Top Ten 90’s Misfires

10. LASERDISCS

While an earnest attempt to satiate cinephiles’ appetite for a higher quality home viewing experience of their favorite movies, the laserdisc was a clunky, impractical product. They weighed into the pounds, were very noisy to operate (due to the weight and speed it had to be spun) and not all the analog information could be stored on one side, necessitating the flipping of the disc every 30-60 minutes, and in some cases, the removal of the disc and loading of an additional disc for movies that were especially long.

10.Laserdisc

I admit to having a laserdisc player back in the day, and still sing its praises when it comes to “Star Wars”: it still remains the only medium in which a high quality version of the STAR WARS TRILOGY was released in its original state, before it was permanently altered by George Lucas. Yes, I still have the trilogy on laserdisc…and I continue to treasure it today.

9. BEEPERS

Also known as a “pager,” this simple communications device allowed someone to call it and leave a return phone number on its digital display.

9.Beeper

Teenagers in the 90’s seemed to want to have one, and actually thought it was cool to wear—backwards, with beeper inside the pocket and clip displayed proudly on the outside of the pocket. This didn’t last long, not only because the beeper was soon to be overshadowed by the cellular phone, but also because everyone realized that there was no good reason to have one of these damned things unless you were a doctor, drug dealer or a teenager who enjoyed having their parents beep them every half-an-hour.

8. THE LEXICON OF GRUNGE

In November 1992, The New York Times ran an article that cracked the code of “grunge speak.” The newspaper listed a number of slang terms that they claimed to be uniquely associated with the Seattle grunge scene.

8.LexiconOfGrunge

Turns out, the list was a hoax, a practical joke pulled on the esteemed newspaper by Megan Jasper, a receptionist for Caroline Records. By not adequately scrutinizing the article before running it, The New York Times proved itself the cob-nobbler [loser] in this particular instance.

7. “WATERWORLD”

This movie starring Kevin Costner was the most expensive film ever made at the time. It was released in 1995 to terrible reviews and is still considered one of the biggest box-office bombs of all time. Dennis Hopper also won the Razzie for Worst Supporting Actor.

7.Waterworld

Having said all that, I don’t think WATERWORLD is as bad as everyone thinks it is. It’s a cool concept and visually enthralling. And, come on, a Razzie for Dennis Hopper? For playing Deacon, the leader of the “Smokers,” a ragtag group of post-apocalyptic outlaws who ride haphazardly around on spiked jet skis and armored boats? Did I mention Deacon is a futuristic pirate who has one eye? A pirate who chain-smokes; notwithstanding the conceit that the world in which the movie takes place has been covered in water for generations and the last tobacco plant to have grown anywhere is not even within the scope of anyone’s memory. A Razzie for an actor forced to smoke such old, stale cigarettes? This is more like an Oscar-snub.

6. CRYSTAL PEPSI

Crystal Pepsi was marketed on the shelves as a “clear alternative” to normal colas, insufficiently equating clearness with purity and health.

6.Crystal-pepsi

Its slogan was: “You’ve never seen a taste like this.” While it was interesting to look at, no doubt, the fact remained: sodas are meant to be swallowed. And this soda, in addition to being caffeine-free and not at all resembling the flavor of a cola, tasted…bad.

5. THE “RACHEL” HAIRCUT

The “Rachel” haircut is a short, choppy, layered ‘do, square-like around the face, which was made famous by Jennifer Aniston in season one of the hit television show FRIENDS and named after her character, Rachel Green.

5.Rachel-friends

Despite her association with the cut, Aniston disliked the hairstyle:

“Have there been disasters? I think that’s a very relative term with hair. Let’s say there have been moments I’d rather not relive, like that whole Rachel thing. I love Chris [McMillan, her hairstylist], and he’s the bane of my existence at the same time because he started that damn Rachel, which was not my best look. How do I say this? I think it was the ugliest haircut I’ve ever seen. What I really want to know is, how did that thing have legs? Let’s just say I’m not a fan of short, layered cuts on me personally, so I don’t love revisiting that particular era.”

4. CANDLEBOX

Okay, maybe there were worse crimes perpetrated against music in the 90’s by the likes of Vanilla Ice, Billy Ray Cyrus, The Crash Test Dummies, Snow, and Los Del Rio and their godforsaken “Macarena,” but the trouble with Candlebox was that they were often directly associated with the grunge movement—at least that’s what major radio stations had you believe at the time, due to their relentless playing and replaying of “Far Behind” at the top of every hour and between much better songs from bands like Alice In Chains, Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

4.Candlebox

The other above-referenced songs were at least excluded from what was labeled “alternative;” it’s the distinction that Candlebox was included among that which was deemed “alternative,” when in actuality their music didn’t really aspire to be anything greater than the perfect music for an elevator or radio in a dentist’s office, that qualifies them as a “misfire.”

“Now maybe/

I didn’t mean to treat you oh so bad/

But I did it anyway”

Yes, you did, Candlebox…yes, you did.

3. DIAL-UP INTERNET

We all remember the days of dial-up internet, and those are days we would surely like to forget.

3.Dial-up-Internet

Dial-up connections require nothing more than a computer, a telephone network and an honorable amount of patience (it could take up to an hour or more to download a few megabytes). These days, dial-up is virtually obsolete; especially considering that most of the things we do online now—stream videos, skype, game, file share, download music—are impossible to do with such a slow, and archaic, connection to the net. That didn’t prevent people from trying, just as long as you didn’t use up all of your 1000 free hours you got on CD.

For many, AOL is synonymous with dial-up, and the mere mention of the acronym still frustrates a lot of people and brings back memories of the piercing static sounds one had to sit through while waiting for a connection and praying for the words, “You’ve Got Mail.”

2. “NOT!”

Not: for the purpose of this list, a word made popular in the early 90’s by the movie “Wayne’s World.” A user adds “not” to the end of a sentence to overtly highlight the sarcasm in the sentence itself.

Example: “What a totally amazing, excellent discovery… NOT!!!” -Wayne Campbell

2.Not

There’s a reason why no one uses this word in this way anymore, and I’m positive most of us would like to keep it that way.

1. Y2K

The Year 2000 problem (aka the Y2K problem, the Millennium bug, the Y2K bug, or just Y2K) was a problem for both computer and non-computer documentation and data storage that resulted from abbreviating a four-digit year to two digits.

1.Y2K

Concern swept the world—the apocalypse was about to arrive, and it was going to be caused by the inability of computer systems to process that changeover in dates from the year 1999 to the year 2000. Without corrective action, long-working systems were suspected to break down when the pattern of ascending numbers […97, 98, 99, 00…] suddenly became invalid. And this catastrophe would, of course, lead to the end of the world as we knew it: infrastructure dependent on computer data and management, like subways, phone service, and financial transactions, would implode.

John Hamre, the United States Secretary of Defense under President Clinton, was quoted as saying: “The Y2K problem is the electronic equivalent of the El Nino and there will be nasty surprises around the globe.”

Needless to say, we survived.

For a whole lot more on the nineties, check out my new film “No Alternative”: http://igg.me/at/noalternative

 

Music Is A Drug

No, really, it is. Music can significantly increase the levels of serotonin in a listener’s brain, which, as a result, positively impacts mood, sexual desires and the physical manifestation of those desires, overall cognitive function, regulation of body temperature, sleep and memory. Plug in your headphones and prescribe yourself a song.

music_is_my_drug_by_JesykaWicked_Cropped_1-800x399

The ability of music to impact, and indelibly mark, our lives cannot be underestimated. Melody, and the infinite ways of conveying melody, has a way of bypassing left-brain modes of communication and injecting itself directly into our bloodstreams. Music, for me, is a roadmap to my memories. I often mark moments in my life by the songs I was listening to at the time—for some reason, I can almost always remember the music associated with the happenings in my life, which then helps me place the moment, reconstruct the event, and relive the memory with some semblance of context.

Here are just a few examples:

Nirvana’s “Drain You;” circa 1995: I played over-and-over-again while pumping myself up to call my first girlfriend and ask her out on our first date.

Weezer’s “Only In Dreams;” circa 1995: The first song I crowd-surfed to while listening to it live as Weezer played at Roseland Ballroom.

Cowboy Junkies’ cover of “Blue Moon;” circa 1999: Used as an aid for sense memory (actor lingo) in preparing for my first stage performance in college, where I had to cry in a scene.

Metallica’s “Don’t Tread On Me;” September 11, 2001: In an effort to get my mind off the tragedy that was befalling the country, and the world, just a few blocks away from the skyscraper I was sitting in, I turned on the Opie & Anthony radio show on 102.7 and listened to them play this song. It was an unabashed appeal to those listeners looking for revenge, the immediate and swift kind, as the song preaches “settling the score….and preparing for war.” It’s a song that at that moment, for better or worse, appealed to the salivary glands of a nation scorned. It epitomized the knee-jerk reaction to a tremendously complex situation that no doubt led many to initially justify the unending quagmire we got ourselves into.

Radiohead’s “All I Need;” April 30, 2010: The song that I danced to with my wife, Rachel, at our wedding. It’s difficult to put the importance of this particular merger of song and moment into words. However, what I can say is that beyond sealing our love for each other, the moment proved that you can dance to Radiohead.

Jimmy Eat World’s “Hear You Me” and Weezer’s “Mykel & Carli;” July 1, 2014 and July 5, 2014, respectively. When my sister, Briana, sunk into her coma, my wife rushed home to be with me. This was perhaps the worst twelve hours of my life—my parents had just gone on their first vacation in years; they were overseas, and thus unable to be reached until they woke up in the morning, which due to the time difference, was still a number of hours away. On her car ride home, the first song to play on my wife’s iPod was “Hear You Me,” which, under the circumstances, made her think of Briana. I didn’t know this until several days later. The day Briana died, July 1, 2014, I asked her husband—who was also a musician, like I was—if there were any songs she had been listening to recently, which had been special to her, which meant something. If so, we should learn it and play it at her funeral. He said, without thinking too long about it: “Hear You Me,” by Jimmy Eat World. When I told my wife this, she then told me how this song played in her car the other day, the day it happened, and she’d been thinking of that song ever since.

Perhaps it was Briana requesting the song. That’s certainly how it felt.

The next several days I spent learning the song and writing Briana’s eulogy and reflecting on her life, and my life with her. The minutes leading up to having to leave for her funeral, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house. I felt like I was stuck. The only thing that could unstick me was Weezer’s “Mykel & Carli.” I played it on repeat, as loud as I possibly could through the miniscule speakers in my laptop, while I tied my tie, over and over again, in search of the perfect knot and proportional length.

The song is a tribute to Mykel and Carli Allan, the co-founders of Weezer’s Fan Club who were killed in a car crash on their way back from a Weezer concert.

Back in Wilson High/
Said I had these two best friends/
Till the school bus came/
And took my friends away/
Now I’m left alone at home/
To sit and think all day.

Hear you me, Mykel/
Hear you me, Carli.

The members of Jimmy Eat World were also friends with Mykel and Carli, and their song “Hear You Me” was both a tribute to them, and also an homage to the Weezer song, in which the phrase “Hear You Me” is sung to the two sisters, as though it’s trying to reach them beyond the grave. In Jimmy Eat World’s version, it’s less burning, and more mournful, with its chorus ringing:

May angels lead you in/
Hear you me my friends.
On sleepless roads the sleepless go/
May angels lead you in.

Briana’s husband, Anthony, my band, Latterday Saints (aka Guy Smiley), my wife, and Briana’s friends, Jillian and Allison, formed a group. We called ourselves “The Sleepless” and performed this song for my sister beside her coffin before she was lowered into the ground.

Music connects the dots; and we are all just dots on this planet, a wide and caustic spectrum of terra firma that is, more than often, unforgiving.

It’s music that I used as a framework for “No Alternative.” The landscape is the grunge era of the early 90’s, a milieu in which teenagers never felt more alone—this, at the very least, was the standard set by their moniker: Generation X. However, it was through music, which seemed to reflect that loneliness, disaffection and angst that brought an army of teenagers together. This movement in music, in my opinion, has never been matched—it was a cultural phenomenon, in both the worlds of alternative and rap music. It was a time when teenagers felt alienated, whether as a result of their place in the world or the hormones whirling inharmoniously inside their bodies. However, at this moment in 1994, teens were able to harness what is often uncontrollable energy through the music they played and listened to.

Music can do more than just mark one’s life, and through those markings, enhance the quality of it. If music is a drug, then life is, arguably, its active ingredient. While it’s not a cure for our shared disease of death, it gives us solace as we make our inevitable march towards it.

Music is the drug in “No Alternative”: http://bit.ly/1qmwc1A

“No Alternative” – The Crowdfunding Campaign

No Alternative - Indiegogo - Card -4

I launched my first crowdfunding campaign this week.

Crowdfunding is its own art form—an art form I’m no expert at, I’m sure—but indie film is at a point where grassroots funding is becoming more and more critical to sustaining its viability. It’s almost impossible to get Hollywood to fund something that’s not a thriller, or a horror movie, or a comic book movie—and they rarely ever fund coming-of-age films. The filmmaking community, and their audiences, have been left with tent-poles (studio movies made for 150 million and up) and microbudgets (movies made for under a million, often far less than a million).

The middle class space of filmmaking has disappeared. This is something I’ve written a lot about for Indiewire over the past few months. I’m hoping we can rebuild this artistically important space, one movie at a time—and right now I’m attempting to fight the good fight with my new film: “No Alternative.”

The character of “Bri Da B” is inspired by my sister, who for most of her life suffered from mental illness. One of the ways she was able to cope and enjoy her life was through rapping. When the character of Bridget becomes “Bri Da B,” that transformation into someone else helps lessen the pain she is feeling in her life.

I have always thought of “No Alternative” as a love letter to my sister, a plea for her survival. That’s why I originally wrote the novel this film is based on. I wish I could tell you that plea was successful. But, I can’t. The majority of my sister’s life was a battle fought against borderline personality disorder, drug addiction and suicidal behavior. A battle she ultimately succumbed to on July 1, 2014.

While she may have lost her battle, I’m hopeful we can win the war—and we can do it in honor of her, and others who have suffered like she did. The issue of mental illness needs to be destigmatized and “No Alternative” seeks to do just that.

The campaign for “No Alternative” is officially being sponsored by From the Heart Productions, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that supports films that make a contribution to society. By contributing to this film, you are not only helping other socially conscious films get made, but your donation is also tax-deductible.

This campaign encompasses the entire process—from pre-production, to production to finishing the film in post. I encourage you to check it out on Indiegogo: http://igg.me/at/noalternative

There are some amazing perks/rewards for contributors. Here is a list of just some of them: Signed editions of my books, Parental Advisory “Bri Da B” official movie T-Shirts, filmmaking mentorships with both myself and my co-screenwriter, Dwight Moody, opportunities to be a part of the movie as featured extras, as a band, or having supporting characters named after you, and we’re even offering major “hero” props from my previous films like “Detour” and “Don’t Look Back.”

Please check out the campaign page for all the other cool rewards you can redeem when you make a contribution.

“No Alternative” probes the lives of rebellious kids who transition into adulthood via the distortion pedals of their lives in an era when the “Sex, Drugs & Rock’n’Roll” ethos was amended to include “Suicide” in its phrase. Help destigmatize mental illness, addiction and suicide: there is no alternative.

Thank you so much for your support.

The Beginning of a Movement: THE FIFTH WALL

TheFifthWall-InternetPic

“The Fifth Wall” is a response to the modality of contemporary Hollywood. The origins of its manifesto are attributed to my time at the AFI and its message developed along with some of my fellow filmmaking classmates:

While we were at the AFI a few of us conceived of a movement we called “The Fifth Wall.” Whether through the use of surrealism or through meta-fictional truth, we conspired to tell a story that would not only leave the audience resonating with some sort of transcendent beauty, but also, because each of us in “The Fifth Wall” has experienced severe trauma and loss first hand, we endeavor to subconsciously imbue them with a feeling of solace. To send the viewer a message in a bottle, from one empathetic being to another, a communiqué of hope: you’re not alone in your pain. It will get better and you will derive much beauty from the world in the future…

While this movement has been largely theoretical until now, the time is now to put this theory into practice. Hollywood is a business that continues to eclipse the art, originality and storytelling that used to be—and should be—the core of what movies are. The most common justification movie executives give for the broad and banal blockbusters that dominate the box office week after week is: audiences want to escape the troubles of their lives; they don’t want to see something that “hits too close to home.”

This escapist ideology is shortsighted and, in many respects, erroneous.

The idea that human beings turn to art and entertainment as a way to alleviate life’s strain and pressures is accurate. But what is it about art and entertainment that actually provides relief, beyond the temporary escapism? While being transported to cinematic worlds in galaxies far, far away may seem like departures from reality, it doesn’t necessarily benefit your life outside of those two hours; in fact, it might do more harm than good. The science seems to indicate that confronting our emotions, rather than ignoring them, however troubling these emotions might be, is a more effective means through which to purge the pain, anxiety and trauma we encounter day to day. Let’s take a result of such a purge for example: the physical act of crying. The biochemist William H. Frey II purports that the reason people feel better after crying is that it decreases the level of adrenocorticotropic hormones in the blood, hormones associated with the detection of, and response to, threat or other stress-inducing stimuli. It also promotes the production of cortisol, which lowers stress in these types of situations. Putting the science aside, experiencing emotion as a way to cleanse oneself of it is nothing new. Aristotle posited the notion of catharsis in ancient Greece. He believed tragedy, with respect to drama, is the imitation of action arousing pity and fear, the purpose of which is to achieve the purgation of those emotions. The act of being a spectator of dramatic tragedy has a tangible, and ultimately positive, effect on the mind and body.

Comedy-Tragedy-1

Catharsis is the basis of psychoanalysis. The expression of the original emotion, one that has been repressed or ignored, is the method through which the healing of trauma can only begin to take place. While movies are not psychoanalysis sessions, the idea that people go to the movies to “escape” means they must be escaping from something. Furthermore—and this is the problem—this same something that is being ignored for a couple hours will only return later and will have become greater and more overwhelming than before. The very origin of dramatic storytelling, predating Greek tragedy, goes back to Egypt around 2800 BC in the form of pyramid texts that depict the dramatic journeys of dead pharaohs entering the underworld.

The earliest dramas all have one thing in common: death. The whole purpose of the invention of drama was realizing a type of catharsis or emotional resolution through confrontation, not some desire for vapid escapism.

Co-founder of “The Fifth Wall,” Paul Sanchez Yates, explains: “I find it difficult to separate my personal life from my art. In fact, I refuse to separate them. These films, these emotion-pictures reveal my inner affections, passions, humors, beliefs and traumas and scars. Unlike the usual Hollywood escapism, these films are extremely personal, sometimes horrible, but always exquisitely real.” Yates continues, “’The Fifth Wall’ is the state I find myself in when I have revealed so much personal truth that I no longer know where I end and the canvas/film begins. In this work I reveal so much about my inner-self that my perspective is lost.”

movie projector2

Most people tend to look toward the past with regret or to the future with dread. Hollywood provides entertainment that sacrifices emotion for spectacle, spectacle it thinks will allow viewers a respite from the regret and dread behind and in front of them. “The Fifth Wall” provides the regret and the dread, which allows for exactly the kind of respite the audience desires—one that extends beyond those two hours and into their lives after the film.

Middle Class Filmmakers: Do you want to make Hollywood films or Fifth Wall films? Your answer may very well impact the future sustainability of an art form that matters to us a great deal.

#Hollywood99 #MiddleClassFilm #TheFifthWall

What Does The Sundance Film Festival Mean To Middle Class Filmmakers?

Sundance_Film_FestivalWhat does this year’s Sundance Film Festival mean to Middle Class Filmmakers?

Let’s first compare last year’s sales with this year’s sales. In 2015, the big Hollywood distributors bought the majority of the films showcased at the festival—Fox Searchlight bought “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”; Open Road bought “Dope”; Sony Pictures Classic bought “Diary of a Teenage Girl.” Just around one year ago, various entertainment news outlets reported that the Sundance Market was “starting to look like the old days.” However, the three films mentioned above ultimately underperformed at the box office. These relatively small films seemed to have gotten lost among the much bigger budget and glitzier blockbusters that the studios released over this past year.

Sundance-2015

Hollywood’s one percent is betting all their money on blockbusters; therefore, to ensure those bets pay off, they focus all of their marketing efforts on these films. They need these films to appeal to as many different demographics as possible, and to as many demographics in as many regions around the world as possible. Smaller, niche material, like the movies bought at Sundance in 2015, are simply not a priority for Hollywood’s bottom line. If one or two of their gigantic tentpoles bomb, it would potentially be enough of a financial disaster to collapse a studio. That type of risk is something that sends shivers down the spine of tinseltown.

As this year’s Sundance concludes, let’s take a look at what happened: streaming sites Netflix and Amazon eclipsed the traditional Hollywood distributors. While this year’s Sundance did see the largest sale in its history, and a studio made the sale—Fox Searchlight bought “Birth of a Nation”—most of the movies were bought by these internet tech giants. The welcome side effect of these alternative buyers opening their big wallets was that they drove up the bidding for the movies in general. If the erstwhile generation of Hollywood distributors wanted a piece of this year’s pie, they had to push their way to the front of the line at the bakery.

Sundance-2016

Each year, I’m somewhat baffled as to why Hollywood becomes, more or less, a ghost town during Sundance. I’m constantly cautioned by colleagues to not pitch anything, take any projects out, etc., throughout the duration of Sundance, presumably because everyone’s there—in body, or at least in mind. If Hollywood cares so much about the indie films at Sundance, why do they care so little about releasing and marketing them? Perhaps it’s just a chance to party and pretend like they care. Harvey Weinstein criticized the establishment’s release model in his recent Op-Ed in The Hollywood Reporter: “We need to support independent film distribution (and, in turn, independent film culture) 12 months a year, not just the last four.” What is so clearly different this year is that it seems like the new kids in town do care about releasing and marketing these films. This leads us to pose the question: If the studios, and traditional models of distribution, are the establishment, are Netflix and Amazon the anti-establishment? As opposed to the current studio mindset of making essentially one type of movie, for a gigantic demographic, it’s in the best interest of Netflix and Amazon to provide their subscribers with an array of material on their menu. Subscribers are in control of their content, that’s why they subscribe, and the more options, the more control they have to dial in a movie that matches their specific taste. The studios operate in the world of the indistinguishable; Netflix and Amazon operate in the world of the specific—and this is good news for indie film and its middle class filmmakers.

netflix-logo

The trouble, of course, is that we are assessing this change in real time. We don’t know if Netflix and Amazon will see their bets on these Sundance films pay off. Are they looking to gain more subscribers, or simply keep the ones they have? How will they judge the success of these films, and furthermore, how will the industry judge the success of these films with respect to the filmmakers?

Netflix reportedly offered 20 million for the slave rebellion drama, “Birth of a Nation;” however, the filmmakers opted for a studio’s $17.5 million dollar offer. Why did a film that’s content is anti-establishment ultimately go with the establishment? Especially an establishment that is currently marred by accusations of racial bias? The reason seems pretty clear: Fox Searchlight can offer a guaranteed, and perhaps stronger, theatrical release timed during awards season. Netflix’s current model for these types of acquisitions is a day-and-date limited theatrical and streaming release (the movie hits big screens and streaming platforms on the same day).

birth-of-a-nation.w1200.h630

While the sales of these films to Netflix and Amazon reflect well on the filmmakers, history has taught us that the ultimate litmus test of their viability as working professionals is how their films perform at the box office. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” sold big at Sundance, but it didn’t do well at the box office. When the industry discusses that film, they don’t discuss it in light of its sale, but rather in light of its numbers. It’s all about the bottom line. How will Netflix and Amazon keep track of its numbers? Netflix has stated, quite adamantly, that it does not release its internal numbers to its filmmakers. This lack of transparency will no doubt prove detrimental to its filmmakers who are vying for their next gig—unless these tech giants are offering multi-picture deals to its talent (it wouldn’t be a bad idea, guys). Filmmakers are typically offered their next job based on how many people watched their last film—if that data is unavailable, it could potentially leave the filmmaker in a bit of a lurch.

I’ve always been of the opinion: I want as many people to see my films as possible. The making money part has always been second to that. The good news is that Netflix and Amazon can make that first part a reality—introducing middle class films to their millions of subscribers. The not so good news is, the growth of the filmmakers they showcase, and the route to a sustainable living post-sale, is an unknown.

#MiddleClassFilmmakers

99Percent

It seems my Indiewire piece on “The 99 Percent…In Hollywood” struck a nerve [bit.ly/1XtxL9K]. I think that’s a good thing, both positive and negative responses alike. The point was to start a conversation and the conversation has begun.

ElijahWood-Indiewire-TwitterMost of the response out there has been positive and I can’t thank you enough for the support.

TedHope-IndieWire-Twitter-2

LawrenceODonnell-Indiewire-Twitter

But the reason I wrote it, and titled it “I am the 99 Percent…in Hollywood,” is that this isn’t about me at all. It is about an issue that’s much larger than I am.

Stage32-Indiewire-Twitter

ChelseaLupkin-Indiewire-Twitter

Indiewire-FacebookComments

For the benefit of clarity: I’m speaking on behalf of numerous filmmakers, many I know personally, who share a similar sentiment. I’ve made three features in the past 2 years and have been fortunate to see them all released in a variety of ways. Detour was distributed theatrically and digitally—both domestically and internationally (it just finished a successful theatrical run in Japan)—and Don’t Look Back was sold to Lifetime Movie Network and recently premiered to 1.1 million viewers when it aired.

It took me a while to get here—Detour took over 5 years to make, a process that started before the trend of minimalist, single protagonist, single location films—our development and pre-production predated Buried and 127 Hours, for instance [http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/29/movies/detour-directed-by-william-dickerson.html].

Making a film is in any filmmaker’s grasp, money or no money, and I do agree that’s a powerful, important and hopeful thing; particularly when making your first film.

AlexGibney-Indiewire-Twitter-1

AlexGibney-Indiewire-Twitter-2

I have directed both film and television. The problem is compensation and support is not commensurate to the work in this “middle” space—the current area in which many of us are working.

AlexGibney-Indiewire-Twitter-3

Films are cheaper, and easier, to make, yes; but much more difficult to utilize as a bridge to a living. It’s indeed necessary for new “outside-the-of-box” models to be explored.

TravisStevens-Indiewire-Twitter

This is a tough conversation, but it’s one that not only filmmakers need to have, but the higher ups in Hollywood also need to have.

Are movies simply a pop cultural fad? Are they simply a product? I don’t think so, and if you’ve ever been affected by a movie, you don’t think so either. I believe movies are not only important, but indispensable, to our culture. If you don’t think so, my piece isn’t for you. And that’s perfectly okay. I will continue to advocate for change, for a rebuilding of the middle space of filmmaking because I think the current chasm is doing long-term damage to both the industry and the art form itself.

KimMasters-Indiewire-Twitter

I recently used the film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as a lens through which to examine the current state of movies. In this particular “indie” film, the story ends with a girl dying. As if to add insult to injury, she dies while watching the movie Thomas Mann’s character Greg has spent the entire film making for her. We are forced to stare at the dying girl as she’s watching the movie, and dying, and we don’t get to see it. We don’t get to see the movie Greg has toiled over, the movie that results in his grades going down the toilet, the movie that may, or may not, be his first and final expression of love and affection for the character of Rachel. We will never know what the movie is about. We will never know, because that’s not what’s important.

What is important is the power that movie has on both Rachel watching it, and Greg having made it, and the power the movie within which that movie is being projected is having on us as we watch it in the theater. Movies have the power to not only move us emotionally, but also provide the shared experience of experiencing that emotion with others—and that experience is nothing short of transcendent.

Greg grows up watching movies with his father, with his friend Earl, and with Rachel. Greg is you and I. Movies have a lasting, meaningful effect on his life as well as ours. As Me and Earl and the Dying Girl shows us, moving pictures are life—they live on after death. They continue to point us into the direction of the people we respect, care for and love the most; they point us into the direction of eras, societies and cultures past. I have no doubt that most people working in the industry will speak of their passion for movies, but if they’re really passionate about them, they’d make more films based on that passion. When movies are made in boardrooms on the basis of demographics, or the desire to sell in other countries, they alienate that portion of the audience that wants to see unique, personal films. Movies are an amalgamation of art and commerce; however, there must be an equal balance between the two for a movie to matter.

EricKohn-Indiewire-Twitter

When it comes down to it, we are all film fans. We, as human beings, are compelled to tell stories; it’s how we make sense of the stories of our own lives. Hollywood, when operating at its best, is one of America’s greatest industries. Please, let’s not take that power for granted.

Let’s keep this conversation going. Follow me on twitter: @WDFilmmaker

Me and Earl and the Dying World of Independent Film

MeAndEar-1

When I first saw Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I referred to the film as Me and Earl. The choice to shorten the title was a subconscious one, but it was still a choice, and the choice was to avoid the elephant in the room: that a girl is going to die in the movie I’m about to see.

This is a very un-Hollywood thing to do. And the filmmakers say as much in their film, when the main character, Greg, reassures us in the voiceover: “Bear with me, I know you’re bracing to see a sweet girl die; but she doesn’t, she gets better.” Here’s the thing, she doesn’t get better. She dies. You may be mad at me for not issuing some kind of “spoiler alert” prior to me writing that last sentence; but tough, if the title of the movie didn’t spoil the ending for you, my words certainly won’t. The truth is, this is just symptomatic of a larger problem: Hollywood has trained us to anticipate happy endings, and as a result, we become infuriated if we aren’t rewarded with them (this type of fury is few and far between, because movies made inside and outside of Hollywood these days rarely end on a low note). I’m a firm believer that good movies should be metaphors for our own realities. Yes, this is a movie about filmmakers dealing with a cancer growing in the blood of their friend; however, not discounting the seriousness of the plot, this film is also about filmmakers—and by extension, the audience—dealing with a dilemma growing in the heart of Hollywood.

The film opens with these two kids, Greg (the narrator) and Earl, his co-worker, “not his friend,” which he, ironically, goes out of his way to say. These two might seem like they’re obsessed with movies, but they don’t really act like it. It’s more like movies are just a part of their lives—an indispensible part. The movies they watch inform their views of the world. One of the first movies we see them watching in the film is Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which is about “the search for a golden city that doesn’t exist.” It’s no coincidence that the filmmakers use the plot of a movie within a movie as an analogy to the lure of Hollywood. Many have likened the selling of a script, or the booking of a role, to the modern day gold rush—a rush to become the next big thing.

me-and-earl-and-the-dying-girl

Greg and Earl are friends with the outsiders, if friends with anyone else at all, which leads to the befriending of Rachel, the girl who’s dying from leukemia. They are the true independents, finding their way through the world outside of the system—namely, high school—by making movies as a means to coping with the often turbulent and, literally, life-threatening task of growing up in this relentless world. In this world—the world of reality and not of Hollywood movies—the hot girls squash you, your friends (excuse me, co-workers) punch you in the stomach, and people close to you die out of nowhere. It’s called life, and movies help us deal with it—movies are human antidotes to woe, when they’re made by artists, that is.

The influence of pop culture surrounds these characters: it is a wall-tacked picture of Hugh Jackman, after all, who tells Greg to stop being insensitive and not joke about death with a dying girl. Moments like this achieve two things: 1. They highlight the significant role that Hollywood plays in our lives on a daily basis, particularly the lives of our youth; 2. They emphasize the fact that Hollywood gets it wrong. Are we to ignore the elephant in the room? Are we to repress our feelings, only to let them eat us alive from the inside out? Humor, often black humor, is the life preserver in a choppy sea of sorrow, misery and the hardened indifference of the natural world. Hollywood makes its living—a very, very good living—sugarcoating this reality.

Through his narration, Greg telegraphs the beats that Hollywood often mandates in its films; specifically, that the girl doesn’t die at the end. If this had been a Hollywood movie, not only would this girl make a miraculous recovery, but Greg and Rachel would’ve also fallen in love, and it would be that love, that B-Story, which leads to her survival. Love conquers all, triumph of the human spirit, buddy stories; are these phrases applicable to your own lives? I would say, mostly, no. I know some, particularly those in this business, who argue that viewers want an escape from their lives; they are willing to pay for that escape, and Hollywood exists to provide that escape. I would argue that that tentpole mentality is just as myopic as most of the industry’s output of megabudget blockbusters.

It used to be what separated studio films from indie films was the ending: studio films ended happily, independent films ended bleakly, at worst, or ambiguously, at best. There was a time, not that long ago, when studios funded these “independent” films with depressing-ish endings. Not so anymore; not even close. Fifteen years ago, Walt Disney Pictures produced a David Lynch movie to the tune of 10 million dollars—a movie about an elderly man who embarks on a journey across state lines by way of a tractor to see his brother before he dies. As the millennium advanced, studios continued to fund independent films, but they began to not-so-subtly guide these films into mainstream territory. Take Lars and the Real Girl as an example. With a budget of 12 million, the movie explores the life of a delusional young man who dates a sex doll he procured from the Internet. This is a great indie idea; however, the film embraced a tone much more reminiscent of mainstream studio fare: it wasn’t stark, it was sentimental; it wasn’t edgy, it was wholesome. It was executed as though it was the sister to Sleepless in Seattle. Lars is an example of a number of “indies” that adopted a mainstream tone as a means of, in my opinion, attracting larger, broader audiences to more niche material. Ultimately, the movie didn’t do well at the box office. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s because the movie’s tone conflicted with itself; it didn’t quite know what it wanted to be.

Fast-forward ten years later and that independent film production and distribution model that existed within the studio system—the system within which Lars was made—has completely disappeared. There are only megabudgets (movies made for 150 million dollars and up) and microbudgets (movies made for under a million, often far under a million). There’s nothing in between. Barely nothing. Even the movies that make it through no man’s land—the movies made between 5 to 20 million—are largely anomalies (i.e. movies by a handful of auteur directors, like the Andersons—Wes and Paul Thomas—who cemented their careers when indies were being regularly funded). The ones that do make it through still largely operate with mainstream mechanics. Whiplash, the kid becomes a veritable superhero in the end and conquers all with an astonishing drum solo; Boyhood, despite the odds and a series of questionable father figures, the kid has the whole world in front of him (it ends with him staring into a horizon); Birdman, the film ends with the onstage suicide of its main character (but, wait, maybe not? In a moment of magical realism, he wakes up in the hospital, injured, but optimistic, so much so, he opens the window, jumps out and flies into the great blue sky). I liked all of these films quite a bit, actually; but it does appear as though they’ve been influenced by Hollywood’s expectations.

What is refreshing about Me and Earl, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, is that the movie itself flies in the face of Hollywood and its expectations. While some have criticized the film for characters that border on caricatures—the alcoholic single mother, the quasi-magical black friend, and the girl who dies to teach the self-absorbed protagonist a lesson—it’s a film that is aware of itself with respect to the movies that have come before it, and these characterizations are part of its point. Greg’s narration misleads viewers into believing they are sitting back and watching a movie that adheres to Hollywood’s rules, which guarantees a happy ending that will continue to resonate its happiness on the walk to the parking lot.

In the end of Me and Earl—excuse me, The Dying Girl—there is, well, there is a girl that dies. An innocent one, who never did anything bad to anybody. As if to add insult to injury, she dies while watching the movie Greg has spent the entire film making for her. On top of that, we are forced to stare at the dying girl as she’s watching the movie, and dying, and we don’t get to see it. We don’t get to see the movie Greg has toiled over, the movie that results in his grades going down the toilet, the movie that may, or may not, be his first and final expression of love and affection for Rachel. We will never know what the movie is about. We will never know, because that’s not what’s important. What’s important is the power that movie has on both Rachel watching it, and Greg having made it, and the power the movie within which that movie is being projected is having on us as we watch it in the theater. Movies have the power to not only move us emotionally, but also provide the shared experience of experiencing that emotion with others—and that experience is nothing short of transcendent.

Me_and_Earl_and_the_Dying_Girl_2015_720p_WEB_DL

Greg grows up watching movies with his father, with Earl, and with Rachel. Greg is you and I. Movies have a lasting, meaningful effect on his life as well as ours, and that effect demands that we as the audience are not lied to. As The Dying Girl shows us, moving pictures are life—they live on after death. They continue to point us into the direction of the people we respect, care for and love the most; they point us into the direction of eras, societies and cultures past; they point us toward the origin, the end and the rebirth of ourselves. I have no doubt that most people working in the system will speak of their passion for movies, but if they’re really passionate about them, they’d make more films like The Dying Girl. When movies are made in boardrooms on the basis of demographics, or the desire to sell in other countries, they alienate that portion of the audience that wants to see unique, personal films. Movies are an amalgamation of art and commerce; however, there must be an equal balance between the two for a movie to matter.

When it comes down to it, we are all film fans. We, as human beings, are compelled to tell stories; it’s how we make sense of the stories of our own lives. Hollywood, when operating at its best, is one of America’s greatest industries. Please, let’s not take that power for granted.

IN MEMORIAM: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper; Rebel, Rabble-Rouser, Raconteur

My heart was heavy when I heard the news that Roddy Piper, known to most of the world as “Rowdy” Roddy, or “Hot Rod,” died at the age of 61 from cardiac arrest. I just recently had the privilege of directing him in my film, Don’t Look Back.

Don't Look Back - 4

I only knew Roddy, personally, for a short period of time, but those of you who have made movies know just how close people become during the magical, and often relentless, process of filmmaking. Not to mention, I’ve actually known Roddy my entire life—a lot of us who watched professional wrestling have grown up knowing him—so I feel compelled to write something.

Roddy played Eddie Starks in Don’t Look Back. It was a dark role, the role of a child abuser. When my co-writer and casting director, Michael Testa, mentioned that Roddy might be available to play the part, I was ecstatic. Not only was Roddy an icon in the wrestling world, he solidified his pop culture status in John Carpenter’s They Live, which, if I’m not mistaken, still holds the record for the longest fight scene in cinema history. You might remember Roddy’s signature line from the film: “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

Roddy Piper They Live

When I first spoke to Roddy, he was hesitant about playing the part of such a despicable person, a person who victimizes the most innocent of our society. He was also aware of his status as a childhood hero, which such a role could potentially undermine. I told him that someone with his type of affable personality should play the role, because it’s always the person no one expects, or the person that everyone admires, who flies under the radar and gets away with such crimes. It’s more dramatic, more authentic, to play against type for this role. He liked that line of thinking; primarily because he thought it might benefit kids who watch the film by bringing awareness to these types of predatory individuals.

It was never about Roddy; it always about others, whether it was the viewers, his fans, or his collaborators.

I could write an endless amount of words on Roddy—whether they’re about working with him, or about the stories (legendary stories) that he shared with me during the process. I could write about his Method acting—he would isolate himself in a dark room, or closet, between takes to stay in character. He would want to know how tight the shot was—was it a wide, medium, or close-up—and subtly adjust his performance to every inch of the frame (likely a by-product of a life on camera, especially in a profession where a wrestling move must read the same to spectators in the first row as to those in the back. He knew how to perform to a lens, and for a director, that was most welcome). He would improvise lines here and there, but he would always warn me, “I’m gonna throw stuff at you, Will, but if it doesn’t work for you, you just tell me. I got thick skin!” He had improvised every episode of “Piper’s Pit”—each and every one off the top of his head—for the WWF back in the day; who was I to discourage such a generous bequest! Remember that famous “bubblegum” line? Yes, that was all him. If someone in the crew wanted a picture with him (I was one of those people), he obliged; he even obliged those who wanted a picture with him putting them in a headlock. I watched closely each time someone asked for that (and it was surprisingly often): Roddy was much shorter than you might think, so the picture-asker inevitably would have to crouch down for him, so he could reach his arms around—however, Roddy never let that happen. He would say: “Count to three.” Picture-asker counts to three, then Roddy proceeds to knee the picture-asker in the back, triggering the reflexes in the muscles to shrink the body like an accordion and bring the person’s head towards him, leaving plenty of room for Roddy and his arms to choke the individual as the picture’s being snapped.

Every time; brilliant. It never got old.

HotRod

I thought I’d relay one story, because it’s one of the most wonderful, and wonderfully terrifying, things that started as a story and became something else. Now it’s something wonderful and terrifying unto its own, which lives on inside Don’t Look Back. It all began when Roddy began humming, and then singing, the children’s song John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt during a particularly disturbing scene in the film. You know the song:

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,

His name is my name too.

Whenever we go out,

The people always shout,

There goes John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt!

He caught me by surprise when he began singing it in a take; what was meant to be a playful tune, was turned into something haunting. The subverted use of such a bright song in such a dark scene simmered with subtext—it heightened the drama of the scene to a level I had not anticipated. Roddy was on to something, and I filmed it (after I asked the powers-that-be if the song was in the public domain, which it was, and we carried on).

IMG_3537

While in post-production, my editor, Blake, and I realized how much of an impact Roddy’s seemingly little improvisation had on the entire film. We cut bits and pieces of the song up and peppered it throughout the film, using it to foreshadow more ominous elements of the story as it progressed. My composer, MJ, felt it to. He wanted to expand on that idea and bring the song, literally, into the score of the film. He wanted to take Roddy’s version and stretch it out, slow it down, speed it up, and merge it with his character’s musical theme. The problem was, we didn’t have much of it to spare. The production audio of the song wasn’t completely clean; there was dialogue from the other actor, and Roddy didn’t sing the song completely through to its end.

MJ asked me: “Can you get Roddy to come into the studio and sing the song for us?” Roddy spent a lot of his time in Oregon and was always shooting or touring, but I gave him a call. As I imagined, he was out of town and would be on the road for a while, and subsequently unable to come into the studio. Roddy asked me why I needed him. I explained how wonderful, and of course, terrifying, his use of the song was in the film, but that we didn’t have enough production audio of it. Yes, the song was eerie, but there was something genuine about it, something I couldn’t quite articulate, that just worked. And it worked because of him. He loved the idea of weaving the song through the score and began to tell me why he sang the song in the first place. When he was a kid, he lived in a rural area of Canada that was native to Timberwolves. Upon moving to this area, he had learnt of the deaths of several children who were killed by these wolves. That wasn’t the only problem. Roddy was a small kid and he told me that he was bullied a lot (hard to imagine, right?) before and after school. In an effort to avoid the bullies, he bypassed the roads and walked several miles through the heavily wooded outskirts of the town—heavily wooded outskirts that were home to these specific Timberwolves. But, he had learnt something else: Timberwolves were frightened of the human voice. As a result, he learned John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt and sang it at the top of his lungs during his walks to and from school. He told me, after that, he would never forget that song—and he brought that dark, gritty emotional reality to its performance in the film. And for that, I can’t thank him enough.

Roddy couldn’t make it to the studio to record the song in person, and getting him into a studio wherever he was proved difficult. So, I suggested to him, “You know what could work; give me a call, I’ll let it go to voicemail, and you can sing it into the phone.” He said, “Sure,” and he hung up. I expected him to call me right back, but he didn’t. After a few minutes of silence from my iPhone, I was sure I had rubbed him the wrong way; that the suggestion was too much to ask (you know how your self-consciousness gets the best of you sometimes; particularly in this business? Well, it was getting the best of me then).

One day passed, two days passed; should I email him? Third day: should I text him, give him a gentle nudge? Fourth, Fifth, Sixth day passed; okay, I should call and apologize to him. No, email; it should be an email.

Just over a week later, I was leaving a meeting and pulled out my phone to check it. The screen read: Missed Call: Roddy Piper. There was a voicemail. And, on that voicemail, was John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt:

This was the most terrifying voicemail anyone has ever left me—or will ever leave me—and we used it all throughout the film. The recording became an essential track in our score and sound design. The fact that Roddy left me in such suspense before leaving me this recording; well, he was still the same man who smashed that coconut over Jimmy Snuka’s head. I’m extremely grateful to have worked with the man, who in my eyes (and many others’) was, and will always be, a legend.

My deepest condolences and prayers go out to Roddy’s family. Thank you for letting him come play with us up in Idyllwild and shoot our little movie—it was, without question, one of the best experiences of my life.

“New York Movie”

The last picture taken of my sister, Briana, was snapped by her husband on the morning of her death. She was wearing a black and blue dress and standing in her living room in front of a framed print of Edward Hopper’s painting New York Movie. Edward Hopper was one of her favorite painters. She loved others, too, but she had more prints of Hopper’s paintings hanging in her home than anyone else’s.

new-york-movie-edward-hopper

In the photograph, the painting is obscured by Briana’s head, which covers the lower half of the figure of the woman usher, who is Hopper’s primary subject in the painting. The painting happens to be one of my favorite paintings, too. It involves cinema, after all. Hopper’s canvas splits the viewer’s focus. In one respect, your focus is drawn down the left side, past the backs of mostly empty theater seats and onto the screen. On the right side of the painting, the usher stands—a tall blonde woman, pensive in her countenance, her chin resting on her right hand, and her other arm supporting her right elbow, which in turn supports the weight of her head. A wall obstructs her view of the screen, not that she wants to see it. She can no doubt hear the film playing, and has most likely seen this motion picture too many times for her to count. She appears to be too preoccupied with the movie unfolding inside her head.

And we are, too, as the spectators of this painting. Neither the portion of the movie screen we see, nor the backs of the heads of the audience members, are competing for our attention. We are drawn to the usher’s contemplation, her melancholy perhaps—her own disjointed imagination inside a ceremonial room that makes its bones on the imaginations of others with ticket stubs.

When this last picture of my sister was taken, something strange occurred in the painting behind her: a reflection of an overexposed flash of light appeared over the usher’s face—the portion of the figure that was not obscured by my sister’s head. The source of this light is unknown; no camera flash was used. Perhaps the light in the photo is emanating from a window, but the flood of light seems too immense, and its shape—relative to the shape of the face—too exact.

It wasn’t until the moment I saw this photograph, and subsequently studied the painting closer, that I realized just how much this woman looks like my sister—or, I should say, my sister looked like this woman. It was uncanny. She had the same face. In addition to that, the color of her hair, and her clothes, were the same. My sister wore bangs most of her life, just as this woman was wearing her hair (see below for a photo of my sister when she was a teenager).

Briana-AngelPhoto

The woman in New York Movie is based on Hopper’s wife, Jo, whom he often used as a reference model. The usher’s visage was sketched as Jo stood under an illuminated lamp in the hallway of his house. Like her husband, she was a painter, but she was never publically recognized as such—at least not to the extent that her husband was. However, she did name many of his paintings, including conceiving of the famous Nighthawks title.

What’s even stranger is that the woman in the painting, while based on Jo, looks less like her, and more like my sister. The shape of the nose, the cut of the cheekbones and the posture of the figure; it is Briana.

Briana-SelfPortrait-Edited

Perhaps, I’m projecting. But what I see is what I see. Has my perception been altered since her death? Am I seeing things differently than they are (or than they were)?

Things as they are…are now how they were.

In Marcel Proust’s rumination on time, Remembrance of Things Past, he ponders what happens to the souls of those who cross that ethereal bridge to death: “I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and so effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognized their voice the spell is broken. We have delivered them: they have overcome death and return to share our life.”

What was once Jo Hopper before July 1st, 2014, is now my sister after July 1st, 2014, and in this new thread of time, in which I and the others around me occupy, it was always my sister in that painting, for Edward Hopper, her favorite painter, had painted her into it. Perhaps I have found that particular object that has captured her soul, and I have recognized her voice calling to me, and the spell has been broken. Perhaps she has overcome death and returned to share her life: her effect on me is eternal. Her effect on me is the light that replaces the faces of masterpieces. It is the gateway to a life of memories that will continue to unfold upon the movie theater screen in my head. For the time being, my head is weighed down by these memories—just as the usher in the painting is weighed down by her own—but my hope is they will lift my head with happiness once again.

It is on this one-year anniversary of Briana’s death that I ponder the distinction between grief and mourning. It is said that grief is what we think and feel internally, while mourning is the external expression of our grief. This seems simple, on the surface of it all. But it’s the externalization of something intrinsically personal and unique and devastating that feels impossible. It feels impossible for me, especially now; unless I think of art as that externalization. I know my sister felt that way about art—it was her way of channeling her riptide of emotions, emotions that threatened to drown her on a daily basis. Like Hopper, she was a painter, like Hopper’s wife, she went largely unrecognized. Maybe that’s why I seek to recognize her—as a means of honoring her while simultaneously expressing my grief.

Hopper’s New York Movie articulates feelings that are oft impossible to verbalize. Works of art can capture the spirit, the energy, the life of a person, in a way that words cannot. When we think of definitions, we think of words, but isn’t the spirit of a person what ultimately defines a person? And doesn’t that spirit live on after death? While it’s hard for me to define the word spirit, I can say that my sister’s spirit did not die with her body; it remains alive today. I say that in neither a religious, nor secular, sense. I can feel her presence, her spirit, alive inside the brushwork of one of her favorite paintings, emanating from the figure of the female usher, like the way an unknown light source reflects off a pane of glass.

I wonder if her spirit has been captured in this painting, and her essence distilled within the photograph that was taken the morning of her death. Marcel Proust might think so. I’m not sure what I think. But I know what I feel.

I will not post this picture, because this picture is mine.

THE MICROBUDGET REVOLUTION

IMG_2725Did anyone notice that the movies nominated this year by The Independent Spirit Awards for Best Feature were the same movies nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for Best Feature, with the exception of one film, Love Is Strange? If the Academy Awards were created as a platform to showcase commercial Hollywood’s best and brightest, why were the Independent Spirit Awards created? Presumably they were created as the antithesis of the Academy Awards: a platform for independent Hollywood’s best and brightest.

Financially speaking, The Independent Spirit Awards deem an “indie” to be a movie made for under 20 million dollars, but if that 20 million dollar budget is coming from the same studio that made millions of dollars from the latest superhero franchise, is the film in question still capturing that “indie spirit?”

Let’s step back for a minute. 10 to 15 years ago, the studios had their own independent film divisions. They considered independent film a viable product for niche markets of film consumers, so much so that they were willing to blur the idea of what an “indie film” was in order to have a piece of the pie. Today, virtually every studio has dissolved those divisions. They are officially not in the independent film business any longer. This means the independent film is now quite literally independent of studio support. So, why then is an awards show dedicated to independent film, presenting the majority of its awards to films that are not technically independent? Here’s how the Independent Spirit Awards define the rubric of an independent film: “uniqueness of vision, original, provocative subject matter, and an economy of means (with particular attention paid to total production cost and individual compensation).”

If the studios aren’t funding lower budget, character-driven, niche films anymore, those who are funding them are most definitely not funding them to the tune of 20 million dollars. The days of the 5 to 20 million dollar independent film are over, and have been over for a few years. I’m not saying films aren’t funded inside those numbers currently, but they are very few and far between—so much so, that it is foolish to focus your sights as a filmmaker on making a movie within that range.

If independent film as we know it is dead—at least in the current state of the industry—what is left? What’s left are: studio blockbusters (i.e. movies made for 150 million dollars and up) and microbudget films (i.e. movies made for 1 million dollars and under, and more often far under). The number of studio films made this past year has shrunk by nearly half, while the amount of microbudget films has nearly doubled. The studios are making fewer movies and putting much more money into them. They’re taking huge gambles financially, and the way to offset that gamble is to ensure that the entertainment they’re selling appeals to as many people as possible. This approach, of course, dilutes the originality of the content. When movies are made in boardrooms on the basis of demographics, they alienate that portion of the audience that wants to see unique, personal films. In other words, they alienate the actual film fans. Instead of making ten films that target different, more niche markets, they make one movie for the price of ten and bet it all.

The truth is that independent film is far from dead. In fact, it’s thriving like never before thanks to the technological resources at the disposal of hungry, young filmmakers these days. They are overwhelming and strikingly affordable. Behold the microbudget feature. Anyone with the right stuff can make a movie these days with production values that were simply unattainable just a few years ago. The stigma that was once attached to movies with budgets this low is no longer there—one can make a movie for peanuts and make it look like a million bucks. The barriers to making a feature film, and consequently announcing yourself as a filmmaker in this industry, have never been easier to overcome.

While this is encouraging, no doubt, this has lead to a surplus of low-budget films living out there in the world. For the consumer, there’s a deluge of movies to choose from, many of which have little-to-nothing in the way of traditional marketing. And, while the filmmakers’ methods of directing and producing films have changed, the industry’s method of buying and distributing them has, essentially, remained the same. This has lead to a business model for microbudget filmmakers that precludes them from making a living wage from their films. Ted Hope recently stated, “Filmmaking is not currently a sustainable occupation for any but the very rare.” There are approximately 141,000,000 jobs in the United States; approximately 100,000 of them are film directing jobs. Working directors make up about .0709 percent of the workforce. If more and more of the movies being made are microbudgets, that means a director’s salary is accordingly micro, if they have a salary at all. Therefore, the potential payoff rests on the distribution of the film, but getting your film distributed through the conventional channels may not lead to much of a payoff for the filmmaker.

The good news is that do-it-yourself distribution has not only gotten easier, but it’s quickly becoming an accepted practice. If the filmmakers are in charge of promoting their own films, why let a traditional distributor profit from your hard work when you can distribute yourself digitally through an assortment of online outlets and recoup the profits directly? This is an important question to ask if you’re planning on raising money for your own microbudget. DIY has never been easier, or more professional looking, as it is right now.

Yes, the market is more competitive—everyone with an iPhone can, technically, make a movie. And now that studios aren’t funding indies, you have major creative forces in the entertainment industry turning to microbudgets themselves: M. Night Shyamalan is making a microbudget, Spike Lee raised the money for his last movie on Kickstarter, and Mark Duplass just produced a feature film shot entirely on an iPhone. However, this is what’s important to remember: what matters is the value of the idea—of the story—not the money it took to bring that idea to the screen. That’s what art is. Art is valued by the painting within the golden frame, not the golden frame itself.

DETOUR-CrewPhotoAs I wrote in my book, DETOUR: Hollywood, “In the end, our purpose as filmmakers is akin to the purpose of the railroad, an apt metaphor that never ceases to disappoint in times of crisscrossing articulations: we are just human beings trying to connect…and it is story that connects us.” My advice: make your movie. But be sure to make it using your own unique voice. Be bold, don’t try to fit in, and maybe, just maybe, Hollywood will take notice.

***

DETOUR: Hollywood: How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter) is available in Paperback and Kindle:

http://www.amazon.com/DETOUR-Hollywood-Direct-Microbudget-matter/dp/0985188634

William Dickerson is Stephen Fry proof thanks to caching by WP Super Cache