Friday, April 30, 2010

Got Game?

I wasn't going to write a blog this Friday since I'd written one earlier in the week and we didn't screen last night, but hey, who am I to deny people their harmless addictions?

This is a marketing success story or sorts. It just happens to be about my own festival run experience, so I'm telling it not to blow my own horn, but to hopefully help those who are about to hit the festival circuit – be it with Dances With Films, or any other fest around the world.

My film, Jacks Or Better, is a movie set around a nightly poker game. During the game, one of the players calls for suicide queens to be wild. Well, there are no suicide queens in a deck of cards, so later when a player sees that card in his hand, it becomes an issue.

So for our Key Art (aka, the poster, postcards, stickers, etc.) we had a graphic artist/photographer do a special still shot of the card. I thought playing cards with a label of when the show was screening would be a cool promotion. Our graphic guy did much better. He printed up suicide queens on card stock to hand out. Since six cards could be printed per page, we had six different funny saying about the movie printed on the back, and our artist made slight changes to each queen. One had a tear; one had her eyes closed, etc.

Year 3 of Dances With Films (2000) was our world premiere and the cards worked great. First of all, they fit in my shirt pocket, so I could carry a stack of them, have my hands free, and still whip out a card like an old west quick draw. I could also put one of them on the lanyard with my festival pass, stuff like that that wouldn't work with a postcard.

Very soon I'd find myself mistakenly giving a card to someone I just gave one to five minutes ago, or I'd offer a card to someone my producer just hit up.

Instead of being embarrassed, or having that be the end of the conversation, it very quickly became something like:

"Oh, I already have one."

"Really? Which one?"


"They're different."

The person takes out his/her card and I take one out of my pocket and we compare. The quote is different. The queen is different.

Soon, people started collecting them. It became a game during the festival to see who could get all six. That put a smile on a lot of faces, which was fun.

Next festival is in Hawaii.

Roger Ebert goes to this festival every year. My entire cast came from the Organic Theatre in Chicago, famous for producing David Mamet, and others. Their names might not have been enough to win over distributors, but to Broadway and Chicago critics, they are all major atars. I knew exactly what I would say if I got a chance to talk to Ebert.

There was a filmmaker's lounge in the hotel with a table for all of the promotional materials. I had printed up stickers with our screening times to put over the DWF info on the left over cards. So with a pocketful in my Hawaiian shirt, and stacks to put on tables, I hit the lounge.

The volunteers staffing the lounge loved the cards. Once the fun of hanging out with the filmmakers wore off, they were bored out of their minds, so every time they saw me, they tried to get a different card. The collection game was on.

Day three of this weeklong festival, I'm in the lounge having coffee and one of those Portuguese doughnut things they have (what are they called? Love them!), when in walks Ebert. He sat down by himself across the room from me, and you could feel the nervous energy from the four or five independent filmmakers that were gathered in the far corner. We were all trying to be too cool.

Ebert looked like he was in a good mood, but didn't want to talk to anyone about anything before he'd had some coffee and gotten his day going. He especially seemed to not want to talk to young, hyperactive, star-struck, filmmakers fresh out of school. I can't say that I blamed him. It must suck having to defend his opinions 24/7 to every one who didn't agree with what he thought about they're favorite movie 15 years ago.

Anyway, the minute he sat down, the volunteers – who knew him well, as they see him every year – ran up to him and said, "You've got to get one of his cards," meaning mine. Then they turned to me, "Give him one of your cards."

A command performance. The promotion had done it's job. [And less to all of you – BE NICE TO THE VOLUNTEERS!].

I let them ask me one more time, until it was clear they wouldn't shut up until I talked to Ebert, then walked over to hand him a card.

I had seen the look on his face on another celebrity, when I bumped into Diana Ross in a bookstore in LA. It was total and complete fear. In her case it was, a look of "please, please, please. Don't recognize me and start a scene." (I didn't). In his case, I could see the fear building of "please, please, please don't talk to me about movies, not right now. I don't want to talk about what 'real' independent movies are verses… anything… just let me have an hour's peace."

Okay, maybe I was reading a little bit into that, but not much.

So, I did exactly as I had planned. I handed him a card and said, "You know all my cast."

"Really?" His expression changed a bit to that "polite, but limited interest" that celebrities get for an appropriately timed conversation with a fan. Perfect for me. "Who are they?"

"Jack Wallace." I said, and stopped.

Wham! His expression became true, interested, respect. "I saw him in Cuckcoo's Nest."

He was referring to a stage production in Chicago. I nodded like I knew Jack had done the play. Jack's done about every play there is, so it's hard to keep up. "Vinny Guasteferro," I continued.

"He just did In The Old Neighborhood." A David Mamet play on Broadway.

"Meshach Taylor," I said. Subtle marketing there. Meshach was my biggest name as far as distributors were concerned, but among those in the know, Jack was the headliner. By listing him third, I was indicating he was a part of an ensemble of talent a la House of Games.

"When is this screening?"

"It's on the card," I told him.

When he looked at it, the volunteer started to explain. "Yeah, and there are six different ones..."

I made a polite exit. Always leave them wanting.

He cut short a seminar he was giving that night – meaning he only went an hour over instead of his usual 2-plus – to come to the screening.

We had the volunteer who works has his liaison every year ask him what he thought of the movie and he said, "I never tell."

Probably a good thing, since anything he says will get back to the filmmaker. Case in point, I heard through the grapevine that he'd told the festival director he thought the movie was "…disturbing," which is exactly what I was going for.

I've never used the quote in any of my PR as I didn't get it from him first hand, and he hasn't written an official review.

Still, it lives in my head along with a few other memories. I think of them like mental newspaper clippings, folded up and tucked away in the wallet in my head. Every now and then, I take them out, unfold them, and share them with someone – or just relive them by myself when I need a reminder that yes, I've got game.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

So You Got In A Film Festival - Now What?

Since Dances With Films is in Los Angeles - where many of the filmmakers reside - and since we often have world premieres, which means first-festival experiences, we've taken to having an orientation meeting with the filmmakers.

Much of this meeting covers marketing. I thought it might be helpful to say here what I often end up saying at the meeting.

Marketing a film in Los Angeles is different than any other place in the world. She is a great city, and I love her dearly, but her level of polite apathy can not be over estimated.

"Hey, my movie just got into a very prestigious festival in Los Angeles," you say to her.

"That's great," she says, "congratulations. Good for you. How much money has it made?"

"Well, none yet, but this is our big premiere. Will you come?"

"No, but good luck with it."

"But, you should come. It's a really good film about the struggles of..." and pretty soon you find you're talking to yourself.

To get Los Angeles off her couch and into the movie theatre - which, lets face it, is like asking you to pay money to go into your day job - requires more energy than you can possibly imagine.

So here are some ideas that have worked:

Start gathering your troupes.

As you'll learn, film festivals are partnerships between the festival and each individual filmmaker. The festival will promote the festival - and that will include pushing whatever story we think we can get press to bite on, which may be a tie-in to specific films - but you've got to promote your screening.

The best way to do this is with your cast, and to some extent, your crew. The cast are the faces that are seen, so they are the most vested in having a large turn out for your film. The more lead time you can give them, the better. You'll also want to provide them with promotion materials (post cards, jpgs for e-mailing, etc.)

Cast will also help with getting professionals to the screening. Make sure they invite agents, managers, casting directors, etc. since those that work in larger houses write up reports on what they saw. They might also be married to or dating someone who knows someone, etc.

Promote individuals within your film to Hollywood. People get tired of hearing "My movie this" and "my movie that," and very few people in the business are able to help get a finished film in front of a paying audience. So rather than blowing your own horn to people who could careless (because, let's face it, unemployment in this industry is 100% all of the time, so we are all by necessity looking out for number one) talk about the individual stand-outs in your movie.

For example: say you've got a great DP, or a leading actor who everyone things is going to break out. Don't just try to sell your whole movie to a distributor - if you're talking to a production company, tell them they might want to come check out the photography, or the cast. That's how buzz gets going. Change the selling points for your film depending on who you're talking to.

Make it fun! Silly little promotions are great. Make sure the screening time, etc. are easily visible. Remember, this is only a life-or-death screening for you. For everyone else, it should be a fun time at the movies.

Last, but not least, make it fun for you, too. You've worked your behind off to get to this one moment. Drink it in. Enjoy the hell out of it. Because as soon as it's done, you've got to start trying to make it happen again.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Stress

As some of you may know, I'm not only working for Dances With Films, but I'm also have a novel I'm trying to sell, which is going very well. I'll keep you up to date on it as events happen.

I bring this up because I realize that submitting films to festivals is a lot like submitting queries to agents, and then publishers. As I have readers that are both authors and autuers, I'd post something I wrote a while back about the unique type of stress we have in the entertainment industry. So here you go:


It's very subtle, the stress of success in this business. It's not the stress of the last second shot for a championship game. It's more like the stress of tactonic plates in the earth - a slow build up that will occassionally be relieved by a snap of activity, only to start building again.

And the closer we get to the prize, the more the stress.

Submitting queries to agents is easy at first. There are hundreds of them. Shoot 'em off ten at a time and expect not to hear anything. In a few weeks, pick ten more. Maybe revise your query.

Suddenly, you get a bite. An agent wants a full. So you send it off. You pause on your querying if this is your first full, 'cause you think you'll have an agent and a book deal by the end of the month. The stress is high, but fun. You're like a sprinter at the start of a marathon. "What's all this talk about pacing yourself? This is easy."

If it's your 3rd or 4th full, you try to forget about them the way you do queries. Doesn't work, but you try. Have to keep up a good, steady pace.

Several fulls out. Agents are interested. They're giving you notes. You're working like mad to not lose your mind while you try to adapt your story. The stress is high, but again, you're on your sprinter's pace. You can see the end of the race. Once you sign with that agent, you can slow down.

Finally, you sign with an agent. You've crossed the finish line. You're panting, leaning on your knees, trying to control your breathing and sweat when your agent comes to you, points to the top of a mountain in the distance and says, "Let's go."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

You May Pass

There's a thread running in Without A Box about feedback from festivals, so I thought I'd cover that this week, as we're about to send out our acceptance notices and will soon get around to ... the other letters as well.

Since year one (before my time) Dances With Films has included a "positive comment" in their pass letters. I don't like calling them "rejections" - we have passed on some great films for any number of reasons, so it's not always a negative thing to not get in the festival.

The logic of the positive comment is simple. Making movies is hard. Just finishing a film is a worthy achievement. There has to be something positive to say about it. After 10 years of screening myself, I might argue that point - but still, it makes sense.

Something to keep in mind - you pay the festivals to watch your movie. It's different than a submission to an agent or manager (neither of whom should charge a fee for doing their job, and by the same token, don't owe you a thing in feedback).

From time-to-time, filmmakers will ask us for more information about what the screeners thought. Leslee will then look up the movie in our handy-dandy computer program and find some genius insight like TLTB (Too Long, Too Boring) from a judge who is too lazy and seen too many films to elaborate much more than that. (I wonder who that might be).

On more than one occation Leslee has had to re-watch a movie in order to give more constructive critism. 99% of the time the reason there aren't better notes on those films is because the movie sucks so much that the screeners sat there, jaws dropped, wondering what planet the filmmaker is from.

And those are always the ones who e-mail to ask why they're movie didn't get in. It's a good thing I don't answer those e-mails, 'cause my response would be, "This is a joke, right? You really don't know? NEVER MAKE ANOTHER MOVIE AGAIN."

Unless, of course, I liked it, then I'd end up with, "Great movie, you've got skills, but you played 5 different festivals in Los Angeles. We're giving another good filmmaker a shot."

The thing is, you have to know in your heart the quality of your own work. If you don't, then get out to a film festival near you and see what's out there. See if you're playing in the same league. I had a distributor tell me once that my movie was too good for them, and she wasn't kidding. Film festival screeners are not the end all and be all of your art. You are.

Good luck everyone. Hope to see you at the festival, whether you're screening, or just sitting in the audience like me.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Guards and Vanguards

The last of our official short films screenings was last night. Now the work really begins. Over the next week or so, we will hash out who's in and who's not.

For those of you who have been notified that you are still under consideration, I hope you've kept your premiere status. World premieres have a major advantage for the coveted few screening slots. Like other festivals in Los Angeles, we will pass over films that have already been seen around town. There are just too many movies and too few screening hours to go around.

This part of the process can be a very bumpy ride. Last year we had a little feature out of somewhere in the mid-west that was adorable. It fit what I call "Primitive Filmmaking" style. (I'll have to post that essay during the off season). In short, it felt extremely regional in cast, location, and story – which gave it a charm you can't find outside of the festival circuit. We told the filmmakers they were in, and they freaked out a bit. Said they weren't ready and pulled out of the festival. That was a real shame, and it added to our bumpy ride. Suddenly, a slot we thought was filled, wasn't. A film we loved wouldn't be in the festival. Heartbroken, we had to push on.

I have no idea what happened with that film.

We watched another heartbreaker last night. An intellectual little film with a delightful lead actress looking for religious harmony in a convenience store. They didn't have any end credits, so we are all hoping and praying that they aren't finished, because their sound is not projectable. The entire movie needs to be looped – which is fine, happens all the time. The trouble for us is, we can't tell from watching the submission if the filmmaker understands what is needed to have a complete movie. Their submission might say "temp sound" but their idea of finishing might be to add a couple of effects and some music – which would only make it worse. Often, that's not a problem for a submission because, frankly, the rest of the movie is so bad that it can be easily assessed as is. In this case, the movie looks to be very good. The cast is good. The story is truly a short subject. But we could barely understand the words. We all made notes to pass this along to the filmmaker – and hope to see the finished product someday.

We also saw some of the worse submissions of the year last night. One was so bad that I began to wonder if it wasn't some kind of social experiment to see how long we'd watch (we watched the whole 30+ minutes, as per usual). I couldn't believe how bad this movie was. Have people not grown up in modern times? Have they never watched a movie or TV show before? Do they not understand what qualifies something as a film – or even a story?

But I've already lost 30 minutes of my life to that, so let's move on.

When I started the blog this year, I asked if we were entering a Golden Age of Digital Filmmaking. My thought was that shot-on-film moviemakers, who bring more discipline and craft to the table than most newcomers who have never experienced lab costs or the lag time between shooting and dailies, would raise the anti on quality. Would the increase in film-level productions squeeze out the fast & loose video-makers? Would we see more thought out stories, rehearsed scenes with better actors, more attention to details in set, sound, costume and production design?

Sadly, I think the answer is no. People who have a camera and some editing software, and therefore think they can make a movie worth our hard-earned time and money without bothering to learn the craft, still outnumber those with skills. The uber-independent film business has become like all others affected by technical revolution. First it was painting in the face of photography. Then photography in the face of cheaper, easier versions of itself. Writing with the electric typewriter and computers. And all the arts in the face of the digital age.

Just because a person can make a work of art, doesn't mean it's a good work of art. Just because a person can shoot a film and post it on YouTube, doesn't mean they are a filmmaker worthy of our attention.

So there must be guardians for the vanguards, gatekeepers to weed through the all to find the deserving. It has always been so, but never more needed than now. Never has there been more content of varying quality from so many sources.

How is an audience to know which film is worth their time and money and which one isn't? How can a reader know which e-book to download? None of us has the time to do what I've been writing about all these months, sift through every possibility to pick out the gems. We need someone to do it for us.

Artists have forever complained about the gatekeepers: the agents, publishers, producers, distributors, critics, professors, and film festival directors, but I have seen art unfiltered and it has made me an advocate for higher bars, greater standards, tougher values so that we as an industry of artists might deliver better product to our consumers.

I'll be blogging throughout the festival and the off-season, so please come back and point your friends to this unfiltered essay on the Arts.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Right Work

Let's set the stage.

It's late in a very long week. I was up until 3:00 in the morning the other day working on my own project, and I'm facing a long weekend with it – it's a novel, by the way, not a movie.

My eyes are closing before we even begin. I have a bad headache and I'm grumpy. I say to the room, "These movies had better be good, 'cause I'm not in the mood to be kind."

The first short comes up. It starts in period black & white, which you all know I love so much – but it's doing a good job. There's a cameo appearance by a recognizable name – but not someone that would disqualify it from competition, so fine.

The movie then moves into modern day. It is beautifully shot. The art department's attention to detail is overwhelming. Wait. That's not the right word, because the photography is so beautiful and the two actors are so fantastic that nothing can overwhelm. They are all working together in perfect harmony – and sometimes that's literally true.

To top it all off, this is a drama – which is so hard to pull off in a short. By the end of it, my headache was gone, I was awake, and there wasn't a dry eye in the room. Truly fantastic filmmaking. I hope they have their world premiere, or west coast, or even Los Angeles status in tact because Dances With Films wants to be the festival that discovers this great filmmaker and all of his/her supporting artists.

After that film we took a five minute break, then watched a music video – a very good Hispanic Rap song – to cleanse the palette so the poor next film didn't have to stand up against what we just saw.

We then shifted gears and saw another good movie out of New York. This was truly an original film, which is saying something when you've been screening as long as I have. The movie felt like an painter had sat down on a street corner in Brooklyn and done sketches of the people passing by. Then, this artist took it a step further and got to know the people – but still only showed us sketches, doodles, little scenes of their lives. All of this with jazz music in the background that let us know the filmmaker was riffin'. This story was going to flow like the music, syncopated, loosely connected, with unique solos – from a talking dog to cartoon notes to the audience – this film was off the hook.

And it could have sucked, if not for the cast. Every single actor in this film rang true. If there was a tiny moment when they didn't – when we might have caught them acting – it would have fallen like a house of cards. Casting directors should take note of this New York gem, 'cause it could be the next Lords of Flatbush.

Somewhere in the evening a movie had one character give out a phone number. It wasn't a 555 number, so we all said, "Let's call it." (We didn't). Yes, we all hate watching movies where they give out a number and it begins with 555. Of course, the reason for that is that there are no 555 phone numbers, so no one can call it. Yes, it takes us out of the movie. I get it. But now, giving a non-555 number does the same thing.

So write around it.

In this case, a character was saying the number to someone who was dialing it into his cell phone. Great. Have the character take the phone, dial in her number and hand it back. Or, since getting the number is usually the end of the conflict in the scene, have them start talking, "818-506…" and cut to the next scene. There are a million ways to avoid the number, and so avoid taking us out of the scene. Try them.

Unlicensed Music.

There's always a discussion about this on the Without A Box forums, and I've come down on both sides of the issue. Sure, it's legally and morally wrong to use another artist's work without paying them – and if you're trying to achieve professional standards then don't under any circumstances use anyone's unlicensed work. At the same time, if you're just doing a student project, or a skit for friends and family – or if production sound happens to capture a song on the radio in your verity short mocumentary – I don't think you need to worry about the copyright police kicking in your door.


We had a film last night that pummeled song after song at us as featured, foreground, sound tying to the action on the screen. Did they have the rights? Ultimately, it didn't matter because the movie was a pass – but even if the movie was good, it didn't matter because:

1) If they didn't have the rights we wouldn't have let the movie in – not with such blatant disregard for decorum.

2) If they did pay for the rights to all of the songs, then we would be so wary of their business sense (why have music rights be the highest line item on your budget, easily raising your costs beyond any expectation of recovery) that a yellow caution flag would be all over their submission.

That brings me to another little thought as we get closer to final selections.

When you're chosen to be in Dances With Films, we essentially enter into a loose partnership.

LAWYERS, BACK OFF! Down, lawyers, down! This is antidotal, relax.

More than a lot of festivals, we try to work with the filmmakers throughout the process of screening in Los Angeles. When the filmmakers are smart, happy, hardworking professionals, this is a joy. When they aren't, not so much.

We've been very lucky over the years in that most of the films we've chosen have been made by some of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet.

This proves a point I've always said – you have to be a good person to make good art.

There are exceptions; so if you've worked on any big budget action movies with a camera that never leaves the techno-crane, and a director that makes little girls cry – I know, they are out there. But they are not the rule.

I don't know why I bring this up except to say that having a good heart shows up on the screen. If you want to be a better filmmaker, writer, artist, musician, beat poet, whatever, work on being a better person and you'll get there.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Short and Sweet

I didn't take a lot of notes last night, more from exhaustion than anything else. As we get closer to the end of the submission season the brain starts to get a little blurry. Not to worry, a good movie is still appreciated, as they make us sit up and take notice. A bad one is less likely to start a discussion as they do early in the season – so I end up with less to say.

As we were leaving last night, I asked the room if there was anything they wanted me to talk about in the blog.

"Sound!" was the answer.

"I've talked about sound so many times already," I said.

Their particular gripe has to do with sound levels across scenes. You can barely hear one scene, and the next one is way too loud.

Sound is harder to get right than picture, no doubt about it. I'm no expert, and even if I was I couldn’t give an entire lesson in sound mixing in this blog, but uneven levels across scenes is a sign of lack of sound compression (I think). Sure, when you're putting the scenes together, you have to try to get the levels as close to each other as possible, but once you're done, you might want to add a compressor like Sony's Wave Hammer. I'm sure there are ton of others, that's just the one I know.

What's the beer commercial where they talk about "drinkability"? Well, sound compression helps with "listenability." It will pull up the lower levels, top off the higher ones, fix clips as much as possible, all while still keeping the tone of the sound. Of course, your mix has to be clean and relative levels – dialogue can be heard over music, effects, etc. – have to be good before you apply compression software, so it's not a one-step fix, but it definitely makes a difference.

On other topic: We get a lot of short films that are dance pieces, which is fine. Some of them are very good. Some aren't. But they make us wonder if people think the name of the festival is literal. It's not. We're not a festival that shows only dance pieces, and if you make a modern dance movie you don't have a better chance to get in with us than any other movie. In other words, it has be really good no matter what.

We're seeing a lot of movies with beautiful deep depths of field. This is no doubt due to new cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II that can take 35mm lenses with a chip that can handle the depth of field variations. Really pretty stuff. This makes it all the more agonies when you run across a scene where actors stand only inches from a flat, blank, wall. If nothing else, have the actors step out a foot or so and put an up light on the floor to knock the shadows off the wall. Give your work some depth, in writing and picture.

Speaking of flat. We see some scenes, and occasionally entire movies, that just lay there. We had one last week, and I asked the room, "what is it about this scene that keeps it from holding our interest?" Nothing was obviously terrible, but the whole thing taken together was.

We talked about it and decided that each department – acting, camera, sound, writing, overall directing, etc. – was so under par that no one thing brought the scene down, but nothing lifted it up, either.

So what do you do when this happens? Hopefully, you discover this during the writing phase when it's cheap and easy to fix the problem, since that's the core of the issue. If not, you might be on the set when you realize that nothing interesting is going into the camera. Editing is your last chance to inflate a flat scene.

In all these cases, the fix is the same. Go back to the basics. Objective. Obstacle. Tactics. What do the characters want? What's stopping them from getting what they want? How are they going to overcome the problems? Sharpen up those aspects of the scene. Cut anything and everything that doesn't apply, and get out as quickly as possible.

On that last point, I'm going to get out to work on my own project and try to put my work where my criticism is.

Thanks for reading.