Mark Duplass in SXSW keynote: For indie film, “the cavalry is not coming.”

After being introduced for his SXSW keynote address by SXSW Film director Janet Pierson as the “ultimate modern entrepreneurial filmmaker” (He directs! He writes! He produces!), formerly Austin-based filmmaker Mark Duplass hit one theme over and over: “The cavalry is not coming” for indie films.

Mark Duplass giving his SXSW keynote Sunday morning. (Deborah Cannon)
Mark Duplass giving his SXSW keynote Sunday morning. (Deborah Cannon)

“I am going talk about the bad news and the good news of indie films,” he said, delivering a thoughtful, inspirational and above all practical career path for budding feature filmmakers that emphasized becoming your own cavalry, longterm.

Duplass also told filmmakers to not scoff at television: “As the death of the middle class of film has happened, it’s been rebirthed in television”

There is no question that the model he presents isn’t the right fit for everyone (and it seems to apply far better to feature filmmakers that doc directors). But I was struck by its thoughtful practicality.

Duplass seems like a combination of John Cassavetes (an obvious aesthetic inspiration but also a pioneer of indie distribution) but also musician and recording engineer Steve Albini, who has remained fiercely independent and supportive of his creative community, while occasionally working on major-label projects.

Here are a few key points:

1. There are no excuses not to be making shorts films on the weekend using your iPhone. Duplass, who started out making microbudget movies, talked about making his first short films on a family camera with a pixel missing in the middle. Too bad about the missing pixel, but he submitted it to festivals anyway.

Duplass encouraged budding filmmakers to one make a short every weekend on whatever they could find: one scene, five minutes, make it funny. It will be lousy, do it anyway, focus on the good bits, build on those.

“There will be a nugget of something good,” he said. Even if it is 15 or 20 seconds, build on that. Do this over and over you have a short you are happy with.

Duplass said his first short was a 20 minute improvisation edited down to seven. “It was kind of funny and tragic, just like us,” he said (the us referred to his brother and creative partner Jay). “You should absolutely make a self-indulgent movie for your first film.”

2. Keep your day job. Submit your short to every festival under the sun, save your money for going to the festivals. “Don’t eat out,” he said. “Don’t buy clothes.”

3. Community, community, community. Over and over, Duplass emphasized community. Find a like-minded group of people to make movies with. Work with them. Give them points on the early work you all do together. Use them to tell you when something isn’t working.  A real community “is almost as important” as a direct creative partnership, he said.

4. If you are a writer, do not writer do not write your first draft in a screenwriting program such as Final Draft. “Speak out your scripts” into a digital recorder, Duplass said. Not only does it force you to vomit out a draft, you can’t go back and change anything. “You’re going to get impeccable pacing,” he added. “Your body knows how to pace a movie.”

5. If you are an actor, the actor/writer or actor/producer role is the way to go. Duplass also said that if you are an actor, figure out what you are really, really go at, and build a short film around that.

6. Make your first feature in under 30 days using what you have. Duplass is a serious advocate of what he calls the available materials school of film-making. He had a van, so his first feature “The Puffy Chair” was a road movie. (The under 30 days bit was a comment about the return policies of various retailers.) Reverse engineer movie based on what you have. Submit it everywhere the same way you did the shorts.

“There is no question cheap filmmaking has created a glut” of movies, Duplass said and it is absolutely hard to get attention. But he prefers this to an alternative where fewer voices are heard.

7. When you get an agent, have that agent send your “thousand-dollar movie” to every actor on their roster and show your movie to movie stars at festivals. “Every film festival has three to five movie stars that come because of the sponsors,” Duplass said “You’re going to get your movie in front of them. Tell your agent to send your movie to every actor in the agency.”

Duplass said to court actors and find out what they want to play, how they are not being creatively fulfilled at whatever high dollar job they have. Write a part for them.

8. Make your next “thousand-dollar movie” with the name actor, making sure to give the tech crew points on it. “Even if you make a stinker, you’ll make at least $50,000 on it,” Duplass said.  “Now you have a movie that has extreme value on VOD” because it has a name actor in it.

9. Do not scoff at video on demand for distribution: “God bless VOD,” Duplass said. “This is a great thing for independent film. Please don’t reject VOD. Please don’t be afraid of it. Please don’t be attached to your early films playing at theaters. You will have no more money to make movies.”

Duplass said that even a small movie with a name actor can be a profit-maker for a VOD system such as Netflix.

10. Now is where it gets tricky. Duplass noted that this is point where your agent might say it is time to pitch a TV show. Instead, try to make the TV show yourself (with name actor from previous project if possible) and license it to a cable network hungry for content. Thus, you have avoided a lot of time in meetings. Said agent also might say now he or she can pitch you, the filmmaker, for larger projects. ”

11. When you start to make money, now is the time to raise your friends up. “Communisim is good, here,” Duplass said. “All your friends are going to say, ‘I have an idea,’ then you can throw a thousand dollars at them and say, “Go for it. If (it is terrible), it’s a write-off.” But take 80% of it and share it with your crew.”

 12. The good news:  “You are the cavalry,” Duplass said. “You have a group of friends that needs your support. As they get more successful and you make a (bad) movie, they will lift you up.”

13. “If you can be the cavalry, it gives you a chance to be happy.”

Author: Joe Gross

Joe Gross has covered books, movies, music and culture for the American-Statesman since 2002. He tweets at @joegross.

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