Saturday, January 31, 2009

Save the Biz!

Music Licensing for Film

Music is a whole other character in a film. It can leave an indelible mark on your audience. For filmmakers, it can help you express the tone of a scene and evoke the emotional response you are seeking. 

Many of us would love to feature the music of the bands we enjoy in our personal lives. Oftentimes, however, this music is too expensive to feature in an independent film. Thus, filmmakers either search for lesser known music that may come cheaper or approach bands willing to write music that the production can own outright. In exchange the band is getting some exposure to their work. 

Songs are copyrighted by law. Therefore, filmmakers must license the use of any songs from the copyright owners in order to feature them in their films. There are two licenses that you will need when featuring music in your film: Master Use and Synch. 

The Master Use license is garnered from the label that recorded the song. They are the owners of the actual recording. If you are going to re-record the song then you won't need the Master Use license. The Synchronization license (which allows filmmakers to "synch" the song to images) comes from the publisher, who owns the publishing rights to the song. Songwriters may be their own publisher or they may work with a music publisher who helps promote their music and collects and disperses the royalties for a typical 50/50 cut of the royalties. 

Publishing rights to songs can be bought and sold. One of the most publicized cases has been the handling of the publishing rights to a portion of the Beatles' songs. In the 1960s, publisher Dick James formed a company with the Beatles that held the majority of the publishing rights to the Beatles' work. When James sold his shares of the company, the Beatles found themselves with new partners who held the majority stake in the company. Eventually these new partners put their catalog up for sale and Michael Jackson outbid everyone, including Paul McCartney who had tried to buy back the publishing rights. Later Sony would pay Jackson millions for rights to the catalog. Needless to say, the Beatles haven't been happy about how their publishing rights have been handled through the years. 

When securing the rights to songs for use in films, most productions hire a music supervisor to handle the process. They have the knowledge and relationships to garner good licensing deals for the usage of the songs. In addition, there are many different licensing deals to consider, i.e. theatrical usage, TV, Internet, festival, etc. And fees can vary depending on how much of the song is used and where in the film. Music is a whole other character in a film and a whole other negotiating process!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Finding Your Name Cast

I am in the middle of casting a part for a young woman (late teens, early 20s), which means countless hours of me pouring over pictures, articles, reels, movies, and TV shows. There are many resources I use online to help me do my research. I thought I would share, especially since I am in the middle of the process right now. 

The ideas below are solely for researching already established actresses. There are many more tools available when doing casting calls and searching for lesser known actresses. This list also assumes you are casting the leads yourself and not using a casting director. Many indie producers cast the leads in their films themselves. I enjoy casting so I usually cast the leads myself and then hire a casting director to help handle the execution of the deals and to cast the smaller roles. 

IMDb Pro's Starmeter
The first step in my research on actors is the IMDb Pro Starmeter. I scroll through it looking for actors in the right age range. I look at everyone I can find in the Starmeter with a ranking of at least 4,000 or above. I keep within that range because it literally takes hours to scroll through this list and most of the more popular actors are in the range of 4,000 and above. I feel confident that I will come across more names in my other areas of research that fall over the 4,000 mark. I then use the IMDb entry to go over the actor's resume and images, get age and height and contact info, and personal details that may help me and the director decide if this actor is the right choice for the part we have available. 

The ole Internet search on actors is a must. I will search by specific actor name or do a general search on up-and-coming actors or award-winning actors or Latino actors, etc. The search terms can be endless. For example, my current search is for an up-and-coming actress so I found articles like this one from or this one from Gunaxin. I love for articles on highly acclaimed rising actors, but their site is down right now (very sad). Over time, you will find actresses who are consistently found on every up-and-comer list but you will also find gems you hadn't thought of or perhaps never came across. 

Entertainment or Celebrity or Trade Magazines
Magazines such as Hollywood Reporter, VarietyEntertainment Weekly, People or Us Weekly are other great resources for articles on actors. And it gives you an excuse to get your fill of gossip too! Just admit that celebrity gossip is a guilty pleasure.

Other Independent Films
I also check out indie films that premiered at festivals or made a splash from the last five years or so to see who starred in them. This is a great way to find talent who are already predisposed to appearing in smaller, independent films. Once I get a list of films, I go to IMDb and search on who starred in them. 

TV Shows
Don't forget TV actors. Often they have a film resume as well and they can bring a certain amount of domestic box office value with them if they are a series regular and get a lot of press from their TV work.  

Fan Sites
Many actors, even up and comers, have fan sites with a gallery of images and even trailers or clips from interviews and films. 

Most actors have a few videos featuring their work on YouTube. I love to key in actors' names in YouTube and watch reels, scenes, and interviews so I can get a sense of a personality of an actor above and beyond their character work. 

Go to the Video Store or Troll NetFlix
Sometimes I will go to the video store or troll NetFlix and scan new titles and genres that are similar to the film I am casting. DVD jackets usually have pictures of the cast and may present an actor who may be right.

And last but not least...

Agents and Managers
I also put the word out to agents and managers about my search. I have to be honest here. Agents and managers are very nice but it is hard to get them overly excited about a small, indie film. Definitely put the word out to them but don't get discouraged if they don't offer up any suggestions for you. Most of the work I do with them is after I have already figured out who I want to go to and then I try to make the project as appealing as possible so the agents and managers will be willing to promote the project to their client. 

An effective way to find new ideas is to note the agents and managers who you find are consistently representing cast right for the part. Look at the client list of these agents and managers on IMDb and you may come across a new name there as well! 

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

New color of blog!

Hi all,

I had to change the color of my blog. I think a white background will make it more readable. I was starting to feel like the background was a bit pukey. It's the same old blog (which is still pretty new!). Thanks for tuning in!


Digital Download and DIY Web Sites

There are a few Web sites that help filmmakers offer their independent films for sale as a download or DVD.  Let's go over some and how they work and any pros and cons. Feel free to bring up any others that I've missed or any other pros and cons. All of the below offer non-exclusive services so you can still sell your goods on your own Web site or others at the same time.

This service is brought to you by Amazon. You send them your DVD and they will fulfill orders as they come in.

Pro: You don't need to create or house an inventory of DVDs. This saves you a lot of upfront cash since you won't have to make the DVDs and ship them anywhere. And you have your film listed on Amazon, which is a huge search engine for product.
Con: The dubs may not be the highest quality. Amazon takes a pretty stiff cut of your sales ($4.95/unit plus 45% of the sale if sold on or 15% if sold on CreateSpace E-Store). 

You send them 10 DVDs at a time and replace them in batches of 10 as they sell out. They also offer the ability for the consumer to download your film for a price that you set. 

Pro: Their cut of the sale is only $4 per DVD sold. This includes the shipping costs to the buyer. And they are willing to cut weekly checks. You can ensure high quality DVDs since you are making them. 
Con: They don't offer much marketing help and you need to provide them with DVDs, which is typically a lot of upfront cash. The less you sell your DVD for, the more their fee takes a bite of your profits. 

Your film needs to have been an official selection at a festival (though they claim to make exceptions).  You mail them a DVD or tape and they will load it in their system for downloads or DVD orders. They can use their own artwork for the DVD cases or you can provide the artwork. They split the royalties 70/30 in your favor. 

Pro: They do not charge any fees. They only take a 30% cut of each sale. If you are interested, they will approach 3rd party outlets like Amazon, Netflix, Joost, or Hulu and try to make your film available on those sites as well.
Con: Quarterly payments only. The royalty split is hefty if you are selling a pricey DVD edition. It is a 12-month commitment at a minimum. And they will charge you $100 to pull the title from their site and any other 3rd party sites on which they made your film available.

This service is similar to FilmBaby in that you need to provide the inventory of DVDs. It looks like they will accept and manage your entire inventory up to 1000 DVDs, including merchandise such as T-shirts or posters.

Pro: You don't need a separate storage unit for your inventory. NeoFlix will accept it all. They have some marketing programs to help you promote your film, including a product listing on Amazon. They will handle selling any merchandise, such as T-shirts or posters, as well.
Con: Pricey service. They have a set up fee of $238, a $35/mo. maintenance and customer service fee, and a per-transaction fee of 12% of each order.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Surviving the Ride of Filmmaking

The dream is to be paid to do what we love -- produce, direct, write, critique, etc. But this dream can take time and buckets and buckets of patience. And as we are seeing with the new lay offs being made by entities like Variety, dreams can often be derailed. 

One day, you feel like everything is going your way: You have a paying gig, interest from an investor for a project, cast who say they want to be part of your film. You are on top of the world. Then the next day, you're fired, your investor ran out of money and your cast found another project they like better.

Filmmaking is a never-ending roller coaster ride. It's bumpy, scary, and thrilling. The ups and downs and twists and turns will never go away. You have to learn to enjoy the ride in order to survive. Here is a picture of a roller coaster. This is your life as a filmmaker.

To start enjoying the ride, you need to accept that a career in filmmaking will never be considered stable or secure. Once you embrace this concept, you can then devise a plan for figuring out how to survive within that concept. 

It may mean working a full-time job and working on your projects at night and on the weekends. Or it may mean developing a skill, like writing, that you can do in between your work as a filmmaker. 

It is possible to survive in this wild ride of filmmaking. You just need to take the leap, strap yourself in, and have fun along the way.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Contests & Competitions Can Bring Valuable Exposure

I am a fan of contests and competitions. I know a lot of people hate them but I think deep down if they won one, it would make them happy. It's often our ego and the desire to not be rejected that stops us from embracing the value of contests and competitions. But not everyone who enters a contest or competition can win it. And there is a lot to be gained by them even if you don't win.

Contests and competitions help to provide a means for gaining valuable exposure in independent film. The winners of major festivals like Sundance often walk away with distribution for their films. The winners of the Nicholl Fellowship get money to keep writing and every executive in town calling them about their work. Even the Nicholl's semi-finalists garner enough exposure to get their work in front of agents, managers, and executives who can get the script considered. I have a friend whose script won an award at Slamdance and a year later he had a job writing on a major TV show. 

It takes a lot of courage to work really hard on something and allow it to be examined and critiqued by people we don't know. It's this courage and how we handle rejection that is the key to our success. Look at rejection as a necessary means for fulfilling your goals and dreams. From each rejection, push yourself to learn a little bit more about how to be a better storyteller. Channel any angst toward improving yourself. 

One of the readers of this blog emailed me about an excellent achievement he had. He filmed a commercial for the POM juice company. He took that leap to enter this contest and lo and behold he got in the top ten finalists. 

Here is the link to the top ten finalists. His video is

Or check it out here at the original link.

He wrote: "I filmed the whole thing with an HVX200 in 720p 24fps.  Took about an hour an a half to do make-up and costumes then another 3 to 4 hours to film.  We started to run out of daylight haha so on the last scene we had to use a flashlight to illuminate the actors face."

I say Congratulations! And keep 'em coming. 

2009 Slamdance Winners

Grand Jury Awards
Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature
Winner: “A Quiet Little Marriage,” directed by Mo Perkins

Special Jury Mention for Best Performance: Larry Fessenden in “I Sell the Dead”

Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature
Winner: “Strongman,” directed by Zachary Levy

Special Jury Mention: “Second Sight,” directed by Alison McAlpine

Grand Jury Award for Best Animated Short
Winner: “Undone,” directed by Hayley Morris

Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Short
Winner: “Rare Chicken Rescue,” directed by Randall Wood

Grand Jury Award for Best Experimental Short
Winner: “Funny Guy,” directed by Frank R. Rinaldi

Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Short
Winner: “Princess Margaret Blvd,” directed by Kazik Radwanski
Special Jury Mention: “Tony Zoreil,” directed by Valentin Potier

Grand Jury Award for Best Music Video
Winner: Don McCloskey “Mister Novocaine,” directed by Peter Rhoads

Audience Awards

Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature
Winner: “Punching the Clown,” directed by Gregory Viens

Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature
Winner: “Heart of Stone” (formerly It’s Hard to be an Indian), directed by Beth Toni Kruvant

Audience Award for Best Anarchy Film
Winner: “The Tides,” directed by Eva Flodstrom

Spirit of Slamdance Award
Winners (tie): “Zombie Girl,” directed by Aaron Marshall, Erik Mauck, Justin Johnson; and “Vapid Lovelies,” directed by Frank Feldman
Awarded by the Class of 2009 filmmakers to the film teams that best exhibit passion and talent, commitment to the independent community, and enthusiastically embrace all Slamdance has to offer.

Special Awards

Kodak Vision Award for Best Cinematography
Winner: “I Sell the Dead” cinematographer Richard Lopez

Dos Equis “Most Interesting Film” Award
Winner: “You Might as Well Live,” directed by Simon Ennis

IndieRoad Award
Winner: “Punching the Clown,” directed by Gregory Viens
The online audience award voted on by viewers.

Writer Awards

Award for Best Screenplay
Winner: “Numbered,” (Comedy/Thriller) by Neil McGowan

Award for Best Short Screenplay
Winner: “Crybaby,” (Thriller) by Mark Seidel

Sunday, January 25, 2009

2009 Sundance Winners

And the drum roll please...

Alfred P. Sloan Award

Special Jury Prize
Tibet in Song

World Cinema Documentary
Big River Man

World Cinema: Documentary -- Editing
Burma VJ

World Cinema: Documentary -- Best Director
Havana Marking -- Afghan Star

World Cinema Documentary: Grand Jury Prize
Rough Aunties

World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Prize For Acting
Catalina Saavedra -- The Maid (La Nana)

World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Prize For Originality

World Cinema Dramatic Competition: Best Cinematography
John de Borman -- An Education

World Cinema: Screenwriting Award
Guy Hibbert -- Five Minutes of Heaven

World Cinema Dramatic Competition Best Director
Oliver Hirschbiegel -- Five Minutes of Heaven

World Cinema Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize
The Maid (La Nana)

World Cinema Audience Award for Documentary
Afghan Star

World Cinema Audience Award for Drama
An Education

U.S. Documentary Audience Award
The Cove

U.S. Dramatic Audience Award
Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire (read Eric D. Snider's review)

U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize
Good Hair

U.S. Special Jury Prize Independent Cinema

U.S. Special Jury Prize in Dramatic Competition for Acting
Mo'Nique -- Push

U.S. Documentary Award -- Best Cinematography
Bob Richman -- The September Issue

U.S. Dramatic Award -- Best Cinematography
Adriano Goldman -- Sin Nombre

U.S. Documentary Award -- Best Editing
Karen Schmeer -- Sergio

Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award
Paper Heart

U.S. Documentary Award -- Best Director
Natalia Almada -- El General

U.S. Dramatic Award -- Best Director
Caru Fukunaga -- Sin Nombre

U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize
We Live in Public

U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize
Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sound Quality and Your Film

There's nothing worse than watching a film with poor sound. Well, maybe there are worse things, but most people agree that poor picture quality is much more forgivable than poor sound. And good production sound mixers who will work for low wages are very hard to find. To rub salt in your wounds, post sound work is extremely expensive too.

There's no way around it. You have to spend money on your sound.  Hire the best sound mixer that you can afford, and maybe squeeze out a little more money to get an even better one. I have found that it's really hard to get a decent sound mixer for less than $250/day. I will pay for sound because bad sound will make your film unwatchable and then what's the point?

As for post production sound, it is a significant challenge to find quality post production sound for small indie films. It usually takes some intense negotiating, begging and pleading. Even then, you are talking about spending at least $15 to $25 grand on the very low end. A solid post production mix is really closer to $40 grand on the low end. I know that is a lot of money. It hurts to write that check. But sound is incredibly important to the success of your film. 

If your production sound is good quality that will really help to keep the post sound work less expensive. And many times, filmmakers can't afford a post sound mix so they have to rely on their production sound. So be sure to at least hire a strong production sound mixer so you can screen at festivals without having to do a post sound mix. 

Also, try as hard as you can to secure quiet locations. Make sure there are no train tracks nearby, a loud freeway, or an airport. There's nothing like ruining take after take of the sound due to filming in the flight path of an airport. Filming near water is killer on your sound as well. What sounds like a beautiful rush of water can have your actors yelling to be heard and suddenly a tranquil scene turns into a shouting match. And if you film in the South, resign yourself to the possibility of hearing cicadas throughout! Oh, how I love cicadas. 

Friday, January 23, 2009

New Take Me Home Podcast

Hi all,

We have a new Take Me Home podcast. Sam Jaeger interviews our editor Damien LeVeck. It's funny. Check it out. I promise you will enjoy it.


Studio Report Cards from LA Times' Patrick Goldstein

Below are links to Studio Report Cards from LA Times' Patrick Goldstein. It's always good to know how the big boys and girls run things. We can learn from their successes and mistakes. 

Warner Bros.


Paramount Pictures


20th Century Fox

Thursday, January 22, 2009

And the Academy Award Nominees Are...

It's exciting to see a number of independent films nominated! Congrats to all!

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
(Paramount and Warner Bros.) A Kennedy/Marshall Production; Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Ceán Chaffin, Producers
(Universal) A Universal Pictures, Imagine Entertainment
and Working Title Production; Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Eric Fellner, Producers
(Focus Features) A Groundswell and Jinks/Cohen Company Production; Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, Producers
"The Reader"
(The Weinstein Company) A Mirage Enterprises and Neunte Babelsberg Film GmbH Production; Nominees to be determined
"Slumdog Millionaire"
(Fox Searchlight) A Celador Films Production; Christian Colson, Producer

Richard Jenkins in "The Visitor" (Overture Films)
Frank Langella in "Frost/Nixon" (Universal)
Sean Penn in "Milk" (Focus Features)
Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler" (Fox Searchlight)

Josh Brolin in "Milk" (Focus Features)
Robert Downey Jr. in "Tropic Thunder" (DreamWorks, Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount)
Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Doubt" (Miramax)
Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.)
Michael Shannon in "Revolutionary Road" (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage)

Anne Hathaway in "Rachel Getting Married" (Sony Pictures Classics)
Angelina Jolie in "Changeling" (Universal)
Melissa Leo in "Frozen River" (Sony Pictures Classics)
Meryl Streep in "Doubt" (Miramax)
Kate Winslet in "The Reader" (The Weinstein Company)

Amy Adams in "Doubt" (Miramax)
Penélope Cruz in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (The Weinstein Company)
Viola Davis in "Doubt" (Miramax)
Taraji P. Henson in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
Marisa Tomei in "The Wrestler" (Fox Searchlight)

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
(Paramount and Warner Bros.) Screenplay by Eric Roth; Screen story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord
"Doubt" (Miramax) Written by John Patrick Shanley
"Frost/Nixon" (Universal) Screenplay by Peter Morgan
"The Reader" (The Weinstein Company) Screenplay by David Hare
"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy

"Frozen River" (Sony Pictures Classics); Written by Courtney Hunt
"Happy-Go-Lucky" (Miramax); Written by Mike Leigh
"In Bruges" (Focus Features); Written by Martin McDonagh
"Milk" (Focus Features); Written by Dustin Lance Black
"WALL-E" (Walt Disney); Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon; Original story by Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter

"Bolt" (Walt Disney) Chris Williams and Byron Howard
"Kung Fu Panda" (DreamWorks Animation, Distributed by Paramount) John Stevenson and Mark Osborne
"WALL-E" (Walt Disney) Andrew Stanton

"Changeling" (Universal) Art Direction: James J. Murakami, Set Decoration: Gary Fettis
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) Art Direction: Donald Graham Burt, Set Decoration: Victor J. Zolfo
"The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.) Art Direction: Nathan Crowley, Set Decoration: Peter Lando
"The Duchess" (Paramount Vantage, Pathé and BBC Films) Art Direction: Michael Carlin, Set Decoration: Rebecca Alleway
"Revolutionary Road" (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage) Art Direction: Kristi Zea, Set Decoration: Debra Schutt

"Changeling" (Universal) Tom Stern
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) Claudio Miranda
"The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.) Wally Pfister
"The Reader" (The Weinstein Company) Chris Menges and Roger Deakins
"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Anthony Dod Mantle

"Australia" (20th Century Fox) Catherine Martin
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) Jacqueline West
"The Duchess" (Paramount Vantage, Pathé and BBC Films) Michael O'Connor
"Milk" (Focus Features)Danny Glicker
"Revolutionary Road" (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage) Albert Wolsky

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) David Fincher
"Frost/Nixon" (Universal) Ron Howard
"Milk" (Focus Features) Gus Van Sant
"The Reader" (The Weinstein Company) Stephen Daldry
"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Danny Boyle

"The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)" (Cinema Guild) A Pandinlao Films Production, Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath
"Encounters at the End of the World" (THINKFilm and Image Entertainment) A Creative Differences Production, Werner Herzog and Henry Kaiser
"The Garden" A Black Valley Films Production, Scott Hamilton Kennedy
"Man on Wire" (Magnolia Pictures) A Wall to Wall Production, James Marsh and Simon Chinn
"Trouble the Water" (Zeitgeist Films) An Elsewhere Films Production, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal

"The Conscience of Nhem En" A Farallon Films Production Steven Okazaki
"The Final Inch" A Vermilion Films Production, Irene Taylor Brodsky and Tom Grant
"Smile Pinki" A Principe Production, Megan Mylan
"The Witness - From the Balcony of Room 306" A Rock Paper Scissors Production, Adam Pertofsky and Margaret Hyde

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall
"The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.) Lee Smith
"Frost/Nixon" (Universal) Mike Hill and Dan Hanley
"Milk" (Focus Features) Elliot Graham
"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Chris Dickens

"The Baader Meinhof Complex" A Constantin Film Production; Germany
"The Class" (Sony Pictures Classics) A Haut et Court Production; France
"Departures" (Regent Releasing) A Departures Film Partners Production; Japan
"Revanche" (Janus Films) A Prisma Film/Fernseh Production; Austria
"Waltz with Bashir" (Sony Pictures Classics) A Bridgit Folman Film Gang Production; Israel

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
(Paramount and Warner Bros.) Greg Cannom
"The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.) John Caglione, Jr. and Conor O'Sullivan
"Hellboy II: The Golden Army" (Universal) Mike Elizalde and Thom Floutz

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) Alexandre Desplat
"Defiance" (Paramount Vantage) James Newton Howard
"Milk" (Focus Features) Danny Elfman
"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) A.R. Rahman
"WALL-E" (Walt Disney) Thomas Newman

"Down to Earth" from "WALL-E" (Walt Disney) Music by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman; Lyric by Peter Gabriel
"Jai Ho" from "Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Music by A.R. Rahman; Lyrics by Gulzar
"O Saya" from "Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Music and Lyric by A.R. Rahman and Maya Arulpragasam

"La Maison en Petits Cubes" A Robot Communications Production; Kunio Kato
"Lavatory - Lovestory" A Melnitsa Animation Studio and CTB Film Company Production; Konstantin Bronzit
"Oktapodi"(Talantis Films) A Gobelins, L'école de l'image Production; Emud Mokhberi and Thierry Marchand
"Presto" (Walt Disney) A Pixar Animation Studios Production; Doug Sweetland
"This Way Up" A Nexus Production; Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes

"Auf der Strecke (On the Line)" (Hamburg Shortfilmagency); An Academy of Media Arts Cologne Production; Reto Caffi
"Manon on the Asphalt" (La Luna Productions) A La Luna Production; Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont
"New Boy" (Network Ireland Television) A Zanzibar Films Production; Steph Green and Tamara Anghie
"The Pig"An M & M Production; Tivi Magnusson and Dorte Høgh
"Spielzeugland (Toyland)" A Mephisto Film Production; Jochen Alexander Freydank

"The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.) Richard King
"Iron Man" (Paramount and Marvel Entertainment) Frank Eulner and Christopher Boyes
"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Tom Sayers
"WALL-E" (Walt Disney) Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood
"Wanted" (Universal) Wylie Stateman

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Mark Weingarten
"The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.) Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo and Ed Novick
"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight) Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke and Resul Pookutty
"WALL-E" (Walt Disney) Tom Myers, Michael Semanick and Ben Burtt
"Wanted" (Universal) Chris Jenkins, Frank A. Montaño and Petr Forejt

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount and Warner Bros.) Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton and Craig Barron
"The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.) Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Tim Webber and Paul Franklin
"Iron Man" (Paramount and Marvel Entertainment) John Nelson, Ben Snow, Dan Sudick and Shane Mahan

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Producers: Mysterious Creatures

I have a feeling that most people have no clue what a producer does. Then I read Mary Jane Skalski's speech that she delivered to a group of producers at Sundance and she reiterated my feeling. 

I'm not sure why what we do is so mysterious. It's pretty obvious to me that someone had to organize and make sure a film is managed appropriately. There had to be that key person or two who championed the project to the world of talent, financiers, agents, managers, distributors, festivals, etc. And kept the show going through the ups and downs of development, pre-production, production, post production and distribution.

A film is a small business. Limited Liability Companies are formed and the producer is usually the Managing Member. We can be likened to the CEOs, CFOs, and Presidents of companies. All decisions (right or wrong) are made or approved by us. If the project needs something, we are in charge of finding it. Any problems? We fix them. We are the Captains of the ships, working to keep everything afloat.

There's a reason why producers win Best Picture. They are accountable for the success of their pictures -- good or bad. Sure, the writer and director do share the responsibility for the picture's success but in the end, the producer is the one helming the project. He or she could have developed the story a little more with the writer or worked with the director on his or her weaknesses. 

So the next time you see a good film, congratulate the writer and director and throw a few snaps in the direction of the producer. He or she worked hard to entertain you.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Yes We Can!: Obama's Inauguration Signifies Hope for All

Today is a new beginning for the United States of America. President Barack Obama has been sworn into office and will be taking on the hefty task of righting the course of America's future. It has been a long journey for both Obama and America to reach this day. And the journey before them will be no shorter. 

We have a lot of work to do to help strengthen the economy, improve foreign relations, bring our soldiers home, and address the health care and energy crises and more. Keep track of our country's progress at President Barack Obama's White House Web site.

Just as Obama and Americans address these challenges, independent filmmakers will be shouldering their own transformation. Change needs to be the mantra, not just in American politics, but filmmaking as well. 

Martin Luther King's dream became real today. We have our first African American president. Let's not be left behind indie filmmakers. Let our dreams of a thriving industry with real channels of distribution and support be created. Let's do our part in realizing our dreams and a strong future for independent filmmaking!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Happy MLK Day!

It's a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. today. Here's his famous "I Have a Dream" speech:

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Shooting People: Independent Filmmakers Network

I came across a really cool international network of independent filmmakers. It's called Shooting People and you can learn more about them at Their mission statement is "the international networking organisation dedicated to the support and promotion of independent filmmaking." 

Here are the stats on the organzation: 

A decade old, Shooting People has 36207 members – 
13279 in the US and 22928 in the UK.

What does my Shooting People membership get me?

  • Get advice and find work in the industry through daily email bulletins
  • Over 200 shorts and music videos are cast & crewed up every week
  • Keep up to date with funding and festival deadlines
  • Upload your films and show them to the world

We can't forget that the independent community extends beyond our own country's border. We need to support each other the world over. This will help us all in the long run to survive and thrive. Audiences are worldwide and are interested in seeing work created in other countries. 

I just joined Shooting People myself. I look forward to interacting with them and their members. The more we get ourselves out there, the greater our success will be. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

Captain Sully and Uplifting Stories

What a great feeling! Hats off to Captain Sully. I still can't believe a commercial aircraft landed in the Hudson River! Wow! To be able to watch a horrible event on the news and know that everyone involved is safe and sound is such a change of pace. It reminds me of the feeling I had when Obama won the presidential race. We need more movies about heroes.

I would much rather read and watch stories about heroes like Captain Sully than hear about another horrible terrorist and serial killer. The same goes for movies. Maybe I'm just getting older and have had my brain filled with too many dark depressing films, but I'm finding that I'm drawn to more uplifting films these days. I'm sure that the state of the economy and the war and global warming etc. has helped me want to seek entertaining films over ones that make me feel depressed. 

Last Chance Harvey is out this weekend. This film has an independent spirit about it. The leads are older (harder to fund a film with older leads) and it took the passion and help of Emma Thompson to get it cast and made. Passion is a huge part of indie filmmaking. So as I am riding high on the heroism of Captain Sully, I just may go to the theater and get a little more joy watching a frumpy Emma Thompson (she chose to be a size 16 in this film) and an aging Dustin Hoffman fall in love. I miss the Dustin Hoffman of Tootsie and Kramer v. Kramer. I could use a little of him this weekend. Over and out!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Working with SAG

I think it's great that actors have unions that help protect them from us ruthless producers. If we had it our way, actors would work for the love of the craft, right? Well maybe if it's an ultra-low budget film and no one else is getting paid either. But seriously, I heartily support actors being paid decent wages for their work, just as everyone else should be in their careers.

No matter the size of your production, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) wants to work with you if you are employing their members. They have agreements for films of all sizes, and each agreement reflects what they believe are fair terms and wages for their members in relation to the size of the budget. They even have a SAGIndie division that makes it easier for independent filmmakers to work with SAG actors.

In pre-production, you will want to become SAG signatory if you plan on hiring SAG actors. This means filling out applications that detail the status and size of your production and how many roles are to be cast, etc. You will be appointed a SAG representative with whom you will submit your applications and provide paperwork through the production. 

SAG does require a deposit of a percentage of your budget in order to cover the pay for the actors. This money is not used to pay the actors. Instead, it sits in a bank account and accrues nominal interest as you are filming. This can be tough on independent filmmakers as their deposit requirements tend to be very high. I like to earmark those funds for post production, which in a strange way, actually helps me to make sure I don't use all my money up on production. Out of sight, out of mind.

In post production, you will have to submit a bunch of wrap paperwork detailing how many days each actor worked and the pay they earned. Once this paperwork has been reviewed and signed off by SAG, your deposit is returned, with interest. If there is any outstanding pay to the actors then your deposit is at risk. So pay your actors!

During this past year, SAG and the AMPTA (Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers) have been waging a war over contract negotiations. Threats of a strike have been looming over the industry for months. Personally, I find it hard to swallow that they would consider striking during a recession. I understand their concerns but there has to be another way than putting thousands of people out of work (because when they strike, no one works, including crew and vendors, etc.) and harming the economies of cities like Los Angeles -- which is running out of money as it is! Please SAG, don't strike!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sundance: High School All Over Again

I can't help but compare the Sundance Film Festival to high school. 


Sundance has you feeling you are under that high school microscope again. You experience those same dreams of what the future will hold, days of sheer unadulterated craziness, hard work, and being a slacker. It's freedom, high expectations, low expectations, confusion, focus, shyness, awkwardness, etc. Hopefully our adolescence trained us well. Just as in high school, find your group of friends who get you and want to support what you are doing. Forget trying to be something you're not and focus on who you want to be. Looking back, weren't the cool ones really the ones who had the most confidence and believed in themselves? 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Screenplays: A Producer's Perspective

Producers are on the eternal search to find a good screenplay -- that gem that jumps off the screen or page and enraptures them from beginning to end. Something that is so good that they want to call the screenwriter mid-read and expound on their genius. Unfortunately, this phenomenon doesn't happen very often. Boy, I wish it did!

As a producer, you are in charge of finding or developing strong material that appeals to a large audience. Even if the writing is top-notch, the topic may be too small and focused on a niche market. Or maybe the topic is great but then the writing is sub-par. Finding the right mix is a big challenge and can mean many, many hours slogging through script after script or months of development with a writer to get the screenplay in the right position for a sale or packaging. 

And though screenwriters are wonderful people -- I claim to be a writer myself -- the process of reading thousands of scripts can make even the nicest producer a bit surly. So please forgive any angst from producers during the development process. We are just reacting to our sore eyeballs and overstimulated and over-caffeinated brains.

When considering a screenplay, producers need to take into account:
  • is the topic timely?
  • is the script structured properly? 
  • is there a role that will appeal to one or two top actors?
  • is the dialogue strong?
  • are the characters well developed with unique voices?
  • is it a page-turner?
  • is it a standard length?
  • is the script in proper screenplay format and exhibit good grammar and minimal spelling errors (none is preferred of course but screenwriters are human!)?
All of the above are critical to ensuring the script will appeal to a financier. And in the end, that is the producer's job -- to find the ability (i.e. money or deferrals) to get the film made. And though this is an industry built on dreams, the producer needs to take those dreams and make them a viable business opportunity. And that starts with a good screenplay.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Take Me Home Web Site & Podcast

I am producing Take Me Home by Sam Jaeger. Take Me Home is a road trip film about two people unraveling on a taxi ride from New York City to the California coast. Sam is also the director of this charming film that stars himself and his wife Amber Jaeger. Some of you may know Sam through his work as Matt Dowd on Eli Stone or his starring role in Catch and Release. Take Me Home is Sam's first feature-length film as writer/director. I am certain we will see more from him in the future. 

I wanted to take a moment to present to you the newly designed Take Me Home Web site for the film. And a great feature that Sam has added to the site: a podcast of the adventure of making the film, which you can listen to here.

I'm really proud of this little film and everyone on board. Go team!

Mentoring in Film: A Means to Success

During his Golden Globes speech last night as he was deservedly accepting the Cecille B. DeMille Award for his outstanding contribution to entertainment, Steven Spielberg pointed out that his success was largely due to the mentoring he received throughout his career. He then proceeded to point out others in the audience like him, Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard, whose success could also be linked to strong relationships with mentors.

I cannot stress enough the value of having a mentor in your career in filmmaking. They have been through all of the ups and downs of the business and can help guide you through the good and bad times. And they can provide you with the right introductions to other successful people in the business. Or they can help you get backing for your company and/or films. Look at indie producers Lars Knudsen and Jay Van Hoy. They worked for Scott Rudin and now they have a production deal with Rudin's company.

Finding a mentor is not easy. You need to get yourself out there and either make yourself invaluable to a successful film professional or create a piece of work that a film professional can get excited about and in turn get excited about you. I've found most of my mentors by working hard for successful producers. Even as an intern, I worked very hard to prove that I was worthy of being mentored.

Mentors are not the magic key to the kingdom of success in film. You will need talent and a ton of hard work to sustain a successful film career. However, mentors can provide that crucial help to open doors and give you that push that can help your talent shine through.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Budgeting an Indie Movie

Budgeting an indie film is a bit of an oxymoron. Can you budget something when you have no money? Absolutely. And you must. Every time I budget a film, I first assess its perceived value. I say perceived because you won't know the real value until you find investors who agree with the proposed value, sell the film, release it to audiences, and get your money back. To me, the real value is what an audience is willing to spend on your film. If you make a $1 million film but your audience only spends $200k on it then you really have a $200k film on your hands.

As I am assessing a script, I ask myself the following questions:

How do I think it will perform in the marketplace? I look at how similar films have performed in the last three years or so. I also have to take into account the current atmosphere. As we have seen over this past year, independent films have been lowering in value.

Who is the director? Will he or she attract the right talent that will mean something to the box office? Your director is a valuable asset to your film. He may be award-winning or have the right relationships to talent or he has a proven track record for making movies that appeal to a sizable audience, which translates to butts in seats. If he or she is a first-time director, I automatically set the bar for the financing at below $1 million. The smaller your budget can be with a first-time director, the better.

What kind of talent will this script attract? If I know there is a role or two that will appeal to an actor with box office value then I will bump the budget a bit to accommodate for that actor's pay.

What kind of story is it, small intimate drama or medium-sized with some action and visual effects sequences, etc.? There is a significant difference in price between a dialogue heavy drama and one that relies on effects to tell the story. Get familiar with production and post production costs. Call around to vendors and get price quotes. And get your hands on other budgets in a similar budget range. When I was starting to produce my own films, I had a binder full of budgets from other productions that I would sift through for approximate costs. How I got my hands on those budgets is another story. Get creative. You will find ways to do it. I worked in production at the time on films that were similar to what I wanted to do and had access to budgets. Friends who work in production are great resources. Use them.

Once you have your first draft of the budget. Find ways to slash it. And once you have settled on a figure that you hope to get, figure out how to make it happen for half the money -- just in case you don't get it all. Remember Pieces of April? Peter Hedges thought he had $4 million to make the film. The bottom dropped out of the financing and he suddenly had a little over $100k to make it. And he did.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Variety's Top Ten Directors to Watch

I just saw the list from Variety of the Top Ten Directors to Watch. Here goes:

Emily Abt- TOE TO TOE

Antonio Campos- AFTERSCHOOL

Cherien Dabis- AMREEKA

Adam Elliot- MARY AND MAX


Cary Fukunaga- SIN NOMBRE

Matteo Garrone- GOMORRAH

Steve McQueen- HUNGER


Marc Webb- 500 DAYS OF SUMMER

Congratulations to everyone who made the list. Getting on lists like this helps the creative talent to gain much-needed exposure. I am sure these directors will be on producers hit lists from here on out. Let's hope we see more great things from them.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Straight Line on Amazon

Writer/director Sean Ackerman and I (and a number of other amazing cast and crew) made a film from 2002 to 2005 titled Straight Line. It was Sean's first feature as writer/director and my first feature as producer. We both came from production so we knew how to run a film set but we had no clue how to complete a film from beginning to end and then sell it!

The film was shot on three different formats and filmed in eight different countries. Sean drove from Montana down through South America to Belize and Panama and then drove back, filming on video. We then took a year to figure out how to finish the rest of the film on 16mm and 35mm. We had that shoot in Montana. We hiked up into the mountains with 35mm camera equipment on our backs. It was really quite amazing.

We had no money for a sound mix or a real color correction. We had no money for a composer so we had a friend who worked in music publishing find a band who would be interested in scoring the film for free. Sean edited the film in Final Cut Pro and had a friend at an editing facility help to put it all together on a Digibeta for us. Some way, some how it got finished for the price of an SUV.

I then started applying to film festivals. We had no reps helping us and we had no idea how to push the film to programmers (this process still eludes me a bit), but we miraculously got programmed into SXSW. Again, we had no idea what we were doing. I don't think Sean and I had even officially attended a film festival before -- certainly not as filmmakers. So we consulted with someone in the industry for a quite a bit of money (it was a lot to us) and were given basic advice for how to promote our film at the festival. And off we went!

We had a wonderful experience at SXSW. It's a great festival. I think getting kicked out of a downtown Austin bar was the highlight -- that's a story for another day. But seriously, we walked away from SXSW bolstered by what we had accomplished with so little. And now our little film is available on Amazon. Go Straight Line! You will forever be my first! And oh so shamelessly, here's the link to Straight Line on Amazon.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Taking Chance: A Film with Strong Supporting Material

Films are often based on supporting material. If it's a story that resonates as the written word, it may work just as well as a film, perhaps even better. You can usually tell if the story is cinematic when reading the article or book or short story, etc. The story touches you in such a profound way that you feel you must share the story with others. You can see the film in your head and know there are others like you who would want to see this material adapted for the big screen. It also helps if there is a strong role in the story for an accomplished actor or two.

The new HBO film Taking Chance, which will be playing at Sundance 2009, is based on this letter from a Marine officer, detailing true events. The film is scheduled to play on HBO in February 2009. Ross Katz (producer of In the Bedroom and Lost in Translation) wrote and directed; Kevin Bacon stars. I found myself touched by this letter and look forward to seeing it on film.

Taking Chance

Chance Phelps was wearing his Saint Christopher medal when he was killed on Good Friday. Eight days later, I handed the medallion to his mother. I didn't know Chance before he died. Today, I miss him.

Over a year ago, I volunteered to escort the remains of Marines killed in Iraq should the need arise. The military provides a uniformed escort for all casualties to ensure they are delivered safely to the next of kin and are treated with dignity and respect along the way.

Thankfully, I hadn't been called on to be an escort since Operation Iraqi Freedom began. The first few weeks of April, however, had been a tough month for the Marines. On the Monday after Easter I was reviewing Department of Defense press releases when I saw that a Private First Class Chance Phelps was killed in action outside of Baghdad. The press release listed his hometown-the same town I'm from. I notified our Battalion adjutant and told him that, should the duty to escort PFC Phelps fall to our Battalion, I would take him.

I didn't hear back the rest of Monday and all day Tuesday until 1800. The Battalion duty NCO called my cell phone and said I needed to be ready to leave for Dover Air Force Base at 1900 in order to escort the remains of PFC Phelps.

Before leaving for Dover I called the major who had the task of informing Phelps's parents of his death. The major said the funeral was going to be in Dubois, Wyoming. (It turned out that PFC Phelps only lived in my hometown for his senior year of high school) I had never been to Wyoming and had never heard of Dubois.

With two other escorts from Quantico, got to Dover AFB at 2330 on Tuesday night. First thing on Wednesday we reported to the mortuary at the base. In the escort lounge there were about half a dozen Army soldiers and about an equal number of Marines waiting to meet up with "their" remains for departure. PFC Phelps was not ready, however, and I was told to come back on Thursday. Now, at Dover with nothing to do and a solemn mission ahead, I began to get depressed.

I was wondering about Chance Phelps. I didn't know anything about him; not even what he looked like. I wondered about his family and what it would be like to meet them. I did pushups in my room until I couldn't do any more.

On Thursday morning I reported back to the mortuary. This time there was a new group of Army escorts and a couple of the Marines who had been there Wednesday. There was also an Air Force captain there to escort his brother home to San Diego.

We received a brief covering our duties, the proper handling of the remains, the procedures for draping a flag over a casket, and of course, the paperwork attendant to our task. We were shown pictures of the shipping container and told that each one contained, in addition to the casket, a flag. I was given an extra flag since Phelps's parents were divorced. This way they would each get one. I didn't like the idea of stuffing the flag into my luggage but I couldn't see carrying a large flag, folded for presentation to the next of kin, through an airport while in my Alpha uniform. It barely fit into my suitcase.

It turned out that I was the last escort to leave on Thursday. This meant that I repeatedly got to participate in the small ceremonies that mark all departures from the Dover AFB mortuary.

Most of the remains are taken from Dover AFB by hearse to the airport in Philadelphia for air transport to their final destination. When the remains of a service member are loaded onto a hearse and ready to leave the Dover mortuary, there is an announcement made over the building's intercom system. With the announcement, all service members working at the mortuary, regardless of service branch, stop work and form up along the driveway to render a slow ceremonial salute as the hearse departs. Escorts also participated in each formation until it was their time to leave.

On this day there were some civilian workers doing construction on the mortuary grounds. As each hearse passed, they would stop working and place their hard hats over their hearts. This was my first sign that my mission with PFC Phelps was larger than the Marine Corps and that his family and friends were not grieving alone.

Eventually I was the last escort remaining in the lounge. The Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant in charge of the Marine liaison there came to see me. He had Chance Phelps's personal effects. He removed each item; a large watch, a wooden cross with a lanyard, two loose dog tags, two dog tags on a chain, and a Saint Christopher medal on a silver chain Although we had been briefed that we might be carrying some personal effects of the deceased, this set me aback. Holding his personal effects, I was starting to get to know Chance Phelps.

Finally we were ready. I grabbed my bags and went outside. I was somewhat startled when I saw the shipping container, loaded three-quarters of the way in to the back of a black Chevy Suburban that had been modified to carry such cargo. This was the first time I saw my "cargo" and I was surprised at how large the shipping container was. The Master Gunnery Sergeant and I verified that the name on the container was Phelps's then they pushed him the rest of the way in and we left. Now it was PFC Chance Phelps's turn to receive the military-and construction workers'-honors. He was finally moving towards home.

As I chatted with the driver on the hour-long trip to Philadelphia, it became clear that he considered it an honor to be able to contribute in getting Chance home. He offered his sympathy to the family. I was glad to finally be moving yet apprehensive about what things would be like at the airport. I didn't want this package to be treated like ordinary cargo yet I knew that the simple logistics of moving around a box this large would have to overrule my preferences.

When we got to the Northwest Airlines cargo terminal at the Philadelphia airport, the cargo handler and hearse driver pulled the shipping container onto a loading bay while I stood to the side and executed a slow salute. Once Chance was safely in the cargo area, and I was satisfied that he would be treated with due care and respect, the hearse driver drove me over to the passenger terminal and dropped me off.

As I walked up to the ticketing counter in my uniform, a Northwest employee started to ask me if I knew how to use the automated boarding pass dispenser. Before she could finish another ticketing agent interrupted her. He told me to go straight to the counter then explained to the woman that I was a military escort. She seemed embarrassed. The woman behind the counter already had tears in her eyes as I was pulling out my government travel voucher. She struggled to find words but managed to express her sympathy for the family and thank me for my service. She upgraded my ticket to first class.

After clearing security, I was met by another Northwest Airline employee at the gate. She told me a representative from cargo would be up to take me down to the tarmac to observe the movement and loading of PFC Phelps. I hadn't really told any of them what my mission was but they all knew.

When the man from the cargo crew met me, he, too, struggled for words. On the tarmac, he told me stories of his childhood as a military brat and repeatedly told me that he was sorry for my loss. I was starting to understand that, even here in Philadelphia, far away from Chance's hometown, people were mourning with his family.

On the tarmac, the cargo crew was silent expect for occasional instructions to each other. I stood to the side and saluted as the conveyor moved Chance to the aircraft. I was relieved when he was finally settled into place. The rest of the bags were loaded and I watched them shut the cargo bay door before heading back up to board the aircraft.

One of the pilots had taken my carry-on bag himself and had it stored next to the cockpit door so he could watch it while I was on the tarmac. As I boarded the plane, I could tell immediately that the flight attendants had already been informed of my mission. They seemed a little choked up as they led me to my seat.

About 45 minutes into our flight I still hadn't spoken to anyone expect to tell the first class flight attendant that I would prefer water. I was surprised when the flight attendant from the back of the plane suddenly appeared and leaned down to grab my hands. She said, "I want you to have this" as she pushed a small gold crucifix, with a relief of Jesus, into my hand. It was her lapel pin and it looked somewhat worn. I suspected it had been hers for quite some time. That was the only thing she said to me the entire flight.

When we landed in Minneapolis, I was the first one off the plane. The pilot himself escorted me straight down the side stairs of the exit tunnel to the tarmac. The cargo crew there already knew what was on this plane. They were unloading some of the luggage when an Army sergeant, a fellow escort who had left Dover earlier that day, appeared next to me. His "cargo" was going to be loaded onto my plane for its continuing leg. We stood side-by-side in the dark and executed a slow salute as Chance was removed from the plane. The cargo crew at Minneapolis kept Phelps's shipping case separate from all the other luggage as they waited to take us to the cargo area. I waited with the soldier and we saluted together as his fallen comrade was loaded onto the plane.

My trip with Chance was going to be somewhat unusual in that we were going to have an overnight stopover. We had a late start out of Dover and there was just too much traveling ahead of us to continue on that day. (We still had a flight from Minneapolis to Billings, Montana, then a five-hour drive to the funeral home. That was to be followed by a 90-minute drive to Chance's hometown.)

I was concerned about leaving him overnight in the Minneapolis cargo area. My ten-minute ride from the tarmac to the cargo holding area eased my apprehension. Just as in Philadelphia, the cargo guys in Minneapolis were extremely respectful and seemed honored to do their part. While talking with them, I learned that the cargo supervisor for Northwest Airlines at the Minneapolis airport is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves. They called him for me and let me talk to him.

Once I was satisfied that all would be okay for the night, I asked one of the cargo crew if he would take me back to the terminal so that I could catch my hotel's shuttle. Instead, he drove me straight to the hotel himself. At the hotel, the Lieutenant Colonel called me and said he would personally pick me up in the morning and bring me back to the cargo area.

Before leaving the airport, I had told the cargo crew that I wanted to come back to the cargo area in the morning rather than go straight to the passenger terminal. I felt bad for leaving Chance overnight and wanted to see the shipping container where I had left it for the night. It was fine.

The Lieutenant Colonel made a few phone calls then drove me around to the passenger terminal. I was met again by a man from the cargo crew and escorted down to the tarmac. The pilot of the plane joined me as I waited for them to bring Chance from the cargo area. The pilot and I talked of his service in the Air Force and how he missed it.

I saluted as Chance was moved up the conveyor and onto the plane. It was to be a while before the luggage was to be loaded so the pilot took me up to the board the plane where I could watch the tarmac from a window. With no other passengers yet on board, I talked with the flight attendants and one of the cargo guys. He had been in the Navy and one of the attendants had been in the Air Force. Everywhere I went, people were continuing to tell me their relationship to the military. After all the baggage was aboard, I went back down to the tarmac, inspected the cargo bay, and watched them secure the door.

When we arrived at Billings, I was again the first off the plane. This time Chance's shipping container was the first item out of the cargo hold. The funeral director had driven five hours up from Riverton, Wyoming to meet us. He shook my hand as if I had personally lost a brother.

We moved Chance to a secluded cargo area. Now it was time for me to remove the shipping container and drape the flag over the casket. I had predicted that this would choke me up but I found I was more concerned with proper flag etiquette than the solemnity of the moment. Once the flag was in place, I stood by and saluted as Chance was loaded onto the van from the funeral home. I was thankful that we were in a small airport and the event seemed to go mostly unnoticed. I picked up my rental car and followed Chance for five hours until we reached Riverton. During the long trip I imagined how my meeting with Chance's parents would go. I was very nervous about that.

When we finally arrived at the funeral home, I had my first face-to-face meeting with the Casualty Assistance Call Officer. It had been his duty to inform the family of Chance's death. He was on the Inspector/Instructor staff of an infantry company in Salt Lake City, Utah and I knew he had had a difficult week.

Inside I gave the funeral director some of the paperwork from Dover and discussed the plan for the next day. The service was to be at 1400 in the high school gymnasium up in Dubois, population about 900, some 90 miles away. Eventually, we had covered everything. The CACO had some items that the family wanted to be inserted into the casket and I felt I needed to inspect Chance's uniform to ensure everything was proper. Although it was going to be a closed casket funeral, I still wanted to ensure his uniform was squared away.

Earlier in the day I wasn't sure how I'd handle this moment. Suddenly, the casket was open and I got my first look at Chance Phelps His uniform was immaculate-a tribute to the professionalism of the Marines at Dover. I noticed that he wore six ribbons over his marksmanship badge; the senior one was his Purple Heart. I had been in the Corps for over 17 years, including a combat tour, and was wearing eight ribbons. This Private First Class, with less than a year in the Corps, had already earned six.

The next morning, I wore my dress blues and followed the hearse for the trip up to Dubois. This was the most difficult leg of our trip for me. I was bracing for the moment when I would meet his parents and hoping I would find the right words as I presented them with Chance's personal effects.

We got to the high school gym about four hours before the service was to begin. The gym floor was covered with folding chairs neatly lined in rows. There were a few townspeople making final preparations when I stood next to the hearse and saluted as Chance was moved out of the hearse. The sight of a flag-draped coffin was overwhelming to some of the ladies.

We moved Chance into the gym to the place of honor. A Marine sergeant, the command representative from Chance's battalion, met me at the gym. His eyes were watery as he relieved me of watching Chance so that I could go eat lunch and find my hotel.

At the restaurant, the table had a flier announcing Chance's service. Dubois High School gym; two o' clock. It also said that the family would be accepting donations so that they could buy flak vests to send to troops in Iraq.

I drove back to the gym at a quarter after one. I could've walked-you could walk to just about anywhere in Dubois in ten minutes. I had planned to find a quiet room where I could take his things out of their pouch and untangle the chain of the Saint Christopher medal from the dog tag chains and arrange everything before his parents came in. I had twice before removed the items from the pouch to ensure they were all there-even though there was no chance anything could've fallen out. Each time, the two chains had been quite tangled. I didn't want to be fumbling around trying to untangle them in front of his parents. Our meeting, however, didn't go as expected.

I practically bumped into Chance's step-mom accidentally and our introductions began in the noisy hallway outside the gym. In short order I had met Chance's step-mom and father followed by his step-dad and, at last, his mom. I didn't know how to express to these people my sympathy for their loss and my gratitude for their sacrifice. Now, however, they were repeatedly thanking me for bringing their son home and for my service. I was humbled beyond words.

I told them that I had some of Chance's things and asked if we could try to find a quiet place. The five of us ended up in what appeared to be a computer lab-not what I had envisioned for this occasion.

After we had arranged five chairs around a small table, I told them about our trip. I told them how, at every step, Chance was treated with respect, dignity, and honor. I told them about the staff at Dover and all the folks at Northwest Airlines. I tried to convey how the entire Nation, from Dover to Philadelphia, to Minneapolis, to Billings, and Riverton expressed grief and sympathy over their loss.

Finally, it was time to open the pouch. The first item I happened to pull out was Chance's large watch. It was still set to Baghdad time. Next were the lanyard and the wooden cross. Then the dog tags and the Saint Christopher medal. This time the chains were not tangled. Once all of his items were laid out on the table, I told his mom that I had one other item to give them. I retrieved the flight attendant's crucifix from my pocket and told its story. I set that on the table and excused myself. When I next saw Chance's mom, she was wearing the crucifix on her lapel.

By 1400 most of the seats on the gym floor were filled and people were finding seats in the fixed bleachers high above the gym floor. There were a surprising number of people in military uniform. Many Marines had come up from Salt Lake City. Men from various VFW posts and the Marine Corps League occupied multiple rows of folding chairs. We all stood as Chance's family took their seats in the front.

It turned out the Chance's sister, a Petty Officer in the Navy, worked for a Rear Admiral-the Chief of Naval Intelligence-at the Pentagon. The Admiral had brought many of the sailors on his staff with him to Dubois pay respects to Chance and support his sister. After a few songs and some words from a Navy Chaplain, the Admiral took the microphone and told us how Chance had died.

Chance was an artillery cannoneer and his unit was acting as provisional military police outside of Baghdad. Chance had volunteered to man a .50 caliber machine gun in the turret of the leading vehicle in a convoy. The convoy came under intense fire but Chance stayed true to his post and returned fire with the big gun, covering the rest of the convoy, until he was fatally wounded.

Then the commander of the local VFW post read some of the letters Chance had written home. In letters to his mom he talked of the mosquitoes and the heat. In letters to his stepfather he told of the dangers of convoy operations and of receiving fire.

The service was a fitting tribute to this hero. When it was over, we stood as the casket was wheeled out with the family following. The casket was placed onto a horse-drawn carriage for the mile-long trip from the gym, down the main street, then up the steep hill to the cemetery. I stood alone and saluted as the carriage departed the high school. I found my car and joined Chance's convoy.

The town seemingly went from the gym to the street. All along the route, the people had lined the street and were waving small American flags. The flags that were otherwise posted were all at half-staff. For the last quarter mile up the hill, local boy scouts, spaced about 20 feet apart, all in uniform, held large flags. At the foot of the hill, I could look up and back and see the enormity of our procession. I wondered how many people would be at this funeral if it were in, say, Detroit or Los Angeles-probably not as many as were here in little Dubois, Wyoming

The carriage stopped about 15 yards from the grave and the military pall bearers and the family waited until the men of the VFW and Marine Corps league were formed up and schools busses had arrived carrying many of the people from the procession route. Once the entire crowd was in place, the pallbearers came to attention and began to remove the casket from the caisson. As I had done all week, I came to attention and executed a slow ceremonial salute as Chance was being transferred from one mode of transport to another.

From Dover to Philadelphia; Philadelphia to Minneapolis; Minneapolis to Billings; Billings to Riverton; and Riverton to Dubois we had been together. Now, as I watched them carry him the final 15 yards, I was choking up. I felt that, as long as he was still moving, he was somehow still alive.

Then they put him down above his grave. He had stopped moving.

Although my mission had been officially complete once I turned him over to the funeral director at the Billings airport, it was his placement at his grave that really concluded it in my mind. Now, he was home to stay and I suddenly felt at once sad, relieved, and useless.

The chaplain said some words that I couldn't hear and two Marines removed the flag from the casket and slowly folded it for presentation to his mother. When the ceremony was over, Chance's father placed a ribbon from his service in Vietnam on Chance's casket. His mother approached the casket and took something from her blouse and put it on the casket. I later saw that it was the flight attendant's crucifix. Eventually friends of Chance's moved closer to the grave. A young man put a can of Coppenhagen on the casket and many others left flowers.

Finally, we all went back to the gym for a reception. There was enough food to feed the entire population for a few days. In one corner of the gym there was a table set up with lots of pictures of Chance and some of his sports awards People were continually approaching me and the other Marines to thank us for our service. Almost all of them had some story to tell about their connection to the military. About an hour into the reception, I had the impression that every man in Wyoming had, at one time or another, been in the service.

. It seemed like every time I saw Chance's mom she was hugging a different well wisher. As time passed, I began to hear people laughing. We were starting to heal.

After a few hours at the gym, I went back to the hotel to change out of my dress blues. The local VFW post had invited everyone over to "celebrate Chance's life." The Post was on the other end of town from my hotel and the drive took less than two minutes. The crowd was somewhat smaller than what had been at the gym but the Post was packed.

Marines were playing pool at the two tables near the entrance and most of the VFW members were at the bar or around the tables in the bar area. The largest room in the Post was a banquet/dinning/dancing area and it was now called "The Chance Phelps Room." Above the entry were two items: a large portrait of Chance in his dress blues and the Eagle, Globe, & Anchor. In one corner of the room there was another memorial to Chance. There were candles burning around another picture of him in his blues. On the table surrounding his photo were his Purple Heart citation and his Purple Heart medal. There was also a framed copy of an excerpt from the Congressional Record. This was an elegant tribute to Chance Phelps delivered on the floor of the United States House of Representatives by Congressman Scott McInnis of Colorado. Above it all was a television that was playing a photo montage of Chance's life from small boy to proud Marine.

I did not buy a drink that night. As had been happening all day, indeed all week, people were thanking me for my service and for bringing Chance home. Now, in addition to words and handshakes, they were thanking me with beer. I fell in with the men who had handled the horses and horse-drawn carriage. I learned that they had worked through the night to groom and prepare the horses for Chance's last ride. They were all very grateful that they were able to contribute.

After a while we all gathered in the Chance Phelps room for the formal dedication. The Post commander told us of how Chance had been so looking forward to becoming a Life Member of the VFW. Now, in the Chance Phelps Room of the Dubois, Wyoming post, he would be an eternal member. We all raised our beers and the Chance Phelps room was christened.

Later, as I was walking toward the pool tables, a Staff Sergeant form the Reserve unit in Salt Lake grabbed me and said, "Sir, you gotta hear this." There were two other Marines with him and he told the younger one, a Lance Corporal, to tell me his story. The Staff Sergeant said the Lance Corporal was normally too shy and modest to tell it but now he'd had enough beer to overcome his usual tendencies.

As the Lance Corporal started to talk, an older man joined our circle. He wore a baseball cap that indicated he had been with the 1st Marine Division in Korea. Earlier in the evening he had told me about one of his former commanding officers; a Colonel Puller.

So, there I was, standing in a circle with three Marines recently returned from fighting with the 1st Marine Division in Iraq and one not so recently returned from fighting with the 1st Marine Division in Korea. I, who had fought with the 1st Marine Division in Kuwait, was about to gain a new insight into our Corps.

The young Lance Corporal began to tell us his story. At that moment, in this circle of current and former Marines, the differences in our ages and ranks dissipated-we were all simply Marines.

His squad had been on a patrol through a city street. They had taken small arms fire and had literally dodged an RPG round that sailed between two Marines. At one point they received fire from behind a wall and had neutralized the sniper with a SMAW round. The back blast of the SMAW, however, kicked up a substantial rock that hammered the Lance Corporal in the thigh; only missing his groin because he had reflexively turned his body sideways at the shot.

Their squad had suffered some wounded and was receiving more sniper fire when suddenly he was hit in the head by an AK-47 round. I was stunned as he told us how he felt like a baseball bat had been slammed into his head. He had spun around and fell unconscious. When he came to, he had a severe scalp wound but his Kevlar helmet had saved his life. He continued with his unit for a few days before realizing he was suffering the effects of a severe concussion.

As I stood there in the circle with the old man and the other Marines, the Staff Sergeant finished the story. He told of how this Lance Corporal had begged and pleaded with the Battalion surgeon to let him stay with his unit. In the end, the doctor said there was just no way-he had suffered a severe and traumatic head wound and would have to be med'evaced.

The Marine Corps is a special fraternity. There are moments when we are reminded of this. Interestingly, those moments don't always happen at awards ceremonies or in dress blues at Birthday Balls. I have found, rather, that they occur at unexpected times and places: next to a loaded moving van at Camp Lejeune's base housing, in a dirty CP tent in northern Saudi Arabia, and in a smoky VFW post in western Wyoming.

After the story was done, the Lance Corporal stepped over to the old man, put his arm over the man's shoulder and told him that he, the Korean War vet, was his hero. The two of them stood there with their arms over each other's shoulders and we were all silent for a moment. When they let go, I told the Lance Corporal that there were recruits down on the yellow footprints tonight that would soon be learning his story.

I was finished drinking beer and telling stories. I found Chance's father and shook his hand one more time. Chance's mom had already left and I deeply regretted not being able to tell her goodbye.

I left Dubois in the morning before sunrise for my long drive back to Billings. It had been my honor to take Chance Phelps to his final post. Now he was on the high ground overlooking his town.

I miss him.


LtCol Strobl

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The World Needs to Change along with Indie Film

I was thinking about how the independent film industry's need for major change actually closely reflects the world's need to change in order to survive. Alex Steffen in Good Magazine's "One Big Crisis" suggests ways of solving our "planetary crisis" that sound strikingly similar to how we need to be approaching the transformation of the indie film industry:  "If we want to avoid that catastrophe, we need to not just do fewer bad things: we need to do different things altogether. We need to reinvent the way our whole society works. We need bright green upgrades to our cities, our energy systems, industrial design and technology, farming and forestry—everything. It all needs to change, essentially immediately. That will take millions of people transforming their lives to pursue new solutions, to become more effective and innovative citizens, business people, investors, community leaders, and so on. We need people to actually step up and do big things. We need people who change their thinking and not just their light bulbs."

In the independent film industry, we need to come together on a macro level and commit to make the necessary changes that will allow us to survive. I believe our survival as filmmakers will be very similar to our pursuit to survive as human beings. Just as every human being needs to think about and change how they live so we can save the planet and ourselves, every filmmaker needs to commit to the fact that we need to change how things are done in our industry and work hard to implement those changes. We need to:

  • work together and smarter
  • share resources and knowledge
  • assess and work hard to connect to and build audiences
  • embrace and continue to advance technology
  • mentor upcoming filmmakers
  • take responsibility for selling our films 
  • take control of our careers and our survival

In other words, Take Action! 

Steffen believes, "there’s another political force growing fast, and that’s the politics of optimism. It’s a politics that says transformation is not just a duty, it’s an amazing opportunity. We might, instead of doing nothing and leaving our kids a ruined planet, decide to build them an awesome future and spend the rest of our lives enjoying it. That’s the choice we wake up to every day now: cynicism or change."

Saturday, January 3, 2009

IndieGoGo Helps Build Cash and Audiences

I heard from IndieGoGo. Here is what they had to say about their Web site. Sounds like a great resource for building an audience and some cash at the same time. 

GoGoDanae says:

Hi there, I'm with IndieGoGo and just stumbled upon your entry. You are correct; we have had many filmmakers raise various sums of money and various percentages of their budget. Some filmmakers whose budgets are quite large and fully funded are still carving out a percentage of their budget to raise via fans on IndieGoGo purely as an audience-building and marketing strategy. They understand the value of 1000 people contributing $10 for a credit in the film is much greater than 1 person contributing $10,000. In the former case, you now have 1000 people talking and buzzing about your film with all their friends and possibly even bragging about how they got to be a film patron with only $10. It's great viral/grass-roots/organic marketing. So what's happening is that Fundraising is becoming the new Marketing. Plus, by building a fanbase before and during the production, you're making your project more attractive to other more traditional types of financiers and distributors. The risk profile of investing in a project with a fanbase is much more attractive than a project with no embedded audience. At IndieGoGo we believe the future of film finance rests in a hybrid approach - pulling together all types of funds, and using each type to spur others. Also, on IndieGoGo all contributed funds go directly to the filmmaker, whether or not the project reaches its goal. if it does reach a goal, the filmmaker can always open another goal to fund the next phase of the project. The number of funding goals is limitless too. I hope that helps and clears things up a bit. Good luck with your project! Cheers and Happy New Year! GoGoDanae