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Hustle and Grow: Alric Brown on the Art and Business of Film
As much as it is an art form, film is also a business and filmmakers. So, Jamaican born filmmaker Alrick Brown, director of the Sundance Award wining film Kinyarwanda, was invited by the Calabash Literary Trust to share insights with members of the Jamaican film industry. His “workchat” was presented by the Calabash Trust and the Jamaica Film Producers Association with support from JAMPRO which hosted the event at their New Kingston office.
“Alrick Brown, born here in Kingston Jamaica,” He said by way of introduction. “I’ve said that a million times, but I’ve never said that in Jamaica.” His talk wended between his own journey to filmmaking and the lessons accrued on the way. He was charming and engaging yet direct as he presented what advice he could about the film business, without the varnish. He spoke about writing, casting, production, budgeting and distribution and marketing.
As he laid out his advice to the gathering of aspiring, semi-professional and professional filmmakers, Brown explained that he considered himself neither an expert, nor smarter than anyone else in the room. Instead, what he offered was years of knowledge gained through the failures and successes of some of the world’s best filmmakers, with whom he had worked.
Brown described each of his films as a lesson plan aimed at teaching something. He therefore identified voice and perspective as important tools for a film maker. Time and again he reiterated the value of humility. “Humility is a wonderful place from which to see the world,” Brown explained after the talk. “I got to a place of trying to understand people rather than judging them.”
Despite the often political nature of his work, as highlighted in Kinyarwanda, Brown explained that it was important to get beyond anger. “Anger by itself is not enough to create change.” He explained that instead when anger is used to fuel passion and is then tempered by wisdom, one can produce art that can create real change.
He noted that a writer’s greatest strength is his or her voice. His voice had been crafter by his life in Jamaica, Plainsville New Jersey, and Africa. A graduate of Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, Brown explained that he believes in making things understandable while elevating his audience, as opposed to “dumbing down” the information. Brown describes the script as the great equalizer, as it is the basis upon which any great film is made, but it doesn’t take money to get done. “Scriptwriting is like writing poetry. Say the most with the least,” Brown explained.
Of course, once one has moved from script to actually making a film, it is important that it reaches an audience. So, a large part of the day’s discussion focused on getting films seen. “I’m not a masturbatory artist,” Brown said. “I make art that people will see.”.
Brown enunciated, that having a clear distribution strategy was critical to independent filmmakers. “Your job is not just to make a movie. Your job is to figure out marketing and distribution.” he said.
“Every movie I make, I imagine that nobody wants to see it. So how do I make them get up and take notice.” He makes reference to the problems faced with getting audiences to see Kinyarwanda, explaining that the film had very little automatic draw as it was about genocide, was devoid of stars and contained little violence.
Brown also pointed out that theatrical release does not guarantee profitability. He explained that without the mega advertising budget of major studio projects, independent producers need to maximize their connections. The producer needs to understand, respect and court the audience for his or her film project.
Brown explains that festivals are a great way to build audiences for independent films. He illustrated the point with his strategy for Kinyarwanda. “Film festivals are a hustle. They’re a beautiful hustle, but they’re a hustle.” Brown explained a two-pronged approach to this strategy. First he pointed to the value of building audience anticipation at Sundance where the film premiered. Subsequently, he then played Kinyarwanda at over 20 festivals in just a few months. He also pointed out that most film festivals make money from the entry fees. He explained that producers should therefore target festivals that are likely to select their work.
At the core of his argument for showing these strategies, is the understanding that Hollywood is skewed against minorities and women. “I know nobody’s looking for me, cause nobody was looking for Spike Lee. Nobody’s looking for the next Spike Lee,” Brown explained. He therefore pointed out that independent producers need to go out and make their films happen, as no one will hand it to them.
“The system is broken,” he said. “So what you do you do? You understand the system and then play that game.” With the advice provided, those in the room became a little better equipped to play.