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March 21, 2007

Reeler Roundtable: The New Yorkers of New Directors/New Films (Part Two)

Loktev, Zalla and Zobel on the festival, distribution challenges and dealing with critics

Now screening at New Directors/New Films: (L-R) Craig Zobel, Julia Loktev and Christopher Zalla (Photo: Vann Apragal for The Reeler)

Opening tonight, the 36th annual New Directors/New Films festival features a typically diverse program of domestic and international titles screening at the Museum of Modern Art and the Walter Reade Theater. Among the selections are dramatic narrative debuts by a trio of New Yorkers: Julia Loktev, a ND/NF alumna bringing her festival hit Day Night Day Night to the city for the first time; Christopher Zalla, whose Padre Nuestro claimed this year's Grand Jury Prize at Sundance; and Craig Zobel, the director of another well-received Sundance '07 pick, The Great World of Sound. The three joined me Monday for a wide-ranging conversation about -- among other things -- the changing marketplace for cinema, playing the festival game and their respective experiences with film critics and bloggers. (The Reeler published Part One of this discussion on Tuesday.)

STV: Your respective distribution situations and stories are also pretty diverse. What has it been like learning to navigate the distribution system and this current climate with your respective films?

ZALLA: [Laughing] It's been really unsettling for me. The thing about the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance is that in the recent past, there's been maybe a perception that the prize is given to movies that are not commercial. Or something -- that there's some agenda behind the prize itself, and therefore its approached with some kind of skepticism. We had the really good fortune of being extremely well-reviewed before we even got the prize, and I was sure, given the ways the audience were reacting and given the reviews we were getting, that we were going to sell the movie there. Because of the responses, I thought that we had a shot at the award, but that wasn't what was going to happen. What was going to happen was that were going to sell the movie. We ended up not selling the movie and winning the award.

To me, it's just that literally everyone at Sundance -- the climate there was so much about finding Little Miss Sunshine. Most of the art house distributors now have been bought by studios, and those that haven't are trying to play this bigger studio game. And the paradigm has almost shifted now where most of these guys are looking to do direct-to-video or $10 million P&A campaigns. For us, what we had always thought was that there was at least an understanding that there were at least 40 million Spanish speakers in the United States and that this was a movie that they would really respond to. One of the great things about showing here is there a huge Spanish-speaking press. They're flipping out about the movie. I'm actually hoping to take those articles to the distributors and say, "Look! This is something real." But we'll see.

ZOBEL: It's so weird. It seems like such a laurel leaf to get the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. It's blows my mind. I think of something like You Can Count on Me, or... But it's such a weird time and place for movie theaters.

ZALLA: Maybe for the audience that goes to see these movies, the tipping point has occurred. It's like my parents: People who are in their mid-60s? They've just given up on movies in theaters because they're not 18-24. And yet they see three movies a week. It's all rentals. They'd love to go to theaters, but there's nothing there for them. We've cultivated this reality and now we have to suffer from it or something.

ZOBEL: I know. I feel incredibly fortunate that we were picked up and we're going to play in theaters. Both Magnolia and IFC -- [to Julia Loktev] You're with IFC?

LOKTEV: IFC First Take.

ZALLA: How is your experience with that?

LOKTEV: It's been fantastic, and I think they're putting out films that should be getting seen. They're putting out Hou Hsiao-hsien films and Renais films and The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Tsai Ming-liang films. I'm honored to be a part of that; I think they've been really great, and they try to look at different ways of presenting films.

STV: A lot of established filmmakers kind of turn their noses up at what might be perceived as unconventional release models -- day-and-date and that type of thing. What are your impressions? At this stage of your respective careers, how do you react to these kinds of prospects?

LOKTEV: Ask me after. But in a way it's difficult, because we're filmmakers, and instead we're having a business conversation here. We can all talk about distribution, we can all talk about production. I wish there was something else we could talk about, in a way. [To Zalla] Because, I mean, the conversation you just had -- it's great and I agree with everything you said. But at the same time, I've read it a hundred times. We've all heard or bitched about distribution so much. We've all talked about these issues. We know the problems of distribution in the country. I completely agree with you, but I wish there was something else we could be taking about now that's just not kind of nuts-and-bolts. Can't we talk about something else now? You know?

ZOBEL: I don't know about your ability to make two films. My ability to get this film made relied on me tapping out all of these individuals... It just costs more money to make a film than it does to record an album or paint a picture and --

LOKTEV: Yeah -- and business is definitely a part of it. It has to be a part of it.

ZALLA: I think the business is a part of the art. My brother has an art gallery in Brooklyn, and it's kind of the art gallery for contemporary emerging artists. And I've talked to a lot of artists there, and they're like, "No, man. How you sell yourself is what you have to do." I make these things to get seen, and so the process for me of negotiating this distribution climate is... I mean, I feel like I'm still on set, essentially. The process of orchestrating a marketing campaign, for example, is something that I want to be very creatively involved in. I want to continue to position and characterize my movie in a certain way so that I can have people see it in a certain way -- in the same way that I'm thinking about framing a shot. For me, how I'm thinking about getting my movie out there to the world personally is very creative. I wish, as you say, certainly, that we could just make great movies and then they would go out into the world. It would be great if it was easy.

LOKTEV: I'm not saying it's easy. I'm not saying it's not a issue. I'm saying, "Is it an interesting topic of conversation?" That is a different thing. I could talk at length about the financing of the film, I could talk at length about the distribution of the film. I could talk at length about the nitty-gritty of everything. But I just wonder: Does a reader really want to know this? If they're trying to make a film maybe? Is it a how-to? I mean, I think everybody has a different story.

STV: Well, sure, and we have three stories here. That's part of what New Directors/New Films is about to me, anyway, and maybe we can talk about that: What is the place of New Directors/New Films in 2007? It used to be a very streamlined exhibition system. Now there are so many more films, so many more festivals, so many more opportunities for filmmakers to get their films made despite the business or the financing. So what is the place of New Directors/New Films considering both its track record and the diversity of contemporary films?

LOKTEV: I think that's a really good question because it is one of the places that you see films from different countries. Most of the films in the festival don't have distribution; they're coming from all over the world. The New York Film Festival, on the other hand... About half usually? They do tend to have distribution -- especially the US films there. I think New Directors doesn't quite have to have that mandate that the New York Film Festival has of balancing bigger art house releases. It's a unique festival in that way in New York, I think, and probably in the country. It's a very small selection and not like a lot of city festivals where they have 200 films. You get the sense of a curated program, and as a viewer, I appreciate that. Because I can go, "OK, I respect the selection committee" --

ZOBEL: You can go to any movie and feel comfortable.

LOKTEV: Exactly, and it's nice to be a part of that club. You feel slightly privileged, I think.

ZALLA: Festivals in general, that's what they've become, essentially. I was talking to a guy at the Miami Film Festival, and film festivals have become a profit model for him. He actually asks for money from the festivals to go. He's a documentarian, and for him, the festival circuit becomes the profit circuit.

LOKTEV: Now he needs to do a how-to talk.

ZALLA: I don't even know if a narrative film can do that. But with festivals, especially if they're not-for-profit institutions, the idea of cutting the filmmaker in on screenings is maybe not a bad idea if you're talking about this becoming a legitimate way to get your film out into the world and show yourself. The great thing about ND/NF is that it does have this kind of cache -- it is kind of a prestigious place to go and to be, and to be kind of highlighted in that respect... Again, these are the movies I wish we could all see; I wish these were the movies that could go elsewhere. One other thing about ND/NF -- not to beat the business bush too much -- but there were a lot of people sort of warning us against coming here, because there was this fear in the distribution environment that if you go to ND/NF, you're going to get reviewed in The Times. And that review is going to be problematic, because that review is going to compete with (reviews) when you release.

LOKTEV: That's one thing that's changed.

ZALLA: Exactly. I don't know if they've worked out a relationship or what, but now they're not going to do that.

LOKTEV: Was that last year at the Festival?

STV: Right. '06.

LOKTEV: [Laughs] Which I think makes us all breathe just a little bit easier.

ZALLA: So now you have the best of both worlds. And we just said, "Screw it" -- and then found out after that they were going to do that. So now you get the incredible bump and prestige and great experience, but you don't have to pay the price.

LOKTEV: At least you hope you're not paying the price.

ZALLA: But it's a shame, because I remember people saying that the festival has kind of lost its weight -- and this is from a distributor's perspective. They were trying to pooh-pooh the festival, when this is like one of my favorite festivals around, you know?

ZOBEL: For people who go see movies in New York, it matters a lot. And like I said before, I would venture that all three of us would open our movies in New York almost exclusively at first. New York and LA. It's very exciting and totally worth it to be on the radar of people who like movies in New York City. And, I mean, who doesn't want to be reviewed by The Times?

STV: That's something else: The critical component of putting your work out there. I remember at Sundance seeing Manohla Dargis' write-up of Craig's film in The Times, and I thought, "Wow!" How have you adapted to that as filmmakers?

ZOBEL: [To Loktev] You were just saying that you work in isolation to a certain degree, and I think that all people who make movies do work in some sort of isolation in making this movie. And then you go to this film festival and you let it go, and then, like Chris was saying earlier: "Oh. I've made an issue movie that I didn't even know I made." It's fascinating how the movie grows and is about things you didn't know it was about and then apparently it's about those new things.

LOKTEV: For me, the most exciting review to read is the review that notices something I didn't think of. Because I think a film is a public communication, so whether it's with your audience or with a critic, you hope for a kind of dialogue in a sense. You don't usually get to respond to a critic, but nonetheless, any time it leads to some kind of thoughts in somebody, it's interesting. And now there's this kind of strange dual situation with criticism that on the one hand, with the Internet, The Times has become so all-important because it's the paper that everybody reads across the country. So the power that The Times review (possesses) has just blown up out of proportion. But then you look at the flipside, and the power of bloggers is fascinating. There's the one, and then there are the many. I wonder if the sort of criticism in between has sort of lost influence. That's unfortunate, because those are some of the greatest critics in the country. For me, I know my favorite critic is Hoberman; that's who I'll look at always, you know? But some of that gets marginalized in a way now, I think. (I ask) everyone I know, "What do you mean? You don't check Hoberman for what you're going to go see?" And they're like, "No, no, no -- I read The Times." But you've got to check it out across the board!

STV: There's a lot of talk about the relevance of movie critics, but filmmakers still relatively early in their careers don't sense that at all. It's always a terrifying prospect to be reviewed by any movie critic.

ZALLA: It is, and you can feel the reality. For me, Sundance was just this incredible, eye-opening experience in terms of what's really happening and the way the world works. With the exception of one review that came out a week after he saw the movie -- and after we'd won the award -- to go after us, we had just great responses. But what's amazing to me is post-Sundance, how there were two schools of criticism: There was this whole universe where people write articles about our movie -- and the fact that it won -- who hadn't seen our movie. There was this great deal of upset: "Well, I didn't hear about that movie. And it won, so it's not going to... " It was just bizarre. Literally, they would say this in an article.

LOKTEV: It's beautiful that there are amazing, great bloggers out there, but there are also a lot of bloggers out there who have absolutely no qualifications to be film critics. [Laughs] And that's all right. I've read that my film takes place in London. I've read that it takes place in an unnamed city; now, I don't know how you couldn't figure out Times Square. I've read amazing things. I've read that it starts in Times Square -- I guess they missed the first 50 minutes? There's just so much misinformation from the minute you start reading it. It's fascinating. It's like playing Telephone.

ZOBEL: There have been reviews that have my name spelled completely wrong for the entire piece.

ZALLA: Oh, I'm Kenyan, Canadian, Mexican, American --

ZOBEL: It's amazing. I love it; I think it's great. I think that the blog, blogging aspect --

ZALLA: Blogosphere?

ZOBEL: I didn't want to say that. But I just went to South by Southwest, and stayed for a few days during the music festival part of it. And all of those kids who were running around going to see bands, they only read the Internet. They only read blogs. You could have the best review ever in The New York Times, and these 18- to 25-year-old kids I was talking to wouldn't know who you are. Because they just read blogs. OK, awesome. It's here to stay. Sometimes you get people who totally don't know what's going on, but you read blogs where you like the guy's voice -- where you agree with his sensibility anyway.

LOKTEV: The most depressing thing in the world, though? [Lowers voice] Do you ever read the reviews on Netflix?

ZALLA/ZOBEL: No.

LOKTEV: Like if you pull up a Hou Hsiao-hsien film on Netflix and read the reviews? It just makes you want to shoot yourself. I want to believe in democracy; I want to believe in everyone's right to speak, but sometimes I think there is a certain kind of person who feels probably compelled to... I mean, for instance: Like on IMDB, if you look at (reader) votes? Ninety percent male.

ZALLA: Really? Wow.

LOKTEV: Primarily guys -- nothing against guys. I like guys. But there is this certain kind of person who is drawn to posting. I've never reviewed anything on IMDB or Netflix, but there's a beauty to it. [Whispers] And it's also terrifying.

ZALLA: I do think though, that it is still sort of the lifeline for independent films. Whatever it's becoming, and whether we're talking about this polarization that Julia mentioned, where the middle may be getting lost, or we're talking about this new breed of sort of focusing on hype and attention and buzz as the basis of a review -- if how much it registers in my consciousness is how I qualify a film? That's what scares me, because as an independent filmmaker, I just don't register in that way. But it's kind of all I have.

STV: What are you all looking forward to seeing at New Directors? Is there anything you'd recommend?

ZALLA: I want to see their films.

LOKTEV: I saw Euphoria, this Russian film. I thought it was pretty good.

ZALLA: I really want to see Red Road. It was at Sundance and Miami; I didn't get a chance to see it either place. So I can hopefully see that here.

ZOBEL: Day Night Day Night sounds amazing.

ZALLA: And these kinds of events where we can all kind of get together and maybe start that community that you're talking about. Because it really is like the artist's dream to have that sort of group that you feed off of and share with. I have this sneaking feeling that's going to happen this year, and that's really exciting.

LOKTEV: If nothing else, we'll have many opportunities to drink together.



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