Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Place in L.A. for South East European Cinema: Talking With Festival Director Vera Mijojlic

By James Latham
Film festivals often reflect the interests and experiences of their founders, which contributes to their great diversity around the world and even within individual cities that are big enough to support them.  Some festivals emphasize particular film genres, modes of production, or aspects of identity such as gender or ethnicity.  I spoke recently with Vera Mijojlic, who founded and runs a festival here in L.A. that is dedicated to the films of South East Europe. 

James Latham:  You founded the South East European Film Festival (SEE FEST) in 2002.  Tell me about its programming and mission.

Vera Mijojlic:  We show films made in or about South East Europe, which includes the countries of the former Yugoslavia along with Greece, Turkey, Albania, Romania, and other neighbors.  SEE FEST is a leading venue in the U.S. for the presentation of the cinematic and cultural diversity of this region.  The annual festival and year-round programming bring to American audiences films that tell a larger and more complex story about South East Europe than would otherwise be available.  We help to unlock the doors to understanding human existence in this troubled region.  SEE FEST also serves as a hub for cultural exchange and a resource for scholars and filmmakers on the cinema and cultures of the region.

JL:  I’d like to discuss those aspects of the festival.  But first, can you give me a sense of the diversity of the films you’ve screened?  What are some of the key trends or issues among them?

VM:  The films include features on subjects such as marriage in harsh economic environments, young people caught up in ancient blood feuds, and noir films about suicide.  There are also gentle and melancholic comedies on recent turbulent regime changes as seen by ordinary provincial protagonists.  We’ve also had documentaries on topics such as endless Balkan fights over claims (Whose Is This Song?); a road movie about Roma musicians traveling to India to reconnect with their traditions; and films about the tragic and humorous quest of the people struggling to assert themselves against the intense pressures of defunct empires and new regimes that are equally divisive.  So, some key trends or issues are harsh, black humor and depictions of human struggle and subterfuge; it’s no wonder that black comedies are a trademark of the region.

JL:  I remember teaching college-level film history, with even some pretty knowledgeable students being unaware that the 1920s Soviet Union had a domestic cinema at all, much less a highly innovative and influential one.  What's one of the biggest gaps or misconceptions you find here in the states about the films or cultures of South East Europe?  How does your festival work to counter such misconceptions? 

VM:  The biggest misconception is South East Europe as more or less the same as the rest of Eastern Europe, and identified only with the Eastern bloc.  The legacy of communism is there—but, in a large part of the region that used to be Yugoslavia, that system was quite different from other Eastern bloc countries.  Two other major forces that preceded communism have also shaped the region, namely Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.  Without knowing about all three of these systems, it is impossible to understand what is going on in South East Europe and why.  SEE FEST takes particular care to provide diverse points of view and present a layered picture of the region.  Our main goal is to give our audiences as much of the context as possible, to highlight as many cultural and artistic currents as we can, from music to dance, from humor to mind-boggling combinations of ethnicities, religions, languages, and intertwined histories.  There are many subcultures, minorities within minorities, with overlapping and often surprising cultural phenomena—when possible, we include films highlighting them.

JL:  These films are a far cry from—almost the opposite—of Hollywood sensibilities.  And Eastern Europe is literally quite far away from L.A., though we have a very diverse population here.  If the films primarily come from overseas, and your local audience is relatively small, how do you target potential filmmakers and audiences?

VM:  Through outreach, collaboration with a variety of cultural organizations, and year-round research of potential new partners.

JL:  Part of that outreach involves serving scholars and other people interested in the region with programming that includes conferences and retrospectives.  How successful have you been in attracting or developing this part of your audience?  Or in working with the many educational and cultural organizations that are listed as partners / sponsors on your website?

VM:  Our audience is as diverse as our films, but generally well versed in international affairs and knowledgeable of the issues.  The festival is a resource they can draw upon for the variety of fields they’re in. 

Whenever we sent out calls for volunteers, or did some kind of outreach, many of the responses were inquiries from young scholars with some specific interest in the region we cover, such as film historians studying this relatively less familiar terrain.  There were also many people interested in issues that transcend our particular region, such as tradition vs. modernity in societies in transition; or the burdens of violent histories on small nations, and the legacies of ethnic or religious conflict stemming from them.  Cultural diversity and the influences of many invading cultures that left deep imprints in all kinds of ways—this is an important subject for us at the festival, for our audiences, and for many outside scholars and other researchers.  And, of course, for our filmmakers, who address these subjects with such great conviction and artistic expression in their work.

Our outreach also has been successful in other ways, like partnering with organizations engaged in clearing landmines left from recent wars in several Balkan countries.  And with groups committed to the cultural and economic development of the Roma people, who are one of the culturally most interesting but also troubled minorities in the region.  And with film schools and sister film festivals from Eastern Europe; and cultural groups that, like SEE FEST, bring together different nations and cultures to establish and promote dialogue and understanding. 

JL:  How has the general economic downturn affected filmmaking in the region?  Has the festival seen a reduction in submissions, or a shift in subject matter?  Is it harder to get filmmakers to travel here from Europe?

VM:  We haven’t yet seen any decrease in film production, except in Hungary, and that is largely due to an overhaul of the entire funding system.  Incidentally, the famed Hollywood producer, Andy Vajna, is now head of the Hungarian Film Fund.

I wouldn’t call this a full-blown trend, but we see more attempts at genre films.  Another interesting development is the emergence of ultra-low budget films, with some production companies making features for EUR70,000 (about 90,000 US dollars).

JL:  How about distributors?  Here in a company town, how easy or difficult has it been for you to attract distributors to attend?

VM:  It’s difficult to get them to attend.  Coming to festival screenings in a town which has several festivals, events, premieres, and special screenings every single day of the year is not the most efficient way for them to watch movies.  We have to find other ways to get our films in front of them, and getting distributors interested in a particular filmmaker, or a story that fits a distributor’s niche.

JL:  What kinds of opportunities for distribution are there for filmmakers in South Eastern Europe—how is it the same or different there than in the U.S. or Western Europe?

VM:  We’re talking about a very small market except Turkey, which is the only significant territory with robust film and TV production and distribution.  For the rest of the region, film sales are bundled and one local distributor buys the rights for several countries.  Commercial domestic films are doing very well, and everyone is doing co-productions to minimize the risk. Art film, like here, has a hard time finding an audience.  There are very few arthouse cinemas. International film festivals are therefore well attended, and many screenings are standing room only.

JL:  What, if any, elements would you like to add to SEE FEST, or expand upon?

VM:  We have started organizing retrospectives of national cinemas and plan to follow up with series on some of the major filmmakers, as well as expand presentation of films by up-and-coming filmmakers exploring new ways to tell uniquely flavored SEE stories.  This work takes a long time and effort and needs substantial funding.  We would also like to set up our own distribution, non-theatrical, primarily for the educational market.  And, down the road, we plan to establish a SEE Fest Resource Library for the cultural study of the region through film.

JL:  What parting words of advice would you have for filmmakers who want to submit to your festival, or, more generally, who are making films about South East Europe?

VM:  Trust your instincts to tell your own story.  Do not try to make films using cultural or cinematic references that are not from your own experience and cultural traditions – it always backfires.  For example, we’ve seen a lot of films depicting Eastern European gangsters, and are not particularly interested in these blatantly exploitative films.  We are looking for original stories and culturally relevant films that are representative of the countries and cultures they come from; films that open at least a small window into the lives of the people there and their everyday struggles.

JL:  OK Vera, thanks for your time and insights.

VM:  Thank you.


The seventh annual South East European Film Festival is scheduled for May 3-7, 2012 in Los Angeles.  To contact the festival, send an email to info@seefilmla.org

For more on The Valley Film Festival, visit our website or Facebook page.  If you’re involved with independent film and are interested in possibly being interviewed, or otherwise contributing to our blog, contact us anytime at info@valleyfilmfest.com

Saturday, January 21, 2012

George Pappy, Part II: Marketing and Distributing “Few Options”

I spoke recently with George Pappy about his feature film Few Options, which we screened in November.  It’s now available on DVD at Amazon and will appear on Showtime in April.  My previous posting on George was about making the film.  This one is about marketing and distribution. 

James Latham:  So, congratulations on getting a distribution deal for your film.  For a crime drama, Few Options has relatively less action and other conventionally entertaining elements than is typical for this genre.  It’s more about character and mood.  How much did you have marketability in mind while making the film, and what would you say are its key elements of appeal for audiences (beyond the known talent in the cast)?  Who are its main audiences?

George Pappy:  It’s also about story:  a sympathetic hero pursuing a goal in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and opposition – and yet he somehow manages to win in the end.  You don’t need car chases, explosions, running gun battles, or gratuitous sex to pull that off.  And, on this low of a budget, those things can be your enemies.  I was not all that concerned about marketability, and I felt that putting those “elements” in just to make the film more marketable would be a cop out.  It’s like a lot of the films I saw being sold at the American Film Market over the past two years that have these “marketable” elements – and the vast majority of them are really bad!  I’d be ashamed to have made a movie like that.  I’m proud of Few Options.

In particular, someone during pre-production suggested that having shots of nude strippers (since a lot of the story takes place behind a strip club) would really increase the marketability.  I also had a potential sales agent at American Film Market offering to take the film if I’d agree to shoot some second unit footage inside a strip club and cut it into my movie.  The fact of the matter is that in Few Options, you never see the inside of the club – the hero’s not allowed inside.  And he hates the idea of even being there.  He takes a moral stance against what’s going on inside (and how it’s making the SOB who’s threatening to kill him rich).  I’d throw out a lot of the film’s thematic credibility if I put nude stripper shots in just to increase the marketability.

What are the key elements of appeal?  First of all, Few Options features excellent actors across the board.  (We haven’t mentioned Erin Daniels, David Marciano, Brad Dourif or Dayton Callie yet.)  Also, the story makes you think, and it keeps you engaged and guessing until the end (and it delivers a satisfying climax and resolution that make you glad you sat through the film).  We also have an excellent score written by Victoria Kelly, who did half the score for Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones.  The film also looks and sounds excellent.  I had people at AFM telling me it looks like a film made on a budget 5-10 times higher than it actually had.

Regretting certain fateful choices made in the past is a strong theme in this movie, and I’ve found that older audiences (mid-30s and up) really respond to it on this level, based on the few screenings we’ve had so far – there were a few previews before the Valley Film Festival, plus the festival screening.  I guess if you’ve been alive long enough, you can look back at certain regrets in your own life and relate to the main character’s plight.  This may not be the most sought-after age group in terms of movie marketing, but it’s a lot of people!  Some of them watch movies.  Not every movie has to appeal primarily to males in their teens.

Also, strangely enough, I’ve found that women in general tend to respond very well to the movie.  I think that has to do with Kenny Johnson’s sensitive portrayal of a guy who’s been in prison so long that it’s very hard for him to open up around women.  It also has to do with Erin Daniels (from The L-Word), who does an amazing job portraying an aging stripper who can’t find a way out of the only profession she’s ever known, even though it’s slowly destroying her soul. 

JL:  Yes, I can see that about the female audience for the film.  Your point about pressure to add strip club footage reminds of me of how Martin Scorsese’s debut feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? had the same sort of thing happen.  He could only get distribution via a soft-core porn distributor who wanted and got an added nude scene.  So I guess you’re in good company.  But what I want to ask about is the theme of “fateful choices made in the past.”  In the previous posting for this interview, you talked about how becoming an engineer was something sort of foisted on you:  “being a filmmaker was never an ‘acceptable’ option (it was expected that I would become a white collar professional).  So, I wound up in engineering.”  I’m wondering if making this film was partly a kind of therapy for you—working through your own issues about problematic major choices made early in life—as well as simply writing around a theme about which you had special personal insight, though not exactly the same as what Kenny’s character faces.

GP:  Sure, I think that played into it.  If I had it to do over again, I'd definitely go to film school at eighteen and put in my 10-20 years of "pulling cables on other people's movies" (as I recall hearing Paul Thomas Anderson say on the director's commentary to Boogie Nights).  Ironically, my dad (a union attorney) used to represent the DGA when I was in high school, so I might have even been able to get involved in production more easily than the average person. 

I'd say one of the things that pushed me to pursue making films all these years later was my general dislike for engineering!  I've felt like it was not a good personal fit for many years, even though I seem to be pretty good at it; kind of like I was doing something I was never meant to do.

Now, you're going to call me crazy, but in terms of "regretting the past," I'd also say that second-guessing myself about turning my back on a high-paying career in engineering (and dumping the nice house I bought before the real estate bubble) was probably also banging around in the back of my head in the summer of 2009 when I wrote Few Options.  Although I had a lot of support from some of my engineering peers, others did a very poor job of hiding the fact that they thought I was insane for walking away from a job like that to pursue a "long-shot" like filmmaking.  One guy used to see me and ask "Hey, are you a big Hollywood star yet?"  Nice.  But during the summer hiatus in my Screenwriting graduate program, eight months after the start of the economic collapse, unemployed and living in a dumpy Van Nuys apartment, those voices came back to haunt me.  Fortunately, I was able to channel them into a screenplay!
JL:  Yeah, better than paying for therapy.  Once you made the film, how did you promote it (press, festivals, etc.)?  Did you have professional help? 

GP:  Well, I set up a Facebook fan page for the film, and I also applied to some of the higher-profile festivals.  I hired a festival consultant who pointed me to what he considered to be the right festivals (and steered me clear of the ones he thought would be of no help or might even make the movie look bad).  We came VERY close to getting into the Florida Film Festival, which, while not on the level of something like Sundance, is an Academy-qualifying festival.  Out of over 300 features submitted, we made the short list of 30 finalists and ultimately wound up as the eleventh on a slate of ten – which meant if one of those ten decided not to screen, we’d be in.  Unfortunately, all ten showed up!

We also came close to getting into SXSW (we made it past the first two judges, only to get nixed in the final round), and we had a similar experience with Seattle and a few others.  However, over time, I became less concerned about gaining publicity through the festival circuit since we landed a reputable sales agent to handle all of that.

One unexpected avenue of publicity for us ended up being Matt Neal, a radio DJ in Wichita, Kansas, who happens to be a huge Kenny Johnson fan.  He’s had me (and Kenny) on his show for interviews multiple times since late 2010, and he always provides me with recordings of the interviews, which I’ve made available on the Facebook fan page.  I also got an opportunity to give a long talk in a friend’s acting class, and he posted the video on YouTube.  Naturally, I linked that to the Facebook Page, too.

I’ve also posted links to our Facebook page on many of our actors’ fan sites.  That’s one advantage of having recognizable cast names, and some of them even have a number of different fan pages for specific shows they’ve done.  Kenny Johnson, for instance, has general fans as well as tailored followings specifically for The Shield, Saving Grace, and Sons of Anarchy.

Another thing I did was reach out to Tommy Gelinas, who runs the San Fernando Valley Relics Facebook page.  This page, which is dedicated to the visual history of the Valley, has almost 22,000 fans today (up from slightly under 10,000 at the end of 2010).  It occurred to me that since Few Options takes place and was shot in the Valley, the Valley Relics fans might be particularly interested in my movie.  Tommy loved the movie and agreed to sell it through his page (he already sells other Valley Relics merchandise, including T-Shirts).  I’ve recently put our DVD distributor in touch with him, and I expect that we’ll soon be seeing it sold through Tommy’s page, with some of the proceeds going towards supporting his ever-growing collection of San Fernando Valley Relics historical memorabilia.

One of the real challenges for me relative to generating all of this publicity has been the fact that it’s taken a year to get the movie released here in the U.S.  I realized early on that I might need to throttle back my efforts when a lot of people started asking when they could see the movie and I had no idea what to tell them.  On the one hand, I didn’t want to let people forget about Few Options, but on the other hand, I didn’t want to get them over-excited about something that might not be available for God knows how long.  Thank goodness that part’s finally over!

JL:  You’ve made some great use of social media for grassroots marketing.  How was your experience with The Valley Film Festival, where Few Options had its LA premiere? 

GP:  I had a very positive experience at the Valley Film Festival, and our screening wound up selling out.  This was not a big surprise, since I knew there were a few hundred people in LA who’d been eager to see the film for about a year prior to the screening.  I just had to promote it sufficiently well, and the Valley Film Festival website and publicity people helped to make that very easy.  Tracey Adlai, who runs the festival, is obviously someone who loves film and filmmakers, and that really showed in the event.

JL:  When and how did you bring professionals, such as a sales agent, aboard to help get distribution? 

GP:  I was lucky in that the 2010 American Film Market, held here in LA (actually, Santa Monica) happened just as I finished post.  I bit the bullet and bought a pass, spending the week prior to the market researching the companies attending.  I must have sent out close to 200 emails to the companies that seemed to have movies like Few Options in their libraries.

Fortunately, based on the strength and name recognition of my cast, I was able to get about 30 meetings over the course of the week.  Out of that, I had five or six credible offers from sales agents to represent the film.  I wound up going with a local company that came highly recommended from someone who knew a few filmmakers who’d had good experiences with that company in the past.

JL:  How did the process of getting distribution work?  What were the main hurdles?

GP:  Well, this has been the job of my sales agent, who’s been at it since February of 2011.  We always seem to make a handful of foreign sales at each market (Berlin, Cannes, MIPCOM, AFM 2011), but it’s been a lot slower than I thought it would be.  Apparently, the small indie film market has really been devastated by the global economic crisis of the past several years.  Buyers are much more reluctant to spend money these days, and they’re paying less than ever before when they do.

The U.S. situation took awhile to work itself out, but, ultimately, my sales agency was able to make a deal for Few Options to premiere on Showtime this coming April, and they also made a DVD deal (the DVD starts shipping on Jan. 24 – it can be purchased on Amazon).  We’re also hoping that our Netflix deal comes through; they like the film, but the final deal has not yet been struck.  Hopefully, we’ll also be making more cable deals in the wake of the Showtime run.

JL:  Where do you aim to go next with distribution?  How much or what other kinds of distribution do you think you’ll ultimately need in order to adequately recoup your investment? 

GP:  My strategy is simple:  let my sales agency do their job.  They will continue to showcase the film at the major markets throughout the year, and they also target individual buyers in between the market events.  In terms of recouping the investment:  to be perfectly honest, it’s not clear yet if this film will ever entirely get there.  Distribution requires a lot of money to get the film “out there” for public consumption, and that eats into each sale.  Perhaps someday I’ll make all the money back, but it’s a long way off.  (Did I mention having gone back to my old job?)

JL:  Yes, keep that day job as long as possible.  What advice would you have for other independent filmmakers on promoting their work and securing distribution?

GP:  I don’t really know that there’s a “one size fits all” set of advice here.  It depends a lot on things like genre, cast, and timing (i.e., relative to the economic climate at any given moment).  I think it really helps to have a recognizable cast, but on the other hand, if you have the right genre (think Paranormal Activity), that may not really matter.  This is a tough business, and often nobody really knows why one movie does exceptionally well while a bunch of others don’t.  This is even true for well-financed studio pictures.

JL:  Right, “nobody knows anything,” as the old Hollywood saying goes.  Finally, what projects are you working on now, or anticipating?  How did this experience create new opportunities for you?

GP:  Well, I’ve had another, more ambitious project waiting in the wings for several years.  In the past, it was a hard sell to get someone to back it financially with me as a first-time director.  That was actually the main point of making Few Options myself on a tight budget:  prove I could do it and hopefully convince someone to back me on the next project.  I’ve got a partner and we’re working on that now.  Fortunately, I’ve already made some good contacts based on the strength of Few Options.  Once the movie premieres, especially on Showtime, I’m hoping that my next project will really start to gain momentum.

JL:  OK, thanks, and good luck with that.


You can reach George Pappy at FewOptionsMovie@gmail.com or the Facebook Fan Page for Few Options.

For more on The Valley Film Festival, visit our website or Facebook page.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

George Pappy, Part I: Making His Feature Film “Few Options”

We screened George Pappy’s feature Few Options to a full house in November, and the film is now available on DVD at Amazon and will appear on Showtime in April.  I wanted to get back to George to talk about the film—which he directed, wrote, and co-produced.  We covered a lot, so this posting will just address production, and the next one will involve distribution.

For those who haven’t yet seen Few Options, it’s a crime drama starring Kenny Johnson as Frank Connor, a good man who made a big mistake and is finished paying his debts to society, or so he thinks.  After more than twenty years in prison, Frank returns to Van Nuys to restart his life, but gets stuck.  He can’t get a decent job or place to live.  Desperate, he gets work as a security guard at a seedy strip club run by his old crime partners, and they once again take advantage of him, knowing he has few options.

James Latham:  First, could you tell us what you do in your professional work? 

George Pappy:  I’m an electrical engineer in the satellite communications industry.  I build, design, test and troubleshoot satellite flight systems and the ground systems that support them. 

JL:  That’s not exactly a typical profile for a filmmaker.  What generally motivated you to enter filmmaking, and how did you develop or adapt your skills to do so?

GP:  I have always loved screen stories on both film and TV.  Some movies that spoke to me as a child include Chinatown, Dr. Strangelove, American Graffiti, and Double Indemnity.  But the way I was raised, being a filmmaker was never an “acceptable” option.  It was expected that I would become a white collar professional.  So, I wound up in engineering.  But I continued to be a film buff, and the indie film movement of the ‘90s (early Tarantino, Kevin Smith, et al.) inspired me to try writing my own screenplays.  The leveling of the technical playing field with DV and DYI home editing software around the turn of the century led me to finally try shooting one of my own scripts in 2003.  For that undertaking (which I shot in Australia while on a work assignment, somehow managing to do the preproduction alone on top of my normal work week), I definitely relied a lot on the system engineering skills I’d learned on my job.  These were particularly helpful in figuring out my shooting schedule, finding a way to literally be a one-man crew, and in the editing phase.

JL:  I also trained early on as an engineer and worked in database software development; and understand the desire to do something more creative and personally rewarding, and the challenges of transitioning.  In making your early short film and feature, what were some key lessons you learned that helped you with Few Options? 

GP:  One of the key lessons I learned on those films was “Don’t try to do everything yourself.”  Inevitably, when you try to do that, something always gets missed during production—and often, on budget-limited projects like that, there’s no going back to get it right later.  Another lesson I learned was “Don’t rush into production until you honestly believe the script is great, not just good or okay.”  This was particularly true of the first feature I shot (Australia, 2003).  I banged that script out in nine days and it just wasn’t all that great, although it did have moments here and there.  I kind of knew this going in and felt that this was more of a learning experience in DYI movie making; but, in hindsight, I still wish I’d taken a lot more time in writing and rewriting the script.

JL:  That’s good advice, to really develop the script before touching a camera.  The better the design the better the potential product.  So, on all these projects, how have you balanced your professional and film work? 

GP:  Honestly, it’s not so much of a balance as it is a sacrifice.  I have taken long hiatuses from work (over a year at a time), worked half time, and made it known that I would quit if my employers were not willing to allow me this flexibility.  As a result, I have not had a raise in years, and my peers in the engineering field have largely advanced beyond my level in terms of seniority.  (Clearly, this was all before the economic crisis!  I’m talking more about 2004-2010.  Miraculously, I somehow managed to get back into my old line of work in 2011 for a new company, and, at the moment, I’m willing to work as much as they want me to!  Right now, that means full time.)

JL:  I did a similar thing when I was transitioning out of engineering and into film school.  It’s empowering and tough, and you need a backup system in case things fall apart.  Anyway, with that crazy schedule, how long did it take you for pre-production, shooting, and post on Few Options? 

GP:  As far as pre-production, that was essentially March-May of 2010.  We had a pretty experienced ultra-low budget production crew, so it didn’t take that long to get everything lined up.  Plus, showing up with financing at that point in time kind of pushed us to the front of the line, I think, in terms of being able to get the people and equipment, all of which was fairly available.

Principal photography was eighteen days, from early May through the first week of June 2010 (five-day weeks).  We had a two-day pickup shoot to get transitional shots and a few new scenes the last weekend of August 2010.

Post production roughly spanned early June to early November of 2010, when the film was completely finished, including final sound mix and color correction.

JL:  How did financing work, at a time of general economic turmoil?

GP:  Same answer:  sacrifice.  The film was entirely financed by me – or, more specifically, the money I made selling my house in 2004.  Call me crazy, but I thought it was fairly obvious we were in a real estate bubble, and I figured I’d rather have the cash than have a house.  Once I got rid of the house, I was a lot more willing to threaten to quit my job (as I mentioned above) – it was kind of a tradeoff:  I figured with all that money, and with a willingness to live very modestly, I could spend a number of years improving my writing and trying to get a film made – all the while living off that money.  As it turned out, I managed to work just enough to pay my bills and get a film education at UCLA Extension and an MS in Screenwriting at Cal State Northridge as I continued writing.  So by the time of Few Options, I still had a lot of the money from selling my house.

By the way, I didn’t intend to put up all the money for Few Options.  Let’s just say that promises were made and not kept, so I found myself in a situation where I had an unfinished movie – which is kind of useless.  Luckily, the money was there to finish it, which basically finished off the money!

JL:  But at least you were lucky enough to sell the house in time, and you stretched those dollars, and will make back some of it from Few Options.  How did you get Kenny Johnson and Rainn Wilson for the film? 

GP:  Rainn Wilson is a good friend who I’ve known since before he was famous (pure coincidence).  He heard that I was writing a script that I planned to shoot myself and he said I could have him for one day.  So, I wrote a part for him and kept it all in one location so we could maximize his shooting time.  We got 9-1/2 pages out of him (a very long day!).

JL:  And a very productive day.  His character really contributes to the film, and that one location contributes a lot to the film’s sense of isolation, and even adds a little humor.

GP:  I didn’t know Kenny Johnson, but he struck me as the perfect actor to play the lead based on his amazing work on The Shield.  I found him on Facebook and tried friending him, and to my amazement, he accepted the request (apparently, he’ll pretty much do that with anyone!).  I waited about a week, wrote him an email, explaining my script and how I thought he’d be the perfect guy to play the role (and I meant it).  Again to my amazement, he said to send him the script.  He loved it and within five days, we were meeting for coffee to talk it over.

JL:  OK, so here’s some evidence that Facebook is good for more than just playing games.  And what about Laura San Giacomo and Michael Sheen, who both have cameo roles?

GP:  Laura came courtesy of Kenny Johnson, who worked with her on Saving Grace.  Her scene was one we never quite got to in the initial eighteen days of shooting, so we shot it a few months later during the pickup weekend.  Originally, the part was going to be played by an unknown day player, but somewhere in those two months I think I got the idea of asking Kenny if he thought Laura would be willing to play the role.  It turns out Laura really cares a lot about Kenny and was more than happy to help him out.  She was great.

Michael Sheen is another friend of mine.  I figured if I could even get him to play a part in the movie, it would have to be a very small one (even then, I wasn’t sure he’d say yes).  Great guy that he is, he did agree to play the part, and he did an amazing job.  People ask me if he played it the way I wrote it.  The answer is he played it word for word as I wrote it, and yet he completely made it his own – they didn’t even sound like my words anymore.  For that matter, I can say the same thing about Kenny Johnson’s performance!

JL:  You sure got a lot of good leverage from those relationships.  Looking back on making the film, what important production advice would you offer other independent filmmakers, or what would you have done differently? 

GP:  First, I’d say be careful.  If you’re putting any of your own money in, NEVER do so without having written agreements already in place clearly stating how you’ll get reimbursed and when.  If someone tries to tell you there’s no time to draw up contracts, STOP!  Do not proceed, even if it means postponing your production.

Second, and on a related note, you may think you’re saving money by doing the cast and crew contracts without using an entertainment attorney, but you’ll be sorry!  And, you’ll need that attorney later to fix all kinds of problems, so you won’t really have saved any money at all – you may even end up spending a lot more just to clean up the mess.

Third, a word about the working environment on the set:  one or two key crew members with bad attitudes can really drag down the whole working environment—and, more importantly, the creative environment.  A few pieces of advice on this front:

a)  Try to thoroughly vet your crew members (i.e., check into what others who’ve worked with them have to say).    

b)  If you can possibly do it, try to establish backup contacts for key crew positions – in other words, firing a disruptive crew member should be one of your options.  The worst situation you can possibly be in is not being able to do that simply because you don’t have anyone to take their place.

c)  Especially if you’re a first-time director working with a crew you don’t really know, it is a really good idea to bring some production-savvy friends onto the set to “watch your back.”  Seriously, they will be in a much better position to spot problems brewing long before you do, since you’ll be so distracted with preparing for the next shot / scene.

JL:  Yes, lots of good advice, and not just for low-budget indie projects.  I know a producer who recently spent months overseas doing that very kind of oversight for a studio feature directed by a relative novice.  Anyway, thanks for all those good ideas and lessons learned.  Next time I want to talk about how you promoted your film and got distribution.


You can reach George Pappy at FewOptionsMovie@gmail.com or the Facebook Fan Page for Few Options.

For more on The Valley Film Festival, visit our website or Facebook page.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Our 2012 Call for Entries

We are now accepting submissions for our twelfth annual season of independent films from around the Valley and the world.  The final deadline is July 15, 2012.

We are seeking short and feature-length submissions of quality narrative / fiction films, documentaries, animation, and music videos that were produced independently anywhere in the world.  The films or filmmakers may have some connection to the San Fernando Valley area, but this is not required. 

We are accepting entries from now through July 15, with a total of five submission periods.  For each period, the entry fee is the same for any film, whether short or feature-length.  Here is the schedule of dates and fees (US dollars) per film:   

January 15 - February 11, 2012 -- pay what you can
February 12 - March 31, 2012 -- $25
April 1 - May 15, 2012 -- $50
May 16 - June 30, 2012 -- $75
July 1 - July 15, 2012 -- $100

The initial submission period (January 15 to February 11) is “pay what you can.”  During this time, entrants may pay whatever they like, including nothing.  If they pay little or nothing, we request that they do something additional that is of their own choosing, inexpensive, and helps promote the festival.  This could include, for example, “liking” the festival on Facebook, or perhaps distributing some useful information or praise via Twitter.  After this initial period, the per film entry fee then gradually increases until the final deadline in July. 

The tentative festival dates are November 7-11, 2012 at a San Fernando Valley venue to be announced later this year.  For further details, see our website, or send an email to Info@ValleyFilmFest.com