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Kevin Smith, Branding and the Pressures of Independent Filmmaking: Rodrigo Reyes on the IFP Narrative Labs

A still from Lupe Under the Sun, Reyes' narrative project

I spent mid-June of this year within the folds of the IFP Narrative Labs, keeping an eye open for an endearing moment, an anecdote or an auspicious situation that could somehow encapsulate the intensity of the experience.

After months of review, late nights grinding through hundreds of rough cuts, careful readings of submission materials and vigorous debates, the selection committee had whittled down their picks to a slate of 10 films from all over the country, all amazing and in varying stages of post-production. They brought us together in a theater in the heart of DUMBO for a week of heightened reality, where suddenly the nit and the grit of the film industry slowly came into focus as we soldiered through the dizzying world of detail and strategy that must be tackled to bring a film to life.

The moment that defined the Labs happened on Wednesday, at a point where I had begun to feel worried about the energy in the room. Monday and Tuesday had been muted, somewhat stifled in terms of excitement and intensity. Perhaps it was the dim orange lights of our cavernous theatre or the luck of the draw had assigned long commutes to everyone, but something felt slightly off. One expects a room of filmmakers representing the American indie landscape to be bursting with confidence and a winner-take-all attitude. One expects passion and thirst. One expects rebellion.

After all, it’s only a handful of films that make it into the Labs, out of an entire universe of budding and aspiring projects being crafted across the entire country. Polite, courteous, and more troubling, quiet and reluctant—in short, an air of cautious hedging had begun to set in. And we were just about to move from editing and content to hit the heavy stuff of deliverables, marketing, sales agents and distribution.

But on Wednesday morning, the entire tone changed dramatically with the appearance of a photograph of Kevin Smith on our screen.

The presentation at hand focused on the importance of understanding oneself as a brand. Branding as a strategy to build audiences, to sustain a career, to fundraise. All of which are goals for every self-respecting filmmaker, whether in or out of the mainstream. But there was something about that photo of Kevin Smith, smiling in all his nerdy success that, combined with the word “brand,” sparked a blistering fire in the form of a booming, cantankerous yet deeply earnest voice streaming from the top of the room. I leaned back and saw a look of rare righteousness in my colleague’s eye, the gaze of the deeply moved, enraged soul of a filmmaker.

It was impossible, untenable, disgusting, completely revolting to consider that we, that he, should somehow aspire to Kevin Smith. No, no, no. It would just not stand. Absolutely not. It was all making sense until KS graced us with his presence. Now it simply could not be. Perhaps my colleague’s circumstances were different, perhaps he was unique and the rest of us were not as desperate, not as frustrated with the industry and stressed out as he was. Maybe we were happy with branding our work, and that’s just fine, but not for him. He had made his film on a shoestring running through blood, sweat and tears. If Kevin Smith was the goal and measure of success for an indie filmmaker than he just couldn’t hold on to it anymore. He had put too much of himself in his film to let it become just another brand. If this was the industry he had to grapple with then he would have no part of it. This was it. This film would be his swan song.

The laughter came loose and free at first and then became more tense and awkward as we all realized that our colleague was not going to let up easily.  He insisted. The presentation came to a reluctant stop as this filmmaker continued lambasting branding to pieces. Something had cut deep via the absurd avatar of KS, exposing something naked and raw. We laughed, but behind the laughter and the farce of the situation, crawling shyly somewhere, hidden by the logistics and the planning, was a creature within all of us that also felt daunted, overwhelmed and enraged by the magnitude of the challenge.

Just consider briefly the enormous amount of submissions to the top festival on the American indie track: Sundance. Every year, the folks in Park City have to cull a slate from a body of over 4,000 films. To span the full extreme of the film world, now consider that folks around the world upload 300 hours of footage to YouTube every single minute. Rejection, perforce, lies at the very heart of the film world. It’s a war of attrition that, left unchecked, takes a toll on the very thing that drives us to create.

We all come into the labs with apprehension, not knowing how to grapple this massive industry that seems about to swallow us whole. Essentially, we come together into a war room, into a massive strategy session focused on helping us to learn to help ourselves. All of the films have gone through years of intense work, from the spark of an idea that led to a story, an often hectic and adventurous shoot, to the promise of an assembly or rough cut. The labs force us to sit down and look at what it takes to actually deliver on the promise of our inspiration. Although many of us may balk at the thought of branding ourselves, in reality, thinking about our brand helps us to stand up to the market. It allows us to create a battle plan that acknowledges the difficulty of standing out in such an over-crowded field while also engaging with the power of our voices.

The colleague behind this sensational, deeply honest rant, is a talented and fascinating filmmaker. He and his team have crafted a poignant, hilarious film that I earnestly hope will have a good life. But often we are an industry that thrives on the psych-out. We shy away from admitting our frustration. We don’t want to open up and allow others to see that we too can feel desperately quixotic. We do not want to admit that we are also unsuccessful many, many times. And too often, we let our fellows become overwhelmed, and coolly watch them as they struggle with the tide of expectation, perhaps quite willing to look away with indifference when they flounder.

That Wednesday changed the vibe of the cohort. We purged our own frustrations through our colleague’s bold interruption. We encouraged him not to give up and came up with ideas, pushing him forward and by doing so, also pulling ourselves out of the temptation of doubt and into the realm of the we-can-kick-ass. We finished the week with an air of victory. I know many will go on to make a mark and build careers that hold their own in today’s tough market. But first, some of us needed to be reminded about the power of loving your art to the point of being righteous, offended, snotty and yes, even ridiculous. We needed to recognize and pay deference to that stubborn spirit that drove us to make films in the first place. Because without it, there would be no films to begin with.

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