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Arts and Entertainment Thursday, May 23, 2013 8 years ago

The obstacles facing an independent filmmaker: An opportunity for Sarasota?

by: John Ewing

Greg Bowdish is a novelist, screenwriter, and BlueCat Screenplay Competition semi-finalist. His novel Love’s Naked Nature will be out this spring.

Months have passed since the 2013 Sarasota Film Festival (SFF) and I am beginning to fall back into that malaise about where I live. Sarasota is a teasing and tricky place for creative-minded people---especially those with aspirations in the film industry. There are so many of us here, yet so few financially-viable opportunities for us to spread our wings, develop our crafts or see the possibility of making even a modest living pursuing what we love here on the “Cultural Coast.”

But don't worry. This article is not going to be some “woe-is-me” story about how hard it is trying to make money doing something artistic in a Florida beach town. I am going to talk about obstacles facing filmmakers, but from a pragmatic point of view. This article is about taking stock of what we have going for us, as individuals and as a budding film town, and trying to make the film culture fervor of the SFF more of a year-round thing. It is also about getting the word out to the rest of the world that Sarasota is serious about film.

To me, the SFF is Sarasota at its best. It is like getting a glimpse of real possibilities for our little city. It is when ridiculous squabbles about downtown noise and park benches get set aside, and the city unites to welcome talent and vision from far away film meccas such as New York, Los Angeles and Austin. The sidewalks are filled with creative people eager to talk and share ideas, restaurant tables buzz with stories of film shoots, and most importantly, our local filmmakers get some much-needed and deserved attention.

This year at the festival, I talked with three SFF-featured filmmakers specifically about the obstacles they faced in bringing their films to the screen. Their answers were surprising and very inspiring. So much so that it made me think about film opportunities here in Sarasota differently. It also made me reach out an old friend working in Hollywood to get his take on what I found. So whether you are an aspiring filmmaker or just someone who wants to see more film production in Sarasota, please read on.

Xackery Irving

Xackery Irving is the director of Nothing Without You, a narrative, feature-length thriller that was shot on an extremely tight budget (under $180,000). It won the Best Feature Film Award for films under a $250,000 budget at the Toronto Film Festival and has garnered a lot of press for its twisting roller-coaster plot. Xackery talked with me about some of the obstacles involved in making the film and how he went about overcoming them.

“One of the big barriers we had for our film was that we had 188 scenes and a very a tight budget, so we needed skilled labor and people with a great attitude to go along that journey with us. We shot in a few different cities, and the thing that was most helpful was being able to find qualified people who were experienced at a specific job on the set. But we also needed people who are able to do more than one role and have a flexible schedule. We had some people that were doing art direction one day and production management the next.”

I asked him about the importance of scouting. He immediately went back to talking about qualified people.

“Finding people who can do one role specifically well---you can find those people in major cities, but filming in major cities can be cost prohibitive.

“When a film comes into a community it is like a startup. It's a company that's hiring talent, hiring a crew and hiring someone to manage. As a business owner you are looking for a place you can put your roots down. The filmmaker is looking for a city they can bond with and establish a trust. We need a city that is embracing the process and understands that we might need a location that looks like a hospital and then move quickly to another type of location. And if you're shooting in another city, you want to hire as many people who live there as possible. It's goodwill and it also makes logistical sense.”

Maria Yoon

Maria Yoon is a New York performance artist-turned-documentarian who set out on a journey to explore the meaning of marriage by traveling around the U.S. and getting married in every state to a different person. The feature documentary film that resulted, Maria the Korean Bride, is both an irreverent and poignant look at the institution of marriage. As a woman filmmaker traveling alone on a shoestring budget, Maria probably understands obstacles more than most indie filmmakers.

“Of course, the main obstacle is always money or lack of it. I realized partly into the project that my camera and equipment were not really up to industry standards, and after using several different video cameras, I never imagined how complicated the formatting would become. Being a first-time filmmaker, I had a difficult time identifying help and receiving assistance from competent tech people. I think if I were to do another film, I would have a better idea of who to hire to make it right.”

I asked her where she found money for her film.

“My funding came from several sources. I was somewhat fortunate to be a New Yorker because there are many organizations that reward small stipends to artists. Although each one was not a lot of money, I diligently applied to dozens of organizations over nine years and the totality of funding became significant over time. I held several fund-raising parties, which I invited friends and acquaintances to. Lastly, I want to thank my credit card companies for not shutting me off particularly at the end of the project.”

Maria found her “husbands” through Craigslist or through connections with friends, and she also talked about the difficulties of being a female filmmaker out on the road alone meeting with strangers.

“Sometimes, it was fun and sometimes it was little scary. At times, I had to be somewhat guarded to unknown situations where I was invited to meet other locals at a private residence. Having someone to call you before and after these events definitely helped. The making of the project was an adventure.”

She talked about other obstacles.

“I wish I had better equipment and someone who could give me expert advise that wasn't wrong! It's surprising to me of all the people who went to film school who have no idea or very little knowledge about formatting and editing. Over time I did find very useful resources and learned by mistake and determination as I went along. The last thing is creating publicity without a budget. I know this is a concern shared with most filmmakers. I am also certain that there are many great films sitting in 'the can,' so to speak, because they were never able to generate publicity.”

Anthony Paull

Anthony Paull is a Sarasota-based author and filmmaker who has produced several independent shorts, including this year's SFF selection The Cover. He offered some great perspectives on issues that confront our local indie filmmakers, funding being at the top of the list.

“My projects have been low-budget, so I have been able to fund them myself. I own the camera and most of the equipment. It would be nice for the city to offer micro-grants to indie filmmakers, either $5,000 or $10,000, or even $2,500. That could be great start for a production.

“I think right now the thought with the Sarasota Film Commission is to lure in Hollywood studios and big-budget films, but there are a lot of independent filmmakers making quality projects from Sarasota. The county gave $600,000 to Sanborn Studios to foster a film community and bring in more projects. Where are the results? So far the studio hasn't produced a successful project. When the deadline is up, is the county going to ask for the money back? Film is a gamble and unfortunately, I think the [Sarasota County] Commission had starry eyes when that decision was made. With barely any money I've funded three short films and a music video that have been featured at several film festivals across the country. Micro-grants would be appreciated and applauded by many of my peers in the local filmmaking community.”

Anthony also talked a bit about crowd funding. “I think Kickstarter is a good way to get additional project funds but the site is saturated with projects and I think people are being more choosy in what they back.”

Anthony then brought up the one thing I heard time and time again in all these interviews: people.

“Sarasota has a wealth of actors and tech support who are willing to work relatively cheap if they believe in the project. I think actors should be paid, and I made sure to compensate accordingly on my last short, The Cover.”In the end, my personal takeaway from these interviews was that the problems plaguing indie filmmakers were probably no different than the problems faced by big studio productions. What is so important here is that, while money is so obviously an issue in any level of filmmaking, an equally important factor seems to be the need for talented, knowledgeable, trustworthy people. And this got me thinking about the Sarasota job market.

Why are there so many productions being filmed in some towns and not in others? Why are so many people actively employed by the film industry in towns like Austin, Portland, and Shreveport, but not here? How can we as a community attract larger independent and studio films to shoot here? It was time to phone a friend.

Eric Lewy

Eric Lewy has been working in the film industry for over 20 years. He has been the assistant editor on such films as Idiocracy, Office Space, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, just to name a few. He has worked on small independent films and Hollywood blockbusters. He has also spent considerable time in both L.A. and Austin, and knows quite a bit about how the Austin film scene started.

“What made Austin so much of a film town is that they gave grants and support to the local indie filmmakers and tax incentives to the bigger budget studio films.”

But was it all about money? Eric went on to talk about how fueling the indie film scene with small grants helped to attract studio productions. Again, it seemed to be all about skilled people.

“One of the reasons Austin became such a big-budget film town is because it had a big indie film community. Lower-budget films gave people new avenues to develop skills and that made Austin a more attractive place for studio films out of Hollywood looking for a new location and local crews.”

But those indie film grants apparently had another effect.

“Another thing that made a difference was that several of Austin's indie film directors (Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Mike Judge and Terrence Malick) garnered a lot of notoriety and brought bigger budget films back to the city with their success.”

So is independent filmmaking the key to bringing larger studio productions to Sarasota? Eric echoed the sentiments of Xackery Irving and explained that if a big studio knows they can go to a given location and find the skilled, dependable people they need there, it goes a long way when considering their budget. These people are directors, cinematographers, actors, writers, musicians, set workers, stunt people, tradesman and even food caterers, and it is the support of the community that gives those people the opportunity to develop those skills. Eric summed it up best:

“In terms of creating a film town, it is the people, whether they are the indie filmmaker, the big studio director, or the civic film society, that make it happen.”

Learn more about the filmmakers in this article:

Xackery Irving

Xackery's IMDb profile:

Nothing Without You website:

Chain Gang Pictures:

Maria Yoon

Maria's personal website:

Maria the Korean Bride website:

Anthony Paull

Anthony's personal website:

The Cover IMDb page:

Anthony's novel Outtakes of a Walking Mistake:

Eric Lewy

Eric's IMDb profile:

[Updated 5/27/13 11:35 a.m.]

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