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ChiTownScreenwriting with Kat O'Brien - Issue #13 | The Critical Relevance of Indie Distribution

Welcome back to ChiTown Screenwriting with Kat O'Brien!
In this week’s issue:
  • Conversation with Dan Mirvish On The Critical Relevance of Indie Distribution
  • Tips & Tricks, Shifts in the Biz
  • Workshops and Events: Writing for Musicals & Unf*cking Your Improv
  • A Tribute to Tamika Spaulding

Kat's Notes
Our previous issue took a dive into the art of doing nothing as a form of creative recharging and self-care. ICYMI, get caught up here.
We took a hiatus for the 4th of July and as promised, are back with more Conversations With and a renewed sense of purpose and focus.
I started this weekly newsletter inspired by starting the #chitownscreenwriting hashtag and seeing if something could grow from it. Within a few months, we’ve grown to embrace a global readership, and I’m eager to continue exploring ways that I can use this platform as a means of building community, and connecting creatives to collaborative opportunities.
My creative partner, Tamika Spaulding, passed away unexpectedly last week, and this is one of many projects I shared with her. She curated workshops and events for the newsletter, and was planning to attend CinemaCon in August to connect with a broader independent community of creatives to see how she could help make Chicago, famously the second city, establish itself globally as a first class creative destination.
Logistical real talk, we have an incredible wealth of talent in this city connected to the various theater scenes, film schools, trained world class crew, angel investors, and yet we see too many artists leaving the city for the promise of more opportunity in LA or NYC.
Tamika wanted to change that, and I hope to help fulfill her legacy at this intersection of storytelling and changemaking by continuing that conversation.
While I will be publishing the newsletter monthly/spontaneously instead of weekly now, ChiTown Screenwriting remains the same humble platform to foster a sense of community through candidly shared wisdom and experience, amplifying artists and projects, and curating a culturally relevance discourse around removing barriers to access for a democratization of the wealth of resources and opportunities for creatives to connect and collaborate.
This week’s issue features the brilliant insights and advocacy of the legendary Dan Mirvish: indie film guru, director, screenwriter, producer and author. He’s currently in post-production on his new feature, 18½, a ’70s Watergate thriller/dark comedy. His prior films – including Omaha (The Movie), Open House, Between Us and Bernard and Huey — have played at over 100 film festivals on at least seven continents. His new book, the fully-updated, post-pandemic 2nd Edition of The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking just went on sale from Focal Press/Routledge and hit #1 on the Amazon New Releases Bestseller list for film books. Dan’s a cofounder of the Slamdance Film Festival and a member of the DGA.
The call for submissions to publish, produce, or promote your work or upcoming projects in this newsletter remains open. Scroll to the end to find out all the ways we’re trying to optimize this newsletter to build community and create opportunity for creatives, and their collaborators, to connect here in Chicago, and all over the world. Thanks for engaging!
Conversation With Dan Mirvish
On The Critical Relevance of Indie Distribution
Dan Mirvish is a director, screenwriter, producer and author
Dan Mirvish is a director, screenwriter, producer and author
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!
On My Feed: Tips & Tricks | Shifts in the Biz
How to Sustain Yourself Financially as an Indie Filmmaker
Kat O'Brien
YES and dive into the comments too, #screenwriters. This is a great context / framework setting thread that up-and-comers frustrated with the pace of things should 👀 and I think it's a call to action to *write* *your* *spec(s)* but also self-pub and DIY produce your work!
John Zaozirny
THREAD: The market for selling TV & film scripts, for staffing, and, honestly, just getting execs/directors/talent to read is as hard right now as I've personally ever seen it.

I thought it might be helpful to lay out, in my opinion, why I think that is. 1/
John Zaozirny
PARENTAL ADVISORY TWEET -- these are all just my opinions. Feel free to ignore or disregard. Your mileage may vary. If it doesn't apply, let it fly! 2/
John Zaozirny
Let's go back to March 2020, before the pandemic shut everything down. Think of the industry as akin to an airport.

Some projects are in post, ie about to land.

Some are in production, ie. up in the air.

Some are on the runway, ie. pre-production or about to be greenlit. 3/
John Zaozirny
The pandemic hits in earnest and.... all those planes are grounded. All production almost immediately comes to a halt. Even post-production becomes difficult to accomplish. 4/
John Zaozirny
Though production comes to a halt, development continues on new & existing projects. It's really one of the only things that can be done in quarantine.

Writers are hired, shows are written over Zoom rooms, OWAs are filled. 5/
John Zaozirny
Eventually, things start to be filmed again. But now those projects have a huge added cost: 10-20% added for covid precautions/testing/etc. For some projects, this cost is too much and they're outright shut down, even if episodes or parts of the film have already been shot. 6/
John Zaozirny
And though there are these added Covid costs, the overall budget doesn't necessarily go up. So, the people in production have to somehow make it work. 7/
John Zaozirny
Faced with all this, buyers -- more than ever -- are saying that they don't want any more development projects. They have a surplus of those from quarantine. They want projects that are ready to shoot ASAP. They want a great script with actors & director already on board. 8/
John Zaozirny
But here's the issue -- most of the actors & directors who are meaningful are currently shooting the projects that they were supposed to be filming in 2020. And their 2022 slate is full of the projects they were supposed to shoot in 2021. 9/
John Zaozirny
Also, they spent their quarantine developing new projects that they want to shoot. Plus shooting during a pandemic is stressful and difficult. As is travel for those shoots. So it's not as easy or simple a decision as it might have previously been. 10/
John Zaozirny
All of which means that there's a traffic jam on the runway. All the planes are backed up. Too many projects and not enough airspace. 11/
John Zaozirny
For TV, the added Covid costs means cuts. Writer rooms are smaller, episode orders shorter. And, yes, fewer shows are being ordered.

Just as fewer movies are being made. Thus, fewer OWAS and script sales.

There's only so much $$$ in the studio/network's annual budget. 12/
John Zaozirny
The big shows and movies will continue to be made. But anything that's not a known quantity?

That was always a tough sale.

And now it's even tougher than before. 13/
John Zaozirny
When do I personally think it's going to get better?

I don't honestly know. 14/
John Zaozirny
I was hoping that we were on the other side of Covid, but these new variants are terrifying. As long as they're an issue, I don't see Covid protocols on productions going anywhere. But someone who works in physical production would know better than me. 15/
John Zaozirny
I don't know the answers, but it's a strange moment and I wanted to step out what I'm personally seeing in the marketplace.

Scripts ARE still selling. Writers ARE still staffing. But it's harder than it's ever been. And it takes LONGER than it ever has. 16/
John Zaozirny
If anything, just know that if your script doesn't sell, if you don't staff, if getting reads is taking FOREVER...

That it's as hard out there as I believe it's ever been in recent years.

And it's not a reflection on you or your talent. Simply of the moment we're in.
John Zaozirny
AFTER CREDITS SCENE: I’ve gotten follow up questions about how this affects literary reps taking on new clients.

For me, it’s raised the bar as I’m focused on getting my existing clients hired and staffed, which takes even more work now than ever before. 1/2
John Zaozirny
I’m still reading and when I encounter a great script, I reach out to talk to the writer about potentially working together. But the bar for signing a new client is higher than ever before. 2/2
John Zaozirny
Oh and two final thoughts:

1) There were lots of layoffs. So fewer people are doing more work than ever before.

2) Everyone is exhausted. It takes so much more work to get things done now. So… when it comes to reading new work to add to your full slate… it’s hard to do.
David H. Steinberg
It seems I may have been wrong about how easy it is to write a pilot. (Yes, this is what I did all day long instead of writing. I know. I have a problem.)
Fiona Leitch 🧁🍰🎂
@lovelybokeh I’ve now turned 3 of my scripts into novels. They directly led to me getting a publishing deal with one of the Big 5 publishers. Books are so much cheaper to produce, so publishers are much more likely to take a risk on an unknown writer than a film producer is. It’s worth doing!
Suzie Hartman
Writing is like exercising a muscle!

1st book (105k words YA fantasy): took me 5 years to write.
2nd book (105k YA fantasy): 9 months.
Current WIP (12k RH paranormal): 2 weeks so far.

Good luck with everyone's writing goals today!
Manon de Reeper
Allyship is a journey, not a station. People working in the entertainment industry should always do what they can to lift up marginalized people. A great way to do that is by being a mentor to 8 up&coming WOC in the industry, join us for the summer cycle!
Home - #Startwith8Hollywood
Kat O'Brien
Another thing about Chicago: organizing power. I think we can build communities here that fight wealth inequality, embrace the living wage and, being in a good location for climate change, have some stability to bring about certain innovations. #filmeconomy #chitownscreenwriting
On My Calendar: Writing Workshops & Events
We are in a unique time for unprecedented virtual access to amazing workshops and opportunities to continue to learn and engage as a community of content creators and collaborators. Thank you, Tamika, for inspiring creatives to continue to explore
  • Writers Guild Foundation
  • Wednesday, 7/14 @ 4pm PT
Unf*ck your improv with Susan & Rachael
The Zmack Family is Shanghai's original Improv Comedy brand, helping the people of Shanghai (and beyond) live happier lives.
The Zmack Family is Shanghai's original Improv Comedy brand, helping the people of Shanghai (and beyond) live happier lives.
A Tribute To Tamika Spaulding
Kat and Tamika
Kat and Tamika
If there was a camera around, my creative partner Tamika, was usually behind it, directing me. This is the only selfie I have of us, being badasses.
Been lost in my thoughts the past few days. She passed away unexpectedly & I’ve had a hard time believing it.
I wanted those who knew her in other ways we can’t reach right now to know, but I needed time to figure out what to say because I felt some kinda way about posting something knowing how private she was, and how camera shy…
But someone so amazing should be talked about. (Anthony Turner’s powerful words, and they gave me strength.)
Her legacy should be celebrated in all the ways we can, because we’re here to carry that forward.
I’m sure she’s all *you posted a twitter thread? Of course you did.*
I love that I can hear her jokes still & know without a doubt how she’s reacting. That I’ve seen & felt her presence in so many interactions with the rest of our grieving friends & fam. That even in quiet moments, something like spotting a bald eagle flying over the capital–
– little wonders make me wonder if she’s still out there, showing me life’s beauty. My thoughts wander in loops from appreciating how she might still be with us, to processing what that means & how she really is not gonna text me back. She’s making all kindsa jokes about that.
But the reality is, I was so lucky. I had so much of her time & energy & love. Almost every day for the past 18 months – throughout the entire pandemic – we talked for hours. Scheming & dreaming & getting it done.
There are so so many things she still had to share with the world. We were so excited about so many projects that I’m obviously going to try and see through anyway, even though a lot of it feels overwhelming and I’m not quite sure yet how.
One such project was joining the Constellation Incubator. Tamika was extraordinarily humble, not one to take the spotlight. She was all about everyone else, raising them up to be their very best, because having that gift was something she owned and treasured and it gave her so much joy.
And she is so strong that I feel her presence lifting us up, still. Her ability to uplift others was uncanny – like no other person I’ve ever met. Whether thru the Incubator, or We Still Teach, or upcoming projects we were pitching–
She was just really excited to be working with a group of likeminded filmmakers & content creators who wanted to innovate ways to make media storytelling platforms – film, TV, digital – accessible to all, and in the form of an industry that really takes care of its own.
Change has to happen top down, bottom up, middle out. Tamika’s words. She had so many perfect catch phrases LOL.
… and that’s how she wanted to change the world. One film, one story, one storyteller, one changemaker at a time. That’s why she built so many relationships, so many partnerships, and that’s why her life had such an incredibly powerful impact and why she will be unfathomably missed.
As one of her DC friends has said, she was one in a billion and anyone who knew her knows that.
She was especially excited to make Chicago her home, and a global creative destination. The most recent iteration of that dream was that Tamika wanted Chicago to be the talent and innovation hub it should be for storytellers, and changemakers. Because we got it all, already.
Tamika saw things that others could not. She could see possibility and strategic wins, risks others couldn’t or wouldn’t take. A vision like that is so rare, and one of many reasons she was so profoundly appreciated in all of her professional networks: for her brilliant ideas.
She was also one of the most generous and thoughtful people I’ve ever met. Tamika was so loyal and genuine, a safety net to so many, because that was just who she was: if she was your friend, she was taking care of you. She always had your back.
And having Tamika in your corner, I always joked, was like having the full Avengers squad on call. We called each other our backpocket superheroes, because we’d always come through for each other. I know that relationship is going to change now.
I think she’ll be, instead, the guardian angel on our shoulders. A light in the darkness. A way home when we’re lost, as long as we remember forever in our hearts the beautiful reminders she’s given so many of us –
To always believe in ourselves, unapologetically. To trust that instinct to do what is righteous, even if it’s unpopular. She celebrated that in all those she loved. She really knew you. And to be known and loved by Tamika, is a remarkable gift.
Reading tributes from friends throughout her lifetime, I know this is true for more than just her Chicago family, the close friends of hers I’ve been able to connect with from her life in DC, and her amazing fam whom I also got to know & love.
It’s really who she was with everyone. Thank you, Tamika, for connecting so many beautiful people through your incredible life. Your legacy of love and loyalty, of always uplifting others, will live on through me, and everyone else you inspired. I’m really really going to miss you.
In honor of a dynamic woman, a fund for dynamic women. To honor Tamika Spaulding’s courageous spirit and to keep her legacy of freedom, creativity and empowerment alive, the Spaulding family is establishing The Tamika Spaulding Scholarship Fund. Your contribution will help us to provide scholarships to high school seniors and mid-career women as they pursue their purpose and work to make a meaningful impact on the world.
In honor of a dynamic woman, A fund for dynamic women
Spotlights and Submissions
Connect & Contribute to #chitownscreenwriting
Writers and creators, in Chicago and around the world, please share ChiTown Screenwriting with anyone you think might enjoy it, and be sure to let us know how ChiTown Screenwriting can uplift or support you and your projects. As we continue to build community + opportunity, I’m actively seeking to publish guest think pieces, conversations with, and more to cultivate a discourse on the evolving space for filmmakers and content creators.
Upcoming Issues | Call for submissions!
We’re looking for feature essays, random thoughts, creative pieces, images and/or videos exploring the following topics:
Ongoing Call for Submissions!
As this grassroots movement finds its voice and expands our reach, we’ll continue to solicit content contributions in the areas of:
  • advice on writing and creating
  • tips and tricks on twitter (tag me @uknowkatobrien if you got some!)
  • wisdom, think: self care, mindfulness, changemaking and more
  • workshops and events to continue our professional development, and foster opportunities for connection, and collaboration
  • as well as writers and creators you should know
  • cool projects launching that we should spotlight
Who’s someone that I should know, ChiTown Screenwriting creators? Ping me @uknowkatobrien.
If you enjoyed this, or have writing/creative life questions I can unpack and answer, or are looking for support to promote your work and projects, reach out and let me know? And please share widely! #grassroots #letsgo
Thanks for reading, and see you next week #chitownscreenwriting!
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Kat O'Brien
Kat O'Brien @uknowKatOBrien

ChiTown Screenwriting is a publication that I write and edit, for writers and creators to find community on their journey to getting published and produced.

More ambitiously, ChiTown Screenwriting is a movement, and a mindset. Global and local, we're a community connected by creative collaboration, and we're all about connecting collaborators to creative opportunities!

Each issue shares the wisdom and advice from storytellers and changemakers, with the goal of demystifying some of the more elusive processes and strategies for navigating the business, art and craft of getting our stories to our audiences.

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