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Wednesday
Jan262011

Kickstarter Campaign launches Boys Become Men

At noon on Christmas Eve we embarked on a journey to raise $25,000 in 30 days for my new film Boys Become Men.

The film is a subject I’ve been passionate about for 15 years.  It started with Hoop Dreams, and the questions that lived in my mind following that film – how are teen boys making it into adulthood these days?  Who is there to actually support them along the way, 100% devoted to their well-being, as opposed to using them to serve their own interests?

That interest took a major leap forward in October 1995 when I experienced what I consider to be my own initiation into manhood – the New Warrior Training Adventure.  That weekend workshop offered by the ManKind Project changed my life.  For the first time as an adult man I had the vision, the tools, and the template for becoming the man I always wanted to be.

I began to study and ruminate on initiation and mentorship – how much I needed it growing up, how much all children need it.  Those questions began to shape the screenplay I co-wrote with Steven Ivcich, the film I eventually made called The Unspoken.  There was one “through-line,” one underlying question I had: “If it were possible to initiate a boy into manhood completely outside the realm of traditional culture, what would that look like?”  Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible.  But these are the kinds of questions artists like to ponder. 

Then the Mathew Shepherd murder and the Columbine shootings occurred.  The question wasn’t theoretical for me anymore; it had become dangerously literal.  I felt I had to take a look at teen boys.  I had to find what was going on with them.  How bad is it for them to grow up in a culture devoid of initiation, barely cognizant of mentorship?  How isolated and alone are they?  How cut off from the fruits of initiation  - that sense of connection to others, the awareness that life can be full of purpose and meaning?

What resulted was the TV mini-series Boys to Men?  The answer, in short, is bad.  Real bad. That series became one long statement about just how bad the situation for teen boys in this country actually is. But halfway through making it I realized I was attempting the impossible: I was trying to record an absence, a vacuum.  How do I show something that is missing in someone’s life?  It was then I knew I needed to tackle this subject one more time in a new film – this one about solutions.

So in 2002 I began working on the film that would become Boys Become Men.  I read some more.  Did more research.  Met with wonderful youth advocates like Michael Meade and Louise Mahdi.  I met Luis Rodriguez and Frank Blazquez, founder and director (respectively) of Youth Struggling for Survival – a Chicago based group assisting Latino and Asian teens on Vision Quests – working with Lakota elders on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to teach them the ancient ways. 

I did some filming of Craig Glass in Colorado Springs doing marvelous work with teen boys and their fathers in a Christian weekend workshop called Passage to Manhood.  He uses stories and parables from Jesus’ life to guide the youngsters through their transformation into mature men.  I talked with Rabbi Goldie Milgram in Philadelphia who is reinvigorating Bar and Bat Mitzvah practice with true initiatory intent.  There’s SWET, YMUW, there’s the secular Boys to Men weekend workshop, welcoming boys of all faiths and non-faiths, started in San Diego, now spreading around the world.  There are Hawaiians keeping their native traditions alive, Buddhists, Muslims, and so many more.

We succeeded with our fundraising campaign. Now begins the next stage of work.  It’s time to reconnect with these leaders, to see who’s still doing what.  It’s also time to experience some of the inspiring new work being done by others.   

The aim of the film is to highlight the best initiatory practices I can find, across all faiths and non-faiths.  To film at least ten boys going through five different rites of passage.  To film them no matter where they are in the country and no matter how long it takes to capture the transformative impact these rituals have on their lives.  I estimate it will take about one year for each boy.  A year of their lives in which month two or three they’ll experience their rite of passage.  Then we’ll see the real work begin – translating that transformation into the everyday.  That is where the rubber meets the road.  

We’ll experience exactly when and how each boy’s primary conflict shifts.  If drugs were his problem before his passage is he now resisting their lure?   If he was irresponsible on the job or acting out with a girlfriend is he now being accountable and behaving with integrity?  If he was misbehaving in school is he now getting along better with teachers and fellow students?  Are his grades picking up?  If he was shrinking from addressing a painful issue is he now stepping into his fear and asserting himself around adults?  Perhaps most importantly, we will see if these boys can now tough out difficult situations without denying their feelings.

To film all this will take much more than $25,000.  But we now have what we need to start.   We will pick up the different cloths from these amazing rites of passage weavers and bind them into one story – the story of hope for future generations, for all the sons and daughters to come - that of realizing their greatest potential in this lifetime, of finding their deepest purpose and greatest fulfillment through service to each other and our mother Earth. 



Sunday
Dec262010

Beware of bottom-feeders, Part 2

What’s prompted these reflections on bottom-feeders?  I just got off the phone with one of them. 

I met this woman recently at a festival.  She told me right away she was a service distributor so I wasn’t much interested in doing business with her.  But it was a party and she was sweet-talking me about my film.  Finally, I thought “well, I can’t really lose anything by giving her a screener.”  I thought she’d look at it and tell me what services they might provide to distribute my film and at what cost.   Standard business practice, right?  “Here’s what we can do for you.  Here’s what it’ll cost.”  That’s what I thought…

Two weeks later I sent a follow up email.  No response.  Three weeks after that I called her.  I reached her on her cell on a Friday night. 

First she didn’t remember me.  Then she didn’t remember getting the DVD.  She also didn’t remember getting the email.  Not encouraging.  But all that is reasonably standard across this business.  What happened next however wasn’t.

She found the email in her spam folder.  She found the DVD in another film’s press kit.  Great.  But then she started blaming me for the fact that she had misplaced the DVD.  How exactly was I responsible?  I had not given her a nicely boxed DVD with a printed label.   Instead I had given her a homemade DVD with a hand-written label in a paper sleeve.  I told her I do not give out any of the fancy, unwatermarked (and more expensive) copies during Stage One of the “getting to know you” process with distributors. 

Let me digress.  In Sept. 1994 I got an email from a friend of mine in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  He told me that VHS copies of HOOP DREAMS were available on the streets there for $2.  Nothing hugely remarkable there – piracy is a huge problem worldwide, especially in Asia.  What was noteworthy about it was the timing: this was a full two months before the film had been released publicly in theaters in the U.S.!  The film had its world premiere only eight months earlier at the Sundance Film Festival.  Since then it had only been shown publicly in a handful of film festivals.  It was still a full year and a half before the film would be released on VHS to U.S. consumers! 

It told me that someone had duplicated, sold, or given away copies that one of us filmmakers had originally sent on VHS as a screener to a festival, a distributor, or a Hollywood agent.   There were only a few possible explanations.  Worst case scenario: someone had directly pirated their original VHS copy and sold it to Malaysians to make money.  Best case scenario: someone shared their VHS copy with someone else who in turn pirated it to make money.  

So today, with digital piracy even more commonplace, you can be sure I consciously limit who I give what to in the early stages of any film’s release.  Will it wholly prevent piracy?  Of course not.  But I like to think it slows it down.

So it was my fault she lost the DVD because I hadn’t given her a quality, boxed screener.  Many people when feeling defensive will attack.  This is true universally but perhaps nowhere moreso than New York City.  And attack she did.  She started pressing me for details on where the film had shown to date: which theaters, when, for how long?  Then she pressed me on how much money I had to spend.  “We’ve done P&A for as little as $30,000 but we’ve done releases for many hundreds of thousands.  I need to know your budget.”  I told her I didn’t have a budget.  I told her I paid $3500 for a service release in Canada.  I told her I thought it made more sense for her to watch the film and give me a price breakdown of what services she thought she might be able to provide.

She kept pressing me to tell her how much money I had to spend.  At that point I said, “This is far more trouble than it’s worth.  Have a nice evening.”  I hung up. 

Yech.  I felt like I had bat guano dropped on me.  By a vampire.

What’s instructive about this encounter to me is how emblematic it is.  Not only of the bottom feeding film distribution business, but of the economic culture as a whole.  Vampire service distributors like these, because they wrongly believe they control the distribution capacity of films, feel like YOU are in THEIR service.  Yup, you’re there to serve them.  You serve them your money and your film and they “pay you” with audiences.  

This inversion of economic logic reminds me of an article I read once about WalMart.  Walmart has also effectively inverted traditional market logic.  Because they are such a huge retailer of products – accounting, if I remember correctly, for about half of all things sold in the U.S. today – they can dictate prices to the producers who sell their products to them.  “You either deliver this product to us at this price point or forget it.”  In non-monopoly environments of course the equation is reversed:  the seller usually sets the price.  If the buyer doesn’t want it at that price too bad – the seller will sell to other buyers.  But in today’s retail environment there are no other buyers, not with the reach and clout of WalMart.  They put such downward pressure on prices that they singlehandedly are much to blame for the sweatshop pay and conditions of many Chinese laborers.

Hmmm, bottom feeders… Maybe not a bad name for WalMart either.



Thursday
Dec162010

Beware of bottom-feeders 

It used to be that when you made a good film you took it to market and sold it to the highest bidder.   Now when you have a good film you have to fight off the people who want to charge you money to sell it.

They go by many names these people.  They call themselves consultants, producer’s representatives, service distributors, sometimes even PR companies.  They all share one goal – making you pay them for the opportunity to have your film seen by others. 

The worst ones will charge you a retainer up to $15,000 for the privilege of selling your work.  They will not guarantee you one sale.  You may never recoup one dollar of your investment from them.  If they do sell your work, then they will sometimes also help themselves to a nice percentage of each sale.  I call these people the bottom feeders.

They’re bottom feeders because they live off the people with the least money and the most exploitable hopes - independent producers.   How can they get away with this? 

Once independent producers have pulled off the miracle of finishing a film they are usually desperate to sell it.  They’re usually way in debt and they’re starved for income and recognition.  You’d think being in debt would be reason enough not to go into further debt, to raise still more money in order to pay someone to help sell your movie.  But you’d be wrong.  Welcome to the fevered dream of indie filmmakers.  Heroin’s got nothing on this dream.

Bottom feeders will tell you you can’t hope to get your film seen in theaters, sold to TV, distributed widely, even seen in festivals, without their expertise and contacts.  Many of these people used to have nice jobs at distribution companies.  They used to be paid to seek and acquire and sell good independent films.  Their salaries were paid by those distribution companies out of the profits the company made selling films.  That was before the bottom dropped out of the distribution business.

Now, partly in a last desperate effort to stay in the business since so many of them have been fired, or their companies have closed altogether, they turn around and try to make a living charging producers for their services.  

I would love to name names.  But they are everywhere.  You can recognize them by their hard pitch, by their “you can’t do this without me” attitude, and by their unwillingness to guarantee you anything in writing.  Most of all you can recognize them because you will pay them.  Bottom feeders.  Beware.

(to be continued)



Wednesday
Dec012010

Woodstock

“By the time we got to Woodstock we were half a million strong.  And everywhere was a song and a celebration.” 

By the time I got to the Woodstock Film Festival Sept. 30 it was well underway.  Though there wasn’t a song and a celebration everywhere, it was a very warm, congenial, even familial environment.

For many people my generation and older Woodstock is a mythical place.  If you have yet to see Ang Lee’s recent film Taking Woodstock I highly recommend it.  It’s a lovely portrait of a time of undiminished possibility.

Long before the famed 1969 music festival however, Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman bought property there and began an exodus of NYC music talent to those rolling hills and small, rural towns.  Artists of all types soon followed the musicians, along with Buddhists, organic farmers, and those interested in intentional communities, ultimately followed of course by Yuppies, realtors, and bankers.

Though parts of the town today resemble a 1960s theme park, there is still plenty of the area’s rural charm to recommend it.

Both screenings of our film at the Woodstock Film Festival were sold out.  One audience seemed almost in shock afterward.  People had rather stunned expressions and for a while no one spoke. One woman from a local Tibetan center decided not to get up and pitch an upcoming event because she was so blown away she didn’t want to speak.

No question – the film is a powerful emotional experience.  I tend to think that the rather long end credits are a plus, helping the audience transition out of the film experience back to the present moment.   I also have learned to start my Q&As with some care.  If I’m too chipper or flip it can be off-putting, abrasive, even disrespectful.  Even though it’s been a while since I watched the film with an audience, I always remind myself to reground as much as possible in the suspense and powerful emotions of the film experience before beginning to speak.

 

Wednesday
Dec012010

Kamsameda

Five international filmmakers at ICPFF 2010:(from left to right) Yeong-I PARK (Japan), Daishi Matsunaga (Japan), FM, Fereshteh PARNIAN (Iran), Pablo MENDOZA (Mexico)
“Kamsameda” is how you say “thank you” in Korean. I learned this last week in Chuncheon when I was there as a judge at a film festival. Since people there are quite accommodating and helpful knowing this comes in handy. As chair of our jury I began my speech at the closing ceremonies by saying this: “I can’t help noticing that today is my 55th birthday. I want to thank you all for showing up for the party.” It was a comic gambit. I wanted to be funny. But I also wanted people to know it was my birthday. I’ve long gotten over the male stoicism bit: “Oh, if only they’d known!” I ask for what I want. I wanted a party; I got a party.  About 40 of us took over a nearby bar – “Joker, Joker.” We drank soju and beer and ate Kentucky Fried Chicken. Two delicious cakes were presented, complete with candles. I said I was glad they didn’t test my wind with all 55 candles. They sang “Happy Birthday” to me in English and sang the Korean version – far more upbeat and memorable than the American song.
Only one of my birthday cakes!
One of my pet projects is to get people to stop singing “Happy Birthday.” The damn song is copyrighted. Look it up. Patty and Mildred something. Two sisters from Kentucky. When they died they left all resulting royalties to a publishing company that was supposed to pay out to a boys orphanage. A worthy cause, no doubt. But the devil’s megacorp Warner Chappell bought the rights in 1990 and has milked them ever since. You will have to pay to use the song in a film through the year 2030, even documentaries. I recollect I paid $5k to license under 15 seconds of it for HOOP DREAMS in 1994. 8 years later when they wanted more than that for 8 seconds of it in my film BOYS TO MEN I said “screw you” and cut the scene out.  
So STOP SINGING IT! Try the Korean version. The French. Anything else.
Kamsameda.