Archive for June, 2010

Two Weeks in Spain: Toledo

In many ways, our day in Toledo seems like the emotional center of our travels.  It’s a city characterized by diverse architectural styles, drawing from the Jewish, Moorish, and Spanish traditions that existed peacefully alongside of each other for many centuries when the city was the capital of Spain.  It’s also a city marked by winding, narrow streets where every alleyway contains the potential to lead to new and often unexpected discoveries.  It’s also the city where we found ourselves torn between glancing down at a map and embracing the experience of getting lost and wandering aimlessly, and more often than not, wandering aimlessly won.

We arrived at the train station in Toledo mid-morning, and through the combination of busses and taxis, found our way to the top of the large hill where the old city is located (the old city is a half-hour hike, uphill, from the train station and the newer parts of the city).  The train station itself was an architectural curiosity, built in the 1920s in the Mujedar style, combining Neo-Moorish and other older elements to allow the station to fit neatly into the fabric of the old city, and after checking into our hotel, which provided us with an impressive view overlooking the Tagus River (which winds around the city on three sides), we checked out a number of the city’s old cathedrals and its key museum, where a number of El Greco’s paintings are housed.

One of the more impressive paintings is housed in the Church of Santo Tome, where you can see The Burial of Count Orgaz, but I think both of us were also pleasantly surprised by the unexpected beauty of the Church of San Roman.  The Museo de Santa Cruz certainly reflected its transitional status, but there were some impressive tapestries and paintings there, even if they were a little difficult to find.  We also spent some time touring the city’s shops.  Especially fun: chatting with a guy who sells handcrafted swords and knives, a Toledo specialty.  He demonstrated two different kinds of swords, showing the different strengths and weaknesses of various sword designs.  And, as usual, we enjoyed some people-watching time in the Plaza de Zocodover.  A delicious dinner, I believe at this restaurant, topped off a long day of walking in a quiet, intimate, and romantic setting (followed by some yummy mazapan, also a Toledo specialty).

But I’ll remember Toledo most because it’s where The Best Girlfriend Ever and I found rings for each other, a pair of similar silver rings with a slight weave pattern.  We’d made the decision before we left for Spain to look for rings, and Toledo, with its many jewelry shops and finely-crafted rings, seemed like the perfect place to buy the rings that would be an expression of our commitment to each other.  Add to that the romantic setting, the breathtaking architecture, and a romantic dinner, and it was, in many ways, a perfect location for finding rings.  Our commitment ceremony a few nights later on a bridge in Seville cemented things, but the moment of finding the rings will always be intertwined with the ancient Spanish city on a hill.

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Two Weeks in Spain: Madrid

After three or four days in Barcelona, The Best Girlfriend Ever and I spent one final evening in the city, relaxing in Parc de la Ciutadella next to the city’s Arc de Triomf before boarding a night train to Madrid.  The night train was not quite as comfortable as we’d hoped, and at first we were under the impression that we would be riding in a car seated for the entire duration of the trip, not the best way to try to sleep.  On top of everything, a neighbor in the car managed to step on Andrea’s already swollen toe, adding to our (or, at least, her) discomfort.  Fortunately, some of the people in our car left, and we were able to lay our seats flat, even if we didn’t quite have total privacy.

After arriving in Madrid, we found our way to our hotel, a big change from the sprawling, modern 2-br apartment with kitchenette we’d left behind in Barcelona.  This time, we were in a tiny room at Hostal Josefina, a room so small that the bathroom had a sliding door.  But we’d chosen location over comforts, and our room overlooked the Plaza Callao, which was well within walking distance of most of the locations we hoped to see, including the Prado, the Royal Palace, the Puerto del Sol, the Museo de Arte Reina Sofia (Spain’s modern art museum), and the Plaza Mayor.  Unlike Barcelona, where quick subway trips were sometimes a necessity, most of the major sites in Madrid are in easy walking distance.

We both found Madrid to be a little more business-like.  This might be due to the retail stores along the Grand Via where we stayed, or it might be due to Barcelona’s artsy, coastal vibe.  But the Prado and the Royal Palace both offer quite a bit to explore.  In particular, it was cool to see Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas after viewing many of Picasso’s reworkings of that painting in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona.  Sadly, we missed Guernica in the modern art museum because we got there relatively late and got a little lost, but for those who like modern art, the Reina Sofia offers a nice collection.  The Royal Palace itself was an almost surreal experience.  I have to admit that it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of hereditary power and around the sheer wealth that was (and is) accumulated around the throne.  And yet, at the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the sheer craft and detail that went into the construction of the Palace and the design of the many rooms there.  Only a small number of rooms–15 or so–are open to the public at any given time, and yet, even the small amount we saw began to overwhelm (this might also be due to impending cathedral/palace overload).

Madrid  also gave me the chance to meet up with Hunter, Ramon, and Nicolas, who are all involved with the production of the crowdfunded film, The Cosmonaut, currently in the early stages of production.  I had a chance to record a video interview, inside a Vips store/cafe, which I’m hoping to post soon, but it was very cool to talk shop with a few people about DIY cinema and to learn even more about their project.  Plus, we got to exchange a few travel tips since they (at least some of them) were heading down to Morocco to do a shoot for a short film.

Other fun tidbits: we stopped by The Mueso del Jamon (the Museum of Ham), a restaurant in the city center, and we spent a couple of hours relaxing in Retiro Park, a nice break from our frenetic exploration of palaces and museums.  Then, of course, there was the odd experience of coming home and catching a Rick Steves travel show where Steves visits Madrid, especially after we used his guide throughout our trip.  Madrid felt a little rushed–we were only there for two full days, one after sleeping on the night train–especially since we were left with somewhat limited time in the museums, but it’s another city I’d love to revisit when I have more time.

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Please Give

Nicole Holfcener’s latest film, Please Give, famously opens with a “montage of breasts,” as Andrew O’Hehir of Salon puts it, as Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a mammogram technician gently, if indifferently, goes about her job.  We are presented with all different shapes and sizes of breasts, but as O’Hehir surmises, the scene is clearly meant to be provocative, reading the scene as implying “a spirit of ruthless, uncomfortable, naked examination,” while also speculating that the scene may be answering some of Holofcener’s critics who characterize her films as female-centric.  Although the film is certainly attentive to the nuances of character, presenting us with a comedy of manners that might recall some of Woody Allen’s mid-career films (a perception reinforced by the film’s New York setting), the scene also helps to establish one of the film’s other key preoccupations: the awkward physicality of being human.

The characters in Please Give seem to have two central preoccupations: the bourgeois concerns about New York real estate and antique furniture and the human anxieties about aging and bodies.  Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) are a married couple who own a vintage furniture, often acquiring their stock from grieving children who are shocked that anyone would want to buy their parents’ junk.  We begin to recognize their task as rather morbid, a form of ambulance chasing that gives Kate a great deal of guilt, which she attempts to appease by giving money to the homeless or, later, volunteering for charities.  This preoccupation with aging is made more acute by the fact that Kate and Alex are essentially waiting for the neighbor, Andra, to die so that they can take over her apartment, a task made easier due to the fact that Andra never has a kind word for anyone.  Kate, of course, realizes that they are part of a larger system–that other antiques dealers will step in to the market–and in some ways the issues of money and wealth seem like nothing more than a backdrop for more personal forms of malaise.

In this sense, I found myself thinking quite a bit about the physicality of the characters–a theme that Holofcener also addressed powerfully in Lovely and Amazing.  Here, we have the mammogram scenes, all of which portend the potential for cancer and recall the discomfort of physical examination.  Rebecca’s sister, the drunken and mean-spirited Mary (Amanda Peet) does facials at a spa while wearing a carrot-colore tan obtained at a tanning salon.  Her tanning seems to serve almost as a shield to hide her vulnerabilities.  Meanwhile, she fixates on a neighboring shopkeeper’s body (“she has a huge back”), leaving us to speculate about her fascination with a seemingly superficial characteristic.  Kate and Alex have a daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), who is short, a little chubby, and deals with outbreaks of acne.  Initially, she sees Mary’s superficial honesty and focus on bodies to be refreshing and almost admirable.  She’s also convinced that an expensive pair of boutique jeans will make everything better, as all other jeans “look awful.”  Alex seeks out a facial with Mary as a prelude to an affair before disclosing some of his own youthful struggles with acne (Platt’s plumpness also seems crucial here).  Even Rebecca’s relationship with Eugene–she’s tall and gangly, while he is much shorter–accentuates questions about how we inhabit our bodies.  Finally, Kate is unable to face aging or imperfect bodies.  Her reflexive practice of giving large amounts of money–at one point a $20 bill–to homeless people is one expression of this.  But when she volunteers at a nursing home and, later, at a Special Olympics-style program, she fins herself weeping.

All of the characters in the world of Please Give are flawed significantly, and their dysfunctional nature may annoy some moviegoers.  Mary is often brutally mean, asking Kate and Alex to discuss their plans for Andra’s apartment after her death during Andra’s 91st birthday party.  Abby whines and complains, and all of the characters have moments of self-absorption. I’m not quite sure that Please Give ever fully resolves some of the questions it is addressing in a satisfactory way: Holofcener’s solution for Kate’s moral quandary is to turn even further inward, as Mick LaSalle puts it, to embrace a form of “crass commercialism.”  But even where the film seems to frustrate, I think it points to the difficulty of answering some of the questions that Holofcener has raised.

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Two Weeks in Spain

This post might be part of a longer series of posts on my recent trip abroad:

I’ve just returned from a two-week vacation in Spain with The Best Girlfriend Ever, one which took us from Barcelona to Madrid, down to Toledo, and then down to Tarifa (with a day trip to Tangier, Morocco), Gibraltar, and finally to Seville.  We traveled by pretty much every mode of transportation imaginable and saw dozens of cathedrals, countless paintings and sculptures, and often spent time wandering narrow alleyways just to explore a particularly old or intriguing section of one of the cities where we were staying.  Although I described our return home as a “return to normal,” in some ways, our travels became a new normal: wake up late, run to a market for baguettes and other food supplies, explore whatever city we were visiting, and then grab a late dinner, often eating after 10 PM, before returning to our hotel or hostel to sleep the sleep of the exhausted traveler.  Thanks to some savvy planning–most of it by my girlfriend–we were usually able to find our hotels quickly and easily and usually had just enough time to explore each city’s highlights.

As I mentioned, we started in Barcelona, in some ways my favorite city of the trip.  Barcelona offered not only a fascinating range of architectural and artistic sights to explore but also contained a lively downtown scene, the Ramblas leading from Plaza Catalunya down to the Mediterranean Sea.  In Barcelona, every street seemed to offer the potential to surprise: our visit to the Barri Gotic (Gothic barrio) coincided with the Sardana dances, where groups seemingly spontaneously leave their apartments and shops to dance in collective circles, their belongings piled in the middle.  Later that evening we were surprised in the Plaza Catalunya by a group of naked bicyclists, possibly participants in Barcelona’s version of the World Naked Bike Race.  Still other corners presented a group of street performers dressed in green and white creating human pyramids stacked three or four people high, with a tiny child maybe 3 or 4 years old managing to climb all the way to the top (while wearing a safety helmet of course).

Our first night in Barcelona featured some odd juxtapositions: we started our night by people-watching during some of the weekend festivities in the Plaza Catalunya, but that was briefly interrupted when Andrea encountered an Israeli woman who had been separated from her tour group.  The woman spoke almost no Spanish but could speak enough English to relate that she couldn’t find her tour group’s bus and that she was due to fly out of Barcelona later that night.  Andrea’s Spanglish helped a little, and I tried to read our city map (which would become extremely worn by the end of four days, so much so that we had to replace it) to find her hotel but the hotel seemed to be several miles from the city center, and our limited phone access made it difficult to contact them.  Eventually we were able to track down a police station under the Plaza where an officer fluent in English was able to communicate that she would help.

Of course, Barcelona is also a kind of palimpsest city: like many cities in Spain, it has a history of architecture dating back to ancient Rome.  It also has layers of architecture associated with the Visigoths, Jewish settlers, and most famously, the Modernisme movement led by Antoni Gaudi, whose whimsical, flowing buildings and park spaces sought to embed natural imagery, Gothic design elements, and curved lines into the buildings he created, turning his creations into something that might appear in a Tim Burton film.  Perhaps the most impressive of these buildings is his Sagrada Familia cathedral, which he began in 1884 and continued to work on until his death in 1926.  The cathedral is still under construction in 2010, but its massive towers and ornate, detailed carvings serve as to illustrate Gaudi’s attention to detail.  The towers also presented us one of our first adventures in Spain.  After taking an elevator nearly to the peak of the 170m towers (a short stairwell led us further up), we got a little lost and instead of following the staircase that led us back to the elevator, we followed a narrow, winding, scary, circular staircase (with only a narrow, and very low handrail) that led us all the way to the floor of the cathedral, perhaps the closest I’ve come in a while to contemplating my own mortality.

But the Sagrada Familia also introduced a thought that informed much of my experience in the cathedrals and museums we visited: the current moment is often characterized as being marked by a sense of increased distraction, of having our attention span further and further fragmented by all kinds of audiovisual stimuli, and yet, as I explored a 19th-century cathedral, and later, others that were much older, I found myself thinking about all of the visual detail found in these Gothic cathedrals.  A worshipper could easily get lost in the immense detail of the altar pieces and stained glass windows, the frescoes and paintings that seemed to fill every corner and niche of all of the buildings we explored.  To be sure, this sense of information overload was informed by the fact that we were often directed by (contemporary) audio guides that sought to explain and account for many of the buildings details, and yet the vividness of detail, the flourishing of meaning in many of these buildings was impossible to ignore.

Like most of the cities we explored, we were able to see Barcelona from above and below.  In addition to ascending to the spires of Sagrada Familia, we also visited the top of Casa Mira, a residential building designed by Gaudi that resembled melting ice cream cones.  Later, we took a longish subway and bus ride to the entrance of Park Guell, a planned community that was never completed designed to appeal to wealthy Barcelonans who wanted to avoid city living but which incorporated some landscape design by Gaudi.  But in addition to exploring the city from above, we also saw the Roman ruins beneath the city, where the old Barcelona Cathedral was built.  We could see the vats where wine was made and where clothes were washed and dyed.  In seeing the mixture between old and new, all of the architectural and design fashions, as well as the street life on the Ramblas, I found myself thinking about Walter Benjamin’s discussions of Naples, Paris, and other European cities and about the ways that history is expressed through architecture and design.  Barcelona’s architecture, its neighborhoods and street scenes, tell countless stories about its social and political past, and it was well worth the extra time to explore those sites.

Because we spent several days in Barcelona, it’s impossible to capture every aspect of our trip in detail, but it was terrific to spend time exploring the Picasso Museum (which featured an impressive number of Picasso’s Las Meninas paintings and sketches), the Chocolate Museum, and other highlights.  From Barcelona, we took a night train to Madrid.  More details about that city in a future post.

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Wednesday Links (Delayed until Thursday)

I’m counting down the hours until I will be taking a much-anticipated vacation with The Best Girlfriend Ever.  I’m hoping to blog from the road about our travels, but I’m not sure what kind of internet access we will have.  For now, here is one last roundup of links before the big trip:

  • Paul Snyder has an overview of “the future of cinephilia” on The Huffington Post, where he argues that streaming video has the potential to bring cinephilia “new life,” adding that “the cinematheque of the future is online.”  Of course, he acknowledges that a vast proportion of new material will remain unavailable online for the foreseeable future, which complicates the arguments about universal access, but I think he is right to point out that streaming may lower the barrier for casual fans to discover filmmakers they might not check out in theaters or at the video store.
  • Snyder also mentions that MUBI (formerly The Auteurs) has made nineteen Agnes Varda films available online, which gives me the excuse to remind you that her amazing autobiographical documentary, Beaches of Agnes, will be showing on PBS later this month.  I caught it at Full Frame in April 2009 and really loved it.  I’ll try to put together a longer review later if my schedule permits.
  • Speaking of online cinephilia, James Wolcott and the Self-Styled Siren have news that a recent film blogathon raised enough money and awareness to fund the restoration of two films, illustrating that although our cinephilic practices may be expressed online, they sometimes translate back to the silver screen.
  • I’ve been fascinated by some of the anti-fandom practices associated with the Karate Kid reboot.  In this case, Cinematical is reporting on a planned anti-remake protest.
  • Filmmaker Amos Poe has a gest post on Ted Hopes’ blog talking about the future of indie cinema.

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BP Spills Coffee

Best response yet to the BP oil spill.  Wait for the very important phone call from Kevin Costner.

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William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Given the ongoing debates about high school history curricula, it’s often difficult to know how(or even if) some key historical actors will be remembered for their contributions to public discourse, to debates of issues over race and racism, civil rights and human rights.  During the 1960s and ’70s (and beyond), William Kunstler was at the center of many of these debates.  He represented many of the Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights movement, defended the Chicago Seven, and fought on behalf of the Native Americans in the Wounded Knee standoff and on behalf of the prisoners in Attica, NY.  Later in his life, however, he fought for alleged rapists, for mafia boss John Gotti, and for the men accused of bombing the World Trade Center in 1993.

Kunstler’s story is told in a new documentary written and directed by his daughters, Emily and Sarah Kunstler, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (IMDB), which attempts to address an essential tension: was Kunstler a champion of the underdog who fought for the basic rights of an individual, a David-figure ready to stand up against the Goliaths of the world, whether institutionalized racism or unjust warfare?  Or was he a showman, someone who craved attention and loved the media spotlight?  To some extent, as Ella Taylor points out, the answer is obvious: a little bit of both.  But I think the question itself is a little reductive.  Although the Kunstler daughters emphasize their father’s guilt about racism–and his belief that all whites are essentially guilty of racism–his overriding political beliefs seemed a little obscure to me.  To some extent, this seems like a result of the film’s “anguished dance around hagiography” (Taylor’s phrase).  It’s as if the daughters feel compelled to present a “warts-and-all” biography of their father and felt obligated to include some of the unsavory people he defended.  This approach to Kunstler’s story takes on a narrative of decline, with much of his work in the 1980s and ’90s (including his fight to protect flag burning as political speech) pushed to the side in order to fulfill that larger “theory” (to use their term).

There are some powerful moments that I felt deserved further emphasis.  During the Chicago Eight trial, one of the jurors, Jean Fritz, recalls that the judge in the case ordered that defendant Bobby Seale be bound and gagged and recalled feeling at that moment that she began to lose faith in her government.  But in many ways, the film seems to temper Kunstler’s conviction that the judicial system was balanced in favor of the rich and powerful and sometimes seems to force Kunstler’s story into a slightly reductive narrative from a radical awakening in the 1960s (after practicing “bread-and-butter” law for a decade or so) into decline during the 1980s and ’90s.  Still, it’s an important reminder of the important (and ongoing) fight for human rights and lawyer who played such an important role in many of those battles.

William Kunstler: Defending the Universe will be broadcast as part of PBS’s POV series on June 22.

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DIY Dialogues: Chris Hansen (2 of 2)

Here is Part Two of my interview with movie director and Baylor University professor, Chris Hansen, the first in a series of dialogues about do-it-yourself filmmaking. Part One is available here.

On a related note: how and where are most people consuming your film? Do you think that a single platform will emerge or do audiences seem to desire a variety of platforms and viewing contexts?

DVD sales are probably still larger for me, and I’m hopeful that Hulu will open it up to new audiences because it’s free for them aside from the ads. At the moment, while a lot of people view stuff online, I don’t know if it’s dominant from the standpoint of a preferred content delivery method. People watch stuff online, of course – but they watch stuff that they have heard of or, in most case, that they already saw in the theatre. The “known quantity” factor still plays a large role for people. Of course, DVD sales are slipping, as everyone knows, so more people must be watching stuff online. Look, I have a nice HDTV in my living room, and I prefer to watch stuff on there and not on my laptop screen. But hooking the laptop up to the TV, while possible, is kind of a hassle. We’re at the point that companies are bridging that gap from computer to TV screen, but it’s not easy enough yet that your average viewer is doing it. It’s people like me, and it’s trickling down to other viewers who are savvy enough about technology even if they’re not experts. But the average viewer doesn’t want to mess with that. That’s why Netflix’s Roku box is such a great idea – but of course it’s completely dependent on your internet connection (mine isn’t as fast as I’d like – so the quality is lower than I’d like). Also, Netflix’s watch instantly selection is getting better, but it’s still limited. So – I think online viewing will rise dramatically when this divide is more successfully bridged, and when people don’t have to have three or four different ways to access online media on their TV sets.

What role have festivals played in shaping the reception of your films? Do they have an important role to play in shaping the reception of your work?

Festivals are vital to me. They are the only way I can count on getting my work in front of audience in a way that I’m happy with. If my film gets into a festival, and the festival has a decent audience (which is admittedly the job of both the festival and the filmmaker), then I can use that to build word of mouth and create awareness of the film. One critic who saw a film of mine at the Virginia Film Festival loved it so much that he’s become a cheerleader of sorts for my work. That’s the kind of experience you want – people become fans and follow your work.

If I remember correctly, your previous film, The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah, had a brief theatrical run. Do you think there is still a viable theatrical infrastructure for showing innovative low-budget films?

It was supposed to have a brief theatrical run, but that fell apart when the distributor cancelled his relationship with theatres because of non-payment of fees. So, my deal went up in smoke because of a business problem completely unrelated to my film. I’m a cockeyed optimist, so I’d like to think that there’s an audience for films such as mine. It’s just hard to tap into that audience in a way that makes business sense. One innovator I know has been suggesting for a long time that we need to create a model wherein filmmakers travel from city to city with their films, doing Q&As and discussions in dinner/meal setting, creating a different sort of “evening out” for intelligent filmgoers. It’s a good idea, but it needs the infrastructure and money to get it off the ground. A lot of people are talking about ideas like this, and I admit it makes a lot of sense. As far as good theatre-going experiences, I’ve enjoyed every one where the theatre itself cared to make the whole experience into something you would talk about later. As a filmmaker, I’d love the opportunity to meet audiences and not just read a bunch of reviews and comments on message boards. The Q & A sessions after my films at fests have been some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a filmmaker.

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DIY Dialogues: Chris Hansen (1 of 2)

In the process of assembling evidence for my current book project, I’ve decided to try to interview a range of independent and DIY film workers about their experiences with producing media in the age of digital cinema.  To that end, I’m launching what I envision as an occasional series of dialogues, starting with today’s interview with Chris Hansen, the filmmaker behind The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah and, more recently, Endings.

First, describe the films that you have directed, including your most recent film, Endings, which (I believe) is currently playing at film festivals.

Yes, Endings is my most recent film, and it is playing in fests.  It premieres June 11th at the Northwest Film Forum as part of STIFF – the Seattle True Independent Film Festival.  Endings is a feature-length drama about three strangers who are all facing their deaths on the same day, and whose lives are changed when they meet.  Structurally, it’s an  interesting piece.  I really wanted to let the characters’ stories unfold a bit before they get together, so I allowed each story to be told separately, without intercutting.  The effect, I hope, is that people get to know each character as an individual before seeing how the group dynamic changes them.

My other feature film is a mock documentary called The Proper Care & Feeding of an American Messiah.  It tells the story of Brian B., a sad sack middle-class guy who thinks he is a messiah.  Not THE messiah, but rather a local regional messiah for his hometown.  It’s sort of a gentle satire on the way people misunderstand what religion is all about and misuse it for their own purposes.

In between those two, I made short documentary called Clean Freak, in which I explored my own neurotic tendencies with regard to the cleanliness of my home.  It combines documentary footage with recreated scenes and outright fictions in an attempt to blend all these things and see how much ‘truth’ could be achieved using these methods.

What have been the niche audiences that have been most receptive to your films?  How has that affected the ways in which you have promoted and marketed your films?

It’s hard to say precisely because the films weren’t made with specific niches in mind.  I’m sure some distribution experts are groaning now because you’re never supposed to make a film without a distribution plan and specific audience niches in mind.  Because I have limited funds for marketing, and because my films don’t feature known celebrities, I decided to got the film festival route for marketing, figuring that if the films played in good fests, people would ‘discover’ them, they would find an audience, and I would be able to secure good distribution. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this is a complete fiction, but it’s certainly a rosier picture of the situation than is borne out by reality.

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