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January 31, 2006

Thoughts On Self Distribution, pt. 2

Shortly after writing my first Essay On Self-Distribution earlier this month, a minor explosion of tertial news hit the fan. I Am A Sex Addict was picked up by IFC. Withoutabox revealed their new self-distribution intiative, with Four Eyed Monsters announced as their initial project. At Sundance, Cinematical held a video roundtable entitled Podcasting And The Right To Free Expression, in which Monsters co-director Susan Buice talked about all the different formats the film would be released on. When asked about whether she thought that theatrical might be an option, she said that "where we have hot spots, we could fill a theater with at least 300 people." Meanwhile, over at Spout, Paul Moore returns from Park City and considers all the new methods of distribution at hand and concludes with: "Big inhale. Big exhale."

Looking back on my essay, I had the desire to ratify it slightly with the recommendation that every single point be taken with a grain of salt, simply because everything is changing so fast (Bubble was just released this weekend, and even with a gross of only $70,000, it was declared a success for the day-and-date-model). More than that, however, I was torn between being inspired by my own rhetoric and feeling that such rhetoric was too idealistic. I wasn't even sure that I wanted to live up to the near-dogmatic standard I'd set in the piece (especially since I was, at the time, rewriting a screenplay for a Western piece I very much want to make but could never finance on my own, much less distribute). Thus, I decided to I should write:

A Few Thoughts On Self-Distribution, Pt. 2

But rather than expand at even greater length upon the issue myself, however, I though I'd try to get in touch with some of the filmmakers I cited in the original text and see if they had any thoughts on the matter.

The first person I contacted was Andrew Bujalksi...

bujalski.jpgBUJALSKI: Honestly I'm probably a bad person to ask because I happen to be attached to things like theatrical exhibition, 35mm projection, etc etc, these dinosaurs which are sure to sink the financial viability of a small film. I'm attached to these things because they are how I like to experience films myself. If financial sustainability were the first priority, I'm sure we'd do it differently. As for the Funny Ha Ha release, we certainly could not have done it without an absurdly supportive and patient private investor...
It's also quite a lot of work/headaches/etc, I'd certainly have preferred to have spent much more of 2005 on writing something new, and/or just sitting around...

I also wrote an e-mail to Possible Films, Hal Hartley's company, which I had cited as a primary example of independent distribution in my piece. I sent a copy of the essay, and asked if my understanding of the company was in fact correct. Hartley's associate, Kyle Gilman (not pictured below), wrote back:

hartley.jpg GILMAN: That's not exactly accurate. We took that route with The Girl From Monday when it became clear that it was the only way to make the movie. But our new movie Fay Grim is financed by HDNET Films and will be released by Magnolia simultaneously in theaters, DVD, and on the HDNET television channel. Rejecting the possibility of outside financing would seriously hamper Hal's ability to make films. Sometimes a film is just too big to make yourself.

I tried to get in touch with Greg Pak, to no avail (I've got an interview with him in my old archives that I'll have to dig up).

But I did get through to Caveh Zahedi. Now, only a few hours after our first exchange, the new issue of Filmmaker appeared online - including Andrew Bujalski's terrific interview with Caveh, as well as Caveh's excellent Self-Distribution Manifesto, in which many of the questions I was going to ask were pre-emptively answered. I told Caveh I could just link to that piece instead, but he graciously went ahead and responded to my queries anyway.

caveh.jpg LOWERY: So the news just broke that IFC is going to be releasing I Am A Sex Addict, which is your first major distribution deal; does this come as a relief to you? Is it nice to have the weight taken off your shoulders as far as distribution goes? And how much input will you have in the marketing and release of the picture?
ZAHEDI: I felt very ambivalent about the IFC deal at first. I had put so much work into self-distribution, and there was something so fun and empowering about just doing it myself, that I experienced the IFC offer as taking he wind out of my sails. I was also angry enough at the various distribution companies for passing on the film (and not just passing on it, but being typically arrogant and rude and demeaning in their mode of passing on it), that I had my heart set on proving them wrong - on showing them that I could make a fortune doing it myself, a fortune which they could have shared in if they hadn't been so short-sighted. But after talking with the IFC folks who turned out to be intelligent, straightforward, and humane, I realized I needed to get off my high horse and work with them. Since making that decision, it has definitely been a weight taken off my shoulders.
And yes, IFC has promised me input in the marketing and release of the picture.
Sex Addict made a few lists of 'Top 10 Undistributed Films' last year. Were you actively seeking distribution throughout the film's festival run, or were you always planning on handling it yourself until IFC came knocking?
I was actively seeking distribution throughout the film's festival run, although I left that mostly up to my sales agent.
I remember reading an interview with you at BraintrustDV in which you shuddered at the notion of the interviewer watching your film on a laptop at a Starbucks via VOD and GreenCine. Clearly, and naturally, you care about the presentation of your work; but how important to you is theatrical exhibition? Of course, if I understand correctly, Sex Addict will be released simultaneously in theaters and on DVD, and this seems to be an ideal distribution model for smaller films that may not achieve a wide theatrical release.
Actually, Sex Addict will be released simultaneously in theaters and through video-on-demand. The DVD of Sex Addict won't be available until 3 to 4 months later.
Theatrical exhibition is important to me, especially as the film is a comedy and derives its maximum enjoyment from being watched in a movie theater with other people, but I'm fully aware that the vast majority of people who see the film will watch it on DVD, and I'm okay with that.
Time for a bit of conjecture. Do you think this release will facilitate the production and distribution of future films - and if, say, you don't receive a major distribution deal for your next picture, do you think the exposure you've received (and will be receiving) from Sex Addict might make self-distribution a viable option for you in the future, both commercially and artistically?
Yes. It is already strikingly clear to me that this distribution deal has made my next picture much easier to finance, and that even if that film doesn't get picked up for distribution and I end up having to distribute it myself, the wider promotion offered by IFC can only help with that.
Any word on a release date yet?
The film opens in April.

Meanwhile, over at the Filmmaker blog, Scott Macaulay posted an additional follow-up to Caveh's Manifesto. He takes Caveh to task ever so slightly after "running such a passionate 'call to arms' from a filmmaker who has just saved himself months of licking envelopes and sticking screeners into FedEx packages," but then finds that the response is hard to argue with.

I can't argue with it much, myself, even though the conflict Macaulay finds there is what inspired me to revisit this issue again in the first place.

* * *

Between these three responses I received and the various other interviews and comments circling around the web, a more refined image of that ideal I'd so enthusiastically espoused began to form in my head.

Conclusions can be dangerous things, and thus I have none for this extended series of footnotes - except to quote something Joe wrote in the comments of my intial essay:

"My end goal is to be self sustaining and autonomous. That would be my ultimate measure of success."

To which I'll make one simple addendum:

"Do whatever you feel is right for your film."

And now, if you'll excuse me, I've a bit more work to do on that Western screenplay.

Posted by David Lowery at 12:17 AM | Comments (6)

January 30, 2006

Wiley Wiggins links to a torrent file of Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Even Statues Die), a short film directed by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. It doesn't have subtitles, but it's not too difficult to follow on a purely visual level. It's a pretty powerful piece of work - and the sense of montage, as one might expect from Marker and Resnais, is outstanding.

* * *

For a brief moment this afternoon, I felt absolutely compelled to bid on this, even though there are about 4 things in the 1500 dollar range that I need far more than than a 16mm camera package - not to mention the fact that, as always, I have no money.

Related: Nick Rombes' brief reactions to Mutual Appreciation.

Posted by David Lowery at 2:43 PM

Show me a weekend where I have a lot of work to do and I'll show you two days of putting that work off to watch movies, followed by my getting food poisoning on the the Sunday I've allotted to cram in all the vitally important things I've been putting off.

The movies were all very good, however. They were: Michael Haneke's Cache, the contemplation of which since seeing it has been a rich and satisfying experience; Tsai Ming Liang's The Wayward Cloud, which...; Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times, which was all the more impenetrable because we watched it on DVD, and every peripheral distraction seemed to deprive us of some valuable detail; Soderbergh's Bubble (at the theater), which is proof that a minor work can be a very good thing; and Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures, which I'd actually never seen. Brad kindly sent a copy of it to me last week, and as I sat this evening swathed in blankets, trepidatiously trying to rehydrate and allocating enough wherewithal to get a bit of screenwriting done, watching it seemed like an extremely good idea.

All of these films deserve to be (and at other blogs have been) written about in much greater detail, but I'll have to hold off on a closer look at any of them until after I've finished another post I was supposed to have up by this weekend (to coincide with the release of the Soderbergh film, actually). That should be up tomorrow. Tomorrow, tomorrow...

You know, as much as I might love my classes, I've never quite outgrown the Calvinistic joys of staying home sick from school.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:55 AM | Comments (3)

January 27, 2006

Here's my review of a film which will be opening in Australia on March 9th.

Posted by David Lowery at 2:43 PM | Comments (2)

January 26, 2006

Yet another winter cold has slipped past my normally resilient immune system, making it a strain to accomplish anything but the essentials these past few days. Half-finished reviews of films are, perhaps unfortunately, not included in my list of requisite tasks.

Very much worth noting, however, is Robert Cumbow's articulate and invaluable essay on Birth at 24 Lies A Second. It's the first piece of really serious literature I've seen on the film, and I certainly hope it won't be the last; in fact, it reads like the introduction to an as-yet nonexistant edition of BFI Modern Classics (and Birth most certainly is a modern classic if ever there was one); perhaps Robert might be convinced to expand this essay into a longer monograph at some point?

Regardless, I'm proud to have played a part in this work's inception - and, if such should be the case, to have any role in spurring other viewers to see Glazer's film (which, incidentally, places second in the chronological triumvirate of best cinematic uses of Wagner) for the first time. It's a film that deserves to be seen, and to be celebrated.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:46 AM | Comments (11)

January 23, 2006

newworld1.jpg

I was going to wait until I had finished my review to write anything more about The New World, but why waste the moment? It ties with itself as the best film in recent memory. And the last ten minutes comprise what must be one of the most beautiful sequences ever cut together; perhaps it was some emphasis hidden earlier within this new edit, building subliminally to that final crescendo, that left me so devestated this time at the final cut to black (and I should mention that I think it is such a structurally sound sequence that it would have an equally powerful - albeit different - effect without the reprise of the Vorspiel to Wagner’s Das Rheingold; a theory I'll certainly be testing when I have it on DVD and am studying each cut and the space between them).

A few other friends and acquaintances also saw the new version this weekend: Brad (for the first time), James (for the third time) and, again, Matt Zoller Seitz, who promises yet further examination of the film today or tomorrow. I should be following suit.

In the meantime, allow me to offer a recipe for the best drink ever:

  1. Water (warm)
  2. Raw Cacao (ground)
  3. French Press

I've been without coffee for exactly a month and a day. I was getting desperate, about ready to break down, until I made this.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:23 AM | Comments (10)

January 20, 2006

As of this writing, Caveh Zahedi's website states that anyone who is "interested in screening I Am a Sex Addict, or helping to set up a screening" is welcome to contact Caveh and, presumably, set up said screening. I was going to do just this later in the spring, after SXSW - partially to support Caveh's self distribution effort, but mostly, selfishly, because I am so incredibly desperate to see his film.

But now the work will be done for me: Sujewa e-mailed me this afternoon to let me know that IFC has picked up the film and will be releasing it this spring. Between this and the aforementioned news about Drawing Restraint 9, is it safe to say that IFC in 2006 is what Lions Gate was in 2003? Except better?

* * *

If you're in the DFW area this weekend, don't miss the Theater Fire performance at the Sound Picture installation on Saturday. If it's as good as the program description, we should be in for an outstanding hour of multimedia.

Neither should you miss The New World, which finally opens wide today. Once I see it again, I'll be writing about it at length; and about Tristram Shandy as well, although whether I have those pieces done in a timely fashion is up in the air. I've a few revisions to do on the script from which this blog's name is derived (one of the names, at least); and I'm twenty pages into a new screenplay as well, one which I'm afraid to let sit for too long. Regarding this latter project, which I impetuously jumped into the other day: it's refreshing to write a film for someone else, while still maintaining complete creative carte blanche (at least for the first draft). In other words - it's nice to be trusted.

Posted by David Lowery at 2:36 AM | Comments (5)

January 18, 2006

I saw Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy this morning, but I'll get to that in a moment.

Right on schedule, Joe has put up the new site for LOL. Even better than that, however, is the beautiful new trailer, edited by Kevin Bewersdorf. It accomplishes the rare feat of completely capturing the essence of the film without giving a single detail away (the backbone of the clip is one of my favorite sequences from the film, but it's been recontextualized in such a way that I almost didn't recognize it). Kevin's score for the film is also gradually being released on the website (only one track is up so far, but the rest are coming soon). I can't wait to get the piece that plays during the title sequence. Also in the realm of free music - Brad just released a new EP on his online label from an Argentinian artist named Pablo Cepeda. It's of the viola-and-drum-machine variety, and it's very much worth a download (particularly the first track), especially if - wait! A Variety article has at this very moment appeared before my eyes; almost a year after it was first semi-announced, Paul Thomas Anderson is finally making a new film. The project, of course, There Will Be Blood, a loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair's novel Oil. And he's making it in Texas (at least partially)! In other industry-related news, I'm pleased to hear that Matthew Barney's new film, Drawing Restraint 9, won't be as hard to see as The Cremaster Cycle: IFC will be releasing it in the spring. Moving right along (I watched The Muppet Movie last night, and incidentally, or perhaps not, Elliot Gould rules), we're waiting on our one-light. The reason we're waiting is that, considering the discount we're getting on everything at the lab, we're sorta low priority. End of the week is what I'm thinking. In the meantime, I'm headed back to the university tomorrow morning (adding psychology and philosophy to the already established core of history and literature), for what will probably be the last term of this brief return to the academic life. As late as last week, I was deciding whether or not I should end my tenure in Dallas now or hold off until the summer; dear prudence suggested I should wait, and so here I am, staying up way too late on a school night. As always. Four hours of sleep, here I come.

So speaking of Tristram Shandy...

Posted by David Lowery at 1:25 AM | Comments (9)

January 16, 2006

Zach Campbell's post entitled Circumnavigating Cinema is the best thing I've read lately.

(Bela Tarr's) Sátántangó, an unusual case, is important because those who have seen it, those who love it, and those who want desperately to see it are conjoined in a dialogue with each other--if this resolute, deliberate film (a film unlike just any other) is simply transferred to discs so that anyone can see it at any time and in any (video) way they wish, then Tarr's film becomes culturally irrelevant as an event.

I'm of the 'desparate to see it' category in regards to this particular film, but nonetheless I can completely sympathize with Zach's sentiments; they're echoed, for instance, in my feelings towards Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle, in which case the circumstances under which the five films were produced prohibits a DVD release entirely. Frustrating as that may be for those who didn't get to see it during its theatrical run, this unavailability keeps the work vital - as do the occasional screenings of the films, of course. A balance certainly must be struck.

One such balance is the topic of an enduring disagreement between Matt and myself (and one I've been planning to use as a platform for another post for quite some time), concerning David Lynch's refusal to put chapters on his DVDs - a decision which confounds Matt but which I cherish. Lynch is doing what he can to retain the mystique and intent of his medium even while making a concession to media (concession might be too strong a word in this day and age, especially, in this case, when one considers the personal care Lynch puts into transfers and encoding, but you get my point). It's a move not at all unlike the restricted availability of Tarr and Barney's films, and one that's ultimately (if not immediately) beneficial to cinephilia.

Unlike Zach, I don't entirely feel that the translation of cinema into multiple, convenient formats results in "commercial hegemony" (and I doubt he explicitly feels that way, either); I've benefitted too much from DVD and Netflix to say so without being a hypocrite. Nonetheless, when a filmmaker remains staunch in their cinematic values, I applaud (while simultaneously counting my pocket change and considering the price of a plane ticket to New York and that beautiful MoMA screening room).

Ancillary to this discussion would be the emergence of rare bootlegs, DVD crack codes and all the underground media born out of unavailability. This is something I cherish as well - the spirit of it, at least. The actual practice is a bit of a grey area; there's a perceptible difference, for example, between illegal-art.org making Todd Haynes' Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story available and someone putting third-generation VHS copies of The Cremaster Cycle up on eBay (where they do, from time to time, show up ) but, just as Zach wouldn't blame a desparate filmgoer for watching Sátántangó on DVD (I wouldn't, for the record), I certainly couldn't hold the purchase of some hard-to-find bootleg against a desperate filmgoer (I would buy Superstar).

Posted by David Lowery at 1:58 AM | Comments (17)

January 15, 2006

Time for a quick book review.

northfork.jpg
"Implicit in any kind of independence from a status quo is sacrifice. To make a real independent film where the filmmaker is in charge creatively, one must sacrifice personal, financial, and physical well-being. Therefore, we name our book The Declaration Of Independent Filmmaking, inspired by the sacrifices of the mand and families who gave their lives for a society in which something purely creative like independent filmmaking can exist."

That quote is from the preface to Mark and Michael Polish's new book, The Declaration Of Independent Filmmaking, a text which I dearly wish I'd had on my hands back when I was 13. Back then, the bible for kids like me was Robert Rodriguez's Rebel Without A Crew, which was certainly inspiring but, in hindsight, not very helpful (and I think - fear- that it may have given rise to a generation of sloppy filmmakers who never looked further than its pages for education).

The Polish brothers state that this is the book they wish they had when they first decided they wanted to make films. Indeed, it's as thourough as can be, covering the basics of everything from screenwriting to cinematography to production design to distribution (I was glad to see that the importance of good sound is emphasized heavily throughout). The chapter on the actual directorial process should prove invaluable, especially to neophyte directors; lack of time and the need for creative compromise, and the absolute importance of a strong vision by which to deal with such problems, are issues any filmmaker will inevitably find themselves dealing with (and not just on first films), but it's helpful to be aware of them going in.

What distinguishes this from other books on the independent filmmaking process is that it's not simply a rehash of technical information; there's a great deal of idealogy involved. This is a book by filmmakers who believe in the persistence of personal vision, and it is encouraging and emboldening to hear them justify their independent means with their passion (particularly in the case of Northfork, a two million dollar picture with a name cast that they essentially paid for with personal credit cards). They never cease to infer that making films, especially independently, is a very difficult process; but they never suggest that it isn't worth it.

* * *

One more quote from the book:

"...we started to see this a lot while on the Northfork press tour. Young filmmakers were handing us their short films and features on DVD. Most had decent packaging with their contact information. Done right, an attractive package can get someone to watch your film who otherwise wouldn't."

Back when I met the brothers in 2003 and gave them a copy of Still, the first thing they said was "wow, that's great packaging!"

If only the film inside could have lived up to it...

Posted by David Lowery at 5:55 PM | Comments (4)

January 13, 2006

James and I dropped the Outlaw Son footage off at the lab on our way out to Austin yesterday morning. It's gone through it's chemical bath by now.

outlawson_production10.jpg

Behind-the-scenes material was not a priority on this film, but our friend Marc shot about fifteen minutes of footage one ice cold night during the production. It can be viewed here (Quicktime 7 is required, etc). As I wrote on the MySpace page, where this link has been up for a while, "It's not much, and it's not eventful, but if you like quiet, contemplative wallflower-style documentary material, this will be at least partially your cup of tea."

* * *

I received an e-mail this morning from a critic whom I met in Berlin last year, in which he made a positive comparison between Some Analog Lines and Guy Maddin's work, and also validated my own preference for the longer cut of 48 Ribs. It was a good way to wake up.

Posted by David Lowery at 3:38 PM | Comments (7)

January 11, 2006

Isn't it weird when you're chopping vegetables and you cut yourself but don't realize it until there's blood all over the cutting board, and then you can't find where the mystery laceration is, so you just keep slicing and bleeding away, thereby siginificantly increasing the iron content of your meal?

Meanwhile, I've learned that one of the effects of one's body acclimating itself to eating raw is mood swings. It's nice to be able to attribute them to something for once.

Posted by David Lowery at 10:57 PM | Comments (8)

Last week, a novel idea was semi-seriously proposed over at Girish's: a coordinated, cross-blogsophere dissertation on Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls. And so here I am, an hours and forty five minutes into the film, and I feel like having a drink.

* * *

And now it's over. I'd seen the film once before, over at a friend's house a year or so ago. I did have a drink then - quite a few, in fact. The 10th Anniversary DVD had just been released and, capitalizing on the film's burgeoning camp value, came packaged with a drinking game that sounded like the makings of a marvelous evening. Libations were procured, the film was turned on, and I had a hell of a lot fun. Showgirls was indeed gloriously, hilariously awful. I loved it.

Thanks to Girish, however, I now know there's a growing contingent which considers Showgirls a smart, subversive, postmodern riff on All About Eve (as opposed to the sleazy rip-off of All About Eve it was initially labeled as). I had my doubts, but allowing the possibility that my mental state might have prevented a deeper understanding of the film, I sat down this evening with an open and uninebriated mind. An hour and forty five minutes in, I knew I wouldn't be joining the film's supporters. I tried. Honestly, I did.

The picture is still pretty enjoyable as camp, but I can't take it seriously because I don't think Verheoven did. At times he seems fully aware of the potential in Joe Eszterhas' typically puerile script for a bit of arch, satiric opulence, but it's a potential he's constantly betraying. His incompetently mixed messages are most evident in the way he directs his two leading ladies: Gina Gershon in clearly in on the joke, but Elizabeth Berkeley is deadly serious, almost as if she's convinced that she's making an important picture (behind-the-scenes interviews don't do much to dissuade this). I think she's actually a good actress - her scene was the best part of Roger Dodger - but Verhoeven seems to have done her a pretty grievous disservice by not telling her that she doesn't need to be; perhaps he was too enchanted with her to do otherwise? Whatever the case, Berkeley's sincere delivery of terrible dialogue veers sharply into the realm of unintentional hilarity and completely undermines the film's satiric potential.

Because the film is so all over the place, tonally, Verhoeven is unable to abate the uglier side of the script. The nudity is all fine and good, but beyond that, this is a gratuitously misogynistic picture, and it's not too hard to pinpoint Eszterhas as the root of the problem (just look at some of his other work); even worse, his treatment of the film's two African American characters reeks of racial condescension. There's a fine line between enjoyable exploitation and bad taste, but I don't think Eszterhas has a clue where it is. I'll give a bit more credit to Verhoeven; I do think he is a smart filmmaker (Starship Troopers, for what it's worth, is pretty subversive), and it's too easy to suggest that he might have been too distracted by all the T&A on the set. Maybe he just wanted to make a bad movie.

I'm sure these same criticisms have been leveled against the film many times over the past decade. For fear of redundancy (and an admittedly dismissive attitude towards the film), I toyed with the idea of a more playful response; a running commentary of a second round of that drinking game, perhaps. Or a handful of anecdotes, such as the one in which I first marveled at the ads for the film (and that oh-so-exquisite expanse of feminine gams depicted therein) on the side of a bus while I was waiting for my parents to pick me up from school. Or a detailed account of seeing Gina Gershon in a thrift store two weeks ago. But because there are those who genuinely appreciate the film on a more intellectual level - and because, as I'm suddenly becoming aware, I respect and generally share the opinions of many of them - I thought it would only be appropriate to give Showgirls a fair shake and soberly come to the conclusion that the film works best as somewhat-divine trash.

This is a level I'm perfectly willing to enjoy it on, with a few caveats and in moderation; nonetheless, I'm looking forward to reading all the other opinions, dissenting or otherwise, that'll be popping up this morning. And subsequently, if anyone ever wants to come play the Official Drinking Game with me, do feel free to let me know.

Posted by David Lowery at 7:00 AM | Comments (9)

January 10, 2006

fake.jpg

I love elaborately staged hoaxes. Partically because they always come undone. It's like discovering the secret to an elaborate magic trick that you didn't know was being performed, or watching a little bit of accepted reality disintegrate before your eyes. I'm also greatly intrigued by the notion of amorphous identities, particularly those having to do with gender and sexuality (a la Persona).

Both of these interests have been indulged lately by one particularly unbelievable story. Back in October, Yen turned me on to the New York Magazine article that first extensively questioned author J.T. LeRoy's identity. Last week, Greg Allen pointed to Laura Barton's piece in the Guardian, which delved further into the bizarre affair. And yesterday, the whole veil grew substantially more diaphanous with this somewhat conclusive New York Times article. The final piece at the center of this spiral mystery is still missing, but most of the clues in its orbit seem to have been revealed.

I've never read any of LeRoy's work - the closest I've come is watching Asia Argento's adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things at SXSW (before which producer Lily Bright read an extremely long letter LeRoy wrote to the audience) and, many years ago, reading an interview he did with John Waters in Filmmaker and being extremely jealous that someone only two months older than me had achieved such literary success. Oh, and then there was the recorded discussion between him and Jonathan Caouette on the Criterion DVD of My Own Private Idaho. I recall that my reaction to his voice was something between disbelief and fascination; I could scarcely believe that it was a young man I was listening to, but managed to convince myself that, indeed, it was: a mental leap made by many, disputed by the authors of the articles above, and now come almost entirely undone.

Especially intriguing are the potential repercussions of this rift. This is something more emotionally troubling than, say, the whole Stephen Glass fiasco, and it raises serious questions about artistic integrity. If people connected on a personal level with LeRoy's fiction - and apparently they did - does that validate the deceit? Judging by LeRoy's own statements, he/she would say yes. I'd disagree; an understood trust between artist and audience has been violated. And, while I can't quantifiably comment on the work itself, it seems to me that it has, on a vital level, been robbed of whatever inherent qualities it might once have had; it has been rendered a series of curios, bits and pieces of hucksterism.

At the same time, one really must admire the lurid art of the fabrication itself. It's a staggering thing, and it share some of the same mind-bogglingly extensive qualities as the (equally mysterious) parody of the Esoteric Rabbit blog, which Matt finally wrote about the other day (posting as well my initial correspondence with him on the matter - in which it's a little clear that I was slightly jealous of the attention). If you read the comments at his post, you'll see that some people are already positing that Matt created the doppleganger himself. I've plenty of reasons to believe this isn't true, but of course I don't know for sure; if it were, it would be both an odd and concerning display of ego and a really fascinating work of self reflexivity, one with a confounding appeal of even greater similarity to J.T. Leroy's.

Regardless of whether this cause celebre persona is entirely or only somewhat fake, his multilayered degrees of artifice forces a rapid reconception of what one perceives to be true. It's equivocal to those magicians who shake your hand, hand you a balloon and then point out that your wristwratch is inside it; there's something incredibly thrilling and satisfying about being taken advantage of in that manner - provided you get your watch back.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:15 AM | Comments (3)

January 8, 2006

Matt Zoller Seitz has written the best review (plus some) of The New World I've read yet. I'm glad I wasn't the only one thinking about Resnais while watching it.

* * *

Kat's film got into SXSW! Between that, the world premiere of a new Altman picture and the first public screening of a great film I've already seen (but which hasn't been announced as part of the lineup yet), it's pretty much a guarantee I'll be ponying up for a badge this year, even if Some Analog Lines isn't selected.

* * *

I've been trying to clean up two old screenplays this weekend, prior to sending them out to some folks and then getting started on the new one. About all I've managed to accomplish is chopping twelve pages out of one of them; I can't remember the last time I've procrastinated this much. I either need a typewriter or the courage to yank the ethernet cable out of the back of this comptoir.

Posted by David Lowery at 9:37 PM | Comments (5)

January 6, 2006

Thoughts On Self Distribution, Pt. 1

We were driving down the street the other night and I saw poster for some online music company with Aimee Mann's face on it. The text said "Writing Music From The Heart. Even When It's Broken." It was cute, but I liked it, and one thought lead to another, as thoughts tend to do, and I started to think about how nice it would be to make films the way folk singers make songs.

* * *

The holy grail of independent filmmaking was, and generally still is, an acquisition deal, a theatrical release, and a subsequent industry-financed career. In some cases, that initial independence was a means to an inverse end; more commonly, though, that same end was (and is) a mean unto itself, a manner of making a living off one's chosen art form in the most practical way possible. This category would include most of the current indie wunderkinds (the two Andersons, Aronofsky, etc). The practicality of their circumstance, of course, is mitigated by the relative infrequency of such success stories; but nonetheless, those stories are the ideal for many aspiring (and, indeed, practicing) independent filmmakers.

Let's consider, however, the sum of the following:

  1. The very rarity of those cases.
  2. The fact that, when they do occur, the balance of capitalism and artistic freedom renders the studio system a very wealthy middleman.
  3. The possibility that the studio system is indeed crumbling [1] under the weight of its own hegemonic inflexibility and hubristic marginalization of product - its “death spiral,” as Edward Jay Epstein put it. [2]

That last factor may be a bit hyperbolic; Hollywood, being the capital driven machine it is, will more than likely maintain its hold on the entertainment industry; even as it evolves, its goals will remain the same. [3] Still, between digital pipelines, day-and-date DVD and theatrical releasing, etc, it is hard to deny that a paradigm shift is at hand; and it might be a good time for independent filmmakers to consider whether or not that lofty ideal of yore need endure. In other words, should filmmakers be afraid of self-distribution?

At this point, it's perfectly natural to say yes; hey, the idea scares me, too. [4] Furthermore, it implies an automatic financial cap, since private equity will only very rarely carry a budget past the one million dollar range, at the very best (at least for an unknown artist); if you’re a filmmaker who can’t imagine making a film for less than five million, then you better go back to vying for the attention of the studios. For those who are comfortable (or excited by) working with relatively minimal means, on the other hand, encouragement can be found in two recent hybrid examples. Andrew Bujalski successfully self-distributed his film Funny Ha Ha [5] on 35mm this past summer, before releasing it on DVD through Wellspring. Likewise, Greg Pak released Robot Stories around the country over the course of two years; the film is now on DVD from Kino.

It seems increasingly clear to me that, misgivings be damned, it isn't necessary at all to preclude the financial impossibility of extensive self-distribution, nor to limit such distribution to the internet and/or DVD. For a scale model, one simply needs to look at the record industry. The internet is, of course, shaking things up a great deal; but beyond that, artists have been realizing they don't necessarily need major label deals to make a living off their music. In his article 'The New US Indie Film Frontier: DIY Distribution,' filmmaker Sujewa Ekanayake writes that "in the indie rock world, disciplined and committed bands make a living through touring and performing their work and through selling their songs on CDs and other formats." Citing self-sustaining artists like Fugazi as examples, Ekanayake goes on to surmise that the same model is most likely applicable to an independent filmmaker. [6]

What makes his perspective unique - and especially appealing to a romantic big screen aficionado like myself - is that it is based around the old fashioned ideal of theatrical exhibition, followed by (or perhaps concurrent with) DVD distribution. This is roughly the equivalent, in the recording industry, of having an album on store shelves and performances in live venues (whereas VOD might be considered tantamount to mP3 downloads from an artist's site - an equally viable means of distribution, by all means, but it’s important to remember that distribution shouldn’t begin and/or end with the internet). [7]

There is one factor that is of utmost importance to any unknown artist in any medium: building an audience. It is here that the internet is invaluable. For filmmakers, who don't have the luxury of being able to go out and play a show the way musicians can, creating an online presence can be very important. Arin Crumley and Susan Buice, the directors of Four Eyed Monsters, are perhaps the most important current examples of this; their film doesn't have distribution, but through word-of-mouth from festival screenings and their video podcasts, they've built up a substantial online presence. When their film is eventually released, it will have a built-in-audience. When they make their next film, that audience will be even larger. They could very well receive offers from studios, and at that point, they’ll have a choice to make. They’ll be in a position similar to that of established artists who realize they don’t necessarily need corporate support to be successful.

An example of this in music, to an extent, would be Aimee Mann, who now releases all of her music through her United Musicians label. Likewise, filmmaker Hal Hartley now produces all his films independently and releases them through his own company, Possible Films. Both Mann and Hartley had bad experiences with their respective backers; later, when they made the jump to their own independent imprints, they took their audiences with them. [8]

The demographic to which these artists are appealing is a very small but extremely viable one. It is the same one that Mark Cuban is counting on to make his very artistically minded low-budget HDNet productions (such as Soderbergh's Bubble) profitable ventures.[9] This audience already knows Soderbergh's name; he doesn't need a blog to convince them to see his film. This same audience could very likely be driving home from the theater listening to new albums by Aimee Mann and Fugazi; it is an audience that, by and large, is interested in and even anxious to support intelligent art that challenges the status quo. Filmmakers like Buice and Crumley - and Ekanayake, and Joe Swanberg, and Caveh Zahedi, and countless others - are slowly but surely making them just as familiar (on a more limited basis) with their own work. They – we- need to let that already relatively fringe contingent know that there’s quite a bit of light even further underground.

Musicians still have it easier;[10] a songwriter can sit down and compose a new piece, which shortly thereafter will be ready to be recorded, performed, exhibited. That is an oversimplification of the process, perhaps, but the comparitive difference is nonetheless a steep one: a filmmaker has to go through the exhaustive process of making a film to arrive at the same point. But let’s shove that disparity aside, for the fact of the matter is that thousands of filmmakers are reaching that point each year, and out of those thousands, I’m willing to bet that hundreds of great films are not reaching the audiences that deserve to see them.

At this point, as I suggested earlier, it is unfair to expect these independent filmmakers to jump at the possibility of self-distribution. Releasing a film , especially a theatrically, is more work than making one in the first place, and not all filmmakers have the business savvy necessary for such an endeavor. Nor should one expect filmmakers to forego a chance, should they have it, to make a film within the studio system. What I would like to see, however, are more filmmakers working from the ground up to establish their names and a fanbase – be it through the internet, film festivals, or even acquisition and distribution – and then, inversely to the growth of that platform, taking steps towards separating themselves from any larger entities. Towards establishing complete creative autonomy. That will be the new holy grail. The classic Hollywood deal, then, would be a means to that end; a means which will eventually render itself entirely unnecessary.


[1]See Patrick Goldstein's article 'In A Losing Race With The Zeitgeist (LA Times, November 22, 2005) for a detailed consensus of this potential death knoll: "As it stands, Hollywood has become a prisoner of a corporate mindset that is squeezing the entrepreneurial vitality out of the system. It's not just that studios are making bad movies — they've been doing that for years. They've lost touch with any real cultural creativity."
[2] ’The Hollywood Death Spiral’ (Edward Jay Epstein; Slate; July 25, 2005)
[3]I don’t mean to vilify the entire studio system; amidst all the wasteful filler that is released, one must not forget to note the truly good and even groundbreaking films that are released (and often financed) by major studios each year.
[4]It's also natural to look to the internet and the possibilities of VOD and expect self-distribution to become common in - and commonly limited to - this arena; that’s a little bit scary, too.
[5]Amy Taubin writes “if I were member of that nearly extinct species known as ‘indie distributor,’ I’d note the facts that Funny Ha Ha’s frugal release did indeed turn a profit…” (Rohmer In Williamsburg; Taubin; Film Comment; December 2005)
[6]In a recent e-mail exchange, Sujewa expanded on this quite nicely: “The US indie film scene is not even 10% as creative & interesting as the US indie rock scene, and not nearly as accessible for young artists, or minority artists, or female artists, or just people who are not well connected or people who have an intellectually or spiritually or politically a minority position. Building a US film scene that rewards creativity & that does not judge the quality of a movie from box office figures (really, who the f**** cares how much money a movie makes, only the people who have invested money in a project should care, I don' t want to hear a movie recommended to me based on its box office, porn makes a lot of money, so does McDonalds food, but I am not going to waste much of my time & money on either). Really, instead of Hollywood - 1 giant source that puts out bloated crap, we should have like 50-150 different healthy & active film scenes, one or several for each state, the US is big enough & populous enough & economically healthy enough for such a set up.”
[7]It's true that making and distributing an independent film is, in most cases, exponentially more expensive than recording and releasing an independent record, and going on tour, but raising the necessary capital for both production and distribution is a moot point once one accepts that some debt will be incurred; that's a matter of fact, and a good business plan can make the cost more manageable.
[8]Jim Jarmusch is in a similar position; although his films are released by studios, they are produced independently, and he maintains all rights to the original negatives, cut or otherwise. Essentially, he's in the most ideal and enviable position of all - and it's a position that isn't necessarily out of reach, if one has equal parts luck and resolution.
[9]In discussing the eventual cross-platform film releases, Cuban writes that “I do expect 2929 Entertainment and HDNet Films to take the lead. We will tailor the movies we develop to fit Landmark Theaters customer base.” These movies include the much touted six-picture deal with Soderbergh, with each film being budgeted in the one-to-two million dollar range.
[10]Back to Jarmusch again. He once wrote about how musicians have it easy: “They can just pick up a guitar or whatever and create. We filmmakers need so many different things to create. Film doesn't lend itself to spontaneity. It takes years to do what they can do in a heartbeat...but when you think about it nothing can compete with the feeling of telling a story you really care about. That is something a musician can't do.”I can’t for the life of me find the source of this quote, but it’s stuck with me.

Posted by David Lowery at 4:00 PM | Comments (30)

postcard.jpg

In lieu of actual film to mess around with, I'm starting to work with all the stills Yen* took on set.

I think we'll be getting the processing and transfer done next week. It's like the week before Christmas all over again, except for real this time.

* Bon voyage to Mr. Tan, who departs on his approximately 300-hour flight this evening. Here's hoping there's slew of tastefully edited in-flight romantic comedies to keep you entertained for the duration, buddy! See you in two weeks.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:31 AM | Comments (2)

January 5, 2006

A few notes on two Austin filmmakers while I work on a more substantial post:

cicadas.jpgI promptly invalidated my previous prediction regarding DVD purchases when I bought a copy of Kat Candler's award-winning first film, Cicadas, which she was in post-production on when I first met her almost six years ago. After some sustained distribution hassles, the rights have reverted back to her, and as of the other day it's finally been released. All proceeds from the DVD go towards finishing her new film, Jumping Off Bridges, which made the decision to buy a copy even more of a non-issue than it already was. Filmmakers should always help each other out; getting a good movie in return is just gravy.

The reports flying about concerning the multiple cuts of The New World are tremendously exciting; the fact that New Line is supporting these efforts is practically unbelievable. I'm glad I had the chance to see the 155 minute version in LA last week, so that I won't have to wait until DVD to compare and contrast. The film is such fluid, amorphous piece of work, though, that I wonder if the changes will even be noticeable.

It's been a long time since I've seen a modern filmmaker experiment to the extent that Malick has here with basic juxtaposition. The leaps and bounds in time and place he takes are not marked by normal spatio-temporal transitional devices, and as a result the film seems to exist in an ephemeral state, working contrary to conscious expectation; it almost asks you not to use your head while watching it. It's narrative is propelled not by standard plot points but by an almost Eisensteinian form of sensory logic.

I'd love to know what the process of cutting the picture was like. A whole team of editors is credited on the film; one of them, Sarr Klein, cut The Thin Red Line; Richard Chew won an Oscar back in the day for Star Wars and Hank Corwin has done a handful of Oliver Stone films (I'm not familiar with the fourth, Mark Yioshikawa). How did they handle the miles and miles of footage? Did they each take sections and work on them independently, or did they each take a pass through the whole film? And at this point, as Malick finishes up the new, shorter version, has he taken over the reigns himself?

Every edit in the picture is worth studying, I think (perhaps I'm going overboard, having only seen the film once), and the opportunity to examine those edits within the context of three different cuts seems like a rare treat - and an opportunity to understand Malick better in a way that the interviews he refuses to give wouldn't allow. I can't wait to see it again when it opens in Dallas at the end of the month, at which point I'm sure I'll have more to write about it.

Posted by David Lowery at 12:49 PM | Comments (2)

January 3, 2006

And twenty three hours later we're back, safe and sound.

I had some leftover Amazon certificates from Christmas waiting for me, so I promptly ordered the John Cassavetes Criteron box set (at long last) and the just-released 2046. At this point, given my financial state and discounting my penchant for squeezing quarters out of pennies, they may be my only DVD purchases for the year, so I figured I'd better make them count

For the past week, I've eaten almost 100% raw. It's a hard but strangely addictive dietary habit. I was planning on having a bowl of cereal when I got home, but now it feels like I'd be cheating myself out of something (enzymes, to be exact) if I did.

I've also gone two weeks without coffee. What's happening to me?

Time to brew some black tea, unpack, catch up on some movies (the only other picture we managed to see on vacation was Match Point), write some things, hang out with Yen before he goes to Hong Kong, make some phone calls, watch some rare Godard films that Matt kindly sent me the link to, and continue to keep those proverbial fingers crossed.

Posted by David Lowery at 8:48 PM | Comments (6)

January 2, 2006

It's been raining and freezing here for the past few days. Perfect beach weather, we thought as we stepped out onto the sand last night. One more day here, and then it's back to the flaming encroachments of North Texas, where hopefully a check will be waiting in the mailbox and a telecine session will be right around the corner.

To be followed, perhaps, by yet another trip out here. Next time I'll make sure I get on the plane.

My First-Four-Months-Of-The-New-Year Resolution: write a new feature screenplay. It's going to have something to do with twins, I think, and maybe some politics. Various germinating ideas coalesced into a legitimate possibility the other night, and so I'll give it a shot. I've been reworking old properties for so long now that the idea of something new is a little exciting, a little bit scary.

Oh, and maybe I'll finish that stop-motion film, which I haven't touched since early September. I won't set any more deadlines for it - I won't keep them, and it's nice to have something to work on intermittently.

Posted by David Lowery at 11:41 AM | Comments (7)