As a student at UCLA in the late 1970s, filmmaker Alex Cox ("Repo Man," "Sid & Nancy") would head out to Santa Monica with college friends, trying to crack the business veneer of the annual American Film Market, chatting up attendees and hoping to score a coveted party invite. Anything to find some money for early film projects. "Nothing has changed," he laughed on Saturday, addressing a group of AFI Fest filmmakers who had traveled over to the Market from Hollywood for the afternoon, "This is the life of the independent filmmaker." Cox, like many of the emerging filmmakers gathered at the Loews Beach Hotel, is at the festival with a new low-budget film, "Searchers 2.0."
A pair of L.A. stories, also about people who come to the city hoping to make it in the movies -- "In Search of a Midnight Kiss" and "Confessions of a Superhero" -- were among the hot tickets over the weekend at AFI Fest, drawing large crowds to see hometown stories.
Like Cox, "Kiss" director Alex Holdridge came to Southern California hoping to make a mark in the film business. But, like the lead character in his low-budget, black and white indie, Holdridge hit a few obstacles along the way. While driving to L.A. from Texas, a car accident totaled his vehicle in Arizona and then his laptop computer -- which contained a polished screenplay -- was swiped out from under him. At the end of his rope, heartbroken, the lead character in Holdridge's feature posts a CraigsList ad on New Year's Eve, hoping to find someone to kiss at midnight. Calling the film, "more 'It's a Wonderful' life than a faux documentary-style, crude indie," Holdridge said on Saturday that he salutes those who come to Hollywood with dreams of making it.
"Hollywood is a place where dreams are made and dreams are broken," begins Matt Ogen's "Confessions of a Superhero," a documentary about a group of costumed superhero lookalikes -- all aspiring actors -- who work the sidewalks of Hollywood posing for photos with tourists to make money. Struggling to get by but determined to break into the industry, the four subjects of the film struggle to survive on the infamous "boulevard of broken dreams."
After receiving acclaim on the festival circuit, both folks will reach limited theatrical audiences. Following a Tribeca Film Festival debut earlier this year, Holdridge's "Kiss" was recently acquired by IFC Films. And Ogen's "Superhero," from SXSW, was recently acquired by Arts Alliance America and Netflix and opened over the weekend at theaters in New York City and Austin.
The struggle to turn festival acclaim into a legitimate theatrical release was also a hot topic over at AFM. Introducing Cox during the aforementioned keynote speech to AFI Fest filmmakers, American Film Institute festivals director Christian Gaines reflected on the tug-of-war between "cultural, communal celebrations of film" like AFI Fest and the sometimes unwelcoming environment of an insular industry event such as AFM.
Speaking to the group of fest filmmakers during a small AFM brunch, Gaines underscored the contrasts, rather than the similarities between AFI and AFM, two distinct L.A. events that have developed an intimate, yet long-distance relationship over the years. Unlike market/fest bonds at events in Cannes or Berlin, AFI and AFM are separated by nearly an hour of freeways and side streets that generally prevent a lot of interaction between attendees of both events. But, as Gaines advised AFI filmmakers, the alliance offers an opportunity that can benefit some fest projects.
Alex Cox stirred the audience during remarks about the state of filmmaking today, advocating that filmmakers embrace HD video and then declaring a "tyranny of the movie stars" that dominates filmmaking today, referring to, "that individual who is no longer an actor but who has ascended to the level where they call the shots." But, he said, this tyranny of celebrity can be evaded by working in HD, on lower budgets and with talented, unknown actors.
Addressing the filmmakers immediately after Cox, AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf -- asked about Cox's comments -- instead referred to a "tyranny of the marketing system" today, noting that, "stars become a market hook and that's not going to change." He also detailed a number of other harsh realities for the filmmakers in attendance.
Challenging the common notion that independent films are "quirky" and "low budget," Wolf instead defined independent film today as movies that are created entirely outside the business world of the industry's market leaders, calling Oscar winner "Million Dollar Baby" an independent film and Fox Searchlight's Spirit Award winner "Sideways" a studio picture.
"Independent film is about all budget ranges." Concluding, he encouraged filmmakers in the room to think like business people, warning that "most art is bad" and "most scripts are bad," and encouraged producers to avoid emotional attachments to their material. In order to maintain a business objectivity, he warned, "Don't fall in love with the film."