UPDATED: On New Year’s Day, Deadline wrote about the plight of director Hal Hartley, who had till Saturday to raise $92,000 to be able to make his next film, Where To Land. He sought to raise the money through Kickstarter, which is how he has funded five previous modestly budget films. Well, he’s now six for six. Hartley’s film passed the $300,000 minimum threshold, with one day to spare. Good for Deadline readers, who surely helped his cause and start off the year knowing a worthy indie filmmaker is still in business.
EXCLUSIVE, January 1, 9:51 A.M.: Stalwart independent writer/director Hal Hartley’s next film has a ticking clock thriller mechanism built into it, even before he begins shooting a scene. Hartley, still going some 30 years after bursting on the scene with a bunch of other maverick moviemakers in the indie heyday of the 1990s, needs about $92,000 to complete the funding on his $300,000 budget film through Kickstarter. And he only has until January 4 to do it or the movie won’t happen. This despite the fact Hartley just added Edie Falco to Where To Land, alongside Bill Sage, Tatiana Abracos, Robert Burke, Jade Golden, Aida Johannes, Elina Löwensohn, DJ Mendel, Parker Posey and Jay Thomas.
Hartley several years ago changed the way he got financing for his films, moving from traditional indie fund raising to crowd funding directly to his core audience around the world. He found that demand for indie filmmakers like himself waned and that relying on the traditional pre-sales and festival circuit methods wouldn’t work anymore. At the same time, Hartley found that he had built up a loyal fan based for his movies in the U.S. and some offshore territories. So he began a direct appeal to those fans for the money to make his movies. It is a method of extending the career of an incurable indie filmmaker that a maverick like John Cassavetes might admire.
“All my career, I never really wanted to reach too far for subject matter,” Hartley told Deadline. “I wound up writing about people who were around me, even when it was completely fictional, like The Unbelievable Truth and Trust. Around 2010, I started putting a lot of my creative energy toward focusing on making up little fictions out of material that comes from every day experience. That yielded movies like Meanwhile, and a collection of short films. I like that; it feels a little more like a novelist’s work, where you pay more attention to the finer details of commonly experienced day to day life.”
As Hartley prepares to turn 60, he found himself thinking about what a lot of people in that age range do as they near the end of the back nine of their professional careers and eye retirement. Have they done their jobs so long that what they do for a living defines who they are, leaving no room for change and reinvention? It was a dilemma Hartley watched his iron worker father face while growing up in Lindenhurst, Long Island.
Said Hartley: “I wanted to address something personal: what’s it like to be a man of certain age, the age my father was at when he retired. He was 58 years old, and he lived for another 30 years ago. I thought, wow, that is like another career. What do you do? He was an iron worker and he said he couldn’t wait to stop doing it and he’d figure out how to be a good grandfather, and apply himself to things like that. I would talk to friends at a similar age. We now are expected to live a lot longer than our fathers did and you wonder, is it okay to have a career change at that point in your life, where you say, yes, I dedicated 30 years to this particular thing, in my case filmmaking, but do I have to continue doing this until I drop dead? Or can I do something different? Is that allowed?”
Hartley has run the premise past younger members of his core audience and they have a different reaction: “They said, ‘no, you have to keep doing this. This is what you are. I grew up watching your films. You have to do this.’ There were opportunities here for funny conversation on how people continue to grow and mature as they get older. For me, personally, I always thought, when I’m 40, I’ll be organized, and I’ll be the perfect man. Then you get there, and you’re still just a kid.”
He found a handle in a protagonist who sounds similar to Hartley himself, a New Yorker who married actress Miho Nikaido after they worked together in his film Flirt. In Where To Land, Joseph Fulton is a well-regarded fifty-eight year-old director of romantic comedies, who decides he wants to work outdoors and be close to nature, and so he aspires to become assistant groundskeeper at a local cemetery. As he draws up his will, his actress girlfriend thinks he must be dying and is too stoic to tell anyone. The rumor spreads and soon everyone he knows has crowded into his small apartment to say their farewells.
After five previous successful Kickstarter fundraisers, Hartley went that route again. It is an intriguing process for a filmmaker who is content to make modest, personal movies that appeal to a specific audience willing to pay for the privilege of watching his films.
“The kind of business I was in when my career started in the 1990s, it doesn’t exist anymore,” Hartley said. “My artistic inclinations are still the same, though. I’m not a corporate manufacturer of entertainment. I’m not terribly good at that, though I’ve enjoyed having jobs as a director for hire for corporations like Amazon (he directed episodes of the series Red Oaks), and I enjoyed it tremendously. You got a lot more money, worked with nice people, but it’s an impersonal thing. But to pursue my own art, my own craft, I needed to invent a new way, a new economy and that’s what the Kickstarter crowd sourcing thing has provided me. I’m lucky enough to have an established fan base around the world large enough so that I could, as I’m doing now, essentially ask people to pre-buy the Blu-ray, the book the CD, all the stuff I create, and wait a year to get it. About 60-65% of the money we raise is from people who are just putting up $100 in anticipation of the film, the music and the book and some other things, a year in advance. Then there are other people who buy tangible things that are useful to them, like executive producer credit. These are real things for them. As far as I’m concerned, what most of the producers I’ve worked in the more conventional film world bring, is money. And that’s how I can make a modest living doing the kind of work I want to do.”
Working on such small margins makes it a challenge to add an actress like four-time Emmy winner Falco, who’ll play the protagonist’s ex-wife and best friend. It all comes down to relationships. Falco got her start on the Hartley-directed films The Unbelievable Truth and Trust.
“I hesitated asking her to do this one,” Hartley said. “Bill Sage is very close friends with Edie, and he lobbied for her to play this particular role as Joe’s ex-wife, Clara. I was hesitating because she’s so busy, with a new series. This is a tiny little movie and this stuff can be embarrassing, like I’m taking advantage of my friend’s celebrity.” Sage called her anyway, and after reading the script, she said, we’ll figure out a way to make it work.
“Aside from The Unbelievable Truth and Trust, Edie was also in Flirt in 1996,” Hartley said. “We were all friends, hanging around, and it was right when she was making Flirt when she went in for the audition for The Sopranos. Michael Imperioli was also in Flirt and he went too. And a year later, those two were walking around saying, we just booked this job on a TV show.”
What’s interesting about Hartley is how he’s not looking for a breakout at this point in his career. He just wants to keep speaking to the audience that has allowed him to make a modest living. As he explains, sustaining a living through crowd funding is nearly the reverse of what he used to go through on his earliest movies.
“A lot of work goes into maintaining the trust of my fan base,” he said. “We’ve done five of these Kickstarter things, and we’ve always delivered. People put up the money, they wait a year. And for us, Halhartley.com has become hour by hour the principal thing we do around here. That sustains us; nobody’s really getting rich, but it’s satisfying to know the films are out there and available for the first time in a long time and they are subtitled in five languages.
The internet and Kickstarter made it possibly to think globally. If you’re making art films like this, on this level, you can’t really sustain yourself locally, with just English language. I took advantage of the fact that digital technologies made it possible for me to affordably subtitle everything in five languages. The principal languages my films have always been distributed in, Spanish, French, German, Japanese and English.”
He prefers Kickstarter to other crowd sourcing portals because of its all or nothing premise. Fail to raise the full ask, and all the funding disappears.
“I need $92,000 in the next few days,” he said. “These things are never easy. When it works, and so far it has for me five times in a row, it’s more satisfying than the old model of film production, pre-sales and all that stuff. But it’s no easier. For me, personally, who’s not a particularly social person, it’s a great challenge to have to be so social for the length of the campaign. You try and keep your eye on the prize. If you do like my work, you pay what you can and if I don’t make the goal…this goal I’ve set is realistic. This is what it will cost to make the movie, get it subtitled, manufacture everything, and get it to you in a year. I’m a little suspicious of some of the others. People say they need $300,000, but they only raise $200,000 and they keep all the money. But you’ve already told us you need $300,000, so where’s my money going? Nothing gets made and you look back a year or two later and think, wow, I put $100 into that and got nothing.”
Hartley said there is an added element: if his core audience rejects the film at its inception, perhaps it wasn’t worth making in the first place.
“That’s what I tell my pals here who work with me,” he said. “The world’s going to prove that they want another Hal Hartley film. You’re always afraid of overreaching. Is $300,000 too much to ask? But I thought about it hard, and what I’ve been able to raise in the past, honestly I think $300,000 is what I need and that it’s the limit of what I can expect. What the economy is. There are some great fans who are happy to put in $10,000. But 60-65% of the money comes from regular fans, working people who’ll put $50 to $100. You have to be sensitive to all of that.”
This fundraising configuration leaves out things like arthouse distributors and festival premieres. Distributors won’t find it worth hustling for films that can’t be put through their ancillary deals, and Hartley’s crowdfunding appeals has taken care of that part directly.
“In the old days, back in the ‘90s when indie film really started, you convinced someone to back your project and then you made it and took it to festivals,” he said. “And if you were lucky enough you would spend the next year on the road, promoting. Now, you do all the promotion in this 30 day period, before you make the film. You get everybody’s imagination fired up for it. It’s different. It’s no easier, but it’s different. For the last 30 days, I’ve had to do this campaign, and all we do 24/7 is promote me, and Halhartley.com, so you wind up getting people paying attention. Here I am, talking to Deadline.
“Digital and technological changes has altered the way people engage with and how they see their entertainment,” he said. “Streaming has captured everyone’s desires and how they watch their shows. Netflix and Amazon, these big corporate manufacturer, they make a lot of stuff, some good, some crap, just like it has always been. Everyone wants easy, quick streaming of entertainment and it costs a lot of money to do that. You have to be a big corporation to provide that kind of access to entertainment. That’s not really of interest to me at this point in my life. I want to continue to make the same kind of films I always made, and make a modest living getting it out there. That’s my challenge.”
The internet has become a different kind of ally, in plugging Hartley directly into his audience and enabling him to extend his career.
“I’m lucky in that I do have a fan base built over 30 years… it’s about trying to stay in touch with the established fan base and create new audiences and we do okay with that.”
Now if he can broaden that audience a bit further, even to Deadline readers who admire an uncompromising indie director who needs just $92,000 to keep going, Hartley will avoid the dilemma facing his protagonist, who seeks a career change in his 60s.