Saturday, April 30, 2011

Two Weeks in Review

Director David B. Levy, Director Frederick Marx, and moderator Christopher Ramsey, during the Q & A at the Florida Film Festival. "Grandpa" played before Frederick Marx's (Hoop Dreams) new feature "Journey From Zanskar." Photo by Lance Turner

It was an important two weeks, so, of course, I caught a cold. The current spree began a couple of weekends ago when I jetted down to the Florida Film Festival where my “Grandpa” short competed in the doc shorts festival. This festival has a great reputation among animators who have attended over the years. Upon arrival at the Festival’s main location at the lovely Enzian Theatre, I learned almost every volunteer was already familiar with my film, so it was easy to feel welcome and at home. To top it all off, a tropical mural designed by Bill Plympton (see detail below) adorns the walls surrounding the Enzian’s outdoor “Eden” bar.

I’m a late bloomer as an independent filmmaker, so my “Grandpa” short marks the first time I’m entering and getting into film festivals other than ones themed to animation or children’s’ content. The benefit of this is a chance to comingle with a different set of people from the larger communities of narrative and documentary live action shorts and features. That wouldn’t have been a desirable thing to me ten years ago, but now I really appreciate how important it is to have diverse contacts in different areas of film, TV, and the Web. When I was recently discussing this with Mike Rauch, he agreed, adding, “When you meet these live action filmmakers, you become their connection to animation, and they think of you for any of those needs that might come up.”

At the Florida Film Festival, my short opened for a feature (which Bill Plympton tells me is the more desirable way to be programmed, as opposed to being stuck into a batch of shorts). The feature was the new documentary by Frederick Marx (one of the director’s behind “Hoop Dreams,”) called “Journey From Zanskar,” which depicted a trek of Tibetan Monks trying to lead a group of poor village children on a dangerous and spiritual journey to begin new lives training to become Buddhist Monks and Nuns. I met Frederick just before our screening and he told me he was going to stay for my short and then come back for the Q and A. His film was magnificent, and opening for it was tremendous honor. I was blown away that Frederick loved my film too. In fact, we asked each other questions about our respective films during the Q and A!

At a festival, there seems to be great people to meet around every corner. Before I even got to the festival grounds, I shared a ride to the hotel with another filmmaker, Brooklyn-based Vaishali Sinha, who was there to represent her feature documentary (made with producer and co-director Rebecca Haimowitz), “Made in India.” In fact, when I signed in at the festival, the volunteers joked that every filmmaker attending the festival was either from L.A. or Brooklyn. How about that! I wasn’t able to attend Vaishali’s screening, but Debbie (who had flown down to join me at the fest mid-way) and I were so happy when she won the award for Best feature doc at the fest, something that qualifies her and Rebecca for a possible Academy Award nomination! Her film will be screening in the Big Apple at the NY Indian Film Festival, so I have another chance to check it out soon. Another feature doc at the fest was by Lawrence Johnson, a very affable fellow from Portland Oregon, whose film “Stuff,” won a special jury prize at the Festival. He gave me a DVD screener, which I can't wait to check out.

As soon as I got back to NY, my animation team started on the Adult Swim series I’m directing for Boston’s Clambake Animation. Incidentally, I found that the Adult Swim credit had a lot of cache in the film world. Most of the filmmakers I met were aware of that “brand,” and the feeling seemed to be one of respect, knowing that Adult Swim can stand for offbeat animated projects for a cult audience. Animation producer Claire Curley (The Electric Company) once told me, “The best time to promote yourself is when you’re already under contract.” This means that when you have projects going on it’s all the more important to be making the rounds of self-promotion. This way you have the opportunity to capitalize on what you’re doing, by using your current projects to grow your next opportunities.

A still from "Grandpa Looked Like William Powell"

The next week I was promoting “Grandpa” at another festival, this time at Tribeca (right in my home town), where I was competing again in the doc shorts category. Just getting into festivals makes your self-promotion plans easier. Agents, distributors, and other festivals scour the listings of the Tribeca festival (and other festivals). This can lead to invitations to enter other fests (sans fees), as well as offers of representation and distribution, all of which happened to me during my two weeks at the Tribeca Festival. What any of that will amount to, I have no idea. But, it’s nice to have these new opportunities. Festivals are not the be and end all to determine what is good or worthy, but there’s no denying the boost they offer to participating filmmakers.

During the Q and A following the premiere of "Open 24 Hours" a program of 8 shorts at the Tribeca Film Festival. From left to right: Me, Joe DeRosa, Phil Botti, and Vinz Feller.

As an animator entering the Florida Film Festival, Tribeca, Atlanta Film Festival, or The Athens International Film Festival, it was neat to realize that I was a complete nobody in their eyes. I’d never even entered a film in these fests before, so when they saw some merit in “Grandpa” it was not based on how the film compared to my usual work or personal standards. The film had to make it or sink on its own.

Between Tribeca’s nightly parties, and five screenings of my film, there was ample opportunity to meet and connect with many other filmmakers, writers, actors, and producers. Tribeca programmed my film to be the only animated short (or doc) playing with a selection of 7 live action narrative shorts. The first five films were heavy dramatic pieces full of family tension and angst. One was “Storm up the Sky” by Jon Kauffman, who had previously worked as Darren Aronofsky’s assistant on “Black Swan.” Two other favorites of mine were comedic films “Loose Change” by Phil Botti (who’s day job is working at Atlantic Records), and “Cheat” by comedian Joe DeRosa. Through the latter film I got to meet several comics whom appreciated the humor in my film.

Sharon Badal, head programmer of the Tribeca shorts told me that “Grandpa” was used as a transitional film in the program to bridge from drama to comedy. Between Sharon, and Shorts Programmer Ben Thompson, we were in good hands. At one point during a Q and A helmed by Ben Thompson, an audience member asked us a very general question about distribution outlets. Ben briefly and politely answered the question before asking if there were any questions about the actual films screened. All of us filmmakers standing there very much appreciated his savvy handling of the situation.

During the awards party Debbie and I happened to meet Ryan Silbert, who had produced this year’s Oscar winning live action short “God of Love.” I really dug that short when I saw it at the short list Oscar voting, and I was thrilled when it won the Oscar because, so often, comedies don’t get the recognition they deserve. Ryan has capitalized on the Academy Award by starting a production company called Toy Closet Films, with a business partner. Similarly, Jon Kauffman is readying a feature script to ride the momentum of “Black Swan” and his Tribeca short. It was infectious being around all these amazing people for two weeks. I even managed to meet an animator or two, in Canadians Felix Dufour-Laperriere (his film was the experimental “Strips”), and Jordan Canning (“Not Over Easy,” which was part of the fest’s animation shorts program). Felix told me his current job is making an animated film at the legendary Canadian Film Board. I jokingly asked him if Paul Driessen was there, and he replied, “Yes, I say hello to him every morning!”

Smack in the middle of all this Tribeca business, I had to miss one of my screening nights to attend the launch of the book I co-authored with Bill Plympton at NY’s Society of Illustrators. At the “standing room only” event, Bill asked me to say a few words about our collaboration and, afterwards, join him at the table to co-sign the books. Actor Matthew Modine was in attendance too (he’s provided voices on two of Bill’s recent short films), and he revealed that he almost became an animator because of an obsession he had with the Fleischer Popeye’s as a kid. Among the other attendees were famous New Yorker cartoonists’ Sam Gross and Mort Gerberg.

If I'm beaming, its because I'm standing next to two of my biggest heroes in the whole world: Bill Plympton and Howard Beckerman.

This was the kind of two weeks it has been: my usual animation world opening up to include new experiences with players in the world of live action film, illustration, cartooning, and beyond. But, on Sunday Night May 1st, it became all about animation again with the ASIFA-East Animation Festival! During all this hustle I thankfully found some time to beat back my cold, but, unfortunately, before I could, I passed it along to Debbie. But, thankfully the common cold was the only damper on two weeks of fun, inspiration, and free drinks.

I never thought I’d write a book with Bill Plympton, make a short that got into Tribeca, or have a gig directing a series for Adult Swim. But, that’s what’s interesting about a career. Who knows where anything leads? One thing is certain: the steps we take today, however small and spread out, are taking us somewhere... Not knowing the exact where and when is half the fun!


R.Dress said...

Awesome news David! Best of luck with your latest film and book!

Anonymous said...

David, where can we see "Grandpa" online? I'm dying to see it!

David B. Levy said...

Thanks, Rob!

Anonymous, I will have "Grandpa" online once it completes the normal festival run of a year or two. : )
Some festivals don't allow for a film to be online.

Arsenal Animation Studios said...

Hi Dave love your books. Got a quick question about pitching. Do you have to get permission from the company (ie cartoon network) before sending your pitch or can you just send it off without one. How does that work?

David B. Levy said...

Thanks, Arsenal Animation Studios! Before you send off a pitch to a network you need an exec contact to send/pitch to. My advice is to get a casual mtg with an exec where you just show a few loose ideas in 2 page form or so and then see how they react. The purpose of the first meeting is just to get a second meeting. There's always execs listed in magazines like KidScreen or Animation magazine one google the general number of their networks and ask for those execs.. even if you can only reach their assistants, that's still a great start and a wonderful first contact in the company.

Arsenal Animation Studios said...

Thanks Dave for your time. I really appreciate it and i will put your wise words to work. Thanks again.