I’m talking to different filmmakers and curators in an effort to get information about all kinds of distribution today. You are the Director of Grand Detour and the Experimental Film Festival, both in Portland. How would you describe the state of experimental film distribution as it exists today?
I think that in some ways, the idea of distribution is really changing (although I can’t speak to print traffic as I deal so rarely with it compared to a lot of my peers). SVOD is starting to open up new possibilities. For better or for worse, we’re moving away from experiencing the physical commodity of a film.
What is the breadth of work under the umbrella that’s largely labeled “experimental”?
This is a great question! The short answer is that there is a large breadth of work, depending on your definition or your fidelity to tradition. I always ask my programmer peers what they think is the difference between experimental and underground film, for example. Or the difference between avant-garde and underground and experimental. Really it’s about venn diagrams.
Grand Detour has historically brought in touring experimental artists and curated programs (Mallary Abel’s Cut and Run tour has also bee the focus of an interview here) as well as provided local-to-Portland makers with a screening venture (Portland Stew). Do you see national work or local work as more vital to your mission?
The dialogue between the two is what is vital to my mission. I also take Portland experimental film work to screen around the country for this reason.
Do hybrid forms, i,e, experimental narrative or experimental documentary, exist apart from purely experimental work (if there is such a thing) or is there an integration of all work that has “experimental elements” in the festival and micro cinema circuit?
Oh, there’s a huge spectrum of work. Thank god. I mean, Ann Arbor programs music videos. We had a family-friendly screening. And a porn screening. I feel like experimental is not itself a film genre, but it’s rather an approach to making media.
It’s often said that experimental work doesn’t lead tot funding and/or box office funds, Can you address this?
It depends – like, on what country you are in, for example – but I haven’t found a lot of money in experimental film. But when was the last time you saw a movie in a theater? I’m mostly kidding, but seriously, if you’re in experimental film for the money, start doing Etsy crafts or oil paintings. You can do plenty of other stuff for the money it takes to make your films! You can teach. You can write grants to buy supplies or to travel. You can have a day job, just like most artists. The great thing about making experimental film is that the paywall can come down somewhat from a “normal” film project budget, so there’s not as much overhead to get things done.
I will say that the experimental film community has a tremendous amount of cultural currency, which can be very valuable to artists.
What would you say to a student who wants to make an experimental film?
If you’re ever making the film you think you’re “supposed” to be making, it’s not experimental.
Not so long ago there was a monolithic distribution model. People bought tickets to get into a theatre. Soon after television was an option, then cable, then streaming. How has non-fiction film followed or defied this model historically. How has non-fiction work always created it’s own model(s) and circuits(s)?
I think documentary filmmakers have always sought and struggled to get their films seen by as many people as possible. The hierarchy of distribution has long been: Theatrical, TV/Cable, and then other forms of digital distribution -DVDs, streaming etc. I’m not sure this hierarchy has changed much, at least in the minds of most documentary filmmakers I know of. That said, it does seem that what has changed is the way in which audiences prefer to see documentaries, and film in general, and that their preference is definitely streaming/digital. Unfortunately, the marketplace for digital film distribution still pays according to hierarchy above- digital/streaming seems to offer the least returns. So while digital distribution has allowed many more films to be released, seen, and available, it hasn’t solved the problem of helping create a sustainable model for independent documentary filmmakers.
2. Could you talk about the path a non-fiction feature or short might take in distribution today?
I think that traditional model still holds to some extent, starting out at festivals seeking distribution, hoping for a wide theatrical release and TV broadcast, and then working towards a digital release. Alternatives are: using film festivals themselves as a form of distribution and the educational market (which is also slowly shifting from a model of DVD purchase to purchasing streaming rights, but which still offer select films a very significant and undervalued marketplace).
- Is there an existing documentary festival circuit?Absolutely, the film festival circuit has expanded exponentially in the past ten years, and there is an entire genre of documentary-only film festivals, both domestically and abroad. DocNYC, True/False, Full Frame, IDFA, are just some of the more prominent examples.4. What role do educational sales play, if any?
For the right film, that has a niche market, the educational market is a very important tool for distributing documentary films and is consistently undervalued by filmmakers. The trick is to take advantage of the educational market before the film is available digitally, to maximize the window of time where the film is not easily or widely available except through the filmmaker themselves (self-distribution) or their educational distributor.
- What other types of venues such as galleries, installations, micro cinemas and web distribution play?
I think these forms of distribution are relevant and important as ever, though I think they don’t tend to create much revenue for the filmmaker. Still, they are very important for getting work seen and connecting with audiences.
6. What advice would you give to a student who wants to make non-fiction work re. getting it seen?
Start with the traditional model and improvise (self-distribution etc) when the traditional model fails you. The competition is so fierce these days that many great films don’t get channeled through traditional distribution, but the story doesn’t have to end there- the possibilities for self-distribution have grown and filmmakers (those just starting out and veterans) should take advantage of an evolving digital landscape that rewards experimentation and innovation in terms of how one approaches getting a film out in the world.
Jamie Meltzer’s feature documentary films have been broadcast nationally on PBS and have screened at numerous film festivals worldwide. His current documentary project, Freedom Fighters (in progress), is a co-production of ITVS and the recipient of a Sundance Institute grant and a MacArthur grant. Informant (2012), about a revolutionary activist turned FBI informant, was released in theaters in the US and Canada in Fall 2013 by Music Box Films and KinoSmith. Previous films include: Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story(Independent Lens, 2003), about the shadowy world of song-poems, Welcome to Nollywood (PBS Broadcast, 2007), an investigation into the wildly successful Nigerian movie industry, and La Caminata (2009), a short film about a small town in Mexico that runs a simulated border crossing as a tourist attraction. He teaches in the M.F.A. Program in Documentary Film and Video at Stanford University.
- I’m talking to filmmakers and curators about the state of distribution today. You and a partner started a roving film festival (feel free to re-name that), Cut and Run. Can you talk a little about that? What was the inspiration to start Cut and Run?
Yes – Cut and Run was a roving film festival where we did not just screen at the same microcinema. We travelled to microcinemas all over the place and screened our programs there. Brenda Contreras and I met at San Francisco State University in a film program. We were both were interested in starting a curatorial project that featured not just new – but older and classic works. We concentrated on screening experimental, avant-garde, and even an occasional home movie. At the time, we were just breaking into the microcinema community, and it was very exciting to see how such a genuine and unique niche in the art world has such a close knit web of people all working together, keeping it vibrant.
- From my understanding, Cut and Run mostly visited microcinemas . Can you define microcinema? How do they function?
A microcinema is like a small movie theatre. It can be anything though – a studio, an old church, a converted store front…or a dedicated space that strictly runs as a venue to project films. Small cinemas are able to be set up almost anywhere. They’re different from your normal, high end movie theatre, in that the entire atmosphere and experience is much more personalized (I think). Because the films are generally smaller scale, a small scale cinema can offer the right type of set up… a cozy space, with discussions about the work, Q & As with the artists, etc. Microcinemas can program any films or curated programs they want to. So, the programming can be very diverse. That’s a great thing…
- Getting into the logistics: How did you fund Cut and Run? How much did it cost?
Well – Cut and Run was sort of complex. We’d do screenings at Artists’ Televsion Access in San Francisco, then we’d hit the road and travel. We traveled all over – the West coast, the East coast, and the South. We even managed to get ourselves to Europe to do some screenings with the help of a kickstarter campaign. During that campaign, actually a bunch of filmmakers who’s work we were screening were generous enough to donate. They were supportive and wanted their work to be seen! That European tour was largely possible due to the fundraiser – everything else was funded by us, door revenue at screenings, and submissions.
- How did your tour fit into the larger DIY movement, if it did at all?
I think Cut and Run is a good example of a low-budget film festival that was accessible not just for the audiences we were looking for – but also for filmmakers who needed a certain liaison for which to support the presenting of their work. We’d see a lot of the films we programmed in other experimental film festivals around the country, and that was a reminder that many of us were working towards the same thing. I think we helped get some filmmakers work out there and keep it out there.
There were times we’d put a film from the ’60s in a program. We had no limits really, we just wanted to screen important work as often as possible.
Like the rest of the DIY movement, we weren’t going to let our grand goals of running a film festival (albeit small) get away from us, even if it wasn’t financially giving us much revenue.
We helped keep that beat of experimental film – and microcinemas – alive.
- What were/are the advantages of curating one’s own program and taking it on the road? What were/are the disadvantages?
The advantages were that we were in complete control of where we wanted to go, and that we would get a lot of invitations to screen places. We were very much free, and had some amazing experiences.
The disadvantages were perhaps, that we worked a lot and invested a lot, and while we were returned with an immense amount of gratification from that film festival, it became hard to maintain. Money was perhaps an issue, but that wasn’t a major contribution to why Cut and Run ended.
- Is there a type of film work than lends itself more gracefully to a tour such as yours?
To me, films that have a specific message or feeling, and films that might push boundaries, or not be afraid to say what they want to say. Experimental, avant-garde, and documentary films lend themselves to a project like Cut and Run. Film that are one of a kind. Short films also are generally more feasible for these types of festivals.
- What advice would you give a film student or an out-of-school maker who might be interested in developing a film tour?
Obviously, I’d say, do it! Act responsibly, but gather your resources and get creative, and write down your vision of a film tour. Then start taking the steps to get there and you will see that it will beautifully unfold. I’d also say that, without the filmmakers themselves, there would be no film tour. It’s all about them and their work, in a way.
- What are you up to these days? Talk a little about Gaze and any other recent curatorial projects.
Cut and Run ended it’s tours in 2011. Before C+R said so long though, I was approached by the programmer of Artist’s Television Access to help start a film festival strictly dedicated to screening work made by women. I teamed up with a group of people in the bay area and started running the new festival called GAZE. This will be GAZE’s 4th year.
The unique thing about GAZE is that we screen works made by female identified artists. While a large part of the film world is controlled by men, GAZE is entirely run with the female gaze ideology. We’re also hoping to take a show on the road this summer – like Cut and Run would.
Aside from programming GAZE, I teach 5th grade and tinker with other film and art projects on the side.
Mallary Abel is an educator and artist living in Oakland, CA. In 2004, she graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in Cinema. She is also a recent graduate of Mills College where she studied Education with a focus on social justice. Since 2004, Mallary has been largely involved with curating and programming film screenings, nationally and internationally. She helped co-found and run an experimental film festival called Cut and Run. Currently, she teaches 5th grade, and co-runs GAZE, a women’s film festival based out of Artists’ Television Access in San Francisco. She can always be reached at email@example.com.
Hi, Jim. Thanks for meeting with me. Can you say a little about your work?
Yeah. I started making movies in 2000. My buddy had a digital video camera, and
he let me borrow it for about a decade. So, yeah. So basically all I did was — at that
stage I was really excited about it because it was free pretty much. Like there
wasn’t a barrier to entry that film had had previous to that, which was that you had
to pay per second of shooting something, which I always found a very prohibiting,
or inhibiting I guess is more to the point. Because I’m always very cost-conscious
thinking about how can I make something for nothing, and that’s just being kind of
a reality of kind of no budget, kind of artist approach.
You know, when I was making books and whatnot it was — I mean you don’t need a lot of — you don’t need a budget to write a book for instance. So you know, I started to think about films in the same way, which was that beyond the labor you can do things, interestingly, for nothing. So I was really kind of like, more than anything, just really kind of inspired by that constraint.
So rather than it being this sort of terrible thing that we couldn’t get funding for — to make movies, I just was like well, it would be fun just to try to prove that you can make something for nothing. Because it’s interesting, and it’s also kind of — you know, when you’re first making movies you want to set the bar really low, or expectations. I mean you — odds are you’re not going to get some kind of massive smash hit out of your first — right out of the gate, you know? So if you think about it realistically you’re just thinking about how can I make something as good as I can make it now without necessarily putting a lot on the line, or putting other people’s money on the line. So, yeah. That was kind of a lot of the inspiration for what got me started.
And then you know, I’ve always been really inspired by kind of lo-fi sci-fi films. I was thinking as far back the other day, I hadn’t been a few years, but like even things like Clockwork Orange is like a lo-fi sci-fi. It kind of creates atmosphere, and through certain jargon, and the language, and strange kind of set design, and slight tweaks to the environment. You know, in a way that was incredibly effective. And we obviously that’s — you know, the master filmmaker, etc., etc., but you know, he could have definitely gone another direction and really gone for a flashy kind of effects heavy sort of approach to it. That would have been more in line with what people traditionally think about that sci-fi.
So yeah. So we started making sci-fi in like maybe 2007 as feature films. Like between probably 2000 and 2007 I was working on little shorts, and then at one point I started putting together in a new sort of style. The thing with it was like a CD-ROM kind of compilation of little shorts that I like. And then I started connecting with other filmmakers that way, and at some point it was like I know so many talented directors and they like my work. Maybe they’d be willing to kind of collaborate on a longer feature. So it came out widely with kind of an anthology feature that each — like there was about — I think there was seven of us, and we each contributed a 12 minute segment, so I wrote them all in 12 minute segments. And they’re kind of episodes, but they all intertwine and connect. But they all kind of have different styles because all the directors are kind of coming at it from different places.
So we made that in 2007, and it was like it took us about six months and I think it cost about 700 bucks or something, so that the total that we spent on that. So you know, that was just sort of out-of-pocket. And then after that we managed to get it screened in three or four different places. Like we premiered it at this place called death con, which is like a hacker convention in Las Vegas. They were interested in showing it because it had a hacker in it, and so we screened it there.
And then just sort of went from there to sort of working with the guys that I got along especially well with in that particular first project, who were available, and interested in working on a second one. We started to think about Ghosts with Shit Jobs
One of the questions that I’m asking everybody that I’m interviewing is about shorts, Many of the people that I’m interviewing are making features, or have been successful making features. But students in general are making shorts? We don’t actually allow them to make features.
Yeah. That’s a good policy.
Is there a difference if one makes a short? Is there still room to promote it and then market it? Is short — making a short an active thing to do in itself, or is it just something that you do getting ready to make a feature?
Oh, I mean I think — I think like when I was making shorts back in 2000, 2004 it was much — it made much less sense from a perspective of the willingness of people to watch YouTube shorts these days is super huge. It’s actually, it’s super accessible. So, yeah. I mean if anything it’s gotten more relevant. Like from a — you know, from a — like the difficulty is just the kind of discoverability of these shorts, right? So that’s the thing.
I think — and who with the short are you kind of — who’s your audience, who’s your intended audience? Is it like a film festival curator? I think that’s kind of a mistake in this day and age because there are so many shorts because the barrier is lower, and fewer and fewer film festivals, you know? So, I think people that are just — aren’t to sort of prideful about it, and just sort of think about the first couple years of their career as something that they put up on YouTube, and try to build community, and build their skills. It’s amazing. It’s an amazing kind of chance to do both those things, you know?
As I say, I was interested in — I made this little CD-ROM, and eventually a DVD is the thing. It’s just because I wanted to- I wanted to sort of get some of these shorts that I was seeing out in the world. You know, and now it’s, as I say, it’s a lot easier. So, I don’t know. I guess there’s people that are — the same time it’s the same type of person who would be like well, I’m not going to do a screenplay because I want to be a published author, or have the attendant prestige that goes with that. And I mean yeah. If you want to throw that — like if that’s really important to you, you know more than actually finding a readership and having a decent chance at increasing your audience and sort of improving your craft then sure. Put all your eggs in one basket, but I think it’s a big mistake personally.
And I think you have to ask yourself why you would — basically what people are looking for when they go to legitimate outlets like festivals and — sometimes they think they’re — I think they think they’re getting things like a shortcut. They want someone famous to see their stuff and whisk them away to something, you know? And I — yeah. I mean that’s just a fantasy, so I don’t know. Just because it’s happened a half dozen times in the last ten years doesn’t mean that it’s viable.
So, yeah. I mean I think like if — to me the thing is is that going the independent route and getting a audience member by audience member type of approach where you’re just building audience through any of the number of like either Facebook, or Twitter, or YouTube subscriptions, or whatever. That feels like you have a much more decent chance of, I think, at some point making a living five years from now from it, than sort of hoping that by going this festival kind of fame route that — you know, I feel like that’s a red herring, to be honest, given that there’s so many good opportunities to not only build on audience attention,
Once you build it on likes, you know, say you get a million hits on something then you know, you get a million dedicated subscribers. I mean that — to me — I’m working on a web series next and my goal is to get a million subscribers to our — you know, I think — you know, I won’t consider it a failure if we don’t, but I think if we get a million interested sort of audience members I feel like at least one percent of them will contribute to create more of it, even if they’re not necessarily getting something tangible like a DVD or whatever.
So to me it’s all about building a large enough audience so that you have that small percentage of people that are really able to sort of — and excited about supporting you financially. So, yeah. I think you giving your stuff away for free and building audience that way, even if you look at it economically as a long-term strategy, I think it makes way more sense. Yeah.
So how — that kind of segues into a lot of — and I know you your self are someone who, if I can say this, has a strong sense of ethics about this sort of stuff. What about file sharing services
Could you talk a little bit about that? Just talk largely about those ideas, those concepts, and then talk a little bit about where you stand in relationship to them.
Sure. Yeah, yeah. I love Bit Torrent. As a destructive technology I think it’s — I think it’s a great example of something that’s been around for ten years now that is like because it’s not centralized is incredibly difficult to shut down. So I think it’s like a collective — I think in general there’s always this tension in art between something that’s collectively — like we make culture collectively, but we only can reward the people who bring it to market individually. So there’s always a dissonance between the market and the kind of collective nature of how we make art.
So to me, like I am quite excited about people discovering my stuff through Bit Torrent, or getting a hold of pirated copies of my e-books, or whatever. I mean I’ve stolen plenty of stuff in the past, and I continue to do so. So I just sort of feel like it’s a great way for people to discover the things with no risk. You know what I mean?
So, I think for people that are, especially people that are getting artists new, like those types of technologies are amazing because they allow you to share stuff with no actual costs to distributing it. If you distribute it through a traditional download method then you’re paying money for every time someone downloads it. But this way through Bit Torrent you can actually — it just decentralized it. It decentralizes it and everybody sort of collectively shares the bandwidth kind of impact.
So to me I think it’s brilliant from a technical standpoint, and from – yeah, from a cultural standpoint. I mean I use the library all the time too, and I borrow books, and I don’t pay the authors directly, but I will talk about them, and I will rave about their book if I love it, and I will recommend it to people. And over time that has like a kind of a promotional or publicity affect, and not just because I work in the cultural sector. I think that that’s the case for everybody. That’s the reason why libraries have been — like seen as a kind of friend to writers rather than someone that cannibalize is there market, right?
So I feel like — I feel like Bit Torrent is more or less along those same lines. People often have — you know, they often discover someone’s music through Bit Torrent, and then they end up going to their concert and buying a shirt because they’re huge fans, right? So there’s other ways for — you know, the thing that’s interesting about it is that technologies like Bit Torrent allow for almost — like it reduces the cost of this cultural production in a huge way to the point where you don’t have to sell as many copies of the actual thing. You can actually get by on selling T-shirts or related merchandise that people — you know, or in person kind of concerts, or readings, or whatnot.
You you can actually — you know, it expands your reach, and it lowers your cost of production. So, you know, it’s not simply the same as stealing something from a store, shoplifting. It’s like a poor analogy that basically is there to prop up there kind of status quo of — you know, of a system that is incredibly bloated and, like I said, as an author I only see — you know, if I go through traditional book publishing I only see ten percent of my labor from that. From a $20 book I get two dollars of it.
So they — of course, the people who get the other $18 of it are really concerned about this. But as the person who makes the stuff, and I can have a direct relationship with the audience, I don’t see any — I see it as opportunities not as a threat to my livelihood. I think that’s just incredibly narrow minded, and not seeing the whole picture of how the technology really changes it.
Back to Ghosts with Shit Jobs for a second. And so the numbers — it’s just really nice that you published all that data for people to see. And one of the things that you published was kind of a pie chart that showed where you spend your money, and the largest piece of pie in the pie chart was promotion. And then you did another kind of bar graph underneath that that showed that the largest part of promotion was flying places to promote your film as it screened I’m supposing, I think that’s what it was.
So that’s an interesting piece of marketing that I think most people don’t think about is really promoting their film while its already screening someplace. Most people would say well, the screening is the end goal, so we don’t even have to be there, you know?
Can you talk about that a little bit?
Sure, yeah. I mean I’m pretty — looking at the numbers kind of makes me question our own choices I think in terms of the costs. I mean the costs are still — you know, it’s — I don’t regret sort of spending as much as we did on the flights and things. Because as well they also had this intended kind of pleasurable — this is another city, and see your movie, and it’s being screened, and do the Q and A, and do those types of things.
I mean I think at a certain point people get really tired and jaded about it, but certainly I always loved doing Q and A’s. I never got tired of it even after 25 of them were so. I mean I think over – if I had to do 100 of them or something, or you know, the third movie, and you know I might get a little bit fatigued around it. But I — it was definitely pleasurable.
So there’s that aspect of it. I mean I look at it — I don’t look at these things necessarily as having to return on each individual work as an isolated product for instance, right? So in my case I was making those trips out and making connections with people at these things because of my next film, and I’m not so much concerned about like okay — like I mean because you know that’s obviously like brings a little bit of extra kind of personas to the table if you’re going to be there in person. You know, when it comes to like someone is going to go to the movie or whatever, and they know that that directors going to be there. It kind of gives it a little bit of an extra kind of interest, right?
So, you could definitely make the argument that it sells a couple more tickets. Now probably not enough to justify the full cost of the flight on the scale that we’re working on, which is relatively small. But there is something to be said about that it doesn’t increase the chances of it to getting some coverage, or of there being interviews if there’s an in person sort of factor. We found a little bit of that not so much — not overwhelming when it comes to sort of coverage in in the weeklies or whatever, but there was a couple times where we definitely got interviews that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.
I mean it’s kind of part of the whole thing though. For me the promotion of something is an incredibly important part to the production process. Or not — it’s not really part of the production process, but part of the creative process. Because that’s like the last quarter that a lot of people just kind of get nervous about, or they skimp on, or they sort of get too quickly into the next project, or whatever the case is.
But there’s so many benefits to it. I mean there’s obviously the benefit of — and you know, my general strategy, and this will probably change over time, but to a certain extent I tried to throw everything I can at promotion. I’m beyond kind of like spending a ton of money on PR people. I do a lot of different things, and I’ve tried a lot of different approaches to kind of draw attention to the work once it’s done.
Can you name some of those?
L Let me see. What do I — I mean the twin component for this one was a big part of it. In set up in some places we also did things like we had local sort of celebrities talking about the future of jobs prior to the movies. So we had something that would be like people who had futuristic jobs already. There is a web comics guy named Randall Monroe who does this comic called XQCB. And when we were in Boston he was up for being our panel, and we sort of talked about futuristic jobs and that kind of thing. So that was an added — like that was an added draw to — that brought a lot of people out to see the film.
So things like that where we — I mean the kickstarter itself was kind of we viewed it as — because we didn’t need money to complete it or anything. We were just literally almost a doing presales for it. That drew an incredible amount of attention to the project, which was really — you know, we originally hoped to raise 5,000 for five cities — to tour to five cities, and ended up raising 20. So, yeah. We really sort of, obviously, were able to get out to a very suitable, interested audience, you know? Just to that platform. So, the money we raised of course, but it was even more valuable in terms of getting the word out there in terms of promotion.
So, yeah. That was another kind of, I guess, promotional kind of outreach type of thinking because we wanted to — like I mean we did hope we would make more than 5000, or we thought we had a really good chance of hitting 5000. So, it was a way for us to gauge interest. And because everybody who is signing up for kick starter was also like associated with cities, so we could see how many people in each city, and potentially how many kind of fans we would have already in those cities. So we could kind of make a — like put together a tour based on where the interest was, and where we already had allies and friends and stuff. So, yeah. All of those things kind of were promotional approaches.
But yeah. I mean generally it — I mean the big thing is like that it’s really not — like it’s definitely — to do a big — to do like a big show in your own home town is actually not that hard. Like you just have a good idea as to how many people would be interested in coming. You know, find a suitable sized venue. Like don’t choose that 800 person venue if you really think you can probably get 150 people out. Like the optics of that are terrible, so you want to sort of think.
If you’ve never done an event before then you want to figure on maybe 100 people. I’m sure that — like it’s just about — there’s some of the things you can do too now that with the ease of buying things online you could even presell tickets and then get a venue after that suitable. There’s so many options, right? Or get people to — like if you want to do a prescreening you get something on Facebook, and you find out how many people are interested in seeing it and then get a venue, right?
So, yeah. I mean doing a screening, or even better like with graphic arts is getting a bunch of people to do a screening together. Because then you all share audience, right? So you reach bring 20 people, and then you can put a little collection together and sort of share the cost of the rental of the theater, right? And they’ll have like a decent sort of screening in a theater, and impress your parents, and all that kind of crap.
So, I mean there’s that kind of thing that’s like that — and you know, that also has these kind of attendance value of — the attendance value of building community, right? So you’re not just sort of imagining that it’s you against all the other filmmakers. You can kind of join forces, and kind of realize that what you’re really fighting is not each other, but rather the gross indifference of 99.9 percent of the people towards your work. So you’re unified in that, right?
So if you can come up with something that’s like a common theme, or anesthetic that kind of has some resonance and interest. If you can say these are eight films about something, you know? Something interesting. Even better than — you know, you’re already in a really good place, right?
Like for our compilations we would have, I think I had one theme that was games and shames, and teenage boys and other animals, things that were — like I just basically was able to find a bunch of videos they liked, and I think they sort of film some kind of somatic link to sort of draw them together. To put them under a banner or something so it’s not just like a random films, right?
So, yeah. I mean it’s — more than anything else it’s about kind of connecting with your fellow filmmakers, seeing what works, putting yourself out in the public, you know? And then sort of getting better, you know? Like just keep on making stuff, and not be worried about the big break or any of that bull shit. Because at the end of the day you could just have like a craft you’re just like really creatively charged by, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You might not ever kind of make a living off of it, and it doesn’t matter if it gives you something, right? And you find other ways to make money or whatever.
But realistically, like looking at — like if you can keep at it for ten years then your chances are ten times higher of kind of building an audience, or hitting a nerve in the public than if you just sort of like burn yourself out after a year, you know? So, I think you just have to kind of — you know, filmmakers just have to kind of figure a way to do it that is sustainable for them, that is enjoyable for them, that is constantly thinking about growing that audience and outreaching to new people. Not in a marketing way just as in like you want to show new people your shit. You don’t always want to show like the same eight people, right?
So how can you find those people, how do you meet those people? Because ideally they’re going to love your stuff, and give you feedback, or help you out in your next one. All of our films are like — our current sort of project, or our web series project you can actually — actually just got funding last week, so we’re kind of moving now from this totally no budget kind of model, to one where we are paying people. And it’s the same people we’ve been working with over the last two features, right? So it’s really awesome, but it’s a big step that has its own complications. Basically like we were able to make the last one for 4000, but as soon as you start paying people — you have to pay everybody, and there’s so many people involved with the film that it gets into — in our case like our budget for our 45 minute web series is going to be about 150,000.
And that’s just going to pay for labor and some basic things, right? So that’s a big step. Like that’s a big jump. It’s not like if you scrabble together 20 grand it’s going to make much of a difference. Like it’s just going to — I just sort of feel like people are better off just working — just sort of take as a given you’re not going to get any money for this, or you’re not going to get any money back for this. What kind of awesome movie can you make given those constraints, right? Because if you’re just thinking about oh, like we could pay — we start paying people, and we start thinking about production design and stuff like that.
Like I think more than anything else, like if we had more money at the beginning it wouldn’t have made any difference to the quality of the work, and I feel like it would have just kind of muddied the waters to a certain extent. Because we were able to kind of — to do something that was purely kind of on a volunteer passion level that really kind of allowed us all to kind of get better at what we are doing, and sort of improve our craft to the point where — but we’re like we — we’re sort of at this point where — you know, the guys I’m working with they want to do it — they’d like to do it full-time and quit their other jobs. And we had an opportunity to sort of connect with a funder and it worked out, but like I said, that’s after maybe seven years of doing — that’s after seven years of making feature films, and for me, another seven years of making shorts.
So all in all over a decade maybe 14 years of just like fucking around and trying to get better each iteration, rather than really being super concerned about all of the stuff that people are being super concerned with in the film industry like money, and stars, and big profile and all that kind of stuff. There’s still a real big kind of unfortunate — I actually feel like compared to my experiences, they’re fairly limited in the film community.
I found a lot more kind of common sensibilities in the web series community. Personally because people don’t — like web series don’t get really get any respect. So it doesn’t really your respect for people — it doesn’t really sort of like attract people that are interested in power. They just want to kind of make their web series, and get some new subscribers and that kind of stuff. They’re not really super power-hungry, or really concerned about appearances. So, I guess I kind of — I found them sort of more seem like, or kind of scrappy, or an Indie. More on a Indie — not like a $3 million, $10 million Indie, but like actual Indie, Indie. Kind of people that are trying to make something for nothing, and that kind of thing.
Yeah. Can you — speaking of that is another good segue. So, I think everybody that I’m talking to considers themselves independent, an independent filmmaker. And yet the people that I’m talking to are an incredibly wide spectrum of people. So can you just talk about what does independent mean now? What does that word mean in filmmaking?
Mhm. Yeah. I mean it has — yeah. I mean on one end of the spectrum it’s just like — it’s a marketing term that Indie’s cool, so let’s slap it on whatever has the FedEx kind of appearance of Indieness to kind of give it an extra edge in the market. And then on the other side you have people that are genuinely opposed to media consolidation, and are doing work to kind of counteract it on some level, or to kind of provide a model that is separate from that. Like they don’t want to be involved with corporate interests, and try to do that.
And yeah. And I think it’s like — it definitely — the thing is what’s interesting about it for me is someone who tilts towards the latter definition of Indie, is that while it’s not that difficult for me to say that well, I would never have a — I would never sort of negotiate with 20th Century Fox for any sort of partnership. Because of my history with to Rupert Murdoch in deciding to go independent from HarperCollins, and that’s my line in the sand. It’s like no Murdoch owned kind of companies, because he’s a right wing the bastard basically.
But, you know, I mean that’s fairly arbitrary. As lots of other extremely unpleasant people in the corporate sphere, and it’s definitely you can make an argument on its no better than the next. But the thing is is that for independence it’s really not that — for people who are making Indie movies the harder thing to avoid on a corporate interest level are the new corporate overlords, which are kind of like Twitter, and Google, and the appliances in which we interface, and who own our communities in one way or the other.
You know, I’ve just been saying like yeah, like build a community, build up your followers, build up your YouTube subscriptions, or whatever. Like that’s all — you know, it seems that they decide to change their terms of service they can do whatever the fuck they want with your users, you know? So really that’s a kind of more pernicious — to my mind more pernicious really even than the old big media is like the impact of these kind of these new — yeah, these new powers. Because they’re not — because their impact is yet to be assessed, and it’s hard to argue with free services, you know?
But really I think that all these companies — all these companies are going to be taken over by power-hungry pigs at some point, and they’re going to basically squeeze every last bit of value out of their massive user bases, right? So that’s going to happen. Its power tracking power. And how it happened in the old media is like how media consolidation kind of begets more of the same. So really, I mean I think that’s the same.
Like to me there is a certain efficacy with using the existing social sort of networks that exist, and that are provided by these corporations. But yeah. I mean that’s — it’s a lot easier to say fuck you to Rupert Murdoch than Google in my experience. So, yeah. So that’s — yeah. That’s kind of the new challenge is sort of figuring out how to divest ourselves, or not be totally beholden to these technological kind of industries.
Great. Couple of last quick questions. So, this is mainly for undergrads, although some grads will see it as well. Do you have just any words of advice for a film student right now going to film school? What should they be doing, what should they be looking at, that sort of thing?
Yeah. I mean I think they want to — I think if I were them at this age I would look at what really excites me and inspires me that I’m watching? And not try to make something that fits the mold of the future, or short, or film, or any of that kind of stuff. Like just look at the thing that’s really — and there’s probably going to be tons of stuff that is super inspiring.
And from that look even closer at the subset of things that are actually achievable with nothing. Like with the resources that you have at hand. And that might be your skill set, that might be the people you know, that might be the locations that you have access to, whatever the case is. Like it’s — you know, go for the left low hanging fruit of like awesome when it comes to the stuff that both inspires you and is both achievable. It’s dumb to not start with that kind of approach, and inevitably you will get more and more ambitious, you know? And want to do more interesting stuff that really pushes you, or challenges you in one way or the other.
But yeah. Just produce something that you’d love to see that isn’t being made and that you can make, and then just put it out there in as big of a way as possible. And that might be just something like making up business cards with the URL on them, so when you meet someone at a party you pass them anything, right? And then they check it out. I mean there’s — that’s how local networks are built. And I do believe in the strength of local networks regardless of international kind of millions of hits, or whatever the case is. Like if you can connect with people and audience locally that will enhance your kind of — you know, everything from your self-esteem, to the chance of getting honest feedback on things, to connecting with people that have skill sets, you know?
Like in our case sometimes we would — you know, the first film we made had terrible lighting. Like this WebCam sort of situation as lighting, you know? It’s terrible. But yeah. When we were making the second one people were like coming to us and in fact they said I do lighting, and actually putting our flaws out there, or putting out something flawed actually allowed us to connect with the people to make something better the next time. Whereas if we had just said well, you know until we meet these people we’re not going to — we can’t really put together a really good high quality product. Like we just never would have made it, right? You know, that was an essential part to sort of connecting with those people.
So, yeah. So, I mean basically do what you can do, get it out as big as you can get it out, and use the attention, or the connections that you’ve made as a result of that to make something more ambitious, or bigger, or more exciting to you the next time.
I’m Jim Munroe, a novelist who stopped publishing with HarperCollins to showcase and propagate indie culture alternatives to Rupert Murdoch-style consolidation. This site is a launching pad for the stuff I make, articles about how to make them, and a source of my two main food groups: inspiration and feedback.
Jim Munroe (b. 1972) is a “pop culture provocateur” according to the Austin Chronicle, and an “independent press icon” to Time Out Chicago. Primarily he is an indie culture maker in various mediums: post-Rapture graphic novels, lo-fi sci-fi feature movies, and award-winning text adventure videogames. He’s also helped found and run various arts organizations, notably the North American touring circuit The Perpetual Motion Roadshow and The Hand Eye Society, an incorporated videogame culture not-for-profit. He lives in Toronto’s historic Junction neighbourhood.
- Not so long ago there was a monolithic distribution model. People bought tickets to get into a theatre. Soon after television was an option, then cable, then streaming. How has experimental film followed or defied this model historically. How has experimental work always followed it’s own model?
Historically experimental film has always existed on the margins or outskirts of the traditional distribution model – this has a lot to do with the fact that several times in industry history there was a monopoly on exhibition which experimental work could never attain. As an “other” form it has found ways of working in the 1960s with the birth of co-ops (Filmmaker’s Co-Op in New York and Canyon Cinema in San Francisco for example) which were organized and run by artists based on a profit-sharing model ranging from 50/50 splits to 70/30 depending on the times and circumstances. In many ways experimental makers still market their own work, if they are not super well known or sought after they have to. Just as Jack Smith, the Kuchars, Jonas Mekas and others would put on or organize screenings of their own and other’s work the micro-cinema, pop-up or independent cinema still exists in a large way today as a kind of “experimental film underground” of sorts. This type of film is always cast off when considered for distribution in traditional channels. Even with Criterion commercial releases of Hollis Frampton, Les Blank and Stan Brakhage collections there is the economic bottom line. They have to sell a minimum of 5,000 copies to make the effort worth if financially speaking. In terms of distributing prints, this is a whole other animal – as well tended projectors are less common and most theater installments have given up film projectors for digital as a result of industry mandate a few years ago (the “go digital or go dark” threat) it is a constant challenge. In the wake of this industry shuffle film advocates are still fighting the good fight – Quentin Tarantino just took over a theater in LA that will only show celluloid – and will be installing a 16mm projector to widen the range of films that can be shown. This is, of course, an exception to the rule. But it can give us hope that venues will continue to exist to show lesser-known or non-mainstream works. There is still a growing interest in it, but access is the key here. A lot of older experimental work is not digitized, and if it is it might only be SD – which is in many people’s opinion sub-standard and might not be from the original materials but a very used print – this is all a compromise of the experience. Experimental film distribution has always been variously DIY, changing or adjusting the model as it saw fit when needed – seemingly in a much more organic fashion than mainstream cinema where many functions and departments are dependent on others. Perhaps this is one of the benefits, being able to take what it could feasibly use from the mainstream (a printed catalog or website for example to list what is available with run time, year, synopsis, cost and formats) and disregarding everything else (TV and print advertisement, corporate sponsorship, etc.).
- Could you talk about the path an experimental feature or short might take in distribution?
This is hard, because it is not always the same – especially moving on the spectrum from experimental to narrative to documentary, as we still have highly focused distributors with special market focuses: film festivals – though this is getting less and less, educational, broadcast, consumer and now the ever expanding multi-platform market online. I think it is more common for producers and makers to move a film through the festival circuit in hopes of finding a distributor at a more high profile festival/marketplace (as this is what festivals have largely become). A distributor proposes a split (60/40, 30/70, 50/50, etc.) or a series based on the different outlets/platforms – though I think even this is changing. Some ask for sole rights to certain territories which would limit your future possibilities with other outlets. An independent filmmaker should always remember no deal is better than a bad deal! It is becoming more common to have non-exclusive agreements, especially with online entities. If someone is asking for a lot of exclusivity it is likely not in your best interest. The distributor will tell you (or should tell you) what they will and will not do for you. Paid advertisement, cross-marketing, packaging your title with others, etc. Some will handle festival requests and see the rest of that life through, others will focus on their specialty market (online streaming, cable TV sales, commercial DVD release, etc.) but the exciting and scary thing is that all of the old distribution models are being shaken up by new ways to access media and film. We are in a permissive time where bigger chances are being taken – there is no real standard “release window” model now. If you are new media savvy and have built your own website, have gotten the word out about your work and have good momentum you have already done a lot of work for THEM! Now you can be as big of a part as you want in the process – sometimes to your detriment. Always be working on the next film, idea, etc. don’t put all your eggs in a film that is on the circuit – people interested in your completed work will want to know what is in the pipeline.
- Is there an existing experimental festival circuit?
There is though it is somewhat small by narrative or documentary festival standards. I think there are a lot of places that excel at showing experimental work that might not be as well known or “go to” as other places. Immediate fests that come to mind are Black Maria, Ann Arbor, Sundance, South by Southwest, Viennale, Berlinale, Toronto International Film Festival, FLEX fest, Chicago Underground Film Festival, Views from the Avant-Garde (now Projections in New York), San Francisco International Film Festival, Images, Crossroads (put on by San Francisco Cinematheque), Rotterdam, MIX NYC (queer), etc. Then there are festivals that were well known for experimental work that may not be so much anymore but are still totally worth checking out such as the Athens International Film & Video Festival (which happens to also be an Academy Award qualifying festival).
You can see a list of resources for venues, festivals, etc. at http://canyoncinema.com/clients/resources/
- What role do educational sales play, if any?
This depends highly on the work and to a certain extent the champions of it and/or audience – especially for experimental work. If it is canonized then there is certainly a demand in this market – though departmental budgets don’t always allow for the acquisition of them through this outlet in a timely fashion. Big markets are LGBT and documentary, less so I think for short narrative and general experimental work. Though it is a great way for critics and scholars to access the work for purposes of study. Anthology Film Archive will be unveiling a long-time project in the works essentialcinema.org later in the year that will make available streaming files of many films in its expansive collection, taking on one of the major challenges for experimental work specifically – that of access. They will also have PDF dowloads and reference copies of every Film Culture magazine, Canyon Cinema News and other important documents from experimental film history. Until recently “educational sales” kind of had the market cornered on the access piece of this question. But with the explosion of the internet and various streaming platforms there is seldom true “exclusivity” which was a blessing and a curse to experimental and documentary film for a long time. We are on the verge of a more open-access history and resource to this realm of cinema than ever before. Theoretically this won’t kill print rentals or traditional exhibition, as the online version of these films is meant for individual use, study and inquiry.
- What role do galleries, installations, and micro cinemas play?
An absolutely huge one, especially as unique venues that can show super-8 and 16mm prints. Many of these are informal or make-shift in their structure but in the past 2 years I’ve seen a nice explosion of micro cinemas in Portland, Austin, Atlanta, Tucson and other places in the US particularly. With less overhead and usually volunteer-based programming or this work as an extension of study or inquiry pooling resources from universities or the local community seems to work. Mia Fem in Portland got quite a nice Warhol Curatorial Grant last year that has enabled Cinema Project to put on themed screenings in lofts, on a boat and other places. In these times when arts funding is harder to come by we have to band together to produce events as a community. There are also established venues like Light Industry in Brooklyn that put on amazing shows from completely experimental to feature films. I’ve seen an increase in film presentations at galleries, I think this has a lot to do with the rise of cross-disciplinary discussion and interaction. Many experimental, documentary and narrative filmmakers also engage in still photography, painting, music – how can we highlight this crossover? Put up an interdisciplinary show! Curate painters and photographers that had an influence on this documentarian who exhibited a DIY style. I think the rarity of being able to see film projected in an audience has made people more hungry for the experience, and as a result we are now captives of our nostalgia and curiosity.
- What advice would you give to a student who wants to make experimental work re. getting it seen?
Keep making it, keep showing it. Take feedback seriously but don’t let it debilitate you. Some of the harshest criticism or feedback I’ve ever gotten has been some of the best advice for moving forward as an artist, image maker and thinker. Some films and work will stand the test of time and others won’t. Collaborate with others, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Put on a show with your friends – guerrilla style or in a legitimate gallery, just don’t get arrested. Make the work you want to see – don’t make work you think the medium demands. Don’t be afraid to put it online so people can see it. Even if you have a print for exhibition it won’t really hinder interest, and if it seems to then make it password protected until you feel good about putting it up for anyone to see. Get a Vimeo Pro account and build a simple website, you can DIY distribution until something good comes your way. Send your films to Ann Arbor, meet curators, visit archives, see experimental work!
Denah A. Johnston
Link to D. Johnston’s Vimeo page: https://vimeo.com/dajohnston
Website page for Publications and Curatorial Work: http://www.denahjohnston.com/publications–curatorial-work.html
D. Johnston’s newest publication (an essay on Benjamin Christensen’s Haxan) is in the Abraxas Journal Special Issue #2 on the Esoteric in Cinema: http://fulgur.co.uk/shop/abraxas/abraxas-luminous-screen/
- Can You please introduce yourself to the reader who might not know of you?
- As I said in our first email contact, I’m collecting a series of interviews with filmmakers who have taken varied paths toward distribution and marketing.
Your decision to use file sharing program Bit Torrent to distribute your animated feature, Sita Sings the Blues, has garnered a lot of attention. Can you talk about that decision? What were the factors that lead up to it?
My decision was to FREE SSTB, not “use file sharing program Bit Torrent to distribute your animated feature”. I knew that in freeing my work BitTorrents would probably be used to distribute it, but that’s not the point – I don’t personally use most of the distribution channels that get my work out into the world. The point of freeing my work is the audience distributes it for me. Distribution is simply not my problem any more. The audience does it faster, better, further and more effectively than I or any centralized distributor could.
- Could you share more about the ethics behind the file sharing movement?
- . What’s your experienced vantage point on film distribution today? Are makers themselves being asked to carry more of the financial burden? What does the word “independent” mean in relation to film today?
Attention is scarce. Information is not. It’s not your film that’s the precious resource, it’s the audience’s attention. Getting attention is every artist’s problem today, and there’s no magic way to solve it. Freeing my work removes a huge obstacle, but it’s no guarantee of attention. It’s just one step.
- Although more film students are now shooting features, most graduate and undergraduate work in still made in short format. Much of your own work has been shorts, including the well-celebrated Minute Memes. How is distribution and marketing different for shorts?
Distribution and marketing is the same for everything I do: Free it, share it, and let the audience do the rest, if they so choose. Since a feature requires so much more time and work than a short I will put more time and work into promoting my next feature, when it’s done in a few years. But for me the principles are the same. Again, see http://questioncopyright.org/how_to_free_your_work
- Is there any advice you have for film students today?
Well I dropped out of college. And I stopped teaching college because I found most students were more interested in grades than the work itself, which I found kind of depressing. All I care about is the work. That’s all audiences really care about, too.
More on Nina Paley’s work can be found on her blog: