GOING GLOBAL

I grew up in a small Kansas town, and when I returned home from film school it seemed the most logical place to begin making films.  Of course, people on the coasts thought I was nuts, but where else can you close down an entire street without having to worry about the police or any passers-by bothering you?

My first three features were filmed in Kansas.  It was only when I traveled to Macon, Georgia, for a film festival there, that I felt so comfortable in the town, I could see how easily it would be to make a film there.  So I did.  It felt like I’d graduated to the next level somehow.

After shooting in Macon, I decided to venture even further from the roost and shoot something in Palm Springs.  It was an exhilarating shoot.  Partly because it’s allegedly against the law to film anything inside Palm Springs city limits without having permission from the Powers That Be, permits, insurance, and all that.  So we just didn’t tell anyone, and made our movie anyway.

The next year, when we were headed to the Raindance Film Festival in London, I thought, well, if we’re all going to be there we might as well make a movie at the same time.  It was an absolute thrill.  Much like with the California shoot, London is beyond strict when it comes to permits, insurance, and permission from the Powers That Be, and so forth.  And, like our prior escapade, I decided to do it stealth and not say a word to anyone.  We got away with it.

I don’t do drugs.  And the rush that came with filming guerrilla style, essentially illegally, became so addictive I couldn’t stop!  After stealing London and Paris (for a quick scene at the Eiffel Tower), I set my sights on Hong Kong.  We filmed a week in LA and then flew to Hong Kong where we filmed an additional three weeks.  Hong Kong was more relaxed, and filmmaker-friendly than all the other cities, but it was still under-the-radar and more than once we filmed someplace we weren’t supposed to be.

How does one accomplish these things?  Well, it’s pretty easy, actually.  Google Earth and Google Maps makes it possible to “walk around” the streets and find locations, restaurants to eat in for lunch, alleyways to hold a staging area, and directions for subway travel times and so forth.  We didn’t need to hire any location scout or send someone to take pictures.  Google had already done all that for us!

It was pretty easy to post casting calls in both the UK and in Hong Kong, and all auditions were held via Skype, or on password protected YouTube or Vimeo pages.

In both places I had great help “on the ground” from the actors who would appear in the film.  We took advantage of shooting in areas they knew about, or perhaps places they lived.  In Hong Kong, our local producer even arranged for us to film the climactic fight sequence in a penthouse with terraces and more!

It might seem daunting at first to go to a far flung destination and shoot a movie without ever having been there before, but I’m here to say it can be done.  And, it is highly recommended.  The pure joy you’ll have coming home, knowing you made a movie in a foreign land… It’s something you can treasure forever.

FESTIVAL PREMIERES: What Do They mean?

One of my consulting clients recently asked me to help her clarify the difference between the various types of film festival premieres, and help her analyze her film festival strategy.

She asked, “What are World Premieres as compared to, say, Regional and/or Local Premieres?  More specifically, can I have a local premiere or a U.S. Premiere before the World Premiere, or is there a specific one that is supposed to happen first?”

Filmmakers and the media throw the word “premiere” around so often in the film world, I can understand how it can sometimes be confusing.  For the purpose of this article, we’re talking about various types of film festival premieres.  Or premieres that independent filmmakers should be concerned with.  We’re not talking about the red carpet “premieres” that Hollywood might have in London, New York, or Los Angeles that have nothing to do with a film festival.  Those types of “premieres” are usually held for publicity purposes to kick off a global theatrical release.

At film festivals, when you have a World Premiere, that means it’s the first time your movie will screen publicly in the world.  Some film festivals only accept films with World Premiere status, such as Sundance.  If you have already screened at another festival prior you could be disqualified from participation.  Some film festivals do not require a World Premiere status; so it’s important know their rules before you submit your movie.  I advise people to submit to the festivals that require a World Premiere first, because you can always submit to the other festivals later.

Likewise, there are festivals that require a country or regional kind of Premiere Status.  A US Premiere is the first time the film screens publicly in the US, and a NYC Premiere means its the first time the film is screened in NYC, and so forth.

My consulting client continued, “A Chicago festival that runs in mid-October is where I want to be the official Premiere of my short film…but…an L.A. festival that I also want to submit to is hosting their event during the first week of October and their notifications of acceptances/rejections are released two months before the Chicago notifications.  If I get into both festivals, can I still designate the Chicago one as a ‘World’ premiere even if I already screened at the L.A. one a few days prior?  Also, does any of this premiere lingo (world, U.S., International, Regional, LA, NY, East Coast, West Coast, Midwest, etc.) used at festivals, to distinguish one premiere from another premiere, really matter?”

I always suggest entering as many festivals as you can.  Sometimes one is limited by funding (if you entered all of them you’d spend thousands on submission fees).  If you get accepted into two or more festivals that each require a World Premiere, you always have the option to decline being in the less desirable.  In this case, I suggested if she gets into both the LA and Chicago fests, to screen in both.  I don’t see the trouble in saying your World Premiere is in Chicago—especially if the LA screening date was just within a few days of the Chicago date.

The use of the word “premiere” in various fests is just used to promote the fest itself.  If they can tell their regional newspapers that they have movies that have never before been seen in St Louis, for example, then it could draw more of a crowd because it sends the signal if someone wants to see your movie, they better come see it because they may not get another chance.

When my movie CASSEROLE CLUB got into Raindance, we had to promise it would be a UK Premiere, but they didn’t care whether or not the film previously screened in the US, etc.  But, when it was time to see if we could get into Berlinale, Berlin said we couldn’t be considered because we’d already screened at Raindance.  They wanted a World Premiere (or at least a European Premiere).  Now, had I been accepted to both Raindance and Berlinale, and had their dates been closer, I might not even mention Raindance, and if Berlin found out, I could have told Berlin that the Raindance screening was an unfinished test screening, or “Sneak Peek” and that the “finished” movie would show at Berlin for the first time, making it a World Premiere.  (I haven’t tried that kind of scenario yet, so I’m not sure if it would even work, but it seems plausible to me and Berlin might buy that).

Lastly, I think any “premiere” lingo is really about marketing and festivals just want to make sure they have ticket-buying customers.

THE OBSERVER EFFECT

Until I directed “Occupying Ed” I had a rule: never let the screenwriter on set during filming.  Why?  Because I knew—even though I’m very confident when it comes to staying focused while directing a movie—the presence of that extra set of eyes would sneak in and prevent me from being able to focus 100%.

Even if that screenwriter promised to stand in the corner and keep still, silent as can be, I would be aware of their presence.  Even if it were a small number, there would still be some kind of percentage of my focus wondering if they liked what they saw, liked what they heard, and so forth.  And, it would be doubly difficult to rewrite something in the middle of the scene if certain words just weren’t flowing as well verbally as they did on paper.

I like the freedom to rewrite a scene while we’re filming, and having the ability to feel the natural flow of what comes from letting the scene organically change when needed.  Having the screenwriter present can sometimes cause a challenge in that process.

What I’m talking about is The Observer Effect.  Which, I just learned, is an actual thing!

According to Wikipedia, The Observer Effect (also called the experimenter-expectancy effect, expectancy bias, or experimenter effect) is a form of reactivity in which a researcher’s cognitive bias causes them to unconsciously influence the participants of an experiment.  It is a significant threat to a study’s internal validity, and is therefore typically controlled using a double-blind experimental design.

An example of The Observer Effect is demonstrated in music backmasking, in which hidden verbal messages are said to be audible when a recording is played backwards.  Some people expect to hear hidden messages when reversing songs, and therefore hear the messages, but to others it sounds like nothing more than random sounds.  Often when a song is played backwards, a listener will fail to notice the “hidden” lyrics until they are explicitly pointed out, after which they are obvious.

On a film set, observers have a great influence on the process regardless whether they are screenwriters, production assistants, other actors, or camera crew.  It is because of this my new rule is: keep the sets closed at all times.  From everyone.  No one should be there on set but me.

Okay, I’m kidding.  I won’t go that far.  But I do think it’s a wise move to limit the numbers of eyes on a film set.  Actors are delicate creatures (cough) that need to feel safe in their environment so they can do what they do.  Same goes for directors, cinematographers and sound people.

Really there shouldn’t be anyone else on set that doesn’t need to be there.  On occasion for a tricky move, it’s important to have assistance and various crew people on hand.

Sometimes, of course, The Observer Effect is so minimal it’s as if there is no effect.  When we filmed “Occupying Ed” the screenwriter Jim Lair Beard and his wife, Christine, were extras during some scenes.  And you know what, it was an absolute pleasure to have them on set and to share in the experience.  I never once felt like my focus as director was in any way compromised.

That experience was so lovely that it changed my mind about The Observer Effect.  But, it’s still true: You can never purely observe anything because the presence of the observer changes the thing.  Keep that in mind.

HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 4 of 4

Click here to read PARTS ONE, TWO, and THREE.

The STUCK! shoot was marvelous.

One of the best parts was the food.  See, when the cast and crew are only a handful of people it is possible to go to someone’s home for a dinner party.  You can eat superior food.  Feeding 42 people on a traditional crew likely means scraps and bulk-made meals.  And there is no intimacy about that kind of thing.  With a set like mine we eat homemade slow-cooked masterpieces every night.  We can sit around the same table.  It becomes a far more rewarding experience.

Like WATCH OUT, the STUCK! shooting days were just as efficient.  We’d work from 9 AM and wrap around 5 or 6 PM.  We worked every day with no days off.  It took less than two weeks to complete.

The reviews were amazing:  Film Threat writes, “Balderson just doesn’t make simple films, and this is no exception. It’s not in the words, or the plot or the story; but it’s in the air, it’s in the beat, it’s in the very soul of the work.” The LA Weekly said it was “Revolutionary.”  And UK Critic MJ Simpson writes, “Steve Balderson is the best-kept secret in American independent cinema. He makes his own films – which are unfailingly brilliant – and the rest of the world very, very gradually catches up with him.”

In February, 2010, the American Cinematheque hosted the LA Premiere of STUCK! at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  The cast was there with me to present the film and do a Q&A after the screening.  One of the people in the audience mentioned that because all the actors were there, talking enthusiastically about this new way of filmmaking, it spoke volumes about the process.

I signed a deal with a sales agent who is selling STUCK! to buyers around the globe.

In the fall of 2010, I put together another top-secret film shoot and produced my film THE CASSEROLE CLUB.  A couple new stars joined the group for this shoot: namely Kevin Richardson (from the Backstreet Boys), Daniela Sea (from the L Word), and acclaimed stage actress Jennifer Grace.  We made the film in Palm Springs in exactly the same way we made STUCK! and WATCH OUT.  The entire experience is captured in director Anthony Pedone’s documentary CAMP CASSEROLE.

The shoot was a lot like summer film camp.  We rented a few vacation homes that would serve as the locations, and also would house all of us.  Staying together in the same place was magical.  Each day we’d gather to film scenes, and if any actors weren’t working, they would lounge by the pool, read a book, and basically turn their time on the set as a vacation.  This aspect of the shoot was the best.  I made sure that we’re doing the work we need to do, but it’s just as important for me to create an atmosphere that is a rewarding experience personally.

Each evening we would have a meal sponsored by one of the cast or crew, or friends and family.  Imagine being at summer camp and coming together over a meal and singing Kumbaya.  That’s exactly what it was like!  Only instead of singing Kumbaya, per se, several people would pull out their guitars and do an impromptu acoustic concert; or, there would be fun short films being made; or, night swimming and gazing up at the stars with a great conversation.

One of my favorite moments filming THE CASSEROLE CLUB came whenever we needed to do some exterior shots around the Palm Springs area.  We’d just jump in my car and drive around until we’d find the greatest place, jump out, film it, then rush back to the car and speed away as if nothing ever happened.  This is the kind of freedom I love work in.  It’s exhilarating.

THE CASSEROLE CLUB premiered at Visionfest`11 in New York City where we were nominated for 9 Independent Vision Awards and won 5: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Kevin Richardson, Best Actress for Susan Traylor, Best Production Design.  And the most overwhelming compliment came in 2012 when the U.S. Library of Congress invited the film to be a part of its permanent collection.

Making films in today’s distribution landscape is drastically different than it was even a few years ago.  It is very important to spend as little money possible to make your films.  If your film cost $200,000 that’s fine.  But maybe you could try to find a way to make two movies for $100,000 instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.

Be realistic when you’re planning your expenses.  Regardless of the storyline, regardless of the actors, stars or location, if you think your project will make $100,000 in sales, your best bet at sustainability is to make sure that project costs less than that.

These are just some of the ways the distribution landscape has changed the way films are made.