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The Independent - Independent
 
Phillipe Mora at the Oldenberg Film Festival - Red Carpet
 
Independent director and producer Philippe Mora marked a pinnacle of his career as an independent filmmaker when in September (2014) the Oldenburg International Film Festival celebrated Mora with an Honorary Retrospective and the German Independence Honorary Award. In bestowing the honor, Festival Director Torsten Neumann and the Oldenburg Festival, dubbed Europe's Sundance, in its office al programme commented "The Oldenburg International Film Festival enters its third decade! With the Honorary Retrospective of Philippe Mora,it pays homage to one of the most astonishing and eclectic filmmakers of our time, a solo Australian Nouvelle Vague Artist, impassioned by a zealous quest for historical truths, and with an inextinguishable creative energy that fearlessly breaks molds." A description of Philippe Mora's incredible career as an Independent Independent could not be stated better. In an extended profile celebrating this extraordinary renaissance man and auteur The Business of Film is One on One In Conversation with Philippe Mora on all aspects of the film business from his viewpoint over 40 years.

THE BUSINESS OF FILM: The current consensus is that the independents are going through a more troubled time than they have in the past due to technology, how to best monetize content. The traditional forms of distribution are increasingly only available to the bigger independents and the major companies. There are several strata of independent filmmaking. As a filmmaker in one of those strata who makes movies you want to make, for a specific genre and audience, how are you finding the environment to distribute the films you choose to make?

PHILIPPE MORA: One, it's very difficult; and two, I completely ignore it, because you could go crazy trying to figure out how to monetize the various platforms. I am focusing more on story and what I want to make, on the assumption that if I'm interested in it, we can find people worldwide who will be interested in it too. I would add: the most important thing, if an independent is going totally gonzo, as I've been doing, the budgets need to be kept incredibly low, without sacrificing content; that's the only way an independent can compete with the studios. You can compete with ideas, you can't compete with a $250M dollar movie. On the commercial side, brilliant ideas like Paranormal Activity, and earlier the Blair Witch Project, are genre but brilliant concepts. The studios analyze these hits - and pick up what rises to the surface commercially from their point of view. However, I think there is a market for intellectual movies, but people who are interested in them often don't know they're there, and that gets down to the marketing. There is the new viral marketing which goes worldwide over the internet. As an example: Paul Clemens, the son of Eleanor Parker, an actor who is in some of my movies (The Beast Within, Continuity), he and a friend produced a YOUTUBE film, about a man being murdered by being tapped on the head with a spoon. It's a comedy, it got eight million hits. Paramount said to them, "Let's make a movie." And they said to the effect, "Well, no, we don't want to make a movie with you; you'll interfere." They went aggressively indie. Nothing beats a good idea. It can find an audience and win through. Today I don't think you can continue to make movies on the industrial model that we've been making them, which is basically geared to the studio mentality. Sundance, a great independent melting pot, became a 'kitchen' for the studios. Sundance today seems to be a supermarket for the studios to pick and choose what they want to make or 'polish.' But independents have great ideas which can't be contained or pasteurized by committee. What we need is something like the French New Wave in 1960, which exploded into a new cinema paradigm still felt today. Compare that to the digital revolution now - what enabled the French New Wave was fast black and white film and lightweight equipment, where filmmakers ran around the streets of Paris, then a completely new industrial model, that is, not shooting in studios. Godard and Truffaut were making films for peanuts. The French New Wave came about because the technology then enabled them to make movies with basically no money, and bingo, that's where we are now!
 
Pamela & Phillipe Mora at Oldenberg
 
TBOF: What currently is in vogue is the remakes of comic magazine genre. Do you think that is sustainable?

PM: I think the formulaic genre model is boring; audiences are going to tire of it. The audiences are also going to tire of the CGI Men in Tights movies too. I satirized the genre in 1983 with an alcoholic superhero in The Return of Captain Invincible. Now all superheroes have "personal problems." We didn't have CGI then and I believe it's overused now where these movies all look like animation films. It does depend on age: young kids don't care if the movie looks like animation because they're used to it, but at some point I believe it's going to get back to script, script, script. Personally, I put my head down and make the film any way I can, and fortunately with the digital revolution films can also be made inexpensively. You need actors who will get into the spirit of doing an artistic enterprise.

TBOF: LA is a Mecca for actors, with only a small percentage of them that work constantly. As TBOF published in a feature back in the 80's, that basically was similar to now - which is that in spite of the managers and agents, actors want to work. Is there is an unexplored opportunity here?

PM: I find that the vast majority of creative people in Los Angeles are out of work, and they relish the opportunity of doing something artistic: short shoots - shoots on weekends - shoots for an hour every third day. It's a new way of making a movie, depending on the subject matter. It's one of the only ways you can get independent films made. It's a cliché that people say necessity is the mother of invention, and some say necessity is just a mother. This climate makes you more innovative. I've got friends who are making low budget 3D movies on inexpensive 3D cameras, like the Fiji camera that costs $400. The GoPro is a tiny camera, three inches wide or less, which sports, surfers and parachuters use to film themselves. It's 4K, only $399, which you can project on IMAX. The technologies are moving way faster than the studios and the distribution giants, and they can't keep up with it. This equipment is great for the independents.

TBOF: In discussions with other directors and producers, one of the issues is that it this new technology lends young independent filmmakers to think that anybody can make a movie, and anybody can take a camera and shoot something. However, beyond that, what is needed?

PM: I'm not being facetious, but when I hear people say: "Anybody can make a movie," look at the studios and what is made. Yes, anybody can make a movie, but you can apply it to the studios too. To make a real movie, you need to have passion. When the studios are great, they're really great. Take Planet of the Apes: only a studio could have produced that; it's very high level filmmaking. Anyone can make a movie, but no one's necessarily going to see it. There's thousands of movies being made and no one sees them. But the films that have something will shine through. The mentality in the industry needs to move away from the instant success – the studios rate a film on the gross on the first day. There's no way an independent filmmaker can consider the gross on the first day. A crazy example - Van Gogh never thought about the gross on the first day when he painted - the gross on the first day was nothing - now they're priceless. A strange comparison, fine art and the movie business, but I'm saying the independents have to build, - build it, because they don't have the marketing spend.

TBOF: I don't think your comparison is so off the wall, because back in the day of Van Gogh, paintings were the art form of the day. Today, movies, the moving image, is the art form of our generation.

PM: Keeping on the marketing, it's not so long again in the 70's you would open a movie in LA, you would open a movie in one cinema in Westwood, and you would build. That's all gone basically because of piracy, once the film's out. That's a key factor in all this, of course – independent films are being pirated. I don't know how they get hold of my movies, but they're instantly pirated, which is very harmful to all of us as independents. The studios have a huge financial cushion and piracy is hurting them too.
TBOF: You have being making movies for 40 years. Do you think we have come full circle in production and distribution on a different cycle?
 
Phillipe Mora - Christopher Lee - Alan Arkin
 
PM: I don't think anything's terribly different except the technology, which is radically different. I think it's a plus, not a negative. The negative is the speed of technology in piracy, and the marketing costs for an independent. On the other hand – waxing philosophical for a second – the freedom of speech enabled now by this new technology is fantastic, because individuals can't be stopped making the movies that they want to make and put them on YouTube. This platform is unbelievable. Consider what it is: you make a movie of any length, put it on YouTube, and millions of people have access to it. Yes – there has to be some marketing - but the fact is, it's there and at no cost to the filmmaker. It really is a new paradigm and it's evolving. Richard Linklater's Boyhood, which he made over 12 years, so you see the actor grow up – which is an interesting theme - that's an example of innovation and something interesting that the conventional model of filmmaking would never have allowed you to do and I think there is going be more of that.

TBOF: What is also interesting is that he's got publicity not only by word of mouth but by journalists in the same way Jaws was marketed: editorial coverage on a film that is new and exciting, giving the film great press exposure and edge.

PM: Absolutely. This is where, crucially, the press comes in, especially the non-show business press. The non-show biz press recommending a film like Boyhood can really kick it up a notch. The showbiz press is usually soft. But when you get a movie that the non-show biz press writes about, the public notices. Then you've really got a shot, the independents can do that with innovative films covering non-formulaic subjects.

TBOF: Reverting to this question of an intelligent audience, do you think that's specifically age-driven, or not? Is the desire for intelligent movies geared just to the mature audience?

PM: There are really intelligent young people and really dumb old people; I don't think you can generalize. As a filmmaker and individual who's seen a lot of movies, I think its human nature; films have more effect on you when you are younger. The films that I saw when I was 15, like Dr. Strangelove, How The West Was Won, or French New Wave were phenomenal. I don't know how that translates into the commercial world. It may be a statistical fact that movies affect young people more. The studios do focus on young people as a big audience, and it may be they enjoy films more, and go back to the same films many times. However, statistically, the Baby Boomers are now getting into their 60's and there's millions of them. I don't think they are serviced sufficiently in terms of films available, and have lost interest.

TBOF: Quartet, which Dustin Hoffman directed, was great film. It did okay, but I found in the UK the marketing did not seem to be behind the film to get to that audience.

PM: I also think there is the whole other issue of cultural differences. It's a fact that American action films are popular everywhere because there is a certain segment of the population in every country that like that, but then you get to France, where home grown films are fantastically successful in France and nowhere else, the same with Italy, and the same with Japan. That's very interesting, so if the film is culturally precise, and specific to a country, you can have a big success. This is another way the independents can go. With the production don't try and please everybody, just your neighbor. Extrapolate that and if you can please your neighborhood, you may sell a lot of tickets elsewhere. To be homogenous and try to please everyone is deadly for an indie, and there is a tendency to do that, because you're trying make global entertainment, but on the budgets defined by the circumstances in the independent world, if you try to go 'mass audience,' you crater.
 
Lord Steinway - Phillipe Mora - Eric Clapton
 
TBOF: In talking to a few people - does that then feel in a way that we have gone full circle?

PM: Yes, I do. Like fashion, I think that the film process does go around and around, and I think we are have gone full circle. When they started making movies, 1905, 1910, they were improvising, they were going for good stories, then they'd go for famous stories. The first feature film ever made was an Australian film, The Kelly Gang, in 1905. That was a very local story. Kelly was famous in Australia, then through the films The Kelly Gang became famous worldwide. There are no rules, but I think that very specific subject matters and culturally specific can be very successful. Then you have independents who are simply incandescent filmmakers and commercially successful – for example, Fellini was a genius, and it's completely his own vision.

TBOF: I think because of the digital filmmaking process, exciting things are happening in productions and new geniuses such as a Fellini will emerge. Before I get on talking about your films specifically, what do you feel about the video on demand arena and that whole space in terms of distribution?

PM: I think it's fantastic except for one thing – it's basically impossible to police. You rely ultimately on ethical business practices - which may be a contradiction in terms. How do you know what's happening? How do you really know what you're being told is correct? On the other hand, if you look at the pirate sites, they show you how many rip-offs are happening in real time when you go to the site. They're proud of it. They're actually more accurate than most studios - except they are stealing!

TBOF: So why can't the piracy problem be solved?

PM: The main reason is that people are making a lot of money out of it. These search engine companies are very powerful and make a lot of money with the ads. It's such a big enterprise. Protecting intellectual content and intellectual property has become a nightmare. It's interesting, take Apple: I believe when Steve Jobs got heavily involved with Pixar, and Disney, he put his head to the problem of piracy - and fostered iTunes - so when Jobs had intellectual content himself to protect, things started getting better. He didn't want to be ripped off himself and could see the damage being done. And hello, iTunes started doing pretty well. I think it eventually will work out, when more of these companies get involved in content creation.

TBOF: Agreed. I think these companies will all galvanize their resources and give more consideration of the consequences because now it's their money that's being pocketed by the pirates.

PM: Exactly. They are going to discover they've been picking their own pocket - a kind of dumb economic masturbation. So I too think it'll pan out and I'm an optimist on that.

TBOF: You are distributing some of your films though Amazon. Are you getting good response from your films on that platform?
 
Dennis Hopper & Phillipe Mora on Set Mad Dog 1974
 
PM: Yes, I am. It has many ramifications. They are also good in the sense that it's the filmmaker and Amazon with no gatekeepers and intermediaries intercepting funds. That's the way I have decided to make my films now for a test period; the budgets are moderate to low, so there's no unsavory pressure (usually paranoiac) of the distributor or investors breathing down one's neck. I've directed and produced films the other way, and it can be really unpleasant if they are inexperienced. You often have to start compromising the product, and end up with a product you are not happy with. Startlingly, contrary to everything you read, I have found over forty years that generally creative types are interested in making money, and the studios and investors are more dictated by ego. Directors, for example, by virtue of a job requiring even more skills than an architect, are generally the most practical people you will ever encounter.

TBOF: So what keeps you going in terms of making the films that you are making, some of which have become cult movies and some used in universities? What keeps you going in this arduous and crazy business?

PM: That's a very personal question, so I'll answer it very personally. What drives me? I am really very interested in all aspects of life - history, the future, sex, politics, food, art. I'm an artist myself…and a chef! I have many passionate interests. With the technology available, I can make a film about something that particularly interests me, which I could never have considered making 10 or 15 years ago. It's sometimes journalistic. The recent underlying theme in all of them is actually film itself; that is a philosophical, social and scientific question. Pitch that to some studio executives and they go cross-eyed, gag and call security. What is a film? For example, take the term 'documentary.' Does non-fiction really exist? I personally take great pleasure in examining that: what are we doing, what is the medium, what's it all about? I dislike the word 'mockumentary' because in a sense every documentary is a mockumentary. Everything in a sense is faked, every angle and nuance selected. Documentaries are thought to be objective. They never have been, since Flaherty built a bigger igloo in 1922 so that he could fit in his Nanook of the North camera crew. On the dark side, Riefenstahl took it fatefully further with artful propaganda. But I'm finding that a lot of other people are interested in the things I'm interested in. So it's hard to answer that question of what drives me, because, you know, a good breakfast helps. John Lennon said the Beatles started as a way to meet girls. When I was 15, early on, making films was the same.

TBOF: In spite of the fact that there is a demise of the independents, let's put it another way: there's a growth of independent filmmakers, those, whichever strata they're on, that put out their films on YouTube. From the point of view of the business, there is a demise of the independent sales agent. What are your views on that? Buyers are spending less time at markets, the markets are shorter. Do you think there's a still a role for the independent sales agency?

PM: I absolutely do, but I think they're going to have to put more of their energy into not just sales, but into marketing, which is the spine of sales. The sales agents need to morph into individuals who understand how to market a picture with the new technology online. If they do, they're going to be tremendously successful, because the old school of taking your distributor from Sweden out to lunch at Cannes is redundant because of the internet. (The food is good, though.) So what do we need as filmmakers? We need salespeople who can understand and say: we can get you video on demand, and the other myriad platforms. The sales agents need to understand the platforms, because digital distribution has evolved so fast – over the last decade. When I look at The Business of Film, I remember you telling me, "Oh, we're going to go paperless," and I thought, geez, that's quite pioneering - and the whole publishing sector evolved really fast, and now everyone's publishing online. I think the sales agents are going to have to become super-educated, if they're not already, about the internet marketing and the social media. But is there a role for them? Essential. Because there's got to be that critical interface between the producer and the market, and the producer and the distributor and the market. Well, that's the sales agent, or producer's rep.

TBOF: It may be that it's a few years off, but do you think that with this technology there will be the ability for the filmmaker to go directly to his consumer?
 
Christopher Walken & Phillipe Mora last day of shoot on Communication
 
PM: There may be some, but generally I don't think so, because that's not his or her job. The job is to make the film. There are some geniuses who can market their own films, but that takes a lot of experience. Alfred Hitchcock is an amazing example of that: he was starring in his own brilliant trailers in the 60's. He was marketing his own films. But there are very few Alfred Hitchcocks. Not all producers and directors are what you'd call showmen.

TBOF: Or want to sell their movies.

PM: They might have to, eventually. So I think the sales agent is terribly important, like an agent is for an actor. I'd emphasize the agent part of this, rather than the sales. It's just a different form of agenting, and you can have inspired agents. Abe Lastfogel, who founded William Morris, was a genius agent. When he signed John Wayne, Wayne asked him: "Are you Jewish?" Lastfogel replied: "Not necessarily."

TBOF: It goes back to the strata of filmmaking, because at a point, the films that you are currently producing at the level of the budgets that you can make them, you can go to Amazon, and you're not using a sales agent for any of these films. But once you ante up the budgets, it's about those special attributes of a good sales agent.

PM: Let me take a step back. I work with a sales agent on a few of these films now. Gary Needle, who has a sales company for example, he was able to place Swastika, which was a complex thing to do; it was a documentary made in 1973 and he placed it with Kino Lorber three years ago - but that was because of his connections, his understanding of the film. You need an agent who understands the film and can explain what the market is going to be for the film. That's why I think the sales agents may be even more important for indies if the films are not formulaic. If it's a formulaic film, it's easy to sell, because it's horror, it's sex, a clear genre. The more talented sales agents have to explain to the buyer what the film is. It's like an art dealer has to explain what the painting is to a museum before they buy it. You need the sophisticated sales agent as an interface, they must be able change their pitch to both the filmmakers and the buyers to seek a happy marriage. I think the personal connection thing is hard to define but it's very important.

ET: I agree. Relationships are still crucial. Final thoughts.

PM: Where we are in some ways reminds me of a true story I have always loved about Jack Warner. In the early 50's there was a 3D craze, and the producers of House of Wax went to Warner and they explained to him that they wanted to shoot it in 3D; new technology, right? They explained this stereoscopic cinematography, and he finally said: "Look, you know, I don't understand this new technology, but you're saying that you need glasses to see it through two eyes. I don't understand what you're talking about, but I'll greenlight the picture if you get a director with one eye, because at least I'll know that at the end of it, I'll have a damn film." This is an absolutely true story. How many one-eyed directors were there in town that were any good? The producers found one very good director, Andre de Toth. They signed him and he directed it, and it was good and it worked, and Warner was happy because at least the story was there. I met Andre de Toth years later at the DGA and I said, "Look, I hope you don't mind me asking.." He said, "Oh, let me just stop you there, please." He continued: "Let me just tell you, it was the worst experience of my life, because every time I set up a shot, the crew were laughing and snickering because they knew I was looking at it with one eye, and it was a 3D movie." And he said it was just so humiliating but anyway, he got through it. This fits in now: we have the new technology and those heads of the studios saying the equivalent of: "You know what, I don't get the new technology but give me a story. And get me a director who doesn't talk digital so I know that this technology is not going to screw up the film." In spite of everything, the story still trumps all.

 
 



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