A few months ago, while in the throes of developing a sales pack for my feature film 'Wilderness' and arranging a series of local screenings in Cornwall to keep momentum going, I was faced with a couple of moments that took nerve to overcome. I got that nerve largely thanks to my wife who could see that things were getting to me and who helped me send some emails that helped change the course of the film's progress somewhat and helped plant the seeds of this blog (and maybe future writing, who knows?).
Through contacts that our executive producer has we had the chance to screen 'Wilderness' for someone influential enough in film acquisitions and distribution in the UK that their recommendations are taken seriously and this person really liked 'Wilderness' and offered to recommend that a few distributors watch it with a view to buying it. To be honest, this was something I never envisaged for the film. It's super low budget, not easily classifiable in genre terms and has no stars. This person didn't seem to think that really mattered and that the low-budget and unique funding circumstances, plus strong festivals showing, aligned with an improved trailer and new sales deck meant the film could find favour. Before that though, he said we needed the one thing we knew was missing. Quotes from critics, ideally those who write for recognisable publications. Through Filmstock, my day job and the Cinematologists podcast I had made some excellent contacts and indeed had not long published a 6-months in the making episode of the podcast on Film Criticism featuring a number of journalists and writers. This was before Christmas 2017 and so I set about trying to secure a response from critics I knew who write for the likes of The Sunday Times, Film Comment, Sight and Sound and others.
We'd rinsed the lovely review our friend Ryan Gilbey (The New Statesman, The Guardian) gave us and knew we needed more. So I asked some folks. This was really hard to do in the first place. When Ryan watched the film he said that there was real angst on his part going in. There's always the anxiety of watching work by friends and people you know that it will suck and you won't know what to say. I know this is a critic and programmer. Ryan was relieved he liked it and his review suggests there's no illusion there.
It was incredibly hard to send the film out to people to ask them to watch and give a quote. Most of the people I sent it to didn't know me as a filmmaker, only through other channels and I could hear in my head that voice saying 'they think you are just a critic who thinks they can do better'. Film critics watch a lot of films and have tight deadlines and the gig isn't well paid. So there's me asking them to watch another film, for no reason other than I need them, if they like it, to say so.
I asked, then chased, then nudged and got the point where I felt I couldn't ask again, anymore. I felt like I had asked and that people's lack of response was down to them not liking it or simply not having time. I respect both those things and was ready to put it to bed.
Around the same time, we were screening the film in Cornwall for local audiences, having been invited by The Poly in Falmouth to screen on DCP in their big room following a disappointing earlier event in November, with Cornwall Film Festival. It wasn't selling well and there was a chance that a prominent critic was going to be there and let us know their thoughts. I hated the idea that our big hometown/local screening for a film written and produced here was going to just fizzle out. I couldn't believe in a school of 600+ students and goodness knows how many staff that no one wanted to see the film that wouldn't have been possible without so many participants from the school. It was all making me pretty miserable. I was ready to throw in the towel regards the film.
My wife told me to email the critics again. She bugged me and kept nudging me. Saying rightly, what was there to lose. So what if I annoyed them or made them finally say 'yes Neil I watched it and thought it was terrible'. I needed to do it. I couldn't have what ifs, and I'd already laid so much on the line for this film.
At the same time I thought, the students (and staff) I work with, need to know that the investment in filmmaking (or any art) has emotional tolls on those who make it.
So I emailed the critics. With a nice little get out in case they had seen it but didn't like it - a short statement they could copy and paste and send back to me reading something like 'I've seen it Neil and wish you the best of luck with it'.
At the same time I emailed staff and students pleading with them to come and see the film. Not for me, but because it's a work in the world that has the imprint of so many people's time and emotional investment, and because I'm proud of it in and of itself as well as how it was made. I told the critics and the students and staff how I was feeling. That I was sorry, but that I needed to pretty much beg at this point, that I couldn't just let it fizzle out into nothing. I had to keep trying.
The screening was postponed due to snow and the prominent critic still hasn't been able to see it.
The critics got back to me, all bar one who sent profuse apologies, with incredible quotes and reviews. They really liked it, or liked something about me or it enough to provide words that suddenly filled the gap we wondered if we would ever fill. We made a sales deck that drew together the story of how we made it, the festival awards and screenings and front and centre the incredible reviews. These reviews are on the site and featured in our new trailer.
The friend in acquisitions couldn't believe the reviews we got and helped us make them really prominent in the trailer. He said that a lot of high profile features would kill for quotes like these from writers at the publications we'd managed to snag. We knew that. Oh we knew that.
The sales deck and new trailer is now being presented to distributors and you never know, you just never know.
What matters to me, and why I wrote this blog and may write something more academic in the future, is that we share the emotional cost of our creative labour in productive, meaningful and hopefully productive ways. I think auto-ethnographic approaches to academic and creative labour are valid in the academy. It's also I believe vital to teach those who are starting to embark on creative professional journeys of what happens and what is at stake in terms of wellbeing. It's good to remind people of the humanity behind creative acts. Not everything is done with a dollar goal in mind. It is important to build and retain communities of support for indie film and independent creative practice. I am as guilty as anyone of ploughing my own furrow sometimes.
As an aside, this summer I have and am continuing to make a point of catching up with the work of friends and peers I have promised to read and watch and haven't got round to. We all need to do our part.
Making work and sharing work makes you vulnerable (if you are a human being) at every stage. It changes and eases the older you get and the more work you do but never disappears completely, I don't think. That vulnerability can be part of what makes the work resonate and life is too short to pretend you don't care and that people's apathy doesn't bother you. Having to put myself out there and pretty much beg for people to engage reminded me of my own responsibilities as much as anything else. It's terrifying to share the fruits of our labour, but in film particularly how can we not? Without an audience for our films, what is the point? We have to do all we can to get people to see work we are proud of and I'm really proud of 'Wilderness'. The amazing reviews we've had made me feel like we made something that really connected and that people wanted to be effusive about.
And I'm about to embark on it all over again as I start to write a new script and put a new short film out into the world. Once more unto the breach.