Sunday, June 7, 2009

Creativity in the Time of Recession: A Filmmaker's Dilemma

Editor's Note: Gloom to Boom is pleased to welcome guest blogger and filmmaker Betty Teng, who explains how the downturn forced her to discard the status quo and embrace a new approach to realizing her creative vision.

“Your barriers are also your gates.”
— John Daido Loori
Abbott, Zen Mountain Monastery

It may be a bit of a stretch to quote a Zen master when writing about innovation during tough economic times, but when Gloom to Boom asked me to share my story of how I’m raising money for an independent feature film during the worst economic crisis in recent history, I saw no better way to talk about my experience than to reflect on the notion that hitting a wall can also mean encountering hidden opportunity.

My film, Maestro, Maestro is about the artistic struggle between an orphaned teenaged music prodigy and an aging composer-conductor with writer’s block. I budgeted the film at $2.5 million, and I started looking for private equity funds early last year.

That summer, as I was scouting locations and meeting with contacts in San Francisco (where Maestro is set), I met an investor through a member of my producing team. He was a media consultant who specialized in cross-platform marketing, and he had learned that the San Francisco Symphony was eager to expand its appeal, especially with younger audiences. Our film was an ideal vehicle for the Symphony’s objectives. The plan was to get the SF Symphony’s biggest donors to fund our project, and in exchange we would feature the Symphony and its performance space in the film.

Last fall, talks between our team and the Symphony progressed with a pace and fluidity that had even me, an inveterate pessimist, hopeful. There was even talk of Maestro becoming a special feature of the Symphony’s 100th anniversary program in 2011. Our liaison — a development director with the Symphony — was all set to present our plan at a wider Symphony board meeting in early October.

That week, Lehman Brothers collapsed.

As the banking crisis grew to epic proportions, its effect on symphonies and opera houses across the country was almost immediate. Cultural institutions nation-wide were forced to lay off staff and cut programming due to the massive loss in donors and endowments. Within a few weeks these problems hit the San Francisco Symphony, and all talks of their interest in Maestro froze.

Since October, I have been investigating ways to make my film for a significantly smaller budget without compromising its story. Initially, this seemed impossible. Its setting in San Francisco and our need for a full symphony orchestra prevented our budget from shrinking much below $2.5 million, a price which has become prohibitive for an independent film.

As I had done a couple of times in the past, I confronted the possibility of shelving Maestro for good.

Then in the early winter, a New York literary agent specializing in graphic novels contacted me. An illustrator friend had passed him Maestro’s script and the agent felt the story would translate well into a graphic novel. He saw its potential appeal with teen girls, the fastest growing audience in that market.

I’d never thought of my film as a graphic novel. Ironically, I had been researching comic book artists for the past few years for another project, but never considered writing one myself. After years of struggling to raise millions and garner the support of dozens for Maestro, however, the notion of working with just one illustrator (or at most, a team of 2-3 illustrators) was refreshingly simple — and cost effective. Telling the story in illustrations would also allow us to preserve the story’s San Francisco setting and include a full symphony orchestra without adding a million dollars to its budget. I agreed to the agent’s suggestion that we find an illustrator to create a proposal to shop around to publishers.

While it’s been freeing to consider Maestro in a 2-D illustrated form, I have felt one creative compromise. While I have no doubts the right illustrator will find a compelling way to express Maestro’s music with ink and paper, it is impossible in a book to deliver the actual melody which haunts the lead characters. My wish to hear the story’s music alongside expressive illustrations led me to consider a suddenly-obvious medium: Animation.

It’s a good time for animated films. Notwithstanding the popularity of Pixar’s most recent film Up, rapid advancements in digital technology have made animation an increasingly accessible tool for independent filmmakers. As a result, innovative and highly-acclaimed movies like Waltz With Bashir, Sita Sings the Blues, and Persepolis have proven that audiences are receptive to all types of stories told in this form.

As a live-action filmmaker and editor, I have a sense of how animated films are made, but really require the help of computer graphics professionals in this plan to convert Maestro into an animated feature. Turns out, I’m not having to look too far. As I’ve been talking to investors, colleagues and friends about my idea, a number of contacts into the animation world have surfaced, including a friend’s brother who heads the animation division of an established New York commercial house. After a couple of conversations, he asked me to consider him and his studio as my “go-to” resource as I explore how we might bring Maestro into the animated realm.

Eight months ago, I could not have predicted this scenario. I had conceived of Maestro as an art-house film along the lines of movies like Shine, Good Will Hunting, or Billy Elliot. But with systemic changes in the independent film market coupled with the current downturn in the global economy, viable funding and distribution models for films budgeted in the $2 to $5 million range are essentially extinct. While this has been a hard reality to face, I have been heartened to find, in the rubble of one plan, newer and fleeter possibilities for delivering Maestro to the world.

If recent challenges have taught me anything, they’ve confirmed the Zen master’s insightful statement above. Hard times force tough compromises. But they also cause one to clarify what matters most in a project, in a career — even in a life. Such answers don’t come quickly or easily, but when they emerge, they are, I suspect, keys to the hidden doors that exist within every barrier.

Betty Teng is a writer, filmmaker and film editor. Her script, Maestro, Maestro has been a grand prize winner of Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest. Check out her visual blog, ACROBATIC FLOTSAM + JETSAM at:

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