indie film

An Open Letter to NYFA Students From Peter Rainer – You Can Make This Your Opportunity

Here in Los Angeles, where I live and work, the word is out that Hollywood film production will gradually be returning to a semblance of normalcy. But what does that mean exactly? What is normal? And what does this mean for you as film students hoping to enter a profession that, even with the lifting of restrictions, seems so fraught?

I am more hopeful than pessimistic about your prospects. Here’s why: My basic premise is that, going forward, the Hollywood studios will be much more wary of making big-budget movies with large casts. Why? First of all, there is the unavoidable COVID-19 reality that movies, involving hundreds of cast and crew, will be physically challenging to execute. This means that the era of the big blockbuster, at least for the time being, will likely be winding down. The logistics involved with creating a film, which were always difficult, will become much more so. And much more expensive, too.

Many big Hollywood movies nowadays cost upwards of $150 million dollars. The majority, even before COVID, did not return their investment. The fraught new situation means that even fewer movies will make a profit, let alone a mega-profit. Not only will costs go up but – and here’s a large new development – the prospect of reaping rewards from big-screen revenues is quickly diminishing.

We all like to see movies on the big screen, with an audience – especially blockbusters – but more of us are in the position now of having to see films at home, on the small screen. We are wary of venturing into movie theaters, and some may have become increasingly comfortable with home viewing.


A movie studio gets far less revenue from home streaming than from theatrical distribution. In the case of a blockbuster, distributing it as a non-theatrical release would be an invitation to disaster. Almost certainly it will never make its money back.

So where does this leave the major studios? If, for the foreseeable future, movie theaters, for the reasons I’ve cited, will not generate anything like the revenue they used to, what will fill the vacuum?

This is where I think you at NYFA, and your fellow colleagues, have a real opportunity. You already know, or will know, how to craft very low-budget independent films with small crews and casts. This is essentially what you would be doing anyway, before COVID, if not by choice than by necessity. As a result, you will become very attractive to a film industry that, in the current climate, is hungry for movie makers who know how to work fast and cheap and still come up with quality cinema, and the movies you make can likely be shown quite as comfortably on a small screen as a big one. Distributors can buy your films knowing the movies will have a fair shot at returning a profit even if they are only shown as VOD (video on demand).

Something similar to this situation occurred in Hollywood in the late sixties and early seventies. The big expensive blockbuster movies were not connecting with the young moviegoing audience. They were losing bales of money. (Ever see Doctor Doolittle with Rex Harrison?) So the studio bosses brought into the system young filmmakers who previously would never have had a chance otherwise. The bosses were looking for young, exploitable film talents who could make movies that clicked with new audiences and return huge profits à la Easy Rider. Young turks ranging from George Lucas and Francis Coppola to Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma – almost all of them film school grads – got their shot. That worked out pretty well, didn’t it?

Even if you don’t want to go the Hollywood route, the options before you are great, because there are so many more platforms now where your movies can be viewed and appreciated.

Out of great hardship comes great opportunity. It may not feel that way to you now, but I’m betting it soon will!

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

prepared

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!

 

4 Indie Film Actors On The Rise

Not all actors are lucky enough to be discovered by a talent scout and launched to instant stardom. Some actors have to put in years of toil in low-budget indie films after graduating acting school, hoping that they will gain the admiration of audiences at a film festival or industry screening. The indie route isn’t easy, but it is a tried and true method that has launched the careers of heavyweight film actors like Matthew McConaughey (Dazed and Confused), Vince Vaughn (Swingers), and, more recently, Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone). Here are four actors that made a splash as indie film actors in 2015.

1. Shameik Moore, Dope

Shameik Moore in Dope

This fresh dramedy debuted at Sundance and features a bevy of young talent that was headlined by lead actor Shameik Moore who plays the geeky Malcolm Adekanbi. The story follows Malcolm as he navigates a sticky situation, pursues a girl, and ultimately tries to accomplish his dream of attending Harvard. Moore is a sturdy young man who handles comedic and dramatic moments with aplomb, not unlike a certain Fresh Prince. He has the ingredients of a star in the making, not to mention some big time Hollywood connections. Dope was produced by Forrest Whitaker, Pharrell Williams, and Sean Combs.

2. Brie Larson, Short Term 12, Room

Brie Larson

At only 26, Brie Larson has already tackled serious subjects such as abduction and mental illness in her films and her penchant for powerful stories has shot her to the top of the indie film game. After having bit parts in studio films like 21 Jump Street and 13 Going on 30, Larson turned her attention to indies to get better roles. Soon after that, she landed the lead in Short Term 12 as the supervisor of a group home for troubled children. She then followed that up with the lead role in the film Room about an abducted young mother raising a five-year old, which has been generating serious Oscar buzz for the young actress. Larson has already started to gain the attention of studios and its only a matter of time until she is starring in a large budget picture.

3. Tye Sheridan, Mud, Joe, Tree of Life

Tye Sheridan

He’s only been acting since 2011, but in that time he has amassed a list of credits that would make any Hollywood veteran jealous. By the age of 18, he had starred opposite Matthew McConaughey, Brad Pitt, and Nicolas Cage. His characters are often troubled youth in search of an older male role model, and Sheridan has a knack for balancing a sympathetic vulnerability with a tough exterior that is always interesting to watch. Come this time next year, he will be far better known than he is at the moment as he is slated to play the young version of Cyclops in the upcoming action film X-Men: Apocalypse.

4. Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Bel Powley

Diary also debuted at Sundance this year and Bel Powley was immediately dubbed the “Jennifer Lawrence of 2015.” That is high praise that has propelled the 23-year-old Powley up the independent film ladder and the praise wasn’t handed out lightly. Powley steals the show with her portrayal of a 15-year old girl who engages in an intimate relationship with her mother’s boyfriend. It sounds uncomfortable, and it is, but the fact that Powley brings life to a character in a situation that is at times tragic and at times hilariously awkward is a testament to her skill. Coming up soon, she will share the screen with Tye Sheridan in Detour and Equals with Kristen Stewart. I guess the moral of the story her is, if you want to break out in an indie film, get the film into Sundance.

Is the next Hollywood star amongst this new crop of independent film actors on the rise? Only time will tell, but for now they can rest easy knowing they are some of the hottest names currently on the indie circuit.

Learn more about the School of Acting at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

Vail Film Festival 2015

Vail Film FestivalThe Vail Film Festival, held annually in the small ski resort town of Vail, Colorado, fosters independent film and filmmakers through film screenings, panels, workshops, networking events, and educational projects.

Filmmakers who submit will have their films viewed and selected by VFF’s Programming Committee.

The Official Selection films will screen in Vail, CO, March 26 – 29, 2015. Filmmakers are invited to attend all screenings, festival parties and award ceremony.

Prizes will be given to the winners of the following categories:

  • Best Feature Film
  • Best Documentary Film
  • Audience Award
  • Best Short Film
  • Best Student Film
  • Best Environmental Film
  • Best Feature Screenplay
  • Best Short Screenplay

If you’re interested in submitting or would like to know more about the Vail Film Festival, CLICK HERE.