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Film Independent Forum: A Career-Building Convocation

By Tom White

Film Independent's annual Forum, held at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles last month, provides a weekend's worth of practical and pragmatic food for thought for the working indie filmmaker. Whether the intricacies and complexities of the law, or the thrill and agony of doing it yourself, or the exciting possibilities of transmedia production, the Forum aims to provide the filmmaker with useful tools and tips.

Arthur Dong has been distributing his own work since the analogue days-pre-social media, pre-Web, pre-e-mail, perhaps even pre-touch-tone, when  life was so much slower, and more  inefficient and expensive and cumbersome. Dong has embraced the digital era with fervor, and in a scintillating conversation with filmmaker Lisa Leeman, he talked about how he's managed to keep his work alive, while keeping it under his roof.

One means of repurposing his canon has been repackaging it into two DVD sets-- Stories from the War on Homosexuality--The Arthur Dong Collection, Vol. 1, which comprise three films that address LGBT issues, viewer guides and four hours of additional material; and Stories from Chinese America--The Arthur Dong Collection, Vol. 2, a four-DVD anthology of work from 1982 to 2007. But key to selling these sets--as well as his individual films--has been developing study guides, with the help of a board of advisors. "The study guide is what makes the sale in the educational market," Dong advised. "The easier you make it for teachers, the better."

Dong also discussed non-traditional means of extending the life of his work. In conjunction with Hollywood Chinese, which examines the depiction of Chinese-Americans in Hollywood cinema, he curated an exhibit for the Los Angeles-based Chinese-American Museum, drawn from thousands of pieces of ephemera he had collected over a ten-year period. The exhibit actually opened two years after Hollywood Chinese was released, so Dong was able to "keep the idea of my film alive by expanding the audience to include the film historian market."  

Along those lines, Dong is also writing a book based on his 1989 film Forbidden City USA, about a San Francisco nightclub in the 1930s that catered to Chinese-Americans. He's working with author Lisa See, who is writing a novel about the same subject, to release their respective works at the same time, thereby increasing the marketing value for both, as well as for Forbidden City USA.

Of course, with the concurrent growth of streaming and VOD sites and torrent sites, there are legal costs in protecting your work. Even though Dong has not made his work available on Netflix-"The numbers aren't there yet," he said-he has to be extra vigilant about spotting his titles on torrent sites, especially since schools are coming back to him for streaming rights.

But this is all part of taking ownership of your work, an option Dong is not likely to cede: "It's about controlling your life," he observed. ""It allows you the freedom to choose gigs."

The panel that followed featured a trio of docmakers-Rick Goldsmith (The Most Dangerous Man in America), Tristan Patterson (Dragonslayer) and Anayansi Prado (Paraiso for Sale) with different stories to share about how they took their films to the marketplace. Of course, fundraising is a constant in docmaking, but Goldsmith advised to be strategic and efficient about what you do with the money you raise. "Instead of funding to fundraise, think carefully about what you can do with this funding."  For each grant that he and Judith Ehrlich secured, they were able to film more interviews, which eventually enabled them to raise a bulk of what they needed through international pre-sales and ITVS completion funds. Patterson kept his Hollywood day job while making Dragonslayer. "It forced me to be really disciplined about what to shoot," he admitted. Eight months into the process, he cut a short trailer, which earned him a grant from Cinereach, which in turn, allowed him to hire an editor.

Speaking of trailers, Goldsmith advised, "Don't spend too much energy making too many trailers You need to cut a trailer that's authentic to what you're doing." From the funder perspective, moderator Michele Turnure-Salleo from the San Francisco Film Society said, "Include your best footage in the trailer; don't worry about saving it for the film." Goldsmith added, "These trailers are for specific group of people; don't use the same one on your website."

Looming large for the docmaker are the legal concerns that arise at nearly every step of the process. Attorney Lisa Callif moderated a discussion with Elise Pearlstein (Food Inc.) and Eddie Schmidt (Troubadors) about the intricacies and ramifications of recent cases such as filmmaker Joe Berlinger's David-and Goliath battle with Chevron over use of his footage for Crude, and Lee Storey's imbroglio with the IRS over expenses for her film Smile ‘Til It Hurts. These respective cases raised questions about the documentary form as journalism and documentary-making as a livelihood, as opposed to a hobby.

This panel was so rich with information, a daylong seminar would hardly have been sufficient. But the central takeaway: The documentary filmmaking profession is freighted with responsibility-as artists and as journalists. Know your rights, do your due diligence, be fair-minded in seeking out the other point of view, seek out independent, reliable sources, and treat your livelihood as a business, replete with the necessary safeguards to keep you going.

In other words, it's never a DIY proposition, as Stephen Raphael, moderator of the panel "DIY Route: The Theatrical Roadshow," advised. "You have to find support and people you can trust and work with." His panel included publicist Sasha Berman, filmmaker Ondi Timoner (We Live in Public), MJ Peckos of Dada Films, and Greg Laemmle of t Laemmle Theaters. "When you hire a good team, they're going to do their job," Laemmle asserted. "We know when people are working for a paycheck, and we know when they're passionate." Berman was frank about her role as publicist: "I'm the liaison between your film and the press, but the filmmaker is the liaison between the film and the audience. It takes a lot of work to bring people into the theaters." Laemmle advised the panel attendees  to consider whether their film really needs to go out theatrically, while Peckos argued that theatrical is important for the portfolio of your film. But the bottom line is, know your audience, know how to reach them, and build a team that will help you build your roadshow.

But, as Laemmle, intimated, sometimes your documentary project might not be made for theaters. Sometimes it's a cool transmedia project like Departures, which takes you on a virtual tour through a few of the many neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Produced by KCET, which left the PBS family earlier this year, Departures is an exemplary endeavor that combines community building and engagement, history, education and storytelling through the transformative power of transmedia--a local project that thinks and acts globally. As KCET's Juan Davis explained in his presentation, his station left PBS for many reasons, mainly financial, but he and his colleagues also felt that they weren't heeding their own city, their own neighborhood. While I was skeptical of KCET's decision this past January, and taken aback by the sale of its studios to the Church of Scientology, Departures does strike a chord as a homegrown, versatile project that lends KCET a promising identity. A departure, if you will.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary.