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“This is Not a Keynote”: Amy Dotson’s SIFF Catalyst Speech

Amy Dotson

IFP Deputy Director and Head of Programming Amy Dotson gives a keynote (or not!) speech today at the Seattle International Film Festival’s Catalyst brunch. She has kindly provided the text to Filmmaker, which we are printing below.

You are not a filmmaker.

“The Treachery of Images” was a painting by Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte. The picture he painted was simply of a pipe, with a rally cry of a scrawl below it reading: “This is not a pipe.”

His paintings were an attempt to understand the impossibility of reconciling words, images and objects and challenged the very notion of what makes a thing a thing.

And what makes that thing – and its creator – important is how others perceive it.

But what’s often not talked about are the less sexy, more human bits that brought that now iconic, ironically oft-copied work to life.

With every sketch, doodle and painting he made, Magritte was also trying to reconcile himself as an artist and a human being. While he fancied himself as a painter, the truth is for many years he often couldn’t afford to buy paints and had to sketch in a notebook in his crappy apartment instead. He was often hungry, tired and his wife, pissed off. His family and neighbors had no idea what the hell he was doing with his life. And some days, neither did he.

But he kept at it.

After a long haul as a wallpaper maker, he procured a day job in advertising, where things are definitely things, and sometimes even symbolically or creatively manipulated so that the words, images and objects used to describe them take on meaning where there was none. And he wasn’t all together comfortable with the dichotomies his ambitions and his realities presented. Things were definitely not going according to plan.

It all sounds very Don Draper, no?

And as a person who spent a lot of money and schooling to learn how to mirror artists that came before him, including a stint even forging Picassos during the war, it took him 40 years – a lifetime – to get comfortable with his talents and to understand the stories and ideas he wanted to tell through his work were influenced by his real life as well as his imagination. And the format through which he wanted to express them had to be heavily manipulated by him, a new style forged with as many missteps as triumphs.

Late in life, he traveled everywhere – to the U.S. and throughout Europe – in search of his tribe of fellow artists as well as influencers who he thought would validate his work. He tried and failed and kept making work, often to the delight of no one but he and his small band of collaborators. And even then, after success occasionally shone a light his direction, he often had to part ways as whims of gallerists and audience constantly changed.

His work infuriated some and inspired others. He loved to provoke and question things, which as we all know, is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some folks just like a pipe to be a pipe, a painter to be a painter and a man from Belgium to stay in Belgium and not travel all over the world looking for audiences to connect with, especially when there’s war going on and the world is constantly changing around them.

They still said he was no Picasso.

But so what?

One hundred years later, we’re here talking about him and the same questions are still driving us – and maybe driving us even crazier. Who are we as artists? How do I explain my deep and real need to tell stories? How can I get anyone to care? Where do I put all these ideas? And will my day job, my home life, and the choices I make help me as an artist, or wear me down?

The approach I suggest isn’t radical. Or maybe it is depending on your point of view.

But lately, what I tell our artists is this:

You are not a filmmaker.

Labeling things, staying within the reasonable expectations of others, following the set path and asking artists to color within in the lines are struggles that have been around throughout the lifetimes of our great grandparents and certainly, for more moons than that.

There are even templates for keynotes and reading through them in preparation for today, I was intimidated as hell. Seasoned execs, talented filmmakers, renegade voices all with stories to tell. Why would anything I say matter?

So I analyzed them and read over dozens of them, trying to figure out which type should I go with?

Every year, there’s a keynote that bemoans the notion of independent cinema, the broken industry and gatekeepers never letting true talent shine.

There’s a keynote that touts the promises of a better tomorrow, a new technology or screen or the demise of the laser disk ushering in a new era of creativity and paychecks.

Or encouraging as it is of late, more are sounding the rally cry that it’s the year of the woman, people of color, the Brooklyn or Seattle or insert-your-town-here scene is finally getting their due.

Enterprising support organizations and festivals are even diversifying by supporting artists working in the “Golden Age of Television,” shouting it from the rooftops to anyone who will pay attention.

Usually, it’s followed by a semi-helpful top 10 list of rules to follow to make these things into easily shareable click bait. Then nothing comes of it because while well intentioned, authentic change is hard and time, and the news cycle, rolls on.

And right on to the creativity and positivity that brings those new ideas and movements about, which are sorely needed. And to the artists and industry leaders who use their 20 minutes to address the real issues and problems facing not just our creative processes, but also the world around us.

Alas, Ava Duverney I am not.

Jill Solloway I am not.

Tim League I am not.

They are amazing human beings though, aren’t they? And their speeches truly moved me.

But by following in their giant footsteps, I’d be pretending, suggesting that I know anything about anything in creating lasting change, have the mental math to know how Amazon’s new model works or the technical acumen to tout the next great horror film will feature a hologram in your living room.

This talk would ring false as that controversial old pipe.

Alas, I am me.

Just a 39-year-old lady with penchant for subversive art and hair metal bands in a pair of size 7 ½ shoes that walk me to work every day and get kicked off as soon as I can get home to kiss my kids. A woman who cares passionately, deeply and totally about the future of risk-taking storytelling.

So throw out all those ideas, those preconceived notions as I have about what makes a keynote. And who gets to give one.

Let’s take it down a notch and say that today is just a talk.

A talk between you and I.

And our chat is about getting back to basics. About refocusing our energies on a core audience of one: you.

We’re going to chat about doing something, well, doable.

Right here, right now, today without a lot of mishigas or money or power struggle and permissions to make it so.

It’s a conversation that I’ve been having a lot lately, a more grassroots approach if you will, at dinner tables and over drinks with everyone from captains of industry to recent graduates trying to find a foothold to make meaningful work.

And I start again by saying:

You are not a filmmaker.

You can be a filmmaker, of course, but you cannot continue to singularly define yourself as such.

You need to stop putting yourself in a box to try and contain and explain your talents.

And you shouldn’t let audiences or industry allow it either.

It would be a disservice to reduce Cary Fukunaga to being “just” a filmmaker. Sure, he is an incredibly talented, unpredictable filmmaker who makes Spanish-language and period dramas sing new tunes. But this is an artist that makes commercials watchable and turns the whole model of television programming on its head.

Ditto Dee Rees, who time and time again finds ways to tell her stories through docs and narrative features, but also through television and her recently announced mini-series on black migration. With risk-taker Shonda Rhimes no less as her partner. I would never dream to diminish her talents.

Desiree Akhavan got tired of waiting to make a film and instead made a modest webseries called The Slope, one of the first projects to lead the charge in online episodic storytelling. Her film, Appropriate Behavior, which she wrote, directed and stared in, snagged her lead to a role in Lena Dunham’s Girls this season, and she’s following this up with a foray into animated series. Calling her simply a filmmaker would belittle her.

I can’t take the edge off Gillian Robespierre either. She struggled for years to get her “abortion comedy” made. Her 2009 short of the same name was self-described as having a “great internet life.” She partnered with Liz Holm, a talented producer and all around interesting lady, to make the now infamous film Obvious Child and the two are off to the races making their next project, a television series for FX which one can only hope will continue to empower women with the ability to tell fart jokes and fully explore through their complex selves.

Borscht Collective makes work constantly, none of it easily definable. Lead by Lucas Leyva and Jillian Meyer, they have built their own festival in their hometown of Miami and gathered collaborators when others weren’t cultivating their work. They made their own scene, directed the work they wanted to make and showcased it in places as diverse as museums and dive bar walls. They’ve now been through the Sundance Labs, and IFP is proud to host their first retrospective of their work in July in New York City. They describe themselves aptly as filmmakers …with no film background who like to “invent stuff.”

Who knows where they’ll go next?

I’ve been lucky enough to work with all these artists – except Cary, but he did shake my hand once – and I draw the inspiration for this chat we’re having from their boundless enthusiasm, unlimited potential, and their fierce independence in following their own paths.

So then, that begs the question – how do we talk about ourselves?

How do we explain what we’re doing? What we want to do?

How do we not sound pretentious as hell or alienate folks at one of those water-bottle meetings at an agency? Or our own families at the dinner table?

Storyteller, content creator, hybrid, multi-talented, entrepreneur – maybe its best not to label it right now because none of it feels right. There’s artifice in every term. And who wants to rebrand every few years to keep up with the buzzword of the times or worse, just to fit in?

Maybe you have a term that’s right for you, that suggests your openness to possibility. Keep me posted. I’d love to hear them. Or maybe we can work on it together.

For lack of a better way to put it, I’m more of a Magritte.

A dreamer and a realist.
A loner and collaborator.
A lover and a fighter.
A builder and a breaker.
A success and a failure.

Questioning, working, questioning again.

And I suspect you are too.

We’re all trying to find a way to embrace the ambiguity of this new era we live in where web series and vine videos are the new sketchpads. Where mad scientists and technologists are trying to figure out the best way to create immersive experiences out of cardboard and a halo of cameras. Where there are more possibilities than ever to have your voice heard if we stop buying into the myth of the Cinema with a capitol C as the end all be all pinnacle of creative artistry.

And to that I say, no more. It’s bringing me down. And it’s bringing us down.

As individuals, audience members and industry, we have all have been stuck in the same rut for far to long – particularly holy reverence to contemporary American independent cinema.

Cinema is awesome. Theaters are awesome. Communal experiences and good sound and popcorn cannot be beat or replicated. I get it. The hairs on my arms still stand up too.

But having your voice heard often is also awesome.

Making work consistently is also awesome.

Meeting people across multiple platforms and industries that connect and inspire you is awesome.

Finding new ways of sustaining your storytelling – and getting paid for that work – is super awesome.

There is lots of awesome, in the truest sense of the word, out there.

How can we tap into this?

We have to stop with the excessive categories, boxes, genres and color codes that mark talents for easy digestion. We have to lay off the favorites. Preferences. Likes. Sections. Types.

Especially if they get us nowhere.

We have to try to stop adjusting our realities to hold onto the ways we consume stories before rather than allow new forms and ideas to take hold. We binge watch TV to make it “feel” more cinematic and save up to buy $200 Beats to make High Maintenance sound better on our phones. None of the smart folks I’ve talked to can agree if web series and app based storytelling are the minor leagues of television or if its its own art form that will flourish, because it has no “model”.

Even when we are creators who are in the thick of it, we spend our time as fans and followers of those who have come before us as well as our contemporaries. We hire interns to help us develop our own. But what we really need are support systems and physical communities that are vital to our growth.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But it’s important to raise the questions. And keep provoking.

All I do know comes from my experience, both professional and personal. And my love of stories big and small told a myriad of different ways comes from a life lived both in dichotomy and boxes, boxes I’m still trying to unpack too.

My biggest inspiration comes from my family, as I grew up surrounded by a crazy, loud amazing group of of storytellers who could sit around a table with cups of coffee and slices of pie and entertain for hours. It didn’t matter if they were recounting their days as cops, homemakers, journalists, talking through a plot twist in Days of Our Lives or regaling the kids with a wild adventure tale replete with hats and homemade whips…

The point, at the end of a long day, was to tell that damn story, not to keep it inside. To share it with others, even if you had to shout it over the din of the lawnmower or fight for your turn to be heard against seven, other hungry kids.

My grandmother, Doris Puckett, was the heart of it all and could tell a story like no one you’ve ever met. She never made the front page of Variety touting her latest deal, never had an agent or had anything she wrote in her journals published. No one ever made a documentary about her or interviewed her for the local news but she kept telling those stories anyway hoping someone would pay attention.

Five feet tall. Five two if you counted her bouffant. Her life story was one for the books, with her first child born at 17 and her last of six at 44, and very little opportunity to leave the confines of Wilburton, Oklahoma. She was a voracious reader, TV watcher, and moviegoer, supplementing her inability to travel off the dirt paths surrounding her, she lived in her imagination.

Her very lifeblood was story. If she were here today, she’d be making up a story about you.

At 75, she was finally able to break free and with the money saved over 40 years in the hollowed out backs of teddy bears, she hopped a greyhound bus and began to travel the world to find her tribe.

She was able to try on the Pope’s robes at the Vatican, but found the Italian old men “too flirty.”

She watched her first porn at 80 and said it was pretty much what she expected, but by god if it wasn’t a mystery! She’s maybe the only woman in history who watched porn for its plot.

She danced a Texas Two-step to “Play that Funky Music White Boy” in Big Sur, CA and helped douse a hippie whose hair caught fire with her fuzzy navel cocktail.

And as much as she loved now being a part of the story, she was adamant she keep up with the times and be open to hearing others stories as the years went by. She had a Facebook page, watched True Blood religiously, and was overjoyed able to upgrade from the gothic novels sold at the 5&10 to her very own Kindle where she devoured the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy the first day she got it. “Call me Amy Dolly, I have questions.”

She passed away last year at 95 and while she had no regrets, she asked we keep her stories with us and tell them to each other, to strangers, to her great-grandkids. To stop every once and a while and eat pie.

And that’s all we really hope for, isn’t it? For the stories to go on and that somebody cares enough to acknowledge them as real, complex and original. That they, and you, are worth it.

I started working at IFP in the fall of 2006. Thirty years old, full of enthusiasm. As lore goes, I literally called the office of Milton Tabbot, our beloved senior programmer and begged for a job for six months straight. I finally wore him down, and he hired me.

I had no title, barely a job description about 17 responsibilities that changed daily. And was given three weeks to prove myself valuable.

And I knew immediately I wanted to stay.

The organization was housed at the time in a converted dental office with all the charms that implies. It was indie to the core, a team of scrappy, hard working, incredibly loyal and creative individuals working off a tiny budget to highlight filmmakers whose voices might not otherwise be heard. To take risks on people and support projects that others wouldn’t.

IFP wasn’t like other places I’d worked. It wasn’t even like other support organizations that had star-power behind it, festivals to give them visibility, or even for profit sides that made sure the lights were always on. It felt real and authentic, but all the same, totally unpredictable and a little wild.

I loved it.

I still do.

And ten years later, here I am. And I am so grateful to Michelle Byrd for hiring me, for Milton Tabbot for putting up with me all these years and now, Joana Vicente – our current Exec Director and true force of nature – for letting me stick around and see what’s next.

So much has changed around me, but the core mission of what we do remains the same.

The biggest change in our industry isn’t what you hear about in the trades or on the news or all those harrowing info graphics that you can’t even look at without a stiff shot of whiskey.

The biggest shift I’ve seen is filmmakers finally, blessedly, learning to embrace the ambiguity that comes with being a creative artist. It’s popping up a little bit everywhere and as this is Catalyst weekend after all, I’m hoping this little talk will light a spark, accelerate and amplify it all a bit.

A few years ago, we at IFP got back to basics and worked with our artists to give them the tools not only to get their latest projects on the screen, but also to sustain themselves. It wasn’t about the script, the financing, and the post.

It was about keeping their stories going.

We were tired of seeing such talented, hardworking people go into the festival circuit and out into the world without so much as a pocket knife or tool kit to survive and then not hearing from them again for years, maybe ever, as they crawled out from under roiling debt and dreams unfulfilled.

We wanted our people to break the cycle of thinking that someone else was going to make it happen for them.

The word people is important here, as films and projects are made by individuals who dare to tell their stories out loud.

But they often get lost.

For many years, organizations like mine couldn’t wait to get their logo or their laurels on the poster for a finished work. We jockeyed for bragging rights because to the outside world, that association that validation – was the end all be all goal in ensuring that you as an organization would thrive and financially survive.

Sounds familiar right?

And what we heard from our artists time and time again was that filmmaking was hard and demoralizing. It took a long time. They weren’t making enough money to cover the rent. They were lonely, tired and didn’t see how building a life around storytelling was possible. And of course, their loved ones, parents and friends, well meaning as they were, were starting to worry what it was all for.

My whole professional life, the advice I’d heard too was to settle down. Get married, have kids, you can work less. Find a steady job in development or acquisitions to follow a path on. Pick one type of work that really moves. Did I really want to major in welding? (I did.)

Problem was, I didn’t want to choose.

And neither do our artists.

But it’s a blessing and a curse that there’s no one size fits all path or model to point people to that reliably works. You, like Magritte or Don Draper or Doris Puckett have to find your own way and adjust constantly. It doesn’t happen quickly, it’s not easy, and the wells of creativity you pull from to write, direct, produce and create should be tapped for everything you put your pen and mind to.

It’s not about the validation of others. It’s about you validating yourself.

I currently have three job titles and none of them begin to explain what I do to my kids.

No day is the same and the projects we work on now are in film, television, web based episodics, games, branded content, long form journalism, installations and my favorites, those that defy it easy labeling, both of themselves and their work.

I am constantly ricocheting back and forth between thinking I have things figured out and not knowing what the hell I’m talking about.

And any industry folks who say differently are probably lying to you and to themselves.

IFP was lucky enough after a lot of late nights and emotionally taxing days to be awarded the Made in NY Media Center by IFP last year. This 22,000 square foot space a place to make, show, discuss and support new artists 365 days a year. But it was built to address the issues our artists and staff faced on a daily basis, creating work both in film and outside the well-defined boundaries of storytelling.

We’ve come a long way from our days in the dentists’ chairs.

But we still have a long way to go.

Much of my day is spent supporting and learning from my co-workers and colleagues, helping them find the space to curate, create and question what’s going on not only in IFP’s programming department, but how we can support artists going out into the wilds of the wider media landscape.

With artists, I spend far less time working on project development and more working with people. This means not in spurts of two-day seminars or week long workshops, not throughout the life of their project – but through the life of their careers.

Now, conversations about defining their goals, understanding the risks – financially, personally and professionally – that we take to make meaningful work, and building collaborative teams and scaffolds to support that aren’t easy. But they’re vital and require vast reserves of creativity. And too often, these tough conversations are left for later with the excuse of the loftier goal finishing the work and getting it seen.

But this is the work too. You are the architects of your own destinies. And if you don’t make choices that support the creation and distribution of your work early and often – and the sustainability of your career- someone will make those choices for you.

So my plea today is that we work together, making a pledge here today.

As people, as artists and as those creating and supporting the future of storytelling.

To defy the limiting labels used to describe you and your work but also use that freedom to carve out your own niche, your own path to tell the stories you want to tell.

And to make room for others to do the same.

How? You tell me. Show us all.

But I’ve seen a few things that are encouraging out there, and I encourage you to think about how to modify these things in your own life and art to help you reach your goals. And hope this doesn’t feel too much about the aforementioned click-bait top 10 list!

To break down the barriers and preconceived notions that certain forms of storytelling are lesser than, more populist, lack power.

That certain platforms are amateur, emerging or not viable. Therefore, a waste of time.

Dispel the notion that self-distribution is a lesser path, reserved for those not good enough to be distributed by an established company.

To encourage people you work with and in your communities to become platform agnostic when they tell stories. To question if those dusty screenplays you are writing shouldn’t be modified to Snapchat, web series, or games.

To really understand and nurture the breadth of your talents and how they can sustain themselves creatively and financially by diversifying.

To use every opportunity, every fest application you write, every paragraph about the webseries you created as a chance to try new things. All of those things are not homework – it’s the first glimpse anyone outside your core team has to get to know you.

To take a risk on young people with new ideas. Older people with life experience. People smarter than you. Different than you. And that these hires aren’t in service to a project or defined roles necessarily, but have them by your side because they bring something interesting to the table as individuals. And if you’re lucky, maybe pie and coffee too.

To keep pushing boundaries and buttons. To stop making excuses.

And finally, we all get caught up in life and work and the often harsh realities of being artists.

But one thing that holds true no mater what path you take is being present and grateful. Stories about the generosity and the madness that happens in this business travels fast.

And they will grease the wheels for people wanting to work with you or against you for years to come.

Simply say thank you every once in a while for what is working.

Be humble and gracious for those who support you when the good times come, and especially those who have the tough conversations late at night when you’re unsure where to go and again, the next steps to take are anything but clear.

To those who have mentored you and to those who work tirelessly by your side.

To all those who have honored you and inspired with their stories.

To even those, to especially those, that said you couldn’t.

So, I would be remiss in not saying thank you to the Catalyst artists here today for being brave, bold and making work that clearly comes from the heart. Congratulations to the teams from Happy 40th, Front Cover, Fourth Man Out, Circle, Chatty Catties and A Rising Tide. I have no doubt your beautiful films will lead to beautiful adventures ahead.

And to the incredibly hard working and big-hearted folks at the Seattle Film Festival and to the Catalyst Team. Thank you Carl, Beth, and especially Brad Wilke who put this fantastic program together with his tireless staff.

I’d like to take a moment to also acknowledge the staff of IFP too. There are 11 people on our team. They are all members of the programming team – every coordinator and assistant, our sponsorship department, and operations team are deeply invested in our mission.

To my team of Milton Tabbot, Zach Mandinach, Erik Luers, Paola Mottura: I am inspired to be with you every day and appreciate that your passion for our artists never stops. I want to acknowledge when you leave your Thanksgiving dinners to give council and care to filmmakers. When you get in early and stay late to connect producers from around the world. And stay until closing to clean up the vampire teeth and Count Chocula bowls after a screening. Thank you for everything.

It was a total honor, being here with you today and thank you as well as to all of you for listening.

You plan, you build, you look forward.

You tell your stories and hope that someone really heard you.

And then you let go.

Is it all a pipe dream? Maybe.

But you are not a filmmaker.

And this is not a keynote.

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