PARK CITY 2000 INTERVIEW: The Sophomore Class: Greenwald, McKay, and Arteta Revisit Sundance
by Mike Jones/indieWIRE
While still piped with anticipation, tension, and foreboding, the veteran experience at Sundance comes with a different set of rules. While first-timers may feel a burning need to blitz the festival with people, parties, and money — returning filmmakers have the benefit of experience to know just how far making an “event” of a film will go. While they understand that strategies change year-to-year, their peppered enthusiasm is lightened with a hint of calm. Each believe that the cream will rise to the top, and, quite correctly, that their veteran status gives them some street cred and might be the best publicity item they have.
This year, Maggie Greenwald (“The Kill-Off,” 1990) returns with “Songcatcher“; Jim McKay (“Girls Town,” 1996) screens “Our Song;” and Miguel Arteta (“Star Maps,” 1997) brings his second film, “Chuck and Buck” to the competition. indieWIRE spoke with the directors about the past and present, smarter distribution deals, and the need for a filmmaker’s alliance.
indieWIRE: Maggie, was Sundance a very different film festival when you screened “The Kill-Off” ten years ago?
Greenwald: It was. And I was there five years ago on the jury, which I think gave me the closest flavor to what it’s going to be this year. It’s going to be nuts, I’m sure. Ten years ago, it was a relatively new but very prestigious festival where distributors were coming to discover the new independent film. It wasn’t the beginning of the indie scene, but it was the beginning of when a lot of attention was being paid to indie filmmakers. And it hadn’t become the whole scene yet, with agents and press. There was always press there, but not the kind of scene it’s become with celebrities. Most of the films didn’t have the level of celebrities in them that they have today. And then when I was on the jury five years ago, I was thrilled to be on the jury and not a filmmaker [laughs] because it had gotten so intense. But I have to say, going back now with this film, I think it’s the perfect place for us to sell our film.
LOST IN THE SHUFFLE
McKay: I actually feel that in the last couple of years, a lot of the most striking films have gotten a little lost in the shuffle, lost in the crowd. And that the emphasis in the media has certainly been on the sales side of things.
Arteta: But I think that it’s amazing that a movie like “Pi,” for example, wins awards, gets framed for a great release, and without a festival like Sundance, a movie like that probably wouldn’t have reached an audience. And I think it’s great that they go for movies that are like that — a tiny little movie made in black and white, very wild in its style — and that the festival allows movies like that to be brought to the surface, I think is great.
McKay: I agree. I think their selection is usually pretty great and varied. I think the challenge is how to get seen amongst all the stuff, and I think that the more of a media circus it’s become, the more difficult it that’s been for a very small, beautiful film like “Judy Berlin” or “Black and White and Red All Over” to break through all that stuff. I was talking to a publicist today who was saying, “You have to come to the Internet center where E! will be and Ebay will be doing auctions, and blah blah blah will be there,” and I thought who’s going to see all of this? There’s so many tentacles now, that I’m wondering how much focus the small independent films are going to get.
Arteta: I do think that’s a fault of the marketplace and not the festival.
Arteta: There are just not enough outlets. But I hope that with the Internet coming into play that the ratio of movies that can get out will increase. But I do think that we have to be clear about the festival. I wouldn’t have seen “Black and White and Red All Over” if it wasn’t for the festival, and even a movie like “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss.” It wasn’t a huge hit at the festival, but it really got out there thanks to Sundance.
iW: Each of you is coming with more support than when you first did. Rather than a solo effort, you have production companies behind you. How does that change things?
McKay: I don’t know. It’s been such a crazy two weeks getting ready to go. I have to say I’ve been longing for the days of being new and naive and going there with my lawyer and selling the film ourselves, just letting whatever happens happen, and not having a publicist or an entourage or whatever. I was thinking yesterday, gosh, what if you just didn’t bring a press kit [laughs]. They say you need 100 stills and you need this and that, and I was thinking, would they kick you out? [laughs] What if you just came and showed the movie? I think that would be interesting. So, next movie, that’s my goal [laughs].
Arteta: “Chuck and Buck” was made very, very similar to “Star Maps.” In fact, 90% of the
production team is the same, the editor, the cinematographer, and the producer. And I have the same publicist I had for “Star Maps,” Jeremy Walker, who was kind enough back then to pick me up off the curb. I feel that I’m coming with a very similar production, and pretty much the same team, only added to it is Blow Up Pictures, who financed the movie. I just feel really lucky I got to make another movie that I really care about with people that I love working with. And I include Jeremy in that group. He read the script, he’s kind of like a collaborator at this point.
GET A LAWYER
iW: If and when all of you sit down to write your distribution deals, are there some deal items that you want to concentrate more or less on this time, items like publicity or number of screens or money up front? Is there some kind of advice you can give first-time filmmakers in this regard?
Greenwald: I was there ten years ago with a $300,000 film that had been made by a brand new production company and was unsold, and I would say that in looking for a distributor I was looking for the same things then as I am now. I think the main advice I would give any filmmaker is don’t make your deal yourself. Get a lawyer. And make sure you have someone who is an expert dealmaker in your court or standing by in case a distributor says, I’d like to buy your film. That would be my main advice.
McKay: My one piece of advice is expect nothing, and if something happens you’ll be happy, and if nothing happens, have a plan for what you’re going to do. If no one wants to buy our film, then we’ll put it out ourselves, and I know how we can do that. Unfortunately, a very, very limited number of films each year actually has a lot of choice in what they’re being offered. I think these days the number of buyers has shrunk, and the number of people that are right for your film has shrunk, and the unfortunate thing is that the distributors really hold the power in terms of the dealing. But hopefully you’re in a situation where that’s not necessarily the case, and you have some requests or demands you can make. I think the best thing you can do is do your homework before you go and know who you are dealing with. Because in the moment, everyone will tell you they’re going to do everything. And as everyone here knows, what goes down on paper most of the time doesn’t matter anyway. They could say you have final cut, and then two months later say we want you to change this, and you might not be contractually obligated, but if you don’t, they might just dump your movie. There’s all these things that can happen.
What I wish was happening more is that I wish there was a little more solidarity amongst directors. I think a lot of people do feel a sense of community, but if directors were more in touch with one another and shared their stories more, I think that maybe that power situation [among distributors] wouldn’t be quite what it is. And one of the things I’m looking forward to at this festival is meeting other directors and forming those kinds of lines of communication.
Arteta: That would be great. But in terms of distribution deal advice, if you’re lucky enough to be in a position that there is a lot of interest, I would give three pieces of advice. One, definitely try to gauge who is honestly more interested in the film and has a real sincere interest. Two, if there is that kind of interest from several people, talk to the marketing people, don’t only talk to the head of the company, because at the end of the day, the marketing person will have a lot to do with how your movie gets presented to the world, whether it goes out there in the right way. And third, absolutely do not drink while you are negotiating! [laughs] Which will be highly encouraged, because you will have had a great screening, and they take you to the back of a restaurant and start suggesting drinks.
iW: Is that what happened with “Star Maps”?
Arteta: [laughs] No comment. No, fortunately, I did all the drinking and Matthew Greenfield and Jed Alpert stayed sober.
iW: Which goes back to what you were saying, Maggie, that it’s important to have somebody on your side.
Greenwald: Even if you don’t have the money to retain someone, you don’t have to. I think that even for beginning filmmakers, by reading Filmmaker Magazine or indieWIRE or the trades or whatever, they know the names of the lawyers who help negotiate these things, and there’s nothing wrong with making contact or letting them know you’re there. Be aware of who those people are, whether you spot them at a party or whatever. Have their phone numbers so that you can contact them, so that you can drink [laughs]. Because it’s also exciting and nerve-racking.
Arteta: You might not be able to help yourself…
Greenwald: It’s not what we do. I’m not a negotiator, I’m not a dealmaker, no matter how savvy I am, I’m a filmmaker. Also, distributors don’t want to negotiate with the filmmaker because they want to retain a good relationship with the filmmaker. So you want someone else to go in there and do your dirty business. You can talk about wonderful things like how you’re going to market it and what a beautiful poster you’ll make [laughs], how many prints, and all of that.
Arteta: You shouldn’t ever be afraid to say, “It’s time for us to huddle.” Any time, just say, I think it’s time for us to huddle in different corners.
Greenwald: Or to say, “I don’t know, I have to think about it.” Because someone wants an answer right now doesn’t mean you have to give it to them, and if they’re really interested in your film, their interest is not going to go away because you say have to think about it.
McKay: And most of the films that are at Sundance themselves don’t do it at the festival. I don’t know if statistically that’s correct, but I think it might be.
Greenwald: Yeah, I think everybody comes home and then the distributors who are interested screen them over and over again, and confer. The seeds of the deal may be planted, but again, there are just a few of those instantaneous deals that everybody reads about in the paper.
NICE DINNER OR SIX INTERVIEWS?
McKay: I feel like Sundance is a really great place when you have a distributor and you’re
premiering your film there as a jumping-off point, because the world’s press is there. But when you’re not ready to release your film, for me, press is the lowest priority, because most of it is for your own self-gratification — to feel like you’re being paid attention to. People will go and see your movie and they will like it or they won’t and being in some magazine is not going to change that situation necessarily. And so I’d rather have a nice dinner back at the condo rather than running around doing six interviews that I’ll never see when they come out three months from now.
With the three of us, we’ve all made other films, and most of the people in the business know who we are and they hopefully will want to see our films because of that. When it all comes down to it, when Entertainment Weekly runs their coverage of the festival, it’s going to be the Winona Ryder’s, not some Joe Blow indie director with a pair of jeans on.
iW: On the other hand, Miguel said that Jeremy Walker came on board with “Star Maps” at
Sundance which made a real difference.
Arteta: It’s both. Jeremy was very used to going to Sundance, and he has a good relationship with distributors. They’re interested in what he has to say because they know he can frame movies for the press, which is very important to them. They are two very close families, the press and the distributors. They have to work hand in hand. And Jeremy is familiar with both groups and he has a really good eye. I worked on “Star Maps” for four years. Pretty much my friends and my family were all close to disowning me. They were like, “C’mon, finish the damn thing and get over it.” And I sent a cut to him, not really expecting anything to happen, and he called back and said, “This film will get out there, I will represent it pretty much for free, just pay my Xerox copies and help me get it out there.” He told me about the kind of deal that actually did happen. And I was really impressed by how much he could guess the response of the press.
Greenwald: Good, we’re working with Jeremy on “Songcatcher.” I hope he’s as right [laughs] for “Songcatcher” as he was for you.
Arteta: You know, a year and a half ago I went and talked to him before he went last year, and he said “You know, there’s a lot of movies but there’s a little video movie that no one’s paying attention to that I really think is the movie that’s going to get out there.” And he was talking about “The Blair Witch Project.” I mean, he has a great eye.
Greenwald: That’s also a big change. I mean, ten years ago when I went there with “Kill-Off,” I think the only films that had publicists with them were films that had distributors. I think it’s an important person to have.
iW: For first-time filmmakers that might not have money to put towards a PR firm that is so
connected into the industry, what can they do?
McKay: I think one thing you can do now, which may be too late for a lot of people, is show your film to other filmmakers and anyone you know who can cheerlead it.
Greenwald: I agree. Just the fact that a film is in competition, even if you went there with nothing, everybody’s going to go see it anyway. And I think people will start talking about it.
Arteta: It’s always interesting to go to Sundance and see that some movies come with a lot of
buzz, and then they’re not the ones that people are talking about. And then there’s movies that nobody was talking about that suddenly the audience simply brings out.
iW: How aesthetically have each of you moved from your first film to this next film?
McKay: That’s a really hard question. I learned a million things, and I tried to apply them all, and I still fucked up a lot and learned even more now on this new film. I think the one thing that I learned from “Girls Town” was that it was really a wonderful experience to make something that I owned and controlled, and was not being told what to do by anyone else. And so I set about making something that had the same circumstances. No one told us change this, change that, present it this way, present it that way, and that’s irreplaceable. I’m a little bit worried about working in another way. I’ve been kind of spoiled.
iW: Maggie, what do you think?
Greenwald: It’s not a question with a clear answer. “Songcatcher” is my fourth film, and I made my first film twelve years ago, and the development of the craft as well as the growth and change that just happens from living has changed my work a lot. I mean, I’m working a lot in the same way. Even though I made my first film for $200,000, I have made all four films from scripts I’ve written. I’ve had final cut, I’ve controlled the casting, I’ve chosen my creative team, I’ve worked with producers and financiers who are behind me 100%. I feel that I’ve developed enormously on the craft side, and I feel that growth occurred from film to film, but a lot of that growth occurred in the last several years from doing television, where I was able to work completely as a craftsman, and then come to making my own film.
Arteta: I think “Star Maps” had some sense of hope, but I think this movie just celebrates life more. I wish I could say I have grown a lot personally in the last three years, but I think the movie kind of asks that question, because “Chuck and Buck” is very much about people holding on to the past and having a hard time growing up. So I guess that’s an issue for me personally, and the movie is quite personal about that. The two main characters in “Chuck and Buck” represent the kind of person that we like to project to the world, and the person that we are afraid we really are deep down inside of us. And so if people saw the two films, they would say that they are both very personal movies. And I hope people would say “Chuck and Buck” is more elegant and more accurate emotionally at reaching an audience.
FLANNEL PAJAMAS AND LOLLIPOPS
iW: Jim, what is the one physical thing that you’re worried about that you hope gets done before the festival begins?
McKay: One? [laughs] I hope the print shows up. I gotta buy pajamas. [laughs] I want some nice warm flannel pajamas, and I hope I can find the time. I’ve got a million things that we’re throwing together. I wish it were next Friday now, so I could just skip to the screening and just be there.
iW: Maggie, what’s on the top of your mind?
Greenwald: Well, we’re almost finished mixing.
McKay: Oh, my god, Maggie. You haven’t finished mixing?
Greenwald: Tomorrow, we finish tomorrow. So my biggest concern is getting a good print out, because I’m not going to be looking at my composite print until Thursday [laughs].
iW: Miguel, what about you?
Arteta: I have to decide whether we’re going to make these lollipops that say “Suck Buck.”
[laughs], so that’s really weighing on my mind. I can have lollipops with a picture of our star, and so I’ve got to make my mind up about that.