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It would be easy to commiserate with Zoe Lister-Jones about the difficulty of getting movies made, or the lack of opportunities for women in the industry. But unless you, too, are actually doing something about it, think before you kvetch.
The actress/singer/playwright/screenwriter/film director/songwriter (feeling lazy yet?) is best known for her roles on sitcoms like Whitney, Friends With Better Lives, and her current turn as Life In Pieces’ endearingly kooky Jen Short, where she’s revealed a wonderful bent for physical comedy. Her career’s on steady ground these days, but the interesting part is how she got it there. (Isn’t it always?)
Lister-Jones’ mom enrolled her in acting classes at age 10 to help her overcome shyness, and as a teenager growing up in Brooklyn, she auditioned for musical theater but never made the cut. Her video-artist parents didn’t shield her from the fact that acting could be an insecure life – or discourage her from pursuing what she loved. Lister-Jones wanted a stable future, but she also wanted a creative one. That they rarely go together discourages some (make that most) people; it makes others work really freaking hard. After graduating with honors from the Tisch School of the Arts, she burned CDs of herself playing piano ballad renditions of pop and rap bangers, and used that material in Co-dependence is a Four Letter Word, her one-woman, 10-character show, a project that won her an agent and a manager.
She got some breaks – stage work, supporting movie roles and more than her share of “crying for cash” L&O episodes – but the break that really counted was self-made, literally. In 2009 she and boyfriend (now husband) Daryl Wein wrote Breaking Upwards, a script based on an attempt to save their own struggling relationship through an experiment with non-monogamy. Which seems almost easy compared to the economics of trying to shoot a feature-length film in New York City for $15,000. She and Wein played the lead roles, he directed, she cooked for the cast and Craigslist-recruited crew, with everybody pitching in on tasks like splitting PVC pipes for dolly tracks. Lister-Jones also wrote lyrics for the film’s original soundtrack. The marketing budget allowed for just enough chalk to write the film’s title on sidewalks around the city and some homemade rap and reggae promo videos on Funny Or Die. The film earned comparisons to Annie Hall, and praise for its creators’ mix of humor, raw emotion and scrappiness. Lister-Jones and Wein were the subject of a New York Times article on sweat equity in the independent film industry.
That hard-earned calling card opened doors – and budgets. Lister-Jones got several million to make 2012’s Lola Versus, which she co-wrote with Wein and co-starred in with Greta Gerwig. She found herself confronting less optimistic numbers as she prepped for Band Aid, her directorial debut. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University reported in 2016 that gender representation in professions like editing and sound design is still wildly skewed towards men. Their study found that women counted for 17% of all editors working on the top 250 films of 2016 and just 5% of all cinematographers on those same films. Of that same sample, 3% of composers, 8% of supervising sound editors and 4% of sound designers were women.
As a female filmmaker, you’d have good reason to complain…or to hire a 100-percent female crew. “Nothing was changing,” said Lister-Jones in a recent interview. “It felt like in order to effect change, I needed to subvert the paradigm entirely.” The networking and recruiting involved in building an all-female crew from scratch wasn’t easy, but she saw it as a way to break a cycle. Industry execs will tell you it’s too hard to find female filmmakers with enough, or the right kind, of experience. Thus female filmmakers don’t get enough, or the right kind…well, you get it.
Band Aid is the story of a couple who, in a last-ditch effort to save their marriage, decide to turn all their fights into songs and start a band. If it echoes chords of Breaking Upwards, it speaks to Lister Jones’ ear for the universal in relationships and her knack for writing rounded characters that rarely verge into typical male/ female stereotypes. It’s a very funny and sharply observed movie, but also an emotional one, and she found having a crew of women helped her tap into its poignant moments more easily. The proof was in the premiere: Band Aid debuted at Sundance and was snatched up by IFC Films and Sony Pictures.
Band-Aid was released this month to excellent reviews, but Lister-Jones deserves the highest praise for intent alone – her drive to succeed as an artist is helping others do the same. “I think I was raised with a lot of awareness around how painful it is to make art that goes under-recognized, and to have to take other jobs that in turn sacrifice your creative space,” she told Vogue. “I have so many friends who struggle. Making a living from your art is such a rarity; I was there for many years myself, and I continue to struggle in my own ways. I’ve carved out a path, but not without lots of roadblocks.” Roadblocks she’s taken it upon herself to remove – a perfect job for Big Women, the all-female construction business she once invented as part of an elementary school assignment. Its slogan was “There’s no job too big for Big Women.” How better to crack the proverbial celluloid ceiling than cracking us up in the process?