We've been working long distance with Mike Nuget at MayDay Post to color the feature. This is after doing the edit with low res, uncorrected footage. He's doing a beautiful job of bringing out the colors. No discovery has been more shocking than this.
That's a truck emblazoned with a thoughtful doctor parked serendipitously in front of our geneticist, "Dr. Seymour Livingston."
Thanks, Mike! It's like watching a whole new film.
Picture Lock! Anya (@anyamovie) is currently with our talented color, sound, and music teams. (Woo hoo!!!) To get it to them, we first had to clean up the editing timeline (below). We're looking forward to finishing the film in late August.
Be voracious in seeking insights into drafts, but be strategic: triangulate your feedback.
I find it best to get no less than three opinions on the same draft or rough cut, preferably from people with differing points of view. If I only ask one person, their opinion become outsized. It’s tempting to implement all their suggestions. The problem is every viewer/reader brings a unique perspective. If I try to satisfy each in turn, I end up like a leaf blowing in the wind. If I ask multiple people, I can analyze their responses, pinpoint problem areas, and come up with solutions that address multiple people’s concerns and feel true to the story I’m trying to tell.
I got my start in filmmaking helping Jacob Okada and Adam Morrow with the ITVS application for our documentary, PAINTING THE WAY TO THE MOON. It felt like grant writing for anthropology. We didn’t get the grant, but we got very helpful feedback from the panel both times we applied. It gave us energy and pushed us further with the film which we ultimately funded through a Kickstarter and released on Fandor and Vimeo. Festival deadlines help push us to complete the film.
A couple years later, we started applying to screenwriting competitions with the narrative feature we produced last summer, currently called NARWHAL-AMERICAN. The deadlines helped propel each draft forward… without them it was too easy to let the business of our freelance work overwhelm incremental progress toward our long term goals. It was encouraging to place in BlueCat, Sundance Sloan and TFI Sloan’s screenplay competitions, some of which offered helpful feedback. We stopped applying to screenplay festivals when we realized that, at least for this project, revising for screenplay competitions and revising to create a producible script might be not be compatible goals.
We started applying to development and post grants as we moved through pre-production into post. Again, the deadlines have served as valuable catalyst to think through our filmmaking approach (ex., our first budget was created for a TFI Sloan application) and much needed adrenaline to finish a cut. With Jacob freelancing full-time and much of our post-production budget spent during a chaotic start to the shoot, I’ve ended up taking on the role of assistant editor: organizing footage, doing string outs of scenes, creating the first assembly, and now working closely with Jacob as we move through the rough cuts. Without deadlines (TFI, IFP, Film Independent, Sundance) we might not be at Rough Cut 2. It’s getting better because we chose to apply and I’m thankful for that.
But here’s where the experience diverges from anthropology. So far, ITVS and the Roy W. Dean Grant (by our fiscal-sponsors From The Heart Productions) are the only competitions to give us feedback on an application or a cut of a film. With low acceptance rates (ex. 6% for IFP Labs), not getting in isn’t much feedback. Is it the project and/or us? The film's premise? The unusual focus on intellectual curiosity? The current cut? The modest budget? The talented but not-yet known actors? The too-academic way I wrote the application? Or is it something that has nothing to do with us? That another applicant's project is farther along or has a bigger name or budget? Or that the filmmakers are better known? Or at least better known to the programmers? It could be all, some, or none of that.
In many ways the "why" is irrelevant: the choice is the judges' prerogative. I’ve got no beef with that. I've graded enough papers and judged enough films to know a thousand considerations influence a decision. I’m thankful for the chance to apply, to push our work further, to make a few more people aware of the project. We keep applying because it makes our work stronger and we know that we—and the film—would benefit incredibly from the learning opportunities of a particular workshop or lab and the kickstart their stamp of approval would provide. We keep going without it, but it’s a slower slog.
What I’m lamenting isn't a rejection letter a film grant or application: it's the lost opportunity for feedback. Every application has a big opportunity cost: time not working on the film. I wish the applications were more of a direct learning experience than a shout in the wind. Interpreting a "no"--or figuring out whether it's worth reapplying--is a futile guessing game.
With ITVS and the best screenplay competitions (as with research grant applications), no matter how we placed we got concrete feedback from experienced reviewers. The competitions weren’t just good for internal deadlines and a shot at something more, they were a chance to grow and improve the project no matter how/if we placed.
We rewrote the script several times and incorporated feedback from Page, BlueCat, The Black List, and Stowe Story Labs, as well as from two internal and public table read. I so valued BlueCat’s insights that I later signed up for their 10-week online rewrite class with an adaptation of Mjke Wood's SciFi short story, THE LAST DAYS OF DOGGER CITY.
I hope, down the line, film application processes include more feedback. I truly value the opinion of reviewers. Meanwhile, we’ll keep applying because we'll keep pushing to improve.
Ready to geek out for a moment?
I'm hoping to give a talk about Narwhal-American at an anthropology conference in the fall (AAAs). Writing the paper abstract reminded me that the movie's premise started out as an anthropological thought experiment between the film's writers/directors (Jacob Okada and me, Carylanna Taylor). It would have fit well in one of my intro to anthropology classes.
It was a weeks-long conversation that went something like this:
We know that multiple species of the genus Homo co-existed in the past. What if multiple species still co-existed today? It's entirely plausible even if gene flow and migration make it unlikely.
Ok, let's say a group survived, how would we find them now? Wouldn't they be like a biological needle in a haystack? Infertility stats, perhaps? A lot of infertility is unexplained.
So... what if such a group drifted apart millennia ago on an isolated island somewhere? Like Papua New Guinea? Sure, but how about the Caribbean since it's easier to film and we know more about it. Ok, maybe pre-Colombian fishers built communities on a small island off the coast of Colombia? (I was doing research there at the time.) That works. If it happened long enough ago, their genes and culture would slowly drift apart from that of people living on the mainland. If the right gene/s got passed around it could make them infertile without those who don't have the gene. (We later worked closely with Harvard geneticists Ting Wu and Ruth McCole to come up with plausible variants based on their research with ultra-conserved elements of DNA.)
Ok, so we've got a culturally and biologically isolated population living on an island in Caribbean. What happens when the colonizers arrive and try to take over the island? How would the people react to not being able to reproduce with the Spanish? They'd have to have noticed. It's centuries before genetic research. They'd come up with a religious or magical explanation. Maybe a curse about being doomed to never have kids if they leave home? That makes sense. And it would keep them living together in big enough concentrations to ensure some genetic diversity.
Would they be ostracized, persecuted, or just left alone? How would they adapt their culture and language to survive? They don't look any different than the other pre-Colombian inhabitants. Maybe they'd try to keep to themselves and just interact minimally with outsiders, allowing them to "pass."
Their language would probably change into some sort of pigeon. Maybe they'd co-opt Spanish to hide in plain sight. (My friend Jose Enrique Moreno-Cortes, an archeologist/anthropologist from Puerto Rico with a real talent for language, came up with some fun rules and translations for the film.)
What about 2018? Would they still be in the Caribbean or would they have emigrated for security and/or economic opportunity like so many others? No doubt some would go to the U.S. Would they be all over? Not likely. They'd follow family members and other Colombians they've met. Like immigrants before them, they'd likely cluster into enclave communities at first. In their case, they'd know their chances of having a family would be low if they left, so they'd stick with their community. To avoid the curse? Exactly. If they'd faced any kind of discrimination back home, they'd likely try to "pass" among the larger Latinx community. Their language would adapt a bit more, pick up some English.
It must be hard living so close to a major city and not being able to move there. How would they balance pressures to assimilate with reproductive isolation? Genetic research and technology has come a long way. Wouldn't they be found out? How? Wouldn't someone eventually break away and see a doctor? What kind of doctor would even run the right tests to figure it out? Let's say one does and starts to get curious, would they see an outside researcher as friend or foe? Some would, some wouldn't.
What about gene modification? What about it? Technically it could be a "fix" depending on the genetic variation(s). Legally and ethically... it's a whole other matter. Sure, but would they see bridging the biological gap between species as a cultural blessing or a curse?
Having this conversation and building a culture, characters, and love story to go along with it has been an incredibly fun and challenging application of anthropology. I can't wait to share the film!
A colleague invited me to join a panel on applying the anthropological imagination at the 2018 AAAs in November. Since I transitioned from academia to film in 2013, I haven't been back to anthropology's big yearly meeting. I'm excited for the chance to geek out and share the film with other anthropologists. I thought I'd share some of my paper abstract. It's the anthropoligical take on the project's origins, backstory, and ethics. (Here's the more conversational thought experiment.)
Talk Title: Applying the Anthropology to Fiction Film: Imagining the Discovery, Culture, and Biology of “Homo narwhalensis sapiens”
My first two films were documentaries. Recruiting participants, capturing stories, communicating scientific concepts, and writing grants felt a lot like academic anthropology. Writing/producing my first fiction film added the opportunity to apply the anthropological imagination.
“Narwhal-American” is a love story and science mystery about a couple who turn to a geneticist for help getting pregnant, only to discover that everyone in the husband’s enclave community belongs to a different species of humans.
It started as a thought experiment fit for an Introduction to Anthropology classroom. What if multiple species of the genus Homo existed today? How would we find this biological needle in the haystack? Infertility stats, perhaps? What if such a group drifted apart millennia ago on an isolated Caribbean Island? How would their culture and language adapt as Spanish colonists arrived? How would a group of immigrants to the U.S. balance pressures to assimilate with reproductive isolation? Would they see an outside researcher as friend or foe? Would using gene modification to bridge the biological gap between species be a cultural blessing or a curse?
During my talk, I’ll share clips from the film and provide an overview of the role that anthropology played in imagining the “Narwhal”people and story. I’ll also touch on ethical issues such as choosing the Narwhal’s race/ethnicity, using a subverted form of Spanish as their language, recruiting non-actor extras, using active genetics research, portraying geneticists, and filming on the streets of Manhattan and Queens.
I recently did a short piece for the Stowe Story Labs newsletter. I’d workshopped the screenplay for my first narrative feature with Stowe and they were curious how the script had changed through development, pre-production, production, and now post.
300 words didn’t come close to covering it! I ended with a much longer response which I’ll share here in smaller pieces. This post focuses on development.
I hope you find it an interesting case study.
ANYA is a love story set in contemporary New York City about LIBBY and MARCO, newlyweds who find themselves at the epicenter of a scientific discovery when they turn to unlikely sources for help getting pregnant: the geneticist Libby almost married (SEYMOUR) and the immigrant enclave community Marco abandoned.
My writing/producing partner, Jacob Okada, and I conceived of the film in May 2014. Jacob was story producing for a National Geographic show about an exotic vet. He was watching a lot of surgeries. He asked me how species diverge. As an anthropologist I gave him a basic answer about genetic drift. The conversation got around to how their could be (technically speaking) multiple species of humans alive today and we’d never know it. It would just look like infertility. Until the right person happened to spot the needle in the haystack. Our first screenplay was born.
By August 2014 we had a rough draft of our first screenplay, then called "Anya."
Our first longline was: When a newlywed couple trying to have a baby seek help from an unconventional geneticist, he discovers one of them isn’t human. The geneticist must choose between protecting them or forwarding his career.
Over a year, we sought feedback through Blacklist and screenplay competitions and revised the screenplay. We got encouraging reviews but the script was complex, hard to describe, and too long at 120-130 pages. Early drafts were more expensive, more expansive, and had more chaotic comedy, for a while we played with a Supreme Court cold open and the tongue-in-cheek title, “Side Effects May Include Genocide."
We wrote the initial drafts based only on my my basic knowledge of evolution from teaching introduction to anthropology. In early 2015, the Science & Entertainment at the Exchange National Academy of Sciences introduced us to geneticists Dr. Ting Wu and Dr. Ruth McCole at Harvard Medical School's Wu Lab and the Personal Genetics Eduction Project (pgEd). They read drafts, shared insights into the life of academic geneticists, written letters of recommendation, and let us use their research in the film. We visited their labs and congressional briefings and took part in an industry forum.
Each visit led to revisions, some minor, some major. The script is far richer for their participation. During production, Ruth even choreographed and supervised the lab scenes. In many ways, Ting, Ruth, and the pgEd crew have been the project’s biggest cheerleaders.
Ting suggested a new title, “Humans Among Humans,” that we used for over a year. We still adore the title but have moved away from it because of feedback that it is too SciFi for the film’s content and tone.
We chose to workshop the script through Stowe Story Labs. Stowe, and making a documentary and three shorts, became my film school. In September 2015 I took the script (as HUMANS AMONG HUMANS) to Stowe's Narrative Labs where we pitched our story’s to industry professionals in groups of 6. As an anthropologist turned filmmaker, it was the first time I'd pitched a story. It was also the first time I tried to boil down our script to three minutes for an audience of nonscientists. (I'm still learning how best to do that!)
At the Labs, I struggled to communicate the essence, tone, and genre of the piece. Was it a drama with comedic elements, sci-fi, a mystery, and/or (as one Stowe alumn suggested) a love story? In part, the problem was that we’d written two movies in one screenplay: one about a geneticist who makes a major discovery and one about the couple at the heart of that discovery. Truth be told, I was more interested in the former but we realized the science-heavy script would be more accessible to a broader audience if we could put them in the shoes of the couple.
We continued workshopping versions of the script through a writers group of NYC Stowe alumni, 2 internal table reads, a staged public reading at the Philip K. Dick Film Festival, screenplay competitions (we were a semi-finalist in Blue Cat and finalist in Sundance Sloan and TFI Sloan), and the 2016 Stowe Writers’ Retreat.
By September 2016, the script was clearly a love story. The story still had all the same cutting edge genetics but we’d stuck to a new rule: all science must first be explained to the couple and be directly tied to them.
Our now producer, Roger Schwartz at Chockstone Productions, got excited about this version. His detailed feedback helped make it accessible to a broader audience.
From October to December, we set the script aside and worked on other projects. I workshopped another script (based on Mjke Wood's short story THE LAST DAYS OF DOGGER CITY) through BlueCat’s Online Screenwriting Class: The Rewrite. For 10 weeks, a small group of us met with Gordy Hoffman by Skype. I struggled with a lot of the same problems: wanting to tell too big of a story (a mother's redemption AND a disaster/action movie AND a climate-migration story) and getting caught up in science or world building. Jacob made the astute observation that I was trying to do the job of the production designer in the script, something that also weighs down earlier drafts of Narwhal-American.
Slowly, painfully I learned to streamline and declutter.
Gordy's biggest tip? Open a new document and retype the old script, letting it change in the process. This advice would prove invaluable when we decided to go into production with ANYA and rewrote the script to lower our budget without sacrificing story.
Our original narrative feature NARWHAL-AMERICAN (@narwhalmovie) is live on social media!
I've begun adding stills and behind the scenes pictures and will share more as we move through post-production into distribution.
Sign up for very occasional updates if you'd like to know when a blogpost is available or we have big news to share.
I'm excited to share that we've finished the first string-out for our original feature: NARWHAL-AMERICAN. The performances and locations are looking great and we can't wait to share the finished film in 2019.
I'll be sharing some of the making-of in this blog, starting with the script development. In the meantime, please check out past posts about the role of AFM and NSF's Science & Entertainment Exchange.
Stay tuned. Please sign-up for occasional updates if you'd like to know when a new post is available.
Note (2018): The movie is now complete and called ANYA.
Jacob and I just completed our first lookbook! We’ve been toying with creating one for a while for our first fiction feature, LITTLE NARWHAL, and finally did it as a recommended supplement to a grant application. It’s a work in progress, to be sure, but it does seem to more effectively communicate tone and give a quick visual of the project than have prior text-only formats.
Creating the lookbook--a visual companion to the script--forced us to think in new ways about the movie we’re planning to film later this year. Not timelines, budgets, or dry artistic statements but the look, feel, and sound of a film that mixes an invented but believable culture and real cutting-edge genetics science.
Creating the lookbook made us realize our former title, HUMANS AMONG HUMANS, did not evoke the playful, immersive tone with which we approach the story. We’d been using it as a working title so long that we hadn’t noticed that it seems too sci-fi, too hard around the edges. LITTLE NARWHAL better evokes the sense of place (an immigrant enclave community in Queens), quirkiness (wait, they obviously don’t mean the whales with horns that inspired myths of uniforms), and mystery (who are the Narwhal then).
Shifting our thinking from text to visuals has encouraged us to get more concrete about camera and lens selection, production design, costuming, tone, and soundscape. The process of choosing images and paring down words also encouraged us to find and communicate the threads tying the film’s topics, themes, tone, and team. Not all of that is evident in the lookbook, but it’s part of the ‘production bible’ we’re now creating.
It’s not that we hadn’t been thinking visually. We did see the film in our minds as we wrote it. We’d always intended to direct and produce it ourselves and this no doubt shows on the page. I’d sketched out scenes (literally and badly) for our illustrator, Sara Kaiser, to turn into the wonderful black and white storyboard style sketches that grace our treatment and lookbook. That was our first experience in realizing that the visuals were more effective at communicating our tone and humor than were the script or synopses.
The lookbook made us start thinking even more deeply about filming style. By training, Jacob’s a documentarian, I’m an anthropologist, and our DP is a talented street photographer. We knew our style needed to make the most of this combination. We knew we wanted to create an immersive realism that would make viewers feel like they were walking the streets of Queens and Manhattan and feeling culture-shock alongside Libby and Marco, the protagonists of our love story. But now the conversation is more concrete: which camera, which lens, which distances, with or without sticks, how big a crew, etc.
Jacob’s a director and DP, so communicating with images is second nature to him. It isn’t for me. I’ve been an amateur photographer since childhood and oil painter off and on since undergrad. I did some second camera work on PAINTING THE WAY TO THE MOON and our shorts. Despite having a visual side, my social science training strongly privileges words. Jacob recognized this while we were writing--particularly as I drafted another script, LAST DAYS OF DOGGER CITY--and occasionally encouraged me to stop writing and sketch out a scene. It helps. It frees my imagination and helps get us on the same page. To my pleasant surprise, the lookbook had a similar effect.
Concentrating on the visuals made us realize how little of the unusual soundscape was coming through. LITTLE NARWHAL is full of original music played on screen by “Narwhal” musicians as well as touches throughout of their uncanny ability to mimic sounds. As a result, we broke the “soundscape” into a separate page of the lookbook and recruited the jazz composer who worked on PAINTING THE WAY TO THE MOON to create the new sound for the Narwhal to play.
Another happy side-effect of making our first lookbook? We've moved the project forward and are more excited than ever to continue building our team and start filming!
If you’d like to take a peek at the lookbook or illustrated treatment, please drop me a line at email@example.com.
As First Encounter Productions moves into pre-production of our first fiction feature, HUMANS AMONG HUMANS, we are particularly thankful to The Science & Entertainment Exchange of the National Academy of Sciences for introducing us to our amazing science advisor, Dr. Ting Wu . As a thank you, I’d like to share our range of experiences collaborating with scientists from The Exchange on two screenplays. I hope our experiences encourage other independent filmmakers interested in science to reach out to The Science & Entertainment Exchange and give them an idea of what to expect.
The Science & Entertainment Exchange is an invaluable resource for anyone writing or producing a film or TV series with scientific content. The Exchange maintains a database of scientists from all specialties who have volunteered to collaborate with filmmakers. When a request comes in, they do their best to pair the writer/filmmaker with an appropriate specialist. They have facilitated over 1,500 consults ranging from quick fact checks to special briefings on projects such as BIG HERO 6, THE AVENGERS, CASTLE, EUREKA!, HOUSE, and DOCTOR STRANGE.
This unique matchmaking service is available to any filmmaker interested in improving the science already in their script/film or incorporating more. Their contact information is readily available on their website.
Our Experiences with The Science & Entertainment Exchange
I first contacted The Science & Entertainment Exchange to get guidance on HUMANS AMONG HUMANS which I co-wrote with my writing/producing partner Jacob Okada. Our original screenplay is about a woman whose struggles to conceive a child with her mysterious new husband lead to the incredible discovery that he and his people are another species of humans. As a cultural anthropologist, I have a good enough understanding of genetic variation and human evolution to teach a couple introductory lectures. It got us through the first draft, but we wanted to go deeper and give the geneticists in HUMANS AMONG HUMANS a real puzzle to unravel, something that would be plausible, that would feel authentic to a scientist while still being explainable to a non-scientist.
In late 2014, I wrote a simple email to the Director and Program Coordinator with a brief description of the project and our backgrounds and that we’d like to talk with a geneticist for potential collaboration. Within a day, Amy Brown (Program Coordinator) wrote back that she had found someone. I reached out to Dr. Wu.
Over the course of a month, we corresponded by email. I sent a longer description of the project and a list of seven technical questions. Ting answered these briefly and invited us to talk by phone. Our first meeting was by phone in February 2015 and included Jacob, Marie Wu (pgEd), and Dr. Ruth McCole (Wu Lab). On the call, Ting and Ruth surprised us by offering for us to use their research as the basis of speciation in our film.
Soon after, in March 2015, we sent a revised script and then went to Boston to get notes and visit the lab. Since those initial meetings, we have participated in a number of events and kept up an ongoing discussion about HUMANS AMONG HUMANS which has expanded to a broader discussion of how to prepare the public for the oncoming tsunami of genetics information.
The Exchange staff is very accessible. They do much of their work by email, but are happy to chat if you happen to cross paths. I now get occasional invitations to events in New York and Los Angeles. I had the pleasure of meeting the Deputy Executive Director, Ann Merchant, at a pgEd Congressional briefing. We have since crossed paths at other pgEd and Exchange events in New York, Boston, and DC (where she is based). Last April, I had a wonderful hour-long meeting with Amy Brown (Program Coordinator) at their main office at UCLA. It was clear in speaking with Amy and Ann that they -- and The Science & Entertainment Exchange -- share the desire to increase interest in and understanding of science through film.
Amy later put me in touch with two oceanographers, Randy Patton and Dr. Dale Stokes of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, to help describe the underwater environment in a sci-fi adaptation I’m writing called THE LAST DAYS OF DOGGER CITY (based on an Analog short story by British author, Mjke Wood).
Both oceanographers have been incredibly helpful. I had some specific world-building questions, such as: would it be possible to warm the North Sea through underwater heaters and, if so, what might that infrastructure look like? My initial questions led to a really interesting volley of emails with Randy, including a Word document with references and drawings. He’s instrumental to how I visualize the monumental underwater engineering that sustains Dogger City.
My contact with Dale was briefer, but very positive. He helped me understand what kind of aquatic life might exist in the extreme climate change scenario I was creating. Unlike with HUMANS AMONG HUMANS, once the immediate science questions were answered I had to move on (for now) to other aspects of the script. The oceanographers were very giving of their time and very kind to leave the door open for renewing discussions or a Skype call when the time comes. I imagine these more targeted communications are common for matches made through The Science & Entertainment Exchange.
By comparison, Jacob’s and my collaboration with Dr. Wu has likely been deeper and more enduring than is typical. In large part that is because her Personal Genetics Education Project (pgEd), directed by Dr. Marnie Gelbart, is dedicated to outreach and has actively collaborated with producers and writers on GREY’S ANATOMY, ELEMENTARY, THE 100, and others. Her collaborations with writers and producers have been facilitated by The Science & Entertainment Exchange as well as Hollywood, Health & Society at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center which “provides the entertainment industry with free expert information on all aspects of health, safety, and security.”
How Hard is it to Talk to a Scientist?
It’s easier than you might think.
Yes, my academic training makes it a little easier for me to talk as an equal with a scientist in a different discipline. But it’s not essential. As an anthropologist who designs research projects based on the scientific method, I consider myself a (social) scientist. I have some understanding of genetics and evolution. I’ve been around academia. I was able to find and read Ting's and Ruth’s journal articles and at least make out enough to ask some questions relevant to the script. I could find and navigate academic literature on global freezes to work up a new backstory for what led to the icy conditions in Dogger City. And the PhD in my signature likely suggests to them that I follow-through on projects, even though I’m relatively new to film. All these things simply add up to establishing a common ground for communication more quickly.
Prior experience or a doctorate are NOT a requirement for having a meaningful, creative discussion with a scientist. For example, my understanding of climate change, ecology, and engineering are pretty rudimentary, but I was able to talk with oceanographers about DOGGER CITY. Jacob’s a filmmaker by training, but he has always been curious about science and medicine. When we were filming our feature documentary, PAINTING THE WAY TO THE MOON, Jacob familiarized himself enough with astrophysics, chaos math, and orbital dynamics to interview scientists and engineers. He also holds his own with our collaborators at Harvard, learning enough about gene modification and its ethical implications to converse with Dr. George Church, famous for his role in genome sequencing and engineering, including copying the genes of a wooly mammoth into an Asian elephant.
So, are you now wondering what it would be like to have a herd of wooly mammoths roaming the planet? Good. You could have a great talk with Dr. Church!
Curiosity and an open mind -- not prior knowledge or training -- are essential to having a fruitful conversation with a scientist.
Some Things to Keep in Mind if You’re Consider Contacting The Exchange…
Scientists -- especially the scientists working with The Science & Entertainment Exchange -- are motivated to communicate their ideas and passions with a broader audience than they can reach through their research publications or classes. They see films as a way to do that. They know that communicating clearly with the writer or filmmaker is the first step.
As The Science & Entertainment Exchange’s reputation and reach grow, so do the number of requests for collaboration. This is awesome for science in film but might mean the one-day turn around I had two years ago would likely be difficult today. Be patient! The Exchange is run by a handful of very dedicated employees. To help them make a quicker and more accurate match, provide specific questions along with any helpful context, such as a short synopsis of the script or relevant scene. The scientists I worked with also wanted to know early on how my particular science question(s) related to the story (is it tangential or integral?) and whether the portrayal of any particular techniques (ex. gene editing) was overall positive, balanced, or negative.
The perfect expert for your project might be at any one of a number of points in their career. Scientists in The Exchange database include semi-retirees, full-time researchers, senior faculty, and experts a little earlier in their career. For instance, a doctoral candidate helped a friend more accurately portray a medical condition in her screenplay. They’re all experts in their own right. It’s all about the right fit.
The scientists in The Exchange believe in the power of movies. They want to help us make movies in which they can believe. Your curiosity and open mind will help foster a meaningful collaboration.
Major Takeaway: Talking with a Scientist can be an Act of Creativity
Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that scientists are creative. They ENJOY riffing about a film project and having a chance to think outside the box of their research specialization. Films and TV shows tend to portray scientists as geeky or narrowly focused. Amassing expertise in an area usually doesn’t mean rigidity or lack of curiosity. Quite the contrary. It usually means an ability to learn quickly, consider options, and play.
When you approach a scientist you’re extending an invitation to play. Allow time and space in your discussions with them to brainstorm and come up with new alternatives for your project. If your experience is anything like ours, the result might be surprising: a better story that happens to be more scientifically accurate
An hour after I posted my initial reactions to 2015 American Film Market (AFM), the Managing Director, Jonathan Wolf, emailed to set up a chat. That he took half an hour to talk with me today, less than a week before the start of AFM2016, speaks volumes about how committed the nonprofit is to providing screenwriters and filmmakers with a positive experience at the market and conference.
I was flattered that he found 80% of my assessment was “spot on." The following is a loose transcription of his corrections and thoughts on the other 20%.
First, the Corrections
My perception that AFM is primarily for finished films does not match the data. One billion dollars in sales come out of AFM each year, about equally divided between finished films and pre-sales. That means about $500,000,00 dedicated to foreign and domestic presales of projects that are in pre-production.
There’s a lot going on in those screening rooms. At any given time there are about thirty simultaneous screenings. Of the 350 companies at AFM, a third are actively screening films in a given year. The other two-thirds are there for packaging or have already sold in most of the world. (He agrees, though, the screenings still aren't likely the best use of a writer or creative producer's time at AFM).
Foreign pre-sales are still a big deal. From what I understood, it’s all about risk management and liquidity. Pre-selling to foreign markets allows the filmmaker to take out a bank loan to start production. It also transfers some of the risk away from the producers. Some producers choose to presell 20%, 50% or even 70% of the world to eliminate some of the risk.
There’s a wide range of film budgets represented at AFM. The larger budgets are associated with the large independents, such as Lions Gate and The Weinstein Company. However, many films are in the $100K-$3.5M range.
He deemed “50% true” my assertion that AFM is not the place to find a sales agent or sales producer. He estimates that about half will find success or a clearer path to it and half will have trouble getting traction. The first three days they're really busy. By the second half, “some not all” have openings in their schedules and “some not all” of those are willing to meet with people without a prior appointment. The norm is to set up meetings before AFM starts. (The 4-day Industry Badge runs from Saturday to Tuesday to help attendees capitalize on this availability.)
Thoughts & Elaborations
Jonathan didn’t disagree with me about AFM gravitating to “genre films,” but did elaborate by saying that companies that are risk averse seek genres that are easy to pre-sell. Action adventures and erotic thrillers, for example, depend less on execution than comedies or dramas. He gave the example of "Brokeback Mountain." The script could be magnificent but buyers would see at as risky because it’s much more dependent on execution. By comparison, “Expendables 5” would need little introduction and be seen as relatively low risk. (NOTE: This might explain a lot of about what’s on the screen of my local movie theater!)
There are three kinds of producers. Know which one you are and which one you need.
Creative producers work with writers and have great empathy for stories and audiences. He estimates that 80% of producers at the AFM are creative producers. A creative producer at AFM is doing one thing: selling a script or package. The best ones take a soft approach. They give a synopsis and suggest they read the script. Period.
Line producers are like the general contractors who help implement the film.
Sales Producers are experts in the art of sales. They work with creative producers, often as partners. Sales producers are relatively scarce, even at AFM.
According to Jonathan, only a handful of producers are experts in two of these areas and almost no-one is adept at all three.
The takeaway? If you consider yourself a producer, “know which one you are and stay in your lane.”
If you’re a creative producer or writer, partner with a sales producer. Most creative producers don’t and he feels it’s a mistake. You’ll be too emotionally attached to your film or script to be able to sell it well. Leave the selling to the professionals. There’s a reason sales is the highest paid occupation in the world.
His Advice for Writers & Creative Producers Visiting AFM?
Be a “stealth participant.” Start the lifelong process of developing relationships. Start understanding what the marketplace wants, what companies are producing what kind of films, what films are working… Come to learn.
If you spend 4 or 5 days at AFM and leave with 4 or 5 lasting relationships, it’s worth it. This is an industry of relationships and AFM's a good place to build them. Meet people, learn what they do, and look to develop partnerships.
Keep your pitching conversational. Do a very soft sale. Instead of starting off with a memorized routine ask questions. Find out what the person you're talking to is looking for.
Jonathan started out as a car salesman and likened the approach to selling a car: when someone came on the lot, you ask what they’re looking for and tailor your response to that. He asked if I’d ever run into an aggressive information heavy car salesman before who ignored my wants. I had: I left and looked elsewhere. (If you prefer a fishing metaphor: let the fish get to know the bait.)
It’s the same with film. Start with a question rather than a pitch. Figure out your prospects. Do they match on genre? Budget range? Connect with them. Learn their needs then tailor your response to their needs. Sales 101.
He advises not to spend your time at AFM meeting with sales agents or producers from your hometown. But do hang back and learn. Then set up a meeting for later and arrive at their offices prepared.
Bonus Sales Advice for Independent Filmmakers
Hook up with a sales agent before you start filming. Sales agents know the global marketplace. They’ll be able to help make decisions that improve the profitability of your film. He gave examples of knowing which actors might be more valuable and figuring out where best to apply your budget
Jonathan volunteered a final insight. “Festivals are the worst place to world premiere most films.” They create media and social media buzz on the film and there’s no way to monetize on it. And that can turn off potential distributors. Solution? Get your distributor first. Discuss a festival strategy with them. Half the deals announced at Sundance are sold prior to the festival and simply announced at the festival.
If all the distributors pass, (see prior comment about agents/buyers considering “Brokeback Mountain” as risky), take it to the festivals and hope all the sales agents and distributors were wrong. Just keep in mind, festivals are first and foremost cultural events for their communities, not an international market.
As an anthropologist turned screenwriter and filmmaker, my first visit to the American Film Market (AFM) in November 2015 was eye-opening. When several screenwriter friends from Stowe Story Labs told me they were considering attending AFM2016, I decided to write up my observations and reactions. They found them helpful. I hope you will, too.
From looking at their website, it's clear that AFM is massive: 8,000+ industry professionals, 2,000 new films and projects, 1,000 production companies, 500+ screenings, 400+ distributors, and 100+ speakers. When I first said I was thinking of going, Jacob Okada, my writing/producing partner in First Encounter Productions, shared enough of his colleague's impressions of past years that I realized it would likely be overwhelming. I was glad AFM is in Santa Monica, CA where the water and sand would help me through!
At Stowe's September 2015 Narrative Lab, an AFM-initiated producer, Alex Boden, gave me some invaluable advice. The first time, it’s best to go and observe. Attend the conference, walk through the rest, and get the lay of the land.
That made sense to me. I sounded a lot like approach AFM like an anthropologist. So I did just that. I took Alex's advice to heart and adjusted my expectations. It took off a lot of the pressure in what would be an intense five-day experience.
At the time First Encounters had three projects at various stages and I was curious to see how AFM might help move the ball forward.
- PAINTING THE WAY TO THE MOON (2015), a completed math/science/art documentary that had run the festival circuit, but not yet been distributed,
- HUMANS AMONG HUMANS, an advanced draft of an original narrative screenplay, and
- DOGGER CITY, a sci-fi climate/migration treatment based on a short story I’d just optioned.
To prepare, I looked into who was coming and identified some organizations I wanted to try to meet, made some meetings through MyAFM, and prepared one-sheets (including pitches) for each project. It was helpful that we had recently had a unit production manager draw up a budget of HUMANS AMONG HUMANS.
At AFM, I was able to talk with several minor and non-traditional distributors about the documentary. Some were a friendly pass. Some led to further explorations. I met with a handful of people who might take part in the production of HUMANS AMONG HUMANS (composers, special effects), and spoke informally with a few dozen people about our projects and theirs. I’ve stayed in touch with some of these folks and I’d be glad to cross paths with all of them again.
My brief takeaway? AFM is primarily for produced films with a potentially international audience (more on that below) but can be great for getting an overview of distribution and meeting other professionals in the film industry.
MORE DETAILED OBSERVATIONS/IMPRESSIONS
AFM is huge. Officially, AFM holds a multitude of meetings and events in multiple stories of multiple hotels and theaters connected by shuttle buses. Unofficially, AFM spreads even farther through many hotel lobbies and restaurants, basically taking over downtown Santa Monica. If you’re at all introverted (like me), it can feel chaotic and overwhelming. So be prepared to allow yourself some breathing room in between activities.
Getting ready to go:
AFM's website is great. There’s a map of all the venues with the shuttle bus that runs between them. They’ve got a website (myafm.org) that allows you to put up a profile page with a description of your project(s), post messages offering your products/services, and connect with other participants. For me, this was a great way to ease into AFM. I set up a few meetings with composers, special effects teams, the Colombian Film Commission, and a couple of enterprising Chinese distributors interested in distributing our documentary through non-traditional means (ex. cell phone, bus). Having some meetings lined up going in made AFM feel smaller, friendlier, and more manageable. It also forced us to hang out waiting for meetings in common areas. That often led to great chats with new people.
As you can see on their website, badges are color-coded. There’s a palpable hierarchy at AFM. People know what each badge means. Certain floors and events are restricted to the higher (read: more expensive) colors. I bought the “Industry Badge plus 4-day conference” (red) plus an additional financing conference. That got me MOST everywhere I wanted to go. I also get a carousel mixer with the badge, which turned out to be a nice networking event on Santa Monica Pier.
This is an expensive trip.
Prices have already gone up since last year. What I did in 2015 would in 2016 be: $595 for the red badge + $95 for the one-day conference pass + meals (there’s not much economy eating near the venues) + hotel (I stayed in Venice and it was still over $100/night) + transportation (I walked the two miles to Santa Monica or took relatively inexpensive Uber/cabs). With airfare from NYC, it ended up in the ballpark of $2000, without extra splurges.
It's cheapest to buy badges early. In 2016, prices jump 10/8 and again 10/31.
Rooms in Santa Monica fill up fast and affordable rooms are limited.
AFM is really multiple concurrent events.
There’s a producer’s conference which I found really helpful and would highly recommend to anyone thinking of trying to see their script all the way through to distribution. AFM offers half day sessions on things like distribution, production subsidies, and festival strategies. If nothing else, it’s good to hear producers talk about what they feel is important and where they feel the market currently is. For example, in 2015 distributing in China came up often and there was an entire day of sessions dedicated to it. (It's back in 2016.) The producer’s conference sessions can be good for meeting other attendees. They also have a nice breakfast and coffee spread where people gather and chat.
In particular, the pitching session with Stephanie Palmer from Good in a Room and two excellent independent producers (Cassian Elwes and Tobin Armbrust) was fabulous. If you want a chance to pitch on a stage in front of a few hundred people, you can apply ahead of time online with a video pitch or throw your name in a hat the day of. Just watching and hearing the producers’ feedback on the pitches was plenty of education for me. Sign up early: the pitch session was packed.
There’s a market for completed films. This is centered in the main hotel which is five or so stories of production companies and distributors squatting in rented offices. As an anthropologist, fascinating. As a writer, rather intimidating. The lower levels are lesser known companies and have their doors wide open. You can go and chat with them pretty easily. A lot of the national film commissions are set up here and you can make the rounds learning about the incentives to film and/or do post-production in places like Panama, Thailand, Ireland, etc. The higher up you go in the hotel, the more doors are closed, the more conversations are appointment only, and the less welcome you feel.
There are screenings held in multiple places in Santa Monica. These are folks trying to sell their produced films. They’re part of your price of admission but I didn’t have a chance to go to any. I understand these generally have very low attendance. You’ll see a lot of postcards floating around advertising screenings. There’s also a big book and web page that list them all.
Carousel Cocktails are themed mixers held every evening on the Santa Monica Pier. I went to the Low Budget Film night. I enjoyed getting to meet other filmmakers in a fun and relatively informal setting. You should get access to at least one with your badge. And, yes, you can ride the carousel!
Some personal observations. Take them with a grain of salt…
My overall takeaway? I’m really glad I went. Once. I likely won’t go back until I have a produced feature that I’m trying to sell abroad. Even then, I’d do it through a sales agent. For where I currently am in the industry, I see the value of AFM more as a conference than a market.
Genre films that could be easily understood by a foreign audience seemed to dominate AFM. I don’t think it’s where I’d sell our drama, HUMANS AMONG HUMANS, as either a script or finished film. Once it’s finished, our sci-fi adventure story (DOGGER CITY) will be a better fit for AFM. If I were to try to sell it either as a script or finished film, I would hire a sales agent and not try to do it myself. AFM is a world of relationships and, at least for my relatively unconnected self, I would need someone who knows the people and the game well to cut through all the BS and make progress with selling the project. There are a lot of closed-door meetings that you’d never even know about. There are also a lot of informal meetings in other hotel lobbies with financiers and such that you would never know to look for without experience and connections. A good sales agent knows the world of AFM and the appropriate people in it.
(NOTE: If you’re interested in the conference side, consider attending Produced By, put on by the Producers Guild of America. I went to Produced By: New York in October 2015 and would eagerly go back again. It’s much smaller. Like AFM, it's great for meeting people and the panel sessions give in-depth insight into contemporary production and distribution. I didn't have a chance to attend, but you can also pre-purchase a seat at small group Mentoring Roundtables where participants can ask questions of industry professionals.)
My recommendations to a screenwriter visiting AFM for the first time?
Adjust your expectations.
It’s great to go to AFM to get the lay of the land and see if you can build any new relationships.
Go ready to briefly pitch your ideas and discuss them in informal conversations. You may or may not have a chance to formally pitch your projects to someone with the direct power to produce your film. In my experience, more likely not the first time. But be prepared to do it. Take a one-sheet summarizing the project, too. Practice your elevator and 1-2 minute pitches.
Be prepared to be on, all the time. Know something about each person/company you’re going to meet. Have questions ready for them. I arrived early for the pitch session and got caught flat-footed before the pitch session when Stephanie Palmer came up and asked if I had any questions for the panel. Thankfully, I knew who she was but I muddled my question about pitching a cross-genre film with a rambling synopsis of Humans. And I forgot to introduce myself. Her easy cordiality turned into a flat smile. Standing there awkwardly with my coffee and muffin, I had to have looked unprofessional and unprepared. Thankfully it was an anonymous interaction. One from which I learned a lot.
Why do I say it’s unlikely you’ll have a bunch of formal pitches? Most films are hawked through sales agents, not the creator.
If you want to go with a sales agent, lay the groundwork before AFM. The sales agents are really hustling during this period. It’s not the best time to meet with them. You may be able to set up appointments in advance with some, especially later in the festival.
It’s also not the best time to meet with producers as they are hawking their completed projects and negotiating contracts. Again, you may be able to set up appointments in advance. I think the brunt of their work is at the beginning of AFM, so you might have better luck meeting producers or agents later in the festival. The challenge is that their schedules will fill up while they’re at AFM. So, it’s good to contact them well ahead of time.
To be frank, from what I saw, very few if any scripts are being sold at AFM and those that are being sold seem to be doing it through the power of an internationally beloved actor attached.
Do your homework. Use MyAFM to meet people of similar or slightly higher status. It helps to make AFM feel more like a community. Figure out which production companies and sales agents work with products like yours and contact them early to see if they’ll have anyone at AFM. If so, it can’t hurt to request for 15 minutes of their time. I wouldn’t take a “no” as an “I’m not interested and I’ll never be interested.” The producers and agents really are super busy with already produced films during AFM. You may luck out and be able to talk to folks at a smaller company or junior members of larger companies. Keep your expectations in check, though. It’s more likely these kinds of meetings won’t happen on your first trip to AFM. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. You’ll find yourself in informal conversations with a lot of interesting people. You never know who could unlock the next phase of your project, but it’s better to look at it as long-term relationship building.
Allow time in your schedule for impromptu conversations and catching up with friends you don’t often see. You never know who’s at AFM. A lot of people bump into former colleagues and classmates. Because AFM’s in Santa Monica, a part of LA people like to visit, I was able to meet up with three sets of Jacob’s and my industry friends. Those informal meetings are key for maintaining relationships.
My sense is that AFM works well for a certain kinds of movies: ones that have significant potential for foreign sales, certain genres that are believed to translate well to foreign markets (action, horror, sometimes sci-fi, sometimes love stories, rarely comedy), a certain budget range (not low-budget indie or studio), and for completed projects. My sense is that in the past there was more purchasing of scripts and funding them through pre-sales on foreign markets, but that the bottom is dropping out of this approach to financing.
One thing I noticed from these meetings and chatting with other participants is that there are a lot of folks out there chasing production subsidies and foreign markets by taking their stories and setting them in places they think will lower the cost of the film or having characters that reflect the markets where they hope to sell their film. The subsidy issue was very marked with the EU. The character issue was very noticeable with China. Sales agents, producers, and some writer/directors were almost salivating at the burgeoning market there. It’s also a tricky market, apparently, but that’s another conversation.
I was very glad that I wasn’t trying to sell anything. For one, I realized how rare it is for an individual to make a sale. But even more so, because I wasn’t pressuring myself to sell a project, I didn’t feel desperate and that made it easier to appreciate AFM and the people I met. It seemed like too many people - at all levels - were trying to grab onto whatever or whoever might help get their film made or sold, no matter the cost to story.
Bottom line? From my observations, AFM is not the best place for writers to try to sell their own screenplay or pre-finance their own project, especially on a first visit. That's what sales agents are for. But it’s well worth going at least once to get the lay of the land (both at AFM and in marketing/distribution more generally) and to meet other film professionals. Keep your mind open and your expectations reasonable, listen and observe, and you'll get a lot of the experience.
NOTE: Two days after publishing this post, I had a great phone conversation with AFM's Managing Director. I typed up his reactions and advice. Check it out!