The Lift-Off Global Network has been growing its community for almost a decade, and has been a vital connecting platform for hundreds of people in the film industry. From scriptwriting workshops to first-time filmmaker showcases, and 11 film festivals around the world that produce one of the most diverse and complete ranges of curated cinema, Lift-Off has become a pivotal filmmaking network. Co-founders Ben Pohlman and James Bradley were able to visit King’s College London and deliver an extremely insightful panel talk with the Film Society, packed with insider information about the requirements of the film market, the reality of being a first-time filmmaker, and how we as creative can possibly nurture a sustainable ecosystem for independent film, where the creators are the consumers and vice-versa.
Image: Lift-Off co-founders James Bradley (left) and Ben Pohlman (right), courtesy of Lift-Off Global Network.
Eloïse: Would you guys like to start off by introducing yourselves?
Ben: Of course! My name is Ben, and this is James. To summarise, we have a network of global filmmakers that are actively involved in short films, feature films and recently within the past five years of so, our focus has been on supporting independent filmmakers with their journey into the marketplace. So, we’ve always connected filmmakers with an audience, and all the marketing that goes along with that, but more and more we’re moving into distribution, in the milieu of sales agents and film markets.
James: Yes, and what we noticed was that when filmmakers were coming to us with their shorts or feature films, as a festival we were showing their work, and that was it. So the filmmaker would get their work created, would get it shown at festivals and then it would just go nowhere. “It’s in the festival scene, now it’s on Youtube and it’s got 150 hits”, and that’s basically how it goes down. And this happened a lot. So yes maybe, the filmmaker would use this to build a catalogue of those types of films and use that to catapult themselves into the professional area, get themselves work with either another director or as an assistant director, or go and get an agent on board. But, primarily what was happening a lot of the time was that reallygood films were coming through our festival circuit and stopping at that point. And about five years ago we were exposed to the Cannes Film Festival and the Marché du Film, which we realised is the real marketplace for indie filmmakers. This is something that one or maybe two per cent of filmmakers knew about, but the rest, people from some of the best film schools around the world, had no idea how the film market works, how they’re purchased, positioned, sent around the world, and that presented an opportunity for us to share that information with our filmmakers, to become the thing in between that helps not just at a festival level but also to find distribution, to find new audiences and to get money back from the films that they create. Because nine times out of ten, I hate to say it but you’ll never get the money back you spend on a film unless you get it distributed. So that was our big challenge on putting this into our business, about five years ago.
Ben and James ask the students to introduce themselves, their current projects and career aspirations.
James: So what will be useful here if for us to give you a bit of information that we’ve collected from over the years from indie filmmakers that directly affect the marketplace and opportunities for independent filmmakers from around the world (of which there are hardly any). The problem is that if anyone here has been exposed to the London theatre scene for example, if you were to go to Upper Street in Islington, you’ve got the King’s Head, The Old Red Line, The Hen and Chicken’s pub, or in other words the pubs that have theatres connected to them; that’s the Fringe theatre scene. These shows are put on mostly during the week, and they are packed with actors and directors that exist within that scene. They self-support, it’s a self-sufficient industry. I think it’s really important to ask yourself the question of when was the last time you saw independent work made by your peers. It’s becoming more and more of a Lift-Off mantra for us, if we’re put in front of people we like to ask, please, engage with work by directors you’ve never heard of before. Don’t just go to the cinema to watch work, go to the back-end of Netflix and watch stuff, go to Vimeo On Demand, go to places where filmmakers are putting there work up that are charging around £2.50 to watch their work. And, actually pay to watch their work, because there isn’t any opportunity for independent filmmakers unless we create a market. And at the moment, there really isn’t one. There is one to a certain degree, but if you were to ever go to a film market yourselves, you would see posters upon posters upon posters on countless amounts of stands of film that will never see the light of day. Or they might end up on a plane TV on a flight between South Korea and Berlin, or in a cinema in Vietnam, but that’s all they’ll ever go towards. And these are films that people have spent all their life’s savings on possibly, that they gone and asked, begged and borrowed to get the film made, it’s a budget of say 850.000 to a million pounds, and it disappears. So, it is really important for us to get that message out there. If you’re interested in film, don’t just watch the stuff you’re being told to watch, don’t just go and see Parasite. Obviously, you should, and it’s great to see this work. But discover filmmakers, go to more festivals, go and see things. If you want to be a filmmaker, you need to be going to film festivals. There are hundreds of festivals here in London, we’re inundated with them, and it’s a wonderful thing. So engage in that marketplace and try to make it more vibrant. It’s a difficult thing to word and Lift-Off can’t do it alone, but Microsoft started their mantra of wanting to put a computer in every home by the year 2000, and they did alright. There seems to be something there; we might be able to create a mini-industry where you know that if you make a short film you might make your money back. The only way that’ll happen is if the creators become the audience. That’s the message really.
Annie: Working on the festival programming over the summer, it was really interesting to see the range of quality that gets submitted, because it makes you understand there’s a way of making a film that’s way better than what you are probably doing with your first attempts at filmmaking. Watching your actual peers’ work can truly build your perspective and help you understand why your film maybe isn’t getting there yet.
Ben: Yes, that’s a very important point. Because often, we get filmmakers that don’t engage with other content, especially content on your own level, or content that is made on a similar budget, and how does your vision, style, genre match with that. But many people outside the industry don’t quite realise the amount of possibilities and avenues there are in filmmaking. You can make a short film and get it distributed on airlines and make a bit of money, you can do that. It’s hard, but there are ways, which you discover that by looking up people who have gone before you, doing that. Part of the difficulty is the sheer amount of people making movies, who are also trying to find distributors and audiences.
James: Just to give you an idea, we get 750 films submitted to us a week.
Ben: And all of those people, you can find examples of work that resembles yours, perhaps with a bigger budget even, but that’s on an independent level, you can get an IMDB Pro account, do some research into who are the companies that are involved in production, distribution, where have they gone, how did they make money – did they make any money? Did they get distributed on airlines; did they find an audience in Vietnam? But that’s on a long-term trajectory of your career. At the beginning, it’s really about your connection with the audience, and how you make sure that your film doesn’t just remain a digital file on a hard drive. How do you find an audience and maximise your exposure with them, with the ultimate goal of making sure that your career has as much chance as possible of taking off. And that’s the challenge at the beginning, because it’s very easy to come in with lots of excitement and a great idea, and then you can spend yearson it and nothing really happens, you lose momentum, and then it’s possible to get jaded and you don’t make another film. Whereas if you approach it intelligently from the beginning, try to answer these questions that are going to come up down the road: how am I going to find audiences, how am I going to make sure people see it, how am I going to make sure this film has life beyond a few years even. And then asking yourself what’s next as well, which is something Lift-Off is really keen on. We always ask our filmmakers what’s the next project they’re working on, because as soon as you stop… We’ve seen some incredible filmmakers who get funding from Creative England, a few grand to make a short, they make it, get more funding, make another one, make three or four, but never quite take it to the next level.
James: Even though their filmmaking talent was progressing and each film was better than the last, but they clearly got more and more frustrated because you submit to festivals and you think “how did this film get into Aesthetica but not BFI? And why has this one not gotten anywhere?”, and there’s often never any rhyme or reason to it. And that’s the problem, in any creative industry, in any creative pursuit, if you rest your potential on the decisions of others, you’re never going to be inside a life of anything apart from chaos. You have to constantly be reassessing what you want to be doing and how, and how you can control it. A great book is “Rebel Without A Crew” by Robert Rodriguez, and is the definitive guide to how a filmmaker needs to have their mind-set in getting work out. It’s dated, all based on the Mexican video market, but there’s a lot you can take from it, and draw parallels from. It does an amazing job at showing just how industrious you have to be as a filmmaker at this level. If you look at filmmakers now, filmmakers that are going on and making work like “Joker” or “Parasite” for example, the producer is normally the director, and is also normally the writer. So you have to work out what you need to be in order to get your work made and seen, because then you’re limiting the amount of people that you have to put into those positions and that enable you to get that work created, because then you don’t have to work on someone else’s enthusiasm or agenda.
Ben: Or alternatively, building very strong partnerships.
James: Yeah. You see that all over the film industry, especially the original content from the comedy genre that’s coming out in Hollywood. You see Will Ferrell and his friends, you see that with Seth Rogan and his friends. It’s basically the same guys making similar work over and over and over again. But they’ve got something that works, they have their factory in place, they know who they can trust, they can send a script off to James Franco and it’ll come back the next day with notes. They do not constantly have to email people, it’s just like Ben said, and it’s a connection that works. So it’s something you always have to be aware of, definitely.
Ben: And they know their audience, their route to market. And on the surface of things, the doors can seem closed for the independent filmmaker, especially on a grassroots level. But the way around it is if you can make work consistently, find an audience, connect with an audience, then the industry is interested in you because you can prove you have a voice that is being heard, that you have a specific style and stories to tell. And these are the people that the film industry is interested in, and always will be. It does boil down to a phrase I love very much that goes “it’ll take you years to become an overnight success”. So, the industry is built on these stories of filmmakers that suddenly become these massive people that break through, but what people don’t see is the chipping away step by step; the short films, the feature films, and then a producer finds a director, and the failures.
Eloïse: A recent example of that is the Safdie brothers. They’ve been making shorts and films for years and only came into the real spotlight this year on a large level.
James: Yeah exactly.
Eloïse: So the industry is alive and well, it’s just extremely hard work to break through.
Ben: Yes, and more than anything it’s changing.We take for grantedthe fact that you can make a film on your phone, put it on Youtube and someone on the opposite side of the world can see it; that’s really new. This has caused huge ripples in the industry that are only just beginning to emerge, causing changes in the way the industry is structured, as it’s still quite an old industry with some archaic ways. There hasn’t been a major studio that has taken the reigns since the 1930s. And now Netflix, being the new model is completely disrupting all of that: the Oscars, release structures, marketing behind films…
Eloïse: If you want to talk about Streaming platforms, which we should, then we do have to recognise that that is where the industry is and that’s where it’s going. VOD have revolutionised everything and the big film studios are trying to catch up with that.
Ben: Exactly, Disney + is the perfect example of that.
Eloïse: Yes, and even at EFM, the European Film Market, everything the sales agents are asking about projects is shaped and formed by SVOD guidelines and requirements, such as running-time and having easily defined genres. And therefore short film especially has a massive window of opportunity in this SVOD market, as by nature they have low-budget production cost, have easily consumable running-times and are quite genre-definable. That’s why it would be interesting for Lift-Off to take truly talented filmmakers to companies like Netflix, who can offer them exposure and a decent paycheck.
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