Saturday, May 24, 2008


Sorry not to have blogged recently. This is partly because everyone was in Cannes, except me - or at least that's how it felt; also, I was away for a few days for my "real" (i.e. the one that pays) job; and it's also been a bit of a thin news spell round here. I have managed to get some writing done - a few days away in Bristol seemed to unlock something or other - whether it was being in a new place, or being away from home and therefore away from chores and ordinary distraction, or whether it's that I've reached a point where my job no longer takes so much emotional energy because I've settled into it now, I don't know; whatever it is, I'm not complaining. I got two entries into "Gone in Sixty Seconds" the previous week, and several pages of novel down in Bristol. The next target is the final deadline of the BSSC at the end of June.

However, I'm having a period of enforced inactivity because I've had the worst allergic reaction yet to an insect bite - the nurse said it was the worst one she'd ever seen, which was peculiarly gratifying - always nice to alarm the medics! Like the time I got a scratch from a foxglove stem, my shin turned black, and when I rolled up my trouser leg to show the GP, her reaction was "bloody hell!" Anyway, I have a very sore leg, and am not going to be doing what I wanted to do this weekend, which was finish off putting in the sleepers for my raised bed vegetable patch. I might make it as far as the cinema this afternoon, because the alternative is staying here and listening to football through the wall - my neighbour has her radio on so loud it must be almost jumping off the table. I hate football, I double hate BBC local radio football commentary, and I treble hate the phone ins they have afterwards - the pain of my sore leg will be less than the pain of having to listen to bellowing fools all afternoon, so I will stagger out, whimpering every now and then, and may well console myself with ice cream.

Instead of digging, I finally got round to sorting out my flickr account. Pictures from LA last month are here, and the first garden pictures this year are here.

The radio blasting has begun so I'm off out in search of lunch - I should eat marmite on brown toast, real ale, and brewer's yeast. I'll be stinking like a brewery and farting like a herd of cows, but at least the sabre-toothed mosquitos won't like me any more.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Weekend interview 2 - The Producer

For the second interview in my new series, I've got a great one for you - a chat with Rob Speranza, who runs South Yorkshire Filmmakers Network, and is a very experienced producer of short films, including "King Ponce" directed by Sam Donovan, and Sue Everett's recently completed film "Mother, Mine". He was really helpful when I was trying to get "Echoes" set up too, and gave me tons of invaluable advice - well worth my £25 joining fee for SYFN! He's got lots to say about short films, so enjoy the interview:

Tell me about your involvement with South Yorkshire Filmmakers Network, and how that began.
First off, I got in through academic means, which I didn’t expect. I started doing a Masters but it grew into a PhD, on film and poetry. While doing that, I ran the video library where I was surrounded by great films, films by great directors that my tutors talked about. And there was one guy who used to watch 3, 4, 5 films a week, never missed a week, and come in and talk about them, and he asked me if I wanted to join a production company he was setting up. He’d got a corporate job lined up, and I thought that sounded like a good deal, so I joined him. We started getting more people involved, got more corporate jobs, and this became Sort Of Films, with Ed Cartledge, and the Network sort of took off from there. We didn’t make too many films in the network as such, aside from my film-poems, but we would have meetings, hold training sessions around sound, camera, music, and anything else people asked for. We’d talk about our favourite films, favourite scenes, cinematography, we’d meet in people’s houses or in the pub, and when 25 or more people started showing up each week we realised it wasn’t a production company anymore, it was a network. And South Yorkshire Filmmakers Network now has 600 members.

Then, I had to go home (to the USA) for a bit, and I worked on a few films as production manager, or 1st AD, which was really cool. Prior to that professionally I’d done only done script reading in the USA, and all this was great experience leading up to being a producer when I was back in the UK again in early 2005.

I came back to this country wanting to make short films. As a producer, I began to make business links, make connections with Screen Yorkshire, learn how to complete application forms, met directors I wanted to work with, and got a meeting with a Screen Yorkshire-funded director who needed a producer, and things went from there. I got a lot of “no”s - it’s a long process, and a little bit heart-breaking sometimes, especially when it’s a project you’re really close to, but you have to be persistent and hard-nosed.

Thinking about the process of making a short film, at what point do you get involved as producer?
In almost every case a writer or a director, or the two together, will come to me with a script or an idea. If it’s an idea I like, I tell them to go away and write it. If it’s an idea I don’t think I can work with, I try to send them to someone who I know is looking for something. If I don’t think I can do it, I try to put people in touch. It’s neat when you can put people together.

If they come to me with a script for a short, then I read the script. There’s one guy who’s sent me loads of pitches, great ideas, and I’ve said yeah, go away and write the script. But he comes back with a story about why he hasn’t done it, and a load more pitches and ideas. There is a level of frustration as a producer when people don’t follow up. I feel sometimes people are afraid to succeed, afraid to make that step. Suddenly there’s a little flavour of success, it’s going to emerge into a fully fledged project, and they don’t act, they don’t follow up. I’ve felt sometimes it’s difficult to get people to do what they say they actually want to do. Strange, that it’s almost like some people are afraid to succeed.

So, yeah, I read the script; if I don’t like it, I let them know. I ask who’s on board, who’s going to direct, can I see what else they’ve done. What else can they bring to the table, do they have their own camera, their own editing equipment, sound equipment; do they have any money or am I going to have to apply for money, go looking for funding? If someone’s got a really good idea and I like it, I’ll figure out a way to get it made. But, it should be noted, I’m not looking to make many more shorts right now.

What do you think are the most common weakness in the scripts you see?
They don’t know how to end. So many short films don’t know how to end. This is a common problem. I feel that there often is a great premise but not a great follow-through. It’s hard to get people to care about characters in a short time, and also wrap up their stories in a satisfying way. It’s not an easy thing to do. But the best short films do it.

In addition, it’s often the case that a short film could use script editing to help the writer. Someone that tells the writer that the story falls a bit flat here, there’s no real character arc here, and so on. Scripts for short films also often have clichés, a lot of clichés. I met a guy recently who wanted me to produce his film and the project ended up falling through because when I met him he was really reluctant to listen to ideas and change anything, really reluctant to work on it, and there were a lot of clichés in his script, stuff we’ve seen a thousand times. If you’ve got art at the heart of your film, you need to think of it as an artwork and how it all holds together. It’s amazing how many times characters in short film scripts look at their watches - “He looks at his watch.” No! We can find more creative ways to show the passing of time.

What relationship do you have with the writer in terms of how you work on scripts?
If it’s a writer and a director, then I let the director drive things with the writer. I’d work on a team to aid the process, script editing and so on. If it’s a writer/director, then I’d try to develop the script, maybe work on specifics like character arc, dialogue. Screen Yorkshire-funded films go through a script development process, with a script editor, five or six meetings with writer/director/producer to work on it and get it right. It depends, really - you build up relationships with people over time, directors and writers, and you get to know how people work.

What advice would you give to writers, as a producer, in terms of getting work out there?
Do the networking, go to events, talk to people. Know what your story’s about. Don’t start talking to producers if you don’t know your story. If you’re talking to them and your idea’s a little flabby, you may have lost an opportunity. Try to talk to people when you’re ready - don’t rush it.

Join organisations like SYFN, join Shooting People and Talent Circle, go to networking events, get comfortable with the idea of talking to producers so that you’re not intimidated when you’re talking to them about your script. If producers are there at these events, then they’re interested, they’re looking for ideas, and if they’re not, they’ll say so.

Don’t isolate yourself. Join writers groups, go on writers programmes. There are some good free ones, some you have to pay for. SYFN will be doing a ten-module course for entry level writers with some really top speakers, in the autumn, and it’s going to be priced reasonably. Get out there, don’t just sit in your room wondering how someone’s going to read your script.

Get on the Screen Yorkshire database, or whoever the regional film agency is in the area you live in, get on their radar. Find people to team up with, make those connections, get involved and be part of a team. A lot of schemes are easier to get into if you’re part of a team, whether it’s writer/prod
ucer/director, or writer and director, than if you’re just going in as a writer.

Don’t be afraid to take criticism; if you disagree with it and it’s at odds with the ethos of your film, fair enough, say so, but be flexible enough to take advice.

If you’re stuck, call SYFN, call the regional agency, get advice. Don’t just sit there.

Some great advice there, and good insights - hope you enjoyed reading Rob's thoughts. If you want to contact Rob, you can find him on 0114 276 2400 or at

Thursday, May 08, 2008

It's summer therefore it must be festival time

The sun has come out, English people are taking off their clothes no matter how ill-advised that might be, and the Edinburgh Film Festival programme was launched yesterday - this has kind of skewed my body clock as far as summer is concerned because Edinburgh is August - film, fringe, books all in one go. But this year, the film festival has made a leap for separateness into June. There have already been comments about whether or not this will work; I have mixed feelings myself. On the one hand, I like the buzz of being able to go to see a favourite author at the book festival in the afternoon, a film at tea time and a comedian late at night; on the other hand, I didn't do that very often, when I went up for the film festival I tended to do several days of very intense film stuff, and if I'm not competing with thousands of fringe folk it will be a hell of a lot easier to find somewhere nice and not extortionate to stay. So, I'll hang on til June 29th to make my judgement about whether its worked or not.

I'll definitely be going up to Edinburgh for as much of the festival as I can manage - the programme at first glance didn't seem as eye catching as last year but actually there are a good few films that on reflection have made me think "yeah, I'll give you a go". And hopefully the industry events will be as good as the last couple of years. Anyway, if you're going and would like to meet up, let me know.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The weekend interview

Here's a new strand to the blog - following on from Glimmer, the 6th Hull International Short Film Festival (HISFF from now on), I thought it would be interesting to interview people from across the whole spectrum of film, from writing scripts and producing films through to exhibiting and writing about film. So, here's the first "weekend interview" (think of it as your Saturday Review or Sunday Supplement), with Rose Chamberlain of "Film and Festivals" magazine. Rose is a Brazilian filmmaker and journalist who started the Brazilian Film Festival "Something from Brasil" in 2005, and she and I did the "Films, Filmmakers and Film Festivals" panel together at HISFF a couple of weeks ago. Here's what she had to say when I caught up with her last week:

As someone who has run a film festival and now runs a magazine about them, what would you say is the role of film festivals for writers and film makers?
Festivals work like a window, as a platform to support young and beginning filmmakers, right through to those for the super-professionals. Each festival has a particular feel, and defines its own audience. You may go for the market side of it if you’re a professional, for the networking side if you’re newer to it. It’s important for anyone in the industry to be in contact with festivals, to make contacts with people, build networks.

For short filmmakers in particular, do you think the internet is becoming more significant, or will traditional festivals continue to be important?
The internet needs to be used as part of the festival network. Events themselves won’t finish – it’s the same conversation as the one about digital distribution – the internet won’t end the idea of an event, the opportunity to go and socialise; the internet can support film festivals and support short film directors. I think the opportunity of new platforms, whether that’s the internet, video on demand, and so on, might be a chance for short film directors to make some money – it’s very difficult to make revenue from shorts but with Joost and Babelgum, for example, that use advertising revenue models, instead of a buyer model, and share revenues with directors and producers it might be possible. But I don’t think that will end festivals, festivals are an opportunity for showing a film and getting an audience. Directors should combine both models.

No-one knows exactly what model to follow right now. The distribution industry is going through a shift; the old model of distributing films has been broken, where you would get the posters, the opening night, the stars; the internet engages directly with the audience and independent producers can now do their own distribution, utilising free social networking sites for example.

You can achieve much greater access now, with almost no budget at all, plus the way people consume is changing. However , it’s important to take in consideration that not everyone has access to broadband yet. We are in the middle of big changes but no-one knows what’s going to happen and no-one has figured out how to create a stable economic model for the internet. Films still make money on DVD but for how long?

What strategy would you advise writers to take when thinking about festivals?
Figure out which festivals have workshops, or look at specific festivals for writers. Select festivals on the basis of who it’s for. Apply for as many labs as possible, that’s really important because it’s a good opportunity for access to some very good professionals in your field, plus you can meet others in the same position as you, and there’s an opportunity to engage with producers. You can write the best film ever but if you’re not making contacts, no-one will know.

What strategy should short film makers have?
Try to push the film as much as possible. With short films, directors need to think about their film as a distributor would think. Create a strategy, use the internet, create posters and flyers, and select festivals that are compatible with your film. If you get accepted by one, and you do well, you’re more likely to get accepted by others. Programmers talk to each other, ask what they’ve seen. Festivals are an opportunity to build your own audience. Put the film out as much as possible – often, no-one included promotion in the budget so there’s no money left after post-production. Filmmakers can easily spend up to $1000 on submitting to festivals, and you don’t even know if you’re going to get accepted.

Create a webpage, create a blog, make a trailer to go on Myspace, use all available platforms. Look at submitting to European festivals as they often charge less than American ones. If you’re in the UK, it’s worth looking at your regional film agency – they might have a budget to help you. Also the British Council select a number of films and support certain festivals, and they may help you go to the festival. It can be a full time job – you think you’ve finished your film, no you’ve just started! After all, if you make a film and no-one sees it, what’s the point?

Film makers should watch more films. If you want to make short films, you need to think of short film as a genre, it’s not just a squashed feature film. It might be worth doing short films as training, or as an opportunity to show your skills, but you need to be making the best short film you can. If you understand what short film is about, you have a better chance of creating a really good piece of work and then going forward with your career.

What are the most common mistakes writers and short film makers make?
Trying to squeeze too big an idea into a short time. You don’t have the time to do everything you would do in a feature, the epic idea isn’t going to work and it looks like the director just wants to show off.

Also, I don’t understand why so many people make short films that are so dark and down. Is this a British thing? I enjoy seeing films where there’s some joy, a snap of life. I hate short films that are 40 minutes long – that isn’t a short film. If it’s more than 15 minutes it isn’t really a short.

Before you even begin to make your film, look at festivals and figure out where you’d like your film to go, see what type of films different festivals accept, what is the time limit they work with, look at last year’s programme for a festival, get a better understanding of what different places show. It gives you a better chance of getting accepted.

The other important thing is that with digital technology, more people have access to cameras, so more films get made; it doesn’t mean everyone is going to be successful at making films. Of course when you make your film you think it is the best, but you may go to festivals and in fact see that it’s not. Try not to get disillusioned.

Also, it’s worth doing short films so that you can experience different roles, learn about as many different departments as possible. As a filmmaker it’s always good to be open-minded, not everyone can be a director, and there may be a different department that you love and find that working there makes you happy. Be open minded. There’s loads you can do and it’s very exciting!

Interestingly, on the day Rose and I spoke, there was a blog post at the Guardian from a film maker questioning whether film festivals were worth bothering with at all. And although Shane Danielson's first comment might come over as a little sharp, I have to say I agree with the gist of it. Not getting accepted doesn't mean film festivals are worthless. Maybe the film's just not up to scratch. Been there, done that. Learn from it, move on.
Anyway, hope you enjoyed the interview. Check back next week for an interview with a producer, and after that, hopefully there'll be writers, artistic directors, and whoever else I can get my hands on! Let me know if you have burning questions, or people you'd like to see interviewed.