July 30′s coffee chat at LA Shorts Fest featured guest speaker Chris Huntley of Write Brothers, Inc (makers of Movie Magic Screenwriter and Dramatica software for writers). Chris is the co-creator of the Dramatica guide, an acclaimed theory of story writing and the basis of the popular Writer’s DreamKit and Dramatica Pro software. He regularly teaches workshops and classes on story structure and development. His main focus was story development, identifying story problems and the ways to solve them.
The first topic discussed was exposition and how to keep that brief in short films. In a short film, it is not possible to have a character go into full detail on their history, their problems, their feelings. Chris advised not using voice over to do this, it is always better to show through action than through voice or the writer can have another character’s dialog help reveal something about the main character’s past. Voice over works best if you add to what the audience is seeing not replacing what the audience is seeing. The other good use of voice over is if you want to create irony by using voice over as a way to counterpoint the action. His example of a great use of voice over is the film AMELIE. Writing a scene where the character is onscreen telling the audience what happened rather than showing the action is an example of a poor use of voice over. The audience will be more interested in watching what happens in a scene than just listening to someone tell them what happened.
With regard to road trip or journey stories, Chris advised to make sure that film is about the traveling. When the story stays too long in a certain location, the story stalls and interest is lost. An example of this happening is the film UP. The story starts off being about the house moving to a certain location, it was a road trip story. When the house arrived, around 1/3 of the way through the film, the road trip element stalled and the story turned into something else. In essence, UP was a film with 2 different stories. It had to reboot after the house arrived and it is difficult to have a successful reboot in the middle of a story. When interest is lost, it is very difficult to bring it back. A road trip story has to have a definite time line ending in mind. The audience has to know that when a definite destination is reached, the story is over. Otherwise, the story wanders aimlessly and the audience will not stay with it.
Ensemble films such as LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE have a road trip element in them that worked because the travel was integral to the story and the audience knew when the story would end, when they reached the beauty pageant. The character reveals and action happened in the confines of the traveling. In an ensemble picture, the writer must identify what is the core issue contained within the characters and how they relate to each other around this core issue.
Structurally, a story needs acts. The first element of a story is a problem the main character has that he can’t see although others around him do see it. The acts are the tearing down of the blinders of the main character so that he has the capacity to see the problem and solve it. If the character does not grow throughout the story, there is no story. All of the energy of the story is lost if the main character does not eventually gain the capacity to solve his problem. If there is no one around to help point out the problem, the supporting or impact characters, there also is no story. The impact character’s job is to serve as an irritant to the main character. The impact offers an alternative way of seeing the problem and solving it so that the main character cannot continue to ignore it. This character is not the antagonist. The antagonist is the mirror image of the protagonist, the character on the opposite side of the protagonist.
Four elements of the story (the 4 through lines) are the big picture (the story), the main character (the I perspective), the impact character (the you perspective) and the antagonist (the they perspective). The main character is the person through whose eyes the audience sees the action. This is not necessarily the protagonist. An example of explaining the four elements was the film TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The big picture is the trial and the main character is Scout, the person through whose eyes the audience sees the story. The protagonist is Atticus Finch and antagonist is Bob Ewell. The metaphor used to explain the elements of the story was imagine 4 ships floating on the ocean. You can describe them and where they came from, but it is when they come in line with each other that the story begins. From that point on, the story must move forward and there can only be one conclusion the story can ultimately come to. If there is not only one conclusion, there are pieces missing from the story. The audience will know that there are pieces missing, even if they don’t know what they are, when there is not one clear conclusion. The twists and turns on the way to the clear conclusion make it exciting, but they all have to serve to coming to the one conclusion.
The conversation moved to films with multiple stories going on like in BABEL or CRASH. These are films with a series of short stories incorporated together, usually with each story impacting the others. Each of these stories could have been a short film on their own and they must have the same conventions of a self contained story, the 4 through lines. But putting them together means that one story could not exist without the others impacting it.
Chris advised with short films, the writer must choose between breadth or depth, but not both. Economy of storytelling is of the essence in short film and it cannot be successfully achieved unless the writer chooses a wide story with shallow character development or deep character development with a narrow story.
All of the writers in attendance seemed to enjoy their time with Chris. He regularly holds seminars at various film and video conventions as well as having a Dramatica users group that meets every second Tuesday in Burbank. For more information on his future workshops, please consult his website www.chrishuntley.com.
Saturday’s coffee chat at LA Shorts Fest featured guest speaker Kim Adelman, indieWire columnist covering short films and author of the book MAKING IT BIG IN SHORTS. For those who missed the chat, I wanted to cover some of the finer points she mentioned because I think her knowledge can benefit the short filmmaker as well as the indie filmmaker in general.
Her first point was an independent filmmaker has to think of themselves as a studio, just like a Hollywood studio. When you have completed your film, you are opening your doors for business. What do you want to invest your time in? How much time and money do you have to invest in your product, your film? What strategy are you going to develop and follow? I believe you really should decide this before your film is made, but for sure it has to be set when you put it out to market. And then you have to market it.
She recommends starting with film festivals as a means of exposure. You, as the studio, must determine how much money you have to devote to this endeavor. Not only are there submission fees, but travel costs, promotional costs and the time associated with each. While there are a few festivals that pay a filmmaker to travel, most do not. Festivals give your film exposure to a paying audience, give you a chance to meet other filmmakers and people in the industry who could potentially help you in the future, and give you a place to enjoy the atmosphere where being a filmmaker is revered and celebrated.
Some festivals have markets attached. These are the first festivals to consider if you are looking for traditional distribution. Kim suggested that short filmmakers in particular should submit to Clermont Ferrand in France which takes place in January. There is no submission fee and there is a short film market attached. Even if you aren’t accepted for the festival, your film will get into the catalog and screen in the market for buyers. Same for Palm Springs Shortsfest and Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto. For the feature filmmaker, festivals with markets attached include Berlin (European Film Market is attached, but a separate event), Cannes, AFI (AFM is attached, but a separate event), Philadelphia, PiFan (Korea, for genre films), and Rotterdam.
Kim recommended that you submit to festivals specializing in short films and mixed feature/short films. Shorts festivals give you better exposure if you have a short film because the mixed ones tend to emphasize the features, but being in a mixed festival gives you exposure to feature film producers and industry people who can help you to make your feature which is what short filmmakers usually aspire to do. She strongly recommends that whenever you take part in a festival, you should have your next film idea packaged so that if you meet an agent, producer or distributor and they like your short but want to know what you have planned next and how can they help you, you are ready to present the idea. You don’t want to say “I don’t know” or be scrambling around in your mind trying to formulate a cohesive film idea.
She also warned about spending too much time on the festival circuit with one film. This comes back to the studio thinking. How much time, money and effort do you want to spend on this one project versus the time and money you could spend developing the next one? Too many filmmakers spend an inordinate amount of time on the festival circuit with the same film instead of moving on to the next one. Eighteen months should be your maximum. On the one hand, festivals enable you to meet more people, but they don’t earn you money unless you are selling a lot of DVD copies at the screenings. Going back to festival strategy, identify what it is you are looking to accomplish with festivals. Is it name recognition, showing your filmmaking talent off to agents or distributors, gathering an audience for your DVD sales strategy? Identify when you have accomplished your goal and can move on.
The next strategy is digital distribution. This is where your film can either be downloaded or streamed online or put onto a portable device such as an iPod or a cell phone. One company that can help you get your short onto iTunes (because iTunes won’t deal with the filmmaker directly) is Shorts International. iTunes actually gives the short filmmaker a way to make money like there never has been before. There are also revenue sharing sites like Bablegum, Blip.TV, Atomfilms and Metacafe. She cautions that while some money can be made in this process, it is not going to make you rich. It may not even help you break even, depending on how much money you invested in your production. Traditionally, short films were used as calling cards, a way to sell yourself as a filmmaker, not a way to make money. With the proliferation of digital sites, a short filmmaker can either put their film out there for free and build an audience for their next project that may make money or use these revenue generating sites to slowly recoup some of their costs. Back to the need for marketing, you will only make money on these sites if you can successfully generate traffic and downloads. That takes time and consistent effort. Another company she recommended is a Canadian aggregator called OuatMedia who specializes in the worldwide distribution of short films.
Overall, her statement “You are the Studio” resonated the most. As an independent filmmaker it is all up to you. This is both an exciting prospect because you don’t have to ask any one’s permission to make films and sell them, and a nerve racking one because there is no one holding your hand and guiding you through the process. There is no magic formula that will work every time. Filmmaking is a trial and error process, even for big studios. The path to success is littered with mistakes and poor judgement, but there is no success if you never try.
We had a banner opening last night at LA Shorts. Plenty of celebrity and filmmaker turn out to give the opening of LA Shorts Fest 09 the festive atmosphere it needed to showcase all of the wonderful talent. Pictures are rife all over the internet. You can access our Facebook pages or do a Google search to see what you missed if you weren’t able to attend.
The celebrity shorts were very well received. Many in the audience expressed surprise at how well they were produced and the variety of subjects covered. There was a Q&A session that followed the screening with Scarlett Johansson, Courteney Cox and Kirsten Smith where they discussed some of the difficulties they encountered. Scarlett had to cut one minute out of her 8 minute short in order to comply with the “New York, I Love You” anthology project requirement that length be no longer than 7 minutes. Kirsten had a DP and 1st AD who clashed. All expressed interest in directing again.
Now, on to the main event. The mix of quality shorts this year is staggering. Many of the shorts have already won multiple awards on the festival circuit so if you have an interest in quality, independent short film, get your tickets now at www.laemmle.com.
“Keeping up with a blog can be a pain in the a**.” I hear this all the time from my clients who would like me to take over this job for them. I hear ya buddy. I have trouble keeping up with my own when I have an abundance of work to do for other people. So, this is my attempt to get back to posting even though I am neck deep in promoting the LA Shorts Fest. It is a long post.
If you are a filmmaker taking part in this festival (or any film festival for that matter), you may be wondering what is the point of putting your film in a festival. It is an expense, especially if you are traveling to attend, and it doesn’t seem like you are getting much in return. If you have read my other posts, you will know that this expense should have been part of your marketing budget.
Some time ago, filmmakers used film festivals to build anticipation for a theatrical run or for a DVD release, collecting “Official Selection” accolades and “Winner” awards along the way. Film festivals served to elevate work worthy of special attention and, hopefully, attract sales agents’ and distributors’ interest. Making a sale moved the work from artistic expression into paying commercial dividends.
Today, that rarely happens to a festival film, especially a low budget one with no recognizable talent attached. With the closing of several high profile indie distribution companies and the scarcity of securing a lucrative deal with the remaining ones, film festivals often provide the only theatrical run a film might see. They serve as a platform release mechanism without the filmmaker making the investment of securing a theatrical screen for the minimum amount of time required by the cinema (often $1K-$4K per screening for a minimum one week run!).
The cost and time spent submitting the film, preparing and distributing promotional materials, duplication of prints in the required format and shipping them, travel and expenses add up. But does it equal or exceed the cost of only one screening in a local cineplex? How many people will be viewing your film if you ran it alone in a cinema rather than running it in tandem with similar films in a festival program? Plus you have the marketing might of the festival running print and radio advertising, garnering online and traditional media attention , gathering sponsors etc. to help attract the audiences. Granted, they are not focused only on your film, but you can get proactive and turn some of that spotlight on your project by contacting the media outlets yourself and offering interviews and publicity materials for them to use. That will only cost your time or the time of a consultant handling it for you.
Festivals also serve as a networking event, a chance to meet writers, directors, producers and actors useful for future collaboration and possibly industry executives involved in roundtable discussions or informal chats. Business cards are a must if you want to be taken seriously as a professional. Parties and receptions are not just a time to let loose and have fun. Work the room and meet as many people as you can. You never know who might come in handy in the future for projects.
Utilize the festival’s social media outlets as well as your own. I have been encouraging the filmmakers involved in LA Shorts to do this, but so far only a handful are taking advantage. Maybe it is because marketing is not on the forefront of their mind when it comes to their film. It should be. Actively seek out people in the communities where your film is screening. It will take a bit of online research on Facebook, Twitter etc. to find these people, but reach out to them and let them know about your film and when and where it is screening. Many online search tools are great for finding your target audience in a certain locale.
You must have a trailer or a clip to showcase. It is not a requirement, but a strong suggestion. I don’t care if your film is only two minutes long, have a 10 second clip that you can spread around the internet. If your film is two minutes long, do not load it in its entirety on the internet while you are on the festival circuit. What is the point of screening it in a festival if audiences can see it for free on the internet? Plus, nomination requirements for certain awards (like the Oscars) forbid you to make your entire film viewable on the internet.
While I am doing my best to pass along publicity opportunities to all of the participants, do not count on this happening at other festivals. They just don’t have the resources and energy to do this. Bigger festivals offer a press room journalists covering the event will stop into and pick up media kits prepared by the filmmaker. Don’t go crazy on the expenses of this activity. For the most part, these fancy folders go in the trash. Contacting local journalists and bloggers covering the festival directly will better attract their attention than your creatively designed press kit.
Be sure to include your film’s website address and contact information in all of your promotional materials. This is especially important if you are self distributing or attempting a hybrid distribution approach. Sales from your website are likely your only method of making money from your festival exposure. If the festival will let you sell physical DVD’s on site at your screenings, use the opportunity and bring plenty to sell. Ask the organizers if this is possible though, don’t just assume it. Perhaps you can offer special pricing to festival attendees or reduced pricing codes for buying off of your website.
Since filmmakers do not have a say on when their screenings will occur during the festival, a midday screening on a weekday will need more of your promotional effort attention than a screening at night, or on opening night. Think of what incentives you can offer to audiences who attend your screenings. When devising your budget from the start, factor in this expense. It will inevitably happen.
If you are asked to participate in Q&A opportunities, panel or roundtable discussions or to introduce a film block, do it. Exposure for yourself as well as your film will help solidify your position in the filmmaking community and sharpen your public speaking skills (always useful for pitches!).
Today, I landed the gig to handle the marketing for the LA Shorts Fest. I will be doing all I can to promote the festival and its filmmakers. As such, you will be seeing many updates on my blog as details become available. If you are one of those lucky participants, please contact me so that we can start working together to boost attendance at the festival and at your screening.
For those unfamiliar with the festival, LA Shorts Fest is the largest short film festival in the world. The Festival is accredited by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and winners in the primary categories are eligible for Academy nomination. The festival boasts an outstanding past record of 33 Academy Award-nominated films, including 11 Oscar winners. It has honored some of Hollywood’s legends of the past: Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Robert Wise; along with actors Martin Landau, James Woods, Gary Oldman and directors Jan de Bont, Tim Burton, Bryan Singer and Paul Haggis.
The Festival annually attracts more than 10,000 moviegoers, filmmakers and entertainment executives looking for the hottest new talent as well as brand name sponsors looking to connect with the trendsetters in Hollywood. The Festival runs from July 23-31 and opening night guests will be actress and screenwriter Scarlett Johansson (“Lost in Translation,” “Iron Man 2″) and Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith (Executive Producer of “The House Bunny” with Anna Faris and co writer of the upcoming film “The Ugly Truth” with Gerard Butler and Katherine Heigl).