Wednesday, March 28, 2012

New Toys! Canon EOS C300

Canon USA will once again be joining us for the 2-Minute 2-Step Short Film Challenge, and this year is particularly exciting. Over the past five years Canon has used the 2-Step as a show case for their latest and greatest toys. In year one, it was the A1. A couple of years after that, we put the iconic 5D Mark II in the hands of our filmmakers, who had never seen anything like it before. The next year, half of the eight production teams asked, "Can we just bring our own 5D (or 7D)?"

This year Canon's new toy is the EOS C300.

Yeah, baby! In year one, the late Irvin Kershner (Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back) dropped by to see the A1. I have a feeling that our little 2-Step competition might draw more such visitors this year. I can't wait!

If you've already entered the festival and want to hedge your bets, start writing your best 2-minute script now. If you don't have a film to enter, do the 2-Step and you might have finished film by June 7th.

We generally close submissions for the 2-Step after we announce the festival line-up, so you have time, but a good 2-page script can be hard to write, so get those submissions in. It's cheaper to enter than a stack of lottery tickets, your odds are a lot better, and you get to have a blast doing it.

Speaking of deadlines, March 31st is our FINAL DEADLINE. Yes, Without A Box has us do some kind of late-late deadline, but you're going to pay through the nose for that – so why not just buckle down, get it done and save some money?

On to the current submissions.

We are seeing some great looking films, that are not so well written, acted or directed. All of the cool cameras I've just talked about have definitely upped the game when it comes to photography, but how many times do I have to say it? A good picture of bad acting is a bad picture.

Along those same lines, good acting that can't be seen, is a waste. Yes, these new toys are fantastic in low light, but sometimes the light is so low – or the contrast between what is lit and what's not, is so wide – that we can't see the actor's faces. Yes, yes, sometimes that's a choice – but it's almost never a good one. You want it to be dark, fine. Get a flashlight, tape on a piece of diffusion and a nice color and stand behind the camera to pop in a little glow on your actors' faces. I've seen Dean Semler do that a thousand times. You should, too.

I've noticed a trend over the past couple of years of comedies that aren't the list bit funny, and they remind me of radio DJ's who think they are hilarious, but aren't. Since they can't hear if their audience is laughing or not, they have no idea if their bits are working. As theatre becomes a museum art form, film artists are getting further and further from training in live performances. Gone are the days of the Marx Brothers, who did their bits so many times in front of a live audience that they knew when to pause for laughs. Everyone in film should do themselves the favor of working in live theatre – there is no better way to get a feel for what works and what doesn't than an immediate response.

My head has bruises from being hit by filmmaker's messages last night. I'm not going to repeat Samuel Goldwyn's quote, "if you want to send a message, use Western Union." I like stories that have a message buried within it, but the burying is important. Let the audience find the point of the story, don't stick them in the eye with it.

We had a movie that was overall not-so-hot, but contained some good transitions and it reminded me how important those are. Getting from scene one to scene two in an interesting way can give a film voice, which is so important in telling any kind of story.

Finally, I want to give a f#&king shout out to a f#&king hilarious spoof of every movie we've ever seen in the submission process. We f#&king laughed our f#&king asses off, and that's f#&king real, man! That's the truth.

Thanks for reading. Mind the upcoming deadline, and get those 2-Step submissions in – 'cause it is ON!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

As Laker Fans Say Good-Bye to Derek Fisher – We Bid Farewell to the Sunset 5 and Hello to...

Dances With Films has found a new home! I can't tell you how excited I am. I think this partnership marks not only a landmark for Dances With Films but for all of Hollywood as an industry.

But, it does come with a touch of melancholy. For all but one of our 15 years, DWF has been held in a Laemmle Theatre, and every year they have been the best to us. Before I worked for Dances, I was a filmmaker just like you, and I will never forget how excited I was to premiere on Sunset Blvd at the Laemmle Sunset 5.

For those of you not from the area, or new here, the Sunset 5 was the place to be for indie film. Sure, sure, filmmakers can sit around a bar to argue the point like sports fans taking on Jordon vs. Kobe, but for a Valley boy, there was nothing like coming over the Hill on Love Street, and seeing the Sunset 5 like a beacon welcoming all to West Hollywood. And when that beacon held up a DANCES WITH FILMS banner, man oh, man... sweet. I will never forget standing outside the box office hearing a complete stranger say, "two for Jacks or Better." That's what it's all about.

But Laemmle's vacated 8000 Sunset in January, so our search for a new space began. We desperately wanted to stay with the chain that is as tenacious about indie film as we are, and we have, but it's not Laemmle. We will miss them as much as Laker fans miss Derek Fisher. We wish them all the best in their brand new North Hollywood home, as well as all their other venues.

Our new home is an old one under new management. The new guys in an old theatre have sworn a commitment to indie film the likes of which has not been seen since Chaplin, Pickford, and Fairbanks started United Artists.

...okay, so that might be an overstatement... but not by much.

This much is true: If you can't premiere on Sunset Blvd, there is only one other street in the world to be on – and that's where we're heading.

Hollywood blvd, baby! Dances With Films new home is The Chinese Theatre. Your films will premiere just spitting distance of where the Academy Awards are given. You'll be hanging out at Hollywood & Highland, taking the subway, checking out the footprints in the sidewalk, and buying cheesy tourist stuff along the boulevard.

But first – your film has to get in the festival, so on to the screenings:

I left my notes behind, and my memory hasn't been what it used to be, so this might be short and sweet. The unintended theme last night was period movies with foreign accents. Right now, I'm sure someone has shouted, "He's talking about my movie!" You might be right, but I'm also talking about at least three others. We watch the submissions pretty much at random, so it's a fluke that most of the movies last night had this in common.

The other thing they had in common was a certain amount of stiffness. Nothing bad enough to disqualify them from consideration, but if you're making a movie set in the past, read on.

When you're doing a period piece, you're asking a lot of your actors. This is where training comes in. The art of acting is to look like you're not doing it at all, and that is made more difficult when the clothes you're wearing, the culture you're portraying, and world you're in have nothing to do with your own. Any modern woman who has worn a hoop skirt or corset can tell you how difficult this is. Men, slip into a suit from the Victorian era, or the 1700's and then try to pretend how natural this is, and you'll understand. In theatre, actors rehearse for weeks in rehearsal costumes to get the physicality of the period. They have to get the muscle memory of how everything is different, in order to forget how different everything is. Once this is done, they get on with the job of portraying the character in the given situation.

Now, add to that an accent, or in some cases a completely different version of their native language, and you get a sense of the mountain your actors have to climb while appearing to stroll down the street. If you've cast actors who have not trained for the period in college or a stage play, then you can't leave them hanging. You have to give them the rehearsal time they need to look like they haven't had to rehearse at all. Otherwise, you're just going to have a bunch of modern day people in stupid clothes and wigs strutting around with accents that wash in and out like waves on a beach.

Not that all the movies last night had that problem – but you certainly don't want to risk it.

That'll do for now. Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you all at the Chinese on Hollywood & Highland in June.

Monday, March 12, 2012

An Interview with Dances With Films's Industry Choice Awards Winner

Last year, with the help of some of our more connected staff members, we began a program called the Industry Choice Award, or ICA, which we're continuing this year.

The idea is two-fold: First, it gives us a chance to give your movies industry exposure – not only for the filmmaker, but the cast, the department heads, and all of the people on your projects who are playing at a professional level. We've always maintained that, while not every film in the festival is perfect, there is something perfect about every film.

The other goal for the Industry Choice Award is to give one filmmaker a chance to step up to the mound at the majors and throw his or her best pitch. Last year, the guy who got that opportunity was William J. Saunders, the writer director of the adorably charming feature, Sweet Little Lies. I recently followed-up with him about his festival experience and the ICA in particular.

William J. Saunders... Can I call you Bill?

(Laughs) People have tried. Joe seems to stick better.

We get a lot of alumni coming back to the festival their sophomore year, and I always like to ask, "How has your year been out on the circuit with your movie? Good stories? Cautionary tales?"

Gees, where do I begin? DWF was certainly the highlight, and I’m not just saying that. We had nearly our entire cast/crew out for that. Since DWF, we spoke with several small distribution companies. It was not a pleasant process. It opened my eyes to the incredibly large number of small indie films in distribution, most of which I had never heard of. Actually, I got in touch with J.C. Khoury, another DWF Alumni, [The Pill, 2011] to trade stories about distributors. It was a short but very helpful conversation. If anything it was comforting to know someone was going through the same thing. In the end SLL [Sweet Little Lies] went with a company called FilmWorks Entertainment, who were smaller than some other companies we were talking with, but FW was an ambitious new company. And most importantly, they were affable people. Some of the other companies seemed like car salesmen. So Sweet Little Lies had its officially release last month (iTunes, DVD, Walmart, etc).

I believe DWF was your World Premiere, yes? How did you like having your film on Sunset Blvd? What are some of your memories of the fest a year later?

It wasn't the World Premiere, but it was the LA premiere. The location of the festival was great. I have a picture around here somewhere of WeHo Jesus endorsing our film and the festival. That was a pretty funny moment. One of the most memorable moments was watching Richard Riehle approach the box office and purchase a ticket to my movie. I wanted to chat with him afterwards, but I missed him. Unless he left half way through! (laughs) …eh…I hope not.

You know we're moving this year. The Sunset 5 is no more. I can't yet announce exactly where we'll be, but ... let's just say, if your film wins an Academy Award, you'll be in walking distance.

I didn’t know you were moving…Egyptian Theater? That would be amazing.

Actually, no, but that's a good guess.

You were our very first winner of our Industry Choice Award, and I don't mind telling you, I'm jealous. Tell us about it – from winning, to your meetings, to now – was it good for you?

It was the single best award we won on the festival circuit. Both meetings I went to were great, and I’ve kept up with those contacts since. They’ve asked me to send my next project their way, and I plan to. Who knows if they’ll like it, but if they’re not interested, they may know someone who is and you get more contacts etc. This prize gives you the ability to significantly improve your career. That’s something incredibly valuable for someone who doesn’t have representation or access to those meetings otherwise. I’m not sure why other festivals don’t have something similar.

What advice do you give next year's winner?

Have a brilliant script ready for the meeting.

Do you have any suggestions for how we might make it better next year?

The only thing I can think of is including a talent agency into the industry pool. Getting a meeting with even a small agency would be great. That side of the business is really foreign to me, but seems like an essential step in the process. It’s the same principle with the producers I met, but I think an agent might be more willing to take immediate action – if they like you and your work of course.

What's next for you, project-wise?

Actually, I was working for Mark Osborne, director of Kung Fu Panda, who saw Sweet Little Lies at the DWF festival. He’s working on the adaptation of The Little Prince. It was a lot of fun to work in animation for a bit. Right now, I’m putting the finishing touches on a documentary about a little known country musician named Billy Mize. It was accepted in the Film Independent Doc Fellowship Program and hopes to be done in May, so be on the look out: I’ve also been directing commercials, short projects, writing and slowly building momentum for the next feature.

Any parting words of wisdom?

100% of people who made it in this industry never gave up.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Feel The Rhythm of the Music Getting Stronger

I'm a little late for this week's blog, sorry. I was at an audition at Paramount. Yeah, I dust off my picture and résumé from time-to-time and get back to what got me started in this business. In talking with my fellow actors I was reminded of something I've been meaning to say to filmmakers for a while:

Guys, girls, if you've gone low/no budget and promised your cast a copy of the film, DO IT. If you're afraid the movie will get pirated, then give the actors clips of their work. They need that to add to their reel – and having them distribute their work in your movie can only be good for your film. So, please, honor the work they've done for you and burn a few DVD's. It's the least you can do.

I blog here mostly about short films, but all of us watch feature submissions during the week, and there are trends in features just as much as there are shorts. This year it seems like every other movie starts with a couple having sex in bed. Nothing wrong with that, but if you're writing your next script, you probably want to figure out a different way to start the story if you want to stand out from the crowd of people in bed.

But whatever you do, don't go back to the alarm clock tripping, being turned off, followed by a shot of feet hitting the floor. We've seen way too much of that, too.

Last night it seemed like all of the shorts were not – short, that is. Regular readers will know my constant advice to all short filmmakers: "Cut it in half." All of the movies last night, even the good ones, could have done with a cut down.

During one of these too-long affairs , a screeners came up with a great quote. "Have something happen in the shot." That's great advice. When I was studying acting, we had to write out a simple action for every line of dialogue. This could only be what we were doing. Not thinking, not feeling, not saying, but what we were physically doing. Filmmakers on the set should ask themselves, "what is the action of the shot?" "What is happening in this shot?"

If the answer is, "This shows the character feeling..." stop. If the answer is, "this is where he's thinking..." stop. What is the character DOING? If they don't have anything to do, give them something or cut the shot. You can't photograph a feeling or a thought. You can photograph a person putting on a good face despite their feelings. You can photograph a person desperately looking for a pencil and paper so they can write down their brilliant thought – or, stopping and changing direction because of their new thought.

Shoot verbs, not nouns.

Someone help me out in the comments, who said, "if a character pulls a gun, it had better go off"? Whoever it was, s/he was right. If you've written in a gun and it doesn't go off in your story, then cut the gun. Chances are the story will be better for it. If you can't cut it, figure out who you're going to shoot.

And for all of those Homeland Security web crawlers that just flagged this blog – we're talking about fictitious movies here. No one is really going to be shot.

We had a couple of films that featured drama on drama. By that I mean, the script is packed with dramatic beats and so are the actors, camera angles, lighting, music, etc. If you're on the set and get the feeling that your cast has picked up on the drama of your drama, then they playing the atmosphere, not the actions. Have them lighten the load. Even in the most serious scene, an actor shouldn't play the drama, but the action.

Finally, as we do every year, we got some movies about dance. Thankfully, these were good films. One I particularly enjoyed, as it took me back to some of my own memories – not that I was a dancer, I'm just old.

Anyway, I want to make sure everyone knows that, even though we're called Dances With Films, it doesn't mean we are looking for movies about dance. I think we might have had a dance-themed movie in every year, but only because they were terrific films, not because we have a thing for moving to rhythm of the beat.

That's it for this week. Thanks for reading. I've heard some people have had trouble commenting on blogger in general. If that's the case for you, please shoot me an e-mail so I can get your thoughts out to the world.