Is it the best of times or the worst of times to be an independent filmmaker? As usual, it's both. More than a dozen filmmakers including Karyn Kusama, the Polish Bros. and Ondi Timoner shared their thoughts and best advice to the next generation during eight panels presented at the Film Independent Forum on October 23 at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles.
“It’s an amazing time to be independent filmmaker,” said Ava DuVernay, a filmmaker who founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) this year and recently wrote a popular piece for Ted Hope's iW blog on the state of black indie filmmaking. "Traditional models are collapsing. No one knows what the heck is going on. It’s an exciting time."
Here's the best of the wisdom gathered from various sessions at this weekend's Film Independent Filmmaker Forum:
Festivals Still Matter. All-night bidding wars may be a fond footnote of indie-film history, but festivals remain a preferred venue for launching independent films and filmmakers out into the world.
Although Sundance remains the filmmakers' number-one obsession, director Jill Sprecher cautioned that “all three movies that I’ve directed have gone to Sundance with varying degrees of success. It isn’t the end of a movie or the beginning, either. Sometimes it’s a bump in road.”
Josh Braun of sales/production company Submarine Entertainment said festivals weren't necessarily vital -- “We sell films that don’t go to festivals" -- but they're certainly desirable. "The idea of your film being seen by an audience, with buyers there seeing the audience response – that’s something you can’t recreate in a screening for buyers in LA and New York. “
That said, don't make the mistake of rushing a film to the festival finish line. Everyone from to festival strategist David Magdael stressed that filmmakers should not rush an unfinished film to make a festival deadline. “SXSW won’t look at revision cuts," said festival producer Janet Pierson." We will look once.” And publicist-turned-filmmaker DuVernay warned, “Pay attention to who sees your film first. Because people see your film too early, they talk. It gets around.”
In terms of drawing attention to your festival screening, Doug Jones of the Los Angeles Film Festival said social media is great, but filmmakers should shouldn’t overlook traditional techniques, including putting postcards in coffee shops. And if you can, partner with the festival to bring added value to your screening, such as having musicians play live during the credits or organizing a panel of experts to host a panel after the screening.
Think Globally, Think Locally. “Think about the world, don’t just think of the U.S. first,” recommended the Polish Brothers, who have found international success with their latest film, “For Lovers Only.” Their black-and-white movie was made shortly after the first iPad debuted. “We thought it would be a great movie to show on iPad.” After screening at a European festival, they released the film on iTunes and found the first downloads came from Europe.
“'For Lovers Only” went directly to the audience that wants to see it,“ said Mark Polish. “And with iTunes, we can see everywhere it’s been downloaded.”
Filmmaker Marc Fienberg took a more local approach with his Andy Griffith-starrer, “Play the Game.” Booking the film in a Florida theater, he bought Facebook ads targeted at seniors living within 10 miles of the theater.
The Polish Brothers and Fienberg both utilized vocal supporters (dubbed the “Soldiers of Love” and “Yenta Army,” respectively) to be ambassadors, to spread the word of mouth.
MJ Peckos, who owns distribution company and consultancy Dada Films, suggested arranging special screenings where your best potential brand ambassadors congregate. She gave an example of booking the environmental doc “The Last Mountain” at the Bonnaroo music festival, then asking that passionate, highly engaged audience to tweet about what they saw.
Ondi Timoner, who helmed the popular documentaries “DIG!” and “We Live in Public,” is also a big proponent of DIY theatrical releases. Her advice: Have a good publicist and lawyer on your team, and be prepared to “really work the phones.”
Publicist Sasha Berman added that with so many films being released, there's more competition than ever for audiences. “Seventeen films opened this weekend in LA. What distinguishes your film from the other 16? How do you get people to see your film rather than another film – that is the biggest question. I do everything in my power, but it takes a lot of work to bring people in to see the film on opening night and it’s up to the filmmakers to make that happen.”
However, it's also possible to be too clever about marketing. At the panel Reach Your Audience: A Marketing Clinic, DuVernay responded bluntly to another panelist’s advice that emerging filmmaker Sheldon Candis should brand himself as an auteur in marketing his upcoming film "L.U.V." DuVernay said simply, “Nobody cares. The focus should be the film.”
Stephen Raphael, moderator of the DIY Route panel, recommended the book “I Wake Up Screening” by John Anderson and Laura Kim as a good primer on the process and pitfalls of getting your film seen. Also recommended by the DIY Route panelists was booking your film in the “new cool theaters popping up” like 14 Pews in Houston, the Film Bar in Phoenix, and the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and the Cinefamily in Los Angeles.
Define Success. “A big education for me was how well your movie does financially is how you’re perceived,” reflected Karyn Kusama, whose 1999 feature “Girlfight” lit up Sundance but did not ignite at the box office.
Jacob Aaron Estes, whose most recent film “The Details” premiered at Sundance, cautioned, “Be prepared to suffer. Work really hard. You never know when talent plus work ethic will ultimately pay off. Be rational about your own life and finances.”
Kusama left Forum attendees with parting words of advice: “You need to love the process. You’re in the process a lot longer than making the movie. To a degree, surrender to the random tides that come your way. You can devote years of your life to a project and have it torpedoed. You can have a movie taken away from you by a psychopath. You have to accept that the process of being in the creative endeavor is enough. Or this business is too much.”
Nijla Mumin contributed to this report.