself helped in the violation by calling it a documentary, the Flathery Seminar too. Perhaps if you simply found this film somewhere and watched it, you wouldn’t feel like it was trying to trick you into thinking it was real...or would you? Wouldn't you just think, if you appreciated it, that the actors were just doing their jobs well?

Let’s forget for a moment about Mitchell Block’s “trick”. This film is (and is about) a performance. Shelby Leverington. Once this performance was made know to me as such, it became, in my mind, one of the greatest I had ever seen on film. Nuanced and complexly structured so as not to appear so, I can write (and just might) a moment by moment analysis of it. Its success does not rest simply on the fact that people think it is not a performance; its authenticity runs much deeper than that. She manages to haul her character through varying emotional terrains with no sign that the “vehicle” is on pre-laid tracks, and in such a limited amount of time. Mitchell Block is also planning on giving us the added honor of viewing the “Rehearsal Tapes”. Would it be weird if I said I am thinking about NOT viewing them? I don’t think it's right. Like reading a first draft of a masterpiece; rewarding on one hand, and forever damaging on the other. As a filmmaker, I am tremendously interested in the work it takes to get to something this successful. But as a viewer, in this case, I'm obsessed with this performance, not with the process.

Last year, lies was accepted into the National Registry, an honor bestowed on only a handful of films from each year. Here’s what the press release said:

Done in faux cinéma vérité style, Mitchell Block’s 16-minute New York University student film begins on a note of insouciant amateurism and then convincingly moves into darker, deeper waters. Opening with a scene of a girl getting ready for a date, the camera-wielding protagonist adroitly orchestrates a mood shift from goofiness to raw pain as an interviewer tears down the girl’s emotional defenses after being raped. One of the first films to deal with the way rape victims are treated when they seek professional help for sexual assault, "No Lies" still possesses a searing resonance and has been widely viewed by nurses, therapists and police officers.

Yes, the film has had a life as a tool to train police officers and others to better assist rape victims. Block has marketed the film for such public service use since its release. A police captain actually asked Block for the name of the officer who interviewed the woman in the film. To reprimand him in some way? We can assume, I suppose. Did he not see the credits? What about the pretty obvious cut? The looped bit of dialogue? Maybe there is a mysterious quality in their performances that reached something that, even if they gave a bow at the end, some would not waver in swallowing as some kind of truth. Mystically, Ms. Leverington speaks a truth for victims that can't speak, or have been hushed. Is this the "fact" that we want to believe?

Indeed, in many ways this film is a lie, but can you think of a film that has this much truth? That is, I think, what makes great film art. And lies, to me, is just that. And I'm excited to know what you think.

-Peter Rinaldi

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Response to Trading Up: New Paradign Poaches from Fests

Trading Up: New Paradigm Poaches From Fests

by Mike Jones (February 20, 2009)

Why did Geoff Gilmore leave the most coveted position in the independent film industry? The answer almost lies within the question itself.

For years festivals, conferences and awards shows have made a lot of hay over the so-called industry of indie film. Yet any industry requires a strong delivery system. And it’s no news that the system is ailing. From Gilmore’s perspective, maybe it always has.

Film festivals began as art film’s primary exhibitor, and with the closure and hobbling of so many specialty distribs they have resurged as one of the few places audiences can see art film as it was intended—on the big screen and in the company of strangers.

Yet some fest directors looked at their event’s success—a success confined primarily to a locality and/or industry clientele—and felt frustrated. After screening countless DVDs and sweating over a program to be exhibited just once a year, where did they see their selections going but to other fests. Aside from an exciting screening and endless pints of Stella, most undistributed films aren’t seeing a dime from a successful “fest run.”

After almost 20 years of watching some of his favorite films be overlooked or flatly forgotten in a distributor’s marketing scheme—Gilmore’s frustration is understandable. A look back at his 19 Sundance fest catalogs is sobering—even within the successes, there’s still a lot of good work that never stepped outside of the fest circuit. And a lot of good filmmakers that couldn’t build the Sundance laurels into another film or, more importantly, a sustainable career.

In my talks with him, Gilmore was never one to embrace the idea that fests alone were a realistic distribution model.

Fests remain vital city events that remind people what it means to leave their plasma screen for the big screen. They weren’t built to shoulder the burden of indie film’s problems. But they did grow into unique laboratories where alt-distrib ideas were tested on panels, in demonstrations, and with frustrated filmmakers looking for something beyond their fest run.

Gilmore’s move indicates we are well out of the testing phase. And he’s not alone.

His cross-country jump is only the latest in a trend of festival execs moving up, not only for a bigger paycheck, but for a bigger canvas—a way to expand art and indie film out of a broken domestic model and into a global one.

Moreover, it shows that fests have turned into hunting grounds for certain companies looking for a different kind of exec—one who can take ideas formed within their microcosmic event and apply them to an international strategy.

Christian Gaines left AFI FEST to be Director of Festivals for Withoutabox, now a division of, which in turn is owned by Amazon. While Gaines is charged with helping client festivals connect with filmmakers and audiences, his job title stresses the global outreach of Amazon and IMDb.

In theory, lineups from festivals via Withoutabox are cataloged on IMDb and either streamed right on IMDb, or linked to VOD purchases and rentals on Amazon. And while Amazon’s ebook device, Kindle 2, doesn’t yet have movie-viewing ability, you can bet that’s in the works, closing the circle.

“Being a festival director often means addressing the basics needed to put on a good show,” says Gaines. “In doing that, I learned about the evolving needs of filmmakers and audiences. Now I work with the world’s great film festivals to harness the benefits of emerging, global distribution platforms. It’s a fascinating challenge.”

Matt Dentler left SXSW Film to manage digital rights for Cinetic. At SXSW, Dentler championed a group of filmmakers who shared internet-based marketing and distribution notions. Thus, at Cinetic, Dentler has been pushing a steady stream of festival films to iTunes, Amazon, Jaman, Hulu, SnagFilms etc. “The Auteur,” which premiered at Tribeca last year, is now on iTunes while Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan,” which began at the Independent Feature Film Market in 1989, is on Hulu.

“It’s very similar to being a festival programmer,” says Dentler. “I’m still working in the world of contextualizing an indie film for the right audience. And my favorite part of my old job still rings true: uniting filmmakers with audiences.”

Paola Freccero left Tribeca to head up B-Side’s new distribution arm, formed out of the company’s success distributing the docs “Super High Me” and “Crawford” via an internet-based, grassroots effort.

“Moving from festivals into for-profit distribution takes the same skills and expertise - on steroids,” says Freccero. “Probably the biggest difference is that instead of worrying about the launch of 200 festival films, I’m worrying about the entire fate of 10 or 15. The focus is more concentrated, but the skills and the stress are the same.”

And while some people think Gilmore is Tribeca fest’s new programming head, he clearly indicates he’s got much bigger ideas, as he told indieWIRE:

“The problems right now for the independent arena are multiple. They include the distribution bottleneck and the difficulties of finding new alternatives to having your films reach audiences. Festivals have helped that world change and festivals are going to continue to help that world change. What Tribeca Enterprises is going to do is be involved in setting up a new paradigm,” exploring, “the ways that festivals become platforms for new enterprises.”

As the economy sinks some believe time has run out on these ideas, or at least put them on the back-burner. Profit was elusive even before the downturn and a few industryites believe these business models are just too vague.

“You can’t blog your way to financial success,” quipped one major sales rep before this year’s Sundance. Don’t bother talking to him about digital, he continued. Traditional theatrical discussions were the only ones he was open to for his slate. Even when cash changes hands within these new models filmmakers mostly see pennies, he stressed.

And a national, grassroots distribution effort will not work for every film. When it does, it takes a long commitment. Even with this new marketing and distribution pipeline, it still takes experience and elbow grease. And less experience equals more grease.

So as indie film stakes its future on a different pipeline, the industry needs to remember what worked before and what didn’t. Gilmore’s old-school experience in a “new paradigm” may be what this new model needs. Let’s hope he’s able to build it from the experimental to the viable. Because within the tiring discussions between the “falling sky” and a “new frontier,” indie film simply needs something to work. And soon.

Mike Jones is a writer based in Los Angeles. He’s held senior editorial positions at Filmmaker Magazine, indieWIRE, and most recently served on staff at Variety covering the independent film and film festival beats.

My Response:

I remember when Geoff came to Sundance and replaced Tony Safford. The shift from Sundance to Tribeca should benefit both organizations. Sundance gets the opportunity to rethink Geoff's position and Tribeca can see if it can find a way to monetize Groff's skill sets. Safford has been very sucessful doing acquisitions for Fox.

Sundance has become a cheerleader for independent films. 3000 entries and a few financially successful works a year suggests a huge disconnect between the business of independent films and the reality of the film business. The landscape is littered with far too many films that never should have been made. The Festival Circuit is considered by many independent filmmakers as being a desirable outcome for their unsold projects.

It will be interesting if Gilmore will be successful in this transition. After all, Sundance became the tail that waves the Institute. If one believes the reality is to make films that work financially as well as artistically as I do, then festival models becomes almost irrelevant. Celebrating works that never really reach an audience, never break even or cover their costs isn't a very good model for a for-profit.

Let's see what happens.

Mitchell Block
February 21, 2009

"Roger and Me" Academy Myths

Alternative Film Guide thinking film

by Andre Soares

Top Ten Biggest Oscar Snubs - Nominations #5

Roger & Me (1990)

Though attacked in some quarters for distorting facts to fit them into its director’s political agenda, Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, about Moore’s frustrated attempts to meet with General Motors honcho Roger Smith, was a box-office hit (for a documentary) and, generally speaking, a critical success, winning best documentary awards from the Los Angeles Critics, the National Board of Review, and the National Society of Film Critics, among others.

Roger & Me, however, was left Academy Award-nominationless.

Well, among those attacking Roger & Me was Academy Documentary Committee chairman Mitchell Block, who called the movie "unethical."

But wait …

It was then pointed out that Block had no qualms about potential unethical behavior — as in, blatant conflict of interest — for chairing a committee that in the year in question happened to pick three nominated films released by the documentary distribution company Direct Cinema, of which Block was president.

Mr. Soares,

It's interesting how factual errors live on.

For the "record."

1. I was never the chair of the documentary committee. I was one of the committee members for over 20 years.

2. AMPAS rules prohibited committtee members from voting or discussing films they had any connection to. To lobby for any film would be somewhat obvious to any of the 50 or so members of this small committee. I was not able to "vote" for my films, I was on record for my conflicts. Under AMPAS weighted ballot counting procedures not voting a film would hurt it in the ballot counting process.

3. Direct Cinema at the time did distribute three of the nominated films, including the winner, COMMON THREADS: STORIES FROM THE QUILT. COMMON THREADS was produced by Warner's HBO division, ROGER AND ME was released by Warner's Theatrical division.

Direct Cinema's PR director was hired by Warners on a freelance basis to work as a consultant on ROGER AND ME's Oscar campaign to try to reverse the committee's perception that the negative reviews of the film's distortions of "truth." This was the devestating review of ROGER by Critic, Pauline Kael in the New Yorker.

4. The other nominees of 1989 included ADAM CLAYTON POWELL, CRACK USA: COUNTRY UNDER SIEGE, FOR ALL MANKIND and SUPER CHIEF: THE LEGACY OF EARL WARREN. Interestingly the filmmakers of three of the other nominated features have multiple nominations (and/or Oscars). FOR ALL MANKIND by first time nominees received multiple awards in 1989 for its excellence.

5. COMMON THREADS continues to be praised for its excellence, historical accurate telling of the causes (and effects) of the AIDS epidemic. Robert Epstein one of it's two filmmakers is currently an elector Governor of the Documentary Branch.

6. Direct Cinema's documentary films continued to to receive multi-documentary Oscar nominations (and Oscars) after the committee was restructured so that members who had any conflict of interest could not participate in the nomination process and a few years later the Academy Doc Branch was formed. Because of the new "conflict" rule adapted several years later, I could no longer serve on the committee.

7. Today controversy continues to dog the Branch for omissions, clicks, etc.

8. Mr. Moore showed that creating controversy about the Oscars can sell movie tickets.

9. In Flint, a lawyer representing a number of the cast of ROGER AND ME prevailed in a court case to remove his clients from future releases of the film because Michael Moore placed them in a "false light."

Mitchell Block