Q+A: "Amity" Film Director Alejandro Adams on Quibi, Netflix and Other Industry Changes
Writer-director Alejandro Adams has four features under his belt: Around the Bay, Canary, Babnik, and Amity. We get down to business in this interview for you current and aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters out there, chatting how streaming is changing, advice, and how much to use of your own life story!
Do you finance most of the budget on your own movies? How much of the financing if any comes from crowdfunding? Approaching corporations or individuals? How do you separate your work from people having too much creative input due to financing?
I have never crowd-funded a movie. A few guys I know from years ago crowd-funded a few short films at the same time this past summer, then they shared equipment and resources and crewed for each other. They got an Alexa and went all out. That seems like a smart way to do it. I couldn’t imagine doing the big tent ringmaster thing for a project of my own.
But to get back to your main question, I was fortunate to work with people who were starved for work and the subject of money never came up. We treated it like community theater--doing it because we love it, not because there’s a paycheck. And that dreaded word “hobby” is fine with me. We shot on weekends. I wouldn’t do it that way now because I hit the ceiling in terms of achievement with that kind of filmmaking. I mean rave reviews in Variety, NY Times, Village Voice, Box Office, and a reputation among so-called film snobs on social media. So there’s nothing left to aspire to. But many people in the Bay Area benefited from working with me, and I certainly benefited from working with them. It wasn’t about “getting somewhere” as much as doing meaningful creative work.
Asking someone how they got into filmmaking is kind of boring. Everyone makes their first small movie; people can read how to do that online. The end. I will change it to this: how do you plan to jump from making your movies as you are now to those enormous studio movies people get Golden Globes nominations on? Yes, for anyone reading this interview, you don’t show up with a good movie and get nominated. A good movie only matters so much. Studios spend big money campaigning for awards nominations and wins! Studios spend huge money on little movies! If you’ve heard of a movie, studio money was behind it. The very reason why studio work is still in 2019 an end goal for filmmakers who want audiences to find their work.
This is interesting timing. I haven’t done an interview in a long time, and you’ve approached me at the very moment I’m getting a series pilot going with an A-list partner, a guy who’s actually a studio tentpole guy but transitioning to series showrunner. And that world is completely new to me. A big budget studio feature film would also be new to me, but at least I understand the mechanics of that. With TV, the showrunners, writers’ rooms, longevity of material--all of that is so alien. I have some feature scripts and they would be fairly cheap to make, but the truth is it’s much easier to get a series going right now. A guy I know who produced some of Kelly Reichardt’s films is always telling me that the $2-5M festival film with a recognizable lead actor in an award-worthy role is impossible to make now. No one wants to spend that little. And the way my own projects are trickling out into the world, I would say he’s right. Turn your humble feature into a series pilot and you’ll get more meetings. That’s just how it is right now. Money people would rather spend $30M to see your idea eight times than spend $5M to see it once.
How long do you think Netflix will be popular? Or this whole streaming setup generally? A while back, people thought things were going to be the same forever until Netflix crept in. What will happen for filmmakers aspiring to be established in this decade and the next?
I think Netflix is going to be a smaller player soon because of Apple, Warners, Disney, NBC, Quibi and all the other streaming services that are emerging with proprietary content. Netflix can keep creating but they’ll lose licensing for older product like FRIENDS or whatever. Some of these vertically integrated companies are going to destroy Netflix in that space, controlling the production and then releasing on their dedicated streaming platforms. But streaming is not at risk of going away as a business model.
Quibi is exciting because it’s experimenting with form. It’s saying there’s something between TikTok and a feature film. If you put Adam Driver in something directed by Steven Spielberg, people don’t care if it’s only five minutes, they’ll watch it. You build the market by forcing their eyeballs to it. The contract Antoine Fuqua got with Quibi is truly revolutionary and could represent one of the great turning points in film history, like the advent of sound. He gets to make a film for the Quibi platform but then he retains the rights so he can release whatever version he wants later without interference. That’s a director owning a film as if it’s his own property, top to bottom, without putting a cent of production money into it. No other production outfit or studio is offering anything like that. It’s unheard of. So crazy it just might work.
Do you think it is better to be autobiographical in your work themes/scenes or worse? There is no wrong answer. We are talking about your personal work and ideas towards it. Does either one “sell” better for mass appeal? In music, it used to be you worshipped people with personal tunes and lately, industry professionals are recommending producers to write generic song lyrics for streaming success.
Autobiographical stuff seems like a poor idea to start with. Do it down the road. It’s like writing a memoir in your first attempt to get noticed by a publisher. Novels are the better way to get noticed as a prose writer. I’m not saying you have to write stupid cliches that are inauthentic, but if you start saying “I lived this, that’s why it’s important,” that’s not the best way to be taken seriously. And if you have an autobiographical script and you’re determined to push on producers, you need to have a handful of other scripts or spec pilots that indicate your range and talent more generally. If you bomb that meeting with your autobiographical script, you’re not getting another shot.
But if you want a good analogy to “generic song lyrics,” look at all the cookie cutter horror films that are on the streaming platforms. That’s what streaming success looks like, unfortunately.
Obviously, you are going to attract different kinds of people than someone else would or I might. We all are. How do you know which publications and websites are the best to approach and which kinds of demographics are ideal for your movies, or demographics for people caring about you the person?
When I made my first two films back-to-back, I was going from a very humanistic story about a blended family, with a lot of contemplative close-ups and expressive use of sound, to a cynical sci-fi satire of the start-up world of Silicon Valley, shot in multiple languages. Whiplash in terms of style, tone, thematic preoccupations and the stories I was trying to tell. I went from a cast of maybe five people sitting around a house to a cast of nearly 100 shooting in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Palo Alto and every nook and cranny of the Bay Area. So I’m not the best person to ask about demographics. My films are idiosyncratic and aggressive. People looking for something “way out there” might be my target audience.
What is some terrible advice people have given you about filmmaking and promoting yourself that no sane, ambitious filmmaker should ever follow? What is better advice coming from you?
Okay, this question is a truly great one, but I’m going to change it a bit because I didn’t really get any advice from anyone when I was starting down this path. Instead I can tell you how things have changed so much that I wouldn’t give anyone the advice I might have given them five years ago.
When I was getting this ball rolling, the world of low-budget independent films was way more open. I was able to connect with people like Karina Longworth, Glenn Kenny, AA Dowd or Mike D’Angelo directly and nudge them to watch my films. I tried that recently with a new wave of critics and it just doesn’t work. That world is no longer open. It’s all about news cycles and everyone is desperately clinging to outlets. They’re not really out there championing groundbreaking little films anymore because they can’t. The structure isn’t as loose. So here I was being my own publicist 10 years ago, knocking it out of the park, with these critics putting me on the map in a big way, and then a year ago I undertook the exact same approach and this time it was crickets. That context literally doesn’t exist anymore--filmmakers emailing critics out of the blue and saying “Please watch my film.” It doesn’t affect me because I’ve already had all the recognition I’m likely to get on that front, but knowing that avenue is closed to younger filmmakers is unfortunate. But I get it. Maybe if you’re Twitter pals with a critic you can get them to watch your film, but I’m talking about real cold calling. Just like the DSLR craze, there was a phase during which critics wanted to discover regional filmmakers and get the word out.
What are some of the low moments and hard work you wish people out there knew about filmmaking life? I will start with one everyone tells me: actors and people in the arts have a harder time getting day jobs until they can depend on their entertainment careers. You could have a master’s degree and everyone is out waiting tables or working at the mall. Nothing matters. People discriminate against people in the arts. Why? I don’t know. Some theorize you are inappropriate for corporate life, or they enjoy punishing you thinking you are loaded rich from acting.
I heard somewhere that Lynn Shelton worked on salmon fishing boats in Alaska in order to offset her filmmaking habit when she was starting out. I don’t care if it’s true, it’s a glorious thing to have in the back of your mind at four a.m. I hope it’s true, but it really doesn’t matter.
I’m in Silicon Valley, and I can tell you that the belt is tightening here for anyone in the arts. It’s just not a thing. A few weeks ago I told someone I’m in arts, culture and education. I explained that run a film screening series and I dabble on the production side and teach film at the college level. The guy nodded and said, “Eccentric.” No it’s not fucking eccentric to be in arts and culture or educating people in arts and culture.
Do you believe you have discovered your style as a filmmaker or it is still developing? Some people find it their first movie and others not for a decade or more until it appears to them.
Nah, style is particular to the project. I’ve done improvised stuff, handheld, and I’ve done scripted stuff with clinical visuals. Sometimes I think I want to go back to spending a year just editing footage and counting frames and sometimes I just want to write and not be around actors. But all that informs style. Because if you’re being maniacal about what’s on the page, you’re not going to shoot it loose and create material on set, and then you’re not going to have 100 hours of footage to edit. It eats its own tail.
Do you have any stories of “failure” that ended up working for you?
Sure, all kinds of technical stuff. I wouldn’t want to have a bad screening or a bad encounter with a producer, but technical problems while shooting usually have positive outcomes. I eventually stopped pulling my hair out over that kind of stuff. For me, bad production audio, camera angles that don’t match, even totally wrecking the color balance of a 45-minute take by nudging a button inadvertently--I’ve turned lemons into lemonade so many times I’m not even sure I could get angry or stressed if something went wrong along those lines.
What are you working on right now in the film world?
So back to my “common sense” or “read the room” note to those trying to get a feature film made...this really ain’t the best time for that. So I’m not kicking the tires on the film world at the moment. We had a good time. It’s a bingeable streaming world and filmmakers are just living in it.