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in Filmmaking
on Feb 6, 2010

In the new issue of Filmmaker, Esther Robinson penned “The Big Art/Little Debt Plan,” which discusses the relation of filmmakers to risk, their films, and their money. She reached out to several filmmakers by email, and their responses helped shape her article. We are running several of the responses Esther received here on the blog. Here is Jonathan Goodman Levitt’s.

What strategies did you employ to stay no/low debt during your production?

I’ve had to take on a lot of more roles myself than would be ideal for the film, or for me personally. Life has been pretty much on-hold during the course of making this film, which has been an ongoing struggle. I had a colleague/friend shoot a few interviews so that I could focus on engaging with subjects, but was a one-man-band on over 90% of shoots out of necessity, which sacrificed some sound and picture quality overall. And it makes it all a more lonely process than I’d like it to be. There are benefits on shoots themselves in terms of intimacy and ease of scheduling — and you’ll see that in real terms at times in the film — but on balance it would have been better for me and the eventual film to have at least one colleague involved consistently.

Because it was also going to be a long production — 2-3 years shooting, with an overlapping edit that I knew would last over a year in all — producing on my own was a separate issue that was more consequential than working alone on shoots themselves. It would have taken a lot of time pressure off me if someone else was helping to schedule and finance everything. But there wouldn’t be money to pay someone unless they were able to raise more money than I have; so it’s unclear whether this was the right choice or not. In the recession especially, financing has become a lot more time-consuming than it would otherwise be; so to keep from sinking too far into debt (which I know from experience on a previous feature, which luckily sold to BBC Storyville and others in Europe — a rare happy ending 7 years after production began) the process has also taken longer. Instead of everything happening at once, I’ve taken time away from directing or editing to spend time financing — for instance, going to a European festival or market followed by a couple of other trips within Europe for meetings — and our schedule has shifted rather more than I or already invested broadcasters would like.

In what ways did it effect your production positively? Negatively? Did it change your attitude or options going into post? fest circuit? distribution negotiations?

(With reference to above) The time and effort it’s taken to raise money has been more than I would have dreamed with what is in fact a ‘sale-able’ film, and increasingly bad as the recession has hit public broadcasters internationally — so it’s certainly affected our schedule. Having to take time to raise money made meetings deadlines for Sundance and Berlin an impossibility, and meant that we wouldn’t be competitive for premiering at top festivals until later in 2010. Having less money has also meant that I’m editing on my own, which is less than ideal and has the same delaying effect. Even now, we are at the mercy of a handful of people, who may well decide whether the film can be finished by late Winter, early Spring, or later. In past years, I might have been more optimistic about sales prospects following completion — whether those ideas were realistic or not — and might have been willing to take greater risks financially. But with sales prospects clearly diminishing, I have to be more conservative in how leveraged my company becomes; unfortunately have to disappoint broadcasters by delivering later than we would all like; and have to sacrifice what might be better festival launches for the film because I need to spend more time raising money, in the knowledge that it is worth more to buyers before it is done than after. On the positive side, we will have a better film in the end; but it would have been better had it come out earlier, so this too cuts both ways.

The ideal world probably only existed for less than 1% of filmmakers before the reality check of the recession, but when I started this film I was shooting for that sort of happy ending. Mid-way through the goals became more modest — namely, making a strong film that would last; having a lot of people see the film; and not ending up in debt like the last time. And I think we have more than a 50% chance now at meeting those relatively modest but by no means small goals. We’re looking to be the film that provokes and promotes intelligent dialogue surrounding the 2010 US midterm elections too, and the film aside, we’ll still need a good portion of luck to achieve this new definition of success.

How will this approach effect you going forward?

I think I’ll be hesitant in the future to go into production on an observational documentary that follows characters over time. This type of film is my passion, and the motivation for naming our company Changeworx in fact, but being a third-funded going into a years-long shoot isn’t something I’ll probably take on again for a long time. A more contained shoot might be different, and so this experience will probably lead to less ‘ambitious’ work in the future, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. American filmmakers in general have a habit of being too ambitious, even when making ‘small’ films that are essentially about domestic life as I do, and some scaling back is probably good.

And for me personally, I’ll be working for other people more in specific roles rather than taking close to 100% of my time to work on my own films. This shift has already happened as I’ve been helping produce and finance a film for other directors that’s being made for ZDF/Arte. Manageable involvement in others’ work is certainly more fulfilling and predictable in terms of both commitment and reward.

What limitations/possibilities could you see it having for other filmmakers?

I think the recession is going to make people more realistic overall, which (again) isn’t a bad thing. Maybe there will be less films made in the coming years for the first time since production became so “cheap” because anyone could afford the basic tools even before they knew what they were going to do. And I think the recession is already having an impact on creating community within the industry…struggling is more common, and therefore cooler to share in a way, and you can see that happening in meaningful if also less meaningful ways… — Jonathan Goodman Levitt

Jonathan Goodman Levitt is a documentary filmmaker who also works as a cameraman, editor, journalist, and teacher. In Spring, 2010, he will finish Follow the Leader, a coming-of-age story about three conservative teenage boys growing up during a time of “change” in America, for Channel 4, VPRO, & SVT. His company Changeworx has a second film currently in production with Germany’s DreamTeam Media, Rebel with a Cause, about the Chilean eco-conservation work of American former clothing magnate (founder of Esprit & North Face) Doug Tompkins. Jonathan’s last film, Sunny Intervals and Showers (2006), played festivals including Sheffield, Chicago, & One World; aired on BBC and other European channels; and was nominated for Grierson & Mental Health Media Awards. Other credits include consulting on Best Documentary Emmy-winning BBC Series The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive featuring Stephen Fry, effects editing on art installations, and short films. Jonathan studied psychology, painting & political theory at Stanford before a Fulbright Scholarship allowed him to attend the UK’s National Film and Television School (NFTS) in 1999. Native to New Jersey, he moved “home” to New York from London in 2008.

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