One Is Truly The Loneliest Number (Or Why You Need To Find YOUR Audience)
Recently a group of filmmakers on twitter got into a discussion about the means and methods for festivals and distribution. Alejandro Adams (the filmmaker behind the intriguing and enigmatic CANARY) then asked each of us to write our thoughts on the subject for a virtual roundtable. The pieces that emerged are fascinating, smart and well worth a read. They represent a diverse set of view-points from a number of different view points. I have posted my piece here but I strongly encourage you to visit Alejandro’s site and read the roundtable, comment and follow all these fascinating people on twitter. The participants: Alejandro Adams, Reid Gershbein, myself, Clive Davies-Frayne, Tony Comstock, Will Luers, Angelo Bell, Jarrod Whaley, Brian Spaeth, Amir Motlagh, and Lucas McNelly.
Definitely check out all of the pieces and join in the discussion.
I entered college wanting to study theater. I had had the good fortune to be accepted to a drama program in England and during the interregnum between high school and college I studied classical theater with incredible performers from the RSC, RADA, and Guildhall. I worked on Shakespeare and Orton, Chekov and Pinter and I arrived on campus ready to show my chops and dive into the respective cannons of contemporary and classical stage. The problem was, the theater department had a different idea.
The theater department was a bastion of one-time radicals who believed that the only truth in expression was through post-modernist deconstruction. The upside of this was that I was introduced to the stunning works of Tadashi Suzuki and Anne Bogart. The downside was that my teachers made terrible plays that nobody would watch, or would take good plays and destroy them in pursuit of a semiotic idea (a bad one at that). I watched them perform Jacobian tragedies, but cut out all the deaths. I watched them stage the only play Brecht wrote that he, himself, said wasn’t any good because the department thought they could turn it around.
Frustrated, I began engaging in more and more battles over the productions they should put on and soon I realized that we had a fundamental disagreement about the definition of theater. They believed that theater was in the performance and that the audience was, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. They believed that a performance without an audience was still theater.
I believe that a performance without an audience is masturbation.
As artists our core instinct to create is drawn from something inside us that we are seeking to express or satisfy. For each of us it is different. There are elements of ego, vision, artistry, arrogance, and belief that swirl around, and out of that morass comes our work. But if all we do is express, in our own private space then our work is fantasy or solely self-fulfilling. It only becomes ‘art’ when processed by another. Think of this like the event horizon in physics. As light bounces off an object and moves through the universe, that energy reaches and touches new things in an ever-expanding circle. Until that event horizon has reached you, that event has essentially not taken place. So too with art: until it begins interacting and affecting the world around it, it does not exist.
As a creator, it is part of our responsibility to see that art out into the world.
I’ve learned, working with wonderful sales agents, a very important lesson. The first films I worked on were made in such isolation that once it came time to go to festivals we heaved them onto the stage like a dying carp and waited for something to happen. We quickly saw that we were going to have to hustle if we wanted the world to notice and we hustled hard.
Then, after those films managed to get some acclaim, we started building more of a structure. Companies wanted to finance us, TV networks would pre-buy our work and we had sales agents to handle the territories. We would finish the next film and this time drop the dying carp at the door of our sales agent and wait for the sales to be made. But then, a funny thing happened: they didn’t know what to say.
We realized they had the product, and they made a poster, but we had to craft the story for them. We had to explain to them how to speak about our film, how to sell it. Once they had those cues from us they were off to the races and did very well, but it was our knowledge of our own work and how to talk about it that allowed those professionals to do their job. Take heed:
No one will care about your film more than you.
No one will understand your film better than you.
No one will talk about your film more clearly than you.
Does this mean you need to be a distributor? No.
Does this mean you need to be a publicist? No.
Does this mean you need to be a sales agent? No.
This does mean that you need to understand how those experts function and be able to guide them in their work. Absolutely.
Technology has democratized many of the methods, from editing and coloring to publicity and exhibition, but it has not democratized the skill-set needed to effectively do those jobs. And just as the filmmaker needs to guide the colorist in their work, so too does the filmmaker need to guide the distributor in theirs.
You carry the responsibility of every person who put faith and trust in you (and maybe money and reputation, too). To respect that obligation, you must work just as hard on bringing that work to the world at large as you did in creating it in the first place. Films are not mousetraps and the world will not beat a path to your door if you make a better one unless they know you are there and what you are offering.
Antonin Artaud said that theater (and I believe any art, or even language itself) should be as a victim, burning at the stake, trying desperately to signal one last message through the flames.
He’s right. The question is, who is it signaling to?