The Big Lebowski, at Sundance, on how filmmakers can abide in this economy
beloved chronically laid-back character "The Dude" in The Big Lebowski, assures aspiring Coen Brothers that even in a plummeting economy independent filmmakers can secure funding.
I caught up with Dowd by phone while he was just settling into Park City, Utah for the 25th annual Sundance Film Festival, which started last night. A film producer, Dowd's been going to Sundance since the beginning and helped festival founder Robert Redford open the Sundance Institute, an organization that helps good filmmakers become great by work-shopping their scripts with esteemed filmmakers and Oscar winners like Christopher McQuarrie who wrote The Usual Suspects and Valkyrie.
Dowd advises, if you want to win over actors, agents, producers, and investors in this economy, you have to be serving up something inspirational."It's a great, great time for filmmakers with vision, those that give us some insight of what the future can be...Those films tend to be very successful. It's the films that truly touch people emotionally and inspire," he says.
Basically, if you want to improve your chances of getting your movie made, give it that Barack Obama effect. "A community organizer takes on the biggest problems. Obama put in the time to understand the complexity of problems and bringing people together. Hillary lost the election because she was going top down not bottom up. Filmmakers can organize too but they have to have a vision," he says.
Inspiration sells. Think Slumdog Millionaire, a smash-hit movie about an Indian Oliver Twist who wins big on a national Indian game show to reach the girl he loves. It was produced for $15 million and already more than doubled that at the box office.
Too many independent filmmakers churn out stereotypically self-indulgent films with scripts that could have been ripped out of a diary. Says Dowd: "My morning was more complex than these scripts! There's ten thousand films sitting out there without distribution and most of them aren't going to get it and probably 9,500 of them don't deserve it. You better have something that has compelling word of mouth, critical support, and that starts with the writing."
He and Redford set out to start the Sundance Institute because too many filmmakers were rushing to get their scripts made before they were ready. A tight script before you start saves you money on re-shoots. "What sport doesn't have a pre-season, what play doesn't have rehearsals or has an out of town run? Only filmmakers seem to think they can do 3, 4 drafts of a script and then shoot it. I think that's a crime." He recommends audience screenings while your film is still in progress so you can get feedback on what people are responding to and what they aren't.
Dowd gushes over Casablanca as the ultimate example of a movie with complexity. The Oscar-Award winning Coen Brothers, who wrote Fargo and No Country for Old Men, have a system for infusing their movies with complexity: a sibling rivalry over who can make a scene more impossible for the character to get out of, says Dowd. He should know; he met Joel and Ethan Coen when they were young filmmakers in their first year at the Sundance Film Festival. They were so smitten with the larger-than-life Dowd that they put his cinematic character into a world of trouble.
Dowd is also a big proponent of online video, as a less expensive way to get your story across. He advocates people tackling any problem out there and dreaming up possible solutions through short videos. "You don't have to do Sicko like Michael Moore. You can do six minutes of that and put it on YouTube."
Still, YouTube videos can be expensive to produce, unless you just want to film your cat watching television. So in order to approach that rich aunt or former mentor, make sure you understand one thing about film investors, at least the ones Dowd has worked with at Sony Pictures Classic and Fox Searchlight: "They commit to films they love, not films they think will make money."
Even agents and Hollywood producers have heartstrings, and to win them over, Dowd advises calling their offices late in the day, around 7pm, and grab their assistants on the phone. Win these people over with your tale to try to land a meeting. "Make films that are so meaningful that it's gong to be hard for someone to say no to. People that have a little extra cash will respond to that," says Dowd.
Then he adds, referencing a popular line from the movie he inspired, "The Big Lebowski was wrong. Our revolution is not over. Our revolution is happening right now."