Monday, December 29, 2008

Best Films of 2008

I've tried in the past few days to come up with a ten best films of the year list to post. Living in a small market really puts a kink in that - most of the year's critical favorites won't screen here until 2009.
Looking back, I don't recall a lot of happy visits to the theater this year.
Here's a few of the good ones:
Paranoid Park
The Dark Knight

Though I wouldn't count Milk as that great aside from Sean Penn's performance. Wall-E is on a lot of lists this year, but I didn't like it that much. Felt like I'd seen it before.
I'm straining to think of anything else. I didn't like Burn After Reading or many other new releases. The thing is I really like seeing films and I enjoy ranking them at year's end. Making a list in February is kind of lame. Do I need to plan a trip to NY or LA at year's end each year to accomplish this? Would that qualify as a business expense? By the letter of the law, yes.

I'm looking forward to The Wrestler, Wendy and Lucy, Frost/Nixon and some others.

I watched a lot of films and tv shows on DVD this year. 2008 was the year of The Wire.
So that's my pick for Best of 2008 - all five seasons of The Wire. The best sixty hours of the year for me in terms of staring at a screen.

Signore Direttore

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Goal Setting

I've mapped out some fitness goals in a very specific manner this past week. I created a specific, realistic and attainable objective based on my current physical condition. With guidance from a trusted source I will be working toward my ultimate goal systematically over the next twenty-one weeks. It will take longer if I sustain any injuries or lapses in discipline. Easy weeks are built in regularly over the four and half month schedule. I wouldn't have set up the schedule with as much patience on my own. I would push too hard, get hurt, or get frustrated by my lack of herculean progress.
I don't know exactly how this will translate to my work as a filmmaker, but I am getting my head around the possibilities. I think I'm experiencing burnout from taking too much on for so long. I need to find a way to make steady progress without going into all or nothing mode. I have had many goals as a filmmaker. I recognize a pattern of abstraction as well as anxious elasticity and a flip-flopping between grandiosity and timidity in my goal setting. It's time to focus.

Signore Direttore

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Christmas

Not much blogging lately. No year end best lists from me yet. No progress reports on the various projects. Here's one: Berlin said no to But A Dream. Other than that I've been spending more time at the gym than at my office this week.
Whenever I think of filmmaking right now I don't feel any joy or excitement. I have some quiet contentment about Dangerous Writing. But everything else is better left until the new year. Though Nicola is going to Tanzania for a shoot starting January 15th. Whatever I get going is going to take a hiatus for the second half of January. I'd rather concentrate on running and cycling and feeling good physically.
I'm in better spirits than I sound. I'm excited about everything else in my life. I'm feeling some guilt or fear about the distance I feel from making films. I need to let that go. Im trying to remember that it all matters. It all counts. Riding my mountain bike in foot deep snow on Sunday has as much to do with my career as being on set.

Anyway, Happy Christmas to you my loyal readers and friends.

Signore Direttore

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Let it Snow

Okay, now I'll say we've got some winter going. Though driving is still very easy with snow tires or chains. I took my mountain bike out for some midnight riding last night. It was gorgeous as was the long walk in Forest Park yesterday morning.
I don't remember a single white Christmas growing up in Portland. This year might be in with a chance.

I still don't feel much like talking about film these days, but I am enjoying myself. I'm going to build a fire now and prepare for our dinner party with some families from our neighborhood.

Signore Direttore

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Snow Week

An apocalypse of bad weather has overtaken Portland this week - closing schools and wreaking havoc on our fair-weather city. (I've had no trouble driving around with no traction devices, but maybe I have superpowers) As such, my life has been taken over by kids home from school.
I'm losing my mind. Which happens when overexposed to my children and underexposed to work and exercise.
Christmas break starts next week. Hurray! This after two weeks of dealing with my son's school crisis. So I missed my trip to New Orleans, hoping to be around for his transition to a new school only to find myself devoted to caring for my children about 85% of the time in December. I know I sound ungrateful, but without some balance I'm a marginal parent. Whether that's true or not in practice, I sure feel overwhelmed and very far from my work.

Signore Bitter Poppa

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Folk Wisdom 041

Moving fast is not the same thing as going somewhere.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Master Says 361

Eighty percent of success is showing up.

Woody Allen

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Master Says 360

The talent is in the choices.

Robert De Niro

Monday, December 08, 2008

Still from Dangerous Writing

Mala Noche Traler

I saw this film at the Castro Theater in San Francisco back in the 80s with live organ accompaniment. The Castro Theater is featured in Milk, GSV's latest, which brought back memories of seeing his first film way back when.
We've created a theater marquee in the background of one of the scenes in Dangerous Writing in honor of Portland's greatest filmmaker and the Portland of my youth that Gus preserves so beautifully in Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy. I'll post a still later today once it's done rendering.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Master Says 359

It doesn't happen all at once.... You become. It takes a long time.

Margery Williams

Segua quel sogno

I knocked my girlfriend, now wife, up when I was 31. I was just a few months into the transition from my life as a club promoter and band manager to trying to become a filmmaker. I'd been writing and acting off and on for years, but I never let myslef enjoy any sustained pursuit. I was ready to put the other stuff aside and dedicate myself to the silver screen. Because of my past in the visual arts and my friendship with a top tier production designer, I cut my teeth in the art department at first. We worked on high-end stuff - American Express, The Gap, Volkswagen. But as a non-union member of the art department I couldn't do much but hang about the set waiting to go pick something up from a prop house in the art dept. truck. My experience never paid off very directly as anything I worked as an art director later on didn't have a budget that allowed for any elements used in the big budget stuff. It was helpful to be around top commercial directors and DPs and stars like Whoopi Goldberg, Beyonce Knowles and Jerry Seinfeld. I had been around people of such celebrity in the club business, but working on a set with them was much different. In fact that was the type of experience my friend was trying to help me get. When I started talking about getting into Local 52 to become a prop man and earn three times what I was as an assistant, my boss strongly discouraged me from putting on a tool belt of any sort. he knew how much less likely it would have been for me to pursue directing that way. One of the prop guys on our regular crew was John Ashton, formerly the guitarist of The Psychedelic Furs. John had a family and was very pleasant on set, but he didn't love the work as I recall. He certainly didn't urge me to take the test to get into the union. A couple of years later The Furs went on tour. John played the tour and invited us to the show when they played Jones Beach.
I've gone off on an unintended tangent. I was going to talk about how ten years ago I began pursuing a career where success and financial security is elusive. And started a family at the same time. I thought about giving it up then. And while Nicola was pregnant I worked more in the art department than I wrote screenplays. I had some ideas kicking around and did some outlining. I wrote a couple of short stories hanging out in the back of the prop truck. I was making money being around what I wanted to do, but I wasn't doing what I wanted to do or even learning that much about writing or directing. And the money I was earning, while decent, was but a fraction of what I'd earned in the past. Then Henry was born and I thought about law school or something much more practical. It occurred to me that the best thing I could do for my child was to show him how to pursue a dream. I didn't have to succeed, I just had to follow my heart. Even so, I thought if I didn't see some tangible results by the time I was forty I would move on.
I threw myself into learning about film. I started saying no to art department gigs. I started studying acting again. I took classes at SVA and later enrolled at NYU. I bought a 16mm camera and a DV camera and made films and videos. I started teaching acting. I directed some plays. I wrote a script. After a couple of years I tried to find a job I could do to make some money in the industry while working toward directing. I tried editing. Then I went back to the art department. It was obvious to me and others that I needed to be directing. A funny thing was happening - my awareness and knowledge of what was good was growing at a much faster rate than my ability. It was as if a sportscaster suddenly found himself expected to play the game expertly instead of commenting on it expertly. I was becoming a student of and a commentator on the game rather than a player. Not completely, but it was more the case than not. I continuously waited to become. And waited. My posture gaining in sophistication all the while.
I'm now 41. I haven't quit. I've thought about it. I've felt guilty as year after year goes by with more money going out to fuel the dream than comes back. I've done some good work and continue to learn. My good work still isn't out in the world. It's starting to happen. Getting turned down for Sundance called some things into question. I didn't expect to get into Sundance. I don't think I was unfairly rejected. I recognize the many many factors that go into those selections. Yet there's this voice in my head that says, "Hey, if you think you're so goddamned special; why didn't you get in?" Funny that -- "You." I didn't submit me. I submitted But A Dream, which I made, but it isn't me. Made Crooked is closer to me, there's certainly no doubt that the story comes from me, but it still isn't me. Dangerous Writing is the closest thing to me that I've ever made. That and Nora Mae, my first short. That's part of the reason I want to get Made Crooked out there first.
I digress once again. Even as I claim DW is me, were it rejected I might not feel the same self-doubt. What I wanted to accomplish with DW was about telling a story in a certain way. I never expected it to be good or get me anywhere. Whereas with BAD, I thought it was going to be the calling card that green-lighted Original Glory, a script I wrote that had a major agency was packaging. Even with Made Crooked, the expectations and projections were eminent.
Whatever resistance to finishing films that I've been working through is diminishing. Now that that particular struggle is over I find myself exhausted not only by the herculean efforts to get past my fears, but by the endless ardor of working with no money. Right now I'm feeling like I can't put myself through making a film by any means necessary again. The New Orleans project is much bigger. And because it is much bigger, I have much less control over whether it will happen or not. I am determined to follow through and take it as far as I can. Though at the moment I'm not sure where the energy to do so is going to come from.
I saw Quantum of Solace last night. Possible the most boring blockbuster I've ever seen. $224 million! The director Marc Forster started off small less than ten years ago with a stylish indie. I forget the name of it. Then he did Monster's Ball. When I'm reminded of such career arcs, I maintain some hope. Then I see the making of a Britney Spears music video this morning. It reminded me when seeing the elaborate sets just how long that I've been trying to do something with nothing.
I don't have any answers. I'm going to work on finishing these two no-budget features. And I'm going to keep going on the NOLA project. I'd like to say what I'm going to do after that, like if it doesn't work out within eighteen months I'll go back to school to become a ...
But that would be unproductive and disrespectful to the great mystery of life. So for now I think I'll just keep doing what's in front of me, leaving the results up to the powers that be.

Following that dream,
Signore Direttore

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Master Says 358

I mean, the truth of the matter is, I like the failures as much as I like the successes, it's only the world that doesn't like the failures.

Sydney Pollack

Friday, December 05, 2008

Facebook Frenzy

I received yet another invitation to join Facebook this week. I did Friendster when that first came out and had fun setting that up, but I was pretty burnt on such sites by the time MySpace and Facebook came around. We're finishing DW so I thought -- well, why not? We need to do a page to promote the film. But one thing I noticed on MySpace was that many of my friends don't accept invitations from films or filmmakers, so I decided to just do a page for me. The backlog of ignored friend requests got me off to a blazing start toward some satisfying friend whoring.
Otherwise I've had a hellish week full of activities and concerns with my kids' schools. So the video game puzzle of scanning friends' friends for familiar names and faces and entering the dusty archives of names from my brain into the search window has been a joyfully manic distraction. I found folks that I hold dear in my heart and think of often that I'd long lost touch with. Everyone from the guy I opened my first acting studio with in NY to the cocktail waitress from my regular Thursday night spot circa 1988 with whom I flirted and eventually won over for a sloppy night of lust that didn't quite live up to the promise of our months of coy banter. We didn't exchange messages, but it's nice to know she's out there and that she, too, remembers.
Then there's all of you regular friends all gathered in one place in cyperspace - just one social networking pages of billions of ones and zeros floating around. How fucking weird. But kind of cool at the same time.

Signore Direttore

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Master Says 357

We are not going to wake up one day and be good. We have to work for it, and we have to work for it every day. It's not just going to happen.

Brandon Roy

Sundance 2009

I received an email last night that But A Dream was not accepted. There were over 5,400 shorts submitted, around 80 were accepted. I really hoped we would make the cut, but I am not that disappointed.
Below is a letter aimed toward features, but I think it's of interest. Just seeing it in my inbox this morning made me feel like I accomplished something by having something to submit this year.

Happy Reading,
Signore Direttore

iW INSIDER | Eugene Hernandez: A Letter to Filmmakers, Whether or Not You Got Into Sundance

by Eugene Hernandez (December 3, 2008)

EDITORS NOTE: The non-competition lineup for the 2009 Sundance Film Festival will be announced today at 4 p.m. EST here at indieWIRE; the complete competition lineup was announced yesterday.

More than 3,600 feature films were submitted to this year's Sundance Film Festival, but only about 120 will play at the festival next month. If you got into Sundance '09 then you already received the call and are probably making plans, likely pondering a "team" that includes a potential publicist or a sales rep. Meanwhile, the nearly 3,500 who aren't in this year's line up are strategizing their next steps and pondering which fest to pursue now. I've got some tips for both groups. If you are traveling to Park City, proceed carefully and do your homework as you forge new relationships. If you are not heading to Utah, don't despair just yet, there is life after a Sundance rejection.

I've been going to Sundance for more than 15 years now and it remains a great festival for discovering new work. The circus atmosphere that surrounds the fest sometimes gets me down, but no other fest has given me so much personally or professionally and now with the economic downturn, it's quite possible we'll see a greater focus on the films, rather than the party and celebrity scene.

Either way, you applied to Sundance for a reason. Asking yourself what that reason was and answering that question may help you focus your strategy, whether or not your film will be screening at the festival.

Congrats! You're going to Sundance

For the Sundance Class of '09 -- especially those who are new to this -- you need to know one thing up front - Congratulations, but now your work really begins! You are heading to Sundance, but merely being a part of the lineup doesn't guarantee that you or your film are going to get any attention, particularly from buyers and press. Again, what is your reason for applying to Sundance in the first place? What are your goals for the event?

So, let's be upfront... To those who are hoping to make a sale after your Sundance premiere, it's important to know that most folks I've spoken with agree that this year's market in Park City will be like no other in that it probably won't be as robust for big on-site acquisitions. Larger companies seem to be shying away from theatrical acquisitions and right now there are simply fewer large, established distribution entities to turn to. Even so, a range of reps will work with films and filmmakers to field and generate sales interest at the festival. And sure, deals will be made, but the industry and established filmmakers alike are focusing more and more on digital rights and other means of distribution.

Some filmmakers will have decided to sign with a rep to help them navigate the digital space (DVD, VOD, online), while others will opt to hold on to their rights and 100% of all revenues that may come from them in the future. Either way, these are big decisions. Talk with filmmakers and producers who've already been down this short path and spend time determing what you need to give up and what you'll get in return.

I found it rather surprising that at Sunday's Gotham Awards panel discussion at the DGA, filmmakers nominated for the Breakthrough Director category were rather mixed on signing a traditional rep. "I am curious what a sales rep does now," "Ballast" director Lance Hammer told the audience, referencing the fact that smaller films aren't getting theatrical deals right now.

While Lance worked with a rep at Sundance last year, he decided to release his film himself. In retrospect, he indicated that were he to do it all over again, he said he would have booked the film into theaters right out of Sundance to capitalize on the attention "Ballast" generated at the fest - and then he would have focused on how to exploit his digital rights.

"Medicine for Melancholy" director Barry Jenkins, who debuted his first feature in March at SXSW tried to find a rep for his film, but was unsuccessful in the outset - yet there is something to live and learn... "We were told you have to have a sales rep," Jenkins said on Sunday at the Gothams panel, "Bullshit!" Jenkins worked with his lawyer in San Francisco and brokered a deal with IFC Films. Both Jenkins and Hammer cautioned other filmmakers to really get their head around digital rights and to maximize DVD and VOD options, where they feel the real potential for lower budget indie films will truly blossom.

And, they each cautioned filmmakers not to give away all rights.

The domestic repping business is still diverse, ranging from traditional sales powerhouse Cinetic Media to firms such as Submarine and The Film Sales Company, as well as divisions of leading Hollywood talent agencies: CAA, ICM, Endeavor, William Morris and UTA. Importantly, there are a number of strong boutique sales operations built around individuals: Greenberg Traurig, Required Viewing, and Visit Films, not to mention individuals like Jonathan Dana, Jeff Dowd, David Garber, and Ronna Wallace. Most firms take about 10% of traditional future sales for their work, but others require up front cash or a minimum guarantee, and now digital rights reps are requiring larger percentages and exclusivity over a longer period of years. There are many other active sellers and our two-year old indieWIRE survey of the space is sorely out of date. We'll work on revamping it.

Also shifting is the publicity world. I was surprised recently to learn that Jeff Hill, a 17-year veteran of Sundance, won't be making the trip to Park City this year. The event isn't cost effective for his PR firm, International House of Publicity (IHOP), and hasn't been for years - so, he'll sadly sit this one out. And, since last year's fest, another Park City vet, Jeremy Walker bowed out of the PR business altogether. It's a shame that filmmakers won't benefit from their expertise at the festival this year.

Keep in mind, not every film or filmmaker needs a publicist. The festival offers PR services and guidance to filmmakers and the many seasoned folks in the press office may be able to answer questions. And those who decide to opt for a publicist have a number of strong options, including a number of veterans who know the ins-and-outs of the fest. There are too many firms and people to mention comprehensively, ranging from outfits such as 42 West, BWR, Falco Ink, ID-PR, mPRm, PMG, Indie PR, Fat Dot and Rubenstein Communications, PMK, Murphy PR, David Magdael and Associates, Insignia PR, and Fifteen Minutes PR, as well as boutique companies or those lead by key veteran publicists, such as Donna Daniels, Sophie Gluck, Susan Norget, Nancy Willen, Mickey Cottrell, Michele Robertson, Gary Springer, and Wellington Love, as well as the new Frank PR. [Sorry, this is clearly not a comprehensive list, so please notify me if we missed a key person or company and we'll revise it.]

As Jeff Hill referenced, setting up shop at Sundance is quite a costly endeavor and firms typically charge filmmakers thousands of dollars for their Park City PR services. It goes without saying that you should do your homework and talk to past and present clients to make the best decision if you decide you need a press rep - and quite honestly, it can be very advantageous if you find the right match!

In the meantime, I'll give you some free advice, get high quality film stills together now, have clips available in a digital format as well as high res images (and why not post them on a simple website that has information about you and your film). If you are on Facebook, add me as a friend and tell me your film is at the festival so that we can find you when we want to write about your movie here at indieWIRE (And just a plug here, we've been covering Sundance for 12 years).

You can do a lot yourself and there are plenty of examples of filmmakers I've met over the years at Sundance who work hard, with limited resources, and make a mark at the fest. From Wes Anderson and the "Bottle Rocket" crew with their short in '93, to DIY queen Sarah Jacobson years later making the most of a local Copy Depot to create low cost materials and hitting the fest with her producer/mom, not too mention numerous recent examples of filmmakers using online tools and resources to create a low-cost presence for themselves.

Sorry you didn't get into Sundance. See you on the fest circuit soon?

Barry Jenkins, whose low-budget indie film debuted at South by Southwest is an example of many of the opportunities on the horizon for filmmakers who don't go to Utah. At this very moment, festivals including SXSW, Tribeca, CineVegas and the Los Angeles Film Festival, not to mention Slamdance, are eyeing filmmakers who didn't get into Sundance. With so few slots, films always fall through the cracks and there are viable festival options beyond Park City (Important! Keep in mind that these festivals as many others have policies regarding "premiere status" so be careful!)

And, some titles will even make their way to Berlin and New Director/New Films in New York (or even Rotterdam) and the many regional fests. Others will find another path.

Developing a smart festival strategy can be daunting and requires a lot of research and conversations with other filmmakers who've just been on the circuit. Many seasoned indie filmmakers are on Facebook today, which offers accesibilty like never before to connect with each other and compare notes as you develep a strategy.

A quick Festival snapshot

South by Southwest (SXSW), in March, has emerged as a vital haven for low budget indies and has cultivated a comraderie among a new generation of filmmakers. Similarly, Tribeca in New York (May), the LA Fest in California (June) and CineVegas in Nevada (June) seek to showcase new work for audiences and industry alike. Some fests early in the year, like True/False (February), Silverdocs (June) and Full Frame (March), Hot Docs (April), showcase documentaries specifically.

Obviously these aren't the only festivals to consider. There are hundreds of options, and each year at indieWIRE we try to attend and cover some of the fests we think are worth attending. You can check out our deep content archive, organized by month and year, here on the site. Among the fests early in the year that we attended in the first third of '08 were the Palm Springs International Film Festival (January), the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (January), the AFI Dallas International Film Festival (March), the Ann Arbor Film Festival (March), the Cleveland International Film Festival (March), Cinequest (February/March), the Florida Film Festival (March/April), , the Sarasota Film Festival (March/April), and the Independent Film Festival Boston (April). Again this is not a comprehensive list - we've covered many more - but we invite you to check out indieWIRE's coverage of these events.

As many people in the industry are saying over and over today, for many filmmakers your film festival tour is your de facto theatrical release. Traveling the circuit can generate media attention and build a following for you or your film. But, unless more festivals find money to pay screening fees to filmmakers, there are no tangible revenue streams from the circuit. In the end, it can be a costly proposition to travel from fest to fest. Numerous filmmakers are exploring how to sell DVDs directly on the festival circuit, capitalizing on the attention they get in local markets. There are some obvious immediate financial upsides but also potentially drastic downsides that can impact other deals, so talk to others producers and filmmakers and study the strategies that others have used.

Again, what are your goals and how can your festival screenings help you accomplish them?