Ben Alex Dupris Filmming Bunky Echohawk
Introducing Four Sacred Colors by Ben-Alex Dupris
November is Native American Heritage Month - and I feel that it is more important now than ever to be celebrating and promoting Native stories by Native filmmakers. Native americans are on the front lines protecting our environment from exploitation and degradation, yet according to the massive research study Reclaiming Native Truth Project found that invisibility is now the modern form of bias against Native Americans and it's no wonder considering their representation in media. Native American characters ranges from 0 to .04% in prime time television and popular film.” The report goes on: “The writers, directors, producers, professors and other influencers who create these representations of Native people are mostly non-Native, yet they are shaping how people view and portray Native Americans.”
This past year I have been incredibly fortunate to work with the incredibly talented director Ben-Alex Dupris, producing his new film Four Sacred Colors featuring the artist Bunky Echo-Hawk. This week we will be presenting a work in progress of the film at Doc NYC. The film is part of a new initiative from PBS/American Masters through Firelight Media: Masters in the Making. I thought I would do a short interview with Ben for this piece so that he can give his perspectives on Native American representation in media – and why he wanted to make this film.
Why is it important for you to tell stories as a native filmmaker and/or?
“I was born and raised in a family I would later identify as being “Native American.” Growing up, I couldn’t see a difference between myself and those around me in the secular world. As I grew older it was evident that my culture, and the way our families interacted was not reflected in the pop culture we loved so much. The characters on TV were white or black. The homes they lived in didn’t look like ours, and the circumstances they faced had nothing to do with my own reality on the reservation. I’ve waited half my life to see this change, but it just hasn’t happened. I’m now completely dedicated to seeing our stories and images reflected in this way through film and television.”
What is important about Bunky’s story to you as a native filmmaker?
“Bunky Echo-Hawk has been a polarizing figure in the Native American art world for a long time. His refusal to follow conventional tropes in his work has branded him as a wildcard in the “Native” world where we are slow to embrace change. We have a collective distrust of change because of how fast the world has changed for our people in the past 500 years. So change is not encouraged, even when it’s grounded in our own contemporary thoughts and ideologies. Bunky brings forward a sense of confidence in the opportunity to be both modern and traditional with the same equality. It’s truly refreshing.”
A bit about Bunky: Bunky Echo-Hawk was born on the Yakama Indian Reservation 30 miles downwind from the Hanford Nuclear Site. From 1946-1954, Hanford, under the direction of the US Government and General Electric, the contractor, experimented with long term, low rates of radioactive exposure on his Yakama relatives. Without their knowledge or consent, they were exposed to ten times more radiation than the amount released during the Chernobyl meltdown. This injustice has informed and continues to influence Bunky’s art.
What is important about Bunky’s story to you as a native filmmaker?
“Bunky is unafraid to talk about the grey nuances of being Native American today. He’s unapologetic in his position against extraction industries like fracking companies, or nuclear power plants that do not care about the people who have to live in the communities they reside. His deep understanding of Pawnee tribal history allows us to see another layer of American history that we might not otherwise have known.”
What are your thoughts on how most stories are told about native/indigenous people and issues?
“I know that we are in a very rapid transitional period in Native American filmmaking history. For decades our stories were stereotyped and exploited as part of the empirically inaccurate narrative of colonization from the white perspective. Generations have only understood us from the construct of being a conquered people. Nowadays we are rebuilding that narrative to include the amazing accomplishments of our people, and really dive deeply into the complicated nuances of our own Indigenous spirits. There is still a long way to go, as we have yet to stray too far from the political and social justice narratives. We are not exclusively warriors of change, or radically inclined to fight the atrocities of the U.S. Government. That is only one type of story. I’m excited about telling the other stories, the ones where we get to live like human beings before our issues first.”
What kind of stories are you interested in telling?
“I’m interested in telling stories that inspire hope. I know the challenges we face as a human race are infinite and our Indigenous history is tragic. But my role in the filmmaking universe is to make the hair on the backs of our necks stand up, tears swell, or even scream for joy. I truly want people to taste life through Native American stories, and our people.”
Working with Ben has been an incredible heart filled experience. Four Sacred Colors is our first full collaboration and it has been wonderful to have the opportunity to see Ben’s development as an artist. I am taken not only with the stories he wants to tell, but his working methodology. I think you will appreciate his work as much as I have. The issues that Bunky brings to his work are so deep and complex that deciding what will go into the max ten minute short has been one of the biggest struggles. We are considering developing a feature documentary about Bunky to really do him justice. If you happen to be in NYC please join us Thursday at 5:15pm at the Cineopolis theaters - click for more info. Stay tuned for the American Masters release early next year.
APPLYING TO FILM FESTIVALS 10 DOS AND 5 DON’TS
Here are 10 Do’s and 5 Don’ts when applying to film festivals. These suggestions are based not only on my own work with clients, but also from some amazing advice from some really knowledgeable folks who I have had the pleasure of being on panels with over this past year: Basil Tsiokis (SundanceFF/DocNYC), Tom Hall (Montclair FF), Dan Nuxoll (Rooftop Films), Omar Gonzales (PMK-BNC), Ania Trzebiatowska (Visit Films), David Nugent (Hamptons International FF), Milton Tabbot (IFP) But don’t hold them responsible for everything I say – I take full responsibility.
- Only submit when you are sure the film is ready to be seen. You only have one shot with each festival. 99.9% of the time festivals will not re-watch a film if submitted in a previous year. It is hard enough to get them to look at a new cut in the same year you are submitting unless you are an alumni or are an established filmmaker or both.
- If you intend your film to be appreciated by an audience: test screen your film before you submit it and certainly before you lock picture. Don’t let film festival programmers be the first outside audience for your film and certainly not the festival audience. (I could digress but that would be a whole other post).
- Know your film Part 1: Research what festivals are best for your film. Look at the festival archives to see what their taste and programming is. Find similar previously released films and see where they played.
- Create a Database with the dates of the festivals, their various deadlines, fees, who you may know that knows them, why you would apply etc.
- Create a budget for submissions. It can add up very quickly.
- Have a sense of the festival cycle(s) that starts in late summer early fall with TIFF, Venice, Telluride, IDFA then the mini-Winter/Spring cycle starts with Sundance – the overarching fall to spring cycle pretty much ends in June with summer off. If you are finishing your film in winter you will need to evaluate whether to submit to the end of that years cycle or wait till next year.
- Submit to a variety of kinds of festivals. Apply to the solid regional and niche/genre festivals – there are many of them that are super worthy and would be great for your film. Women’s, LGBTQ, Jewish, African American, Horror, Environmental etc. However be cautious about your premiere.
- Have a strategy. If you feel your film has the chops for a top tier festival, apply to those – and then try for stronger regional and niche festivals. This is one of the toughest parts of devising a strategy, how long to wait to apply for non-top tier festivals. You want to be cautious about where you premiere – but you also don’t want to be a year in and still not have some festivals lined up!
- If you have advocates here are some guidelines:
- Make sure the advocate knows the film.
- Understand that this is a big ask – the advocate only has so many films they can lobby for – so is this the right thing you want to ask of that advocate? Are there other more important needs for your film.
- Understand that ultimately this advocacy mainly guarantees calling the film to the attention of the programmers. Despite rumors to the contrary – it doesn’t guarantee that a film will be accepted.
- Know Your Film Part 2: Your film may not be a festival film. Some films might have a better play at niche conferences than festivals – and this might result in more money and more audience connection and more opportunities to change the world than festivals. Don’t waste a full year festival cycle to find this out.
What Not to Do – The Don’ts:
- Don’t rush the film to make a deadline. The inverse of #1 above – but worth repeating. Don’t risk making a lesser film. The world is so competitive now with so much content – you need to focus on creating the best film possible no matter what.
- Don't submit late: Meet an official deadline. Extensions are generally bad for a variety of reasons. Festivals give preference to films that have met their deadlines.
Festivals will not guarantee they will look at the film.
Films may have already become favorites – especially one that might be similar to your film – and already have a champion at the festival.
Some films are already selected and it reduces your percentage of making it in.Extensions are extra work for the festival.
This is especially true for first time filmmakers. If you have an experienced producer – perhaps – but still not a great idea.
- Don’t be secretive with film festival programmers. If you got into another festival that has a conflicting premiere status – don’t be coy with either festival – be upfront and tell the programmers who accepted your film. Ask for a few more days. The programmer won’t love it – but they will generally understand. It is best to call them and not email so that you can create a human connection.
Don’t ask for fee waivers unless you are an alumni of the festival. You don’t want to start off your relationship with a festival asking them to work for free (which is what you are doing by asking for a fee waiver). If you get into a more prominent festival, you will probably start receiving invitations with fee waivers.
- Don’t try to talk to a programmer after you have submitted your film unless you know them well (in which case you probably wrote them an email). Understand that programmers are super busy during this time and it doesn’t do any good to try to talk to them to tell them what they already know from your submission. “My film is great and so and so is in it, it’s about such and such.” What do they say to that?
Communicate only when you have an update that is relevant for the festival such as being accepted into another festival that affects premiere status in some way.
If you have questions about the above – or need help in crafting your festival plan – feel free to reach out to us. We are here to help you.
Distribution: Aggregators vs. Distributors
In the wake of the seeming demise of Distribber, which was one of the main ways in which filmmakers could get their work up onto major online platforms, it seems that it is still important to indicate the difference between aggregators and distributors - as well as between the two main types of aggregators: aggregators for hire and aggregators by percentage. Yesterday I was interviewed by Jeffrey Michael Bays and Forris Day for their Get Real: Indie Filmmakers podcast about the Distribber situation and discuss some potential solutions. You can find it here. But first some background that most filmmakers still require:
Distributors are companies that will acquire a film and take control of all the distribution and marketing for that film. The hope/dream from filmmakers is that this distributor will release it in the best possible way to audiences and in doing so achieve that filmmaker’s goals. Most filmmakers are eager to move on to their next project. The aspiration on the part of the filmmaker is that the distributor will understand the film and its audience and give it the release it deserves. Sometimes this happens, sometimes it doesn’t, often in between.
Distributors will argue that they invest time and money (including hopefully an advance for the film)and in exchange, the they want to take as many rights and territories for as many years as possible. Many distribution offers are are for all-rights in either the US, North America or the world and can run from 15-30 years. You need to have either gotten a nice advance, or have a lot of belief and trust in that distributor to take that plunge.
While there are many very good distributors now, there are many reasons why a filmmaker may not engage with an all-rights distributor. (for future posts)
The alternative to an all-rights distributor is to pursue a split rights or hybrid strategy. This is a vast subject and has taken me a book and much writing since to explain. But for this post we just need to know that an essential component to a hybrid release are the digital rights. Generally these rights are handled by one form of aggregator who just as the name implies aggregates content and then presents it to the major digital platforms: iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu etc - as well as usually cable VOD outlets.
An aggregator for hire is one that you pay a flat fee and in exchange they will shepard your film through the encoding process on TVOD (transactional VOD) and AVOD (Ad supported VOD now sometimes called ADVOD) as well as sometimes pitch your film to SVOD (subscription VOD). Beyond putting your films on platforms, they don’t promote your film. That is up to you. You keep 100% or nearly 100% of all revenue that the aggregator receives from those platforms from the sale/rental of your film. The filmmaker pays a fee for each platform the aggregator delivers to (and sometimes pitches to). Distribber was one such aggregator. Others are Quiver, Bitmax and The Film Collaborative (who go through Quiver).
An aggregator for percentage will generally (although not always) front the encoding costs (but they generally always take these expenses off the back end). They will promote your film to all the platforms they have relationships with including not only broadband but also cable VOD. However, they also take a percentage of the gross return from those platforms. In general they argue that they will market your films - in many cases this is in the form of what is called merchandising. Merchandising is when the aggregator promotes their films to the various platforms arguing for prominence on that platform. One of the most common of these is the New and Notable section (or even the front page) of iTunes. This placement can help with one of the most common problems in our sea of content - a film being found.
Many of these aggregators for percentage do not consider themselves aggregators. They will pitch your film for broadcast in additon to VOD (they may also handle other rights such as educational, airplane/hotel, etc) and hence actually consider themselves distributors (even though many don’t do theatrical or semi theatrical which used to be a cornerstone of distributon).
Common to all aggregators (and distributors) is that one of their key roles is to collect money and pay it out to the filmmakers (after deduction of hopefully specified expenses). Finding out if your potential distribution partner pays on regularly and on-time is essential. You normally do this by asking other filmmakers who have worked with them. You should always vet any distribution partner by talking to at least two filmmakers who have worked with them recently.
And this was the rub with Distribber. Until recently they were very well regarded and had a reputation of paying their filmmakers. This unfortunately seems to have changed with many filmmakers indicating that not only have they not been paid, but cannot seem to get a response from the company. Check out the podcast indicated above if you are one of these filmmakers who went with Distribber. If you have not - stay tuned for future posts on how to handle your release - digitally and otherwise.
Desolation Center Starts National Theatrical Release
After a great festival run including Slamdance, CPH: DOX, Sheffield International Doc Fest and many more Desolation Center starts the next step of its journey today with the launch of a 30+ city theatrical release. It hits Los Angeles this week and then onward across the US and Canada.
I have been advising and working Stuart Swezey on this remarkable film since the beginning - even contributing some footage from my early Mark Pauline/Survival Research Laboratories documentaries. The film plays exceptionally well in theaters and Stuart has been creating a number of events with musicians around the release such as the Rooftop Films screening in NYC featuring Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth. Check out the trailer here.
From the LA Times: “In the early 1980s, fed up with the violence that Daryl Gates’ LAPD brought down on the flourishing Hollywood punk scene, Stuart Swezey took to the warehouse wasteland of downtown L.A., and then to the wide-open spaces of the desert, booking punk, noise, industrial music and experimental art shows under the moniker “Desolation Center.” His first venture featured San Pedro punkers Minutemen, $12 tickets and a school bus ride to the Mojave. No one could have known that this event would be the first DNA strand of the multibillion-dollar modern music festival, as chronicled in Swezey’s documentary “Desolation Center.”
Swezey’s film is a historical record of this short-lived time and this singularly L.A. scene — he promoted only three desert shows and one on a boat. The era ended with the death of Minutemen guitarist D. Boon in 1985, but it means that Swezey never sold out. Though the “Desolation Center” served as inspiration for the massive festivals of today, in the hearts and minds of the scene’s major figures, it remains pure to the punk ethos.”
Welcome to 8 Above
In 2009 I founded Hybrid Cinema as a company to publish my book Think Outside the Box Office. It felt like the right name at the time since I was (and still do) preach hybrid distribution. Further, I was (and still am) a lover of “cinema”. However, over the past number of years, I have been advising filmmakers and companies on a wide range of media projects and increasingly it felt limiting to keep the name rooted in “cinema”.
In addition while I have continued to be involved in production since I wrote Think Outside, (I made Bomb It 2 and have also worked as a consulting producer on a number of projects including Desolation Center and Sweetheart Dancers), I wanted to devote more time to production while still continuing to help other filmmakers with their distribution and marketing.
8 Above references when the sun is eight degrees above the horizon which is in the middle of sunset and sunrise. This magic hour is one of the optimal times for filming exteriors because the light is so favorable. This is my way of symbolizing a stronger step back into filmmaking and media creation.
But this “magic hour” also represents a time of transition. Most of our clients find themselves at a time of transition, usually when they are nearing the end of production and post-production and are starting to consider how to connect their creative project with the world.
My desire was to create a company that would express a great degree of openness, transition and abundance. Reach out – I would love to connect with you.