INTERVIEW with Dawn Hudson

Film Independent Executive Director, Dawn Hudson

On Demand Weekly‘s VOD Spotlight highlights stories from the On Demand industry.  Adam Schartoff interviews Film Independent‘s Dawn Hudson about the upcoming Spirit Awards and how VOD is shaping the independent film world.

Film Independent has been around for the 30 years. For the past 20, its Executive Director has been Dawn Hudson. Hudson is clearly in love with her job and proud of what Film Independent provides. The organization was started by filmmakers to create a forum for sharing information with other filmmakers. There are hundreds of workshops and labs throughout the year, offering essential information to filmmakers on everything from how to get financing to what kind of lenses to use on your shoot.

In addition to that Film Independent also hosts the annual Los Angeles Film Festival and the Spirit Awards. According to Hudson, it’s all in order to cultivate new original films and help them find an audience.

A southerner, Ms. Hudson has a down to earth and relaxed nature. She was delightful to chat with and completely unselfish with her time. Right after we got off the phone, she called back to apologize for getting my name wrong and to invite me to the Spirit Awards nominee brunch in Los Angeles.

Adam Schartoff: I was reading a little bit about you.  You’re going on 20 years at Film Independent.

Dawn Hudson: I know! 2011 is my 20th year.

AS: What do you make of that?

DH: My career seems to have spanned the entire growth cycle of American independent film, starting in 1991.

ODW: You mean the cycle that started with “Sex, Lies & Videotape” and Spike Lee and…

DH: …and “Reservoir Dogs”.  Then we go through “Pulp Fiction”.  And throughout the 90s it grows and grows and grows. And I think it’s continued to grow throughout the last decade but almost feeding off the frenzy of the 90s. There had been such an appetite for independent films. Then Netflix came along to make these films widely available. I think it was a struggle prior to Netflix for the mainstream audience to see these films. But with their success, it was proof positive that there was a large and diverse audience for original personal filmmaking.

ODW: VOD is another channel for that appetite, is it not?

DH: Before I started this career there was the decimation of the video production companies. They had all gone bankrupt. Companies like Helmdale, Vestron and Island Alive had been funding and distributing independent films. Movies like “One False Move” and “Gas, Food & Lodging” were funded for straight-to-video release except, guess what, they were really good films. Read more

film review: PUBLIC SPEAKING

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Produced by Graydon Carter, Fran Lebowitz, Scorsese, Margaret Bodde
Released by Rialto Pictures
USA. 82 min. Not Rated

Martin Scorsese seems to be in a compellingly productive stage in his career. In the past year or so since the release of Shutter Island, he has followed up with A Letter to Elia, the pilot episode of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, and now a bio-doc, Public Speaking, a generous portrait of literary personality Fran Lebowitz.

Most of the film takes place at Lebowitz’s table at the Waverly Inn, a Greenwich Village restaurant she frequents and one in which her likeness is included among other literati on the wall’s mural—not bad for an expelled high school student (she would later get her GED). In addition to the restaurant, we also follow her to a number of lecture dates where she’s clearly in her milieu. As she readily admits, she loves to talk and have others listen. There’s also a smattering of archive footage from her early days in New York, a city she describes as not yet a boring city for the wealthy. She compares the experience of running into a friend in Times Square today like the terror of bumping into someone you knew at a gay bar in the ’70s; you’re embarrassed by what that might mean to your reputation.

Fran Lebowitz was born in 1950. She grew up in Morristown, NJ, and in 1970 moved to Manhattan at the tender age of 20. As she describes it, she barely stepped off the bus before she was hired by Andy Warhol to write for Interview magazine. It was then on to a stint at Mademoiselle and the publication of two subsequent collections of essays, Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, that would lead her to a modicum of fame. Read more

New Day Celebrates 40th Anniversary at MoMA’s Doc Fortnight

Several decades ago socially progressive documentary filmmakers like Liane Brandon, Amalie Rothschild, Jim Klein and Julia Reichert had distribution doors shut in their faces. Short-sighted distributors refused to take on their films, claiming that no one would be interested in films like “Growing Up Female” (1971), “Anything You Want to Be” (1971) and “It Happens To Us” (1972). Those films were a groundbreaking look into female gender stereotyping and were made on the cusp of a changing social landscape. Rather than just taking that rejection lying down, Brandon, Rothschild, Klein, Reichert and a band of other like-minded rebels decided to take matters into their own hands, literally. They founded a distribution company of their own and called it New Day Films, a new type of film company that would be cooperatively own and operated by filmmakers. They would specialize in renting or selling their films directly to educational institutions.

40 years later and New Day is flourishing, both artistically and financially. There’s a whole new generation of young and vital filmmaker members like Johnny Symons, Jesse Epstein, Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith. Many of their films are making it into the mainstream, distribution deals along with education distribution through New Day. Once a year the entire membership gets together in northern Californian for a 4-day retreat to vote on bylaws and new membership – and even hang out in the hot tub. It’s no walk in the park. According to New Day’s current press liaison, Faye Lederman, they are there to get results. Day-long meetings are not unusual. And all the business is done through a well laid out participatory democracy. Read more


SELF MADE's Lian Stewart, filmmaker Gillian Wearing (center) & other subject Sam Rumbelow; photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2011

Documentary Fortnight, MoMA’s International Festival of Nonfiction Film and Media, kicked off its 10th season last night with the world premiere of “Self Made”. The film, a first for British artist (and Turner Prize winner) turned filmmaker Gillian Wearing, takes the audience through the cathartic process of a Method Acting class populated by a small group of hand-picked non-professionals and led by acting teacher, Sam Rumbelow. The movie shows how strong performances can result from emotional excavation. It’s a raw and emotionally powerful film and one that makes clear that Method Acting, first invented by Stanislavsky over a hundred years ago, is still relevant.

As will be the case in most of the screenings in the festival, there to introduce Self Made and to take questions afterward were director Wearing, Rumbelow and one of the actor participants, Lian Stewart. Because of the demanding emotional work required by those who participated in the film, last night’s audience seemed most concerned with their mental health following production and what they are up to now. Both Wearing and Rumbelow were able to put everyone at ease as did Stewart who seemed genuinely surprised by the reaction of the audience. Read more

film review: ORGASM INC.

Produced & directed by Liz Canner
Released by First Run Features
USA. 78 min. Not Rated

Ultimately what comes to the fore of Liz Canner’s “Orgasm, Inc.” has less to do with sexual fulfillment and more to do with whether every impaired experience in life calls for a prescriptive solution. At the core of this documentary, one which straddles the line of humor and earnestness, is the very serious issue of greed at the risk of health. The prospect that the pharmaceutical industry sees enormous profits in (a) first convincing women that something is clinically wrong with them if they can’t achieve orgasm and then (b) providing a solution in the form of a pill, cream, or spray, is quite serious, indeed.

The film begins when Canner is hired by a pharmaceutical company to edit some erotic videos, which will ultimately be used to assist in a series of drug trials. During the course of her work at Vivus, she uncovers enough information to question whether there is any real condition at all. Thus, begins her nine-year odyssey in making this documentary.

While she challenges the industry, she doesn’t go far enough in hammering at the same people that hired her to edit the porn. Perhaps there was something of a conflict of interest which motivated Canner to remain a bit too moderate. The film is chock-full of interviews with sex therapists, pharmaceutical reps, frustrated women, and medical professionals, all espousing on whether or not there’s a medical cure for this problem or whether the issue is mostly conditional. The film’s most engaging moments involve the outspoken activist and psychologist Leonore Tiefer, who has been diligently attending and testifying at the Food and Drug Administration hearings for various pharmaceutical candidates. These procedures seem like they should be no-brainers since so much evidence is brought up showing potential dangers, like the altering of hormones, yet it’s disconcerting how close some of the medicines get to winning FDA approval. Another memorable moment is the filmmaker’s interview with an obviously conflicted saleswoman at a medical convention selling the procedure called a vaginoplasty (details of which may be Googled). She half-humorously requests that Canner hold off showing the film until she’s found a new job. Read more

film review: STRONGMAN

Produced &  directed by Zachary Levy
Released by No Props Inc.
USA. 113 min. Not Rated

After watching Zachary Levy’s provocative documentary, one can’t help but wonder how far his down-at-the-heels subject might have made out in life had he been born into better circumstances—an education and a solid family upbringing, at the very least. The fact that Stanley Pleskun, aka Stanless Steel, made it as far as he did only speaks to his tenacity and his survival instincts, mental and otherwise.

Here is a man, after all, who has made a living using his brawn. He’s officially described as the strongest man in the world at bending steel and metal. Yet the documentary, vérité style, shows a man who yearns for a richer spiritual and emotional life but who struggles to articulate it. Levy, who has a background as a cameraman and now makes his directorial debut with this film, understands the universality of his subject. Stan has made it to the other side of middle age fighting the thought that his best years are behind him, and he can still perform amazing feats of strength. During the course of the film, we tag along to a number of his performances, including a televised talent show in London (a la America’s Got Talent) and another at a local New Jersey kiddie birthday party. It’s to Stan’s credit that he performs at both gigs with the same level of determination and receives the same level of gratification. Never for a moment during the movie does he phone anything in. Read more