The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August. This is Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig is off in Europe working on Chernobyl. Luckily we have a guest who is more than his equal. Keith Calder is an indie film producer with credits ranging from You’re Next, to Blair Watch, to Charlie Kaufman’s animated Anomalisa. His new film, Blindspotting, debuted at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival where it was purchased by Lionsgate. It comes out this summer. Keith Calder, welcome to the show.
Keith Calder: Thank you for having me.
John: So when Craig is gone I love to have a guest on who knows about things that Craig and I don’t know about. And I really don’t know very much about indie film. So, I have worked at the Sundance Labs helping out projects that are going into production. I had a movie that came out at Sundance, The Nines, but that was 10 years ago. And I feel like indie film changes a lot year-by-year. So, I’d love to talk about sort of the state of indie film right now. And a lot of our listeners are people who are trying to put together movies, and I want to know what that’s like. So, I think you might be the person to help us out.
Keith: I can try. [laughs]
John: What do you actually do as an independent film producer? What is your day-to-day life in trying to put together movies?
Keith: You know, it’s interesting, because it’s a question that gets asked a lot is “What does a producer do?” I get asked it even on the sets where I’m doing my job and people still don’t know what it is. And I think it’s a hard question to really even define. The more – I think I used to have a bunch of glib answers and a lot of kind of easy quick responses. And the more I’ve done it the more I realize how useless most of those are. So, I’ll try to give a more complete answer.
The simplest is I think you sort of have to separate the concept of the credit of the producer from the job of the producer. The credit of the producer could go to really almost anyone. It could go to someone who was friends with the writer. It could go to someone who knew that an actor might have been looking for a certain piece of material. It could go to someone who just has some money that they want to put into a movie. Or it could go to someone who is doing the more full set of jobs that is a producer.
Or it could go to someone who is actively trying to sabotage your movie. They just end up with a credit anyway.
John: Let’s go through the range of those possibilities. And first of all we’ll talk about what kind of producer are you mostly? Are you a producer who is on set every day getting the shots, making sure that the movie happens? Are you the person who finds financing? What is your role in the movies I have described?
Keith: I think traditionally I’m a – first of all, I would say I work with a producing partner who is my wife, Jess, and we’ve worked together on almost all the movies we’ve made. So to a certain degree when I’m answering, what I’m really answering is how we as a unit work. But I would say that predominately we’re a beginning to ending producer. We’re there from often concept through to marketing campaign. And that means being in the room for casting sessions. It means being there, deciding who the director is. It means being on set with usually one of us at the monitor all the time and the other one, if not at the monitor then kind of preparing for the challenges of what’s coming up later in the day or the week or the rest of the shoot.
What I would say is that as I’ve grown as a producer I’ve come to realize that that’s not necessarily always the right answer. Like I think that a lot more of what I do now is I do what the job requires. And I think on some films it means you have to be there for everything. And some films you actually shouldn’t be there for everything. There’s other people that can make those decisions and be there. And that your job is choosing when to actually step in and when not to step in.
John: Absolutely. So on projects where you are the producer from beginning to end, so this is a thing where you have found either the filmmaker or you found the script and here is a nascent idea for a movie and you’re the person who gets it to the next step. Talk about what that part of the process is like. Because so often what Craig and I are talking about – so in the background you’re going to hear my dog whining. This is Lambert, my dog, who is the best dog. But he’s very excited to have a guest in the office. So if you hear some whining in the background that’s Lambert.
Keith: It was very kind of you to excuse my horrible whining sounds that I make by blaming them on your dog.
John: Exactly. Always blame the dog for the farting noises and everything else.
Usually when Craig and I are talking about putting a movie together we’re talking about there’s a pitch and you’re going in, you’re pitching to a producer, then you’re pitching to a studio. And there’s a whole sense of “this is how movies get made.” But it’s a very different process that you’re describing. Most of the movies that you’ve made, what is the process of – is it a filmmaker first? Is it a script first? What is the thing that got that project to come together?
Keith: I think it’s different with every project. I think I’ve come to realize that each film takes its own path. I will say that for me and for Jess a lot of the things that we’ve made started with us identifying talent that we wanted to work with. And then building a film from there. So in the case of our most recent film, Blindspotting, it is one way the most typical version of how we would make a film, and in other ways completely atypical.
About 10 years ago Jess and I decided we wanted to make a movie based on the world of spoken word poetry. And so we started watching a lot of Def Poetry Jam and watching a lot of poets on YouTube, and finding whatever we could. And we found this young poet, Rafael Casal, who is based up in the Bay who had appeared on Def Poetry Jam a couple times. Jess reached out to him I think via YouTube and just said, “Hey, have you ever thought of making a movie? We feel like you could write a movie or star in a movie.”
We flew up there, met with him, and he’s like, “Well, I love movies but I don’t know anything about it whatsoever.” We then spent really nine years working with him and then meeting his friend, Daveed Diggs, and developing a film from scratch that they wrote, starred in, and produced with us. But it was really from us identifying a type of movie that we wanted to do. And then finding the right collaborators, and then building it from the ground up from there.
I mean, I say building, really they did most of the building. They were writing the script. But we were sort of helping them figure that out the whole time.
John: Great. So you identified an area. There’s a movie to be made in this world.
John: Who might be the person to make that movie? And then you sort of nurtured them along the way.
Keith: Exactly. So that’s a good case there. And then I think with You’re Next was a movie where we had produced a few horror movies, and it was a genre that we liked working in. But we found it really hard finding projects, like films that were horror movies but also had an interesting voice or something to say. Or something that separated them from the rest of low budget horror.
And we had a film doing the festival circuit the same time that Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett had A Horrible Way to Die. And a few friends said, oh, you guys should really meet because I think you’d work well together. We finally grabbed dinner and started talking about movies. And the four of us all really hit it off.
And Simon mentioned that they were working on a home invasion movie, and we kind of spent the rest of the dinner talking about a lot of what we all considered the problems with that genre and kind of how those problems could be opportunities if you approached it the right way. And I think within two months Simon had a script that he sent us that we liked and we immediately signed on to produce it and put it together. And we were shooting it in the spring. And that was the first of three movies we’ve made with Adam and Simon. And I think that, yeah, it was about the person first for us, and then the idea, the sort of what the movie could be. And then just a lot of conversations about how you go from idea to execution.
John: Absolutely. So in the case of You’re Next, which I thought was terrific, and it was a very smart exploration of the home invasion genre and sort of what that’s like. Basically really question the motivations of why these characters are doing what they’re doing. You have a script now. So you have a filmmaker you like. You’ve seen the thing that he’s made before. You have a script you like. What is the next step in figuring out where we shoot this thing, how we do this thing? And while you’re figuring out how you’re making it are you also planning how it gets released? What the venues are for it getting out there in the world?
Keith: Yeah, I mean, You’re Next is an interesting case study for this, because we knew we wanted to do it. Simon and Adam were coming off of making a movie for I think about $100,000 and they wanted a step up in budget. We had had some experience in making movies in that sort of $500,000 to $1 million range, which is in a way a really huge range, but also a very small range. So it was kind of figuring out where in that range the movie made sense to do it.
Adam and Simon had worked on A Horrible Way to Die in Missouri, and so they were really excited about the idea of going back to Missouri to make You’re Next. So the location was kind of figured out in a grand sense from that. Like we knew we wanted to go to Missouri to shoot this movie.
The actual location of the house was something we found literally a week before we started production. It’s not like we had a specific place where it was going to happen. In terms of building it, we had the script. We started casting. We brought on a foreign sales company, Hanway, which is the company we had a relationship with from prior movies. Hanway started selling the film off the script, and I think before we started production we decided we just wanted to try to sell one major international territory. And then kind of take risk for the rest of the equity on the film. And so we sold the UK I think for about half the budget, which is really unheard of. And once we did that we were like, “Oh OK, we’re fine, we’ll just go make the movie. Keep the rest of the world as upside and know we’ve kind of covered half the cost out of the UK.”
And our goal was very much to shoot the movie in the spring. To have it ready to bring to Toronto to premiere at the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival, which I view as one of the top places to launch a low budget horror movie. And luckily for us Toronto saw the movie, and liked it, and accepted it. And so it was definitely a case of we had a plan for each step and it all went according to plan. But to a certain degree those plans are ludicrous. Like it’s nonsense to assume you’re going to sell half your budget from one territory. It’s nonsense to assume that your film is going to get into the exact festival and the exact thing you want. And then it’s going to sell to the one distributor that you think is probably the best distributor for it.
And I think it’s easy to look at the success stories and say, “Oh, that’s the path.” It’s only the path because it was successful. If we hadn’t taken that path, we would have had to find some other way to have the movie find success.
John: Absolutely. So I want to go back and define some terms, just because people may not know some of the things that you’re talking about. So when you say equity, so basically this is money that you had found. That you had/you found. Basically it’s money that you could write a check for or have somebody to write a check for for making the movie. So, in a small budget, in this case it was half of that. But other times you might write the whole thing and sell stuff later on. There’s many ways of finding the money to make the movie the first time.
Keith: Yeah. I would say the thing that makes it hard for people to learn too many lessons from our path is that we have financing. So we can put our own money into films at this point. So a lot of the more traditional independent film producers and model are about finding other people to put money into the film. For us it’s much more about feeling comfortable with where we’re putting our equity in. And if we’re making bigger movies it’s finding other partners or finding ways to justify it.
You know, the truth is with independent film even if you do have financing it’s a hard business to stay in business in because the nature of it is that most films don’t succeed. And if you’re a studio, most films not succeeding means that you recoup half the budget. In independent film, the film not succeeding means no one ever buys it. It never gets seen by anyone. And you recoup nothing. So it’s a high risk/low reward business, so kind of the worst of them all.
John: Yeah. Good choice of career here for you.
John: Just to define other terms. So you talk about foreign sales, or foreign presales, or foreign sales. And so classically most indie movies back 10 years ago when I was doing The Nines, either you would – based on the script, the director, and the cast you would go to international markets and say like, “OK, I have this movie that stars these actors, it’s this budget, it’s this thing. Here is a mock poster for it. Will you give us a certain amount of money for France, a certain amount of money for the UK?” And hopefully you get some people bidding against each other. You raise enough money from those people essentially saying “We promise to buy your movie when it’s done” that you’re able to then go back and get financing in order to do it.
So, essentially you have a commitment that they’re going to buy it when the movie is completed and then you go and get a bank loan essentially, a special kind of bank loan, to make the movie. Is that still the common model? Because I feel like in the last 10 years with the rise of streaming, with the rise of other sort of distribution platforms that may not be as crucial. And also some budgets, just because of technology and other things, some budgets have come down a lot lower. So, what are the models right now for making a movie?
Keith: I mean, it’s definitely the Wild West now. I think that what you described was the dominant model for, I’d say, pretty much from maybe the late ‘80s through to maybe six or seven years ago. And I think it still exists. There’s still a lot of independent films that get financed off of the foreign presales model where you use that to kind of fill in the gaps. And you put it together that way. I think more and more it’s a hard model to make work, because a lot of foreign distributors are struggling in their own territories to kind of make their businesses work. They aren’t being as aggressive on pre-buying most movies. The sort of star value system is in a different place than it was in the past. Like I think there’s a view that a lot of stars that used to be bankable just on their own now are maybe bankable with other stars, or bankable within certain types of intellectual property. Or bankable within certain genres. Or bankable if you are also spending $20 million on P&A. So it’s less of a given that you can kind of raise money off of a package.
The other side of it is that the market for films now a lot of time are driven by worldwide buyers and the foreign sales model can really hurt the chances of a film when you do that. So Netflix for example is a big buyer of movies now. They’re not super excited about buying a film that already has a lot of foreign territory sold off in advance, because they want the entire world. Same is true for Amazon. Same is true for even some of the traditional distributors like a Fox Searchlight. They kind of want to have the world when they’re buying a movie.
There’s definitely a weird chicken or the egg problem there because you sometimes need to try to sell those rights to finance the movie, but then you also are expected to retain those rights to sell the movie later.
John: The situation I find even sort of more frustrating and dispiriting is when you see a movie that’s gotten made that’s not perfect but there’s something promising there, and they clearly have not thought about distribution at all. And so I’ve gone into 20 screenings where I see this film and it’s like “This film is good and it’s interesting and it’s promising, but there’s a very good chance that no one will ever see this film because it will never get released in a meaningful way.” And that’s the real heartbreak is that when people come to me saying like, “Oh, I was thinking maybe I’ll just raise some money and do this myself.” I want to be encouraging because you want them to be that sort of one thing that breaks out that gets that big attention, but it might not be that thing that breaks out. And they could have spent all of their life savings trying to make this movie that no one will ever see. So, figuring out like what the overall plan or strategy is for distribution feels so crucial at an early stage.
Not only what is this thing that you’re trying to make but how will people see this thing you’re trying to make.
Keith: I completely agree. It’s interesting because I think a lot of people, when they’re approaching independent film, are looking at the movies that exist in the marketplace, meaning like things you can just watch on TV or in theaters or on Netflix, and their assumption is, “Well, if I make a movie that’s better than the worst of those then that means I will get to be released in those same ways.”
John: The plus one fallacy.
Keith: Yeah. And it’s the same thing that happens with people writing spec screenplays. They look at the movies onscreen and they say, “Well, if I write a script that’s better than the worst of them then that means that I will be able to succeed.” And it’s just not the way that the world works. And I think that one of the key things to realize is that most of the movies that you see in the world are movies made by companies that already own their own distribution system. And the nature of that is that they will always rather release the worst movie they’ve made than the best movie you’ve made. It’s just fundamentally the nature of their business is that they need to try to return money on their bad movies over making you money on your good movies.
I would agree with you. I would be very cautious to advise anyone to go out and try to make an independent film. I think it’s a tricky business, and it’s a tricky creative path to take. That said, sometimes it’s the only way you can make a movie and sometimes for certain types of movies it’s the only way they would ever be made. And I think that the models that we kind of touched on a little bit, but the other models for making independent films these days are really relying on soft money, which is when I say soft money that usually means tax incentives. In Europe or Australia or certain other parts of the world they have heavy arts funding bodies where you can kind of get big chunks of your budget that way. And independent film financiers that are looking for different returns than just financial returns. Like there are definitely people that are putting money into movies because they want to support the arts, or because they want to – for the more callous reasons is that they want to hang out with famous people and things like that.
I’m not saying that I wouldn’t advise that. That’s what people do. But sometimes that is the source of money you need to get your movie made.
John: So let’s talk about a hypothetical filmmaker who has a script that’s in a genre that they know the genre, it’s a pretty good script. It feels like a movie that should be made independently. It’s fairly low budget. It’s the next Adam and Simon.
So, if Adam and Simon were to come up today, what would your recommendation be for their next steps? Should they shoot a short that’s a proof of concept? What would be the way to get their movie made, whether it’s You’re Next or their movie before that? What would you recommend that they do?
Keith: I think the key advice I would give anyone is when you’re starting out make things as cheaply as possible. I just think that there is a path for just making things so cheaply that the minimal value that most independent films get can still help you recoup your budget. And I think that that’s a path that I think the Duplass brothers took really well and I think it will always be a path. There’s always going to be an appetite for movies of a certain sort. And if you can achieve quality with very low budget I think you can find a path within independent film.
I think a lot of it is about deciding where you want your career to be and what type of filmmaker, either as a writer or as a director, or any aspect of filmmaking. You want your path to be. I think that if you’re looking at what you hope to do and it’s Marvel movies or Bond movies or just movies that require a lot of money to go do, I’m not convinced that the independent film path is the best path there right now. Even though a lot of the studios have been hiring independent filmmakers, it’s a lottery ticket path rather than like actually doing things that show you can do the work to get there.
John: So your hunch for going down the Marvel path or the James Bond path would be through screenwriting, though visual effects, like how would you recommend that person get to the big prize of making those things?
Keith: My advice is always that your path to success is to do the things that you’re the best at. And I think a lot of time the things that you’re the best at are the things that you have the most passion for. And I think those are the two areas I would always recommend people focus on. I think that it’s more likely that a fantastic amazing stunt coordinator is going to get hired to direct a big movie than someone who has made another big movie really badly. Like I just don’t think that – it’s an industry where you get over-rewarded for things that you do really well. And I think that those are the things that you need to focus on.
I think it was Guillermo del Toro said that all of the things that are flaws about you when you start doing well just become your voice. And when you’re not doing well they’re all the things people point out as problems.
Keith: And I think if you focus on all the things that you do great, then all the things you don’t do great you either figure out how to get around or you they just become part of your voice.
John: That’s great. So, let’s talk about, when I was doing The Nines, a big push at that point was that you had to – you really wanted a deal that guaranteed theatrical release. And if you didn’t get your hand stamped in theaters that was a real mark against you both for the value down the road in home video, but just as a filmmaker you wanted to have that theatrical release. Do you still see that as being such a crucial thing for a movie that’s coming out of a festival right now? Like Blindspotting is going to have a theatrical release, but if Netflix had come to you and said we’re going to buy it for more money and we’re going to promote it a certain way, would that matter to you?
Keith: To me, yeah, it probably would still matter to me, if I’m being honest. I mean, part of that is that I’m what I view from a sort of in-between generation of people that kind of grew up with Netflix as their primary form of entertainment and people who grew up with theatrical film experience. If Netflix were offering a lot more money and that meant that our financing was recouped and that it had a higher profile in the world then yeah, for sure, I would go that path.
But I do think you have to kind of compare these things realistically. So I think that a lot of the time people will overvalue the theatrical release because they’re imagining that the film will break out in some massive way. And the truth is that very rarely happens. So I do think that you have to be fiscally responsible. Like you shouldn’t go with the theatrical distributor that is paying you nothing over a non-traditional or what is it, I guess, online release or something like that where you are actually able to recoup your investment and get your film out there and seen by a lot of people.
John: Yeah. The question of like “seen by a lot of people” is such a weird thing with streaming because obviously anybody who looks at Netflix, you scroll through and you see like what are all these movies. What are all these things? Who could watch all these things? But living in Los Angeles you actually drive by billboards for all of these different limited series and movies and I’m halfway convinced that some of them don’t actually exist. That like if somebody actually looks for them, then they’ll go off and make them, but they’re just trial balloons for things because it’s a giant expensive billboard for something like I don’t know what that is. I’ve never heard of this thing. And yet somehow you made this thing. We’re in a very strange time.
I feel like all the extra money being thrown into that system is leading to some really weird choices. And obviously people are – you know, it’s production that’s happening, which is great. But if I were that person with that billboard I would be excited but I would also really be wondering is anyone actually going to see this thing that I’ve spent years of my life making.
Keith: I’m always curious about those billboards in LA. But I feel like part of it is just about these streaming platforms proving to the rest of the industry that they’re legitimate and big and promoting their movies. And I think it’s so much of the billboard – the billboard game in LA seems to be about advertising within the film industry rather than advertising to consumers. It’s an odd sort of ego game more than anything else.
Keith: You can also see that – I know that studios will buy billboards near the actors in their movies so they feel like they’re spending money on the movie. And I think the same thing happens where Netflix are buying billboards based on reminding certain production companies that “Hey you should come sell your thing to Netflix” and things like that.
John: That’s very true. We got a question in from a listener and I thought – I already emailed it back because I actually know the person, but I thought I’d read it and get your take on it because this is sort of your wheelhouse. And it’s about a decision of life kind of moment.
So he writes, “After working for a reality TV company for over two years I was just laid off. With a downturn in show production came downsizing, and it turns out I was more expandable than I thought. Stressful, but I’m realizing that I have basically unlimited possibilities in deciding what’s next for me. I’m unmarried, no financial dependents except for a low maintenance dog. I’m not tied to any geographical location or job. And the world is essentially my oyster.
“If anything, I see this as an opportunity to take steps towards big picture career goals: writing and directing features or writing and producing television is the real goal here. In the moments of calm self-reflection that I’ve been able to find between bouts of panic, two distinct potential next moves have clarified for me.
Option one: I focus all my energy on making a feature film directorial debut. I drive Uber, work part-time, sell myself to extras casting to make ends meet while giving myself the flexibility and time to develop, write, and put together an achievable indie feature film. It’s hella ambitious, but I still have a lot of connections in my non-LA places to crew something like that up for a non-union low budget feature within the next year or three.
“Option two: I still work on my own projects in my spare time but stay working in the industry. Jump to the bottom of a more useful ladder, such as a PA or assistant in the lands of scripted television or features and then work my way up.”
Keith Calder, so these are two very different paths and they’re sort of what you were describing. That sense of like do you go off and make the independent film or do you try to work a more normal path and inch your way up? What would you want to talk to David about?
Keith: I think that my main advice for David, not knowing anything beyond his scenario from what he’s kind of outlined here, is that I don’t think you should view these paths as mutually exclusive. I think that writing is something that as long as you have time within your day you can set aside a large enough portion that you can focus on it. You can do really no matter what else you’re doing, especially when you don’t have kids and you don’t have other draws on your free time. So I think that if he wants to write I think that’s something he can do while he’s still supporting himself financially with an income of some sort.
I also think that when you’re trying to make a film, especially a micro-budget independent film, you need to have resources other than money. And those resources are a crew base that are from people that you know or that you have worked with or that you have mutual fondness of film together. And I think that you build that by working within film or working on other people’s films or doing things like that. I think that there’s a danger to think of this as, “Oh, my path to making movies is to silo myself.” And I actually think for most people your path to making movies is to surround yourself by other people that are making movies.
So, I would advise that, if he wants to take the path of writing and potentially directing and making an independent feature, I think that it’s something that while he’s writing it he can be building a crew base by going out there and PA-ing and working on other people’s independent films or on short films or whatever it is. And I think you build the team that you then use to go make your micro-budget film.
John: I think that’s the right advice. When I was writing back to him I said, I first off asked does he have that project that he’s passionate about. Whether it’s written or not written, you have to have that thing like you’re going to wake up every morning saying like “Hell or high water I’m going to make this thing.” And figuring out what that is is a crucial first step.
And so to put everything else aside, to write this thing which you don’t know what it is yet, feels like a mistake. But I really agree with you. You have to find who your group is. Who your core people is you can collaborate. Because so much of making a movie is essentially entrepreneurial. You’re basically figuring out how to do all that stuff. And if you’re figuring out how to make a movie and how to sell a movie and how to cast a movie and how to do all of these things for the very first time, you’re not going to be great at all of those things. So you need to witness the process through other people. And so you’ll learn about how to physically shoot something by physically shooting some things. That means crewing on some other people’s films. Not just little student university shorts, but some bigger things. Seeing the ups and the downs. And then make your own stuff and sort of work your way up through.
On any crew you’re going to be able to pick three or four people who are like, “Oh, they’re great. They really know what they’re doing.” Help them out and get them to help you out and sort of rise up together. Because you see even the people who have gone through to do the bigger studio features, people who have done Star Wars, they tend to still bring along some of their indie film people because those are the people who are really smart that they trust, but who also have a vision who can do a thing that other folks can’t. So, I’m urging David to spend these next couple of years finding those people and finding that place rather than try to do the lottery ticket where I’m going to write the one thing that’s going to breakout and everything is going to change.
There’s a thing, you know, a term called “silent evidence” where we only see the successes and we sort of miss all the things that fail. And I feel like it would be helpful for people to go to a second or third tier film festival and see all the movies and then follow up on like what actually happened to those movies. And some of them you’re going to love and some of them you’re not going to love, but most of those movies are not going to find a home anywhere. And yet each of those filmmakers had spent years of their life trying to make that thing. And so recognize what a gamble you’re making by sort of putting everything into just one thing.
Keith: And to think about those second tier, like those mid-level tier film festival, are still rejecting other movies that don’t even get into that festival. So, yeah, it’s absolutely true. I think independent film and film and entertainment in general is dominated by success. And I think that that success is all that’s visible. And it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that the lower tier of the things that are successful is the lower tier of everything. And it’s just not true. You’re just seeing the top 1% of what’s being made. And you’re looking at the bottom of that top 1%.
John: Yeah. It’s crazy.
Starting to talk about film festivals, how important are film festivals for an indie film that’s coming out right now? Theoretically you would have finished – like a movie like Blindspotting – you would have finished it. You would know what it was like. Why go to Sundance to debut it rather than just like you know who the distributors are. You could’ve just had a screening and invited them to come. What’s the decision process there?
Keith: You know, it’s interesting. I think there’s a few key festivals that are really, really important to trying to sell an independent film. There are festivals that are wonderful for exposing audiences to independent cinema and for building great relationships and things like that, but I do think there’s a few that are really markets for selling finished films in a way that still provides a lot of value. And I think Sundance is near the top of that list. And there’s a huge variety of reasons. Things that you can read about and I’ve thought about a lot over the years.
I think the key ones are just the decision makers are actually all watching your movie at the same time. And are aware that they probably have to make a decision quickly. I think those two things lead to being able to sell an independent film and create not necessarily a bidding situation but the idea that there’s an understanding that this film will probably get distribution within the festival or shortly after the festival if it’s a commercial movie that people recognize that side of it.
I think other festivals it’s really hard to do that just because honestly the distributors don’t go. So you can go to an even just slightly tier below Sundance and have an amazing screening, and it doesn’t have that same benefit because the decision makers aren’t in the room. Maybe the junior people below them are and they can kind of say, “Oh, it was good, you should watch it at some point.” It just doesn’t have the same environment that I think Sundance and Cannes and Toronto and a few of these other film festivals will have.
So I would always – if you have an independent film that doesn’t have distribution, I think it’s always worth targeting the biggest film festivals that you can. You can do your research and see which films have launched out of which film festivals and sort of start to get a path saying that, “OK, my film is like these types of films that did really well at this festival. That’s probably a good festival to premiere at.”
John: So, when we were doing The Nines one of the crucial things we had to have was a PR/marketing company who would plan the festival basically with us. Basically so we could go in with a message and this is how we are going to communicate. These are all the different media venues we’re going to talk to. Is that still a thing? Is that still a crucial aspect of this early part of the process?
Keith: If we have a film that’s premiering at Sundance or Toronto, which are really the two main festivals we’ve had films at as premieres, the two things that I would make sure that we have are a festival publicist that is just handling all of the PR requirements for that festival. And a sales agent, whether that’s a foreign sales agent or domestic sales agent.
I think that if you’re trying to sell a film at a festival, especially at a major festival, those are two very important elements. The sales agent especially if you’re making your first movie. You don’t know how to, A, manage the sort of market process of getting distributors to show up to the screening. But certainly you don’t know how to manage the process of handling proposals and how to counter the proposals and when and when to have filmmaker meetings and when not to have filmmaker meetings. And there’s a whole rigmarole to selling a movie at a festival that you just won’t know how it works on your first movie or probably your second movie either.
And then with the publicist, there’s a lot of things that you can do as a savvy producer to help promote your movie, but the publicist will have a better sense of how to target it towards critics. Which critics to get into which screenings. A lot of times they’ll be helpful thinking about sales strategy. But they’ll also give you good advice on what not to do. So there’s simple things that I would advise filmmakers not to do when premiering a film at a large festival. And a lot of those things go against what the festival is encouraging you to do. So I think that you don’t want to release a ton of still images. I think you usually would want to release one, maybe two, and I don’t think you should be putting up your own trailer and your own promo. I don’t think you should be releasing clips for the movie.
And really all the things that on the surface seem like really logical things to promote your movie I would advise against.
Keith: I think that if you have a movie that has anticipation, where either it seems like it’s a commercially-minded movie or it seems like it’s the launch of a really interesting filmmaker or interesting acting talent and you have a good screening slot in the festival, I think you have to have confidence in your movie and confidence in the festival that you’re in that people will want to come see it. And I think that the more materials you release the more you’re potentially seeming desperate, which I think doesn’t help the market around your movie. And I think the more that you are putting out into the world things that your eventual distributor will regret that you’ve put out into the world.
Almost every time I’ve worked with a really great distributor it’s something they’ve brought up is that they’re really thankful that we didn’t have some trailer that we cut in-house and put out there because as – I mean, as I think everyone knows now, once something is online it’s just forever. And so suddenly anytime anyone wants to see what’s going on with that movie they’re opening the trailer that you did your best intentions to do a good job cutting a trailer for, but it’s just not what a studio would use to sell your movie.
John: You’re going to show up with some sort of one sheet, some sort of art work that can represent it on a board but it won’t be the final artwork.
Keith: If that. If that.
John: So you wouldn’t even do that?
Keith: We do do that, but we only do it if we’re doing it properly. So, I mean, we’ll use poster vendors and we’ll go through the process and get a lot of comps and kind of really make sure that either it’s a really strong poster or something that could not be considered anything other than a teaser image. I think that your strongest step forward at a festival is purely non-traditional marketing, or very teaser-based marketing that don’t reveal much about your movie.
I think that the more you reveal about your movie before it plays at the festival, the more that you’re either elevating anticipation to the point that you’re setting expectations differently from what you want them to be, or that you’re giving distributors a reason to pass on your movie. I think that a trailer that doesn’t fit how they would sell a movie or a poster that doesn’t fit how they would sell a movie is a strike in their heads against your movie.
John: All right. So all this advice that you’re giving are things that a first time writer-director is not going to know going into this. So it feels like that writer-director wants to have someone like you, an experienced producer who has done this kind of thing before. How would you recommend that writer-director find the producer who might be the right person to do this movie, or to do all these parts of the job, but especially this part of the job which is so different?
Keith: I think that if you’re making a low-budget independent film, especially if like your friend David, like if he’s making a movie that’s really a micro-budget movie where it’s a group of friends coming together to make a movie, I don’t think you need to have a producer like me where I have a bunch of experience at festivals and things like that. But I do think that’s where you want to have a good sales agent and you want to have a good publicist.
I think that you can find someone like me to give advice. I mean, every year at Sundance there are filmmakers that I know or friends of friends or things like that that will reach out for advice on what to do at the festival and I’m happy to give it. But I’m not a big – I’m not a big proponent of filmmakers making a movie and then seeking a producer to put on it to help them with the sales process. I think that the kinds of producers you would convince to do that are not the kinds of producers you actually want to be in business with, generally.
There are people who exist in that space doing – giving the advice that you’re looking for. And really those are sales agents and festival publicists.
John: So, the flip side of that question, so let’s say that you are a person who loves movies and loves independent film, but you are not a writer-director yourself. How does one become a person who is making films? Is it what you’re describing where you find a filmmaker you like at a festival and you say like, “Hey, I want to sort of help you make your next thing?” Like what is the process of–?
Keith: Of becoming a producer?
John: Of becoming a producer. Of becoming sort of like what you’re doing.
Keith: You know what? I actually do think that if you live really anywhere in the world and you want to be a producer, I do think that your best step forward is to go to your local film festivals. Wherever you live there’s probably one within driving distance. And see what the local talent base is like and see if you can build a local filmmaking community of some sort and make movies that way. I don’t think that that is necessarily a path to financial success and kind of success within the larger industry, but it is a path to working within the arts and making movies in the same way that I think if you want to do theatre you can go be in your local theatre production. You shouldn’t have an expectation that that’s going to lead to you starring in a play on Broadway.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making regional cinema. I think that’s actually a great way for people to spend their time. And I think you can do really cool work that can expand way beyond that. But I do think that the arts has a tendency to look at the absolute most success and then say, “Well how do I get to that?” And there’s very rarely a real path to that other than doing what you can do as well as you can.
John: Yeah. I think your metaphor for like theatre is appropriate because most people are not making a fortune in theater, especially not smaller theater. You do it because you love to do it. And so there aren’t people who are making a fortune off of independent film. There was sort of that heyday in the rise of Miramax where it felt like, “Oh, that’s where all the excitement and all the money is.” Fox Searchlight does really great, but that’s not what most indie film is really like. It’s making enough money to make that movie successful and be able to make the next movie. It’s not giant mansions.
Keith: I think it’s also tricky with independent film is that a lot of movies get sold as independent film. Like it’s viewed in the world as being independent film, but they’re truly studio movies. And I think that a lot of the most successful movies you would consider independent — that the general people would consider independent films — are essentially studio movies that were just made for a low budget that they were able to convince everyone to work for cheaper by pretending it was an independent film.
John: That’s true. So how do you like to define independent film right now? Because we’re talking Fox Searchlight or we’re talking A24, they’re making the movies that are kind of like that but they are really their own studios. They’re getting approvals – it’s not like they’re buying that movie off the festival usually. So what is independent film to you?
Keith: I would still consider, I mean, this is a definition that everyone has differently. For me, I’m pretty strict in the sense that I think that if the source of financing of the film was not a major distributor, then it’s independent film. And that can include really very large movies as well as small movies. Like I would include a movie like Looper as an independent film because it was put together, the model we talked about earlier, where they were doing foreign presales and they were piecing it together that way. But it’s a big budget movie with movie stars and everything in it.
Arrival I think is a similar thing. That’s an independent film because it was made independently. And then a studio really wanted to buy it and they bought it. I wouldn’t consider a lot of Fox Searchlight movies for example as independent films because they were really just low budget movies made by a division of a studio that makes low budget movies.
John: Yeah. “Specialty” might be the better term for it.
Keith: Yeah. They can still be an art house movie. Like it’s released in art house theaters, but that doesn’t mean it’s – to me it wouldn’t be an independent film. That’s kind of my criteria.
Keith: So I would still consider an A24 movie an independent film because I think that they are an independent company. That they also release their own movies doesn’t mean that they’re not independent of the larger major studio system.
Keith: To me, the sort of ground where I’m not sure is you could make a case that Lionsgate’s movies are independent films. I mean, it’s an independent studio, but it’s also a majorly traded public company at this point with a large valuation. I guess mini-major is kind of what you call it now.
John: But to be clear, you’re trying to distinguish between independent film represents a business model whereas specialty or art house represents a style or a placement of a kind of movie, regardless of the genre.
John: So you can have big budget sci-fi indie movies and you can have studio-made art house films and that’s fine. But not to try to conflate the two things together.
Keith: Yeah. I mean, for me, to a certain degree, I’m not sure what – if a studio is financing a movie I’m not sure what it is independent of. I think independent should be defined by it being independent of studio financing. I think that is what independent should mean.
Yeah, I think it’s more helpful to describe films by how they are originated rather than how they end up being seen.
John: Absolutely. Sometimes it’s also the sources of financing are a bunch of things cobbled together. So Participant felt like that kind of thing, where Participant was a company with a specific sort of agenda in terms of progressive ideas. And so they would funnel money into a bunch of things. And so a lot of those movies feel either they truly were independents or they were kind of studio movies where Participant was participating in them.
Go was originally a totally independent movie and so we had foreign financing. We had a list of – we had to get a white male star, 45 years or older, to be in it. And we just couldn’t put all the pieces together. And at the very last minute Columbia came in and took over. And that – it was a combination of things. And still it happened, it’s called a negative pickup, where essentially the studio has already agreed to buy it and basically they’re the bank that’s paying for everything. But we were still able to work like an indie film, where we didn’t have quite the oversight that a studio would have.
That’s another way of thinking about it is that I talk to sometimes Sundance filmmakers who are – they have a certain plan. They’re going to do it in a very classic way and then a studio comes in and the studio just becomes the bank that takes over the making of things. So you don’t know what it’s like. I think sometimes being flexible about sort of how you’re actually going to do it is the key. You have a vision for what the movie is going to be. Who paid for it and how it is coming out in the world is sometimes less important.
Keith: Well, yeah. I wouldn’t put a value judgment on whether something is independent or studio. Like I think that there are movies where you maintain more autonomy and creative ability within a studio than you do independently. Yeah. I think there’s so many emotional things tied to the idea of something being independent or studio that I think in every given case is not the reality.
John: Yeah. What are some movies that you’ve seen lately at festivals that you want to make sure that we are aware of that we look for that are coming out in the next year?
Keith: I’ll be honest. Like, at Sundance, I was at Sundance. We had our movie there. I saw one other movie. It’s just when you have a movie premiering at a festival that you’re selling and doing all the marketing PR around you don’t – I find I don’t have time to watch anything.
The film that I saw recently that it’s not helpful because it’s not out in the US. There’s a movie called Down Under that’s an Australian independent film that’s fantastic. And it was so good that I immediately reached out to that writer-director about doing his next movie which we luckily were able to do. But it’s a comedy about a real race riot in Australia. And it has tinges of Get Out and that type of where it’s a commercially-minded movie that deals with very real issues in the world. And I’d say Down Under is an incredible movie. And if you are in a country where it has been released, I highly recommend checking it out.
John: Talk to me about how you reached out to him. Did you reach out through Twitter? Did you reach out through official representatives and channels? How did you get to him?
Keith: So, I’ll tell you. The short version is that it premiered at Fantastic Fest, which I wasn’t at, but I have had films at before and I kind of know people there. And a friend of mine who lives in Austin was at Fantastic Fest and he said, “Oh, you have to see Down Under. It’s the best movie at the festival.”
I then went on Studio System and looked up the director. And I saw that coincidentally he had just been signed by the same agent who represents Adam Wingard who is a director I’ve worked with a bunch. So I reached out to the agent and said, “I hear this movie is great. Is there any way I can see it?” And he got me a screener. I watched the movie with Jess and we both loved it. And I said, “Can I talk to the director?” And the agent set up a Skype and we Skyped.
Keith: And then the next time he was in LA we got dinner together with him and with his producing partner.
John: Great. So that’s the situation of this wasn’t anything he did to get to you. He made something good, put it out in the world, and people came to him because it was good.
Keith: Exactly. And I will say that that’s often what the path is. I think that there’s a tendency to feel like the proactive thing an aspiring writer-director should be doing is reaching out to people with query letters or emails or things like that. And I actually think the proactive thing you should be doing is making things. And then showing them to as many people as you can show them to and hope that that goes somewhere.
John: I’ve had a series of assistants who have gone on to become great writers and busy employed writers. And they always ask me, “How will I know that it’s happening? How do I know that it’s all going to happen?” And to me it’s always when I hear that their scripts got passed around to people who they didn’t hand them to. And basically when someone read something that was good enough that it just got passed around. And that’s almost always kind of the case where it’s the work itself. And so it’s doing really good work, putting it out there in a way that people can discover it, because it’s not going to do any good on your shelf. And then it just kind of happens. It’s what happened for me and it sounds like it’s what happened for this filmmaker.
Keith: Yeah. I think so much of what launches careers is word of mouth about your work and word of mouth about you as a person. Those are the two things. And I think that in the case of with Adam and Simon it was the word of mouth that you would all work really well together, which I heard from four or five different people. With the case of Abe who did Down Under it was, “Hey, you have to see this movie. You’ll love this movie.”
John: Cool. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a book called Liar Town: The First Four Years 2013-2017 by Sean Tejaratchi. I’m going to mispronounce his name. But Liar Town is a great site on the Internet. You should go type, I think liartown.com. And you will see that there are absurd images and memes that this guy has created with ridiculously good Photoshop skills. They’re always found things, as if he found this book that existed on a shelf, but of course he made it up. The book version of this sort of takes all the stuff that he’s done on his site and prints it in a terrific form.
If you buy this book you should not leave it out where children can see it or your parents can see it because there’s lots of dirty images. But it’s one of the most hilarious things I’ve seen to the point where like, if I read it at night, I hurt from it – stomach and chest hurt from laughing so much. So I’d recommend Liar Town: The First Four Years.
Do you have a One Cool Thing?
Keith: I do. I thought about this a lot, because I’m an avid listener to the podcast, so I’ve heard many cool things at this point. Mine is the Eco-Cha Tea Club which is a – there’s a lot of these online things where you sort of pay a subscription fee and they send you different things each month. This is an oolong tea club based in Taiwan. These guys that go out and find small farms that have small stock oolong tea leaves and they send you a bag of tea leaves every month. And it’s different ones every month and they are all delicious and incredible and I’ve now become a big supporter of Eco-Cha Tea Club. And I’ve been a member for a few years and I’m never let down by the tea they send me.
John: That’s fantastic. That is one of the most esoteric One Cool Things. Well done, Keith Calder. That’s a very good job.
I have a tiny bit of WGA business here at the very end. So the WGA will have just sent out a screenwriter survey to all of the screenwriters in the WGA about what they’re experiencing in their daily life. It takes about 10 minutes. I think it’s a well-designed survey. We went through so many iterations of it. So if you are a screenwriter in the WGA West you will get an email with a link. Please click that link. It takes 10 minutes to fill it out. It will really help us figure out what you’re facing out there in the world.
And that’s our show this week. Our show is produced, as always, by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Luke Davis. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send questions like David’s question.
We’re on Facebook, maybe. I don’t know if we should still be on Facebook. Facebook seems like it’s a sinking ship. But you can look for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can look for us on Apple Podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there you can leave us a comment.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. And the transcripts which go up in about a week.
I am on Twitter @johnaugust. Keith, you are on Twitter as well.
Keith: I am Twitter @keithcalder.
John: Yes. You often answer questions about film and stuff and you’re a great person to follow. I’ve followed you for many, many years.
Keith: I sometimes answer questions about film. Mostly it’s nonsense.
John: Nonsense is what Twitter is for.
You can find all the back episodes of Scriptnotes at Scriptnotes.net or you can buy a USB drive with the first 300 episodes at store.johnaugust.com.
Keith Calder, thank you so much for coming on the show. It was so good to be able to talk to you about film stuff that I just don’t even know about.
Keith: Thank you so much for having me on. I hope that I gave useful answers.
John: Great. Thanks Keith.
- Thanks for joining us, Keith Calder! You can check out his website and wikipedia page.
- Blindspotting comes out this summer. Here is Variety’s review.
- You’re Next and its IMDb page. You can watch it on Amazon now.
- Down Under trailer and IMDb page.
- LiarTown: The First Four Years 2013-2017 by Sean Tejaratchi.
- Eco-Cha Tea Club
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Keith Calder on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Luke Davis (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.