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Hope for Filmmakers, Industry

On building business and community together. ‘What that means is we move from being a passive consumer culture to an active participatory culture,’ says Ted Hope.

TED HOPE

Ted Hope, Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society, smiles, as he should, at the opening night of the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival. (Photo by Pamela Gentile, courtesy SFFS)

Ted Hope has much to be proud of in his first year as Executive Director for the San Francisco Film Society, which hosts the longest-running film festival in the Americas, the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF). SFFS has just wrapped up 15 days of films and film initiatives; one of the initiatives that most interested me was the inaugural edition of the A2E (Artists to Entrepeneurs) OnRamp Direct Distribution Lab, which, paraphrasing the brochure, was meant to provide artists with entrepreneurial skills and connect them with leaders in investment and technology in order to make independent film a more sustainable and profitable enterprise for artist, financier, audience and industry.

“The cinematic landscape has changed—there are virtually no barriers for creation or distribution of films,” SFFS writes. “Our increasingly fragmented audiences are faced with an overwhelming abundance of content as a result….A2E explores what can happen when we bring an abundance of talent, imagination and expertise together in the name of independent film.”

That seemed as good a reason as any to sit down with Ted Hope to discuss his long-range hopes for the A2E initiative. My thanks to Bill Proctor of the San Francisco Film Society for arranging time for me to sit down with Ted in private to discuss the initiative.

Keyframe: First and foremost, congratulations on a reinvigorated San Francisco International Film Festival.

Ted Hope: Thank you.

Keyframe: Your touch is evident. The A2E program is particularly interesting and definitely bears your signature. Clearly it’s been an idea of yours for a while? Has it gone through incarnations, with its appearance at the fifty sixth edition of SFIFF being the latest?

Hope: It depends on how you want to look at it: as just an event, or as part of a bigger picture. As part of a bigger picture, A2E is a different reiteration of an ongoing initiative. As an event, A2E is a common idea and part of what lured me to the Bay Area, right? As I tried to figure out how the digital revolution/evolution would start to transform the film industry, I saw that I had a huge knowledge gap and a huge need to be in the room with people who approach problems differently through the benefit of their own experience—tech, VC, community outreach—all those different factors. How do we start to understand? And it just wasn’t happening, right?

I developed an app and me and the developers did not talk the same language. That created huge problems. That was the seed of the idea: if we’re going to build something better, we need to talk to folks from different communities. The irony of that is that’s the beauty of cinema itself that I’ve always loved: how movies create empathy with people and actions that you normally have no connection with. It’s phenomenal to me. How do you take the thing that I love most about movies and put it into a room?

The other thing was that I was aware of the good fortune I’ve had by coming along when I did and having the clarity to recognize that my ignorance could be a blessing. When I arrived at film school, NYU was still teaching the Hollywood model. Yet, that was the year that a few of its graduates were changing cinema. It was the year of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. I wanted to make movies because I wanted to take what I loved about the French New Wave and what I loved about punk rock and put them together: a personal cinema that was adventurous in form and a DIY mentality that wasn’t based on mass market but based on community response. How could that happen? I arrived at undergrad film school with that as my mission and I was told, ‘It ain’t gonna happen, kid. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Then I saw the proof! And not only did I see the proof, but I encountered it daily. I met the Coen Brothers, Spike Lee, and Jim Jarmusch, each and every one of those guys, on the street in New York. I was like, ‘They’re just like me; it’s working!’ Granted, they were much better filmmakers—because at that point I wanted to be a director—and meeting them made it feel accessible.

What I noticed along the way—mostly courtesy of my experience on The Wedding Banquet—was that the business, along with the art form, the audience and the technology, had changed but the industry hadn’t. I thought, ‘Only Harvey Weinstein has a foreign sales company; their number two guy is smart! I could start my own sales company if I had his number two guy.’ Then we got David Linde to come join us at Good Machine after two years of pleading and promises. We were able to build a company that gave birth to almost 50 movies along the way, by doing the business in a way that the industry wasn’t yet accustomed to doing. They eventually evolved, right? We weren’t alone in that process.

THE WEDDING BANQUET

Ang Lee’s ‘The Wedding Banquet’

Through the change of technology, cost of production has dropped, the barriers to entry have dropped in creation, distribution and marketing, at least aspects of distribution and marketing; but, nothing has changed. We keep trying to do it in the same way. It was okay for 50 years because we didn’t have the opportunity to make a movie and only think about bringing it to festivals or bringing it to market. That was a crap shoot in the way it would work. I had enough confidence in my skills to build companies that were predicated on that model, that I could place two films a year into mainstream distribution just because I made good work. That worked for ten years super consistently. Sometimes we did a lot more. But once everything started to change—partly based upon the collapse of newspapers, frankly, again, because of the Internet—but, with the collapse of newspapers, the secret about independent art film was that you didn’t have to market because reviews were your main marketing and those front line reviewers were listened to so your marketing costs were low enough to justify an experimentation of content, at least if not in form. You didn’t have to be responsible for the work. You could hope that those cinema gods would rescue your film on their white horse and bring your film to the public.

Traditional distribution started to collapse. Meanwhile, technology improved all these other aspects. Now we were at a place where it wasn’t that inverted pyramid. It used to be that of all of these movies made, very few got through the spigot. Now it’s an open flow and yet the particles are moving so fast that an audience can’t even grab hold of it. Where distribution had been a privilege for the few, platforms now have become an opportunity for the many. It’s become a torrential downpour. Now we have a responsibility to make sure that the filmmakers know how to navigate that waterfall. How can we give them the tools to budget, schedule and project the future earnings of their films, much in the same way they did when they were only budgeting and scheduling their movies into the festivals. How do we help them to do that? How do we help them take responsibility for their creation? That they can give their film the opportunity to truly connect with an audience?

That’s the first piece of what A2E is. A2E is the overall strand of education programming that we want to do that will help provide artist-filmmakers with entrepreneurial skills and tools. The first piece is the on-ramp program, which is a direct distribution lab, which teaches them to budget, schedule and project revenue; but, we look to expand that in many more ways. Ultimately, the goal is a full-on ecosystem that allows the filmmaker to see how they can have a sustainable creative life without having to sell off their rights, to become the owner of their IP all the way through the process. I think it’s doable but it’s not launchable as a business; it’s launchable as a service that a not-for-profit organization such as the San Francisco Film Society can uniquely provide.

Keyframe: You initiated the on ramp direct distribution lab by inviting twelve filmmakers to participate with their projects. Can you speak to how you chose the twelve?

Hope: Nobody does anything alone. It does take more than a village. We reached out to leading film support organizations—Sundance, IFP, Film Independent, Canadian Film Center, BFI, Cinereach, Frameline—and asked them to recommend a film to us for the lab. Each of them supplied a film, which we added to those we had chosen. We matched those twelve films with distribution consultants who have professionally built campaigns and release strategies themselves. They came in, donated their time, and worked with the filmmakers to sit down with twelve established digital platforms that already exist in the direct-to-community ecosystem.

Keyframe: How do you differentiate between your listed tech providers and the launchpads?

Hope: We differentiate by whether or not they’re in the marketplace. Technically speaking, the fourteen companies that make up the launchpad component of A2E are in Beta stages. When they’re not in Beta stage, they’re moving into a new sphere of their business in dealing with film. Yes, Facebook is one of the largest countries in the world now, but it’s a young one. If you want to ask where the film business is in five years, it’s probably not going to be where we think it is today. We need to be sourcing those new opportunities on a regular basis.

Keyframe: With regard to the so-called Digital (R)Evolution, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has written a seminal piece for MUBI entitled ‘What is the 21st Century?: Revising the Dictionary‘ that challenges film writers to come to terms with the shifting lexicon of digital filmmaking in order to be more accurate in our critical assessments. In particular, he addresses the phenomenon of  ’work flow.’ If I’m understanding you correctly, A2E is trying to train filmmakers to understand that their film is not the finished product of their digital workflow? Financing the film, shooting the film and then distributing the film is all part and parcel of a contemporary filmmaker’s digital workflow?

Hope: That’s interesting how you phrase that. I’d say something similar but a little bit different.

Keyframe: By all means, feel free.

Hope: The important thing for creative people to recognize is that the business of filmmaking is one of relationship with their community. Previously, we saw our business as that work product, generally the feature film, not the relationship of it. As a result, we reinvented the wheel time and time again. We built up the same audience each time that we did it, whether it was our own films, or films of a similar nature. We did not maintain—or even give room to participate—for folks from the outside world; but, the goal I think is that ultimately communities take responsibility for the things that they want. What that means is we move from being a passive consumer culture to an active participatory culture where part of being a community is also being a patron of the things that you care about, whether it’s in the film space or any other cultural/societal/social enterprise. We have to make the things that we want happen. We can’t wait for them to arrive. The beauty of the era we’re living in is that we actually now have the tools, the connectability, to actually make what we want happen. If you want this movie that you love to be seen in Thailand, your enthusiasm and passion with a little bit of effort can make that happen. That bridge that you built now can be reinforced and used by a whole bunch of folks. Soon those friends of yours in Thailand are seeing a flow of the movies they were denied before.

What’s really interesting for us folks here in San Francisco is that America—for whatever reason—doesn’t seem to want to let the outside world in. We build fences and barriers and stop the immigration of ideas, culture and individuals. But for fifty six years through the film festival, San Francisco has created a history of people coming together. So many different cultural diasporas in San Francisco have welcomed that and we have seen the benefit of what that does for our own ideas and our own individual communities. So if we start to be able to do that for a world cinema and start to build those bridges and expand its reach and allow it to start to have an influence? What a wonderful mission!

Keyframe: I fully agree. If countries were to be ascribed an emotional temperament, let’s say, I would consider the United States of America to be one of the fear of commitment. They lack the political will to commit to what needs to be done to creatively move into the future. But by that I mean the larger governing cultural forces in play. On the other hand, because of that shortsightedness and lack of resolution, I see individuals and communities rallying in exciting new ways. By way of example, I have recently moved to Boise, Idaho, away from the Bay Area where—though there is an active scene of commercial production—there is little by way of opportunity for self-expressive exhibition. Whenever an opportunity arises, however, I see it bolstered by an admirable collaborative ethic between all the participatory arts in the community—digital filmmaking, music, graphic arts, dance—who all combine forces to advance the opportunity. I would love to see the A2E program extended to Idaho, by way of the fledgling Sun Valley Film Festival for example, to offer their filmmakers not only the technological tools from California companies and start-ups, but local tech companies and start-ups in Idaho.

Hope: Interesting. One of the other things I want to build as an aspect of A2E—distinct from the OnRamp Lab—is looking to build what I see as a Northwest Film Tour where we find exhibition partners to help source different films to their communities with the idea of building a multi-venue tour where the filmmakers would travel, do a screening, do local press, book that press, connect with their fans and hopefully entice the venue to bring them back two months later down the road; but, in the meantime, if they don’t, when they choose to go out on Vimeo VOD, they now have all of these affiliated groups who want to help them in their support. Something like that would love to have a home in Idaho to go with what we have in Oregon and Washington and in Northern California.

Keyframe: I assure you there is a hunger for it in Idaho and anything I might do to have us included in your Northwest Film Tour would be my pleasure to provide. My initial critique of filmmaker services and education in Idaho was that I saw workshops being brought in to teach local filmmakers Hollywood simulations—wholly inappropriate!—instead of capitalizing on the unique infrastructures already in place. An Idaho film like Jesse Millward’s Craters of the Moon, for example, is thoroughly unique as to location and temperament, and inflects a regionality that can only serve to strengthen the genetic pool of American independent filmmaking. But as with elsewhere in the country when it comes to independent filmmaking, filmmakers don’t seem to know what to do next, how to build an audience, how to distribute. So the very tools you are providing your filmmakers at A2E’s OnRamp direct distribution lab must, hopefully, reach out across the national scene to its regional enclaves.

Hope: I loved Steven Soderbergh’s State of Cinema address, but what he was talking about was Hollywood cinema. I got into a little Twitter discussion this morning with Richard Brody, Glenn Kenney and David Poland—which is the beauty of Twitter, right?—and the subject came around to how New York has twenty seven films opening every weekend because they need the New York Times review and you need to play a week in New York in order to get the New York Times review. That’s not good for anybody, right? Maybe four of those films will work. If you look at what Soderbergh was saying and you look at what I talk about in terms of the abundance and consumption habits. 50,000 films a year are generated on a global basis with America’s top consumption habit at 500-600 films a year. That’s one percent of the world’s supply; half a percent of a two-year supply. For all these films that are not getting seen, what is the best way to work with them? That world where—even if you make a film that only costs $10,000,000, you have to spend $30,000,000 to open it—that world is a mass market world. After the first 150 of the 500 films of the studios that come out each year in America, probably followed by another 200 studio wannabe movies made independently but still aiming to be like the studios, and then followed by yet another 150 films. What are those?

STEVEN SODERBERGH

Steven Soderbergh delivered the State of Cinema address at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival. (Photo by Pamela Gentile, courtesy SFFS)

Half of them or two-thirds of them are international movies and that other third? They’re an odd mix. What they’re aspiring to, what they’re trying to show, is that they take risks in their filmmaking process. They’re not a proof. Those other films that are there are trying to prove what they know. They regurgitate and they replicate. This final third of folks are living, breathing, and taking chances. My taste has always been loving the noble failure that tries to take the form or our world or me and my emotions to a place I have never been before. When they don’t succeed, I don’t resent them, if I see the effort in their process. That inspires me to do other things. Even when they fall short, I’d say, ‘You know, it would have worked better if they did this….’ That’s fun! I can apply that to my own craft along the way.

So what do we do for those seventy five to one hundred noble failures? Can we build a system? I always go back to the point when I was a kid growing up outside of Boston. The number one rock band in 1980 in the independent sphere was a band called Mission of Burma (they still perform). They sold 10,000 units. That made them number one. And ninety five percent of those records were sold in the Tri-State region. Then they got out of the circle because there wasn’t an infrastructure for them. There was a guy named Bob Larsen who ran a company called Twin Tower Booking—who happened to be a major supporter of Kelly Reichardt in a different way—but he was a rock booker who recognized that bands didn’t travel unless you were a superstar. So he built the college rock tour circuit by way of a very simple idea: for every venue, you needed another six venues around it. If you can’t book into one, go to the next. In that way, he built a national tour. The first bands that went out on that tour were signed to a label called Sub Pop, which was an unknown label who had two bands they’d signed up: Mudhoney and Nirvana. Two years later? [Hope makes the sound of an atom bomb exploding.]

We still don’t get in contact and in this era where we crave the eclectic, we crave the unique, you want to be there whenever whatever era it was—San Francisco lives on the history that Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and City Lights bookstore gave birth to this movement of literature, of culture, of art that changed the world. That begat other cultures, including tech, where people said, ‘Look, it can happen here in this way too.’ I really believe that and it’s really a simple thing, which is what the OnRamp Lab is all about. You just have to get people from different places talking to each other about how to solve things a little bit better in a way they feel comfortable talking passionately about it. That’s infectious and that will spread.

Fandor was one of A2E’s sponsors in 2013.

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