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Shaking the Digital Money Tree for Awkward Celebrity Encounters: Caveh Zahedi at the Screen Forward Lab

Caveh Zahedi (Original art by Hudson Black)

I was stoned one night when I had the idea to do a podcast called Awkward Celebrity Encounters. My idea was to record myself telling 52 of my awkward celebrity encounter stories and then release one a week for a year.

My friend Peter works at a sound recording studio dedicated to making audio books for the blind and was able to get me in after hours. That night, I recorded 52 stories, all true, most of which were between two and three minutes in length.

As soon as I uploaded them to iTunes, a friend who heard one suggested that these should be animated and talked me into taking the episodes off of iTunes.

I asked a talented student whose animation work had impressed me if he would be interested in doing the animation for the first pilot. He offered to do three episodes over the Christmas holidays.  Two years later, the pilot is still not finished. Tired of waiting, I decide to submit the work-in-progress to IFP’s Screen Forward Lab, a new initiative devoted exclusively to episodic web content.

Several months go by and then I hear that Awkward Celebrity Encounters has been accepted into the lab. I ask my producing partner, Arnold Barkus, if he’d like to join me as a participant and he agrees.

11/9/15

9:00 am Arnold and I are the first to arrive. I start to wonder if we’re in the right place. People finally start trickling in and there’s that awkward moment of “should I say hi?” Taking my social cues from those around me, I don’t.

9:30 am Joana Vicente, the executive director of IFP, approaches me. Relations between us have been cordial but strained ever since I decided not to renew an option on I Am A Sex Addict 20 years ago (!). But she seems genuinely happy to see me and is warm, gracious, and kind. Any and all hard feelings seem to have disappeared. I am relieved. One less thing to worry about.

9:45 am L. walks up to me. I hadn’t spoken to him ever since he stormed off angrily at a Q&A for The Sheik and I. He, too, goes out of his way to make friendly small talk to heal whatever rift had been created at that time. I’m trying to decide whether or not to bring up our past tension, but I ultimately decide not to.

10:00 am We watch all of the projects. Some are significantly better than others. I can’t help pointing this out to Amy Dotson, the Deputy Director of IFP. She answers: “They’re all my babies. I love them all the same.” Well played.

2:00 pm Current Digital Landscape. Robert Green does a remarkable job hammering home the idea that shaking the digital money tree is way more likely to result in money falling at your feet than shaking the feature film or television money trees. He’s impressively sharp. We talk to him afterwards and he gives us a great audience engagement idea for the show.

5:00 pm My head is reeling. There’s so much I don’t know. So much to add to my “to do” list. I should probably get cracking but decide to get stoned instead.

11/10

9:00 am I skip the Indiegogo presentation because I can’t bear the thought of hearing the word “crowdfunding” one more time.

11:00 am Breakout session with Ingrid Jungermann (director of the web series F to 7th and co-director of The Slope.) I’m excited to meet her because I know and like her ex-girlfriend, Desiree Akhavan (with whom she co-directed The Slope). She’s disarmingly unpretentious and I like her right away.

12:00 pm Social Media Marketing. Jess Peterson’s company, Mighty Oak, makes exquisitely hand-crafted animations. I’m deeply impressed by their aesthetic precision and sophistication and approach Jess about possibly hiring them to animate some of the Awkward Celebrity Encounters.

Sarah Moosvi, the founder of Tara Digital (a marketing company that specializes in the digital domain), looks so much like Desiree Akhavan that I thought she was Desiree when I first saw her. Her name (and her resemblance to Desiree) makes me think she is of Iranian descent (like Desiree and me). I like her energy and am inspired to want to work with her. After the panel, I approach her and ask her if she’s Iranian. This is one of those things where if the answer’s yes, you win a few points but if the answer’s no, you lose points. She says she’s half-Iranian, so I win a few half-points. She hands me her card and encourages me to send her some of my work.

1:00 pm Lunch talk by Michael Gottwald, the producer of High Maintenance. The sandwiches are depressing and the ziti is lukewarm but Michael is immediately likeable – low-key, down-to-earth, and refreshingly modest. It turns out he’s producing the concert film of the David Byrne-initiated color guard extravaganza from last summer. I’m a huge David Byrne fan so I ply him with way too many David Byrne questions.

2:45 pm Branded Content. Falling asleep. The whole notion of “branded” doesn’t exactly make me want to dance for joy, but I’m also insanely sleep-deprived from years of parenting small children, so I can’t really blame the panel.

3:45 pm Financing Ideas. I like the name of this panel and, as it turns out, it is my favorite one so far. For one thing, there’s an actual UTA agent in the room. Because agents usually run screaming when they see me, I don’t spot one very often. This one specializes in selling episodic digital comedy by writer/director/performers. That describes me to a tee so I decide to approach her after the panel to ask her to be my agent. Now I suddenly can’t concentrate on what the panelists are saying – all I’m doing is rehearsing in my mind what I’m going to say. “Hi, you should be my agent.” Or “Hi. My name’s Caveh Zahedi and I’m looking for representation.” Or “Hi. I think I can make you a lot of money.”

The other panelist is Rob Profusek, the Executive in charge of Acquisitions at Conde Nast Entertainment. Hearing him speak, he seems like a perfect fit for our series.

I approach the UTA agent and do my best to make a good first impression but when I ask if I can send her my work, she tells me she doesn’t have a card and to get her contact info from Amy. It occurs to me that she was brushing me off. But who knows? These people are inscrutable – at least to me.

Rob Profusek is friendlier. He gives me his card and offers to set up a conference call to pitch him my project.

5:00 pm Pitching panel with Michael Gottwald. He does a great job dissecting the art of the pitch. He is the opposite of the stereotypical producer, coming off instead as gentle, thoughtful, sensitive and soft-spoken.

6:00 pm Exhausted. My brain can only let in so much information before demanding that all systems shut down. I’m tempted to get stoned again.

11/11

8:00 am Today’s panel is using our episode as a case study. Can’t be late.

9:07 am Running late.

9:24 am The panelists talk about our show. The consensus seems to be to release the first episode on YouTube before trying to raise money, the idea being that we’ll be in a stronger position once we can show people that we have lots of views. I question the likelihood that we would get lots of views, given that the only content I’ve ever put up on youTube that got lots of views also had an astonishing number of comments from people insisting they would beat me up if they ever ran into me.

Amy points out that Awkward Celebrity Encounters is the most commercial thing I’ve ever done and it suddenly occurs to me that she’s right. I am briefly hopeful about the future.

1 pm I meet with the filmmaker Linas Phillips (Bass Ackwards) for lunch. We order tacos at the Mexican place down the street. When, after a long wait, my tacos arrive, I notice that they have cheese on them. I explain to the waiter that I don’t eat cheese. The waiter takes them back.  After another long wait, he returns with more tacos and I notice something white on them. I ask him what the white stuff is and he tells me it’s sour cream. I inform him that I don’t eat sour cream either. 

2:30 pm The branding panel is pretty interesting – fonts and stuff – but I’m so deeply exhausted that all I want to do is lie down on the floor, close my eyes, and curl into a ball.

4:00 pm I skip the offsite visit to YouTube Studios because I’ve already taken the tour and it made me want to jump out a window.

4:30 pm When I finally get home, I immediately collapse on the bed and fall into a deep sleep. I sleep through my 5 pm appointment and several buzzer rings.

11/12

10:00 am Traditional Distribution. One thing I learn is my social networking etiquette is remedial at best. One of the panelists encourages us to connect with our fanbase so that we can better understand who they are and why they are watching our serialized content. I raise my hand and ask: “How do I do that? Do I just reply to a comment with ‘Hey, why are you watching this?’” One of the panelists suggests I try being human.

Afterwards, I approach the Starz Digital acquisitions guy and try to make small talk by declaring that Starz has a bad reputation. Not sure why I did that, but I immediately regret it. He feels obliged to dispute my claim (which I have zero investment in and am totally unqualified to make) and we get off on the wrong foot. I like him though and make plans to pitch our other projects to Starz.

11:00 am There’s a pretty interesting powerpoint presentation by a guy from Vimeo Pro but I’m so wiped out from way too many panels and have a hard time letting it all in.

12:00 pm Transmedia, Interactive, and Virtual Reality panel. I can’t even get a five minute animated pilot finished. How is Virtual Reality even remotely an option?

2:00 pm I learn that we shouldn’t call our series “web shows.” We should call them “serialized content” which has a more platform-neutral ring to it.

4:00 pm I skip the field trip to Eyebeam, not because I’m not interested but because I feel like my head’s going to explode.

11/13/15

11:00 am I wake up and realize I’ve missed the first panel on Film Festivals.

12:00 pm I arrive at the pitching break-out session an hour late and totally unprepared. My pitch is mediocre as a result but I tell myself that it’s only practice.

1:00 pm Arnold and I plan our post-lab strategy. Our to-do list is several pages long.

2:00 pm Arnold and I pitch our project to an industry panel. Everything I say fails to land. It’s as if I’m speaking to aliens from another planet who have no idea what I’m talking about. It’s a bit humiliating, so I try to assuage my guilt for being so unprepared by telling myself that it’s the panel’s fault, not mine.

4:00 pm At the wrap session, I learn that we have all been given a free 6-month membership to the IFP Media Arts Center lab and are being invited to the next Independent Film Week. That’s great news. I had no idea that this was one the perks of having one’s project chosen to participate in the Lab.

5:00 pm Everyone goes out for drinks but 1) I don’t drink, 2) I’m exhausted, and 3) I have small children.

5:30 pm Back to my life.

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