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DON'T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME
First-time filmmakers struggle to create buzz for their pictures. But what to do after the film’s premiere when the buzz turns to background noise? Reed Martin investigates the ways in which filmmakers build momentum for their careers. [plus sidebar: Switching Channels

Just as box office grosses now drop 50 percent or more after a single blockbuster weekend, buzz surrounding new filmmakers can dissipate faster than dry ice in a high school science project. In this era of disposable everything, screenwriters, directors and film producers must come up with creative ways to attract attention between projects or risk losing the momentum it took them years to create.

"Ever since our movie came out, our mother has been telling us to ‘make hay while the sun is shining,’" says Greer Goodman, co-screenwriter and co-star of The Tao of Steve. "My advice is to get that second screenplay finished as soon as possible."

Goodman, her sister and co-director Jenniphr, and co-screenwriter Duncan North had, in fact, heard this advice long before Tao of Steve became the darling of Sundance 2000. "Our producer, Anthony Bregman, told us this a million times, and he was 100 percent right," she remembers.

Bregman, one of many producers and studio executives awaiting the sisters’ second script, cites Ed Burns as an example of a filmmaker who timed his creative output to sustain an initial rush of buzz and awareness. "When Ed brought Brothers McMullen to Sundance in 1995, he already had the script he wanted to do next, he knew which one he was pushing, and his priority at the festival was to say, ‘I want to be in production [on She’s The One ] by next summer,’’’ Bregman remembers. "Filmmakers should be thinking ahead, even before their first film is finished, so that the moment it comes out — at a festival or in movie theaters — they’ll be able to answer the question everyone will inevitably ask: ‘So, what’s next?’’’

This casual query, posed over cocktails or lobbed across valet parking lots, usually inspires dread among young filmmakers because the pressure to pull a rabbit out of a hat can be intense. "That question never goes away," says Memento writer/director Christopher Nolan. "I get asked that now, and I’m in the middle of editing!"

While Nolan assembles his cut of a $50-million remake of Insomnia starring Al Pacino, other directors are wringing their hands over that next project. "Filmmakers often become paralyzed, obsessing over what their second movie is going to be, and then they don’t make it for three or four years," says Kids producer Cary Woods, currently head of film production at Immortal Entertainment. "My advice is always, ‘Just go back to work. Find a project that you’re comfortable with, one that excites you again, and don’t worry about it being more important or less important than your previous film. You don’t have to top yourself.’"

Aside from paralysis, the "what’s next" question can also inspire exasperation since many filmmakers have sold CD collections, ignored romantic relationships and maxed out their credit cards just to get that first feature delivered. "The very night I finished my first documentary [Independents’ Day, a wry look at Sundance and the struggles aspiring filmmakers face,] I went to a party and someone said, ‘Hey that’s great! What are you doing now that it’s done?’" recalls filmmaker Marina Zenovich. "It was an important moment for me because I realized, ‘Wow, it’s over. I have to go on to the next thing.’"

Greer Goodman says she had a similar experience after Tao of Steve started to gather festival buzz. "There was a feeling of ‘Oh my God, here’s our tiny window of opportunity. Quick! Do something before it closes!’" she recalls. "But we don’t work that fast. My sister lives in Santa Fe and we collaborate by e-mail and flights back and forth. I don’t know how people who write an entire script in one week do it."

 

DISCOVERING YOUR INNER D-GIRL

Indeed not everyone can be Paul Schrader, who reportedly bashed out a first draft of Taxi Driver over a single weekend while living in his car. "It’s not easy to just say ‘I have another project,’ because it’s not that easy to generate new material," says David Linde, president of Good Machine International. Bregman, who produces films with Good Machine, suggests ramping up the screenwriting process during the last few weeks of post. "I know it’s difficult because there’s a question of focus, but that’s the best time to do it," he says. "Otherwise you end up having to remind people about a film they saw a year ago, and executives have notoriously short memories."

Nolan says he wrote Memento while assembling his first thriller, the black-and-white noir Following. "It was the period between finishing my cut and looking for finishing funds to blow the film up to 35mm and to finish mixing the sound," he recalls. "Following took such a long time to make — we shot the film one day a week over the course of a year — that I had time to start thinking about the next project."

While multitasking in the Avid bay is certainly an option, creating a development shingle out of a nearby living room is another route to beating the "what’s next?" blues. "Take your three favorite books, figure out which one you want to adapt and get the option rights," advises Hurricane Streets producer Gill Holland, now president of the New York film production company cineBLAST! "Too many independent filmmakers feel they absolutely have to write and direct, but not everyone can be Jim Jarmusch. Some directors should just hook up with a writer who’s got a good script."

Of course, while it was once said that any director who manages to make a first feature will be granted the chance to make a second, that is no longer the case. "At the end of the day it comes down to talent and perseverance," says Donnie Darko producer Adam Fields. "Just because you got a film made doesn’t mean you have a big future. A lot of people make one film and that’s it."

 

TAKE MY MOTION PICTURE… PLEASE!

Filmmakers whose first projects are not picked up may have to work doubletime to convince film executives that they deserve another shot. "There’s a period of probably four months after a film festival when executives are ‘doing the cleanup,’" says Paramount Classics co-president David Dinerstein. "After that, trying to keep a project alive is tough. It’s definitely an uphill battle."

Even if your film is not going to get picked up for theatrical distribution, keeping it in the face of development executives, producers and festival audiences can lead to both ancillary deals and financing for future projects. "As an alternative to a risky and expensive specialty theatrical release, filmmakers can use festivals to increase awareness in various markets and make ancillary distributors aware of the attention that the film is getting," says attorney and producer’s rep Steven Beer of New York’s Rudolph and Beer, LLP. "Generating and maintaining awareness are key to successful sales."

Attorney John Sloss of Cinetic Media agrees. "I think people underestimate the ambient effect of continuing to play in other festivals," he says. "Just making sure that everyone has seen the film is critical."

Writer/director Debra Eisenstadt, whose as-of-yet undistributed DV film Daydream Believer took home the grand jury prize for Best Dramatic Feature at Slamdance 2001, learned this firsthand after signing with Beer in May. "Companies had requested copies from me directly before I had a rep, but when Steven started making calls we realized how few distributors and film executives had actually seen the film," she says. "There was a time when I thought ‘Oh, now I can relax,’ but the truth is, you can’t."

Sloss recommends strategizing and making lists of senior executives. "It’s important to find out who has seen it and decide if they were the right person," he says. "You can then send over [another] copy or try to get someone who has seen it already to reconsider. Don’t make a nuisance of yourself, but don’t be a shrinking violet either."

After any big festival, executives often ask their underlings if any projects have grown on them, so courting junior staffers is also a smart move. "I have enough tapes on my desk to build the pyramids, but there are certain films — because of the elements involved or because of what we hear from other people — where we’ll take a second look," says Paramount Classics co-president Ruth Vitale. "Invariably, it’s still a pass — but not always."

 

CAPTAIN, WE’RE GOING DOWN!

Scientists measure momentum by multiplying mass times velocity, but in the independent film world, speed, direction and duration can be hard to quantify. After a festival win, a socko review in Variety, and a flurry of calls from agents and executives, how can a filmmaker tell if he or she is accelerating, slowing down or simply a body at rest?

Often what feels to the novice filmmaker like momentum can actually be molasses. "Very often a first-time filmmaker has a big success at a festival and is subsequently invited to every other festival on the world circuit," explains William Morris agent Cassian Elwes. "They’re so proud and excited because they worked so hard to get the first film made that they travel around the world with it for a year. But when they get back to wherever their hometown happens to be, they realize they haven’t made a movie for a while. Now it’s going to be at least two years since the first picture, and the filmmaker can lose their heat."

After the Sundance success of his Next Stop Wonderland, director Brad Anderson was sidelined by something he never would have expected: a three-picture deal with Miramax. "People who aren’t in the business might say: ‘I saw this guy’s movie years ago — where’s he been all this time?’" he remarks. "Meanwhile I’ve been working my ass off!"

Anderson developed several original scripts with Miramax since Next Stop Wonderland delighted Sundance in 1998, but ultimately none were produced. "If a deal starts to actually get in the way of making films, it’s not much of a deal," asserts Anderson. "You want to build relationships with companies and producers who are going to move your material through their system quickly. In your lifetime as a director, how many movies can you make?"

Anderson wrote and directed Happy Accidents and Session 9 for IFC Films and USA Films respectively, with budgets of under $1.5 million each. "What’s important to me is that I am making the films I want to make and not spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get them made," he says.

Luckily, Anderson was paid for the scripts he wrote for Bob and Harvey Weinstein, but less fortunate filmmakers whose earlier work was never distributed may still be facing school loans or collection agents from the Columbia Tape Club. "You can’t try to do the Hollywood thing without money in the bank or without a day job," says Glenn Rigberg, a manager with Rigberg, Roberts, Rugolo in Beverly Hills. "Let’s say you’re at Sundance: By the time your movie gets picked up — if it does at all — it could be a year before it is released. During that time you need money to pay rent, dub VHS copies, and own a print of your film."

Nolan moved to Los Angeles before Following had distribution and got a day job writing script coverage to pay for food, rent, gas and VHS dubs. "I didn’t have an entertainment budget," he says with a laugh. "I think I was getting $40 per script, and I couldn’t cover more than a couple each day."

Some filmmakers move to New York City because they think it is somehow more legit or that it represents the true epicenter of "indie film production." However, one New York vet questions this theory. "If you’re going to work in the film industry, you have to realize that Hollywood is the place where people get movies made," says producer Holland. "I don’t think we should have this perception anymore that indie film is the Holy Grail and everything else is evil. Too many producers and directors go broke and end up having to leave the business."

Holland recounts that after Hurricane Streets won the Audience Award, Best Cinematographer, and Best Director at Sundance in 1997 — a first at the festival — he sniffed at opportunities to visit Los Angeles, a decision he now regrets. "In L.A. there are roughly 40 production entities where you can set something up," he says. "If you win a prize at Sundance, people will take a meeting with you. [The film’s director] Morgan J. Freeman went out there, but I didn’t capitalize on the success of Hurricane like I should have."

Holland and Freeman went on to make Desert Blue in 1998, with Christina Ricci and Brendan Sexton III, but it failed to garner the level of acclaim that Hurricane received. "We kind of rushed Desert Blue because we had the money, all sorts of people were excited, and we had a great cast lined up," admits Holland. "The problem was the script wasn’t quite ready, so Desert Blue was not as strong in some respects."

 

MOVE OVER, ALAN SMITHEE

In an industry whose mantra could be "what have you done for me lately?" a disappointing follow-up can diminish or even undo the goodwill and excitement generated by the previous film. For this reason, filmmakers must be careful to be the captains of their own destinies when it comes to choosing a second or third project.

"It’s not like I was close-minded to the idea of making a movie with a studio — I would have, but the material was never good enough," says Chuck & Buck director Miguel Arteta, who is currently finishing the Mike White-scripted The Good Girl with Jennifer Aniston and John C. Reilly. "I read the script for The Mod Squad, and it was not a hard decision, passing on that."

Arteta, who started his career with the independently-financed drama Star Maps in 1997, has been able to make a living directing episodic TV. "It’s a great way to stay afloat and support my dirty little habit of independent filmmaking," he explains. "I treat my feature films as my priority, and the TV shows come when I have time. You can make close to $30,000 per episode, which is only four or five weeks of work."

Since his debut, the West Coast-based Arteta has directed episodes of Homicide, the short-lived David E. Kelly show Snoops with Gina Gershon, Freaks and Geeks, and an episode of Six Feet Under. He also directed a TV pilot with Martin Scorsese entitled Elizabeth Street, about the clash of cultures in New York City’s Little Italy.

"Homicide has capitalized on indie filmmakers and their ability to handle edgy material and get it done fast," explains Arteta. "I think [Homicide producer] Tom Fontana might be the single biggest supporter of independent filmmaking because he’s taking people from the festival circuit and giving them an opportunity to join the DGA, make some money, and stay alive until they make their next project. Whit Stillman, Barbara Kopple and Nick Gomez have all directed Homicide. That’s my recommendation to try and stay afloat — you’ve got to get your movie done any which way you can."

Major studio directing assignments are given to first- and second-time directors but only if they have the "right" vision of the project’s execution. "You read the script, you meet with the producers and tell them your casting ideas, your visual ideas and generally how you feel about the material," explains Arteta. "You discuss how you’re going to express the tone of the movie, and [the producers] see if you get along."

Although Arteta is happy he passed on The Mod Squad, there is the occasional studio project he pines for. "American Beauty was the only time in the two years between my films," he says, "where I came across something that I thought, ‘It would be really great to get this.’ I went in for the interview, and those producers were very nice. They looked at a lot of first-time indie filmmakers for that movie and were very open-minded."

While the trend toward increased in-house production by formerly acquisition-driven companies may not be a good thing for those filmmakers looking to sell their films for U.S. distribution, it has opened up directing opportunities for the less-than-A-list (i.e., indie) directors these companies can afford. After the commercial disappointments of Hurricane Streets and Desert Blue, Morgan J. Freeman has found gainful employment by directing American Psycho 2: The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die starring That70s Show’s Mila Kunis for Lions Gate. But, he says, the job is all part of his attempt to keep making independent features. "I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m going to need some commercial success before someone is going to cough up two-million bucks," he says. "As long as you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, fear not the studio world. The suits are scary, but at the end of the day, they’re in those suits for a reason. Have you ever seen someone in a suit direct a motion picture?"

Vitale, whose company is focused on acquisitions rather than production, also suggests that first- or second-time directors with respectable calling cards can get directing assignments from studios or mini-majors. "Marc Forster directed a film two Sundance festivals ago called Everything Put Together which was really good but extremely dark," she remembers. "But off the strength of that he was hired to direct Monster’s Ball with Billy Bob Thornton, Heath Ledger, Halle Berry and P. Diddy."

Elwes, who represents Forster and Thornton, packaged the elements that went into Monster’s Ball. ‘We [at William Morris Independents] can find material internally that clients have written, hook directors up with it and send them off to make movies right away," he says. "Monster’s Ball had been kicking around for about 10 years. At one point Robert De Niro was going to do it, and then Sean Penn was in discussions for it. We got Billy Bob Thornton interested and went to Lions Gate with a price where they couldn’t get hurt financially — around $4-million — and made it for that amount. Now I think Forster is as hot as a pistol. Lions Gate is going to push Monster’s Ball for Oscar consideration."

 

TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.

Major studio re-writes or other paid screenwriting assignments — most of which are found in L.A. — are another good way for independent filmmakers to make money, notes Vitale. She adds however, that prized overhead deals are few and far between for indie directors: "With the exception of Miramax, no indie studio gives filmmakers ‘floating money.’ And if they did, it wouldn’t be floating money. It would be a one-, two- or three-picture deal."

Although Tao of Steve was a hit, earning $3.76 million at the U.S. box office and was widely acclaimed for its witty dialogue, co-writer Greer Goodman is not yet on easy street. "Certainly no one has said, ‘We’ll pay you to write your next film," she says, dispelling a notion that many aspiring indie film screenwriters hold dear. "Everyone has said, ‘Show it to us when you’re done.’"

But for those who know how to deliver on paid scripting assignments, re-write work at major studios can be a way to supplant a meager diet of Ramen Noodles and Fresca. "Kevin Smith makes really good money writing on a lot of commercial studio films and is still able to have the freedom and autonomy to do the small films he writes and directs himself," says Matt Bierman, president of production at Phoenix Pictures (The People vs. Larry Flynt, The 6th Day, Vertical Limit). "Fees start at scale — which I think is around $70,000 — and then your quote builds from there. If you do a good job, you get a raise on the next one, and the next one, and the next one. So you could be making a lot of money very quickly."

Still, Holland reminds filmmakers not to quit their day jobs, even if they have an agent or an invitation to a major festival. "The truth is, it’s hard to get a paid writing gig unless you’ve sold a spec script for a ton of money or you’ve written a film that became a huge hit," he says. "There are only so many assignments out there that need a re-write or an adaptation. Every film that gets made today is either a bestselling book, a re-make or a giant sequel, and there’s no way you’re going to get that writing gig. They’re going to give it to Kenny Lonergan, Ron Bass or somebody who’s already established."

Writer-directors working off of festival buzz can secure an agent or manager — a critical step in getting re-write work — even if their feature was never distributed. "Filmmakers should not only target distributors but also agencies and management companies because getting an agent is harder now than ever before," says New York attorney Steven Beer. "Agents and managers aren’t signing promising filmmakers unless they can immediately get them work. Every time your film gets recognized in a great review or receives an award, it’s important to keep everyone apprised." Explains UTA agent Howard Cohen of how he chooses clients to sign new filmmaker clients, "Either I absolutely love their film and think it’s just amazing, or I think that the filmmaker will be incredibly successful. It’s great if it’s both, but you have to be at least one or the other."

The ability to pitch and sell an idea to a room full of skeptics is also an important skill. "If they can’t talk about their film and can’t talk about themselves, then that’s not someone I’m interested in," says Rigberg, who represents actor/directors like Joan Chen and Fisher Stevens. "My best impression is my own first impression. When I first meet someone and see how they present themselves in a room, I’m able to judge the types of meetings they will be best suited to attend."

 

INDIE AT ALL COSTS

Strand Releasing co-president Marcus Hu, who has worked with Alison Maclean, Lodge Kerrigan, Kelly Reichardt, Tommy O’Haver, Todd Verow and Matthew Harrison when they were first-timers, suggests that filmmakers who are committed to sustaining their own independent vision must develop a variety of projects at all levels of the marketplace. "My advice would be to develop a project that is bigger in scope, but if you’re waiting in development hell, take a DV camera and make a small, intimate movie," he says.

Producer Anthony Bregman agrees: "You hope that all of the films you make will spawn greater films based on the success of the previous one, but it’s not a bad idea to safeguard yourself just in case," he says.

Next Wave Films’s president Peter Broderick believes there is less reason than ever to "have to" direct studio-generated material given new developments in DV film equipment and falling production costs. "Filmmakers have to figure out where they want to end up: Do they want to be making Rush Hour 3?" he asks. "If someone wants to be Mike Figgis or Spike Lee or Terry Malick, then that career route doesn’t make any sense to me. Now people actually have the opportunity to make movies in ways that are not dependent on third parties giving them permission."

Tao of Steve co-director Jenniphr Goodman says she eschewed the Hollywood gauntlet after her film hit because she wanted to have another child. "There were offers to direct TV shows and commercials that I didn’t seize," she says unapologetically. "My agent would tell me that so-and-so wants to meet me, or this other one wants to meet me — there were a lot of opportunities I probably squandered by living in Santa Fe and by having children. But I look at people like Richard Linklater and Victor Nuñez and think: ‘They work from Austin, they work from Florida, and they still make the kinds of movies they want to make.’ They are my role models."

Indeed, despite the imperative echoed by many here to maintain momentum at all costs, there are those who say that patience is a virtue. Former Fine Line Features president Ira Deutchman, now CEO of the DV film production company Studionext, says taking time between projects and being choosy is actually a good thing. "When you’re the flavor of the week in Hollywood, all kinds of projects are offered, not all of which are necessarily good career choices," he says. "One has to be careful not to leap at the first thing that comes along."

Tom Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics, the company that distributed Tao of Steve and the first films of Todd Solondz, Neil LaBute and Richard Linklater, agrees. "Writers and directors who only want to develop their own projects along the lines of old-school independent filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch or John Sayles, who don’t want to go to Hollywood to become ‘successful’ are people we admire," he says. "We have great respect for people who don’t want to put their name on something that doesn’t really show their style and sense of art."

Ultimately, maintaining momentum is a balancing act between developing good material and making a living, while not taking the path of least resistance that leads to sub-par material. That said, let’s check on the velocity of some of the filmmakers quoted in this article.

After completing her first documentary, Marina Zenovich was hired to be senior vice president of acquisitions at the production company Catch 23 after owner Robert Sturm saw a copy on tape. ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making money on the other side of the business, but I realized that I’m a filmmaker first and foremost. That’s what I want to do," she says. She recently left the company, finished a second documentary, Who Is Bernard Tapie?, and is now raising funding for a third.

Greer and Jenniphr Goodman are trading faxes and e-mails as they wrap up their next script, "a drama about food, family, football and the burden of the American dream," according to Greer. "I don’t know if we would have had better odds right after Sundance or a year from now. Maybe some people’s interest will fall by the wayside, but the people who genuinely liked our movie genuinely want to see what we’re doing next."

Eisenstadt, a working actress who starred opposite William H. Macy in David Mamet’s Oleanna, has kept herself busy writing a book with her sister Jill, entitled The Girl’s Guide To New York City (City & Co. Publishing), co-directing the 24/7 theater company for inner-city teens, and holding a reading of her follow-up screenplay, Who Cooks For You? "I think Daydream Believer has already functioned as a good calling card," Eisenstadt says, "so I’m hoping it will get people to read and invest in my next project."

Go to sidebar: Switching Channels — Peter Bowen looks at the opportunities afforded independent filmmakers by television.



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