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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 

Introduction: Our Background

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Introduction: Our Background

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn

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At its core, our desire to explore this area of research comes not from our experience as film producers, but from the time we have spent in political campaigns and specifically in our time working for the Barack Obama presidential campaigns of both 2008 and 2012. In fact, ever since graduating from college, both Josh and Michael have oscillated between endeavors in the political realm and producing work in the independent film world. Before our roles as producer and executive producer on Court 13’s short film “Glory at Sea,” respectively, Josh worked in Michigan on a Senate campaign, while Michael worked at the think tank Center for American Progress in Washington D.C. After the short film had its festival run, we both were brought into the fold of the Obama for America apparatus, which at the time was working with grassroots ideas in new, pioneering ways. We both worked as New Media Directors—each in separate swing states—and were asked to return as Digital Program Managers at the national headquarters of the launch of the 2012 re-election campaign. (Between the campaigns we developed and produced “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” as well as worked our own separate film projects). We each have experience in the field organizing aspects of political campaigns, which plays into our prior knowledge of how these methods and structures work. None of this is to imply that politics and film are one in the same as they differ greatly, and a political campaign can and should have a very different audience than a film outreach program; nonetheless, there is much to be taken from and learned from the expertise of these movements in reaching people and generating excitement and advocacy. And more than anything, we would like to explore the relationship between what works in political campaigns and what can work in film campaigns. However, as producers, we have had experience that has led us to want to explore this topic as well. During our time on films, we have come to appreciate that the same skill set that is required to mobilize enthusiastic voters into becoming volunteers or taking action offline or online is very much at work as a producer. Though the focus of our exploration will be on distribution, consider some parallels at play in the stages of a film’s life that come before its release. For example, though the pre-production and production of Benh Zeitlin’s "Glory at Sea" (on which we served as producer and executive producer, respectively) was entirely unorganized, unstructured, and extremely chaotic, there was definite energy and commitment amongst the crew that got the whole project eventually done – it was the kind of personal emotional investment you can find on the best kinds of grassroots campaigns. However, while on Glory this enthusiasm did not have a real structure in which to operate, on "Beasts of the Southern Wild" we were able to formalize an operation that would best fit for it. During development, before we logistically or financially able to staff up our crew, we mobilized would-be crew members around the Herculean task of finding our young star – more than ten different eventual crew members auditioned almost 4000 young girls all across the state. Similarly, we set up pre-production such that the crew would all be living together, on location along the bayous, with a home base at our headquarters that was social as much as professional. This created a community feeling that was key to our success on the film; everyone became familiar and friendly with each other through the task of building what our movie needed. Finally, the structure of various departments was set up so as to allow room for and encourage creative people who wanted to be working on the film to come down and do it. The production had the feel of a summer camp, where we were all committed to the monumental endeavor of pulling the film off, and each crew member was there because they wanted to be there. It was not a job; it was a community project. (More on Beasts in future posts).

So too are all grassroots campaigns community projects – even political campaigns. It takes a well-run structure to properly organize the enthusiasm of many around a common goal, and campaigns tend to be more structured with this in mind than film productions and distribution operations. We are interested in taking this parallel further, by exploring what other of these campaign methodologies we can put into place in the “community project” of putting out an independent film.

-Michael and Josh