quid pro quo [kwid proh kwoh] n Latin
1.) Something for something; that which a party receives (or is promised) in return for something he does or gives or promises
Quid Pro Quo is the bargain that every independent filmmaker who wants folks to come out to their movie (if they are lucky enough to get it into theaters) makes with every other indie filmmaker who gets their movie into theaters—I will see your movie and you will come see mine. Something for something. It’s how an independent film community survives in a difficult marketplace for indie movies, and if we as filmmakers are not capable of holding up our end of the bargain, then there certainly won’t be a theatrical outlet for indie films by the time our films are ready for the big screen.
“Quid Pro Quo” also happens to be an aptly titled indie film opening today that we filmmakers should all go out and support. And not just because of the Bargain, but also because it is an excellent movie. First time director Carlos Brooks teams up with veteran producers Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury (“Desperately Seeking Susan,” “River’s Edge,” many more) and a talented cast, (led by Nick Stahl and Vera Farmiga) to create an intriguing and unique mystery that is also in its way, very funny. It is beautifully shot by DP Michael McDonough (who incidentally shot Farmiga’s break-out film “Down To The Bone”) on the Sony F900 HD camera. Anyone who thinks you can’t get a “film look” from high def video (are there still people who think that?) should check it out just to see the wonderful film noir lighting so well realized with this format.
“Quid Pro Quo” premiered at this year’s Sundance to excellent reviews, but in this year’s bone-crunching environment, where crowd-pleasing hits from Sundance and other festivals have found little traction, it is imperative that we jump to see this film the first weekend so it will be around long enough for word-of-mouth to kick in. And this is one you’ll want to see on the big screen with a crowd.
So keep your promise—go see “Quid Pro Quo”!
“Quid Pro Quo” opens today at the Landmark in West LA.
I go to Sundance and Toronto every year, (this was my 13th Sundance and this year’s Toronto will be my 9th), and I usually cover the local LA festivals pretty extensively: LAFF, AFI Fest, Silver Lake Film Festival, Dances With Films, etc. But other than being invited to attend or being asked to participate on a jury, I don’t generally stray to many smaller regional festivals. So it was an interesting experience to visit several this year with my film “True Love” and assess how they were doing and see what they were programming. Several observations have already been noted in PART 1—there are a bunch of specialty studio arms putting their films in these little festivals now, the press and audiences are flocking to those films (and their celebrities) first, some locally-made films garner press attention and audiences, (surely those who contributed to the project are there), and the overall quality of lesser-known films is higher than it was a few years ago. Something else I’m seeing is the star-directed film, where a famous, or at least relatively well-known actor directs a film and invites their star friends to be involved. There were several out on the trail this year: “Battle in Seattle” (directed by Stuart Townsend), “Then She Found Me” (directed by Helen Hunt), “The Cake Eaters” (directed by Mary Stuart Masterson), and an interesting little film called “Karl Rove, I Love You,” directed by an often-seen, if not well-known character actor named Dan Butler, (you may remember him as “Bull” on TV’s “Frasier”). Here are some of the films I caught over the last few months that are worth checking out, by festival:
* Method Fest - carving out a unique niche as a festival that focuses on the actor, Method Fest featured a number of performance-based films that I enjoyed. The quintessential film for this kind of festival may be “Choose Conner,” written and directed by Luke Eberl. It wasn’t hard to see why this film didn’t make it into Sundance—quite frankly, it was pretty horribly shot and directed. What was so amazing about it was how much the good writing and good performances managed to save the day. I wouldn’t normally denigrate a film here (if I don’t like something, I just don’t talk about it), but I think it’s useful to once again point out how important good performances are to any film, especially ones made at the lowest budget levels. “Choose Conner” is ultimately a very good film. The story is told with honesty and subtlety, and the performances are across-the-board terrific, especially the young Alex Linz and the always dependable (but lately very slimy—in a good way) Steven Weber.
Another interesting film, the first of my faux/moc docs to speak of, is “Fix” directed by Tao Ruspoli. The film uses the conceit of two documentary filmmakers who have to take a family member to a rehab facility, and film the whole event with their cameras—everything you see is from that camera’s perspective. If you’re like me and you’ve seen this kind of thing in one form or another ad nauseum, then you probably get a little queasy just thinking about having to sit through another one. Well, the good news is that “Fix” transcends it’s somewhat limited conceit is several interesting ways. The filmmakers have made a very dynamic piece that doesn’t get trapped by its own strict rules; and it doesn’t break those rules either, which is another pet peeve of mine. The perfs are strong and the camera work, by DP Chris Gallo, is excellent. If you have any doubts about the Panasonic HVX-200, see this film.
* Atlanta Film Festival - another faux doc, “The Project,” which like “Fix” premiered at Slamdance, (if SXSW is the place where mumblecore films get programmed, Slamdance is the place faux docs get programmed); Sundance isn’t really programming either of these kinds of films anymore, (with a couple of exceptions). Director Ryan Piotrowicz is a talented filmmaker who has done a wonderful job here. There’s never a false note, in a film where false notes could be easily rendered, and the actors do a terrific job. A fake documentary about filmmakers who get too involved in their own film, this is the kind of film that would have played Sundance 10 years ago, but now seems a little “done.” Doesn’t take away from the fact that it is extremely well-“done”.
Alex Karpovsky’s mock doc “Woodpecker” was also incredibly well-done. One of those fake docs that’s so realistic and so subtle that you never really know if it’s fake or not, “Woodpecker’s” strength lies in the film’s central performance from Jon Hyrns, and in Karpovsky’s confident direction. Perhaps a bit slow for most people’s tastes, Karpovsky never lets the conceit get away from him, which is often the downfall of the phony documentary.
* WorldFest-Houston - amazingly, this is the third oldest film festival in the U.S. And you ask, why haven’t I heard more about it? Well, that’s a topic for another time. Interestingly, the number of film festivals across the country has exploded in just the last 15 years, going from two-digits to four-digits in that time. Don’t believe me, just check the editions of the next festivals you apply to; most will be in their 5th year, or 10th year, but few will be in their 20th year. SXSW is in their 15 year; Tribeca is in their 8th year; AFI Dallas is only in their 2nd year. Back to WorldFest: “Before The Rains” is the kind of film I will often skip at a festival—big, expensive period piece not being distributed by a major company. Usually these films, well, suck. But this popular festival film, while not necessarily David Lean-like, was certainly well worth watching. Set in the Kerala region of India, the cinematography and landscape captured was just stunning. And the story, about a British imperialist who has an affair with a native Indian woman just before India’s independence, had a bit of bite to it. This film is getting a limited release around the country by Roadside Attractions.
* Indianapolis International Film Festival - not to be confused with the “other” Indianapolis festival—Heartland—IIFF programs the real festival films: the tough artfilm; the depressing, but honest drama; and OK, also “Young @ Heart,” (who didn’t program it this year? These young festivals have to find ways to be around next year). One day I saw a trilogy of downbeat dramas back-to-back-to-back that will never get (substantive) releases, but will please hardcore art film fans nonetheless. And isn’t that the point of a film festival? To program high quality films that we can’t normally see at our multiplex, or even on cable? Well, that used to be the priority. It still is at IIFF.
JJ Lask’s “On The Road With Judas” is an extremely unique film, one of those mind twisters. I missed maybe the first 30 seconds of it, but thought I’d missed more and had no idea what the fuck was going on. Turns out, you’re really not supposed to know what’s going on until the end. Very funny and interesting film with a strong ensemble cast.
Another little-seen Sundance feature at IIFF was “Chronic Town,” director Tom Hines drama about the kinds of lost souls who wash up in Alaska, which featured a strong performance from lead JR Bourne. This was one third of my downbeat trilogy, which also included “Take” starring Minnie Driver as a mother who loses her son in a grocery store hold-up, and “This Beautiful City,” director Ed Gass-Donnelly’s ubiquitous hyperlink drama about troubled upper- and lower-class souls in Toronto.
Joachim Trier’s “Reprise” was a bold feature debut that will be opening soon in the States and is well worth seeing for its unique and energetic visual style and narrative structure. “May the Best Man Win” was a somewhat slight, but mostly funny mock-doc about the competition between old friends vying to be their best buddy’s Best Man. Adam Fleischhacker’s film features many faces familiar to fans of Comedy Central and SNL.
There’s nothing like attending three or four festivals in a row to teach you what kinds of films to be making and what kinds to be avoiding. If you don’t have a star in your film and it can’t be described in a provocative way in 1-2 sentences, good luck getting anybody in the theater. If you don’t have an interesting production still for your key art, forget it. If your film doesn’t have an obvious audience, or it’s not an “issue” doc, or a horror film, or a comedy, or a horror/comedy, then you’ve got an uphill battle ahead of you. I’m not saying you should make a horror/comedy, I’m saying keep these points in mind when you start preparing your festival film. Then be unique, be bold.
I’ve been out on the road—or as I like to call it, the “ole regional film festival trail”—with my feature “True Love.” Whether you premiere in one of the major domestic festivals—Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, LAFF—or not, you’re likely to hit a number of regional festivals on your way to some kind of ultimate distribution. Of course, let’s be clear, it’s not a given that you will get into many of the smaller festivals, even if you’ve made a pretty good film. The competition is fierce, not only from the burgeoning number of new filmmakers forged by inexpensive production tools, but also from more established filmmakers and films, even those with big distributors, (more on that in a bit). Statistics from consultant and film festival programmer Thomas Ethan Harris state that a typical feature filmmaker spends nearly $3,500 on film festival submissions and only gets into around two festivals, on average. Another way of looking at it is that the average filmmaker gets into less than 10% of the festivals they apply to. My own experience with “True Love” confirms these numbers, and while my film may not be perfect, it’s not a disaster either. It was a Sundance Screenwriters Lab project made by an award-winning director. The few reviews I’ve been able to garner have been strong and it has won a couple of awards already. But make no mistake, this is a tough game and it’s getting tougher—it should be said that I had personal relationships with many of the festivals I didn’t get into. The head of one of those festivals grew up down the street from me and was in my sister’s wedding!
If you’ve got a good film and you apply enough, however, you will get into a few festivals. But then what do you do? Hopefully you will be invited to attend, meaning they will pay for your travel and accommodations. Some of the better funded festivals will do this automatically, and if they don’t you should insist on it. As producer’s rep and distribution consultant Peter Broderick says, if your film is at a festival and you aren’t, it’s like a tree falling in the forest. Your film becomes invisible; all the things that you may hope to reap from that festival appearance will not come your way unless you are there. This brings up one of the most important parts of festival strategy—setting goals. You need to have specific goals for what you hope to obtain going to all these festivals. Things like: securing distribution, collecting press quotes and festival laurels for your marketing materials, networking with other filmmakers and industry professionals, experiencing the joy (hopefully) of screening your film to a live audience, getting audience feedback for your film, finding fans who sign up to your website, meeting potential investors for your next project, seeing the world, having fun, drinking and eating for free, etc. Some of these things are more important to you than others, and some festivals will be able to deliver some of these things better than others. Without clearly defining these goals to yourself and working hard to achieve them, much of your festival experience will be a waste of time. You can’t expect these things to just happen without a plan to make them happen, and a successful implementation of that plan.
So what are a few of the realities that I’ve discovered on my own festival sojourn?
1.) No matter how good the festival is, (how well organized they are, how strong their programming is, how good their projection is, etc.), they will have difficulty getting folks into your screenings. Now there are exceptions with certain festivals and certain films—Sundance, SXSW and some other festivals are known for sell-out houses; and some films for a variety of reasons pack them in, (“Dance Of The Dead”—a locally-shot comedy/horror film sold out three performances at the recent Atlanta Film Festival)—but the grim reality for most regional festivals is that it is very hard to get butts into seats, especially if your film is a “relationship drama” or something as hook-lacking as that.YOU
have to help get people into your screenings. Apply to fests where you have some connection to the town, work on getting press for your film, blanket the place with postcards (a very good place to order postcards is Digital Room) and 11 x 17 posters that you can print for cheap at Kinko’s, network the hell out of the place, whatever. There is nothing more demoralizing than standing in front of four people when they introduce your film; and nothing happens if nobody sees it.
2.) Publicity is HARD! Getting something written about your film in the local paper is next to impossible, especially if you don’t have stars and didn’t win a prize at Sundance. I probably don’t have to tell you what’s happening to newspapers across the country—they’re laying off their staff, especially local film reviewers. When I got to Houston, my hometown, to screen “True Love” at WorldFest-Houston, I found the Houston Chronicle—the only daily in the fourth largest city in the country—had just laid off Bruce Westbrook, a 20 year veteran, and was down to one critic, who WASN’T covering the festival! (The third oldest in the U.S.). The free weekly “alternative” paper, The Houston Press, hasn’t had a local film reviewer in years; they only run wire reviews. Good luck getting a preview or review in that environment. Some festivals have galvanized the community and have gotten the local newspapers behind them (Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham, AL or AFI Dallas, for instance), but beware! The films that are going to get the most attention are 1.) locally-made films 2.) films with stars who will be in attendance, and 3.) films distributed by major distribution companies, who employ full-time publicists. Wait, we’re talking about regional festivals, right? Why are these films in regional festivals? Welcome to the new film marketing math—big distributors have discovered a new cost-effective marketing strategy for their indie-oriented films—regional festivals. (Read John Horn’s recent LA Times article). I’ve been running into the same festival hogs at all the festivals I’ve attended this year: “Son Of Rambow” (Paramount Vantage), “Young @ Heart” (Fox Searchlight), “The Visitor” (Overture Films), “Then She Found Me” (THINKFilm), “Mongol” (Picturehouse), and several others. They get all the newspaper ink. They’ve got one-sheet posters and hundreds of 11x17 posters splattered all over the place. They enjoy all the benefits a multi-million dollar distribution campaign can amass. Shit, I’ve got $20 to market my film at the Atlanta Film Festival! And even worse, these films’ veteran stars are winning the acting prizes at some of these festivals. What’s a $50,000 feature with a no-name cast to do?
3.) Spend whatever it takes to screen your film on tape. Yes, most smaller festivals are offering the opportunity to screen your film on DVD-R, but if they offer Digibeta or some other tape format, spend the money to get your film on it. Listen, this is the No Budget Film School guy telling you this. I don’t believe in wasting money, even at the end of the process, but if it’s Digibeta, I’m sure you can find someone to pull you a favor, (HDCAM is another thing). And this isn’t only because the quality will be better. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed films stop in the middle, or throw up all manner of digital artifacts, when they’ve screened on DVD. Twice at one festival they couldn’t show a preceding short film at all because it wouldn’t play, (another reason to be in attendance).
4.) Uniqueness is king. I say it all the time in my classes. Uniqueness is the most important quality a festival film can have. Uniqueness is the reason your film gets into Sundance or SXSW. Uniqueness trumps talent and competence, (although it certainly helps to have all three). Genres to stay away from: mock or faux documentaries, first-person camera films, hyperlink films, (where there are multiple intersecting characters and stories), to name a few. I’ve seen several well-made mock/faux docs this year, and none of them were at Sundance. This is a genre that was pass? for Sundance 10 years ago. Doesn’t mean these films aren’t well-made or entertaining, but they’re not unique enough to get accepted now. And without that Sundance stamp of approval, even good films have a hard time getting into smaller festivals, attracting a sizable audience, or garnering substantive press.
COMING SOON: PART 2 - Some of the good films I’ve seen out on the Trail…
As a teacher and student of no-budget filmmaking “theory,” and as a producer in pre-production on another impossible-to-shoot-on-no-money film, I’m really glad I saw “Be Kind Rewind” tonight. The Michel Gondry-directed film proved to be utterly inspirational. Not the movie itself, mind you—it was made for millions of dollars—but rather the little films made within the film. For those of you living under a rock, (certainly none of you loyal Film Radarites), the premise of the film is that Jack Black’s character Jerry accidentally erases all of the VHS movies in the video store managed by his friend Mike (Mos Def), and the two budding filmmakers scramble to replace the store’s inventory with homemade versions of the films they erased, which they shoot themselves on an old RCA VHS camera. Soon the entire community, who come to love the new versions, become actively involved in the making of the films as well—think of it as user-generated video if there were no internet and no YouTube. “Be Kind Rewind” (“BKR”) has many valuable lessons to teach us no-budget filmmakers…
1.) You Don’t Need Money to Make Something That’s “Good” and That Resonates with an Audience. This of course is the overriding lesson of the film. In an age of generic, formulaic studio filmmaking, this lesson will always continue to ring true.
2.) Production Value Is Overrated. I’ve said this in my classes a hundred times and I even wrote an article about it for Film Arts Magazine last year. The script and story are super important, the performances are super important, but the production value only needs to be “good enough.”Good enough works well enough. Some aspects of production value, such as good production sound, are vitally important to certain films—dramatic, dialogue-heavy films for instance—so the bar for “good enough” for production sound is high for this kind of film. Other aspects of production value, like costumes, may not be as critical, so the actors wearing their own clothes may be good enough to work. The key idea to remember, and the one that “BKR” illustrates so wonderfully, is that every good no-budget film has an organic evenness
to it. Perhaps, like with the little films within the film of “BKR,” all the stunts, props, set pieces, etc. are of uniform low quality. This can work! It’s when you break the uniformity that the audience notices that the other elements are in fact sub-par. Think of “Clerks” and it’s production values, even the quality of its performances. They’re low quality, but it works, right? Now think of that exact same movie, but shot in 35mm anamorphic color—now it doesn’t work so much. (OK, I know what you’re thinking—it becomes “Mallrats”!).
3.) A Small, Committed Team with a Hell or High-Water Commitment is More Valuable Than Money. It takes people to make movies, not money. Even if you have all the money in the world, you’ve got to pay people to make your movie—either because they are going to work in it or on it, or they are going to rent or sell you something used to make it. So if you don’t have the money, but you’ve got the people, people who all share the same passion and drive to make the film, you’re golden. And just like in “BKR”, it takes a village. Oftentimes, (unless you live in LA), you can enroll your community to make a film. The no-budget “August Evening,” winner of the Cassavetes Award at this year’s Spirit Awards, was made with the help of the citizens of Gonzales, Texas, who lent their establishments, donated props and costumes, cooked meals for the crew, and volunteered to work on the movie. Oh, and guess what one of the ready-made audiences for the film is?
4.) There Are Always No-Budget Alternatives to Any Piece of Gear. The amateur filmmakers in “BKR” fashion a variety of homemade surrogates for gear they could never afford to procure. Need a crane shot? Mount the camera to the bucket of an excavator. Need a nice panning shot, but don’t have a tripod? Strap the camera to a rotating fan. OK, these techniques were used for comic effect, but there are so many examples of creativity and ingenuity employed by these guys—make-shift sets, props, costumes, special effects, stunts—that you begin to realize there is always another way to get something done. Yes, Virginia, when there’s a will, there’s a way.
5.) Know Your Audience. The film demonstrates there’s an audience for everything. They may not be easy to find or easy to aggregate, but you should always be thinking: Who They Are, How Many Are There, and How Easy Are They To Get. The great thing about this Core Audience for your film is,they don’t care how good your movie is
. As long as it speaks to them, as long as it is compelling and authentic to their own experience, they will enjoy it. And they’ll tell their friends about it. Your core audience may be small, but that’s OK—you’re making a no-budget movie. You don’t need a huge audience to be fiscally responsible. And if you can actually get your money back on your movies, then you can go out and make more. And that devoted audience will follow you to the next movie. This idea is wonderfully realized in “BKR.”
6.) Nothing Can Replace The Theatrical Experience. Sure, cable and DVD’s are nice—it’s comfortable and affordable to watch movies at home. But that doesn’t compare to the experience of seeing a film on the big screen with an audience sharing that experience with you. We’re social creatures. Ultimately we long to connect with other human beings. Movies have always been an incredibly powerful way to define and bind people. Sharing with strangers the emotions we feel when we watch a movie give substance to those feelings, and turn those strangers around us into a community. Of course, this is exactly what I am trying to do with my No Budget Film Club, define and build a community around no-budget films. You as filmmakers have the potential to create communities when you make your films, and when we’re all in the same room with each other enjoying your film, it’s an incredibly satisfying experience.
There are many other lessons we can take from “BKR” as filmmakers—go check it out and discover a few of your own!
Founder, No Budget Film School
Dear Film Radar Members,
I just wanted to introduce myself and let you know that I will be blogging here from time to time. I’m Mark Stolaroff, and I’m an LA-based producer and the founder of No Budget Film School, a unique series of film classes specifically designed for the no-budget filmmaker, whether they’re working with a budget of $200,000 or $2,000. I’ll be using this forum to pass along information and spout off my opinion on any number of film-related subjects, usually tied somehow to no-budget filmmaking, which is my passion. I urge all of you film fans out there to support this kind of filmmaking when you have the opportunity to do so—attend festivals, seek out these titles on Netflix, and most of all, visit your local cineplex when one of these films makes that nearly-impossible, herculean journey to the big screen. And for all you aspiring filmmakers out there, don’t wait to make your movies. The tools have never been so accessible and the opportunities to get your works seen have never been so ripe. Just be responsible—it’s difficult to make a good movie and very difficult to make money on it even when you do. But money shouldn’t be the metric for success, and there are strategies and techniques that can not only allow you to make a movie right now with the resources available to you today, but that will also give you the best chance to create something memorable, compelling, authentic, and entertaining.
Join me here and also feel free to visit my website:
I am working to make the site one of the best resources for no-budget filmmaking on the web. You’ll find archived editions of my No Budget Report and No Budget Newsletter, (which you can subscribe to); links to useful online and offline resources, clips from some of the guest speakers I’ve had in my classes, profiles of noteworthy no-budget films, (many taken from exclusive interviews with the filmmakers), and of course, information about the classes I teach.
You’ll also find information about my ongoing screening series, No Budget Film Club, where you get the opportunity to see great no-budget films—some you’ve heard of, others you haven’t—with the filmmakers in attendance to give the candid lowdown on how the films were made. All the dirty little secrets! I work hard to make these events fun and educational, as well as an incredible chance to network with other like-minded independent filmmakers.
Looking forward to sharing my enthusiasm and knowledge of this unique kind of filmmaking with you here on a regular basis!
This is a new addition to FilmRadar. We plan to have various people from the film industry contribute articles and information, so stay tuned!