Filmmaking made easy

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American instructor found his calling after learning and failing as a producer and director


Hollywood film instructor Dov Simens (in black suit), who admits that he is a mean, rude, and direct teacher, gave a lecture on filmmaking in HCMC from July 26-28

Hands on his hips, the grey-haired foreigner in a black suit throws out a challenge.

"How many of you here can tell me where and how much (it costs) to rent a high definition camera in Vietnam?"

There is no answer.

The clear, strict, impatient voice booms again. "What's the price, tell me? I need someone in this room to stand up, representing the entire nation [Vietnam] to answer my question."

A hand is raised from among the middle rows in a project room at the Ho Chi Minh City's Institute for Cultural Exchange with France (IDECAF). The room is packed to capacity with more than 200 people.

"I think it is around VND10 million a day," says the brave man, who sits between many familiar, old faces in Vietnam's movie industry. There are some young faces and even some Buddhist nuns in their long, light gray dresses.

"So, suppose that there are around 30 to 40 such cameras for rent in the city, how many of you know how to get the best price for it?" asks Dov Simens.

The pace of questions and the provision of answers does not flag as the film instructor who, to paraphrase one of his youtube clips, demystifies Hollywood and simplifies filmmaking as he conducts his well-known two-day film school.

Simens, who counts Quentin Tarantino, Will Smith and Spike Lee among those who have attended his classes, has been dubbed "the No.1 American Film Instructor" by the National Association of Film Schools in America.

"I know at least one third of the people in this room are working in the movie industry, so I have not come here to teach you things you already know or to talk about art."

"Keep in mind that filmmaking is a business because every step in filmmaking costs a bank check, so we must know how to make your film (make a) profit, and there's nothing wrong about making a film that makes a profit," Simens said to applause as he began his three-day (July 26-28) course.

"Here we go, ready!?"

Where's the market?

THREE-DAY FILM COURSE
IN VIETNAM

In three days, Dov Simens taught course participants how to write a script, how to gather a film crew, how to attract investors and sponsors, how to budget and how to work with film distributors and theaters.

The course, which cost US$295 per person, included a visit to a film studio and post production unit.

Two days earlier, addressing a press conference in HCMC, Simens had a piece of advice for established and budding filmmakers in Vietnam: "Stop trying to compare and compete with Hollywood, it is a hard thing (to do)."

In the same breath, he cautioned against seeing too much into differences between people. Simens said that the Vietnamese, like the people of other countries that he's visited, think that they are different, "but, in fact, people all are the same."

"We have the same mind, the same talent, and the same equipment, and the actors and the landscapes here are even more beautiful than other places," he said, before getting down to what, according to him, movie making boils down to.

"It's not that American film makers are more talented, but it is the Vietnamese who know little about film promotion and advertisement"¦ And what we don't have here is 300 million people who go to 25,000 theaters every week (as happens) in America."

There are around 150 theaters in Vietnam for 90 million people, most of them located in big cities like HCMC and Hanoi.

Vietnamese-American Vo Tai, who worked for the Boston Neighborhood Network Television, a community media center that sought to provide affordable training and access to emerging media technologies, agreed it was really hard to make a film profitable, especially in a country like Vietnam that does not have a vast network of theaters like America.

Tai, a former student of Simens's course, said other money-making avenues were also restricted in Vietnam.

"Due to the rampant release of pirated discs in Vietnam, local film makers can't make money from DVD renting or sell them abroad, so we need to focus on advertisement and work with local theaters here to attract more people to the sites," said Tai, who liaised between Vietnam's MFC Co. and Simens's Hollywood Film Institute to bring the film instructor to Vietnam.

Simple advice that works

"Pick up a great script, make it simple, like a 90-page screenplay for one location was my advice for Quentin Tarantino and Will Smith and they took it, just watch the blockbuster I Am Legend (2007)," said Simens.

He said he got into teaching after he went broke pursuing his own fortune in filmmaking as a director and producer and needed a job to support his family. He was scared and nervous during his first classes, Simens said.

But over the last 15 years, he says in an introductory note on his institute's website, he has "perfected his art" and "is proud of my teaching ability."

"I do not present myself as a great producer or the great director. For I am not."

"But what I am, is exactly what you want, a great film instructor who is proud to give you the most amount of filmmaking information, for the least amount of money, in the shortest period of time."

In the first course he has given in Vietnam, Simens told students they do not need to hold back in their early ventures.

"I know that people make short films because they are afraid and not confident enough to make a feature film, but to tell the truth, movie making is easy."

"Stop making short films, because they are for "˜children,' while we are all adults," he said. "And do stop talking about art in your film. Look at Hollywood, every year they make crap, but people like it."

"So first make a feature film that makes profit, and then think about art," said Simens.

Actress Kim Khanh, who attended Dov's class in HCMC to learn more about directing, as she is about to graduate from a course in the subject this year, said, "It's true that short film is often our top priority. We are just scared to make a movie."

Veteran Vietnamese-American actor Tran Quang, star of popular Vietnamese films in the 1970s and 1980s, including Vet thu tren lung ngua hoang (the scar on the back of a wild horse) that earned him Best actor and Most Favorite actor awards, said he found Simens's course interesting and practical.

"I first came out of curiosity, but I did later learn a lot from Dov," said Quang, who attended the class in Los Angeles in 1994.

Simens boasts a 3 percent "instantaneous success rate," which means, he explains, three of every 100 students who attend his course end up making a feature film within six months.

He puts this rate "in perspective" by pointing out, on his website, that "not a single graduate of the expensive four-year film schools" have directed or produced a feature film in the first six months.  

What about his debut class in Vietnam?

Le Duy Khang, who is studying a four-year course in Economics in Singapore, said that he flew back to Vietnam just to join the class.

He was hooked. "I will quit my class in Singapore and soon make my own feature film after Dov's class."

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