Saturday, April 30, 2011

Educators and Filmmakers give Students First foothold in the Industry

Building Communities & Embracing New Models

I have never been big on career strategizing. I tend to follow where my passion leads me and trust my gut instincts. After several years and endless meetings on a larger period film ($1.5m - larger in my world), I started to crave the idea of doing something contemporary on a really small scale with the minimal resources that I had immediate access to.

This idea was also sparked by my experience at the Binger Film Lab's Director's Coaching Program in Amsterdam, where I managed to shoot a 10 minute short film in 8 hours with a three-person crew and two actors. This short, 'Billy and Aaron,' part of the larger period film 'Day Dream,' premiered at Tribeca last year and has played 25 film festivals since then. It was a startling reminder of how little was actually needed to make a good film that you could be proud of.

Coming from a documentary background, where I was used to working as a one-man band, it felt very natural to be working this way and would be an asset to certain types of stories. With the experience of shooting the short fresh in my mind, I had been back in NYC for a couple of weeks in the summer of 2009 and was invited to a production of a play called 'The Happy Sad' by my friend Ken Urban. I had seen an earlier reading of the play at Playwrights Horizons and found it genuinely funny and profoundly moving, while also dealing with topics like open relationships, internet hook-ups and fear of commitment that I saw playing out around me in so many of my friend's lives (and my own).

These issues seemed so prevalent within my circle of friends, but were so rarely dealt with in films in any kind of realistic or meaningful way. I immediately saw its potential as a film and when I mentioned that to Ken, he told me he had already begun adapting it into a screenplay. After reviewing each draft and giving my feedback, the third draft really struck home and I knew I had to direct it. It would still need focusing and more revisions to fully transform from the stageplay into a film, but the essence of it was there.

With the finished screenplay in hand, it became time to think about how we would raise the necessary production funds to get the cameras rolling this summer. After a great info session hosted by Yancey Strickland at the Kickstarter headquarters, the idea of crowdfunding started to feel like a viable option. As I walked to the subway with a filmmaker friend, we discussed how difficult it can be to ask for the resources that you need to make work, and that for artists at a certain stage in our careers (beyond emerging, but not yet mid-career), we both had the feeling that we should be pretending that there was enough support from grants, foundations and traditional industry resources to make our films. We needed to get over the shame about the fact that these resources were not forthcoming and start pursuing different models.

I think for filmmakers of color who are not interested in doing genre material, but more focused on pushing aesthetic boundaries while still also being emotionally engaging, the deck is stacked even more against us. Instead of going to the same doors over and over again only to find them closed for the umpteenth time, I decided to utilize Kickstarter to reach the communities that tend to embrace my finished work and actually see it as a reflection of a personal experience that they rarely get to see on screen. In short, I was going where the love was.

A great source of inspiration over the past few months has been the distribution efforts launched by Ava Duverney with her first narrative feature, 'I Will Follow.' Here was a self-financed, microbudget feature with impeccable writing, acting and directing from an African-American filmmaker who decided to stop waiting for someone to give her permission to make a film.

The African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement or AFFRM is the distribution model Ava created with much success by pooling the resources and organizing power of the largest African-American film festivals in the country. It was great to witness the large turnout on her opening weekend to support an independent filmmaker's vision, all fueled by grassroots, inexpensive marketing techniques. It's a new successful, community-based model that works. It got me thinking about how so many of the sources and inspiration for the stories that I tell come from relationships and experiences that I see around me on a daily basis. How could those communities be brought into the filmmaking process to tell alternative and original stories?

With my microbudget feature 'The Happy Sad' centering on alternative, risk-embracing twenty- and thirty-somethings looking to expand "proper" notions of romantic relationships, it seemed like a no-brainer to incorporate these students into a collaborative filmmaking process since they showed similar traits and qualities in their own lives and artistic practice. It seemed like a natural extension of the dialogue that had begun in the classroom with students able to receive course credit for hands-on experience in feature filmmaking. It's a model that merges my roles as an educator and indie filmmaker while also providing students with their first foothold in the industry, working side by side with experienced professionals. It seems like the right production model for this film and exemplifies a lot of the ways that I have been rethinking the means and methods of filmmaking.

I used to pour all of my passion and energy into one project that I would focus on for many years until it got done. As I evolve, I have learned the value of not placing all of your eggs in one basket but having two or three different projects of different size and scope so that I can continue to make work under different circumstances. I think directing skills, like most other skills, atrophy when not put to use, so this is a way to stay nimble and keep exercising those muscles while providing opportunities for emerging film professionals as well.

It is now day 16 of our 30-day Kickstarter campaign and we are 30% of the way there. It's taken 3-4 hours of email outreach per day, plus the help of friends and supporters in spreading the word virally. My laptop and I are closer than ever before and we still have 14 more days to go! I see this effort as larger than myself, though, and it points the way towards more community-based models for filmmakers to use in order to get work produced and distributed.

I recently mentioned this new project to a filmmaker friend. His email response (posted below) made me feel less alone in my quest for new models in the face of an industry that has collapsed, but also never functioned as a support mechanism for our work in the first place:

"I think we came to similar moments, as I'm planning to shoot a lower budget film this summer also, and I just had to put the long simmering project on the side for the meantime. We are too old to wait around forever, and I think we have to be creative daily as filmmakers to figure out how to keep making films."

So here's to an adventurous summer of collaborative filmmaking. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The photo stills above are from the short 'Billy and Aaron,' copyright Rodney Evans.

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