How having a story to tell set me off on my Tropfest and Los Angeles film adventure

Wed 11.Jan.17

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In December 2015, in a slightly harried, last-minute fashion, I submitted a film to Tropfest New Zealand. I got a couple of hours sleep, woke up and caught a plane to another city for a conference for my day job. I almost didn’t bother submitting the film. For me, it was simply a labor of love, a hobby, and the Tropfest deadline was effectively what motivated me to get my first film wrapped.

The film, called “Back o’ the Bus”, is a seven-minute documentary about my family members sharing their experiences growing up black in Texas in the thick of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s. It was filmed at the last minute while visiting my family in September 2015 because my grandfather was sick and was not likely going to be around for much longer. I didn’t think much more of my entry, as I expected the final films for selection would be made by more experienced and qualified people than me, and the calibre to be very high.

But then came that highly unexpected email: “Back o’ the Bus has been shortlisted…” What?! Fast forward to mid January and again: “Congratulations, your film ‘Back o’ the bus’ has been selected as a finalist!” I’ve never been so surprised or nervous about anything in my life! I’d had this project brewing in my mind ever since my dad started telling me about his experiences with civil rights throughout his life. It meant a lot to me, sure, but it had somehow had an impact on a wider audience. In a few short weeks, lots of people were going to watch it and I was in the running for some pretty serious prizes. Well, February rolled around and I was lucky enough to see my film take out the Best Film prize. This earned me a place, sponsored by the Motion Picture Association (MPA), at the LATC Film and Television Industry Program held in Los Angeles, California.

I arrived in Los Angeles not quite knowing what to expect. I work in computer science education during the day, and film is a hobby on the side that I really enjoy and that gives me some creative outlet. I never expected my film to get anywhere, much less get me to Los Angeles. So, I was a bit apprehensive as I attended the first session and met the other participants in the course. Our group was made up of filmmakers from Brazil, Korea, China, Taiwan/France, The Philippines, Australia, Ghana, and of course, little old New Zealand. Some people had quite extensive film and TV experience, and projects they were working on with large budgets. Others of us were film students or complete amateurs who had somehow acquired a camera and successfully pointed it at something, trying hard to blend in! Fortunately, I was reassured after the first session that the goal was for us to get as much out of the experience as we could.

The organisers recognised that we were all in different places, but the range of experiences lined up should mean that we’d all be well equipped to take whatever our next steps were. We’d also have a lot of opportunities to network and pick other people’s brains about how things work here in Hollywood, as well as sharing our experiences from our home countries. Over the next five days we learned all sorts of interesting and valuable things about topics such as intellectual property, how the studio system works, what the industry is like for independent filmmakers, content protection, distribution, and so much more. We learned about pitching from the legendary Pilar Alessandra. At the CDAS law firm in Beverly Hills, we got an entertainment law overview, a look into agencies and agents, as well as a case study on the production of 500 Days of Summer (I love that film!). We went on to visit the Producers’ Guild of America in Beverly Hills.

One highlight for me was the pitch panel here, where we were given an opportunity to pitch to Butch Kaplan, Chris Torres, and Leland Price, some heavyweights in the industry, and receive feedback on how we went. Given that I am a hobbyist filmmaker, I didn’t really have a project to pitch, but decided to pitch the project that got me there in the first place to take advantage of the opportunity. Realistically, when was I next going to get a chance to pitch to a panel at the Producers’ Guild of America? Not for a while! They encouraged me to look into where else I could take the story, what the next step would be, because the seven minute cap of the Tropfest festival means that my film so far is just the tip of the iceberg, a mere taste. On the Friday we spent the day at the American Film Market out in Santa Monica. Walking into the Loews Hotel, it seemed the entire film industry had descended upon it overnight – each level was bursting with production companies, film commissions and people with interesting looking projects to sell.

It was fascinating talking to so many different filmmakers and people working in other roles, seeing upcoming films, as well as just finding out more about what is going on all over the world. Funnily enough, the first people I talked to in the lobby were some fellow New Zealanders – it’s a small world even when you’re on the other side of it! The time flew. But the final day was the main highlight for me. We had some workshops on writing strong characters and good drama with Peter Russell, Script Doctor. This guy was amazing. He really knew his stuff, was extremely animated, and just blew my mind with his in-depth analysis of all of the ingredients needed to really draw viewers into a story. He did an excellent job of rekindling my desire to write, and I can’t wait to figure out how to develop my storytelling and character crafting abilities! Overall I came away feeling inspired and motivated to discover and take steps towards what is next for me in filmmaking.

I learned a lot about how the industry works, networked with some great people, and was reassured by having people with industry experience be intrigued by my film. But perhaps most importantly, I came home with some amazing memories of my first trip to Los Angeles, which was made possible by my first foray into filmmaking. This program is fantastic for filmmakers at all points in their careers, and I’d like to thank the LATC and Motion Picture Association (MPA), as well as the New Zealand Screen Association (NZSA) and Taranaki Arts Festival Trust (TAFT) for making it all possible. Last but not least, I’d also like to thank my family because without their stories I would not have had a film.

 

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