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Leaving Hollywood To Break Into Hollywood: 'Thula'

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By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

It takes a lot for filmmakers to stand out in Los Angeles. After all, there's a whole lot of talent and desire bubbling all over the basin.

There are an infinite number of paths to making it. Any one could be a dead end. Every one could be the golden ticket. The only mistake is to not try the biggest, boldest thing you can think of.

What the makers of "Thula," a short film that is having its LA premiere this week thought of was to fly all the the way to South Africa to shoot a very personal-scale story.

I recently sat down with the filmmaking team of Jahmela Biggs, Caitlin Talbot and James Bland to talk about how they pulled together an international shoot on the back of a crowdfunding campaign. We started with the choice to go to South Africa in the first place.

"The decision to shoot there was made before we had the script," said writer-actor Biggs.

"Or the crew," added her co-star Talbot.

"Or the money," tagged in director Bland.

"Right, exactly, or the financing," continued Biggs. "So we decided pretty early on we wanted to make that happen. We wanted to have James direct it. We knew that we'd be able to shoot at (Talbot's) aunt's house. We knew certain things were given so the script was created from that."

What the "Thula" team displays with this kind of thinking is the tried and true practice that some call "availiblism". You've got some actors (Biggs and Talbot), a director (Bland) and a key component--the location--so you build your work around that.

In this case the location happened to be 10,000 miles away.

"I think it just gave our film something that we could not achieve if we had not shot in South Africa," said Bland. "In the course we were just really inspired. Taking on the challenge of shooting in another country really pushed us to create something that we might not have produced here in the States. It was worth the time, the investment, the troubles. The 20-something hour flight and all the different obstacles we had to jump over to just give the film what we were able to possess by shooting it in country."

The team worked with a South African crew, and that turned out to cost more than the trio expected. Bland said that they based their budget on L.A. rates, and as it turns out South African crews expect a lot more.

The thing is that there's so many more film people here," said Talbot of the differences between L.A. and South Africa, and people are working out of school. In South Africa it's more consolidated. I think the film industry is growing but not everyone has the equipment. sSo you have to go through agencies. It's as if we were flying here and had to ask Paramount: can we use your film crew?"

That "Thula" was a small, crowdfunded, independent production didn't matter.

"To them we're from LA we're flying to South Africa," said Talbot.

Biggs notes that while there are strong tax incentives for studio pictures to pick up sticks and shoot in South Africa, the same breaks don't exist for independent productions.

Crowdfunding Lessons

The budget for "Thula" came together in what is now the new old fashioned way: crowdfunding.

While the team had worked together before on a web series--"Debt Collectors"--but like many indies on YouTube they have not been able to convert YouTube viewers into a large fan base. So when it came time to rally the budget that wasn't a ready option.

What they did have was each other.

"One thing that I learned is that when you are doing crowdfunding it's important to have a crew," said Bland. "People are much more likely to look over a project when you are posting to social media with a link to your Facebook and Twitter."

Bland says the hardest thing is "trying to figure out ways to make your project stand out beyond the other 20 people who may be doing a crowdfunding campaign at that time on Facebook."

This is a problem that artists of all stripes face. Since many are part of artistic communities a kind of crowdfunding tunnel vision can set in. Everyone you know seems to be asking for cash, to the point where the same $20 is bouncing from project to project, with a little bit being taken off by the crowdfunding platform with each go.

Looking to avoid that trap the trio took to IndieGoGo and activated their friends and families, who might not be as connected to artistic circles, to get the cash.

"Most of our support came from our own communities," said Biggs. "It was church, friends, aunts, uncles who really came through. We were really creative in how to get them invested and excited."

Endings As Beginnings

With the short completed the team has taken the next step in the Hollywood rite of passage for self-starters: organizing premiere screenings.

I wondered if Biggs and Talbot were nervous about showing the piece to a room of invited industry guests. Both expressed that they were more nervous at the Bay Area screening last month, whose audience included friends from acting grad school. Biggs and Talbot met at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.

"I'm excited," said Biggs of the pending Los Angeles screening, "I'm proud of the film we made."

A short's premiere is far from endgame. These are the calling cards that young filmmakers and actors are all but required to make in an industry built on inertia. Even with all of the effort put into making "Thula," the team will still need a lucky break.

Yet that already sets them apart from the millions who only dream of trying to make it in the most amazing, fickle, strangest city in the world. Team "Thula" has taken those first steps into a larger world.

Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.

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