Archive for the ‘Principles & Productivity’ Category

Open Letter to An Entertainment Marketing Firm

Thursday, March 30th, 2006

Dear (name withheld):

I have recently received multiple emails from you asking me to promote a new television series, which features beautiful young people touring an exotic location with cameras rolling.

When I received your first email, which offered me content from the series so that I could cover it on my website I thought, obviously, you had emailed the wrong person. I chose not to reply. Now you’ve emailed a second time, again asking me to promote your show, so I thought I’d at least let you know why I didn’t write back the first time.

Though this website may, at times, promote films, books, and the like, I choose these works myself; they’re not suggested to me by press releases.

Furthermore, the works I discuss are often critically or popularly neglected. I aim to bring more attention to them by writing about them. Your show, which will receive loads of promotion on television, does not need my voice.

Finally, if you had read the reasons I started this website, you would know that this website is not meant to be a shill for “reality entertainment” in which corporate-sponsored American twenty-somethings tour the globe, as the press release states, to “broaden cultural awareness.” Robert Flaherty, a pioneer of self-reliant filmmaking, typically spent a year or more in the location where he was going to make a documentary before he ever picked up a camera. Now that’s cultural awareness.

Last but not least, my name is Paul. Not Pharrell.

Free Comic for Filmmakers

Wednesday, March 29th, 2006

A reader of this blog (thanks, Jon) alerted me to one of the coolest works of edutainment I’ve seen in a long, long time. The work in question is Tales from the Public Domain: Bound By Law?, and it’s a graphic novel (published by Duke University’s Center for the Study of Public Domain) that explores and explains copyright, “fair use”, licensing and other tricky, sticky issues that inevitably arise when you’re making a documentary. If those topics usually make your eyes glaze over, look no further.

Granted, as a graphic novel, Bound by Law‘s anecdotes about licensing problems in docs like Sing Faster and Mad Hot Ballroom can’t compete with the storylines of, say, V for Vendetta or Watchmen, but I was genuinely impressed with the quality of the art and writing. Plus, how many other graphic novels are going to help save you money and keep you out of court when you make your next documentary?

The cost? A mere $5.95 for the book, or free as a digital copy.

Evolve or Die: Nonprofits in the Time of Cyberspace

Tuesday, March 28th, 2006

Brian Newman’s “first person” piece on indiewire is worth a read. In the essay, Brian asks some tough questions about non-profit organizations (like AIVF) set up to support filmmakers. Below are some excerpts, which I hope will encourage you to read the whole thing:

What filmmakers… need are a community in which to connect, advocacy for policies that affect them, good information they can use, money to make their work, and new ways to distribute it. These can all be found or developed online, and these centers haven’t made the shift. When people try to save AIVF, they are really trying to save the concept of the organization, because these organizations often stopped serving their members real needs long ago….

And later:

…If you want any of these organizations to survive, get involved now — whether through money or just ideas, because otherwise I predict 2006 will be the end of the nonprofit media movement; and if it dies, our culture and our society will be worse for it.

Brian’s most recent blog posting about having an impact with film is a nice companion piece to the indiewire essay.

Fresh and Local: Part II

Friday, March 24th, 2006

After I made the “fresh and local” post late last month, I found myself thinking back to a paper that Sara Zia Ebrahimi, a graduate student in the MFA program at Temple, wrote in my producing course last semester. In the paper, she proposes a co-operative filmmaking model based on Community Supported Agriculture programs. I appreciated her ability to draw productive analogies to a system that many independent filmmakers might overlook, so I asked her to share the paper, and she’s generously agreed.

Sara Zia points out that the paper is a work-in-progress. Eventually she might want to present the paper at a conference — not to mention implement the ideas contained in the paper — so she’d love to hear your comments and constructive criticism. Post here, or contact her through her site below.

Sara Zia’s short The Achivements of Exile will screen as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival’s “Festival of Independents” on Monday April 3, 7pm. Congrats!

Download the paper here.

Notes Towards a Macrocinema Distribution Circuit

Thursday, March 2nd, 2006

My post from a few days ago, in which I proposed a “microcinema circuit,” generated some interesting and inspired discussion. Based on the comments to that post, as well as the conversations I’ve had with some of you via email, I found myself drafting some rough notes towards such a circuit. I think a good name for this is Macrocinema.

Instead of writing up a nicely organized blog essay from my notes, I thought I would simply post them raw (or at least medium rare) since the point is not to generate movement from these notes, but to generate discussion and debate, which then generates action.

Harrill’s Rough Notes for Building a Macrocinema Circuit

1) Gather information

The first step is to locate all possible non-theatrical screening venues: microcinemas, film societies (like Austin Film Society, Bryn Mawr Film Society, etc). and anyplace else that screens films (ir)regularly.

Anyone who wants to help do this work is welcome. (I would imagine it’d be a mix of filmmakers and microcinema gurus.) Hopefully five or ten people could get involved at this stage. Might be helpful if one or two people doing this work had some sort of institutional (non-profit, foundation, or university) support too. Could help take care of any (probably minor) costs associated with this. This is not essential – most of the first steps of this process could be done electronically (i.e., freely – no paper, no postage, etc). Any institutional support would need to simply be that, support. Not support as a means towards ownership.

Start info-gathering with these:

    Microcinema Map at Wayfaring.
    Academic Venues via The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and SciencesCan’t believe AMPAS actually has something helpful for indies on their website!
    Flicker listing #1 and Flicker listing #2

AIVF should have this stuff on their website, too. I can’t find it. Where is it? And Film Arts Foundation used to publish the AEIOU (alternative exhibition index of the universe) guide. Is that on their site? I’m not a member, so I don’t know.

Austin Film Society, for example, isn’t listed on the above sites, so make sure you really dig to find all the cinemas that need to be contacted.

2) Contact venues

Collect venue information:

    – venue size
    – how often they screen
    – how many shows/dates/weeks/whatever they’re interested/able to book self- or semi-self-distributed work
    – genres they show
    – how shows are promoted
    – how much they charge
    – how much of the door they can offer / how much they can offer if FILMMAKER ATTENDS
    – projection formats
    – etc
    – what am I leaving out?

Also: Find out who’s interested in a circuit. Not all will be.

3) Analyze and Compile Data…

Compiling them all makes a nice “book” (really a pdf file we can circulate) for all parties interested. Much like the old and out of print (I think) AEIOU (Alternative Exhibition Index Of the Universe) guide that I had back in the late 90s.

“Analysis” means this: See who’s out there, where they are, which venues are the most stable/strongest (see next point). In essence, look at the dots before you start to connect them.

4) Build Alliances

It’s a matter of connecting the dots on the maps and getting these people to talk.

Regional alliances first. Maybe start with the most well-established microcinemas — the ones that are the most stable. As we all know, venues like this can be in danger of dying — sometimes if only one key organizer moves, or a venue space is lost, etc. Some, however, are stable and thriving. So start with them as the hubs. Then build out to the “spoke” venues surrounding them.

Regional “hub” approach makes it easier for the filmmaker to travel to the venues — you do a “Southeast” region or a “Northwest” region. Then, at some later date, maybe you do the “Midwest” region hub and spokes.

5) Trial and Error

Let’s see how this works, and how well it works with films of different genres. Do a number of trials. Trial runs should, well, TRY different thing. To see what sticks. Features. A package of short films. A documentary with two shorts. With filmmakers in attendance. Without filmmakers. Selling DVDs at venue day of show. Selling DVDs afterwards — either at venue, one website, or some other way. And so on.

NB: I my notes I listed a few ideas about films that might be perfect for this, but I won’t mention them here (yet) since I’ve not approached the makers.

6) Eventually, MAKE A SYSTEM of this (at least a little)

The aim is to make a system of this so the wheel doesn’t have to be invented/reinvented several times by every filmmaker that wants to exhibit this way. Likewise, a system can make things easier for the managers of said microcinemas since they’re usually doing this (like the filmmakers) in their spare time, for little/no financial reward, and out of a gut passion. The aim isn’t just to generate more income for filmmakers/microcinemas, but also to help save everyone’s precious time.

Having said all of this, any system should be a flexible system and, above all, one that grows organically out of the trial and error discussed above. Imposing a top-down system without experiments to see what works is just a bad idea.

One way the Macrocinema circuit could work is to take from the ITVS/Public TV exhibition model (but without the enormous corporate structure. All I mean by this is:

– The network [the MACROcinema] says, “We’ll screen the film” – and it goes out to all participating cinemas, rolling out city by city (so the filmmaker can travel to venues)

– The different channels [MICROcinemas] that might autonomously say, “We’ll take this one and this one” for the things that aren’t going out to (picked up or offered to) the MACROcinema, for whatever reason.

End of notes.


These notes are incredibly incomplete, and anyone that has a lot of experience touring or running a microcinema will shoot holes in many of these ideas. That’s okay. The point is to advance the dialogue. Like filmmaking, this is a process of creative problem solving.