Last week I was in Palm Springs, at the annual Palm Springs International ShortFest. This is, to my knowledge, the largest festival dedicated to short films in America. I was attending in my recently-added capacity as an Associate Programmer for the 2018 Newport Beach Film Festival, scouting projects and making connections with filmmakers. It was my first time attending a festival in an “industry” capacity, and it was immensely valuable to navigate the experience from this perspective; to see people with similar ambitions to mine through the eyes of someone whose mission it is to find great talent and great material.
Some of those muscles from my story executive days are still in there, and it had a few similarities to that unforgettable weekend I spent at a Writer’s Conference in Portland, getting pitched screenplays so relentlessly every moment I was out of my hotel room that I was literally scheduling people to pitch me during my elevator rides. This was not quite so aggressive, but that badge sure made me a target.
I often speak in terms of data, because part of my brain will always work like a massive, 3D monster of a spreadsheet; and I want to use that to move these filmmaking notions of mine forward. Palm Springs is uniquely valuable in that regard – they receive over 4,000 submissions in an average year, and program from 3-400 of them. That’s almost 10% accepted, which for a famous, Academy-qualifying festival, is actually relatively high. On top of that, every short submitted, even if rejected by the festival proper, is made available in what’s known as “The Marketplace” to Industry people like myself, and anyone who buys a festival pass with Marketplace privileges.
The Marketplace is essentially a room with dozens of Macs with headphones. You can dial up any film there that the Festival considered, as well as have access to a master spreadsheet with the filmmakers’ contact information. So even if you’re rejected by the Festival, a filmmaker with enough innate hustle could make the choice to come out anyway with some posters and postcards and any other gimmick they can devise, and try to get as many people as possible to see their movie. And more than a few people I met were here doing just that.
So because of the unusually high acceptance rate, and the guaranteed secondary opportunity to attract eyeballs, an entry to Palm Springs is one of the few genuinely no-lose scenarios for the price out there. And those incentives mean that, at Palm Springs, you have the opportunity to take a more informed sample of the current landscape of short filmmaking around the world than almost anywhere else you could go. I’ve never entered, out of sheer intimidation; now that I see the opportunity for what it is, and have spent several days scouting the competition in-depth, I’m resolving to enter The Dinner Scene for next year, because I think we have a puncher’s chance with it. Perhaps R&R too, if I finish it and it turns out to be a non-disaster.
I never actually went to the multiplex where festival screenings were happening. My festival experience was in that Marketplace, when I wasn’t grabbing snacks or refreshing my coffee at the Filmmaker’s Lounge next door. One set of filmmakers, to promote their film about maple sugar in Canada, had left some maple syrup by the Lounge coffee machine with an invitation to us to sweeten our coffee with it. I took them up on that – repeatedly.
It can feel a bit like punching a clock. I watched over 4 hours’ worth of shorts each day, when I wasn’t meeting with filmmakers, or stealing time away to work at my other part-time job, or check on the evolving sound mix for The Dinner Scene, or review casting submissions for R&R. There were parties every night, never starting until 10pm because of the heat.
Right – the heat. This was brutal. Inhuman on a level of “why is any human even here?” I arrived at 9:45pm on Tuesday night, and it was 109 degrees out. Some nights, right before sunrise, it might dip a bit below 90. On at least two days temperatures topped 120. I start getting physically uncomfortable above about 77 degrees, so this was short-circuiting my body any time I left the confines of a heavily air-conditioned building. Thirty seconds of crossing the hotel parking lot would give my body those weird chill-spasms that are like a physiological red alert. One afternoon mixer was in a restaurant’s party room, one entire wall was exterior glass and the room was very crowded, so all I had time to do was chug a glass of Riesling and then retreat to stand under an AC vent in the men’s room before I legitimately fainted. Made me miss February in Colorado at the Durango Festival – 7,000+ feet up, brisk by day and with nighttime lows around freezing. Much more my climate.
In 5 days I watched over 80 short films. My festival program was marked up like a racing form. I saw an Estonian LGBT coming out story using animated foxes and horses, a sci-fi allegory about loneliness and STD’s done with deliberate 80’s video throwback visuals with a David Lynch-style emphasis on hypnotic dread over narrative, a thoroughly charming 12-minute Australian song-and-dance musical set in a library, an enthralling short documentary about a pair of ping-pong tables in a New York City park that have seemingly saved a few lost souls, and a deranged British short about a homeless schizophrenic on a mission to prove that his street brethren are being kidnapped and processed into artisanal coffee beans in his gentrifying neighborhood. Maybe 5 of the filmmakers whose work I saw feel ready to step into a feature, and one in particular I think is going to be directing Oscar bait within the next 10 years if this town has a lick of good sense.
Some of my favorite moments, though, happened when I got to chat with filmmakers after I watched their shorts, go over what I liked, where they’re going as filmmakers, hear stories of their struggles to get it made, and give them my thoughts on what might help them raise their game. One thing that happens at an event like this is that everyone in the room is bonded by the shared experience of having willed a film project into being. Even if their work was flawed or lazy, they still created something; and just doing that took far greater than average willpower and persistence. I just finished watching Season 1 of GLOW, and it captured something about how if a creative mission is going to be completed, there has to come a moment where someone activates that Closer instinct even when it seems impossible, insane, and pointless to carry on. It put the lady wrestlers and their determination on the level of the damn Magnificent Seven. Great show.
At this level, deciding to make a movie is like that. 99+ percent of the time, you’re going to lose all your money on a short. The acceptance rate at top festivals is brutal. Only a very few filmmakers will actually be able to stepping stone off a short into something better; and they’ll only manage to do that if they work even harder than they did making their short, which probably felt like the hardest thing ever. Why do it? Because whether the film is coming from a city in American or a village in Nepal, film itself is putting us into these places, into these conversations, and I’m still in love with that. Even on short #80 I was still excited when I clicked “Play” – ready for whatever the next storyteller had for me.
Can’t wait to put The Dinner Scene out there; I hope its journey is a good one.
On Saturday we had our second and final day of production on The Dinner Scene, and as of yesterday we have a rough cut of the whole shebang. I looked back through my notes and believe that I first hit upon this idea on March 12th – and, if all goes according to plan, we will have a finished short by July 12th. Four months and my customary laughably-small budget to create a short bigger and more challenging than anything I’ve directed thus far. Now, we are only ultimately talking about a 9-10 minute short with two locations and three characters, so everything is relative; but for me, that was a giant step. This team is succeeding in the mission to make everything we do incrementally tougher.
This was the first time I was producing by myself. My partner on the previous two couldn’t participate this time for personal reasons, and much as I love having him aboard, there are times when life has to outrank messing around on no-budget short films, so I had to learn how to fly solo. That meant a pretty excruciating few days of anxiety leading up to our second production day. I honestly don’t enjoy producing – if shooting the film is sex, producing to me isn’t even foreplay, it’s stuff like cleaning your bedsheets and vacuuming to keep bedbugs away. But nonetheless it must be done or nothing good is ever going to happen.
Despite that, and despite rolling camera over an hour after we intended because of traffic issues, we still executed our plan. We wrapped at midnight, the crew was basically dispersed by 12:30, but then I stayed up with a couple of colleagues for a toast and a post-mortem review, and I didn’t get to bed until about 3am. I woke up at 7:15 with precious little cognizance or biorhythm. I have hazy memories of taking a bath, eating breakfast, having a nap, then calling a friend from the shoot for a proper celebratory brunch. Here’s a good measuring stick for fatigue – after a cappuccino plus a half-cup of regular coffee, my brain chemicals were finally aligned enough to have a proper nap.
On thing that has been consistent from project to project has been my level of personal terror and sense of difficulty. That is, as they say, a feature and not a bug. I think what is best for me is to make sure I am constantly operating in the space where I am aware that what I am doing is very, very hard, but still possible. Just a few days ago was the 2-year anniversary of shooting Samantha Gets Back Out There, and back then, to do what I am doing now would have been impossible, full stop. But for every step of this cycle, I have been keenly aware that while it would never be easy enough for me to relax, it was always on the right side of feasible. I finally, for example, had to take a whack at plotting camera coverage for a dynamic two-person scene. I have graduated from tripod on short #1 and handheld on short #2 to using dolly shots and timed tilts and racks, and cross-cutting in editing. I know to people immersed in this stuff I’m still describing cinematic storytelling 101, but for a guy who majored in theater I am embracing the strategy of trying to create compelling and entertaining works with a gradually-increasing set of movie tools. It’s rather like learning to play one chord, then learning how to play three chords, then knowing that with three chords and an idea, you can finally write a real song. Perhaps, someday, Prog Rock, even.
It’s a fulfilling sensation; and results have (thus far) borne out the effectiveness of the strategy for me. I have an impulse to say that we won’t know for sure until the festival responses start coming back in, but I don’t believe in completely handing over your power to define success. I think what we’ve got in The Dinner Scene is going to be the most recognizably “Movie”-like product I have yet produced. It excites me, and it excites me for what’s next – which (stay tuned) might be coming along sooner than intended.
Saturday was our first day of production on my third short film, The Dinner Scene. We got a huge boost from The 102 Cafe in Garden Grove which allowed our skeleton crew to film in a corner during business hours on a handshake (and the price of a few beverages). At my budget level, this is the only arrangement that can get the cameras rolling.
That footage is already 95% edited – it was a swift process because I scripted every single angle that I wanted, obsessively planned the shot list and, with real-life g*ddamn wizard J. Van Auken on camera, we executed 70 shots in just 4 hours; 90% of them in single takes.
We shoot the other half of the short on June 3rd – which just happened to be when the second location and the actors could all be plunked onto the same calendar square. It’s made for an interesting workflow of putting all my work and anxiety into Day One, then getting to celebrate, relax, and then re-start the cycle for Day Two. Almost like making two shorts; which in a way is accurate to the concept of this one.
Using multiple locations is new. So is using SAG-AFTRA talent – which so far has led to more paperwork and more negative cost riding on the movie that I’ll need to scrounge up eventually; but hasn’t proven a major burden or obstacle yet. It was time to add those elements to my toolbox.
Turning myself from a pure screenwriter into a filmmaker has definitely led to changes in how I conceive of scripts I intend to produce/direct. Major parts of the aesthetic of this short were dictated by my pre-awareness of what my resources and shooting conditions would be. With the cafe open for business, we knew capturing dialogue would be a time sink and possibly ineffective no matter what, so the character in the cafe only has two spoken words. That knowledge got baked in at the script stage, and was enormously beneficial in making it possible to execute the short.
I like what I’m seeing so far. It is all too possible that I could completely faceplant on Day Two, but it’s good to feel muscles building in the meantime. That’s been the point of making this investment in myself – to build muscles and open doors.
Which means that even mid-production I’m already looking ahead on the calendar and devising the film’s festival strategy. Coincidentally, a friend recently completed his own first short film and asked if I would serve as a Festival Strategist on it. I can’t guarantee him fest bookings, but my hope is that my own experiences can show him a way to spend his money smarter out there. I’d love to see him get a healthy list of bookings, first because he has made a solid and involving short that deserves to be seen; but also because I would love, after he follows my advice, to not look like a jackass.
So not even a month removed from The Retriever‘s final festival screening, I am already neck-deep in my spreadsheet of fees and submission deadlines again.
I will continue to reiterate and expand on these ideas as my education continues, but I think I have loaded enough knowledge and opinions in my head to share a few helpful principles I have developed so far.
1) Budget your submission strategy at least as carefully as you budgeted your movie.
For each of my first two shorts, I spent roughly the same amount on fest submissions as I spent making the movie. Don’t stumble into a rude surprise like that; have a plan from the start for how you are going to access those financial resources. In the case of The Retriever, festival travel and lodging ended up costing more than production and submissions combined; and if you skip out on the experience of attending some festivals, you’re not getting the true reward of having done the thing. So remember that the cost of achieving your goals in making the movie go well beyond the costs of just making the movie.
There are thousands of festivals out there, and every week there are submission deadlines. They can become as tempting as the arm of a slot machine. And if you succumb, your pockets will be just as empty at the end.
How many festivals should you submit to? Probably more than 1 and less than 200; but beyond that, there is no universal right answer to that question. You want a decent enough spread to take some measure of the world’s response to your work (my left brain LOVES data points!), but there is a point of diminishing returns, and eventually you need to take your attention off promoting past work and devote more of it to making the new stuff. So while there is no one answer, deciding in advance how much money you have to allocate can help you arrive at an answer that protects you from going broke; so I like that answer.
For reference and transparency, I spent exactly $713.50 on my festival submissions for The Retriever. That covered submissions to 34 festivals. 8 accepted me. (Yes, that means I got 26 rejections. The scars are healing fine, thank you.)
By my standards, 8 acceptances was a big win. Standards, you say?
2) Save money by having realistic standards and personal growth trajectories!
I have never submitted to Sundance. Or Slamdance. Or Tribeca, South by Southwest, Cannes, Toronto, or any of the other festivals that the movie industry truly sets their watch by. I am proud of the work I do, and the dream of being a Sundance filmmaker is intoxicating. But I don’t have grand illusions about the quality of what I am making right now. And what I know about the submission numbers for Sundance tell me that you can make a short film which is better than 99.8% of the short films made all over the world in any given year…and still not get into Sundance.
The truth is this: There isn’t room at Sundance for all the shorts which are good enough for Sundance. And I don’t even think what I’m making right now is good enough for Sundance. Maybe I am magically more ingenious than I realize, but I don’t think so.
On top of that, there is an intense amount of behind-the-curtain politicking that can happen at those top-tier festivals since money truly is at stake; so you don’t just have to be great, you have got to be that much greater than the “connected” filmmaker’s best.
If getting booked at Sundance is hitting a Grand Slam, my philosophy is that hoping to hit a Grand Slam is not a strategy. If the Sundance submission fee could pay for submissions to two or three other festivals, I find that a smarter use of my limited resources than giving myself the quickly-evaporating ego high of imagining someone in the Sundance Fortress watching my movie.
Don’t think this means I lack ambition, or am only looking for the highest percentages out there. If what I cared about most was just collecting the most laurels, I would submit constantly to festivals in their first 3 years of existence, when they have no reputation yet. I know of one festival that, in its 4th year, only got about 90 submissions total, across all categories (feature, short, documentary, music video, animation). They programmed over half of what they saw! Now I could go back there just because my odds of an acceptance would be good, but I am consciously ratcheting up the challenge to myself on each movie. The response of a nationwide community of film lovers is a better metric for how I am doing than the voices in my head; so the way to measure myself is not just to want more fests than The Retriever, but to want more discriminating fests.
I always keep handy AMPAS’s annually-updated list of Oscar-qualifying festivals. For those who don’t know, every year at the Oscars there is an award for Best Live-Action Short Film. There are five nominees, as with most categories. But from what I have experienced, a lot of the filmmakers making shorts don’t even learn how those five nominees are selected. How it works is: the Academy sanctions a list of worldwide festivals as “Academy-qualifying”. There are around 100 right now. The film which wins the Best Short Film prize at a qualifying festival goes on the candidate list for the Oscar nominations. Tens of thousands of shorts cut down to about 100, which are then reviewed by the Nominating Committee to arrive at the five honorees.
So getting accepted into one of those 100-ish festivals gets you into the ballgame that qualifies you for the ballgame, so to speak. For that reason, an Academy-qualifying festival is a bulls-eye for all the shorts in the world with the most resources, the biggest names, etc. It’s a different league of competitiveness. And so, as with Sundance, I have avoided them*. (*Sort of. Before I knew all this, I submitted my first short to Cleveland. We did not get into Cleveland.)
As I mentioned in a previous post, getting accepted at Phoenix really rocked my self-assessment of my work. Just to make it to a dance of that caliber went beyond my best expectations. So when I say that on my list of potential fests for The Dinner Scene I am including about a half-dozen Academy qualifiers, it’s not because I suddenly think I am Oscar material. It’s because I think it is worth the fees just to test if I can get accepted at all at that higher level of competition.
Right, those fees…
3) If it’s not Sundance/SXSW/etc., you can, and should, comparison shop
These days, I have set my personal ceiling for a festival submission fee for a short at $35. That number has no magic personal meaning, it’s just what I landed on after reviewing a few hundred submission fee schedules. There are great festivals out there charging more – up to $100 at some, for a short film! – but not a lot of them making the case for WHY they are worth so much more. From what I can tell there isn’t a lot of market correction happening with these fees, I have enjoyed experiences at festivals which charged me $20-$30 that far outstripped the best parties being offered by fests with an $80 entry fee.
If you really drill down past the biggest 6-10 festivals in the world and scrutinize in detail, you will start to see differences that make one 10, 20, even 50% better or worse than another. But is an $80 fest which is not Sundance/SXSW/etc. guaranteed to be 3x-4x times as good as ANY festival charging $20-30? I am not convinced the sticker price is accurately depicting the value.
If a festival has a five-year-or-more track record, enough community support to offer incentives to traveling filmmakers, a professional-looking website/social media presence, and a schedule that lasts a few days and includes some mixers and panels, then odds are that the $20-$30 one (and many of them exist) is likely to be close enough to as good an investment for your goals early in your development as the $80 one. The $80 one might be able to legitimately trumpet more prestige right now; but ask yourself how long that’s going to last when they are pricing out up-and-coming filmmakers and the interesting films start showing up elsewhere; and is a CHANCE at accessing that prestige worth sacrificing shots at three or four other festivals?
You’re always looking for that balance which helps you take the most advantage of the strata you’re in as a filmmaker right now. You are able to place more bets (and thus gather more data) by budgeting for the spread of festivals that works best for you. Even setting my own ceiling as low as $35, I have already generated a list of over 50 festivals which have history, good reviews, and legitimate sponsorship. And in several cases, I now have a past relationship with them which helps me know if my new short is the type of thing they would program.
I doubt I will submit to all 50+; probably more in the mid-40’s. If I get the same number of acceptances as The Retriever, that’s a success to me because this is a more challenging target list. If I win an award anywhere, especially at a festival I have previously attended like Phoenix or Durango, that’s a success because I’ve accumulated a few honors and nominations but nothing that actually takes certificate or trophy form. And if I can sneak in the door of any of those Academy qualifiers, then I will know that even on this more realistic, pragmatic path I have been plotting for my Filmmaker self, I’m moving with rocket skates on.
So THAT, over 2,000 words later, is my process; which may have its flaws but I like the results I am getting from it for the moment. I know how verbose I get, but my feeling is that the more real and non-sensational this gets for you (the young filmmaker I imagine reading this), the more you are able to focus and apply your true talent and work ethic to it and not just feel like you are flail-boxing a fog monster.
Future blog posts, I am sure, will revise all of this. In the meantime, I have to go find a turtleneck sweater at Goodwill for one of my characters.
As a screenwriter, William Goldman is famous for a string of classics including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, and The Princess Bride. As a guru to budding screenwriters, he is famous for countless books and essays on the subject, but his most-quoted maxim in Hollywood is “Nobody Knows Anything”. This refers to the truth that you can never predict a hit or flop with 100% certainty; sometimes, you can structure your script properly, have dazzling stars and a big budget, and audiences will still boot you out the saloon door. Even he wasn’t immune.
William Goldman falls prey to his own maxim; and also lions
Screenwriters (myself included, I confess), have cited this in refutation of revision notes that we don’t want to execute. And I do think there is some wisdom in erring on the side of the storyteller’s impulse rather than trying to focus group your way into the largest audience possible. That is a very big, ongoing, vital conversation…and is not the subject of this blog post.
While I was at the Phoenix Film Festival, I spoke on a panel about screenwriting and a budding screenwriter asked me about the creative impulse behind “The Retriever”. I said, with total honesty, that my two organizing principles were 1) I wanted to show off my producing partner Barney Crow’s acting ability as a thank-you for everything he did to bring my first short film to life; and 2) I had no money. This is not the answer you usually get, but it was an honest one – I came up with an idea based on what I had.
I have taught many screenwriters by now, and if there’s a common mindset I would love to undo with a magic wand, it’s the idea that you are learning how to write Your Script. The One That Will Make You Rich. Why screenwriters ready to cite Goldman’s First Rule to studio executives can still cling to the idea that they just need to learn how to format their One Great Idea and they’ll definitely get those Harry Potter dollars is baffling, but human. Nobody Knows Anything cuts both ways.
You can’t control outcomes in this business, you can only control your own process. Which means that if you take this at all seriously, you have to think well beyond one script. Imagine if your plan to make it as a football player was to train really hard to run only one specific pass route, then hang around a stadium in the hopes that the Super Bowl will happen there, AND that a team will offer you a chance to catch the winning touchdown because they just happen to want to run that one play. You’d say that’s an absurd plan, because even if you get really good at running that route, your scenario depends on the occurrence of so many incredibly unlikely things that aren’t in your power to manifest. And screenwriting is like that. Don’t learn how to just write one script. Instead, make yourself a screenwriter, ready to apply your skills to diverse situations and staying in the game by constantly keeping your skills in practice.
The best way to make yourself useful (read: hire-able) as a screenwriter is to show that you can use the tools of storytelling to solve problems. The illustration I come back to constantly is in the legendary Raiders story conference transcripts that show George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasdan beating out the original Indiana Jones movie. The key element that Kasdan, as the screenwriter, provides, is his sense for the progression of drama and cause-and-effect; and his desire for simplicity and efficiency. His screenwriting talents help create essential elements like the Staff Headpiece which motivates Indy to seek out Marion and, due to a clever reversal, subsequently puts the Nazis at the wrong dig site while Indy and his team discover the tomb.
Solving problems in your own work is one thing, and no doubt beneficial time and time again. Now that I am making my own short films, however, I’ve become a born-again advocate for practical training. Naturally, if you are excited about some big, studio-sized idea, write it down. But while you are waiting to receive the Standard Rich and Famous Contract a la The Muppet Movie, go ahead and write something to make right now.
Does this mean you have to become a director? Not necessarily – find someone who wants to do that if you prefer. When people talk about networking, introverted writers can have nightmares about lunches and parties with agents and executives. And if you’re lucky you will have to do some of that, someday. But if you’re just forging partnerships with other creative people in the course of bringing work to life, that is a form of networking too, and one that can be of immense benefit to the peer group you start to build. And it’s a lot more fun, in my experience.
But what thing should you make? What camera should you use? Should you use SAG actors or non-SAG? Should you submit to festivals or start a YouTube channel? How much should you spend?
I cannot answer these questions for you. But I can tell you how you should go about asking them; and that brings us back to Mr. Goldman, and this deeply funny and eminently-sensible scene from The Princess Bride:
“What are our assets?” Tattoo that question somewhere.
The first things you make are likely to resemble those heroes’ rescue plan – a tiny group of people with a little hope and not enough time. That’s good! K.I.S.S.: Keep it Simple, Shortfilmmaker! Start thinking about interesting locations you can access for free – get beyond Someone’s Apartment. The submission queues of film festivals are littered with Someone’s Apartment short films. Who are the actors you know? If you don’t know actors, do you know musicians? Stand-up comics? Who are the personalities you know that you could point a camera at? What could you, the well-rounded screenwriter, come up with for them to do?
Is someone you know junking a car? Would they let you wreck it instead? Does someone have a wheelchair they’re not using for a few hours? Congratulations – you’ve got the makings of a DIY camera dolly! Start looking around with this mentality and you might surprise yourself with what your assets really are.
It’s okay if the thing you make is not great. It’s okay if it’s terrible. Just make it. Make it, watch it, congratulate each other, then start asking – what would we need to make this better? Your experience will automatically make the next thing better, but maybe you also identified some key piece of equipment that would up the polish of your little filmmaking unit. “The Retriever” was shot without permits in a park outside of LA County because I couldn’t afford permits, but if I had it to do again I definitely would have found a few extra dollars to rent a shoulder rig for my cinematographer to make the camerawork a little steadier.
The great thing is, though, I gained assets just by getting out there and making things. More people became interested in helping out, lending resources, even investing a bit of much-needed cash. I’m still extremely limited in the scope of the stories I can tell but I’ve also grown my capability to make good work within those confines. I now have viable feature-length projects that could be made from the talent and resources I have access to; all they are missing is the budget. It gives one a lot of confidence to be able to show that to a potential investor.
I still have my “big” studio-style scripts that I put time into in case they ever come sniffing around; but I’m in such better shape for having chosen this self-starting outlet. And every time I start now, that’s the first question I ask.
“What are our assets?”
The more good work you can produce in response to situations like this, the more you develop your all-around muscles. A lot of paydays happen in Hollywood because somewhere, a producer suddenly has an urgent need to solve a problem. You want to be the one they think of. My gig last year writing the upcoming anime pilot Children of Ether didn’t happen because I had any experience writing English-language anime on an incredibly-short deadline. Who knows if there are even any names on that list? But a producer on the project knew and trusted me because I’d delivered for him in the past, and I solved their problem by coming in and executing the script on their deadline.
On “The Retriever”, I challenged myself to see if, as a writer, I could take a guy, a smart phone, and a shovel, and make that interesting and entertaining for five minutes; because that’s what I knew I could get my hands on and what my still-underdeveloped directing chops could handle. Now that it has concluded a festival run that succeeded wildly beyond my hopes, I can share it with you so you can see what a half-dozen friends and I were able to do in an unsecured public park in a half-day for a total budget of about $700.
Enjoy, then go figure out what your assets are and get to work!
I can picture where I was the first time I saw Mystery Science Theater 3000. It was in the little dining area of a house my family rented when we moved to California just before my 13th birthday. We only lived in that house for a year, and the peculiar sight of an old movie with little silhouettes in the corner pointing and laughing wrote a memory that has outlasted most of my other impressions of that place. I even remember the episode: the cringe-tastic White Saviors vs. The Ooga Booga adventure Jungle Goddess.
Once I got past that the show was just plain funny, elements of it started to emerge that were even more important than the laughs. I grew up in Ohio, and didn’t feel like a Californian. Even now, decades later, I still feel only half Californian. The Midwest is strong with this one. And MST3K was that rare animal, a creative work that was overtly Midwestern.
The performers never felt desperate for our attention. There was something more hospitable and humble about it; almost like it was apologizing for intruding sometimes. But it never took a back seat in its ability to entertain. Their rubber and styrofoam aesthetic and relaxed presentation concealed an all-inclusive and absolutely merciless facility for jest and mockery. That style was, again, familiar, ringing similar to those evenings with my family listening to A Prairie Home Companion. You might never have experienced it, but no one can match Garrison Keillor for the ability to smile gently while sticking in a culturally-self-critiquing shiv.
It was ingenious. The jokes and references didn’t just reward trivia-loaded nerds, they defiantly celebrated the virtues of cultural enrichment, and proclaimed that such things didn’t belong exclusively to the biggest cities. Anyone with a library and some curiosity could digest awesome literature, music, and history, and have instant rapport with people on the other side of a country or planet based only on that. More specifically to its era, it frequently reflected creator Joel Hodgson’s preoccupations with the mainstream Baby Boomer storytelling diet of Leave it to Beaver, and the way that the counter-culture systematically dismantled it with one brilliant assault after another.
If you watch any clips from his brief but astonishing stand-up comedy career, you see a precocious intellect short-circuiting from the attempt to process the milquetoast mush his elders fed him. In one bit, he unveils a pair of ventriloquist dummies he has fused together while singing the theme song to The Patty Duke Show: “They’re cousins…identical cousins, connected at the spine!” It’s no surprise that many of the show’s finest moments in his era occurred when his team got to aim flaming arrows at the ethos of Square America. In the short “A Date With Your Family”, watch at the 0:24 mark where the son opens the oven and Joel plaintively asks on his behalf: “Sylvia?” If you got how they managed to not only managed to land a pitch-dark and brilliant satirical bullseye against the homogonized content on screen, but also did it with a single word, you’re the type who could well feel, as a teenager with a lot of facts but not a lot of friends, that a TV show like this was sending you Christmas presents every week.
Once I attended a party full of professional puppeteers (don’t ask). Many of them were clearly very socially-shy; most preferring not even to make eye contact with you. And yet, if two of them had puppets on their hands; they would reach out to one another, seemingly of their own accord, and start interacting; using hands to sculpt a social exchange they didn’t feel up to committing their whole body to.
Joel has remarked on how rarely he interacted directly with other performers on the show when they were in human form. He seemed so little like a performer himself; he was simply Joel being Joel, all oddities intact. In an age where awareness of mental health issues is growing and taking on some necessary urgency at last, you can look back with new poignancy on the infamous “Joey the Lemur” sketch, which seems less like a sculpted comedy bit and more like a manic event that the cameras just happened to capture. Crow and Servo seem to lose the thread of how to even participate, and it becomes blatantly uncomfortable. But if you’ve ever had a friend who struggled with their equilibrium and needed to just ride out a peak with them, it might look familiar.
That word keeps coming up…friend. The theme song’s lyrics changed several times as the show changed hosts, and channels, but that key phrase: “his robot friends…” never changed. For a person as admittedly shy as Joel is – if you read between the historical lines as many hardcore fans do, you certainly get the impression that he quit the franchise rather than face a big argument with a key collaborator – the idea of building an entire TV show and family of robot puppets so he could have friends to share these peculiar movies with makes genuine sense. It’s the kind of radical-compensation-in-other-senses currently featured (albeit with a lot more punching) in Marvel’s Daredevil.
Friendship, and its virtue as your best weapon against madness, conformity, and mediocrity, is one of the pillars of MST3K. Another pillar is its pro-intellectualism, its unashamed celebration of being well-read and mentally limber enough to make non-intuitive connections in matching a reference to a prompt.
The final, crucial pillar occurred to me watching the revived Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix; where the sets are bigger, but not too much bigger; and the visual effects are better, but not too much better. A new crew has taken over, and their zest for the never-ending mission of the Satellite of Love is clear from the start. It feels like a true best of both worlds; reviving some of Joel’s idiosyncratic rituals like the Invention Exchange and playing towards his laid-back tone, while applying the experience and polish of the Mike Nelson era. They’re connected at the spine. Even if you’re a Joel homer like myself, you have to admit that many of the show’s all-time classics happened in the Nelson years; if nothing else, because the Best Brains crew had become very, consistently good at making their show.
I am only in the middle of the third episode, The Time Travellers, but already feel as if the promise the whole experiment has been fulfilled by Episode 2, Cry Wilderness. I’m quite prepared to call this crackpot Bigfoot adventure an instant classic for the series; if nothing else, because the sight of Crow and Servo cackling while making merry mischief in raccoon costumes has taken up immediate residence in the part of my brain where memories live that make me giggle helplessly at random moments.
It got me thinking about how the show’s “quality” could be a moving target. Their best episodes weren’t necessarily dependent on the relative goodness or badness of the film; more in what it was able to inspire in them. There’s a generation of would-be movie yucksters who seem to have missed the whole point of what MST created. There’s no value in just dismissing something, or calling it the worst thing ever. A lot of Internet commenters trying to win esteem trap themselves in a negative hyperbole cycle; hoping in vain to impress with their growing willingness to completely trash works that other people love and admire.
Over on the SoL, though, one of the constants is that, wherever the movie is on the spectrum that runs from Just Kinda Weird to Deep Hurting, the subjects of the experiments don’t ever bail out. They watch the movie from start to finish, and never even completely drown out the dialogue. They’ll let you follow the real plot even as they’re eviscerating it. There’s an inherent respect in that – people worked on these movies, even if they did it badly.
Think about it this way – on the worst dinner out with your friends, someone ends up in the hospital with food poisoning. On your worst vacation, you get bit by a snake and your luggage ends up in the ocean. But if you watch a bad movie, even “The Worst We Can Find”, well, with a creative mind and the company of good friends, even that can turn out to be a pretty good hang.
That’s what the revival of the show gets right, that’s what was most important to me to see preserved, and it’s why it feels so good to have the show back that I had to go blog like 1,600 words about it. It’s not just passive entertainment; it’s a stimulatingly good hang with clever people who mock movies because they think movies and the ability to watch them with others are ultimately things to be treasured.
The social organization of it feels a bit antiquated – you could have easy nightmares imagining a version of this show where anyone could hashtag a joke and have it trickle across the screen. But that would feel too competitive; everyone talking and no one listening. That’s not what MST3K does. It wants us in a conversation as urgently as it wants us to Keep Circulating the
It’s quietly radical of them to stick with that; to make a 90-minute show for a clickbait world. The show even acknowledges a changed world here and there. “What’s a radio?” one of the bots asks. Struggling to answer, new host Jonah settles on “It’s like a podcast you can’t control”. Culture comes on-demand in fast, tiny chunks now, but Quality Time takes time to create, and MST is back, bringing that kind of brain-rewarding, movie-loving, friendship-building Quality Time back into my life. It reminds me of the fellowship I have with anyone who would love giant monsters enough to create and perform an elaborate and damnably catchy rap number about giant monsters. With visual aids.
Recent weeks have been a sustained series of thrills in the world of “The Retriever”. Just over a month ago I was well over a mile high in Colorado at the Durango Independent Film Festival, just weeks later were screening in our own backyard at the North Hollywood Cinefest, where Barney was deservedly nominated for Best Actor in a Short, and this past weekend our SFX makeup artist Nikki Nina Nguyen and I road tripped out to the Phoenix Film Festival.
Each of this trio of fests was special for reasons that could each fill their own blog post. In Durango, my good friends Christine and Matt were in town with their own short film, “Killed in Action”, and we got to spend several days seeing beautiful sights and breathing mountain air in a community that seemed fully-invested in the festival. And at the end, my friends won the Festival’s Audience Award for Best Short Film – quite an achievement for a somber drama in a field of crowd-pleasing comedies and the like.
North Hollywood was personally special since the NoHo Arts District was the location of my first LA apartment. The Laemmle NoHo movie theater is a tireless champion of independent film and just walking distance away from where I used to live, so it felt like a genuine homecoming. Plus, their expert projection of a 4K DCP made it probably the highest-quality viewing of my film that I may ever enjoy.
Phoenix, on top of being the festival with the highest quality of programming of any I’ve attended, had a profound impact on me and my view of where I am at as a filmmaker. By all available evidence, “The Retriever” was the cheapest, smallest-crewed project there that wasn’t in the student category, and we were scheduled in a block that featured shorts with 5-figure budgets, and Oscar-nominated talents behind the camera. At our first Q&A I had to get over a genuine brain-blanking moment of “How did we get invited here?”
I think we had advantages in both our short length and our scrappy, comedic tone. In a block that featured many weighty projects, we served as an ideal midway palate cleanser. This is significant knowledge in the film festival world – if a programmer is considering your 20-minute short; they’re burdened by knowing that saying “yes” to you might mean saying “no” to 2-3 other shorts they really like (their head of shorts programming confided in me that she faced this exact dilemma), so if you’re going to occupy that much time, you had better hit a home run.
We have two more festival appearances to make this month, at Bare Bones in Oklahoma (where I won’t get to travel), and then a final appearance here in Southern California at Cinema at the Edge in Santa Monica. “The Retriever” has, on a nearly-identical budget, far surpassed “Samantha Gets Back Out There” in its success out there on the circuit; and the more my realistic expectations get shaped by experience, the more proud and impressed I am by what my team and I pulled off. Since my return from Durango I’ve been fired up to get the next short off the ground. I already have a draft, a project I’m calling “The Dinner Scene”; and some loose crewing up and planning have already begun. Each of these three festivals are on my “Definite Yes” list to submit to again, and I think I have a real opportunity to grow with this next one. Now to find the money…(think I’m going to be saying those words for the rest of my life…)
Had a thoroughly-wonderful overnight excursion last week to the Borrego Springs Film Festival. Borrego Springs isn’t even a town, as far as the law is concerned, it is a “census-designated place”, one of my favorite pieces of strangely-provocative bureaucrat-ese. The last time I was out there was way, way back in my days as a story development executive, working on a little picture called 29 Palms – the first Hollywood feature I ever worked on, and a darkly-hilarious lesson in just how much chaos can befall even a movie made by professionals.
One of the festival organizers actually remembered our movie – he both works with the Chamber of Commerce and liaises with the Park Service for when productions come into town to photograph their otherworldly desert. He told me a pretty terrific story that involved the late Marlon Brando and a golf cart.
I was there to represent the feature film Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, which I have an acting role in. The filmmakers were suddenly unable to attend, and so bequeathed their all-access passes to me; which included some of the
bribes perks a truly filmmaker-friendly festival always throws in – such as gift certificates to local restaurants and a discounted hotel stay. While I’ve seen several screenings of Cloudy at this point, Borrego Springs managed to pack the house with a vocal, appreciative crowd that greatly enjoyed the old-fashioned romantic comedy, which made it easy to enjoy watching again. I also spent the rest of the festival having random people point at me and make pot-smoking jokes.
I fully admit that I’m becoming a junkie for the festival world – I’ve attended a handful now both as a fan and a filmmaker; and they are becoming my favorite excuse to plan an expedition, not just for career reasons but to encounter new little communities and interact with enthused film lovers from everywhere. I usually leave having made at least one or two new friends whose festival itineraries I start to eagerly track for intersection with my own. It’s a community I’m excited to be a part of.
I also feel like I learn significantly more with each trip about what sort of festival I want to submit to. I actually submitted The Retriever to Borrego Springs and they passed on it; but seeing their audience – largely older retirees, I can see why my short wasn’t quite right for them. And that gets filed away as a little bit of boots-on-the-ground wisdom for my future projects.
If you want some comprehensive advice for how to select festivals worth your time, Cloudy producer/co-writer Rebecca Norris Resnick wrote a terrific column for ScriptMag.com about how to tell the good from the bad from the ugly.
I won’t give redundant versions of her advice; but I’ve noticed something worth setting down here. I have learned a little bit about a large number of creative endeavors, whether it’s making a film or producing an audiobook or publishing your own book. So often the same skillset proves handy – do your research, collate a crapton of data, set your standards and see what choices emerge from that work. I’ve been very fortunate to get into this world at the time that FilmFreeway.com has broken the effective monopoly on on-line film festival submissions that Withoutabox.com enjoyed for so long. The competition has made both services better and everyone benefits; especially filmmakers. It’s now a relatively straightforward process, if you invest the hours, to compile a substantive list of festivals that account for their longevity, what amount/type of material they program, and the cost/timetable for submitting to them. This substantially improves the success of your festival strategy.
Now that I have attended some festivals, as well as worked behind the scenes vetting submissions to a large one, I have a better idea of the type of festival I’d like to get into; and what some best submission practices are. I’ll organize a few of those into a separate post soon enough, I think.
I had a new experience recently – someone cold-called my family’s house and left a message on the answering machine, claiming to be a publisher “very interested” in Seeing by Moonlight. The book is published already; but with independently-published books it is always possible to pull the plug and roll out a new version with a publisher’s backing. One must simply decide if the services they are offering are worth what you will sacrifice in royalties and control.
Needless to say, I am skeptical when they reach out by phone; especially when the voice seems to be reading the name of my book awkwardly into a script.
I looked up the company, and they present themselves as a one-stop shop for author services – editing, publishing, promotion, all of it, a la carte or as a package. Nothing about their site indicated any critical discernment; if your money’s good, they will happily take it and (probably) provide you with a book-like product posted on Amazon, Goodreads et al. You will also have the exciting option of paying for PR, paying for reviews, paying for all sorts of things. Will they be the best version of said things? Who can ever say? You only have the one book, so you won’t get to compare the results with anything.
As I said in my lengthy breakdown of the costs of publishing Stages of Sleep, if your primary goal is just for the book to exist, and you have enough money to consider this a hobby where covering your costs isn’t an overriding concern, then many leading services of this type could probably meet your needs.
If, however, you are trying to produce a professional-grade product while simultaneously being thrifty about your out-of-pocket costs; then the devil is really, really in the details.
Sites like this primarily work as middlemen. They book an author, then matchmake them with someone providing an essential service – e.g. an editor. They probably have a network of freelancers who work for a certain rate; and the “publisher” takes a healthy markup for putting the two of you together. Ditto artwork, publicity…none of these creatives are likely earning an in-house salary, they’re just taking assignments as they come in while they hustle for a living like the rest of us. You have no idea how much experience they have, how much attention they will be able to pay to your book given the size of the fee, or even whether they work within (or even much like) your genre, and you might not get much hand in choosing them. If you have hired such a service, the service assumes you don’t know the landscape so well.
As I said in that prior post, as an independent author you have to consider yourself the manager of a professional process far beyond writing – editing, design/layout, cover artwork, publicity/marketing, distribution. Through some combination of DIY and hiring, you have to see to the completion of these tasks. A legitimate “big” publisher can cover them all, and will assume a share of the risk by doing so with professional personnel without making you pay for it all up front. Needless to say, they do not extend such risk to just anyone.
A middleman servicer catering to independents places all the risk on you by having you pay out-of-pocket up-front. If you end up with a wildly-successful book, they get a giant chunk of it, and who is to say how much they actually helped? If it performs as the average independent book performs, they still have your money. So if it even needs saying as advice, don’t just read the blurbs on their site. Google. Google deep and Google hard.
Some of what they are offering isn’t difficult to at least comparison shop by one’s self. When I was looking for a copy editor, a single post on Craigslist produced well over 150 responses. I filtered it down to the dozen or so that sounded most approachable; this included eliminating some of those who had the most “big” publishing house experience, as I knew I would never be able to approach their quotes. I sent each of these candidates the same sample chapter; provided the overall word count of the book, and asked them to extrapolate from that an estimate for the hours required to edit the entire book, and a quote to match. Three candidates emerged who had exemplary scrutiny and mastery of grammar, and whom I could afford; and the final call was a gut one based on rapport and my comfort with their methods. And I was very happy with the editor I hired and have retained her services on all three of my books.
A “publisher” trafficking in author services might well have connected me with someone of equal quality; but then I would have had to pay them as well as the editor, PLUS give up some of my book sales. To the extent that editing polish positively impacts sales (and if I haven’t said it enough, professional editing is something you cannot do without if you want your book taken seriously), I achieved the same result with less money just by managing that aspect of the process myself.
Saying more along these lines would probably be redundant; the point is primarily to raise a warning flag that the marketplace is evolving in a new direction. Call them useful to amateurs or exploitative of same, but such companies are no longer just setting up websites and hoping some old-fashioned SEO will steer you to them. They are hunting. Someone is likely curating and selling the names of authors publishing independently; either by searching the Kindle store, or perhaps by buying a list from one of the services MF Thomas and I used in publishing our two collaborations. Competitors will start hunting too, in order to keep up; it’s just how marketplaces work.
Doing it by phone is a tell. A scripted telemarketer works by volume and on commission. So someone out there has written a script designed to coax independent authors into signing up with one of these “publishers”. I would be curious to read that script – but not curious enough to actually return their call and listen to it. If the publisher is primarily fishing for inexperienced authors, then you can intuit the business model: get the money from you upfront, and if you don’t like the quality, odds are it was the only book you were ever going to write anyway. (Was that brutal? Probably. So is being a writer.)
I remember back when I worked in script development at a feature film company. The VP that I worked under was very good at networking and sales conversations and loved movies, but wasn’t a patient reader. Literary agents got wise that when he started telling them how much he loved a script and wanted our company to be able to shop it exclusively to a couple of studios, he might not have even read it. Some would start quizzing him on details, and so he kept me by the phone so he could execute the bluff.
That might be one good thing to remember if someone claiming to be a “publisher” starts flattering you by phone. Find out if they have even read the thing, and be ready to disrupt the script by asking a few questions. If they are in sales mode, they don’t want to discuss numbers until they feel like they have softened you up enough, so go ahead and skip to the meat. Ask if you are expected to pay for services upfront. Ask what rights they are looking to acquire, and for how long. Ask what royalties they expect. Find out if they are taking any risk at all, or if you’re just another sales lead to them. If all the risk is on you, and it won’t harm them at all if your book only sells five copies, don’t be afraid to ask why you need them at all.
Little Nick going down the slide on the playground back at Springmyer Elementary School had no idea what a “personal brand” was. He was also a stranger to body hair. Quite an innocent, was little Nick going down the slide.
In phase 1.0 of my creative career, I overtly psyched myself out and focused exclusively on developing my muscles as a screenwriter. And it is still the creative outlet that has brought me the most money and my closest brushes with Hollywood glory. I didn’t really have the confidence that I could be a multi-hyphenate; better, I figured, to put all my push into one niche and burrow in there deep.
It sort of worked and sort of didn’t work quite well enough; and there’s a whole book one could write about the generational transformation in how screenwriters make a buck, how writers in general make money at all (“money” being a mythical object promised at the end of a long road called “Exposure”); and, most broadly, how creative individuals build their profile.
But I changed my approach – I think it was the right adaptation to make; because I am capable of doing multiple things, and have achieved enough with them to feel as if the world agrees with me. While I haven’t broken through to a level of success and income I’m satisfied with; the fact is I’m building a network, and a portfolio of work I’m proud of; and it’s happening because I’m operating in this unique and bizarre intersection between my particular skillsets.
They are, however, difficult to sum up; and that’s the enemy of that whole “personal brand” thing. I sign my e-mails “Writer/Actor/Filmmaker”; but there are a lot of subheadings to break out under those three titles when it comes to the work I chase. I joke that when people ask what I’m working on, I need to carry a little laminated card summarizing the four-five projects that are currently on the front burner. It’s not at all uncommon for me to be editing a new Earbud Theater episode, rehearsing a play, submitting a short film to festivals, and drafting a novel all while maintaining my position with Arts Orange County. That is, in fact, a pretty ordinary number of juggling balls.
This life asks a lot of you. I know it’s made it difficult to find personal balance, even to make time to be a fan of the media that I’m trying to create. And I think I haven’t been as good as I ought to be about self-promotion because at any given moment, creating is always more satisfying to me than trying for the thousandth time to understand the secret hieroglyphics of marketing. This is a tough savanna for an introvert to try catching a meal on.
But I have seen any number of people revitalizing the medium of blogging; and I blogged, no kidding, probably about a dozen books’ worth of text back in my LiveJournal heyday. If my prime difficulty is in reducing what I do to just a few words; then maybe the solution lies in the other direction – putting more words to it so you can draw your own picture.
I’ve been doing a lot of this on Facebook for my personal contacts; but once a Facebook post goes beyond two paragraphs I think I’m really stretching that format beyond its intended attention span. It breathes better here. So we’ll see if this catches on. There’s plenty to discuss, promote, announce.