Why is this here?

I'm a filmmaker currently touring the DIY Feature A Genesis Found around the campuses of colleges and universities across the Southeast. This is the personal account, for better or worse, of its successes and failures.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

That Blinding Sunsphere

The second screening of the second half of the Tour didn't come until almost a month after the private gig at JDCC.  As I mentioned last post, the sparsely staggered nature of the second half's screenings was more of an advantage than a hindrance.  Plus, with February being my first month in a new home, I frankly needed the break.

Regardless, in the "meantime" between the two screenings I was plenty busy with promo work for both the second and third screenings, and trying to get one to two other schools to "sign on" before the Tour comes to its conclusion in April.

The Experiment Rolls On
Since this blog is probably best consumed as a work log for a distribution experiment, I suppose there's  an obligation for me to comment on whether or not the newly revised format of the Tour-- the very-few-screenings-in-very-many weeks approach-- was working any better than the previous method.  Though I'll speak more on that later, I can say that, from a preparation/pre-show standpoint, the process was much more sedate, much less stressful, and I felt much more prepared going in.  I didn't feel that horrible, sinking feeling that I had waited too late to start promos, or that I'd contacted the wrong people, or that I was wasting an opportunity, etc.  Part of that might just be experience-- I KNOW who to contact, now, what to expect, how to get the most out of an opportunity that I'm going to get, given the circumstances of my film and my Tour.  But I do think having more time to focus solely on a few screenings as opposed to less time to focus on many allowed me to address each screening a bit more individualistically, on its terms, which is very important in the grassroots model.  It also kept me feeling in control, put me more at ease, and allowed me to enjoy the process a bit more, and experience the screening with a clean conscience.  I don't think this is solely attributable to the new format, but the new format certainly helped.

Unlike the New Format Aquaman, the New Format Campus Tour is here to stay.
The second screening of the second half was in Knoxville, Tennessee at THE University of Tennessee.  The formal name is the University of Tennessee - Knoxville, but if you confuse UT - Chattanooga with the Orange and White you haven't been in the South long.  Anyway, the UT screening was quite special, for a number of reasons-- but before I get into that, let's learn a little bit about Knoxville and its history.

One of the four largest cities in Tennessee (and, after Pittsburgh, the second largest city in the Appalachian region), Knoxville has been known as both "The Marble City" (for its early-20th century exports of marble) and "The Underwear Capitol of the World" (for a large number of 30's era underwear production mills)-- though more recently it's been known, each August through December, as "Where We Get the Whoopins."  The site of many a Crimson Tide victory, Knoxville was also host site to the 1982 World's Fair-- a fact used quite humourously in the plot of a 1996 episode of the Simpsons.

It's really full of wigs.
Knoxville was home to numerous Native American settlements during the Woodland and Mississippian periods, before being settled by the white man-- after some shaky negotiations with the Cherokee-- following the Revolutionary War.

Prior to the Civil War, Knoxville, along with most of East Tennessee, was actually known for it's anti-slavery and anti-secessionist sentiments-- even hosting a stop on the Underground Railroad-- but financial interests eventually led to a strong pro-secessionist movement.  After the war began, much Union sympathy remained in the city.

Though today primarily known as headquarters of the Tennessee Valley Authority and home of the UT Vols, Knoxville is (or was) also home to several notable writers, artists, and celebrities, including James Agee, Cormac McCarthy, Patricia Neal-- and Johnny Knoxville.  Quentin Tarantino was also born there, but that's about as Southern as he gets.

And, of course, quarterback Peyton Manning played college ball in Knoxville, though apparently not well enough to win him a Heisman, or a National Title.  No wonder he's only won 4 NFL MVPs.

Getting the UT screening was a long time coming.  I initially spoke to my contact in early Fall 2010 (if not late Summer), and after a couple of months of e-mails we were set for the March screening by December.  After that, we were pretty much in cruise control-- I had an excellent contact at UT, who was excited about the opportunity of having a young, essentially just-out-of-school filmmaker on campus for his hungry Cinema Studies students.  He was very empowering and really went above and beyond to facilitate us, and I am still thankful.

So, after shipping out some fliers and tackling the typical promotional duties, I was on my way to Knoxville.

So far so normal right?  Then what was SO special about this particular screening?

I'll interject here and do the PC thing-- all my screenings are special.  Anytime anyone anywhere has the opportunity to share an experience you've manufactured for them, it's special.  It's very easy to lose sight of that, especially in the post youtube era-- but let's not.  Whether it's five people or five thousand, Los Angeles or Lower Alabama, a screening is a screening.

But I think it's fair to say that my trip to Knoxville was extra special, for numerous reasons, not the least of which being my contact/organizer's undying enthusiasm and appreciation.

One of the more unique aspects of his approach was how he developed the screening into a  major event for the Cinema Studies program-- not a big program, but a hungry one, full of hungry students.  It wasn't just about having a chance to see regional work-- he approached it as a chance for his students to learn how they too could go off immediately from UT and start making their own regional films.  Kinda like a cram session of the DIY model, with me the guest lecturer.  I got to play the "star of the show" for the evening and must admit it healed up some of the bruises my ego had been nursing from various experiences I'd had prior in the Tour.  Regardless of this side-effect, the night was about the students-- completely about the students-- and completely about exposing them to a new type of artistic opportunity in our current era (no matter how non-lucrative). 

This ties back to my experience in February at JDCC-- and ties, again, directly to my recent realizations about exactly what this Tour is about and what its exact purpose actually is.  And, I guess, in the bigger picture, it kinda reminded me of what I'm doing with my career here-- with my life.

Again, my purpose....
I think it's fair to confess that I frequently fear I'm wasting my time in the South.  Frankly, most of the signs point to it.  Filmmaking and storytelling doesn't really pay the bills, and I often feel relatively useless and selfish towards mankind since I have no passion, no drive, no talent for anything else.  Like I'm a cursed man who can't fight it and can't cure it yet still can't succeed in it.

Sometimes I feel like my selfish ambition is keeping me from contributing to my true place in the world-- that stories and the cinema are now the domain of the hipsters, academia, and tech guys all itching to produce types of content I'm just not that crazy about.  That I was born too late or something.

Hopefully this doesn't just sound like fodder for a pity party-- but as important as stories are, one of the last things the world needs is another storyteller, especially if that storyteller doesn't have anything unique or valid or a differing perspective to share.

I often fear that I'm either too afraid or too lazy to move to a different region and take a more traditional path towards a paying filmmaking career.

I guess the underlying fear is that if I have nothing to offer as a storyteller, and if I can't become a great storyteller, then I should just focus on the day job and be an a/v tech or something remotely useful to the world.  And the Tour has, typically, done anything but validate my current predicament as a regionalist trying to reinvent the wheel as far as indie film production and distribution is concerned.

So, it's nice to get validation.  But more on that later.

I arrived in Knoxville with an hour to spare but it took me most of that time to find a parking deck.  Not that I shouldn't be used to the "parking on campus" predicament by now, but generally I do night screenings so I roll into town after 5 pm-- this screening was at 4, so I arrived during the thick of normal school day activity.

Regardless I got into the UT Library about 15-minutes before game time, met my contact, got my press table set up, and we got things started to a nice turnout.  After a nice introduction (I typically get introduced but not with an extensive bio, haha) we got things rolling, and as per custom, about halfway through I took off to wander campus.

I like visiting big state schools, especially schools whose athletic programs are rivals to my alma mater.  I guess there's a kinda "secret agent" fantasy that runs through your head that makes it fun-- even for a grown man.  I've never been brave enough-- or rude enough-- to wear a Bama "13 National Champions" shirt to one of these things, but I kinda smirk about doing it when I wander around and remember what it was like to be in school.

SEC Campuses BEWARE!
 There is one thing I found on campus-- in the UT Library, in fact-- that I have to point out, because it ties so well to the film.  There's an "exhibit" in the library for the Centaur Excavations at Volos.  In other words, its a rare display of the excavated remains of an ACTUAL Centaur.

Really stunning work, and a great hoax to kinda sit on display as a permanent warning to students that you can't always trust your eyes-- a nice philosophical exercise, and a perfect complement to thematics we looked at in Genesis.  You can get more info on the "excavation" here.

Centaur-- More than meets the eye.
I got back in the auditorium for the film to wrap up, and as per custom, did a brief Q&A.

So far, by the book.  But, as I mentioned, my contact had built the screening into a major event, and we immediately went upstairs to a CATERED reception and discussion.  Definitely breaking new ground here.

I was pretty nervous, going in.  Frankly, I hate touring.  I'm not a salesman, I'm not naturally great at reacting to new and uncomfortable situations, and I hate when I can't just kinda sink into the background.  The only reason we did this damn Tour to begin with was because I had to do something with the film and the Tour was the only remotely ambitious approach I could come up with where I still had some level of control.

Anyway, after a few awkward minutes, some brave students finally asked some questions, and things seemed to move pretty smooth from there on out.  It was more an extension of the Q&A, really, rather than a discussion, as I gave way-too-long, way-too-complicated answers to simple questions and, despite meaning to, asked very few of my own.  But, folks seemed to be engaged enough, and most of the kids did seem legitimately interested in my experience.  I think the fact that I was pretty much their age was a big factor, and I tried to give as many details as possible.

One thing I always hated when I used to ask for advice would be the people who explain how that got a film made but brushed over the big hurdles that keep the rest of us from really making films-- for instance, they'd give you all the details of how a shoot went, but not tell you how they raised the money or where they got the equipment, or hell, where they got the cast and crew.  Granted, speaking from experience it is kinda a sensitive thing to mention where you got your financing, but I try not to glaze over that too much-- and I do my best to be as micro-detailed regarding the other major hurdles when talking with students as possible.

Now, a little bit about UT's Cinema Studies dept.  UT's dept is similar to what we had at UA-- probably more inline with what UA had about six years before I got there.  A lot of interest, no equipment, professors in different schools kinda mixing and matching programs.  So, a lot of good work being done, but not really a definitive discipline or major yet.  Kids interested in pursuing it have to make amalgamated majors, double majors, double minors, etc.

So, I think basically, it's a program with a lot of potential, and a lot of sincerity.  At the risk of sounding pretentious, give me that over a formal film school any day.  Because then it becomes all about empowering, all about exploration, all about self-reliance.  They can't offer you job placement (trust me), but they do anything but spoil you-- maybe that's the best lesson you can teach aspiring artists-- that it's a hard road to hoe, it's expensive, it's not lucrative, and no one gives a damn until your work is good enough to deserve it.  Might help out our over-saturation problem.

Anyway, after the discussion concluded, I went out to eat with my contact and five highly interested film students, kinda friends of my contact.  This was probably the most rewarding event of the night-- hell, possibly the most rewarding event of the entire Tour-- in that I finally got all the "validation" and "purpose" I've been squabbling humorlessly about.  It was talking with these young storytellers that, again, opened my mind to the true purpose of the Tour-- that I'm there to show students how work that is about your home, about your region, that uses regional aesthetics, history and mythology with a unique, fresh perspective is an inherent advantage to the stories you tell.  That place can be as important to a filmmaker as it is to a writer.  That you can tell stories as a young man without being a wunderkind like Welles or Spielberg-- cause, trust me, most of us aren't.

I'm not a Genius.  I just play one on the Radio.
One student, from Chattanooga, kinda summed it all up for me.  He said he's proud of where he's from and would like to "write about what he knows", but he never viewed it as a real possibility before that night.  That he a) didn't realize it was an option to produce regionally specific work and b) that he now just recognized the importance of it.  Though I tried not to be too disillusioned about things-- there's really not a strong "regional" market yet, especially not in the South, that doesn't cater to niche exploitation markets, like "faith-based" stuff or Tyler Perry films-- but I wanted to encourage the impulse.  My desire to live a lifestyle debt-free and where I can buy DVD's at will aside, I do think that creating cinematic markets that focus on specific regions (though with universal appeal) is a relatively viable concept, and that it might become increasingly so the smaller technology makes the world.  I also think there's a larger need for regional identity to be more accurately depicted, examined and preserved by filmmakers, the smaller the world gets-- similar to how writers do and have done for years.  The cinema-- or at least the moving image-- is currently our greatest, most influential medium of mass expression, in my opinion.  We need to continue expanding who uses the medium, how the medium is used, and turn it into a truly universally accesible art form where the country it's made in isn't the only thing that's important-- but also WHERE in that country it was made.

In other words, there are more dimensions to our lives in greater need of exploration than the third.  And their glasses don't make you look stupid.

Man, where IS my sense of humor???

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Inverview at the "Fast, Cheap Movie Thoughts" Blog

Totally forgot to publish this earlier-- John Gaspard over at the renowned "Fast, Cheap Movie Thoughts" blog posted an interview with yours truly, about not only the DIY approach to producing the film, but also the DIY Campus Tour. 

It's great coverage for us, and I think a pretty fluid read-- especially if you're interested in our production experience (which I haven't really covered on this blog).

Check it out!

Fast, Cheap Movie Thoughts Blog - "A Genesis Found"

One revelation in the Int-- our teamsters were a bunch of flippin' Ewoks.

Marty! We've got to go back! Back to the Freeway!

Well, I may not be zippin' around the open roads in a roadster as slick and door-hinge-impractical as Doc's DeLorean, but the Future certainly caught up with me after an extended holiday absence from the Tour, and I had to go back to work.

Before Zemmeckis CGI'ed over the actors he shot.
Honestly, the second half of the Tour, ambitious as it was initially designed, wound up becoming, well, pretty easy, and not really that demanding.  At least nowhere near as demanding, in terms of preparation, organization and locations visited as the first half of the Tour.  We'll call the second half of the Tour "Quality over Quantity."

Most of the reason for this transition from many-schools-in-very-few-weeks to few-schools-in-many-weeks was purposeful.  Around the time of the ECU screening and my only overnight trip through North and South Carolina, over the phone with my wife I really confessed to and came to terms with the fact that, since I was kinda functioning as a one man band, I needed to make some changes to really get everything I wanted out of the Tour, and each stop along the way.

I think my expectations about what makes the Tour useful to me-- my expectations about its purpose-- have changed as well.  Initially I was hoping to field bigger audiences, and thought that was what mattered most-- but heading into the back stretch, I kinda was able to take a step back and see it as something else-- and probably what I should have seen it as from the get go.  Well... I'm getting ahead of myself-- more on that later.

What is my purpose...?
What I can do, in terms of promoting each screening, is limited.  They say you need money, time and talent in this business, or at least A LOT of one, to succeed-- well, the only resource I have access to is time, and early in the Tour I was squandering most of it by cramming so many venues into such a compact period.  Maybe if I'd been able to line up all of them months before it could have worked, but because of demands from the DVD, my inability to get prompt responses from most locations, and just life in general (the Braves ain't gonna watch themselves!) I wasn't able to, and I eventually had to kinda ride with the current.  So sometimes I wouldn't book a screening until two weeks prior, and I wouldn't get around to actually "promoting" it until a week before, which is risky when you have money and suicidal when you're depending on free grassroot outlets like fliers, PSAs, online calendars, and newspaper feature articles.

My PSAs should be this awesome.
 So, I came to terms with this handicap, and decided that the only way it was gonna get better was to embrace it and to be a bit more picky about where I go, and try to spend the effort I'd spend on, normally, two to three screenings, on just one.

And, of course, some of this "scaling down" was kinda inevitable due to just not being able to secure some venues.  Throughout the length of the Tour I've contacted 75 schools, and generally at least three to four people at each (sometimes more).  Of those 75 schools of three to four people each, I got word back from around 50 people, about 40 schools.  From those 40 schools, I will wind up visiting 16.

So, there were a lot of, in my mind, missed opportunities, I think, but sometimes you just gotta take what you can get.  Probably of those 40 I actually heard back from, I'd say 30 were, at least at some point, accompanied with a "yes" or at least an "I'm interested."

But as I was still having a hard time booking some of these 30 venues as the Tour began last September, I naturally relegated, to the front half, most of the schools I had booked, and scheduled schools that were still question marks for the second half, to obviously give those schools a bit more time to develop and finalize.

Surprisingly or not, most of these venues wound up fizzling out-- either due to scheduling issues or faded enthusiasm or little actual interest to begin with.

Honestly, though, for the most part, I'm glad, both personally and professionally, that this half is so much easier to handle.  Frankly, the Tour did its job-- I feel like I paid the film the distribution service I owed it, and I'm ready to move on.  Not that my experience with A Genesis Found ends with the Tour-- we're still hoping to get a bigger third party distrib. involved-- but I guess I feel like I tried the DIY experiment and learned a lot, and feel like my debt to it, and to the people who helped me create it, has been paid-- at least as far as day to day shepherding it is concerned.

You said it, Spidey
 Anyway, the Tour's not over yet.

When things got moving again in January, I couldn't have gotten back onto the bandwagon much easier than via my first screening of the second half, a February 8th late-afternoon screening at Jefferson Davis Community College in Brewton, AL.

What was so "easy" about the JDCC screening certainly wasn't the drive (didn't realize it was five hours til the morning of because I planned so well....)  What was easy was that it was a private, class-only screening-- my first and only for the Tour.

Though it might sound a little compromising and detrimental to the Tour's purpose, doing a private, non-public screening was actually quite liberating.  Basically, in January I sent my contact some promotional materials, and then a month later showed up-- that was it.  No filling out venue breakdown sheets or hunting e-mails and fax numbers of local radio stations; no expensive flier mailings to local libraries; no worries about not promoting well-enough and therefore being solely responsible for bad attendance.  It kinda gave me an idea of what it would have felt like if I had like a manager on this Tour, making the arrangements and doing all the dull work, while I rolled into town, saw the sights and made a couple of template comments at show's end.

Anyway, the JDCC screening was special for a couple of reasons.  One, I'm apparently in the lineage of Jefferson Davis (one of my mom's grandmothers was a Davis, I think?); two, February 8th was my 25th birthday; and three, I felt like bringing my screening there was a very big deal for the school and the audience.

Jeff Davis
 I've noticed this with most of the Community Colleges I've visited-- well, sort of.  I guess it's kinda a mixed bag.  Sometimes at the small schools people aren't that ambitious, and therefore aren't that interested, and so (relatively) no one shows.  But, sometimes, it can be real special-- similar to the 100+ person screening at Pearl River Community College at the Tour's beginning.

It's special because, at school's like JDCC, there are rarely these types of outreach opportunities.  This might be different for small schools elsewhere, but in the Southeast, it seems like getting actual, non-local artists to bring their work to little schools is a battle typically fought and lost by Humanities and Fine Arts professors across the region.  I suppose, typically, these lack of opportunities stem from the perceived lack of interest, and the lack of useful function to these types of small schools mostly concerned with preparing kids for two years at a University or giving adults a more accessible means of receiving a secondary education.

But, that's been one of the (few) luxuries of designing this Tour myself, and allowing myself and my "focus" to be flexible.

It was actually one of the best audiences I'd gotten a chance to screen for-- I think because most were Humanities students, English students-- interested in story, in ideas only.  It was a really honest, straight forward screening, with people who were interested (even if just in the novelty-- when the Dolby logo ran before the film, one audience member actually exclaimed "This has real trailers on it!"), and seemed to legitimately care about what was happening in front of them. 

It was a talkative audience-- but not in a "I'm not paying attention" way, but more in a "interacting with the content" way.  A very reactive audience, I should say.

Well, not THAT reactive.
 And at the, by contrast, relatively tame and quiet Q&A, I got to field probably the best question of the entire Tour asked about making the movie:  "Was it hard?" 

What's so fantastic about that question was that it was meant so legitimately.  It kinda put everything in perspective for me-- kinda made me better understand my place in this world, and the place of regional and independent film in this world.  You could tell most of these kids, if not all, had NEVER been exposed to this type of work before-- the concept of making films locally for local audiences had never even been optioned in their minds.  We were breaking ground that night.  We were rounding out perspectives and broadening horizons.

I guess it was lesson one in helping me understand the true purpose of this Tour, and why God put me on this earth to be a filmmaker in this region at this time.

... That is my purpose.
 Man.  I guess my approach to the Tour isn't the only thing that's changed since the last half.  What happened to my sense of humor????

Oh, there it is.