What Works for Austin Filmmakers?

By  · Published on August 20th, 2012

Last Wednesday, Austin Film Society moderated a discussion at Austin Studios between Kelly Williams, Kat Candler, David Zellner and Clay Liford titled Short Filmmakers Bridging the Gap to Features. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend that event, but it’s existence did prompt me to begin pontificating about the various strategies that Austin filmmakers are employing in attempting to take their careers to the next level.

Short films definitely seem to be the most obvious place to begin. Most of us who studied film in college understand some of the roles that short films can play in establishing one’s career. Shorts are like calling cards in the film industry. You can make shorts as an economic way to prove to others that you know how to write, direct, shoot, edit and/or act. Personally, I have always liked the idea of shooting a segment of a feature film and releasing that as a short in order to rally up interest and support for the feature. This gives potential funding sources the opportunity to see the vision of the filmmaker and gain a better understanding of the style and tone of the yet-to-be-made feature.

Kat Candler’s Hellion is as perfect of an example of this tactic as any. Not only is Hellion a very strong short that works well on its own, but it also serves as a fantastic introduction to a feature that is currently in pre-production. Hellion has traveled the festival circuit worldwide; it has gone to the Sundance Creative Producing Labs and will soon be participating in the No Borders International Co-Production Market during IFP’s Independent Film Week.

Of course not everybody’s short films are going to enjoy as much success as Hellion, but the obvious goal is to get your short into as many high profile festivals as possible. It is a classic rule of percentages, the more industry deciders who view the short, the better the chance of it finding supporters. Another option is to post the short film on Vimeo, YouTube or submit to Film School Rejects’ Short Film of the Day. Sure, some festival programmers and potential distributors might frown upon the short being available to stream for free – but how often is a short film actually profitable? (Nonetheless, you should probably wait for your official rejection letter from Sundance before taking this route.) Besides, if the film gets enough online views (and avoids attracting too many negative comments by online trolls) then people might start paying attention to it. The online approach also works for trailers, but of course this means shooting enough footage from the feature film to assemble a trailer. For a local success story, just look at Kyle Day’s Cherry Bomb which used an impressive trailer to raise enough funds to complete the film.

Film festivals play a significant role in the success of short films, but they are also of the paramount importance for independent feature films. Something I have been discussing with a lot of independent filmmakers recently is: which film festivals really matter? There is no denying that Sundance, Cannes and Toronto essentially play the role of the trend forecasters for the next two years of independent films. Of course if we look at how many independent features are produced every year and by comparison how few of those films are programmed by Sundance, Cannes and Toronto, well the odds are not that good.

So, then there are Berlin, SXSW, Tribeca, Venice, LA Film Fest, NY Film Fest and AFI Fest to save the day…hopefully. But if you don’t get into any of those, what do you do? Do you opt for a regional festival that won’t have the media and industry population your film really needs, or do you go back to the drawing board and submit a new edit of your film to the major festivals next year? Unfortunately, I have only been able to get a whole lot of questions and not many answers on this. When it comes down to it, Kelly Williams probably put it best in my interview with him in February 2012: “It is best to be strategic about festival applications. The festival world is a weird game – like a poker game, some people get to cash out early but others have to know when to hold ‘em.”

But then let’s take a few steps back. What types of films seem to be garnering the most success for Austin filmmakers? Well, documentaries are the easy answer; not necessarily docs about Austin-related subjects, though. Ben Steinbauer’s Winnebago Man is the most successful film in recent Austin history and Heather Courtney’s Where Soldiers Come From has also done quite well for itself.

Winnebago Man and Where Soldiers Come From were shot on modest budgets, which leads me to the next category: micro-budget films; small, simple dramatic stories conveyed with great writing and/or acting. A majority of Austin-based narratives fit into this category, though very few have actually succeeded. So now these filmmakers are having to integrate other strategies into their work, primary by focusing on niche markets (such as genre films) or working with known actors. Bryan Poyser’s low budget thriller Lovers of Hate is a Sundance 2010 success story that was picked up for distribution by IFC Films. For the three leads, Poyser paired indie darling Alex Karpovsky with two of Austin’s finest actors, Chris Doubek and Heather Kafka.

Karpovsky’s presence probably helped drum up some attention, but I think Lovers of Hate succeeded first and foremost because it is a taut, claustrophobic chamber piece. A thriller like Lovers of Hate does not need to be made by a Hollywood studio on a huge budget, it just needs a decent location, three great actors, a strong script and a talented director and crew. Also in the realm of local, micro-budget genre films, Clay Liford’s Earthling and Geoff Marslett’s Mars really flourished on the festival circuit and have since been successful utilizing grass roots distribution techniques.

Emily HaginsMy Sucky Teen Romance is about to be released theatrically and on home video by Dark Sky Films and Kyle Day’s Cherry Bomb is distributed by Well Go. If I was a betting man, I would place my money on Spencer Parson’s Saturday Morning Massacre to be one of the next big success stories out of Austin.

Next week I will continue this monologue with some ramblings about Austin-based comedies, crowd-sourcing and Tugg, as well as the pros and cons of producing films in Austin…

Austin Movie Events This Week:

8/20 – Alamo Village – AFF presents a series of Audience Award-winning short films from their 2010 and 2011 festivals, including The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, Benny, Sleep Study, Elliott Erwitt: I Bark at Dogs, Mwansa the Great. (More info)

8/21 – Alamo South Lamar – AFS’s Essential Cinema Series features Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. (More info)

8/21 – Violet Crown Cinema – Texas Independent Film Network presents Searching for Sonny with filmmaker Andrew Disney in attendance. (More info)

8/21–8/23 – Alamo Village – Big Screen Sci-Fi Classics brings Logan’s Run to Austin. (More info)

8/21–8/23 – Stateside at the Paramount – The Stateside presents a double-feature of two early Stanley Kubrick films The Killing and Paths of Glory. (More info)

8/21–8/26 – Paramount Theatre – It is 70mm week at the Paramount! Spartacus! Last Action Hero! Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! 2001: A Space Odyssey! (More info)

8/22 – Alamo South Lamar – AFS Doc Night presents the Austin theatrical premiere of Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present with director Matthew Akers in attendance. (More info)

8/23 – GSD&M Screening Room – AFS and Cine Las Americas present Entre Nos. (More info)

8/24–8/26 – Alamo Ritz – 70mm at The Ritz kicks off with West Side Story. (More info)

8/24 – Blue Starlite Drive-In – Texas at the Drive-in selected by AFS presents Lone Star. (More info)

8/25 – Blue Starlite Drive-In – Texas at the Drive-in selected by AFS presents Giant. (More info)