Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Film Festival hosted a number of panels and other events with a wide variety of figures in the film community. In between covering various screenings, indieWIRE attended a few of these public discussions. Here are the highlights:
FilmDistrict Takes the Spotlight
On Saturday and Sunday, the festival hosted a series of conversations at the Downtown Independent titled “Money Talks & Art Matters,” beginning with a keynote address by WME Global’s Graham Taylor. [Full text of the keynote here.]
Later in the afternoon, FilmDistrict co-founders Bob and Jeanne Berney participated in a conversation about their experiences as distributors, with particular emphasis on their newly founded company’s 2011 releases. The couple immediately had the room’s attention when they announced that FilmDistrict’s first two releases, horror movie “Insidious” and drama “Soul Surfer,” collectively grossed $90 million.
Meanwhile, the company’s next two releases are playing at the festival: Fresh from winning a directing award at Cannes, the fast-paced Ryan Gosling vehicle “Drive” received a gala screening on Friday night, while the Guillermo Del Toro-produced haunted house movie “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” will close the festival next weekend.
In conversation with film critic David D’Arcy, Bob Berney explained the specific nature of the movies on FilmDistrict’s slate.
“Although the definition of independent film is all over the place, we’re acquiring films that are either already finished, or in the process of being finished, so they’re independent,” he said. “We have the capability to go wider with these films and have the prints and advertising money to compete on the studio level,” he said.
“The heart and soul of the independent world has always been along the lines of niche films,” Jeanne Berney added. “The beauty of that is that you can take a risk and work with a movie that might not be just a general romantic comedy, and find the audience for it. That’s why there have been so many successful indie distribution companies.”
Other FilmDistrict titles include the film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Rum Diary” with Johnny Depp, and Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey.”
Of the Depp film, Berney said, “We think there are huge compartments of Hunter S. Thompson fans across the country, and then Johnny’s fan base, so it’s a rare opportunity for a smaller company to have these elements available.”
Jolie’s Bosnian drama presents the challenge of getting the movie noticed more than its star director. “It will be a balancing act,” Jeanne Berney said. “It really takes the war to a really personal level,” Bob Berney added.
Filmmakers Talk Money
The second day of the “Money Talks & Art Matters” series began with a panel entitled “The Money Puzzle: Financing Case Studies,” moderated by producer Effie T. Brown. The other participants were filmmakers Alison Anders (in post-production on “Strutter”), Heather Courtney (“Where Soldiers Come From”), Javier Fuentes Léon (“Undertow”), Anders’ producer Kurt Voss and “The Future” producer Gina Kwon.
Brown asked each participant to break down the fundraising processes for their most recent productions. Kwan recalled taking the idea for “The Future” to the IFP market in 2008, but lost investors for the Miranda July-directed project when the economy went south later that year. “It was definitely a long journey,” she said.
Eventually, Kwan managed to finance the entire movie with European investors. A team of German producers backed part of the production, allowing them to apply for federal money. “It was a bit of a sleight of hand because we raised money in Europe and shot in L.A.,” Kwan said. However, she added, “it was a sign of the times.”
The Austin-based Courtney, whose documentary following a group of young soldiers before and after they commit to service in Afghanistan, applied for a number of grants in order to sustain the movie’s four-year production. “Originally, I just had an idea,” she said. “When you’re writing a grant, you make up your story.”
She initially received grant money from the Robeson Fund and the Texas Filmmaker Production Fund, then turned to the Sundance Documentary Fund and the United States Artists when she needed more money. With no distributor for the film, she’s now planning on an elaborate community outreach plan.
Fuentes-Leon, whose Peruvian gay romance played at Sundance in 2010, also turned to Germany for production money after attempts to raise money in the U.S. fell flat. “I was naive about trying to find money here,” he said.
After three years of trying, he got into Berlin’s Co-Production Market, where he met his German producer. At that point, the director began to make serious progress: He originally needed half a million dollars but eventually raised $800,000. “When Europe comes in, the budget goes up,” he said. Other financiers were based in France and Colombia, where investors receive a major tax write-off when they spend money on film productions.
Anders, who first made waves in the independent film world with “Gas Food Lodging” in 1992, spoke enthusiastically about her experience raising money for “Strutter” on Kickstarter. She called the crowdfunding site “an amazon thing I’ve always had an instinct for. It’s basically about getting people to donate money to your projects.”
She offered a number of rewards for donations to the project, turning to high profile friends like Quentin Tarantino, Sonic Youth and Duran Duran to provide special “bags” that donors would receive for their contributions. “I had as much fun doing this as I did making the movie,” she said. Voss added, “We’re against somebody using money to tell you what do with your movie.”
Noyce and Kelly Give Fleisher Some Advice
Elsewhere in downtown Los Angeles, a trio of name directors gathered at the L.A. Live Regal Cinemas for a “Coffee Talk” about their careers. “Donnie Darko” director Richard Kelly moderated the conversation, which also included “Zombieland” director Ruben Fleisher and “Salt” director Phillip Noyce.
Fleisher, whose sophomore feature “30 Minutes or Less” opens this summer, noted the challenge he faces with his next production: “Gangster Squad,” a period piece set in 1949, which is set for an all-star cast topped by Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin. Fleisher began pre-production on the project last Monday.
“The most successful actors are successful because they know their success is reliant on empowering the director,” Noyce told Fleisher. “That group you’ve got, they’re going to empower you.”
Kelly–who is currently developing his fourth feature, “Corpus Cristi,” about a soldier returning from Iraq–recalled working with a 19-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal on “Donnie Darko.” “He’s an old soul and would challenge me on every line of dialogue,” Kelly said. “The more you can invite the actors into the process, the more you can give them ownership of the characters. They can help police you, in a good way.”
Kelly asked Noyce, the oldest of the three filmmakers, if filmmaking “gets better” over time. Noyce answered in the affirmative. “Making movies is like drinking mature wine,” he said.
Julie Taymor Talks Everything But “Spider-Man”
Unlike Fleisher, director Julie Taymor wanted to talk about everything but her most recent project, beleaguered Broadway production “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” from which she was removed as director several months ago. (She did address the experience a few days earlier at a separate event.)
However, in a conversation at the Grammy Museum moderated by actor Harry Lennix, Taymor did make passing references to the media-saturated experience. “I continue to learn on the job,” she said. After a clip that showed Taymor intensely involved with an actor during the rehearsal for “Across the Universe,” Lennix said that Taymor would make a good actress. “Well, I just got fired, so I’m available,” she said.
While her filmed adaptation of “The Tempest,” which hits DVD in September, received negative reviews and made little money, Taymor defended the movie against accusations that it tanked. “We have to stop this mindset of what success is,” she said, a statement that received enthusiastic applause. For her next project, Taymor added, “I want to do a smaller movie.”
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