The last time I posted about my MANCHILD prequel AMATEUR, I was asking for help and releasing a teaser trailer to help the short get picked up by sports and film websites. By releasing a short film directly online instead of waiting to get into festivals, I was accelerating the release schedule and -- at least in theory -- finding an audience everywhere, instead of just in a few select theaters. I'm glad to say that AMATEUR has now been featured on a lot of prominent websites and has enjoyed a lot of festival play as well -- despite being free online. Let's take a look at how we achieved this, the lessons I learned, and the status and schedule of the long-delayed but better-than-ever feature MANCHILD.
I still need to do the behind-the-scenes post on how we made AMATEUR -- there were a lot of questions about what we shot on, how long the shoot was, and why I did or didn't take a particular approach -- but I haven't finished that post yet, so let's get to the release of the short, which, if you haven't already seen it, is here (and on Vimeo):
Throughout this post, I'm going to share some video interviews I did with Film Courage. These are unedited, so some of them are rambling (especially the first)!
Premiering a short online doesn't mean you can't play festivals.
Despite the fact that I released it free online, AMATEUR has also enjoyed widespread festival play, including Urbanworld and the NBCUniversal Short Cuts semifinals, where it won the audience award out of a reported 1,400 entries -- but was not one of the eight films selected to play in the finals. Go figure. The festival run is almost finished (there were a bunch of others, and I'll compile a list at some point), as we just played Craig Brewer's Indie Memphis Film Festival on November 2nd, and will be playing the All Sports LA Film Festival this weekend on November 9th, before coming home and wrapping up at the theater on my block, the Nitehawk Cinema (where it also played as part of the Northside Festival).
The authority on whether or not a festival accepts films that have already played online can be found at Short of the Week, but I want to add to their article and database that it is not simply a "yes or no" thing. A festival may say they accept films that have played online, but as I say in the video above, there's a lot of gray area. How much play has it gotten online? Do you have to take it down during the festival? Are you playing out of competition because it's online? All of these issues are determined on a festival-by-festival basis, so I'm afraid I don't have any global insights to share. I will say that I suspect some of the festivals that say they accept films that have played online say that as a matter of policy, but if they see on your Withoutabox application that your film had its premiere six months ago on Vimeo, they might be less inclined to make it an official selection.
Use your short as audience research.
When I recorded the Film Courage interview above, my short had not been featured on that many websites. As of today, AMATEUR has been featured on JAY Z's Life+Times, ESPN's Grantland, Filmmaker Magazine, Indiewire, SLAM Magazine, Short of the Week, Shadow and Act, Director's Notes, and last but not least it is a Vimeo Staff Pick (again, there were a bunch of others, but those were the major outlets). All of these help us to prove there's an audience for the feature -- and not just one market, but three: indie film, sports, and urban markets. The short therefore served as an excellent proof-of-concept in the audience research arena. Beyond that, it opened a lot of new doors, as well as reopened old conversations about the feature MANCHILD, which is exactly why I made AMATEUR.
Timing is everything.
Let's revisit the release of the short itself. Why was I unable to get traction with AMATEUR at first? Because the week I released it, the Boston Marathon bombing happened, then Jason Collins became the first active NBA player to come out of the closet, then the Tribeca Film Festival kicked off, and last but not least, the NBA playoffs began (several of these things were happening at once, in fact). The news cycle was packed, and my short film -- one that is dialogue heavy and set in one location, as opposed to a viral/catchy/VFX/music video -- was not going to be take precedence over breaking news. However, fast forward to the summer, and the film and basketball news cycles are much slower. An independent filmmaker releasing a basketball recruiting film is more of a story when there isn't an influx of low-hanging fruit from the previous night, like LeBron dunks (high-hanging fruit?). So while I was initially frustrated with the lack of traction the film was getting outside of indie film publications, the list of sites we ended up on reads, essentially, like my wishlist. Patience is a virtue!
Behold the power of the Vimeo Staff Pick.
Above is the breakdown of the sources of AMATEUR's views. Note these are actual plays, not loads (which are exponentially higher). While 60K views isn't going to set any records compared to viral videos, for a dialogue-based short that is essentially a conversation between two people in one location, I'll take it. Despite being featured on all of these websites, 60% of the total views came from Vimeo itself -- because it was selected as a Staff Pick. How many festivals would you have to play to get 40,000 views?
I should note that for sites that embedded the widget from Manchildfilm.com -- powered by Assemble -- we do not have wholly accurate traffic information. I've been talking to the Assemble guys about solutions to this, but because the Vimeo file was contained within its own wrapper, I don't have exact numbers for those. That includes Filmmaker Magazine as well as this very site.
Not all views are created equal.
Zack Lieberman and I learned this when we made The West Side; because we built a custom flash player and released it on our own site, to this day we can't say with any precision exactly how many views we got (loads are different than views, and each service counts "plays" slightly differently from the other, and when were loading .FLVs ourself in 2007 we did not have advanced metrics). But whatever the final tally, our view count isn't in the millions. However, we won the Webby Award for Best Drama Series over other shows like LonelyGirl15, which had north of 100 million views and were on the cover of Wired Magazine, and we were featured in Filmmaker Magazine as 25 New Faces of Independent Film. We did not get the most views numbers-wise, but we got the right views. When your phone rings and it's an agent at UTA, when studios like Focus Features are reaching out because they saw you in Filmmaker Magazine -- these are the kinds of things that happen as a result of quality exposure as opposed to quantity of exposure. So my strategy with AMATEUR has been similarly focused on quality -- garnering exposure in the right places was key. Similarly to how The West Side being featured in Filmmaker Magazine opened numerous doors, with AMATEUR -- which was also featured on Filmmaker -- the big deal selection for us was the Grantland piece, which resulted in several meetings and opened doors. (Filmmaker was also great, but because MANCHILD is a sports movie we needed to show support from the other side of the aisle, as it were -- "sports" as well as "movie" appeal). Which brings us to:
When are we shooting MANCHILD?
MANCHILD needs to be a summer shoot, because it stars kids. Shooting with actual minors (and not twentysomethings playing teenagers) means you must have short days. The typical indie film configuration of shooting 14+ hours a day does not work when child labor laws limit minors to half of that. The reason films shoot for such long hours is everyone works on day rates, so it generally follows that the longer your days, the more you get done for the same dollar, and the shorter your days, the less you get done for the same dollar. If you must shoot with shorter days, then you need a higher budget, to get the same amount of work done (yes, you can always try to shoot faster, but this is an indie film -- our schedule is already lean and mean). On top of this, if you film during the school year and are causing kids to miss their regularly scheduled classes, you must also hire a tutor for a few hours a day, causing your budget to go higher still because the tutoring hours are cutting into your already-shortened days, and then you also need to pay your tutor(s) as well. To avoid this problem, you shoot in the summer. This summer is already over, so we’re shooting, absolutely, positively, next summer.
So that's why we're not filming sooner (this winter, for example). Which brings us to the next question:
Why are we raising more financing to make MANCHILD?
We are raising traditional financing in addition to the Kickstarter funds. I've said this before, and we're not hitting up our Kickstarter backers again -- we're going out and raising private equity to use in addition to the crowdfunding. This is true of the vast majority of film campaigns on Kickstarter -- very few people raise 100% of their budget with one crowdfunding campaign. Looking at projects on Slated, the average crowdfunding raise of $45,000 accounts for just 8% of the average overall budget. Yet when I've brought up in the past the fact that we're raising additional financing, the criticism has gotten a bit out of hand, especially considering that on my original campaign page it says, "Once there's a producer attached, they will come up with their own budget, which will undoubtedly be higher than mine, and then we'll have to raise more money or make tough decisions about what we WANT in the film versus what we absolutely NEED." That's exactly what's happening now -- Chip Hourihan and I (and others) are raising more money, and we're making those tough decisions.
Back to lessons learned:
Every film is different.
When you raise a bunch of money on Kickstarter to make a film and then say you're raising more financing, there is a Question That Won't Die. That question invariably looks something like this: "Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi for X, you should be able to make MANCHILD for Y."
The funny thing for me about this is that Zack and I made The West Side for nothing -- Rodriguez's budget on El Mariachi, famously tiny, would've been more than twice what we spent on our four episodes -- and we won the Webby Award for Best Drama Series, were selected as two of Filmmaker Magazine's 25 New Faces of Film, and got an agent at UTA. All because of something we made with absolutely no money, that I shot, edited, composited, and mixed myself in addition to co-writing/directing/producing. We literally had no crew -- so no one understands the "make something for nothing in order to get your foot in the door" ethos more than us. But our foot is already in the door.
Second, and more importantly, every film is different. Find me a narrative feature about team sports that was made for $100K, and that can be a point of comparison. We're raising more financing because a gym full of kids going through carefully choreographed action with a bunch of extras in the background is expensive. No one would say, "Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi for X, why couldn't James Cameron make Avatar for Y?" Because they're completely different films with completely different needs, and there's no comparing them. MANCHILD is not going to be expensive like creating a CGI world full of tall blue aliens is, but it's more expensive than a guy running through hallways shooting up some bad guys (and I'm speaking from experience, having shot up a lot of bad guys in The West Side).
We are all learning as we go.
Every feature film is going to be a learning process, but this is my first feature film, and I've seen a lot of criticism thrown my way for taking so long. I get it -- I've backed a lot of Kickstarter campaigns myself (over a hundred) and almost all of those take longer than the creator thought or hoped! I understand what those creators are going through, and all we need is some patience. We're working hard, and it's going to be worth the wait. And yes, we are learning lessons as we go.
After working on MANCHILD for two years, I've still not spent a penny of the Kickstarter funds or been paid a dollar myself -- all of the money is going to the film's production. Nothing has changed, other than two main things I learned by running my (first!) Kickstarter campaign to make my (first!) feature film: one, I was naive to think that I could make this film for $100k, and two, I was naive to think that my screenplay was ready to go. I have gone through dozens if not hundreds of drafts since the Kickstarter campaign, and it is a much stronger story today. I think all of us can identify with thinking our script was ready to go, getting some notes on it, and then realizing we needed to make more changes than we thought. Finally, I should note this (again, something I've said in the past): I ran the Kickstarter campaign when I did because that was when the script got into IFP's Emerging Narrative and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Emerging Visions programs. I was going to be on stage, with actors, reading the first 15 pages of my (heretofore unannounced) script publicly. That was the right time to run the Kickstarter campaign -- but it was, at that point, an early draft that had gotten some recognition but still had a long way to go. I just didn't realize at the time how long.
At the end of the day, Ted Hope has said the average independent film takes 5.5 years to produce. I'm at the 3 year mark now, and ultimately, for those of you who backed the Kickstarter campaign (thank you again!), I'm now working more years for the same crowdfunding dollar.
It's interesting -- at no time have I been more proud of my film career than the present, but at the same time, I've never been prompted to defend myself like I am now. The fact that those two things are inexorably linked is probably a harbinger of the career to come... and I'll need to get over the desire to defend myself. So I'll end with this question at Film Courage: "Do you feel that maybe MANCHILD is too ambitious for a first feature?"
The long answer is in the video above, but the short answer is: no. Absolutely not! We get into filmmaking to try things that are ambitious, and new, and oftentimes unreasonable. It's easy to let the film industry beat that out of you, so that every meeting you walk into is about how achievable something is, as opposed to whether it's actually new and worth doing. But if you're in this industry for the right reasons, you...
Don't argue against ambition.
Ever since I ran the Kickstarter campaign, MANCHILD has been public, and that means I'm going to hear a lot of opinions. But one argument I've heard several times has been: "make it simpler, make it faster, make it easier." But nothing I've done to date has been simple or fast or easy. Following the anti-ambition logic, Zack and I never should've tried to make a Western set in an empty version of New York City with no budget or resources. I never should've started a blog as a unemployed kid living in North Carolina with the goal of getting myself to New York City and launching a film career. I never should've tried to turn that personal blog into a daily filmmaking resource all by myself, with no experience developing, building, scaling, or monetizing websites. I never should've launched the single largest narrative film campaign in Kickstarter history without any help. And I never should've written, directed, produced, and edited a short prequel for a feature project that was already out there. All of these things were risky, and ambitious, and without precedent in my own career. MANCHILD has all three of those qualities, on a larger and more ambitious scale. I've never been more proud of this project, I've never worked harder on it, and while it's going to take a while longer, it's going to be a lot better for it.
Thanks for going on this journey with me, and I look forward to sharing the lessons we continue to learn along the way.