Streaming, Theatrical and Film School: Barry Jenkins, Boots Riley and Aaron Stewart-Ahn at the Miami International Film Festival
Three of current American independent cinema’s most prominent filmmakers recently came together at the Miami International Film Festival to impart some of the hard-earned knowledge they’ve acquired. Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk), musician, activist, and storyteller Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You), and journalist-turned-screenwriter Aaron Stewart-Ahn (Mandy) were honored at the festival as the first trio of guests to be part of the inaugural Knight Heroes masterclass and symposium.
Ahead of their presentations in front of a crowded Olympia Theater in Downtown Miami, the three creators sat down with Filmmaker to discuss a wide range of topics: the recent Spielberg vs. Netflix controversy, their stance on the theatrical experience, the dangers of box office reporting, film school, failure and many other topics were candidly examined during out conversations.
On the Ongoing Netflix vs. Spielberg Debate
I’m a cinema-going purist. I’m lucky, because I live in New York City, so I can see 35mm projection several times a week, and it’s great, it’s beautiful. I love film prints and the way they create scars and blemishes—it’s like a human body, and I love the sanctity of a movie theatre and that experience—but I just no longer see it as indivisibly the only thing that’s there. I grew up in a very small town and did not have access to great movies. I had to save gas money to see movies. Thinking outside of America, I’m really interested in the fact that what’s new—and what Spielberg is arguing against—is a chance to create a much more borderless cinema. I feel the audience out there is really global, and I want for that audience to exist. I’m much more fascinated by a movie existing, and that somebody can instantly access that it without barriers in Southeast Asia or Argentina or Russia.
On the Detrimental Effects of Box Office Reporting
The standard of box office reporting in America has been one of the most disastrous things for the art of cinema of all time. Everyone is talking about metrics, the American critical institution is so wrapped up in box office, and even Spielberg is demanding that—and a few distributors are talking about how—we need movies to report their box office for them to be eligible for Best Picture. I can’t think of a less interesting criterion for a movie to considered “best” by a body of peers than how much money it’s made.
That just isn’t the history of cinema; it completely goes against it. But these companies will do what they will do. In the history of cinema, to me, filmmakers always have to find a way to make things against market forces. It sucks, but it’s the reality. Opportunities are weird and they come your way, and you have to take advantage when they’re there.
I love David Cronenberg so much, and I find it amazing that his earliest films were funded by a bunch of dentists using a tax shelter break that existed in Canada for a few years. That’s the kind of weird thing that leads to a film getting made. Mandy was made in Belgium, kind of for similar reasons involving financing.
On Mandy Finding Its Audience in Theaters
We did not have marketing money for Mandy. We had a distributor who was great, but they just don’t have that apparatus. I can’t speak for Panos, but I was personally blindsided by what happened with Mandy, that it kept selling out these small theaters. I was personally calling movie theaters around the country asking them, “Are you really selling out screenings?” And they were saying, “Yeah.” I just wanted to know, because the reaction we were seeing on social media was so different—we weren’t seeing box office numbers, we were such a small movie, it seemed like no one cared. But there was an audience that didn’t have a movie like that, that’s younger than Panos and I, and now there was a movie like that for them, so they were going to see it in theaters, which is beautiful to me. It made me feel that, even if you have a movie that’s funded in Belgium, if it has some quality that people want to see, there will be a way to see it in cinemas.
It’s difficult and it’s not ideal, but it’s there, and I kind of love that it happens more out of audience demand than anything else. It wasn’t marketing dollars at all. My favorite thing about Mandy was that somebody was posting computer sheet printouts that read, “Go see Mandy at the Vista” around Los Angeles. They were taping them to lampposts around Silver Lake and Echo Park. To this day, we have no idea who did that.
On Never Wanting to Make a Movie Solely Released on Streaming
I want to know how many people saw my movie. I grew up watching movies in theaters, so I want to see it in the theater. I don’t just want to see it in a theater, I want people to experience my film with other people next to them and hearing other people laugh or get startled. Some of the most amazing things I heard were people walking out of my film talking to other people they had never met before, talking about the ideas in the movie. I like the community aspect of going to a theater, and that’s something we shouldn’t give up. It’s also the other reality of, I’m trying to get these ideas out to a lot of people, and if most people don’t go to theaters, I also want them to watch it. I don’t have a one way or the other thing, but I don’t ever really want to do a movie that only goes to streaming.
On the Illusion That Films Get More Viewers on Streaming Services
If you look at Netflix or Amazon, a movie that somebody spent years of their life is just this little square among these hundreds that you pass by, and you don’t even know who gets to see that little square, so it’s kind of just content to bring people in. One of the reasons you pay for Amazon or Netflix is for all the little squares of movies that you’re never going to watch. I’ve got this choice, and all those other little squares didn’t get promotion, you don’t know what they are, you pass them by, but you’re paying because you’re like, “Whoa, there are all these movies on here.” It’s almost like, for some of those films, they’re getting paid off to be that little square to make people subscribe, but not necessarily paid off for people to see the movie. You’ve made your movie, but you don’t know if anybody saw it.
On Getting People on Board Sorry to Bother You
The thing that I did that I think works with anything is the stone soup method, which is, “Hey, this is what we’re making here. Do you want to taste some of it? You’ve got to put your ingredients in if you want to take part in this.” It’s not something where you say, “We won’t make this happen if you’re not involved,” because people have a lack of self worth, so if you’re telling them that it’s not going to happen without them involved, then they’re like, “Oh it must not be good enough, because obviously other people would want to be involved.” How I got everyone on board was by getting little by little, building it up, and letting folks know that this is going to happen, no matter what, and they should be involved.
On the Streaming vs. Theatrical Debate
[When] we think about cinema, it’s only 100 years old, essentially. It’s still very young, and even the modern film industry is also very, very young, so it’s open to evolution, but it’s like, how quickly should it evolve? I think that’s what this conversation is about.
On Always Making Movies for the Big Screen
Nicholas Britell’s score has been played just everywhere, people love it, and one of my followers hit me up and was like, “What’s the difference between the Spotify version of the score and the one in the film?” I wrote him back, “The score is optimized to be played in a theater, so when you hear it in a movie theater, it is going to sound differently than it sounds on Spotify.” We’re taking different things in the mix, and because of the speakers, we are doing different things with it—different wavelengths, different octaves, very subtle things—but I just frame it that way, because everything I do when I’m making a film is about understanding someone is going to be sitting in a theatre with a large screen in front of them and speakers all around them, and that’s to me the ideal experience to engage the work.
I’m not anti-streaming. I’m not anti-Netflix. I’m working with Amazon right now, I’ll probably work with Netflix one day, I’ve already directed an episode of one of their television shows. That’s why I can see both sides of it, [but] I’m always thinking of the theatrical experience. What is it going to be like somebody sitting their ass in a movie theater watching this film? Always. Not, unfortunately, what’s it going to be like for somebody sitting on a couch watching the film? That comes later.
On the Democratization of Filmmaking But Not Distribution Platforms
Now the tools of cinema are very much within the hands of everyone in a certain way. Granted, there are still people that still can’t afford to use some of these tools, but Steven Soderbergh is one of the greatest living American filmmakers, at the very least, and his last film was shot on an iPhone. Now granted, he has access to so many other things: world class actors, lights and things like that, and I believe the budget for High Flying Bird was two or three million. You still need resources to make an iPhone movie, but he did make it on an iPhone.
I made my first film for $15,000 on an HVX200 camera that is not as good as the one on the iPhone. Access to the tools have shifted dramatically. Just to jump into the Spielberg/Netflix of it all, we’re not seeing Netflix come to the Miami Film Festival and give out $100,000 grants to local filmmakers: “Here’s $100,000, make a local film, and we will put it on Netflix.” So this idea of true disruption is not quite there yet, but I do think that, especially being around this film festival for this weekend, you do see filmmakers making things.
It’s a much different feeling than it was eight years ago when I first started coming back here and thinking about making movies. Back then you had to get a lot of machinery together to make a film, and it felt like we were just off in the wilderness, whereas now I’m running into all these kids and they are just like, “I’ve got this short film,” and “I’ve got this feature,” things they’ve actually made. Where those things end up, that’s the question, but I guess that’s where the conversation between Spielberg and Netflix kind of is heading
On How Working at a Film Festival Gave Him Perspective
I’ve worked at Telluride for the last 15 years almost, and in that capacity, I’ve watched a ton of short films, but also I have seen what can happen when some of these smaller films break into this. It’s about exclusivity. It’s almost like when Facebook first came up and you could only get an account if you were at an elite college first, and then if you were at college in general, and then finally they opened it up to the public.
Right now, this idea of what is a feature film, that’s one conversation. What is a film worthy for the Academy Awards, that’s another conversation. Is it one week, four weeks, theatrical, streaming? All of these things are about exclusivity and access, and that is running in direct opposition to the tools of filmmaking, which are now much more accessible than they once were.
Sean Baker made a movie on an iPhone like Tangerine. If Sean made Tangerine now, it would have a reasonable shot to break into the Academy somehow. Now granted, that movie had a proper theatrical release, it wouldn’t fall outside of the guidelines Mr. Spielberg is talking about, and yet it would have been made on this thing, what I call a termite tool, which is the camera phone in your pocket.
Working at festival has opened my eyes to this idea that it’s all cinema, in a certain way—and yet, this is why this conversation is so difficult, because yes, when I make a film, I’m not thinking of watching it on a phone, I’m not thinking about watching it on a iPad, not thinking of watching it on a flat screen, I’m thinking about watching it in a movie theatre, no matter what medium it originated on.
On Engaging with Cinema on Home Video While Thinking of the Big Screen
My first experience at going to the movies as a kid was in theatres, going to the AMC at the Omni primarily, to see Coming to America and The Color Purple and things like that. But as far as my cinema studying, that was all VHS and DVD—even Laserdisc. It was French New Wave on DVD/VHS, it was Wong Kar Wai on DVD/VHS, it was Claire Denis on DVD/VHS, it wasn’t streaming, it was all on really small screens, yet it still seemed inherently cinematic. I also went to film school, and we were taught to make movies that were screened in movie theaters. Even at our film school, because we shot everything on film, we would shoot on reversal film, and so you’d shoot and send it off to the lab and you’d get a print back, cause it’s reversal, and then we would project that in a theater on campus to see our films. So from the very beginning—this is a shout out to Florida State—in the very beginning it was hammered into us that you make a film for the biggest screen possible with as many speakers as possible. On the flip side, Amazon has one of the most amazing screening rooms in LA.
On the Value of Undergraduate Film School
I am a proponent of undergraduate film school, where you get to make things. I can’t advocate for graduate film school, because graduate film school now is very different than graduate film school 15 years ago. For the price of a graduate film school education, you can just go and make a pretty damn good feature film. Not good quality-wise, but aesthetic-wise. There’s, again, access to tools. You can go and make a reasonably well-made feature if you have the skills for the price of a grad school education. Which one is more valuable? I think having the film.
Now, you couldn’t afford a semester at NYU for the budget of Medicine for Melancholy, but it also felt like my undergraduate film school education was so good—not that I learned how to be a good filmmaker, but I learned everything I needed to learn about making films that then I could go out and better myself by making things, as opposed to trying to learn techniques. So I always push for undergraduate film school. The biggest thing to me is that you just meet people. Some films are made by a single person, not many of them, but you need other people, you need collaborators, and I think film school for me was where I found my best, my most fervent, my most loyal, and my most passionate collaborators.
On the Possibility of Failure and Reading Reviews of His Work
With [If Beale Street Could Talk], I remember going to Toronto—I’ll speak openly about this now. I’m pretty active on Twitter, but I try to avoid reviews of my work. The morning of our premiere in Toronto, I got up, and I noticed somebody’s @-ed me, someone said @barryjenkins, and it was like, “Day 4 of Toronto and here are our picks, including Barry Jenkin’s Beale Street.” And I go, “Oh ok, it must be positive if they’re writing @ me.” Then I go, “Let me just dip my toe and see what people are going to think of the film,” so I click on this thing. It’s a local website, and there are four blurb reviews. Three of them are very positive, but it’s a total takedown of my film. My film was used to lead the reviews because it was biggest of the films they were reviewing on that day. And I was like, “Fuck, we’re going to get savaged.”
So that night I introduced the film, then I left, got a couple glasses of wine and just sat there despondent. One, I was like, “Why the fuck did I read that? This is why I don’t read them, why the fuck did I read that.” As a filmmaker, I’m very sensitive, and the voice of one becomes the voice of consensus, so in my head I thought everyone in that auditorium was going to see what that guy saw. His whole thing was, “The movie is too pretty, it’s too beautiful,” and of course, I’ve done no press at that point.
A filmmaker shouldn’t have to explain their reason for making certain choices, but I had a very solid reason for why the film looked the way it did, why it sounded the way it did. So I come back afterwards to do the Q&A, and I’m backstage and I’m like, “Oh fuck, get ready,” and then Regina [King] and Brian [Tyree Henry] come back stage and they’re all just crying, and I’m like, “What’s wrong?” And they’re like, “It was fucking awesome, the screening was amazing.” And we look out from stage, and I could tell the screening was amazing.
So yeah, if I don’t feel like failure is possible, then I’m probably not doing interesting stuff. When I did that episode of Dear White People, I was terrified. One, I don’t do comedy, I’m not the comedy guy, and then I’d never done anything that involved true violence or gunplay in that way. I didn’t get the script until like a week before, and what Justin [Simien] had me do on that show was very intense and very heightened, and I thought, “I’m not going to be able to pull this off.” I was literally paralyzed, and then you get in pre-pro and you just do it. That’s why I’ll probably continue to do this for as long as I can, though I do want to teach. I think that’s what I’ll ultimately end up doing, because I actually went to college for education first, and then somehow stumbled into writing and film. I’m going to end up teaching somebody’s film school at some point.