A writer/producer friend of mine compared LA to a gold rush mining camp. Hopefuls come here from every corner of the country in search of Hollywood gold: that million-dollar screenplay, or that starring role, or that Oscar for Best Director. In the original California gold rush back in 1849, a few—a very few—struck it rich. Many went home broke. Some stayed and went crazy. (San Francisco’s tolerance for wacky behavior originates from those days, when folks had a “there but for the grace of God go I” reaction when they encountered yet another poor soul shattered by disappointed hopes.)
But others made money selling the shovels and the picks (and the whiskey), along with all kinds of advice on how to find the mother lode. And so it is today in 2014 LA, except that the picks became pixels, shovels became head shots and the occasional whispered advice became workshops, classes and coaching sessions shouting from every iPad.
All of this adds up to a lot of money, particularly for someone doing role research by parking cars and waiting tables.
That’s why the Burbank International Film Festival deserves a big thank you for giving the local community a free one-day seminar on “the biz” at Woodbury University. Every spring, panels of seasoned, award-winning pros cover several key facets of the entertainment business: dealing with talent agents and managers, auditioning or casting for film or television, making independent films, writing screenplays that sell, telling stories in new media. Most of them aren’t doing it for the publicity, or for the hundreds of headshots and bios they’ll be receiving from the attendees. They covered those bases long ago. I think they do it because BIFF gives them a platform to give their audience the unvarnished truth:
You really want to succeed in the entertainment business? Then you have to be really talented, really hardworking and really professional. And you’ll probably fail to be any of these things unless you love your craft enough to endure all of the pain that comes with mastering it.
One of the presenters of this year’s spring seminar, Director/Producer Chris Olen Ray, said that he “sat in a room watching a movie with 300 sailors and marines laughing and having a good time.” That’s when he witnessed the power of entertainment to provide a happy moment even in the horrific circumstance of war. And that’s when his love of moviemaking caught fire, the kind of fire that rainy days can’t put out.
The accolades of those early successes at the high school or college level may not return for a long while as you go to audition after audition, direct short film after short film, write script after script. And if independent filmmaking is your passion, listen to Producer Sim Sarna: “Don’t expect to make a lot of money. Don’t expect anything, really.” The love of fame and fortune is understandable, but don’t confuse it with the love of doing the work.
Sim Sarna also said “if you have a great script, it will be produced.” The catch is, doing a “great” job means something a bit different in the major leagues than it does in a friendly game at the neighborhood park. That’s why writer Tim Dowling (This Means War) advised writers to “keep writing. If one script doesn’t catch fire, write another.” And writer Kristen Smith (Legally Blonde) adds, “Be friends with your agent’s assistant.” (And for more pithy advice, please check out the companion article featuring Producer and Casting Director Gerald Webb.)
There are fresh reasons for hope, however, in this age of international sales and social media. Distributor Linda Nelson pointed out “we are now seeing about double the revenue from foreign territories, although domestic sales will grow stronger in the coming years thanks to digital platforms.” In India, one can make more in U-tube rentals than selling the film rights. (She also advised her audience to ask two questions of any would-be distributor: Will I be getting paid regularly? Will I be getting regular quarterly statements? That you have to ask such questions in the first place is some indication that film distribution can be a minefield for the unwary.) On the social media side, there’s now equity crowd funding, including HEF (horror movie equity fund.)
BIFF deserves tremendous credit for putting on a free seminar that offers straight talk without the spin. For many in the audience, coaching and classes will still prove helpful, perhaps more so than ever because they have become more discerning clients.
And let me share a few words with the local studios about BIFF. Look, I get it. The industry flocks to the film festivals at Sundance and Cannes because you want to get out of LA for a while. You need the break. You need as many reasons as possible to look in the mirror and say that putting up with all the insanity is worth it. Watching films of varying quality in Burbank probably doesn’t qualify as one of those reasons.
But, BIFF does wonderful work supporting film making by high school kids throughout LA County. Maybe that’s a good reason.
Here’s another good reason. Think of the kind of people who have done good enough work to at least make it into a serious film festival like BIFF. They are serious about the business, putting their sweat and treasure on the line. Why not help them preserve their sanity? Give them the pleasure of meeting movie movers and shakers on their home turf, and maybe even hearing an encouraging word or two. On such morsels do starving moviemakers dine while putting in their years to become overnight successes.
For questions or more information email BIFF at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website www.burbankfilmfest.org