Thursday, January 19, 2017

Shawn Whitney on the MicroBudget Film Lab

What is the goal and mission of the MicroBudget Film Lab (MBFL)?

SHAWN: My goal when I started MBFL was to kind of "pay it forward" for other filmmakers who were trying to launch their careers by making microbudget feature films.

I had made two microbudget features and had to piece together all the elements myself from different sites, books, etc. and I wanted to bring that experience and information base together under one roof, so to speak, along with other resources. 

What was your filmmaking background before starting the Lab?

SHAWN: Besides the two microbudget features that I've made, I have also worked as a "development executive" in the film industry for the last 9 years.

My entry into the film world was primarily through being a screenwriter - that's what I went to school for and that's my touchstone for everything else. Even in my development role, while I do provide notes on cuts for films, my primary role is either in developing new content (ie. writing) or in providing story editing services to projects that come into the company where I work and which co-produces and finances films.

What's the biggest misconception that people might have about the micro-filmmaking process?

SHAWN: That the films are crap. lol.

But the reality is that some of the most important films that have ever been made would qualify as microbudgets, whether that's the films of the French New Wave or DOGME films or mumblecore films.

Access to few resources has a flip side, which is no pressure to conform to industrial, commercial standards. Filmmakers are free to experiment and that has produced some great cinema.

And also that it's just not possible to make a good film for next to no money. There's a lot of filmmakers out there - or people who want to make films - who think that there's a "proper way" to make movies. Whether that's chasing around financiers and rich dentists or trying to work their way up over decades through the commercial film industry.

What's the most common mistake made by first-time micro or low-budget filmmakers?

SHAWN: Bad scripts. Scripts are under-valued in the commercial industry. Screenwriters are undervalued. It's all about the stars first, the effects, then the director. Screenwriters are way down the list.

Besides the question of whether that's unfair or not, it means that filmmakers - including microbudget filmmakers - undervalue the importance of their script. They just want to get it done and get on to buying the flashiest new gear on the market.

The second biggest mistake, I think - and a related one - is that microbudget filmmakers try to make miniature versions of Hollywood films - action movies, thrillers, etc. that simply copy the model of H-wood movies. The result is films that have all the bad elements of Hollywood and none of the positives (like big bucks to blow shit up or make a car chase look exciting and not goofy and cheap).

Filmmakers should spend more time on their script than any other element of the process. It's the one part that is free and it's the one thing that, if you get it wrong, will ensure a bad movie.

I know there's some filmmakers out there shaking there heads and saying: "get good sound." Sure, yeah, you need good sound. But everybody has figured that out it's been repeated so many times - which is a good thing. I almost never see movies with bad sound anymore. But more than 90% of microbudget films I see have weak scripts.

Where do you see the future of distribution headed for non-Hollywood films?

SHAWN: I don't think that distribution mechanisms are a question anymore. It's cheap and easy to distribute now. The real question is where is marketing headed. It doesn't matter that you can rent or sell your movie to people in every country on the planet if nobody knows about your movie and even if they did they wouldn't watch it.

I think that filmmakers will have to collectively brand themselves - beyond just "we make movies cheap". What I mean is that groups of us will have to find other groups of filmmakers with similar aesthetic, political, social, etc. goals and create cinema movements. Movements in the arts are another form of branding - in the good sense (hopefully) - where you create a kind of avatar for a series of values, stories, looks, etc. Then people who are inclined towards those things - your niche - know where to find them.

And when they find them - "this is a DOGME film" or "These films are trying to update the principles of Neo Realism" or whatever - they know what to expect. They become a known quantity. In Hollywood films that is the role that stars and franchises perform: when you see a movie with Robert Downey Jr. playing Iron Man you know exactly what you're going to get.

Why is this a great time to get into micro-budget filmmaking?

SHAWN: There's the obvious reasons that people always talk about: gear is cheap, for instance. Or editing suites, etc.

But I think that there's a less talked about reason, related to what I said above regarding film movements and cinematic branding. We live in a time of great upheaval and that is leading millions of people to question their world, including representations of their world. A truly vital, independent cinema should be able to tap into that ferment of ideas and experiences and find a home amongst a much bigger audience than has been possible in the recent past.

But it will require filmmakers coming together consciously with that intention, to be part of that turbulent flow of change and desires. Too often we all get trapped in our own little bubbles, struggling to just get our films made. We're like the Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. We need to take a breath and collect our energies and ideas so that we can multiply their impact a hundredfold.

What's next for you as a filmmaker ... and how is your approach to this project informed by your work on the Lab?

SHAWN: I have a few things in the fire - some in the conventional, commercial industry and some in the microbudget sphere.

As far as microbudgets go I've started working on a project with a filmmaker here in Spain, where I'm currently living with my family. I'm hoping we can shoot that this year - it's still in the idea formation stages. And I have a microbudget scifi that I'd love to shoot in the next year or so as well. 

I'd also like to create a hub, a lab, for the formation of multiple microbudget movements. A place where people can gather internationally to gestate ideas, strategies, aesthetics, collaborations. The more the better because it generates the potential for more great work.

Within that I'd also like to gather with filmmakers whose ideas are simpatico with my own. I'm hoping to launch something to facilitate that in the coming months.

This latter project in particular is an outgrowth of what I've learned and seen through MBFL. I've been contacted by filmmakers from all over the world looking to find audiences and other filmmakers. It's been very fulfilling and inspired me to want to expand that.

I've already created a Microbudget Launchpad competition that provides coaching through the script development process (keeping in mind my views on the key weaknesses that I see in microbudgets) and then a competition for a $2500 production investment for the best script.

I'd love to be able to expand that into a stable fund over time that doles out three or four investments (repayable if the film ever makes money) per year and increases the value and number of the investments in each round. If MBFL could fund 12 or 24 feature films per year, I'd be pretty freaking ecstatic.

No comments: