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The Last Bootleg

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and deliberated over and again about whether it’s the right thing to do or not, but here it is: Bootleg NYC will be the last one. There. I guess that makes it official.

Before you weep, cheer or just shrug your shoulders with indifference, please indulge me a little explanation and reflection.

I’m fighting the temptation to get too misty-eyed about the whole thing, but maybe I just need to give in and try and write this out with complete honesty. Some people may want to take task with what I’ve got to say, but you know, this is what it is, and I hope you all understand how important it is to write from the stomach. After all, that’s how I compose my screenplays, and to do anything else would be a disservice to all you guys.

Bootleg Film Festival was a bad idea turned good. Let me explain.

In 2008, fresh to a new life in Glasgow, Scotland, I was feeling pretty inspired by what I had just managed to achieve.

My self-financed-on-a-shoestring feature had just been sold to a US distributor, and I was feeling pretty rosy about the whole deal.

Here I was - 29 - ten years after this actor-with-no-film-training had decided to write a screenplay, about to have my film released. What a sweet victory.

It had been a decade of being laughed at, ignored and mired in day job after shitty day job, getting fired, walking out or just trying to handle the fact that the world was populated by assholes. Inside myself, I was holding onto the belief that eventually I would make a feature film, and that all would turn good. And it did. Sort of.

I mean, I don’t care who you are, when you sell a film, that shit goes to your head fast.

I thought I was invincible and that I was about to coast into a life of champagne parties and an endless stream of movie deals. After a decade of working shitty jobs and hopping from couch to couch, from stability to instability and back again, here I was, Tommy Know-It-All: the guy who could shoot films for less than 2K and get them out to the world. It’s amazing how far blind-belief will carry you.

And two things happened in that spring: first, I wrote Nina Nobody - the film that has a crazy and insane history of its own - and then second, I decided to start my own film festival. This is where the bad idea part comes in.

The name flashed through my head, and I listed it on Withoutabox. Then, I panicked. What did I know about running a film festival? Sure, I needed movies, and a venue, and an audience… But after that, well, I didn’t have any idea of what it would take. But as I said, believing that the idea is worthy is sometimes the magic sauce that gives you the energy to deal with the difficult stuff. And there was a lot of difficult stuff.

From day one, the remit was I can. I will. I did. It was the mission statement; that every filmmaker had, in the course of getting their story made, told themselves, I can do this. I will do this. And eventually, after much blood, sweat, tears (and a few miracles), they get to say I did do this.

And that to me was always a huge deal. Because when I started out, there were so many people telling me to give it up. But I refused, over and over and over.

Storytelling is at the root of all modern cultures, and protecting that, investing emotionally and encouraging it (rather than, you know, the absolute opposite) matters immensely. Our ability to craft and enjoy stories is what makes us human. Cinema is just a modern iteration of that.

So by kick-starting Bootleg, I had a belief that this was all about celebrating filmmakers as both individuals and as a collective force. It wasn’t about fancy parties or who-knew-who egotism. It was just to raise the awareness of those crazy/awesome individuals who were making movies on the rent money.

Of course, we’ve come a long way from that one-man-band set-up in Glasgow, screening films in the basement of a coffee shop whilst everybody sat on the floor.

And I can’t pretend - it’s been really, really tough over the years.

After that first Bootleg (which was truly amazing), where I got to meet so many fantastic faces, many of whom have gone on to become great friends, I didn’t really know how it could get any better. But it did.

I took it from Glasgow to Swansea, from London to Toronto, all the time, growing the festival into being something much more, and connecting with a bigger and bigger team/family. And it became their Bootleg too. And the whole time, we were doing it for the filmmakers that we loved, encouraging them to embrace the celebration of what they had achieved.

I’m not pretending - it took time to figure out our identity, and how best to serve the movie makers that showed up. But of course, it was always infused by a belief and a passion that, no matter how things went at other festivals, when you came to Bootleg, you were the focus. You were the star.

Of course, over those years, I have also dealt with some truths of my own about this film business - about the magical accounting that means you’ll rarely ever get paid, and about the greed and the pessimism the seems to mire every corner of ‘development’, all along believing that Bootleg could be about something different. And it always has been.

So in taking this festival to New York, I knew I was taking the biggest gamble yet.

The festival doesn’t make money. Ever. You only have to look at Withoutabox and their monopoly to factor in just how financially hard it is to make this all work.

And then there are the costs of venues (without going into specifics, renting anything in TriBeCa is extortionate). So after a while, you realise that it takes a certain kind of passion to make movies. And a certain kind of madness to run a festival for those movies.

Listen, I’ve been there. I’ve been the guy living in a cramped, mice-infested apartment, riddled with damp and working a minimum-wage job, getting screamed at by customers because of my bosses archaic refund policies.

I’ve been the dude who was promised he could be anybody if I just applied myself, but told that the education would cost me the next three decades in student loans.

I’ve been told to not aim too high because the fall won’t be as far.

But I couldn’t buy into any of it.

So I quit my stupid jobs. I demanded more. And I tried to make sure that, no matter how incrementally things changed for me, I would always try and keep the door open for the next guy.

And it’s working, it really is.

Through Bootleg, I’ve seen some incredible talent grow and build a name for themselves. And it’ll only keep happening as those same filmmakers (I hope), keep inspiring somebody else to keep doing their thing.

But for me, it’s time to step away.

You see, after my bad idea became such a joy, I realised that I had grown and changed myself as a filmmaker. This year alone I’ve shot two features of my own, and this Bootleg is the second of 2013. And honestly, it’s exhausting. I’m realising more and more that I’m asking so many filmmakers to step up to the plate and to represent themselves and each other, whilst quietly being frustrated by the occasionally muted responses. I get it. It’s me. It’s my beautiful, misinformed idealism that has gotten me here. It’s that out-there belief that everybody deserves to be at the top of the mountain at least once, carried up by those that saw and fell in love with their talents. But I also know that many people just don’t choose to live, or celebrate, in that way. But you know what, maybe that’s no longer my cause. Maybe it’s up to them to do it for themselves. Maybe my career is about just me. And that’s probably a good thing.

You see, this is about celebration. That is the literal etymological root of the word 'festival' - a feast of celebration. And the films we lose sleep over to pick, these are the movies we love and choose to honour with our own humble resources. Not because we think there’s any status-gain (because trust me, there isn’t), but because we love storytelling.

I’m going to try and round this out in a way that I hope will make sense. Bootleg NYC at TriBeCa Film Center is about as big as we could ever have possibly hoped for. It’s like the fucken temple that filmmakers had built for them. We can’t go any bigger than this. Bootleg is not run by film critics or intellectuals; it’s run by filmmakers. By people who have done the 3am starts and the 2am finishes. It’s run by people who are risking (and sacrificing) their own time and reputations for those other filmmakers, who in any other circumstance would be the competition. And for what? Honestly, because it matters. People doing shit with their lives that elevates them beyond the mediocre and the less ordinary means that they might just inspire somebody else to chase the dream that matters to them.

If you’re a filmmaker with a movie in at Bootleg NYC, remember that I didn’t start this for myself. I could have saved myself a lot of money, time, tears and worry and poured it all into my own career. But then there were too many people doing that already.

So if you’ve ever been a part of this, I’m asking for one thing; help me make this the very best Bootleg yet. Do something for your fellow filmmakers that is about getting the word out on how good they are. Because like so many others, come Monday morning, a lot of filmmakers are right back to a life where not too many people really care about them or what they do. And I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sit well for me.

So if you are in NYC, come to Bootleg. Even if you’re not, tell someone. Tell everyone. On Twitter and Facebook and at the local bar. The smallest action will have the biggest impact.

And as I sign off on the last Bootleg ever, I want to say thank you to every single person whoever shot a film, sent it to us and helped us celebrate. And an even bigger thank you to those who said becoming a filmmaker was a bad idea.

Because no matter how you deal with your own life and your own dreams, this was always about making it just a little bit better for the next filmmaker. And I think we achieved that.

Rock n roll.