Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Just the Docs, Ma'am

We were quarantined this weekend due to the flu.  Since we didn't screen shorts, I thought I'd take this opportunity to talk about one of our most difficult formats to program – documentaries.

Among the best things about screening submissions is the exposure to so many great documentaries I would not see otherwise.  If nothing else, they makes for great cocktail party chatter when I want people to leave me alone.  "Oh, yeah, I saw a documentary about that…"  Pretty soon, I have my choice of hors d'oeuvres. 

To me, a documentary filmmaker should think of his/herself not as filmmaker, but a journalist.  Yes, filmmaking skills are required, but a well-shot and edited documentary without good journalism will fail.  A well-researched, well-documented, story will work even if the filmmaking skills are at a minimum.

Another problem with the filmmaker-first approach to docs becomes apparent when we screeners get the feeling the project started with, "I want to make a movie," instead of, "I have an important story to tell."  Sure, it doesn't matter how a filmmaker or journalist started a project, but it does matter if the audience feels a lack of passion behind the camera.

But the hardest question for Dances With Films programmers when it comes to documentaries is, "will people come out to see this movie?"  As I've said here many times before, ticket sales are not a primary concern for DWF, but they are a big one.  We love the sponsors we have – and many smart businesses have benefited by their association with DWF – but, because we are a discovery festival that insists on unknowns, sponsorships are hard to come by.  Ticket sales are an important part of what have kept this fest around for 17 years. 

So when it comes to choosing docs, we have to take into consideration our audience.  Will Los Angelinos get off their couches to come see this movie? 

This is a good question for you, as a filmmaker/journalist, to ask before you submit, or even before you shoot, your movie.  Is this a story that needs telling, and if so, to who?  If your answers are "yes" and "everyone," then you are well on your way to a good documentary.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 10, 2014

On Our Way to Cinematic Gold, Silver, or Bronze

First, a little business.  We're coming up on our first submission deadline, so if you don't want to pay more money for no good reason, finish your films and get them in now.

Our first DVD didn't play.  This happens a lot, which is one reason you'll only see us screen a DVD or Blu-ray during the festival in the direst of emergencies.  In the case of submissions, we'll try to watch it on another machine.  If that doesn't work, we'll contact the filmmaker to supply a replacement.  So, if you think this might have been your movie, don't worry.  If it was, and we can't watch it, you'll know, and we will.

We had a very good "primitive" film with a tight story and a charming cast. While I didn't agree with the political message in the movie, I gave it a good review. Dances With Films takes no sides when it comes to hot-button issues, as long as the movie is well-made and the story is good.

Next was a Sci-Fi short, which is one of my favorite genres, and one of the hardest to pull off on a tight budget.  This one had an interesting way around the budget issue, but the story was hard to follow and wasn't presented in a cinematic fashion.

That film was followed by a wonderfully surreal story with a fantastic cast.  The movie both made sense, and didn't at the same time, which is hard to pull off as well as they did.  The cast & crew had to have a lot of trust in the filmmaker, and they were well rewarded. 

Our next film was bad for so many reasons that lessons can be learned.  Its biggest flaw was exposition.  Characters constantly told each other things both of them already knew they both knew.  We in the audience knew they both knew they knew, so it was clear the writer was having the characters tell each other stuff they know so that we, the audience, can know it, too.  But we don't want to be fed information.  We want to discover it.  Make us guess.  Make us beg to know.  Make it a mystery so we can play the detective.

This bad film also had a horrible sound mix.  Actors with big voices were all close to the mic, those that mumbled were off mic – which is kind of like being just outside the light.  Yes, you can be heard, but everyone knows something is wrong.  In this case, the mumblers couldn't be heard.  Since there was music (yes, bad piano plunking), I got the feeling this filmmaker thinks their audio is finished.  It's not.  This is a big reason why you don't want to submit your film before it's ready for a real audience.  You might tell us "Temp Sound Mix," but we have no way of knowing if your idea of a complete mix matches ours.

The final movie of the night in our screening room, was pretty good but it didn't start out that way.  The photography made it hard to follow the story.  Why?  We couldn't see the actor's eyes.  The eyes are the windows to your character's soul.  With a tiny number of exceptions, if you can't see the actors' eyes, stop.  Fix that.  Use a flashlight with some diffusion paper on it if you have to.  Pump in a little bit of light from their eye level.  You won't be sorry.

Thanks for reading.  If you haven't gotten your submission in.  Do it.  Do it now.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The End Times

We took Super Bowl Sunday off from screening shorts, so I thought this might be a good time to go over what will happen between now and the time we announce our final slate.  For submitters, there is one rule to remember:

Until you get your official pass e-mail from Dances With Films, there is still a chance your movie could be in the festival.

“But Robert,” I hear you saying – because this is a really great internet connection, “you haven’t even sent out second round letters, why are you talking about the end days?”

No matter how many times I say the rule, people forget it.  They get angry when they shouldn’t.  They say things they shouldn’t, and pretty soon they have talked their slim chance down to none.

Case in point:  Last year we had to meet a press deadline with Indiewire before we had every slot filled for the festival.  So we sent the 90% complete list and called it the slate.  Better that story than no story at all, right?  Weeks prior to this, I kept saying, “Until you get your pass letter, you still have a chance to be in the festival.”

Most filmmakers listened.  They realized that, at that late date, their chances were slim – but slim is better than none.  They remained politely quiet, or vocally hopeful, and life was all good.  For them.

Other filmmakers decided we were the scum of the earth because they had to learn from the press that they weren’t in the festival.  They were vocally abusive.  No matter how many times I said that we still had slots to fill, they insisted we didn’t know what we were doing, and how could we be so… (fill in the insult of your choice).  Never mind that most festivals don’t do pass letters at all.  Never mind that some festivals don’t even send out acceptance letters, they just screen your submission DVD.  We were the mean ones.

Now, put yourself in our position.  You’re struggling to decide which film, and which filmmakers, you want to spend two weeks with.  Which ones you want to partner with in the insane process of 11 days of heaven and hell.  On one hand, you have people who are politely quiet, or vocally hopeful.  On the other, are people calling you names.  Obviously, the movies are of similar quality since they are both being considered.  Who would you choose?

Until you get your pass letter, there is still a chance your film could be in the festival.

Second round letters will be going out soon.  Some might already have gone out.  Not getting a second round letter this early in the game means nothing.  Do make sure you got your “we received your submission” e-mail, so you know we have the right address.  Do keep checking your spam filter.  Don’t worry if you don’t get a second round letter for the next few weeks.

Schedules.  Ignore them.  Without A Box forces us to say when we will make/announce our slate long before we know ourselves.  We might be a week or two late.  That’s our problem, not yours.  Please don’t tell us we’re late.  We’re aware of that.  Please don’t tell us we lied.  We didn’t want to set the deadline in the first place.  If you want to go on line to say how excited you are, and how you hope you’ll hear soon, that’s great.  Eager is good.  Anger is not.

Screenings start again next week.  Thanks for reading.  Comments are welcome.

RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman