"People hear stories about Robert Rodriguez or Chris Nolan," says Scary Cow founder Jager McConnell, and think that all it takes to make a movie is "a camera and an idea." But Rodriguez, he points out, "had a whole town helping him make his movie." San Francisco’s Scary Cow, which calls itself an indie film co-op, aims to be that "town," offering experience, people, money and equipment to aspiring filmmakers with ideas to burn. It currently has 200 filmmakers paying monthly fees and 20 films in progress. Film teams are formed via something of a speed-dating process in which ideas are pitched and crews find films they’d like to work on. The co-op has screened films at a variety of theaters in both the Bay Area and beyond it. We caught up with McConnell over email and he explained how Scary Cow’s been working since its inception in 2007.
SF360: How did Scary Cow start?
Jager McConnell: I launched Scary Cow back in January 2007. Before the launch, my story was similar to a lot of Bay Area folks: I work a techie job at salesforce.com and I knew I wanted to get more involved in film, but some combination of not knowing the right people, lack of experience, not having equipment, or not having the money to make the films was holding me back. I found plenty of classes (which I took) and met many people who were into film. But when the time came to actually get out there and make films, I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. I really wanted experience in a non-judgmental setting where I could practice making films and still have fun along the way. So I set out to design a film co-op which focuses on participation, no egos, and where people can try out the part(s) of filmmaking they’re most interested in right away instead of "working their way up". Scary Cow is about removing barriers.
SF360: On your website you say that Scary Cow helps train its members in a way that is different than conventional instruction. How is Scary Cow different? What sets it apart from conventional film training?
McConnell: Totally different! When I think about ‘conventional’ training, a few things come to mind. There’s taking classes in your spare time. Or you go to film school full time. Or there’s the ‘work your way up’ approach. All of them don’t actually have you out there making films. You’re not writing scripts, or setting up lights, or directing the actors. Our whole premise is that you’ll learn how to make films by actually making films. We have enough concurrent films (we’ve got about 20 being made right now) that there’s always a demand for people simply willing to try. When someone joins Scary Cow, they’re instantly working on films. They’re going to see their films on [screens at] some of the cooler theaters in the city (The Castro and Victoria, for instance). They’re going to have supplemental classes if they want them. We have you working with other want-to-be filmmakers like you so you can find your ‘dream team’—the people you work best with. And finally we give funding to the teams that make the best films to fund their future films in Scary Cow. Show me a film school that will do that!
SF360: Why is it so difficult to make an independent film?
McConnell: People hear stories about Robert Rodriguez or Chris Nolan and think that all it takes is a camera and an idea. But Rodriguez, for instance, had a whole town helping him make his movie. It takes experience, people, money, equipment, and an idea to make a film. And if you don’t have one, the other three things become even more critical. Scary Cow tries to give you all four things you need. Scary Cow assists in bringing together the four things you need. First, and most importantly, we have 200 filmmakers who are all paying a monthly fee. The monthly fee is important for two reasons. Of course, it funds everything we do—the money goes back into the screenings, budgets, and classes. But more importantly, it makes sure people show up when it’s the day of the shoot. If they’re not showing up, they wonder why they’re paying their $50/month and they drop out of Scary Cow. This is great—because all that’s left are people who are actively involved. Those filmmakers also already have SOME level of experience in something. And as long as we’re all willing to share what we know, we can start to learn from each other and leverage each other’s skills. Scary Cow also offers a number of classes from Bay Area experts which members can attend for cinematography, writing, directing, acting, etc. We also screen the films at great theaters like the Castro Theatre and the Victoria Theatre—which you can’t really do on your own. And we dole out budget money to our best films. You can take that money and rent equipment that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford—though most members find that our group has a lot of the equipment they need among the collective. The one thing Scary Cow can’t give you is an idea for a film—but given that we had over 40 films pitched at our last pitch meeting, there seems to be no shortage of them.
SF360: How would you describe the collaborative environment of Scary Cow projects?
McConnell: This is something which I’m pretty proud of. The group is extremely collaborative and open to other people’s ideas. A lot of people put themselves out there and members are always supportive and helpful. We do have a number of industry experts in Scary Cow and I’m always amazed by how much they’re willing to offer their expertise to help the herd (sorry, cow puns are rampant). If people enter into Scary Cow with a massive ego and that they only want to work with the best, they quickly drop out. That leaves us with the open-minded, non ego-driven, and, frankly, cooler people—which leads to a more fun learning experience.
SF360: What are the primary goals of Scary Cow?
McConnell: Our goals are pretty straightforward: Learn to make films by making films. The community is always right. And making something is better than not making anything. If we can stick to those for all time, I think we’ll do great things.
SF360: Why is a group like Scary Cow important? What niche does it fill that Hollywood and Indiewood as it is cannot?
McConnell: Hollywood is telling Joe Public ‘There’s no place for you here’. Budgets are outrageous. Crews the size of armies. Equipment you can only dream of. And there’s this perception that unless you’re an artistic genius, you don’t have a chance. And they have to! With technology becoming increasingly cheaper and easier to operate, they have to keep raising the bar to keep it out of the hands of people like Marc Price with his $70 zombie movie that made a big splash at Cannes. Even ‘low budget’ indie films typically have budgets much more than a yearly salary. That’s hogwash. If you practice making films that cost less than $5,000 you become inventive. You work around the problems. Your vision (within reason) can still be realized on the big screen. That’s what we focus on. Are the 102 films we’ve made in the last two years perfect? Heck no! But that’s not the point. The point is that they went out there and made something. And their next film will be better.
SF360: How has Scary Cow grown or changed since its inception? How will it continue to sustain itself and evolve in the future?
McConnell: We’ve changed drastically over the years. One of the coolest things about Scary Cow, from my perspective, is how that change comes about. Every four months we have an all-member meeting where we literally vote and change anything that is bothering members. When I first started Scary Cow, I had no idea what would work or what wouldn’t—so I guessed. And for a number of things I guessed wrong. Very wrong! But we’ve fixed all of the biggest issues. From film ownership (the filmmaker now retains 100 percent of the rights of the film) to how teams are formed, all of it is driven by what the community wants. It’s a pretty amazing thing to watch… you’d think it’d be more difficult to get 200 people to come to agreement on things—but the power of community always generates the compromise that makes everyone happy. I often get emails saying, ‘I can’t believe how awesome it was that we came to agreement’ on such and such topic. It’s pretty exciting. As for our future, Scary Cow has always been designed to sustain at any level of membership. No one is making money off Scary Cow so our costs are fairly low with about 60 percent of our revenue going to fund our films. It scales easily too. The more members the better—it means more screenings, more classes, and more budget awards to be handed out.
SF360: How do projects emerge?
McConnell: Every four months we have a pitch meeting where any member who wants to pitch a film idea to the collective can do so (which in and of itself is a pretty cool experience). After the pitch meeting, prospective crew members will go up and talk to the project owner to see if it’s really a film they’d like to help out on. Then it’s a bit like speed dating. The producers will write down a list of all of the crew members they’re interested in and hand them in to Scary Cow. Then all of the crew members write down the projects they’d like to help out on and hand those in to Scary Cow. We then match up the crew members and producers who said they’d like to work together. That way it’s low stress, low pressure, without any hard feelings. We hear about 40 pitches a round so there’s always a demand for crew—which means you never get stuck with that ‘last kid on the soccer field’ feeling.
SF360: After the film screens, do teams stick together, and if not, where does that award money go?
McConnell: The budget award must be used to make another film in Scary Cow—that way people don’t just walk off with the money. It’s really designed to encourage you to make a better film. The members voted to have the budget award money stay in the control of the person who pitched the idea at the beginning—after all, without their idea the film never would be made. It encourages teams to work well with one another because if they’re on a winning team, they’ll likely all want to stick together and make another winning film.
SF360: Aside from award funding, how do teams finance projects?
McConnell: They don’t! They share equipment that they already have and have free labor since we’re all a part of Scary Cow… so there aren’t really any costs. Occasionally members might chip in some extra cash but it’s definitely a rarity.
SF360: What are some of the titles of the more prominent films created at Scary Cow? Are there any unique stories behind the making of those films?
McConnell: Our first feature has been screened in over 8 countries: a political documentary called Iran (is not the problem). Another called Die Mekaniks was screened at the Somona International Film Festival back in April. And another one of our features will be released later this year, called Devious, Inc., which we plan on doing a huge launch for. As for stories, I suspect every one of our films have unique stories behind them. When you combine ultra low budget filmmaking with working with people you might not have known just a few weeks prior, I’ve heard some doozies. But even when there is friction among filmmakers, the great part about Scary Cow is that there are hundreds of other people to try out. The right combination is out there. You can see many of the films that we’ve made on our website at http://www.scarycow.com.
SF360: In the competitive Scary Cow film festival, how are winners decided and how is the festival structured?
McConnell: The festival structure is very easy. If you complete a film, we’ll screen it. Then we break the films into two groups. Films that were made without Scary Cow funding (phase 1) and those that were made with Scary Cow funding (phase 2). It wouldn’t be fair for the funded films to compete against the non-funded films, so we keep them separate. Then we hand out ballots to all of our audience. Those ballots determine who gets the budget. We count member votes, audience votes, and a few special guest judges votes all separately and give awards out from each of them. Over 40 percent of our films received budget awards in the last round—not too shabby!
Elizabeth Rader is SF360.org’s summer intern and a student at New York University.
With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.
Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.
Since its first event in 1998, Midnight Mass has become an SF institution, and Peaches Christ, well, she's its peerless warden and cult leader.
Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.
Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’
For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.
Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.
Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.