K.O. So what’s the first project you produced, and how did you figure out how to get it made?
D.M. The first film I made was called Omaha (the movie) and it came about because after one year at USC graduate film school, I spent a summer working various jobs on a low-budget kickboxing movie in the Philippines (that after a title change was called American Kickboxer II). I basically learned first hand how to make a movie from start to finish. So back at USC, I wrote a script set in my home town of Omaha that would end at a cool location called Carhenge, which is in Western Nebraska. I was the first person at USC to find the loophole where I could make a full indie feature film and still have it count as my thesis film. I already had a few friends who were actors in Omaha, then I just hit the pavement and raised money, found a crew and we shot the movie! Of course, it’s never as easy as all that, but I try to forget the hard parts.
K.O. What do you think has been most key for you sustaining a successful career in the film/tv industry navigating the multiple, seismic industry shifts in form and content financing, production, distribution? Maybe it’s something industry-specific, or maybe it’s something about who you are as a person in your personal outlook on life and work ethic?
D.M. I’ve pretty much always tried to embody the phrase that’s now the title of my books: “Cheerful Subversive.” In other words, I try to have fun along the way, seek to avoid stress and unpleasantness, and I’m always looking for ways to subvert “the system” - whatever system that may be at the time. So, if I didn’t get into Sundance, I just cofounded an alternative film festival, Slamdance, and we’ve kept that going for 28 years. When the Academy said we needed a total of five films in order to qualify my film Open House as an original musical Oscar, and there were only four films eligible that year, I went out and shot a German musical in 9 days. When the economy crashed and I couldn’t get a film off the ground, I wound up writing a successful novel that built my credibility in the film world.
I actually think that the seismic industry shifts really haven’t changed the way of thinking about making indie films at all. Yes, the means of production and exhibition have changed dramatically, but the bottom line is still that only 2% of all indie films get any meaningful distribution and press attention in a given year. And no, you won’t make any money off your film. And yes, you still have to strap on a sandwich-board to promote your own film. Those things haven’t changed in 100 years.
Once you accept that, it makes it much easier to approach whatever the work is you’re doing: Make a film (or an episodic pilot, short, doc, YouTube video, TikTok, etc.) because it is the thing you want to make and the story you want to tell, and make it the best way you can make it. Do it because you’re an “artist” and you want to share your art with an audience, of whatever size and however they see it. Ironically, a filmmaker who shows a short film at an obscure festival with 50 people in the audience will have a more satisfying personal engagement with that audience than a filmmaker making a $100 million Netflix limited series who has no idea how many people are watching.
K.O. I love this idea that we should be checking in with ourselves to be honest about what is most fulfilling in our filmmaking. So, to connect to that audience, a challenge many face is that we need to get some kind of financing for production, and/or support for distribution. What advice do you have to filmmakers navigating getting their work seen by the right people at the right time to get there?
D.M. Keep your powder dry. Don’t show your film (or your screenplay) until it’s as polished as you can get it on your own, and if it’s not right, then ask for help. You’ve only got one chance to make an impression. Likewise, be smart and selective about where and to whom you show your work. But also, don’t wait too long for anything.
For example, in my book, I have a little chapter about the culture and proliferation of various film “labs” and the perniciousness of what I call the “overlabification” of indie film. Any one lab might be right for you or your project, but I’ve seen a lot of filmmakers or writers spend years applying to, and getting into labs, which could wind up homogenizing and diluting their original spark of originality. Meanwhile, they’ve spent 9 years running around to labs to get one film made in the same time they could have made 3 or 4 films on their own and built up their craft and reputation that way.
I think the same is probably true with screenplay competitions. There’s been a huge proliferation of them in recent years. Be selective: Some may be valuable to you as a writer because you might get helpful notes or coverage regardless of whether you win or not. But unless you’re writing a spec script that could potentially make millions of dollars, I don’t know how much real benefit there is to even winning most competitions. If it’s a script that you or your team plan on making yourself anyway, then your time, money and energy are better used in making the film itself.
So yes, try to aim high - submit your script to labs, competitions, production companies, financiers, etc. But don’t wait for any of that. Start coming up with your plan to make the film on your own for the resources you can scrape together. As Robert Altman said, “Set a start date and tell people the train’s leaving the station.” For me, the bottom line is it’s better to make the low budget version of a film than to wait and never make the big budget version.
My latest film, 18½, is a great example: We were a week away from shooting and one of our lead actors dropped out. If we had delayed the start of production by even just a week or two to get “the perfect name actor,” we never would have gotten enough footage in the can before COVID shut us down. As it turned out, we got 80% in the can before taking a 6-month “healthy hiatus” - but that was enough to keep raising money and start editing the film. If the pandemic has reminded us of anything, it’s that time and good health are precious and the world is unpredictable. If you want to make a movie, then make it, and make it now.
K.O. Considering how COVID has changed the industry, and I know your book is a post-pandemic update… What changes would you like to see now in terms of content consumption or content production and distribution? This might be culturally, might be industry-wide, anything goes. I’m curious!
I’d love to see some sort of TV network or big streaming service in the US devoted to independent films. Sundance Channel (in the US) doesn’t even show Sundance films (though ironically, Sundance Channel in Europe and Latin America still shows indie films). IFC took “independent film” out of their official name. And TCM only shows indie films if they’re over 25 years old. Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have essentially stopped acquiring indie films - they’re all now in the business of just making their own “content.” There’s a huge trove of thousands of indie films from the last quarter century or more that are falling into cultural oblivion, and most are barely being archived on soon-to-be obsolete hard drives sitting in sweltering garages or moldy basements. Remember how we bemoaned the loss of 90% of silent movies? In a few years, it’s going to be the same for indie films from the late 20th/early 21st centuries.
Another interesting cultural shift in the last 5 years is the deification of “showrunners” in our cultural zeitgeist, as opposed to “film directors.” On the one hand, the abundance of streaming series has been a great boon for the employment of thousands of people in the industry, and creatively can be a fulfilling way to expand a world or character beyond a 90-minute standalone film. It’s also been tremendously helpful for bringing diverse people and voices into the cultural landscape and into the industry itself. But it’s going to be interesting to see how this shift affects the dynamics between writers and directors. In episodics, the showrunners are writers first and foremost and directors are just pawns brought in each week to move the deck chairs. In features, the director calls the shots and the writers are disposable. This is already gearing up to be a fight between the DGA and WGA for primacy among Hollywood unions, and the studios will just play them off against each other to screw both the writers and the directors. The pandemic has only accelerated this shift - bringing more people onto their couches to devour streaming series (or even just old TV series), while simultaneously shuttering a year’s worth of film festivals and movie theaters that normally lead the cultural discourse. The decline of the Golden Globes, the irrelevance of indie film and critics awards, and the steady self-immolation of the Oscars haven’t helped the “film” world either.
K.O. Reflecting, I think there is a lot to unpack here around the role of indie films as vehicles for a democratic cultural discourse that is diverse and globally inclusive. Readers, would love to hear from you on this! Email your think pieces in response to this newsletter.
You can get Dan’s book, the fully-updated, post-pandemic 2nd Edition of The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking here.
Thank you Dan, and thank you readers!