Indie Forum: Werner Herzog Slams SAG, Filmmakers Grapple with Change

Keynote speaker Herzog says indie film doesn’t exist, but filmmakers nonetheless trade new strategies in a mutating business

The weekend's Film Independent Forum began with a keynote Q&A in which the special guest speaker said that independent film doesn’t exist, and then slammed one of the forum's chief sponsors.

Werner HerzogThat's what they get for inviting Werner Herzog.

The passionate and prolific German director was typically colorful and outspoken on Saturday morning in a Q&A that launched the two-day series of discussions on the art and business of independent film — just as Film Independent no doubt knew he would be when they invited him to their seventh annual event.

One of his main points was that truly independent film is a myth – that once a movie gets beyond the level of a backyard home video, it's "dependent on money, on distribution systems.”

But he still had lots of advice for the aspiring filmmakers in attendance, from the type of jobs they should take (he suggested a maximum security prison or a sex club) to the speed at which they should shoot and edit (fast and faster). 

Herzog often narrates his own films and occasionally takes acting jobs, recently finishing a role as the bad guy in "One Shot," a movie directed by Christopher McQuarrie and starring Tom Cruise. And at one point in his talk, he took aim at the Screen Actors Guild, saying that he'd like to launch his own acting union as an alternative to what he said are SAG's draconian rules.

The problem, he said, is that a friend of his is currently making a film, and Herzog planned to do a couple of lines of voiceover for free, as a favor to his friend. But those plans prompted a nasty letter from SAG — which pointed out that as a member, he was not allowed to do it without being paid.

"I'm thinking of starting my own acting union," he said, after criticizing the guild whose SAGIndie division was one of the chief sponsors of the Film Independent Forum.  "If any of you know how to do that, let me know."

Later, when the floor was opened up to questions form the audience, the first person to speak did just that, telling Herzog that he was a lawyer and could help out.

"Well, I'm not going to do it right now," demurred Herzog. "But if it ever comes up again … "

Elsewhere at the weekend forum, an array of panelists grappled with the mutating beast that indie film has become.

Documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong, for instance, talked about forming an advisory board of high-profile leaders before he even makes his movies, involving them in every step of production and then often enlisting them and their organizations to help in marketing efforts once the films are completed.

A panel of film festivals talked about ways to take fullest advantage of the festival experience, and also how to get your film noticed in the submission process — though the most notable example, a horror film that was submitted to festivals a few years ago in a package that also included a bloody baseball bat, was not held up as an example to follow.

"The bat is still in our office," admitted the Los Angeles Film Festival's Doug Jones. "I would be hard-pressed to tell you where the film is, but we still have the bat."

And in a Sunday panel about alternate distribution strategies, filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish ("For Lovers Only") and Marc Fienberg ("Play the Game") traded strategies that involved harnessing audiences and bypassing traditional distribution.

Play the Game

For Fienberg, whose film dealt with a young ladies' man telling his grandfather (Andy Griffith, at left with Doris Roberts) how to score with women, that meant finding the biggest busybody in every community of senior citizens, and enlisting that person to spread the word.

He also eschewed newspaper advertising, he said, in favor of advertising on Facebook — but only within a 10-mile radius of the theaters in which the film was playing.

"The theaters all wanted us to do newspaper advertising, but I don't think that's effective," he said. "We knew that if we got 10,000 hits on our Facebook ad, we'd get 100 people into the theater. And if we got 100 people into the theater, the word-of-mouth would be good enough that we'd stay in that theater for another week."

Fienberg called his senior busybodies 'the yenta army"; the Polish brothers, on the other hand, relied on what they termed "soldiers of love" for their film.

("I'm a little jealous," admitted Fienberg. "I'd rather have soldiers of love than a yenta army.")

For Lovers Only

The distribution strategy for "For Lovers Only," which director Michael and screenwriter/star Mark first detailed to TheWrap, was to rely exclusively on internet buzz, and to release the micro-budgeted love story directly to digital channels like iTunes without spending any money on traditional marketing.

Also read: How the Polish Brothers Are Raking It In with a Stealth, No Budget Movie

Fueled by raves on Twitter, the film has grossed more than $300,000 on a virtually nonexistent budget.

"After eight movies, I consider traditional distribution dead," said Michael Polish. "If you're lucky you might still get the winning lottery ticket, but we had to think about new ways of doing it."

At the conference, though, the Polish brothers also revealed that "For Lovers Only" will be reversing the traditional path, and coming to movie theaters three months after it was available on iTunes and video-on-demand.

"We're able to use Twitter to identify the cities where it will sell out, and we're going to do one or two screenings in about six cities, probably starting in November," said Mark Polish.

Of course, the new distribution strategies do have their drawbacks, the panelists admitted.

"I spent a year of my life distributing the movie," said Fienberg, "when I could have been making my next movie."

Added Mark Polish, "It's not ideal to do it all yourself. It's campaigning, shaking hands and kissing babies."

Plus, in their case, the Polish brothers had the added annoyance of angering Jonas Brothers fans when the rabid "For Lovers Only" devotees began pointing out that Joe Jonas's recent video, "Just in Love," looks an awful lot like their movie.

"For me," laughed Michael Polish, "the death threats from Joe Jonas fans were the worst.