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12 Tips from James Schamus and Christine Vachon at IFP Film Week

The IFP’s Independent Film Week’s Filmmaker Conference kicked off today, beginning with a case study of Beasts of the Southern Wild and ending with a conversation, moderated by IFP Executive Director Joana Vicente, between producer and Killer Films head Christine Vachon and producer, screenwriter and Focus Features CEO James Schamus. Below are 12 tips from the latter event — advice aimed at producers and, in some cases, anybody else, from two veterans with deep, decades-long roots in the independent community.

1. Consider producing. Christine Vachon and James Schamus are producers, but they both remembered a time when they were not. Christine talked about working various crew positions in the ’80s New York indie scene, and James recalled starting out and realizing that people needed “someone to go out and ask for money.” Schamus remembered that time as a period when everyone wanted to be “artistic.” “Christine and I just decided we wanted to make stuff,” he said, describing their decision to become producers.

2. Turn your limitations into positives. “Philosophically, no budget filmmaking is very different today” than it was in the ’80s, said Christine. “But practically, it is the same — turn your limitations into positives.”

3. Consider your relationship to the dominant culture. The conversation started out with James and Christine remembering the first projects they worked on together: The Golden Boat, Swoon, Poison and Safe. In the ’80s, they remembered, no-budget filmmaking necessitated an almost counter-cultural aesthetic because it was impossible for these films to look like mainstream movies. Now, James said, DSLR production values mean that it’s easier for films to look good — “like good TV.” It’s also easier for films today to uncritically adopt the language of the dominant media culture. Independents should think carefully about whether that’s a good thing for them to do or not.

4. Don’t succumb to bitterness. It’s “easy to get into a bitter vortex” when working in independent film, said Christine. Bad behavior is often rewarded, and watching that happen again and again can cause anger. James noted no matter how successful you are, there will be people even more so. Or, as James Murphy would say, those coming up from behind. It’s important to arrive at a place where bitterness doesn’t consume you. “If bitterness is in your personality, don’t go into [independent film],” said Christine.

5. Don’t bet it all on theatrical features. Christine said that her slate at Killer Films includes not just theatrical features but TV series and web programs. Tying yourself to a feature-film aesthetic will stop you as a director from getting out there, Christine said.

6. Think global. James said that, from a U.S.-vantage point, Focus Features looks like a domestic distribution company. But it’s really an international sales and financing company. That is to say, a project’s potential foreign value is an essential factor when it comes the greenlight process. “If there’s no interest from overseas, it’s tough for us to finance,” said James.

7. Be honest with your directors. Moderator Joana Vicente, the Executive Director of the IFP, asked Christine and James about their long-term director relationships with, respectively, Todd Haynes and Ang Lee. Both Christine and James said it’s important to support directors by not just giving them the tools and time they need but also by telling the truth and giving honest feedback. Christine also noted that period after a first-time director has received some success and is sucked into the world of agents and managers… where blunt, honest feedback suddenly becomes in short supply.

8. Know your director… and act accordingly. When asked to give advice to producers, Christine said, “The only advice I can give is make sure your director is not a psychopath.”

9. Develop your peers. Christine said that at events like Independent Film Week, so many filmmakers strive to get their scripts in the hands of the most powerful people in the room. But when you’re starting out, it’s not really about that. “Find your talented, trustworthy and ambitious peers,” said James. “They’re the ones who will raise you up.” I can’t emphasize how important this advice is. I watched James do this at the start of his career (and was the beneficiary of it too). When James started out as a producer, he built a network of fellow producers, lawyers, sales agents as well as writers and directors. This approach is not something to give up as you get more established either. Christine said that for her these days, when discovering and considering material, “it’s about listening to your staff, your interns and building consensus among your peers.”

10. Know when to wait. One questioner asked a favorite question from the Filmmaker blog: When Should You Give Up? (On a project, that is.) Christine said that when you take a project out for financing you find out quickly how the marketplace values it. If financiers and distributors don’t offer the money you need, you have to think about a lower budget. But sometimes, Christine said, the budget just gets too low to make the film the director intends. If that’s the case, you can give up, or wait. “Sometimes it’s too hard to make it for less,” she said. “But it might get less hard” in a year or two, “as the cultural and business landscape changes.”

11. You need $7,000. What’s the minimum budget needed for a film to be competitive on the festival circuit, a questioner asked. “$7,000,” James replied. That was the in-the-can budget for Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy.

12. Know the new model. There’s a lot of talk out there about new models. VOD, SVOD, PPV, DTO, DTR — acronyms abound. But James ended by talking about the real new model. “The people with the power are the people closest to the consumer dollar,” James said. “The power is moving from the people who distribute to the people with the algorithms.” James, of course, was referring to Big Data and the Information Age companies (Google, Facebook, et al) whose business models are based on it. Every time you click — on a “like” button, or a download link — you are producing, said James. You’re producing “exhaust data,” information about yourself that is then used to market to you and others like you. “Filmmakers need to be aware of this new model,” said James. “Other people are monetizing it now, but they don’t have the same relationship to film culture” as the previous generation of distributors.

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