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in Filmmaking
on Oct 3, 2010

I now have a full week’s perspective on what happened at Independent Film Week as part of the Emerging Narrative section; what I learned, who I met, follow-up completed, what I might have done differently, and a new sense of where I’m going.  If you are considering applying for next year, or lucky enough to have gotten in, hopefully this will be helpful.

The best place to start, and usually the best place to finish, is with gratitude.  I’m grateful to IFP for having selected my project; to the IFP volunteers, who with smiles and patience steered us around for the week; for the IFP executives (Amy, Quentin, Rose, John, Dan, Danielle and Susan) who operated throughout the week with what seemed like one sole purpose:  to help me and my fellow Project Forum participants get the absolute most out of our week; to meet as many producers, executives, etc., as possible; and to support us in any way they could.  (I guess that’s three purposes, but they pulled it off with great unity.  And I know there are other IFP folks who were working hard as well; these were the ones I met and interfaced with daily.)

IFP created a safe little cocoon for us to put our work out to the professional industry.  And if you know anything about “the industry”, this is not common.  I am unafraid to say that if I submitted a query letter politely describing my script, and requesting a response as to whether or not the producer would want to read it to ninety percent of the companies with whom I met, I would not have gotten any answer.  If you’re not in the industry, that might seem rude—they wouldn’t even respond?  It’s not rude.  It’s the movie business.  (I may be wrong, perhaps they would have said, sure, send it, sounds great, if I had been capable of even locating contact information for most of the producers and development execs with whom I met … but I doubt it.)

The film industry runs on referrals.  A good piece of work, be it a script, short, or feature, is seen by someone who likes it, likes you, and offers to refer you to his or her contacts.  It’s a granular process (until you get a professional on board, like a manager), and takes a lot of knocking on different doors, networking, and luck.  IFP did this for us.

If you’re considering applying to Project Forum, it should be no surprise by now that I say you absolutely must do it; I suggest it is worth more time than one hundred query letters to producers or production companies or management companies or whatever else you think you might do.

Some takeaways…

The look book: I wrote about this briefly before, but being attached as the director, I thank Quentin again for the recommendation to have a look book.  If you are going to Project Forum as a writer/director, make a look book.  Spend a few bucks and make it glossy.  It’s my experience in life that people take you as seriously as you take yourself.  Have it available as a .pdf for the producers who won’t want to take a physical copy.  Have about half as many hard copies as meetings (I gave away six, for about fifteen meetings.)  It’s my sense that as the required budget increases, the desire to bring an established director aboard to protect the investment and push the would-be first time feature director aside (with the solace of simply giving you your big shot at being a produced writer) will increase.

That may prove to be the right choice for me or for you at some point, but right now, I’m the director.  Stack the odds in your favor and show them that you’re serious right out of the gate, that you have an aesthetic vision and that you see this film in a unique way, and make them see it that way.  It should be no surprise that the other filmmakers I met who were attached as directors and had a strong clarity of vision had done the same thing.

The buddy system: If you’re not a co-writer, and don’t have a producer attached or a built in network/mafia, make friends, make ‘em fast, and give as much or more than you get.  It would be lonely and intimidating to be alone in the Great Hall shuffling from meeting to meeting without knowing anyone else, not having the benefit of their perspective, and not putting out the good karma of sharing.  I got lucky and met about a half dozen other Emerging Narrative filmmakers on my first day with whom I traded notes and leads throughout the week.  This made my experience a shared and communal journey as opposed to a bewildering wander through the woods.  Put yourself out there, and remember that other filmmakers’ succeeding is success for all filmmakers.  If you meet a great producer or snag an e-mail, share it.

Short films: As I’ve mentioned, I have a new short film which is thematically and aesthetically relevant to my feature (character driven crime drama, estranged fathers, flawed men, etc.)  Again, as the director attached to my crime drama, it felt extraordinarily helpful to be able to refer to this work.  It never occurred to me until I was there selling myself and my “brand” that the commonality of themes and genre would be valuable.  The feature script is by no means an expansion on the short; the feature is undercover border crime saga, the short is an inner city gang story; but they are of a piece.

On another previously noted subject:  it’s about seventeen minutes long.  Maybe a detriment on the festival circuit, but I was grateful to be able to tell producers:  I shot on Super 16 so I would know what working on film was like; I made a long short because I wanted to show I could manage multiple characters with individual arcs, with both a major plot and subplots, across a dense narrative, in multiple locations.  Maybe I could have made a cute four-minute short that would get into dozens of festivals; instead I made something which hopefully showcases the ability to carry a feature length narrative.  I have no empirical proof or data to support my thesis, but it feels right and we’ll see what producers think.  This might be worth considering as you prep your next short with an eye towards directing features.

Everyone with whom I met was willing to look at my short, though perhaps surprisingly, they all wanted a link to it instead of a DVD.  I had to call my editor in California and get him to post a medium-sized link as soon as possible; he had previously posted a huge (high resolution) link, which when checked out on a friendly fellow filmmaker’s Macbook proved to be too big for the screen and a bear to load.  So being a great guy, he got the medium sized link posted quickly, but I should have checked that out first.  Further, I should have had a bunch of DVDs with me.  I don’t know if they would have been taken—as with the look book—but surely some would have, and that’s really the best way to show off a film shot on Super 16, so lesson learned there.

Tools: I made do with an iPad with a Bluetooth folding keyboard, though attachments and cutting and pasting were a little wonky; if you have a laptop, bring it.  Business  cards are a given, and early in the week I learned the cool move:  keep a bunch of your own cards in the back of the IFP badge holder, and slide your new friends’ card inside the inner pocket, to be sure not to lose them.  (It occurs to me that my usage of “cool” is really subjective there, but hey, it worked.)

Follow up: I’ve contacted everyone with whom I met with a polite e-mail saying thanks for the meeting, and as appropriate, included my script, look book, and the link to my short.  Festival programmers or non-producer contacts got a thanks, and folks who were referenced in a blog post got a link.  Basic stuff, but I made sure it got done quickly.  With other filmmakers, I’ve traded scripts, become Facebook friends, and intend to stay in touch.  Additionally, I’ve used the bump from being part of Emerging Narrative as a selling point in the errant cold e-mail to companies that I’ve long admired.  As I said earlier, most cold queries don’t get opened, according to personal experience, urban legend, and Josh Pearl, but I figured with the IFP name drop it might get a response.

The future … So where does this leave me?  Well, I’m super excited about the future, whatever it may hold.

I may not attach a producer or manager because of last week.  Of course, I hope I do, and given my druthers, I’ll be on set in El Paso next summer with someone I met last week; we’ll see.  What feels so wonderful and fortunate now is that I have been, thanks to IFP, introduced to the industry.  I have met people ranging from standalone producers, to other filmmakers, to development executives for major actors, to major festival programmers.

I have followed up with everyone I met with, and, I think it is safe to presume, I am now on their radar.  As they say in the industry, they will now “track” my work.  I’m looking forward to what my e-mail inbox will hold in the weeks and months to come … polite “not for me’s?” … excited “let’s meets?” … fraudulent foreign investment and “personal growth” opportunities? … some combination thereof … ?  We’ll see.

This script, and my short, may not get into every festival and lab that I want them to, and my feature may not go into production as quickly as I would like; but the contacts are made.  There is a road, and I am now on it.  This cannot be bought; IFP gave this to us.

I will be forever grateful to IFP as an organization, the particular individuals who supported me, and the producers who took time to meet me and requested to see my project.  Grateful to my new friends, with hope that together we’ll move on to more IFP programs and eventually start seeing each other around the festival circuit with our features.

And for all the wonderful and realistic talk about the business, and branding, and selling, and packaging throughout the week, I came home inspired to simply write. Inspired to take another crack at a script that I had been puzzling through.  Inspired to make another short, just to have something to direct and to work with actors again.  The work is what got me here in the first place, and the work is what will get me forward, more than anything else.  The joy and excitement of this week have inspired me to create even more.

Finally, I’m thoroughly grateful to Scott Macaulay for letting me blog (and blog, and blog) here; as he knows, I discovered the second issue of Filmmaker Magazine on a news stand during a college trip/vision quest in Santa Fe in January of 1993 and haven’t missed an issue since; this magazine is a roadmap, a teacher, and an inspirational guide.  Being allowed to share this journey through this magazine’s website has been an incredible privilege.  I hope you’ve found it helpful, inspiring, or at the least, entertaining.  Thanks for reading.

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