As one half of Big Vision Empty Wallet and Big Vision Creative, Alex Cirillo has worked on numerous projects in film and TV. Along the way, she’s gained a ton of useful knowledge that’s sure to be of interest to the budding, stuck or striving creative.
In this latest episode of Coffee with Creatives, I sat down with Alex and discussed:
Getting a head start in film by studying it in high school, and how the early support of a teacher helped Alex realize she might be on the right path
Building a network by working different gigs and internships
The importance of relationships to growth and success
The benefits of being a small team, and reasons for intentionally staying that way
Finding a way to make things work
Approaching film and TV as a media for both social change and vagina jokes
The most common mistake filmmakers make in pitching their projects
Stick around to the end to hear Alex’s one piece of advice for how to leap forward in your project or career. It’s simple, actionable and effective. Enjoy.
You can find Alex on Twitter, and learn more about Big Vision here.
As reminders, you can also subscribe to Coffee with Creativeson iTunes and/or support the podcast on Patreon.
When Rebecca and I were in the early stages of planning The Videoblogs, we met at one point with Gary Chou at Orbital in NYC. We’ve come to treat that meeting as a special one, because Gary listened to our plans (which we’ve mostly followed and are still following) but challenged us to see if we couldn’t take them a step further.
By now, if you’re a reader of this site, you know that we’re making The Videoblogs to contribute to a greater dialogue on mental health in America. And while the hope is that the film itself will become a part of that conversation, Gary’s challenge helped us address a lingering feeling that we weren’t quite taking our plan far enough, in terms of creating a project that not only sparked conversation but encouraged an interactivity that more closer mirrored today’s rising tech-enabled general culture — and its positive potential, more than its dangers.
We’re leveraging and addressing, with The Videoblogs itself, new technologies and new technologically-affected ways of living. And yet the overarching thematic message that we’re seeking to put forth with the story, in these terms, is that we can reach out through the screen to connect, not only virtually, but as a gateway to more of the real-life interaction upon which the human spirit fundamentally subsists — even as technology is making the rest of what goes into subsistence easier and more accessible.
In concrete terms, Gary pushed us to consider how we could take our message and apply it to an active, real-life, two-way solution. The idea greatly appealed to me, as I’ve grown increasingly frustrated by the broadcast-only structure of legacy long-form storytelling. And Rebecca took the challenge head-on. After some back and forth with Gary, we started working to plan The Videoblogs Dialogue in parallel with the production and release of the film.
It took some time to get going (we’re bootstrapping indie filmmakers after all!), but now it’s here. And I’m very excited and very proud and thank Gary and Rebecca for their roles in making it a reality.
Special thanks also to Paul Gilmartin, Grace Parra, Ashely Esqueda and Alice Spivak for lending their time to the contest and the cause. Their early commitments to serve on the jury for The Videoblogs Dialogue helped us gain momentum in the early days of planning, and even though it took some time to get the contest together and now launched, we continue to remain grateful for their help.
And of course thanks also to:
Project UROK, an official partner in the project, and an organization that does amazing work encouraging people to talk more openly and honestly about mental health
Co-sponsor Seed&Spark, a forward-thinking company that helps empower film and media storytellers, and promotes community and interdependence in the independent film industry
And co-sponsor Big Vision Empty Wallet, a film and media incubator that encourages and supports filmmakers working in today’s tech-enabled environment and champions diversity in storytelling
More below. But all the information, including how to enter the contest, can be found on the site for the film. I look forward to seeing what entrants submit. Let’s (safely) talk about this stuff.
The Videoblogs Dialogue is a user-generated video contest, in which participants submit their own videoblogs (3 min or less), pertaining to themes of mental health and/or personal struggle. Participants aged 18-24 are eligible to win a $1,000 Cash Prize and Mentorship package, to be put towards the creation of their own short film on mental health. Anyone age 18 and up can enter for the chance to have their videoblog included in the closing credits of The Videoblogs.
We’re running this contest to contribute to a greater dialogue about mental health in America, and to encourage tomorrow’s artists, filmmakers and performers to bravely engage with what have classically been labeled as difficult subjects (depression, anxiety, trauma) with an ultimate focus on hope.
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For artists, the process of finding work space can be frustrating and inefficient. Meanwhile, venues have limited resources to spend finding new renters. Earned revenue is critical for creative venues yet many rental spaces are tragically underutilized. Through the SpaceFinder program, Fractured Atlas is increasing visibility of rental options, helping artists find the space they need, and helping venues promote and rent their spaces.
When I meet people in the city, especially when they’re doing something kind like meeting me to talk, I like to try to find a place or a space that’s easily accessible to them and either halfway between where we’re both going afterwards or at least fairly close. This time around, I was in a bit of a rush to find a spot, and didn’t know of too many spaces, off-hand, that would be quiet enough to record a podcast. The Space Finder allowed me to find something, quickly. It’s a great resource and I appreciate that it exists.
Filmmakers, actors, performers should check it out.
A Different Kind of Meditation: An Analysis of Word of Mouth (WOM) Marketing
Anyone interested in authentically building an audience, and then smartly and honestly growing that audience, would do well to read it. Murphy specializes in Software as a Service (SaaS) but rightly points out that his observations apply universally to most companies.
I’d take that further, and hitch it up to the “Filmmaker as Entrepreneur” argument, to include anyone whose work would and does benefit from WOM.
The biggest take-away, in my opinion — WOM starts with a great product. From there, it’s about talking to your audience, and asking them what they like and want. It’s about participating in a relationship — not simply selling.
I shared the post with Seed and Spark’s #FilmCurious crew, and people seemed to agree with me that all this is relevant to what we do. For me, that seems to prove Murphy’s point.
Speaking of the #FilmCurious…
This conversation couldn’t have been more appropriate for me. First, contributing towards a new and more equitable business model for indie film is my greatest obsession after contributing towards a greater dialogue about empathy and equality (through storytelling). In addition to that, after bringing The Videoblogs to Big Vision Empty Wallet’s (BVEW) 2015 Distribution Lab — I and the #VideoblogsFilm team are now working hard to iterate our business plan, finish the film, and get it out into the world.
Chat guests Jon Reiss and Adam Leipzig were very helpful, and gave a lot of great advice during the chat. As usual, the #FilmCurious crew also brought their own juice to the discussion. I brought fruit punch. It may have been spiked.
Good read. Get on it.
And have a good week.
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I’m out on a porch, overlooking the Russian River in Healdsburg, CA, and the sun is shining and the birds are chirping and I have coffee.
It’s been a good, if hectic, week. Life feels charged, lately — in a positive way.
Facing Up To Mental Illness
This first thing I liked this week, that I want to bring to everyone’s attention, is Campaign to Face It, a smart, modest, bold initiative to help combat the stigma with which many contemporary societies still view mental illness, addiction, and other conditions associated with mental health.
On June 5th, I and my wife joined with many others in wearing t-shirts designed to help call out this stigma. I wore a shirt that identified me as someone who has struggled with mental illness, and I shared a photo captioned with that same message to social media channels.
I’ve been saying for a long time that it’s important that we talk about mental health. The campaign felt like a simple but effective way to do so safely, personally — by joining with others who sought to prove by their own admissions that they stand behind this same message.
As I wrote that day, I’m mostly doing better now, after struggling for quite a while with prolonged bouts of depression. It’s been a long road, that won’t ever end. But there’s help out there. If you’re ever struggling with your mental health, reach out to someone. You’re not alone, and most people are kind. Help is out there, and you don’t have to be any more ashamed to ask for it, if you’re suffering mentally, than you would if you had a broken arm.
And, if you’re ashamed anyway — still ask for help. It’s okay. No one is perfect and shame can cause a lot more damage.
Big Vision Empty Wallet Distribution Lab
Rebecca and I brought The Videoblogs to Big Vision Empty Wallet’s 2015 Distribution Lab this week. It was a fun and informative experience. We learned a lot, met some great people, and emerged from the various meetings, scheduled by BVEW founders Alex Cirillo and Dani Faith Leonard, feeling re-energized about finishing the film and getting it ready to go out into the world.
I’m here in wine country for my cousin’s wedding. After the busyness of starting the podcast, writing a new story, attending the labs, rushing to make the flight, and scrambling around San Francisco to fill a short day there with some sightseeing — it feels good to sit here and sip coffee and feel the sun on my face.
Also, I haven’t been able to spend much time with my family over the past few years. It’s been great to see everyone. I had a good time running around San Francisco with my parents and Rebecca. I’m having a good time here, now, with my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins.
This is important stuff. I’m going to get back to it.
There’s a lot going on. As I mentioned on Instagram (and other outlets) I just sent three scripts to the Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Competition.
One is a feature that’s also at Nicholl (the screenwriting fellowship program run by The Academy Awards). The other two are TV scripts — the first I’ve ever written, actually. I wrote a sci-fi pilot and a spec episode of The Flash. It surprised me, how pleased I was with my work on the TV stuff. The first page of the pilot may be the best page I’ve written in a long time. It may not be. Rebecca will let me know.
In addition to all that, as announced here, we received news that The Videoblogs was selected to participate in Big Vision Empty Wallet’s 2015 Distribution Lab. Which is great news. Looking forward to that experience, which I will report back on soon.
All of that barely left me enough time to interview Collin Schiffli for Coffee with Creatives. So, one thing that I liked this week is more like a thing I liked recently, that I have continued to think about.
We play it loose with the rules around here. On to it!
Cold Showers for a Happier, More Focused Michael
I experimented with cold showers for a short while, when I first read Tim Ferriss’s The Four Hour Body (the low temperature increases fat burn). They didn’t take, mostly because it’s a tough commitment to keep, due to the relative discomfort of the experience — but, also, I just couldn’t let go of my morning hot shower. It is/was important to me.
However, I’m currently in the midst of trying to drop a few pounds, so that I can fit into the nice new suit I bought last year, when I was exercising regularly. I want to do this both because it would feel good to get back into the suit, but also because I can’t afford a new suit and don’t want to wear one of the old baggy suits from when I was a larger Michael. In addition to a temporary change of diet, I’m trying out the cold showers again (and jogging). As additionally described in the book, apart from helping to burn more fat, cold showers can strengthen the immune system (yes, please) and improve mood (sign me up).
This time, since I’m waking up earlier these days, I decided to alter the plan. I take my hot shower, and then slowly dip the temperature, in intervals, allowing my body to adjust in between. After a while, I bring the cold. I started about six days ago. My cold shower length has increased from about 5 seconds (when I was too quick with my interval temp drops) to about 3 or 4 minutes. The last two days, I have started off with cool showers, and have been able to get to cold more quickly. I’ve also been able to tolerate Full Cold much longer.
I have noticed that my senses feel sharpened, and that my skin feels more alive, when I’m done. The mood improvement appears to be true, for me. And, while I’m (perhaps stupidly) not weighing myself, or taking any measurements, my pants seem to be slipping on a little easier in recent days — though this is probably the combined effect of the dietary shift and the cold therapy. The jogs, I have only just started.
I’m also supplementing the showers by drinking additional ice water throughout the day, and applying an ice pack to my neck for twenty or thirty minutes at night (these methods are also detailed in the book).
It’s been okay. We’ll see how long I last.
The Batmen: Scott Snyder and Geoff Johns Trade Paperbacks
This is the holdover entry from last week. I felt a little guilty, when I realized that I had not included The Batmen in last week’s post. But, really, that list reads the way it was meant to read at the time — as a reminder of the benefits of taking a break and getting out into nature.
I read both Scott Synder’s Batman Vol. 5: Zero Year – Dark City, and Batman: Earth One Vol. 2, by Geoff Johns, while I was away. Both were great.
Snyder’s celebrated run on Batman has been a joy to read. He respects and pays homage to the mythos of the character but does new and inventive things with him. This fifth trade paperback of his run (all with Greg Capullo, whose art is similarly awesome) nicely tied together so many narrative strands that I admittedly felt a little confused by in the previous book. That’s not a criticism — it ended up being a matter of patience. If I were a monthly reader, I may not even have felt that confusion. Still, I’m excited to keep reading this run for as long as it continues.
Geoff John’s comes up with moments, in his writing, that few other writers are capable of delivering from within the DC Comics Universe (DCU). This seems to be because, in addition to being a talented writer — his knowledge of the universe seems encyclopedic and readily accessible. That’s one of the things I loved the most about his second installment, with Gary Frank (whose more grounded Batman looks amazingly human), in their Batman: Earth One story-line, which exists outside of continuity with what Snyder is doing.
The book seems to be written from the point of view of someone who has not only processed every arc and trope from the Batman runs of yesterday, but other contemporary sources (such as Synder’s work, and even Christopher Nolan’s) as well. Johns even includes a great, subtle nod to his own work (in the first Batman: Earth One book) when a move that worked on a villain then…doesn’t work on a villain now — causing Batman to fail, and summarily “cheat”. We don’t often see that from the character.
I just love Johns’s writing (credit goes to my brother, Dan, for introducing me to his catalogue). It’s humorous and inventive but always sourced from character (and the mythos to which characters in the DCU belong). It’s not easy to do something like that, effectively, when the protagonist has been around for decades, and has been handled by so many other writers. I thought the first Batman: Earth One book was a delightfully fresh take on a Batman. The second grows the character more towards a version of him that we’re more used to, but takes advantage of this fact to spend more time smartly reinventing a cadre of old villains in fun new ways. I’m interested to see where the story goes next.
Animals: Coffee with Creatives Delivers The Goods
I watched Collin Schiffli’s feature film debut, Animals (SXSW ’14) ahead of our Coffee with Creatives conversation. I really enjoyed it. The film definitely stands firmly upon the grounded feel that Schiffli discussed as a major intention during the interview — ultimately also delivering an equally grounded, atypically touching story.
Definitely worth a watch. It was great speaking with Collin about his process and his methods as a filmmaker. Check out our talk for more info, and check it out on VOD if you’re interested.
Till we meet again. Next week. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
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The goal of the program is to provide producers with the tools, information, and relationships they need to secure distribution deals for their films and be prepared for distribution. Official education partners VHX and Seed&Spark will be instrumental in educating participants so they can optimize their projects to receive lucrative distribution deals and also plan for self distribution as a means to maintain ownership and make a profit, not as a last resort.
We’re very excited for this opportunity to better prepare for the eventual distribution of the film, to work with BVEW, VHX, and Seed&Spark (and other groups and pros) on our strategy, and to meet and engage with the other lab participants.
This week, I attended Screen Craft’s inaugural New York City panel, Digital Discourse: The Future of Distribution and Content Creation, at the WGA-East. It was a genuinely great panel. You can read a summary from Screen Craft by following that link, Indiewire pulled some more highlights here, and the discussion was recorded and should be available soon online via Screen Craft and/or other resources.
That being said, I want to also chime in a bit about what I gleaned from the discussion. Bits and pieces of what was said have been banging around in my brain for the past few days, and I think some paths are beginning to emerge in there that are made out of the contributions of the thoughtful, focused, hard-working people who made up the panel.
The links above provide plenty of information on what was said. The video will offer the full set of info and insight — and I would encourage interested filmmakers to check it out when it’s available. But, for what it’s worth, here’s what I got out of it.
While not an exhaustive list, we (filmmakers and creators), need to focus on:
This is something that people generally shy away from saying (because they’re nice), but many people who call themselves filmmakers don’t try hard enough or don’t work hard enough to develop the confidence and skills necessary to achieve long-term success (however that may be defined) while at the same time cultivating their artistic voice. I’m saying it now because I’m not speaking to anyone directly, and can further bite the bullet and point at a past version of myself who was guilty of this very mistake.
I could write about this point for days, but in terms of the end-game (monetizing work to at least the point of sustainability, if not past it), it’s sufficient to point out that none of the panelists that spoke on Wednesday were wrong — the reality of the distribution landscape is that it’s not the same, that it continues to change almost daily, and that “the good days” are not coming back. The old narratives of what it means to be an indie filmmaker (perhaps even a filmmaker in general) and to succeed as one — they no longer apply. This is not news to a lot of people, perhaps. But there’s a difference between knowing there’s a mess to be sorted through and accepting the responsibility of the sorting. This is why focusing on the next three concepts is crucial.
Marc Schiller of BOND360 spoke passionately about his findings so far as his firm continues to partner with filmmakers to navigate this changing distribution landscape, but the lead-in to almost every specific note he made, and every recommendation, can be summed up by the word: adapt. Once we’ve accepted that the landscape is shifting, adaptation becomes not only an imperative for survival but an invitation to innovate. There’s no rule that says indie filmmakers can’t thrive in today’s current climate. But as Marc and other panelists pointed out, we have a responsibility, as storytellers, to trace the organic pathways to our audience by not only creating and delivering what we feel compelled to share with them, but to also do so in ways that appeal to what they want and expect out of the equation.
Figuring out how to adapt requires testing and experimentation. Highlights from the panel, in this regard, include testimony from moderator Ryan Koo (founder of NoFilmSchool.com) and Erica Anderson (from crowding-funding and distribution platform Seed&Spark). From what I know about Ryan, it seems an argument could be made that he’s got to where he is now almost purely on the basis of experimentation. He had ideas (both creative and entrepreneurial) and combined them and tried things out. One thing led to another, in succession, over the years, until he got to the point where he’s now developing his first feature. Erica spoke about Seed&Spark’s WestFest film festival in LA, through which they were able to test some of their ideas on how to reach sustainability by putting just as much effort into collaborative distribution and community building as they did programming. Along the way, they piloted other ideas surrounding the potential for joint-revenue between filmmakers (such as a tip jar).
Marc Schiller and Adam Neuhaus (from Radical Media) detailed similar efforts to test ideas and approaches surrounding how to engage and market to customers who are actually interested in you and/or your product (a strong case could also be made that, as a creator, you are also your product). They (and other panelists) also pointed out the importance of keeping audiences happy by giving them what they want and by making it as easy and simple as possible to get it — and making the exchange fun as well at every opportunity.
A lot of this is about embracing some of the spirit of experimentation and ingenuity that has served the tech industry well in recent years — and tethering it to your creative intentions.
All of this being said, we have to think as well. It’s not enough to listen to advice and follow it blindly. This is a similar point to the one I made last week in my post about creative productivity, when I wrote about the necessity of introducing thoughtfulness and discernment into our daily considerations about what to do and how. Assuming the creative impulse takes care of itself, and/or that we’re able to establish our workflows and put in the work and get the films planned and made — a consequence of looking at the distribution landscape realistically is that we need to adapt and experiment thoughtfully as we develop the work. We need to apply strategy, at the earliest phase of preproduction, to the overall need to build, engage, and nurture an audience. I spoke briefly on Twitter with Dani Leonard of Big Vision Empty Wallet about this as well recently — all of this needs to be done after you have developed your voice as an artist (or, at the very least, as you develop it) and are thus capable of figuring out out how to truthfully introduce that voice into all efforts to get your work seen. If, as a filmmaker, you can’t do this, whether it’s because you don’t have the time or the skill set — find someone who can. Or partner with an organization who can help. Make sure that person or organization understands you and the work, and/or help them understand.
Conclusion: Opportunity is Out There
All this chaos is to the advantage of the independent filmmaker. Big distributors are struggling to adapt to the changing landscape, or refusing to focus on it based on fear or apathy. The studios could care less about what’s happening on the ground, which they can’t see from where they are anyway (I believe Marc Schiller made this exact point during the panel). If we as indies are at all doing our job right, we’re already on the ground watching change take place. Sure, we’re small and we’re broke. That’s often been true of indie filmmakers — at least so long as they hold on to the true spirit of the label. But our smallness and our financial limitations can be leveraged to our advantage. We can make ourselves quick and nimble. We can experiment freely, with nothing to fear from a fall other than another bruise on the ass.
Notice that the Screen Craft panel was smartly “subtitled” to include distribution and content creation. Notice also that I, as an indie filmmaker, also decided to subtitle this post “Translating The Indie Film Landscape” — rather than “Translating The Indie Film Distribution Landscape.”
This is because, like so many other things in our lives as hyper-connected citizens of an increasingly globalized world, it’s all starting to bleed together. So, we have a choice. We can accept the reality — the happy reality, in my opinion — of this great resettling of American independent film, and embrace the chaos and empower ourselves to become a part of its new shape, or can we do nothing and end up left behind to watch others do it instead.