Park City, UT- During the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, the Co-President of Film Independent, Josh Welsh, took time out of his busy schedule to meet with Film Festival Today and discuss many topics including the upcoming Spirit Awards. Here is what Josh had to say:
Film Festival Today: For our audience members who don’t know, you (Josh Welsh) are the lead singer in a band called Meatyard and enjoy making music during your spare time. When is Meatyard going to release a new album?
Josh Welsh: (laughs) I don’t know. I love it. Sometime we’ll do another one. I don’t have a recording date set but I’m in the process of writing new songs. I love doing it and a lot of the musicians I’ve played with, I met through work. They’re mostly filmmakers who like to make music on the side.
FFT: What is Film Independent?
JW: Film Independent is a non-profit organization based in Los Angeles. We’re an open access membership organization. Anyone can join. Our membership is several thousand strong, mainly in Southern California but we’ve had people join from all over the country and internationally as well. It’s a great way to stay connected in the independent film community and there are membership benefits as well. Our membership is made up of working filmmakers, aspiring filmmakers, and also film lovers. Our mission is to help film makers get their films made. We’re there to support filmmakers and to nurture them. The other part of it is to get their films out into the world. The bar to getting your film made has come down a great deal with new technologies. The real challenge for a filmmaker today is getting people to see their films. With the changes in distribution, I think it’s an exciting time but it’s also very challenging for film makers, but that’s where Film Independent comes in to try and get a film to reach a broad audience.
FFT: What type of stuff do you do to reach out to an audience?
JW: On promoting an independent film, there are three or four things I would do. First thing is, we produce the Los Angeles Film Festival. It takes place every year in L.A. This year it’s June 13th– 23rd. We screen many great films including independent films, some big studio films, some documentaries, and music videos. Our programing team is here now looking at films we could possibly screen. So that’s a fantastic program in the festival world for getting everything out to an audience. Last year, we took over the cinema program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That is almost like doing a year round festival in Los Angeles. Every week, we screen something at LACMA. We also, give out a cash grant at the Spirit Awards called the Jameson Find Your Audience Award. It’s a $50,000 grant that goes to a filmmaker who made a film in the last year but it just hasn’t quite found its audience yet. This year we gave it to a filmmaker Laura Colella who made a fantastic narrative called, “Breakfast with Curtis.” Along with the grant, we are giving her an ongoing guidance and mentorship. Another program we have, is an artist development program where we work with filmmakers in filmmaker labs. In the labs we take films makers that have features in the process of setting it up or getting it made. We have a screen writing lab, directing, and producing. We have ten films that are graduates of those programs at Sundance this year.
FFT: What are you planning on doing in Park City besides seeing films?
JW: This is such a great celebration in independent cinema and it’s so invigorating for me, but every year we throw a party to celebrate with the filmmakers that we’ve worked with that have films in the festival. We’re so proud to see the graduates from our programs here and it’s really great for them to premiere their films to audience for the first time so we’re happy to celebrate it. I can mention a couple of the titles. One is a film called “C.O.G.” that premiered last night and it’s based on a book by David Sedaris. That’s one of our films that came out of our film-financing program. Another film we’ve worked with is “The Spectacular Now.” It’s a beautiful film. The two lead performances are so good. It’s so beautifully acted and written. The writers of it wrote “500 Days of Summer.”
FFT: Are there any other films involved with Film Independent that are at Sundance right now?
JW: Another one is a film called “May in the Summer” by Cherien Dabis. Cherien was in our directing lab back in 2005 where she made her first feature. She actually acts in the movie as well and she’s an incredible actress. Sometimes you get a little nervous when a writer/director decides to be in their film but with her, she totally inhabits the character and she’s great on screen. She didn’t go through our programs with this feature but we did give her a grant. The cool thing at Sundance this year is that half the films are made by women directors. At Film Independent, one of the keys to our mission is celebrating diversity of voices because we really try to get behind filmmakers of all different parts of the country, really including women filmmakers. It’s really gratifying to see so many women here.
FFT: That’s probably why so many of your films get into Sundance because Sundance celebrates that same type of diversity as well.
JW: Yes, exactly. It’s a very good fit.
FFT: I’m wondering, are there any well-known films that premiered at previous Sundance Film Festivals that Film Independent was involved with?
JW: Yeah, there’s “Frozen River.” “Frozen River” went through our fast track financing market a couple of years ago. “Ballast” is a film we worked with that won the director award at Sundance as well as cinematography. We also have filmmakers that come here with shorts and then go on to do features. In fact, that’s what Cherien did.
FFT: You mentioned a little bit about the Spirit Awards. Is there anything else you’d like to add on it, such as the films that are nominated for it this February?
JW: Sure. So the Spirit Awards are the celebration of the best of American Cinema over the past 12 months. This year, the awards take place on February 23rd and it’s broadcasted on IFC. We’re in our 20th year of the show and it’s a party. It’s a celebration of great filmmaking. 2012, in my opinion, was a really strong year for independent film. We’re very excited about the nominations. So the big nominees this year are “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” That did extremely well with nominations, but we also have Matthew McConaughey for two nominations. One for “Magic Mike” the other for “Killer Joe.”
FFT: Good! I was so mad he was snubbed by The Academy this year, so it’s good that someone’s appreciating his work.
JW: This year was the year of McConaughey. There’s another film that was at Sundance last year called “Keep the Lights On” that got several nominations as well. “Moonrise Kingdom” got nominated for the script. At the Spirit Awards, we focus on lower budget films. There’s not a budget cap but we generally look at things under $20 million. It’s just a totally fun show. We hold the awards under a huge tent on the beach in Santa Monica. It’s elegant but people just kick back and have fun. Plus you see a lot of the same people there that you’ll see at the Oscars. I think there’s an overlap of about eight films that were nominated by the Oscars as well as by us. To me, that just shows the strength of independent film. Honestly, that is the heart of American cinema right now. It’s where the really compelling and original voices are. Another film I should mention is “Silver Linings Playbook.” That got many nominations. At the Spirit Awards, we have specific awards for very low budget films. The nominees for these awards have all made films for under $500,000.
FFT: Are there any films that you’ve seen at this year’s Sundance that you think could be a contender for next year’s Spirit Awards?
JW: I absolutely do. I’ve seen a lot of films here that I’ve been very impressed with. Really, “The Spectacular Now” just kind of took my breath away when I saw it. There’s a documentary that I saw that was so fantastic, “20 Feet from Stardom.” It’s an incredibly inspirational film about back-up singers. I have not seen “Fruitvale” but I’ve heard incredible things about it. That’s one of the fun things about Sundance. It’s fun and frustrating at the same time to come and you hear all the buzz about something that people are liking and responding to but I only get to see a fraction of those films.
FFT: What else is on your agenda for 2013?
JW: We have a full slate of programs for our filmmaker labs. The big thing on our agenda is the 2013 L.A. Film Festival. We are out in full force watching films and putting the program together. The director of the festival is Stephanie Allain. This is her second year running the festival. She came up as a producer and now she’s in running the festival and she just brings tons of fresh energy to expand and grow the festival.
FFT: So you have many grant programs that you give to independent filmmakers. What sort of things do you look for in a filmmaker before you decide to give them a grant?
JW: Great question. Each year we give out between $200 and $300 thousand dollars of cash grants to filmmakers and each one has a little bit different of criteria but as a general note, we tell filmmakers to have their script in the best possible shape. Sometimes film makers send in a rough draft where it’s not where they want it to be but they’re trying to meet the deadline so they send out work that’s not really ready to share. Get your scripts as absolutely strong as you can before you share it because it’s hard to get people to read it a second time. The other thing is, the more prepared the film maker can be, the more comfortable we are giving them a cash grant because at the end of the day, we are there to support them, but the film maker needs to thing entrepreneurially and convince us that they know what they’re doing and they’re going to put the money towards good use. There’s been many times where we get a strong script and we thing it’s great, but then you read the filmmaker’s plan and it’s just not thought out. That’s really frustrating because we want to get behind that script but they are not ready and we know they won’t succeed with their current plan so they don’t get the grant.
FFT: Would you ever want to buy a script and give it to a more prepared filmmaker?
JW: Well we’re not a production company. We’re a non-profit so we would never buy a script, but one thing we do like to do is connect people. We have about 4,000 members and about 80 film makers going through our programs so that is an enormous opportunity for film makers to meet and cross pollinate. It’s a community that supports each other because making films is hard but it’s also a community of fine collaborators and most frequently, it’s connecting a writer or director with a producer. I love doing that. It’s like dating. If a director comes to me and says, “I’m ready to go and ready to meet a producer,” I will introduce them to like ten different producers and it’s a matter of what’s a good fit. Ultimately, they need to date and see if it’s a good fit. That’s a key part of what we do.
FFT: You just mentioned that you connect many filmmakers with agents and producers, how did Film Independent build this vast amount of resources?
JW: Well, we’ve been around since 1981 and we have a good reputation in the industry. What agents and producers are looking for, there’s so much material out in the world and often at times, what they appreciate are filters. Whether it’s us or Sundance or any other organization, having someone that can filter through all this material and tell the Industry what is great, is really appreciated. That’s one of our functions. Our financing market is so small and curated, that we do not have a problem with getting people from the Industry to come out and meet our filmmakers. Over the course of our fast track, a filmmaker will leave with about 60 executives or agents and those execs are eager to meet these filmmakers when they hear about these projects. They know it’s a very small group and we’re not going to waste their time. They know that our projects our ready to go and I think that’s how we’ve established that broad amount of resources.
FFT: I saw you were trying to build a partnership with Fox Studios. How’s that been going?
JW: It’s great. Fantastic. We’re in the second year of that. It’s a really exciting, new direction for us. Two years ago, we created that partnership with Fox to create a program called “Fox Writers Intensive.” That program is a four-month screen writing intensive lab where we take ten writers; Film Independent oversees the selection of writers and curriculum design and basically writers come into that and they’re working on features as well as television. Over this four-month program, they work on developing their scripts and have one on ones with many Fox execs. Fox is in the same position as us. They want to meet new talent. The other thing that’s unique about this program is that it’s not for completely inexperienced writers. To be in this program, you have to have one feature script that’s been produced, or have worked in television, or have some other creative accomplishment such as written a novel or play. The writers that come in have serious talent but they’re at a point in their career where this type of program is a benefit. The other thing that comes out of that is Fox buys one screenplay out of that program and their goal is to staff the writers that come out of that. It’s a great partnership.
FFT: Good, I’m glad to hear that. So besides having the most sound script possible and being prepared, is there any other advice you’d like to give to struggling filmmakers out there?
JW: Give us a call. Any struggling filmmaker, get to know the organizations out there that can help you. I work at Film Independent so I say call us, but there are other organizations out there as well. With film making, like I said, you have to be entrepreneurial. No one is going to do it for you. I sometimes meet young filmmakers who focus all their energy on getting an agent or manager. That can be helpful, I’m not denying that. But ultimately, the filmmaker really has to get stuff made and sometimes they aren’t focused on that. So find good collaborators, friends who can help you, find organizations like Film Independent to be there and have your back. Also, be persistent as hell.
FFT: What type of ways can people contact Film Independent or yourself?
JW: Go to our website, www.filmindependent.org. Our website gives a good array of programs that we have and all of our email addresses are on there. So feel free to contact me directly or one of our other staff members. We’re really an open access organization. We want people to come to us. Join! It’s $95 for a one-year membership. We want you to come in and use our resources as much as possible. We have casting rooms, production facilities, and many people who can help filmmakers. So the more a member wants to utilize us, quite honestly that’s what makes us happy. There’s no such thing as calling us too often. We find the people who call us the most, are the people who get their films made. And once you get your film made, we want you to come back and be a mentor for other filmmakers. It’s a continuing cycle.
FFT: Josh, thank you so much. It was a pleasure meeting you.
JW: Of course. Thank you!