Making Sense of The Next Cool Event 2012

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a VIP Gala at “The Next Cool Event“, the second half of a 2-night affair filled with music, food, and fantastic surroundings. The stated mission of this event was to introduce Georgia’s “film friendly” interior design and event design industries to people from the state’s burgeoning Motion Picture Industry.  I believe the event’s mission needs a bit of massaging, but more about that later.

The event has grown since I first heard of it (last year) and this time around the organizers elected to use the Atlanta Expo Center on the southern edge of Atlanta’s perimeter highway, site of the popular Scott Antique Market. This large facility is a well-traveled hunting ground for set decorators and propmasters working in the Atlanta area, hardly the sort of place you’d imagine as the destination for a swank event.

My date for the night was an archaeologist by trade and Dragon*Con royalty in her spare time. She was carefully packed into a sexy blue cocktail dress and 5 inch designer shoes and I felt like a confidently pudgy James Bond strolling around the place with Ursula Andress by my side. Despite her sexy outfit my friend was ready to devour every cupcake in the building so we scooted from exhibit to exhibit, rating the production design while jamming food into our mouths and candy into our pockets. It was awesome! I had a lot of fun.

Since The Next Cool Event is all about “the movies” it should come as no surprise that each vendor’s display was themed along the lines of a feature film or television program. Some setups were modest, others were pretty spectacular and demonstrated a mastery of display art. (Check out the Feb/March edition of Oz Magazine, which features some great concept sketches by Javier Santos of Pink Frog Design)

Several camera ready communities had exhibits. Of those, my favorite was the one for the city of Covington, which was distinguished by a giant physical model of the town’s signature courthouse. Anybody who has worked in the Atlanta film scene for long will find themselves in that town square, it seems as if 75% of the shows shot in Georgia end up there. I saw some of the grown-ups from The Vampire Diaries at the event but I never really learned anybody’s names because I’ve only day-played on that show. I did spot a big whack of my friend Joe Connolly’s director’s chairs (he’s the propmaster).

Another of my favorite camera ready community exhibits (for all the wrong reasons) was the circus themed lounge for the city of Athens, Georgia, entitled “Athens: Life Unleashed” featuring “circus performers”. In Athens the term “Life Unleashed” apparently means “Apathy Unbounded” because the trapeze artists were as pudgy as me, and they were moving in slow motion through a few basic aerial silk routines. Off to one side a girl was swaying her hips to keep a pink hula-hoop in motion, cracking bubblegum in time to her gyrations… she made us giggle. They were all so bored and it was all so sad that we pulled up onto a couch to watch them suffer through a few routines. It felt like an act of cruelty to sit and watch those poor people try to live up to such a bold catchphrase. Still, if you have a chance to shoot in Athens, do it – it’s a fantastic town with great history (and this is coming from a Georgia Tech graduate who believes in the importance of veterinary medicine).

But for every dozen miscues there was one masterpiece, for instance I found the Marie Antoinette exhibit by the folks from Paris on Ponce to be astonishing (which didn’t surprise me). It was the sort of thing you’d expect to see in the store window at a high end retail store.

Regardless of quality, it was obvious that most vendors had put a lot of effort into their movie/television-themed displays and despite the great food and the entertaining people-watching, the recurring question from every “real” film person I met was:

“Why are they doing this?”

Seriously, I had more than a dozen people (including the archaeologist) trying to figure out the point of this entertaining evening of spectacle. We were all wondering exactly what it was that the vendors had hoped to accomplish when they first signed up, because there’s absolutely no way that any of those people are going to get hired to decorate a legitimate feature film or television show.

It just doesn’t work that way.

It’s not because they aren’t talented or resourceful – it’s because they don’t know the system. They don’t the customs or mores of the business. They don’t know the rhythms of production, the roles of all the players, the places where their job ends and someone else’s job begins. The thousand little things that make the job work. Every industry on the planet has its own culture and traditions and filmmaking is as regimented as a military operation and people don’t have time for  someone to learn on the job… it’s the sort of business where you must come up through the ranks, as much for the journeyman process as for the experience.

If you were a talented event designer would you be willing to take a drop in pay to spend a few years as a set dresser, then move up to being a lead man before getting an opportunity to decorate a show? No, of course not. Perhaps you might be able to get yourself a job on an independent film, which always rely on the kindness of strangers because they have no art department budget to speak of and expect you to work miracles. That’s probably the best “in” that I could think of for someone from outside the business, trying to infiltrate the world of cinema.

And I honestly wouldn’t begrudge anyone trying. You just have to get hired… go for it!  Just be ready to join a union. Even if this is a right-to-work state you won’t get far by avoiding getting into the “club”. That’s also a part of film culture. You’d best not fight it.

The most realistic outcome I’ve been able to project for one of these vendors is that there might be some real instances in which a (motion picture) Decorator might be able to hire one of these independent Event Designers to set up for a wedding scene, or a shop window in a set – something that requires a spectacular level of artistry that outstrips the skills of day to day set dressers (and some of those folks are quite skilled).

A propmaster might find the caterers useful as a supplier for a big food scene, or perhaps a commercial producer is looking for a new caterer to incorporate into their crew lunches. But by no means are the companies who do catering for film in any danger from these event caterers – it’s two different worlds.

About an hour before we arrived at The Next Cool Event I was getting a haircut from my friend Amber down at Serenbe, and she had a friend in her salon who had exhibited at “The Next Cool Thing” last year. It was more or less suggested to him that he might very well find work in the film business by exhibiting at that event, which is unfortunate for the aforementioned reasons. While he did end up meeting a future client at the event, he said that he wouldn’t want to participate in it again and I can understand why.

With as strong a turnout as The Next Cool Event had on Saturday night I can’t help but imagine that they’ll continue to do it for years to come, but I think that they should figure out a new position from which to pitch the event to the industries in question. Perhaps a Comic-Con style media-driven event that retains the film/television theming, but is used by studios to pitch their Georgia-lensed productions. Have their casts appear onstage for panel discussions. Interview the directors and producers. Do panels with the crews to discuss special effects, stunts, costume design, you name it.

There’s a great opportunity to present an event that’s more relevant to the motion picture industry, and perhaps the folks behind this event are the ones to do it.

Or maybe someone else is…

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