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Guest Blog: #ChicagoGirl’s Joe Piscatella

PLANNING FOR THE UNPLANNED How Talking Dogs Movies Did Not Prepare Me for Documentary Film   Most of my career has been spent writing or doing production rewrites on studio family comedies (my last credit was Disney’s Underdog). In this world, every story has a tidy three-act structure, the marketing plan is in place often long before I am hired, and I know my audience …

PLANNING FOR THE UNPLANNED

How Talking Dogs Movies Did Not Prepare Me for Documentary Film

 

Most of my career has been spent writing or doing production rewrites on studio family comedies (my last credit was Disney’s Underdog). In this world, every story has a tidy three-act structure, the marketing plan is in place often long before I am hired, and I know my audience before I type “Fade in” (hint: they like poop jokes). So when I decided to make the documentary film #ChicagoGirl, about an American teenager in Chicago who uses social media to coordinate the Syrian revolution, I knew I had wandered out of my comfort zone, both in genre and subject matter. In our first production meeting, my seasoned documentary producer Mark Rinehart gave me some sage advice: plan for the unplanned.

JoePiscatella

Documentary film by its very nature is building without a blueprint, and during production, “plan for the unplanned” became our team’s mantra. The film’s main subject needs to push a shooting day because she has finals? Sure, we can adjust. Our final hard drive of footage is stuck on the ground in Syria? Sure (gulp), we will find a way to smuggle it out.

While #ChicagoGirl was my passion project, I knew that once we locked picture it was still a widget that had to be sold, and my goal was to reach as wide an audience as possible. Together with my sales agents, the team and I put together a detailed sales and marketing plan.

Because of #ChicagoGirl’s strong message and heroic protagonist, we wanted a world premiere at Sundance or Tribeca to help create buzz. Syria is a sticky topic for many Americans, so our potential buyer list was filled with buyers that attract politically minded viewers who care about human rights, like CNN Films or HBO.

The first hiccup in our master plan came when #ChicagoGirl was offered a premiere slot at IDFA in Amsterdam. IDFA is one of Europe’s most prestigious documentary festivals and one of the biggest doc marketplaces in the world. There was one problem: we would have to commit to IDFA before hearing from Sundance. After a flurry of late-night phone calls, I decided that because Syria was a hot topic now (and if we didn’t get into Sundance, would it still be a hot topic by the time Tribeca rolled around six months later, or the Austin Film Festival five months after that?), we would premiere at IDFA.

#ChicagoGirl had a great premiere at IDFA, winning their Doc U Award, finishing in the top 10 in audience voting out of more than 200 films and earning an invitation to screen in The Hague in front of an audience of politically minded heavyweights in the human rights community. For a target audience, it was a bull’s-eye.

At the Q&A afterwards, the first question came from a distinguished gentleman in his fifties who said, “I think it is very naïve to think that this American girl in the film has made a difference in the grand scheme of the Syrian revolution.”

chicagogirl_resized

Um, what…? This was not supposed to be the response from our target audience. But before I could respond, two sixteen-year-old girls in the back of the theater stood up and said, “Sir, she’s already made a difference, she’s using social media tools that you think are still a novelty, and if you cannot see that she is influencing the lives of those she is connected with, you can no longer be a part of tonight’s discussion on how we can help Syria.”

With that single statement I realized that the entire plan was wrong. I hadn’t made a film about Syria for foreign policy wonks; I’d made an empowerment story for millennials about making a difference in the world.

Quickly, we shifted our strategy to target festivals that had strong youth and educational outreach programs through which we could take the film into high schools and colleges. We looked to buyers who target millennials (many of them weren’t even on our original list of potential buyers). It paid off.

To date, #ChicagoGirl has played more than fifty festivals across five continents where it won numerous awards. It’s played for people from Amnesty International, the U.N. and the International Criminal Court. It played on an IMAX screen at the Austin Film Festival (seeing my film on the Bob Bullock IMAX screen was my biggest highlight of the festival circuit). Because of the festival buzz, our foreign sales caught fire first with broadcast partners like Al Jazeera. The film has now aired in nearly forty countries, which helped pave the way for our U.S. sale to the Fusion Network (a joint venture between ABC/Disney and Univision that caters to millennials) and our streaming deals.

Planning for the unplanned became more than just a mantra for production. It was also our sales plan. Because of it, #ChicagoGirl is reaching a bigger audience around the world than I had ever imagined.

 

Joe Piscatella tries to make the world a better place through documentary films and talking dog movies. You can find him on Twitter @jpiscatella. #ChicagoGirl is now available on Netflix.

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Juror Spotlight: Josh Poole

Representing our Scripted Digital Series jury is Josh Poole from Above Average. A member of Broadway Video (Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show, etc.), Above Average produces and hosts a variety of comedy shorts and original series through its own website and through YouTube, and have developed many popular series including 7 Minutes in Heaven with Mike O’Brien, Puppet High, and Sound Advice. As Director …

JoshPoole

Representing our Scripted Digital Series jury is Josh Poole from Above Average. A member of Broadway Video (Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show, etc.), Above Average produces and hosts a variety of comedy shorts and original series through its own website and through YouTube, and have developed many popular series including 7 Minutes in Heaven with Mike O’Brien, Puppet High, and Sound Advice. As Director of Development at Above Average, Josh oversees creative development and identifies up-and-coming comedic talent to create new series and further bolster Above Average as a haven for comedy online.  Josh shares AFF’s passion for spotlighting and championing new voices and storytellers. We’re thrilled to have him on this categories inaugural jury. Check out Above Average’s digital series here. Check out all of our confirmed jurors here.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I’m the director of development for Above Average, so I suspect that just like everyone who works in development, it’s a little bit hard to describe what my day to day routine is. A lot of my job is being comfortable with straddling the line between creative and business. I find people and projects we should be working with and then figure out a strategy for convincing everyone else that we should make something together. I essentially work on either side of production, so before production begins my job is to search for, evaluate, and develop projects that Above Average will eventually produce. Once we’ve produced a project, my job is to figure out which of those series could be developed into long form. I then work with the creators to develop the concept and pitch that we eventually take out and sell. I also have a handful of projects that I produce hands-on. But like most other jobs it’s really just 70% emails and 30% drinking coffee.

What’s the best part of your job?

I feel incredibly lucky that I get paid to work with some of the funniest humans on earth, often before many people have ever heard of them. The best part of my job is watching the careers of those people I’ve been working with for years absolutely take off. Whether that’s them being staffed on a TV show, directing a movie, or just looking up and seeing somebody in a commercial while I’m sitting at a bar drinking a beer.

What’s your favorite movie and why?

It’s a weird, contradictory tie between The Big Lebowski and Magnolia. I love movies that make me feel something enormous. The Big Lebowski makes me giggle like a child for 80 straight minutes. Magnolia devastates me every single time. I feel compelled to share both of them with every new person that I meet.

Who’s your favorite writer and why?

Again, I’ll cheat and answer with two favorites. Joseph Heller for giving us Catch-22, which was probably the most important contribution to my understanding of the role of comedy in the world. And Philip Roth because he makes me realize that I’m alive and dying, human and just a dumb animal — all the same time.

What’s your favorite part about Austin Film Festival?

I love Austin’s emphasis on the writer – often the least visible and most important aspect of a film.

What was your first job or worst job?

My first job out of college was as a sidewalk and door-to-door fundraiser for politics. I hated it so much that I pretended to have a sprained ankle for most of the summer to get office assignments. And yes, it’s probably all my fault that George W Bush got reelected.

 

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Juror Spotlight: N’Jeri Eaton

We’re thrilled to be working with N’Jeri Eaton from The Independent Television Service (ITVS) as part of our Documentary Short Jury. ITVS is a unique and strong force for good in the world of documentary filmmaking. Dedicated to finding new documentarians and storytellers, ITVS funds and promotes great documentaries, brings important stories to the forefront, and gives exciting new films the audiences they deserve through …

N'Jeri-Eaton

We’re thrilled to be working with N’Jeri Eaton from The Independent Television Service (ITVS) as part of our Documentary Short Jury. ITVS is a unique and strong force for good in the world of documentary filmmaking. Dedicated to finding new documentarians and storytellers, ITVS funds and promotes great documentaries, brings important stories to the forefront, and gives exciting new films the audiences they deserve through various platforms, including their Emmy Award-winning series Independent Lens, which airs Monday nights on PBS. N’Jeri serves on ITVS as the Content Development & Initiatives Manager, and manages both the Diversity Development Fund and the Open Call production funding initiatives. She has a keen eye for new and talented voices, and continues to empower and support filmmakers. Learn more about ITVS here and check out all of our confirmed jurors here.

What does a typical day look like for you?

A typical day consists of reading applications, watching a rough cut of a funded film, check in with one of our filmmakers on the progress of a project, giving feedback to a filmmaker has applied and drinking massive amounts of coffee throughout the day.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is that I get paid to watch and talk about documentary films all day, every day!

What’s your favorite movie and why?

This is a very hard question but I’ll go with Nights of Cabiria.  Cabiria is the type of heroine that speaks to me.  She’s complicated and messy, quick to anger and judgement but also so vulnerable.  Whenever I’m feeling like life is kicking me around, I think of that last shot of her face and my whole attitude starts to change.

Who’s your favorite writer and why?

I don’t have a favorite writer but I can talk about someone who I’m always excited to read: Mat Johnson.  His books always find interesting ways to talk about race that are often hilarious and absurdist.  I can’t wait to read his latest book Loving Day.

What’s your favorite part about Austin Film Festival?

I haven’t been yet!  But I can’t wait to go and have an answer for you next year.

What was your first job or worst job?

My first job was working in the hosiery department at a department store in suburban Massachusetts.  No one ever came by because it was the summer and who could image working stockings in such hot, sticky weather.  I was bored out of my mind.

 

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This Week in Screenwriting – June 3rd, 2015

AFF 2015 Outstanding Television Writer honoree, Norman Lear, set for American Masters documentary AFF Alum, Craig Borten (Dallas Buyers Club), writing sci-fi action film Inherit the Earth Everything we need to know about 2015 Confirmed Panelist David Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer series Amy Schumer to write/star in untitled mother-daughter comedy with AFF alum Paul Feig attached to produce AFF Alumni Robert Rodriguez and confirmed …

AFF 2015 Outstanding Television Writer honoree, Norman Lear, set for American Masters documentary

AFF Alum, Craig Borten (Dallas Buyers Club), writing sci-fi action film Inherit the Earth

Everything we need to know about 2015 Confirmed Panelist David Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer series

Amy Schumer to write/star in untitled mother-daughter comedy with AFF alum Paul Feig attached to produce

AFF Alumni Robert Rodriguez and confirmed panelist Terry Rossio to team on new Johnny Quest feature

AFF Alum Jason Reitman to adapt children’s book for Dreamworks Animation

NBC orders drama from Imitation Game Oscar winning writer Graham Moore straight to series

The photographs that helped Breathless start a revolution

Austinite Andrew Bujalski’s Results called this year’s best American pure comedy

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