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in Filmmaking
on Sep 28, 2010

Here’s another report from a part of Independent Film Week that I’ve written a little about, but which is actually a huge—or at least, half—of IFW—the conference.  I previously described the Project Forum situation, but get this—when we were out of our meetings, we had the opportunity to walk outside and around the block to an auditorium where every hour, on the hour, assembled experts, case studies, and assorted panels were weighing on various subjects.  If you’re an aspiring filmmaker and don’t have a project in Project Forum, it would still be extraordinarily worthwhile to get a week pass just to check out the panels; not to mention that there was plenty of meet-and-greeting going on before and after the presentations, both between filmmakers and with the panelists.

By the way, if you don’t already, be sure to check out the Film Panel Notetaker blog; they were in attendance at this panel (and some of our observations therein overlap).  They caught a few other IFW panels as well, and provide some valuable takeaways from these and many other festival and conference panels as well.

On Thursday, I caught “Managing-and Agenting-Your Career”, which provided insight into whether, and when, and why, a filmmaker might want or need an agent or manager.  Filmmaker Magazine editor Scott Macaulay moderated between filmmakers Victoria Mahoney (director of Yelling to the Sky), Rashaad Ernesto Green (director of Gun Hill Road), Matt Porterfield (director of Putty Hill) and agent Josh Pearl of ICM and entertainment attorney Jonathan Gray of Gray Kraus DesRochers LLP.  Interestingly, none of the directors currently has representation, and Josh acknowledged that he’s looking to rep directors, but mostly reps actors, comedians, and writers right now.  Jonathan said that his law firm acts as a partner on productions and provides production counsel, does “soup to nuts” on deals, and represents writers and directors.

So while this wasn’t a cage match, there was a small disconnect–at first–between what the artists do and what the representatives provided; but listening to what they had to say, they eventually came full circle.  Victoria started things off by quoting something that Michelle Satter (director of the Sundance Institute) had told her—“just focus on the work, and they (representatives) will come running.”

Scott posed the question “when is it the right time for representation?”  Matt answered, echoing Victoria’s sentiment, that for him, thus far, it has been more important to concentrate on the work—making his next film.  He also said that the right time to go after representation is when you have a lot of work to show.  This quickly became the theme of the panel.

Jonathan (the lawyer) brought up an excellent point—and I’m paraphrasing here—but when it comes to signing papers, you really, really want someone with a JD after his or her name to take a look at what you’re signing.  It seems like that should be a given, but hearing it out loud is a good reminder of the fact that if it’s a contract, and your first, you should probably have it vetted by someone who has actually seen one before.

Victoria said that she will pick an agent when she has the silence to have the clarity about the decision—which, when you think about it, is just about ideal advice for, say, any decision in life.  She also warned against getting seduced by the “three letter agencies”, and I don’t think she meant the FBI, CIA, and DEA …

Josh pointed out that once you have representation, it doesn’t stop the hustle.  This is something I’ve heard frequently and often—that in fact, once you have an agent or manager, you need to agent your agent, or manage your manager.  The example given to me was that you may have representation, but if you read that a production company just acquired a great novel for adaptation that you would be perfect to write, don’t stare at the phone hoping it will ring.  Get on the horn with your rep and ask him or her to get you in the room to do what you do, hustle yourself an assignment.  As Josh put it, representation isn’t “chill out and wait for the call time.”

Scott described two reasons to look for representation—for help packaging your work, and to get work for hire.  This seems as good a place as any to delineate the differences between an agent and a manager (and any inaccuracies or mistakes are mine alone—feel free to correct me in the comments.)  As I understand it, a manager can represent a writer or director in getting assignments for hire, can help package a film, and can act as a producer on the film (which is why many talent management companies are also prodcos.)  However, a manager can’t directly negotiate contract terms; that’s for agents and attorneys.  Agents can package projects, help find financing, and negotiate contracts, but they can’t come on board as a producer as well.

The panel moved on to a discussion of packaging and the new paradigm of different price points of film; as Jonathan described it, there’s the below $3M, $3-8M, and $8-12M.  He went on to say that even under $12M, it’s going to take more than one “marquee element” (read: name actor) to make the packaging come together.  Representation has the relationships with talent, equity funds, and lines on foreign financing that, perhaps obviously, an emerging low-budget filmmaker does not.  And, Jonathan added, when all these things start coming together, you need a lawyer to be there for all the paper.

Just when you thought the conversation might devolve or evolve into a nuts-and-bolts discussion on how representation supports putting a film together, Victoria stepped up to keep it real, and offered the following:  getting your first film made is the most important thing, and any time spent chasing after representation is time that should be spent finding cast, crew, and money for your project.  She, Matt, and Rashaad all made it clear—get your film made and worry about managers later, if at all—art comes first.

Scott then posed a question at them—what about the “old model” of “one for me, one for them”, which is how folks tend to think about someone like Steven Soderbergh (Oceans Eleven—Thirteen:  for them; The Girlfriend Experience, Che, Schizopolis:  for him.)  Victoria said that’s not the “old model, that’s the only model”—acknowledging that for all filmmakers looking to make a self-sustaining career, there may be a time when bringing one’s vision and storytelling talents to someone else’s project becomes the financially viable way to continue to get your own films made.

Someone said something to the effect of “I don’t know anyone who’s making films that isn’t doing it that way”, to which Rashaad murmured—and I may be misquoting him, as it was hard to hear, but it got a laugh and I think he’s right—“James Benning.”

Scott’s question didn’t get explicitly answered, and I think that what he was getting at was that for a writer/director, having a manager might be the key to landing the “one for them” jobs that enable him or her to have the time/money/connections to get the “one for me” made.  Obviously, this is where a filmmaker panelist with a manager would have rounded out the panel, but that’s a minor quibble in what was otherwise a lively conversation.  And I got the sense that Matt, Rashaad, and Victoria aren’t ready to make one for them quite yet, which might explain why they don’t have representation yet.

That being said, many other filmmakers that I’ve been speaking with either has, wants, or wouldn’t mind having a manager, and indeed, many of us in Emerging Narrative met with managers; but no one seems to be chasing after getting an agent.  For me, a manager could help package my film, produce my film, and steer me to a lawyer when I need one.  And a manager could steer me to hustling up assignment work, which will ultimately be a very big part, for me, of being able to get out of a day job and into a full time career making my own films.  Agents, on the other hand, seem like the province of big gun writers and directors and a more established filmmaker/LA type of thing.  But the filmmaker panelists’ consistent return to the importance of just getting that first feature made resonated deeply with me as well.

Scott brought up that even established filmmakers are hustling their hearts out to get work these days, showing up with full presentations ready when meeting with producers or studios.  He said he had heard that Sam Mendes showed up to a get the job for the Wizard of Oz reboot with a full presentation package.  The point being, if Sam Mendes is hustling for a job, you can bet that having a body of work and a clear vision is important.

Victoria described some of the ways in which she manages her own career—by “becoming a detective”, and asking everyone about their films, writing down names of crew people she likes when scanning the credits of a film, and when, upon getting a “no” from someone she has asked for help or support, she asks for the names of three other people who might be able to help her instead.  She also said that besides just being a business hustler, she’s an “ear hustler”—yes, that means listening to everyone and everything around you in order to learn, and yes, that got a laugh from the crowd.

If someone came to this panel hoping for insight as to how to land representation, the answer wasn’t going to be “write a good query letter”; an audience member asked if the reps even read query letters, and Josh said that if somehow an e-mail opened itself in front of him and he couldn’t avoid it he might look at it, but that almost all clients come in on referrals.  The subtle point being … you guessed it:  do the work, make the films, and someone will refer you.

(For those of us in Project Forum who met with managers, quite literally, the IFP referred us.  And it’s not like I know of anyone who got signed during a meeting; it will all still come down to what the managers think of our work.  Another thing I’ve heard about managers is that they aren’t interested in a writer who has written one great script; they’re interested in writers who have written a great script, and maybe a few more, and have several great ideas percolating.)

Jonathan said that part of his responsibility as a lawyer is to guide his clients, and that a first time filmmaker might rightfully be trepidatious when first dealing financiers or the business side of the house.  He then echoed the day’s theme, saying that when meeting with money people, “you need to have the body of work”; Josh agreed that “you need to have done things.”  And in one fell swoop, the agent and the lawyer met the directors back where it all began, in collectively agreeing that while representation may at some point be important for an emerging artist, what is almost always most important is making the art, and getting the film produced.

For a panel about representation, I walked out of that room excited to get back to writing, directing, planning my next script, and ear hustling.  And then, perhaps, as Michelle Satter told Victoria, they will come running.

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