By James Latham
After beginning as an actor, John Putch now works as a director in television and independent film. His TV work includes Cougar Town, My Name is Earl, Outsourced, and Ugly Betty. Three of his films have won Best Feature at The Valley Film Festival, including Bachelorman (2003), Mojave Phone Booth (2006) and Route 30 (2008); John is currently set to begin filming the sequel to the latter film in December.
JL: Shooting begins on Route 30,Too! in a few months. What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve overcome so far in developing this project?
JP: Getting the money together and trying to schedule it during a time where no one will miss too much ‘real’ paying work. Since I finance these small films myself, it takes me a couple of years to save up the money to make them. Plus these films are ensemble and collectively minded. Which translates to: ‘it’s not a paycheck’.
JL: Can you talk a little about the ensemble aspect of your films? How does this help your work?
JP: When you say goodbye to the notion that one person is more important than another on the film, you become an ensemble. In my system, everyone is an even shareholder in profits, no matter how big or small their contribution. And since I don’t pander to celebrity driven content, this evens the playing field and focuses everyone on the story and telling it.
JL: You’re planning to distribute the film yourself. What are the main reasons you’re making this shift—problems with traditional distribution and expected benefits of self-distribution?
JP: I’ll put it simply. Twelve years of experience with sales agents and multiple films has yielded almost zero return. Once the sales agent recoups the marketing fee, there is nothing left for the filmmaker. This practice, although not as commonplace as say five years ago, has been ‘the great rip off tactic’ that sales agents have used over the years to cover their operating expenses.
JL: What’s your strategy for working the film festival circuit?
JP: My strategy is also simple there. The more festivals you show your film in, the more presence you create for your title. Remember, the internet is our biggest ‘free’ marketing tool. If my film is in 50 festivals, that means the title will appear on 50 different websites. It will get written up and mentioned in all fest press releases, which may go out to a hundred more websites. The web-crawling search bots will find and index the title over and over and then rank it. I also recommend that film makers not be snobs when it comes to festivals. The days of ranking fests and trying to screen at only the top five are OVER! Note to film makers: Have you noticed that every film at Sundance, Toronto and the like all have distro before being shown? Those fests are studio puppeted at this point. By taking a prejudicial attitude toward lesser known fests, you are basically undermining your own chances for the film to develop a ‘buzz’ and a wider audience.
JL: How did your past screenings at the VFF work for you?
JP: Terrifically! Tracey Adlai’s VFF is a great place to exhibit your movie. Great theater, great equipment, a film savvy fest director all in one. Plus VFF keeps a very fraternal family tree of filmmakers in touch. There are constant updates on the blog and website of alumni activities. Plus a great e-newsletter.
JL: Your “day job” is directing for TV, while your passion projects are independent films. Besides paying the bills, how has your TV work influenced your films, or vice versa?
JP: Funny, I find that if I do not sneak off and do my films, that I become lazy and incredibly stale. TV directing is a different animal. You are really not asked to be the voice of the piece. You are merely putting it together and shooting it for another’s vision. Sure, you collaborate, but your sensibilities and choices are always secondary to your boss’—whether the boss is right or wrong.
JL: Working with low budgets imposes obvious limitations, but what have some of the advantages been?
JP: The less you have, the more creative you become. More limits in any capacity, make you solve issues both technically and intellectually. I find the greatest notions come from the basis of limitations.
JL: What other lessons learned or advice would you give young aspiring filmmakers, especially those who may see indie filmmaking as a path toward Hollywood fame and fortune?
JP: If you are seeking fame and fortune, then I have nothing but pity for you. And you will not get any advice from me. I used to be that person decades ago. Once I figured out the system, I realized that I would never get artistic satisfaction from it. Only money. Best advice: decide what kind of filmmaker you are. Commercial or artistic. Then, shut up and make your movie.