6½ questions with: Barry Jenkins
Barry Jenkins' terrific DIY feature Medicine for Melancholy won awards at the Sarasota, Woodstock, and San Francisco International film festivals and garnered three Spirit Award nominations. A.O. Scott of the New York times called it an "exciting debut" and made it a NY Times Critic's Pick. M4M was picked up for distribution by IFC Films and was released theatrically last January (VOD and DVD releases followed).
Barry and I attended the Telluride Film Festival Student Symposium together in 2002 and have run into each other a few times since on the festival circuit. Here we talk about DIY filmmaking, distribution deals, VOD, new media, brand integration, and film school.
Note: This is the first in what will be a series of interviews conducted under the banner "Six and a half questions with." Six questions seemed like too few and seven seemed like too many, so I'm cutting myself off midway through the seventh question and letting the interviewee take it in whichever direction they please. All answers are Barry's but I've bolded certain passages that I think are particularly insightful, valuable, or relevant to this site; I don't have the capability to do pull quotes, so the bold button is my substitute (I've also added footnotes).
If you haven't seen Medicine for Melancholy, get yourself a copy or at least Netflix it. I really love this vibrant film; it feels alive and authentic in ways most studio films can only dream of. Here's the trailer:
1. You were working at Banana Republic during the filming of M4M, working a day job and filming at night. While that makes for a great DIY indie story, what was the trigger in your life that caused your monumental "fuck it, I'm making this" moment?
It’s kinda lame but like a lot of other artists’ beginnings, mine came at the mercy of a girl. I was dumped and said, “fuck it, I’m making this.” At the time, I wasn’t quite sure what “this” was, but I knew I had to make a film. Eventually all those things from the relationship inserted themselves into the film. That Banana Republic job, by the way, was the best job I’ve ever had. I was working around a lot of other artists doing a job that had nothing to do with our passion, a lot of painters, photographers, graphic designers. We shared those thoughts everyday. You’d be amazed at the talent behind the person selling you a pair of slacks sometimes.
2. I often feel like too much of the critical discussion about films has to do with the particulars of execution instead of addressing a work thematically or contextually. With that in mind, were you surprised by any of the ways M4M was received or interpreted? Do you feel like there were some elements of your film that theatergoers or critics missed?
Yeah, but that’s going to happen. I realized pretty early in our run that critical analysis of the film was more about what the viewer brings to the table than what I embedded in the film. That’s just the way it goes, and rather than being surprised by some of the interpretations I didn’t anticipate — and there have been a few — the ones that nail it always touch me. And when I say nail, I mean the ones that seem to have crawled into my head and gone back to those first moments when I set out to make the thing. Those always stick out to me… as do the ones that see things I never ever imagined could be seen in the film… usually to its detriment!
3. You did a distribution deal with IFC Films, who released M4M theatrically, on VOD, and on DVD. I know it's difficult to talk candidly about these experiences, but could you relay some of the things you've learned by having a distributor handle your film (after a lengthy festival run)?
I’m finally getting some perspective on this and that perspective basically amounts to distribution being a very tough deal for any film, though particularly tough for something small enough to be labeled DIY. The brush strokes are that there are some levels of intimate, grassroots opportunities to engage an audience that just aren’t feasible for a larger entity like IFC to pull off. Knowing that ahead of time, anticipating it, would go a long ways to making a paring between a DIY flick like ours and a large operation like IFC more fruitful. By the same token there are enormous advantages to having an entity like IFC, with its proven networks and infrastructure behind your film. The NY Times will listen when the same company that released Hunger and Gomorrah calls and asks that a film as small as I mine be seen by one of the lead critics, rather than a freelancer. The trick is, and this is something we know in hindsight, is that if you make a DIY film, whether it sells or not, you better go through its release with the same mentality. Be out there, be hustling your work, be doing it yourself. IFC did what they were gonna do, and for the most part they did great. Perhaps if we’d been out there during our release with the same mania we had running around SF making this thing… maybe then they would have done even more.
The Video on Demand (VOD) game in particular is what everyone’s most concerned with when they ask about the distribution of Medicine. IFC was one of the first companies to get into the day-and-date game so their releases are under the microscope. To be honest though, VOD and its success (or failure) has a lot more to do with the nature of that medium than any one company. For example, people look at the growing success of Netflix streaming as an example of the potential of VOD as a revenue generating anxillary. However, the comparison is thin because of the fundamental differences between the two (streaming online as opposed to watching VOD via satellite or cable). With Netflix streaming, the user’s tastes and preferences are harnassed to curate a selection of material they may want to stream. VOD does not have such advantages, instead mirroring a multiplex where a person decides on a piece of content, then pays to attend a theater and see said content at a specific time. Movies are sorted to some degree on VOD, yet the most used browsing method is good old aphabetical (it’s for this reason filmmakers have joked about placing the obligatory “A” in front of their title do better on VOD). The current VOD interface has little programing capable of analyzing a viewer’s habits the way a web-based entity can. Trust me though, they’re working on it, and they're working on it because companies like IFC and Magnolia pushed so aggressively into this space.
And now the candid shit: get as much as you can reasonably get upfront. This has always been true of distribution. Even though the numbers are much smaller, it’s especially true of DIY distribution. When you sell your film, keep the back-end on the back end and get as much up front as you reasonably can. I say reasonably because even though your film is a valuable commodity, in today’s world it’s easier to NOT buy a film than it is to buy one, especially a DIY flick. That’s just the reality of a world where there are more and more films being made at such low costs. So know your hand, play your hand, but do so within reason as your ass WILL get left on the doorstep, real shit. Of course, in today’s world, there are many more houses on the block so if you do get left out there just find another door to knock on. Those types of analogies suck but they couch the truth nicely. Look at Children of Invention! ((Children of Invention is premiering theatrically in NYC and LA on 3/12; get tickets here.)) Tze and Mynette didn’t wait on anybody, they just got their movie into people’s hands however they could.
4. I'd be remiss for running a site called No Film School if I didn't ask you about your experiences at FSU film school. You produced some great work there, and as far as I know your tuition was very low (which kind of negates my anti-film school bias). Can you talk about your experiences in film school and how they've helped you since graduating?
Man, my film school experience was a dream, I have no complaints whatsoever. You and I are in the same camp regarding film school: if you’re paying more per year than it would cost to make a feature (and that’s just tuition!), I can’t see that as a justified course of study. FSU was totally the opposite, as an in-state undergraduate kid tuition was about $1500 bucks a semester and the state of Florida paid for everything: equipment, stock (we shot everything on 16/super 16), processing, finishing, everything. I was a guy who did not grow up wanting to be a filmmaker, I found the school after being on campus two full years. I come from a very poor family, the only way I could afford to learn this stuff was through a subsidized system like FSU (the catch being that the state owns the completed films). They basically threw you to the wolves — we shot a roll of reversal film on Bolex the first day of class, I didn’t know you needed light to expose film! — and that was how you learned, by constantly doing, reviewing, critiquing, repeating. It was complete immersion. You would not be interviewing me if I hadn’t stumbled into FSU film school. Period.
Since graduating, the school itself does a good job of tracking graduate’s progress but I wouldn’t say they actively steer or guide graduates one way or the other. The network of graduates is the thing. When I set out to make Medicine, I called all these kids from FSU and none of them told me no. We were comfortable working together. And most importantly, because of the way you go through film school together, everyone cared. Deeply. It wasn’t just a gig, we were invested.
5. We both ascribed to the "DIY, and then “DIFT" (Do It For Them) model wherein an inexpensive, totally independent project theoretically leads to a studio-supported successor. As you've dealt with agents, studios, and the industry in general, how have your experiences differed from your expectations? What has surprised you about the process?
DIFT, I like that. My expectations were extremely naive going into this. I think we both came up in the last true age of the crossover American Independent filmmaker, and what I mean by that is simply indie filmmakers who, as you noted, made their first film on their own dime and their second film on a studio’s. The second film was still theirs, still their absolute voice, just paid for by studio money. That’s much harder to do for a DIY filmmaker. I’m not the first to try it, so I’m speaking based on others' experiences in addition to my own. In the end, it’s simple: studio films are a hell of a lot riskier than they were two decades ago because the money is coming from a very different place than it did back then. The beauty of DIY is that you can make a film for the cost of a Taurus in three weeks with five friends. The drawback of DIY is that it’s a hell of a lot different than raising a couple million dollars over a number of years and shooting with a studio-light crew with a 35mm setup. That old model is just a much more sound vetting process, so making the transition from DIY is a lot harder. DIY is as fine a medium as any to showcase talent. It’s navigating the rigors of a Hollywood production that’s missing. People literally don’t know what to do with you ((I've had the same experience with studios; being able to make something cheaply is definitely a marketable skill, but you're generally pitching to someone aware of their studio's (and their own) overhead, which devalues your cheapness.)) (if they could make a couple million off you by tossing you another budget along the lines of a Ford Taurus, believe me, they would). But the kind of film you can make at a DIY budget is not going to bring a return large enough to move the needle at a studio, ((Paranormal Activity is the exception to this rule, but even in PA's case Oren made it on his own and the studio (Paramount) didn't get involved until it was already finding success in front of audiences.)) and the algorithms used to green-light movies (much akin to the revolution in baseball scouting that occurred during the nineties utilizing metrics rather than visual analysis of a player’s form) places such little weight on a successful DIY film that the prospects of a DIY filmmaker running a DIFT project literally doesn’t add up. In that world, it’s all about math, about metrics. Like they used to say often in 90s hip-hop, I gotta get my weight up. Patience is tantamount!
6. What projects can we expect in the future from Barry Jenkins (you, not the 1960s drummer for The Animals)?
Man, I’m waging a very long battle with that cat, he’s got some pretty good reach on the web for an obscure rock drummer! When we were first trying to push Medicine on the web with our DIY tools, he kept continuously stepping on our searchability!
But to your other question, I’m working on another short film as part of ITVS’ FutureStates initiative (this will be the fourth since Medicine, never expected I’d get into shorts again) and beginning work on a few DIY screenplays I’ve been neglecting for the past year. At the same time, I’ve been developing a project over at Focus Features for the past seven months (I know, shit takes forever, right?!) and all the time I’m a) looking for new material to bring to Focus and b) meeting with other companies around town to see if there’s anything out there that spins my hat. You know that feeling you get when you walk out of a movie and think, “Damn, I wish I would’ve made that!”? Well, because of the success of Medicine if I move my feet fast enough I can get my hands in that pot and compete for those projects. To rejoin the previous answer, the beauty of being a DIY guy just come to Hollywood is that if you can show you have the chops to pull off a film, you become a viable cog as it costs much less to hire one of us than it does one of the vets. I jokingly refer to myself as an undrafted free agent who beat the odds and made the team. The Duplass Brothers are like the Wayne Chrebets of Hollywood!
7. Okay, let's try my first "half question" and see if it works. New media, web series, interactive experiences: ultimately they may --
— free us from these very limited means of expression currently available to DIY content creators. You look at a show like The Wire, which, to me, is the single greatest achievement in American motion picture history ((I, too, feel this way about The Wire, and have written about it numerous times.)) (Band of Brothers is a very close second). You look at those two series and essentially what you have are the limitations of the feature film format (for its inherent brevity) expanded into a form more akin to a novel, the depth gained by telling a story in the amount of time it appropriately demands. A feature film is a perfect format for a “moment” and a series is the proper format for a “story.” There are exceptions, sure, and some people are just so damn good they can extend a moment into a series or pack a story into a commercial. Still, as a general course of thought this is how they fall for me. And so if you take that thesis at its word, what’s missing from the DIY filmmakers’ avenues of expression is the series, the space and breadth to tell a story over an extended period of time, beyond and outside the feature film format. You were at the forefront of this sir with The West Side, a piece of content I would argue was ahead of its time. Lena Dunham did something similar with her web series Tight Shots, which was basically a sitcom for our generation done on the cheap (and thus without compromise) that was just begging to get out. Those two shows, yours and Lena’s, are a model for what I think the world is actually ready for now. ((Lena and I will be panelists together at IFP's upcoming Script to Screen Conference in NYC, March 20-21.)) Do you remember when MySpace started running episodes of Friday Night Lights? It was amazing, totally worked but they couldn’t figure out how to monetize it. Nerve funded Lena’s show but again, they couldn’t figure out how to monetize it. These are smart people, they’ll figure this out soon; they have to (hello iPad!). And when they do, smaller content creators will deliver projects at such conservative costs that the threshold for profiting from them will be extremely favorable.
And now Netflix is out there helping us all by getting people comfortable with watching streaming content, with watching something on their computer for an extended period of time. The real strength of web content is the simplicity of its duplication, the lack of physical media and the portability of the finished project (at once on Vimeo, YouTube, Facebook, etc.). Eventually someone will realize that rather than spend six figures to produce a thirty-second commercial… and countless other figures to air it, they could give Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo a fraction of that (say 250k), from which he’ll produce five hours of The West Side chopped up into a ten episode season… presented by Wrangler Jeans (or whatever other company is Pabst’ing its way back into the 14-34 year old demographic and can be side-saddled into your urban Western theme). ((You listening, Wrangler? A five star series for your five star denim!))
That period is coming and it may be fleeting; eventually the networks and corporate interests will find a way to absorb such vast corners of the web that the online space takes on the same rubric as television (imagine what Google or Microsoft could do if they bought a lagging Fox or NBC). But for now, the user-aggregated (and virtually free) nature of the web space makes it the perfect place to exhibit content that captures an audience while subtly promoting brands. I participated in one such venture with my short film Tall Enough for the Bloomingdales Bflix promotion. They gave five of us "emerging" filmmakers money to make short films under the Bloomingdales brand, then hosted them on the site which basically just drove people back to the brand's home. I vividly remember thinking how cool the whole thing was, that Bloomingdales was paying me to play with the RED and 5D on the streets of NY... until I came across this quote in a New York Times article that brought the whole thing into focus: The financial commitment from Bloomingdale’s was estimated at about the cost of a full-page advertisement in a metropolitan newspaper. That's five short films still bouncing around the internet five months later for the cost of one ad, one day in the NY Times. Game. Set. Match.
These things can employ people (folks like you and I) while giving us a means to express ourselves at a reasonable cost. It makes too much sense to go checked for much longer.
Barry Jenkins is an award-winning writer/director whose feature film debut Medicine For Melancholy was acquired for distribution and released in theaters by IFC Films. The picture earned Barry a slot on Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 Faces of Independent Film list before embarking on an international festival tour highlighted by screenings at the Vienna and Toronto International Film Festivals, among others. Recent projects include the shorts TALL ENOUGH and A YOUNG COUPLE. He is currently developing a feature film with Focus Features.