Julie Pacino was having writer’s block. When that happens, a change of scenery helps – so she headed from her home in Los Angeles to the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, a small, family-owned hotel that kept popping up on her Instagram feed.
“My intention was just to get away – and, yeah, take some photos, because that’s always something I love,” Pacino says. While taking photos of her friend posing throughout the meticulously designed inn (built in 1958 by a man as a “love letter” to his wife, who wanted a pink hotel), an idea for a movie hit her.
“The story just started speaking to me, and we started acting out scenes,” she says. By the time she was on her way home, she’d planted the seeds for a new horror feature, “I Live Here Now,” about a pregnant actress who escapes Hollywood only to wind up in an even more sinister place.
But funding an independent feature isn’t easy. However, Pacino’s friends had already introduced her to non-fungible tokens (NFT) – one even mentioned how their use was blowing up among photographers hoping to sell their work directly to buyers. Pacino started following some NFT creators, like Justin Aversano, and learned that successful collections often had a story behind them. Her photos at the Madonna Inn would be perfect. “I thought, what if I do a collection of 100 of these photos and talk about how they inspired the story for a movie that's going to now be my first feature?” she says.
The NFT photos of the inn sold out quickly, to Pacino’s surprise, and she hasn’t looked back from NFTs since. She’s making the most of their utility – holders of the NFTs (including those of her Keepers of the Inn collection, which features another 3,000 plus photos from the inn) get creative say in the direction of her movie. “Every two weeks we have a town hall and I share with the community the decisions I’m making,” she says. “It peels back the curtain so people can see what goes into making a movie, because it’s [effing] nuts.”
After all, the film industry notoriously likes to keep its processes behind closed doors – the insiders are in and outsiders struggle to get in. Having grown up around the industry, Pacino understands this (her father is the actor Al Pacino). She sees Web 3 as a legitimate way to shake up Hollywood and let in a more diverse set of filmmakers.
She spoke with CoinDesk about how NFTs offer a more inclusive funding strategy for female, non-binary and LGBTQ+ creators, why she finds the NFT community so welcoming, and her mom’s mishaps with MetaMask.
How did you first get into crypto?
I've been hearing about crypto since 2011. I had a crazy friend, Jimmy, who was, like, ‘You’ve got to buy bitcoin!’ And everyone was. like, ‘Shut up, Jimmy.’ Now he's really rich and the rest of us are. like, ‘Why didn’t we [ever] buy bitcoin?’ But I didn't really start getting involved until about February last year. That's when I first was told about NFTs. Obviously, you need crypto to buy NFTs, so I started slowly educating myself on what was going on but it was very confusing. It took me a few months to really grasp the concept of why someone would want to spend money on a JPEG – it's obviously a barrier to entry. But so is being an artist in this Web 2 world where we're conditioned to think that our artwork isn't valuable, and that's just so [screwed] up.
Your first NFT collection, the 100 photos from the Madonna Inn, sold out in less than 30 minutes. Did you expect that?
I didn't even want to do 100 photos. I'm, like, ‘This is crazy.’ [My friend] said, ‘Julie, your photos are good. There is a desire and hunger for content like this in the space.’ This was August, when [NFTs] started picking up for photography. And I remember telling my friend, if I sell 10 I'm going to flip out. Then we sold 100 in under 30 minutes and it was so surreal. On top of the sales, I was instantly getting flooded on Twitter with all this love, and so many interesting questions about my photos, people wanting to know about the movie I was making. I finally felt seen as an artist. That’s the moment I thought, I found my place. The reception of the community is what made me stay.
What is it about the NFT community that makes it so welcoming?
There's such an abundance mentality in this space that doesn't really exist outside of it, and certainly doesn't exist in Hollywood, which is very gatekept. The Web 3 community functions like there's enough for all of us to live off forever. The more you receive the less you try to hold onto it, and the more you let it flow and put it back out there. I made some money. I'm going to take what I need – I'm going to buy the shiny, new camera, awesome, I'm going to pay my bills – and now I've got this leftover money. What am I going to do with it? I'm going to put it towards other artists and make them feel the great feeling I'm feeling now. When I found the NFT space, I realized that is truly how the most successful people in this space function.
Obviously, you come from a legacy Hollywood film background. What do your family and friends in that world think of you embracing NFTs to fund your work?
My mom has a MetaMask. She has a Keepers of the Inn piece. She accidentally shredded her seed phrase and got locked out of her MetaMask. She wanted to call the blockchain – I'm just, like, OK, this is not for you. But she's happy that I'm doing it, and my dad, same sort of thing.
It's confusing to him, though I know he's trying to wrap his head around it. He's proud that I've found an innovative way to make my art. I've expressed to him how special of a place it is for artists. He's an artist and has always taught me that the artwork should come first and then everything else will follow naturally. That aspect of it, he fully understands and is excited about. So yeah, it's been an interesting journey with the parents for sure.
Do you think NFTs really can really change legacy Hollywood to make more room for women, non-binary, and LGBTQ+ filmmakers?
One hundred percent, because what Web 3 does is eliminate the need for middlemen. And they're called middlemen. There's a lot of cis white men that are calling the shots in Hollywood, that are disconnected from the mainstream audience’s perspective. Like, superhero movies and turning board games into movies? Sure, there's room for that, but I really think mainstream audiences want to consume thoughtful content.
There are a lot of artists who aren’t straight, white men, that have really cool [stuff] to say. Web 3 puts the control in our hands. I get to talk directly with my audience and sell to my audience directly. And my audience will tell me if what I've got is something they want to spend money on. The market is going to decide what’s good, not some dude in a suit who has no idea what I'm trying to express, who is trying to force me to put famous people in my movie that don't belong in my movie.
Film right now is hurting. Movies are not good anymore. They're not given the time and space to be good. That's a generalization – there are great films being made. But we're on the precipice of a golden age of cinema, because as cinema has gone downhill TV has taken over. Because TV executives and networks have given artists more freedom than cinema has.
Now, TV has become a little oversaturated, and we're at the point in the cycle where film can have a rebirth. I definitely believe that over the next five to 10 years, Web 3 will be credited for the rebirth of a new Hollywood era that gives power back to the artists.
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