Getting To Know: Miriam Cutler

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Emmy nominated composer, Miriam Cutler has an extensive background scoring for independent film & TV projects. Her passion for documentary film has led her to working on countless award winning projects. Miriam traveled to Malaysia in 2013 with AFS.

What’s your first memory of sitting in a movie theater?

I don’t remember my first memory, but I remember as a kid seeing a huge, big sky Western (maybe THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) at the Hollywood Cinerama Dome on a giant curved screen in Technicolor. After growing up watching a lot of classic films on a black & white TV, it really blew my mind.

What do you love most about being a filmmaker?

I love storytelling – whether it’s in a song, a film, an instrumental score, or just telling it at dinner. Filmmaking allows you to have the most powerful tools available all working together to tell the story! The biggest reward comes when you screen for an audience and experience it anew through their eyes.

What do you like least about it?

Often impossible deadlines and not enough money are huge challenges for documentary filmmakers, but we are crafty and resourceful – often necessity is the mother of invention.

What or who inspired you to be a film composer?

I am a film composer who is constantly inspired by filmmakers. So much so, that I have even launched a film myself. And as a composer, experiencing my music against picture is amazing…

What is your favorite movie and why?

Impossible question – I am in love with so many movies, I could never pick one.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be?

I would teach more. I love doing workshops and presentations which illuminate the power of music in film and the filmmaker/composer collaboration.

What has been your favorite project to work on?

Once again – all I can say is I am passionate about working on non-fiction films. I love the documentary film making community – no matter where I’ve traveled in the world, I discover that we share values, interests, and inspiration.

Getting To Know: Jamie Redford

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James Redford writes, produces and directs for film and television. His latest directorial project, TOXIC HOT SEAT, is an HBO documentary film that examines the possible health dangers of chemical flame-retardants used in upholstered furniture.  James’ film Paper Tigers, a documentary about troubled teens, the dark legacy of childhood trauma and one community’s mission to heal their own, is currently on the AFS slate.

What’s your first memory of sitting in a movie theater?

As a six-year old, I saw the original PLANET OF THE APES in a theater in New York City. I was with a friend and his babysitter. There’s a moment in the beginning when the camera reveals the shrunken and desiccated corpse of a female astronaut whose time travel capsule did not work quite right. My friend lost control of his bowels and the next thing I knew, the babysitter was dragging us out of the theater. If you were to ask me to recall my first bitter disappointment, I would tell the same story.

What do you love most about being a filmmaker?

When I was a kid, I loved Hot Wheels, I love how you could make your own course with those plastic tracks. You envisioned an outcome and then built towards it. And when the car went from beginning to end as you envisioned, it was a deep thrill!

50 years later, the filmmaking process still gives me that same thrill. That my films strive to combat damaging ignorance, misperceptions, and indifference gives me a sense of purpose that gets me out of bed and into the world. I feel pretty lucky.

What do you like least about it?

That it takes some much time to do it right. I’m haunted by all the films I’ll never have time to make.

What or who inspired you to be a filmmaker?

When I saw PARIS, TEXAS, my plans to write short stories and teach literature suffered their first fracture, but it took three years and an unnecessary M.A. degree in literature for the plan to fall apart. I actually told this to Wim Wenders, which is cool.

What is your favorite movie and why?

See above.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be?

The human brain is the coolest, most mysterious thing I know, so I would be a neuroscientist. Also, I am here today because of medical science, and my health travails (two liver transplants and countless other surgeries) have earned me an honorary degree in medicine that could help me pass the exams.

What has been your favorite project to work on?

I just finished two films about the biology of stress and the science of hope. It’s a deep look at how we can we help children born to difficult circumstances get a shot at happier and healthier life? That feels like time well spent. Is it my favorite project? Impossible to say. It’s like asking, “Who is your favorite child?”

Getting to know: Zachary Maxwell

Zachary Maxwell, filmmaker.Credit Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Zachary Maxwell is a not your average teenager. He began making documentaries at the age of eight and hasn’t stopped since. His award-winning 2012 film Yuck! A 4th Grader’s Short Documentary about School Lunch drew international media coverage. Zachary’s film, Anatomy of A Snow Day, is currently on the 2015-2016 AFS slate.

What’s your first memory of sitting in a movie theater?

I don’t remember the exact movie I first saw in a theater but it was probably some animated family feature from Pixar or Dreamworks. However, I do remember the amazing theater lobby, the smell of the popcorn, and the walls filled with brightly backlit movie posters. During the movie, I ate an entire bucket of salty and buttery popcorn. I love going to the theater because it’s an experience that you just can’t get watching something at home or on a mobile device.

I also remember that, after the movie, I threw up all over the floor of the theater lobby. It was glorious.

What do you love most about being a filmmaker?

I love sitting with an audience that is watching something that I made for the first time. It is such a rush to see and feel how people react to a project you worked on for so long and so hard. When they laugh when they’re supposed to laugh, or cry when they’re supposed to cry, it’s the best feeling for a filmmaker.

What do you like least about it?

I really do not like editing. I have an older computer so it stalls and crashes a lot when rendering and adding effects. I don’t have much patience when it comes to this so I usually delegate editing responsibilities to my Dad.

What or who inspired you to be a filmmaker?

The person that has most inspired me to be a filmmaker is my Dad. We have been making short films together since I was just a little kid. As I got older, he taught me how to use the camera, set up lights, develop an idea and tell a story. Today, he is my co-writer, my editor, my business partner, and yes, also my Dad.

What is your favorite movie and why?

One of my favorite movies is Super Size Me by Morgan Spurlock. This was the first documentary I ever saw when I was around eight-years-old. I really liked that Mr. Spurlock had an important question (how does fast food affect us?) and he came up with a creative and entertaining way to present the issue. Mr. Spurlock is a professional role model to me and a lot of the stuff I make is influenced by his style of storytelling.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be?

I suppose if I wasn’t a filmmaker I could work in a shop of some kind or do some sort of freelance selling. I could ask “what size are you, sir?” You would answer and then I would say “oh, I think we have that.” I think I would probably be pretty good at something like that… but it would depend on the hours. (Thank you Nigel Tufnel)

What has been your favorite project to work on?

I always say my favorite project is the one I’m working on at that time. It doesn’t matter what you have done in the past or what you might do next. Your favorite project should always be whatever it is you’re making at that moment.

So right now, my favorite project is what I am currently working on. It’s a first-person feature-length documentary all about puberty and the awkwardness of teenagers. I’ve been working like crazy on this project for the past two years and production is going to be ongoing for the next four years. If all goes well, I’m hoping people will be able to see the finished product before I graduate high school.

Getting To Know: Patrick Shen

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Patrick Shen made his feature directorial debut in 2005 with the critically acclaimed Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality, which was hailed by critics as being “one of the most ambitious films ever made” (PBS 106.7 Australia). Patrick has traveled to India and Mozambique for AFS. Patrick’s latest project, In Pursuit of Silence, is a meditative film that explores our relationship with silence, sound, and the impact of noise on our lives. You can learn more about it here.

What’s your first memory of sitting in a movie theater?
I have a very vague memory of sitting in a theater watching E.T. and my eyes welling up with tears. I must have been 5 or 6 at the time.

What do you love most about being a filmmaker?
At the end of the day, filmmaking is a process of exploration for me. It is not so much a process of self-exploration, but more a process of self-alteration or discovery. When I find something of interest to make a film about it is often a direct reflection of who and where I am in my life at that moment. By the end of the process I’m inevitably a different person because I have given myself completely over to the process. For me, to encounter the world in such an intense, engaged, and focused manner is such a profound way to move through this life.

What do you like least about it?
Fundraising is in most cases the antithesis to what I love about filmmaking. It pulls you out of that focused engagement with the world. It takes an incredible amount of energy to identify sources of funding and then to convince those sources that what you are doing is worthy of their support. It involves a lot of paperwork and a lot of groveling.

What or who inspired you to be a filmmaker?
I can’t pin it down to just one person or experience but Jonathan Demme and his film Silence of the Lambs probably had a lot to do with it.

What is your favorite movie and why?
I have many favorites, which have earned that distinction for many reasons.

Karate Kid was one of the first films that I obsessed over as a kid. That film inspired me and a friend to start writing these stories that we’d then record ourselves reciting into a cassette recorder while another cassette player in the room played the musical score for each scene. It was an elaborate little set-up.

When I was about 16 I found myself obsessing over another film, Silence of the Lambs. I studied every nuance of that film and lived and breathed it for a solid 12 months. I ended up writing a screenplay inspired by that film. My friend and I bought suits and held a casting call where we auditioned all of these adult actors, got our hands on a video camera, and managed to shoot a few scenes over the course of a few weekends. The whole thing fell apart when our villain failed to show up on set due to being in jail.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be?
A writer maybe. Or a kindergarten teacher.

What has been your favorite project to work on?
My latest, In Pursuit of Silence, was the most rewarding artistic challenge of my career thus far. It stretched me and changed me in ways that I’ve only begun to understand.

A Guide To Independent Film Distribution in the 21st Century

This blog post originally appeared on Film Independent’s blog and appears here with the permission of the author.

Another edition of the Los Angeles Film Festival is in the books. Thirty-nine films had their world premieres at the 2015 festival, 59 percent of the films that screened were from first-time directors. Audiences applauded and filmmakers left the theaters grinning from ear to ear. But where do their movies go from here?

Scott Mansfield, Founder and Managing Partner at Monterey Media, an independent distribution company that acquired Runoff at LA Film Fest 2014, says most of the filmmakers he works with know very little about distribution. “It’s a foreign world to them,” Mansfield says. “They’re riding high because festival audiences have loved their film, but the reality is now [they’re] facing the red pencils of the critics and serious competition for consumer’s time.”

Julie Candelaria, VP of Marketing at Gravitas Ventures, a leading VOD distributor that acquired the comedy Apartment Troubles at last year’s festival, says it’s “a fascinating time to be part of the entertainment distribution business” because she has “an amazing opportunity to help shape the new distribution models and really figure out what works.”

Runoff and Apartment Troubles were two of the 12 films from the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival that were subsequently acquired for distribution. But how does one get that elusive distribution deal? And as a filmmaker, is there anything you can do to give your film a better shot?
From our conversations with Candelaria and Mansfield, we came up with four keys for filmmakers to keep in mind as they navigate the evolving world of independent film distribution in the 21st century.

Cast Matters (and a cast that tweets matters even more)
This one’s not a surprise. The first thing filmmakers think of when they think about how they’re going to sell their movie is what high profile cast they can attach to the project. It’s also one of the first things Mansfield and Candelaria say they’re looking for.

“Cast has become much more important than it was a few years ago,” says Mansfield. “It’s almost like we’ve reverted back to when I was a kid 50 years ago and they would say, ‘Okay, well what’s the little copy line we can put in the TV Guide?’ And that copy line is short and it needs to say, ‘A thriller starring Tom Cruise.’”

Mansfield says cast is also important when it comes to marketing the film. “[The cast members] are very important in social media because they have people who are fans of them. And therefore, at least you’re starting with some core audience that wants to see this person’s new work.” Mansfield gave recent Monterey Media acquisition, Like Sunday, Like Rain as an example. The film stars Leighton Meester, Debra Messing and Green Day’s Billie Jo Armstrong. “Between the three of them, they have three million twitter followers. So you’re able to reach—when they’re supportive, and in this case they are—three million people who are predisposed to being curious about those people.”

In the case of Apartment Troubles, Candelaria says Jess Weixler and Jennifer Prediger, the writers, directors and stars of the film, were also very amenable to helping out with social media. “Many times [the filmmakers] have fantastic insight into particular scenes from the film or stories or outtakes or PR angles that happened during shooting,” says Candelaria. “So the more we involve them in the process, the better the overall outcome is.” It also didn’t hurt that the film featured supporting performances from Jeffrey Tambor, Megan Mullally and Will Forte.

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Subject Matter Still Counts

But not every deal is made on cast alone. Runoff features a lead performance by Joanne Kelly that Mansfield describes as “really quite wonderful.” But he says her standout showing alone wasn’t enough to sell the film.

Runoff garnered significant critical acclaim at the LA Film Festival and Mansfield says those reviews, together with the strong lead performance, and the film’s unique environmental angle—it’s about small-time farmers who take desperate measures to survive against major conglomerates—combined to make Runoff a film that could “get above the noise,” a film they could sell.

“We actually try every year to do one or two cause-related films as part of our mission statement.” Mansfield says that in the past, Monterey Media has partnered on promotions with non-profit organizations like the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Amnesty International, often with great success. He hopes for similar results when Runoff hits theaters later this month.

For Gravitas, a large number of the films they release are documentaries. Candelaria says they’re on the hunt for titles with a built-in fanbase. Sometimes that means working with award-winning directors like Being Evel’s Daniel Junge or The Nightmare’s Rodney Ascher. Other times that means acquiring films whose subjects have millions of fans, as is the case with their January release Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of.

Marketing is Everything
Marketing is such a huge element of his job that Mansfield refers to Monterey Media as a marketing company that is also an independent film distributor. “It’s not about getting the film on Amazon Instant Video,” he says, “It’s about getting people to watch the film on Amazon Instant Video.”

For Candelaria and Gravitas, that marketing process begins as soon as the film is acquired. First they decide on a release date, and then, together with the filmmakers, work backward from that date, creating assets (the poster, the trailer) and determining how they can be best used to promote the film.

“That’s a strategic conversation we have with the filmmakers and the production teams all along the way. Everybody’s comfortable with how it works,” says Candelaria. “And that process can be six months. It can be four weeks, depending on when the acquisition occurs.”

Find the Distributor that is Right for You
Distributors come in all shapes and sizes. As the filmmaker, you have to partner with the company that’s right your film.

Gravitas Ventures was founded in 2006 as a VOD distributor, but they’ve since branched out into theatrical releasing. The 400-plus films they distribute each year play in over 100 million homes across various platforms.

Candelaria says Gravitas’ small size and the quantity of their output is an advantage over other distribution companies because it affords them increased flexibility. “Primarily because of our diverse catalogue of films and our decade-long relationships with many VOD operators, we’re able to make things happen that may not necessarily happen with distributors newer to VOD,” she said. “We are also collaborative by nature and realize change happens frequently in independent film. I always note that someone who feels like our competitor today is our partner tomorrow.”

Monterey Media is in its 33rd year as an independent distributor. They distribute 12 to 15 films per year. Mansfield uses their relatively small release schedule as a selling point when making deals with filmmakers. “You’re not one of 48 or 60 films every year. You’re one of 12,” he says. “You have 14 people dedicated to your film for three weeks to a month. That’s fairly unusual in our business.”

He calls the company “old school” because they “still believe in theatrical.” They use a theatrical release primarily as a launchpad for marketing, garnering reviews and initial viewership. Mansfield believes “the best marketing tool for any film is the film itself.”

He says it’s important they’re passionate about each film they distribute because that passion translates to conviction and the buyers in the theaters feel it. “The bookers in the theaters are just overwhelmed with product. So I think it’s very important that we’re on the phone and in our in-person meetings really caring about what we’re selling.”

Candelaria says even though she’s in the business of acquiring films, she feels a tremendous responsibility to the filmmakers she works with. “It’s their movie, it’s their baby. They’re trusting us with a very precious gift and I want to make sure that they’re comfortable with everything.”

Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger