John Henry Summerour grew up in Chickamauga, GA, the son of a Methodist minister. He earned his BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the British American Drama Academy in London. His first short film, “Chickamauga,” screened at the 2008 Atlanta, Austin, Sidewalk Moving Picture and Rome International Film Festivals, among others. He is the recipient of the 2006 Screenwriters Colony Residency on Nantucket and the 2010 IFP Narrative Lab Fellowship. “Sahkanaga” is his first feature film. CinemATL asked John to write something about his experience at the 2010 IFP Narrative Lab and he was gracious enough to oblige us. The following is his story of his adventure at the IFP lab.
In New York City there is a phenomenon of explosive restaurant success, which can lead one to ponder the behind-the-scenes interplay of marketing and luck in relation to actual quality. There is success of the Shake Shack burger variety where the threads can easily be traced to a preexisting culinary empire (Danny Meyer’s, in this instance). There is the “craze” factor wherein New Yorkers get so bored with all the quality dining options they temporarily lose their minds and decide that designer fried chicken, artisanal hot dogs, or authentic ramen will bring new meaning to their stomachs. And then there’s this random vegetarian Indian spot in Curry Hill, alongside dozens of similar-looking Indian restaurants, that always has a mob out front, the classic telltale mob of equal parts hipster and whatever culture the food represents. I haven’t been able to track down any major reviews of the restaurant, prominent features in trendy magazines, or blog-hype. Where are the threads that link this unassuming eatery to its gangbuster business? Could it be something as pure and simple as old fashioned word-of-mouth? Or is there a more calculating, “mad genius” business model at work?
As a filmmaker, participating in the IFP Narrative Labs has encouraged this line of thinking in all aspects of life. The fellowship consists of three installments spread across three seasons. In June, I gathered with the nine other recipients at 92YTribeca, the room bursting with the hope and excitement of first-time feature filmmakers in post-production. “We made it! Our films are in the can!! Yay us!!!” It was at that moment the IFP leaders said, gently, “Congratulations. All of you have made unique, beautiful films. Now we’re going to tell you what happens next...” The following five days were a crash-course in Indie Film Business 101. As it turns out, getting your film “in the can” is the halfway mark. I didn’t go to film school, so all of this information was a tidal wave of newness for me, but it was reassuring to see the looks of panic on every face in the room. Copyright, Chain of Title, MGs, MPAA, Contracts, Cue Sheets, Cross Collateralization, Creative Windowing, Sales Agents, Service Deals, DIY, DIFU, Deliverables, Gross Corridor, WTF?!
Growing up in a small town in northwest Georgia, with zero industry contacts, I would watch movies in blissful wonder, the act of making a film deeply enshrouded in mysterious magic. Even after attending NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and working as an actor in off-off-wait, where are we?-Broadway theatre, I assumed that filmmaking was a privilege reserved for those who were either born into it or graduated from the top film schools. Only after working on a number of short films with the Columbia University Graduate Film Program, and fostering friendships with some incredibly talented filmmakers, did I develop the courage to write my own script. That led to the Screenwriters Colony on Nantucket, which led to my first short film, which led to the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham where one of my oldest friends sat me down over a midnight snack of French fries and hummus and said, “John, you have everything you need to succeed as a filmmaker, but you have no self-confidence.” And that was the kick in the pants (along with meeting so many broke-ass filmmakers on the festival circuit who just figured out a way to finance their projects) that inspired me to move forward with “Sahkanaga.”
So I managed to drain the magic out of producing a film by making it a reality. The crew was assembled. Hours of begging and negotiating led to deals for equipment and film stock. Locations were locked. Extras and volunteers were organized. Donations mercifully rained from my heavenly cloud of friends and family. Credit cards were rode hard and put up wet. And still, after all that, the sense of magic returned and I assumed that I would finish the film, send it off to festivals, and something puffy and sweet and entirely miraculous would happen while I attended Q&As and cocktail parties. IFP put an end to that.
Who is your core audience? How do you reach them? How do they consume media? If you get into a top tier festival, who’s the best sales agent for your film and how do you hire them? Are you willing to self-distribute? How important is it that you have a theatrical run? How do you take advantage of online outlets for media consumption? What are your personal and professional expectations?
These are the questions that every filmmaker should be prepared to answer, because you will be asked.
The second installment of the IFP Fellowship took place in late September as part of Independent Film Week, which is a huge market for new talent in the industry. Suddenly I had access to sales agents and film festival programmers who knew about my film and were interested in meeting me. With the help of IFP’s Indie Bootcamp I was prepared to discuss my film from an artistic and business perspective, but I was still feeling anxious because I’d never had a professional meeting as a filmmaker. Should I dress up like the guys on “Entourage” and wear a suit and invest in some expensive hair product? Should I brush up on industry lingo in case the executives only communicate in an alien Hollywood language? The best (and possibly most obvious) advice came from an HBO exec that frequents the coffee shop where I work. He said, “Be yourself. If you can communicate your passion for the project, that is what people are interested in. That’s infectious. Your love for this film, your personal style, your bizarre Southern personality... these are the elements that make you engaging and different. And if someone isn’t interested in what you’re selling, don’t take it personally. Move on and meet someone else.” He got a free coffee that morning.
I had a great experience at Independent Film Week, and most importantly, I felt like myself. Even if I don’t get into any major festivals, even if none of my newfound industry contacts pan out, every bit of exposure represents an opportunity. It’s a tool that I add to my toolbox and down the line, perhaps with my second or third feature, the relationships that I build today could help me realize a new artistic goal.
The final section of the fellowship, which takes place in December, will focus on distribution models, and then we’re set free to travel our individual paths. My affiliation with IFP has not only given me practical knowledge that makes me a more competitive filmmaker, but it’s lent visibility and brand recognition to a low budget, independent film shot in the Appalachian foothills, and doors are already opening.
My film is not a Shake Shack, and unless there’s a sudden national demand for Southern storytelling, it’s not an artisanal hot dog. I think “Sahkanaga” has the potential to be a vegetarian Indian restaurant with a small, loyal following that slowly builds through positive word-of-mouth, eventually reaching a broader, curious audience. I can’t wait to open for business. I hope to see you there. My film is pretty yummy.