Five Questions about Essay Films and Digital Distribution for The Royal Road Director Jenni Olson
Available today on DVD and digital platforms, Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road is a beautifully crafted essay film that ruminates on several histories — the Spanish Colonization of California, film history and, through voiceover monologue, the director’s own personal story — all set against elegantly composed (in 4:3 16mm) landscape shots captured along the El Camino Real. Olson’s form here recalls the durational cinema of James Benning even as she brings in a wealth of information and references through her audio track, including, at one point, the words of playwright Tony Kushner, who offers a critique of the kind of nostalgia the film so artfully evokes.
Below, we asked Olson, who has worked also in distribution and marketing, about 16mm, her attraction to the essay form as well as her thoughts on crowdfunding and ecommerce for independent films. The Royal Road is available from Wolfe Video.
Filmmaker: Let’s start by talking about essay films and experimental landscape documentaries, which, in many ways, both your previous film, The Joy of Life, and now this new film are. What attracts you to this form, and from The Joy of Life to The Royal Road, what different stylistic elements or formal devices were you interested in exploring?
Olson: I was initially drawn to this form after seeing the 1991 film Massillon, by William E. Jones. I have always had a tendency to experience the landscape of the world in a kind of mediated way — I tend to view the world with an eye toward shot compositions. As a landscape filmmaker I live my life as though I were living in a movie. And in composing the narration for my actual movies I have the opportunity to experience myself as a fictional character in my own life. So in my filmmaking I’m simultaneously exploring our physical world, the mundane built environment that surrounds us that we often fail to notice, while also investigating the possibilities of this unique form of storytelling. I love how it conveys so much meaning on so many different levels — via the static durational compositions, the impressionistic subdued ambient audio, the lyrical capacity of the voiceover. The Village Voice called The Joy of Life, “thrillingly minimalist.” When you work with such a subdued palette you can create huge impact with very small devices — a bird flying out of the frame, the sound of a plane overhead as the shot ends or just a poetic turn of phrase.
Filmmaker: Your film is part of a resurgence of interest in 16mm, which includes Todd Haynes’ Carol (shot in Super 16mm). What are the challenges of working with this format today, in a time of lab closures and film crews not being trained in celluloid? And how did you surmount these challenges?
Olson: I love that Todd shot on 16mm to achieve the amazing vintage look for Carol. We even used the same Kodak stock (50D 7203). I’ve actually been shooting since 1997 so the stock numbers have changed over the years (initially we were using Kodak 50D 7245). I have a reservoir of footage from over all these years of shooting. So when I go to make a new film I’m drawing from that accumulated pool while also shooting new material specifically for the new film. For The Joy of Life we shot a huge quantity of footage of the Golden Gate Bridge, for The Royal Road a lot of images of California Missions and statues of Junipero Serra. I’m extremely fortunate that my dear friend Sophie Constantinou has been my main cinematographer over all this time. She lives two blocks away from me here in San Francisco, has her own Aaton camera and is always game to wake up at 5:00 AM to go capture the increasingly rare slices of peace in the city with me. I also just have to note that my films are actually framed in regular 16mm (not Super 16 which is a wide screen aspect ratio). So the image is composed in the more squared 4:3 format. I have a whole philosophical attachment to this and to the analog technology qualities of film stock, which have a kind of organic connection to many of the themes I deal with in my work — around nostalgia, history, memory and the physical world. And I am always just so amazed at the capacity of the film stock itself to convey meaning and emotion.
Filmmaker: Tell us about the decision to include a kind of counter-voiceover in Tony Kushner’s critique of nostalgia. At what point did this material get added to the film, and what were you hoping to accomplish by including it?
Olson: In 1998 Tony Kushner spoke at City Arts & Lectures here at the Herbst Auditorium. His lecture included a brief but convincing indictment of nostalgia as a bourgeois phenomena. It was only a few sentences in an amazing hour-long lecture that was primarily an inspiring oratory on the merits of socialism. It has haunted and inspired me for years. My filmmaking process is very protracted — mainly due to a lack of time and money. So, at some point during the years of writing the voiceover for the script I realized I wanted to mount a defense of nostalgia, an attempt at redemption and redefinition. I was able to get the recording of the speech thanks to the folks at City Arts & Lectures and the Bancroft Library which maintains an archive of their recordings. And then Tony very generously gave me permission to incorporate the audio. I love the idea of engaging in a dialogue around it. I make a very bold pronouncement in the film where I say: “By reconnecting us to our humanity, I believe that nostalgia could be the very thing that saves us.” I continue to grapple with this idea and sometimes doubt whether my attempt at redemption has really succeeded, but I do think it is valuable to ponder these ideas.
Filmmaker: You wrote a piece for Filmmaker offering advice on crowdfunding and based on your experience doing a Kickstarter campaign for this film. Now, it’s a couple of years later, and you’ve suffered through all of the rewards and such. Have your thoughts on crowdfunding changed at all? What advice do you offer filmmakers today?
Olson: Wow, yes, crowdfunding. There is so much to say about this. On the one hand I really don’t know how I would have funded my film without that extra $24,000 I raised via Kickstarter. On the other hand it was an enormous amount of work, and I am still not done fulfilling the rewards — the DVD is just coming out now so I have to ship those off to all the major donors in these next few weeks. I have shared the link to that Filmmaker crowdfunding piece with many, many filmmakers over the past few years and have spoken on panels about crowdfunding, etc. The main piece of advice is that you really have to be prepared to invest your own personal time and energy to make it succeed. A successful campaign requires a lot of hard work doing the outreach and your own creativity but most of all you have to put your humility and your heart into it. When I think of crowdfunding I often have a visual image in my head of the homeless/jobless folks who are panhandling at busy intersections here in San Francisco. But you’re sitting in front of your computer with a roof over your head and a relatively enormous amount of privilege.
Not to get too heady about it but I do think the whole phenomenon of crowdfunding is a really problematic outgrowth of the failure of government, foundations and other institutions to maintain more meaningful and substantial support for the arts (alongside the ongoing failures and seeming abandonment of institutional structures to address so many societal needs). The ascent of the gig-economy and the Libertarian-esque shadings of the TED-talk mindset, where individuals should be the ones to solve problems that our institutions are failing to address, points us towards a future where the concept of the social contract has been utterly forgotten and everything is put back onto the individual. Yes, it sounds like I’m nostalgic for the New Deal. And yet, here we are.
Filmmaker: Finally, as a filmmaker who has worked in ecommerce marketing at Wolfe Video, what changes are you seeing now in the digital distribution landscape for filmmakers, both those with LGBTQ and other content? On the one hand, it seems like there are more and more options for filmmakers who want to self release. On the other hand, marketing seems more difficult. What are the trends, where are they taking us, and what can we do as filmmakers to make our releases robust in the digital marketplace?
Olson: I think the loftier promises of digital distribution are often not realistically accessible for most filmmakers. It is not the magic bullet it has so often been hailed as — democratizing access and offering a simple direct connection from filmmaker to audience. There is still so much of the traditional distribution infrastructure that you still need to navigate.
When I co-founded PlanetOut.com in 1995 we launched the PlanetOut Online Cinema where we pioneered the streaming of short LGBT films online (working with the fabulous folks at Real Networks). The player was a little bit larger than a postage stamp and the streaming frame rate was so low and so choppy it felt like you were watching a silent movie. I have followed and been part of the optimistic pronouncements of the past 20 years as the technology has developed. Of course the most exciting thing for filmmakers is the potential to reach your audiences directly. But like crowdfunding you have to have the energy, time, connections and the compelling perfect film for it to be successful. Unfortunately though, most films do not have that magic combination of elements. The advantage that distributors have is their ongoing access to audiences, understanding of the market and connections to the various players in the industry (from the behind-the-scenes relationships with platforms and retailers to the ability to speak with film festival programmers, press outlets, etc.). Over my 30 years in the indie film industry I have worn pretty much every hat there is — festival programmer, distributor/marketer, publicist, filmmaker, film critic and even projectionist and usher. With all of my connections and expertise I did have the option to self-release The Royal Road. But because of my knowledge of the way things work I chose to have a distributor. and I’m extremely grateful that Wolfe was willing to release it for all the reasons I mention above. One of the biggest factors in getting a higher profile for your film, and thereby a larger potential audience, will always be about the delivery platform — iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, Fandor, Comcast, Time Warner, Best Buy, your local video store. How does anyone find your film and decide to care about seeing it when the majority of virtual shelf space is devoted to Hollywood blockbusters or titles that have had wider theatrical release, or even direct-to-video titles that have stars or bigger budgets? Having a distributor is one of the things that can give you an edge towards visibility in the marketplace. Whether you will ever actually make much money back is an entirely different question there isn’t time to answer here.
Whether you have a distributor or not it will always be true that no one cares about your film as much as you do. I often say that the agony of completing your film is only the beginning of the agony of releasing it properly. You thought making it was hard but now the really difficult work begins. There is so much to navigate. If you don’t have a distributor, consider getting assistance and guidance from fellow filmmakers but also connect with organizations like the Independent Filmmaker Project (the IFP Resources page offers an amazing wealth of knowledge and info), The Film Collaborative, Film Independent, Sundance #ArtistServices, the International Documentary Association, San Francisco Film Society, etc. You should be connected with these kinds of entities as soon as possible in your process, long before you get to the distribution question. There are so many resources, and it is so invaluable to be part of the indie film community.
The other really big thing about digital distribution that is so important to remember is that if you want the best holistic strategy for your film you have to evaluate the digital release in connection to the traditional distribution landscape.
Also, as you consider your distribution path ahead, be sure to soberly evaluate your options and determine how much work is really involved — newer distribution options like Tugg may work for some films but you need to do your research to determine what is best for your film. The one other valuable piece of advice I can offer is that you should start thinking strategically as early as possible and do everything you can along the way to shape the path ahead (budgeting, casting, crew/team, financing/fundraising, festival strategy, PR). It really does take a village.
The truth is that my own films are in a different category than this. When making durational 16mm depopulated landscape films with lyrical stream-of-consciousness voiceovers I am happy to be first and foremost an artist. While my filmmaking requires me to be a creative panhandler I comfort myself with the idea that I’m in the good company of artists and visionaries who have something to say that is primarily not intended as a commodity to be bought and sold but as an expression to be taken to heart and pondered. And if there are any generous patrons of the arts reading this I would love to have your support on my next film!