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in Filmmaking
on Nov 30, 2008

I moderated a panel this rainy Sunday afternoon in New York with the five nominees for the Gotham Breakthrough Director Award: Lance Hammer (Ballast), Dennis Dortch (A Good Day to be Black and Sexy), Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy), Antonio Campos (Afterschool) and Alex Rivera (Sleep Dealer). I’m not a big fan of reading (and writing) panel conversation blow-by-blows, but it was a good talk and some interesting contrasts and comparisons between the directors emerged during the conversation. I’ll note them here.

1. Independent films can take a long time to make. Four out of the five directors spend several years conceiving of, financing and making their movies. The exception was Jenkins, who conceived of Medicine for Melancholy in April, 2007 and was shooting several months later. But both Rivera and Hammer spent nearly ten years before they got to make their films, although, for Hammer, much of that time was spent working on another, more conventional (i.e. $5 million budget, name cast) film. When Hammer moved off that film he was able to take some of its financing with him to make Ballast. Rivera, who was one of Filmmaker‘s 25 New Faces in the year 2000, described a long, multi-year development process during which the script got worked and reworked. Eventually, he said, producer Anthony Bregman sent the project out the same day to a dozen financiers, multiple offers ensued, and one person, who Rivera described as a billionaire banking and real estate investor out of England, put up the film’s budget.

2. Production approaches are malleable. Hammer described wanting to make Ballast with a small crew of 15 or so so that he could retain the flexibility to work with a loose shooting schedule. Jenkins worked with a crew of less than half of that, did not use an a.d., but, due to his own year spent working at a studio for a director, knew how to create a schedule and day out of days and replicated the discipline of a studio shoot on his own small scale. Campos also adhered to a more traditional production structure while Dortch, whose film consists of six vignettes shot over many months, downsized his crew after the first shoot, realizing that a tiny group suited his needs best. As for Rivera, well, he had a crew of 100 in Mexico, and he described the shoot as a stressful period during which a few crew members tried to make his life miserable.

3. Every film has a creative spark. For Hammer, it was visiting the Mississippi Delta. For Dortch, it was the title of his film, which he came up with before he even knew what the stories would be. For Rivera, it was the bigger ideas and themes of his film. For Campos, it was his observations about teens and viral video. And for Jenkins, it was his viewing of Claire Denis’s Vendredi Soir and his thinking about turning the “one-night stand” movie into a “morning after” movie.

4. Diversity is easier to realize on screen than in the audience. I observed that all five films feature as characters people who are outside of the narrowly considered typical specialty-film audience, and I asked if the filmmakers had thought about how to make their film attractive to viewers resembling their characters. Hammer admitted that this is a problem, but he cited several non-theatrical screenings in universities and other venues in which a more diverse audience attended. He said it was hard to get bookings in, for example, commercial theaters in the South, not because they didn’t want films with African-American characters but simply because they didn’t book arthouse pictures. Dortch, whose film is opening this Friday in Los Angeles from Magnolia Pictures, says theater selection (The Bridge) was important in seeking an urban audience, and that his distributor has bought radio ads hoping to attract not just arthouse viewers. Jenkins admitted to not really thinking about his audience. His protagonists are African-American, his influences are European, and he says he’s not sure how different groups will be targeted in the marketing by IFC. Campos, whose film is without a distributor, bemoaned the lack of imagination among theatrical marketers, remembering the days when the Pi image was stenciled all over town and helped build a grass-roots anticipation for the film. Finally, Rivera said that his distributor, Maya, is releasing Sleep Dealer on 40 screens in L.A. this Spring and is hoping to use its science-fiction elements to make it seem like a big movie while also targeting the audience for Spanish-language film.

5. You can work at self-distribution… or not. Hammer discussed the year of his life spent distributing Ballast — a year in which he is not making his next movie. Jenkins, who is signed to CAA, admitted that participating more deeply in his own release is not his thing. He’s hoping to movie on to another feature soon.

6. You can use an industry recognized sales rep… or not. Hammer’s film was sold by William Morris, and Celluloid Dreams has come on recently for foreign sales; Rivera’s by UTA and attorney Andrew Hurwitz in the U.S. and Fortissimo abroad; Dortch used attorney Steven Beer; and Campos used The Co-production Office for foreign and Submarie for domestic. Jenkins, however, was turned down by the usual suspects for his film and used a local San Francisco attorney he was happy with.

7. There is no one shooting format for a first feature. Ballast was shot on Super 35mm; A Good Day to be Black and Sexy on mini-DV; Medicine for Melancholy on HD; Sleep Dealer on Super 16mm; and Afterschool on 35mm anamorphic.

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