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Monthly Archives: May 1999

Keep Working that Film

By Greg Pak
Keep in mind that getting distribution for a short film is a fine and excellent thing, but if you want the film to sell, you still have to work it. An educational distributor, for example, will send out a catalog which will include a photo and description of your film. And you’ll appear in the distributor’s website. But buyers have dozens or even hundreds of other films to choose from — in the same catalog, even.
To maximize your film’s selling potential, make cards or flyers which include your distributors’ contact information. Hand them out or at least put ’em on the counters and tables whenever your film screens at a festival. If there’s an educator at that screening who teaches in a field pertaining to your film’s subject matter, he or she is a great target for a sale. But if you don’t put a flyer out there, he or she will have no idea how to find you.

Get a Website

By Greg Pak
Admittedly, merely having a website will not instantly result in millions of people clamoring for your film. But it’s an essential part of your promotion strategy. At the very least, being online makes it possible for interested people to find you and your films and distributors easily.
A website can also save you some grief and postage — when a festival calls you at the last minute wanting your bio or film synopsis, rather than faxing the material, you can say, “It’s all on my website!” I’ve even had a film festival in Japan pull my mugshot from my website, which easily saved me twenty bucks in international Fed Ex fees.
A good website also generates credibility. In college, friends used to claim they’d get at least a half-a-letter increase in their grades when they laser printed their papers. A clean, attractive website provides the same kind of clout — you look like a professional! an artist! an up-and-comer! — even if you live in a garret, work in a copy shop, and eat canned soup every night for dinner.
You may think it’s too expensive to get a website. But if you’re online, you probably already have one. AOL provides 2mb of free space per screen name for personal websites; most other ISPs have similar deals. If you have a free weekend, you can easily learn basic HTML and get some info online.
Now to make the site look great and possess all of the clean design saavy that makes for a painless and pleasurable surfing experience, you may need to invest more time and money or hire a designer. Yes, it could cost you anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand bucks. But you just blew twenty thousand on your film and a thousand just on festival entries — you’re gonna stop now?

Get Half Your Money Up Front

By Greg Pak
For anyone making money freelancing, I highly recommend getting half of your money up front. Here are two practical reasons why:
First, last minute schedule changes can ruin you. If you commit to a project, blocking out time and turning down other work, you could lose everything if the shoot is postponed or cancelled. If you’ve gotten half of the money up front, at least you’ll have something.
Second, if you finish a job without getting paid, you might never get paid. It’s not unheard of for independent producers to run over budget and out of money. Again, if you get half of your money up front, at least you’ll have something.
There will always be situations which will preclude your getting your money up front — maybe the production is being funded by a grant which has been awarded, but the check hasn’t yet arrived. If you know and trust the producer, you’ll probably accept the job and hope for the best. But if at all possible, get your deposit as soon as you can. Even trustworthly people and good friends can have their productions fall apart — and you don’t want to take the fall when it happens.
Incidentally, I’d argue that this is a good policy for producers as well as freelancers. If you want to make a career as a filmmaker, clean payment arrangements are critical for keeping collaborators happy and maintaining good vibes within your filmmaking community.

Respond Immediately to the Press

By Greg Pak
If you’re lucky enough to get a call or an email from a reporter, respond IMMEDIATELY. Reporters often call at the last minute, on the eve of their deadlines. If you don’t get back to them right away, they’ll find someone else and file their articles without you.
On two different occasions in recent months, I’ve delayed a day or two in responding to calls or emails. And by then, the reporters’ deadlines had passed and they no longer needed my quotes.
Of course I had no time to deal with the requests the instant they came in, but I should have made the time. Being quoted in an article won’t lead to instantaneous fame and glory, but it may toss a few more people to your website or to your distributors. In short, publicity is good, and it’s dumb to miss opportunities to grab some.

Manic Depression Is Normal

By Greg Pak
If today you feel like a moron, relax — tomorrow you’ll feel like a genius. And vice versa.
The nature of the filmmaking process forces most filmmakers into an only-sometimes-managable haze of manic-depression. Because there are so many factors depending on so many people which affect the success and failure of a film, at any given instant you may feel like Kurosawa’s reincarnation or a just another Ed Wood wannabe.
One example: You’re supposed to be shooting the big sunlit beach scene. It’s raining. You feel like a moron. Ten minutes later, the sun shines gloriously; you’re touched by God.
Another example: You’re making a documentary, shooting on film, and your rolls keep running out the instant your subjects reach those emotionally gripping parts of their stories. You feel like a failure. But two years later, when you’ve finished the piece, you see that the lack of picture forced you to find other photographs, footage, and images to use over the voiceover — which has resulted in a far subtler and more affecting film. You feel like a genius.
These ups and downs are normal. Get used to ’em.

Tip of the Day: When in Doubt, Say Something

By Greg Pak
If you know what you want but you’re not getting it, say something. If you think something’s wrong and haven’t said anything, say something. This applies to everything you do as a filmmaker — with the possible exception of working with actors, where a little more subtlety may apply. But if you’re looking at something your DP has lit and you think it looks too contrasty, you’re probably right and if you say nothing you’ll end up kicking yourself when you see the dailies. Or if you’re at the lab looking at your print and there’s a weird white spot in the middle of one of the frames, make some noise — make them put your negative up on the rewind table and remove that little piece of tape that’s somehow made its way onto the emulsion.

Equipment Specifics: The Sony VX-1000

By Greg Pak

 
The Sony VX-1000 is a great three chip MiniDV camcorder which I’ve used to shoot “Asian Pride Porn,” “The Informed Consent Zone,” and Keiko Ibi’s Oscar-winning documentary, “The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years.”
    I recommend the VX-1000 highly for low-budget productions. But no piece of equipment is perfect. Read on for a few of the VX-1000’s features and foibles.

 
Features

 
Great image quality
The VX-1000 is a three chip MiniDV camcorder. Many cheaper MiniDV camcorders are one chip — resulting in less-vibrant images, particularly in lower light situations.
    Compared to Hi8, which used to be the standard for no-budget documentary filmmakers, the VX-1000 is incredible. When footage is viewed side by side, BetaSP looks better than MiniDV. But when material is well-lit and well-shot, most people can’t distinguish MiniDV footage shot with the VX-1000 from BetaSP footage.
    However, it’s worth noting that although it’s much better than Hi8 cameras, the VX-1000 by no means can handle high contrast images and blown-out backgrounds as well as DVCAM or BetaSP cameras. Careful lighting, as always, is the key to success here.

 
Color viewfinder
Some video pros hate color viewfinders, but I like ’em a lot, particularly when shooting documentary. First, I know immediately if my color balance is off. Second, color affects framing — for example, if I’m looking through a black and white viewfinder, I might not notice a flourescent yellow sticker in the background of a shot. That sticker might end up being extremely distracting. With a color viewfinder, I notice distracting things immediately and frame accordingly.
    In addition, I prefer the VX-1000’s color monitor to that of its chief competitor, the Canon XL-1. The Canon monitor has a slight orange or rose tinge to it, which is distracting to me.

 
Manual control of focus, sound and exposure
The VX-1000 has fairly easy-to-manipulate manual controls for focus, exposure and sound. This is critical for quality shooting. But see below for the foibles of the VX-1000’s controls…

 
Easy to find filters
The lens of the VX-1000 accomodates 52mm filters, which are easily found at photographic stores. For “Asian Pride Porn,” I used a ProMist 3 filter to give that cheesy soft glow to the fake porn scenes. Cheap and effective. Other camcorders with smaller lens rings are more difficult to equip with cheap filters.

 
Foibles

 
Fragile mini audio input socket
Like most consumer camcorders, the VX-1000 has a much-too-fragile mini socket for audio input. With frequent use, this socket can get damaged, resulting in sound cutting in and out. Two solutions:
1. Buy a little black box with two XLR inputs to screw into the bottom of the VX-1000. The box has a little mini audio plug which fits into the input socket of the camera. Any tugging on cords thus pulls on the box itself, not the mini plug on the camera. The box isn’t cheap — around $200. It’s available at B&H Photo.
2. Use a piece of tape or hair tie to attach your mini-to-XLR cord to the handle on the top of the camera. Then any tugging on the cords pulls at the handle to the camera, not the fragile mini plug.

 
Dropout problems as camera ages
After three years or so, the VX-1000 seems subsceptible to misalignment of the recording head which results in discontinuity of timecode and possible digital distortion of images. This happened a few months ago to the camera we used to shoot “The Personals.” When I played footage shot with the camera back on a different deck, the image would break into scattered squares along the right hand side of the screen. When played back with the VX-1000 itself, the images looked fine. Different technicians had different explanations — the most plausible was that the record head was out of alignment. The solution was to dub all of the affected material from the camera to a MiniDV deck.
    I’ve seen the problem in one other VX-1000 of a similar age and seen postings on message boards from people with the same problem. My advice? Don’t buy an old camera. And test any camera you rent or borrow before you do any serious shooting.

 
You have to keep your eye pressed to the viewfinder to see the whole frame
Many cameras have a switch which shifts the optics of the viewfinder so that the operator can hold his or her head a few feet back but still see the whole frame in the viewfinder. The VX-1000, alas, does not have this feature. Most of the time, it’s not an issue. But if you’re stuck shooting a long speech or lecture, for example, it’s nice to be able to sit back from time to time.

 
Problems with exposure controls
It’s fairly easy to adjust exposure while shooting with the VX-1000, which is good. But the dial works in clicks, which is bad. The result is that instead of an imperceptible, smooth transition from F2 to F5.6, for example, you click through a half dozen levels of brightness. Most viewers don’t notice, but it’s ugly.

 
Problems with sound controls
The VX-1000 has a button which allows you to set a sound recording level. But it’s not an easy thing to manipulate when you’re actually shooting. So when shooting documentary, I usually use the auto-level setting, which works fairly well. When shooting fiction, I usually preset the audio level and don’t mess with it during takes. The more expensive and effective solution would be to rent a mixer which the sound recordist would use to control sound levels more precisely. But thus far I’ve managed to get away with using the strategies above.
    One warning — if you’re using the auto-level setting for sound recording, you’ll notice annoying increases in room tone sound when your subject fall silent. This is because the machine is doing its job, raising the level of its recording to record whatever sound is in the room. The solution is to preset the audio level before the take.

 

Grants: Overview

By Greg Pak

 
Since shorts and independent documentaries are seldom profitable undertakings, very few businesses will invest in them. However, dozens of organizations give grants to film and video projects each year.

 

Grantwriting Pointers &#124 Grantmaking organizations
Case Study: “Mouse” application for the Texas Filmmakers Production Fund


 

Grantwriting Pointers
Good grantwriting takes diligence and practice. I offer four pieces of general advice:

Research the organization making the grant
Just as different film festivals have different preferences, different grantmaking organizations have different missions. Do some research, and, if you’re lucky, you may find a perfect fit for your project. At the very least, you should avoid wasting time writing grants for organizations which will have no interest in your film. If the group specializes in experimental films, maybe you shouldn’t submit your Hollywood calling card.

 
Follow the guidelines
Read the grant application guidelines and give them exactly what they want, in the format and length requested. Don’t toss in extra material — a tired reader could easily get annoyed and toss out your whole application.

 
Be as straightforward and clear as possible
Murky, vague, pretentious writing will kill you. The reader making the first cut in the judging process is probably lying in bed the night before his or her deadline eagerly looking for an excuse not to finish reading your application. If you bore or confuse this person, you are lost. Be clear and concise.
 
Try, try again
If you don’t get it this year, apply next year for completion funding. And apply the year after that with your next project. I applied everywhere with “Fighting Grandpa” — I got almost nothing. But at least one of the organizations has subsequently given me money for “Brother Killer Wolf.” Even if you don’t get the grant this year, you may have made a good impression. Follow up on it!


 

Grantmaking Organizations
The following are just a few of the organizations to which I have applied over the years. The list is by no means comprehensive — I’ll add more names soon. In the meantime, get a copy of the Independent (published by the
AIVF) and check the listings in the back for upcoming deadlines.
Texas Filmmakers’ Production Fund
National Asian American Telecommunications Association
Studio Film & Tape Roy W. Dean Film Grant
Creative Capital


 

Film Festival Strategies

By Greg Pak

 
So you’ve finished your short and want to show the world.
 
What to do? As you know, there are a few giant film festivals which everybody’s desperate to crack: Sundance, Telluride, Berlin, the New York Film Festival, Toronto, Montreal…
    Of course you should enter all of these huge film festivals, particularly if your ultimate goal is to get an agent, sell your screenplays, and make feature films. These are the festivals the big and small cheeses in the industry go to and talk about; it’s a great place to make a splash.
    BUT
    Do not agonize for more than half an hour when you get your rejection letter from Sundance. Sundance and these other giant festivals are not the be-all and end-all for independent films, particularly for shorts. Nor is getting into one of these festivals any guarantee of your film’s ultimate success — I’ve had friends who have taken their short films to Sundance and had little business result.
    There are dozens, even hundreds of decent venues for your short film. Any one of them can provide you with the exposure and contacts you’re looking for to further your career. And all of them can give you that all-important experience of seeing your film screened before an audience other than your family and friends.
    This point is worth emphasizing: you should jump on chances to screen your film not only for self-promotional purposes, but also because seeing your film screened will make you a better filmmaker.
    Furthermore, I’ve often find that excellent experiences and business contacts come from the festivals or screenings for which I’d had low expectations. More and more cities these days have tiny micro cinemas specializing in independent films and shorts — if all of your expectations have centered on Sundance, you might have ignored these venues. But screening at small local venues can be invaluable, introducing you to a community of local filmmakers, programmers, and film buffs.

 
So where should I submit my films, you ask?

 
I’d recommend reading the festival listings in “The Independent,” the magazine of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers. On the west coast, the Film Arts Foundation has a similar magazine called “Release Print” with even more extensive listings. Indiewire regularly posts festival deadlines; if you do an online search for “film festivals,” you’ll no doubt come up with many other resources.
    As you’ll quickly see, there are hundreds of festivals in the United States alone. Your next task is to decide where to send your film.
    I have a few criteria I use.

 
First, submit to the big fests.

 
You never know.

 
Second, submit to strong second-tier fests.

 
There are a number of well known festivals which, though not as huge as Sundance, are excellent places to show shorts and get a little attention. I always submit to South by Southwest, the Austin Heart of Film Festival, the Shorts International Film Festival, the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, the AFI Festival, the Hamptons International Film Festival, Slamdance
    Clermont Ferrand, a shorts festival and market in France, is a great place to get screened — short film buyers from around the world pick up films there. And other filmmakers tell me that the Aspen Short Film Festival is an incredibly fun place to screen a film.
    For documentaries, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, the DoubleTake Film Festival, the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival, Cinema du Reel, and the Margaret Mead Film Festival are good choices.

 
Third, places you like.

 
There are a few festivals which have shown my films in the past, which I enjoyed attending, and which I just plain like. Just because they know me is no guarantee they’ll accept my future films, but I like these folks, so I’ll always submit to festivals like Cinequest and Film Fest New Haven.

 
Fourth, the appropriate specialty festivals.

 
I always submit my film to any specialty festivals which are appropriate. Many of my films have Asian American content — I always submit them to the many excellent Asian American festivals around the country. Do some digging around and you’ll find festivals which specialize in everything from Native American films to gay and lesbian films to nature films to underground/subversive cinema to digital art to dance.
    I’ve found that some of the best festival experiences, particularly for short filmmakers, can come at these specialty festivals. These festivals often are run by idealists whose agenda is to celebrate their community and support their filmmakers. It’s a nice feeling, being celebrated and supported.
    Specific recommendations:
    If you have a gay or lesbian themed film, by all means submit it to the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival Since my short “Po Mo Knock Knock” played there, I’ve received emails or letters of interest from at least a half a dozen other interested festivals.
    I’ve had great experience at almost all of the Asian American film festivals — for contact information, visit the AsianAmericanFilm.com Filmmakers Network page.

 
Fifth, places nearby or where you have friends.

 
I look for festivals I can actually attend (or which friends and family can attend). I live in New York, so I tend to submit my films to just about every venue I hear about in the five boroughs, no matter how small. As I’ve pontificated above, there are huge benefits to seeing your film in front of an audience. I’m also more likely to submit to festivals in places like Texas or the Bay Area — places I have loads of friends and family.
 
Sixth, places with prizes.

 
By Greg Pak

Whether a festival gives prizes is an important consideration, particularly if you have a film like a documentary short or an experimental film which can fit into a less competitive category.
    Here’s the way I think about it:
    The vast majority of shorts submitted to festivals are fictional narratives, dramas or comedies. So if there’s a general competition category for “Short Narrative,” the number of films competing is enormous. Now, many fewer documentary shorts and experimental shorts tend to be submitted. So if there are separate categories for experimental or documentary shorts, your statistical odds are simply better. It may seem cold and calculating, but if you’re weighing the worth of coughing up another thirty bucks for another festival entry fee, a little cold calculation may be in order.

Non-SAG, Please

By Greg Pak
Please note that this article was written in 1999 — since then, SAG has updated its contracts and to become even more friendly toward independent projects. This article is no longer up to date — filmmakers are HIGHLY recommended to contact SAG to learn about the new contracts.
There will be times when you cannot cast your micro-budgeted film properly without using SAG actors. But if you have hopes of marketing and selling your short film, I strongly urge you to use non-SAG actors if at all possible.
Here are the reasons why:
SAG, or the Screen Actors Guild, has an Experimental Film Agreement (for productions with a budget under $75,000) which many low-budget filmmakers sign in order to use SAG actors. As with all SAG contracts, the producer must adhere to SAG rules (regarding hours worked, etcetera) and must provide worker’s comp. The twist is that the Experimental Agreement allows the producer to defer salaries to actors until the film is sold.
The Experimental Agreement is a good, even generous deal, but if you’re making a short, the reality is that you’ll never make any money if you sign this contract and use SAG actors.
Here’s how it works: Say you shoot one day, with two SAG actors. You owe them about $600 each, payable upon the sale of the film. That’s $1200. Which means that when you’re offered $300 by a local PBS station to screen your film, you’re contracturally obligated to pass those dollars directly to your actors.
Here’s a real world example:

To make “Mouse,” I shot for five days with two actors. I believe the SAG rates at the time were around $575 a day with a weekly rate of $2000… So I would have owed my actors a total of $4000, had they both been SAG.
Over the past two years, I’ve sold “Mouse” to four local PBS shorts anthology series, one Japanese satellite television station, and the International Channel’s Asian American Film Festival, for a grand total of about $3750. Had my actors been SAG, I would still be paying them off and would not yet have earned a dime toward reimbursing my $8000 in production expenses.

An even more extreme example:
I have a friend who made a 30 minute film with some 20 SAG actors. His deferred SAG bill must clock in at over $100,000. His film has been very successful on the festival circuit and won a number of awards. But no one will ever pay him enough to pay off that incredible SAG bill.
Do not misconstrue this article as a diatribe against SAG: SAG is just doing its job, looking out for the pocketbook interests of its members. And for a feature film, which has the potential to make a good deal of money in distribution, the Experimental Contract represents an honest and helpful effort by SAG to make it possible for low budget filmmakers to make good films.
Furthermore, there are other SAG agreements which might be more to your liking — the Limited Exhibition Agreement has its advantages and disadvantages. Depending on your project, you might also want to look at the Low Budget Agreement, the Affirmative Action Low Budget Agreement, and the Modified Low Budget Agreement.
Finally, SAG actors are frequently excellent — you may find during casting that the perfect actor for the lead in your film is SAG.
So be it: if it makes your film a better film, cast SAG. I merely counsel filmmakers to be aware of the consequences: as soon as you cast a SAG actor in a short film, you most likely surrender any hopes of making your money back and thus inhibit your ability to distribute the project as extensively as you might like.
You make the call.
Relevant contact information:
SAG’s New York office: 1515 Broadway, 44th Floor, NYC 10036, 212-827-1510
SAG’s Los Angeles office: 5757 Wilshire Blvd., LA, CA 90036, 213-549-6828

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