Little House in the Big Woods: Flyway Film Festival Keynote Speech

by Emily Best Thursday, Oct 24, 2013

Editors Note: Seed&Spark CEO and Founder Emily Best had the honor of giving the Keynote Speech at the 6th Annual Flyway Film Festival Gala on Thursday October 17th in Pepin, WI. 

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In preparing for the honor of addressing you tonight, I did some research into Pepin Wisconsin and though I did try not to, I got lost in the history of – to no one’s surprise – Laura Ingalls Wilder and her most famous book, which looms large in the minds of two little girls in my house thousands of miles from here.

So I thought I could perhaps learn about Wilder’s actual life in Wisconsin, by perusing the Wikipedia references in the article about her, but my attention was captured by the article’s story synopsis of Little House in the Big Woods. It reads:

"That summer and fall, the Ingalls again plant a garden and fields, and store food for the winter. Laura’s Pa trades labor with other farmers so that his own crops will be harvested faster when it is time. Not all work was farming. Hunting and gathering were important parts of providing for the family as well. When Pa went into the woods to hunt, he usually came home with a deer then smoked the meat for the coming winter. One day he noticed a bee tree and returned from hunting early to get the wash tub and milk pail to collect the honey. When Pa returned in the winter evenings, Laura and Mary always begged him to play his fiddle; he was too tired from farm work to play during the summertime.[11] In the winter, they enjoyed the comforts of their home and danced to Pa’s fiddle playing."

Pa was a hunter-farmer-cook-canner-beekeeper-trader-father-fiddler. He was the original hyphenate.  (And that would make just about the most hipster twitter profile bio ever.)

It got me thinking about filmmaking in a very particular way: independent filmmakers have all become incredible hyphenates: writer-director-actor-producer-shooter-marketer-social media maven-bartender.

It’s not that they are generalists; rather, they must develop broad and deep skill sets just to survive. Pa couldn’t afford to be lousy at any one season’s type of work or there’d be no food.

But filmmakers, of course, are not driven by the need to survive in the same way. (although, to be fair, many of them are starving to do their work.) And sure, many of them could bartend for a living, or produce commercials; or they could specialize, and become the most expert at one thing and just focus on that. But filmmakers are driven by something deeper, that in the face of the most impossible uphill battle, they will assemble their gear, call their friends, and climb.

Why?

I don’t know. I don’t know why after making my first feature film all I could think about was making the next one.  But I have a suspicion it was related to the night we premiered the film at the Maine International Film Festival. Like the Water, my first feature as an actor-producer-food stylist- post production supervisor and now, distributor, is a movie about a woman in her mid twenties who loses her best friend and is forced through a sort of second coming of age to figure out who she really is. She is supported on her journey by old, close friends. It was made by a group of close women friends (all hyphenates) because we were tired of the way women were portrayed on screen. We wanted to see what would happen if the female lead in a film were not an old-souled 16 year old with a big vocabulary or a hapless 35 year old for whom the only solution to life’s problems is a man.

What happened first is that no investor really wanted to fund that film.

So, after more 20 hour days and sleepless nights than I care to count, after pitching more investors than I care to admit, after inventing a new crowdfunding technique when we couldn’t get enough yeses from those investors, after losing hair over losing a gaffer two days before going into production, after fighting tooth and nail for one small story about one small group of women to come in to the world. Why on earth would I want to do it again?

Well, when we opened the film in Maine, a woman in the third row on the right wept during the Q&A as she told us how much of her own experience of losing her sister was reflected in our film. Another man said he had just lost his best friend, and he was gratified to see his own complex, ugly journey reflected on the screen.

We did not know these were the stories we were telling.

I think all filmmakers have moments of profound self-doubt – is all this stress and strain worth it? It’s just a movie after all. Am I doing something that really matters to people? Is this just a totally self-serving story? Will this be called a vanity project? These are important questions to ask.

But we sometimes forget what the audience brings to the film: 50% of the imagination and experience to make a story really come alive. In a dark room full of strangers, there are as many different films being played as there are people watching. In such a labor-intensive process, filmmakers can forget they’re only doing half the work.

Now, I’m not saying that connecting to an audience ought to be the singular motive for making a film. (Some of us are just masochists.)  It wasn’t the motive when we made Like the Water until after the fact. But connecting to an audience is the only way to ultimately make money on a film – now more than ever before. And that matters. Films matter to people. Filmmakers do important work to expand empathy, to shine a light into our darkest corners. And they shouldn’t be the last in line to get paid when audiences spend their money to watch what they’ve made.

Audiences are doing work, too: they are living their lives every day, struggling their struggles, working to make the money they then choose to spend on a couple hours of moving pictures. And no matter the idea behind or intentions brought to the creation of a project, the film – or any art – won’t actually mean anything on its own.  “Art” is a social label, a negotiation between the artist, the object (or performance) and the viewer. And yet the viewer is often left out of the negotiations entirely.

That might be why my filmmaking collaborators and I felt so left out of the films we had been seeing on the big screen: as audiences, we’re addressed by the film business as “markets” or “eyeballs” without much thought as to whom those eyeballs are attached.

Connecting to audiences used to mean having enough money in the budget to run a massive marketing campaign. And that is still a highly effective way to get people to see your movie. But that is not an effective way to get them to connect with it. That you can only aspire to create in the filmmaking process.

Which is why this new era of crowdfunding and audience building is so exciting. Filmmakers are pulling the curtain back on their process and inviting audiences to bring their imagination and life experience to films long before they’re finished.

It’s not unlike Little House in the Big Woods, which pulled the curtain back on homesteading. We continue to be fascinated by the incredibly hard work and tireless dedication it took to live a life like that.

The breadth of skills it takes to make a film now requires a year-round approach to any project. You must know how to raise money, to write, direct, shoot, act, market, find audiences, social your media – to wrangle talent, crew up, manage a set, to keep up in the impossibly fast changing landscape of digital technology, to learn a new post production work flow every 15 minutes, all for the harvest: to work the festival circuit and hopefully find a distributor.  If and when you do, you might be surprised to find you still have to make your living elsewhere.  That after sales agents, distributors, P&A spends, theatrical booking fees and so on, there are rarely even pennies on the dollar left for creators.

Now, consumers have already addressed this disparity when it comes to the kind of food Laura’s Pa would have made. We pay a little extra (sometimes a lot extra) for artisanal products made locally. We go out of our way to drink fair trade coffee because we’ve decided that the people who produce something so essential to us should make a living wage. And who really knows if it actually tastes better, or if we just feel better about drinking it.

Through crowdfunding and building a direct connection with filmmakers, audiences learn about the real costs of filmmaking, which in turn helps them understand the importance of supporting their filmmaking communities directly.  

And filmmakers, don’t tell me everyone wants your stuff for free: Audiences are used to paying for content: they pay hundreds of dollars a month in cable and internet bills, subscriptions to Netflix Hulu IndieFlix and soon hopefully Seed&Spark, $12-18 for movie tickets.  Until now, audiences haven’t really had a chance to learn how few of those dollars they spend go to the creators – the only people on whom the entire system actually relies aside from the audiences themselves. Filmmakers now have an additional job: to show audiences why they deserve support, why they deserve to make a living wage.

At Seed&Spark, we are working towards a world in which audiences consider where they spend money on what they watch. Where filmmakers consider their audiences not just for each film but for their entire careers, where they understand that without audiences, what they’re doing can’t be art anyway. We want to create an open ecosystem in which these two groups become a film community and more, different kinds of stories reach their audiences.

This world in which filmmakers and audiences come together to make and watch the stuff that really matters to them is not something Seed&Spark could contrive or create. It would have to be brought about by a movement that is actually starting now, here, in this room and in communities online and off all over the world. A fair trade filmmaking movement.

Remember when INCONVENIENT TRUTH ended and everyone was up in arms because the only thing they could only remember as a takeaway was to change some lightbulbs? I hope to give you a few more action items than that tonight.

I want to speak first to the filmmakers:

You are here to connect in person to the audiences who will support you not just this weekend, but throughout your careers. Invite them in, show them what you are offering – your unique voice, your stories, your optic on the world. Share your process, be transparent, and trust that the right audiences will embolden you to take greater risks.

And now to the audiences:

Just by sitting in this room you are participating in the movement already: you have made a lot of choices to arrive here in this artists community on the edge of Lake Pepin. It is important to support local festivals, and people like Rick and Lu and Irene and many more here I haven’t met yet who work so hard to connect you to films and filmmakers you might not otherwise know you’ll love.

And the movement is there online everyday as well, to get as involved as you want: When you provide support to projects that are crowdfunding, whether financial, in-kind... emotional!, you are voting with your dollars, with your shares and with your valuable time for those stories to get made, and for those creators to work on them.  Every day you can be a patron of the arts at a support level that makes sense for you, and have a hand in making the movies you want to see.

When you decide what you watch and where you watch it – it’s the equivalent of deciding who you want to support and how you want to support them.  If you can watch an independent film in the theater, you’re sending a powerful message to the studios about what the “market” wants and at what scale. You could probably also watch that film at your local independent theater and support a local business while you’re at it. When you choose to watch online, you could find out if a film is available on a direct to audience platform like Vimeo, VHX or Seed&Spark, and know that more of your money is going directly to the creators.  The choice is yours to empower the creators who are making stuff that matters to you. And to empower those who introduce you to the creators of that stuff. (I’m looking at you Flyway.)

Every day it seems someone pushes a media panic button and a new story emerges about how “Independent film is dying!” And somehow representative of the pathological optimism that drives independent filmmaking, every day a new indiewire headline lauds yet another “model” used by a single filmmaker that will “save all indie film.”

Certainly the exit of James Schamus from Focus Features has made a lot of people think, as former Flyway Keynote Ted Hope put it, that the “studios don’t see much business in art.” But we can make it our business. Because art needs only these three things: the creator, the art object, and the audience. (And a few curators to lead you to stuff you didn’t know you would love.) It’s not a fairer “model” that will change the minds of studios execs, but a fair trade movement.

So I want to return to homesteading for a moment: a life defined by self-sufficiency, which is one most filmmakers only dream about. There was something else in the story synopsis of Little House that stood out: “Pa trades labor with other farmers so that his own crops will be harvested faster when it is time.” In order to achieve self-sufficiency, homesteading also required tremendous cooperation and fair trade.

So here is the trade I propose:

Filmmakers, invite your audience on the journey with you. Share with them, as Wisconsin artist David Culver does on his website your “process and considerations, your inspirations and influences,” beginning to end.

Audiences, empower the filmmakers to make stuff that matters to you, that influences you. Your participation may become their inspiration. Seek each other out, shake hands.

Enjoy your weekend.

Thank you.

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About the author

by Emily Best
Thursday, Oct 24, 2013

Emily Best is the Founder and CEO of Seed&Spark. She loves storytelling, storytellers, and stories. She was lucky enough to make a movie with some of her closest friends, a project called "Like the Water" that inspired this whole crazy idea.

Comments(2)

Beautiful. Powerful. Yes!

Barbara Ann O'Leary 12 months ago

And it was an incredible presentation! Thank you again Emily Best!

Cathy Svacina 12 months ago