Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Value of Filmmaking?

I just finished shooting a short film and, as the holidays settle over us, I’ve been thinking more about the value of filmmaking. Not the value of filmmaking to the world or in the culture, but its value for me personally. Why do I bother to make films? What am I actually getting out of this? Where is it all going?

Barring any improbable uptick in my public film career (you know, that fantasy where Michelle Williams wants to be in your film) my films are not going to be discussed in film classes or shown in retrospectives anywhere. I’m not bound for either fame or fortune at this point.

This post may have the tone of a well-settled academic essay but do not underestimate the many likely holes in my logic. This post is a stab at talking about something important. Please let me know what you think.

Extrinsic value is the “exchange” value of a thing. If someone pays you $25 to work for an hour, that’s the extrinsic value of that work. The work may or may not be satisfying. If you find satisfaction in the work, that’s the intrinsic value.

When we talk about art of any kind, I think there are some clear levels of intrinsic value; different kinds of satisfaction we get from making anything creative.

First, there is the fundamental, childlike satisfaction from simply making anything: a mark on paper for example. This is pretty much something that every filmmaker (and artist) experiences. For your first film, it’s the sheer wonder that you had something to do with creating this luminous wonderful (to you) thing that is a REAL film!

This first level has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with just coming into existence. “We did it!” is enough for all to rejoice. For me (and probably for most of you) my first experience with this kind of intrinsic satisfaction probably came with a coloring book at age 3 or 4. And this kind of satisfaction pretty much happens most of the way through grade school. But with your first film project, there is a renewal of wonder and satisfaction simply because the thing exists now.

The second level amounts to the beginning of craft. My second (or third or fourth...) film now exhibits some aspect of craft that I recognize as “professional” or perhaps just “cool.”  “Look at how I rolled focus from him to her. Cool, hunh?” Perhaps I should describe this as film student satisfaction? We are striving to get beyond the simple “showing up” level of satisfaction by demonstrating the craft that we are able to achieve.

The third level, perhaps only slightly different from the second, depending on your background, is consciously imitating some film or TV show that you admire. This can occur at any level of craft but my point is that the intrinsic satisfaction is linked to the recognition that your thing (a freeze frame, go to black & white) is specifically an imitation of some work you find cool (NCIS act breaks, for example).

These “levels” are obviously not as different or clearly distinguished as my analysis implies. Nor are they immature or unsophisticated in any fundamental way. I’m pretty sure that accomplished filmmakers get these satisfactions from their work. And I am convinced that many indie wannabe filmmakers get much of their satisfaction from these kinds of things.

But, in my opinion (and experience), to go beyond these “levels” requires finding a personal connection to the work. Often the most accessible kind of personal connection is with documentary of some sort. I am attracted to a person, a place, an organization, a problem on a personal level, so I turn my filmmaking to this subject.  I rejoice in the celebration of the subject I care about.

If my form of finding a personal connection flows toward a fictional approach, this leads me to the story. And if telling the story is the satisfaction in making my film, then caring about what it means both to me and to a viewer becomes important.

The above could be thought of as the “fourth level” in my analysis. Whether documentary or fiction, the filmmaker is now driven by a personal connection to the material and by the desire to share this with a viewer.

Which hits the brick wall of filmmaking: finding an audience. Once we care primarily about the impact on a viewer, once we are basing our satisfaction on how successfully our craft supports that impact, we need an audience.

But the problem of reaching an audience is a classic and difficult problem. The most common solutions involve relatively large resources, marketing thinking and access to the public square, access which is typically purchased with celebrity. It’s the fame & fortune problem.

I think that local communities become critical at this point. My audience will never include millions but it could potentially include a community of local filmmakers and film appreciators. This is what motivated me to create a film series whose work was drawn entirely from local filmmakers. (That film series failed to find its audience for a variety of reasons.)

It’s a difficult goal to achieve but one that we all need.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Too Much & Too Little & To Whom?

I believe that any piece of writing should be "as long as necessary and as short as possible."  Discussion in my screenwriters' group has called my attention to some basic issues of length and brevity.

The first issue is too much or too little description. The second issue is how the plan for the writer to be the director explains or excuses the amount of description (among other things).

The description that clearly feels excessive to me generally is based on these impulses:

1)    Location geometry
It rarely actually matters -- in a script -- whether the dresser is to the left or the right of the bed. Yet many writers get a vision in their head and are compelled to record a lot of details about such things.

In practice, of course, should the film be produced, the actual room may be quite different but the scenes are likely to be fine. So, the question of where everything is should only be detailed when dramatic action critically relies on it. Even then, many things can be described very simply.

2)    Blocking the actors
It’s just not necessary to say that someone opens the car door and gets in. Or that they walk around the car to get in. Unless these details are critical to action, they are unnecessary. “Gets in” is all any reader needs to understand that someone unlocked the car door, opened it, got in, adjusted the mirrors, started the engine, put the car in gear and moved away. If there is a dramatic reason to describe everything (the character suffers from OCD?) then, of course, fine. But otherwise, less is more.

3)     Directing the actors
Actors are creative. Describing in detail when they brush the hair out of their face and after which word they pause should be unnecessary and may be considered intrusive. The script must make it very clear what the character is feeling. The character may even have a set of typical behaviors. Fine. Just don't get hung up on a lot of detailed description of ordinary movements and reactions. Save this for when a character does something completely unexpected.

Apart from those common problems, I see the pros and cons of action description this way:

Too Much? Too Little?
PROs:  Might clarify the writer's intention better Brevity is a good thing
CONs:  Current style: keep descriptions brief, e.g. 3-lines The feeling is opaque or invisible
Florid or excessive description is often bad writing
A long impassioned description may actually lose some readers

"It’s OK, I'm going to direct it myself"
Many struggle with the fact that a script is not an end product; it's the beginning of a process.  A process that will be completed by a director who, in turn, drives the production.

Nevertheless, I would say that erring on the side of too much description is likely to be better. I've read scripts where it was impossible to tell what really mattered in a scene and the writer-director simply asserted that they planned to work with actors to bring that out. I'm thinking actors need the script to give them a clue beforehand, perhaps even before they decide to participate.

My own script, that I am going to direct, should be no different than the best possible script I would write to sell or have someone else direct.

Why should I go through all that “bother?”  For the same reason I write in my journey or discuss a plan with colleagues: to understand myself better. Having the discipline to both commit to and to fully express what you (the writer) need in the story is a huge benefit to you the director, producer and cheer-leader.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Success? Obstacles?

Robert Hardy, who runs recently sent a bunch of folks these questions:

"Hey friend,

I have two quick questions for you...

1. What would being successful as a filmmaker look like to you?
2. What's your biggest obstacle right now in pursuing that success?"

I thought these were good to think about and here's my (relatively quickly composed) reply for him.
Decent questions, though life is complicated.

1.    Success as a filmmaker, for me, at this point, starts with the personal feeling of accomplishment.  On a broader scale, success would initially be success in film festivals.

So if my next film were to be picked up by a variety of the top (Oscar-qualifying) festivals, that would be a great step.  But there are two parts to this.  First of all, there is the simple gratification of being recognized beyond a small circle for some artistic achievement.  Second, however, is the possibility that this recognition could open some other doors.

1A.  I’m devoting most of my “film energy” these days in writing scripts that I will likely not ever produce myself. Success here is a bit more concrete in that the definition of success would be to sell a script.  I’ve been using the pitch opportunities offered by and this has opened some doors. So I think it’s a matter of time and quality (and a bit of luck) to move forward on this.

2.    Biggest filmmaking obstacle is mostly time, occasionally masquerading as money. In this case, time really means improving my artistic ability, my filmmaking “quality” as much as possible.  However, I also accept that the films I find the most rewarding to make may not be the ones that fit with the taste of any festival.
    It would be facile to say that money for entry fees was the obstacle. Theoretically, it would be great to pitch any film into 250 festivals, but that doesn’t really attract me that much. I’m more interested in the best festivals.

2A.    There are two simple steps in the screenwriting success equation.  Many worry at great length about step #2. I’m still thinking I have a lot of work to do to develop my craft.  The rules are these:
    #1. Write a great script.
    #2. Get it in front of some folks who might be interested.

If you can’t do step #1, the next step is unimportant. So the biggest obstacle is "simply" writing a great script.

Love to hear your thoughts about all this stuff.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Eight of Fifteen Things

I ran across a lovely post that many filmmakers have seen titled, "Fifteen Things Wrong With Your Short Film."  It's pretty telling and honest and we have all committed these sins at one time or another, I think.

I'll admit, my favorite is #3, "your film has opening credits." They explain that, in addition to adding to the running time for no dramatic reason, no one knows or cares about your actors or crew (unless you have corralled someone well known for the right reasons) (and then, it's not necessary).

I spent a few moments looking at this article and the list of fifteen things and made a judgement of how many of the fifteen things are fundamentally script / story problems. I came up with eight.

Here's the list, with the eight items I attribute to script in red.

1.           Your film is too long.
2.           Your film starts too slow.
3.           Your film has opening credits
4.           Your film has bad sound
5.           Your film has bad acting
6.           Your film lacks originality
7.           Your film is in Black & White for no reason
8.           Your characters are boring
9.           Your film has interesting characters but they don’t do anything.
10.       Your was more satisfying to make than watch.
11.       Your film is good considering...
12.       You made your film in 48 hours
13.       You didn’t watch other short films
14.       You list meaningless laurels
15.       You made a bland profile documentary.

Of course, #1 (too long) is an editing decision as well, though many will claim that editing is the final rewrite of the script. Starting too slow may not be story-related but I think it typically will be. Items 6, 8, and 9 should be obvious.

I thought about #10 for a while. At the end of the day, I think we may enjoy making a film of any kind (good or bad) but the story quality is the determinant for the audience. Number 11 is a special case of #10, I think. Their discussion of #11 amounts to saying that the constraints and problems you faced are (unfortunately) irrelevant to the film. You succeeded in making a film with a wind-up Bolex limiting you to only two takes, each no longer than 75 seconds - no one cares.  It's all about the story.

One could argue that #13 is not a script or story problem, but I think it is the upstream problem. If you haven't seen a really well-crafted, clever story done in eight minutes, you may not realize what is possible. On the other hand, I admire some TV commercials for the amount of story-telling they manage in 15 or 30 seconds.

I think #15 is a bit unfair in the original list, although it makes sense. In the original article, their point was not that such docs are inherently bad, just that they don't generally rise about the clutter of similar projects. But the main knock on them is lack of dramatic arc, i.e. story.

I understand that, for a short film, a good script doesn't always have to be a classically written document. But it needs to be a good script / story no matter how it is conceived.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

A Picture of High Tech LIfe....

I've been looking at this photo I took of my office at NetQos in Austin.

The picture is from 2007, so it's the beginning of my last year in high tech. (Although digital video offers plenty of "high tech" to mess with too.)

It's not a beautifully crafted, elegant kind of thing, although it is sort of lean and simple. It was taken with a cheap still camera (a Canon Powershot of some ilk).

Here's what I'm seeing in this image.

First, there are the two cans of Diet Coke. Anyone who has worked with me on set will recognize those.

Second, there is the vintage laptop. It's an IBM laptop from the era when IBM made laptops. It even has that cute and clever little joystick in the middle of the keyboard. My friend David Fair went from being the product manager for the Digital Equipment Corporation Alpha chip (the most powerful processor at that moment) to being the product manager for the 4-bit controller that ran the joystick. (Or maybe it was the in the other direction; either way a large change.)

Third, the image on the computer screen is iconic for my time with NetQos: an American Airlines boarding pass. I still lived in Durham but I spent approximately one week out of three in this office in Austin.

Fourth, if the computer didn't date the photo, the flip phone on the desk ought to. The iPhone had been announced about three months before this photo was taken and my flip phone would be replaced by the iPhone within the year.

Fifth, the small amount of books in the bookcase suggest that this was, indeed, my "away" office, not my "home" office. I do tend accumulate reading material in my travels.

Sixth, the lovely view out the window, not very well rendered in this photo, suggests a little bit of the terrain of Austin: hills, greenery, bright skies.

Those are some of the elements visible in the photograph. When I taught photography, I often used the expression, "invisible jackrabbit" to talk about the difference between what is actually in a picture (for example, bushes) and  the remembered experience that is not in the picture but which is evoked by the picture ("there was this big jackrabbit behind the bush").

As a "snapshot" -- that is as a personal reminder of things only alluded to by the image -- it's a rich set. I can remember the amazingly sane policy of NetQos that everyone got a real office. Of course, there are my many former coworkers. There is a memory of being in this office at 7AM in the morning when it was quiet and the stillness helped me think.

There is the memory of a small company better run than virtually any other company I ever worked for (large or small). And one of the roots of the script I'm writing about a man who loses his job and has to find the work that really suits him. I had a great time in high tech, but some did not and as NetQos was savvy enough to understand, people are good at different things. My story is fundamentally about a guy who really isn't that good at the job he's been doing and unemployment forces him to figure out what he can be good at.

And there's the memory of my exit row, window seat on the flights from RDU to Austin and back. A good look at a swath of America.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Fixing It in Planning

After helping a bunch of local indie filmmakers as AD on their films, I accumulated a lot of insight I hadn't exactly wanted about production problems. Finally I wrote it all down and I was delighted that Scott Macaulay, the editor of Filmmaker Magazine, was interested in publishing it on their web site.

The original article is here on the Filmmaker Magazine web site. If you would like a more readable PDF version of the advice, I've put the file up on my web site here.

Please share any additional questions, war stories or thoughts about the topic with me. And, of course, if you're doing a production in North Carolina, maybe I can help? Click here to get in touch.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Learning More About Distribution

I've been daydreaming about doing a feature film lately.  Nope, no immediate plans.  But in the spirit of planning ahead, lots of things touching on finance and distribution are catching my eye. In case I suddenly move something into production, you'll want to be getting my four times a year newsletter.

On May 14th, as part of the Longleaf Film Festival at the NC Museum of History, there was a session on the subject of film distribution.  I found it enlightening and fundamental.  I needed to share my learning with a couple of different folks and as I started to write up my notes, it seemed like a blog post was the best way to do that.

The session consisted of Thomas Varnum, an entertainment lawyer with the firm of Brooks Pierce based in Wilmington, NC and Vernon Rudolph, a filmmaker/cinematographer based in Raleigh and operating as Sky Grass Media.  The two presenters alternated with Rudolph presenting his experience, good and bad, and Varnum commenting on some of the issues raised, and pitfalls to be avoided (or to be fallen into).

Rudolph has worked on several features. He produced and shot Phin (2013), directed
by his friend Patrick Chapman. Phin was their first feature film.  Two years later, Rudolph shot ToY, written and directed by Chapman. Rudolph based most of his remarks on this experience with these two films.

Phin was a labor of love feature, shot in six days for a budget of about $30K. After modest festival success, the filmmakers hit the street and contacted every distribution entity they could. They got a lot of rejection! Eventually they signed a deal with a Canadian distributor. The deal, Rudolph lamented, was for twelve years, exclusive and worldwide for all rights. Essentially the film sat on the distributor's shelf and added to the credibility of the distributor's catalog but did nothing else.  In hindsight, even though the deal was a bad deal on the face of it, it still represented a step forward for the filmmakers.

Having gotten the first film out of their system, ToY was calculated to be a moneymaking film. The budget was $110K (but ballooning to nearly $200K to complete all the deliverables in post) and they had two name actors (Briana Evigan and Kerry Norton from Battlestar Galactica) which made a big difference.  Eventually, they were able to pick among several distribution offers, signing with Taylor & Dodge, an international sales agent. This deal was a much better deal than with Phin, with a duration of only five years. So far the film has been sold in South Korea and Germany and appeared on iTunes through Gravitas on May 13th!

Varnum talked about the general issues around the development part of the process. Memorably, he said, "Every film is a startup company, just like high tech. You must have a financing plan, a revenue plan and an exit strategy." First, he emphasized the need to get all agreements for locations, talent, music, use of products, and so on, signed and sealed during production. You will not be able to get the essential E&O insurance without all that paperwork. In effect, the end goal of production is to be able to get E&O insurance. Varnum suggested that the cost typically ranges from $3K to $6K but can be higher. If the film contains a lot of elements claimed as "fair use" for copyright purposes, you will need a written opinion from a lawyer versed in fair use to substantiate the claim for E&O insurance and the cost will go up accordingly.

Varnum also stressed the need for early stage publicity. Rudolph emphatically agreed, citing the moment when they were able to sign known talent to the project. That moment is the only real opportunity to get PR benefit from signing the talent. Luckily, they had a publicist working on that kind of stuff for their second film. Rudolph was pleasantly surprised to see a short mention in The Hollywood Reporter about their signing.

Once a film is complete, there are, of course, several possible ways to try to commercialize the film. You can go the film festival route but they cautioned that this is both unpredictable and potentially expensive. The American Film Market (AFM) and similar film markets are another major avenue.  Emerging in today's Internet environment, both presenters were optimistic about Distribber and Tugg as distribution alternatives.

Varnum made a couple of very valuable specific points about distribution agreements. First, he talked about separate rights. This means separating the various possible distribution modes.  For example, selling worldwide theatrical rights but retaining rights to sell DVDs or retaining domestic theatrical and selling rights for the rest of the world, etc. In today's environment, many different combinations are possible and few sales agents or distributors are good at everything.

Second, he recommended a "reversion" clause, meaning that if the distributor or sales agent does nothing for eighteen months or two years, all the rights revert to the filmmaker. Or, all the rights become non-exclusive, allowing the filmmaker to do whatever might be possible.

Third, he recommended an emerging practice, having a "meaningful consultation" clause in any contract. This essentially means that the distributor or sales agent must consult with the filmmaker, must hear the filmmaker's thoughts (or objections) to any substantive commercial proposal. The decision-making authority remains with the sales agent, but at least the filmmaker must be consulted. Essentially it provides the incentive for a collaborative relationship.

Rudolph stressed the need to conduct due diligence about any organization, especially one making an offer. IMDB Pro is a great resource for networking to folks who have dealt with any sales agent or distributor and most filmmakers are quite willing to share their experience confidentially.

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