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Christine Vachon: The State of Cinema is...Not Necessarily Taking Place in a Cinema

Last night, closing out day 4 of the San Francisco International Film Festival, Christine Vachon of Killer Films delivered the State of Cinema Address. Christine has personally produced over 60 films, including I'm Not There, Boys Don't Cry, One Hour Photo, and the 2010 HBO mini series Mildred Pierce. The annual Address is billed as assessment of cinema + culture + society. Here's a little summary.

The style of the talk was the type where Vachon would ask a question, sort of state that she didn't know the answer, and then go on to offer lots of personal insight into the current state of things that suggested certain answers. I'll admit that as I sat in the audience I felt like I wanted her to tell us things with more certainty. "I came here for answers!" I couldn't help but feeling. ...But silly me, of course the smartest way of all is to be sure of the uncertainties.

- Vachon has produced over 60 films. Which, as she said, means "I have seen independent cinema die and be reborn at least 3 times." Over those years she has witnessed "How terrified the film industry is of change." She remembered back to hearing film editors say they would never work digitally. When she first started in the industry there were two types of film: very experimental cinema and Hollywood films, but not a lot in between. "Then I realized that there was this whole other kind of cinema... people were starting to make movies and not asking permission to make them. They were saying 'I don't see my life reflected, I don't see my world up there so I am going to take matters into my own hands.'" Vachon says this is happening again. And with the availability of cheap equipment that creates a professional look + more and more online distribution portals, this will only increase. But "they're doing it and it's not necessarily happening in a theatre near you," she said. "In some ways the name of this address should be, 'The State of Cinema is not necessarily taking place in a cinema,'" she said.

*photo credit- Pamela Gentile, courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

-As we spend more and more time in front of our computers, the way we consume media is changing dramatically. For the first time Vachon just signed a contract that included a certain number of tweets and facebook updates per day. Does the way we consume media affect the stories we tell? Though she never answered just how it does, she brought up this point at least 3 times during her talk so I'd say yes it definitely does.

-Now we have multiple pathways of distribution, multiple mediums for reaching audiences, and things are changing for the better. "What's happening now is we have to be: budget agnostic, format agnostic, content agnostic, and platform agnostic ...and that's exciting," said Vachon.

- Vachon spoke to early in her career making films oriented and marketed towards gay and lesbian audiences. Now because there is such a massive amount of content for consumers to choose from, marketing towards niche audiences is more necessary than ever. "More than ever indie film is about a direct relationship with the audience... filmmakers can understand exactly WHO they are making films for...but how do you find them?" Filmmaking now is about 1: finding a way to get to your audience (Twitter, Facebook?) 2: Making sure the audience knows where / how to find you (Twitter, Facebook?) and 3: Giving the audience a sense of participation in what you're creating (because the past 100 years of films are now available for consumption consumers need to feel invested to choose yours). Crowdsourcing...

- What is the definition of an independent film? Is it a dollar number? Is it considered independent if Miramax funds it? People ask Vachon this a lot, and she says it's not about the way it was financed but about the vision involved. It's about a true singular vision. An independent film is a movie that couldn't have been made by anyone else, a film that when shown on any platform the singular vision is preserved.

- These days younger filmmakers don't have the same boundaries about what is or isn't acceptable on their career path (ie. made for TV or HBO or online) and that's refreshing.

- As we spend more and more time in front of the computer our appetite for how long we will watch something is changing. Nobody wants movie theatres to die, and Vachon doesn't think the theatrical experience will anytime soon, but currently "We are at a real crossroads," Vachon says. There's so much out there. "If you want to live in 1974 you have more access to 1974 content now than you did in 1974."

- Portals. Vachon spoke a lot about "portals" which I will loosely define as venues for filmmakers to get their content out. Vachon thinks the future will be more and more filmmakers realizing they don't have to go through traditional portals, new portals will become available, filmmakers will be able to own more and more of our own rights, taking portals into our own hands. Because in this age we can DO IT OURSELVES. How refreshing and exciting.

- During Q&A someone asked Vachon what she's like to work with, how she spreads her vision. "The great thing about film production is it's like giving birth...You just have to forget about it or the species would never get propogated." Vachon spoke of getting to set the first day of a new production and remembering "Oh yeah, I HATE this." Haha! She told a story of seeing a psychic once who wondered if she was a general in battle. "Film is tough... Every film is a war story epic. A battle in its own way." Vachon said.

- I found it refreshing how Vachon spoke to corporate sponsorship. Is it about selling out? No, cynical hipsters, it's not. Of Killer Films Vachon said, Though we are never pandering, "Totally we are trying to take advantage of any corporate sponsorship we can."

- It continues to be an interesting time. We are consuming media in so many different ways. "Be open-minded and open-hearted," pleaded Vachon to the movie-goers in the audience.

- She spoke to how making female-driven films is tough, especially films about women in their 30s and 40s. "I have a hard time as a producer figuring out how those films fit theatrically." Later someone in the audience (who I later found out via twitter live feed was filmmaker Miranda July) challenged Vachon to speak to the tragedy of this, but Vachon wouldn't agree that it was even a tragedy at all. Instead Vachon looks at the positive, the opportunity. For example TV right now is practically ALL women-driven stories (Vachon speaks from experience having just produced HBO mini series Mildred Pierce). "That's amazing. Why not focus on what IS possible?" Hear, hear! "I think nostalgia is the most dangerous emotion in the world," said Vachon. Live in the moment! Focus on the opportunity!

- Are film festivals still a great goal for filmmakers? Yes. "Same as it ever was" as far as festivals. "This year Sundance was incredible. More movies sold than ever," she said.

- How will the future work so that filmmakers can make a living? "Ultimately I feel like if people want content, and people want filmmakers to produce content, there's going to have to be a meeting where content gets produced in a way that filmmakers can earn a living." What kind of a way? Vachon spoke again to how we are going to take portals more and more into our own hands. Filmmakers will be able to break off rights more specifically..."Figuring out portals that not only can give a good sense of independent film that people will go to, but also will really compensate filmmakers for putting their work up on them."

"I did hear an agent say that film is the new theatre. You do it for the love," Vachon said with a chuckle, before getting serious. "We're gonna crack it. We haven't cracked it yet but we're gonna crack it soon...We've stayed in business this long because we ONLY make the movies we really care about. We stick around because we only do what matters to us."

- On remaining true to her vision and whether she has been forced to comprimise on anything Vachon said, "All I do is comprimise...But ultimately if you're really focused on the vision the comprimise doesn't matter that much because you have a clear sense of what your 'wall of No' is. At what point is it not your movie anymore?"

The feeling I most took away from her talk ties back to the moment she took the mic at the beginning of the hour with a totally unassuming nature, as my friend and I noted. "The State of Cinema Address," she whispered dramatically, sarcastically. As if she has all the answers. No one does. No one can say exactly what is happening or what will: there is no one answer. But, an aspiring filmmaker myself, I left Vachon's talk feeling excited, invigorated, and not too concerned about the state of cinema. Like she says, "We're gonna crack it."

Elisabeth Bartlett


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