Category Archives: Filmmaking

Opening Philosophy on Filmmaking

It has been a few years since finishing Considering Democracy. After the screening tour, for various reasons, it has taken a few years to recover from the process. The path that I’ve taken has been one that has allowed me to meet some fabulous creative people, along with the chance to see incredibly movingdocumentaries. I’m always struck by the irony of experiencing powerful stories on the screen in the theater, yet as I look around, I often find myself wishing that more people could experience such a story.

As the process of filmmaking has become more democratized with the advent of digital filmmaking, likewise, the internet’s functionality and reach has also been growing in rapid leaps and bounds.  I’m fascinated by and have gravitated toward Open Source web development platforms and communities. WordPress and Drupal are CMS communities that rely on a the work of developers that voluntarily give resources within the development of plugins and modules and as well as within its core. Because their source code is open, anybody can make modifications and contribute to its development.  While I feel that filmmaking and storytelling is a vital and important part in contributing toward our humanity, I have been wanting to make the leap into creating web-based frameworks that harness individual stories.  I’ve been watching interactive media online and have been watching different filmmakers trying to make the transition to the online world with some heartache and frustration.

The internet is an amplifier of information.  Information can quickly spread over social networks and articles and individual tweets and posts retweeted and posted to become viral.  Indeed, revolutions have been spurred by social media.

Yet filmmakers are often caught between the desire to tell stories and the desire to protect the story that has so often painstakingly created.  With the recent swell of creators of media fighting for money that can be gained from selling it, the filmmaker is in a dilemma.  On one hand, it is almost flattering to have others upload and spread one’s creative work.  On the other hand, it hurts to see your work that took years to create, be so easily and willingly copied and given to others.  (One does want to eat, have a place to live, and we do this within a capitalist society – which I’m fine with, but it does create some dichotomies.)  I’ve seen this happen over and over.  With a film, there is the marketing desire to create demand, yet protect it to go through the usual channels of distribution.  Typically, it has been film festivals, theaters, then to digital viewing like Netflix or iMovie.  Yet very often on the web, many of the technologies that we benefit from every day are iterations of open source code that many people have contributed toward, and very often without any pay.

I recently went to Mountain Film Festival in Telluride.  Besides being in a beautiful area, being exposed to truly inspirational stories and people,  I was also struck by how passionate individuals  telling a story.  Some, while passionate, are seemingly shouting into the wilderness.  A person wrote a book where she interviewed people to see how they have been affected by fracking.  She had left her books, signed, in a pile on a table that had other informational material associated with the festival.  I asked if it was okay to take them, as it was a book – something that obviously took a lot of time and work to compile, and the volunteer relayed that it was okay, and that she left them there on the table for people to take.  I was struck by a thought that has been echoing within my mind – that there are now more efficient ways of getting these important stories out to audiences.

Part of this is that I’ve shifted in my thinking and have moved toward openness for the sake of getting information out to a greater public.  Today I changed the copyright on the bottom of a web-based magazine Green Passive Solar from my copyright to one that utilizes the Creative Commons designation.  And I will do the same to Considering Democracy.  I do want to willfully designate creative works that have information that is important and has value to others.

I’ve been thinking of remaking Considering Democracy and updating the stats, but if I were to do so, I would do it in a way that was web-based.  I recently showed Considering Democracy to students.  One student said that if he had a copy of it, one of his friends would translate it into Spanish.  It made me think that it would be more efficient if it were online – then it would be shared and made into any translation – by anyone who wanted to make one.

That’s part of the thinking behind making Considering Democracy under the Creative Commons.  I do want to put more work into it and it will be on its way and will happen soon in the not too distant future.  In the meantime, if you want a copy of the DVD, I’ll send you one.

 

Support Documentary Filmmakers Against Chevron

The makers of the documentary CRUDE, The Real Price of Oil, 2009, have recently been issued a subpoena instigated by Chevron to obtain their more than 600 hours of footage from the filmmakers.  The film depicts a complex, legal battle with all its participants over Chevron’s (recently merged with Texaco) actions in Ecuador.  The film has screened to audiences at Sundance, has won numerous awards, and has taken a stand in getting information out to the greater public.  We need to support other filmmakers and investigative journalism, as it seems that filmmakers and other individuals are the ones pursuing truth, while the American media largely has been sacrificing truth and the pursuit of investigative journalism in exchange for profit.

The official trailer from the film

 

FROM MIKE BONFIGLIO:

A few weeks ago, Joe Berlinger and I, as well as the “Crude” production companies, were served with subpoenas by Chevron, demanding that we hand over our 600 hours of outtakes, speculating that somewhere in our dailies they would find material that would help them in their lawsuit in Ecuador. We opposed the subpoena, and on May 6th, a judge ruled against us. We are appealing the decision, and many in the documentary community as well as other journalists have rallied to support us. The IDA issued an open letter which has been signed by an extraordinary number of heavy-hitters of the doc world, from Michael Moore to Bill Moyers, Alex Gibney to Morgan Spurlock:
http://www.documentary.org/content/crude-filmmaker-gets-support-open-letter-film-community

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/12/oscar-winners-back-filmmaker-in-dispute-with-chevron/

Support filmmakers, artists, their property, 1st Amendment rights and People, against giant corporations trying to work the legal system. Can we please get back to the notion of We the People?

Reflections on Indy Filmmaking and the State of the U.S.

First of all, thank you for following and reading this. None of this could be possible without the audience. The process of making a film and then learning about distribution was an exciting, yet humbling experience. I’m really thankful for the process and how it has gone. Last fall at this time, I was finishing up a nationwide tour by driving 5 to 12 hours almost each day, traveling from screening to screening. It was a really exhausting process, but one that also allowed me an experience that reflected the general mood of the U.S. I was able to interact with audiences across the U.S. and heard what they were thinking and feeling. I wish that I had been able to tape footage of the Q&A from these screenings. It was really interesting. Across the country, people expressed similar questions, frustrations, as well as things that they take pride in. (Yes, it is important to remember the positive things, along with the things and concepts that people can have more critical thoughts on.)

There was definitely more optimism as the elections approached, yet there was a consistent mistrust of corporate power. It was very interesting that people from all different sections of the economy attended and commented on the film. People who had worked abroad both in the media and governmental organizations such as U.S. Aid also attended and commented on the shift that has taken place from the 1960’s to the current time. Interestingly, the 1960’s while often looked upon as being a time of various types of ‘liberation’ (for example, women’s liberation, sex, drugs and rock n’roll) politically, the 1960s were the opposite, as other developed countries created policy for their People; in the sense of healthcare of the whole population, social security for the whole population, while in the U.S., the population became segmented and compartmentalized as the various types of insurance companies lined up to capitalize on the American people. Thus, the United States has emerged as having very, very different social policy from the rest of the developed first-world nations. All the while, the U.S. continuing to lead the world in various types of technology – such as the development of the internet. (Although now the U.S. is starting to lag behind, but seriously, MS and the mac operating systems are the two most widely used in the world. Yet the world community within open source developments and applications are running closely behind, bring linux with it.) This leads us to the topic of internet and independent filmmaking.

The internet has helped tremendously within the process of independent distribution of films. It is sometimes bewildering because a person – the independent, actually can do it, but has to quickly learn to wear many different hats. After shooting the film, I sharp tuned my editing skills with the guidance of editors that were kind enough to share their expertise. It is a humbling process, but it had to be done. I then learned about marketing and distribution. Because I had quit my job to finish the film, in looking at the model of entering film festivals for a small documentary, it seemed that it would be more efficient to organize my own screenings. As opposed to traveling to various festivals, and and having to spend a lot of money in travel, hotel, food, when funds were really scarce, I decided to create a screening tour and screenings geographically a day apart. I then started cold calling theaters and other venues to line up screenings one after another. (It may seem like it was easy as you read this, but it definitely was not. Along with calling organizers sometimes up to 15 times, then finding the local media, then calling the arts editor for the newspaper and/or radio show, get them to accept a press kit with the film, then to try to get them to watch it, all the while still trying to get the organizer to lock in a screening… It was work.) Make no mistake, I really like film festivals, and have had great experiences at some of them because they allow a convergence of filmmakers, audience and art to take place. Film festivals, however, vary in how much they integrate the community, so some festivals will have packed screenings, while others will have a few people. They are usually over a few days, and could be scattered across the country, so it’s really expensive for filmmakers to travel to a film festival in NY, then one in California a couple of weeks later. Most films that are screening through film festivals have a website, but they can be a lot more than just an internet billboard for a film.

The internet helped because it was nice reference to tell people to check out if they wanted more information. Often people went to the site as I talked to them on the phone. The website also has various materials and downloads like screening guides for people who wanted to have screening parties. It also is a way for people to buy the film. Having a website also allows people to find my contact information and oddly enough, I have even received handwritten letters from people who had seen the film. Last week a library contacted me to see if it was okay to screen the film. (It’s really nice when people are respectful of copyright. And yes, it okay to screen it.) I created a facebook group as I was touring. It’s small, but it also helps to get the word out. (I’ve tried to update the site, but my personal site consistently says that the account is temporarily unavailable. Hmmmm.) I’m thankful for the internet, and to the many people who also helped to get the word out. It’s also somewhat odd that in pushing the film, more people find out about the film, and this gives it greater desireability. One film festival that rejected the film, called a year later to see if they could distribute it online. It’s odd, but true.

The process of distribution has already changed, and is continuing to shift. I recently talked to Aaron, of the popular online series: Chad Vader, Day Shift Manager. They have over 30 million views online. I felt really sort of traditional next to them. They have an interesting approach in that they sell merchandising and have created a huge audience online. (They also shoot in 16mm and live in and work with students from a college.) Their short films are really entertaining. Check them out.

I think the next documentary project I’d like to do will be online based – because of the interactive element that the internet is heading into. I would love to be able to integrate for audience participation and intereaction in a place where others can see and hear what the audience is thinking. Sure, there could be a DVD if there is still demand for it, but I think the bulk of the project could be online, involving a storyline, and a conglomeration of our photos and videos, as well as user generated content, that as a whole will contribute to the story. I’d also like to integrate a wiki to share information, as well as be an archive for future generations. With current hindsight, I realize this my website of Considering Democracy is static, the blog being the only interactive element. That may change later. Who knows?

Thanks for reading.

Great Films! But what about distribution?

I recently saw two fabulous gems of film, Slingshot Hip Hop and Waltz with Bashir. In both films there were times when I was mesmerized by the reality that unfolded on the screen. Both films deal with a struggle to comprehend the harsh reality of what has happened, as well as what continues to occur. Slingshot Hip Hop is the story of rap and its rise in Palestine within the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Its story is one of empowerment within crushing circumstances. People need to see what is happening behind the large walls. Waltz with Bashir is the story of trying to understand the reality of what may have occurred, so horrible that the mind shuts it away in order to deal with the trivial necessities of regular life. Both films, while different, were brilliant in their presentation of real events, of history, within a moving narrative. Slingshot Hip Hop tells the story of Palestinians, while Waltz with Bashir is told from an Israeli perspective. The films are very different in personality and are dealing with different modern time frames. One is an animation. (But don’t let that mislead you. I’ve never seen anything like it.) Both are documentaries, and a strange similarity is that both indirectly seem to question a similar authority or power.

Now, my question and concern is this: how can these films get out to a wider audiences? They are both winning accolades and great praise on the festival circuit, but how can they be seen, by say, the average American who might not have the chance to travel? I think it’s fairly accurate to believe that the average American does not get that much international news or information from the broadcast news. Even when it is a more objective news source, for one reason or another, we may not be able to get news. Last night as I was checking news (online) and saw a short video clip from the BBC that showed that reporters have not been able to get into the Gaza Strip in order to report on events. That’s a slightly different topic though.

It seems that everybody is talking about how film distribution has fallen apart. Surely we can figure something out in order to get films out to be seen by wider audiences. There are audiences out there. There are films to be seen.

The Fall Screening Tour – DIY Thoughts

Whew! What an experience. Driving and screening a film on a tour that lasted over 7 weeks and went over 11,000 miles was quite the experience. (There were two other tours – May in the Southern part of the U.S. and one in August in Colorado – altogether over 17,000 miles)  Thank you to the people who helped to organize or book the film, came to the screenings, got DVDs and to those who are continuing the discussion. I’ve learned a lot and am really thankful for the experience.

The rational for the screening tour was to get the film and its topics to audiences as quickly as possible before the elections. I wanted to try to book screenings in a way that I could drive to them, one after another, and interact with audiences. I think that arranging a tour in this manner is another way of getting a film to audiences, but in doing so, I didn’t submit the final version to that many film festivals because I didn’t have the funds or extra time and because the festivals are scattered throughout the year in different locations. That said, the film could and would not have been booked if it hadn’t gotten into and screened with certain festivals. It won an award at Big Muddy Film Festival and screened well with a summer screening with Sedona Film Festival, and without those screenings, combined with a couple of key reviews, the film probably wouldn’t have been seen by programmers and would probably still be in the pile of DVDs in somebody’s office waiting to be watched. I do respect film festivals and really enjoy the experience at film festivals. I will submit it to film festivals in communities where it hasn’t screened. Film festivals are still really great venues. I love going to them, I love seeing the curated films and I’m always inspired when I see intriguing and/or beautiful works on the big screen. I’m heading to the Denver Film Festival in a couple of weeks to see some films, my point is that the world of distribution is shifting and they are no longer the only way of getting a film out to audiences because a shift in the delivery of images and information is taking place.

The documentary, independent and film world as we know it, is one that is going through various cuts and funding shortages. While I was traveling and talking to programmers, filmmakers and distributors, they all spoke of a shift that is taking place. As an example, people mentioned big film studios like Paramount shutting down their independent film, art and/or documentary houses down. I was surprised, however, that in midst of this, the process of booking and doing a screening tour can make a film more visible to an audience, as well as to other distributors, and in a way, can drive demand for the film.

The process of booking screenings for your own film is one that takes a lot of effort in the sense that when I started out, I wasn’t sure how best to do it, or who first to contact in the community. For every booking, there were probably 3 to 5 other contacts that didn’t work out. In order to get in touch with the person or programmer that would give the “okay”, it sometimes took many, many phone calls and a lot of persistence to book the film. People hadn’t heard of the film, they didn’t know the filmmaker, and it only had a few festival screenings. But I wanted it to get out to an audience, I didn’t have the time to wait for festivals, and I was quickly running out of funds. I had heard that it was possible to tour and sell DVDs, and come out ahead, so I thought I’d try it. (In order for that to happen, I did stay with friends or other really nice people, and I did sleep in my car.) There are many things that need to be done in order for the screening to go well. Marketing is essential.

After booking a screening, it’s also really important to get people to the screening. There are many things that can be done in order for this to happen. Sometimes the theater or group showing the film helped with promotion, but it’s a good idea to do some promotion yourself. I usually did websearches, or people told me what newspapers and/or radio stations to contact. I then would email and/or call them. Once contact was made, I would ask if they had time to see a press kit with a DVD for review. Usually about three press kits per community were sent out. You’re lucky if one of them prints something in the newspaper, or for the web, but it’s really essential to try. Also try to set up interviews with the local radio station, because radio interviews also help out. There was one instance in Portland where screenings in three different cities were promoted, and I think it made a big difference in turnout because people came to the screening and said that they had heard an interview on the radio. Also keep in mind that if a programmer or potential reviewer said that they are interested, you need to send the DVD or the press kit out as soon as possible. I go the post office almost every day.

It’s also important to prioritize your actions. Because I am just one person, there were some things that didn’t get done. Once I started driving, I tried to do some things from the road, but there wasn’t enough time, and I didn’t want to be calling people as I was driving, only to have the phone cut out. The DVD was also available online, so people were purchasing it from the website. This is a really great thing, but it was sometimes difficult to find a post office in a town along the way. I had a small computer, so I would sometimes pull over and search for a post office online, but because screenings were also booked and were located hundreds of miles apart, I didn’t want to be late for a Q&A.  In DIY distribution a person learns how to juggle different jobs right away. A few things inevitably will get dropped. While the screening tour really was a lot for one person to do, in looking to the bright side, it did happen. And what an experience it was. There are other filmmakers who are also self distributing and I really admire them. David and Ashley, who have started Carnivalesque Films, continue to make and distribute films. I’m amazed at how much they get done. While the fall screening tour is done, the process of distribution is continues. While DIY stands for Do It Yourself, it’s not possible to do totally alone and I am thankful to the programmers, the audiences, the crew and other distributors and organizations who continue to make the whole possible.

Elections are tomorrow. Vote!

What an Experience! And a few thoughts…

I can’t think of a different title, as better words currently seem to elude me. After traveling on the road and screening the documentary Considering Democracy for about 7 weeks, it’s nice to be back in once place. I started on September 12th and began moving toward the east coast, and drove and screened, drove and screened, then headed back toward the west coast, drove and screened.

Looking back, I’m really thankful. There are a lot of really good people in the States and around the world. Here’s one example. I have been traveling, and yes, I’ve been sometimes sleeping in the car (ah, independent filmmaking) but I do like to shower in the evening. I stopped at a truck stop and asked the woman behind the counter if they had showers and how much they cost. (I might have looked really tired, because I started driving right after the screening last Sunday, slept in the car, woke up and drove, and this was the second straight day of driving.) I left to get some things out of my car and went back into the truck stop and another person said that he had taken care of it. I probably gave him a really puzzled look, but he explained that he had filled up his tank, so when that happens, a person can get a shower. I think I was still looking puzzled. He made sure the woman behind the counter understood, and I said thanks, then the trucker turned around and left to go back to driving.

I took the shower and was thankful, so I bought some sodas and left them at the counter and asked that they be given to the next tired truckers that came in. We do, as humans living together in society, rely tremendously on one another. Not just for kindness and civility, but also because we live together in society. Being nice to one another creates tremendous empathy for others, but it also got me thinking about how we do all drive down the same roads, get groceries or gas at similar places, and we rely on very basic services for society to function. I was thankful for the state patrol trooper who was stopped at the rest stop, checking things out. It made me thankful that I do pay taxes and that some of the taxes get allocated toward social things that benefit society. Is this socialism? Yes. It is. We live in society, we pay taxes, and those taxes get allocated toward things in society that benefit all people. Most civil countries do this because it helps society function. Most civil countries also have capitalism. They are two systems that often work together and exists side by side.

Healthcare is something that is seen as a necessity by all the other civil, developed countries. They think it’s good for all their citizens. Most working Americans even pay a Medicare tax, but have been convinced by voices in the media that only certain segments in society deserve healthcare – only those in government, old people and poor people. Think of the widespread, national, coordinated campaign that happened in order to convince the American people of this. (What was used? Radio, TV and other media forms. Is it liberal then? Probably not, since certain debates and investigations are missing from the major media corporations. Although they do like to call themselves that and sometimes create that contradictory spin.) We also currently live in a different world than 30 years ago and airborne viruses and bacteria can do devastating things to a country that has a quarter of its population as either under-insured or are not insured medically.

It is something to think about. I’m very thankful to the services that help society function. I did call 911 on this road trip because at one point, as I was driving on the interstate in the pouring rain and I noticed that there was a sheep dog and two sheep next to the interstate. They all had gotten past the fence, and the only thing keeping the sheep off the road, was the dog. I didn’t want another family, or any other driver to run into two sheep and a dog in the pouring rain. So, I called 911 and reported it. I have probably benefited from these types of social services and not even have known it, because I have traveled safely and arrived at my destination. I went to public schools and am somewhat educated (although there might be grammatical errors, as I’m tired but wanted to write this). I have driven down roads that previous generational taxes have paid for, thus, I’m thankful for the socialized services that we have. It would really be horrible to have them privatized, nor would it make sense. I like that the fire department will respond to a fire without checking for insurance first. Some insurance is a good idea – like car insurance. (I also like that I have AAA insurance, because I did even use it on this trip too.) These are just things to think about. I’m tired and I’m going to sleep, but I did listen to AM conservative radio on parts of my drive and have some thoughts on that…

Film Festivals

As a filmmaker, as a learning filmmaker, I am deeply indebted to and thankful for the people who have shared their insights, work, advice and ideas with me. When I go to film festivals like Telluride or Sundance, I find myself in a very humble place, seeing great artists whose presence and work gleams and glimmers, radiantly illuminated, both whispering and shouting, triumphantly from the Big Screen.

Film festivals are places that gather the creative people who have made the films.  I love to hear the background, the stories and the motivations that move people to Create their works. They have persevered through many trials in order to create and finish the project. I try to soak up as much as I can. It’s really quite fascinating. I just saw two pieces of work that moved me to the point of emotional exhaustion. Both films, while different, were exquisite. “Flame and Citron” as well as “Adam Resurrected” both drew me in (along with about 600 other avid theater-goers) and took me on an emotional journey. “Adam Resurrected” features delicious performances by all the actors, the crowning jewel with Jeff Goldblum’s portrayal of Adam.

It has been raining off and on during the Telluride Film Festival. It makes me pensive, reflective and thankful, as I try to understand the process of events that brought me to this point.  (I used to have a paying job, and now I am a filmmaker.  I call people, make and send flyers about the upcoming screenings, send out press kits and have somehow found myself in the position of a marketer.  Fascinating.)

DIY Filmmaking

A view into the life and thinking of an independent (really independent) filmmaker.

The process of self distribution and driving around the country promoting Considering Democracy has been an interesting process. I finished a Southern Tour at the end of May, then have been catching up on the endless task of picking up all the other facets that have been loose ends. While it’s really nice to be connected through the world via the internet, there’s still a lot of other maintenance and things to do. For example, I go to the post office almost every day with DVDs. Last week, I sent out over 100 query letters to other nonprofits and the responses are coming in. I’m catching up with web maintenance, as well as cutting a new internet based short to help promote the film online. People expressed the desire to have recipes on the website as ideas for screening parties, so I did some cooking yesterday, and those ideas are now on the website today.

The process of learning is a constant. There’s not a day that is totally outside of the drive to figure out and keep arranging distribution. I’m learning google maps to try to figure out a way for people to put in their information as to where they are holding screening parties, but that feature will be up and running for the second screening parties at the end of August, coinciding with the Democratic and Republican conventions.

The process of doing and arranging is also a constant. I’m once again beginning to contact groups and organizations to arrange screenings in August and September. It goes on and on. Although sometimes I think of where I could be, in public education, and I realize that instead of simply doing a job to someone else’s standard (I won’t get into No Child Left Behind. You can ask any teacher and our response will probably be the same) the difference is that I’m really enjoying the whole process of filmmaking and distribution. There’s a lot of problem solving involved. I’m using creativity and really learning a lot. I’m also humbled every day. I don’t have the luxury of putting things off and procrastinating, instead, I’m constantly prioritizing and I keep moving, while still being able to barely keep up.

So enough of reflection, I must get to other stuff.

DIY Distribution

I am on a screening tour, traveling around the United States screening Considering Democracy at various venues.  I’ve been talking to other filmmakers, and because the U.S. media market has become more conglomerated, great films and documentaries are not getting picked up for distribution.  If it does go into the contract phase, the contract is usually not so good for the filmmaker.

The Considering Democracy is screening well and audiences are getting engaged.  People from both more progressive and conservative ideologies are often surprised at the film’s content.  It’s been good fun, but I have driven like 1500 miles, and have 500 miles to drive tomorrow.  Is this what must be done to get the word out?  Film festivals are fabulous, but are located far from one another, and it’s often difficult for the filmmaker and crew to get to them.  I’m sure that PBS would not pick up something like this.  Oddly, there are many avenues available for independent filmmakers in the United States.

The information, however, will get out.  They can’t stop it.  And it’s actually really a lot of fun talking to people.  It’s inspiring and I realize that they are many fabulous, brilliant and engaged people.  It can be done!  Let’s begin discussing these things!  It’s a great thing about democracies!

DIY

The website is up!  While it is very, very cool that it’s possible to DIY (Do It Yourself) it does take a lot of work.  But I must say, it has been empowering to learn about how websites work.  Since quiting my day job at the end of January, I’ve learned a lot about the web 2.0.  I’m still learning, so there will be a lot of building onto the website.   By the end of the website project (about 2 -3 weeks) I’ve learned basic HTML.  Because I’m not a web designer, I realize that I used an older style of design, opposed to more pure CSS.  There’s a link to consideringdemocracy’s del.icio.us site.  I used it to bookmark sites to help me to better understand the world of technology.  It’s basic CSS and other ‘just learning about technology’ websites.

The main website for for the film has many resources to find groups to work with, or to get more information about various topics.  Let me know what you think.

Cheers!