Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The President and Me

I am feuding with President Obama.

His unintended gaff to Jay Leno comparing his bowling abilities to those of a Special Olympian has set off minor outrage in these parts.

As loyal readers know, my sister, Mary Beth- here with my dad, won a silver medal at the 2003 Special Olympic World Games in Dublin. I made a film about it and growing up with a special needs family member called "what's two+three?" Click on the link on the right and you can see more.

So when I heard about the President on Leno I jumped into action with the goal to get Mary Beth and the film to the White House to bowl against the President and to screen the film for him.

By Saturday morning my sister was on the front page of the Quad City Times Newspaper (where she and my parents live). That night she was the lead on the 10pm news- showing a clip of my film right after Obama's misspeak. A press release went to the Tonight Show- trying to get Mary Beth to the White House to bowl against the president and have Jay Leno finish what he began. Through other connections we got the film to top Obama aids in the White House. I contacted the Shrivers and the Special Olympics in D.C.

It's rare when you get a p.r. shot like this and I did whatever I could to capitalize. Coincidently, I have just begun work on the next Special Olympics film- the 2011 World Games are in Athens, Greece. I think having President Obama's endorsement would be a great way to raise some development funds.

Here are links to the article and Mary Beth's TV appearance- best seen on a PC with Internet Explorer as your browser. Scroll down to the March 21 10pm newscast. She is the lead story.




Saturday, February 28, 2009

Taking Chance

In the news this week was the Obama administration's decision to revisit the policy on allowing pictures of the caskets bringing home dead soldiers. The previous president did not want pictures such as the one here to see the light of day. I am glad about Obama's decision, it's both patriotic and symbolic, but I also understand if family members of the deceased would choose not to want photos like this be seen.

All of this ties in with a new HBO film that screened at Sundance called Taking Chance. It stars Kevin Bacon who plays a real life colonel who accompanies one casket back to its final resting place. I say often that one of the things I like about films is when they take me some place I would never get to go, and this film does that. We follow Bacon's character on his journey from Dover Air Force base to the family in Wyoming. It was fascinating in its simplicity.

I have always thought Kubrick's Paths of Glory was the best anti-war war film I have seen. I think Taking Chance is right there with it. We get to see the very real and very unglamorous after effects of war. I have seen some reviews from its Sundance screening that weren't all that favorable, but I liked it. It's small and quiet and dignified and pays its respects to the fallen soldiers.

See it if you can.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Oscars

A quick post about tonight's Oscars. I don't really care about the awards, especially this year with times so tough it seems strange to celebrate millionaire celebrities and studios when things are so haywire in the world. I look at it sort of like this year's Super Bowl between teams I don't care about. I'll catch a little maybe, by Monday morning the highlights will be everywhere to see.

I miss bad songs and streakers and Cher in a bad dress. Bring back those Oscars or make it a 60 minute highlight show.

That said, here's what I hope happens:

Best Film and Director- Slumdog and Danny Boyle. I've met him, interviewed him, great guy, great filmmaker, I liked the film. Please win.

Best Actor- Sean Penn.

Best Actress- Meryl Streep

Supporting Actor- Heath Ledger

Supporting Actress- Viola Davis

Documentary- Man on Wire

Foreign Language- Waltz with Bashir-

Adapted Screenplay- Doubt

Original Screenplay- Frozen River.

I bet I am wrong more than half the time, but I am not in any pools, those are the folks I want to see win.


Monday, February 9, 2009

No Subtitles Necessary

This past weekend Oscar winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was in Chicago speaking with filmmakers and on Sunday holding a master class for students and industry professionals.

That's Vilmos on the left and director and cinematographer Jim Chressanthis on the right at yesterday's master class, and those are my Flashpoint students there in the front row.

There were two events on Saturday. On Saturday morning from 11-2, in an event only open to students and industry professionals, Vilmos and Jim screened clips from their work, discussed their techniques and choices and took questions from the audience. It was really fascinating, especially if you are a filmmaker.

On Saturday evening, in an event open to the public, they screened Jim's film No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos and took questions from the audience. The film is excellent- it appeared at Cannes last May and is on the festival circuit now. It depicts the friendship between Vilmos and Laszlo Kovacs from their escape from Soviet controlled Hungary in 1956 to their arrival in Hollywood, and how they helped shape the look of American films from the late 60s to today.

After the screening I was lucky enough to get to go out with them and have a drink and talk film. It was my personal highlight of the weekend.

Here's a quick list of some of the films Vilmos and Laszlo has photographed.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, Scarecrow, The Sugarland Express, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (won the Oscar), The Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate, Blow Out, The Witches of Eastwick (where Jim Chressanthis was his intern). To date he has shot over 80 films.

Laszlo ( mere 70+ films before his death in 2007)
Targets, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Shampoo, Frances, Ghost Busters, Little Nikita, Say Anything.

This will be the first of several posts about the weekend. More to follow soon.

Peter H

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sundance Film Festival- a wrap

This is my last piece on this year's Sundance Film Festival, I promise. This time it's my overview of the experience.

First and foremost I had a great time. I was only there for maybe 85 hours, but I went to seven film screenings, three panels, three parties and lots of hanging out. I saw some great films, bad films and some in between. I met a lot of industry folk and learned a few things.

Among the things I discovered:

  • Independent Film is in flux. The small little film that goes big- Sex, Lies and Videotape, Blood Simple, She's Gotta Have It, Stranger Than Paradise, all 20-25 years old- is a thing of the past, BUT also maybe a thing of the future. A good story will go a long way.
  • Distributors have no money for films that don't have a name or can "open."
  • DIY distributing, when put in motion before production is a viable way to get your film seen.
  • Sundance- it seems like all the films in the festival had some Sundance connection- getting into Sundance or the Institute is the trick, once in you are in.
  • 5600 short films for 90 slots. Why even try entering?
  • Where else can one go see a documentary like Old Partner- the Korean film about an old farmer and his 40-year old dying ox. That and the short film panel were worth the trip.
In short I learned a lot. glad I went, I look forward to going next year and hope we can take some students.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

Yet Another Sundance Panel

Sorry if this is getting old, but hang on for just a little longer.

Perhaps the panel I was most looking forward to attending was on Tuesday afternoon- immediately following the Obama inauguration. (A side note on the inauguration... I gave up tickets for an 11:30am screening of We Live in Public- which ended up winning the jury prize for U.S. Documentary to see Obama take office. A good trade, I think.) The panel was looking towards at the future of independent film and on it were Sundance Festival favorites- Tom DeCillo, Barbara Kopple, Gregg Araki and Steven Soderbergh.

I love all those filmmakers, but to me Tom DeCillo had the best insights on independent film. DeCillo was the DP on Stranger than Paradise- perhaps the first indie film of the 1980s indie movement. He went on to make Sundance films- Johnny Suede, Living in Oblivion (all filmmakers need to see this film), Box of Moonlight and others. He has a documentary about The Doors- called When You're Strange in the festival.

Highlights from DeCillo:

  • Independent Film used to be about saying no to Hollywood, no to the suits. Now it's just the opposite. Independent film (and by extension the Sundance Film Festival itself) is more like Indiewood, or Hollydent. People want to get into Sundance and use it as a launching pad for Hollywood.
  • It's a lot harder to raise money now as an independent because Hollywood has taken over so many independent studios.
  • His definition of a director, "The guy who gets the money."
Other interesting comments from the panel.

Soderbergh: The most independent guy in Hollywood is Steven Spielberg beacuse he can do anything he wants.

Kopple: The most important thing is to be good storytellers. We want to see your vision not what you think Hollywood wants.

That's a good place to end, I think.


Thursday, January 29, 2009

More Sundance Panels

Another very interesting panel I attend was the new filmmaker panel co-sponsored by Variety and the Illinois Film Office. Eight first-time Sundance directors were there- three were women I am happy to say. All had films in the festival- the two with the biggest names were The Greatest starring Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon, written and directed by Shana Feste and Marc Webb's 500 Days of Summer with Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Some common comments from the panelists.

  • The importance of Film school- everyone went to some film school either as a graduate or undergrad.
  • Be prepared, then really be prepared.
  • You will have a moment when all hell breaks loose. Don't worry about it.
  • There are hundreds of compromises to make. be ready to make them.
  • Scariest thing I have ever done.
That's just the tip of the iceberg, but it rings true to me.

When I saw the panel, only 500 Days had distribution- it has a $7 million budget. Low by Hollywood standards, but not low by typical Indie Film standards. I think that says a lot about the festival.

Two more Sundance posts on the way from me- One about the Soderbergh panel, the other just on views about the festival and the state of independent film.


Monday, January 26, 2009

Sundance Film Festival-panels

Sundance is over, the awards have been announced-Push won the Dramatic Prize and We Live in Public won for documentary. I saw neither. I had tickets to We Live in Public but I opted to watch Obama instead.

I want to talk about a panel I attended last Sunday. It was about distribution and new ways to get your film seen. There were a series of panelists, filmmakers, distributors, producer reps, etc... but the person who stood out to me was filmmaker Lance Hammer.

Last year at Sundance his film Ballast was in competition and was a hit with audiences. The film failed to get distribution- or at least a deal satisfactory to the filmmakers- so they have been slowly getting the film in front of audiences one market at a time. This DIY (do it yourself) distribution, when done thoughtfully seems like a good direction to go.

I don't have time or space to give all the details, so I will just bullet point some of the key topics discussed.

  • Blogging and social networks. Lance said that if he was starting all over he would hire a blogger and treat him as a key crew member. The blogger would not only blog about the production, but track mentions of the film in other blogs and link to other interested parties. They talked a lot about Facebook and Google Alerts- I am wondering if they get pinged because of this post. (If so, Lance or someone from the Ballast team leave a comment.)
  • There is no money out there for small film distribution. Their suggestion is to include some marketing and distribution money in your production budget. The days of over paying for an indie film are over. Be prepared to hit the streets with your film.
  • Reinvent the distribution model. Arguably, Ballast and Lance Hammer were never as hot as they were last year at Sundance. The film should have been released as close to that date as possible. There was an interesting discussion about Festivals having an on-line component so more people can see films at the time. (In fact if you go to iTunes you can download 10 short films from this year's festival. Look up Sundance Storytime.)
  • Use multiple platforms to get your film seen- both pay for play (itunes) and free distribution. The goal is to get eyeballs on your film. In fact one person even said that piracy is not a bad thing for them, they consider it flattery.
  • Perhaps the one thing I took away from the panel was this: Find your 1000 true fans and market to them. Don't take a wide shotgun approach, but target the people you really think will like the film and aggressively go after them.
There was a lot more, in fact I got more out of this panel than I did the bigger panel two days later with Steven Soderbergh, Barbara Kopple, Tom DeCillo and Gregg Araki- but more on that later.

I have Netflixed Ballast. It is "saved," as there is no distribution date yet. I hope to see it, and I invite anyone who has seen the film to comment.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Absolut Mango

More specifics about panels an films at Sundance in a later post, but I wanted to share some of the non-cinema highlights of the festival.

Along Main Street in Park City many storefronts are taken over by sponsors- The New York Lounge was where I saw Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan as I stopped in for a bagel. The music pavilion was where I saw Paris Hilton running from photographers, and just down from the Egyptian Theater was the Queer Lounge sponsored by Absolut Mango.

The Queer Lounge was a great place to hang between shows and panels. For a small donation you could drink all the Absolut Mango vodka you wanted- too mango-y and not vodka-y enough for my taste- and meet a lot of interesting people, queer and not. We met folks from Pixar, who made a little film called Wall-E this year, and just regular film fans who stopped by for a drink.

Just like this post, the Queer Lounge was a nice place to stop and change your mind.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sundance Short Documentary Program

This post was lifted from an email I sent my Flashpoint Academy Documentary students after seeing the Short Doc. program yesterday.

Hello From Sundance,

I have been to six screenings so far and by far the best one was the short documentary program. There were 8 films selected out of 1200 entries. Just think about that 8 out of 1200. The only one you will be likely to see is an HBO Documentary on the actor John Cazale- Fredo from the Godfather. It was great, but it was also the longest and by far the most expensive, and it didn't seem to fit in with the other seven films as it was the most commercial.

A few trends I noticed:

Lots of graphics. Two films were originally designed for the Internet and were all graphics and/or found footage- one about nuclear weapons and the other about Internet censorship.

A third film was about a Canadian artist and they shot an interview, but the entire piece was animated. Very beautiful and poetic.

Another trend- recording dialog and interviews separately and shooting B-roll. No on camera interviews. Two films I saw- one was shot with a digital still camera and the other about people who store their belongings in public storage in Scotland- recorded their interviews on a digital disc recorder separate from shooting.

This is very interesting to me because of the emphasis it puts on the B-Roll. The Scottish storage locker film was great because of the images they shot, and perhaps because there were no talking heads or faces.

There was a fascinating film called Utopia Part 3 about the world's largest shopping mall- in China. The mall is a bust, no one goes, there are only a few stores open, but it really illustrates some of the problems China is having with growth and capitalism.

After the HBO/Cazale film perhaps the most traditional doc. was about high school kids in New Orleans post-Katrina. The filmmaker followed three students who were attending school even though they were living by themselves- their parents and siblings had moved or been taken to foster care. The filmmaker said that 20 percent of students at the school lived without their parents.

The final film- and one I hope I don't have to see again- is called Chop Off. It's about a performance artist who chops off body parts as his art. Very tough to watch- no amputations on screen- and full of medical and media ethics questions.

Those are the 8 films out of 1200 that made it. Just seeing them makes me want to explore some of these techniques and shoot more film.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Sundance Film Festival

Hello from Park City, Utah. I am at the Sundance Film Festival with Flashpoint Academy Academic Dean Paula Froehle. It's my first Sundance experience and so far it has been a lot of fun, very informative, and we even got some business done.

Details and pictures will follow- the dumb filmmaker can't get his pictures off his camera until he returns to Chicago. Here is a quick rundown of our first 36 hours.

  • Two film screenings- a bad collection of shorts, and great Korean documentary called Old Partner about a farmer and his 40 year old ox.
  • Two very interesting panels- one on new ways independent filmmakers can self-distribute their films, the other hosted by Variety and the Illinois Film Office- 30% tax breaks to shoot in Illinois!- about 10 directors to watch.
  • Lots of hanging out talking film, talking film business.
  • A great debate, about the film Doubt, though I think it was determined (I determined) that Betsy Steinberg, head of the Illinois Film Office, and I were right about what happened to Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character and everyone else is completely wrong.
  • Celebrity sightings: Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon, Perry Farrell, Paris Hilton, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

More later, more specifics and pics.