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Low Budget Legends

Nina Paley Interview Part 2

Nina Paley is one of our heroes. We met her at a theater in the town of Apt, in southern France, during the Avignon film festival. After seeing “Sita Sings the Blues” that night in that beautiful mountain town, we realized were in the presence of the Jimi Hendrix of modern animators – a truly talented virtuoso.

It has been our privilege to talk and hang with Nina over the last two years. We finally prevailed upon her to share her thoughts with us and the world on low-budget filmmaking, free culture and the system.

Visit her truly awesome website to see more of her work and her menagerie of cool ideas and causes: http://www.ninapaley.com

Enjoy!


13BIT:
The musical rights?
NINA PALEY:
Yeah, the music rights. So to add — you know, so that brings it up to $270,000. The thing is that $20,000 of that was just transaction costs because I could not get any estimates or any communication at all from the corporations that controlled the licenses without going through a paid intermediary. We tried and tried and they do not return your phone calls if they don’t know you. So you have to pay someone.

They expect you to have a music supervisor, who is somebody that you pay basically because they have relationships to these corporations. And you can’t reach them any other way. Or you can use a lawyer. And I initially used a lawyer and then switched to a rights clearance house. So all those transaction costs were about $20,000. Which is a bargain because I was getting, you know, super low rates for some of it. And, you know, people going above and beyond.

So that was — and of course it cost a year of time — of my time because they were so slow in responding. And there were the whole festival license things. Because they negotiate with you — once they return your phone calls, the first thing they say is, “Pay us $500 immediately.” And that is to give you the right for one year to show the film in festivals and promise not to make a profit. So, in return for your $500 you sign a piece of paper promising that you’re not going to make a profit. So it cost me $5,500 to sign promises to not make any money which makes no economic sense whatsoever and was only the beginning of the topsy-turvy Kafka-esque world of music licensing.

Yeah, but anyway, and I should say for the $70,000 — or whatever, the $20,000 plus $50,000, the music isn’t fully cleared. For every 5,000 DVDs sold, I have to make additional payments. And, for every $1 million the film makes at the box office I have to pay another $50,000. But it’s not going to make $1 million at the box office. But it has sold more than 5,000 DVDs. Or will sell more than 5,000 DVDs. So, we have to keep track of this and at some point, payments have to be made. And every downstream distributor of the film has to set aside that money. It’s about — it’s, like, $1.85 a DVD has to be set aside. Which is certainly more than I’m getting from the downstream distributors.
13BIT:
Who verifies the numbers sold?
NINA PALEY:
That falls on me but then it falls on my distributors. Like, everyone who’s distributing it has to keep track.
13BIT:
Yeah. And keep records. And are they checked by — who is it? RIAA?
NINA PALEY:
No, it won’t be RIAA. It’ll be all the individual companies. But I’m pretty sure it falls on me. So basically —
13BIT:
Just curious.
NINA PALEY:
–I, you know, I’m very good at keeping track of the ones that I sell. I haven’t sold 5,000 yet. We actually need to do a reckoning of this pretty soon. And some of my distributors haven’t come back with numbers. They’re very, very slow. Like, some of the downstream distributors haven’t paid me anything yet. And this is not at all uncommon.

13BIT:
No, we’re waiting for money from a year and a half ago.
NINA PALEY:
It’s an accounting nightmare. The system is set up — there’s no way to efficiently account for this. And actually distributors are famous for not paying people partly — it’s not just because they’re greedy. It’s because the system is so absolutely unwieldy and unmanageable.
13BIT:
Well, also in the food business the longer you can wait to pay a supplier the better off you are because you’re just juggling –
13BIT:
What is the one thing you’d never skimp on, and what is the one thing you’d never pay for?
NINA PALEY:
Huh? I never say never. But I think skimping on sound is a bad idea. Sound is huge.
13BIT:
We agree.
NINA PALEY:
So I — that was I’d say the largest part of my budget was in fact for sound. And by sound I just mean the skills of the sound designer. I don’t mean paying for sounds. I —
13BIT:
Annette Hanshaw.
NINA PALEY:
–paying for, you know, IP (intellectual property) — well, I don’t — not just Annette Hanshaw’s music. And remember I wasn’t actually paying for Annette Hanshaw. I was paying for the rights to the compositions
13BIT:
Irving Berlin.
NINA PALEY:
–yeah, for example. Something I would never pay for? I’ll tell you I don’t want to pay for extortion. I really don’t. And that’s what those licenses are. But, you know, if you have to do it, you have to do it. I basically paid for that in order to make a statement, make a point, make the film available and let people know the truth about the realities of licensing. Because I’m so transparent about it.

So actually there are things that I would never pay for
13BIT:
Film festivals — you’re loathe to pay film festival fees.
NINA PALEY:
I am loathe to pay — although, actually I have a project. I thought of a project that would involve paying film festival fees as part of the project.
13BIT:
Can you talk about that or no?
NINA PALEY:
I would rather not —
13BIT:
How about in terms of production stuff? Is there anything you can think of?
13BIT:
Hollywood’s so bloated, you’ve, like, you know — coffee person to the coffee person.
NINA PALEY:
Oh a lawyer. I hope to god I never have to pay a lawyer, as a filmmaker I mean.

Actually I shouldn’t say that. I now have lawyers that I love. I love them. And they would be the only lawyers that I could imagine worth paying for. But they happen to be doing pro-bono work for me. But they are so much smarter and better and it’s just completely different. Most lawyers — most so-called IP lawyers are the most ignorant and backwards about IP.
13BIT:
Really?
NINA PALEY:
So finding lawyers that knew what the hell I was doing was quite, quite difficult.
13BIT:
Are these strictly IP guys or entertainment lawyers?
NINA PALEY:
No, they’re not — I think they’re IP guys. They’re in Silicon Valley so they’re dealing with a lot of software-related guys.

And, by the way, I have so much more in common with the free software — or really the software world than the world of other filmmakers.
13BIT:
Interesting.
NINA PALEY:
Yeah, all the precedents for what I’m doing have been set in free software.
13BIT:
So, in low-budget film making, where do you think you can save the most money? Is it in making everything yourself and not paying the licensing fee? Where do you think —
NINA PALEY:
No. No. Saving money. I mean, the money’s being saved for — it’s, like, the equipment is so cheap. And then most of us don’t pay ourselves. So there you go. There’s your savings.
13BIT:
What makes it low-budget is that you make yourself your own slave.
NINA PALEY:
Exactly. Slave —
13BIT:
There you go.
NINA PALEY:
–to the muse.

You can be a slave to money or a slave to the muse. And I’d rather be a slave to the muse.
13BIT:
–I like that.
NINA PALEY:
That’s in fact the difference between an artist and a hack. The hack works for money and the artist works for the muse.

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