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.

To what extent have you taken advantage of transmedia narratives as a means of promoting your films (or telling a larger story that might go beyond the movie itself)? What kinds of experiences do you have with these new forms of promotion? Have these tools been effective in reaching the audiences that might be interested in your films?

I’ve toyed with this a little – emphasis on little. With American Messiah, I started a blog for the main character, Brian, because his view of the world is so bizarre. And I started posting videos on YouTube that featured re-cut and extended interview scenes from the film in an attempt to create the notion online that this guy was really out there posting this stuff. My initial response was that these did very little for the film’s marketing. But now that I think about it, it was through one of those YouTube videos that I connected with a producer who wants to turn American Messiah into a television series. So – they didn’t really do much to help me connect with audiences, but they did prove to be successful in some ways.

My issue with transmedia material is that, in some cases, the filmmaker doesn’t want the characters to have a life outside the narrative. For example, if The Godfather were made today, would we have to see blogs detailing the way Michael Corleone is handling the family business? I don’t want that. I do think about the lives of characters outside of the films they inhabit, but I want – as a viewer – to have a chance to create that myself. I want to imagine what Alex in A Clockwork Orange is going to do as he moves on in life having been “cured” at the end of that film, and I don’t want to have someone tell me what that is.

The other issue I have with transmedia stuff is that I feel it can create a sense of fatigue for a concept or a character. I know that the reason we all do it is to keep creating fans and keep these characters in the minds of the fans – but at some point I wonder if people get fatigued with the concept or the characters more quickly because of overexposure. I might be wrong, of course, and my experience with transmedia narratives is not vast, by any means. I’m really speaking more as an audience member here. I sometimes feel that, if I liked a film or a television series, I must watch all the transmedia material or I’ll be missing something important. I felt that way about the NBC show Heroes, for example. I liked the show a lot, but I avoided all the online transmedia stuff because I just couldn’t bring myself to invest more and more time in the narratives. I wanted the show to be enough – to be the whole story.

On the other hand, good transmedia material can flesh out interesting aspects of a world you are already engaged in. The Animatrix was an interesting way of doing that with The Matrix movies – I was interested, so I pursued it and watched The Animatrix, some of which was good and some of which wasn’t. But I feel in some cases that transmedia narratives are a way for creators to tell more of the story, and in some cases it’s just a way to try to keep your eyeballs on one station, one show, one movie – to try to own the intellectual landscape and not let anyone else have a shot. Then it’s just about business and not so much about the creator’s intent for these stories, and then I’m just not as interested. Of course, how do you – as an audience member – know the difference. Often you don’t. So it’s hard to discern on which shows or movies to spend your time. As someone with a full time job that takes a lot of time and as someone with a family, time is at a premium for me (as it is for a lot of people) – I want to use it wisely, and investing in transmedia narratives is lower on my priority list. Similarly, it’s lower on my priority list as a creator, too, because I am – as an indie filmmaker – often struggling to find the people and the time (and the money) to create the films themselves. It’s hard to find time and money to invest in a transmedia world related to the film. Had I the time and the money, I certainly would have done more transmedia narrative creation for American Messiah, and then perhaps my opinion would be different.

A number of critics, including J.J. Murphy, worry that the time filmmakers must now devote to promotion and distribution distracts from actually making movies? Would you agree with this assessment? Should filmmakers try to focus on making movies rather than promoting their existing movies?

I agree completely with Murphy’s statement, especially for the indie filmmaker who is essentially a one-man or one-woman band. I’m not in any way saying that I shouldn’t be responsible for the business side of things; I know we have to think like businesspeople and help to get our work out there, and I’m not some elitist living in my creative ivory tower trying to avoid getting my hands dirty. But I just don’t have the time nor the skills to do that part of the job. I wish I did, sincerely, but my mind doesn’t work that way, and that’s part of the problem. Would someone say I can’t be a filmmaker if I don’t have a mind for marketing? I just think we’re going down a scary creative road if the only successful filmmakers are those that are good at marketing. That changes the landscape considerably, doesn’t it? I’m concerned about what our films will look like if only the marketing experts survive this era.

Whether or not filmmakers should focus on making movies rather than promotion is not for me to say – everyone has to make his or her own choice. But I would prefer it if filmmakers focused on making good films and not on marketing.

Having said that, there are certainly good filmmakers who are also good at marketing, and there’s no reason those people shouldn’t do both of those things. But for me – I’m just not good at marketing; I wish I was. But I wonder at this point if I’m supposed to start learning new skills. And let’s face it, people like me didn’t go to business school because we don’t have business minds. So even if I wanted to learn marketing, I’m probably never going to have a head for it the way I do for filmmaking.

Your experience with making movies may be different than that of other DIY filmmakers in that you teach film production at Baylor University, and your films often make use of student workers. How does that affect the decisions you make about how to promote, produce, and distribute the films you make?

I often have the same thought – my situation is different. But when I survey the landscape of DIY filmmakers, my situation may be different than others, but every situation is unique. Every filmmaker is making films in whatever way he or she can. In my case, I’m making use of resources at my disposal because it helps me keep costs down. Having made two feature films now, I’ve learned a few things about what’s realistic and what’s not when working at this level. With my first film, it was written to be made for almost nothing and so it could be shot in a run-and-gun documentary style. In other words, the low budget nature of the story could be used to our advantage. On Endings, I wanted to up the ante a little. I wrote it with several things in mind – locations to which I knew I had access, for example, and lead characters that I could cast with actors that I knew would be appropriate for the parts. But the number of different locations and speaking parts still overwhelmed us at times. I think we did a pretty good with the limited resources at our disposal, but it gave me pause about making something like that again unless I have a larger budget and the infrastructure of a production company working with me. The script I’m writing now, which will probably be my next film, has two primary characters interacting, for the most part, outside of the view of others. I want to keep the number of characters and locations to a minimum. It’s a challenge for storytelling, of course, but with each film I’m learning to work within my limitations.

Working with students presents its own challenges. While they lack experience and we just have to go slower – and get less done in an average day – I find that students bring a great deal of enthusiasm to production, something that jaded professionals don’t really always have. And all the actors that have worked on my films have spoken very highly of the students. They always maintain an appropriate level of professionalism on the set while at the same time loving what they were doing so much that the enthusiasm ends up being infectious. At the outset, we tell them what we expect of them in terms of acting like professionals, but we also remind them – hey, we’re making a movie here. There are going to be difficult times, and there are going to be things that crack us up. We’re going to bond and get to know one another. The students who’ve worked on my films are, more often than not, the ones who stay in touch the most when they graduate and pursue their own film careers.

Of course, with these limitations come difficulties in distribution and marketing. It’s much harder to market a film with only two characters, especially if they’re not being played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. So I’m certainly thinking about these issues, because it would be irresponsible not to. On the one hand, I can probably continue to make smaller films like this even if I’m unable to market them very successfully because of my access to the students and my department’s equipment. In that case, I’m fulfilling myself as a storyteller, and that’s a good thing. On the other hand, I’d like to make films with somewhat larger budgets just to allow for different dimensions in my storytelling. And to do that, I have to think seriously about marketing issues.

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