Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Collaboration is the Name of the Game

A Response to David Branin's Film Courage blog entry "Kickstarter is a Game Changer" and his previous "Build the Audience, and the Movie will Come"

In the last week, it's been my pleasure to witness the conversation happening on Twitter and in blogs about the search for the new distribution model that will work for independent filmmakers working outside of the Hollywood studio/distribution system. Much of this discussion has seemed to come on the heels of the Sundance Film Festival, where so many watched films mostly to see who would be bought and for how much. After Toronto's dismal showings last year, or so I'm told, everyone has been up in arms ever since. To my ear, there's been a lot of talk about the sky falling.

Like David Branin says in his blog Film Courage, the game has changed. We all know this, and feel this, and witness it in the market. The dream of being able to make a film, solitary and pure, know it's incredible genius in an instant, and then sell it for a gazillion dollars to some understanding papa bear of a studio, who will then take it off your hands and put it out into the world, where it will then win an Academy Award on its merits alone ... well, that dream -- if it was ever a reality in the first place -- has certainly gone the way of the dodo. It's quaint and a little ridiculous.

Now, some say, the "clear-eyed" indie filmmaker must wear more hats than ever before -- sometimes the writer, sometimes the editor, nearly always the director, sometimes the talent, nearly always the producer, sometimes the DP and the Key Grip *and* the PA, but now -- dum, dum, duuhhhhmmm -- we must also be the social networking maven marketer. And DIY distributor. And have a good relationship with a DVD replicator. And be tech savvy enough to build bit torrent files, YouTube- and Vimeo-ready nuggets, a snazzy standards-compliant website, and so on and so on, into worlds of media distribution no one has even thought of yet. What I'm hearing, over and over again, is that you have to do everything, and know everyone, and never sleep.

But here's something I think is really important -- making a film is a multi-phase collaborative event. You can't know everything, or know everyone, or never sleep. But you can know almost enough, and know the people to ask who'd know someone who knows more, who then could ask the people they know on how to do this incredibly complex, nearly impossible thing -- which is commit a story to a medium, have it makes sense, share it with others, and then figure out how to do it again. (I'm not sure I can really change much about the sleeping, except to remind folks that insanity beckons if you deprive yourself for too long, and constant sleep deprivation is certainly not a way to make a career.)

There's a world of thinking which locates filmmaking on the shoulders of one person -- the multi-hyphenate writer/director/takeyourpick. If you want to get fancy, it's called the auteur theory. There's a lot to be said about how a single individual puts their recognizable stamp onto the final product of so many hundreds of hands -- and there's a lot to be said for how hierarchies (like many film crews) operate with a strong visionary leader at the helm. But there's also a lot to be said for the ways that auteur theory solidifies a certain costly illusion about how films are made (that one [usually white] man's vision is the driving force and deciding factor behind everything that makes it on screen). As indies, and as people of good conscience, I think we must question that illusion. We must question it for ourselves, and resist the narrative that we must do and be everything in our craft (and burn out trying), and we must be plain with one another in the stories we tell about our collaborations.

I hear a lot in this conversation about how some filmmakers despise the marketing process, and wish they could just ignore it all -- and immediately others of us pounce on how archaic and suicidal such thinking is. But what if the same filmmaker said they despised editing? Or scoring a soundtrack? Or wardrobe and hair styling? Other people specialize in those crafts, and develop some mastery of those skills, so that we can collaborate and bring all of our skills to this gargantuan task. There are people who've thought a LOT about marketing, and social networking, and the internet, and viral campaigns -- and they have some skill at doing all of those things. It's worth talking to them. It's worth asking if they'll come on board your project, in much the same way that we ask any craftsman to come on board our project and help us get the job done. I think taking marketing and distribution seriously means not only planning for it in the budget lines of our projects, not only brainstorming our vision for how this project is going to get out into the world and who our ideal audiences are, but also thinking of it as a legitimate trade that involves a learning curve that might not be worth it to you to learn -- and asking for help accordingly. Sure, you can just do it. You can just muddle your way through figuring it out all by yourself. But, if you hate this stuff, wouldn't you rather be making more films?

This is really a thought for those who say they hate marketing. In a nutshell, you don't have to do it alone! But if you love it -- if you love the speed and comraderie of Twitter, if you love the labor of a well-designed logo and postcard and poster campaign (and I'm specifically talking about graphic design here, not even strategy), if you love mail merges and a well-maintained database, if you love shmoozing at film festivals or local screenings, if you love writing press releases and contacting media outlets, if you love writing content for websites -- if you love it, then love it well and still go out and talk to people about how they do it. Then talk to your fellow filmmakers, maybe fall in love with their projects, and work with them to bring that marketing magic alive. They'll be around for your next project, and who knows what skills they could bring to the table when you need it most.

Again, I feel it's so important to say that we each do not have to be all things to all people -- and that's the beauty of this work. It's not about knowing everything. It's about knowing where your knowledge ends and another's begins. I believe we must stop kidding ourselves about the director-as-God ideas that run through our communities, and dig in deep with each other to collaborate and get our dreams off the ground.

The magic of collaboration is at the very heart of KickStarter. Branin describes his enthusiasm for KickStarter as a workable means of not only doing the incredible (raising thousands of dollars that don't need to be paid back to anyone, except through tiered level patron gifts) but also for gauging the strength of your audience's interest in your project, and the strength of your network in general. The idea I would add to his analysis of KickStarter is that it's a paradigm shift for thinking about audiences and fans. KickStarter is a tool which harnesses the power of the current social networking reality -- that audiences can no longer be treated as passive recipients of media at the end of a creation process. This also is a new collaboration. We work with our audiences and share with them the steps of our creative process, with some artists even seeking audience input on where to go next or how to solve various problems, and we ask our audiences to contribute monetarily in exchange for the experience of being a part of something more. It's not a top-down approach -- i.e., I make this, you take it and like it. Through our/these networks, we can access grassroots-level funding and find out what happens when a 1,000 people contribute $10, instead of 10 people contributing $1000 each, or 1 person contributing $10,000. It's more than just money -- it's about what happens to ideas, and to individuals, when you're participating in something larger than one person's vision, one person's experience, one "ideal" outcome.

It is extraordinary, and profoundly precious -- and I can't wait to see what happens next.