In Praise of Scary Cows

 One of the things I dearly miss about San Francisco is Scary Cow, the independent film co-op that I was a member of for the last four years. It was founded by Jager McConnell, in part in response to a problem he kept running in to in the course of pursuing independent film-making: he would post online looking for cast and crew for a project, but then the day of shooting a flake factor would often mean key people, maybe even everybody, failed to show up. With a $50 monthly fee for members, Scary Cow takes advantage of the fact that people are much more likely to show up for something they’re paying for.

It also solves another key problem for independent film makers: access to equipment and crew. The co-op format brings together people with varying specialties, levels of experience and access to equipment and enables them to pool their resources. At a pitch meeting every few months, any member who has a project in mind stands up before the group to present it, and then gathers together names of interested people. Directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, light and sound people can all be assembled in short order.

Finished ten-minute projects then screen to an audience of several hundred at the end of each round in a local theater in San Francisco (lately the grand old Castro Theatre). The audience votes on favorites, and top vote-getters are awarded funds for future projects and the chance to screen longer 20-minute pieces. I can testify that some really great films have been produced, many of them going on to film festival success outside of Scary Cow. So far two teams have expanded their work to feature length films as well, the documentary Iran is Not the Problem, and the delightful musical comedy shoe fetish extravaganza Devious Inc. The group is currently gearing up to support even more feature-length projects.

My own involvement began in 2007, when years of wanting to be involved in film finally reached a boiling point and happily intersected with seeing a posting about Scary Cow online. In four years with the group, I had a chance to work on 13 films, and went from having no formal experience to getting to try out just about every role imaginable: actor, art director, assistant director, best boy, casting, director, extra, producer, production assistant, props manager, script supervisor, shot log and writer.

On six films I got to be a principal participant (some combination of director, producer and writer), for a total of 75 minutes of screen time. That’s almost a feature length in most parts of the world! Along the way, I also got to participate in many of the workshops the co-op held, led by experienced cinematographers, directors and producers. At $50/month for 44 months, plus about $1,000 I put in directly to making films along the way (craft services can really add up!), and then workshop fees, for under $4,000 over four years I got a thorough introduction to film-making and got to meet and network with hundreds of people. That’s a significant bang for your buck compared to most any film school you could name.

While I’m sadly far from the herd now that I’ve moved, I’m working on finishing the first draft of my first feature-length screenplay (currently 103 pages and counting), informed by everything I learned with Scary Cow. And I have a half dozen films that I had a primary role in to show for my efforts too:

Carson Larson Gets the Picture– The very first film I worked on, which I got to co-write along with Alex Winter (who produced it) and Jason Hoag (who directed it), and also worked as a production assistant and had a small role in.

Geek Wars– Which I wrote and produced, and Richard Armentrout directed.

Deaf Dumb and Blind Date– Also written and produced by me, and directed by Richard. This was actually a companion piece to Geek Wars, intended to be part of a three-part 20-minute film called Triptych, which I never got the prize money to screen in its full-length. I can arrange home screenings if you like, though, and meantime I think this holds up niftily well on its own.

The Buddhist News– The brainchild of national treasure and co-star of Geek Wars Matthew Weinberg, which I co-wrote with him and Assistant Directed, and also spit up on screen for.
Ave Maria– My baby, which I wrote, directed and produced, based on a short story I’d written. Which was way too much to do all by myself, but I guess I really wanted to get it made! I learned a ton, and while it was a long haul to get it done, I’m super-proud of it.

23 Ways In Which I Could Die– Co-written with Matthew, and Co-directed by myself and Fathy Elsherif, this film just screened in November. It’s not online yet, but when it is I’ll let you know. Until then, vive la Scary Cow!


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