The Waterhole – An Epilogue

It was never going to be easy.  It took along time to write, a longer time to finance and what felt like even longer to get to the first screening.  The scary truth is that it was going to get even harder, especially since we had the high aspiration of wanting more people to see our film.  At the end of the day we accomplished everything we wanted to, had a blast doing it and learned more than I could possibly put into this blog.  So as hard as it was, it was the most rewarding non-offspring creating experience of my life and I look forward to doing it again as soon as feasible. 

Before I turn out the lights and lock the doors forever on The Waterhole I thought I would add some insight to the final step of our bumpy journey: Distribution.  Like everything else we experienced this turned out to be a mixed bag of “Wow, were are so damn lucky” to “How did this get so fucked up?”  What follows is not a cautionary tale nor is it advice; it is simply a recount with maybe a few editorial notes added for spice.  I will not mention our sales agent or distributor by name, because I have nothing negative to say about them specifically and for those who are truly curious that information is not too hard to find. 

After our minor festival run we were fully prepared to self-distribute.  And by that I mean fully ready for the possibility.  The discussions we had with sales reps had been in a word: creepy.   Used car sales men creepy.  The kind of conversations where you are never not feeling hustled.   To make matters worse these companies wanted to charge us for their services, fees that reached above ten grand.  The one good thing about those numbers was they were prohibitive enough to make our decision easy despite the promises the agents were making. (Side note: throughout this whole filmmaking process these agents were the only stereotypical Hollywood douche bags we dealt with.)  In the end we were able to find a sales rep that seemed genuine and frank and although we did have to kick down some cash, it was significantly lower than the numbers quoted by the others we had spoken with.

Thus, the rejection process initiated by the festival circuit was continued in the search for a distributor.   As the months passed, dozens of screeners were sent and the names of possible matches made in heaven were crossed off the list one by one.   It was bleak.  The self-distribution back-up plan was getting dusted off.  We would do anything to get the film out there, but prospect of someone doing the heavy lifting for us felt seemed like the best option for our schedules.  We really wanted a distributor.  We were so close.  Finally an offer would come.  The only offer we would get.  Decision time is always more fun when you have no other choices. 

We signed.  The reason for going with this distributor besides the fact that we had zero other choices are as follows: 1) they were very upfront and honest with us as to what we could expect from sales, as in “don’t get your hopes up,” 2) reasonable terms for revenue split and expenses, 3) we could sell DVDs off our own website, 4) and most importantly for me, every film in their catalog was on Netflix.   Why was Netflix so important?  At the time it was the one place that offered the quickest access to a large audience, something I wanted more than money.  When I emphasized to them that this was important to me, they stated that it should not be a problem but that there was never any guarantee. 

On March 23, 2011 our DVD was shipped out across the US and Canada.  It felt great to hold it in my hands, but the work was still not over.  We knew that our new distributor had limited resources to market the film so we did our own publicity, getting anyone and everyone to review it and hitting the social networks hard.  The first disconcerting interaction with the distributor was when I asked if I could see their media list to make sure we weren’t doubling up.  I was told “no” and wasn’t even given any sense of what promotion they were doing, which was unfortunate because it was at this time the best promotion angle was about to occur: our star, the wonderful Patrick J Adams, was just announced as the lead in a new USA show called SUITS.  This was a huge break for us.  Our casting philosophy had been to get actors that weren’t big now, but could be big and it was paying off.   I immediately informed our distributor who responded positively but that was all they did. 

At this point, any and all excitement started to evaporate.  The DVD was not on Netflix, not even listed as a title you could save.  We inquired and were told, “It is getting more difficult.”  Wonderful.  Deep breathes.  Not the end of the world.  A few weeks after the DVD was released we asked our distributor when we could expect to see the digital releases and were told, “In two months.”  Two months came and went.  Three months.  Four months.  You get the picture.  Finally in December we were released on Amazon Instant and a few others with iTunes to supposedly follow soon.  As of this writing, we are still not on iTunes.  Our digital distribution was and remains practically non-existent.  In this period we also received our first payment.  It was pretty embarrassing.  Without pulling down our pants completely, I will just say that we would need about 400 more of them before we broke even.   

That was that.  I am not whining about the results.  I realize that we made a small film, a drama none-the-less, with a limited audience potential that didn’t get serious attention at film festivals.  I was not expecting be the driving force saving Blockbuster video.  I was hoping for options.  Our distributor made no promises and it doesn’t help them any if our film isn’t available in as many places as possible, but I can’t help but feel like we were just another movie to add to their library.  Yet, the only issue I can call them out on is the digital delay.  There is absolutely no reason it should have taken six months to get the film on Amazon Instant.  None.  Anyone can do it.  Unlike Netflix or Hulu, Amazon is great about accepting content.  I will never know why they decided to delay it, and when asked they just offered vague answers like, “It’s being processed.”   The only thing I can speculate that is when Patrick J Adams’ show was released they wanted to wait and see if they could sell more DVDs.  If that were the case it would have been great if they had let us in on the plan.  

So while I am not angry with our distributor we are faced with the question: was it worth it?  I still don’t know.  The fact is that other than getting the DVD in a few video stores they did nothing for us that we could not have done ourselves and with minimal effort.   In fact, currently on Amazon the DVD is being manufactured on demand – a service geared towards to those that are self-distributing – and at a price that is $10 more than what we are charging on our website here.  Even the sales agent was in a sense a waste, as we could have easily approach our distributor ourselves, in fact I have a friend who did.  The upside is that as we move forward on our next project we can say that we had a film picked up for distribution and that’s an accomplishment in itself.  Isn’t it?  Had we self-distributed would we have more money in our account?  Definitely.  Without a doubt.  But it was never solely about the money anyway, it was about the experience.  And what and experience it was. 

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Contracting Contagion

Call me lazy, but rather than actually write another post about the struggles to make and get an independent film seen, I will post another one of the articles I wrote for CinemaEditor.  One of the great aspects of writing for this publication is I get to pick which films I want to cover.  In this case I practically begged to do a story on Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and editor Stephen Mirrione.   Mirrione won an Oscar for his work with Soderberg on Traffic and it was an honor to get to chat with him.  He gave great insight in to what it is like working for some of the best directors working today.  So, it is with great pleasure that I share with you this article that originally appeared in CinemaEditor.

Contracting Contagion

By Nathan Cole

Contagion (2011), the late-summer release from Steven Soderbergh, astutely charts the spread of a viral pandemic and the lives it affects. The film begins on day two after a previously unknown lethal virus first comes into contact with humans, closely examining the lives of those fighting for survival, seeking to profit from the chaos, and racing against time to find a vaccine. Contagion is so relentless in pace and authentic in tone that it is hard to appreciate the skill of the filmmaking while watching it. Yet, upon reflection, the aspect that makes the film compelling is not the horrific images of a civilization crumbling, but the precision by which the story unfolds and how it reveals human behavior in a crisis.

In order for Contagion to play as effectively as possible, Soderergh and his team had a tremendous amount of information to pack into the film’s economic 105-minute running time. With dozens of characters (played by such notable actors as Matt Damon, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet) and their respective intermingling story lines it is clear that this film would have been a challenge to convincingly convey. The film provides the viewer with a copious amount technical information–scientists assessing the biology of the virus, military men sorting out the logistics and doctors trying to manage the overwhelming number of ill—all without sacrificing the drama of the characters and their individual struggles. Making sure that none of this information was lost while keeping the story on its toes was frequent Soderbergh collaborator Stephen Mirrione, A.C.E.

After discussing the project with Mirrione, it would not be much of a stretch to say that Contagion was made during post-production. Although it had a very effective script and was helmed by an extremely talented director, it was apparent after principle photography that there would need to be adjustments to better serve the final film.  A prime example of how editing helped accomplish this is the opening sequence.  In the film we are introduced to several different individuals that have come in contact with the virus, including an American businesswoman played by Gwyneth Paltrow. In the script the activities of these characters unfold simultaneously, but as Mirrione assembled the footage it became clear that the scenes as they were playing did not convey this fact.  In order to better express the intent of the script, Mirrione decided there was more value getting all the information quicker.  A 20-minute section was trimmed down into the three-minute montage that now begins the film letting the action unfold more viscerally.

The first cut of Contagion was over two hours long and Mirrione recalls that although it was very scary and the reality of the story was very present, it didn’t quite feel right.  It felt too cynical and the negative aspects that arise resulting from the destructive force of the virus were too prominent. By the time the first version ended it was so convincing that the reality and inevitability of the events seemed to eradicate any sense of hope. Fortunately, they had a potentially very good solution. Mirrione explains, “What we realized was at the same time, because of what the actors were bringing to their performances, a lot more of the heroic moments stuck out and what we did was design a way to bring those more into focus … to pull back a little bit on the cynicism.”

To accomplish this would mean adding new scenes. Before they even screened the first pass for the studio, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns made some fairly significant changes to address the concerns. Then, in a somewhat unconventional move, they screened the film to the studio with place cards indicating where a new scene would appear and provided notes on a corresponding sheet describing the scene. The studio was very receptive, leading the filmmakers to have to make a choice as to whether or not to screen this version to a test audience.  Mirrione says that they were hesitant, “It can be dangerous. When you are doing a preview you want it to be as finished as possible because you don’t want to accidently affect people’s perception of it. It can be problematic if [test] scores go down because people aren’t watching something that is completely finished.  But at the same time it is such an incredibly useful tool. If we have a chance to go back and reshoot a significant amount of material we want to have all the information possible.”

In the end, they opted to move forward with the test screening, but Soderbergh wanted to try something first.  “Steven knows the value of just doing something even though it doesn’t makes sense … to try something, shake things up and discover things out of that.” At first they had done a lot of reimagining of the scenes, putting them together in ways different from what was in the script. The goal was efficiency.  Yet the results were that the movie became more comfortable losing some of the sense of danger. Soderbergh’s idea for the pass before the test screening was to get ruthless, cutting down the film as short as possible. They expected they were going to lose too much information. To their surprise the new cut was even scarier.  It provided just enough information to keep the viewer wanting to know more and created a pace that added to the film’s tension.

The test audience’s response was very positive. The questions posed at these screenings mirrored the questions the filmmakers planned to answer with the reshoots. Mirrione states that, “We went into those reshoots with a lot of confidence knowing that the things that we wanted to do were also the things that somebody who knew nothing about the movie was hoping for.”  Without this process, some of the better scenes in the film would not have existed. One such scene is when Dr. Ally Hextall, played by Jennifer Ehle in one of the film’s strongest performances, injects herself with a prototype for the vaccine and shares the information with her father, who is sick with the virus. The scene originally took place off screen, but having it in the film was crucial. Mirrione sums it up, “It put into focus the heroic things that people would do in this situation.  Even though we are going to make mistakes, that people’s intentions are to do the right things … and I think that made a big difference in how you felt at the end of the movie.“

Mirrione sums up his work on Contagion, stating, “Steven created a very specific visual vocabulary when he designed the film and I feel like part of my job is to discover that.”  This is an approach that seems rooted in who Mirrione is as an editor.  When asked about his influences he says, “I don’t sit and study other movies or go into a movie thinking I want it to be like this or that.  I treat every movie like it is documentary footage coming into me and whatever that footage is I put on it as little restriction of what I can do with it as possible, so that I am totally free once I get that material.”  He thinks that it’s a mistake to begin work on a film with a rigid point of view because you risk missing some of the creative opportunities in the material.  “As an editor I think my talent is in taking that material and communicating the point of view and the weight of the scene in a way that makes it feel like it was on purpose from the beginning.”

Mirrione first discovered editing while taking film classes at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  He loved it immediately, feeling he could do it day and night without growing tired of it.  After college he headed to Los Angeles where he volunteered on student thesis films at the University of Southern California.   It was there he met Doug Liman, who ended up giving him work on his first feature film.  This was a few years before Swingers (1996), the film that pretty much launched the careers of everyone in it.  Looking back Mirrione says, “The same types of themes that were going on in Swingers we were all going through and I think it created an authenticity and honesty that struck a chord.”   Until that point Mirrione was trying to be what he thought an editor should be, not what came to him naturally.  After Swingers he only took movies that he picked, that interested him.  The film helped define who he was going to be as an editor.

After Swingers, Mirrione had many opportunities to work on a variety of films, but he and Liman were both looking for something exciting creatively.  That next project came in the form of Go (1999), a film he is very proud of despite not being a commercial hit. The financial success of the film aside, Mirrione’s work on it attracted the attention of Soderbergh, who brought the editor on board to edit Traffic (2000). Their effort on that film would win them both Oscars® and the two have been collaborating together ever since, having done a total of six films together. When asked what makes for a successful director-editor partnership Mirrione states, “Flexibility, having a similar sensibility and sharing the same taste.” According to Mirrione, their working relationship has really evolved, with him editing in Los Angeles while Soderbergh is out on location in various parts of the world.  The post-production process makes it easy for Mirrione to quickly get the footage, cut the scenes together and send them back to Soderbergh. There is not a lot of communicating back and forth other than the work itself. He muses, “It’s funny, in the same way that the movie reflects this lack of contact and social distancing, I would say our process has developed into some social distancing … but it works.”

Mirrione describes Soderbergh as very low maintenance as far as directors go and very clear about what he wants.   He says, “I am very keyed into the things that he likes or the way he likes to communicate things.  When you are dealing with a master storyteller it’s very easy to look at what he shot and let that guide you into how to do it.” The process by which they got Contagion to its final cut is a great example of what it is like working with Soderbergh, who always lets the process be fluid.  “He is very keyed into all the aspects that can change how the film will subtly be altered from what was initially written in the script and sees it as a chance to keep making the film better,” adds Mirrione.  Soderbergh gives him freedom to try anything he wants, but at the end of the day if it works it is kept and if it doesn’t they keep trying until it does work.

For Contagion, the post-production process was very straightforward.  Soderbergh is known for keeping things on set moving quickly, and using the RED camera allowed for the media to be processed quickly and sent back to Los Angeles to Mirrione. Corey Bayes, the first assistant, travels with Soderbergh and is responsible for getting the footage from the camera, making copies and creating the media.  Back in Los Angeles assistant editors Brian Ufberg and Jade Chatham prepare the media bins and manage the data traveling back and forth between Soderbergh and Mirrione. They used an AJA Ki Pro to record and playback ProRes files, keeping the process in the digital space for all their needs, including all screenings. Mirrione says the whole process of keeping all the work internal complements Soderbergh’s aesthetic and style of working and it saves the production money. Mirrione explains that, “There are a lot of movies that are making the transition to digital and finding that it’s not really less expensive than doing film right now because there are a lot of procedures involved that Steven doesn’t bother with so he is able to streamline and make the process more efficient.”

When asked what it takes to be a successful editor, Mirrione says, “For me, knowing that I wanted to be an editor early on, my attitude was to be as indispensible as possible and make sure that whomever I am working with can’t imagine doing it without me.” This approach has definitely served him well. It would appear that Mirrione has had an ideal career thus far and he has worked with some of the top filmmakers in the world on multiple occasions. He considers himself lucky to work on projects that fascinate him and thinks that he is equal parts fortunate and careful.

And he continues to stay busy. While finishing up work on Contagion, which had run longer than expected due to the reshoots, he began work on The Ides of March, a film he had already committed to for George Clooney. Not long after that film he began work on Gary Ross’s highly anticipated The Hunger Games.  It is no doubt that he will be contributing to the success of many more films in the future. Mirrione reflects, “For me it is about the day-to-day work, the relationships and the collaboration. When you work with people who you are a match with artistically, creatively and philosophically, you want to continue to do that.”

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Well Suited

I was fortunate enough this year to have been given the opportunity to write for CinemaEditor magazine. One of the articles I chose to do was an interview of the editing team behind this summer’s hot new legal drama Suits.  I know what you’re thinking and you are correct:  This is the show that the star of our film The Waterhole, Patrick J Adams, just received a SAG Award nomination for.

In honor of that nomination I give you the following article, which originally appeared in CinemaEditor Magazine.

Well SUITed

By Nathan Cole

Over the past few years the USA Network has been building a strong line-up of original programming making it a reliable destination for television viewers seeking unique stories. Suits, which made its debut on the network last June, seems the perfect fit, mixing in comfortably with the other successes of the channel such as Burn Notice, White Collar, and In Plain Sight.

At first glance the show might seem like just another legal drama.  Suits centers around Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), the picture-perfect New York City attorney, whose very appearance epitomizes the stereotype of the show’s title. Specter seemingly leads perfect TV-lawyer life as the best “closer” in the city with a reputation for breaking the rules. When Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams) inadvertently crashes a job interview Specter is half-heartedly conducting it provides him with a unique opportunity.  Ross it turns out is an aimless genius with a photographic memory. Coincidentally, he has acquired an unprecedented amount of legal knowledge as the result of winning a bet that he couldn’t pass the bar exam. Specter rolls the dice and offers Ross the job. And thus the show begins. Ross gets a fast track to his dream career; one a bad decision took away from him years earlier, and Specter gets a fresh perspective from someone in need of a mentor. They both get the headache of trying to keep Ross’s background a secret.

At its heart, Suits is less a legal procedural show than it is a character study, one that develops slowly over each episode. This makes sense, as USA Network’s slogan is “Characters Welcome,” and there is no reason to question its accuracy after discussing Suits with two of the show’s current editors: David Bertman and Angela Catanzaro. When asked to describe the show, each editor was separately impressed with how it takes its time letting the viewer get to know the characters. It deftly mixes drama with humor while not forgetting that at its core it is a show about people. Although Catanzaro confesses that she doesn’t really watch much TV, she says she was immediately impressed with the pilot, explaining, “Television convention is not really a part of this show and it has an expansive feel… we are not confined to a courtroom, there’s personal drama too. We are not going case to case, we follow characters.” When asked about the show Bertman’s response was nearly identical, adding that, “This is a show that I would watch even if I wasn’t working on the project.”

It’s fitting then that these two editors each come from unique backgrounds, bringing different approaches and techniques all with the same goal: serve the story. Bertman found himself in the world of editing almost by chance. He was rushing to finish his thesis film at USC and having trouble getting on the editing decks.  It was at this time that Avid was working to convert new users by offering free training classes and Bertman figured it was a perfect way to get some more time to cut his film together.  While training he met an editor that offered him a job to assist on a TV movie, and figuring he had nothing to lose he took the job.  His journey took an awkward turn for the better when his boss decided to take a bluntly honest approach with the director. The next thing Bertman knew he was the lead editor. Fortune stayed with him when the director was given an executive position at a studio and asked Bertman to apply for a staff job. At this point he was overcome by self-doubt, concerned that he lacked the experience and so he never followed up on the offer. If there was any regret it was short-lived, because he was able to continue honing his craft and the decision certainly had no long-term effect on his career. Soon he would be working on shows like The Gilmore Girls and the Judd Apatow-created Undeclared.

Catanzaro studied film at UCLA and after graduating took a job in the marketing department of a sound house. Although she had her sights on the world of sound for a career, she thought it might be a good idea to take a few Avid classes. The classes led to various non-union jobs as an assistant editor, which she loved, so when offered a lead editor position while working on The Shield, she was conflicted. She was terrified but knew she could not pass up such a great opportunity. She admits that whenever she begins a new job she has self-doubt, but once she is in the editing suite that all disappears. She says she loves the “creative fury” of her job and finds the work completely absorbing.

On a new show like Suits, there is a learning curve that everyone on the team must contend with. The main challenge is coming up with new and fresh transitions, music, and an overall feel that will help give the show a signature style. This also presents a tremendous opportunity.  As Catanzaro explains, “It can be very exciting since the show is in its infancy and the editorial team is making the show what it is going to be, how it’s going to sound, and how it’s going to look, but it is also challenging because we don’t know what we are looking for and there is a lot of trial and error.”

There are also the creative challenges of trying to make sure the look of the show is consistent while not revealing that they are not actually filming on the streets of New York, but in Toronto. Which can be difficult given production values that aspire to make the show feel bigger than a typical television show. The team also has to try and get the best cuts of actors still trying to define their characters while not knowing when certain episodes might air and how that order might impact the flow of the whole season.

Bertman is amazed at the volume of temporary visual effects that are being added during the edit and kept because they work so well.  He notes that there is satisfaction in the ability to perform these tasks well enough that they make it into the final version of the show, but adds that, “you end up having more to do in a shorter amount of time.”

Indeed, addressing the aspects of how the show will look and feel can be consuming, but it would be less of an issue if it wasn’t for the sheer amount of footage the team is receiving every day. Suits is filmed in Toronto but the post-production is housed in West Los Angeles, with the mixing being finished in Universal City. The show is shot on the RED camera allowing for the scenes to be uploaded quickly so that the team has the dailies the next morning.

This straightforward workflow of shooting on digital and having the files ready practically immediately means each day greets them with hours of new clips. Each editor agrees that the volume of scenes they have on a daily basis shapes the way they work. Catanzaro mentioned that it would be ideal if they had more time together as a team to discuss aspects of the show. They do occasionally bounce ideas off one another, but there simply is not enough time for significant collaboration.

Yet, each in their own way is able to embrace the workload and get the best scenes out of the vast material they have to work with. Bertman prefers to prepare several different clips for each take by creating bite-sized versions of every reading and not trying to focus on every full take. This may take a little longer but it gives him the confidence that he has all the high quality clips at his fingertips thus saving him the time of having to go back and search for anything he might have missed. He jokes that he also likes to have a coffee machine in the room because he can get so busy that brewing up a fresh pot can provide a much needed and quick distraction.

Catanzaro, on the other hand, will begin randomly pulling out takes from the dailies that feel right regardless of where in the scene it is, and if she has a section that is working really well she will just dive into it immediately. Despite the vast amounts of notes she receives from the director, producers, actors, and writer she will always cut the very best version of the scene based on what she feels will better serve the final product. Then she will prepare an alternative take to address any special requests from the set. Helping her make her creative choices is the vast amount of music provided by the music supervisor, which she says gives her a great ability to affect the tone of the scenes, a freedom she very much appreciates.

The team’s job has one other asset in helping to make their Suits experience a positive one. Each editor could not speak highly enough about the creative team in Toronto. Writer/Producer Aaron Korsh (whom Bertman worked with on The Deep End), producers Jonathan Starch, David Bartis, Doug Liman (yes, that Doug Liman), Sean Jablonski, Jon Cowan and Gene Klein; directors Kevin Bray, Terry McDonough, Dennie Gordon, Tim Matheson and John Scott; and script supervisor Daniella Saioni each provided guidance as to how the show should come together while giving each member of the team the freedom to follow their own instinct. They are particularly grateful to their assistant editors, Albert Coleman, Tom Demauri, and Danielle Wang, who are crucial in getting that immense workload organized.

Suits has the potential to become a break-out hit. The premiere received strong ratings and it has a charismatic cast with the right combination of charm, wit and heart. Regardless, if the success of the show rested on the shoulders of this team of editors alone, there would be no reason it could fail. Both bring a dedication and sense of craft along with a combined experience spanning dozens of great television series. They are indeed in their element working in the fast-paced world of television. Maybe Bertman puts it best, “Television never gets boring, with film it is hard to trust your judgment, in television you have to move on.”

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Netflix: An Unfinished Love Story

I have been a Netflix subscriber since the first year it came into being.  I, like millions of users look forward to getting that red envelope in the mail every couple of days.  I watch a lot of movies and nothing I had access to before gave me the vast amount of films in such a convenient manner.  Sure I had to wait a few days to get them, but I have since gotten used to it.  It was still better than driving to the video store, finding out that everything was out of stock and then wandering around for an hour looking at Jason Priestley movies.  When the streaming option came along I purchased a Roku player but never really found myself using it that often.  It was a nice supplement, but the selection only had a fraction of the films and TV shows I wanted to see.   The DVD library on the other hand remains amazing.  Read about an obscure film and the chances are you can have it in your DVD player in a few days.

I try to keep tabs on what is happening in the world of film distribution so it is obvious to me that one day soon films will be predominantly digitally delivered.  I am also very aware that the process of delivering postage-paid DVD packages is the most costly part of the Netflix operation.  All these rumors about the US Post Office ceasing to exist aren’t making this business model seem all that prudent either.  Then the bomb dropped.  A price increase.  Without rehashing the details, Netflix decided to separate the services and raise the overall price for having both.  This was their attempt to address the realities facing them in marketplace.  It took me less than the time it takes me to put a DVD in an envelop and drop it in a mailbox to not only cancel my streaming subscription but to lower the number of DVDs I can have at a time just to make sure Netflix was listening.  I understood that things were going to have to change, but ripping the band aid off at this point in time seemed a little pre-mature.  The price increase didn’t bother me as much as the way they went about it.  I will gladly pay more for a better service, but they were making me pay more for a lesser service.

The thing is, I was already starting to harbor ill feeling towards my favorite movie dealer as the result of their apparent lack of interest in carrying our film, The Waterhole.  I mean, the film does star Patrick J Adams after all.  (This fact doesn’t really matter much, I just want to put his name in this blog post to get more web hits. Go ahead, judge me.)  After discussing this with our distributor, they confided that in recent months Netflix had gone from ordering 100% of their releases to maybe one in five.  This was confirmed later in a discussion I had with Adam Chapnick of Distribber while on the Film Courage radio show that indeed, Netflix was losing interest in indie films.  Indiewire published an article this month with similar conclusions.  Netflix was too busy trying to compete with other monthly film subscription services and they did not need indie films to accomplish that.  They needed studio films and television shows.

Not only was Netflix screwing me as a customer, they were screwing me as a filmmaker, someone who was creating content for them to exploit for profit.   So over the past few weeks I have been complaining vocally and perhaps obnoxiously in such a way I probably deserve my own heading under White People Problems.  Many of my filmmaker peers have been surprised that I am so upset.  Why would I even want my film on Netflix?  They pay little to no money.  They can make it hard to get on other platforms.  And in the digital space there are so many options that offer so much more control.

My answer mirrors the reason why I loved Netflix as a customer.  They had a great selection of films.  I wanted my film to be a part of that selection and I wanted their millions of film lovers to have easy access to my film.  It kills me that when someone asks me if they can get The Waterhole starring Patrick J Adams on Netflix I have to tell them no.  Not to sound like a self-conscientious sissy, but it’s embarrassing.   As far as the money is concerned, screw the money.  I want word of mouth.  I want fans.  I want the Netflix audience.  Who cares about a few dollars for a few downloads?  In an earlier post I stated that I would let the Independent Film Channel show my film for free and I was dead serious – too bad they don’t show independent film anymore.  Maybe I am shortsighted for thinking this, but let the money comes when it comes.  (And make no mistake, I do truly do want to make money and I look forward to the day I can race yachts with Lucas McNelly)

Thus, this love/hate relationship with my primary film provider tentatively continues.  By the time the next big Netflix evolution occurred in the form of Qwikster I had all but given up… waiting for the right time to explore new options.  I was not alone of course, the stock was tanking, subscribers were dropping and other customers were furious.  Maybe in the future they will be able to convince me these changes were needed to address their long-term goals and that we will all be better for it.  Until then I am still disappointed, both as a filmmaker and a film lover.

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Note: The day before I wrote this someone from Qwikster reached out to me via Twitter to ask why The Waterhole starring Patrick J Adams had been rejected.  I told them I didn’t know and they replied that they would look into it.  I have little hope, but I would still be thrilled if we could work something out.  Until then, The Waterhole starring Patrick J Adams is available to rent from Blockbuster.com.

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Filed under Film Distribution, Film Marketing, Filmmaking, Independent Film, Netflix, Patrick J Adams

A Final Thought on Film Festivals

The Waterhole has now been released on DVD and as I polish up the script for our next project I wanted to jot down a few last thoughts (read: aggressive opinions) on my experience with film festivals.   My first post on this “Why I Will Never Pay Another Film Festival Submission Fee (Unless I do.)” has been by far the most popular post on this lonely blog and with it I thought I had pretty much exhausted all I had to say on the subject.  That was until I attended SXSW last month with a press pass and got a whole new perspective on what it means to have a film at a festival.  It was eye opening.

Of the festivals I have attended, with a film or without, SXSW has by far been my favorite.   This had little to do with their approach to film, but rather how they use the great city of Austin as the backdrop for one big party, where film, music, booze, wonderful food and a little bit of business mix easily and you don’t have to work too hard to have a good time.  I was hooked after my first visit and vowed to return.  This was also primarily my basis for it being a fest I would recommend any filmmaker spend money submitting their film to, if you get in, you get to premiere at a prestigious fest and are practically guaranteed to have truckloads of fun.

As the 2011 fest got closer, I was scraping together the money for a film pass when I was told that I could probably get a press pass for the magazine I have been writing for.  Perfect, I thought as I imagined everything that such a pass would grant me access to.  The press pass, as I would find out, came with very few perks and one great burden.  When the first few emails came in from publicists I was excited.  Especially the ones that included invitations to see some of the films in LA before the festival started. The novelty wore off quickly, when dozens of emails began to flood my inbox every day in great numbers leading up to opening night.  There was the occasional party invite (yes please!) but for the most part each message was a desperate cry for attention.  At first I felt a responsibly to know every film that was showing and try and give them them equal attention but after a while it was too much to process.

In the midst of this avalanche I remembered something.  I was a filmmaker.  These emails were coming from publicists on behalf of the filmmakers that were lucky to get into a festival like SXSW and the fact was, I was only going to see a very small fraction of films that they were hoping I could see.  How could any filmmaker that did not show up to the festival with name talent or pedigree have any chance of getting anyone’s attention?   Through this process I can only remember one or two films that stood out to me simply because of what a publicist sent me, and these publicists weren’t working for free.  That is not to say that they weren’t earning their fees, but it definitely apparent that they were fighting for attention in a very crowded arena and only a few films had a chance of standing out.  It was a daunting realization.

A bigger problem is that the filmmakers were not only competing for the eyes and ears of the press, but they are also competing for an audience.   When I was planning my festival experience, I was overwhelmed by the possibilities.   I wanted to see at least three films a day, plus listen to several panels and hear some of the thousands of bands that flood the city for the last half of the festival.  I ended up averaging 1.5 films a day.  The fact is it is very hard to see everything you want to.  For the filmmaker your audience will have many options competing for their attention.  I watched many world premieres where the theaters were half full.  In fact, I didn’t attend a single film that was sold out.  I can only imagine that the films that did sell out starred Mel Gibson or Jake Gyllenhaal.

Think about it.  You beat all the odds and secure a slot at your dream festival only to have absolutely no guarantee that anyone will see your film.   When I first embarked into the film festival world, my initial shock was how difficult it was to get into any fest, let alone a top-tiered fest.  Now having been on the other side of a festival such as SXSW I now have a better picture of what the reality of getting into such a festival is.  I am not sure how many films sold out of this year’s fest and most of the films that do have deals seem to have had them in place before the festival started.  At the end of the day, the exposure has got to be better than nothing and if you position your film the right way anything is possible.  The fact is, the only guarantee you have if you get into a festival like SXSW is that you are just another indie filmmaker trying to stand out, just like you were before you got that fateful call.  Although, it has to be said, you will probably have the experience of a lifetime, and that is worth quite a bit.

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Filed under Film Distribution, Film Festivals, Film Marketing, Filmmaking, Independent Film

The Festivus Film Festival: A Reaction

Well, hello!  This is Daniel Menahem, producer of THE WATERHOLE, with my first KR7 Productions blog post.  While Nathan (as chief writer and creative director) has been in charge of our blog, I plan on relieving him of writing duties for a few updates strictly from a producer’s perspective.

I want to share my filmmaking experience in more depth in the near future, but seeing as we have just screened THE WATERHOLE at the Festivus Film Festival (www.festivusfilmfestival.com), I thought I’d share with the readers the rollercoaster ride that was presenting our vision to the paying Denver public. Ok, rollercoaster ride maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but as most of you reading this who have created and then presented to an audience know, there is a certain high (and low) that comes with the experience.

First, a word about Festivus Film Festival (aka FFF). I cannot speak highly enough about the job that Jonathan, Tim and the FFF crew have done in creating a vibrant, eclectic festival catering equally to filmmakers and the audience.  While all of our festival screening experiences have been great, this is the first festival that I had been intimately involved with.  The 2011 edition of FFF offered a variety of categories (comedy, docs, music videos etc) all populated by quality films.  In today’s market we are all competing for limited screen space, however it was refreshing to see such filmmaking talent that will definitely keep our KR7 Production humbled and inspired as we try and decide what project to bring to the screen next.

As far as the screening itself goes, well, I’m glad to report it was a surprisingly pleasant experience. Being that Denver is currently my hometown, I had many friends and colleagues in attendance, which always adds a new level of nervousness.  As in past screenings, I made a point of not watching the film in the months leading to the screening, so to try and get as “fresh” of a look as possible (as fresh as possible after 200+ viewings.)  The film is a character and dialogue-driven story with a very simple plot and there always exists the fear that the audience may not relate and grow restless.  It was great to see and hear the reaction throughout the movie.  People laughed and gasped in the “right” places, and the film definitely held their attention throughout.

The screening was held at the fantastic The Bug Theatre. A quaint and cozy little independent theater that one could have imagined had been there for many decades and many great films.  It even had a bar inside, which always helps any screening, especially one with a film about a bar.  We are always a bit nervous about the turn out, but the crowd steadily filled up all but a handful of seats.  Per usual ritual, I stayed through the first couple of scenes until nerves got the best of me and I bailed to Patsy’s “the Oldest Italian Bar in Denver,” checking the time every few seconds until I felt safe enough for my return.

The Q&A can always be a dicey proposition, but that night we were treated to a stream of compliments and thoughtful observations about the story, the characters and the ramifications within the themes. There is nothing better than hearing “the characters felt so real, like people you actually know.” One female audience member stated that she loved the idea that this was a relationship movie from a guy’s perspective.  I always take pride that every Q&A that we’ve had so far has gone over the time limit – people do get excited to discuss their thoughts and feelings. It’s nice to know that we’ve made a thought-provoking film.

There are many choices you need to make when making a film and while there are still many things we might have done different given a second chance, I think both Nathan and I are comfortable with what we’ve created.  Our screening at the Festivus Film Festival in Denver certainly served to validate our creation.  Now it’s on to the next project

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Filed under Denver, Film Festivals, Film Producing, Filmmakers, Filmmaking, Independent Film, Movie Theaters

I am not an Indepedent Filmmaker

Recently, I was invited by the great folks at Film Courage to write an article for their website.  The resulting piece – which you can read here:  http://filmcourage.com/content/can-indie-filmmakers-unite-create-brand – are the thoughts I had pondering why there are not more known “brands” associated with consistently good  film in this business.  The article was not meant to be a call to action or a business plan, it was just hypothetical fantasizing.  It did create discussion and I greatly thank anyone who would take the time to read anything I write (including you reading this), let alone share their own perspective.  Funnily enough, as I read the comments something else that struck me was what the readers seemed to think of “indie” film.

What is an independent film?  I had wrestled with this a few months ago when filmmaker Michael Barnard had asked his readers to participate in a survey that’s objective was to define what classified indie film. ( http://michaelrbarnard.wordpress.com/2010/09/25/just-what-the-hell-is-an-%E2%80%9Cindie-film%E2%80%9D/ )  As I read through the questions I found myself unsure.  Is it budget?  Is it attitude?  The more I thought about it, the less I cared.  Then something struck me:

I am not an independent filmmaker.

I made what most would consider a very independent film.  That film faced and continues to face very unique challenges by being an independent film.  A great number of the films I love could easily be defined as being independent.

But, I am not an independent filmmaker.  I am a filmmaker.

If a studio gave me one hundred million dollars to make a dream project, I would do it.  I would feel no remorse, no betrayal to a set of values. (I would, however, be scared shitless.)  If I had a great story that I could make in my backyard for free.  I would make that.  Right this minute.  I have neither of those options.  It doesn’t matter.  The struggles that must be faced to get any film of merit written and produced will always exist.  I need no additional labels.  I need no additional associations.  I will always support fellow filmmakers regardless of what they are making.  I will always strive to tell stories that I think are original and bring them to life with as many resources as possible to ensure they look and feel the way I think they deserve.

When I was younger I would have been more attached to the idea of independent film as something unique and special.  I would have known down to my core what an independent film was, what it stood for and how much better it was than a mainstream film.  In the last few years most of the truly great films I have seen could not, in a business-sense, be called independent and on the other side of the coin recently I have seen far more bad independent films than good ones, many that actually got into festivals like Sundance.  Maybe it would be suffice to say that I have an independent spirit,  but after reading the nominees for the actual Independent Spirit Awards, I’m not sure how much that would even matter.

I will always love the romantic notion of independent film, but at the end of the day the film is what matters, not how you made it.

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Filed under film budgets, Filmmakers, Filmmaking, Independent Film