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October 11 at 12:56pm

Response To An Open Letter From FilmUtopia’s Clive Davies-Frayne

By Ted Hope

Clive Davies-Frayne, bugged by my endorsement of Scott Macauley’s brilliant, slightly-tongue-in-cheek, letter from the future, took the time on his Filmutopia site, to write an open letter to me.

I love how conversations can grow and flourish these days, across borders, opening our minds to different perspectives and greater understandings. I am a big believer that this sort of discussion is the way that solutions are found. Although I know I won’t be able to make a habit of answering such open letters, but since Clive got this started I thought I would keep the ball up in the air a bit. Clive asked the following question (and a few more), and I will do my best to answer.
Is distribution really the biggest problem facing the independent movie sector?
I don’t really subscribe to the all-or-nothing approach, but distribution, and it’s cousins the marketplace and marketing, are definitely among the issues. The indie sector has flourished over the last twenty or so years. These movies weren’t being seen previously although they still got made. We’ve watched their box office, and the expectation there of, soar. The folks who distribute mainstream indie product have gotten incredibly skilled at their job at getting the word out about the films they select. But the filmmakers themselves have only recently started taking responsibility for some of this task.
Building all filmmaker’s skills at marketing and publicity is certainly one of the tasks before the community these days. If you ask me this should be an equal emphasis and film schools and advocacy/support organizations. It’s interesting that there are many labs for content creation but none on marketing and distribution. If the last decade in indie film was about the demystification of the development, production, and sales process, then this next period will hopefully do the same for discovery, promotion, presentation, and appreciation.
Getting the word out about non-mainstream or mass market indie work is a huge problem in the industry. If you are a true indie film lover and want to know what is new and good, where do you go? All these films show up at film festivals all over the country, but are soon forgotten. Newspapers don’t cover them. How do you know where to even learn more about them? I started a website called HammerToNail to do something about it. There, filmmakers write about the films they love. We don’t publish the negative reviews because there are enough haters already out there. I personally don’t publish reviews because I have too much on my plate already and it is not where I think I can be most effective.
I do think it is crucial we all take a big hand in getting good work seen and spoken about. I encourage audiences to do this regularly. I encourage all filmmakers to take on the role of curator. I started a screening series with my partner Anne Carey and the good folks at Goldcrest in NYC. We have screened over twenty films this year. We send out about 1000 invites to these screenings to “influential media types” where we write a personal letter explaining why we admire the film. The theater only sits about 60 so it doesn’t compromise box office potential but builds the base of early adopters. I generally run the Q&A afterwards. AFTERSCHOOL was one such film that we screened which later got a small theatrical release. I sent an email blast to 120 NYC directors asking them to support each other and this film specifically and agree to run Q&As nightly at the theater to build an audience; I conducted one Q&A myself. We all have to band together to get the word out if great work is to flourish.
Screening series and review blogs are extension of the work I have done on film juries and mentorship programs. I do as much of these as I can. It is exhausting and a big time commitment. I enjoy each of these a great deal. I wish I could do more of it but I am still trying to figure out how to earn a decent living. It’s interesting that when I do such things in other countries, there is often government support, but here it is always pro bono. It becomes a time management issue where I often have decide where I am getting paid (it never is substantial enough to say “one for me, one for them”).
I maintain another blog called TheseAreThoseThings. It is a curatorial blog where I talk about the films, music, and other things I love. I wish I could do more of this but man am I busy. I try to bring more attention to the things I love, particularly to the things that I feel might be overlooked. I could use some more help on this. You might be right though Clive; beyond these blogs, screening series, and Q&As, perhaps there is more that I could do in general to promote other people’s work. I would like to be more efficient and successful at getting the word out. I look forward to any suggestions people have about how to do this.
It’s true that we need much more discussion on what makes work good or at least better. I wrote up a 32 part article called “Qualities Of Better Film” on a column called “Let’s Make Better Films” on HammerToNail. It was a lot of work and some folks found it helpful. I admit I was disappointed that it didn’t generate more discussion. I develop a great number of projects. I have probably produced more films by first time directors than anyone else; it’s more work focusing on new directors and new writers and is not as financially rewarding as other approaches. I do it because I love new voices and new approaches. Four of our scripts have been nominated for Oscars. I think this is both because we know when to push harder to get something “right” and because we also know when to leave well enough alone. Suffice it to say though we usually go through thirty or so drafts on a script. In the years I spend developing a project I don’t get paid; I do it on faith that we will get to where we need and others will recognize the necessity of getting the work made.
Ultimately, I think what generates good work is simply making better work. I have been involved in over 60 films. I think they are pretty good. At times I fight so hard to make them better (in my opinion) or make sure they get seen, I damage some relationships in the process. I know this is not good for my “business” but I think it is good for the business over all. Getting movies made and getting them out to the audiences doesn’t come from anything other than good and thorough work. I started with no connections or any money or any real knowledge, but I did have a great love of cinema and I took both an appreciative and critical approach. I work hard to make sure I am inspired about work in general today as I was when I started. I hope to make another 60 or so films, and to both make them better and to work better. I think that labor will have a greater effect than anything I can ever say.
As I said before, I helped found HammerToNail. The work that has been done there has not been seen as widely as it deserves, but it has been very inspiring to me. Generally traveling the film festivals and viewing the submissions that come into my company (did I say we get over 3000 annually), I find three or four directors that I think will develop substantial bodies of work. Due to the filtering the HammerToNail crew did for all of us, last year I recognized at least eighteen new directors (from America alone)whose work I will follow their every move of. Good work is being made and talked about, you just need to work hard to find it and use the right tools. Spreading the word about those tools seems to be what people need most right now.
Regarding self-distribution and whether it makes sense for films of certain budgets, you are right in saying that it doesn’t. But I do believe it could. The point is that the model is just now being built and it is the entire communities responsibility to build it. There has always been a self-defeating attitude amongst certain creators that they can’t get involved in the business or promotion. It is an absolute necessity that they do in my opinion. I have always approached budgets as something the market sets. We don’t have government support for the arts in my country so I have not had the luxury of any other way of thinking. To design a film that requires a cost that can’t be recouped is irresponsible and generally will have a devastating effect on all of us. We need to rebuild the model from the bottom up. We have to design our work for a price that justifies experimentation. When we find success, we can then build on top of it.
There’s a lot more to be said on all these topics. I am glad you found THE SAVAGES and I will certainly check out the film you recommend. I wish I had time to keep on writing but I have to surrender my computer to my nine year old son who wants to tell his friends about what he’s learned in the last 24 hours about Bakugan and the Lego mini-fig he just customized. And besides I have some scripts to read and some movies to make a bit better. Thanks for the letter and the discussion. I do think we can solve all this working together, provided we get a little help from some friends.


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6 Comments

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  1. Clive (filmutopia) / Oct 11 at 12:56pm

    Thanks for the response…

    Small world… I also have a script I promised I'd finish reading yesterday and a business plan for a movie that isn't getting any more completed.

    All I want to see is a grown up discussion about movie marketing… one that isn't predicated on the principle that "the internet alone will save us."

    I haven't got time to voice my concerns that independent sector is being distanced from interaction with the industry and becoming a digital ghetto… or any of the fourteen other things that bother me about current business models in the movie industry.

    Maybe, that's a conversation we could pick up if we ever run into each other at a festival. Something that has a higher degree of happening, if I now get back to my desk and the real work.

  2. pangofilms / Oct 11 at 12:56pm

    This is just a small note, but as someone who likes to post comments on here and other places, I think it would help get more discussion if you turned moderation off in the comments. I know you're busy, but it's tough to keep a conversation going on here when there's a day between a comment and a response. You could always turn it back on if it didn't work out.

  3. Tanyeno / Oct 11 at 12:56pm

    I'd be really impressed if you two made it your business to discuss this topic further because there are so many instances when the failure to do so was just an opportunity missed–and this one might help a whole lot of us (if you were to blog those ideas).

    I'm coming into this discussion at the start of two efforts, one of which will be directorial. It’s really a big question for me to consider but I know since I arrived, one, which I may not have options around.

    I will be reading further on this subject. It’s now made it unto my list of things to learn about. Thank-you Clive and Ted.

  4. Clive (filmutopia) / Oct 11 at 12:56pm

    Hi Ted,

    Well, the good news is our conversation has thrown up a lot of interest… I was too tired last night to move the conversation on.. but this morning over coffee I hammered out some of my thoughts.

    There wasn't enough space here for my response to your response… so I posted it in the comments section of my original letter.
    http://filmutopia.posterous.com/an-open-letter-to-ted-hope-about-self-distrib

  5. Raz Cunningham / Oct 11 at 12:56pm

    I am so proud of the commitment this community has to itself. We still support the hell out of each other. At any time, Ted, and others like him, could have given up his methods and moved onto a more mainstream way of thinking, a more profitable lifestyle, but he didn't. The same can be said for dozens of other people.

    We have devotion to development. I've had the… "fortune" of working at a studio for a while. I spent time in their development, production, acquisitions and marking divisions, I saw A LOT, and the idea of not getting paid just to stay later in the day is a crime to some people. The few former colleagues from there I still talk to call me crazy for not working that way now, but I don't care. My bills are paid (barely), but the work is extremely rewarding.

    Its in their acquisitions division that I learned the most. They really have no community. They have no desire to foster filmmakers, no desire to cultivate the career of the filmmaker whose film they just bought. They're not trying to plant a garden, just reap the crops. When you do that, you encounter the old "teach a man to fish…" metaphor.

    When this studio acquired a film, it did not invite other studio heads, or developers, or directors, or filmmakers of any kind, to participate in a discussion or share their work. There was no "its actually a great film, you just need to see it" going on anywhere. They felt they didn't need it. Regardless of their view, WE need it. Yes, we need to make a living, but for this community, for our peers in the indie world, we really do care about the project itself. I've been to dozens of screenings of my peers work and about 3/4 of those in attendance are fellow filmmakers, are my "competitors", but none of us walk into that room thinking "how can I get better reviews than this guy, and make that other guy's returns look like "Swept Away's"?" We walk in their thinking, "man, I can't wait to see what she's done this time"

    We're still finding that a big chunk our audience is ourselves. Indie film has always been a kind of "in the family" community, but now we're going beyond. I'm not sure how many of you attend a screening put on by Rooftop films, but most of that crowd is involved in film, and its not just in NY, its all over. However, most of those people bring their friends, who aren't always professional peers, to see the film, and they're happy to be there.

    The fact that people I know outside of the indie world, WAY outside, have taken the time to go online, look up "Paranormal Activity" and hit the "Demand it" button is mindblowing. Absolutely mindblowing. (and yes, i know it was a studio's venture, but still) If you look at the list on the site itself you can see where people are wanting to see it, far outside of the film world's geographic location. And what does this tell us? That we finally have confirmation on something; the "new model" will rely on the internet. It seems like a big "DUH!" at this point, but it works. It's reached outside our own realm and into the homes of our neighbors, family and friends. Some saw it this weekend and their word of mouth is spreading. The studio I left would never have tried something like this and they still would have rejected the idea after this.

    The bottom line here is that we don't live for the bottom line. We live to live, not to indulge, not to excess. We can, and will, continue to go back to the theaters, go back to the screenings, to support our friends (we may be their UPMs on their next film or they might be a Gaffer on ours, or a DP on another friend's.) and their work, because its good. Because we know how hard they worked to do it, not because their marketing was any better or worse. The indie community itself is its own marketing, to reach OUTSIDE of it, THAT'S what we need to focus on, and we're doing it. We're DONATING our time, our lives, our knowledge, our efforts to keep this community alive and in the efforts and announcements of the past few months have made me more proud of my peers than I've ever been.

  6. Self Helpless / Oct 11 at 12:56pm

    I don't know if we have any great model for everyone else to follow, but my crew has put together a plan that works for us and our 10k movie. Check our site out if you are interested:

    http://www.selfhelplessmovie.com

    A lot of the pertinent info is in the "About" page. Basically, we figure that with a lot of hard work we can do all the things that a big distributor would do for us.

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