A.O. Scott Wants Me to Visit Film Forum More Often

A.O. Scott wrote an uncharacteristically inane piece for The New York Times over the weekend. If you’re reading this after the brief period of free online access, it’s basically about why nobody watches artsy, miserabilist foreign films in U.S. theaters anymore. But it’s based on really shaky ideas, starting with the title: “The World is Watching. Not Americans.” Is that the case? Are we just ignorant Americans being force-fed entertainment like “Superman Returns?” When I was living in Berlin they were playing a LOT of blockbuster American films dubbed into German. Original German-language productions seemed like the exception rather than the rule. Obviously that’s just one example, but I find it hard to believe that downers like “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” outsell “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” in Romania.

The fact is, there is a problem with U.S. film distribution, but The New York Times deserves a fair portion of the blame. A small independent or foreign film has a very large hurdle to overcome if it wants any success in the U.S. theatrical market. It’s a good review in The New York Times. Without that review, you’re out of luck. You might be able to limp through a few screens for a week or two, but without the support of a Roger Ebert (who’s not going to like your movie either) you’re screwed. Nobody’s going to go out during the one or two weekends your movie plays to 1/4 full houses. It’s not fun.

But you know what is fun? Discovering a hidden gem on Netflix or at your local video store, if you still have one. It’s cheap, the soundtrack doesn’t have to compete with the subway (Angelika Theater, I’m looking in your direction) and you don’t feel bad if there’s an empty seat or two in your living room.

Unfortunately for filmmakers and distributors, you can’t skip the theatrical release without looking like a loser. If your film goes straight to video, you can’t get that review in The New York Times because they won’t review it, even if it’s one of A.O. Scott’s fabled brilliant pieces of cinema that distributors are too scared to release. You need a week-long run in New York to get yourself on their sacred pages. A run which is guaranteed to lose money in the short term.

Sure, things might have seemed better in the old days when the only way to see difficult films was at the art house, but Netflix and Amazon (and brave DVD distributors) have made things better than ever. If you live outside of a major metropolitan area, you can actually watch these movies now. And they are inevitably released on DVD in some format, so you can find them even if they don’t get the publicity of a theatrical release. A.O. Scott is really lementing the death of the arthouse, not the diminishing demand for arthouse films. They’re out there A.O., they’re just not at The Film Forum anymore.

Update: Mahnola Dargis wrote an article a few days before A.O. Scott’s that outlines the alternative distribution methods distributors are trying. It’s informative and on the right track. Do the NYT critics read each other’s articles?

Sound Editing Fay Grim

Against my better judgment, in addition to the picture editing (see earlier post) I agreed to do the sound editing for Fay Grim under Hal Hartley’s direction. Sound editing is not my first love. I have some ability with it, but it doesn’t get me as excited as picture editing. Usually it makes me bored and crazy. But I got a lot more money out of the whole thing as a result, so that was nice.

As we were editing the picture I kept thinking about how we would make the switch to sound editing. We had an old 1st generation MBox so we could get Pro Tools for $75. But there’s a built-in limitation in all hardware-based sound playback. You can only get X number of sound tracks out of the thing before you have to do a mixdown. In the case of the MBox, that’s 24 tracks. Since we were working with a lot of stereo effects and ambiences, that brought us down to about 14 or so distinct sounds. That’s not enough. I also had problems with stuttering sound and overloaded CPUs, which seemed strange considering we had a top-of-the-line (at the time) dual processor G5 and the MBox was several years old.

So I started looking at software-based solutions. I tried Soundtrack Pro, which came with Final Cut Studio. It seemed like a perfectly capable multitrack sound editor, but it had big problem. It doesn’t export OMFs. Soundtrack Pro was a dead end, unless you brought it back into Final Cut and exported the OMFs from there. More of a cul-de-sac I guess. I didn’t like that idea. It was too cumbersome. I like simple things.

The simplest thing I could think of was doing the sound editing in Final Cut Pro. I thought about it. And thought some more. And the only thing I could come up with that would make that worse than any audio-specific editing system is that it can only edit whole frames, you can’t make those real precise subframe edits. But frankly, that didn’t bother me one bit. And it never came up. And all the filtering and manipulation of sound would be done in the mix, so the only thing we needed to do was put the sounds on the right frames.

The big advantage to sound editing in FCP is that we never had to lock the picture. The picture editing could last for as long as the sound editing and there was no transferring back and forth between programs and no need to worry about making mistakes in the process. With a nice powerful processor, I could play the majority of our sounds without rendering because even if I had 72 tracks (I believe that was the final number) I was never playing 72 sounds at the same time. And when I did need to render, it took only a few seconds.

Finally I exported OMFs. I did two for each reel thanks to that pesky 2 GB file size limit, one with the first 36 tracks and one with the second 36. Then I combined the OMFs in Pro Tools and brought Pro Tools sessions to the mix.

I also spent a week making a program that would generate cue sheets from Final Cut Pro timeline. Hal likes cue sheets, and I was used to them from my student films which were mixed on dubbers like in the old days. The limit of my programming knowledge is using PHP to generate web pages, so I made a PHP script that could parse FCP XML files into cue sheets. It’s not perfect, and it only works in Safari (try printing it with Firefox and you’ll see). Once we got to the mix we realized it was completely useless because everyone could see the Pro Tools layout, and I had laid out the tracks in an intuitive way so we always knew where everything was. Anyway, if you have any need for FCP-generated cue sheets, let me know.

Why make short films?

We are supposedly living in a new era of the short film. Short films had their place when a night at the movies included shorts, newsreels, and a feature or two. You could make a living with short films. But that hasn’t been the case in several decades. Now a movie is a feature film. In recent memory if you made a short film there was severely limited opportunity to make back the money you spent to produce the film, let alone make enough to live on. And with a few exceptions like Hal Hartley and David Lynch, once you start making features you don’t go back to shorts.

When I started making shorts there was only one place to go: film festivals. But what is a film festival for? As a filmmaker I’ve always believed that the first priority of a film festival should be getting people to watch films that they wouldn’t see otherwise. The ideal festival picks films that they like, and that need the exposure. No matter how good it is, a feature film with major stars and worldwide distribution already secured has no business being selected for a film festival. But if you’ve seen the lineup at any major film festival you know that they’re filled with well-known films made by well-known directors starring well-known actors. And I completely understand this from a programmer’s point of view. How else would they get anyone to come to the festival? There is a certain amount of pandering necessary. Some festivals do it more than others. But the reality is your best chance of getting into a festival is if you’re already an established filmmaker or you managed to convince someone from a popular sitcom to star in your $100,000 film.

And of course nobody watches the shorts except the short filmmakers. I’ve been to Sundance and Toronto and I didn’t see a single short at either one. At festivals like that I barely have the time to see the features I want to see. I’ve only watched shorts at smaller festivals that I also had a short in.

The dream of the festival screening is that someone with access to money will be there and love your short enough to get you money to make a feature. Only in rare cases will the short itself earn you money, because opportunities for short film distribution are severely limited. There are the mythical foreign television outlets which have been known to purchase shorts. And A lucky few get on IFC or Sundance, but a disproportionate number of their live-action short films have indie stars in them.

The one place I seek out short films is online. People watch shorts online. They pretty much only watch shorts online. I wouldn’t like to watch a feature online. I have a nice television and a couch for that purpose. And that’s why we’re told that short films are actually going to make money these days. There’s an audience out there. But I can tell you one thing I’ve never done. I’ve never paid money to watch a short film online. I’m not going to do it. And I can’t imagine a situation in which someone else would pay any amount of money to watch one of my short films, no matter how good I happen to think they are. The only solution I can see is advertising. And I’m sorry to say, I don’t see how it’s going to work for me.

I’ve recently “Revverized” all the videos I have online. I uploaded QuickTimes to Revver.com and Revver converted them to Flash (in sync, unlike some other websites I can think of) and added advertisements to the end of the files. If a viewer clicks on the ad at the end of the video I get a small amount of money. I have no objection to adding advertisements to my videos. In fact, you could stick them at the head and I’d be happier about it. I put credit sequences at the end of most of my movies, so a viewer will have to watch all the way to the end of the credits in order to get to the part where I make any money. So far I’ve made about $9.

I also have Truth @ 15 Frames Per Second Revverized, and I see that as being more likely to generate cash than the longer movies. They’re each a few minutes long and there are not credits at the end, so viewers are more likely to make it to the ads. And honestly, if I hadn’t made it myself, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t watch Camera Noise all the way through if I came across it online. It’s 29 minutes long! It’s too long for a short film program, let alone the Internet. But some people do watch it, which is nice because it means the movie hasn’t disappeared forever.

And that is really the reason to make shorts. It’s to have people watch and enjoy what you make. Not everyone enjoys them, but the YouTube and MySpace messages I get every once in a while are positive feedback from people people who wouldn’t have had a chance of seeing my movies just a few years ago. Things are changing, but if I want to make some cash I need to make something shorter and less intentionally off-putting.