Hope for Film Author Ted Hope on Life, Independent Film and Systems Reboots
Ted Hope — producer, Good Machine co-founder, and now CEO of Fandor — is no tongue-tied wallflower in the independent film community. Indeed, his passionate commentary, counsel and editorializing on topics ranging from net neutrality to making better films to a “systems reboot” of the independent film economy seem to be everywhere these days. But while his website, Twitter account and frequent speeches at industry events may make it seem that his opinions have been enabled — or at least turbo-charged — by this current social media age, he has, in fact, been lobbing list-driven rhetorical broadsides for years. (Don’t believe me? Read his “The Death of Independent Film” published in this magazine in 1995.)
So, when considering Hope’s first book — titled, appropriately Hope for Film — a regular Hope reader must first ask, what’s to be learned in these pages that can’t be found more immediately online? The answer is quite a bit, actually. Co-written with Filmmaker contributor Anthony Kaufman, Hope for Film, the book, weaves (as I wrote this Summer in our Super 8 column) autobiography with indie war stories, calls to arms with sober business analysis. Along the way there are lessons gleaned from directors like Ang Lee, Michel Gondry and Ed Burns, and revealing, sometimes emotional insights into the life of an independent producer. Hope’s voice is rawer, less oracular here, and the book, although divided into thematic chapters (the chapter on Lee instructs on patience; a chapter beginning with the tale of Hope’s role in the lawsuit against the MPAA’s screener ban lectures on the power of community), has a real narrative sweep. It begins with Hope’s childhood and early entree to the film community and ends with his departure from the San Francisco Film Society and arrival at Fandor, but, more to the point, it traces the evolution of his thinking produced by the collision of personal history with economic and cultural change. Over the years I’ve come to believe that learning the intangibles of this business — the nuances of interpersonal communication, the dynamics on a set, the particular mixture of pushiness and charm that closes deals — is as important as knowing how to budget or what the latest SAG weekly rate is. Along with quite a bit of compelling biography I didn’t know, I found a lot of this hard-fought wisdom in Hope for Film.
I should also note that Hope has been a good friend and colleague for many years. (He and James Schamus executive-produced Robin O’Hara’s and my first film, Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was…). We got together recently for brunch after I read the book, and I flicked my recorder on to catch his thoughts on the publishing process, producers today and a couple things in the book that left me hanging.
Filmmaker: In recent years you’ve amplified your voice as a producer through social media like Twitter and also your website, Hope for Film. So why write an old-school dead-tree — or e-reader — thing like a book?
Hope: Well, it’s a much different type of discourse. You know, the conversation I have with people is always, what are the lessons I have learned? This book was a way to get all that down. The same driving mission that gave birth to my blog and then my frequent public speaking is recognizing that I was really fortunate in terms of the time I arrived, where I [worked] and the people I met. I was able to get work off the ground that enabled me to have the right perspective and see an opportunity. Wedding Banquet, James Schamus and I took it to Berlin and sold it ourselves, and that allowed me to recognize that the art, the artist and the technology had all moved faster than the marketplace, the business. I have some real ideas about that — I’m not the only one, I’m sure — and I felt I could help articulate that opportunity we’re in. So it’s still about the drive to say, “Look, we can build it better. We have to work together. This is what I learned. Take from it.”
Filmmaker: And that call to build it better — are you finding it resonates with filmmakers? With colleagues?
Hope: It’s hard because when you work with a wannabe filmmaker, or an investor, you start by saying [to them], “We live in an era where good enough is not good enough. We have to be trying to reach higher. We have to be trying to add to the historic dialogue, the community dialogue, to enter a new realm.” And it’s really hard to land that point. The key process of doing that is trying to find unique attributes in the people you’re working with and bring them out — collaborate with them and not allow their idiosyncratic behavior to be compromised.
I get great pleasure from watching [films that are] noble failures, but I don’t think the general public does. I learn a lot from them and try to say, “How can we make it work next time?” The key part there is the reach, and that’s why I like those films. But when I see a well-executed movie that doesn’t reach, I get angry and frustrated. There might have been talent there, but it wasn’t displayed in the best way. So, ultimately, the book becomes a plea to reach higher, to tolerate the idiosyncratic nature of different directors and to try to observe the reality of the moment we’re living in as opposed to accepting it as a given.
Filmmaker: The book intermingles your personal history while making seminal independent films with the history of independent film itself during this period. What did you discover about yourself through this revisiting?
Hope: Do you know Brian Eno’s concept of “scenius” as opposed to genius? Well, it’s a group endeavor; there’s never a single individual. You, me, James Schamus, Christine Vachon, the Shooting Gallery, and then the people who preceded us, the Spike Lees, Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch — the fact that all of us were here at the time… you start to see how it all ends up being a dialogue. We’d like to think that our lives, our careers are guided by our own hands, but I really do believe that if you’re not in a locale where that dialogue is happening, where other people are trying to outdo you, it’s really hard to do your best work, whether that’s because of the positive repercussions of competition or just the opportunity to collaborate with a lot of really great people. We all needed each other, and in thinking back, that became much clearer to me than it had been when I was running as fast as I can.
In terms of how brutally hard it is, you realize that filmmaking is a lot like child bearing. It only happens a second time because you forget everything that happened the first time. I think the battles to get the best movie sometimes require that you don’t give up on things that you care about and that you butt heads with people you care deeply about. It’s about the way you’re able to look back on films that were brutally hard to make and still feel satisfaction. In the Bedroom, The Savages, 21 Grams — you know, my part on that film could’ve thrown me out of the business if I didn’t love the final work so much. But when you think through what you went through — the time and the pain that [these films] created and the things you sacrificed — the fact that what lives as the testament to that is something you’re quite proud of makes it all worthwhile. Movies [you might have done] more for the money or even because of the relationship may not have been as painful in the process, but they also don’t give you [that same feeling].
Filmmaker: Friendship. Do you think producers should be friends with their directors?
Hope: There are two things I’ve always struggled with. The first is that producing is ultimately a solitary field. The director really doesn’t care about your problems, but you have to care about all of their problems. That’s lonely and stressful — how do you manage that? That’s why I like having business partners and other producers [on my films]. The second is, I kind of fall in love with my directors in that I really admire what they’re doing. I sympathize with their huge task of trying to get it right. But what happens, of course, is when you’re done with the movie, [that relationship] breaks up. It’s gone, you know?
Filmmaker: Well, it doesn’t have to break up. As we both know, there are plenty of producers who attach themselves to their directors and become almost managers.
Hope: One of our first decisions at Good Machine, and James was ready to make it, was, “Let’s do ‘the Ang Lee film thing.’” And that certainly would’ve been a good bet. I guess maybe I’ve always just been too selfish. Something someone said to me [after reading] the book was that my passion for change and transition always comes through. Maybe that’s my own neuroses.
Filmmaker: Director decision-making is a theme in the book — whether a director is focused on the right priorities, or making the right choices. That can be a frustrating part of producing, particularly working with a first-time director. You can be part of that decision-making process, but you can’t guide it perfectly every time. A first-time director often has to learn simply by going through the process.
Hope: It really helped being a production assistant and seeing great movies come out of films that I wasn’t totally respectful of the process. There are times as a producer you feel what a director wants to do is completely wrong, or they are going about it the wrong way. You can get frustrated, and they can’t articulate why they need to do this way. Sometimes you just have to accept that that’s going to be the right way [for them] to get the right result. That’s just who they are and how they work. You can never eradicate character from the individual.
Filmmaker: One film I wanted to read more about was James Gunn’s Super, particularly your attempts to find new ways to market it using social media. I think there’s a line where you write, “We couldn’t really capitalize on the way we wanted to capitalize on it.” Why was that?
Hope: I think the biggest problem we all face is lack of time, and, from the financial side, the necessity to make your next movie. The challenge I had with Super was I had to earn my living, and I didn’t get paid to the extent that really allowed for it. So, we sold [the film to IFC], I did what I could, but I really had to pay attention to the next thing. Even though we got great care and handling by IFC, they also had another 100 films to worry about. And I think we all felt that we would have gotten a bigger bump than we did.
Filmmaker: A bigger bump from…?
Hope: [The social media] engagement that James, particularly, had around the film. It was still a learning curve for all of us.
Filmmaker: I guess what I’m asking is, did the theory butt up against the reality when it came to how far social media and a kind of cult dialogue would carry that film in the general marketplace?
Hope: I think it worked perfectly in [terms of] the traditional way of doing things. We were selling the film at market, and we were able to sell it domestically for much more than we anticipated. We had an incredibly great screening in Toronto. The industry was very aware of the film because of the social media imprint. So, we hit that goal, and it worked. We didn’t know what would come next, but there were restriction and legacy issues that existed with day-and-date [releasing]. We were only able to get about 40 bookings for the film, and [day and date] limited the approach. The hope was that the awareness the industry had would penetrate into the public, and that was a false hope, ultimately.
And then, there were issues [regarding] the film being available digitally without us being able to make it really an event unto itself. When [the audience] knows they’ll be able to see it later, that sense of urgency is removed. We didn’t see how to make it be “that movie you had to see right then.” I personally feel this, and maybe this was also felt a little bit by IFC. I don’t know. I thought the kind of uniqueness of the humor, the moments of extreme violence and other elements would resonate more in social media with the public and make it that thing that people had to see. But, it wasn’t. You go back to something like Ti West’s House of the Devil. When that film hit VOD, it was one of 40 films that month, and it felt really unique. By the time Super came out, there were hundreds. Now there are thousands. But what I’m really proud of was [producing] a real James Gunn movie on such a tight budget so now he can go off and make the most successful August release of all time [Guardians of the Galaxy].
Filmmaker: You write in many cases about your experiences working with directors at the start of their careers. Are there any directors you’ve worked with whose subsequent careers have surprised you?
Hope: I’m always surprised that the directors don’t make more movies. I think each and every one of them should be making at least a film every two years, if not even faster. But I find them all incredibly interesting. The diversity of the work that, say, Michel Gondry’s been doing, I didn’t foresee that. Or John Waters transitioning into a multi-multi-multi hyphenate. He was already at it, but now it’s so huge. The perversity of him becoming such an iconic figure, yet where is the money for his movies? I’m kind of astounded by that.
Filmmaker: Why aren’t these directors making more films?
Hope: Well, I think the system’s really broken. I think that it’s probably hardest for an artist who’s been able to make a film close to what they’ve dreamed of to then [accept] the compromises to make the film for lower and lower budgets. Some of them, like Hal Hartley, come up with new art forms for these lower budgets, Todd Solondz has experimented a bit with that, and certainly Gondry does that too. But, I think for most, particularly if they’re of a certain age and with a family and a mortgage, they just don’t want to go and do that.
Filmmaker: So, then, is independent film a young person’s game?
Hope: Or a rich person’s?
Filmmaker: Or a rich person’s?
Hope: I think there’s real truth that it’s a young person’s and a wealthy person’s game. I would also add, it’s for the incredibly passionate and for those who can compliment it with another activity. So, the Kelly Reichardts of the world: “I’m a teacher first, and then I’ll make my movies.” It’s certainly a model that makes a lot of sense. Or Kevin Smith: “I’m a stand-up comic and then I make my movies.” But I think we are in an incredibly opportunistic time, where you can, for the first time ever, envision a systems reboot of a better future for independent film. We’ve never been there before. And that is not an individual’s pursuit. It is a community endeavor, and we can identify the steps that need to be taken.
Filmmaker: What are the elements of a systems reboot?
Hope: Well, I think it’s really recognizing that, first and foremost, [filmmaking] no longer has to be a mass market media. To quote [Creative Capital Executive Director] Ruby Lerner, we have to address the niches on a grand scale. We have to look at the necessity of audience aggregation and engagement beyond the festival release or the market release. How do we plan for something across the life cycle of a movie, the true life cycle? How do we build things that allow the participants to benefit from the network effect? There are a lot of simple fixes, and there are many more complex ones.
Filmmaker: The book takes you up to Fandor, where, as CEO, you’re on the other side of the table. You’re a buyer. What has your time so far at Fandor taught you about the demand side of independent film? And what about streaming? Fandor, like Netflix and Spotify, is a streaming business. That’s a model that is fundamentally altering the economics of how creative work is valued.
Hope: I think we’ve always priced ambitious cinema too high for anyone but the passionate. It’s really hard to expand its audience, so you have to come up with another mechanism. That’s one of the things that I find so appealing about a subscription, “all you can eat buffet” mechanism. At the same time, when you embrace that model, it has a tendency, unless you make a real effort, to devalue the things that I hold most dear — individual work and the life work of an artist. If you see your role as simply providing access to that content and not producing an experience — providing the additional context to help with the connection between different stakeholders — you are causing that work to suffer. And that’s a big challenge. That difference between commodifying a film as “general entertainment” — as in, “let’s watch a movie tonight” — versus the specificity of watching this movie, or watch “a movie by,” is really a big difference. And that’s ultimately what we’re doing at Fandor. How do we make sure that we invent greater value and [turn] a community experience into a product itself? The necessity of doing that has resonated deeply for me.
I’ve always tried to look at a broad approach. What is producing? It’s not just what you’re putting up in front of the camera but also the environment that makes [that work]. It’s also the work to improve the system. A lot of that same approach starts to filter into the timeline of the distribution platform perspective, too.
It’s pretty stunning, the number of great titles that are out there. And it’s pretty stunning how many great movies don’t get experienced at all. The challenge of prioritizing work of an ambitious nature for the casual viewer — we haven’t even begun to crack how that’s done. When you look at the utility that is within cinema — its transformative power, its connective powers — and how little we’ve figured out how to tap into that, it speaks of how much work there is to do. That wakes me up from my sleep at night in a very good way. The challenge of trying to balance one’s own desire to tell a story versus helping those stories ripple and resonate is probably the biggest struggle I have right now. But, if the challenge of the former, of how to have a good movie seen and appreciated wasn’t so huge right now, if I didn’t feel that the culture that I have loved and benefited from wasn’t so much at stake at this very moment, I probably wouldn’t be doing this. But, I do feel like it’s “save it or lose it” time.
Filmmaker: What has your book tour taught you about the appetite for independent film today and the role of the artist in promoting their content? And what sorts of questions are coming up at your Q&A’s?
Hope: The book and the conversations I have had around it have shifted my perspective on the increased responsibilities artists have these days. Previously, I always spoke of it as a negative that we now have to embrace community building, outreach, marketing, sales, and the like as part of our job description. The [producing] job increased ten fold, whereas our billfolds were cut and quartered. Sucks, right? But from another perspective, it is entirely awesome that we now can do that. The tools keep getting better and better. The barriers to entry keep getting lower and lower. The possibilities keep expanding. Our audiences expand rapidly as more and more of the world is able to stream video. Sure there are many concerns out there and the power of the well capitalized corporations increases regularly too, but from where I set, people want to connect deeply with truly authentic voices. The value of what we create grows as our ability to unlock cinema’s unique utility to stimulate shared emotional responses compel us to discuss them and build empathy where previously only differences lived also increases. People always want to know how to do it better but the fact is we are all learning together. Experiment, share, collaborate and keep reaching higher.