Charlie Brown

Author, editor, filmmaker, podcaster

Becoming Independent


While the main part of the South By Southwest Film Festival is the screenings, there is a very active set of panels where anyone looking to break into film can find guidance.


Most of the focus of its “weekend film school” series of conferences revolves around putting together enough cash to get an indie film made.  The first time filmmaker would find a treasure trove of advice here.


One of the most inspiring was to hear from a few directors who have made films with little to no money and gone on to some acclaim.  Joe Swanberg, who’s “Nights and Weekends” premiered at the festival, is one of the founders of the “mumblecore” movement.  He has made four features, all budgeted under $10,000.  He says for the first timer to be practical.


“If you have a small budget, work within it.”  Style, he said, should be dictated by how much you can truly do.  “The film’s quality comes within you budget.”


Aaron Katz, who found some critical lauding for “Quiet City,” followed up on that point.


“Lack of equipment can dictate your style.  Come up with some guidelines for the aesthetics of your film.”  He said that his film was to be all hand held with moments set aside for long still takes.


Ti West, who’s “Triggerman” explored different styles within a horror context, took those comments and refined to a small nugget valuable for any independent artist:


“If you try and fight your budget, it will make your film worse.  Your limitations will beat you.”  He followed up by saying that a poorly executed dolly shot is much worse than a well done hand held move.


All of the filmmakers agreed that the most money should be spent on sound, but Swanberg, speaking from experience, laid down a directorial law: “Know bad acting when you see it.  Don’t wait for the editing room.”


Almost all of these filmmakers have self-financed their projects.  They surprisingly feel that this is much easier that asking others for money.


Paul Harrill, whose newest short was funded by ITVS for Public Television, summed up the attitude:  “There’s not as much pressure to lose your own money than to lose somebody else’s.”  .


For those who wanted to at least try and find some cash for their vision, a panel on “Finding Funding” offered some specifics.


For the documentarian, Anne DelCastillo who has worked for POV and other Public Television shows says, “Build partnerships with foundations whose cause is what your doc is about.”  Specific funding, she says, is better than trying for general funds.


Roger Kass of RingTheJing Entertainment encourages neophytes to seek those with connections.


“Get to someone with access and you can do a lot better,” he said.


Mark Ankner, an agent with Endeavor, encouraged regional filmmakers to look into tax credits, although “the crew base is not out there to support it.”  He did mention this was not the case in Louisiana where local tax credits and productions have built up the base.


Finally, a panel of producers and acquisition executives laid out advice for what the filmmaker should not do.  The panel, called “Film Miss-Takes,” offered practical advice for those filmmakers ready to send out their babies.


Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures (which is part of the HDNet/Landmark Theaters consortium owned by Mark Cuban), laid down the law.


“Make sure your film is ready,” he said.  “You have to distinguish yourself from the pack.”  He elaborated that an acquisitions director will only give their full attention to a film the first time they screen it.  Subsequent edits will not get as much attention.


Bowles also stated that an acquisitions exec will be turned off by content that does not conform to the company’s vision.


“Are your obsessions going to be important to an acquisitions director,” he asks.  “Draw the line and figure it out.”


Carl Hampe, acquisitions director for Warner Independent, said that a film should be competent on all levels, not just on a few.


“No film has inherent value on any one feature,” he said.  All of the executives stressed that story trumps all other factors and must be the most important feature of any film they see.