While conventional media has shown us that women make up only a tiny percentage of the leadership in the film community, I am heartened to find that we are tiny, but mighty! As a tribute to International Women’s Day, I want to highlight a woman who is of particular inspiration to me and who was kind enough to take time out of her busy day way back in December to share her wisdom, her courage and her savvy with me. [ed. note: Ava, I'm sorry this has taken so long to be published, but girl you haven't stopped and every time I go to publish this piece, you up and do something else incredible and I have to add to it!]
Director Ava Duvernay has many things to be proud of in the last few years. Having successfully produced, directed and self distributed 3 films of her own (This Is The Life, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere) and distributed 2 films made by others (Kinyarwanda and Restless City) using her own money, she knows the challenges that come with being an independent, especially for black cinema. She recently won the John Cassavetes Award from Film Independent for Middle of Nowhere, previously she was the first black female director to win Best Director Award at the Sundance Film Festival 2012 for Middle of Nowhere, she collaborated with fashion house Miu Miu to direct a short film called The Door (released online), and she is now in production on a documentary for ESPN Films’ Nine for IX titled Venus VS, described as an in-depth documentary that explores tennis star Venus Williams’ fight for fair pay for female tennis players at Wimbledon.
Ava started out in the film business as a publicist, working on high profile campaigns for films by Steven Spielberg, Bill Condon, Clint Eastwood and Michael Mann. She has taken that knowledge and those media connections with her into her new career as a film director and into a company she launched in 2011 called the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) dedicated to releasing black cinema theatrically. I asked her what led to the creation of AFFRM.
“In 2003, I started a division of my PR agency, called Urban Beauty Collective . It was a network of urban beauty salons and barber shops providing in- salon entertainment and programming. I was always interested in reaching the African American community outside of all the nuts and bolts stuff my competitors did, you know, call Jet and Ebony and send out a street team. I wanted to do something that was like the Tyler Perry brand. Everyone knew of Tyler Perry before his deal with Lionsgate, he was an undercover brand. So I was always finding new ways to tap into the African American community and networks to bring my clients’ projects to them in new ways,” said Duvernay.
“In becoming a filmmaker, I knew that I could tap into those networks for promotion, but there weren’t clear cut pathways for distributing films, especially not for films I was interested in making. I started thinking about those wonderful black film festivals that I had started visiting with my first documentary, This is the Life. I went to a lot of these festivals and film series and got to know the organizers. A lot them were these amazing, stellar leaders with bold ideas and well formed infrastructures and adamant about creating a space in their local communities for the black cinematic image. There were about 4 or 5 really dynamic people and I thought they should all know each other. And that lead to the idea of self distributing my film. And that lead into ‘Why would I build up an infrastructure for self distribution and then dismantle it?’ I see so many filmmakers self distribute a film and get into the rhythm and really understanding how to do it, and then they walk away from it. Then they have to come back later and start all over again, or why don’t they leave the structure in place for the next person?”
“All of those thoughts were in my head when I decided to approach those festivals to see if we might all work together to distribute a film and, if it really worked out, we would leave it standing to distribute more films so that other filmmakers could come through it.”
It is no small feat to get a group of enthusiastic and strong people to commit to working together in an organized way. Each usually has their own agenda and personalities can clash causing the effort to fail. Ava said this hasn’t been a problem so far. “Each member is the distributor in their market. I don’t pretend to know what to do in Philadelphia, or New York, or DC. I know about the marketing and publicity and the bookings. What they brought to the table was expert knowledge of the audience of their regions. There was no stepping on toes. We curate the films together. It was structured to be very respectful of everyone’s lane. While we had heard early on that we probably wouldn’t be able to all get along, we’ve never had an issue. These are all well rooted organizations that have been in their markets for a long time.”
“They benefit. There’s financial benefit, there’s branding benefit as there are only a handful of festivals that are branded AFFRM festivals, they have all seen an increase in admissions to their normal festival activities, they’ve seen increase in local press coverage. Really, it is about giving these films a theatrical presentation that they otherwise wouldn’t have. No one is getting rich here believe me, but we strongly believe in the theatrical presentation of the films and a cultivation of the audience.”
I know that it can sometimes be difficult to get a filmmaker to commit to a smaller or emerging distribution entity. I can even imagine that filmmakers do not want their films branded as “black cinema” hoping instead to reach a mainstream audience. But Ava explained that AFFRM films are not denied the ability to reach wider, either in press coverage or in the theaters they are shown in. ”We don’t just distribute to the black community. Our films are playing mainstream theaters in Times Square New York, on Sunset Boulevard in LA, those theaters are open to any audience. We get press coverage in the New York Times, LA Times, NPR. Every filmmaker who has gone through AFFRM has had a CNN piece and we do very intentional outreach to black press as well. The press our filmmakers get, I would argue, is above and beyond what one would get from distributors like Cinema Guild or Strand Releasing. We get mainstream and niche press. So they get a NY/LA run at minimum and VOD after that.”
“Unfortunately, there is no one else here in this space. I think there should be more people in this space, and I hope people will duplicate this model in the Latino film space, the women’s film space, the LGBT film space, anything outside of dominant culture. This is a great way to distribute films theatrically without needing a lot of financial resources.”
Ava explained that the 2 films released so far that were made by other filmmakers, Alrick Brown’s Kinyarwanda and Andrew Dosunmu’s Restless City, were destined to go straight to home video and would not have been released through conventional theatrical. “They were going to be going to DVD, nothing at all in support and we thought those films should be seen. When Roger Ebert called Kinyarwanda one of the best films of 2011 and I knew that 7 months before, it was headed to DVD only release, I am proud that we didn’t let that happen. I want more people to see the work of Andrew Dosunmu and Bradford Young and Alrick Brown and for them to have a proper theatrical release and proper reviews. AFFRM is nourishing the filmmakers and also the black arthouse community.”
Any conversation about film distribution will inevitably lead to money. I wondered if AFFRM is really a service company, being paid to release films theatrically. If so, how much do they charge? But Ava set me straight. “No, I am the crazy one putting my own money in. We lost money on some of the films, but I loved them and couldn’t stand to see them go by the wayside. We license the films because, as a filmmaker myself, I set this up to be beneficial to filmmakers and I am not going to tie up rights longer than the standard theatrical window of 3-6 months. We give the filmmaker a theatrical window and the promotion of their film, a full scale multi market promotional push that comes from having a theatrical release. They are no longer only going straight to DVD/VOD, they can get the momentum from a theatrical that will propel those ancillaries to help make their money back and make another film. No one is getting rich here though, most theatrical campaigns as you know do not make money. Someone has to take the plunge and cultivate this audience and no, it isn’t going to make money right away. But this isn’t about just money. We work tirelessly for 3 months on these campaigns to make up for the advertising we can’t buy so we’d better love and believe in what we are doing because there isn’t necessarily going to be a check at the end of it.”
Many of those working with AFFRM are volunteers called AFFRM Mavericks. A small army has been amassed of people willing to devote their own time and effort to spread the word about the films. “They are just people around the country who are activated around the idea of having options in what films they are seeing. Most of the AFFRM Mavericks are just regular people from plumbers, bus drivers, mamas with 3 kids, to professionals who run companies and have creative ideas. Folks that are canvassing posters and postcards on the weekend, barbers who put all of our branding in their shops. Basically we say what can you do, what do you want to be involved in?”
“They sign up on our website. We have a national maverick coordinator who talks to them to find out what they can do, make sure they will be responsible and helps to coordinate all the efforts. We have about 500 people. We also have digital mavericks who live in places outside of where we will be screening the films who just want to help in some way. There are 20 people manning Instagram, 75 people covering Twitter, a maverick digital captain coordinates all of them. It is very cool the amount of support we have from volunteers.”
On March 15, AFFRM’s new label ARRAY (which is now handling multiplatform releases, instead of only theatrical) will release their next film, Storm Saulter’s Better Mus’ Come, in New York and LA as well as one night screenings on March 13 in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Houston, London, Sierra Leone, Trinidad and Amsterdam.
I often hear filmmakers complain about having to think about and set aside time to promote their own films and about a lack of significant theatrical release options. I asked Ava how she found the time to do this work, not just for her own films, but for filmmakers she admires. “I would be remiss if I didn’t say I have a background in marketing and publicity at a very high level before I became a filmmaker. I could say ‘Hey, just do it’, but I came from a history of this kind of expertise. It is very second nature for me to do the publicity and marketing. The hard part came from learning the booking side. It was challenging and still is because of all the politics that surround it. It is hard to break in to that community with new films from people that cinemas don’t already know.”
“What I have struggled with is the balance between the creative and the business. If I want to go shoot for 3 months and I don’t want to go into the office, I can’t do that yet. Or if I need to do office things, but I want to go edit. It is hard for me to mix my days, creative and business. I can’t do business related things in the morning and then go into the edit suite or go write or go scout locations in the afternoon. I can’t do that. I do it by days. This is a director day, or this is a distributor day. It is about finding what your strength is and tapping into other people who have what you don’t.”
“But you have to be willing to stretch yourself because in 2013, you’re kidding yourself if you think all you will be doing is directing films. That is an antiquated model, the old guard of filmmaking. Very few of us will be able to make a film and hand it off and know that it will be well taken care of. It certainly isn’t me or anyone who looks like me. No women, maybe one came to mind, can think like this. You no longer have an option to say I don’t want to do that.”
Thank you Ava, from being so giving of your time and sharing your knowledge with all of us.
As I said in my Sundance wrap up post, I had a chance at this year’s festival to talk with Writer/Director/Actor Edward Burns. He was incredibly kind and generous with his time given that he was on the US Dramatic Jury this year and had many films to see on the ground…plus the usual meetings and functions that come with being…Edward Burns. The interview lasted about 30 minutes and some of the conversation was edited down in the following 2 video segments. Here are some things you missed…
Q: In research, I read that you studied literature in college. How did you turn that into screenwriting and directing?
EB: ”I was an English major at school and was not doing that well honestly and was brought in by my academic adviser to say I needed to bring my grades up or we’ll put you on academic probation. For English majors, they offered film studies as a minor and basically you watch old movies and write a paper and it is a guaranteed A.
The first class I took was called Four Directors and it was Wilder, Hitchcock, Ford and Orson Welles. The first film I saw in that class was Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and I sat in that classroom and fell in love immediately. Also, when I was in junior high and high school, my mom was a big Woody Allen nut. So my mom started me off with Take the Money and Run, Sleeper, Manhattan, Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters.
So after that class, I started to think about that early love affair I had with Woody, and I thought maybe I don’t want to be a novelist. Maybe screenwriting should be a thing that I focus on. I called my dad and told him and he sends me Syd Field’s screenwriting book. I’ve never looked at a screenplay before. It is all dialog, and dialog is something I wrote a lot in my short stories and something people said I excelled at. So forget novels, I am going to write screenplays and I took every screenwriting course they had. I wrote my screenplay and I finished my junior year and I called my dad and said I gotta go to a film school, I’ve taken all of the screenwriting courses they have here. I thought Columbia or NYU. He said look at your grades, look at my salary. Let’s rethink it. So I go to Hunter College which had a very small program at the time. They had one CP16 camera, but 3 great professors and that’s all you need sometimes.
I left there with a short film under my arm and was on my way. I needed to make some money so I finished up in night school and went to work full time. I worked at 2 places. The 7 o’clock news, the local news, and a production assistant at Entertainment Tonight. That was really helpful because we went to visit movie sets all the time to do the behind the scenes stuff. I got to see everything from a big budget film like Scent of a Woman to a small, indie John Tuturro film and a number of smaller indie films. All I did was watch and try to observe and learn.
Even now, the acting side of my career affords me the same thing. When I got to work with Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan, that was my graduate film school. I knew showing up on that set, I am just going to keep my mouth shut and watch this guy. Less interested in what I could learn as an actor, but more what I could learn as a filmmaker.
Out of film school, like everyone else in the early ‘90s, I was obsessed with Quentin Tarantino. And every screenplay I wrote was a Tarantino rip off. Thank god none of them were any good or got made. And someone said to me, write what you know. I took that Robert McKee screenwriting class and one thing he said for your next script, think what is your favorite genre of film and write a script in that genre. My favorite genre was Woody Allen, whatever genre that is. So I sat down and wrote Brothers McMullen and I used Hannah and Her Sisters as my template. So I have a scene of 2 people walking down the street, it is 3 pages of dialog and nothing really happens but hopefully it is funny and insightful and I thought well people loved it in Hannah, so I hope people will love my version of it.
Woody was absolutely and still to this day my primary influence.”
Q: You consulted with Tyler Perry about how he maximizes his revenue. Can you talk a little about that conversation?
EB: “His big advice to me was be mindful of your core audience and be respectful of the fact that they come out time and time again. He said think about super serving your niche.”
Here are 2 video clips of the rest of the interview:
I will be speaking at this workshop in Vancouver in 2 weeks. I’d love for my Pacific Northwest/BC Canadian friends to join us and talk over a drink afterwards. Also, I have started a G+ Community completely devoted to independent film marketing and distribution ideas, tools and advice. So far we have over 150 members from around the world. If you are interested in this topic, join us.
In October 2012, I wrote a series of case studies on cross media projects for The Film Collaborative blog. I love following these projects because I think it is an emerging artform and those creating them are on the cutting edge of the future of entertainment. One Australian cross platform creator I find interesting is Christy Dena. She has been working on a particularly intriguing project called AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS that aims to bring the radio drama into the 21st century. When I first read about the project, I was a little confused because it described the project as an audio tour of the web. I whisked off some questions to her and got the full story.
When you say this is an audio tour of the web…I am getting that you mean using the web to tour through your story, not that it actually leads the viewer on an educational tour of the web right? Could you explain a bit more about your story? Who is your main character and why should we go on an adventure with her?
CD: “The project started with the idea of audio tours of the web. I worked on developing a startup technology business that utilises that idea. At first the plan was to release a creative project as a way to showcase what the technology can do, and open it up for anyone to create their own audio tour of the web – for educational/non-fictional or fictional purposes. The work involved in creating both a fictional project as well as a startup was huge, and so I had to make a decision which one I’d put my energy into — first at least. I decided on the creative project of course.
So the idea developed away from an audio tour, to more of a radio drama layer that involves traversing specially-created fictional websites. While there are many characters in the story, you travel primarily with the protagonist and her sidekick. The characters live in a world split in two: the Overworld and the Underworld. The lead is an autopsy pathologist in the Overworld, who has a hidden life as a Philosopher in the Underworld. She is outed as a philosopher, and so attracts the wrath of the Reality Infringement Council and the excited fandom of a Part-Time Time-Travel Student. The Pathologist decides to take on a bet to find the meaning of death. She is a strong woman who persists no matter how many forces around her try to take her down. She says things we’ve always wanted to say, she does things we’ve always wanted to do.
What inspired you to make this story?
CD: “There are a few points of inspiration. The identity obstacles are based on my own experiences as a creative person. For years, I’ve had people putting me in boxes — oh she is an academic, she is too industry to be academic, she is too corporate to be an artist, she is too arty to be a corporate. People really need to put you in a box and while people have moved with me as I don’t seem to fit in the one they’ve assigned me, I am aware that I’ll always having people not quite understanding me because I don’t play by their rules.
The story weaves identity and death together. Death and the manner it is investigated, was inspired by the sudden death of my mother. She wasn’t ill or anything, she just suddenly died one day. To try and make sense of it all, I went through all her things — read her last scribbles on her notepad, read her last emails, listened to the last music track she had on, read the last phone message she sent, the last book she was reading. I did it to try and make sense of what was happening. The autopsy was taking care of the how, I was interested in the why. It was a kind of a philosophy autopsy.”
So far, what kinds of work has been involved in getting this project started?
CD: “I began with testing the technology as a business case, but then moved to the creative side. So that entailed working on the script. I started with post-it notes, tons of bits of paper, and charts. Of course, lots of research. I listened to lots of different radio dramas, as well as movies and games related to the topic of death and identity. I also studied strong female characters, and narrative structures associated with having a lead that doesn’t need saving. I adapted the screenplay format to work with websites and action. I wrote about all of this in a Mediacommons article. I’ve studied how comedy can work in interactive situations where a player is involved, the different ways you can deliver a call to action, how immersive websites work, and so on.”
It sounds very thorough. What made you decide to make this iPad specific? I suppose that it will be an app in the iTunes stores globally so one could use an iPhone or iPod Touch to experience the project too? Or with the experience be particularly acute for iPad users?
CD: “The choice of an iPad is resource constraint. We’re ultra indie, and so can’t afford to produce the project for all the different types of Android tablets. My original grand plan was to release on desktop and tablets. But then I realised I needed to choose one for the first release. iPad has the biggest penetration we can develop for, and iTunes gives us an existing economy people are used to. The experience isn’t suited for the phone, however, because we have websites and an interface that just won’t scale well for the really small screen. The experience is personal in that it is single player, and so the tablet is the ideal private experience platform.
I spent a long time working out how the interaction design would work. I’m delivering information through audio primarily, but also through visual information such as text on websites, images, and actions the players undertake. To get this sweet spot of balancing the right information delivery through the delivery is crucial. As well as the aesthetics of how the player will be situated in relation to the action aurally, and to the fictional world. So we’ve done two playtests. The first entailed recording actors using binaural sound. Binaural sound involves recording to be as close to the way we hear things naturally. We had a dummy with microphones in each ear seated in the position of the player, in front of a keyboard. I hired spaces that sounded like the rooms the scenes were set in — one that sounded like an office, another was a large studio that sounded like the casino. The actors moved around the dummy/player. We then edited the audio, put in sound effects and music and put them with basic websites we had created. We then ran playtests with people to find out what worked and what didn’t. I discovered a lot of interesting things from that. We then created a prototype for the iPad. This involved recording actors in a studio, and creating basic websites with an iPad interface.”
You are in the middle of crowdfunding this endeavor on an Australian crowdfunding site called Pozible. I have talked about Pozible in my presentations. How are you finding the experience with it?
CD: “The decision to go with Pozible was a difficult one. I investigated going through Kickstarter — either in the USA or UK — for many months. I had family and colleagues who were willing to let me use their bank account (because Amazon Payments requires a local bank account). But Amazon Payments reports earnings over a certain amount to the tax office, and so we couldn’t risk that happening with family and colleagues. I discovered it is relatively easy to set up a company in the USA from overseas, but creating a bank account is riddled with financial and legal obstacles. There were also the further costs involved with using Kickstarter — Amazon Payments takes a cut, and then I’d be losing money in the currency exchange, and bank fees. Since I wasn’t asking for a large amount in the big scheme of things [$15,000], it wasn’t financially viable to go through Kickstarter and so decided on using the local platform of Pozible. Further to this, all the stats say that the majority of traffic and pledges come through Facebook – and so in this sense campaigns are platform-agnostic.
But there are still obstacles. Kickstarter is the flavour of the month/year/last few years. It naturally attracts press and supporters. Press are less inclined to talk about a project on some lesser-known platform. Kickstarter is news. There is also the brand-association that comes with Kickstarter – you use Kickstarter if you’re truly international and serious. I think that is what some people think. But Pozible has been going for a few years now, and the Australian public is getting behind it more and more – though not to the degree of Kickstarter. We’re used to buying things overseas, and aren’t good at supporting our own all the time.
That being said, the response internationally has been phenomenal. We have backers from over 14 countries! These backers didn’t care about the platform, they wanted to support the project, support me, support the team. And so that is wonderful. It certainly is easy to use, and doesn’t have the obstacle of Amazon Payments (backers can use credit card and Paypal). So it is more accessible.”
At present, AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS has reached the $5,000 mark in their bid to raise $15,000 with only 7 days to go. Check out their creative, animated pitch video HERE. Good luck to Christy and her team.
Following up on a comment that I posted below this Filmmaker Magazine article, I want to stress that content is going to be the meat of building and maintaining an audience for your work. Do not open up the social channels for your film until you have worked out what you are going to put on them and how frequently. This doesn’t mean start your social efforts a month before your release though. The planning and collecting should have started in pre production and during the production stage. This continuing misunderstanding concerns me, especially when it comes from entities who are supposed to know how to market films.
As part of a filmmaker toolkit that is available on The Film Collaborative site, I included a social media best practices paper that outlines ideas for using the major social channels. Also included in this paper is WHAT you should be doing in the different phases. Here is an excerpt from that paper:
What Do You Want To Accomplish?
Most people start their social media strategy session by asking “Which is better Facebook or Twitter?” Those sites are only tools used to communicate with an audience just like email or media coverage or advertising. They are each different in their own ways, attract slightly different audiences and different forms of communication (i.e. owned, earned and paid media). In fact, social channels are not owned by you, so you should never build a sustainable audience ONLY using those tools.
The first step in establishing a social media strategy is defining specific objectives to achieve. These goals will change over time depending on where you are in the production stage of your film. Your goals during pre production will be much different than when you are in active distribution. The second step is planning out what you will be releasing and how often.
Social media strategy is really content strategy and execution
As I will assume that one of the reasons you are choosing to use social media tools is their affordability, you must commit to 3 things to find success in this space: good content, a fixed rhythm, and a lot of patience. You must be prepared to either curate or create a multitude of items that will get people talking, sharing and visiting again and again. You will need to do this on a regular basis and you will need to be committed to this for the long term.
Social media sites run on a steady stream of content, they are not best used to “promote” or push a one way message. If you are only going to devote yourself to one way promotion, put a sizable budget into advertising (paid media). It works on a quick time line and no one expects a conversation from an ad.
In addition to collecting and curating material from the web that you didn’t create which is of interest to your core audience, you will also need to create material of your own for others to share. These may consist of photos, video clips, infographics, audio interviews, games, graphic “world building” elements, illustrations or animations, digital photobooks, wallpapers, ring tones, music tracks, blog post ideas, ideas for polls and contests. Obviously, these will be created in tandem with the production and someone on the team will need to be responsible for creating and disseminating it. With that kind of workload, a production can’t leave it late and will need a marketing budget (besides the salary of the person overseeing it) to execute these elements.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/intersectionconsulting/3965527421/”>Intersection Consulting</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a>
While I was in Park City this year, I had a chance to sit down with Tugg.com CEO Nicolas Gonda to talk about how Tugg is helping independent filmmakers, as well as studios, screen their films in cinemas all over the country. Here is an excerpt from that interview:
Q: Tell me about how the idea for Tugg came about?
NG: “It came through realization at the time, and still today, that it is difficult for audiences to engage with filmmakers on a very local level to determine what movies come to their town. We launched Tugg as a reaction to a very evident need where audiences are interacting with filmmakers on the social channels more and more and the theme around Sundance this year is community and engagement with the audience.
We want to create a user interface for every movie theater in the country so that audiences in those communities could determine what movies come there.”
To read the full interview, head on over to Microfilmmaker Magazine…
In my continuous pursuit of thinking about elements that make up compelling marketing for indie films, I was watching some opening title sequences by Saul Bass. The attention to detail and integration of everything that makes up a film’s public identity (or that dreaded word BRAND) is often missing in most independent films. A strong visual brand is especially needed by low budget indie dramas where the audience is usually vaguely defined and the marketing will not be reliant on notable names or genre audiences. Starting with a well crafted film is the baseline for a successful release, but what draws people in to click on a trailer and then click again for more information? What makes the difference between seeing a film poster and buying the ticket to see it? It is grossly naive to think that just making a good film and having an aggregator put it on iTunes or cable VOD will equate to anyone seeing it, so what can indie filmmakers and marketers do to make a film look appealing and compelling enough that an audience will recognize it, click it, watch it?
Something that seems to be used so rarely in independent film is motion graphics. The iconic graphic artist Saul Bass believed that giving the film a dynamic opening drew the audience into the action from the first frame. Often the entire identity of the film (brand) hinged on his title sequence design. Bass said,”My initial thoughts about what a title [sequence] can do was to set mood and the prime underlying core of the film’s story, to express the story in some metaphorical way. I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it.” An emotional resonance is what is needed both in the opening of a film, but also in all of the marketing of the film. A title, an image or a trailer that doesn’t convey immediate emotional knowledge (NOT just what the film is about, but how does it make you feel) will likely be ignored in a marketplace crowded with thousands of film choices.
I spoke to motion graphics designer Scott Gordon to find out how indie filmmakers can work with these designers to create some compelling visuals that will draw an audience in.
When is the best time in a project to consider using a motion graphic artist? I know this depends on what it is being used for, but in my experience with indies, they often think of things too late.
SG: “The earlier the better! The more time we have, the better the final outcome. For opening titles / end title sequences or in-film graphics, I like to start working with people once there is a rough cut available…and it can be really rough. I just want to get a feel for the tone and the timing. Of course if the filmmaker has a strong, clear idea of what they want, then it’s not as important.
Over the past several months I have been getting a lot of calls from filmmakers who are WAY early in the process, but want to use motion graphics in their Kickstarter videos – sometimes before anything has even been shot. Motion graphics are perfect for that because you can create something really dynamic and engaging, but without needing the equipment and crew necessary for live action shots. Those Kickstarter videos are so important to make a professional and sophisticated first impression.”
What information do you need to know before starting the project? How should one prepare to work with you? Does it help you to have some examples and what should those examples take into consideration (the characters, the animation, the general tone of the piece)?
SG: “I can get going with very little – at bare minimum – what’s it about? Comedy? Drama? Any direction you want me to go in to get the ball rolling? Is there any preexisting artwork? Cast photos? Unit photos?
I love working with indie filmmakers because everything is so direct. Ideas aren’t going through 15 different offices at the studio before getting to me. I LOVE to have the client send me links to styles or feel they like, that really helps narrow things down. It’s your film, and my job is to create a dynamic piece that is going to pull the audience in right off the bat. I’ll present ideas, but ultimately the director will dictate where we go with it, and that’s how it should be. So examples are great!
Examples can be really general (ex: I like the feel of this video at :36 seconds in) or super specific (let’s just copy the Dragon Tattoo open). And they don’t have to be video either; art work, book covers, whatever…lots of times it’s just about creating a feeling.”
What projects have been your favorites to work on and why?
SG: “Last year I did the opening titles and end sequence for a movie by Victoria and Jennifer Westcott called Locked in a Garage Band – it’s in festivals now. It was the most rewarding experience! They are in Canada, and they tweeted that they were looking for an After Effects person – I answered the tweet and from the very beginning it was just a great pleasure working with them.
I sent them my reel and they said ‘We like the opening titles for Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.’ We used that as a launching point and everything just fell into place. In their case, they ended up using the opening title sequence as an ending piece before launching into the end credits which I also did. Rather than just typical white text crawling on black, we did a nice scrapbook-y thing that worked really well with the feel of the movie.”
Here are links to the Locked in a Garage Band pieces.
“For a typical project, we’ll talk by phone or email and discuss what it is the client is looking for and if there a rough cut I can watch. The client may upload materials to dropbox – stills, a general rundown of credits to show in the opening, etc. I’ll take a couple of days and come up with 3 or 4 general looks and send them along. When the client picks one, I get to work. I’ll typically send quicktimes to show my progress and the client can make corrections if there is anything they don’t like along the way. I’ll send a final piece for notes, then revise per clients wishes. Finally when all is done, I’ll render out a full size file to go to the editor to drop in!”
How did you become a motion graphic designer?
SG: ”I started working at an entertainment advertising firm. They had just started a DVD division and needed someone to design and animate the menus. I was in the print department, but taught myself After Effects and I kind of made myself the motion graphics guy. From there, I went to Sony in Culver City and worked there doing menus for a couple years. I’ve been self employed for ten years, doing DVD Menus, Bluray menus, TV Show packages, Corporate Work, and now title sequences. My degree is in commercial photography. I’d say it helps a lot to have some design background or education. But I taught myself and I’ve done all right!”
We have to get around to cost as some point. What should a filmmaker budget for a title sequence? a DVD menu? a full scene in the film? a 2D vs 3D project?
SG: “I charge by the project – there are so many different styles, some are more time consuming than others…so I generally wait until I have a good idea of what the client wants before we talk about price. Is it a 30 second piece? Is it a three minute piece? Is it pure motion graphics, or are there motion graphic elements over existing video? I also have kind of a sliding scale for indie projects – I’ll charge less, but those jobs are generally more rewarding than my bigger jobs. Also, I like to think that indie filmmakers eventually will not be so indie and we’ll have built a relationship that will pay off in the future. Is your budget SERIOUSLY limited? Let’s come up with something that works for you for $500. Have $2500? Let’s do something a little more awesome.”
Do you generally meet with clients in person or can you work remotely?
SG: “Not to be anti-social, but I much prefer to work remotely. On a typical day, I can jump back and forth between five or six projects, and to jump in the car and drive across town to talk in person isn’t so efficient. Most of my clients I have never met in real life. Working remotely allows me to work with clients in Canada, London, the East Coast etc… Between phone, email and IM, we can communicate very effectively. When I have samples to send, I either email it or if it’s too big, I’ll put it on Dropbox. Final deliverables are big, but Dropbox works for that too.”
Q: How can a filmmaker get in touch with you?
SG: ”Twitter! I’ve found 90% of my new clients in the last three years through Twitter. Just put ‘Looking for motion graphics and my Twitter handle @scottgordondvd and I’ll respond!”
Scott Gordon is a Los Angeles based motion graphic designer. You can find more of his design work here
I just returned from Park City, fresh from jury deliberation on the Slamdance short films and conducting video press interviews with some of the Sundance/Slamdance microbudget directors as well as indie microbudget god Edward Burns and Tugg CEO Nicolas Gonda. Those videos will hopefully be edited and uploaded in the next few days. I will post them on this site when they are ready.
My first day on the ground (January 18) started at the Blackhouse Foundation where I participated in the Digital Distribution Panel. We talked about the myths, truths, rules and multiple paths to monetize premium content online for those in front of and behind the camera. The discussion featured representatives from Grab Media and Netflix. Basically, it seems that short, episodic content is the name of the game in the online space if you are going to work with the bigger onlinenetworks. Netflix does not take short form content (short films) and Grab Media helps content producers access sites in the AOL network on an advertising revenue share or as licensed, branded content for large corporations. They essentially give your webseries or ongoing content (news shows, how-to videos) access to thousands of websites that want to host video, but do not produce their own. These sites are presumably highly trafficked so your view count will soar and your revenue share from advertising either you place inside of the video or Grab places inside of it will be much higher than if you just posted it to a Youtube channel. The range on how much you can earn from this is quite broad really. Some producers only earn enough for the light bill, some for a vacation, and some for a mortgage.
Largely, I was there to talk about knowing who you are trying to reach with your work. While I often use the analogy of needing to have a spark (or strong, core audience) before it can spread to a forest fire, another visual that came up during the discussion was a pebble and the ripples. If you don’t have a pebble to start things off, it will never ripple out. I did hear on other panels some contrary advice, but I stand by this analogy. For the emerging filmmaker who does not have an audience, who does not a have a film with notable names, who does not have an acceptance at one of the big 4-5 festivals in the world, and does not have millions of dollars to spend on advertising to a broad and undefined audience, she MUST have a place to start with an audience. Does it have to stay small? NO, but it has to start somewhere and that somewhere is much more difficult when she doesn’t have name or industry attention to aid her. Believe me, if she starts gathering a small but strong core audience, suddenly the industry pays attention and offers help. Start very small, but enthusiastic and build from there.
I was also a short film juror at Slamdance and what a great slate of films. As with any deliberation, compromise between gut feelings and personal tastes have to be navigated, but ultimately I think we chose strong talents in the prize winners. Full list of this year’s winners HERE. I can say that there were many talented filmmakers in that pile of shorts and I wish the best to all of them.
On January 19, I attended the Sundance Creative Distribution (#creativedistro) panel with director Ava DuVernay (interview with her coming soon to this blog) and Topspin Media‘s Bob Moz. It was a standing room only crowd to hear how last year’s Sundance films Middle of Nowhere and Bones Brigade fared with their hybrid distribution strategies. Moz has uploaded his case study presentation on the Topspin Tumblr site, but let me show one tremendous screenshot. When the panel basically said social media just doesn’t “put butts in seat” or result in sales, Moz clicked this up on the overhead (BOOM) and told the panel they needed to up their analytics software…Topspin anyone?
It is a pretty powerful reminder that more and more filmmakers who are willing to engage with their audiences (and in cases like director Stacy Peralta, find them again from previous films) by using social channels will be able to cost effectively penetrate the noise of the internet and make immediate revenue (rather than waiting 6 months to a year, if ever) on the road to repayment. As Peralta has said, while receiving some advances from distributors for his past films, he has never received a single royalty check. Sustainability will come from being savvy about building and maintaining an audience.
The rest of my time on the ground in Park City revolved around interviewing several NEXT directors (Shaka King, Eliza Hittman and Andrew Bujalski); a Slamdance director (J.R. Hughto) and Sundance US Dramatic juror, Edward Burns. All are working in the microbudget filmmaking arena, which suits the publication I was representing, Microfilmmaker Magazine. The thing I liked about these interviews was the honesty all participants brought on camera. While other Sundance talent might have looked to position themselves as bigger than they are or perpetuate this other-worldly mythology, all of my interviewees were very humbled by their inclusion in the media circus that is Sundance. In the case of Burns, he offered a different perspective on what it takes to be a sustainable filmmaker in the 21st century. I also interviewed Nicolas Gonda, CEO of Tugg.com, to talk about how filmmakers can empower their audiences to pull films they would like to see in a theater in their cities. Instead of being dependent on a corporation to decide whether a film will play in a city, Tugg enables the crowd to decide and put their money where their mouth is in terms of needing to reach a minimum ticket buying threshold before a booking can be made. Minimizing risk for the filmmaker or distributor and the cinema owners can only be a good thing.
On my last night in Park City, I was lucky enough to have caught a Press and Industry screening of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. Since I arrived very late to the line, it was not at all assured that I would get in and I did have to view it from the front row of the Holiday Village Cinema. I am not going to review the film, but I am a fan of the series and was not disappointed in this installment.
Mainly what I felt on the ground this time versus previous times was the dawning of realization that now there are tools in place for filmmakers to use to reach audiences and release films even if the 6-7 figure deal wasn’t offered. While of course those deals were offered to some already, I was heartened to see Sound City and Upstream Color use Sundance as their springboard into the market. They are taking advantage of the media opportunities and recognizing that they may not have films that are mass audience, which is fine. They won’t be taking the chance that their niche film will be ignored in a slate of other more commercial fare. I look forward to seeing this increase as the years roll on at Sundance.