Sunday, December 29, 2013

Turning 17 - What Life Is All About

With the New Year comes a new season of Dances With Films.  While preparation for year 17 began as soon as the lights, projection systems, pipe & drape and posters came down on year 16, the work of screenings, preparing panels, promotion, more screenings, and choosing the final slate begins in earnest this month.  Which means it's time for me to dust off this blog and start posting again.

My regular readers know that the purpose of this blog was originally to help future submitters make better movies, so I wouldn't have to watch an endless stream of bad ones.  Life is, after all, all about me.  I still entertain the idea that I'm molding young creative minds, but I've also been where you are now – waiting for news on your submissions.  I understand that the real purpose of the blog might just be to give you something to do other than pace and bore your non-filmmaking friends with how anxious you are to hear from any of the festivals you've submitted to.  Your life is, after all, all about you.

Returning guests, please be patient while I explain to the new submitters what they can expect from this website between now and the time they are either in the festival, or, sadly, not. 

For the most part, I will post here once a week with a general discussion about the kinds of movies we're seeing in our screening sessions.  NO TITLES WILL EVER BE MENTIONED IN THIS BLOG.  Each year we see trends in bad filmmaking, which is what prompted this blog.  Years ago, it was Romantic Comedies that were neither, and tended to make you think the filmmaker (male or female) had some serious issues with their opposite gender.  Then it was the Mocumentaries – that trend continues.  The, "I'll make a movie in the style of the latest hit TV show / Movie" is always big.  There are also the technical issues, like unfinished sound, lack of any kind of lighting, etc.  The list goes on.
I call out these problems, but never for any one film.  If I complain about seeing long scenes of people walking to nowhere in particular while bad piano music plays, and you have a scene like that in your movie, I might be talking about your film, but I'm also talking about four others.  If you want the world to know it's your movie that sucks, then post a comment like, "It's unfair of you to criticize my movie that way, you jerk!"  But remember, a single problem in a film will not knock it out of consideration, while a bad attitude from a filmmaker certainly will.

On the good side, I will also say what jumps out in a positive way.  In those cases, I like to drop a hint to the filmmaker and anyone who knows the movie that, yes, I'm giving you a pat on the back.  It's not an official review, so I won't give the title.  I just feel that we all work so hard in this business, and we get so much rejection, that any compliment should be given – even if I'm really not supposed to.  But remember, if you think I've mentioned your movie in a good way, that doesn't mean you are in the festival.  This might be the official blog of Dances With Films, but nothing here is by any stretch of the imagination binding.

For official notifications, we'll communicate by e-mail.  If you've submitted to us, but haven't gotten an e-mail notification that we got your film within a week to ten days, check your spam filter.  If there's nothing there, CONTACT US.  Make sure we have the right e-mail address.  Nothing sucks more than us going through the trouble of finding a movie we love, then not being able to get in touch with the filmmaker.

Over the course of the next few weeks we will send out notifications that say something like, "your film has cleared to the second round..."  If you don't get one, don't worry.  We don't watch the movies in any kind of order, and final decisions are not made until all the submissions have been screened.  It's entirely possible that you could hear nothing from us even after the press release announces the "final" slate.  Things happen; films drop out; slots open up; we're forced to make a press deadline before we're done.

So, no news is not great news, but it's not a "no."  Until you get our famous pass letters, you're still in the running.

The reason we send the second-round, third-round, etc. letters is two-fold.  First, we want you to know we're interested in your film, so you don't go do something dumb like premiere at a festival that isn't one of the 25 coolest in the country just because they said yes before we did.  We're opening lines of communication with the round notice, so take advantage of it.  Stay in touch.  If another festival wants your movie, let us know.  We can't tell you what to do, but we can give you the advise that comes with 17 years of experience.
The other thing we're doing with this communication is a little sneaky.  We're checking on your professionalism.  Having a film in a festival is a partnership of sorts.  We want to know if you're going to get back to us in a timely manner.  Are you polite and informative?  Are you smart enough to admit that this is your first time in the festival circuit, but are willing to learn?  Are you the type of company that we would like to do business with?

By the way, you should use these early communications to make the same judgments.  Partnership is a two way street, and Life is, after all, all about us.

Follow Dances With Films on Twitter #DWF17

Thursday, June 20, 2013

How To Read A Manuscript

Having as many novelist friends as filmmaking friends, I often find I’m handing a script to a novelist for notes, or the other way around.  So on my literary writing blog, From The Write Angle, I’ve written a primer on how to read a screenplay.  Here, for my filmmaking friends, I thought I’d offer some advice on beta reading for your budding novelist friends. I hope it helps you, because one day you may help me – and you know... it’s all about me.

The biggest difference between a screenplay and a manuscript is that a screenplay isn’t intended to be a finished product anymore than an orchestra score is meant to be read over the radio.  Manuscripts – aka unpublished novels – are the complete deal.  Sure, you might be reading a rough draft, but that’s the same as watching the first cut of a film, not reading the script. 

What’s the same between the two is all the hard stuff: story, character separation, flow, objectives and obstacles, etc.  As a filmmaker, you should be as well-versed on these issues as a novelist.  This primer is intended to help you with issues that are more important to the novelist than the filmmaker.

So, here we go:

Point of View is important in both disciplines, but the rules are stricter, and harder to adhere to, for the author.  Writer’s can move in and out of character’s thoughts, feelings, etc.  Often, that’s a good thing, but not if the narrator’s point of view is established otherwise.  The most common points of view are:

FIRST PERSON: The narrator is a character in the story.  In these cases, you can help your author friends most by making sure there is a plausible way for the narrator to experience everything that’s in the book.  You’ll find yourself saying, “how did s/he know that?” or “I don’t buy that s/he would be there.”  Also keep on the lookout for characters telling the narrator a bunch of stuff.  Just like a movie, an author must show, not tell.  But the hardest part of first person are other characters’ feelings.  The narrator can’t know for certain how other people feel.  He or she is like the camera in a movie.  They can only tell us what they see or hear.

LIMITED THIRD PERSON: The narrator is not a character in the story, but is tightly glued to one – or sometimes two – characters.  Like first person, every aspect of the story must be experienced by these characters.  Harry Potter is a good example.  Nothing happens in those books that Harry doesn’t do, observe, or hear about.  This is often the point of view of films as well, but movies have a long history of playing fast and loose with the convention.  It’s normal in a movie to introduce story elements away from the view of the hero – which is one reason you’ll hear authors grumble about movies.  That’s cheating!

Omniscient  THIRD PERSON:  In this convention, the narrator knows and sees all.  They can jump in and out of the heads of anyone, so the reader often knows more of what’s happening than the characters.  In a manuscript in this style, it’s easy to lose focus, so make sure you are always aware of where you are and what’s happening.

Together with point of view, is tense.  Films are all written in present tense because the audience/reader sees what’s happening as it happens.  Novels are often written in past tense.  Being a non-novelist beta reader, you won’t be expected to catch subtle differences in tense, but if something feels wrong, look to the verbs.

Speaking of verbs, it’s important for the author to use as many active, action verbs as possible.  If the words just lay on the page, look for boring “to be” verbs.  Chances are you’ll help them flush out passive voice.

Word choices are to novels what edits are to movies.  In film, a scene might lag because the editor isn’t cutting on motion, or has left in too many footsteps.  In a novel, the author might be using too many words to get to the point.  If that’s the case, look for adverbs – you know, the ones that end in “-ly”.   They can almost always be cut.

Echoes and repetitive phrases are the novelist's nightmare.  Echoes are words that get in the writer's fingers and repeat themselves in close proximity.  If you find the same words popping up over and over, point them out.  You'll be thanked for it. 

Repetitive phrases have a lullaby effect, and they tend to hang out around dialogue.  Look out for: "...she said, as she ___________ ,"and "...he said, _________ing his head."  If you find yourself rocking like an old Southern on the porch to the predictable rhythms, then you should make a note of it.

Margin notes help authors as much as screenwrights.  Just a quick word or two about what you're thinking or feeling right at that moment on the page. 

Volumes have been written on what makes a good novel, but since a manuscript is intended to be a finished work, you don't need any special training to say how you feel about the story, characters, flow, etc.  The ultimate question is, does the story move you?  If so, great.  If not – some of these simple notes may help you understand why, and help your friends fix the problems.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Big Lesson of DWF16 and The Off Season

The big lesson I came away with this year was that a cheap DCP file isn't worth it.  If your DCP doesn't come with a full QC, then don't bother - because you can't do it yourself.

I have some posts in mind for the off season, starting this Friday, but nothing specific and definitely not every week.  So, feel free to cruise by and see what's up here - but don't worry if there's nothing new.  It just means I'm working on my own scripts, or novels, or acting, or sleeping.

Have a great summer everyone!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Any Given Sunday

There will be joy in Hollywood tonight.

And where there is joy, there is disappointment. 

But where there are winners, there are only losers in the minds of those who choose to see themselves that way.

I'm talking, of course, about tonight's award ceremony for Dances With Films year 16.  We give awards because a few, special mentions might help the winners promote their work, without hurting those terrific films that do not win. 

So the films that do not win, do not lose. 

This year's films were so diverse that choosing a winner for the Grand Jury was close to impossible.  Every film had a champion.  Each had multiple reasons why it deserved to take home the wire man.  Each elimination ripped a piece of the judges' hearts.

So when the winners are announced tonight, whether your name is called or not, let there be joy in your heart.  Joy for your accomplishments.  Joy for the newfound friends' accomplishments.  Joy for being a Dances With Films alumni of year 16.

Congratulations to all.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

It's In All Of Us

It's in our DNA.  It defines us.  It separates us for the rest of the Animal Kingdom.  No, not our opposable thumbs, or our ability to make tools.  It is our need to share stories.

From cave paintings, to the theatrical Festivals of Dionysus, to the Guttenberg press, to Hollywood and the internet, we as a species have a primal need to share our stories.  Some tell them, some listen, a symbiotic relationship between artist and audience.

It is in our DNA.

This year's filmmakers have the same drive to share their stories as the cave painters of prehistoric France, as Socrates and Euripides.  They have struggled to get words on paper as much as the early authors of the Middle Ages, and have fought as hard as Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, or Stephen Spielberg to bring those words to life on the screen.  Sure, the tools of storytelling have changed over the years, but not the drive.

On Friday, Timothy and Patrick Chapman pit familial DNA against artist DNA in Phin.  In Waking, Skyler Caleb and Ben Shelton question reality, Fate and Destiny in the form of a love story of dreams.  Zak Forsman pumps us full of adrenalin and fulfills our secret desires to be a bad-assed anti-hero when things get Downand Dangerous.  Then for some late night fun, Jeffrey Schoettlin and Robert Taleghany look at just how stupid love can make a man in American Idiots.

Love, sex, and emotional confusion go hand-in-hand, so are often the focus of our need to share stories.  On Saturday, Michael Doneger and Michael David Lynch tackle the pain of life on the rebound as they tells us about This Thing With Sarah.  Tom Glynn explores our relationships with our cars.  In Automotive, the car in question belongs to a man confused by love, and trapped in a life of crime.  Then, what Saturday night would be complete without a midnight movie of blood, screams, and dreams of an eternal life of youth and beauty?  We've told scary stories around campfires for centuries – now we tell them in horror movies.  In Chastity Bites, Lotti Pharriss Knowles takes this genre to a new level – with intelligent, hilarious, dialogue, a flawless cast and tons of fun.

We bring out our Sunday best with two entirely different styles of indie film.  Cement Suitcase will charm you with J. Rick  CastaƱeda's script and Dwayne Bartholomew's performance of life's every day struggles in small town America.  Drew Thomas's Channeling shows us the danger of exploitation of our real-life stories, while filling our need for for fast-action, emotional insight, and sic-fi adventure.

Monday night brings Ryan James Russell's Reach., which dives into two of humanities deepest enigmas, love and death, while Chioke Nassor wonders just what our impact on the world is, and if they'll miss us when we're gone, in How To Follow Strangers.

Tuesday, we get to re-live adolescence through the wonderfully stylized eyes of Dan Lee in MurtRamirez Wants To Kick My Ass.  Later, we jump back into the complex adult world as Sam Hancock, Dan Mayer and Matt McKay – together with a standout performance by Alanna Ubach – delve into the limits of acceptance in Us.
Livia De Paolis and Sarah Nerboso also wonder about this human obsession of sharing ourselves – from groups online, to individuals in our lives – in their modern family  drama, Emoticon ;).  Later, David F. Morgan and Cora Benesh tell the story of a generation lost in over and under achievement in City Baby

It's only paranoia if you're wrong.  Friday, Eddy Salazar, Peter Kenneth Jones and Monty Miranda do what Shakespeare did in The Scottish Tragedy – as The Insomniac explores a life without sleep.  What happens to our minds when we don't dream?  Whatever it is, it isn't pretty.  Joe Eddy then takes a good hard look at family, friends, foes, and immigration laws in Coyote.  Then Jono Oliver wonders exactly what is Home?

On our first Second Friday (kind of like Second Breakfast),  Steve Chong Finds Out That Suicide Is A Bad Idea, as Owen Hornstein III unravels a drama in the isolation of a lake-house.  Odin Ozdil uses the 2008 housing crash to see how world economic forces effect our everyday lives  in California Winter, while J.C. Schroder takes the apocalypse even further in Forever's End.  Midnight is once again turned on its head when Will Prescott's imaginary friends get a job Feeding Mr. Baldwin.

Since Comedia del Arte or the 1500's we've seen love stories about gambling over amorous conquests, but what happens in modern times when The Bet is between grandfather and grandson?  That's the story Annie J. Dahlgren, Christina Eliason and Finola Hughes tell us Saturday afternoon.  Paul Osborne then wonders how far an otherwise moral, upstanding, person will go when things start to unravel around him, just for asking a friend for a not-so-simple Favor.  Tamas Harangi feels the pangs of injustice, and explores the pros and cons of vigilantism in The Advocate, while Bernie Van De Yacht and Brett Donowho wonder exactly what is Salvation?  But who really cares about such weighty issues when there are boobs, booze, and buds at midnight, in Scott Donnelly, Erik Lindsay and Greg Garthe's Last Call?

Sunday afternoon, we look behind the walls of prejudice to find out the truth of matters in the purgatory between freedom and incarceration, via James Brannon and Richard Friedman's Halfway To Hell.  Brian Jun and Jack Sanderson turn us back to the observation of this year's festival, storytelling is in our DNA – when She Loves Me Not looks into a famous author's inability to tell another story, while his assistant can't get the world to listen to her first one.  Then put your dancing shoes on, and fill your glasses for the rock & rollingest good times of Lance Lindahl's Hay Days.  And finally, Blu de Goyler and David Mun plunge us into the oldest story of all time, in the House of Good and Evil.

Like DNA, each of these films – and the shorts and documentaries too numerous to mention here –  are unique, yet they have so much in common.  They are the creation of their mothers and fathers – our filmmakers – and yet, they now take on a life of their own.  A life we hope you will all enjoy.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

On The Care And Feeding of a Midnight Movie

It occurs to me that many of the DVD/Download generation might not understand exactly what makes a midnight movie so special.  They weren't even born before – though, some might have been conceived during – The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  To them, a midnight movie is what one falls asleep on while drooling on the couch.

But not at Dances With Films!  We like to do The Time Warp, complete with pelvic thrust, back to an era of Eraserhead, John Waters, and all those who love the creatures of the night.  From Beasts, Blood and Boobs, to Booze & Boobs comedies, the Dances With Films midnight movies have an outrageous reputation.  So, for the uninitiated, here are some ground rules for the care and feeding of a good midnight movie.

First, sobriety is not required.  We would go so far as to say not recommended, but we don't want to get in trouble with Mothers Against Everything.  Seriously, do make sure you have cab fare, because the subway stops running around midnight – and you know your designated driver is going to cave when someone hands him or her a flask under the seats.

Re: drinking – keep in mind that you're going to be in a dark room watching bright images bounce around on a giant screen.  (And yes, I did mean to say "bounce" after mentioning boobs twice already).  If you're the type who is prone to motion sickness while under the influence – bring a leak-proof bag.  None of the DWF volunteers wants to clean up after you, and we will make jokes about how you can't handle your liquor.

During regular hours, silence is appreciated.  Not so after midnight.  While it would still be rude to loudly talk to your friends about what a rotten guy your boyfriend is for not bringing a sick bag and vomiting all over your best slutty outfit, yelling at the screen to warn the hot chick in panties and a T-shirt not to go into the basement of a clearly haunted house is perfectly acceptable behavior.  Please, though, try to keep your comments short, loud, and funny.  No one wants to hear you babble incessantly through the entire film.

If someone is babbling incessantly through the entire film, you'll be considered a buzz-killing dweeb if you go get the manager to have the not-so-comical idiot removed.  Instead, you should make even louder comments about the person's questionable parentage, or how their beer belly and body order are disturbing everyone's enjoyment of the film.  For example:  "Shut up, you fat, smelly, drunken bastard!  No one paid to hear you run your mouth all night!"

If you are not the person who is talking incessantly – and let's hope you're not – nor the person who shouted him or her down, then it's your job to cheer on the person who did.  Bullies can't stand it when the whole playground turns against them.

This brings me to another important point of etiquette for the midnight movie.  Violence is considered the lowest of the low when it comes to bad behavior.  Most midnight movie goers are geeks, freaks, and the occasional hot cheerleader looking to spice up her boring middleclass existence.  None of them are interested in fighting, so if you are –  remember – a crowd of people running away from you screaming, won't give you the same kind of rush you get from pounding your flesh into another man's body repeatedly until you both become too exhausted to carry on, and collapse arm-in-arm in a heap of spent manhood.
Finally, the most important rule of any midnight movie: The Screen Is Sacred! 

Sure, go ahead and pour a bucket of popcorn on your friend's head, that'll clean up easily – but don't ever, EVER, throw anything toward the screen!  That is our altar of worship, and it's really friggin' expensive.  If you fuck it up, the midnight movie experience will be dead to all of us – and it will be on your head!  Do you really want to be remembered as the douche bag who ruined it for everyone else?

No?  I didn't think so.

So... Don't fight.  Don't mess up the theatre.  Do have more fun than should be legal.  Obey the Golden Rule, and I'll see you at the Q & A.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Just real quick...

We're getting some push back from filmmakers who were upset that this year's slate was published on Indiewire before we got out our pass letters.  For the most part, I don't think the people who have an issue with that are readers of this blog.  If they were, they'd know how that sort of thing works.

Every year we have to balance PR needs with human needs like sleep.  We can only get so much done within the span of our waking hours.  The final schedule doesn't solidify until the last minute - often after press announcements like Indiewire's, so pass letters can't go out until everything is confirmed.

So does it hurt to see a schedule posted without your name on it - especially when you were so close to being in the festival that you could taste it?  Absolutely.

Is the pain of rejection something you have to get used to in this business?

What do you think?

Also, if you're in the LA area and you didn't get into the festival, that doesn't mean you can't be a part of it.  We have panels that are open to the public, in addition to coming to see and cheer on your fellows who did get in.  I promise you, they've been where you are, and will appreciate all you've been through.

They'd better!  If they don't, we'll kick their asses!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Busy Much?

Okay, I can't let Zak Forsman and the Down And Dangerous folks down and not post an update, but the truth is, there isn't a lot to say right now.  While this is the busiest time of year for us, little of it has anything to do with filmmaking, choosing films, or any of that other fun-but-painful process.  

It's all roll-up-your-selves kind of stuff.  You know what I'm talking about.  The real sweat that those people who always say, "what you should do," but don't do themselves, don't know about.  It's "oh, crap!" time; as in, "Oh, crap, if I don't do this right now, it won't get done."

Michael has busted his behind to get the website updated with the schedule, ticket info, and movie pages.  Now it's onto the program, poster, and all things graphical!  Leslee has been coordinating with our party planners and panel providers to finalize what have been nothing but general discussions for almost a year now.  And, of course, there's press, press, press.

And, believe it or not, we're still watching movies.  Not all of every movie that got into the festival has been seen by everyone on the team, so between now and opening it's a mad scramble to make sure everyone gets to see them before the fest begins. 

Why?  Buzz, of course!

That, and we're way to busy during the festival to actually sit and watch a movie!

So that's what we're up to.  What are you filmmakers doing with your time?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Why Buy An Ad In The Program?

First, a little bit of business.  Quentin Tarantino often quotes, "Don't ask for permission, ask for forgiveness."  It's all fine and good to live by that Machiavellian principal, but you must be ready to suffer the consequences if forgiveness is not forthcoming.  We had a film lie to us about their world premiere status.  Is the premiere status so important to us as to without forgiveness?  No.  We understand filmmakers have tough choices to make in their festival journey.  We've programmed films that have premiered at other places –  even though we'd wished they started with us.

It's the lie that requires penance before the forgiveness may come.

That's a fancy way of saying another slot just opened up for a lucky short filmmaker, and a perfect example of why we say, it's not over 'til it's over.  Pass letters will start trickling out this week, but among them will be one or two invitations.

For those who are in the festival, keep an eye on this blog for advice between now and opening night.  For those who aren't in, stick around.  The advice applies to you as well on your run at other venues.

Programs in film festivals are as different as the festivals themselves.  Some are throwaway newsprint intended to get you to a movie you might like, and little more.  Others, like ours, are beautifully printed keepsakes.  Some cost money. We think that's crazy. Why charge your audience money for your best form of advertising?  We give them away for free.

That's a tough combination – a free program that is expensive to make.  To help pay for your piece of memorabilia, we sell ads.  We sell them to corporate sponsors. We sell them to small indie companies, and we sell them to you, the filmmakers.

So should you, or should you not buy an ad?  There's a festival that shall remain nameless, but whose initials are The New York International Film and Video Festival (at least it was, I think it may be defunct now).  They were famous for calling filmmakers who had taken the deal on their buy-in fest to pressure them into buying an ad in the program.  I had the chance to be on the receiving side of one of those calls, and let me tell you, they are hilarious!

"We screwed up! We're about to go to press with the program, and we don't have a front cover!  That means we need to give you a great deal on this one-time only opportunity to have distributors see your film's key art..." blah, blah, blah.  All with an emphasis on the distributors who will be flocking to the festival, see my ad on the cover and rush right out to buy my movie.

I said no for so long that I finally had to remind the sales person that she started the conversation with "we're about to go to press," and hadn't she better move along with that? 

When the festival came around, there must have been fifty movie posters plastered on the cover, each no bigger than your pinky fingernail; each representing the hopes and dreams of someone who probably spent their last dime on what they believed was their chance to get an edge.  That's the wrong reason to sell an ad, and the wrong reason to buy one.

Distributors are not going to buy your movie because they see an ad in the program.  Some audience member might see your ad, then flip to the summary, and if they find it interesting and have the time, they may come to the movie.  Great, but is that enough of a reason to spend money on a full page ad? Or even a little business card sized one?  I don't know.  That's your judgment call.

Here are some reasons I can think of to buy an ad:
  1. Thank your investors.  Investors are the most important part of indie filmmaking. Treat them like the gold they gave you. They probably figured you were never going to pay them back – or even that you'd ever make a "real" movie – so a warm, public thank you might be all they need to feel good about what they've done.  And, oh boy, are they about to be surprised when they see what incredible things you've created with their little green pieces of paper.
  2. Thank your Cast & Crew.  Investors give money, cast & crew give time, and we know what time is, right?
  3. Help support the festival.  Our "no stars" policy makes it hard to win over sponsors that don't understand what we do.  Unlike a destination festival that can go to the local business community with numbers and stats, we have to find sponsors that want to get into the uber-indie world.  To be cool before it's cool.  To win a demographic before they are one.  Ads in the program help us do that.
  4. Some reason you have in mind that I don't.  After all, you're a creative type, right?  You're bound to have an angle none of us have thought of.  So let's see what you've got.
See you all May 30th!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Written On The Subway Walls

Some of you may have heard that our filmmaker's orientation meeting for year 16 is coming up this Friday.  That does not mean that 100% of the slots have been chosen.  There are always one or two issues that haven't settled out.

Still, if you haven't heard from us, the big beautiful woman might not have sung yet, but she's getting her spear and magic helmet.  We do send out the best pass letters in the circuit.  Little comfort, I know, but hopefully shows the respect we have for every filmmaker.

About the orientation meeting.  It is not required, but if you're in Los Angeles it is highly recommended.  It's also a lot of fun to meet your fellow ... what?  Classmates?  It's worth a half day off from work, but not a plane ticket.

For those who are out of town, we are working on streaming it online.  Hopefully the insanity of all of us babbling in Douglas Fairbanks' old gym will translate to a worthwhile experience on the digital screen. 

Speaking of the gym, dress for the weather.  No guarantees on air-conditioning or heat.

That's it for now.  Some of you I'll see on Friday.  Others, good luck!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Want to Know What It's Like To Be a Film Festival Programmer?

What's the most number of movies you've ever watched in a day?  I think my record of films in a theatre is five when I was at Sundance.  It's exhausting.

So let's take that as a baseline.  Watch five movies a day for... let's just say three days.  Never mind that Leslee and the rest of the final screeners have been doing this for last few weeks.

Okay, mostly Leslee.

If at the end of that three day sampler you still have your sanity, then e-mail each of the filmmakers to ask them about their projects.  Keep track of the answers, they'll come in handy later.

While you're in the middle of all of this, have people like me come question you about not only the 15 movies you've just watched, but also the hundreds of movies you've watched since January.  See if you can give a coherent answer.

Oh yes, and let's not forget managing the rest of your life while you're at it.

That's a little bit of a feel for life as a festival programmer.

Things are winding down in terms of programming, but WE DO STILL HAVE SLOTS OPEN, so don't say rude mean things to us too soon... 'cause you never know.

Speaking of rude mean things.  We are bracing for the pushback on our "No stars" rule.  Keep in mind that we define stars as anyone – in front of or behind the camera – who could get you funding just based on their name.  This is always a hard bit to measure. A movie with a recognizable face in a single role might not be weighted the same as an ensemble of recognizable faces. 

Plus, and this one hurts for some of us, those big stars you remember from the 1980s – while they were bankable names in memorable movies then – the 25-year-old financial rep at the bank now wasn't born until after those movies were made.  That is not to say that the actor has any less talent, or is any less of a star in our hearts, but stardom has always been, and will always be, a function of time.  Just like everything else.

There are also changes in the business to consider.  Money is tight.  Production companies headed around big names have trouble finding money, so our loose definition becomes even harder to hold onto.  Still, we do use it as a star to guide by... no pun intended.

One last note to help assuage the hate mail we get every year on this issue.  The rule only applies to films in competition.  So are you going to see recognizable people in competition films?  Yes.  Are you going to see stars from The Princess Bride and Chasing Amy in the same move?  Yes.  Will that movie be in competition? No.

Good luck.  I'll see many of you soon.  Others, please, come by the festival.  All are welcome.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Some Light Reading While You Wait

From IndieWire. 

Of course, if you're a regular reader of this blog, you already know this, but if not, check on the blurb.

Win the Top Prize at Dances With Films Festival and Land Distribution With Gravitas Ventures

Where We @?

This is always one of the most of exhausting times for any film festival.  Our final programmers have spent the last week re-watching and discussing every single entry.  Granted, some of those are short conversations that range from: "Loved it, invite them," to a simple, "No."  A film has to have between three and five flat out no's to drop off the list that quickly, so it's not just one opinion.

The tough decisions come when we get down to the available screen times vs. the number of good films.  There are always more good movies than time to show them – even with our new, longer, schedule.  So if you don't get in, but other serious people tell you your movie is top quality, they aren't lying.  Keep up the good work.

We've been e-mailing back and forth between many of you, and some – I stress SOME – invitations for year 16 have gone out, mostly for short films.  We are about halfway done with choosing the shorts, and probably a third of the way on the features. 

If you have screened in the LA area already, you might well receive our heartfelt congratulations and well-wishes, and we mean it.  Does it piss us off when we've worked so hard to find the best-of-the-best, only to have them premiere at smaller festival?  Sure, a little.  We're human.  But we know each filmmaker has to find their own way.  If you've had your shot at The Big Nipple – as Milos Forman called Hollywood – then we might give another filmmaker a shot at it.

Then again, we might like your movie so much that it overcomes all obstacles.  These aren't laws, folks, they are guidelines.  Some people have a big problem with that.  Understood.  It's not fair.  Life's not fair.  If you're looking to make it so, then you've chosen the wrong profession.
What does that mean if you have not heard from us?  First, check your spam filter.  There are a couple of films that haven't responded to our e-mails.
I always get grief for this, but I want to help you make the right decisions.  If you submitted before the regular deadline, and you got your "we have received..." e-mail, but haven't heard anything since, it's not looking good.  Ouch.  I know.  I say this now in case you get an offer from another festival.  You'll probably want to take that right away. 
If you did not get a "we have received..." letter around the time you submitted, then check your spam filter. If it's not there, then something is wrong with the e-mail we have on file for you.  Contact us!
If you got a second round letter, then you are still under consideration.  If you get an invitation from another festival, do exactly what a filmmaker did this weekend.  CONTACT US.  If it's one of the two festivals in LA that have higher industry exposure than we do, we'll be bummed, but happy for you.  If you're hanging on the lower edge of our consideration list, we'll hint that you might want to take the bird-in-the-hand.  If you're strongly in the running, we'll tell you'd be crazy to premiere anywhere else.
By-the-way, the filmmaker that did the right thing in all the right ways, is in.  Congrats.  Others that tried to hedge their bets... we're still considering. 
For those that have gotten invitations and are holding onto the news for our official announcement, thanks!  I know it feels like you're going to explode, but you won't.  It's all good.
Finally, to answer the question we always get, we do send pass letters.  You will be notified.  And, FYI, everyone who entered is entitled to 2 free tickets to a DWF screening of their choice.  So come on down.
Good luck everyone.

Monday, April 15, 2013

As The Time Draws Near

We had our last screening of short films, and the absolute last deadline for feature entries is today, so the freak out time is here - for both you and us. On your end it's the horrible wait, and hourly e-mail checks. On our end it's cramming films into our brains, discussing them, sending out second and third round notification letters - and invitations.

A few invitations have already gone out.

I say that with hesitation, since I know someone is bound to post angry comments about having not heard from us. I've said it before and I'll say it again, we have a lot of slots to fill, and until the final posting is made, and you have a PASS letter from us, you're still in the running.

Of course, don't be stupid, either. From this point forward, every day that goes by without hearing from us is not the best indicator. If you get an offer from another festival, CONTACT US. We might not be able to tell you "yes, you're in" or "no, you're not," and we certainly can't tell you what you should do - that's your decision - but we can give you advice.

Here's a hint about how to read our tea leaves. If we say, "congratulations, that's great news," take the other festival. If we say, "can you give us 24 hours," then do that. After 16 years, I can say without any doubt that there are no other festivals making their decisions this time of year that would be a better place to premiere. Maybe Los Angeles Film Festival, but if you haven't heard from them by now, that's not looking good either.

Some other ways to help your chances.

Don't lie. We have Internet access. If you're telling us you're a world premiere, and you have laurels from another festival on your site, or IMDB information that says other wise, then you will be disqualified with a vengeance. If you've done some small screening somewhere, just let us know. If you've done something like remix your sound, so you're calling this your New World Premiere, fine. Better for us to think you're working an angle than flat out lying.

Another thing we get every year - the Without A Box devotees. I don't even know what they say our notification date is, so please don't post a diatribe about how we're not meeting our deadlines. Our deadlines are fluid. We've plugged in replacement films as late as the week of the festival, and I promise you none of those were from rude filmmakers.

Of course, sometimes the waiting gets to be too much to handle. So what do you do then? Feel free to post something nice on our Facebook page, or here. Tell us what you do to calm your nerves. Ask others what they do. Send us some virtual coffee and cookies. We'll need them.

Oh, and - we saw some fantastic shorts last night, and we have some terrific features, so it's going to be a good year.

Good luck.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How Can You Help Your Chances Of Getting Into A Film Festival ? Plus, BIG NEWS!

For year 16, digital distribution company Gravitas Ventures will be offering a Video On Demand deal for this year's Feature Film Jury Award Winner.  That's huge, folks!  So huge, we've extended our deadline FOR FEATURES ONLY to April 15th.  So turn in your taxes and get your movie into our office.  That's right IN THE OFFICE BY THE 15TH.  Post marks won't do.

I want to dispel a rumor before it starts.  The winning film will not be required to take the offer.  If you want to hold out for that worldwide theatrical release on a thousand screens, that's your prerogative.  You'd be nuts to do so, but I don't want to hear in the indie blogosphere that "if you get into Dances With Films you HAVE to take their distribution deal."  That's not the case.  This is a good offer from a legit company, but the final decision is up to you. 

On to other business:

People always ask, "What can I do to help my chances of getting into the festival?"  Well, here's the answer:

First – make a good movie.  Of course, everyone thinks their movie is the greatest thing ever, so let's keep going.

Next, check your e-mail, your spam filter, and carrier pigeons.  Every year we have more than one filmmaker who doesn't reply to our e-mails.  I can't tell you how frustrating it is to work so hard to find a movie we want to program, only to have the filmmaker drop off the planet.  If you submitted early, and you haven't heard from us, it doesn't mean anything, but feel free to shoot us a polite, short e-mail that says, "I'd like to confirm that this is the contact e-mail for [movie title]."

Speaking of polite, when you do communicate with us be nice.  You don't have to kiss up.  You don't have to try too hard, just do your mamma proud. Say "please," and "thank you."  We're going to spend about a month working together under high pressure with tight deadlines.  That'll be topped off with 11 of the most intense days you've ever experienced.  If you're unpleasant at the beginning of this process, there's a good chance you won't be a part of the middle or end of it.  Got it?

And, we're still watching movies. 

I've noticed a trend returning in  features this year, gender issues.  If you're working on a script right now, and all of characters of one gender either sound the same, or are all villains, or all flawed in the same way, then you might think about getting some therapy.  If not, definitely consider a re-write.  Show the script to at least ten people of the opposite sex and listen to their opinions. Not all women are Femme Fatales.  Not all men are sex maniacs.  Mix it up a little bit.  Make it like life.

A note to my fellow actors.  If you are in a low budget film with limited resources, speak up!  It's impossibly hard to get a clean recording of someone who mumbles into their collar for an entire shot, even in the best of situations.  If nothing else, at least talk loud enough for your scene partner to hear you.

From sound to light.  Filmmakers be warned! If you don't start lighting actor's faces, we have a screener who is going hunt you down and kill you.  There are extremely few times when you want the character's face to be hidden.  In all other cases, if the actor's face it's clearly visible, then you have failed as a director of photography.  If you're the director and the camera operator, then you've failed at both jobs.  Get a bounce card, a light meter, and the skills to use them.

This week I've seen a couple of films where bad visual effects were put in where real special effects would have been easier and better.  Digital dust, smoke, etc. looks like crap most of the time.  You've got a scene that calls for wind-blown dust?  Put your crew to work.  Get your actors dirty.  That will keep the audience in the story and not thinking, "why did they put in fake reality?"

That's it for now.  We have another week of screenings, then decisions begin to be made.  Please, be patient.  I know it's hard.  Keep in mind that until you get a notification from us one way or the other, then you are still in the running.

Good luck.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Down And Dirty

It's time once again for the annual running commentary on a night of screenings.

This is something I've stolen from literary agent blogs (and that's books, not screenplays).  From time-to-time one of them will open their query letters and comment on each one without revealing the author, title, or any details of the submission.  It's a lot of fun, and can be very educational, so I thought I'd do the same thing with festival submissions, so here we go.

Thanks to Easter, we had a shortened screening session and delivered pizza.  Once everyone was gathered, we split into our two rooms and the shorts began.

First up was a period piece with amazing production value and a true life topic that hasn't been done to death.  Kudos on both.  The dialogue was a little stiff, and I wished the director had given one of my favorite notes, "no individual line is important, so relax."  Some of the cast played every beat as if it were life or death, and most of the time it was just plain life – which is good.  But this wasn't a death blow to the film.  It was fun to see a DWF alumni show up on screen, especially since he was good and the movie was good.  Nothing sucks more than having to pass on an alumni's movie – which we do a lot.  I did not pass on this film, and the feeling in the room makes me think they will be getting a second round letter soon.

Our next movie was a short doc, which I always find curious.  Who are they making these movies for?  Sure, a 40-50 minute doc could play on TV, and a feature doc might find distribution – especially online, as they are becoming more and more popular.  But what does one do with a 10-15 minute doc? 

My questions were quickly answered as this story was about a group of people who don't care about such things.  They make art for the joy of doing it, and the joy that it might bring any individual who happens to come across it.  I found it delightful, and appreciated the friendly slap-in-the-face for thinking so commercially.  Los Angeles will do that to a person.

The note I wrote for the next submission was, "This movie is both bad and stupid.  You can't be both."  By bad, I mean it was technically below any kind of artistic standard.  The sound was off.  The dialogue was stiff and so were the actors.  I thought some of the ideas were clever, but poorly executed.  The whole thing became a mess and our room envied the cackles of laughter that poor out from behind the closed door of the other.

The next film was good.  Not great, but solid.  It seemed to present us with characters, knowing that we would assume certain things about them, then throw that back in our faces – in a fun way.  It was very clever, and certainly nothing I'd ever seen before, which is saying a lot as I have been doing this for over a decade. 

Somewhere about here we took a break for hot cookies, which might help our Twitter followers figure out my post a few days ago.  I think there was apple pie this time, too.  Damn Leslee!  Just when I was losing weight.

The next film was so bad is sucked the life out of all of us.  There are some actors ... who can only seem to say ... a handful of words at a time.  No matter what the scene, they speak the same amount of words, and take the same length pauses between each phrase.  All but one of the cast members in this film had that problem, and the one that didn't wasn't old enough to see a PG-13 movie, so there's hope for the future.  Added to the community theatre acting rhythm, the lead had that "I'm talking so softly that, if I weren't wearing a mic no one could hear me at all," thing going.  Acting sometimes is like singing.  Almost anyone can sing well at a whisper, and some people make a good living putting a microphone within their one inch audible range.  But when these people have to actually do the work of a trained artist, they don't have the chops.  None of us were fooled.

As for the bad phrasing problem – actors, please watch JamesWhitmore's work.  He, better than any other modern actor, could turn stilted – sometimes downright bad – writing into warm butter.  If you can find his sense of immediacy, you'll pop off the screen.

Speaking of popping off the screen, we had a family story that did just that.  Last week I talked about "drama must be earned," well this film is a lesson in how to do that.  It had a sense of humor, yet was serious.  The characters were complex.  You could like them and hate them at the same time – just like family.  The actors were all fantastic, especially the kids.  The story moved at a perfect pace, and at no time did I feel like there was a camera, or director, showing me how clever they could be, which always achieves the opposite.  Mazel tov.

Finally, we had a short that billed itself as a drama, but was really a dark comedy.   There was a little bit too much Tarantino, hipper-than-thou dialogue about nothing at the beginning, but not enough to kill it.  They did a bit from one of my favorite Terry Gilliam films, which fit, so not a big deal.  I would have liked to hear a little more of the filmmaker's voice apart from the homage, but the acting was good, as was the story and filmmaking skills.  The end made me write a note I usually put on movies I don't like, "filmmaker need therapy."  In this case, I put it on one I did.

And that's it.  We all grabbed some features to take home while chatting with the folks from the other room about what was good, what wasn't, and the typical blah-blah-blah.

There you have it.  As behind-the-scenes as you can get.   Now get back to making movies.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

While You Wait For The Slate

A little break while you wait for us to announce this year's slate.  As some of you may know, I write novels as well as screenplays, and blog at From The Write Angle with my literary friends.  This particular article might hold some interest to filmmakers, so I'm posting it simultaneously here and on FTWA.  Since most studio films start out as manuscripts or short stories (see my post on short stories), I recommend that filmmakers get to know novelists.  Something good is bound to come from it.

Here's my article in From The Write Angle: "Could The Next Hollywood Be New York?"

To work in the film industry, one goes to Hollywood; for publishing, New York.  But could that paradigm change in the near future?

Way back in the 1990's, a book was something that came on paper and a movie on film.  To buy a book, you went to the bookstore.  To see a movie, you went to the theatre or a video store.  They were two very different businesses.
Today, both movies and books are digital files.  If you want to buy a book, you go to Amazon, iTunes, or Nook.  To see a movie you go to ... Amazon, iTunes or Nook.
For computers, the only difference between film and literature is the size of the file.  Tour a publishing house or a digital film lab without looking at the computer screens and you'll be hard-pressed to know which was which.  They are both transcoding files for different platforms, QCing those files, preparing metadata and art (posters or covers), checking chapter breaks, compressing, and uploading them to the providers.
So, consider ...  Motion Picture Studios don't really make movies anymore; haven't for a long time.  Sure, they find the projects.  They develop the material.  They finance the productions, and they distribute them, but the nuts and bolts of turning ink-on-paper into images on the screen is jobbed out to production companies.  Imagine makes movies mostly for Universal.  Village Road Show for Warner Bros. etc.  Of course there is a tight partnership, since the Studios are often putting in most of the money, but even that is beginning to lean more heavily in the direction of the production companies.
Let's say you're a publishing house.  The book industry has become so volatile that you need some ballast.  You need to leverage the assets you have in a way that can spread the risk.  But what assets are those?  You have a company full of people who know a good book when they read one, and they are willing to read a ton of them to find the gems.  You have a library of good stories, and you're buying new ones all the time.  But does that make you a valuable company, or the most insane person in your neighborhood book club?
What's the first thing a movie studio does?  They find the projects.  You, as a publisher, are sitting on a mountain of them.  Not only have you found the diamonds in the rough, you've polished them and presented them to market.  You have developed the material. 
In your library are Romance Novels that could become a money machine in your own Harlequin YouTube channel.  And you're buying new stuff.  You just shelled out cash and resources for Mindy McGinnis's Not a Drop to Drink, which is screaming for a wide theatrical release.  If you're good, you can lock up the film rights before Hollywood knows what hit them.
In fact, the right of first refusal on the movie is now going to be in your standard contract.
What's the next thing a studio does?  They finance.  You're a publishing company.  You're in New York.  You can't swing a big black cat without hitting a handful of hedge fund managers who would love to place a bet on a Big Six project.  Where the independent film producer has to beg and explain what they are doing, you can say, "I'm the person who found Hunger Games and Harry Potter.  Wanna play with me?"
So, you've got the money.  You've got the properties.  Now comes the tricky part every homeowner can attest to, finding the right contractor to build on your property.  If only there was a high turnover rate in Hollywood.  Then there would be plenty of experienced executives looking for the chance to get back into producing.  They'd have the connections to put together a string of companies to produce your entire slate.
Oh, wait!  There IS a high turnover rate of executives in Hollywood.  You can't swing a hedge fund manager without hitting a former studio executive.  Or, in my case, a current festival director who gave you this idea in the first place.
So if this is such a brilliant plan, why hasn't anyone done it before?
Not everyone has access to the intellectual property you do, and there's distribution.  In the theatrical days, a company had to have a strong relationship with the theatre owners to squeeze their films into the crowded market.  That's still true of theatres, but the future is on line.  You, as a new studio, are going to have to have a working relationship with the platforms that distribute films, and – bingo!  You do. 
Amazon, iTunes, Nook, etc.  You've been delivering to them for years.  You have servers and staff in place to QC, package, and upload to all of these platforms.  Once you are delivering films, Netflix, Playstation, Hulu, Vudu, Cinema Now and more will come knocking.
And you're vertically integrated.  When people like the book they just read on their iPad; one click and they're watching the movie.  What?  The movie hasn't been made?  They can pre-order it  You'll send it directly to their device as soon as it's ready.  Talk about crowd funding, a movie could be profitable before it's even shot.
And none of this takes into account the lower budgets on films.  The guilds all have "made for New Media" contracts in place with attractive rates.  Shooting digitally is a fraction of the cost of the old film days.  You could crank out low budget Romance Movies as fast as Cali MacKay can write the books.  For the bigger budget theatrical releases, you can partner up with – and learn from – a major studio.  In fact, they probably own your company anyway, so the good faith negotiations will be a breeze.
But what about the writers?  Will new writers be willing to sell their film rights at the same time they do their book?  That's an individual choice, of course, and I hope agents and writers alike will comment here about their thoughts on the subject.  Personally, I'd say yes for a few reasons. 
First, you're not selling the rights, you're selling the exclusive option to buy the rights within a certain time period.  At the end of that time - if they haven't sold it - you get to keep the money  you were advanced, and go try to sell the option to someone else.  If your agent is good, you might sell a 3 year option from the contract date.  It will take two years to get your manuscript to market, and then one year to establish sales.  Hollywood will read an unpublished manuscript, but they won't take a lot of interest if it doesn't have sales behind it, so you've been paid for three years of an option, when it's only costing you about six months of post-publising time.
Another reason to sell your film rights to your publisher is that they will be into your project for a lot of money.  Turning the red ink on your balance sheet to black is a big motivator in the corporate world.  They are going to want your manuscript to be as big of a hit as possible, and that larger investment is going to keep you on their hot sheet.
And finally, it's money!  Take it!  Sure, most Hollywood movies are based on books these days, but most books don't get made into movies.  Yes, there's a chance that they'll hold onto the rights and do nothing, but they paid you.  That's better than you and your agent shopping the project around to production companies for nothing.  Let your publisher take the project to the same producers with the sales pitch, "and we have the money to produce it."  You're in a win-win all the way.
Now, if only I could figure out how to make this a win for me... because, you know, it's all about me.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Easter Delay

Due to the Spring festivities, this week's post is delayed a bit.  Look for a special post on Wednesday, and I'll get back to the screenings soon.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Life In The Digital World

We started off the night with 3 or 4 DVDs that wouldn't play.  I then picked up a package with two copies of the film, nicely labeled as such, and thought, "Here's a filmmaker that's read my blog," or possibly goes all the way back to the Without A Box's message board days.  I miss that place.  DVDs have a high failure rate, so it's always a good idea to send a backup.

And before you go saying that we should screen online, forget about it.  For one thing, our workflow requires a physical representation of the movie.  We make piles and stacks, and fill bins.  We hand movies to screeners.  Not only that, I prefer to watch a DVD on my big screen with 5.1 surround sound, not my laptop.  Yes, I know, I can (and do) connect my TV to the internet and watch downloads, but not every screener has the tech-savvy to do that, or work around problems when they come up.  So, it's DVDs.  When they fail, if you haven't sent a backup, we'll get in touch to have them replaced.  Thanks.

Now that that's out of the way, let's do a little filmmaking 101. 

Cinema is an illusion of light and sound.  That's it.  Those are the only two elements you have to deal with.  If you fail at either one of those, your best score is 50%, and that doesn't cut it in anything.  We are bombarded with films that are good, but we can't hear them.  Of performances that would be moving, if we could see the actor's face.  I know silhouettes are cool and artistic and everything, and used correctly, extremely effective – but not for a monologue!  Not for any kind of scene where the emotions of the character are important.  Let us see their faces.  Let us hear their words.  Or, in many cases, your words.  Use a bounce card to fill shadows.  Use a good post sound facility to finish your sound.  Then you will at least have a chance for a 100% score - and all you'll have to worry about are story, performances, art department, digital formats, etc.

Speaking of digital formats... Everyone has been so excited about the digital revolution in independent filmmaking.  Digital is supposed to be so much cheaper and easier than film.  Cheaper? Absolutely.  Easier?  Not in the least. 

I haven't done a study, but I would bet that over half of the films submitted have something so wrong about their digital photography that any layperson could call it out.  They might not be able to say what's a dropped frame, what's a dup frame, or inter-lacing, or whatever you want to call it, but they can certainly say, "that doesn't look right" or "this is giving me a headache."  If we were to properly QC submissions, I'd bet 90% of them fail.  If the story is good, and the acting is good, and all other elements of the filmmaking are good, chances are we'll screen it at the festival, but those filmmakers are in for a world of hurt when they go for distribution.

And often, the problem boils down to the way it was shot.  Back in the film days, a producer wouldn't think of using a cinematographer just because they owned a camera.  Now, having a camera is easy, but knowing how to use it on a professional level has gotten harder.  On big shoots a DIT (that's pronounced D. I. T., not DEET), or Digital Imaging Technician, is on hand to assist the cinematographer.  If you're currently looking for a DP, you might want to find a DIT with aspirations of getting behind the camera.

We are still seeing some good films.  One held us hostage and told us jokes for a large portion of the evening.  Loved the movie, I hope we can find space for it.  Another was less than two minutes long, which is great, and literally kicked ass!  Nice job.

Thanks for reading.  We are lining up some exciting sponsors, panels, and events for this year, so keep an eye out.  I will report news as things are finalized.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Garry Marshall Has It Right

First, a little business.  Our office computer problems are not 100% fixed, but we do have a nice work-around.  Keep an eye on your e-mails for communication from DWF, and get back to us quickly and politely.  Given a choice between two equally good movies, where one filmmaker is hard to deal with, and the other is a delight – who would you go with?

There is a saying in theatre that drama is just a breath away from comedy.  It's the difference between laughing with a comedy and laughing at a drama.  One sure way to cross that line is to have your film push the seriousness of everything.  If your cast project the attitude of, "look what an important movie I'm in," then hilarity will ensue.  If you do the big dramatic cut to the big dramatic look on the totally dramatic actor, then you are not making a drama.  In fact, I often find myself saying to the screen when the filmmaker gets too serious too quickly, "Please be funny!  Please be funny!"  If they turn it all into a joke, then they are my new best friends. 

We had a couple of dramatic dramas last night that didn't make any friends.  Remember drama, like pauses and monologues, must be earned.  Don't tell us to care, make us care.

We did have some understated, humble dramas, that generated the kind of silence among screeners that is the best of complements.  One in particular had us all ready to join a cult, then hip-checked us back into reality.  Good on ya!

But the overall theme of the night in my screening room was – WTF!?  After watching two or three movies in a row that made absolutely no sense, one of our screeners quoted GarryMarshall, "Please, just tell us a story."  I don't think there has ever been better, more concise, filmmaking advice than that.  Just tell a story.  If you do that, then you know you're on a solid foundation.  From there, you can build what kind of story you're telling and the way you're telling it. 

Yes, I know there are schools of thought that experiment with Jackson Pollock style "remove the artist from the equation" ... stuff (to be polite).  I've had arguments with modern dancers who talk about "movement for movement's sake" or "moving sculpture," and to them I say, "If a girl comes out and dances, I want to know who she is and why she's dancing.  If she's joined by another dancer, I want to know what the relationship is between the two."

It's human nature.  We are animals who have a deep need to tell and hear stories.  Why is it that artists will insist that their salads be all organic, but they turn their work into some kind of freak of nature? 

So, please, do like the Wise Old Man of Hollywood says.  Just tell us a story.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Home With A Cold

I missed this week's screening.  What can I say?  I have that same bug that's going around.  It happens.

So what do we do when a key player can't make the shorts screenings?  The answer lies in how we approach the entire selection process. 

All movies are screened by at least three people.  Most of these folks are alumni; filmmakers who know what it is to have struggled so hard to turn one's imagination into something tangible.  Other screeners are just people who like movies.  The logic being, there should be no prerequisite for an audience member to enjoy or not enjoy a film.  Whether you're doing Samuel Becket-style absurdist theatrics, USC Film School Space Adventures, or a David O. Russell character study, the experience of the viewer – beyond speaking the same language of the film or subtitles – is not relevant to the success of the storytelling.

Often screeners' notes from features will come back, "I think this is a good movie, but it's not my favorite genre, so someone else should look at it."  So we do.  We all want to see movies we like, and since many of us have been doing this for a while, we've learned each other's taste.  Often a film will be handed to an experienced screener with, "no else has liked this movie yet, but you seem to enjoy this style, so you should take a look at it." 

Believe it or not, we're fighting hard to get your movies into the festival.

For short films, all three (or more) screeners watch together, but our opinions are noted separately.  There is no pressure to make your opinion match everyone else's.  In fact, it's just the opposite.  We want more diverse views, not less. 

Films that are universally unliked have a hard row to hoe.  Leslee, whose heart is too big to pass on a movie out of hand, will probably pop it into her machine to confirm the reviews, but after that, the film will wait to see if by some stretch of fate someone's "maybe" might be enough to pull it from the depths of the "thanks for submitting" bin.  Films have come back from the dead many times, which is why we don't send out pass letters until the entire slate is full.  So not all hope is lost.

Since we have two screening rooms running at once, I will take home the shorts I didn't get to see that have anything better than a failing grade, and Leslee will more closely watch the films she didn't get to see.   Since I missed this week, I'll have two rooms worth of movies to watch over the week.  I hope you guys have made good ones!

Features are done pretty much the same way, but screeners take them home.  It's fun to hear us talk at the weekly screenings.  "Have you seen that one?"

"No, not yet."

"Okay, then I won't say anything, but talk to me when you have, because... I think it got weird and I want to know if it was just me."

All of this is to say; we're watching and talking about your movies – even when we're home with a cold.

Thanks for reading.