October 15, 2014
A Transcript: James Kaelan and the Origins of Bright Ideas at FNC
On October 14th, Bright Ideas Editor-in-Chief delivered an address at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema de Montreal on the origins of Bright Ideas Magazine and what he hopes for the future of film. We share it here!
In the late spring of 2012, I was working as the Managing Editor of one of the main American film trade publications—a magazine called MovieMaker. Dedicated to independent film, MovieMaker is in essence an instructional quarterly journal, aimed at emerging filmmakers, full of helpful tips from established directors and technicians. In other words, it’s very similar to Filmmaker Magazine, another instructional quarterly journal dedicated to independent film. And Videomaker. And ICG. And so on. In fact, if you were to compare, say, the issues of MovieMaker and Filmmaker on newsstands in March, 2013, you would find that, even though we weren’t colluding on content, we featured, by and large, the same talent. We both interviewed Harmony Korine about Spring Breakers, Rodney Ascher about Room 237, and Richard Linklater about Before Midnight. And we both published the same film stills from the same electronic press kits furnished by the same distributors.
After about 9 months at MovieMaker, after more or less successfully wrapping my mind around the madness that was producing a magazine with a skeleton staff and very little budget to pay contributors, I found myself starting to examine the efficacy of the journalism I was assigning. Back in 2012 and 2013, I knew David Fincher didn’t need my help promoting Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But did Paul Thomas Anderson need me to promote The Master? Or Derek Cianfrance The Place Beyond the Pines—which I put on the cover of the Spring 2013 issue of MovieMaker? If my loyalty was to my readers, was I supposed to give them access to the experts? Or was I supposed to expose them to new work they might not otherwise be aware of? And who were my readers? Were they young, impressionable filmmakers straight out of college? Or did they graduate from film school in 1993? The truth is, despite the reader surveys we sent out, and the subscribers I ran into at festivals, I didn’t really know.
But because of my position at MovieMaker I’d started to meet a lot of interesting people in the independent film space who were also starting to question the preconceived notions about the film industry they’d inherited. And one of those people challenging the status quo was a woman named Emily Best.
In November 2012, I received an email from my mother saying that she’d met a woman at a leadership summit whose daughter was launching a “film website.” I assumed this meant that my mom had met the mother of a girl who was launching a cinema blog where she was going to review movies or write diatribes about the industry. In other words, I was really annoyed that my mom had given out my contact information. But as it turned out, she had introduced me to my future boss.
The “film website” Emily was in the process of launching was not a Wordpress blog, but Seed&Spark: a crowdfunding and distribution platform for independent film that, in a year’s time, would become the most effective fundraising and audience-building tool ever created for filmmakers.
Emily and I met at Sundance 2013 and bonded immediately. We have the same propensity and capacity for idealism, and love to make enormously ambitious claims about what we think we can change about the film industry. So in June of last year, when Emily invited me to participate in a film think tank at the Los Angeles Film Festival, I jumped at the opportunity.
The inaugural Innovator’s Summit, as the think tank was called, was designed to investigate the uncertainties facing the independent media industry. And the attendees ranged from filmmakers like Ondi Timoner, to producers like James Belfer and Mynette Louie, to journalists like Indiewire’s Editor-in-Chief, Dana Harris. Emily presided over the summit, leading us through a series of exercises exploring our thoughts about the present—and predictions about the future—of independent film. But the first exercise Emily assigned, 10 minutes into the conference, in a very real sense, changed my life.
The task was simple. Write down the greatest uncertainty facing people in our profession. Without thinking twice, I jotted down the question that had been gnawing at me for months:
Does the film journalism I write do anyone any good?
By the end of the summit—a mentally exhausting, 5-hour brainstorm—I felt I had my answer. No. The film journalism I write doesn’t do much good. Stuck in the press release echo chamber, I was covering what everyone else was covering. Why? In large part because I was in bed with an ostensibly independent film industry that had, in fact, been surreptitiously reacquired by the very studio machine that in the early 1990s it had declared its autonomy from. The independent film industry that MovieMaker and Filmmaker covered was certainly more freethinking than the multi-national conglomerate-owned factories producing Transformers and Ninja Turtles and X-Men 12. But like the American political system, whose center has moved far to the right where the hyper-conservatives have dragged it, independent film largely reflects the regressive studio values of pat narratives, pretty faces, and happy endings.
My work at MovieMaker wasn’t doing anything to change the way either filmmakers or audiences thought about independent film and its larger role in the cultural conversation. I was suddenly and acutely certain of that. So over drinks with Emily that evening, I asked her for a job. I had no idea what I would possibly do for the company. After all, Seed&Spark was a crowdfunding and distribution technology platform. They published a blog on their site. But what I would do wasn’t yet the point. Emily Best wanted to empower filmmakers. She wanted to enfranchise new, diverse voices. She wanted to combat the rampant misogyny plaguing Hollywood. And she wasn’t content just talking about her ideals. She was practicing them. Seed&Spark was allowing filmmakers to find and foster a direct connection to their audiences. That was revolutionary, and I needed to be a part of it.
And within a month I’d resigned as Managing Editor of MovieMaker.
As I said, when I left the magazine to join Seed&Spark, neither Emily nor I had any idea what I was going to do. The courage—or madness—that Emily exhibited in her decision to hire me gets at the heart of both the freedom—and the burden—to innovate Emily bequeathed to me when I joined her fledgling team. In essence she was saying:
“You can do whatever you want; but if you don’t try to change the world, you’re wasting my time and money.”
A few weeks after I left MovieMaker, on a run through Griffith Park in Los Angeles, an idea struck me. Seed&Spark was a crowdfunding and distribution company that, in the short run, needed to attract filmmakers. But in the long run, if Seed&Spark was going to succeed in helping creators earn a living making compelling, daring art, we knew we needed to grow the audience for independent film in general.
And running through the park, it occurred to me that we would grow that audience by reaching them with a new kind of magazine. If we could find the right brands to support the endeavor, we would make something big, thick, and gorgeously designed—filled with the highest-quality writing and boldest original photography—and give it away for free at the best film festivals to the most forward-thinking film lovers in North America. And in so doing, we would not only create a platform from which we could influence the conversation about contemporary cinema. But additionally, we would be giving our early evangelists a text they could share with future independent film fans. If we did it right, our magazine would not only sit on the coffee tables of cinephiles for years; the package would be attractive enough that the casual observer, reclining on those cinephiles’ couches, would pick it up, leaf through it, and discover a world of films they’d never imagined were getting made.
So that was the idea. I thought it sounded great. And when I pitched it to Emily, she thought it sounded great, too. But the only evidence we had to support the need for a new film magazine was that no analogue existed.
With the exception perhaps of Little White Lies from England, no cinema publication pursued film audiences the way The Fader pursues music fans, or The Gourmand pursues gourmands. Which is to say, no one was doing what festivals like Nouveau Cinema have been doing for decades: introducing broad audiences to limits-pushing film using a visually-driven language.
But a gap in the market does not necessarily represent demand. So it was with conviction, rather than data, that Emily and I walked into the Technicolor offices in Burbank, CA. Armed with an idealistic proposal about a magazine we tentatively called BRIGHT IDEAS (a good indication of our arrogance), we sat down with a group of executives and told them—in effect—that they’d be idiots not to give us $50,000 to underwrite our first issue. And for some reason they believed us.
When Technicolor agreed in early October to support BRIGHT IDEAS, I hadn’t assigned a single story, or secured a single festival to distribute the imaginary magazine we promised we’d create. I didn’t even have a press lined up to print it. But over the next few months we called in every favor we could—with publicists, filmmakers, journalists, and festival directors.
And on January 17 of this year, we launched our first issue in Park City, UT—designed by my incomparably talented Creative Director, filmmaking partner, and girlfriend, Blessing Yen—with the support of Technicolor, Vimeo, Fandor, Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca—amongst a host of other partners.
And since the debut, we’ve become the official magazine of the Sundance Institute’s Membership program, have secured in-room distribution at Ace Hotels from LA to New York, and have expanded our event presence from 5 to nearly 50 festivals.
But what is most important—and most surprising—to Blessing, Emily, and I is that we landed on a tactic exemplified by our first cover subject.
In January 2013, Ryan Coogler premiered Fruitvale Station at the Sundance Film Festival. Nine days later it won the Grand Jury Award and sold to the Weinstein Company. For a first-time feature filmmaker, that’s a remarkable achievement, but not unprecedented. What’s unprecedented is who Ryan Coogler is—a young black man from a rough neighborhood in Oakland—and the sort of film Fruitvale is: a tragedy about a young, black, some-time drug dealer killed by white police, and made for under $1 million.
Yet the Weinstein Company marketed the film as if its success were inevitable, even though no film since Boyz in the Hood had both tackled comparable material and grossed well at the American box office. Fruitvale is a tremendously accomplished, bravely acted and directed film, and it deserves every dollar it’s earned. But it did so well—$16 million gross against $900,000 invested—because the Weinstein Co. chose to sell it. There was an audience, black and white, for Fruitvale. But they wouldn’t have turned out in the numbers they did if TWC hadn’t invested in turning them out.
And that’s exemplifies our aim with BRIGHT IDEAS: to cover what we think needs to be covered. At MovieMaker we were, like almost all other magazines, in the position of using our content to sell magazines. At BRIGHT IDEAS, we use our magazine, our access, to sell our content.
We put Ana Lily Amirpour, director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, on our second cover—not because we thought her face would sell copies—but because our copies would sell her. She’s a wildwoman, wholly self-possessed of convictions she refuses to compromise. She made—let’s remember—a black-and-white western. In Farsi! That combination is even less traditionally marketable than Fruitvale Station was. And yet the film has been gaining momentum all year—including the support of Vice Films—winning awards and building an incredible international audience.
And I think a big reason for the success of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has been a collective critical decision—of which we hope we’re at least some part—not to pathologize the film: to treat it, not like an art film for cinephiles, but a thoroughly engrossing story that an enormous audience can enjoy.
And that’s what I want to leave you with today. Whether it’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night in 2014, Fruitvale Station in 2013, or Twin Peaks in 1991, audiences respond to new, challenging work when they’re given the opportunity to make their own decisions. It is the press’s duty to de-stigmatize the unconventional, the experimental—to present the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Mohammed Shirvani alongside Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen brothers without reinforcing a subjective qualitative distinction. The most commercial hip-hop artists—Jay-Z, Kanye, Lil’ Wayne—are in constant sonic dialogue with the experimentalists. In fact, they are the experimentalists.
At BRIGHT IDEAS and Seed&Spark, we’re working tirelessly to revitalize the audience for limits-pushing independent film. Not only is it possible: It’s vital to our culture.