Produced by Conference: MGM, Christopher Nolan and Facebook

Blogging from L.A., Halifax-based producer Marc Almon (pictured) shares trends and insights from the conference for producers.

Blogging from L.A.,Halifax-based producer Marc Almon, attending the Produced By Conference with the support of Film Nova Scotia, shares trends and insights from the conference for producers.

It’s a gorgeous day here in Culver City, where I’m surrounded by movie history on the Sony Pictures lot.  Formerly the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studio, it is a sprawling complex of Art Deco office buildings, huge soundstages, and exquisite theatres named after Hollywood legends such as Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak.  It’s a perfect location for the Producer Guild of America’s annual Produced by Conference.

Joining me at the conference are hundreds of other producers from around the world, and we’re all here to take in a series of panels and discussions on the challenges and opportunities of producing films, television and online content in a fiercely competitive, globalized world.

Dozens of speakers are scheduled, including such industry heavyweights as Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception) and Brian Grazer (Frost/Nixon, A Beautiful Mind), indie producers Sarah Green (Tree of Life, Take Shelter) and Lynette Howell (Blue Valentine, Half Nelson), television producers Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice) and Doug De Luca (Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Man Show), and online executives Allen DeBevoise (CEO, and Charlotte Koh (Head of Development, Hulu).  I’m star-stuck by the line-up of talent, and the hardest part of the conference is deciding which of the overlapping sessions to attend!

The first panel features Christopher Nolan and his producing partner Emma Thomas.  Nolan and Thomas are fascinating figures.  Their work together has defied conventions on an extraordinary scale, influencing mainstream entertainment.  Their first feature together, Following, was made in 1998 for $6,000.

Fast forward fourteen years later, and they’re producing some of the biggest and most exciting blockbusters in Hollywood, including the upcoming Dark Knight Rises.  How they got there is fascinating journey for indie filmmakers looking to make the crossover to studio pictures.

Nolan and Thomas met through a university film society, and after graduation, they made Following over a six-month period, shooting on weekends and secretly editing at night at a post facility.  “We could fit the entire cast and crew in a London taxi” recalled Nolan.  The film was accepted to several festivals, particularly in the United States.  At this point, Nolan had written the script for Memento, and they were determined to use the festival circuit to get their next project off the ground.  “Most people didn’t get it,” said Nolan.  But people responded well to Following, and eventually Memento found a champion in Aaron Ryder at Newmarket Films.

Made for $4 million, Memento made a huge splash with its innovative narrative structure.  The success emboldened Nolan to experiment with stories that provoke “questions of duality,” where audiences realize things aren’t what they seem at first.  “I like stories where you’re in a maze with the characters.”

From there, Nolan and Thomas worked with larger and larger budgets.  But despite the change in production size, their core team remained much the same.  “We’ve grown up together,” Thomas noted.  Nolan believes “the experience you get making smaller films is very valuable when you make bigger films,” and that’s been a key factor to their success.

The next panel is entitled “Marketing Innovation: Finding and Keeping Your Audience”.  The speakers include Dwight Caines, President of Worldwide Digital Marketing at Sony Pictures, Troy Carter, CEO and Founder of Atom Factory, Kay Madati, Head of Entertainment at Facebook, and Amy Powell, President of Insurge Pictures and Paramount Digital.

Powell, who was a key figure in the Paranormal Activity phenomenon, kicked things off with the philosophy behind her studio’s new approach to low-budget productions and use of digital technologies to promote them.  You need to find “pockets of audiences and produce content for them.”

Caines agreed: “You need elements [in the movie] that have established communities.”  You need to be asking yourself: “What’s the social voice of this film?  What’s authentic?”  You should be starting to try to “own” the audience at the very beginning, before the film is even made.

Madati explains the role Facebook has in supporting this new approach to making and marketing films: “Facebook is a discovery platform.”  You should be asking yourself, “How can you have a conversation about the content with your audience?”

Key to this viral, peer-to-peer approach to marketing is targeting “the believers,” says Powell.  “Embrace them… give them first looks” at exclusive content.  Provide them the motivation and the tools to be ambassadors for the film.

“Exclusivity is crucial for true fans,” Caines noted.  You should be asking yourself, what can you do to find the “relevant user” and empower them to tell your story?  “Friend-to-friend discovery is super-powerful,” agreed Madati.

If you love your movie, you have to engage in “hand-to-hand combat,” Powell states, where every person you convince to share on Facebook, Twitter or other platforms can lead to multiples of other people seeing your film.  You can even hand out postcards at theatres telling people how to share the film with their community.

For indie filmmakers, Carter acknowledges it’s intimidating.  His advice is to ask yourself, “Who are your first fifty?”  If you can envision your first fifty paying customers, it becomes easier to figure out how to reach larger numbers.

“Each friend has hundreds of other friends.  The network can work for you very quickly,” adds Powell.  All this effort contributes to making your small movie an event, something people have to see.  And any film, no matter the budget, has the potential to achieve this in the new world of Facebook and other online platforms.

Whew!  These two sessions were just in the morning of the first day.  Stay tuned for more insights in my next blog entry.