Monday, June 30, 2008

The 2008 LA Film Festival

It was a blast. I worked the Red Room a few times and the Hellboy reception, which was cool. They let us party a lot. I did something like 12 shifts and got a free ticket for each one.

I met and spoke with Lori Petty. That was a highlight. I thought her film, The Poker House, was by far the best film there, although I haven't seen them all. But this would be hard to beat. With it's unique female writer-director's voice, it's original, powerful and has a surprise ending that knocks your socks off, something like No Country, but this one leaves you in tears instead of confused, and it's equally thought provoking. I swear the whole audience at the premier was in tears by the end of the film. It was a bit of an emotional roller coaster with comedy and heartfelt drama. Yet this film has yet to get picked up for distribution as far as I know. That's a crime.

I asked Lori about the distribution obstacles she has to face with this kind of subject matter, similar to Hounddog, which disappeared from the limelight after it's Sundance acclaim, until it's upcoming limited release this month, no make that September 2008.

This kind of thing is exactly what sets Lori Petty off. She's a very nice person and the cast was so happy to have worked with her. They kept saying what a family atmosphere it was. But when someone in the crowd asked her why Jennifer's character, Agnes, was so smart and yet could allow something like a rape to happen, Lori went off on him and then Jennifer chimed in to her defense.

Young girls are not sexually mature, she said, despite their academic and physical development. That's why there is a separation between adults and children, she explained. Jeniffer added something about her character and how it wasn't a choice to be raped, I think she said. Anyway, this is the hard hitting theme and obviously it's over some people's heads, which makes for some great material for people to see.

To my question on distribution, her response was, 'fuck 'em' in no uncertain terms. She's incredibly strong on this point and I hope she can find a distributor with HBO or something more widespread than a limited release. Her film deserves it. But I think she shouldn't have to defend her position and that the film stands on it's own merit. I threw out the idea of getting a publicist. She didn't seem to think she'd need one.

You might remember Lori Petty as an actor in A League of Their Own, a great film.

The rest of the festival was pretty cool too. I saw an awesome Russian dark-wave comedy horror called Cargo 200. I'd say it falls into a genre like Pulp Fiction, if that were a genre. It hits on cops and returning war veterans, or their bodies (as opposed to underworld figures). It's completely off the wall. I doubt it could be made in the US depicting US cops or US troops. There would be a huge backlash. But that would be cool.

Another wild dark wave film was X-Cross, a Japanese horror about young girls disappearing at a remote resort. That's typical horror fare. But there's nothing typical in this film. Everything that happens is completely unexpected. It was fun.

Another cool film was Medicine for the Melancholy, which begins with a one night stand and progresses from there. It's a nice rom-com of sorts but not a chick-flick. It's more heavy, like real life. Not a fairy tale. I think it got a jury award. It was very well done on a shoestring in San Francisco, which was something of a character.

The Prince of Broadway was really interesting too, about a New York man dealing with his street trade as a fashion knock-offs vendor when he's confronted with a kid he didn't know he had. The mama drops the kid on him and takes off and his world is turned upside down. It was great.

I saw The Wackness with Ben Kingsley, who was cool to see as a stoner shrink that takes payment in pot from his young drug dealer client played by Josh Peck (of kid's TV show Drake & Josh fame). I wasn't too impressed with this story. It's a coming of age sordid rom-com and probably a good millennial marketable film. Although, it does have some witty dialog, the actors are all great, and the premise isn't bad. It just doesn't go anywhere. But millennials will like it.

Speaking of millennials, that term is the current incarnation of Gen-X, which I found out about at a film financing conference there. The big theme of the conference was the failing independent distributors like Warner Independent. This conference impressed me with some good knowledge on what it takes to make a film and get it distributed, and I realized that a lot of filmmakers work to see their films make it to a festival and get that IMDB credit. But if they don't have distribution, and only 1 out of 9999 filmmakers do, that's the end of the line. So what's the point? I wrote up a blog on it called The Film Distribution Gamble: 9999 to 1.

Anyway a big point made was that you need a film to be marketable if you want to find financing for it. But my contention is that these guys don't really know themselves what is marketable, hence Goldman's 'no one knows anything.' One even admitted that distributors put out trailers that lie about what the story really is, just to get people into theaters, proving they don't know what they're doing. But we all knew that.

There was another very interesting doc called Finishing Heaven, about 70s era filmmaker and NYU Scorsese student, Robert Fineberg, who is just now getting around to finishing a film he started back then with his girlfriend Ruby Lynn Reyner, who was the driving force behind making the original film and getting it back on track now.

The film had no script. It was just a set of scenes Fineberg had in mind and a lot of improve, which Ruby is like so awesome at doing. She even wanted writing credit and I think she deserves it.

They ran the film he now has almost finished, Heaven Wants Out. It's very funny and a throwback to the 70s. They added her narration to tie the scenes together, which they cross cut throughout. It's amazing.

It was also very emotional for them and they were in tears talking about all the changes they've gone through over the years, how they regret blowing it the first time around, and now finally getting this thing together. HBO picked up the doc.

And that's just the highlights. I missed some other great ones. I met a lot of very nice people. It was a very cool festival.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Film Distribution Gamble: 9999 to 1

I attended a Film Financing Conference on Saturday and learned what it takes to finance your film.


But more importantly how to get millions of dollars from perfect strangers to help you make your film.

The answers are actually quite simple, and you don't have to spend the $200 (or $150 for FIND members) for the seminar, nor can you. It's over. But I can tell you everything I learned that you need to know. Though you probably won't take it seriously coming from me, because I don't have the years of experience of the industry panelists of lawyers, producers, casting directors, and distributors represented at the conference.

Anyway these are the elements you need as I understand them:

  • A damned good (no make that great) film ( or script. It doesn't have to even be started, just written.)
  • A film that has a clearly defined audience
  • A film that has a defined audience meaning you didn't just make it for yourself
  • Marketable roles
  • Marketable roles that name actors will want to play
  • A film that is low budget, though that could mean up to $10M now.
  • Names
  • Credibility - who are you?
  • A damned good (no make that great) film.
  • Your own money ( to the tune of tens to hundreds of millions)

Doesn't this all sound too familiar? Us high and mighty altruistic indie filmmakers, in service to humanity, don need no steenkin marketable shit, do we?

Well, ah, yeah. We do if we want people, beyond the cast, crew, their friends, and family, to actually see and get something out of our films?

Now you could make that script of yours and it could get seen and even win some festivals. Then you have your world premier, and the cast and crew would be there, and your parents would be there, and you'd be happier than a pig in shit along with all your cast and crew.


But, would you get a distribution deal? The chances as put on the table at the conference are 99.99%, no you won't.

So don't bet the farm on making your film unless you have no problem losing it. You see it worked for Kevin Smith because he had an audience. He had a great film. It was unique. It hit home with people. But did he know who his audience was in advance? Maybe. But that's easy to say in hindsight. He certainly didn't have any distribution or marketing until way after the film was completed and Weinstein decided to pump some cash into marketing and post, something like $300K.

How many filmmakers went out and had similar films targeted (or not) to a similarly undefined audience, but failed?


Getting into a festival is great. Winning there is great. But how about a year or two down the road when you still haven't had a distribution deal? You go straight to DVD and no one ever hears about you or your film again. That sounds so useless. Why even bother going straight to DVD? So you can tell people, "I made a feature and it's on DVD?


That and the lack of marketing that goes along with it, plus another $4.55, will get you a nice Grandé at Starbucks to celebrate. Then you'll never be heard from again. Why bother? You'd do better to hold out for a deal with marketing, like at least an HBO run. I don't care if no one ever sees it, because they won't anyway.

Still I think it's not wrong, or even a bad thing, that filmmakers don't necessarily have a defined market. Distributors often don't either. They just have the money to make people think they do. One of the conference speakers mentioned that when distributors don't really know what they're doing, or can't define a market, they just lie. They just put out marketing that makes the film seem like something it's not, to get people into the theaters. They'll pick a market and go after it, even if it's the wrong market.

See, a lot of these guys are aware of this stuff and not happy with it either.

Well, No shit. Isn't this the rule and not the exception? So if they don't really know what they're doing and they have to lie about the film content and make like it's for some certain market segment of people, why then do they demand that filmmakers have to figure this out before making a film? I'm talking about those trailers you see that get you all hyped to see a film. Then when you see it, it's a big let down. It's something completely different than what the trailers lead you to think.

When a filmmaker goes to a distributor, what's the first question asked?

Who is your target audience? Where's the market? How can we sell this film?

They want filmmakers to do the legwork for them. Know your audience and you'll have a shot at getting s distribution deal. But it has to be an audience beyond cast, crew, family and friends. The film has to have universality. That's a screenwriting term that means masses of people will relate to the story and want to see it. Sounds reasonable. See, you have to do this part before you make the film, while writing the script. If you have a great film, a great story, but no universality, your film ain't going nowhere.

On the other hand, what is universality? Some think it means having a solid genre. Eht! I don't think so. That's just a smoke screen, a trick to get people in the theaters.

I think universality simply means that people have to relate to the subject. But people are sophisticated and complex. They aren't all 16 year old teenage boys trying to get into their date's pants by taking them to a horror flick that scares them into their arms, the epitome of genre.

No. People can related to those abstract weird unusual concepts, and they wll, if the story is great and the execution is excellent. You need to make a great film. You need to have a great story. Those are really the only two things you need before you start. But you do need them. You can't forsake them for a deadline. You make a film with a half baked script because you want to make the Sundance deadline. That's a waste of everyone's time and money.

So the distributors' and the filmmakers' definitions of universality are very different. Still, that element is necessary.

Now, not only are all these factors at play, but the indie industry is in a downturn. These industry pro guys say this because three major Hollywood indie subsidiaries are folding, the biggest being Warner Independent.

Here's where I really differ with them.

I say any indie company affiliated with a big studio isn't really an indie company, I don't care what's in their name to tell me it is. These companies tried to jump on the indie bandwagon when they saw indies taking off. So yeah, they bought some real indie films at the festivals. But they aren't truly independent. They bought films that they think fit into their predefined marketing strategies. Indie films, good indie films, aren't bound by that narrow definition.

David Lynch is independent. He distributes his own films. If any of these guys were really indie, they'd distribute David Lynch. But they won't touch him. They're too hooked on the whole conservative business model that requires them to make well educated decisions based on marketing factors. Yet, their failure rate is astronomical. Duh. Even the .o1% of films that get distributed films have a very poor rate of success, something like 30% t0 50%. They just don't get it. Guys, the business model you use doesn't work. Do you need to be hit over the head with a sledge hammer to see this?

They still think you have to hit a certain market. Well I guess I agree. It's works in theory. It's just I don't know if they can ever know what that market is in advance, because the film market can rarely be defined before the film finds it after it runs a few weeks and word gets around. Markets are not really sp clearly defined as 18 to 35 year old males or whatever. No, they are dynamic and change with the wind.

This comes back to Goldman's statement that no one in Hollywood knows anything, meaning no one can predict what film, what story, what genre, or what concept will be a hit. Subsequently, they can't accurately define a market or target audience. They can try, and they do, and they fail a lot. They go out of business.

It's the nature of filmmaking. This isn't a widget business. That is, film is art first, business second. You can't market concepts. You can't market art before it's been completed and before you know what it is that you're marketing, and no you don't know what it is. You can't know this stuff until audiences have seen it and decided with their wallets whether it's worthy or not. Because art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, not the marketing depatment.

Goldman was right. No one knows anything. It is an unknown. Why can't this fact be accepted. Do they have to be so self centered and pompous to believe that there can't be a thing, like this, that they can't grasp? I'm sorry, but all the experience, MBAs and education in the world will not give you the ability to know or second guess the markets, or see the future. Accept it. Admitting this is the first step.

"Hi, I'm Jon and I'm a filmmaker. "

"Hi Jon."

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Poker House: This film is amazing

I caught the world premier tonight at the LA Film Festival. Not a dry eye in the house. The audience went nuts. Standing ovation. It has a hard hitting ending that actually hits home in the credits, similar to how No Country for Old Men did but this one doesn't leave you guessing. It just leaves you in tears. What an incredible cast. But I'd have to say the real star of this film is the director, Lori Petty.

I do think it will be hard to sell. I predict it will go to DVD as do most festival features. It's a shame because this film deserves a theatrical release. Like I expected, the woman's perspective from writer-director Lori Petty is so original and refreshing.

The big problem with distribution is the same thing that makes this a great film, it's subject matter; that being the story of three young girls growing up in a poker house with a hooker mother and an abusive pimp along with their seedy associates. People don't want to hear that films like this are playing at the cineplex. They don't want to know what really goes on in America.

I was discussing this film with someone who mentioned Memoirs of a Geisha in comparison, which got me to thinking about how Geishas are highly respected and trained as in a profession. But in the US people in this business deal with drugs, guns, pimps and violence. It's one of the most outrageous saddest state of affairs that plague American society, and the reason is because it is illegal in most every state, forcing it into the hands of underworld unscrupulous characters.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

New York, the 70s, Pot and Women: The LA Film Festival starts Thursday 6/20/08

Update: See my review of the entire festival here.

There are a number of promising films at the LA Film Festival this year. I say promising because I have yet to see them. But experience tells me most films at the festival are good and some are even great. Here is my list based on my personal pretenses (make that preferences). So I may be overlooking some and others may not appeal to me. That doesn't mean they aren't good films too.

The festival kicks off with just one film on Thursday, Wanted, with Angelia Jolie, and ends the day after Guillermo del Toro's comic book film, Hellboy II, next Saturday. Some of the best films are sold out and I haven't covered them but they look awesome, including Choke with Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, and Kelly Macdonald of No Country for Old Men fame. But it will be in theaters soon enough (limited release September 2008), along with Wanted and Hellboy II.

The Poker House

Set in the 70s, a young girl struggles to survive, with two younger sisters, in a home overrun by gamblers, thieves, and johns. Written and directed by Lori Petty. Right there you know a film about this subject matter written and directed by a woman (look at her intense eyes) has got to be good.

Lori Petty, writer-director,
The Poker House

There are too few woman directors out there but when they succeed they have a refreshing, interesting and compelling voice. This film is first on my list. Strangely there are three shows still available. People just don't know what's good. Of course I'm speaking without having seen it yet. But I seriously doubt I'll be disappointed.

Update: See my review of The poker House here.

This brings to mind another great overlooked HBO film by a woman director, Mira Nair,.Hysterical Blindness (not at the festival), with Uma Thurman, Gena Rowlands, Juliette Lewis. Films like these give you a woman's perspective and insight that are so lacking in the world. Uma Thurman also produced.

The Wackness

The 90s in New York City, a teenager struggling with growing pains and from a family going through hard times, a long haired pot smoking therapist played by Ben Kingsley. How could you go wrong?

I read an interview article with the writer-director, Jonathan Levine. He said without Ben Kingsley the film wouldn't have been made, meaning of course, that helped find financial backers. But his biggest ambivalence was meeting Ben Kingsley after he had read the script. Apparently the meeting went well.

Two best friends help out a deported Mexican pal get back into the US and decide to go into the people import business. Thriller, comedy, drama. They just keep crossing these genre lines these days. Cool.

Mamma's Man
A man is unable to leave his parent's New Your home. New York is hot this year. Another writer-director project. This one by Azazel Jacobs, who cast his own parents in the film. it's also touted as "a tribute to the waning bohemian wonderland fast disappearing not just from lower Manhattan, but the larger landscape of American culture." This has got to be good. Two shows still available.

(Criss-Cross) One of those cool Japanese horror thrillers, featuring a "remote hot springs resort" with "bizarre locals, blood rituals, and crazed harajuku girls brandishing frightfully large pairs of scissors." The Japanese horrors are so much cooler than the cheap American date-night teen horrors. I have yet to see it. But I know this will be good.

Cargo 200
A Russian film touted as having "classic '70s American horror motifs—city kids lost in the country, a dark house in the woods, killers with mother fascinations—with the peculiar frights of the '80s-era Soviet Union." I can't describe this better that they did at the fest:

The hills have eyes, and a few very antisocial socialists, when the cutesy daughter of a local party member and her boyfriend leave their New Wave club one dark night and car problems force them to take refuge in a house whose inhabitants make the Texas Chainsaw family seem normal. That's nothing, however, compared to the terror that awaits the daughter when a psychotic police captain eventually takes her for “his own.”

Made in America
Stacy Peralta of 70s skateboarding fame and the doc filmmaker of Dogtown and Z-Boys now brings us a hard cold documentary of East LA where war rages on just as real as the one in Iraq, but completely ignored. This is a free screening in downtown LA. I've seen Peralta talk about making this film and the trailer will give you a good hint. He got into the neighborhood and talked to real people. He had to get "permission", not from any city film authority, but from the local pins.

A Girl Cut in Two
A French film about a young TV weather reporter pursued by two men, naturally. It's French. Apparently she's torn between them, one a cultured jaded womanizing novelist and the other a wealthy eccentric heir. Combining elements of the psychological, thriller, melodrama, social satire, and dark humor, plus good acting. Sounds like a winner. One show is already sold out.

Medicine for the Melancholy
A one night stand in San Francisco turns into something more. Check out the trailer. This film has been picked up by IFC.

The Pleasure of Being Robbed
A young amateur thief in New York. Does she want to steal from people or just meet them? Chosen in Cannes' prestigious Directors Fortnight section, shot in 16mm, and lauded as a sweet-natured ramble, it looks very promising. One show is sold out.

Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal
She moves to Nevada to open a stud farm. But the apparent controversy is now about servicing a women clientèle. It continues to amaze me how sexism and racism still run so rampant especially in government and authorities' circles. I expect there's some beefcake in this one, so it might be a good screening to pick up hot chicks. I'm there.

Finishing Heaven
This is a film about making a film, or more accurately, the failure to make a film. Naturally I'm into it. I suffer from the same sort of disease. It's a documentary about a 70's Warhol scene filmmaker, Robert Feinberg, who started making a promising feature under his film school instructor Martin Scorcese, and Feinberg's hot girlfriend star, Ruby Lynn Reyner, photographed in the film by famed photographer Francesco Scavullo who put her in his coffee table book. It interests me because I'm about the same age and in recent years came out of my own filmmaking hiatus, having attended film school back then as well. Yo, Robert, dude, we should hook up and smoke a J; maybe even finish Heaven.

As the festival pitch reads:

In this fascinating collision of past and present, Feinberg and Reyner's explosive romantic history intertwines with their ongoing artistic collaboration, and their viewing of the frozen-in-time celluloid in the editing room stirs up long-lost yet lingering dreams. Part nostalgia trip, part cautionary tale, Mark Mann's documentary sympathetically relates the timeless plight of struggling with the pressure and weight of one's own lofty expectations.

They are also screening the film he started, Heaven, a work in progress.

Heaven Wants Out — A Work-in-Progress Screening
The film Robert Feinberg never finished. So the question on everyone's mind now: Will he finish it? Here's the festival plug for the film:

A cabaret singer stuck working in a crummy nightclub wanders through the lives of the men who desire her on her misguided quest for the big time. Subject of the Festival's documentary competition feature Finishing Heaven, director Robert Feinberg has spent almost 40 years trying to complete Heaven Wants Out after shooting in New York City in 1970.

Poolside Chat: Back to the Stoner Age
This isn't a film but a poolside chat with filmmakers including Jay Chandrasekhar (Broken Lizard), Jenji Kohan (creator, Weeds), Cheech Marin, and others TBD. Moderated by Shirley Halperin (author, Pot Culture). It's a discussion of a recent trend in films to show people smoking pot. Are the 60s coming back? God I hope so.

What the hell kind of title is that? It's a teen film title. I guess they talk that way. Anyway, this one is almost sold out. It's about the awkward growing pains of a teenage boy in pursuit of the girl of his dreams. It looks like a possible Juno kind of thing. Successful innovative films like Juno will do that; create a new wave of similar films. Not that this one isn't as unique and interesting. It would certainly be hard to match Juno. But it looks like probably a good try.

I'm a volunteer at the festival this year and that will get me like ten free tix. If I'm not keeping the waiting lines straight, I'll be in them.

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