Why Not a Non-Profit?

This post originally appeared on Ted Hope’s blog Hope For Film

I don’t have any statistics on this, but from what I can gather anecdotally, forming a non-profit to make a fictional feature film is a pretty rare thing, but it’s what I’ve done for my new (second) feature, Test, and it’s been a great experience. Mostly great. At first I did have to endure snarky questions from my non-filmmaking friends, along the lines of: “Aren’t you just admitting your film won’t make any money?” Well, no... (more on that later). From my filmmaking friends the response was more of a blank stare, followed by: “I don’t know anyone else who’s done that.”

There are a lot of filmmakers out there who make one feature and then stop. They didn’t break through to that magical “next level,” and there’s no way they’re doing the same thing all over again. But for those of us who are determined to keep making films on a small scale, truly independently -- and who actually enjoy it -- it makes sense to explore new models in a distribution landscape that’s in the midst of its own creative destruction and reconfiguring. 

Maybe there are filmmakers out there like me who had some very modest success with a first feature -- you sold it to a small distributor and/or cable, you got it on Netflix, you made a few foreign sales -- and you want to do it again. But you also want to retain creative power and control. Doing that means thinking small, as in small budgets and a realistic business (or non-profit) model.

What I’m talking about here is an ultra-low-budget feature without stars, made for, say, 200 to 300K. The kind of movie that may do a two-week theatrical in select cities but then lives mostly on the internet and cable. It’s seems to me that the ontology of a film like that is a lot closer to other projects that use non-profits -- e.g., documentary films, dance companies, off-Broadway productions -- than it is to a large-scale independent film with stars and a budget in the millions, let alone to a Hollywood production.

A non-profit isn’t right for all projects, obviously. Comedies without any socially relevant/meaningful content, for example, wouldn’t make sense. And yes, you do need to prove “educational value” to the IRS. The non-profit I’ve created, Serious Productions, Inc., will have a life beyond Test and has a broader mission statement that Test fits into: to capture aspects of LGBT lives and experience that might otherwise be lost in the bigger historical narratives that dominate. Test is set in 1985 San Francisco, and takes a very personal look at young dancers caught up in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. It’s a story that hasn’t been told and might be lost if it isn’t.

After Test has finished its festival, theatrical and initial VOD runs (fingers crossed!), my non-profit will still exist and can become an incubator for future material and a means to cultivate future collaborators. I can imagine projects under the non-profit rubric (oral histories, video portraits) that keep me working and generating material in between the long span that inevitably separates feature films these days, and these projects can, in turn, generate material for those future features.

So I’ve probably raised more questions than I’ve answered, but here’s a list, in no particular order, of what I’ve liked about forming a non-profit. Maybe there are some answers embedded in here:

  • You can still pay yourself a fee as a writer/director/producer/editor, etc., and you can of course still pay everyone who works for you.
  • You can still form an LLC for those investors who really want to invest rather than donate (bless them!). I have an LLC for TEST, and about 25% of my budget comes from private equity investment.
  • Actual investors will recoup much faster, because the grants and donations don’t need to recoup.
  • Fewer K-1s to send out at tax time!
  • Your non-profit can buy units in your LLC, so that some money recoups to the non-profit for overhead. This gets tricky; talk to a lawyer.
  • You don’t need to set up Fiscal Sponsorship in order to apply for grants or accept donations -- you are your own 501-c-3 -- and you don’t lose the 5-7% cut that a fiscal sponsor takes.
  • The world of grants for fictional features is small, but it’s a great world and great to explore, full of people who care about movies and content. The San Francisco Film Society is one organization that’s granted me on Test (via the Kenneth Rainin Foundation) and they’ve been an amazing partner on the project.
  • Beyond actual grants, there is also a whole world of foundations out there that are basically set up by wealthy individuals who need to write off money for tax purposes. Some of these people love independent film!
  • Anyone can give you a tax-deductible donation; you are not limited to grants and foundations.
  • If you do a Kickstarter campaign, you can offer your donors a tax deduction via your 501-c-3, something that Kickstarter itself cannot do.
  • Fundraising is more emotionally rewarding! When people are donating rather than investing, because they care about the material in a different way, the whole vibe is different. To me, the relationship feels less cynical and more genuine.

A final word: you can’t do any of this without a good lawyer who already understands the non-profit landscape, preferably from working with documentary filmmakers. Also, you can’t fake it. Your content really does have to be serious. 


A Gay Comedy That Doesn’t Rely On Stereotypes?

I was lucky enough to have my recent feature film Test (now streaming on Netflix ) play at several mainstream festivals — Berlin, Palm Springs, Seattle — in addition to dozens of wonderful LGBTQ festivals worldwide. And yes, I’m ashamed to admit I wanted that mainstream validation. I’m not always comfortable being “ghettoized” in the gay film festival slash distribution niche. It’s true those LGBTQ festivals can be the most amazing experiences. A sold-out audience at the Castro in SF? The Ford Amphitheater in LA on a summer night? You can’t beat either of those — thank you, Frameline and Outfest. 

Also, not insignificantly, in an era when plenty of very good not-gay indies make zero money and don’t get distribution at all, there remains an actual, viable market (still holding on!) for LGBTQ films, with real MGs (thank you, Wolfe Video) and foreign sales. Which is all to say: it’s good being gay in the micro indie world. (As for the major indie world, with budgets over 1M, that’s a different and more tortured story.)

So, with all that good fortune and real business going on — however micro it may be in the big industry picture — why am I still uncomfortable with so-called gay “ghettoization”?

I think it’s because: there are a lot of embarrassingly bad, pandering gay comedies out there, and to the chagrin of queer cinephiles they tend to draw the biggest crowds at queer festivals and tend to define those festivals in some important way. These bad comedies make me sad about the state of queer filmmaking. They make me sad on two levels: 1) they have no regard for images as such; the pictures only exist to capture what’s on the page; and 2) they rely on shrill gay stereotypes that feel more and more dated, as the extended Uncle Tom phase of our collective evolution refuses to die (thank you, network sitcoms). And when you combine those two things — tired stereotypes and perfunctory filmmaking — it’s a knockout punch of cringe-worthy shame, for this queer viewer at least.

It’s not as if bad comedies and bad filmmaking don’t exist at the “straight” festivals. Lord knows they do! Perhaps the straight equivalent is all those tortured rom-coms or three-act Screenwriting Lab cookie-cutter dramas that, also, seem to have ignored the fact that cinema is an audio-visual medium and not just a dialogue-driven, filmed “script” of dubious excellence but industry-sanctioned three-act structure (see my previous blog post on that subject). 

So, snark and hating aside, what’s my point? Well, I’m very happy that gay dramas seem to have turned the corner and are beginning to live up to the promise of early Queer Cinema. I’m thinking of movies like Weekend and Keep the Lights On and, yes, I hope and believe, my movie Test (now streaming on Netflix — did I mention that?). And now I’m wondering if — and hoping that — our queer comedies can grow up too. Isn’t it about time? Let’s have some Renoir or Mazursky or David O. Russell or Lena Dunham-inspired New Queer Comedies to join our New Queer Dramas at the Real Filmmaking Table. Stop pandering and start exploring. Enough with the skit-ideas out of a bad Glee episode. And if you are drawn to gay stereotypes, maybe explore them for a sense of verisimilitude and pathos and not always the cheap laugh? 

It’s hard to take sissies seriously, I know. That was one of my inspirations for Test: to show gay male dancers as real human beings and avoid all the easy “men in tights” sniggering. And it’s probably no accident that our greatest gay romance, Brokeback Mountain, takes place as far as possible from gay caricature and the urban milieu in which it thrives. But does it immediately follow that every gay comedy or dramedy that does engage those stereotypes has to devolve to the lowest common denominator of wisecracking so-called gay “wit”? I’m all for embracing the sissy in all of us and breaking down effeminaphobia. But I do think we have to examine carefully our cynical tendencies — as a gay/queer culture that wants to make money, or at least make a living — to cash in on the expected and deliver just another shuck and jive, another sissy minstrel show.

That’s point one, the stereotypes. Point two: the quality of the filmmaking. In the mainstream, it’s pretty common knowledge that comedy has always been less “cinematic” in general than drama. Bright lighting, simple composition, straightforward editing, and an uncomplicated toneless-tone are the hallmarks of mainstream comedy. That mode, when done well, can showcase brilliant material in a simple way (Bridesmaids, et al). But that toneless tone is deceptively simple. It is an industrial product that costs multiple millions to deliver. Don’t try to imitate it on a shoestring. The whole point is: it’s expensive, even if it doesn’t look like it is.

But comedy doesn’t have to have that flat, generic look and feel. There have always been exceptions, movies that are both funny and also count as cinema in some important sense: from Keaton/Chaplin to Paul Mazursky to (some) Woody Allen to indie directors like Greg Mottola, Noah Baumbach, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. And the good news about “cinematic cinema” is that it’s not necessarily expensive. It’s a common misconception that down-and-dirty guerrilla filmmaking must look rough. On the contrary, this is where you can be bold: with the look, sound and feel of your film. 

So: a call to arms! Let’s have some gay comedies that a) explore multi-dimensional characters with real depth and nuance, no matter how typically “masculine” or “feminine” they may be on the surface; and 2) some gay comedies that respect cinema as such and don’t see it merely as a means to the end of filming your screenplay. As gay men especially, we have a complicated history when it comes to our court jester function of making ‘em laugh. Everyone loves to laugh. But if we want to make grown-up comedies, I think we have to look carefully at what lies underneath that gay impulse. Let’s keep making ‘em laugh, but let’s do it a little more seriously.

As for the LGBTQ festivals that have been so important to my career and given me so much pleasure and emotion: I respect what they do and sympathize with their plight. They need to sell tickets and a certain kind of film still draws them in, even if it ultimately disappoints as much as it rewards. Luckily for us, the people who run those festivals are very smart, and they know and understand movies. If you make a good movie – comedy or drama – they will program it. If they program it, you may sell it. Let’s keep that market alive and growing, with new and fresh films and not just more of the same.

Thinking About Screenwriting in a New (Old) Way Or: A Call To Arms!

This post originally appeared in Filmmaker Magazine

When I wrote my recent feature Test I ignored the usual advice about screenwriting structure. It was a leap of faith and an experiment in not knowing. Compared to earlier writing experiences (a co-written first feature, The New Twenty, and two other scripts that didn’t get made), the process may have been difficult, but it felt right. In addition to letting myself not know the story until after it was written, I also ignored standard industry orthodoxy about keeping description to a minimum. I wanted a movie with long sequences that had no dialogue, that depended on image and sound. If I didn't want a 50 page feature film script, how could I do that without elaborating on the visual and descriptive elements? 

Sitting down to write I did have a strong sense of what my tone would be, and I had a protagonist and setting: a nervous young male dancer in 1985 just as the AIDS epidemic was exploding but before there was a test for HIV. But I made no outlines. I planned no arcs. I crafted no "turning points" in advance. I just wrote. Bit by bit, moment by moment, scene by scene. I let the story speak to me.

As I was writing I was pretty sure my lead character Frankie would end up, in the final scene of the movie, in bed with another character named Tommy. (Warning: spoiler ahead.) But when I got to the end, it hit me in a wonderful "D'oh!" moment that instead he should end up in bed with a very different character, the bad boy named Todd. Then I looked back at the script and saw that the seeds of this new plotline had been magically planted without my knowledge, and all I had to do was go back and give these beats a little love so everything lined up (to mix several metaphors).

I have seen the new ending delight audiences at festivals worldwide. It's a mild, contented kind of delight suffused with hope and tempered by the seriousness of the subject, and that's exactly the kind of philosophical and tonal note it now seems perfect to end on. Test isn't another elegy about the AIDS era. We have seen the elegy. It's something else. It is, to put it bluntly, about hope. But as for the new ending relative to the writing process, the point is, as Robert Frost said: "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." I don't think this ending, and the movie as a whole, would be fresh if I had planned it all out.

Coming out of this experience I have become a preacher for doing it differently and a critic of the status quo. So if you really don't care what I think, stop reading now. Who am I to pontificate, after all? I’m just another independent filmmaker with 2 features under his belt and there are a lot of us. On the other hand, if you're sick of the accepted wisdom about screenplay "structure" and how to write within that form, then I issue a call to arms: Let’s move (at long last!) away from the last thirty years of now-institutionalized screenplay-writing group-think! (Caveat: I'm not talking about TV, with its long form and team-driven process, just movies.)

Why do we plan it all out? In every other form of story-driven fiction – the short story, the novel, playwriting – it's a well known foundation of the process that the writer does not know what she's writing until after she's written it. The process involves getting comfortable with uncertainty and trusting the story to reveal itself to you. (Two good books that talk about this process in more detail: Dani Shapiro's Still Writing and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird.) Sure, the writer might have a frame or theme or starting point – a moment, a character, an idea – like "old age in an urban setting" or "mother daughter conflict" or "roadside bomb diffuser" or "young male dancer in 1985." But that foothold or frame aside, the idea of outlining and plotting in advance (Screenwriting Orthodoxy demands an advance knowledge of Goals! Turning Points! Act Breaks! Character Arcs! Character Back Stories! Etc.!) is pretty broadly shunned by other forms of creative writing. So why does screenwriting think it's so special?

Historically we can maybe trace it to the Syd Field moment, but it's not fair to say anything was "caused" by him, because the Screenwriting Process Orthodoxy Movement (SPOM?) was a cultural and historical development larger than any individual. Fueled by money and therefore fear, hope and impatience; by the momentum and bottom lines of graduate programs and an ever-growing wall of books at Barnes & Noble; as well as most of the industry in Hollywood — which altogether is a lot! — there is real cultural and historical force behind SPOM. I see it as a little like the low-fat diet movement of the last 50 years: deeply entrenched, fundamentally wrong, very difficult to dislodge.

There are a lot of very smart people who have bought into the SPOM paradigm, probably for job-protecting reasons, whether they know it or not. Others pay lip service to it. And the Really True Believers defend their Orthodox Position by pointing to great movies and saying: See! Three acts! And look at those perfectly timed turning points! I can graph them out for you! They give it all the patina of science. But as science, or basic logical analysis, this is nonsense. Finding the form you were looking for proves nothing other than: you were looking for the form and you found it. Does the form exist? Sure, why not. So do a lot of other forms we might find. But the main point is the outrageous leap the SPOM True Believers make, which is: Now That We Have Identified The True Form Of Movies, We Must Reverse Engineer To Write Them In This Form. This conclusion is almost Orwellian in its circular stupidity. But answers are reassuring and we love a quick fix. Also, entire institutions and economies are now built around these assumptions. Luckily, we have something called independent filmmaking. How independent can you be?

I'm not denying that mainstream and independent feature films do tend to break up into large parts of roughly equal length (a.k.a. 3 acts that are really 4; see Kristin Thompson's Storytelling in the New Hollywood for a brilliant rethinking of the “act” paradigm), nor am I denying that all kinds of well-known structural elements in narrative movies are useful to the craft: turning points, wants/needs, act breaks, beats, etc. I'm simply saying: so what? It's better to forget about all of that and just write, and you have a better chance of doing something original if you do. You can always look at the shape of the thing later and adjust it. 

After all, wouldn't you rather watch a movie — like Boogie Nights or Boyhood or Blue — that is genuinely different? That explores digression in a fearless way (Boogie Nights), or takes a profound conceptual idea, courtesy of Roland Barthes, as the heart of its story (Boyhood), or writes with image/sound rather than dialogue (Blue)? Thinking in the same way about creative work will probably lead to more of the same, and the SPOM True Believers are nothing if not same-thinkers. But who wants more of the same?

So: a call to arms! Let's take back screenwriting from the three-act, deterministic formula peddlers, no matter how intoxicating and "proven" their methodological snake oil might seem, and let's jump into the creative waters that all the other creative writers have been swimming in rather expertly. Let’s admit a) we don't know what we're doing and b) that's as it should be. Not knowing is fun. Jump. Chances are you'll swim.

Chris Mason Johnson’s new feature film TEST was a NY Times Critics Pick and now streams on Netflix. His first feature was THE NEW TWENTY (2009). Chris also teaches film production and screenwriting at Amherst College and California College of the Arts in San Francisco. He danced in the Frankfurt Ballet and with Mikhail Baryshnikov in the White Oak Dance Project before transitioning to film.