As Studios Stutter, Collectives Coalesce

Benh Zeitlin, J.J. Abrams are examples of filmmakers who gain strength in community

The end of Oscar season is both an upper and a downer. As tiresome as the rituals of self-congratulation may be, the events nonetheless create a sense of community among artists and executives. For a few brief weeks the combat of dealmaking gives way to an ongoing schmoozefest.

On the other hand the actors, writers and directors, having given their thank-yous to their extended families of agents and managers, suddenly realize once again that they’re out there on their own. Though the institution of the studio still exists, they are studios in name only. There are no buildings of contract writers, as in old Hollywood.

The warm camaraderie on display at the various guild events of awards season suddenly disappears. It’s every man for himself once again.

While the studio contract system is long gone, however, new forms of familial bonding have started to emerge in corporate Hollywood. They may not be clustered in the same building but they have nonetheless developed professional and emotional interdependencies.

Indeed, they are as much fraternities as they are companies and each has a fraternal leader.

Judd Apatow is one such leader, having gathered around him a frenetically busy cluster of comedic artisans turning out films (from “This Is 40” to “Bridesmaids”) and TV shows (“Girls”).

Then there is J.J. Abrams and his Bad Roboteers, who are involved in the “Star Trek” and now “Star Wars” franchises as well as TV shows like “Revolution.”

Their circles are being emulated by many less accomplished but equally ambitious groups around town — artisans who are trying to re-establish a sense of community in what was once a creative community.

The notion of filmmaking collectives is in fact a worldwide phenomenon, according to Benh Zeitlin, the brilliant young director of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Zeitlin has built such a collective (his term) around him in New Orleans, which fueled his ability to make his remarkable Oscar-nominated film on a budget of $1.8 million.

Like other filmmakers, Zeitlin has spent most of the past few months traveling the country and the world to promote both his film and his Oscar chances, but for the 30-year-old filmmaker this has not been a tour of five-star hotels.

“Beasts” was distributed by Fox Searchlight in the U.S. but by various foreign distributors abroad, so Zeitlin’s travels were often haphazard and self-funded.

And his aim was as much self-education as self-promotion.

“There are some amazing collectives of young filmmakers around Europe and in other parts of the world,” he reports. “Auteurism is fading out. There are lots of us out there who want to work together.”

In his travels Zeitlin deliberately sought out filmmakers whose work he admires, hence he trekked to the mountains of Serbia in search of Emir Kusturica and the band of Eastern European filmmakers he shepherds. “There is tremendous energy and originality in their work,” says Zeitlin. “I wanted to learn from them. We can learn from one another.”

Zeitlin’s modus operandi is as offbeat as his travel schedule. “Beasts” was funded by a nonprofit called Cinereach and, from my conversations with him, it became clear that he has no intention of looking for a studio deal, despite his Oscar nomination. Indeed, given his new prominence, he has to figure out a new relationship with the talent guilds as well as with distributors. He has an agent (Graham Taylor of WME) but looks to him for help on finance and declines to read scripts that may be submitted.

Zeitlin has now returned to his collective in Louisiana and started writing his next script. His home base consists of a room in a construction site where he and his sister intersect with fellow filmmakers and an array of rabbits, ducks and an overweight pig.

‘It’s been a wonderful year of learning and travel,” he says. “Now it’s time to return to my friends and to start writing and begging for money once again.”

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