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The Microbudget Conversation

We're Only Talking a Few Thousand Dollars by John Yost

The Microbudget Conversation: What Are The Festivals Good For ?

Sorry to all for the week off. A little festival called Sundance was happening, and this column would have been lost in the hustle and bustle. PLUS, I’ve become agoraphobic after editing Orphaned for three weeks straight now. I no longer possess social skills and hygiene. (But the movie looks good so far!) After our second article posted, Blake Eckard contacted me and thought I needed to talk to someone ASAP. It could only be one person, Jon Jost (pictured below). Jon is one of Blake’s favorite film directors and he is a legendary indie filmmaker. It was a no-brainer. But what did he want to talk about? Jon (who’s last name is eerily similar to mine.) was on his way to premiere his latest film Imagens de uma cidade perdida at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival, and had festivals on the brain. He sent me his thoughts on festivals in general and I’m sharing them below. Jon raises some great questions, critiques, and suggestions just in time for the aftermath of Sundance 2011.

Jan 23, Amsterdam.

In a few days I’ll be going to Rotterdam (all the way from Amsterdam where I’m visiting a friend from very long ago). In the last weeks I’ve been bombarded with festival things sent with the best of intentions, but to the wrong person. These are requests from the Rotterdam staff for publicity things, posters, information for distributors, and all the things that say “your film is a commodity.” Unfortunately, or perhaps from another view, fortunately, it is not. I won’t raise a finger to promote it, sell it, find a distributor, or otherwise try to shovel warm butts into seats. So a few desperate newbie distributors who sent feelers and offers to sell will be disappointed. I won’t.

Not that long ago, for someone like me, festivals, or some festivals, represented a tangible something that might lead to another tangible something — say, for example, exposure to people who might want to take a shot at distributing your film. This of course still goes on, but not for the kinds of things I do. It goes on only for things that have some apparent commercial value, which generally would mean very conventional cinematic handling (within which I would include some of the supposedly more daring indies of the moment, such as Kelly Reichardt, or the golden oldies like Jarmusch), and which perhaps have a (falling?) star on board, and a narrative about, oh, falling in/out of love, stealing or killing, and things like that. Or inane adolescent comedy. Or all of them together. Twenty years or so ago there was still a little niche available for films that didn’t fit this mold, and it was possible to eke out a very minor living inside that little pocket. No more. If that pocket exists anymore it is a free download on some obscure film nut Internet thing, but no money goes from it to the filmmaker. To my awareness about five or six of my films can be seen that way.

So what good are festivals now?

The bigger ones — like Rotterdam, or Berlin, or Cannes — remain places to see and be seen, though the narrowed “market” crimps their utility unless you are part of the Euro (or increasingly also Asian) government film funding scams, in which films are made of modestly sizable budgets (up to a handful of million bucks), which show on publicly funded television, and have little subsidized theatrical releases, and for the most part lose (a lot) of public money. But those inside the system get to live the fabled film-world life, one of relative ease for the professionals who more or less get to do what they want to do, get paid nicely for their bother, and while often “left” in their politics manage to square their circle and justify skimming the public coffers for films the taxpayers generally have no interest in seeing. One by-product of this system happens to be a lot of really bad pretentious films made under the government’s blind pursuit of “culture” to ship around the world under the national flag.  So those films festivals in a way provide a raison d’etre: you gotta show those films somewhere, and festivals are the place. Perhaps the current austerity requirements will soon put an end to this kind of cinema, which of course some critics and filmmakers will lament, though a cost-benefit analysis would maybe be in order, and axing this luxury would make sense. Most nations have far more urgent social needs than making artsy movies that please a handful of critics and spoiled filmmakers.

For those not connected to such a system, and who make genuinely “independent/non-commercial” films, festivals have devolved into the exhibition circuit.  With one little hitch: you don’t get paid, and in fact for most, to enter and roll the dice on the chance of being screened, you must pay an entry fee. These have bloated substantially and for many younger filmmakers prohibitively so. And, since there is, unless your film is really more commercial than really “independent,”  no follow-up market, the reality is that festivals have become a kind of vanity press. Nobody will publish you (because you are unknown, have no commercial chances or track-record, or make lousy work) so you pony up the entry fee, roll the dice, and if lady luck smiles, get to show your film to 50 or 500 people. Once upon a time you might have gotten a nice write-up in some cultural rag or newspaper, but that too has fallen under the guillotine of our commercialized world, so getting that is not likely. You will get a pat on the head, and perhaps some people will gush “loved it” and others will tell you they could do better, of course. Then you can go home, make some home-burn DVDs and post them to the dribble of buyers that might be interested. You better be “independently wealthy” or have a side job.

A glance at Without A Box’s list of festivals shows that more or less there’s a festival somewhere in the world almost everyday, and to every little taste and inclination, be it cats, S&M, animation, dance, or anything else you can think of. Most of these ask an entry fee, and most of them are utterly worthless to the filmmaker. Their only value exists for their organizers, who presumably make some kind of living for their bother, and perhaps, just like many filmmakers who get into such festivals, delude themselves that it is a meaningful activity.

After 40-plus years of going to festivals for me they are something to put in perspective, to be seen for what they are. Today, for most people they are a vanity press thing, whether they realize it or not. They are a way to get a little pat on the head, a little recognition, and a trip to some place they may or may not want to visit. For some they are a place to delude one’s self that there will be a deal around the corner, the brass ring will come your way and…  These people are trying to make commercial films, whatever art rhetoric they lace it with. Or they are utterly out of touch with reality. For some others, who in no way try to please the commercial market, they are about the only exhibition system left (outside a handful of museums and film archive settings, and, of course, the pirate Internet).  I fit into this category, and for me a festival represents airfare and a hotel a few days, the chance to see some friends and their work, to show my work to a few hundred people (if lucky) and that’s it. I know I will sell nothing, nor do I try. I really don’t care at all about the pats on the head, the “love it” or “hate it” of the spectator. I guess you could say I am a cynic about it all.

As I was leaving from Seoul for this trip, of course I got a handful of notes from friends and others saying “congratulations” and wasn’t I excited to go, and the usual things people say, thinking you must be kind of like them. To me though it is like taking a very long and exhausting bus trip that is not remotely “exciting.” And after 45 years of filmmaking, to think this is kind of the maximum social pay-off, well, I don’t really feel very much to be congratulated on. I know I make things of an extremely marginal social importance, and what — especially under the current climate of the glorious Free Market Economy religion, wherein the value of all things is defined solely in fiscal terms — is essentially worthless. I guess I’ve been around long enough to just shrug my shoulders and accept that in this world, that is indeed the case in this moment.

So I’ll be pleased to see a few friends in Rotterdam, Nathaniel Dorsky and his newer films, and Michael Pilz and not sure who else is going to be there. And run over to Den Haag and see the gorgeous Vermeers and Rembrandt self-portraits and other things at the Mauritshuis museum, not to mention some other things in Rotterdam.

— Jon Jost

Whether or not you align yourself with these sentiments, or find them incredibly depressing, Jon still brings up some great points. Can non-commodity filmmaking stand a chance in the shifting tides of our industry? Conversely, do the people who see film solely as a product also have a place in the new system we all seem desperate to build? I think this viewpoint is a nice juxtaposition to this year’s Sundance. From where I was sitting in Upstate New York it seems that this year was no different in offering a slew of “indie” dramas, documentaries, and fresh faces, but one thing I kept hearing was…the drought in acquisitions is over. A film about adolescent love won the Grand Jury; A film that seems almost tailored made for the prize. Shot on the new technology about two 20-somethings and their relationships…perfect! (I haven’t seen it yet so I’ll save anymore judgment, but it’s not peeking my interest so far.) BUT, it was Kevin Smith’s 30-minute monologue that seemed to take front stage as well as line up nicely with Jon’s thoughts. Kevin showed Red State to buyers with the promise of an auction, and then sold it to his side endeavor SModcast for 20 dollars. It seems as if he wants to lead a revolution in how we get our stories to an audience, but some folks said it was just plain waste of their time. (I think everyone just needs to chill out…Kevin is right…studios have been “wasting” my time for years. It’s just a movie folks.) I watched the video that’s all over YouTube and thought one thing. Sounds great Kevin…just one problem for the rest of us and this new model…you’re fucking Kevin Smith. Now if this starts a new world order that includes people no one’s ever heard of…I’m all ears. However, if it’s just a stunt to sell your own movie…then leave me out of it. It’s fine if that’s what you want to do, and in this day and age…new ideas are always welcome. However, just don’t lie to me and tell me I’m coming along for the ride. That idea was also thrown in at the end of the speech, and its validity is totally in question.

Kevin Smith (Again…)

But before we all start getting that script ready to send to Kevin we may want to consider is that this model is really for the 4 million + folks…not us micro-budget filmmakers. In the past few posts we’ve mentioned gatekeepers, and the lack of them. (Or the lack of accessible ones for us self distributors) I certainly agree with Kevin’s stance that it shouldn’t take five times the budget in marketing to “buy” an opening weekend or interest in your film. But did Kevin shoot himself in the foot for any future projects? If he really wants to help us all make our films…is that going to be tough in the future if people are turning their backs? I’m not a buyer for a studio, nor am I an investor…those are questions for them to answer. Just like the economy, something has to change now if it’s ever going to get any better. I just wonder if this is the new touchstone, or a great idea for someone who already has a huge audience. Your thoughts?!


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