A lively discussion going on at Filmmaking for the Poor about fimmakers getting a percentage of their ticket sales at film festival screenings. Join the fun.
Went to last night's Stranger Than Fiction screening of Robert Drew's 1962 verite treasure, "Jane," which follows a very young Jane Fonda preparing for her first Broadway play (and brutal flop, it turns out).
The highlight of the evening was a hilarious and poignant Q&A session afterwards with producer Hope Ryden and doc legend D.A. Pennebaker, who did the primary camerawork on "Jane" (Ricky Leacock was among the others who did additional camera).
Ms. Ryden's name is all but unknown today because she left the documentary field many years ago, but at the time she was a staff producer and director at Drew Associates. At one point, she was asked by programmer and host Thom Powers what it was like then to be a pioneering woman working in such a man's world.
"Hell," she answered.
After the laughter died, Thom asked if she cared to elaborate.
"No," she replied, with perfect deadpan timing.
Hope Ryden went on to become a renowned author and naturalist. Her website makes no mention whatsoever of her documentary past.
Catching up with a humongous post-SXSW backlog of emails and reading, I find I've been quoted by Andrew O'Hehir in Salon. Which is nice, of course. Except that the one bite he's taken from a veritable slew of memorable quotes that flowed off my tongue at the opening night soiree, has Yours Truly sorta kinda dissing Sundance.
So, because I'd sorta kinda like to be invited back to Park City one of these days, let me set the record straight.
Making a point about how modest and nice SXSW is compared to market-driven festivals like Sundance, Toronto and Cannes, O'Hehir writes:
"That's the real reason everybody comes here," Doug Block, director of the family documentary "51 Birch Street," told me at the party after the "Prairie Home Companion" screening. "It's just such a pleasant experience. I didn't want to take my film to Sundance this year. I didn't want the angst, or that feeling of incredible high stakes." (That said, his film comes to Austin with a strong buzz attached, and of course he's eager to sell its distribution rights. I haven't seen it yet, so more on that later.)"
Now, O'Hehir's a fine critic and he's not far off the mark. But there's a key distinction to be made.
What I actually said is that I didn't want to premiere my film at Sundance this year, having had the choice to go to Toronto first. Toronto is a great, non-competitive festival that I'd never been to, and, particularly with such a personal film, I felt it would be less of a pressure-cooker atmosphere.
But, believe me, I would have been thrilled about having 51 Birch Street at Sundance, too. And I applied, knowing it couldn't be in the doc competition, but hoping it might get into the Spectrum section. A Sundance programmer later told me they liked it a lot, but they had a ton of world premieres to choose from.
So, not to make a mountain out of a molehill, or anything, let's put that baby to rest. I guess it's an honor to get to the point where a remark is taken out of context and you're made to look like an arrogant twit. But, sheesh, I can say stupid things well enough all on my own, thank you very much.
That said, O'Hehir later had some very kind things to say about 51 Birch. Did I mention what a wonderfully astute and accurate writer he is?
Speaking of hanging with critics, I wound up spending some enjoyable time with the venerable Gerald Peary of the Boston Phoenix. He's been trying for quite a while to get a doc about American film criticism into serious production, and Lori and I both think it's a great idea.
During a friendly conversation over wine and tapas one evening, we learn that he means it as a celebration of a profession that's terribly misunderstood. I tried to make the case that amidst all the backslapping, his film might also include the perspective of a filmmaker who feels one of his movies was misunderstood or unfairly maligned by critics. Suddenly, Gerald got a bit huffy. "Well, that's the movie you can make," he snapped.
I immediately steer the converstation back to safer ground - Welles, Truffaut, Bergman, Keaton, and the like. As we part, Gerald apologizes for not getting to my screening earlier that day. No problem, I say, and hand him a dvd I just happen to be carrying around in my shoulder bag.
Have I mentioned yet what a brilliant, cruelly underappreciated critic he is?
DocuClub is one of the great documentary organizations, and tonight they're hosting a very special event: the first in an ongoing series of Town Hall Socials. All socials will start off with a Happy Hour at 6:30, followed by something dear to this Blogger's heart: "free flowing conversations about the trials and tribulations of documentary filmmaking."
Tonight's discussion will focus on DocuClub itself -- what it's doing right and how it can improve and better serve the doc community.
The event is at The Pioneer Bar -- 218 Bowery, between Prince & Spring -- and is open to members and non-members alike. Hope to see you there.
The prez of an upstart distribution company is the first one to greet my 86-year old father after our 2nd screening of 51 Birch Street. "I'm a hardened L.A. type," he tells him, "but you had me bawling."
My father had me bawling, too, I could have piped in. It was called my childhood. But I showed great restraint, which I think they call maturity.
Or just a mature desire for distribution, perhaps.
Let me set the backstory a bit. My dad was the authoritarian type, from that generation of men who never ever talked about themselves. So when I began shooting 51 Birch Street a few years ago, he was, in many ways, a stranger to me. And an enigma.
But during the two weeks in which the film takes place (though it jumps back and forth in time), we begin to talk. For the first time we really talk. And gradually you see a close relationship form, just as it actually happened in real life. I think that's what gets so many audience members sniffling and weeping at all of our screenings.
And now, well, the guy gets me bawling, too. It's good bawling, though. He's proud of the film, proud of me, and happy to go with Kitty from festival to festival to speak after our screenings.
There's not a phony bone in the man's body and it comes through very clearly when he speaks. Everything he says is genuine and straight from the heart, with no bullshit or hype or sugar-coating. As uncomfortable as it might have been at times for me and my sisters, he feels like he's had a new lease on life since my mom died and he reconnected with Kitty (his former secretary). And he feels he has an important message for others - that life doesn't have to end for you when your spouse's life ends, no matter how old you are.
Dad has always had a tendency to ramble and go off topic at family occasions. So it's remarkable to see him speaking so eloquently and concisely. I literally spend half the Q&A's just staring at him with my mouth open, wondering: Who is this guy?!?
I think I've ruined him, though. When he and Kitty go out and about now after screenings, they're often recognized and approached, and they kind of love it. At IDFA, for instance, towards the end of their stay in Amsterdam, they went to see a late afternoon movie. When we met up for dinner two hours later, they sat down and nonchalantly handed over 8 new business cards.
It's great that the film is affecting people so deeply. And it's fantastic that we're showing it all over the world. But for me, the best thing is introducing my dad after the end credits, and watching him bask in the applause as he slowly, and with great dignity, walks up to the mic.
I think it's overstating it to say his life has been validated by the film. But during those moments I can't help feeling that maybe mine has been.
I'm not a fan of shameless self-promotional blogging, but what can I say?, the first SXSW screening of 51 Birch Street could hardly have gone better.
But take Dave Hudson's word at Green Cine Daily, not mine. Or look for Harry Knowles account later today, hopefully, at Ain't It Cool News. We didn't get to talk for long afterwards, but he did indicate he really liked it.
I'm running out the door for a meeting in 15 minutes, so can't give a long account. But like I've said, if I want to hold my head up high at the Blogging About Film panel in a few hours, I need to consistently blog.
Still don't have all my thoughts together about blogging. It's odd, in some ways I'm a hardened vet, in other ways very new to this (or, at least, the technical aspect of trackbacks and pings and all that stuff). But I'm not really worried. Panels tend to work better for me when I go in without any pre-planned thoughts at all, and just let it rip.
Just know that blogs have become the driving force behind word-of-mouth for films like mine not driven by a studio or distributor p.r. machine. Just ran into Joe Swanberg, who'll be on the panel, too, and whose film, LOL, is premiering here 15 minutes after the panel ends. We're in total agreement about the need to get our work out by whatever means necessary. And blogs have become our DIY workhorse.
Actually, what I said for panels goes for Q&A's too. After yesterday's screning, I had a great time with my father and Kitty on stage with the audience. I've gotten a bit used to the amazing responses we've been getting, but yesterday I was completely in touch with my love and appreciation for my father and Kitty, and gratitude to HBO for giving me the support early on to allow me tell this story about my family in the first place.
Films are so hard to make, even harder to get out effectively. But there are moments when you realize what all the time and hard work and sacrifice have been for. You can drive yourself nuts when your hopes or expectations get too high, and it can be a heartbreaking business. Yesterday, though, it was all good.
Afterwards, Lori and I and our friend Virginia, who's been helping us out here, met up with local D-Word members Christine and Jill, who came to the screening. We all took Dad and Kitty out for ribs, then a group of us went over to the Continental Bar and went dancing. The band kicked up a storm and we celebrated long into the night.
First screening of 51 Birch Street at SXSW in 4 hours, and I'm hanging in the filmmaker's lounge still trying to catch my breath.
All around, filmmakers and their entourages are hanging posters and flyers on every available square inch of the walls, to promote their films to those of us way too busy and self-involved to go to other screenings. At least for now.
Okay, not entirely true. I've seen a film a day. My father and Kitty flew into town last night, just in time to meet Lori (my producing partner) and me for the world premiere of Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus's "Al Franken: God Spoke." Packed house, and they let the badgeholders in first, so it wasn't clear Dad and Kitty would even be able to make it in. They did - and I did a heroic job of saving 4 prime seats for 20 minutes. Worth it, too. The film feels a little long, but it's very funny and pure catnip for Bush bashers.
In the afternoon, between a bunch of panels and interviews, I was able to catch the end of Justin Hall's presentation at the Interactive conference downstairs. Justin was his usual entertaining self, and, despite a very odd haircut, looks exactly like he did 10 years ago. After big hugs, we arrange for me to interview him for the dvd release of Home Page. It's been 10 years since I began filming with Justin, and it'll be a great add-on to get his views on how he and the web have changed in the interum. Now that he's acknowledged as the web's first blogger, and in the wake of 51 Birch Street's great word-of-mouth, the dvd is getting some interest at last, which I'm thrilled about.
Off to another interview in a few minutes, then trying to figure out how to clone myself so I can see two panels at the same time. One features the Channel 4 exec who's picked up 51 Birch for UK telly, the other features one of the distributors at the top of our hit list.
And then... the screening. It's not like I ever get used to them, but sometimes I run around so much, I almost forget I'm here to show my movie. And a film about my Mom and Dad, no less.
All film festivals should start like Miami did, with an awesome three-and-a-half star review for 51 Birch Street greeting us in the leading hometown newspaper. Yep, there's nothing like having your film described as "extraordinary" and "spellinding" to put you in just the right mood.
And then there's the National, the fancy shmancy, art deco hotel in South Beach where the festival puts up the filmmakers and spouses. The Miami International Film Festival does it just right. They house the filmmakers in the same place as the festival headquarters, so they we can easily mix and mingle with the staff, press and and other festival folks. There's not a huge industry presence compared to a Sundance or even SXSW (and, unless you're angling for distribution, that's not a negative), but you really get to know those who do come.
Outside on the patio, everyone hangs out together sipping the complimentary Starbucks and nibbling on the free noshes. Later, a group is hanging out with drinks by the pool, or jumping in a volunteer van to zip off to a movie or a party.
At the opening night reception, a festival staffer tells me that only standby tickets are available for my two screenings, thanks in large part to the Miami Herald review. Every few minutes a photographer has us pose for pictures. The champagne is flowing and the hors d'oeuvres are delicious.
Yeah, this festival circuit sure is a killer.
Sunday finally arrives, and with it our official U.S. premiere screening. I meet my father at the Regal multiplex, along with Kitty, his wife of over two years who I still can't seem to call my step-mother. Kitty is a big reason for my wanting to do Miami. Until last year, she lived in nearby Key Largo for over 35 years. So it's like a hometown screening and I want it to be special. It's one thing for my family to put up with my filming them - I've been sticking a camera in their face for years, and they're used to it. But, from the beginning, Kitty never gave me any flack - as long as it was okay with my Dad, it was okay with her. That kind of trust deserves a rich reward.
And I think that's exacly what they got. Kitty arranged for a huge group of friends to ride up and attend, and the 280 seat theater is fully sold out. Afterwards, they bask in the warm applause and are surrounded by admirers. Having been to Toronto and Amsterdam, they're really getting to like this. The fact is, while Dad and Kitty may be two of the most unpretentious people you'll want to meet, it's hard for anyone not to like this. Don't get me wrong, I like it, too. But what a gift to be able to give your 85-year old father and his wife!
Unfortunately, I've still got a movie to get out into distribution, so after Marjorie flies back Monday morning, I spend quality time the next few days in my room with the laptop, sending out emails, working on our website, working on raising money, working on outreach. And Miami isn't cooperating - the weather is 80 degrees and sunny, there's too many other interesting filmmakers to talk to, too many beautiful people wearing skimpy clothing,
The second screening on Tuesday is to an older audience and, again, the response is overwhelming and emotional. I'm struck by how many of the women in the audience identify with my mothers' feminism, and how the feminist movement really took off when it was embraced by middle-class women in the suburbs, like my mother. And like many of the others there.
The following morning I'm back on the plane to NY. I have a day to catch up on all I've missed while away, and get ready for what's sure to be a far more overwhelming SXSW.
We've already gotten a nice story in the Austin Chronicle and a warm review on Jon Lebkowsky's blog. But nothing like the Miami Herald. My producing partner, Lori, is coming out with me, and we're gonna have our work cut out for us. SXSW and Miami couldn't be more 180 degrees different. We've been here less than 24 hours and it's been frantic frantic FRANTIC from the word go.
More on SXSW soon. I've got my laptop with me and I'm determined to update y'all more frequently. After all, I'm on the Blogging About Film panel on Monday. Gotta hold my head up high in front of all those bigtime bloggers there.