Learning Curves at the Los Angeles Film Festival

Producers and directors gather for the all-day Financing Conference

The Los Angeles Film Festival just wrapped up its ten-day celebration of independent film. If you missed the movies themselves, you will get a chance to see many of them, the features at least, because the film festival circuit works a little like a sieve to catch films for the distributing arms of the studios. The shorts have less chance of being seen outside festivals, but the director might be picked up to do something if the stars, both sidereal and terrestrial, are aligned. Even the chance to hear the director or writer or star speak about his or her work, a draw of the post-screening Q&A's at festivals, is now a benefit of the extended content on a DVD. So while you may have missed the buzz of the milieu of the Festival, you probably can catch the movies or directors themselves at some point down the road.

However, there is another aspect to festivals in general, and this festival in particular, that only happens once, and that is the panels and special events. The Los Angeles Film Festival is presented by Film Independent (FIND ), formerly known as IFP-West. I made it to a few of these events, and found a mix of information both useful and useless, fascinating and disappointing, stultifying and electrifying. By the end, I was exhausted, but well satisfied that I had taken the time. I will be sifting through the information and perspectives on the biz for weeks.

Diversity Challenge

The first event I attended was the Diversity Expo. The challenge for 'diversity' in any business built on personal relationships like the movie business became immediately clear. Sure, everybody there wanted their fair share of the the pie currently served in the white male executive dining room. Everybody there agreed that those guys should hire people outside their group of comfort, namely white guys. But when I moved around the room, I saw everybody collected into like-minded or like-colored or like-oriented groups. Even proponents of diversity prefer 'alike' to the 'other.'
I understand that collective power is greater than individual power and that the Expo was a chance for folks to collect a posse. But every circle of 'difference' was facing inward to other members of the same group. Individuals did not encounter other individuals. Individuals merged into groups.

I understand that collective power is greater than individual power and that the Expo was a chance for folks to collect a posse. But every circle of 'difference' was facing inward to other members of the same group. Individuals did not encounter other individuals. Individuals merged into groups.

Much of the succe4ss of the LAFF was due to the enthusiasm of volunteers

Most official Expo exhibitors were friendly and I learned a great deal about opportunities offered at the entry level for women or Blacks or Hispanics or Asians or LGB-oriented folk. Yet these supports are all, like the Expo itself, located in the Atrium of the Halls of the Industry. There is some filter that excludes all but a few from passing through the gates.

The answers, perhaps, do not lie in trying to gain entry to the traditional movie business machine or following its model. The behemoth does not adapt when the climate changes; it becomes extinct. The mutant, the one who has already incorporated a change of form, survives. The industry is in the midst of a global technology-driven climate change of its own. Perhaps these many groups are on the right track to survival. Perhaps, as the market splinters, diversity will mean more fragmentation into subgroups, more folks preaching to the choir, more homogeneity inside the ideology of stories. Perhaps every piece of this multifaceted culture will be honed and polished into a new and finer form that will turn difference into a bridge.

Low Budget Summit

What does 'low budget' mean? With the advent of digital filmmaking, it can mean anything. Anything. A million dollars could be low-budget. Or a person could make a feature for a few thousand dollars. How can these two products be compared? The answer is, they can't.

I don't know how much new information there was for folks who understand how to put a deal together. The large 'low budget' projects either have someone who knows the ropes already or someone with the unstoppable optimism and drive to pull the cash out of the universe no matter what. Which leaves the DYI folks, the ones who have their idea, their desire to tell a story, or their desire to be something (director, screenwriter, producer). There were only a few things of real use to such folk, but they are worth noting.

Someone who has a story to tell but not the money, savvy, or industry connections to put a deal together should check out the Independent Television Service (ITVS). Government funded, they are more interested in story than anything else. If your submission materials are good enough, even if you have no prior experience, and if your project dovetails with their mandate, they will enter into a contract with you for delivery of a movie. Richard Saiz, Program Manager at ITVS, says they put a lot of weight on the relationship between the filmmaker and subject. So if you have a project on a subject that you know and feel a personal passion for, and if you can transmit it to them, go check out their web site at itvs.org. The deadline for 2005 applications is August 5.

There was a lunch with limited seating to 'meet the guilds' - SAG, DGA, WGA. Each guild has special deals for low and even low-low budget pictures. They also give seminars individually where they go over these deals, so if you are in LA you can call them yourself and get added to one of their workshops when it is convenient for you.

The marketing session had a bit of advice for the low-low budget folk. Some of it is common sense, as in knowing who you made or are making your movie for. They talked about the idea of using the internet for 'viral' marketing. A virus is a very small thing, but it transfers easily from one person to another so that a single 'promiscuous' source like a key blogger in your topic of interest can transmit interest in your movie to thousands of people. If you are internet savvy yourself, you should start a blog the minute you embark on your project and keep it up. Link to other blogs. FInd your audience. What to do once you find your audience? More on that later.

The marketing execs at this seminar were all expensive. However, they mentioned that they have interns. And their advice was to call a good marketing firm. Explain that you need a unit publicist, have no money, and were hoping that they had an intern they could recommend who might want to take on a film. And they advised doing it as early in the process as you could. Since the only way to pay for a movie is to sell it, a marketing intern could mean the difference between making one movie and having a career.
Financing Conference

The Financing Conference was another all-day event. It was housed away from the rest of the festival in the Pacific Design Center. The building felt abandoned and the forbidding environment was made even less hospitable by the fact that the two conference rooms were at opposite ends of the Center and entailed a half-mile jog to go from one to the other. A gal who wears high heels did arrange that setup. With the dim lights and the hurry to get from the Blue Room from the Silver Screen Theater, I almost took a nasty tumble down some steps on the polished marble floors.

That said, this was the most effectively informative of the filmmaker events. The very first session had two tiers designed for the two levels of producers and directors who might be in attendance. There was seminar on basic financing that laid out in straightforward banker's terms how the financing works on films and why. The 'why' is important because without it, you cannot figure a creative solution when a roadblock appears. Lewis Horowitz laid it out so clearly that the only confusion occurred when he decided we needed waking up and he would proceed to do a few magic tricks.

At the same time, those more experienced in movie deals went to a panel on international financing. More money is now made in international markets than domestic, so this source of revenue is worth knowing and taking into account if your budget involves more than a few credit cards. Likewise, another seminar on tax incentive for productions. Dry stuff in the abstract, but the singing of angel voices if you need a bit more money to get your pet project off the ground.

Peter Broderick on self-distribution

For the low budget DYI filmmakers, visionary Peter Broderick pointed to the future he sees for self-distribution that warmed the cockles of every self-starter in the room. He has successfully helped many films that did not fit the studio or film festival mold to make not just their money back, but to reap profits that have funded second and third films. His are the tools of diversity, the capitalization on the viral marketing in blogs and web sites.

In some ways, it was simplicity itself. Identify your core audience. Sell the DVD off of your web site. Make sure you do not send them to another site to buy, as you want the cookies for future projects. With your store up and running, work the web. Connect to your audience through organizations that serve that core on the web. Link web sites with them. Give a part of your proceeds to charities that serve your core if the DVD sells through their link. Organize house parties and small screenings.

I had heard parts of this model from different sources going in to the seminar. What was different was that Broderick was making it work and shared some of the tools that would make it possible for anyone to do. Part of the problem of self-promotion is all the record keeping. Part of the problem of self-distribution is the storage and packing and mailing itself. Part of the problem with shared revenues is the accounting. Well, it turns out there are companies who do all of these things, and almost all their fees are triggered by a sale. That means you don't pay out until money comes in.
It still is a lot of planning, and detailed work, and delayed gratification. But if someone has made a movie, that person knows all about planning, working, and delaying gratification. Self-distribution is here for those who want to make a movie. The key is to have a core audience that you can tap into. So make a movie about a passion of yours, a passion others probably share, and find them and go.

A BLESSING AND A CURSE

Most people have heard the old Chinese curse, 'May you live in interesting times.' Like it or not, we all live in such times thanks to the shrinking of the globe into a single electronic community. Some people hide from it. Some try to reshape the old models that dominated into their doubles on the net. For a while, the stronger dinosaurs will hang on. But as the entire paradigm shifts, those with less to lose will reform more completely into creatures of the new medium. They won't look anything like the old giant reptiles. It was the tiny, furry mammals that adapted tot he change in climate most successfully, and look at us mammals now. Dashing around the Los Angeles Film Festival, from panel to seminar, from screening to lounge, I watched as the giants cut their swath through the undergrowth and I realized they are looking for the little mammals to feed on to stay alive. Ironically, it is not the ones who receive the golden 'yes' and are swallowed by the system, but those whom they ignore, who do not qualify in their terms, who are the very ones who will survive and adapt and grow into what the movie business will be someday.

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