Monday, March 31, 2014

The Big Break Theory

I left my blog notes at the Dances With Films screening last night.  No great loss.  My evaluation sheets, along with everyone else's, were turned in and that's what really matters.  The problems we saw were all things I've already talked about this year – mostly bad piano scoring.  One film with this problem was good enough in all other departments to overcome the music.  I think everyone in the room recommended it.

There is a lot of great stuff going on in preparation for the festival, but nothing I can announce yet, so I'm a bit at a loss for words – which will make my many critics happy, and shock my friends.

In thinking what to write this week, I put myself in your shoes.  That's not hard, I've been where you are in the past, and am there now with book submissions and film and TV pitches.  Waiting.  It sucks, I know.

But I'm reminded of some advice I gave a senior class at North Carolina School of the Arts when I was home for a visit more years ago than I care to count.  We got to talking about "The Big Break."  Actors, writers, filmmakers, artists of all kinds are looking for that Big Break.  The project that pushes them forward into a career.

Many of you are on pins and needles right now wondering if Dances With Films will be your Big Break.  I can tell right now, unequivocally, whether you get in the festival or not, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Dances With films will not be your big break.

How can I be so sure?

Because you've already had yours.

When the sperm broke through the egg's defenses, and your DNA lined up in such a way that you were destined to grow up with a functioning brain, and for the most part, a functioning body – that was your Big Break. 

When you were born into a world where the economics were such that the arts as a profession flourish, that was your Big Break.

When you were born into a country that either was not ravaged by war, or if it was, recovered enough that you could pursue your dreams, that was your Big Break.

When you were born into a family that, if they didn't encourage, at least did not stop you from making your dream your career choice, that was your Big Break.

When you found enough friends, family, and friends who have become family, to get behind your dreams, share your vision, and roll up their sleeves (or take out their wallets) to help make that intangible collection of thoughts into something real… that was your Big Break.

The waiting is going to continue for a little while.  It will feel like an eternity.  Some of you will see getting in as winning, and it is.  But there is no losing here.  Creating a work of art – or, if you prefer, entertainment – is a win all by itself.  After such a win, you can't lose. 

You've done the preparation.  You've made your own opportunities.  You've made your own luck.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 24, 2014

After Midnight

Anyone who came of age in the 1970s knows all about midnight movies.  Those were the days of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Eraserhead and anything by John Waters.  Going to a midnight movie then was as much of a party as taking in a flick. 

But you need a special kind of movie to host such an event.  Not just any horror movie will do.  And they don't have to be a horror film.  Boobs and booze comedies make great midnight fare.  For the intellectual hemp heads, there is the absurdist school of, "dude, you just blew my mind," late night mind munch. 

Dances With Films has a long history of holding up the tradition of the classic midnight movie.  From The Corridor, to Chastity Bites, to Disorientation, and many more – we have done our best to keep the party going.  Last year when we expanded to 11 days, aka two weekends, it meant we doubled our midnight movie slots.  We're doing the same this year.

Why do I bring this up?  Because I don't think I've seen 4 midnight-movie-worthy submissions.  If you have a film you think a classy "discovery" type festival like Dances With Films might not accept – you're wrong.  We love crass, campy, crap (said with love).  Got a horror movie that sticks to the 3-Bs rule (Blood, Beasts and Boobs) – send it in.  Drunken frat boys trying to re-create a 1980's John Cusack movie?  Love it.  After the Dances With Kids have gone to bed - we're going to get the party started!

Speaking of movies we love – we discovered some new ones at this week's short screening.  I particularly liked a film that incorporated the sound mix as a major character in the story.  Nice work!

Something we saw last year, and a bit more this year, have been compilations of 4 or 5 episodes of a web series.  These can be fun, but they have a couple of drawbacks.  First, they've already premiered.  They're on the web.  How are we going to get people off of their couches to come see something they've already seen, and can see again anytime they like?  Next, is a lack of an ending.  By definition, a continuing series does just that, continues.  If the episode arc comes to a natural end, like a Tom Baker-era Dr. Who 4-episode story, then fine.  If not, it doesn't work well as a short.

Finally, as we come close to the end of the viewing process, we start to screen the movies with an "N" scribbled on the DVD in blue Sharpe.  The "N" stands for none, as in Premieres.  Not a World Premiere, not an American Premiere, not a West Coast or LA Premiere.  These movies can be frustrating, as they are usually good.  But because they have been seen so much on the circuit, we're less likely to program them, in favor of equally good movies that haven't had those opportunities. 

Often the World Premiere filmmakers have done their homework.  They know our reputation.  They have put other festivals on hold in hopes of a Dances With Films premiere.  Are they going to get preferential treatment?
You betcha!
Thanks for reading.  Good luck.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Round and Round We Go

The time is drawing near.  Our final deadline is March 26th.  Without A Box makes us do a super-final deadline of April 2nd  which drives us crazy!  Please try for the 26th to save our sanity.  FYI, if you HAVE to wait until April, and want to avoid the insane Without A Box late fees, apply directly through the Dances With Films website.  It won't improve your chances, but it might save you some cash.

As one of my commenters noted, second round letters have started to go out.  What does that mean?  What should you do if you get a second round letter?  What if you don't?

What does a second round letter mean? 

First, we don't have official rounds, so if you hear one film got a second round letter, and another got a third, it doesn't mean that you didn't clear to a third round.  We just don't have a good name for, "Screeners have liked this movie, let's check in with them to see what's changed since submissions."  Or, "Okay, we already got in touch with them, but we have a couple more questions."  So don't let that bother you.

Next, if you don't get a second round letter, that doesn't mean anything either… at least, not for the next month or so.  It's entirely possible for you to get a second round letter after we've announced our official slate to the press.  Remember rule #1 – until you get a pass letter, you're still in the running.

What should you do if you get a second round letter?

First, don't lie!  We're going to ask you about your World Premiere Status.  It is much better if you have not premiered, but we can live with a West Coast Premiere if we love the film and the filmmakers.  We'd rather be your premiere.  If you have screened somewhere else in Southern California, we're going to smack you upside the head and point you to the MovieMaker Top 25 Coolest Film Festivals Article – but we'll still love you and wish you well – and possibly screen your movie.  But if you lie to us, you're done.  We have the internet.  It's real easy to find out if you've screened anywhere else, so be honest.

This brings me to another point.  The relationship between filmmaker and film festival is a partnership.  One of the reasons we send out so many "rounds" letters is to vet our future partners.   We're going to be working together over the next several weeks, and if you're difficult, we will choose a film of equal quality with pleasant filmmakers.  There is a reason why our alumni network is so strong.  There is a reason why you'll make some of the best friends of your life during this festival.

There's a reason why you should answer your "round" letter quickly, politely, and informatively.  It's called being professional.

What if you don't get a "Round" letter?

I said it before, I'll say it again and again and again… until you get a Pass letter, you're still in the running.  Sure, if it gets to be the first week in May, and a press release has come out saying "the official" slate, and you haven't heard a thing, then your odds are getting long – but it has happened.  If you get an offer from another festival in the next few weeks, please, get in touch with us.  We can't tell you what to do, but we can drop really big hints. 

Okay, enough business.  Let's get back to the quality of what we're seeing in submissions.

Our screening room saw some fantastic short films, and some that were just okay.  Any screener will tell you, they're happy to see great films, and truly horrible ones are easy to reject.  It's the so-so movies where we earn our money.  In many cases, a movie can just lay on the screen.  Nothing jumps out as exciting or stupid.  The audience is left with a feeling of … eh. 

For the filmmaker, it's important to recognize this lack of enthusiasm before the movie is made, while it's still on paper.  Have table reads.  Ask your cast.  Don't take their first response as a viable answer.  They want to be in your movie, even if they think it's not the best script they've ever read.  If the script jumps off the page for the readers, you'll know it.  The energy will become electric.  If the reaction is anything less, then don't go into production.  Re-write.  Find your voice.  Make it pop.  Don't commit to production until every character's objectives are life and death, and every obstacle is insurmountable. 

Speaking of life and death, we saw a great film from the American Film Institute, but my challenge for an AFI comedy still goes unanswered.  Come on, AFI, not every film has to be foreign and important.  Have you seen Sullivan's Travels?  Laughter is as important as drama… often more so.  Make us laugh!

I'll leave you this week with an issue we see quite often – sudden bad language.

Don't get me wrong, I drop the F-bomb as much as the next person in the film industry.  Some of my favorite words have four letters – but if I've written an otherwise family-friendly film, I'm not going to allow a character to start cussing.  This happens late in movies sometimes, which makes it even more noticeable, even offensive to an ear as jaded as mine.  If you've started clean, and are mostly clean, keep it clean.  You will find your screening opportunities widen greatly.

Thanks for reading.  Don't get too nervous over the next week or so, we're still watching movies.  Good luck.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Good Actors Behaving Badly

We had some fantastic short films this week, starting with an animated piece that answers the question of the answer to the ultimate question of the Universe.  When it was over, one of our screeners said, "That was a nice way to start the evening."  I couldn't agree more.

Another terrific animated short was in a style invented forty years before the Vogons thought about building a galactic bypass.  The former film was an exception to the "good logo, bad movie" rule.  The latter, was a fantastic use of black and white, which I've often complained about when not done well.  Thanks to everyone involved in those films, they made the night go faster.

Later in the evening we watched a film with a scientific name and the perfect blend of three voices.  Nice job!

Of the movies that missed the mark, most did so because the actors were put in bad situations.  That's not to be confused with putting characters in bad situations.  That's a good thing.  Treating actors that way is not-so-good. 

There are many ways to leave your actors hanging.  The most obvious one is bad dialogue.  We had a film last night where the characters sounded like they'd been lifted straight from a novel.  If that had been an obvious style decision, like with any Raymond Chandler script, then great!  But, that was not the case.  Every sentence was grammatically correct with vocabulary words any spelling bee winner would be proud of.  Consequently, the actors not only sounded like they were spouting memorized lines, but they all sounded like the same person.  There was no "separation of characters." 

The actors might share some responsibility for this if they didn't bring it up on the set or during rehearsals.  If they did, and the director didn't listen, then that's on the director.  If you're ever directing a project, and the cast say, "This dialogue doesn't feel natural," you have two possible answers:

1)  I know; it's a style – followed by a discussion to make sure the cast are all aware of the style you're shooting for, or:

2) Really?  Show me what you mean – then you listen to what they are saying, and – if they have good point, don't be afraid to go with what they are saying.

Remember, if you have cast, well-trained, experience actors, then you have a tremendous resource on the set.  Use them.  They're actors.  They are used to being used. (That's a joke.  You can laugh).
Bad set-ups are another way to handicap your cast.  If the audience isn't sure what's going on because of the way the shot is framed, then they'll miss the performance.  If an actor looks like they aren't in the same scene as everyone else because of a bad eye-line or background, then their performance will suffer.  Throw in some set dressing, and adjust the shot a little, and the same performance will be a thousand times better.
Sound is also important to an actor's performance.  If we can't hear them, then we won't believe them.  If we hear audio drops, or changing room tone with every cut, then we're taken of the scene without really knowing why.  The actors might look bad for reasons that are beyond their control.  That's not the end of the world, but it does make it harder to cast your next project.
That's it for this week.  We have some exciting things in the works for our almost legal year.  Continue to follow events here, on Facebook, and Twitter #DWF17.  That's for reading.

Monday, March 3, 2014

I Hate Streamers

I don't know if I have regular readers, or if people just check in here to see if they'll find some insight about how their submissions are going – but either way, you might have noticed I didn't post anything last week.  Unfortunately, the flu quarantine we tried a couple of weeks ago didn't work for me.  I missed last week's screening and am just coming out of the fog of yuck.  I'll end up taking home a stack of the shorts to make up for the missed time.

While I was down, I got some online screening links sent over.  We've done a couple of these for last minute submissions in the past, but for some insane reason a few filmmakers have insisted on only submitting via streaming video this year. 


Not so long ago, filmmakers were hesitant to send out screeners of any kind.  They spent years making a movie for the big screen, so they wanted it evaluated in the best possible conditions.  Now, people seem perfectly happy to have us watch their movie on a watch… or a phone, or a tablet.  You have worked so hard, why do you want us to watch it under the worst possible conditions?

Hopefully, you have slaved away to finish your sound, so when it is presented on speakers as big as elephants it will be perfect.  Why then do you want us to listen to it on a laptop with speakers the size of a quarter?

"But," I hear some of you saying, "a DVD screener is SD, and the online file is HD, which is SOOO much better."

No, it's not, and here's why.  Your HD file is streaming at a variable bit rate that you're not in control of.  You have no idea how many mps your streaming service has available, nor how many my service can take.  An HD file streamed at 15 mps is nearly impossible to watch.  It jumps and jitters, turning your hard editing work into Swiss cheese.  If your film is handheld, it will be unwatchable.

And even if the viewer waits to let the file load, you have no control over their processor speed, ram, or how many other programs are fighting for attention.  Your movie might look great on one computer and terrible on another.

Compare that to a well-made SD DVD played on my Play Station 3.  The system does a quick up-res to HD.  Not as good as Blu-Ray, sure, but good enough.  I have a 62" Plasma screen (as opposed to my 17" laptop) and 5.1 surround sound with nice Yamaha speakers.  Not only that, but I'm comfortable on my couch.  I have fewer distractions, so I'm less likely to play a quick game of Free Cell during a slow part of your movie.

Yes, I know that I can hook my laptop up to my TV with an HDMI cable and stream the HD file, but that only makes the slow bit rate or overworked processor even worse and it's a pain in the behind.  Why should I do that, when I can just pop in a DVD?

And those complaints are just the regular viewer side of the equation.  There are also Festival Director Things that make me prefer DVDs.

First, you have to remember, we see a lot of poorly made movies.  Often these have been shot on Digital SLR cameras by people who think reading the manual makes them a DP.  These movies are full of shutter-flutter that make them nauseating to watch on the big screen.  We see movies that are poorly edited, with cuts that don't match, or jump cuts for no reason.  We see movies with bad three-two pull downs, or shot at variable frame rates and pasted together without proper transcodes. 

When watching a poorly streamed movie, it's impossible to know if it's poorly shot, poorly edited, or beautifully made and just looks bad because there was a lot of internet traffic on the server when we watched it.

Another Festival Director Thing that seems petty – and okay, maybe it is, but that doesn't make it not an issue:  When it comes down to making decisions, we stack up DVDs.  "Yes," "No," "Maybe," "Robert's Stack," "Second Looks," etc.  Files do not stack well.  I don't know what we're going to do this year.  Maybe have a piece of paper with the title on it, but that's a poor substitute.  Many times, we need a reminder of how we felt about a movie, so we'll pop the DVD in, watch a few seconds, and say, "Oh, yes!  I love this movie."   Sometimes, the handwritten title on the DVD will spark a memory like the cover of a good book.  It's just not the same as having to find the website and the pass word and hope the wi-fi is working.

All of that said – we will still consider all submissions equally, and my opinion is not the only one at DWF.  If you can only submit online, we will deal with it.  But if you're one of those people who constantly looks for the tiniest edge in how to better your chances, you've just found a big one for DWF.