James Eowan was kind enough to share his experiences about working in the field of documentaries and independent film. James is in charge of Operations at the distribution company, 7th Art Releasing. They have released many award winning films such as Art & Copy, Hell House, Academy Award winner The Long Way Home, Jews and Baseball (narrated by Dustin Hoffman), and most recently The Swell Season. Read on to see what James has to say about his experience at UCSB, what steps he took to get to 7th Art Releasing, and advice on how to make it in the field of acquisitions.
Rob Marcacci: Could you explain your position at 7th Art and what your daily duties entail at the office.
James Eowan: I am involved in a wide variety of things here: acquisitions, festival and theatrical strategy and coordination, ancillary sales, educational outreach, new media. More than anything, I am looking for films that I think we can work with, films that I am drawn to and films that I think we can successfully market and sell. That involves looking for movies everywhere and also looking for new and different ways to get the films out into the world. The technology of distribution is rapidly changing in a chaotic way at the moment. There are about a thousand different sites out there offering content and almost none of them are really monetized. So I do a lot of fact finding on the distribution side.
RM: Do you remember a certain moment in your life when you realized you wanted to work in the film industry?
JE: I remember watching movies with my father on Beta back when that format was still competing with VHS. He often rented foreign and art films and I remember being awed, scared, confused and ultimately curious about who made these films and what they meant. I remember watching movies way beyond my MPAA rating while still in elementary school. I was writing and putting on plays then with my brother and friends. When I was twelve, my friends and I spent the entire summer rewriting, performing and recording gonzo versions of hit television shows.
RM: Back in middle school and high school, did you work on any projects with friends? Any embarrassing short films, docs, comedy projects you wouldn’t want the world to see?!
JE: See #2 above. We literally wrote and directed versions of Cheers, General Hospital, Doogie Howser, M.D. and many others. It was just four or five of us – all guys – performing all of the roles, male and female parts. Awkward boys dressing up in elaborate costumes as both men and women seems like a goldmine of embarrassing stuff just waiting to hit YouTube.
RM: Did you always know that you wanted to work specifically with documentaries and independent films?
JE: I have always known I wanted to be involved in movies and have always tended to lean towards independent films, but I really found a love for documentaries in college at UC Santa Barbara where Janet Walker teaches a class on documentary. Dr. Walker really opened my eyes to what documentaries can do in terms of story and showing us new ways of looking at the world. Around that same time, I started interning for documentary filmmakers, mainly in the editing room logging and organizing material. Documentarians, the great ones, are some of the most incredible storytellers I’ve ever come into contact with.
RM: What steps did you take in deciding the right college to go to for film?
JE: Have you been to Santa Barbara? Actually, I applied to Santa Barbara as a psychology major, but then quickly changed to Film Studies and briefly toyed with a double major in Comparative Literature before realizing that I couldn’t actually make shorts and do a double major. There just wasn’t enough time. I found the UCSB Film Studies program to be exceptional. There, I got a very deep understanding of film theory and film history and learned to look at movies in an entirely new way. And, I was constantly seeing incredible movies.
RM: Were your parents supportive in your decision to work in a field where there is no job guarantee at first?
JE: My parents were always completely supportive of my decision to go into film. My father had briefly flirted with the film industry when he was younger and there are a few other people that have been involved with the film industry in my family. There was really no stigma. But, I don’t think the reality of how difficult it is to work in the film business really hit me until I was graduating from UCSB.
RM: What advice can you offer for kids in high school trying to decide the best college to go to for film?
JE: My advice is to go where you have an environment that will both embrace you as a filmmaker and push you beyond your comfort zone. I don’t think there is that one film school that one needs to go to in order to succeed. I think that idea has been disproven a million times. But you need to be pushed and to grow and sometimes I meet younger people that somehow made it through film school without fully immersing themselves in the world of film, getting stuck in the Hollywood films of the past several decades. There is so much to learn from films beyond that period and beyond Hollywood and beyond genre. Don’t get me wrong. I love a great Hollywood movie, but I will also sit down and watch a Frederick Wiseman film, a Bergman film, and I will watch The Rules of the Game at least once a year.
I went to AFI for film school several years after I graduated from UCSB. I learned a lot there, but I also made some great friends and met some amazing filmmakers. At both AFI and UCSB, I met a lot of extremely talented and driven people that I still keep in touch with today. That was the biggest thing that I feel I’ve benefitted from over the years – having met and become friends with other people that like movies and making movies as much as I do.
RM: Did you have a positive experience in film school? What did you like? Dislike?
JE: My school experiences were very positive. At UCSB, I made some short films that I felt proud of, got to know a lot of inspiring people, and learned more than I thought possible about film. The same is true of AFI, but the price tag for AFI was pretty steep. I just wish it didn’t cost so much. It’s prohibitive for a lot of people and what does it mean for the future of film if only a certain demographic can go to film school and learn how to make movies? We cut ourselves off from the opportunity to find new voices as a result. Not all film schools are as expensive as AFI, but none are cheap. Luckily now, it is getting less and less expensive to make movies.
The biggest thing I believe film students need to be taught is the business side of film. People need to understand the reality of the business. I think most students know that it’s hard to make it, but even more than that, there is information and there are tools that can help students be ready for what happens when they get out of school and start making movies without the support of school. It’s a hard, confusing, scary world for first time filmmakers and getting advice from people in the business side should be essential. I’m offering my services.
RM: What was the curriculum like at your school? Did you pick a concentration to study?
JE: At UCSB, it was more of an overall immersion into film form, style, theory and history. There were very few production classes when I was at UCSB and you sort of had to figure out how to make films outside of the program, which I did. But the production classes that were available were incredibly helpful. The main format was still 16 mm when I graduated from UCSB although I did take one class where we used 3 chip digital cameras that recorded onto mini DV.
AFI is a conservatory where you have to declare and apply within a chosen concentration. I was a screenwriting fellow.
RM: After you graduated what was your plan of action out into the working field?
JE: My plan involved using the few connections and short resume that I had put together to get a job as an assistant at a studio. But that was mainly because I didn’t really know how to take the next step. The Internet was not what it is today in terms of information about what you should do next. I remember wondering how I would make movies while having an entry-level position somewhere.
RM: What led you to 7th Art?
JE: When I graduated from UCSB, I had been working for a documentary filmmaker for some time and was working for her in a way that I was in touch with 7th Art on one of her films.
I eventually moved to LA about nine months after graduating and it just happened to be right before September 11, 2001. The entire industry here froze on hiring for some time. I applied to a lot of jobs but it was pretty much useless. I went in and talked with Udy at 7th Art and started working there immediately. Not long after that I was working on the theatrical releases of our films.
RM: Any other advice you can offer to kids out there trying to get their foot in the door in the acquisitions field.
JE: The best advice I can offer is to watch a lot of films. Know that many of the people in acquisitions positions are film literate and make sure you are, too. Also, there are opportunities to intern for festivals so that you are involved in some way with their submission and programming process. Get as much experience as you can while you’re in school and get to know as many people as possible so that you can reach out to them once you finish school for a better internship or even a job.
Check out the 7th Art Releasing website here: www.7thart.com
Also be sure to check out their new film The Swell Season now in theaters. See when it is playing in your area here: http://www.7thart.com/noCategory/the-swell-season