That quote in the title? That was the focus of Mark Duplass’s keynote: “The cavalry isn’t coming.” Sounds a little depressive, but his step-by-step of independent filmmaking was actually very inspirational.
The tenor of the audience was notably different for Duplass than was yesterday’s for Ava DuVernay. DuVernay is just coming off one of the better acclaimed films of last year; Duplass is a writer/director/actor/producer whose multiple hyphens reflect the fact that few know what do do with him as he bounces from film to TV to digital distribution like Netflix.
Guess what? It’s all part of the plan.
Well, maybe not so much a plan when he started, more something he stumbled into, but a well-executed plan anyways that he decided to share with the Keynote attendees.
So you want to be a filmmaker? asked Duplass. Here’s how (I added the numbers and headings):
- Make $3 Short Films
Duplass told a story of when he and brother Jay were coming off of one of their first features, which was a colossal failure. They were gloomy in their apartment, and Mark told Jay to come up with something to shoot, he was grabbing a camera and they were going to make a short right then and there. They shot 20 minutes of footage about Jay struggling to change his voicemail and made a seven minute short. The audio was terrible and the camera had a dead pixel in it.
It doesn’t matter what your movie looks like, Duplass said, get some friends, make one every weekend.
Showcase your unique voice, even if your films are a little self indulgent. “There are very specific things that make you, you,” Duplass said. It’s the things that you and your friends are up, “a little drunk, a little stoned, at 2am” talking about. If you’ve got a good film, start submitting them to film festivals and network the hell out of them.
- Make A $1000 Feature
This comes from what Duplass called the “Available Material School of Filmmaking.” He encouraged filmmakers to catalog what was around them and free or cheap to use, then build a movie around those things. Shoot in your apartment with natural lighting. Just get the damn thing made, and start submitting that to festivals.
- Get Your Movie In Front Of Stars
The next step is to take that first feature, which hopefully shows just how unique you are, in front of name actors. Not big names, necessarily; Duplass invented a fictional actor who’s tired of his canned role on a CW drama who loves your short, or your feature, and then said to approach that person and ask what stories they want to tell. What kind of character do they want to play? Build a second feature around that role. It’s still going to be a cheap $1000 movie so you’re not beholden to anyone, but it will be immediately marketable to VOD distribution because it’s (theoretically) a good movie and it’s got a recognized face attached.
- Move Into TV
It’s at least by this point, according to Duplass, that agents might start entering the picture, promising that the cavalry is coming with big directing jobs. More often than not, he says, it isn’t. He said he’s seen friends doing pitches for three years because of the allure of a $1 million movie who never get to actually make anyone. The cavalry isn’t really coming.
One of the underlying questions of Duplass’s address was, what’s happened to the $5 million gems that used to show up at Sundance? Answer: those people are moving to TV, specifically premium cable and competing services like Amazon and Netflix.
Duplass’s advice: this is to time to take that star of your first feature (who likes you) and the star’s friend (who likes you now that he’s seen what you’ve done for his buddy) and make a couple episodes cheap. License them to the TV distributor, and get an order for more.
- Share The Wealth
At this point on the Duplass Plan (as we shall henceforth call it), you probably have a little money, so you can afford to finance your friend (who’s worked on your $1000 features) to make his own $1000 feature. If he fails, no big loss. If he succeeds, it’s good for everyone. Spread the points around.
Duplass actually put a ton of emphasis on the idea of developing a community from the beginning, friends who are willing to take their weekend to help you make a movie. “Communism is good, guys,” he said, only somewhat jokingly.
- The Crossroads
At this point, it’s possible that the cavalry finally really has come. And more than likely, they’re pitching you a bunch of projects that don’t jive with your by now well-established voice. The idea of resting and making something easier than your own films, which you have to fight tooth and nail for, may sound appealing, but…
- F*** the Cavalry
At the point the cavalry actually shows up, you probably are the cavalry. Go make films.
In the Q&A period, Duplass also addressed a few aspects of digital distribution and modern filmmaking technology. While he acknowledged the crowded space that indie filmmaking has become due to inexpensive technology, he praised these advances, and said that the good outweighed the bad. He also warned against demonizing digital distribution. Speaking about his recent deal with Netflix, he said, “All four of those movies, their budgets, equal to one fart bubble for Netflix.” He talked about is ability as an independent artist to produce contact for significantly cheaper than the norm. So even if he sells to digital distributers, who are “flush with cash,” for half their normal fee, he’s making money, they’re happy, and everyone benefits.
Obviously not everyone is going to be able to duplicate Mark (and Jay) Duplass’s enormous success, but Duplass’s enthusiasm for the indie scene was inspirational and infectious.