Friday, September 28, 2007

Day Five

At long last, with apologies, I will complete the week at the IFP...

Our last day started well. We had a meeting with PBS, and again we were met with positive thoughts and comments about our film. Not surprisingly, we were told that NOVA would probably be a good fit for us, and were told that NOVA "had gone through some changes" and would be interested in a piece like ours. I raised the fact that we were all fans of NOVA, but had always assumed our film was not such a good fit, since ours is less a science documentary (one that sets out primarily to teach the viewers about science) and much more a story taking place in the realm of science. Our contact person indicated this would fit fine in the NOVA model.

She also asked if we'd be interested in being considered for Independent Lens, which we were very interested in, thank you. As before, she expressed a real desire to see a "full cut of the film whenever it's ready." It was a great meeting, and a little head-spinning that we were chatting with PBS about how our film could be a good fit for public television. She even indicated that a previous theatrical run would be just fine as far as they were concerned.

Our next meeting was one that was assigned to us during the week --- in other words, someone came across our project late and requested a meeting. It may have had something to do with mailings and phone calls we made, but whatever the reason, we found ourselves in a meeting with a very high-powered film sales company. Previous films include "Born into Brothels" (last year's Oscar winner), Crazy Love, Fahrenheit 9-11, My Architect, etc. Pretty big-hitters. What do they do? You might check into one of my previous posts about Film Reps and Sales Reps, but essentially they become a cross between your agent, your carnival barker, your palm-greaser, your used-car salesman, and your deal-maker. They get you into all the good festivals. They get everybody interested in your film. In his words, "we create a bidding war for your film." This group is among the best with an excellent track record, and you have to wonder if you'd be the small fish in their big pond. He said they were extremely selective, taking about 1% of the films that come their way. He liked our premise, he liked what he'd seen, and ... you guessed it, wants a cut of the film as soon as it's ready.

So, the week was over, and we were really pleased. We'd had more interest and more positive feedback than I expected, and I think it's safe to say that the three of us were more than energized to get the dang thing done. I joked to Andrew (a half-joke, anyway): "first item on to-do list: finish film."

I bought some great NYC souvenirs (I have a soft spot for tacky tourist kitsch), and on Friday we attended an extremely informative "Fair Use" seminar (I might go into Fair Use another time, but it's too big to cover here. It was good news for us, though, and implies we may not have to get as many clearances for some of our footage as we once thought). I headed home on Friday night, and got enough sleep for once.

The very next day I was up at the edit station... Look for an update soon...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Day Four

Today we had no meetings, but attended a couple of seminars as we got ready for our screening at 2:30. When we got there at about 2pm, it didn’t look as though there were a lot of people in the lobby. But by the time our doors opened, we had a decent enough crowd of 20 people there. We found out later that several of them were industry types.

Anyone who’s ever made a painting, written a story or a play, written music, recorded an album, or certainly made a film, knows the very strange feeling of watching/seeing/listening to what you’ve worked on for so long and having it appear to be something completely different than what you thought. That’s because you’re seeing it through someone else’s eyes for the first time, and you think “wow, that part is slow here. People are bored.” Or “that part doesn’t make any sense!” Things that had seemed perfectly fine, and even strong, suddenly seem clunky or just plain bad. There’s nothing you can do about those things, except learn from them, and go back and do something better.

There is one thing you can do, though, and that is to develop a better barometer so that you can anticipate those moments before you actually show something to the public. Monica and I have a decent amount of experience at this by now, and I have to say I was pretty pleased with our footage. I didn’t have those moments --- I watched the footage with a roomful of strangers and it still seemed like our film. Nothing seemed long, or boring, or nonsensical. In short, I liked it!

Surprisingly, that’s a huge relief. That means we have arrived at a place where things are about as good as they can be, and we’ve done a complete enough job of reviewing, revising, second-guessing, and deciding to get to the point where we can say “this is done.” A big deal.

So, afterwards, we had an all-to-brief 5 minutes of questions. There were many, and just like our screening at Kartemquin, they all were questions about the content, and about people wanting to know more, and wondering if we were going to answer this question in the film or address that issue (remember, we only showed a 20-minute selection of scenes). We were able to say “yes” and “yes” to those questions, and the conversation spilled out into the lobby after we were told we had to vacate the theatre for the next screening. We had quite a few people tell us how much they liked the film, and give us specific reasons why, ranging from the characters to speculation about how we are all just “ones and zeros anyway, and our information is written in the fabric of the universe. Maybe this one particle will finally prove that idea.” Well, maybe. Different film.

Wendy Sax, my contact and friend from the IFP market in 2003, introduced me to a very engaging lawyer in the lobby. We ended up talking for 30 minutes about deals, dealing, how things get done, how things happen. He’s the type of lawyer we’d hire to look over the paperwork in any kind of deal that we would decide to move forward with the company mentioned from yesterday, or any other company. He would be “our” lawyer, draw up the contracts with “their” lawyers, and angle for our best interests. He was low-key and laid back, and told me I could give him a call next week for advice without deciding to engage his services. He had many years in the biz in LA, then NYC, then settled in to Connecticut where he works on projects that he wants to work on. He gave me some inside scoops on some of the people we may or may not be talking to here at the Market.

Anyway, we were really pleased. Our list of people we’ve talked to who want to see the film is growing. Monica took off to go spend time with her family, and Andrew and I had pizza at America’s oldest pizzeria on Spring Street, then attended an outdoor screening of some narrative films in progress (only after I schooled Andrew in 2 out of 3 games of 8-ball in a gigantic pool hall we happened to be walking past. I got lucky).

Day 5, essentially the last day in the festival, is tomorrow…

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Day Three

What a difference a day makes --- ! After practicing our pitch in long form in a few meetings, we had it down pretty well. I delivered the first presentation, then Monica and I fielded the questions and the comments. We exchanged some good information and several people indicated they would watch the film in the library.

So imagine how surprised and pleased we were when we walked in to our first meeting today and met someone who had not only watched the trailer and was familiar with the project, but who had watched the entire film in the library. He was glowing about it. His company's roster was really impressive, with more than one oscar under their belt and many more oscar nominations. He was very interested in working with us. As I mentioned before, deals don't happen here, but rather the beginnings of deals can. These things are so complicated that lawyers have to get involved and complicated contracts drawn up with many different sets of rights negotiated (festival rights, theatrical rights, TV rights, international rights, internet rights, video rights, distribution rights, etc. etc.) But his level of enthusiasm and his ideas for what he envisioned (a festival run, theatrical distrubution, then international and cable/TV and finally video distrubution) sounded wonderful.

Then his partner arrived with a very different perspective. He said "this is not a theatrical film. TV maybe." He was sober, pessimistic, and watching guy #1 wink and nod at us and interject the occasional "we'll argue about this. I'll change his mind" was pretty amusing. Afterwards Andrew said "I think we were just good cop-bad copped" and I likened it to having a Paula Abdul / Simon Cowell experience. But guy #1 seemed to want to make something happen.

Naturally, we were cautious, but certainly happy. We were most happy to have two complete strangers tell us they loved our film and that we had a wonderful project (even guy #2 looked hard at us and said "it IS a wonderful film. Don't get me wrong) was the best part of the week so far. Obviously we're not green enough to assume that something wonderful is going to come out of a 30-minute conversation, but we were feeling bouyed. And in case your red flags are waving, it is comforting to remember that IFP doesn't allow hucksters here. There's a very careful vetting process and only established, legitimate companies are let in.

Anyway, we went to get some coffee and I thought I'd snap a picture of the three of us basking in the glow of some positive reaction to our years of hard work.

Tomorrow is our screening, at 2:30. we'll be showing 20 minutes to a crowd of ...? So far most screenings we've been to have had anywhere from 5 to 25 people in the audience. As I may have mentioned before, it seems as though most of the audience at the screenings is other filmmakers, as the industry folks go check things out in private in the library on their own time. But it will be interesting to see if our postcards and our listing in the booklet will generate some interest.

I'll let you know...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Day Two, supplemental

After the day's events, there was an "official" party at the Optimus, which was uptown a little ways from the IFP location. I arrrived around 9:15 and found a line outside --- we weren't allowed in yet. So I got in line (or "on line" as they say here in NYC) and found myself talking to a great foursome from San Francisco, here with their film "Silhouette City," which is an alarming tale about the far, far religious right --- where religion begins to blend with survivalism and militantism, in guerilla warfare preparations for the "End Times." We had a great time hanging out, and soon the place was packed with fellow filmmakers. This has always been one of the highlights of the IFP --- getting to meet hundreds of your peers; people who know exactly what it's like to struggle with the things we've been struggling with.

The funny part is that all of us are filmmakers, and hardly any of us are business-people. So we can all comiserate about the difficulties involved in "pitching," as I described yesterday. How to convert your art, your passion, into a saleable commodity across a three-foot table in 10 minutes or less.

Anyway, by the end of the night Andrew and I found ourselves ... uh, dancing ... on the floor with a great couple of ladies, one of whom was a producer who had a connection to a programmmer at Sundance. We had given her our trailer earlier in the day, and she just came right up to us and told us that she loved it. Just then the music started, and... let's just say I'm glad there were no cameras rolling.

Day Two

Today got off to a much better start. After an initial mishap, that is. I mentioned in the last post that I was staying with a documentary producer friend (Maggie), and I walked out the door to her apartment in Brooklyn this morning without my festival passes: a couple of over-sized laminated passes that hang around your neck and I.D. you to get in to all the events. So I arrived in the lower East side of Manhattan and met Monica and Andrew for our "speed dating" session with A&E, and immediately realized what I had done. The woman at the door seemed pretty strict that I couldn't get in, so I started calling up Maggie, hoping she hadn't left.

To make a long story short, one of the other volunteers vouched for me, I got in, did the pitch, and met Maggie at her office where she had my passes.

So how did the pitch go? Much, much better. Why? Possibly because Monica gave it this time, not me. She had just given it to someone in the elevator when I was running around trying to get my passes taken care of, and Andrew suggested that on this fast meeting Monica (who's a faster talker than I am) should give it, and I should do the longer meetings. Sounded great to me. So she opened it up and we both fielded questions. Andrew later said it had gone really well and in fact the A&E rep did seem pretty engaged. Regardless of whether there is any real interest on her part, just having a good meeting did wonders for our spirits.

Later, there was a panel with some of the programmers from the so-called "A-list" film festivals, including Sundance, SXSW, Slamdance, and Tribeca. Even though they were swamped by people clamoring for attention afterwards, I managed to hand the Sundance rep and the SXSW rep stuff on our film and gave the "elevator" pitch: the one sentence version of the film. What's the point of doing that? Will they really remember you? The purpose is to make a connection, hopefully stick an idea in their brain, so that when you follow up in a few days with a call, you can say "I met you at the IFP Market. My film is 'The Atom Smashers,' the one about the physicists looking for "the God Particle---" "---oh, yeah, I remember that. OK, I'll keep an eye out for that one when it comes through."

Or something like that. It is a strange shift, I’ll be honest. After spending the last three years of my life working with Monica and Andrew on this film, and debating, reviewing, contemplating, re-working and approving every micro-second of footage, it’s a bizarre exercise to try to suddenly come up with one sentence (one sentence!) that explains what the film is and why a perfect stranger ought to be interested. How in the world could this be a good system? Why should I have to compress thousands of hours of effort into one pithy sentence?

I guess the answer is because ten thousand people each have a 90-minute movie. Ideally, the work should be able to speak for itself, but the people in charge of programming, of distributing, of paying for films to be shown to the public, don’t have fifteen thousand hours to spend watching every movie. So they watch only the few, the golden few, that capture their attention, and pass on the bulk of the rest.

Why did I use the word “golden” just then? Because Leon Lederman used it when he described the process of how physicists examine the vast multitude of physics events, of collisions, in the tevatron. Most of them are average, unremarkable collisions. Maybe 10 percent are slightly interesting, and those get kicked up a floor to a bank of computers for analysis. Most of those are rejected as being ordinary, but maybe 10 percent of those are kicked upstairs another level to the next bank of computers for further analysis. And a tiny fraction of those, “The Golden Ones,” as Lederman described them, are flagged for actual human beings to take a look at, because they are really extraordinary.

So, when you’re a festival programmer or an industry executive and you have hundreds and hundreds of films being thrown at you, you can’t watch them all. You have to rely on a detection system like that at fermilab, and examine only the golden ones…

I'm being a little generous to the industry types. But Walter Murch, one of my film heroes, once described how a movie set worked by saying where there's a bottleneck in the process, there's power. There's a gigantic bottleneck at the intersection between filmmaker and audience. And it's the industry people who hold the cork.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Day One

Day one at the IFP market ended --- it was a loooong one. I left my place at 4am and got to New York at about 9, just time enough to jump in a cab and meet Monica my co-director outside the main building. Right away Milton Talbot recognized me from when I was here four years ago, which was nice. We got our passes, took a breath, and had some coffee to prepare.

Right away we started meeting people, and within the first hour we were exchanging cards and making contacts (some with the Film Arts Foundation) in San Francisco about possible screenings and donors on the West coast.

We have a total of six "buyer request" meetings: these are meetings from industry people who have seen our material and want to meet with us. The first two of these happened today: one with a consultant and one with Red Envelope, a division of Netflix that has started acquiring and distributing movies of their own (they recently did "An Unreasonable Man," the film about Ralph Nader. The first meeting was essentially a sales pitch to us for his services, which we probably won't be interested in using. The second meeting was a bit more relevent, and we thought we were ready for it.

But we weren't. Not really. First of all, we were exhausted, as this was at the end of the day. Second, we didn't realize that he hadn't seen our trailer and really knew nothing about the film. I was expecting him to "lead" the meeting (after all, he requested it) so when he asked what our movie was about I stumbled a little on the delivery. Then Monica jumped in, and we fumbled to a stop. And then, we all kind of looked at each other, and he essentially said "well, if you get into Sundance, drop me a line." We kept talking, thinking that we needed to keep the meeting going for some reason, but afterwards realized we should have just cut it short. If he hasn't seen it, we can talk about it all day, but until he sees it (which he said he would do at the video library here) there's not a whole lot more that can happen at a meeting.

That's when I realized that these things are really just a time to meet people, not necessarily to make deals. Deals come later --- and for a guy like this, he essential just wanted to introduce himself to us in case our film starts to get a lot of success. Then he can come in and possibly make a deal with us. Until that happens, there's not a whole lot either one of us can do for each other.

Also we found out that our list of 6 meetings was on the "low to average" side. When I showed Milton our list, he looked disappointed that more industry people hadn't requested to meet with us.

In short, it was a slightly deflating end to the day. I went back to Maggie's place (a film producer friend who has generously let me crash at her apartment) and decompressed a little. She helped me put things more in perspective. And she listened to my pitch, which I started practicing. Not that things were a total bust, but hopefully tomorrow things will go a little better...

Monday, September 10, 2007

It's a wrap!

"It's a wrap!" That's what the first assistant director yells on the set of a movie when the final shot is in the can. Everyone on set, from the actors to the gaffer to the dolly grip to the people stocking the food table burst into spontaneous cheers, applause, hand-shaking, hugs, and bleary-eyed stumbling. But for us, this moment will happen tomorrow, and it will be a little more subdued: Monica and I will be in the lobby of the High-Rise at Fermilab, and we'll probably look at each other, breathe a sigh of relief, and get in the car for the hour-long drive back to Chicago. Who knows; maybe we'll get crazy and stop at the gas station food plaza for some beef jerky or corn nuts.

It's true: tomorrow will be the last shoot of the film. It's a quick 15-minute interview with John Conway, and in fact we anticipate that not only is it the last shoot of the film, but it will in fact be the last SHOT of the film. Just like a novel or a symphony where the opening sets the tone for the whole piece and the final sentence or ending chord is what you walk away with, the first and last shots of a film are crucial. So, we're thinking quite a bit about it.

Let's do a quick review. My first blog entry was Thursday, July 15, 2004. My interview with Peter Higgs, the very first shooting day of the film, was about a month before. That means we've been shooting more or less, off and on, sometimes weekly, sometimes quarterly, for over three years. (Incidentally, through my stat counting plug in, I have been able to determine that the overwhelming majority of people who have stumbled across this blog have done so due to a link on the Wikipedia page for Peter Higgs to this entry).

127 video tapes, 77 blog entries, and several thousand dollars later (and a good thousand hours spent in front of the computer by yours truly) and we have a 90-minute film that's nearly ready to show the world (if the world, represented in this case by some finicky programmers at various film festivals, gives us a chance to show it). More on that part in posts to come.

Meanwhile, check your watches, and at about 11:30am tomorrow, give up a cheer or a few seconds of applause on our behalf when Monica and I turn to each other and gasp "It's a wrap!"

What's next? Watch this space --- we're about to head to NYC as I've mentioned in previous posts, and I plan to write an entry every day from that crazy event. I've been burning dvds round the clock with our new 3:15 trailer, we've got our postcards printed (see below), and we're starting to put together our "pitch." It's all a little nerve-wracking. But you'll get the "on-the-scene" report starting next week...