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The 10 Things I Learned Because of the 2013 IFP Labs


The following is a guest post from Colin Healey, whose film Homemakers participated in the 2013 IFP Narrative Labs.

Just like you, dear reader, I believed the final days of the year 2012 A.D. would end with untold devastation and destruction, brought on by the fateful impact of a thousand mega-asteroids, rampant and untreatable avian pig-SARS, and the appointment of Nazi T-Rex as Speaker of the House.

Certain the end was nigh, I convinced a ragtag posse of artists, actors and sassy interns to spend humanity’s last remaining summer crammed in a sweaty, dusty, tumbledown house on the east end of Pittsburgh, building our dream: a film we called Homemakers. A film we knew, deep down, no human would ever see, not because it was going to suck, but because by 2013, all humans would have been incinerated by invading Venusian death squads.

Imagine the look on my face and my fellow producers’ when we awoke, on the morning of January 1, 2013, to a world unchanged, renewed again for another go around the sun. That day, I jaunted down to my local Cambridge cineplex, grabbed a fistful of buttery popped corn and said to myself, “Oh, shit, this means we actually have to finish that fucking movie.”

Little did I know then that just one small American state away, in a land called Dumbo, a nice bunch of folks had been cooking up a program to help me do just that. By June, Homemakers would be knee-deep in the IFP Narrative Labs.

As 2013 and that year’s three-part, 20-film edition of the labs draws to a close, I’d like to take a moment and reflect on what I’ve learned in the past six labbie months. This reflection will take the form of a top ten list, because there is always exactly ten of something.

1. There is an organization called IFP, and they have something called the Narrative Labs, to help fresh-faced directors and producers navigate the complex world of post-production, marketing and distribution. I was qualified for this, on account of having never directed a feature film before, except for the as-yet-unreleased Homemakers, which apparently sat well with these folks.

2. Bear with me here. You can get something fast and cheap, like, for instance, the Premium Alaskan Fish Sandwich at Burger King, but it’s not gonna be that good, because it’s a just a big frozen fish stick on an “Artisan Style” bun. It does the trick, but, y’know.

You can get something fast and good, like the Lobster Sandwich at Alive and Kicking Lobsters in my home city of Cambridge, but it’s not gonna come cheap, clocking in at $15, although for a sandwich filled with lobster, it’s still worth treating yourself to now and then. You deserve it.

Last but not least, you can get something cheap and good, by finding a big long stick, whittling it into a crude but suitable fishing rod, hiking down to the old crick, snagging a healthy, dim-witted trout, scaling and filleting it yourself, pan-frying it in some fresh-pressed local olive oil, and slapping it between two pieces of home-baked bread, topped off with a crisp piece of lettuce and a slice of tomato from your garden. It’s good, it barely cost you a thing, but it took you like two fucking days just to make a fish sandwich.

You can’t have cheap, fast and good. It’s fish. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

(At the labs this is referred to when discussing post-production services, not fish sandwiches. This is not a fish sandwich lab.)

3. You only have one chance to lose your film’s “virginity.” Thank IFP’s Amy Dotson for this meaty metaphor.

Absolutely make sure you get robust, diverse critical reactions to the work from all the discreet friends, peers and work-in-progress screening series you can manage (try Austin Film Society!). That’s dutiful foreplay in the name of research. But don’t go sending it off to Daniel J. Famousfilmproducer or the Sunny D Superpopular Utah Film Fest until you’re absolutely sure the moment is gonna be special, tender, and just mind-blowing enough that they’ll recommend it to their hot friends.

4. Speaking of the Sunny D Superpopular Utah Film Fest, it’s not the only game in town (literally, because of Slammy D), although, yes, it is the one both grandma and your subway crush have heard of. However, there are so many festivals with outstanding reputations and resources that to put all your chips in the Sunny D or Cannes or SXSW or Toronto bag is just plain foolish. Every film is different, every film follows its own path to success, and, especially if you did not pay any famous people to be in your movie, a smaller festival might be much, much better for you to get noticed.

5. Signing a hotshot deal with a bigwig distributor doesn’t have to be your goal. You might think it’s your goal at the start, but with the way things are changing, it no longer makes sense for most films or film makers.

Distributing a film yourself or paying someone to do it with a service deal is not a sign of loserdom: with bigger and bigger names like Grohl and Carruth taking this knobby path across a fragmented media landscape, an age of strategic diversity is upon us. If anything, taking a road less traveled is a sign that you looked at your goals and your bottom line and made a big call like the baller you are.

Or Fox Searchlight just bought your thing and you’re taking the weekend off. Whatever. It’s all good, if it’s good for you.

6. The Made in NY Media Center by IFP! Completely fucking awesome. But not just because of the snazzy new theater, life-changing workspaces and general good vibes.

Check out the bathrooms. Here is what you will see: boys room is across from the girls room. Normal. But there is no sink and mirror in the boys room. Nor is there a sink and mirror in the girls room. The sinks and mirrors are in THE COMMON AREA IN BETWEEN.

Now, let’s say you’re a person who cares about how the opposite sex perceives you, which is most people regardless of which folks you’re trying to have sex with. You look at this bathroom situation, and you say, “Where will I preen without getting caught preening?” I don’t know the answer to that, preener.

But what I do know is this: Johnny Q. Dontwashmyhands? His days are numbered. He’s walking out of the water closet, thinking “I can’t wait to touch something,” and a nice lady comes out of the other bathroom. They make eye contact. She knows exactly where Johnny Q. has just been. She knows what’s up. Johnny Q.? He washes those damn hands.

The Made in NY Media Center by IFP! Now everyone knows you do that thing to your hair four times a day, but IFP just invented the only safe haven in your urine-soaked New York life.

Oh, and don’t call it the Maid in Manhattan Media Center. They don’t like that, My Producer Dave Schachter.

7. Narrative art does for a community what dreams, the kind you have at night, do for an individual. Dreams allow you to let loose the bounds of what you think you know about the world, and imagine, unrestricted by dumbass local customs, the solutions your stubborn, conscious mind refuses to consider. Sometimes the dream proposes a better way to do things. Sometimes it doesn’t, and your disgust at the dream solution helps you decide between choices laid in front of you the next day. Without dreams, I get dumb and lazy. Without art, we all do.

America as a whole has a tough time with things it can’t quantify in dollars, and industrially-rooted arts-like filmmaking that have emerged during these American times struggle to find the respect they deserve as more than just commodities. American art needs to sell, and to sell more easily, it can’t upset stubborn, conscious minds, but challenging those minds was the point of the whole endeavor in the first place. There’s understandable, historic tension between art and business.

A major component of the IFP Labs acquaints us with the business of cinematic art. When viewed as an industry, this is an extremely crowded, volatile, confusing and frustrating world to try to do business in — and that’s BEFORE you take into account the recent impact of VOD, competing storytelling forms and the exciting but destabilizing democratization of cinema technology. Not to mention the fact that, in the wild, the art and business people don’t always communicate that well about how or why they do what they do.

But the IFP Labs put people on the face of the business, and the communication grows. And the truth is, because it’s such a crazy business to be in, you know these people have to be crazy to be in it. The great kind of crazy. They’re in it for the business-wrong reasons: nobody’s making a billion dollars in indie film. They do it because it’s where they want to be. They know it’s important. They’re here to sneak art into the commoditization system. They’re smugglers.

Sure, sometimes the artists don’t want to do math, and sometimes the business view on things can seem a little crass (see: the recent habit of changing cable VOD film titles to start with numbers to put them higher on the menu), but the truth is, it’s a team effort, art and business. Everybody needs everybody in order to move forward together and steer this world. Hug! Hug.

8. Best lunch I had the whole labs: Fish Biscuit at reBar in Dumbo.

This is not related to #2, because that was about strategizing for post-production, and this one is actually about a fish sandwich.

9. It’s a funky time to be a new filmmaker. But there’s a silver lining.

We know by now that feature films, particularly theatrical ones, are an awkward fit for the Broadband Age, in that they’re only one part of it, and no longer the Buick-sized beefcake centerpiece of a shiny-but-oppressive 20th-century monoculture. But the monoculture, which never really existed anyway, super-doesn’t-exist now, and the unrepentant pluralism that will define our future is gonna be crowded, it’s gonna be diverse, it’s gonna be interactive, and it’s gonna move real fast.

In the future, you and your boss can humanize each other by trading favorite kitten kiss videos on YouzToob, and GTA XIII will make a trillion dollars in the first six minutes of instant brain downloads. There will be people, as there are now, who just don’t really watch movies, only there will be more of them. It’s fine.

Remember plays? The thing where people pretend to be people they’re not, on a STAGE that’s ACTUALLY IN FRONT OF YOU, while you sit there and you’re not supposed to talk? They sure were in for a surprise when talkies showed up and started stealing all the hunky actors and the attention of a nation with more and more cash dollars to throw around. But a funny thing happened to plays when movies started hogging the masses: their relevance diminished, but they still stuck around. And actually, with Hollywood taking on the commercial storytelling pressure, not to mention bringing some new ideas to the table, the plays might have gotten better. And weirder and funner and more aware and important. Go swing by Sleep No More. Then go catch your sweet self some Caryl Churchill action.

Relax, it’s okay. Take a deep breath. Movies don’t have to be king. If you want to be in the center-of-the-universe-big-money art form for the foreseeable future, I wouldn’t flock to Hollywood, and I certainly wouldn’t flock to indie film. In the age of pluralism, I’m not sure there will even be a center, but TV, short-form writing (in a stunning, internet-fueled comeback!), and especially video games, are a good bet.

Meanwhile, a band of scrappy survivors will remain dedicated to the feature-film form, and they will continue to produce meaningful, beautiful, relevant, truthful and personal works of great art, somehow, forever. There will be more and more freedom for more and more kinds of stories. And it’ll continue to be great and weird and most of all, different from what came before, while never forgetting its origins.

Maybe we’ll figure out an awesome way to fit features into the forefront of the culture for an extra century or two longer (maybe stop giving the people what they think they want, and give them what they don’t know they want YET, Apple-style), but no matter what: Things Change. If you don’t like conflict and transformation, movies probably weren’t a great fit for you anyway.

10. Finally, films and their filmmakers are kinda like dogs and their masters. You know, like how a dog always looks kinda like its owner? Humans tend to pick the dogs they “own,” and they pick the one that reflects their self-defined position in the universe, and, what they like to look at, which is basically themselves. When humans pick projects, they make a lot of quick, instinctual decisions over the course of developing those projects, and a lot of unconscious choices seep into the final doggie.

Before the Labs, I had only twice, briefly, met another human besides myself who was dumb enough, on paper, to get into directing indie features. Now I’ve met more than 19 fellow directors. Most, like me, are also their own writers. Features are so massive, complex, and psychological — to know a person and also see their film is a great, intimate joy, one the most meaningful I’ve ever experienced. Each puppy is a floppy, drool-y reflection of all those funny things that make a person who they are. I’m so excited for these films and their filmmakers.

End of list.

Those are my 10, and as I said, there can only be 10, because that’s how learning works.

I feel so lucky to have been included in the 2013 Labs, but I know I must move on and let somebody else have fun working hard with Amy, Dan, Rose, Chantel, Milton, Scott, Jon and all the other amazing Lab leaders and IFPeeps I love.

Thank you, IFP. I can’t play dumb anymore. You’ve prepared me and the Homemakers team very, very well for 2014. Which I’m certain is happening.

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