"Producing a film is not just getting a film in the can," warned veteran producer and former Hollywood studio exec Stephanie Allain on Saturday morning in Los Angeles, "It's getting a film to the audience." The shepherd for such films as "El Mariachi" and "Boyz in The Hood" -- which launched the careers of Robert Rodriguez and John Singleton respectively -- recounted in detail her recent experiences as producer of Craig Brewer's "Hustle & Flow," making the remarks early Saturday morning during a keynote speech that formally opened this weekend's 3rd annual "Filmmaker Forum" organized by Film Independent. Some 250 emerging producers and filmmakers participated in the engaging event -- at a cost of up to $400 each -- held this year at the DGA on Sunset Blvd.
Allain's advice was vital given that attendees spent two full days listening to first-hand war stories from filmmakers, producers reps, agents, lawyers, and many others who have sought to navigiate the often treacherous waters of making and selling independent films today. Numerous examples, some limited to a pair of off-the-record sessions, and still others shared as an appendix in the back of the invaluable binder provided to conference participants, offered minute details on the strategies, lessons and success stories of numerous indie films, large and small. Panel topics included the financing, production, contracts, sales and festival strategis, and even alternative distribution models.
A number of unsurprising, but often overlooked precepts were widely emphasized during various sessions throughout the weekend. Newbies were again cautioned to never send an unsolicited script and to always guard against releasing too many screener copies of a finished feature, while numerous panelists spoke more topically of the flat DVD market, and those trying to get projects off the ground were constantly met with talk of needing "attachments" to get a movie made today.
At the same time, numerous participants publicly and privately speculated about the impact of a coming Writers Guild strike that could cripple mainstream moviemaking and everyone reiterated, over and over throughout the weekend, that there are simply too many movies being made and released today.
"If you make a movie with no known cast, there is very little chance of getting a deal anywhere in the world," boldly proclaimed "Hooligans" producer Donald Zuckerman, during a Saturday session on financing. "Don't do it," he said flatly. As outrageous as such a statement seemed in the moment, variations on the theme recurred throughout the weekend. Now more than ever, name talent are the price of entry into a world filled with numerous gatekeepers.
Busy producer Celine Rattray of Plum Pictures -- who with her two partners took three features to the Sundance Film Festival last year -- was an active Forum participant who spoke of her recent successes in Indiewood, sharing numerous war stories and insights with attendees. "Set a name cast and then set the budget at a level that's irresistible," she advised fellow producers hoping to sell smaller films, detailing her experiences with such films as James C. Strouse's "Grace is Gone" and Justin Theroux's "Dedication."
"If you are a producer and are willing to bootstrap it" -- with a no name cast -- "F & F financing may be the way to go," advised CAA agent Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, his shorthand apparently referring to friends and family funding raised outside the industry altogether. Such DIY approaches were rarely explored during a weekend that instead was primarly devoted to producers and filmmakers who are aiming to tap into the established Indiewood marketplace.
"The odds are against you," agreed a group of producers reps when asked about the prognosis for narrative features made today without name talent attached. It was one of the few things that the group saw eye to eye on during a sometimes contentious discussion. Asked to defend their optimism about the theatrical prospects for movies with no stars, reps John Sloss (Cinetic Media), Rena Ronson (William Morris Independent), Rich Klubeck (UTA) and Josh Braun (Submarine) pinpointed such recent films as Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson" (which starred Ryan Gosling), John Carney's "Once" and Adrienne Shelley's "Waitress" (with Keri Russell) as underdog success stories, even though two of their examples included established actors.
Most seemed to agree that times are particularly tough for the theatrical distribution of documentaries recently. Cinetic's Sloss admitted it has been a difficult year for non-fiction work, adding that it's hard to explain why and noting that even the apparent box office success of Charles Ferguson's "No End in Sight" was a disappointment given much higher expectations for the Iraq doc. Meanwhile, WMA's Ronson pointed to Fox Searchlight's recent LA Film Festival acquisition, "Young @ Heart" as a potential brightspot if the crowd-pleaser can breakthrough.
A studio-backed foreign language film, with no stars, launched the Filmmaker Forum on Friday evening at the Directors Guild. Film Independent chief Dawn Hudson praised Marc Forster's moving new feature "The Kite Runner" prior to a screening of the fim as part of the event, saying that it, "embodies everything that independent film is." After the showing, "Little Miss Sunshine" producer Ron Yerxa lead a conversation exploring the film from the points of view of its producers Rebecca Yeldham, E. Bennett Walsh and William Horberg.
Chatting with a good friend over breakfast on Sunday morning, steps away from the site of the Filmmaker Forum, I related the highlights of the weekend conference thus far, noting that aspiring and emerging filmmakers were seeking guidance from the pros on how to break into the business with their projects. A local school teacher with no involvement in the industry, he immediately bemoaned the glut of new movies in theaters each weekend and then, after pondering it for a moment, offered his own simple suggestion, "Be friends with someone famous or own a theater chain."
EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez moderated the Filmmaker Forum session "Positioning Your Film for Success" with panelists Josh Braun, Sean Furst, Richard Klubeck, Mark Pogachefksy, Rena Ronson and John Sloss.