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Posts Tagged ‘Sundance’

I’ve just returned from a three week trip to the west coast of Ireland, Kerry County to be exact. Beautiful country. The weather was erratic, as I’m told it is at this time of year, including rain, snow, sun and heavy winds all changing within the hour. I was there to Line Produce a feature doc-dramedy entitled, “We’ll Always Have Dingle,”about filmmaking and film festivals in Dingle, Ireland, wrapped around recreated classic Hollywood films. Become a Dingle Doc Facebook Fan.

The project was produced and directed by Geoff Wonfor (“Beatles Anthology“) and produced by my good friend Diane Namm (“The Sacrifice” “Telemafia“) and Debbie Vandermeulen of Fusion Entertainment. The Irish crew was top notch, including DP Eugene O’Connor, AC Conor Kelly and Trevor Cunningham handling sound duties. The real surprise was the amazing assistance from a group of ten students from the Irish training program, FAS. All were enthusiastic and creative. We couldn’t have done the project without them.

For me, the highlight of the shoot was the day spent at Cuminole Beach on the Dingle Peninsula. Until recently, the peninsula was remote from modern influences and therefore, the language and traditions of the area have survived intact to a greater degree than in most of Ireland. This is evident by the local Irish news report on the production. (See it here, about nine minutes into the broadcast.) We were recreating a scene from David Lean’s 1970 film “Ryan’s Daughter” (which was originally filmed in the area). We couldn’t have asked for better weather and visibility. From the location you can see the Blasket Islands, including one that looks exactly like a giant man sleeping in the ocean. It really wasn’t difficult to understand how the Celtic myths and legends began in this part of Ireland.

Dingle is a gorgeous, small fish and farming village, rich with Celtic history and known for its pubs and friendly people. I met a bunch of American ex-pats and local artists, some to surely be life long friends. Unfortunately, because of the workload, I didn’t get to see much at the actual Dingle Film Festival, but was very impressed by the crowds of avid film lovers. It reminded me of the early days of the Sundance Film Festival.

I did get the opportunity to introduce our documentary film, “Houston We Have A Problem,” which played at the film festival. After the screening there were many discussions on the film and American energy policies at the pub. Amazing, how European audiences seem to get the film and understand the history of U.S domestic energy better then most Americans. I also sat on a panel for the RED camera. This seems to be the camera of choice for independent features in Ireland. “We’ll Always Have Dingle” was shot on the RED. I showed some RED clips that I produced through my company Unconventional Media for the EA video game, “Need for Speed:Undercover.”

After the exhausting eleven days of production, I traveled inland to Trelle, the industrial center of Kerry County. I presented a two day workshop on Line Producing/UPM and AD work for the FAS students. The students seemed real interested in the process of shooting film and television in the United States. Many comparisons were made to production in Ireland, but really, other then budgets, the differences are few. I passed around information about our OneOnOne Film Training program at the class conclusion.

My last night was spent in Cork, Ireland, a city on the southwest coast. The city reminded me of a small San Francisco, but with lots more history. I visited the birthplace of the amazing guitarist Rory Gallagher and an exhibit on Medieval life in that part of the country. At the end of the night, I ended up at a pub catering to foreigners with lots of loud Americans. At that moment, I wasn’t sure I was ready to leave and get back to all that.

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Last Saturday night I had the pleasure of attending a free live performance by Bear McCreary and his team of world class musicians perform his original scores from the Emmy-deserving television show, “Battlestar Galactica.” It was the opening for this summer’s Grand Performances in downtown Los Angeles, a consistently wonderful showcase of world music.  We’ve been going for years.  One of those hidden treasures of LA.

As indicated on these pages in January, I think “Battlestar Galactica” is fracken great.  However, I didn’t really understand how important the series was until I attended a panel last week hosted by Geoff Boucher (LA Times Hero Complex) as part of the LA Times “Envelope” Emmy screening series. Writer/creators Ronald D. Moore and David Eick were there, as well as stars Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, but the surprise was that they were joined by United Nations Senior Human Rights Official, Craig Mohkiber and United Nations Senior Political Affairs Officer, Stephen Siqueria. I guess last March, this same group sat in front of the United Nations (video links here) and discussed issues ranging from human rights accountability to peace and justice in the world. They not only talked about how these issues related to BSG, but what we as nations can learn from the decisions made in the show, both by the military, demonstrated in the series by Admiral William Adama, played by Olmos, and, on the civilian side, by President Laura Roslin, played by Mary McDonnell.

If who haven’t seen the show, tens of thousands of human survivors have escaped annihilation from the man-made Cylons by taking refuge aboard a group of spaceships, lead by the aging warship Galactica. They begin a search for a new home planet, the mythical 13th colony, called Earth, chased by the Cylons, many that look human. As President, Laura Roslin sacrifices thousands of innocent civilians, abolishes reproductive choice, executes enemy combatants without trial and nearly steals an election over the course of the series. That was the point of the UN event and the Los Angeles event billed as “TV – making global issues relevant.” After showing clips from the series, the speakers shared how these shameful and violating acts continue for real across our world. As UN official, Craig Mokhiber said, “every nation on this planet has broken the rules of human rights,” and talked about how part of the UN mandate was to safeguard the human rights of everyone, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, and station. This fictional series gave us all an opportunity to think and discuss human rights, justice versus revenge, punishing people who perpetrate crimes against humanity, by watching episodes that take place on a spaceship in the future.

Isn’t that amazing? A fictional television show that carries significant political and world issue relevance. Most important, BSG was entertaining, I never felt like I was being preached too. That is the true genius of Ron Moore and David Eick.  In addition, the contribution of director Michael Rymer, as Moore acknowledged that night as “the third creative force that contributed heavily to our vision.” (It was fun to see the director get credit publicly for their creative input on a television series.  It rarely happens.)

It doesn’t have to be mindless, to be entertaining. That’s why I got into filmmaking.  To tell stories that make us think, react, research, formulate an educated opinion. We understand this to be true with documentaries, but as Basil Tsiokos reminds us in the terrific blog he wrote for indiewire,”8 Documentary Dos and Don’ts,” no one needs another wrongly executed doc film that’s only about message. Basil is a programming associate for the Sundance Film Festival and was Artistic Director for NewFest for twelve years.  He screens a lot of films and knows that a documentary can be important and informative, but it still needs to be entertaining.

That was our goal for the documentary, “Houston We Have a Problem” directed by Nicole Torre. The film explores our dangerous addiction to oil through candid insights from the Barons, Wildcatters, CEO’s and Roughnecks that comprise the world of Big Oil. An inside look into the culture of oil that explores the history of our dependency and how it has led us to the current energy crisis.  I’ve written about this film before here, when it premiered at AFI-Dallas and it continues to play the festivals. The issues the film addresses are important, but I believe we presented them in a fun, sometimes humorous, never boring way.

However, I am no Ron Moore. I’ve tried to write screenplays with significance, usually with them ending up being obvious and heavy.  I look forward to Mr. Moore’s television movie “Virtuality” airing June 26 on Fox about a group of astronauts who pass the time in virtual reality modules as their interactions are beamed back to Earth as a reality TV show. The new BSG series “Caprica” starts in January, about the kind of people, think us, that would create Cylons in the first place.  There is also “The Plan,” the Battlestar Galactica story from the Cylons perspective airing on Sci-Fi in November.  Directed by Edward James Olmos, a trailer was shown at the event and to quote Olmos, “it is breathtaking. It’s fantastic… I couldn’t have imagined this kind of a situation happening at the end of a show, where you would actually start at the beginning. That’s a masterful piece of understanding, Ron is a genius. Because after you see ‘The Plan,’ you’ll want to go back and view the whole series again.”

In these days of Twitter informing the world of election protests in Iran before the news can cover the story, important stories, fact or fiction, WILL FIND an audience. Smart filmmakers are figuring out how to find that audience. BSG is just one of many, many great shows on television, so why go out and spend big bucks on a crappy studio remake. If you want your film seen, it’s about getting it out there, any way possible.  In fact tonight, I’ll be watching the pilot episode of “Caprica” on DVD that was rented from Netflix. I’m sure the hope is that as a fan. I’ll like the new show as much as BSG and so when it airs, I’ll tell my friends and it will become “must see TV.” That’s forward thinking and we need more writers, showrunners and filmmakers to be looking forward and to tell the stories that have important relevance to our lives, yet still are entertaining. And so say we all!

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Catholic Church of Elvis

Catholic Church of Elvis

The Sundance Film Festival of 2009 wraps up this weekend.  I almost went this year.  I even purchased a festival pass, but after watching the Inauguration Tuesday on television, I don’t think Park City, Utah was the place to be this week!  Of course, I didn’t know that last month when I changed my plans to attend the festival.  Family and work commitments forced me to pay out the 20% cancellation fee.

I will admit, I was also a little disappointed that none of the three films I produced were accepted this year into the festival.  Yes, I did fantasize about walking the slope of Main Street with three Sundance Premieres.  I suspected the quirky, very funny, but very low budget, DVD indie feature “Tales from the Catholic Church of Elvis” written, co-directed and starring Mercy Malick was not really the kind of film the Festival schedules anymore, especially when it’s still a work in progress.  And we did receive a wonderfully supportive letter for the uncompleted documentary, “Houston, We Have a Problem” that I’m producing with Producer/Director Nicole Torre.  The film is about the oil crisis from the independent oilman’s perspective and their exploration into alternative sources of energy.  Sundance’s loss, the issue is too important for us to wait a full year to resubmit.  The big surprise for me was that the terrific short film “The Sacrifice,” written and directed by Diane Namm and starring Chris Mulkey, Darby Stanchfield, Jon Lindstrom and Molly Quinn, didn’t get in.  It’s “Big Love” gone bad.  Maybe the issues of incest and polygamy were too close to home.

Of course, I’ve never really had great luck with Sundance, even back when it was the USA Film Festival in the mid-80’s.  It was one of the few festival’s that rejected “Travelin’ Trains.”  I’ve entered my script “Press>Play” a few times, both for the Screenplay lab and the Producing lab, never being accepted.  We’ve had a little more positive feedback for the project “Witness Trees,” but mostly because of the involvement of American Indian visual artist/musician Sandy Corley.

I know this reads like I’m very jaded about Sundance, but I’ve always believed in their mentoring philosophy.  What I find the most exciting these last few years is how they’ve embraced new media to communicate and educate.  You really no longer have to go to Sundance to enjoy the festival.  The homepage has videos and audio podcasts each day from Park City.  They’ve now added on Itunes short festival films and podcasts of panel discussions.  It’s a great resource for anyone that is considering making an independent film, in fact these days, (since hardly anyone is buying films any more), it might be the best part of Sundance.

The Sundance Festival website now has a section entitled, “Storytime,” for people to write memories of past festivals.  Fascinating, to see how things have changed through the years.  I’ve got my own memories, some very good.  My first time at the festival was in 1989 for just one day to see the screening of “Daughters of the Dust” directed by Julie Dash.  We had all worked very hard, for little money, on that film and really wanted to see how audiences would react.  I was the Location Manager and was extremely proud that the film won Best Cinematography that year.  In January 1993, I bought a pass to the festival for the first half, but stayed for the full 10 days.  I had been involved in the very early stages of prep for Victor Nunez‘s film “Ruby in Paradise,” produced by my friend and “Travelin’ Train” producer Keith Crofford.  When the buzz started to build for the film and I had the opportunity to escort a beautiful, young actress named Ashley Judd to screenings, I decided to stay.  A wonderful week of films capped by “Ruby” winning the Grand Jury Dramatic award.  I had such a great time that I went the following year with unpleasant results.  I had no pass, was just another filmmaker looking for attention, couldn’t get into any parties and froze my ass off.

I avoided the festival for over 10 years, partly because I moved to Los Angeles and didn’t see why I needed to go to Park City to make contacts.  In 2005, I had some cash and decided to go just for fun.  Things certainly had changed.  More venues, more people, more advertising and more traffic.  I shared a condo with DP Marty Ollstein, caught dozens of movies, sometimes 5 in one day, (I’ve since decided 4 is my limit).  Heard a great debate between Werner Herzog and Frederick Wiseman on the definition of “Cinema Verite”.  Saw people I kept promising to meet up with in Los Angeles, saw some old New York friends and made many new ones.  Saw an amazing concert by Yo La Tango.  I even went snowboarding.  My one and only time.  Even on the Park City powder, I feel that throwing myself up and landing directly on my back, on concrete, would be more pleasant.

This year, I’m there virtually, checking out the resources available online, catching some short films and staying warm.  For Unconventional Media, maybe that makes more sense.

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It’s close to Thanksgiving, but I’m not thankful, I’m distracted.  I’m “reworking” the budget for my script “Press>Play” from 3.5 million down to 1 million.  “Press>Play,” is an erotic journey of obsession, a drama about manipulation. Paul Beck is a video vulture, exaggerates news stories, edits images and facts to generate entertainment. Vivian DeBeche is an aspiring actress with little talent, playing out roles from old movies. A modern day couple that communicates, emotional and sexually, using a camera and Internet voyeurism as their tools.  I wrote the first draft in 1990.  At that time it was more science fiction, then slice of life.  Check out the website, PressPlayMovie.com.

When talking about new media and unconventional films, I think this project fits the bill.  So does the producer at Blue Horseshoe Productions, just not at 3.5 million, not in today’s economy, not if you’re making a non-genre independent film.  I’m sure you’ve heard the stories, they’re grim.  Seems every day there is another article in the Hollywood Reporter or Variety about the economy taking it’s toll on making independent films.  In the Sunday, November 23rd issue of the Los Angeles Times, Rachel Abramowitz writes how as funding gets scarce, filmmakers must become more creative.  Last week at the American Film Market (AFM) everyone looked dazed and disappointed.  Few people were buying.  I guess this talk of how difficult it has become to sell an indie film started with CEO of The Film Department (and former President of Miramax) Mark Gill’s now famous “the sky is falling” speech at the Los Angeles Film FestivalIndiewire still has it posted up on their website.  Basically, Gill lists Paramount folding Paramount Vantage, Warner Brothers closing Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse, many other smaller companies laying off employees or closing their doors as just a small sampling of the dying breath of indie film.  The glut of films and high costs of advertising are also destroying the business.  In a world with too many choices, companies can’t risk the marketing money on most movies.  Now, the credit crunch has further squeezed the independent filmmaker.  Many banks have just stopped giving money to films.

So what is someone that has a project like my feature, “Press>Play” to do.  Well, one of the things Gill believes has hurt independent movies is all the other forms of alternative entertainment that exist today, iPods to Xboxes to Tivos to YouTube videos and excellent cable television shows.  Well, isn’t that the Unconventional Media mantra.  If we can’t beat them, let’s join them.  That’s what makes a film like “Press>Play” so perfect for this day and age.  It’s a film that uses these alternatives as part of its story.  We will also use this new media to promote and distribute.  It just won’t be made in Los Angeles because there are no financial incentives like there are in most of the other States.  As I chip away at the budget, I’ve got to make a bunch of compromises, location being one of the first.  It’s depressing, but I want to see the film get made.

In the October 30 issue of indiewire, Anthony Kaufman writes about the cash crunch and the difficulty of raising funds, but some producers are still getting movies made, and new financiers have appeared.  He believes the real problem is in distribution.  There just aren’t as many places to go anymore and the distributors that do still exist are being very careful.  That’s what I was seeing at AFM.  No risk taking.  And why should they, not when it takes a huge publicity and advertising budget, sometimes more then it cost to make the movie, to get seats filled in a theater.  Certainly, the distribution strategy can’t be that your film is going to win at Sundance and then get picked up, because even some of the winners are not playing theatrically anymore.  Independent distributors are even promoting the idea that getting your feature film on the Internet is better for your film then a theatrical run.  Yikes, how can our investors make their money back?

Mark Gill believes “if you decide to make a movie budgeted under $10 million on your own tomorrow, you have a 99.9% chance of failure.”  Thankfully, Stacy Parks offers some more positive solutions through her terrific organization, Film Specific.  It is her belief that any budget over 5 million needs a name attached and studio backing, so keep the budget low and hire up and coming actors, terrific, future names.  In fact if you’re lucky, maybe they’ll be a name by the time your film is completed.  I found it interesting that she warns against shooting DV tape because of the difficulty to sell the film overseas.  An Independent film has such a slim chance of success without global sales, so this is important information.  As indicated in previous posts, I’ve become a huge proponent of the RED camera which I think may change up these odds and still keep the budget low.

Parks also warns against inflated numbers, keep the sales projections realistic.  It is very unlikely that your independent film will make millions, so don’t lie to your investors.  You just want to show that the film will make a profit.  This can be done by finding niche markets on-line and elsewhere.  If you want to do the work, you can also self distribute, which has a much better chance of higher return.  I’ve been experimenting with this idea recently with my short film, Travelin’ Trains.  Searching out the other train websites, fansites, etc and leaving a link to the website for my film.  It seems to be working.  I think Arin Crumley and Susan Buice did this brilliantly with their Slamdance feature film winner, “Four Eyed Monsters.”  They showed the film at festivals, created websites, even edited the film into webisodes for YouTube.  Their experience is really a how-to on self distribution, too bad they didn’t make much money.

So I’m now back to reworking the budget.  It’s a lot of work.  I guess Mark Gill is right, “it’s not enough to have access to the moviemaking process. Talent matters more.”  I’ve had great reactions to the screenplay, many envision a good film.  Now, if I could only get the damn thing made and seen, it will be worth the 18 years I’ve spent developing the project.

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