Tuesday, May 22 – Our time in Italy was short but sweet, punctuated with our sound designer Matteo and a stunt team called D-Unit. We went into the fashion capital of Milano, where we went to the only coffee place that resembled Starbucks called Arnold Coffee. Italy is the only European country that doesn’t have Starbucks, so instead they have Arnold Coffee, where they sell huge drinks and pancakes and all that crap. Like France, Italy doesn’t seem to offer “large” coffee sizes, or any sizes for that matter, but rather those tiny cups you drink at the bar, so it was a relief for two Americans to get a big drink for once.

The galleria was massive, with chairs lining the sides that cost 20 € to sit in. The whole place was a tourist trap, a gorgeous tourist trap, and we got out before the twentieth Senegalian tried to sell us another bracelet. There was the Duomo, a massive Catholic church which was like a step up from a “Cathedral”. The outside was tiled entirely with marble, which is incredible if you think about how much a marble countertop costs these days. Police and a Father were teamed up at the front door, making sure nobody desecrated the Duomo by wearing revealing clothes inside. One woman was wearing a low tanktop, and the father shook his head and cast her away. The inside was lined with gigantic paintings and confession booths, some multilingual, carved from wood. Something like the Duomo simply couldn’t be built today. America never even had these kinds of things because it just wasn’t around before 300 years ago. And it never will. So I did what any intelligent person would do and took a bunch of pictures.

Matteo talked about Apple stores in Milan. I brought it up because it’s a hip town, but I didn’t see one. Apparently the nearest Apple store is dozens of miles away, they just don’t have many of them, but when the iPad 3 came out, eager artists and students all flocked to that Apple store to buy it. A critical thinking citizen said, “But the other electronics shops all have it too, and there’s no line! Let’s go there!” and the people responded, “We want to get it in the true Apple way!” Like Americans, Italians crave an experience, however banal it may be. They also seek the prestige not just of owning an Apple product, of but associating with other Apple customers, lined up for hours with equally fanatical consumers to get the latest and coolest. Buckingham said that modern audiences don’t just want what they pay for now. It’s all about the “added experience”. Anything a company can do, be they a production company or an electronics manufacturer, to give the audience more than just a product, makes them that much more marketable. Plus, Apple doesn’t just sell a product, they sell “creativity”. If you buy Apple, you’re buying into a cool marketplace that sets you apart. If as filmmakers we can tap into that extra selling point, in the form of a “movement” on top of the film’s basic premise, it’ll really set us apart. Seems to work for Apple, even when there are almost no Apple stores.

After a lunch of mozzerella and prociutto, we passed through a castle, which was another tourist trap. We made our way to Monza to meet with Loris Rippamonti of D-Unit. There were signs for Monza everywhere, so we assumed it was close. Big mistake. We ended up on the freeway, walking for what felt like miles trying to navigate the Italian bus system. My broken Italian got us to a train, which turned out not to go to Monza anyway. Loris told us where to find a McDonald’s, where we waited for him. McDonald’s in Italy, obviously, looks nothing like a McDonald’s in Oakland. There aren’t even trash cans in the bathroom. I bought another tiny but super-strong coffee (at this point I had really started to hate these) and Loris arrived.

It felt as if I had met a long-lost brother. Loris, Mirco, and Ivan of D-Unit have been taking gigs in Italy for years, trying to break into the action scene like any of us, except of course with the added disadvantage that the independent film market in Italy is skewed toward certain films that get government funding, and D-Unit, God bless them, don’t turn to dramas and documentaries to take advantage of that. They’re action people, and Rebecca and I joined them for their stunt practice session at a big gym in Monza. Loris gave us some D-Unit shirts, we practiced tricks and taught each other new stuff that I’m excited to take back with me to SP practice, and shot a little fight scene, which I’ll post here soon along with photos.

At a pub we got a better handle on D-Unit’s situation in Italy. Apparently the Italian action film market is embarrassingly bad, and I started feeling guilty for my frequent thrashing of America’s market. Differing standards aside, they are face with an action film market that, like all the others, requires a name actor. They have the writing, directing, editing, and action, all key elements of the Action Kickback model, but they don’t have the name, which means they don’t have the complete marketing parkage, therefore they don’t have the funding. It’s the catch-22 we all know: to get a star, you need money, and to get money, you need a star. Meanwhile they all keep their day jobs and do stunt gigs, the latest of which had fallen through without their even being told. Hopefully on one of these gigs they can meet an actor who can bring them some financing, and Loris can become the Luc Besson of Italy.

We parted ways that night after they drove us back to Matteo’s. The next day was spent entirely on the train, traveling back to Cannes, where we’ll spend one more day checking out what we missed at the market and maybe catch another screening.

Check out D-Unit’s Facebook page here and their YouTube channel here. Thanks Matteo and D-Unit’s Loris, Mirco, and Ivan for introducing us to the best of Italy.

Day 3 – Friday, May 18. Got to the producer’s workshop late. The speakers were two producers, one of whom, Katriel Schory, manages an Israeli film fund that finances 3-5 films per year at about $500,000 each. The discussion was on what kind of producers we are, creative, financial, or personal (often, you’re only one of them), and how to team up with producers of the other kinds.

The knockout blow of the talk though was when the other speaker Diana Elbaum discussed shelving films when they’re doomed, but rather than the old-school “quit while you’re ahead” approach, she went with, “Just finish the film, you’ve already got the money anyway.” So apparently these film funds, made up of tax dollars, just need to be used up by someone, and it better be you.

After she empathized with the poor, downtrodden Americans for not having a government that will pay us to make films, which felt no less than patronizing, they ended the discussion, and Rebecca and I went and spoke with our sales agent Wonderphil, who had some good (if bite-sized) news about interest in Death Grip by some territories. Long story short, we’re optimistic. We gave him a newly color-corrected version with the most recent soundtrack so he could keep making copies to send out to interested buyers. So we come out of a producer’s workshop that tries to convince us that we American indie filmmakers are in trouble, only to meet the good news of a sales agent actually making sales on our film that we financed privately. We felt very arrogant after that and drank our coffee appropriately.

I should interject here and clarify the difference between a “distributor” and a “sales agent”. Wonderphil is our sales agent, which means we’ve granted him the rights to sell Death Grip to distributors in various territories, be they Canada, America, Turkey, or any of a couple hundred countries where distributors bundle rights for films. We grant him this right because he knows how to deal with distributors, and filmmakers often do not, nor do we have the right connections to reach foreign distributors. Do you know any Estonian distributors? Neither do we, but WonderPhil does. Distributors in these territories are the ones who take the film, market it, and sell it to the public, either on DVD, Video on Demand (VOD, like Netflix, Hulu, etc.), TV, or (rarely) theatrical. The distributor’s deal with the sales agent (WonderPhil) pays out either as a single payment up front, royalties, or both. WonderPhil takes that money, subtracts his expenses, takes his cut, and the rest comes to us. With up-front payments, we as filmmakers actually see money. But when it comes to royalties, the checks that arrive on our doorsteps are in the range of twelve to forty-eight cents every three months, because the sales agents are getting 24-92 cents every three months. Aka zero, you make no money with royalties at this level. Sales agents know this, so they negotiate for up-front payments. Once your film is a $3M picture, royalties become a reality.

Moving on, we went on a tour of the market around 2pm, which wasn’t entirely useful but gave us the opportunity to meet a bunch of other producers and filmmakers who were just as desperate as the next, and many of whom were from America. All of them are trying to make their film, have no idea how to get funding, and haven’t made a marketable feature film before. Most producers in the workshops are in a similar boat. It’s nice knowing we’ve got two feature films in the market now (Contour and Death Grip), but the pain is still felt and we all felt a common disconnect from the market, which kept telling us to find European public money. If (you = American) {forget it}.

The second talk at the workshop was more informative than the first, and even more anti-American, which I found hilarious since a third of the audience in the room suddenly became the antagonists. The speaker Angus Finney  disapproved of the quality of American genre films (versus “drama” films) and gave some wonky statistics about how American films don’t make as much money as they should despite the huge budgets, etc. Not sure what he was getting at, but he definitely thought action films were for the crass and stupid, which would have made my mind shut off to what he was saying had he not had some decent talking points.

His best advice came his experience in working with financiers, who can hold up a production almost arbitrarily just because they have the “Financier” playing card.. Even if your cast and crew has a limited window, a financier has no incentive to move quickly on the project until he or she has invested at least a little bit of money, which he called getting them “pregnant”. Getting money to trickle in from investors is a good way to get them interested in continuing their investmnet. He also said to use his favorite playing card with investors, which was, “The more you wait to invest, the less chance we have to take advantage of this market opportunity.” So when approaching investors, don’t just have a market trend. Have a timeline for that market trend. It’ll get them moving faster.

Then the usual, “Get public funding”, “Co-produce with other countries”, etc.

From what I’ve gathered in three days, it seems the European independent film market is subsidized with these government film funds, which are grants, tax breaks, tax credits, and tax shelters. The funds are run by people who don’t seem to have any interest in genre films like action and sci-fi. Is it that genre films apply for these grants but fail to create a script worthy enough for the funding? Or does their marketability negate the need for these public funds? Maybe it’s just a big game theory, where film funds know that no action films will apply, and no action film thinks they’d have a prospect of acquiring funding. The reasons are irrelevant. What matters is that, as the Euro declines in value in the face of five debt-ridden Eurozone countries, there’s a worry here that these public funds might dry up. There’s a continual outpouring of sweat over whether “independent films will die”, but I think it’s overblown. The market for action and genre film is alive and well, and indie action filmmakers are around every corner now. Come on guys! Get some scripts going and show them we’ve got some clout!

We went over to the South Korean tent, where we learned that America has never done a coproduction there, though it seems it’d be really expensive to do something like that. We ate some leftovers to save money, brainstormed a scifi GENRE concept, ate some cheese and butter, and went to bed.