A few weeks ago, legendary indie producer Ted Hope (21 Grams, American Splendor, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and 50 other movies) spoke at the Athena Film Festival as part of their “From Script to Screen, Producing Films in Tough Times” panel. He was the token male amongst the solid producing presence of Lisa Cortes (Precious), Susan Cartsonis (No Reservations), Nekisa Cooper (Pariah), and Mary Jane Skalski (Win Win).
With considerable experience working outside the studio world, they offered advice and encouragement, and Hope was nice enough to spread it to the world at large through his twitter feed. He was unavailable to clear up who should be credited for which piece of advice, but it’s a safe bet to assume that the panel agreed on these points at-large.
Not only are they essential for aspiring filmmakers, they also provide a window into the world for movie fans. No matter what side of the screen you’re on, there’s something here for everyone.
- Set the agenda.
- Beware of their unexpressed agenda.
- Use passion to open doors.
- Find your community and activate.
- Create tools now for use later.
- Be honest in your communication.
- Walk on a tightrope with conviction.
- Be strategic.
- Don’t ask for permission.
- Embrace the fullest definition of cinema.
- Help people envision themselves as a force of change.
- Know the someone you make the movie for.
- Find a way or make one.
- Let the audience ripple wider.
- Create atmosphere of inevitability.
- Must have great intention.
- Be authentic to yourself.
- Be distinct in the marketplace.
- Make sure you have friends to support you emotionally.
- Look beyond the feature film form.
- Support each other.
- Do your research.
- Build a coalition.
- Establish your brand (what makes you unique).
The majority of these are self-explanatory and fall into the new paradigm of how movies can be made in a world where cameras are more accessible and the rules are softening as a direct result of the usual formulas failing. Most of all, they focus on 1) creating a plan and 2) sticking to it despite the hurdles that get flung into the road. Even though the opportunities for independent filmmakers are growing, it’s still going to take some bravery to push boundaries and emerge on the other side with an audience and a few hairs left not pulled out.
One of the only nebulous tips is #15, and I can’t speak to what the panel meant by it, but it has a very direct meaning to me. When I made the jump from production assistant to production coordinator, I learned a powerful lesson about the word “Yes.” As a PA, it was the only response acceptable. Can I grab a few coffees for the gaffers who’ve been working all day? Yes. Can I head to the hardware store and get 8×3/4 inch sheet metal screws? Sure thing. Can I drive to a city 70 miles away to pick up some dormant butterflies? No problem!
That response came mostly out of the fear of being so easily replaced (and in wanting to do such a damned good job that they’d have no choice but to suggest me to the next producer). When I moved up the ladder exactly one notch, a producer friend explained why “creating an atmosphere of inevitability” was important for the entire production. It’s all about pushing to become better and to create a better product. If you say you’ll be able to pull off the impossible, you oftentimes end up pulling off the impossible. Most of the time someone else (like the director) is in charge of defining what impossible things the production will need, and it’s everyone’s job to smile, act with conviction, and confidently say, “Yes,” when asked if they can move the mountain in order to get it out of the shot. Commit to doing something, and then find a way to do it.
Start saying, “No,” and you’ll end up compromising on a lot more than you should. The result will be average and uninteresting. The level of the challenge shows up in the final product. Consistently say, “Yes,” and there will be a few things you fall short on, but you’ll end up doing a lot more than you thought you were capable of when you set out.
Perhaps the most important pieces of advice from this panel are #4, #11, #14, #21 and #23 because they all involve community. It’s no shock that this has become the bedrock element that affects fans and filmmakers alike. Studios pay massive money to tap into social networks, independent filmmakers like Ed Burns sustain an audience through them, and fans find diamonds in the rough because of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and GetGlue. Perhaps that’s why Hope chose to share this information the way he did in the first place.