During IFP’s Independent Film Week last month, I saw Brent Hoff, executive producer of Wholphin, pop in and out of my line of vision almost everywhere I went. Sitting on the “Finding Your Audience” panel with Karina Longworth, Todd Rohal, Mark Elijah Rosenberg and John Vanco, watching works-in-progress in the filmmaker library, attending screenings, watching yet more panels, and talking animatedly to people, he was sponging up the works, as is his way whenever he’s around film folk. Or any other kind of folk, for that matter.

Claiming that he’s really “not qualified” to do what he’s doing, Hoff, nevertheless, has a keen eye and finely honed sensibility for the “rare and unseen” in world cinema. (We’re talking about a guy who went from writing a reference book on things like arboviral encephalitides and slim disease to working as a writer for network television–quite prolific in his interests and talents.) Issue No. 4 of their quarterly DVD magazine has just been released, and like the previous three published and pressed this past year by McSweeney’s, it’s filled with stellar short films, and excerpts of features that have been lovingly curated. Also added to the mix is some original content produced and directed by the Wholphin crew.

Cased in top-of-the-line packaging, it’s a hell of a deal for twenty bucks. The mini-mag within contains an introduction penned by Hoff, accompanied by his spirited and erudite filmmaker interviews. Last week, I finally had a chance for a long jaw with him from his San Francisco offices. With steaming cups of joe by our sides, we talked about modern-day cinema and what a blast it is making movies:

Renew Media (RM): Tell me a bit about your background and what you hope to contribute to the independent film world with the work you’re doing now.

Brent Hoff (BH): My background’s pretty eclectic. I spent many years writing for television. I’m not a film guy at all. I wrote a book called Mapping Epidemics: A Historical Atlas of Disease, and then I got on The Daily Show from that and worked there for a while, then went to Nickelodeon and VH1 and spent a few years just making, you know, bad TV for a while. Not intentionally bad, but that’s how it turns out.

RM: Did you just discover that it wasn’t your world and that you wanted to do something closer to what you thought was interesting?

BH: Everyone I worked with was very open. That’s a big misconception about TV—that it’s populated by complete morons that have lost their souls over the years. The first thing that Madeleine Smithberg [co-creator of The Daily Show] said to me was, “Welcome to television, kid. See you in hell!” And I said, “Ha, that’s funny.” And she said, “No, I’m serious. This is a soul-crushing medium.”

RM: Why does television harden people so much? Is it the creative compromise?

BH: Yeah, it is the creative compromise. And it is an external force. I was talking to director Amir Bar-Lev, director of My Kid Could Paint That. We worked together there and I saw him at Sundance this past year the day his movie had sold [to Sony Classics]—one of his best days ever. And he wanted to talk about that very question! It’s really interesting how it happens. People in TV do want to make good things. And the creators are willing to take chances on some crazy, wild stuff. But there’s the economics of market testing and merchandising potential (especially in the case of Nickelodeon). If there’s no big merchandising potential, it’s going to be very hard to get that show on the air. That’s what we would encounter. So this theoretical dream job turns into a bit of a nightmare as you fail to get stuff on the air that even remotely resembles your original idea.

RM: So in terms of what you’re doing now, do you see a potential for some kind of financial model that will drive people to making the kind of product that you guys churn out–i.e., really good stuff–and being able to sustain themselves financially by not compromising creatively, finding distribution, finding an audience? In your opinion, how important is TV now, anyway, considering all these different platforms and scenarios available to anyone wanting to make a film?

BH: I don’t think TV is important at all. Look, it’s now really simple. Do you have a camera? Do you have an idea? Can you get that idea transferred to a film that will want to be seen by people? That’s possible now without television, without the big studios–it’s entirely possible to do that. People are starting to ink deals with some of the new web channels and download sites cropping up. That’s marking a huge change. At every film festival that I’ve been to in the last six months, people are still saying, “Oh, we’re a couple years off for all that stuff.” But, we’re about to sign a deal now, this week, so no, it’s not a couple of years off. And there’s no compromise on what kind of art you want to produce. If I want to have a crying competition, I have a crying competition

And we don’t need 3 million bored housewives to enjoy this to constitute a good use of time and money. You’re able to find an audience much easier when you’re not working through that type of business model. A young girl watched “Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?” which was on our first issue. She saw the film and then talked about it in a video she posted on YouTube. This girl got over 80,000 views in just a couple of days—she’s just commenting on this short film directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Miranda July and made in an afternoon for the cost of five oranges. You’re able to get yourself seen. You don’t have to do focus groups with a bunch of people in a mall in Orange County who think it’s a good idea. Those people aren’t really what I consider my audience, anyway.

RM: Another thing that impresses me about your collections, is that, while everyone purports to be “international” in scope, this is really one of the few sites and packages that I’ve seen that is earnestly scoping out what’s going on in the Middle East, who’s doing something interesting in the South Pacific, really focusing on one of the key benefits of the web—it’s so damn easy to “travel” the globe from your living room.

BH: I’m glad people have responded to that. There’s this notion of who “America’ is in terms of what we like to watch. It’s mind-blowing sometimes at how your stuff is being perceived and once again, it comes down to those damned focus groups. No matter how well they’re cherry-picked, they make or break decisions on what’s deemed entertaining to watch. It’s a very small group of our society that’s getting to sound off on what’s good enough to be seen.

RM: I hear this common theme among people who have started companies like yours, that really their impetus was the sort of depressive thought, if you will, that all this fabulous stuff, particularly shorts, that they were seeing at festivals would most likely never be seen by anyone who didn’t happen to catch that one screening.

BH: Those were some of the thoughts I had at festivals. I had no idea how much of this stuff was out there that should be seen, that didn’t fit that TV model; there just weren’t any distribution models available. We’re talking about filmmakers like Spike Jonze! We just got a bunch of short films that haven’t been released in the States from Werner Herzog. There’s this Paul Thomas Anderson film I’ve been trying to track down for this issue that he made of Elliott Smith before he died, where Elliott Smith, so I’m told, plays a Rastafarian basketball player—it’s a comedic role. With a cameo by Bette Midler.

RM: That’s crazy! I would love to see that!

BH: Right? That stuff is out there. And they’re not making it because they’re trying to get into Sundance or to get a feature made—it’s just an interesting idea and they want to do good work. Most filmmakers are focused on the work, as they should be able to be. And you can make some fairly decent money on this kind of stuff to fund future projects. We’re going to be seeing a lot more of things like that—people will go out of their way to do that because it will be seen.

RM: Are festivals going to remain as important as they are right now for both buyers and sellers of film?

BH: Well, they’re very important for me. I go to as many as I can. That’s where filmmakers are still sending their films; they’re still looking for that recognition. The whole system is built around these festivals and I don’t see that diminishing too much. I like being at those festivals and watching the films there with the filmmaker with, probably, their very first audience—I really love that. And there are great festivals out there with programmers that find films that no one else is discovering. There need to be places like Des Moines holding film festivals because there’s that filmmaker right outside of Des Moines that needs a place for his film to go.

RM: And the camaraderie that stems from all of that. There’s nothing, in my opinion, to replace that live audience, nothing to replace that experience of meeting other filmmakers, partying with them, exchanging ideas, filling your creative tank.

BH: Definitely.

RM: Are you anticipating doing some kind of physical festival in the next little bit—a Wholphin Fest?

BH: We love that idea. We initially called this the “Wholphin DVD Magazine” primarily to plant the notion that it will be something that’s going to happen more than once. Really, each issue is like its own curated film festival. We’re just so small. We need some help. We’re talking to some people who want to offer that help, but right now, it’s basically me, my assistant curator Emily [Doe] and a bunch of interns to run around and put out the fires. I would love to do a little traveling film festival. I think those “simulated experience” type of things are great. You know those dome theaters—the kind in which you watch planetarium shows? There are portable versions of those for which I’m currently making films—shooting them with the appropriate fish-eye lens and creating a different way of viewing. You can come to a park and lay down on a blanket and look up and watch David Cross swallow you or something like that. Or what it would be like to be in a beehive. There would be so many films that would be so much fun to see in that type of environment. I’m thinking, too, of that crazy roller coaster thing they had at the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy while I was in New York—you get on this thing and they show a little movie while you’re sitting in this box and you feel like you’re on some crazy ride. I like things like that, creating different types of viewing environments. We’d love to explore that more.

RM: What’s your favorite part of this? Is it the discovery, the curation, what aspect of it really excites you the most?

BH: There was a film on Issue No. 3, last issue, called “A Stranger in Her Own City: A Tomboy in Yemen.” It’s about a 13-year-old Yemeni girl who refuses to wear a veil.

People scream at her and threaten to kill her, men threaten to string her up by her ankles–and she just runs around and trash talks back to them like she’s on a basketball court [taunting the other players].  She’s an amazing, spirited girl in the midst of a fairly difficult situation. After putting that out, we received literally hundreds of emails of people wanting to donate to a college fund for her. During the course of the film, she tells the director how much she wants to go to university. So the director started a college fund for this girl. It wasn’t just about putting out a film and people responding by saying, “Oh yeah, I just saw this really cool film. . .” This has actually affected someone’s life in a real way, the medium’s been used to engage people in an active way; it makes a real impact. I’m really, really happy about that. This girl’s going to be able to go to college!

Nothing I do will ever really affect foreign policy in any way, but there was also some impact when we made the “Walleyball” film [also in issue no. 3].

I love that the Wall Street Journal, those consummate defenders of intellectual property law, ripped it off and put it on their web site and started talking about it and that Foreign Policy referenced it, too. It’s like being in Roll Call, every congressperson reads that. I like the idea of being able to have an idea like that and just do it. That cost us nothing! It was a camera, an afternoon and the gas for the ride down to San Diego. And in a very short time in a very accessible way, we were able to have our opinion heard on this issue. That’s awesome.

In our current issue, we have Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Strange Culture and that’s a film that’s phenomenal in so many ways, not least of which because it shows such a horrible, horrible thing going on in our country right now. You would hope that a film like Lynn’s would so clearly reveal how messed up the Justice Department is, that there would be some push for change. What’s happening to this artist is totally unacceptable. And “Two Cars, One Night,” I think, is just a near-perfect film. That is definitely one of my favorite films of the year.

RM: You mentioned that you are on the verge of signing some kind of distribution deal. What are you anticipating—what’s in the pipeline for the next couple of years?

BH: Everyone’s trying to be the place where everyone goes to see good stuff. And whether that’s a TV channel or an Internet site or a movie theater, everyone wants to be that place. And right now, there are not a lot of places that have good stuff. So all I’m trying my hardest to do every day and every night is to be one of those places, constantly, consistently, especially now because we’re distributing primarily on DVD. It’s a lot to ask for someone to sit down and watch three-plus hours of short film content when they have no idea what’s on it. And we are signing distribution deals and download deals that will add to what we’re already doing on our DVD packages. But that’s not going to change the bar I’ve set on the quality of the content we look for, acquire and distribute. If I don’t continue to make that my main focus, and continue to try and avoid being distracted by other things, I’ll just lose it. But no one really knows about us; we’re still so small. For instance, I’ll go to the Palm Springs SHORTFEST and see just thousands and thousands of short films I’ve never seen before and am not likely to see again. And no one’s sending us that stuff. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be on a DVD with Errol Morris and Spike Jonze, accompanied by a nice interview with them about some aspect of the process in a beautifully designed package? I think we have a lot to offer. We make 50,000 copies of each issue and we’re going into reprints. I would love to get many more submissions than we currently do. There’s definitely a lot of room for growth. We’re planning some special content, as well as commissioning work out to various filmmakers for our collections to help keep the talent consistent with what we want to be known for–our brand, if you will.

There’s not really a school for this. I go to these panels and most people have no idea whether or not it’s possible to make any money at this or how it can be done. And everyone’s saying, “Oh, that’s years away; we don’t really know what’s possible yet.” And there are people doing that right now—it does very much exist. So you’re getting all types of information from God knows where—it’s kind of mind-boggling.

You can submit your films, write to Brent and his team, or watch clips of their current archive at www.wholphindvd.com/index.php

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Tags: Big Picture, Creative Process, Distribution, Reframe