Author: Joelle Smith

A Q&A With New York Film Academy Cinematography Instructor Matt Kohnen

New York Film Academy Cinematography Instructor Matt Kohnen has been making movies since the mid 1990s. As an independent filmmaker, he’s seen the best and the worst of what the industry has to offer. His films can be seen all over the world thanks to Amazon Prime Video.

Here, he speaks with NYFA Correspondent Joelle Smith about his passion for film, his favorite classes to teach, and how he creates movies on an indie budget.

Matthew Kohnen Directors Reel 2018 from Matt Kohnen on Vimeo.

NYFA: When did you first know you were in love with cinema?

Kohnen: It was a gradual process. I’ve always loved movies. More than film, I loved stories. I devoured books. I got into theatre in high school and I stuck with it through undergrad, but I quickly realized I was not a good actor. So, I turned to writing and directing. In the late ‘90s, the indie film scene was hitting its stride, and I liked that atmosphere of creative risk. I haven’t looked back since.

NYFA: What kinds of stories did you start off wanting to tell?

Kohnen: I like stories with a touch of the fantastic to them. I’ve always been a fan of science fiction, or any work that goes beyond our current understanding of reality. Not because of the escapism — I like sci-fi because it allows us to take society, and its current trajectory, to the extreme.

I still write science-fiction, but the reality of indie filmmaking is that the price point is usually too far out of reach. My brother, Sean, and I have been working on telling small stories with big emotional impact.

NYFA: When did you decide to become a director and why did you choose this career path?

Kohnen: It’s hard to say there’s a “decisive moment,” per se. It’s not like when you apply to college. I never chose this particular path. It was a gradual thing. I became a director because, at UC Irvine, where I earned my undergrad in theater, the best roles were reserved for grad students and current faculty members.

I had to hustle and tell my own stories if I wanted to get something done. I found it very empowering. So, I kept at it. Learning that hustle turned out to be a great thing.

If you don’t get pulled into the studio orbit, which is very rare and hard to do, then you have to do it yourself — otherwise, you won’t do it at all. Most of my choices were less deliberate and more about finding a way into the industry. You just have to take the plunge, scary as it is.

NYFA: Your films Aaah! Zombies!! and The Funeral Guest center on death, and how such an event can bring people together. What is it about the theme of life after death that inspires you?

Kohnen: Funny, I’ve never heard my two features linked in that way. Not sure it’s the “death” issue that links them to me as much as it is the “outsider” parts. Both films feature the perspectives of people who are on the outside of something, looking in.

In Aaah! Zombies!!, the theme of life and death that inspired me was a funny idea that Sean and I had about subverting the classic horror genre. But as we wrote, the script took on a life of its own. The story became more about the characters who were dissatisfied with their current lives in some way. The humorous irony of it was this incident, in most zombie movies, would have been the “end” of the story. Instead, this incident sparked the “beginning” of our story because we stayed with their POV. It took death for them to begin living.

I like to look at perspectives that are outside what we are normally given. The perspectives we do not expect to see are often much more interesting; to see that something that is considered a monster can, in fact, be as human as anyone else. What connects these two films is the bond formed between characters.

In The Funeral Guest, the main character is on the outside of life, looking in on others. She doesn’t have a life of her own. Funerals are the place where the emotions and love and connection that she craves are on full display. Again, it takes the tragedy of someone else’s loss, and her being mistaken for someone that she’s not, to allow her to forge a true connection.  

NYFA: Tell us about your latest project.

Kohnen: Currently, I’m in the writing phase of a couple new scripts. One of the scripts we will be producing ourselves on a very-low-budget. The other script has a different path. I’m trying to launch that project with a larger production company. I’m not really in a place to talk much about either of those projects right now.

The Funeral Guest is available on Amazon and Amazon Prime, now. Go get it!

NYFA: What was the most challenging aspect of making this film?

Kohnen: Both of my features have had relatively low budgets. Cost presents a challenge all its own.

For Aaah! Zombies!!, it was more of an FX-driven piece, but it also took place at night. For three weeks we were vampires, staying up all night. (Get it? Vampires? Because we were working on a zombie film?) After that, Sean and I said we’d slap whichever one of us wrote “EXT.  NIGHT” in a script ever again. A pact we promptly broke, of course.

Overall, the issue facing most low-budget films is that they require every single person to be on top of their game. There’s no money to paper over mistakes. There isn’t any time to “find it” on set. Indie sets will shoot as many as five or six pages per day.

Trying to stay creative and focused, while still allowing for the play and flexibility that is required to make it all good, is probably the hardest part.

NYFA: What is your favorite thing about teaching at NYFA?

Kohnen: I love working with my students. People who come to NYFA have prepared to commit to this field. They love film. Many students arrive having already experimented with making their own films. When they make a breakthrough, I love seeing their eyes open and that “ah-ha” moment spread across their face, when they figure out what had been missing from their creative toolbox. Watching their art move up another level is extremely rewarding.

I also love that NYFA is international. Every day I watch students from vastly different worlds interact. Our students are bonded by their passion for film.

One of my favorite outcomes of the intersectional interaction that takes place at NYFA occurred when Co-Instructor Nick Sivakumaran and I, on one of our early Cinematography Practicum shoots, sat a kid from the middle of nowhere Montana next to a young woman from India. These are two people who would never have met in any other iteration of the world. They wound up married. They still are. I love that.

NYFA: What’s your favorite class to teach at NYFA?

Kohnen: Second Semester Cinematography in the MFA program is my favorite class to teach. It’s great because the students have received a good base from semester one. When they arrive in Second Semester Cinematography, we start introducing students to the dolly, advanced lighting, and camera. I love seeing them rise to the challenge.

NYFA: Is there a piece of advice you give your students as they head toward graduation?

Kohnen: Keep your eyes focused on the horizon, and put one foot in front of the other, every day. Even if it’s only one step, have goals, and know that as hard as it may seem, good work will always be recognized. Good luck!

Ready to learn more about Cinematography? Check out our Cinematography School offerings at the New York Film Academy.

A Q&A With New York Film Academy Documentary Instructor Denise Hamilton on Creative Circles Forum

New York Film Academy Documentary Instructor Denise Hamilton has made her career by producing incredible films on the history of Broadway. She is a member and Co-Chairperson of the Black Association of Documentary Filmmakers-West, and an expert on documentary filmmaking. Her work includes productions for KCET, WABC, NBC and Discovery. She recently sat on a panel at Burbank Arts for All to discuss the future of documentary filmmaking.

Hamilton took some time out of her busy schedule to discuss why these conversations are important to the community with NYFA Correspondent Joelle Smith.

NYFA: What is the goal of Burbank Arts for All?

Hamilton: Burbank Arts for All, or BAFA, is a foundation that provides funding for arts programs and arts-related materials and equipment to educational institutions located in Burbank. Because the budgets for school arts programs are often limited, BAFA raises funds from corporate donors, then turns around and gives grants that enable dance, music, visual and graphic arts programs to thrive in the Burbank schools. Schools can apply to BAFA and get, for example, musical instruments to replace broken ones, a ballet barre for a dance studio, lighting for theatrical productions, or a 3D graphics printer.  

NYFA: How did you become involved in the project?

Hamilton: I became aware of BAFA because I teach NYFA’s Community Film Project, and I researched local nonprofit organizations that my students could choose from to do pro bono work.  My 2014 MFA class selected BAFA to be the recipient of a promotional video that the students produced, and it was well received.  

As a result of this working relationship with BAFA, I was then invited to participate as a panelist in their annual Creative Circles Forum on Documentary Films, held Nov. 8th.  The panelists included Chief Financial Officer, Rugged Entertainment  Kelly Bevan, Burbank High School Digital Video Production Teacher Amy Winn, Writer-Director at New Filmmakers Los Angeles Varda Bar-Kar, and Academy® and Emmy® Award nominated Director/Producer and President/CEO, Rugged Entertainment Peter Spirer.

NYFA: What topics were you most excited to discuss?

Hamilton: We spoke on the industry from our various perspectives, and I talked about documentaries as a creative art form. There was so much to cover, and not enough time to cover it all, but the most important discussion for me was centered around recognizing that documentaries have become a major source of valuable information. In the last few years, the increasing popularity of documentaries has made them a welcome alternative to news outlets for information that’s trusted.  

NYFA: What was your goal for the evening?

Hamilton: My goal was to show that creating documentaries can be just as interesting as narrative filmmaking, and can lead to job opportunities in entertainment beyond documentary production.  I also mentioned that the international student population at NYFA provides a great forum to network and develop lasting relationships that are helpful in the professional world upon graduation.  The time flew by, and there was plenty of insight provided by the panel.   I certainly enjoyed the evening, and hopefully, the audience took note of the great information that was shared.

The New York Film Academy would like to thank Denise Hamilton for taking the time to speak with us about her endeavors.

A Q&A With NYFA Producing Alumna Yuxiao Wang

New York Film Academy Alumna Yuxiao Wang had a long road to get to NYFA. After three countries, two degrees, and a ton of work, she’s well on her way to becoming an outstanding producer. Wang spent some time speaking to NYFA Correspondent Joelle Smith about her amazing journey.

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Photo provided by Yuxiao Wang.

Joelle Smith: Can you tell me a little about the project you’re working on and your role within the project?

Yuxiao Wang: I just finished producing a 75-minute web feature five days ago. I have two more features coming up in November, where I am both the line producer and associate producer. Two of these three films will be distributed online and the other is seeking theater distribution.

JS: Can you give me a little more detail about your journey from China, to Japan, to the U.S.?

YW: I learned Japanese literature in China and exchanged to Japan for a year in 2013. While there I majored in animation. I always wanted to learn film or work in the film industry, but during that time I didn’t have any knowledge about film. Then my parents agreed to support me while I worked on my master’s degree in America. I chose NYFA because it focuses on hands-on practice, and the producing program will cover a lot of secrets of how to make a film. Soon I was working as a producer in LA.

JS: What were some of the challenges you faced?

YW: The biggest challenge for me is language. As a foreigner, I am not able to read the scripts as quickly as native speakers do, and because of this reason, I think I missed a lot of job opportunities. I am very confident with my skills but when I submit my resume I know they’re often looking to hire fluent speakers.

The other challenge is my visa. I am currently at my OPT and not a lot of companies want to sponsor a foreign student for a work visa. That’s why it is hard for us to find a job here. So, I am working freelance now.

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Photo provided by Yuxiao Wang.

JS: What were some of the greatest joys you experienced throughout your journey?

YW: I am really happy I finally choose to work in the film industry even though it is very hard. In my country if you choose to learn acting, directing, or producing as your major in your college, not a lot of parents will support you because they think this industry is very dangerous. I finally got a chance to learn my major and started my career as a producer. I met a lot of cool people here, and they are very creative, passionate and trying to make something to change the world. I don’t like a boring life of sitting in the office. That’s why even though this job is very hard, I still keep doing it, because every second I am working on the things I am interested in, I feel like I am alive.

JS: What do you like best about attending the New York Film Academy?

YW: They are very friendly to all the students from all over the world and won’t force you to have a film related major in your undergraduate — which is very important to me, as my major was Japanese education. I think that was the initial attraction.

JS: What did you learn here that’s helped you the most in your latest filmmaking project?

YW: I think entertainment law is very important. We learned to go over all the paperwork, including documents and contracts, to make sure everything goes well. We were trained in our class to pay attention to details and developed great knowledge of the possible disputes and infringements during a production. The last feature I worked on had a 50-person crew and around 100 actors. We shot for 24 days and on 30 locations, but using the knowledge I learned, we didn’t have any problems.

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Photo provided by Yuxiao Wang.

JS: What projects are you working on now and where can people interested in your work find you?

YW: I am in the distribution stage of a feature I produced called “Talentik.” It will be released in Chinese major streaming media platform “Sohu Video” on February 24.

And I am also shooting a major Chinese TV show in Hawaii now, starring A-list stars, and it will be on the major network and TV. This is the second series of this show, and the first series was the highest-rated drama of 2016 with an average national viewership rating of 2.63 percent. It had a 5.47 billion hit amount online and 379,000 related comments, and also aired on a major TV network, Hunan TV, in China.

I have two additional features I’m currently working on. One is romantic, and the other is a drama we’re developing and will be shot on the West Coast this year.

The New York Film Academy would like to thank Ms. Wang for taking the time to share her story. You can find more of Yuxiao Wang’s work by clicking here. Interested in learning more about film production? Check out New York Film Academy’s Producing School!

A Q&A With NYFA Acting for Film Student Dustin Ardine

New York Film Academy acting for film student Dustin Ardine has seen a lot of success in his short career. Ardin won the best actor award at the Mediterranean Film Festival, a huge festival that takes place in Italy. Ardine’s film “The Red Oak” won top prize. The horror film screened at the Villa Dunardi, a haunted landmark in Italy. Recently, NYFA correspondent Joelle Smith sat down with Ardine to discuss his recent success and what projects he’ll be tackling next.

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Joelle Smith: Hi Dustin, congratulations on your recent award wins! Tell me a little about your film.

Dustin Ardine: Our film is called “The Red Oak.” It is a psychological thriller that touches on a subject that we all felt wasn’t something explored a lot in films. It was written and directed by Danyal Zafar. It stars myself in the lead role of Dr. Rahal. It also stars Abe Cohen and Brooklyn Sarver.

When I met with Danyal for the first time he gave me the script and we talked about the story we wanted to tell. We then worked together to perfect everything so that we told the story the exact way we wanted. At its heart, “The Red Oak” is about all those many people in the world who dedicate their lives to helping others … but we all rarely see the toll that their choice takes upon them.

Doctors, nurses, firefighters, cops, teachers, and many others choose to dedicate their lives to helping others regardless of the toll it takes on them and the scars they live with every day of their lives. My character Dr. Rahal is a lifelong psychiatrist who has dedicated himself to helping his patients. But what kind of toll does that take on him? What kind of weight does he carry around with him every day of his life? This is the story we wanted to tell. 

JS: How did you get involved in the project?

DA: The director Danyal Zafar had seen my past work and called me in to discuss the project. He told me that he knew I had the talent to bring the character of Dr. Rahal to life but wanted to know more about me and how I see the character and story. He had me read, and once he knew I was 100 percent who he wanted to cast as the lead we met again and talked about everything — from the script to the characters to the subtext we wanted the film to have and the overall message we wanted the film to say. We worked hard to make sure that the story was told in the right way so that exactly what we wanted to say came across on screen. 

JS: What do you hope people get out of the film? 

DA: I hope that when people watch “The Red Oak” they do see and appreciate all hard work that myself, the director, and the rest of the cast and crew put into it. The other actors and I had to go to very dark places to bring these characters to life. As a method actor, I fully engulfed myself in this role and lived as Dr. Rahal during the entire shoot on and off the set.

But also I hope that when people watch “The Red Oak,” they are also taken on a journey that will not only entertain them but will also make them think — about the people they have in their own lives who have dedicated themselves to helping others even at a great personal cost to themselves, so those people stop being taken for granted. 

JS: What did you learn at NYFA that helped you with this project? 

DA: I have been acting since I was six and went to school for theater. So I came to NYFA with a great background in the arts. However, I can say that the connections I made at NYFA were 100 percent key to not only bring the cast in this film, but also on so many other projects. The great thing about NYFA is that so many talented people come together to go after their dreams. As long as you prove yourself to be a hardworking professional, which I pride myself to be, that will make other hardworking professionals want to work with you. 

JS: What’s up next for you?

DA: I just wrapped a short film called “A Scream That’s Trapped Inside,” directed by Savvas Christou (who is still at NYFA), and a full-length indie feature film called “Ariadne,” originally titled Minotaur, in which I play the lead. “Ariadne” is directed by Adrian Rodriguez. That film should be out within a few months. Also, I just got the lead role in two other indie full-length feature films. One is called “Religion,” directed by Salifu Zakari, and the other is called “Apathy Equals Death,” directed by Aijia Li. Both films will be shooting later this year. 

The New York Film Academy would like to thank Dustin Ardine for taking the time to speak with us about his work. You can watch “The Red Oak” in its entirety by clicking here.

Interested in learning more about acting for film? Check out NYFA’s acting for film programs.

 

A Q&A With NYFA Alumnus Denis Kulikov

New York Film Academy alumni Denis Kulikov has been hard at work since graduating. With dozens of shorts, a new feature, and a comedy television show under his belt, in just four years Kulikov has amassed a sizable portfolio. New York Film Academy’s Joelle Smith sat down with Kulikov to chat about his experience as a producer. Here’s what he had to share:

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NYFA: Hi Denis, great to have a chance to catch up with you about your post-NYFA experiences! Let me ask, what originally drew you to producing? 

DK: When doing my own short films, I figured that I had more pleasure organizing my shoots rather than directing. I started out as an assistant director working for my classmates, helping them in pre-production and coordinating their sets. Even though being an AD is mostly managing productions, I had created a side to it where I was consulting my classmates on locations, story, cast etc. That’s how I de facto became a producer on many shorts. After that, I was able to produce more short films.

NYFA: Tell us about your current project, “Johnny Red.” What inspired the work? Who are you working with on the project? What is the goal of making this film? Who does this story speak to? 

DK: I started working on “Johnny Red” almost a year ago with my partner Alex Kahuam, who wrote the script and will be directing it. In the movie, we follow a drug lord who despite his criminal activity has a loving family just like everybody else. What we want to show is the contrast. Criminals are multifaceted people with passion, friendships, relationships, and families, just like everyone else. Alex and I have already produced a feature together, so this will be our second big project and with all the people that we are currently getting on board. We are now headed to theaters.

NYFA: Do you think your time in NYFA’s Industry Lab helped you when it came time to look for a job?

DK: I think it definitely did, especially considering that Industry Lab focuses on projects that are coming to NYFA outside of school. Those definitely have different, much tougher requirements. After all, when working on Industry Lab projects, we represent the elite of the school and work with industry people. All the experience and connections that I was able to get while being in IL have helped me in my career.

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NYFA: A lot of students grow nervous as graduation approaches. What did you do to prepare for life after NYFA? 

DK: During my years at NYFA, I knew that once I was out, I would be on my own, therefore I focused on developing skills that would be in demand in the industry as well as throughout my life in general. I focused on assistant directing and producing student films, as it would develop needed skills for my career. I like creating something out of nothing, therefore being an assistant director or a producer was something that I was passionate about. Considering that most of my classmates did not like any of those positions, I had perfect opportunities to volunteer and build up my resume. By being proactive and opportunistic, I had the network and experience needed for myself by the time I graduated.

NYFA: You’re also working as a line producer on a new Adult Swim project, how did this come about? 

DK: The show I am working on is called “Bite Me!” I met its showrunner Frankie back in September and we started working on making the whole new season happen. He had already completed the first season for the web series. After we showed it to Cartoon Network, they signed a contract that upon delivery of another season, they will air the show on Adult Swim in 2017. As of right now, the shoot is almost over and we are excited for people to see it.

NYFA: Any advice to students looking to begin their careers as producers? 

DK: My biggest advice is in order to begin careers in Hollywood in general, you have to be an opportunist. Most of the time people tend to hire and work with people that they already know, so it is hard to break in when you don’t know anybody.

The way I built up my resume and network, is while being at NYFA, I was raising my hand and volunteering to be an AD and producer on projects that nobody else wanted to.

In addition, I tried to be involved in various activities outside of school during my free time volunteering for film festivals and other organizations. Being proactive is what a good career is based on in any industry.

The New York Film Academy would like to thank Mr. Kulikov for taking the time to speak with us. You can learn more about Denis Kulikov by clicking here. Also, be sure to check out NYFA’s Filmmaking School to kickstart your own creative journey.

A Q&A With NYFA LA’s Chair of Documentary Filmmaking Barbara Multer-Wellin

Chair of Documentary Barbara Multer-Wellin recently sat down with NYFA reporter Joelle Smith to discuss the current state of non-fiction media content, her long love of filmmaking, and why Los Angeles is a great city for doc. Barbara Multer-Wellin has produced two films for the acclaimed PBS documentary series Independent Lens: “Taking The Heat: The First Women Firefighters of New York City,” narrated by Susan Sarandon and “Paul Conrad: Drawing Fire,” about the legendary editorial cartoonist. She won a 2013 Emmy for her work on the series television and web series “Your Turn To Care,” which was also the recipient of the Gracie Award.

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Joelle: How did you first get started in doc?

Barbara Multer-Wellin: Good question. I was always a political person. I was always very politically minded. I’ve been politically minded since high school.  I went to school for acting and political theater.

When I got out I happened to realize that political theater had a very limited reach. I happened to get hired as a researcher in HBO at Sheila Nevin’s (producer of “Cobain: Montage of Heck,” “Going Clear: Scientology Prison or Belief,” and “Citzenfour.”) department in my early twenties. That was an amazing experience. I was there for six or seven years.

I began to love documentary not just for its political message but also because documentary is such a wide tent. You can do romantic stories, you can cover history, you can do a portrait of a person or an event. For anyone who is curious about the world, documentary is the ultimate playground.

Joelle: When did you first fall in love with the craft of documentary?

Multer-Wellin: One of the early ones that really shook me was “Hoop Dreams.” There are several scenes in the film following the same families for six or seven years during a very tumultuous time in their lives.

Their kids had been recruited to suburban high schools to play basketball.  These two young men both hoped for careers in the NBA. They were being bussed out to the suburbs to play for these much, much wealthier schools.

It wasn’t easy. Their families were going through great difficulties. One marriage had broken up. The father had developed a drug problem and left the family. There’s a scene in the film where the mother of the family turns to filmmaker Steve James and says, “You don’t know what it’s like to try and raise a family on the amount that I get from public assistance. We don’t have heat and they’ve turned out the lights. How do I do this?”

My blood ran cold because I thought, ‘This is what real documentary is about.”

This is the relationship between a filmmaker and a subject that’s completely honest. That you may not have an answer for but you’re not dealing with an actor here. You’re dealing with someone who is actually struggling in their lives.  How do you portray that honestly? How do you not use that?

“Hoop Dreams” was one that made me realize the responsibility of the documentary filmmaker. Many years later I heard Mr. James speak and it’s true he still has relationships with those families. It goes beyond an actor who comes in for a day’s work and then goes home. You have a moral responsibility and an ethical responsibility not just to your subject but to your audience.

It’s such a multilayered relationship involved. I think it’s fascinating, tough, and beautiful all at the same time.

Joelle: How do you impart the ethical responsibility of the subject to your students here at the New York Film Academy?

Multer-Wellin: One of the first things we talk about in the documentary project is if you’re making a documentary about someone you’re either interviewing someone about the most difficult moment of their life or they’ve experienced history in a way that it’s probably the most important thing that’s ever happened to them.

You have to be first of all aware of that. Second of all, it is almost like the doctor’s oath, “First do no harm.”  Ask yourself, “Is anything in this film going to hurt the person when it gets out there?” Be very transparent about what the film is going to be and what you expect from your subject. You’re really making a film together.   

Now, I’m not talking about investigative films when you’re up again a big corporation or someone with great wealth and power. They have their own means to get to the press and protect themselves.

But if you are focusing on someone who is not a member of the public, is not a famous person, and has allowed you the great honor of sharing their story, you need to take that responsibility seriously.

Joelle: For students wondering how to break into the industry, what makes a great subject? How can students stand out?

Multer-Wellin: I think at this point that non-fiction content of all kind is in many ways, the most happening and most sellable content there is.

There are so many different ways to use the skills you develop in documentary. Whether you’re working for the NY or LA Times to make non-fiction media content or for so many non-profit organizations using non-fiction media. Do I need to mention Vice?  Nonfiction, on so many different platforms, is being watched more than ever before.

You know, when I was coming up people would say don’t use the “D-word.” Don’t call it a documentary.  That prejudice is dying hard but it’s dying fast.

If documentary isn’t the big seller in theaters it certainly is on television. In many ways I think it’s easier to break into documentary than fictional filmmaking.

Joelle: What roads would you encourage students to take as they’re breaking into the industry?

Multer-Wellin: Well, we’ve spent a lot of time talking to students about building social media profiles and about how to use crowd-funding platforms to support their work.

There’s the 1,000 fan theory that says if you can connect with at least a thousand people who will support your career, not just one project, but the entire scope of your career, then you’ll be able to fundraise and do your own projects. That’s not an easy thing to do so there’s got to be a balance between creating your own work and working for others.

Joelle: What advice do you have for people going out there and launching their projects?

Multer-Wellin: First of all, I think these days it’s necessary to have some sort of visual reel. In the old days, you could sell a concept off a piece of paper but those days are in the past.

Even if it is just a Skype interview with a really fascinating character, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the slickest thing.  But you do have to show people what you have in mind.

One good thing I think is really helpful is to try niche marketing. Find people who have a natural interest in your subject.  I have a friend who made a very successful film about mountain bikes and the history of mountain biking.  Mountain bikes were developed by a bunch of hippies in Marin County, California who were just riding around the hills up there. They developed a bike with the broader tire specifically for that purpose, which has really spawned this huge industry.

The filmmakers were able to talk to all the biking magazines, bike shops, and bike meet-up groups and put together a series of screenings across the country just starting with these bike enthusiasts and then it sort of graduated out from there. The film did extremely well and it gave them enough money to start their next project.

It’s enough to start with a niche market and build out. No matter what your subject is, it’s smart to find people who will always be interested in the subject. Reach out to organizations that want to support your topic and build from there.

Joelle: What are you doing here at NYFA that makes our program unique from others?

Multer-Wellin: I want to first say that a lot of people don’t normally think of Los Angeles as a documentary town. They think of us as Hollywood, but the truth is the International Documentary Association is headquartered here in Los Angeles. Many documentary filmmakers live here, Davis Guggenheim, Werner Herzog, Jessica Yu, Rory Kennedy and Penelope Spheeris, to name a few.

So, we have access to all of that. We go to many of the IDA events. We also have documentary filmmakers here at school all the time who come and screen their films. We have access to lawyers who deal with fair use and clearance experts who deal with finding and clearing footage. Not to mention distributors, producers, cinematographers, composers who work primarily in non-fiction.  The list goes on and on. All of that exists here in Los Angeles.

We try to keep a very professional sense of what we’re doing. We have just initiated a class in the second year of the MFA program where students produce pieces for a network or production company so before they leave they’ll have a professional credit along with their thesis films. There’s a lot going on here in LA.

Joelle: Final question: Which films would you suggest future NYFA students watch before they come to school?

Multer-Wellin: That’s a really hard question because there are so many. We have a history of documentary course that shows everything from “Nanook of the North to films that came out this year.

It’s important to understand there are many different ways to make a documentary and there are many different documentaries that can be made about the same subject.

There are things you need to learn about yourself as a filmmaker. There are questions of access. We talk a lot about how to specialize something; how to make it yours. I would come to NYFA with ideas and a sense of how you can explore that idea deeply.  We’ll help you take it from there.  

The New York Film Academy would like to thank Barbara Multer-Wellin for sharing her expertise with our community. If you’re interested in learning more about the documentary filmmaking program at NYFA, click here.

A Q&A with NYFA’s Screenwriting Chairs

In honor of International Screenwriter’s Day a few weeks ago, resident NYFA reporter Joelle Smith sat down with the New York Film Academy Screenwriting School’s three program chairs to discuss what their craft meant for them, their hopes for the future, and what students are bringing to the table. Here, read our dialogue with Melanie Williams Oram in New York City, and Nuncio DeFilippis and Adam Finer in Los Angles

NYFA: What makes the craft of screenwriting unique from all other forms of writing?

Adam Finer: Screenwriting is the blueprint for a uniquely visual form of storytelling. Without that strong blueprint, nothing gets built. Motion pictures, television series and web series all require storytellers who can visualize the world and create three-dimensional characters that drive a compelling and engaging story that can be told on-screen.    

Nunzio DeFilippis: Two things make it unique. The first is that a finished script is not a finished product. It’s only meant to guide in the creation of a different finished product (a film, or TV episode).

NYFA: What inspired you to become a screenwriter?

AF: I have been working with screenwriters for nearly 20 years now, helping writers develop their material, unearth characters, discover story worlds and find their personal voices. Those are some of the things that drive me. My mission is to help creative artists, and especially screenwriters, uncover the tools and skills to achieve their goals and find success in their chosen fields.  

NDF: Watching “Star Wars.” When I saw that movie (I was seven when it came out), I knew I wanted to write movies.  I did have some variation — thinking I might act as well as write — but I knew from seven years old that I wanted to write, and it had to be movies.

Melanie Williams Oram: I am a screenwriter because I love to tell stories. I decided to pursue a career in film and television because I am committed to telling stories that feature women, people of color, and other minorities and that celebrate the universality in diverse experiences. 

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NYFA: What do you see in your students today that is new in the field of screenwriting?

AF: Our department has a strong emphasis on finding the right medium for your story. It’s one of the reasons that our degree students learn about New Media or Transmedia storytelling. Our students are being prepared for the changes in the industry and are learning to create stories in the medium that best supports them.  

NDF: Younger writers don’t view the storytelling world in the same limited way that my generation did. When I went to film school, none of my classmates wanted to take classes on TV. It was beneath them, as they wrote films and only films.  

Students today are drawn to TV, but even better, see themselves as able to jump between the two forms. There is some resistance to other forms of visual storytelling (like web series and comic books) at first, but only from some of them.  

Many students are not only able to jump between film and TV, but they’re ready to tackle these new forms. I love their open-minded approach, and I think it serves them well.

MWO: The proliferation of digital media makes it easier for my current students to get their stories in front of an audience. In our screenwriting classes at NYFA we push students to develop unique characters that serve as the starting point to creating stories that are entertaining and that leave a powerful impact on their audiences

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NYFA: What’s one thing everyone should know before starting a screenplay?

AF: Understanding screenplay structure and format are essential for people in the industry to be willing to read your scripts.  

NDF: What they want the story to be about. Why are they writing it? Why is it important to them, and why are they the person to write this story?  

If you don’t know the answers to those two questions, you will burn out halfway through.  And the answers can’t just be “because it’s cool” or “because it’s popular right now.”  

If you don’t know what you’re writing about, and if you don’t connect with it, the work of creating a feature film script (or the entire world of a TV pilot) will be too much.

MWO: Conquering the demon of the blank page is the toughest thing about being a writer. Slay your blank page dragons by refusing to self-edit. Just let the ideas from your head flow onto the page. No judgments.

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NYFA: What makes a great screenplay?

AF: There are so many elements that go into a great screenplay. Well-developed and defined characters. A unique, yet relatable world (and unique doesn’t have to mean another planet, it can be a local sports story but from a perspective that’s unique). Strong dialogue that feels believable for the characters. The writer’s voice coming through in a story that they felt needed to be told.  

NDF: Characters who want something, and who face real stakes if they fail to achieve it. The greatest mistake I see in students and young writers is creating characters who are apathetic and want nothing. That’s a very hard character to hang a story around.  

Characters who want to be left alone have to pursue that goal as vigorously as other characters pursue their goals.  And even if they do, their stories risk a lack of connection to the audience.  What we connect to as audiences is desire.

Evil characters can still be compelling if the things they desire resonate with us.  Characters we have nothing in common with can generate empathy if we have something in common with what they want or need.  

Always build your story around this basic template:  “Someone wants something and something or someone gets in their way.” Then add consequences for failing to get that something (and not always physical ones, emotional ones will do) and you’ll have a story.

MWO: People connect to stories because they are able to identify with protagonists. There’s a common misconception in Hollywood that people can only identify with film characters who look like them. I believe that films with strong stories that explore human themes can connect people across racial and gender lines. Good stories make audiences forget that they are watching a film. Good stories allow audiences to become completely immersed in the struggles and the triumphs of the protagonist. 

Thank you to our Screenwriting School department chairs for sharing their insights with the New York Film Academy community! To learn more about the Scriptwriting track at NYFA click here.

A Look at “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is unlike any “Star Wars” film before it. Its focus is on a ragtag group of would-be heroes defying command to stop the Empire. Okay, so it’s a little like a “Star Wars” film you’ve seen before, but not entirely. What sets it apart from all seven of its predecessors (plus that wookie movie we don’t talk about) is that it doesn’t focus on the Skywalker family.

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The Synopsis

Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, is a young woman whose father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), is abducted by the Empire and forced to build a weapon of mass destruction. However, he slips a fatal flaw into the machine. He sends a message to the man he entrusted with his daughter, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker). From there Jyn embarks on an adventure across the cosmos to stop her father’s worst nightmare from coming true.

By following a new team there is now precedent to explore all kinds of stories within the universe — from Mandalorians to Sith deserters — and even folks who exist outside of the war. The galaxy is a large space and there are a lot of stories to explore.

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Production

When Disney purchased the rights to “Star Wars” they retired all the comic, novel, and video game lines. These stories are now referred to as “Star Wars” Legends. The material here is ripe for reimagining.

The score also establishes a new tone in “Rogue One.” The traditional fanfare of John Williams has been replaced with the magical lilting sounds of Michael Giacchino. Other works from Giacchino include “Ratatouille,” “Lost,” “Cars,” “The Incredibles,” “Super 8,” “Let Me In,” and “Up,” for which he won an Academy Award.

Fans of the original score might miss the drama and tension Williams famously added to the original films, but Giacchino should be given a chance. He makes the smart decision to play on a nostalgic audience. Choosing whimsy and discovery over military-style marches to inspire hope in a hopeless time. His music is soft but powerful and it’s a welcome new sound.

The Visuals & Cameras

Cinematically this film is unique because it’s not shot like a space opera, it’s shot like a war flick. Beach scene battles feel like every World War II film. The same amount of attention is given to closeups as is given to big fight sequences.

Cinematographer, Greg Fraser (“Killing Them Softly,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” & “Foxcatcher”) didn’t rely on a single camera to create this look. He used a combination of digital, film, and refurbished lenses to achieve his goals. His goodie bag included the Arri’s Alexa 65, the Ultra Panavision 70 anamorphic lenses (which Tarantino used on The Hateful 8), and 35 mm film.

When Tarantino announced he would be reviving the Ultra Panavision 70 it caused a stir amongst cinephiles everywhere. Cinematographer Robert Richardson (“Hugo,” “The Aviator”) said of the lens in an interview with IndieWire.com, “When we saw Sam Jackson in a closeup — or anyone — it just aided the skin. It’s remarkable. We never used diffusion, the only filters we ever did were outside. It was stunning.”

The Arri Alexa 65 is a 6K, large-format camera that has been used in productions from the “Revenant” to “The Great Wall.” The only way to get the camera is through Arri rentals, but studios and indie productions alike are willing to spend the cash to get the crisp images. The camera is reported to have 26% more visibility on Imax.

The combination of classic film, clear digital, and sharp lenses give “Rogue One” a unique look. Blending both classic Hollywood style and modern action sequences to tell a breathtaking story that is both a war drama and a science-fiction thriller.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is a one-of-a-kind experience that is now playing in theaters.

Q&A with NYFA Alumnus: Adrian Rodriguez

 

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New York Film Academy alumnus Adrian Rodriguez has been hitting the festival pavement with three new films, “Princess,” “43,” and “New Dawn.” He took some time off from collecting awards to sit down with NYFA correspondent, Joelle Smith, to discuss how he’s building his career, his art, and what’s next on his to-do list.

Joelle: Tell us about your latest projects.

Rodriguez: I have directed three award-winning short films in the last two years:

“New Dawn,” won Best Director at To the Point Short Film Festival and at the Direct Online Film Festival. It won Best Short Film at WorldFest International Film Festival:  “Short Film narrating the mystical time-traveling journey of Ocelot, the Aztec Jaguar Warrior.”

“43” won an award at Feel the Reel Film Festival. It was an Official Selection at Move Me Production Film Festival and London Rolling Film Festival: “Julian and Marcos are part of the 43 students that have gone missing in Ayotzinapa, Mexico. Gonzalez, leader of thepolice, threatens their lives”.

“Princess” won an award at the Hollywood Boulevard Film Festival, Hollywood International Film Festival, Los Angeles Cine Fests, and the Move Me Productions Film Festival. Recently, “Princess” was a strong nominee for the “Best of the Best” at Fest Forums Film Festival in Santa Barbara, CA: “Princess is a young good-looking prostitute who works for a man who cares dearly for her. Princess, however, plans to kill him and leave the street business for good.”

Joelle: What was your process for applying to film festivals? Were you surprised by the outcome?

Rodriguez: The process wasn’t about just applying, it was selecting the most adequate film festivals for each of the short films. Target the right market. Platforms such as FilmFreeway and Without a Box are the best for submitting. I was certainly surprised by the outcome. Never expected for my films to win awards.

Joelle: What have you learned in the process of making these three films?

Rodriguez:  Filmmaking is a beautifully complicated process from concept development to post-production. However, the one thing that I have learned is that a great film can be done with a small budget. All it takes is a great narrative, highly talented filmmakers, and a dedicated cast.

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Joelle: Where does your inspiration come from?

Rodriguez:  Life experiences. Traveling. Understanding where do you come from and more importantly what do you want to communicate to those who see your films. Cinema is a language, and such language must have an aftermath meaning — a prestige.

Joelle: What are you hoping to achieve in the next five years?

Rodriguez: My aim is to finish my first feature film. Consolidate a financial deal to acquire the necessary resources and finally initiate the pre-production process. Plus, I hope that one of my films, if not all, get recognized internationally winning a strong award in film festivals such as Venice Film Festival, Cannes or Sundance.

We at the New York Film Academy would like to thank Adrian for sitting down to talk with us, and congratulate him on all of his success!

NYFA Screening: Lessons Learned From “Queen of Katwe”

Recently, New York Film Academy students had an opportunity to attend a screening and live Q&A with the cast and crew of Disney’s “Queen of Katwe.” The film is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi, who became a champion chess master after selling corn on the street. Both Mutesi and her teacher Robert Katende, were in attendance.

Throughout the Q and A portion, each creator dropped some knowledge on the crowd. Here are some of the highlights from that discussion.

1. Sometimes the Best Story is in Your Own Backyard

Film director Mira Nair lives in Uganda 15 minutes from Katwe, but the story came to her through Tendo Nagenda, a Ugandan Vice President at Disney. Nair said she liked the story because, “I was just struck by this plucky girl who refused to stay in the little place that she belonged — that she was born into — and dreamed of larger things.”

2. It Takes a Village

Nair continued speaking about what inspired her to tackle this project. “It also struck me that it took a village. It took a teacher, the remarkable coach, Robert Katende, to understand her genius. And it took her mother, Harriet, and her whole street, literally, to harness the power that Phiona had, and has, in her.  That’s the story of everyday life in Kupala, Uganda. That captures the joy and dignity of everyday people … That is the story of an Africa that we never see on our screens.”

3. Help can Come From the Most Unlikely Sources

David Oyelow was taken aback after reading the “Queen of Katwe” script that Disney would be taking on this project, “This is exactly the kind of film that myself or Lupita Nyong’o or Mira would put on our backs for 10 years and try to get made and no one would want to make it. They would say, ‘What? Chess? A Ugandan girl?’ But Disney did it.”

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4. Make Art for the People You Love and You’ll be Rewarded Two-Fold

Oyelow gushed about his children igniting his desire to see this story brought to the screen. “And then I have a four-year-old daughter as well … I read this and it just felt like a beautiful love letter to my daughter. All those things made me want to be a part of it.”

5. You Can Be Discovered Anywhere Working Any Job

Lupita was asked if she had any experience shooting in Africa. “I was part of the crew on ‘The Constant Gardener’ a few years ago. I also worked for her (Nairs’) film school as a production coordinator.” Nair joked. “I wonder why? None of the students wanted their travel booked they just wanted her.”

Any more insights you’ve picked up from watching great films lately? Let us know in the comments below!

5 Things We Can Learn From New Director Richard Tanne

The year 2016 has been very kind to Richard Tanne. In January he debuted his first feature, “Southside With You,” an unauthorized bio-pic of White House royalty; the current first couple’s first date. He secured two up-and-coming actors, Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyer, to portray the young Obamas. Tanne even got the film into John Legend’s hands: Legend signed on to executive produce and wrote a song for the film entitled “Start,” coming off his Oscar win for “Glory,” a song he wrote with rapper Common for the film “Selma.

Tanne is on a roll, and there’s a lot aspiring filmmakers, writers, and producers can learn from the actor-turned-director. If you are an aspiring filmmaker looking to learn, we always recommend a combination of learning by doing, and learning from the best. There is always some wisdom to be gleaned from the successes of others. Here are five simple, universal lessons we think our students can learn from Richard Tanne’s recent project, “Southside with You.”

1. Follow Your Passion

Tanne first heard the Obama’s love story during the 2008 election, but it wasn’t until he fell in love himself that he began to revisit the story. “There’s something special about the way the president and the first lady look at each other, and it’s something we’ve seen since the beginning of their rise to prominence. Their connection seems authentic and deep and vibrant. That’s a rare thing in life, and I think it’s an even more rare thing for public figures.”

Years later, after falling in love himself, Tanne realized, “…it wasn’t just kind of a meet-cute story about falling in love. It was also about finding that person who makes you a better version of yourself.”

Producer Robert Teitel said, “When I first met Rich, I remember telling him: ‘I think you were born to do this movie.’ I sensed very early on that the film had been completed in his head for such a long time. There’s nobody but Rich who could tackle it.”

Tanne took the opportunity and ran. He started searching for partners to produce the film with him, which leads us to another valuable lesson…

2. Share Your Work

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Tanne began to pitch the character of Michelle Robinson to Tika Sumpter. He sent her a one-page, handwritten outline, and Sumpter was instantly interested. The actress says of that time, “I don’t care if I play Michelle or not. My main goal was to get the film made.” But, if Sumpter did get the role, she already knew whom she wanted to play her character’s mother.

She had been friends with Vanessa Bell Calloway for some time. At one point Sumpter drove over two hours to see Calloway perform her one-woman play “Letters from Zora: In Her Own Words.”

The two actresses had been told over and over again how similar they looked to one another. It seemed like a natural fit.

Once Calloway read the script, she flew herself to Los Angeles for a sit-down meeting with Tanne, saying, “If you think anyone else is playing this part you’re crazy.” Tanne couldn’t believe Calloway was still auditioning. “Just look at ‘Coming to America,’” he said, “look at ‘Love Don’t Cost a Thing.’” Tanne cast her and, with just Mr. Obama left to cast, most of the hard casting work had already been done for him.

3. Work With What You’re Given

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Speaking of micro-budgets, it’s rare to do a period piece on a small budget. Even more scarce is a good period piece done with little money. “Southside With You” is set in the summer of 1989 in Chicago. Tanne’s hands were tied as far as locations. The date was real and many people know all the stops the first couple made. The museum was easy enough to retro-fit, as museums often don’t really change. The old community center and movie theater are, for the most part, fixed in look, too.

But what really sells the era is the soundtrack. “Since we didn’t have the money for tons of period details,” Tanne said, “We had to evoke the period in subtler ways. One way to do that was to make the movie look and sound like a movie from the 1980s, so you’d already be in the space.”   

“We knew we wouldn’t have large crane shots, showing us whole neighborhoods where we would need tons of kids wearing retro clothing and streets lined with vintage cars. We just had smaller moments, smaller details to evoke the period, everything from the blanket fabrics on Barack’s chair or Michelle’s family’s couch to the cassette tapes in Barack’s car. We used the 1980s-era Baskin’ Robbins sign in the ice cream store. And there are certain parts of the city that have not changed at all.”

4. Be Prepared

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Tanne knew time was going to be of the essence. Shooting a feature on location, with a micro-budget, in 17 days, meant that not one second could be spared. He asked the actors to be off book weeks before they came to set. Across continents, the actors rehearsed over Skype. When they came to set everyone was prepared. Instead of covering two to three pages a day, they were able to cover 10. The film finished on time and on budget.

5. Use Your Success as a Springboard

Tanne isn’t resting on his laurels.

Yes, “Southside With You” won big at Sundance. It’s Tanne’s first feature. It’s hitting theaters this weekend, and many might be tempted to kick up their heels and revel in their success — but Tanne is already working on two new projects.

First, Tanne is working on an unannounced Pixar film that he has been writing for the past couple of years. Second, Tanne is already writing his next feature, “The Roman,” about Julius Cesar. IMDB describes the project as, “An origin story in the vein of ‘Batman Begins’ that envisions the future dictator as a young general in the Roman army in a rarely discussed period of his life. Kidnapped by Cilician pirates and enslaved on their prison island, Caesar escapes with his men, and the decisions he makes during this time directly affect the political and social upheaval happening in Rome.”

Any more great insights for new directors? Share your tips in the comments below!

 

5 Steps to a Better TIFF Experience

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Now that we’ve closed the Toronto International Film Festival 2016, it’s a great time to pause and reflect on what we’ve learned and how we can apply that to future film festivals and industry events. Attending TIFF, by day three I was seeing attendees with dark circled eyes from lack of sleep, humpbacked from the weight of all their gear, and pausing on the street to rub at their sore feet. With so much to see, not just at the festival but throughout Toronto, it can be difficult to convince oneself to invest in self-care. But with a 10 day long festival, ignoring your body could mean you miss out.

Try our 10 steps to a better TIFF next year — and try these out at any other festivals, industry mixers, and special events this season!

Get Good Walking Shoes

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Toronto International Film Festival is spread over about six miles. And, yes, public transportation is great. It’s fast, reliable, and inexpensive. But after about 10:30 a.m. the busses start to fill up. If you’re attending the festival as a film buff this won’t be a problem. But if you’re showing a film, photographing an event, or attending an event promoting your film, you’ll be hauling gear or wearing fancy clothes — and you might want to skip the bus.  You could order a taxi or an Uber, but that cost will climb quickly.

So, what are you to do?

Strap on your best shoes and get ready to walk. For TIFF, I recommend arriving a day before the festival. Pick up a map at the convention center. Then hit every theater on the map. Learn the shortcuts through parks, which streets will be blocked off, and where the rush lines will be formed. This information will make the next 10 days a breeze and your FitBit will think you’ve transformed into a tri-athlete.

The universally applicable takeaway? For any industry event, make sure you know where you’re going, how to get there, and a backup plan of how to get there — then allow plenty of extra time.

Make a Plan But Don’t Marry It

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As previously stated, there’s a lot to do once you get to TIFF. Do yourself a favor and make a plan.

TIFF provides a color coded calendar on their website labeling each event. There are little descriptions in the calendar. Circle every event you hope to attend. Then place every event in a Google Calendar or a travel calendar you can have on you at all times. I prefer Google Calendar because it can send you an alert 10, 15, or 20 minutes before the event. If you place the location of the screening or event in the calendar you can also use Google Maps to navigate instantly, if you skipped step number one.

Now that you’ve cured your fear of missing out, be prepared to chuck the entire plan. Listen, when you’re walking around the Toronto International Film Festival you’re going to find so much to do. This year Express set up a pop up clothing store, Lindor released a new candy and were giving out bags for free, McDonald’s gave out free coffee accompanied by a live DJ performance, and Pure Leaf gave out thousands of samples of their tea. There were free concerts and red carpets and local street performers. Downtown Toronto is lined with the mouthwatering smells spilling out of restaurants.

Don’t miss an amazing opportunity to explore something new.  The universal takeaway for any industry event: plan ahead, but be open to surprises.

Hydrate and Eat

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This may sound like common sense advice, but it’s so easy to forget that each day at a festival is like two days in your normal life. With concerts, free food, speakers, conferences, and, of course, film, there’s something to do from sun up to sundown. The fear of missing out is real.

If you decide to follow our first rule, you’ll be walking back and forth all day.

Dehydration leads to fatigue, which means you’ll be moving slower and thinking slower — not a good look if you’re trying to present your work. A good rule of thumb is to keep a bottle of water in your bag. Before you leave the theater, fill up at the water fountain. Try to drink two bottles of water a day and you’ll be ahead of the crowd.

With so much to do it’s likely your adrenalin will get pumping. It’s difficult at times to slow down to eat, but luckily there are so many restaurants around town. King Street is littered with cuisine from around the world. Money won’t be an issue. There are street carts selling everything from hot dogs to falafel. Restaurants range from Canadian favorite Tim Horton’s to Starbucks to McDonald’s on the cheaper side to high end seafood restaurants and everything in between.

Universal takeaway for any industry event: hydrate and eat. You’ll want to be at your best, and you need fuel.

Do More Than The Festival – Meet the Locals

 

Toronto is an amazing city. Apparent in their architecture, they’ve managed to fuse the old with the new. Pockets of communities surround the downtown area. The Entertainment district is right downtown. Here you’ll find film financiers, publishers, and distributors. Head over to Kensington Market to explore vintage clothes shopping, classic coffee houses, and beautiful street art.

If there’s one stereotype that’s true about Canada, it’s that the people here are incredibly friendly. Even in the financial district it’s not uncommon to stop and strike up a conversation with curious locals. By sitting down with citizens, you can learn about hole in the wall dining, shortcuts, and, best of all, local events. Just because TIFF is in full swing doesn’t mean Toronto is slowing down. The Blue Jays are in the middle of an amazing series, the World Beach Volleyball Tournament is taking place, and soon the World Hockey Games will be kicking off. Locals can give you insight into the secret world behind TIFF.  

Universal takeaway for any industry event: focus on the people and chat with the locals, and you’ll likely discover something incredible.

NETWORK!

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Everyone who is anyone attends these festivals. You never know to whom you’re talking, so be sure to ask. As I stood in the rush line for Netflix’s new show, “ARQ,” I struck up a conversation with a woman in line. We talked about the films we saw and which were our favorites, and then we began to talk about what we do. She said she was industry but when I pried a little further, it turned out she was a huge producer. She was At TIFF trying to make deals with Netflix, supporting friends, and locking in actors. We had such a good time she invited me, and a guest, to an industry event the same night. All this came because I turned around in a rush line to ask a question.

Universal takeaway for any industry event: you never know who you might meet. Really.

That’s it. Those are the essential rules to a better TIFF. If you weren’t at TIFF try applying these tips to other industry events. If you’re attending a play don’t be afraid to explore the area around the theater. Turn to the person next to you in line and ask them about their day. Come with a plan, but be ready to embrace the moment. You never know what you might find.

How to Do Comic-Con Without a Badge

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It’s only been a week since Comic-Con and if you couldn’t make it you’ve been poring over websites, blogs, and social media trying to absorb the copious amounts of information coming out of San Diego. But here’s the thing… for less than $500 dollars, and a three-hour road trip, you too could have attended the convention. Not just attended the convention, but made lasting connections.

Here’s how…

Comic Con Isn’t Just Hall – H

Look, Hall – H is the sexy part of San Diego Comic-Con. It’s where the Game of Thrones cast meets up every year to mourn the dead. Hall – H is where the first was announced and where we learned Tom Hiddleston was going to be Loki. Fans spend days in line for one of those coveted seats. But, there’s more to the convention than Hall – H.

There’s so much more to explore. If you’re lucky enough to get a badge there are a great number of panels, demonstrations, signings and screenings. It’s not just the big new it’s about the exhibits.

In 2016, just outside the convention center, there were two separate carnivals, a South Park photo staging center, NBC had an entire plaza announcing their new season of shows, Amazon had a giant tent highlighting The Man in the High Castle and other forthcoming shows, Warner Brothers hosted a Suicide Squad virtual reality seminar and Wonder Woman’s invisible jet for family photos. None of these exterior events required a badge and most were completely free to attend.

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Business is Flourishing

The convention center is only open from 10 AM to 7:30 PM. Once the doors are closed all those industry people have to go somewhere. This is your chance to mingle with the crème de la crème of producers, writers, actors, editors, and financiers looking for their next big project.

You can take advantage of this opportunity. Go to any hotel bar after doors close order a virgin drink, and listen intently. Wait until you hear about a latest project or passion and chime in. You’ll be surprised at how friendly and open attendees are. Everyone is here to promote so they’re eager to share their stories, advice, and experience.

Soon there will be an opportunity for you to talk about what you do and where you’re hoping to go. You might not get offered a job, but you’ll walk away with some new knowledge and a new contact. Make sure to email your contacts right away, thanking them for their time and let them know you intend to stay in touch. Anytime you have a project, a GoFundMe, or get a great job, let this person know. They’ll be rooting for you and when they’re ready to hire you’ll be the first person they think of.

Industry Parties are Everywhere

Every major entertainment news outlet, blog, publishing company and production company hosts a party at San Diego Comic-Con. Getting inside can be tricky but the experience trying to get in can be memorable. Usually, there are lines wrapped around the building. When you find one, hop in line and begin a conversation. Get to know those around you.

Once inside, take the opportunity to circle the room. Then find a place where you feel you’ll fit in. Make conversation. Pro tip: don’t talk about business. This is an opportunity for those hired by the company to blow off steam. The last thing they want to do is interview you for a position or explain why they like their company. Instead, talk about your passions. Ask them about their past convention experience. Or, just dance. Just being a cool human being can be the best kind of networking.

So, bring a lot of business cards, a positive attitude, and some samples of your work. Soon you’ll be hobnobbing with the best in the industry. Even if you don’t walk away with your dream job, you’ll have made memories and contacts that can last a life time.

Words of Wisdom from Paul Feig

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Recently, we had an opportunity to sit down with Paul Feig, famed director of Spy, Bridesmaids, and the recent re-launch of Ghostbusters. Feig is also an actor, producer, and screenwriter. He’s worked every job there is in the industry. We asked if he had any advice for students at the New York Film Academy and this is what he had to say…

  1. Now is the Time to Start

Paul Feig: “If you’re starting as a filmmaker now, you are doing it at the greatest possible time. Coming up, when I was trying to do it, just to shoot a movie was prohibitive because you had to get film—and film costs a ton of money—and how do you get all this stuff together? And then, if you were lucky enough to have enough money to make it, how do you possibly distribute it? Even just post-production costs a fortune, and then you’ve got to distribute it.”

Unless you choose to shoot on film, which you absolutely should try at least once, you may never know the struggle of perfectly timing your shots, so you don’t run out of footage. Today, with the advent of digital filmmaking, you do not have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just to shoot your idea. There’s no better time than right now to begin your career because…

  1. You Already Havethe Materials

Paul Feig: “Now, with this cell phone sitting on the desk, I can shoot a high definition movie. All of these takes [can be] downloaded into my computer. My computer comes with non-linear editing software.”

If you buy a computer or touch screen phone, chances are you’ve got all you need to make a short or even feature film. Both Tangerine and 9/Rides were shot on iPhones. Both films had major festival releases and helped launch their director’s career.

  1. The Internet is Your Friend

Paul Feig: “And then the INTERNET. You can literally distribute your movie to the entire world by hitting an upload button.”

In other words, don’t take for granted the easy access to potential fans. The Internet is all around, and it’s easy to forget what a valuable resource it is. In fact, the UN just declared the Internet a human right, which means more people than ever are using it. Shouldn’t they be using it to watch your films?

  1. No Disclaimers

Paul Feig: “The fact that you’ve made it doesn’t mean it’s great. Hopefully it will be, but you’ve got to be really hard on it. You’ve got to let people around you be hard on it. You’ve got to work it; work it because once you put something out there, you want it to be your calling card. You don’t want to have to go, ‘Oh yeah, well it would be better, but we didn’t do this or that…’

No disclaimers. That was the biggest lesson I learned when I was at film school. We would show our student films and you would get up and say ‘Oh, no, the reason [was] we didn’t have this…’ And my teacher wouldn’t let you talk. He’d just say, ‘No disclaimers. The audience doesn’t care.’”

Your audience doesn’t know you or the blood, sweat, and tears you put into making your film. All they know is they came to be entertained. So, when you screen your film, don’t tell viewers about the struggle, and try to get people who can be brutally honest. By putting your film through a rigorous screening you’re helping to ensure its success in the real world.

  1. Story First

Paul Feig: “What they care about is a great story with great characters. They don’t care if it looks professional. If you capture them and intrigue them with a great story and great characters then you are a filmmaker and you will be found.”

At the end of the day, it’s all about the story you’ve told. Do the characters pull on the heartstrings? Is the audience pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong? If you can create that kind of magic then you can truly call yourself a filmmaker.