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In Features, Issues

TREMBLING BEFORE VIDEO
Filmmaker Sandi DuBowski on making his first DVD.

The DVD box for Sandi DuBowksi's
Trembling Before G-d.
Photo: John Clifford/HBO/Fine Line.
I remember the marks on my hands from lugging the 35mm print of Trembling Before G-d on the plane to our world premiere at Sundance in 2001. Heaving five reels into the overhead compartment, I hoped they wouldn’t tumble onto some unsuspecting distributor’s head. So how amazing two years later to hold the DVD of the film in the palm of my hand! When people used to ask, “Where can I see your film?” I had to e-mail them about an upcoming screening in Brooklyn, Los Angeles or London. Now the film is instantaneously accessible through Amazon.com, Blockbuster, Barnes & Noble, Netflix, Borders, Virgin Records and Tower Records. This little disc is how the film will exist throughout eternity… or at least until the next technological advance.

When I began the process of creating the Trembling Before G-d DVD with New Yorker Films, I had no idea it would unfold into a four-month, round-the-clock effort resulting in three hours of special features, nine new movies and the rebirth of a short I made with my 88-year-old grandmother — the production of which would require two editors, 30 interns, multiple graphic designers, a substantial budget, archival negotiation, music licensing, complicated subtitling in Spanish, Hebrew and Yiddish, and constant re-working of design and packaging.

When I began Trembling in 1994 no one had really heard of DVD. But in 2003, according to Adams Media Research, one billion DVDs shipped in the U.S. alone. Cynthia Rhea, senior vice president of marketing for HBO Home Video, calls DVD an “overnight sensation.” It’s a “big deal,” she continues, “because the medium is crossing over from logical-sounding places like bookstores to gas stations and convenience stores, selling to impulse buyers at an attractive margin.” While VHS has been predominantly a rental format, Rhea says that DVDs’ slim packaging, larger box cover, special features, durability, and picture and sound quality make it very attractive for consumers.

Fully Loaded Indie DVDs


As the accompanying article attests,Trembling Before G-d and Capturing the Friedmans set new standards for indie film DVD bonus features. Here are six other Filmmaker picks for feature-packed DVDs.

1. George Washington. In addition to both director David Gordon Green’s student shorts, his Charlie Rose interview, and a commentary track that includes Green, d.p. Tim Orr and actor Paul Schneider, this Criterion release also contains the fascinating and obscure Clu Gulager 1969 short A Day with the Boys. Shot by Laszlo Kovacs, the film — a print of which Green discovered once while working in a film warehouse — is an astonishingly poetic work of horror with a tone and visual style that clearly influenced the young filmmaker.

2. Reservoir Dogs. The Artisan re-release of Quentin Tarantino’s debut contains a whole disc packed with the extras. All the expected interviews are here, but Tarantino’s typically generous cinephilia also allows for a short documentary on the fellow members of his Sundance class of ’92, in which folks such as Christopher Münch, Alex Rockwell and Katt Shea Ruben look back on their early successes. Also, the disc features a tribute to nine filmmakers who influenced the director’s own movie.

3. Down by Law. In addition to a beautiful transfer, a Tom Waits music video and recordings of phone calls between director Jim Jarmusch and actors Waits and Roberto Benigni, this Criterion disc contains production Polaroids marked with the exposure settings used by d.p. Robbie Mueller.

4. Memento. Corporate America’s new strategy is to rush a bare-bones DVD of a hit movie onto the Blockbuster shelves and then hit the hardcore fans — and video stores — again with a loaded edition only months later. Columbia Tristar Home Video followed up its skeletal Memento DVD with a two-disc “limited edition” release that contains the original short story on which the film is based and an annotated shooting script that allows one to switch back and forth between page and screen.

5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Criterion’s recent re-release of Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter Thompson’s cult memoir contains the usual commentary tracks, deleted scenes, storyboards and making-of documentaries, but it’s also got material on Oscar Zeta Acosta, the real-life inspiration for “Dr. Gonzo,” and a look at the controversy over the movie’s writing credit.

6. Donnie Darko. Classified a disappointment at both Sundance and in the theaters, Donnie Darko’s subsequent long run as a “midnight movie” in New York and elsewhere and its Fox Home Video release have now established it as one of the most important and influential indies of the new century. The Fox DVD contains commentary by writer/director Richard Kelly, producer/star Drew Barrymore and six other actors, as well as 20 deleted scenes, the film’s “Cunning Visions” infomercials and Donnie’s bible, The Philosophy of Time Travel. — Scott Macaulay

Click on a title to purchase it from Amazon.com.
Filmmakers need to grasp the rapidly shifting home video industry for two key reasons: the DVD medium can extend and expand the artistic life of a film; and the revenue it generates can wipe away the debt incurred by a theatrical release. (For many independent filmmakers — particularly documentary makers — who finance their films through television sales, home video is often one of the rights they can retain and use to create real profit for themselves.)

As in all things independent, however, to maximize both revenue and the medium’s creative potential, filmmakers must be prepared to play an active role in the development and production of their DVDs. Following are observations, stories and advice gleaned from my six-month plunge into the world of DVD production, with some added opinions from industry experts and other filmmakers.

 

Extending the Story: At the Q&A’s following screenings of Trembling before G-d, people would ask, “What happened to the people in the film? Did the community see the film? What did they think?”

DVDs offer an incredible opportunity to document not just the making of the film but also its subsequent movement in the world. Particularly for filmmakers whose films have catalyzed social change or stirred controversy, DVD can extend the meanings of their films in ways previously unimaginable. For me, there were such extraordinary changes in the lives of my subjects following my film’s production that at one point I thought of filming a sequel — until I realized the DVD was just that. So I created a 40-minute featurette, Trembling on the Road, about the film’s journey around the world, mixing footage from Brooklyn, Jerusalem, London, Mexico, Sundance, Ohio and beyond with updates on the lives of the film’s subjects.

I put out a special call on the Internet soliciting stories for the DVD. Among those who came forward was Shoshana, a Hasidic married woman who saw the film and for the first time learned of the existence of lesbians. She came out and a few weeks ago left her husband and moved out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We filmed her story in Brooklyn’s Hasidic neighborhood just before her life flipped 180 degrees. Orthodox people who in the film were closeted come out to their families in the DVD. In the film, Michelle is 250 pounds. In the DVD, she drops half her weight and talks about the film’s profound effect on her life.

The HBO Home Video release of Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans similarly extends the stories of its film’s controversial characters. The DVD adds footage of Jesse Friedman just after being released from jail and attempting to adjust to life on parole, find a supportive girlfriend and overturn his conviction. Says Jarecki, “DVD is a very powerful medium in that it can take people who want to know more as deep as they want to go.”

For some, the aftereffects pictured in the DVD can be a source of viewer power. Take a look at The Debut (Columbia TriStar Home Video), the first Filipino-American feature. The DVD offers filmmakers a truly inspiring video manifesto on the movie’s successful grass-roots distribution. And Fire (New Yorker Films) features a striking short about opposition to this groundbreaking lesbian film, with scenes of Hindu nationalist mobs smashing the Indian theaters in which it originally screened.

And some DVDs add to their character’s stories with just the simplest archival gestures. Aimee and Jaguar (Zeitgeist Video), is a World War II love story between Felice, a Jewish woman and resistance fighter, and Lilly, a Nazi officer’s wife. The DVD features photographs of the real-life versions of the film’s characters taken on the day of Felice’s arrest by the Gestapo and also excerpts from Felice’s subsequent letters written during her concentration camp internment. Devastating.

 

Audience Feedback: In addition to documenting the communities that form around films, filmmakers can help create them through the ROM part of the DVD or through linked Web sites with resources, glossaries, message boards and chat rooms. As Trembling before G-d generated enormous response through the Internet, I worked with a title designer to weave in art-directed excerpts from e-mail reactions to the film in Trembling on the Road. For the Capturing the Friedmans DVD, Jarecki filmed audience members and his film’s own subjects reacting at various screenings, speaking out against what they considered slanted truth in the film. DVD and continuously updated Web sites are allowing films’ meanings to be constantly rewritten, creating a new feedback loop among film, the Web and fans.

 

DVD as Fundraising Tool: DVDs are also an excellent, glossy gift for funders and can be powerful dynamic tools in generating initial and further outreach support. After the Steven Spielberg Righteous Persons Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, The Creative Capital Foundation and the Shefa Fund, among others, awarded us funding to launch an Orthodox education project with the film, we trained 11 facilitators in Jerusalem who have since held screenings and led dialogues for 2,000 principals, teachers, school counselors and therapists across the nation, breaking the taboo on discussing the issue of homosexuality in the country’s Orthodox school system. We created a 15-minute piece, Petach Lev: The Trembling Israeli Education Project, for the DVD about the experience and are now using it to seek renewed funding for our educational efforts around our 2004 Israeli television broadcast, which will hopefully have a toll-free number at the end where one can order the DVD.

 

DVD as Master Class: The “making of” has become a staple of DVD creation. Criterion, whose DVDs usually contain beautifully crafted appreciations of Hollywood and European arthouse classics, is the acknowledged master of this mini art form. Each disc is a virtual master class, prompting film critic Elvis Mitchell to joke that DVDs will one day eliminate the need for film schools!

Says Peter Becker, president of the Criterion Collection, “The goal for a film on DVD should not be a blow-the-doors-off, all-you-can-find, all-you-can-eat edition. [Instead] a DVD should create the right context [for the viewer] to appreciate a film and make connections within the filmmaker’s body of work, his or her influences and then to other forms of art and human expression.”

But not every DVD package is as illuminating as Criterion’s, nor are all filmmakers as entrancing as Martin Scorsese is when he discusses the craft and technique of Taxi Driver. Some director’s commentaries are actually quite disappointing, filled with awkward pauses and silences, floating egos and thoughts rushed to the timing of a particular scene unfolding on the screen.

Steve Savage, president and founder of Docurama, a video company specializing in documentary DVD releases, discusses how Robert Drew, the pioneer of cinéma vérité, got to a point in the middle of recording the commentary for Primary (Docurama/New Video) when he interrupted, “I don’t want to speak over my perfectly fine film!”

Edet Belzberg, director of the Academy Award–nominated Children Underground, experienced a similar moment when recording her Docurama DVD director’s voiceover: “After five minutes I stopped and said that I didn’t feel right about it…What are you supposed to say over a 10-year-old girl screaming? How I edited that scene didn’t seem so relevant.” Docurama put a text page on the DVD instead.

With Trembling, I too felt queasy speaking over the subjects of my film, so I decided to film a 20-minute on-camera “interview with the director” instead.

For others, involving a collaborator from the creative team in the commentary gives it that added spark. On the DVD of Dogtown and Z-Boys (Columbia TriStar), for instance, director Stacy Peralta and editor Paul Crowder ricochet back and forth on how they crafted a documentary that defied gravity with killer style.

 

Enriching the “Making of…”: Just as director’s commentaries can wrap one’s eye differently around film images, well-planned “making of” documentaries can also transcend studio EPK fodder. If your film’s production contains any sort of unusual element, make sure to document this during filming. As examples, check out Russian Ark (Wellspring) and Winged Migration (Columbia TriStar). Russian Ark’s In One Breath is a standout short, covering 36 hours in the Hermitage Museum in which the filmmakers chronicle the epic sweep of Russian history in a single take. As the crew steps through a doorway, you literally watch the set being dismantled behind them. Fraught with fading light, dead batteries, and a kilometer and a half to traverse, this was tense drama. By far the most astonishing of the current DVD “making of” extras is Winged Migration’s. Watching a cinematographer poised at the edge of a two-seat paraglider high above the Sahara or the Arctic with an acting troupe of birds at arm’s length feels like witnessing a step into the void with the Wright and Lumiere brothers.

To ensure that they have dynamic elements for their immortal DVD, filmmakers should begin thinking of the disc on the first day of preproduction. Studio films do this routinely as home video executives weigh in at the first production meetings. For example, HBO/BBC’s new miniseries Rome is of phenomenal scope and scale and already has a crew filming the two-year process of building an epic set for the DVD. For its previous World War II miniseries Band of Brothers, HBO gave a camera to actor Ron Livingston and asked him to create an hour-long video diary on the “actor’s boot camp.”

Independents may not have all the resources of an HBO, but there are things that can be done to ensure solid DVD extras.

  • Save deleted scenes.
  • License for the DVD archival pieces that may not make it into the film.
  • Build into the budget a cinematographer who can shoot production B-roll.
  • Develop story lines even if they are just for the DVD and Web site.
  • Keep in mind multiple media while in production.

Filmmakers should free-associate and think of the DVD as a new art form with playful elasticity. I had fun while making my DVD by gathering footage I shot over six years and creating Mark: The Musical, a short that imagines an MTV–produced Hasidic music video. The DVD of Scratch (Palm Pictures) has a DIY lesson in turntablism with DJ Z-Trip. The Style Wars 20th-anniversary two-disc DVD (Plexifilm) erects a vintage shrine to its underground artist subjects who bombed New York subways in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s – the DVD pops with a graffiti artist “hall of fame,” photo galleries, where-are-they-now interviews and a 30-minute loop of subway-tagged art on the move.

 

License One’s Own Shorts: A director’s previous shorts can gain a new life on DVD, adding to the perceived value of the disc. Criterion released the DVD of Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher and included the three Cannes prize-winning shorts that launched her reputation as an important young filmmaker. I included on Trembling Before G-d my short Tomboychik, a drag-themed tale made with my 88-year-old grandmother when I was 22.

 

New Media on DVD:As the DVD medium matures, newer filmmakers will be able to license new and nontraditional forms of content to video companies. In a series of DVD releases, ranging from its Directors Label series, featuring the work of Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham and Michel Gondry, to its packaging of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films, Palm Pictures is creating unclassifiable DVD fusions of music, video and art. David Koh, head of acquisitions and production at Palm Pictures/Arthouse Films, says, “It used to be that music and film people were different. But now people are growing up on hybrid media. Film people do music videos, and music video directors make features. Palm fuses a love for music and film and, with DVD, embraces those aspects.” Directors Label compiles music videos, advertising clips and short films, and one of the company’s newest ventures — “ambient” DVDs, mixing abstract shorts with new music for playback in hotels, homes, lobbies and party spaces — suggests another kind of alternative featurette that could be contained within independent film DVDs.

With regard to bonus materials in general, find out whether your distributor plans to release your film on a DVD-5 or a DVD-9. The former typically holds 133 minutes of playback video and the latter 240 minutes, so judge your time accordingly.

 

Negotiating DVD Production Costs. With my DVD, I was incredibly lucky to have a distributor, New Yorker Films, that was willing to alter the way it had traditionally done business. Our slow rollout across the U.S. and Canada, hiring of outreach coordinators in more than a dozen cities, turning of cinemas into town halls and engaging various communities in more than 700 events in theaters, universities, conferences and synagogues helped Trembling to gross $850,000 (with nontheatrical, more than $1.05 million). New Yorker invested in the production costs of the DVD (editors, shooting, tape stock, online, rights), which I was able to lower by securing in-kind online studio time from City Lights Media Group and a fleet of interns gathered from Craigslist.org. Such a strategy paid off when chains such as Blockbuster, aware of the reach and press generated, looked at the design and content of our deluxe two-disk DVD set and stocked their stores with the film.

But in talking with various other distributors for this article, none say they would have contractually guaranteed this kind of up-front support; all say they handle DVD creation on a case-by-case basis. As Fritz Friedman, senior vice president of worldwide publicity for Columbia TriStar Home Video, comments, “Not all films can be your children. Everyone has their favorites.” Indeed, while some home video companies are investing in bonus features and director’s cuts, others are economizing by dumping out bare-bones releases containing only a film, its theatrical trailer and maybe some outdated bios lifted from the press notes — and no consultation with the director/producers.

How then do filmmakers guarantee that their video vision makes it to the DVD? The obvious answer is to build into a film’s production or acquisition contract the responsibility for DVD creation, allocation of costs and authoring of additional materials and projects. However, this is easier said than done. Friedman suggests tying these terms to some kind of box-office benchmark. If, for example, a film grosses more than $1 million, a filmmaker can be entitled to having certain expenses covered for the DVD.

 

Video Deliverables: Having deliverables ready when a video deal if signed is another strategy for building better DVDs. The larger video companies deal with a slew of releases and aren’t staffed to track down and remaster deleted scenes or sometimes to even commission director’s commentaries. By having these elements ready and mastered to DigiBetas or D1s, the filmmaker can induce a distributor into releasing a higher-quality DVD.

One overlooked area by most filmmakers is multiple language transcripts. When an international festival subtitles a film, obtain the translation on paper and the disc with in and out time-code points for subtitling. That way, one can plan ahead and have multiple languages for the DVD and also sell the DLT (master digital linear tape) to different territories. I had to scramble to get our Spanish subtitling from a festival in Buenos Aires for our U.S. release only to discover that they no longer had the disc with time codes. Do not forget that special features also need to be subtitled.

My distributor wanted an anamorphic 16:9 version of the film, but I had shot it on DV in 4:3. HBO Latin America, BBC and other broadcasters also preferred a 16:9 Trembling. That meant we had to pan-and-scan the entire film and then adjust each frame to compensate for the letterboxing. Because we had subtitles and ID’s in English from Hebrew and Yiddish, we had to relay all the subtitles or they would have been warped from the pan-and-scan. Budget accordingly and ideally do this early in the online of the film itself. (Visit www.thedigitalbits.com/articles/anamorphic/ for more information on this technical process.)

Remember to allow ample time for the creation of your DVD. DVDs involve numerous steps after delivering your completed DigiBeta’s: authoring, DVD-R, DLT, glass master, replication, check disc, live product and packaging. On our DVD production, there was constant checking and rechecking. Our online session creating three hours of new films plus the complexities of a 16:9 version stretched for two weeks. Also, a new panoramic photo of Jerusalem’s Western Wall for the DVD packaging, Shlomo on Donahue archival footage and end-credit music for Trembling on the Road necessitated unforeseen time in negotiation and licensing agreements.

 

Press and Publicity: Although the number of DVDs released to the marketplace have skyrocketed, theatrical releases still garner much greater press coverage. The New York Times, for example, has film reviews every day and DVD capsule blurbs once a week and other major national publications are starting to do more extensive coverage of DVD releases. To make long-lead magazine press deadlines, DVDs must be completed months in advance of their street dates. Film publicity firms such as mPRm now have specialty divisions that target the home video market. mPRm helped us get two feature stories in Video Store and one in Video Librarian, key video trade publications not necessarily known to directors.

The key for any DVD, like any film, is distribution, and that means either reaching the corporate chains to make block purchases for rental and, even better, retail, or using the Internet to sell to individual consumers. Steve Savage of Docurama, warns, “Because the barriers to entry of making a DVD are being removed, many filmmakers find it easy to make one and self-distribution is evolving. There are a lot of missteps. There may be immediate sales from Amazon.com but directors may jeopardize the long-term value of the film.

For Trembling, I created one special feature — More with Rabbi Steve, about the struggle of the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi to come out — that ties in with the subject’s own book, Wrestling with God and Men. New Yorker and I are forging a joint book-DVD marketing synergy with the author’s publisher. There are many ways DVDs can be linked to existing networks, companies and nonprofits to do larger-scale promotion.

DVDs have created an ongoing dialogue between director, film and audience that spans multiple media. As Peter Becker of Criterion concludes, “The way our DVD viewers are so extremely engaged I find heartening. There was such a brief life span of film — it’s pretty much gone. We are moving into a digital world little by little. In geologic time it’s a blink. The 100-year-plus history of film is nothing compared to painting and sculpture. There is a huge effort to save this work, but DVDs are not just about restoring what is physically lost but what would be lost practically. [Without DVDs,] all of this art would fade into obscurity.”

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