Beyond IFI: A conversation with filmmaker Courtney Harmstone

Repost from Sarah Lawrence College Summer Programs Post.

The confidence I gained at IFI has propelled me throughout my career.  The passion and the buzz I first felt in that casting room in Columbia University has not left me. Whenever I doubt myself, I think back to that day and that memory gives me the energy to continue.”  ~ Courtney Harmstone, International Film Institute, ’08

 

chCourtney Harmstonea self-described American-British hybrid” took one her first steps in film during the International Film Institute’s Summer Intensive at Sarah Lawrence in 2008. Since then, she has worked in film on both sides of the Atlantic, working as a producer, mentor, and co-founder and programmer of Catfish Shorts, a networking and film festival created for women in the film industry. Courtney recently shared with us about her in the film industry, future projects, and favorite memories of her time as at Sarah Lawrence College.
How did you initially get involved in the International Film Institute summer intensive?
When I was in high school I was always passionate about film and television, but my school did not offer a course in filmmaking.  I had previously attended summer film courses at SCAD that were only one week in duration.  It was a nice taster, but I longed for more. After researching various programs, I found IFI at Sarah Lawrence College which had the depth and breadth I was looking for as well as fabulous teachers active in the industry.   I was excited to be part of this intensive and immersive environment where I could experiment with the craft and find out if this was what I wanted to do with my life.  Spoiler alert! I am still working in film!
What is your favorite memory from that experience?
A great memory from my time at IFI was casting for the short film we were required to make during the course.  It was pretty inspiring to have these young and incredibly talented actors come and read portions of our scripts to us at Columbia University.  There was a buzz in the room and the energy was overwhelming.  I couldn’t believe these young professionals were interested in working with us! It was a great experience. It was very professional.

Another is being around so many creative people who, like me, knew little about the art of filmmaking or had minimal experience. It had a synergistic effect that created a supportive environment that allowed us to experiment with new ideas and take risks.
How has it impacted your life since then?
IFI had a huge impact on my life and my future career decisions.  It was the first opportunity I had to really explore filmmaking and to learn what it meant to work in the dramatic arts; how to plan, structure, shoot and edit a short film.  The course inspired me to pursue the film industry as my future career.  When I returned from New York, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker and set my sights on pursuing a B.F.A. in film production.  In 2013, I graduated from The Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts and then continued my education two years later at The University of Exeter and The London Film School with an M.A. in International Film Business.   
What advice would you give to your younger self?
If I could go back to myself at that age I would probably say TAKE MORE RISKS! Don’t be scared to experiment and have the confidence to just go out with a camera and shoot.  However, it is with the understanding that I did not take enough risks in filmmaking (and possibly with life) when I was younger – playing it safe, so to speak – that drives me so much now to push myself to take every opportunity that comes my way, and not to turn it down because I’m scared of the consequences (which, so far, have been very positive).  

I’d probably also tell myself to avoid rum, but I think everyone can relate to that one!
What’s next for you going forward?
The next steps for me are to continue working hard on my independent projects – Catfish Shorts and Indigo Valley – and to look for opportunities that will strengthen my skills as a Producer as I attempt to carve my way through this complicated jungle that we call an industry.  Sometimes you just have to follow the three Ps, as laid out by Robert Wise (Director, The Sound of Music, West Side Story) – “My three Ps: passion, patience, perseverance. You have to do this if you’ve got to be a filmmaker.


The elements of a successful movie have remained constant since the inception of the art form. The International Film Institute of New York (IFI) was founded in 1997 to provide those with a sincere and abiding interest in filmmaking with a high-quality, low-cost education in all aspects of the filmmaking process: screenwriting, directing, producing, cinematography, and editing in a curriculum combining classroom instruction and hands-on technical workshops. http://www.nyfilmschool.com

New York City vs. Los Angeles – The Filmmaker’s Conundrum

nvl

New York City owes a lot of its glamorous, iconic status to film. From King Kong climbing the Empire State Building to Robert De Niro’s You talkin’ to me? in Taxi Driver, the greatest city on earth is great in part because filmmakers have flocked here for generations to imprint New York in all its loud, proud glory on celluloid for generations to come. After all, New York City is a movie in itself – a rom-com walk in Central Park one moment, a Woody Allen gabfest the next, and navigating the crowds near the Rockefeller Christmas tree during the holidays can quickly turn into a nightmarish thriller.

But for the second year in a row, blockbuster movies filmed in New York have declined.

Of the top 100 highest-grossing domestic feature films released in theaters last year, only six were made in the Empire State, according to a study released May 23 by nonprofit organization Film L.A., whose mission is to keep production in Los Angeles. The number, which is down from seven the previous year and from a peak of 12 in 2014, puts New York in sixth place.

Georgia had the most top-grossing motion pictures with 17, followed by the United Kingdom with 16 and Canada with 13. California hosted 12 blockbusters, which put it fourth.

So what’s behind the trend?

“New York has become a TV town,” Film L.A.’s lead researcher, Adrian McDonald, told Crain’s New York. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The budgets on many one-hour shows rival that of large movies.”

According to the study, the state has so much television production that overall it ranked second in total film and TV production spending with an estimated $5 billion to $6 billion after California, where an estimated $30 billion is spent on production annually.

020.JPGIndeed, the sheer variety of production in New York City is what keeps Misael Sanchez, founder and director of the International Film Institute of New York based in the city that never sleeps. He lived and worked in L.A. for a two-year stint in 2011 and ‘12 before returning to New York.

“My personal experience with the two towns is a perfect example of why new opportunities seem to be opening in New York,” Sanchez says. “New York is more than movies. It has fashion, advertising, corporations, health organizations, small businesses, theater, all looking for content. Filling that production void is what called me back east.”

So where should an aspiring filmmaker put down roots – New York or L.A.? It’s an age old question that Sanchez fields from students every year.

As a film professor I spend quite a bit of time discussing with my students the opportunities related to staying here or moving out west,” says Sanchez, who spent 15 years as a professor and director of production at Columbia’s Graduate School of Film before moving to Sarah Lawrence College to teach film production.

“Both cities offer incredible opportunities in the television, film, and theater industry. L.A. is known for being the heart of the film industry but New York has always been a city for independent filmmaking. Everything about the city’s resources lends itself to the smaller budget projects,” he says. “That, in turn, provides opportunities for up and coming filmmakers. In addition, being in a town where everything is relatively close to everything else makes networking and meeting others outside of your field much more accessible.”

The other driving factor behind production location is simply the bottom line: New York’s $420 million annual tax-incentive program is a huge attraction, but it only covers so-called “below-the-line costs” such as crew salaries and production expenses. The tax incentive in Georgia offers 30% on the entire movie budget, including star salaries, and has no annual cap.

But when you need to set a story in New York, there’s no substitute for the real thing. And New York City’s scrappy reputation means it will always be home for young, hungry artists.  

“I do feel that the best is yet to come,” Sanchez says. “More opportunities are on the horizon as film professionals continue to call New York City and the surrounding cities home base. Los Angeles will always be a huge part of what makes the film industry but New York is what will keep the torch alive and moving into the future.”


Misael Sanchez: Founder and director of instruction at The International Film Institute of New York, currently working in collaboration with Sarah Lawrence College. BFA, New York University. Certificate in Producing, The New School. Recent production credits include a feature-length documentary, Last Call (director and cinematographer), now in post-production and producer on the feature-length narrative, Central Avenue, scheduled to cast Marisa Tomei and Lorraine Bracco. A book-in-progress on cinematography lighting techniques is titled Lighting Tricks and ShortCuts. Staff member, faculty member, and head of the cinematography concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate Film Division, where he supervises students on thesis productions. Past work includes four one-hour specials on Latinos in the media for network television, short documentary projects, films, music videos, and industrials. SLC, 2009–

 

 

 

4 Filmmakers Envision Their Art Post-U.S. Election

pexels-photo-27008-copy

Well, we weren’t expecting 2016 to turn out this way, but our wheels are turning. If we look back at some of the biggest and most notable films of the past year, there has been no shortage of heated political cinema, inspiring features on social issues and thought-provoking documentaries to get us through this election. These films have laid the groundwork for topics we’re likely to explore in greater detail in 2017 and beyond. Our IFI community took note of a few standout works – in no particular order:

  1. Ava DuVernay’s “13th
  2. Michael Moore’s “TrumpLand
  3. Oliver Stone’s biopic “Snowden
  4. Michael Bay’s war film “13 Hours
  5. Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation

Now, the question becomes “Where do we go from here?” As a whole, our IFI community has had time to digest the U.S. Presidential election results and to realize there will be a greater role for us in the coming years.

When we stepped away from reading Facebook feeds, angry tweets and bogus news stories, we chatted with a few IFI instructors to ask “How might the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election influence your work as a filmmaker?” Overwhelmingly, we heard that everyone is inspired to create new art and “hungry” to make a statement with it. You will see from their responses below that we are going to make MORE films that stand for something. We are going to raise our voices louder as a film community and lift up our fellow Americans through our art.

  • “My work has always been spurred by the identity politics of immigrants and minorities in America. Who are we, where are we, what defines us, etc. Although I’m disappointed about the outcome of the election, I’m glad that the harder questions we need to face and ask about ourselves, as people struggling to coexist in this thing called America, is coming to the forefront. There’s a great deal of work to do if we want to live up to the ideals of this country. I think you’ll find a lot of new, unheard voices in these troubling times. Hopefully one of those will be my own.”Stephen Lee, Directing Instructor
  • “Well, I think we’re past the point of ‘might.’ Throughout history, there have been moments where art is needed to bring to the surface whatever reality is trying to subdue. We find ourselves in such a moment. Trump appealed and brought to light America’s worst impulses. Now, it’s on the rest of us to show, to prove, that this is not all what America is. This is a time when we’re called on to do things we may not have done before. This is a time to write and film outside of our comfort zone. This is the time to tell stories that make us connect, because God knows we need to strengthen our empathy for our fellow men. And, it is a moment to make a statement. Not only in the stories we tell but also in how we treat those who work with us in order to make those stories into film. It is time to improve our art and us, ourselves. So today, more than ever, I’ll try harder to be a better person. We stand together; we stick up for the vulnerable. Today, more than ever, stop judging, be kinder, feel empathy, respect women, stop being racist, stop being a bully, stop being homophobic, listen more, argue less and make good art. Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” –  Jesús Alarcón, Directing Instructor
  • “The uncertainty surrounding President Elect Trump’s agenda – what he has said he will do, what he really intends to do, and what he is actually able to do – makes it unwise for me to speculate about how my work as a filmmaker will be affected in the next four years, specifically. Generally speaking, filmmakers have the ability, and therefore the duty, to inform and hopefully educate, to entertain and hopefully inspire, and to seek out and amplify otherwise-underrepresented, credible voices. The election was engulfed in misinformation; where we were owed thoughtful discourse, we were instead distracted with name calling for our entertainment; and, credible voices – underrepresented or otherwise – were awash in a sea of much louder, angrier voices. My most recent work, and the work I hope to do moving forward, seeks to help educate children by encouraging them to reach beyond borders and to learn about cultures outside of their own. The anti-intellectualism embodied by the election stands counterpoint to my work and reaffirms the need to take seriously the duties involved with filmmaking.”Stephanie Serra, Producing Instructor
  • This election influences my work on both a creative and a monetary level.  Creatively, I am hungry to edit more truthful factual media and put it out there. I am eager to use my work as both an outlet to express myself, but also a resource to learn more. Something that is clear to me is that I did not really understand my country or what problems that others face are causing so much irreverence and hate speech. And so every day I look to see the footage we take or Americans and listen to them. I also have this unique opportunity to be working at a news organization during an administration that is rather closed to the media and this presents an interesting challenge. Monetarily I must make decisions that will secure my future – this presidency will not be friendly to freelancing. Therefore – I am making choices to move towards more permanent positions in order to secure health insurance and proper tax rates.”Danielle Beeber, Screenwriting Instructor

Without question our community of artists have turned into activists, armed with the power of the pen and the lens. We are hopeful people will come together to support one another, accept each other and keep the American spirit alive and flourishing.

220px-united_states_film-svg