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Jump Cut

The Monthly Column on Film and Media Arts
for the New England Entertainment Digest

By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive Director/CEO


(December 2004) The year has flown by. It has been a year of change, evolution and growth. Film production has been steady in the region and greater interest has developed using New England as a base. The recent shoot in Rhode Island of “The Brotherhood,” for Showtime illustrated not only the charm of the Ocean State, but its flexibility as a location.

This was an interesting year all around for the film festival circuit as well. I made a point of attending a number of the events in the region and it is obvious that they are being taken seriously as economic engines for tourism and production growth. For the first time in memory, I’ve noticed that government and economic development officials are beginning to understand that there are benefits from having a film festival berthed in the community.

Of course, the number of film festivals continues to proliferate. Last count, unofficially, was more than 1,900 worldwide. How can these be supported? Actually, believe it or not, the market is not yet saturated and there is plenty of fresh product and interest within the film-going public for diversity.

A look at regional festivals bear witness to the demand:


• The Independent Film Festival of Boston clearly proved itself this year with a solid event and strong audience support. The Williamstown Film Festival had excellent crowds and an exceptional line-up; toped with an appearance by Alec Baldwin. The Boston Irish Film Festival snagged Gabriel Byrne and several top-notch premieres. The Boston Jewish Film Festival has been a testament to its core staff and careful planning which resulted in a festival that screened in multiple Massachusetts communities. Film Fest New Haven brought in director Greg Pak and ran a class event. The Nantucket Film Festival, drawing from its New York City roots, has been able to create a solid reputation as a screenwriter’s haven and celebrity draw.

• The Rhode Island International Film Festival saw enormous growth and for the first time financial support from its host city. Working with many community groups and businesses, RIIFF was able to experiment and take risks, such as screening films in 5 communities across the state. Perhaps one of the nicest elements was the addition of an award for best score, which would be eligible for a Grammy nomination. This was brought home to a much larger audience during the annual “Waterfire” event in the city’s center when soundtracks from RIIFF films were played as background to the popular art event.

(And as a footnote: the score to “News for the Church,” by Andrew McCarthy was recently nominated for Grammy consideration. The film had its world premiere at RIIFF in August).

SOME HIGHLIGHTS FROM A YEAR OF NOTE

Frankly, I think 2004 has been an exceptional year and I looked back at previous columns, I released just how much has happened and how much potential exists for the future.

 

• At press time, Robert Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express” had just opened to glowing reviews. Starring Tom Hanks in no less than five roles (and Peter Scolari in what will be an unbilled “Bosum Buddies” reunion,) the film has all the signs of becoming a holiday staple in years to come.

“The Polar Express” is based on the book by Providence, Rhode Island-resident, Chris van Alsburg. The film is another testament to the talent that resides within our region. Getting his professional start as a layout designer for Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” van Alsburg had already built a solid reputation and following for his work. When the successful “Jumanji,” leapt onto the screen, international recognition of his children’s fiction took flight and expectations have been high since.

A special fundraising screening at the Showcase Seekonk (yes, nearby Massachusetts) and pre-premiere festivities celebrated the more than $700,000 raised for CVS/pharmacy Draw-A-Breath, an asthma-education program Van Allsburg, and his wife, Lisa Morrison, created in 1996 at Hasbro Children's Hospital. About 900 people attended the gala New England premiere.

• In one of my early articles this year, I made a modest proposal that there be greater linkage between the New England states with more cross promotion and exchange. It went something like this:

“After a lot of brainstorming, meetings and research, a germ of an idea surfaced: create a regional Film and Media Arts Alliance. Link it with existing film offices on a state-by-state basis and the numerous film festivals that are portals of entry for new work. Use this mechanism to spur dialogue, mutual support and cross promotion thus reducing redundancy, inefficiency and becoming a real resource for the region’s many artists. The name we developed?

The New England Alliance of Film & Media Arts. Given the size of our region, it made more sense to not limit our thinking to Rhode Island exclusively. After all, if Rhode Island is the size of a city-state, then New England is equivalent in size to a western state.

Our logic was that this type of regional organization would be useful to attract future businesses to the area as well as nurture and support film and media arts organizations in New England. Instead of being exclusive, we felt inclusiveness was in order. Instead of competing and losing to Canada, New York or California, better to work together, share talent and land work.

As we began creating the concept for the New England Alliance of Film & Media Arts, we learned that an estimated 300 films are shot in North America every year. This includes motion picture, television, commercial production, music, animations, and internet/new media. Approximately 60 percent, or 180 films, choose Canada due to reduced production costs caused by incentives, a favorable exchange rate, or both. Of the remaining 120 films, few choose the New England region. The breakdown has approximately 50% of the films being developed in New York, California or other States. Rhode Island has been automatically excluded due to the lack of infrastructure (studios, stages, back lots, and film crews).”

Recently I was emailed a proposal from a California based production concern that provided a sense of déjà vu, but also illustrated that the region was being taken seriously. I’m repeating it in whole in this article since it might spur a response and get the proverbial ball-rolling:

NEW ENGLAND FILM INCENTIVE PROJECT
Together with noted members of the Hollywood creative community, Creative Convergence is assembling a group of experts in the creative, financial and governmental fields to explore and encourage a cooperative of New England states for the attraction of film and television production into the area.

The goal of the New England Film Incentive Project is to unite the efforts of the New England film production community and adapt one or more of the financial models that have proven successful in other markets to reinvigorate film production in the area. The states proposed for the cooperative are Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Over the past several years the New England production community has continued to lose business because of the financial incentives being offered to filmmakers elsewhere. Various different models have been successfully implemented in a number of countries (UK, Canada, South Africa, Luxembourg) as well as other US states (Louisiana, New Mexico). The individual New England states are no longer competitive or valuable enough in terms of location alone to support a consistent production industry.

Yet filmmakers and artists would prefer opportunities that would let them work locally – especially in a cultural hub such as New England. We feel that the best plan of action is for two or more of the New England states to work together to become more attractive to financiers and filmmakers, rather than continue to compete for the same opportunities, and lose out to incentive-loaded territories. New England is in a prime position (financially, geographically and logistically) to create incentives for film production, develop a stable industry, and bolster local economic development.

Possible incentives include:
• Direct rebate based on production expenditure
• Regional tax breaks offered to individual and/or corporate investors
• Reduced production costs for government-controlled facilities or services
• Direct equity investment
• Soft loans or cash flow

And now:
• Monetization of the newly-announced United States federal tax breaks.

Who is behind this? A group calling themselves, “Creative Convergence.” They are an entertainment management and consultancy firm with experience in film development, production and financing. At press time, they are attempting to identify interested private & governmental parties capable of contributing to and supporting this project.

If you want more information on Creative Convergence, I’d suggest a visit to their website at www.creative-convergence.com

• This year saw a number of interviews with folks in the business who are shakers and movers in the region and throughout the globe; many unsung and unrecognized. Yet, their work drives the creative engines in this discipline, opening doors for many and kindling the creative spark. Here are some highlights of what I discovered about these folks:

WHO: James Nadeau, a curator and a video/performance artist based in Boston. He received his BFA from the Tufts University/ School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He is known for his single channel work that have screened internationally. Most recently at MIX BRASIL: Festival of Sexual Diversity at the Museum of Modern Art in Sao Paolo, Brazil, the Anthology Film Archives, NY, NY; Manhattan Cable Television, NY; Image & Nation: The Montreal Lesbian and Gay Film Festival; the Philadelphia International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and the Harvard Film Archive.

JUMP CUT: You've traveled all over the film festival circuit. What have you learned from these experiences?

JAMES NADEAU: Traveling the festival “circuit”, as you put it, is always an interesting experience. It is interesting to see the similarities in community perceptions. With LGBT festivals in particular there is a great sense of family amongst programmers. We all share our knowledge of films and what has worked for some and not for others in terms of audience or programming success. Of course there is always a bit of “one-up man ship” as well. Sometimes you find out about a film that no one else has and you don’t want to share because you want to be the first to screen it!

JUMP CUT: What would you tell an aspiring filmmaker about getting into a festival, let alone the festival circuit?

JAMES NADEAU: I think that the goal for young (as in emerging, not in age) filmmakers is to get your work seen. Send it out and get programmers to watch it. Festivals are getting larger and larger. And don’t get discouraged. One of my first lessons, coming from the perspective of a programmer and a maker, was that just because your film wasn’t picked one year doesn’t mean that it won’t be screened ever. Sometimes themes will change and all of a sudden your film, telling a particular kind of story, will fit perfectly when it wouldn’t the year before. Also, listening to criticism is always helpful and you have to have a thick skin. Art school certainly showed me that. Take what you want from it and think about it as you make your second, third, fourth films.

WHO: Kimberly Shane O’Hara is originally from Warren, RI. She and Eric M. Klein are the principals behind O'Hara/Klein. They formed a successful partnership over a decade ago based upon a shared passion for the art and business of filmmaking, and through the duration of their partnership, have been actively involved in bringing to fruition over 100 productions. To date, they have actively produced eight feature film projects, building an extensive database of creative talent and distributors, in the last six years. Of current note: “Happy Hour” (which premiered at the Independent Film Festival of Boston) is playing to strong houses and excellent reviews in New York and soon across the country.

JUMP CUT: How do you find the projects that you get involved with? Do you have a philosophical agenda or are you looking for what will be commercial?


KIMBERLY SHANE O’HARA: This is an interesting question, George. Projects come in such strange and karmic ways. When the script of “Happy Hour” was passed to me by the director/writer's lawyer, I read it and knew that the witty banter of the main character was unique. I just was very down on NYC at the time, and couldn't stomach heading right back to make a film about a NY alcoholic. I also was leery of how scrutinized the film would be after the success of “Leaving Las Vegas.” It is amazing how many people in the movie industry group themes together. I had a fantastic piano script once ... but couldn't drum up a penny for it because people said "Shine" was already made. If that was the case for "Shine", people would have said "Five Easy Pieces" or "The Piano" were already made ... thank God they didn't because "Shine" was an exceptional film.

Anyway, I put “Happy Hour” down, as my partner shared my sentiment, and read other scripts for a year. ALL AWFUL. So I pulled “Happy Hour” back out of the closet and said "Let's make this." One year later we shot in NYC with Anthony La Paglia and Eric Stoltz on a production budget of only $750,000.

JUMP CUT: What do you think is a critical issue facing independent filmmakers today and their work?


KIMBERLY SHANE O’HARA: I wish that more people would take chances on independent movies that get played in mainstream theaters. Unfortunately, and we experienced this in Minneapolis with “American Reunion,” even though I convinced a few megaplexes in the ‘burbs to play the film, virtually no one showed up. We were competing against ad campaigns of the millions for movies like “Troy” that had been deemed by many critics as mediocre, but people still chose that film over ours. I find that people who live away from the typical indie theater complain they can't see indie films cause of the lack, but the other side of the coin is that when they are given a chance, they do not go! Big movie chains will not keep an indie movie longer than one week if it lands in the bottom two gross slots. Then the film goes away to never be seen again. So, SUPPORT INDIE FILMS

WHO: Independent filmmaker, Eva Saks. Currently producing programming for Sesame Street, she is no stranger to the Festival circuit, recently premiering a short at the Williamstown Film Festival.

JUMP CUT: Give us some background on yourself. Tell us about the journey you've taken to be a filmmaker.

EVA SAKS: I became an "old movie" maven at about ten years old - I used to torture my parents by setting my alarm clock for 3 am, to watch Fred Astaire in TOP HAT. In college, I majored in Theater Directing, then went on to become a Casting Director for Theater, Film and Television. I moved out of Casting into being an Agent, and woke up one day thinking, "Well, if I'm really going into the Entertainment Business, I might as well go for it." So I ended up going to Yale Law School, with the intention of directing and producing movies. I practiced Entertainment Law briefly, then got back into directing Theater and casting films, and decided I would apply to ONE film school: NYU. They took me and I've never looked back! I've had a great run, with the Student Academy Award and then selling my two most recent shorts (CONFECTION and COLORFORMS) to the Independent Film Channel, and now writing and directing two programs for SESAME STREET.

JUMP CUT: How important has the film festival circuit been for the development of your craft?

EVA SAKS: I think it's been invaluable, because you get to see how your work plays with different audiences, in different cultures. It helps me make choices that make my movies more legible and universal. (I'm going to Italy next week, to a film festival that's hosting me and screening CONFECTION...I'm very curious to see how an Italian audience reacts!) My own goal isn't to make "art" films; I like to make films that you can watch while eating popcorn. I guess it's the influence of all those great old movies I used to wake up to watch in the middle of the night! I'm a populist director - my idea of a great movie is CASABLANCA or ET -- something that moves people of all ages.

JUMP CUT: What would you tell an aspiring film student or communications major about preparation for this field: illusions, delusions and reality?

EVA SAKS: Just get out there and start making films. Really. Buy (or borrow) the cheapest camcorder and get a home editing program - you can put it on your desktop. (In fact, I've edited all my films on my desktop. Cost almost nothing.) Incidentally, I shot most of FAMILY VALUES -- which won the Student Academy Award and screened at Sundance, Telluride, etc. -- by myself, because I didn't know any DPs! And I knew absolutely NOTHING about shooting movies. I just bought a cheapo consumer video camera, and got on a train to Philly (where my subjects were) the next day, and started shooting. I didn't even know how to turn the camera on and off when I started the project. It was pretty hilarious. In fact, I'd never owned a camera. I was just so excited about the story of FAMILY VALUES that nothing could stop me. By the way, NYU discouraged me from doing the project, and refused to let me use an NYU video camera - so I ignored them and did it myself. As a friend of mine once told me: "No one makes you a director. That's what MAKES you a director."

SOME LAST THOUGHTS
Finally, a few statistics I was provided by a group called filmBUZZ, which specializes in film and audience statistics/demographics at film festivals across the country:

• Festival attendees are not simply casual filmgoers; they are dedicated film lovers. They are the people who will generate buzz for a film they support, and they can make or break the local success of a platform release. They also learned that

• The mean annual operating budget of a film festival is nearly one-quarter of a million dollars. Furthermore, another 91% of festivals receive in-kind sponsorship services donated on top of cash expenditures. These in-kind sponsorships average more than $150,000 in value.

• The average film festival will fill nearly 12,000 seats over the course of the festival. Of these viewers, fewer than 9% know someone involved in the film they came to see.

• Festivals make the bulk of their income from corporate cash sponsorships. With a mean of nearly $100,000 annually per festival, the average total corporate sponsorship cash commitment is more than $40,000 higher than ticket sale proceeds, the second highest revenue source.

But the really big news was that new film product can be discovered outside the traditional acquisition circuit, such as Sundance, Toronto, or Cannes. Many of filmBUZZ’s top films were discovered by distributors after playing successfully to regional film festival audiences. In Rhode Island that included “Unknown Soldier,” “Bonhoeffer,” “Robot Stories,” “Zero Day,” and the short animated film “Destino” which went on to an Academy Award nomination.

This is exciting news and a great foundation on which to build the production and exhibition base in our regional.

 



About the Author:
George T. Marshall is the Producing Director of the Rhode Island-based Flickers Arts Collaborative, the creators of the annual Rhode Island International Film Festival for which he also serves as Executive Director. He teaches film and communications at Rhode Island College and speech communications and documentary film at Roger Williams University. He is a director, writer, producer of commercials and industrials for numerous business clients in the region and is currently completing the multi-media components for a museum exhibit saluting American veterans in Woonsocket, RI. He can be reached at <flicksart@aol.com>