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SXSW 2016: Joe Swanberg Gets Honest About Making a Living in Indie Film

By Chris O'Falt | Indiewire

“When shooting a movie, it’s better to have no money, than some money.”

Joe Swanberg

Joe Swanberg’s keynote today at SXSW was not unlike one of his movies: Unscripted, personally revealing and brutally honest. As Swanberg worked his way chronologically through his career, he kept pointing out how he wasn’t some trailblazer, but rather that his career had just intersected with tremendous advances in technology that changed how films were made and distributed. The reality, however, is that Swanberg has consistently been at the forefront of experimenting with how to be an uncompromised filmmaker, while still carving out a career and living for himself.  

Using examples from his career, the director provided plenty of filmmaking principles and advice with the many aspiring DYI filmmakers in the audience.

“We Need To Share Information”

“If we just talked to each other we’d fuck shit up,” explained Swanberg. Using an example from when he was making a the web series “Young Hard Bodies” for IFC and Nerve, Swanberg said that he was happy to just get paid anything to make the series. That was until his good friend Ti West (who is at SXWS this year with “In a Valley of Violence”) told him he was getting paid $5,000 a episode. Swanberg had started making his series for $500 to $1,000 an episode.

“If I didn’t know Ti, I would have been happy with [getting a raise] to $3,000,” but instead IFC, didn’t blink when he asked for $5,000.  

Joe Swanberg at a Nitehawk, Brooklyn screening of Magnolia Pictures’ “Drinking Buddies.”

“Marriage is Also a Business Partnership”

Swanberg credits his marriage to fellow filmmaker Kris Swanberg (“Unexpected”) as being vital to allowing them both filmmakers ability to experiment and create. Although he was honest about how the couple spent a decade barely making ends meet, that having two potential income earners — and as long as one of them was working and able to pay the bills — has allowed them to both continue to make art and start a family.

“No One Reads Anything”

“No press is bad press,” Swanberg joked. His larger point here was that simply being written about in major publications, especially The New York Times, gave Swanberg’s early ventures into micro budget filmmaking and VOD the credibility he needed. He said that biggest lesson came when a number of people would congratulate him on reviews he knew said “god awful” things about his films. It was at this point he realized that being important enough to be written about was what would be vital to him being able to make films for $10,000 to $15,000.     

“Digging for Fire”

“You Can Shoot A Good Movie in Four Days”

Swanberg spent a great deal of time during his keynote highlighting the key role that his friend and collaborator Adam Wingard (also at SXSW with the TV show “Outcast”) has played in his career. When the two directors first met each other in Birmingham, where Wingard lived, Swanberg thought he was “the weirdest and most memorable dude ever,” but he didn’t take him seriously. When Wingard asked Swanberg to come to Alabama to act in two segments of his four-segment feature about date rape, Swanberg joked, “that was literally the last thing I ever wanted to do.”

After watching the first two segments, however, Swanberg was impressed, but when he learned that Wingard had shot each segment in a day, his mind was blown. He went to Alabama to see how Wingard could possibly shoot a quarter of a movie in a day and for it to still be good. He was so impressed by Wingard, he hired him to be his cinematographer and mirrored his process in shooting “Autoerotic.” The film went on to be Swanberg’s first project to make a major profit (it sold for $70,000 and cost only $15,000) and set into motion Swanberg making seven films in one year.  

Swanberg encouraged the young filmmakers in the audience to attempt to making a four-day feature themselves, highlighting that it’s great for performances and it really sharpens and focuses you as a director.  

Movie Stars Are Important

In discussing “Drinking Buddies,” Swanberg insists he did nothing different in the way he made the film, except that he worked with stars like Anna Kendrick and Jake Johnson, and that results were career- and life-changing.

“It’s this weird thing that when we see famous people do things it feels real [to us],” explained Swanberg. He admitted that while he dreams of going back to the days of living with his cast and crew for a month while improvising a movie like “Hannah Takes The Stairs,” the reality is he’s fallen in love with working with Hollywood stars. This has meant that he now needs to write a script, so that he can have a real plan to accommodate busy actors’ schedules.

“Invest in Your Own Movies”

Swanberg revealed today that since “Drinking Buddies,” he has rolled his income from one movie right into his next one, owning an increasing larger percentage of his work with each new project. He realizes this is counter to every piece of advice filmmakers are told, but he insists that gambling on yourself is the only way you will ever make any real money in this business.

“Drinking Buddies”

“Three Truths About Money”

1.  According Swanberg, when making a movie, “it is better to have no money, than some money.” He insists having some money causes major headaches because everybody is going to want a piece of it and there’s not enough to go around. He stated that he’s had much better success paying people more money after the film has been sold.

2.  The less you need money, the more they want to give you money, but when you are struggling, the smell of desperation means no one will give you a dime. Swanberg discussed how this truth is infuriating, but that advices filmmakers to take meetings like you don’t need funds.

3.  Time and happiness are money. If you don’t factor your happiness into what it is you do for money as filmmaker you will not succeed. He added, “People don’t like bad movies and never have I seen a filmmaker hate something they made, that makes money.”

SXSW: Mark Duplass’ 8 Improvised Tips for Success in the Film Industry    Indiewire article by Eric Kohn   “The cavalry isn’t coming.”   With those words, actor-director-producer Mark Duplass launched into a rousing keynote at the SXSW Film Festival on Sunday. Currently writing a second season of HBO’s “Togetherness” with his brother Jay, Mark continues to act in a wide variety of projects, while he and his brother produce several movies a year and recently signed a four-picture deal with Netflix.   A decade ago, their feature-length debut “The Puffy Chair” became a sleeper hit on the festival circuit, which led the pair to Los Angeles, direct two studio projects (“Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”) and continue building momentum. These days, both brothers also act on television (Mark on “The League” and Jay on “Transparent”). The Duplass brothers’ brand has never been stronger — but it hasn’t always been that way.   Despite all their success, Mark told the crowd that their origin story had more than a few rough patches.   “I was living in Austin in shitty apartments around town,” he said. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’m inspired, I’m excited, I want to be a filmmaker. I have no connections. Everyone says pick up a camera and do it, but how am I going to get there? What can you do when you’re absolutely nowhere?’ ”   Over the course of his half-hour presentation, he shared this improvised eight-point plan based on his experiences. (Backstage, Duplass told Indiewire that he assembled his speech on scraps of paper at his hotel shortly beforehand.)    1. The $3 Short Film   Technology is so cheap. There’s no excuse for not making short films on the weekend with your friends. We had a film we shot on an iPhone at Sundance this year that sold to Magnolia [“Tangerine,” directed by Sean Baker]. Our first film starred me. It was called “Vince Del Rio.” We spent $65,000 on this movie and it was a steaming pile of dog diarrhea. We almost gave up making movies. [Jay] was depressed. I was slightly less depressed. All we had was our parents’ video camera, which had a dead pixel in the middle of it. I said, “I’m gonna get a tape.” Twenty minutes later, Jay said he couldn’t get his answering machine message right and recorded it a hundred times. I said, “That’s great. It’s us.” So we shot one 20-minute improvised take. We edited it down to seven minutes. Our friend David Zellner said, “You should just submit this around to festivals.”   That three-dollar movie was our first to get into Sundance. It changed everything for us. We realized that it doesn’t matter what your movie looks like. I recommend making one of these every weekend with your smartest group of friends. They don’t have to be film people, just charismatic. It should be one scene, five minutes, and ideally comedic, because those program well at festivals. Your first ones are going to suck. Probably. They’ll be like a little nugget you can show your friends. Then you hone in on that little giggle. Somewhere you’re going to discover you have something unique to offer.    2. Make a Feature For Under $1,000   At the risk of saying you should make a self-indulgent film for your first movie, you should absolutely make a self-indulgent film for your first movie. This is going to be the start of your career. The whole time you’re going around this festival, there’s a small chance an agent is going to sign you. They’re going to say the cavalry is coming. It’s probably not. But you’re going to be writing a feature script the whole time that can be made for less than $1,000.   You’re going to spend a year making this movie with available material. You can ask everyone who can support you what they can lend you. When my brother Jay and I made “The Puffy Chair,” we had my apartment in Brooklyn. I had a van. There was a furniture store going out of business in Maine where we got two chairs. That was perfect because I needed to burn one of them in the movie. We knew we wouldn’t have to wait to make this — we could make it at a cheap price. So you’re going to go out with a group of five to eight people. You’re going to buy lights and extension cords… and they have a 30-day return policy. So you’re going to make your movie for free. And there are places… where you can buy cameras and return them — or shoot it on your iPhone. If you have an agent at this point, they’ll say, “Don’t do this.” If you listen to them, you won’t get your movie. Go make this movie on your own.   3. Show Your Movie to Movie Stars   'Here’s the good news: Who gives the fuck about the cavalry? You are the cavalry.’   There are movie stars at these film festivals. Every film festival has three to five movie stars that come because of the sponsors. You’re going to get your movie in front of them. Tell your agent to send your $5,000 movie to every actor in the agency. You want to build your movie with them. A lot of those stars are going to be like, “Fuck that, this dude doesn’t know what he’s doing.” But one of them will respond. Let’s call him Randy Hercules. He was on a bad CBS show and he’s super-depressed. You’ll say, “Randy, I saw your show, and I think you’re better than this.” You’re going to say, “I want to build a role for you, Randy.” And he’s going to fall in love with you. He will follow you to the end of the earth.    4. Make Another Cheap Movie   Now you are going to do the unthinkable — you’re going to make another $1,000 movie, but this one has Randy Hercules in it. Even if you make a stinker, you’ll make at least $50,000 on it. Randy will make 20%. You can go to him and ask him to give it to the rest of the crew. And he’ll do it. You might go to Sundance and sell it for a million dollars. Probably won’t happen. That’s OK. Now you have a movie that has extreme value on VOD because it has Randy Hercules in it.    5. Embrace VOD   God bless VOD. Please do not reject VOD. Don’t blow all your money on a theater that’s going to lose money. Let someone put it out on VOD and you’ll make at least $5,000 because Randy Hercules is in it. More importantly, the industry is starting to notice you. Now your agent will say, “The cavalry is really coming.”    6. Move to TV   As the death of the middle class of film continues, it has moved to TV. If you made a good movie with Randy Hercules, you’ll sell a pitch. You might get to make that show. Probably not. But you could probably make some episodes independently and license them back to these companies at a quarter of the price. So you’re going to take out Randy and his friend, Dingleberry Jones. Make two episodes and outline the rest. I guarantee you can sell the show to a place that wants content from a vetted, cool filmmaker like yourself.    7. Produce Your Friends’ Work   All your friends are going to say, “I have an idea, I want to make my first film with Randy Hercules.” Then you can throw a thousand dollars at them and say, “Go for it. If you shit the bed, it’s a write-off.” But take 80% of it and share it with your crew.    8. Accept the Hard Facts   So now you’re at this weird crossroads in your life — making money, not rich, sustaining your friends. Your agent will call you: “This time, the cavalry is fucking beating down your door.” And she’s right. You’re gonna look at your career and say, “I’m a little tired, because I’ve had to self-generate every project. It would be really amazing not to work that hard.”   This is the really hard truth: Still, when I’m at this place that I am at, the cavalry is not coming. It sucks. But this is where the good news starts to come in. You realize, “I made two micro-budget features, critically acclaimed short films, and licensed a TV show. How is it possible that the cavalry is not coming?”   Here’s the good news: Who gives the fuck about the cavalry? You are the cavalry. You have a group of friends that needs your support. As they get more successful and you make a shitty movie, they will lift you up. This will equalize you. You have a bevy of work behind you and not one of those are you embarrassed to show your children later on. Most importantly, you’re now in a corner of the sandbox that is completely your own. No one can stop you from doing exactly what you want to do. If you can accept that the cavalry won’t come, and if you can be the cavalry, it gives you a chance to be happy.

SXSW: Mark Duplass’ 8 Improvised Tips for Success in the Film Industry

Indiewire article by Eric Kohn

“The cavalry isn’t coming.”

With those words, actor-director-producer Mark Duplass launched into a rousing keynote at the SXSW Film Festival on Sunday. Currently writing a second season of HBO’s “Togetherness” with his brother Jay, Mark continues to act in a wide variety of projects, while he and his brother produce several movies a year and recently signed a four-picture deal with Netflix.

A decade ago, their feature-length debut “The Puffy Chair” became a sleeper hit on the festival circuit, which led the pair to Los Angeles, direct two studio projects (“Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”) and continue building momentum. These days, both brothers also act on television (Mark on “The League” and Jay on “Transparent”). The Duplass brothers’ brand has never been stronger — but it hasn’t always been that way.

Despite all their success, Mark told the crowd that their origin story had more than a few rough patches.

“I was living in Austin in shitty apartments around town,” he said. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’m inspired, I’m excited, I want to be a filmmaker. I have no connections. Everyone says pick up a camera and do it, but how am I going to get there? What can you do when you’re absolutely nowhere?’ ”

Over the course of his half-hour presentation, he shared this improvised eight-point plan based on his experiences. (Backstage, Duplass told Indiewire that he assembled his speech on scraps of paper at his hotel shortly beforehand.)

1. The $3 Short Film

Technology is so cheap. There’s no excuse for not making short films on the weekend with your friends. We had a film we shot on an iPhone at Sundance this year that sold to Magnolia [“Tangerine,” directed by Sean Baker]. Our first film starred me. It was called “Vince Del Rio.” We spent $65,000 on this movie and it was a steaming pile of dog diarrhea. We almost gave up making movies. [Jay] was depressed. I was slightly less depressed. All we had was our parents’ video camera, which had a dead pixel in the middle of it. I said, “I’m gonna get a tape.” Twenty minutes later, Jay said he couldn’t get his answering machine message right and recorded it a hundred times. I said, “That’s great. It’s us.” So we shot one 20-minute improvised take. We edited it down to seven minutes. Our friend David Zellner said, “You should just submit this around to festivals.”

That three-dollar movie was our first to get into Sundance. It changed everything for us. We realized that it doesn’t matter what your movie looks like. I recommend making one of these every weekend with your smartest group of friends. They don’t have to be film people, just charismatic. It should be one scene, five minutes, and ideally comedic, because those program well at festivals. Your first ones are going to suck. Probably. They’ll be like a little nugget you can show your friends. Then you hone in on that little giggle. Somewhere you’re going to discover you have something unique to offer.

2. Make a Feature For Under $1,000

At the risk of saying you should make a self-indulgent film for your first movie, you should absolutely make a self-indulgent film for your first movie. This is going to be the start of your career. The whole time you’re going around this festival, there’s a small chance an agent is going to sign you. They’re going to say the cavalry is coming. It’s probably not. But you’re going to be writing a feature script the whole time that can be made for less than $1,000.

You’re going to spend a year making this movie with available material. You can ask everyone who can support you what they can lend you. When my brother Jay and I made “The Puffy Chair,” we had my apartment in Brooklyn. I had a van. There was a furniture store going out of business in Maine where we got two chairs. That was perfect because I needed to burn one of them in the movie. We knew we wouldn’t have to wait to make this — we could make it at a cheap price. So you’re going to go out with a group of five to eight people. You’re going to buy lights and extension cords… and they have a 30-day return policy. So you’re going to make your movie for free. And there are places… where you can buy cameras and return them — or shoot it on your iPhone. If you have an agent at this point, they’ll say, “Don’t do this.” If you listen to them, you won’t get your movie. Go make this movie on your own.

3. Show Your Movie to Movie Stars

'Here’s the good news: Who gives the fuck about the cavalry? You are the cavalry.’

There are movie stars at these film festivals. Every film festival has three to five movie stars that come because of the sponsors. You’re going to get your movie in front of them. Tell your agent to send your $5,000 movie to every actor in the agency. You want to build your movie with them. A lot of those stars are going to be like, “Fuck that, this dude doesn’t know what he’s doing.” But one of them will respond. Let’s call him Randy Hercules. He was on a bad CBS show and he’s super-depressed. You’ll say, “Randy, I saw your show, and I think you’re better than this.” You’re going to say, “I want to build a role for you, Randy.” And he’s going to fall in love with you. He will follow you to the end of the earth.

4. Make Another Cheap Movie

Now you are going to do the unthinkable — you’re going to make another $1,000 movie, but this one has Randy Hercules in it. Even if you make a stinker, you’ll make at least $50,000 on it. Randy will make 20%. You can go to him and ask him to give it to the rest of the crew. And he’ll do it. You might go to Sundance and sell it for a million dollars. Probably won’t happen. That’s OK. Now you have a movie that has extreme value on VOD because it has Randy Hercules in it.

5. Embrace VOD

God bless VOD. Please do not reject VOD. Don’t blow all your money on a theater that’s going to lose money. Let someone put it out on VOD and you’ll make at least $5,000 because Randy Hercules is in it. More importantly, the industry is starting to notice you. Now your agent will say, “The cavalry is really coming.”

6. Move to TV

As the death of the middle class of film continues, it has moved to TV. If you made a good movie with Randy Hercules, you’ll sell a pitch. You might get to make that show. Probably not. But you could probably make some episodes independently and license them back to these companies at a quarter of the price. So you’re going to take out Randy and his friend, Dingleberry Jones. Make two episodes and outline the rest. I guarantee you can sell the show to a place that wants content from a vetted, cool filmmaker like yourself.

7. Produce Your Friends’ Work

All your friends are going to say, “I have an idea, I want to make my first film with Randy Hercules.” Then you can throw a thousand dollars at them and say, “Go for it. If you shit the bed, it’s a write-off.” But take 80% of it and share it with your crew.

8. Accept the Hard Facts

So now you’re at this weird crossroads in your life — making money, not rich, sustaining your friends. Your agent will call you: “This time, the cavalry is fucking beating down your door.” And she’s right. You’re gonna look at your career and say, “I’m a little tired, because I’ve had to self-generate every project. It would be really amazing not to work that hard.”

This is the really hard truth: Still, when I’m at this place that I am at, the cavalry is not coming. It sucks. But this is where the good news starts to come in. You realize, “I made two micro-budget features, critically acclaimed short films, and licensed a TV show. How is it possible that the cavalry is not coming?”

Here’s the good news: Who gives the fuck about the cavalry? You are the cavalry. You have a group of friends that needs your support. As they get more successful and you make a shitty movie, they will lift you up. This will equalize you. You have a bevy of work behind you and not one of those are you embarrassed to show your children later on. Most importantly, you’re now in a corner of the sandbox that is completely your own. No one can stop you from doing exactly what you want to do. If you can accept that the cavalry won’t come, and if you can be the cavalry, it gives you a chance to be happy.

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