Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Festival Screenings and a Game Plan

Thursday November 12th, 2009: Shutterbug was screening at the 2009 3rd Annual NY Greek Film Festival part of the American Indie night. The screening was a wonderful event and the best way to start public screenings of Shutterbug. The audience was receptive - and largely friendly, consisting of many of the film's cast and crew. There is nothing like gathering a group of people in a theater to present them the fruit of their own work. The collective reactions of the audience as they interact with a film (laughing, gasping, shifting, being captivated) is something that the internet's various platforms will never be able to compete with.

The screening was introduced by the Festival director, Professor James Demetro. The screening was attended by acclaimed actor Mr. Stathis Giallelis, Greek American journalists, fimmakers, industry professionals, friends and family of the crew, and more importantly for me, my parents who had flown in from Cyprus. It was very moving to have them present and my father recounted the first screening of his first feature, The Private Right, in 1963 in London. 46 years later his son was premiering a film in New York.

I stood in the back of the theater, watching the audience intently. Where did they laugh? Where did they shift? Where were they captivated? Despite my nerves, the film was warmly received.

After the screening we were fortunate enough to have a party hosted for us at the Pink Pony on Ludlow street, courtesy of cinephile and friend, Mr. Lucien Bahrage. I was fortunate to have the evening filmed by Vasia Markides - who consequently shot more events related to the film, which will be featured on a special DVD edition of Shutterbug (Coming soon!). The evening is recounted very nicely in filmmaker Aaron Lehmann's blog.

After all the fun and games of the festival, it was time for business. I was initially planning to release the film right away, and was discussing a December date with Cinema Village. However, I soon realized that the film would be buried under the avalanche of holiday movies that would be released - and also there was hardly any time to prepare for it. We decided to push the release date into February. I hired the services of Mr. Vincent Nebrida, a seasoned professional in the world of film marketing and distribution, who acted as a distribution consultant and publicist. We sat down and made a plan.

In the meantime, my alma mater, The School of Visual Arts, became interested in Shutterbug. Film Chairman Mr. Reeves Lehmann, invited the film to screen at the wonderful new School of Visual Arts Theater on West 23rd street. In a speech by Mr. Lehmann he mentioned that it was one of the first films by an alumnus to screen at the theater. Professor Gene Stavis and his excellent staff hosted the evening which constituted Shutterbug's second 'sneak preview' - as a film made for $XX,XXX.00... The budget was revealed to the student body in an effort to encourage them that low/no budget filmmaking is possible. However we worked on keeping the number from the press as the budget is so low that I was concerned no one would take the film seriously! The screening was free for SVA students and alumni and an email blast went out inviting IFP members and Shooting People Members and was also attended by various bloggers.

The 300 seat theater was packed. The projection was incredible. I had invested in a blu-ray disk (impeccably produced at Hello World Communications) to screen just for that evening. It is the largest screen that Shutterbug has ever played on yet. A wonderful room - a treat to any filmmaker screening their film there.

After the screening, Mr. Lehmann led an hour long question and answer session with the audience. Avid student filmmakers posed questions to actors/producers Nando Del Castillo and Brett Molé, actress Stella Velon and composer Tao Zervas and myself. Another event which was filmed and will be featured on future DVD releases. Some people had great questions. Others were totally lost and dumbfounded. I was beginning to understand my audience. There were those looking for a distinct plot, with development and closure - which Shutterbug has plenty of in the first two acts, but the third ventures into realms of the surreal. Then there were the others, who were more than happy to succumb to the film's own logic and venture on the surreal trip and be immersed in the ideas behind the aesthetics, situations and visuals. The second lot seemed older. Hmmm...

The release date was still an issue. My main concern about releasing the film in February was the Oscars. Who wants to open a movie on Oscar weekend? Negotiations continued with Cinema Village and we settled on March 19th, 2010. The date was finally locked down and Vincent and I made more plans: it was time to get the ball rolling on the promotional efforts. A note has to be made here that almost everything in the promotional campaign was a personal financial investment that I made - savings and credit cards - and in one very special case I received sponsorship as you will see in the next blog entry. In the next entry I will try to outline as best I can the whole strategy we employed to promote and publicize Shutterbug on a shoe-string budget. Partly because I think it was cool - but also because we did great work that should inspire filmmakers in their creative marketing campaigns. The tools are out there.

Thursday, July 8, 2010



Here we are, 6 months later for the next Shutterbug blog entry. For fear of sounding like a broken record, I won't apologize this time. But please do check out the rest of the blog for the beginning of the story on the making of the film.

The lights came up and there were smiles. The small group of friends who had just seen the most recent cut of the film were awake and smiling. For this I was truly relieved! Parrying the usual friendly and supportive comments ("You did a great job" - "You should be proud" etc) I sat down with everyone to get to the real issues: What were their questions at the end? What was missing? What did they not get, or what was not believable?

All this was invaluable information for me to understand how someone else was experiencing the film. Specially since the nature of the film is that it is a metaphysical adventure. A very personal journey which is not fully explicit. I was trying to achieve a level of intimacy between the character and the audience. Some people understood exactly what I wanted them to. Others did not - others even brought their own reactions and ideas that led me to see what I could not as director. But in each case I had the film considered by people I knew well. Friends and filmmakers who's aesthetics and taste in film I knew. This way I could interpret their reactions and make adjustments accordingly - and also know when not to make adjustments!

The process of editing Shutterbug was long and slow. Cutting the film myself was part of the issue, because I would work on a sequence of scenes and then I would have to step back from it for a week or so before I could really judge what I had done. I was constantly trying to refresh my eyes and not get caught up in the same details.

The second factor in the slow post process was that I was struggling financially. I was working to pay bills and meet work deadlines. The time I had available for Shutterbug was limited because most of the time I was shooting or editing something else! This left little creative energy for the film.

Then there was a break through. Jon Tripp, my good friend and fellow filmmaker from SVA stepped in. After a brief correspondence and DVD viewing of the film in his native Minnesota, he came to New York and for 2 weeks we watched the film and then went through it, cutting and adjusting, discussing what he thought did or did not work. I must have taken 80% of his advice. I don't think I could have worked with anyone but Jon since we always had a very good communication when it came to film.

Jon's view basically put the main structure of the film in place and crystallized the connection of Alex (Nando Del Castillo) and his mysterious muse, Thalia (Stella Velon). After Jon helped restructure the film and he returned home, we continued discussing it andI polished and fine tuned it as best I could. More screenings followed for more friends. By now, many scenes had hit the cutting room floor and I was at the 90 minute mark.

Turning to the special effects, I shot most of the live action elements against a green screen in my loft and then glued myself to my Mac's screen to train myself in Motion and Shake. Many, many frames later I had the effects I wanted: a full hallucinatory palette of blurs, streaks and glows for Alex to get confused about! It took a lot of time and patience, but eventually I made it happen. The process was important for me personally - being able to understand the fundamentals of animation and special post effects helps your mind come up with ideas on set about what is and is not feasible. It's good to know as a director. At the very least it keeps the crew from rolling their eyes at you!

The whole Post Production process of Shutterbug, being fragmented and coming in disparate bursts, took a good part of 3 years to complete. But was it over? I couldn't really put the film down. Every now and then there was a moment here or there that felt too long - or too short - or a few frames that needed to be shaved off various shots. The most exciting thing in this process was cutting lines. Removing a line at the end or beginning of the scene was essential, transforming the exposition from verbal to visual. This was my main hangup with my first feature to begin with, so reducing the dialogue was very satisfying.

As I was cutting Shutterbug I signed up to Withoutabox, started to burn screeners and sent the film off to various film festivals, with a note about the sound mix and color correction not being perfect (my usual neuroticism on how a film should be viewed kicking in). This is not an endorsement of Withoutabox - which belongs to the whole IMDB / Amazon family that makes a lot of internet dollars from indie filmmakers - however it was the most comprehensive way to handle festival deadlines without having to do extensive research. For this I was thankful.

Of course, after sending the film to countless festivals I am sure that many festival judges and their assistants watch the films on their laptops on the subway. There is such a huge volume of films being sent out as submissions that I'm sure they can't afford to spend as much time as they should on each title. And when you're a new, unheard of filmmaker with a no-name cast then I'm pretty sure it's the intern who watches the first ten minutes (while texting or eating), before referencing something they made in film school (which was better), and moving on to the next screener in the pile. Getting your foot in the festival door has more to do with who you know. And if you dont know anyone, you need to find someone who knows someone they know! The rejection letters flooded in.

Shutterbug was finally accepted to the LA Indie Fest, a showcase of films (interestingly called a 'distribution festival') where it won an award of merit. This was great news, and the laurels hit the website soon after. Encouraged by this, I kept submitting endlessly. I focused on US festivals as my goal was to get a US release.

After at least $2,000 worth of submission and Fedex fees, I was fortunate enough to have the film accepted to the 3rd Annual NY Greek Film Festival in November, 2009. The film screened at this annual festival of films from Greece on a Greek-American Indie night. It was screened for the first time in front of an audience made of the general public. Most of the cast and crew were there too: about 130 people, very nearly sold out. There was a gracious introduction by Mr. James Demetro, the festival director, who spoke of the importance of witnessing a debut feature. As the film screened, I paced outside, smoking a cigarette. I had quit some time ago and this was yet another 'last' cigarette.

In fact, It would be the first in a series of many last cigarettes as I was unknowingly just starting the nerve-fraying, intoxicating rush of the process of the commercial launch of the film. This would take me on a promotional campaign of self-distribution, exhibition, advertising, parties, special events and screenings, web promotions and videos etc, etc. The wheels were in motion, and all I could do was try to steer.