Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Silence

Just an FYI for anyone who might be checking my blog for Festival Updates.

I don't do that sort of thing. It's not that I'm too busy. I could probably squeeze in an article a day, but I don't want to. I am busy... having fun! If you want a blow-by-blow of what's happening, our Social Media guru, Kim, keeps our Facebook page up-to-date. Like us and follow along.

If you're in the LA area, come join us. Buy a copy of Billy Bobble Makes A Magic Wand from the Alumni Store - or, you know, any of the dozens of films from past years we'll have for sale. I'll sign my book for you. The filmmakers will sign your DVD.

If you're not in the LA area, you can get my book, or their films, on Amazon.  I'll post links of what we have available once it's solidified.

Okay, back to work!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Minding The Store

This year Dances With Films is featuring something brand new that I think you'll be seeing on the festival circuit around the world in the near future. Remember, you saw it here first.

What is this new feature?

The Dances With Films Alumni Store.

Why will this become a mainstay on the festival circuit?

Honestly, it might not, but it should.

People see the digital revolution hit an industry and they thinks it's one & done, but in fact it comes in waves. A first wave will radically change everything, then a second wave rides in on those changes. Then a third, forth, etc.

Right now, the indie film industry is probably on it's 3rd or 4th wave when it comes to distribution. Remember video stores? Remember when watching something on Netflix meant a DVD was delivered to your house? Remember when scripted TV shows were actually on TV?

Okay, I'm maybe a year or two ahead on that last one - but the point is, things have changed. For the uber-indie filmmaker those changes mean they are not only the filmmaker, but also the film seller. Distribution now means having a film thrown up on iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, etc. with no PR or marketing support. Like novelists have had to do in the last few years, filmmakers now have to do their own shilling.

Well, Dances With Films is here to help.

At the Dances With Films Alumni Store, alumni can sell their DVDs directly to this year's DWF audience. If customers don't watch movies on DVD anymore, they can get information on how to download the films. These instructions will probably come with a request to post a review on Amazon. Reviews are a huge help to anyone selling anything online, so if you like a movie, book, song, etc. make sure to give it a review.

What does a filmmaker get out of selling a few DVDs at what amounts to a trade show booth at a festival? Well, for one thing, cash. Not a lot, but face-to-face sales are what work best in this business and building a fan base starts with one person at a time.

They also get a promotional opportunity. Pictures of them with their DVDs at the Festival to post on MySpace (sorry), Facebook (sorry), Instagram and Pinterest (with an auto-link to Twitter)! So for each face-to-face sale at the festival, they might get one or two more online sales from the promotion.

And remember those Amazon review requests? Online promotions are often based on software algorithms. Once an item gets a certain number of reviews, they begin to be recommended to customers who buy similar stuff. "Because you watched..." etc.

So, if you are an alumni, contact me about adding your films to the store.

If you're an audience member or current-year filmmaker, buy a movie (or... you know, a book like Billy Bobble Makes A Magic Wand) from an alumni. Get it autographed.

And next year, someone will do the same for you!

See you at the store.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Joys and Heartaches

I know many of you are waiting for one of those few letters of acceptance that have yet to go out.

Yes, that's right folks. Our competition films are going to be announced in the morning (Monday, May The 4th be with you) - but believe it or not, we are still working to fill some screening slots. 

Remember, nothing is decided until you get a pass letter, and those should all be out by the end of the week.

But that's not the point of this article.

There were somethings I didn't say at the Orientation Meeting that I meant to. Nothing big or deeply insightful, but hopefully helpful - if not at Dances With Films, then at whatever festivals may screen your film.


A good producer always has two extra tickets in his or her pocket, ready to hand to any VIP who might show up unannounced. As we said at the orientation, we don't give out industry comps. The people you want to use them never do, and the lost revenue is pretty much what kills theatre in LA. Any executive worth talking to can expense the price and should respect that DWF wouldn't have survived for 18 years by giving away free tickets. Still, some big shots in this town are either jerks, or legitimately can't afford a movie ticket anymore than you can. Unfortunately, you can't afford to not have them there, so make sure you have a pair of tickets ready. If they go unused, the cost is a cheap insurance policy against an awkward situation.


We said this at the orientation, but it's worth repeating. It's a good policy to check in with the festival to find out which restaurant sponsors might have deals on a screening party. Not only can you get a good price, but you'll be helping the festival tremendously by supporting those who support them.

This also applies to just hanging out, getting lunch, a drink, etc. Look through the program and go to the bars, restaurants and shops that have taken out ads. Wear your festival badges and make sure the staff know you've come in because they are a sponsor. If you want to have some fun, go make rude gestures to those merchants who didn't support the festival. (That's a joke ... really). 

Still on parties. Consider having everyone meet for dinner or drinks BEFORE your movie. This is helpful in getting a crowd. Old people like me, might not like the idea of going to a 9:00 movie with the obligation of a party afterward - but it's easy to meet before hand. This also gives you a time buffer for those people who are perpetually late.

Program ads. 

Some festivals give a hard and heavy pitch to filmmakers about buying an add in their program. They promise that distributors will see your ad, fall in love with your movie sight unseen, and make you a million dollar over-your-budget offer based on the ad alone. Don't let this shock you, but that's not going to happen. Sorry.

But there are some good reasons to buy an add in the DWF program. For one thing, it's not a cheap piece of newsprint. This program is collectible. They cost us more money than a xeroxed copy stapled in the corner, and your ad will help insure we're able to make the program something you'll cherish for a long time.

Also, a program ad is a fantastic place to thank your investors, cast, crew, mother-in-law, etc. Then, on the off chance that a distributor does flip through our program - and, actually, they do - they might not offer you a deal based on your ad, but they will know you're a class act.

In case of emergency. 

If for some strange reason you haven't given us a back-up copy of your film (Blu-Ray, DVD, etc.), bring it with you to the screening. I say this so I won't have to drive like a bat-out-of-hell back to your hotel room to get the back-up copy when it turns out the one on the screen was copied three frames out of sync. (True story, in the Tape days). 

See everyone's movie! 

I know it's hard to do, and chances are you won't be able to see the film that screens just before or after yours - but ask to trade screeners or Vimeo Links. The only thing worse than not winning an award yourself, is knowing nothing about the movie that did win. 

And finally - remember to have fun!

These eleven days are like summer camp for grown-ups, a brief time in your life that you will never forget. Whatever happens - good or bad, at Dances With Films or some other festival - celebrate it. You're an artist in the company of your peers presenting your work to the world. Damned few people on the planet will ever know the joys and heartache that can bring. The chance to have either, or both, is a blessing. 

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Getting Oriented

I know. I know. We haven't completely announced yet and I'm already talking about the orientation meeting that's coming up this Friday. That's the nature of this business, folks. Things move slow, slow, slow, then super fast.

I just want to drop a quick note to filmmakers who are not in easy road trip distance to LA. As famous as Dances With Films is for being the only film festival (we know of ) to have an orientation meeting - it's not worth a plane ticket and a hotel stay. We have had filmmakers fly in for the meeting, and they said it was worth it - but, personally, I'd save your money.

If you are in the LA area, it's definitely worth a 1/2 day off from work ... unless, you know, you're a brain surgeon or something. I highly recommend getting to know your fellow filmmakers. You're going to see each other again in the festival circuit and you'll want to trade stories about which are good, bad, and indifferent.

If you're smart, you'll use your festival passes to come to all 11 days of the festival. Soon, you'll be hanging out every night with your fellow filmmakers and when it's all done, you'll have made friends like you haven't since summer camp.

For those who don't get into the festival, you do get two free tickets to a movie. Use them. Better yet, buy a festival pass and learn from an 11 day intensive on uber-indie filmmaking. You won't regret it.

Okay... sorry to have interrupted your obsessive waiting rituals. Go back to pacing, biting of nails, gnashing of teeth, checking your e-mail every five seconds, and trying to read Billy Bobble Makes a Magic Wand.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

And The Dance Goes To...

We will be announcing our slate soon.

Just a reminder, as with anything in life, what is said publicly and what happens in reality are not always 100% the same thing. We have deadlines to get out a press release about our slate - and that press release is always 100% true - but, it doesn't mean that it represents every film in the festival.

There are always one or two slots still open.

And yet, every year one or two filmmakers go on public tirades about how they had to hear that their movie didn't get into the festival via Indiewire. Here's a news flash for them, if their film was still being considered for those one or two slots, they just made a difficult decision very easy for us.

When the slate is finally complete, it's always a bitter-sweet time at DWF. We're ecstatic about the films that are in, but sad for our favorite movies - often by alumni, who have become friends - that are not. I also feel bad for the films that we have sent so many e-mails to, grilling them about their plans for the film, getting them excited about how well their movie is doing in the selection process, only to end up passing.

I've been there so many times with my film, my scripts, and my books. The near miss is more painful than the miss by a mile. When you're not even close, you get to think, "Maybe I'm not very good at this," and move on to something better. When you're good, but don't get what you're looking for, you have to keep going. You have to keep banging your head against the wall because you know you've found a soft spot.

Let's just hope the soft spot is in the wall, not your head.

Good luck to everyone who submitted. To those who do not get in, remember that one festival is not going to make or break a career. It's just one step on one path - and there are as many paths as there are steps.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Harvesting

This is always the most difficult time of the year. 

Deciding what films get in the festival is easy. Deciding which ones don't get in is not.

Some of my favorite movies of all time submitted, but didn't get into, Dances With Films. Usually this is because the film has been seen at a number of other festivals - especially Los Angeles Fests. Filmmakers don't seem to understand that premiering their movie at a two-year-old festival named after some neighborhood in LA burns their chances of screening pretty much anywhere else in LA without doing their own 4-wall rental. They don't understand how hard it is to get the trades to review their films in these smaller fests. They also don't understand how hard it is to fill a theatre for a second screening.

Yes, filmmakers, premieres are also about ticket sales. Our mandate of "No Stars" in competition movies means we have a hard time getting sponsors. We are not a destination festival funding by a local Chamber of Commerce. We have survived for 18 years because of ticket sales. If you are a first time filmmaker, you probably have all sorts of arguments ready about how your movie is different. If you've been around the festival circuit - or Equity Waiver Theatre, you've played to empty houses and know what I'm talking about. 

Another frustration is when filmmakers don't answer our e-mails. One told us, "I don't check this e-mail address very often, can you just text me?"

"No," is the answer to that question. We have thousands of people to communicate with in order to produce this festival. We can't make an exception for each submitter. If we like your film, but haven't heard back from you, we will go to extraordinary means to make initial contact - but what we'll say is, "Check your e-mails."

This leads to another reason films don't get programmed - the filmmakers are unprofessional. This is rare, because I've discovered that good movies are usually made by good people, but it happens. If you're one of the exceptions to that rule, then you're probably not aware of it, so nothing I say here will help. If you're one of the good people, then yes, we notice. We appreciate it. Your attitude helps your cause.

Right now we are still making decisions. We are re-watching movies. We are sending out e-mails asking about your marketing plans. If you haven't gotten one of those e-mails, that doesn't mean anything ... yet. If another week goes by and you haven't heard anything from us, then the writing is on the wall and you should make decisions accordingly. We do send out nice pass letters, so you won't be left hanging.

Here's hoping no one reading this gets one of those.

Good luck.

Monday, April 20, 2015

What I Did This Weekend

I had a long eventful weekend so this will be short and, hopefully, sweet.

I took a break from DWF screenings to spend Saturday and Sunday managing the Society ofChildren's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) booth at the Los Angeles TimesFestival of Books. It went very well.

On Sunday, I had to slip away from the festival to attend a memorial for a friend from my theatre days. It was a beautiful service that got me thinking and feeling. My friend was not only a successful actor, but also a fantastic person. He had two great kids who he and his wife raised to perfection. He took life as it came, with a pragmatic approach to solving life's problems.

Why do I bring this up here? As a reminder.

We artist of all disciplines sometimes get lost in our work. We can lose sight of what is important. In trying to hold up a mirror to life, we sometimes forget that we must also live. Our books, our paintings, our performances become important to others, but our lives are what are important to us.

Or, they should be.

Live well. Stay in the moment. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Like Ducks On A Pond

Do you know the old saying about someone who is like a duck on the pond? Above the water, they appear serene and in control, while under the water their webbed feet are paddling like crazy to keep them in one place?

That's a good description of what life is like at Dances With Films right now. On the outside, we are as cool as a cucumber, but readers of this blog know we are working like mad to get the festival programmed.

If you've submitted, you're probably that way too.

"How's your film going?" your non-industry friends and family ask, thinking they are making polite conversation.

Inside, you want to explode from the stress and tear their head off for reminding you that you're waiting to hear from Dances With Films. Instead, you smile and say, "It's going fine. Just waiting to hear from the festivals."

My suggestion? Relax. Read a book. Something lite. Maybe even one of those kid's books that adults like to read, too. I know of a really good one about a kid who uses quantum physics to make a real magic wand. It's sure to take your mind off the festival jitters.

Oh, and... the AFI comedy challenge has been won. We watched a good one last night. Some didn't like the ending, but they're crazy. Blood can be very funny. Most of us laughed our behinds off. Thanks for that!

And thanks for your patience.

Monday, April 13, 2015

We're In This Together

This will be short and sweet, as we still have a pile of movies to watch and not much time to do it.

I wanted to touch base on something that applies to all filmmakers, whether you get into DWF or not. If you just got a sinking feeling in your stomach on the mention of not getting in, sorry. I know that feeling well, as I've been turned down by the best and worst of them. Regardless of whether the glass is half-empty or completely empty, you have to figure out a way to make it full and be ready to keep it that way – and you can't do it alone. You're going to need partners, and the best partners you have right now are your cast.

The first thing you should do is send your cast an e-mail with a link to this article, since they have a lot on the line as well. Make sure they know you haven't forgotten about them, and that yes, you will get them a free copy of the movie (hopefully at the World Premiere Screening in the Dances With Films festival at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood).

Cast members. I know, you've done about a million free or just-about-free movies and you never hear from the filmmaker again. You never get your free copy. I know this, because it has happened to me, too. Or, you might hear from the filmmaker when the movie got into its first festival – which you promoted and maybe attended if it was nearby – and that's about the end of your involvement. It might be the end because the filmmaker doesn't keep you up-to-date with promotional opportunities, or because you don't think there's anything in for you, so why bother?

There is definitely something in it for you. You need each and every one of your movies to be financially successful. That's what it means to be a "bankable" star, and that starts here and now. You need to use this movie to build your fan base, and you need your fan base to buy the movie, so when you nail your next audition you can leave the producer with the line, "Not only am I right for the part, but my films make money."

Filmmakers. This partnership works both ways. You need to make sure it's easy for your cast to promote your film. Keep in touch with them. Suggest ways they can help for festivals they can't get to – like Social Media promotion. Make sure they can buy the DVD at retail prices so they can resell them at conventions, etc. For festivals in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, etc. help your cast help you promote within the industry. You are partners. You have to share your success with each other. Don't drift apart.

Okay, that's about it on the business end for today.

In the screening room, the big trend we're seeing are movies that seem to be made right out of a textbook on how to make a good movie. The stories are exactly what they are supposed to be. The camera is exactly where it's supposed to be. The cast are all very solid. Everything is done exactly as a film school teacher would like it to be … and that's the problem. A textbook has no voice. A film school teacher is teaching you technique, which you definitely need to learn, and then you need to forget. It's good to make a movie that is everything it is supposed to be. It's great to make a movie that is more than the sum of its parts. Take it to the next level. Find your own voice.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for your patience. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Film Festival Orange

Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange
We have more movies to watch than ever!

Thanks to all of your submissions, we've added one day to our screening schedule, and will probably have to add another – and that's just for the shorts. We're also cramming feature films into our collective brains as fast as we can - so keep that in mind when whatever date Without A Box has for our announcement comes and goes in silence. 

Though, it's not all silence. We are sending first, second, and third round letters for films we're interested in, so obsessively checking your e-mails is a good idea for the next 3-4 weeks.

What do these e-mails mean?

The answer to that question changes with time. If the only e-mail you've gotten from us is a confirmation that we got your submission, you're fine for now. There is a good chance we haven't seen your movie yet. No worries. Three weeks from now, if that's the only e-mail you've gotten from us, then things aren't looking good for your submission. I say that to help you make decisions about other festivals.

If you have not gotten a confirmation that we received your film, then please check your spam filters. If you don't have an e-mail from us there, then please send us an e-mail to confirm we have the correct address. Typos happen. Every year we have at least one film that doesn't respond to e-mails, phone calls, or owls from Hogwarts. This is extremely frustrating, especially if we want to program the movie.

If we send you an e-mail asking for more information (2nd or 3rd round letters), then prompt, professional answers will help your cause. There is a reason why DWF has such a strong alumni. Given two good films and only one screening time left, whose film do you think we're going to go with? The filmmaker who is hard to work with, or the one that is pleasant and eager to be a part of the festival?

If you've only gotten a second round letter and nothing else, no worries - for now. This isn't a boxing match. We don't have models in bikinis walk around the screening room holding up signs that say "Round 2."  Plenty of films that played the festival never got a round letter at all. Having said that, the clock is ticking. If you don't hear from us in three to four weeks, and another festival expresses an interest... let this hint help you make your decision.

On the other hand, if another festival does express an interest now, let us know. In most cases, we can't say for sure that you're in DWF. We also won't say anything derogatory about other festivals. You'll have to do your own research. We stand by our 18 years of experience and encourage you to track down our alumnae for advice as to which festival to choose. We can and will drop big hints about how you're doing in our selection process, so read between the lines. If we have strongly encouraged you to wait for our decision, and you do, then the pressure is on us to make sure we find a slot for your film. It's not a promise, but I have seen it be a huge influence on the final choices.

Onto to the screening room.

Last night was one of our added screening sessions. We watched a lot of good movies – three FSU films in a row that were all fantastic. One proved the old adage, that when one door closes, another one opens… and it's really scary when it's the same door! (Nice work!)

We also saw five or six movies that had the same bad piano score. One in particular was a bit of a melodramatic – almost a kids' – movie, which is fine but the music was so 1970's after school special, sappy, piano, that the combination was terrible. If you have a sweet movie, don't be afraid to add a little salt. For those of you still submitting, I would suggest that if your score is nothing but a piano, stop submitting. Re-score your movie with an entirely new musical concept. Otherwise, you won't stand out from the hundreds of others the screeners are watching.

And, of course, keep in mind that a fantastic movie with a bad piano score is still a pretty damned good movie, so don't think you're out of consideration just because you have a piano score. It worked fine for Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut.

That's it for now. I have to find the guy with the eye drops and watch more movies. 

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 6, 2015

A Festival of ... BOOKS!?!

First things first. I want to get a shameless plug out of the way. On Saturday, April 18th 2015, between 2:00 and 3:50, I will be selling and signing Billy Bobble Makes A Magic Wand at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI – LA) booth 834. Please feel free to join my event on Facebook and if you're in the LA area then, come on over to get a book, an autograph, and pump me for information about your submission. Don't be disappointed if I'm vague about that last part.

There's another reason you should come to the Festival of Books, and it has to do with your movie.

Selling movies and selling books has become one and the same thing. If and when you get a distributor/publisher, they will put your movie/book up on Amazon, iTunes, Nook, and other platforms that are more for show than measurable income. Old-fashioned viewers/readers can order your DVD/Printed Book. The young-'ns can stream the movies/borrow the books from Amazon Prime, or download-to-own the files – movies and books.

Great, wonderful, there's your movie/book right next to movies/books you've loved and respected all of your life. You can and should be proud. Show it to all of your friends and family. Ten percent of them will buy a copy, and that will be the highest promotion-to-sales return you'll see. A word to the wise, don't get mad at your friends who don't buy your book. It gives you an out when they invite you to their play.

In the old days, your publisher/distributor would spend money on marketing your book/movie. They still do, but only for a select few authors/filmmakers. I emphasize few. You will not be one of the few. I know this because you're reading my blog. I doubt Steven Spielberg or Suzanne Collins are scouring the net looking for filmmaking or marketing tips.

That means, until the word-of-mouth pump is primed, you're going to have to sell every single DVD/POD and movie/e-book download yourself, one at a time. How many sales you need to prime the pump is hard to say, but think it terms of tens of thousands. I say that amount because it's a minimum number of book sales to show up as a blip on the radar of the major publishers according to an agent I spoke with from Andrea Brown.

Tens of thousands of sales, all done by you and you alone. You're going to need 100,000 Facebook friends to reach ten thousand sales if that's your only audience outreach. You're going to need a stack of reviews. For filmmakers, that's where festivals come in. For books, we do blog tours.

But the best results have always come from direct sales. That means you talking in person to a customer and selling them an autographed DVD/book. Don't have any idea how to do that? Come by the LA Times Festival of Books and watch authors who have years of experience doing just that. Learn from what the old-timers do right, and the mistakes of those new to the hustle. You'll never get a better education for a cheaper price (the Festival of Books is free!).

About last night's screening, I wrote down some quotes from my fellow screeners. I shouldn't admit this in public, but there are times when we talk during a movie. Usually, this is about the film we're watching, and always when it has lost our attention. Even so – unless the movie is just horrifically bad – our comments are blurted out wishes - wishes that our words could make the movie better.

The comment that got me on this train of thought was, "I'm going to yell at you until you get it!"

Too many times, directors let actors get into a shouting match, and too many times writers have characters say the same thing over-and-over again only louder. In both cases, the scenes hit just one note and stay there. Imagine a song that is nothing but one note played for the same duration and volume throughout. Boring, right? Right.

Another good quote. "Was that supposed to be funny?"

This is a bad thing for the audience to think regardless of what they're watching. Stage actors are well aware (or should be), that there is a thin line between a serious drama and uproarious comedy. Hopefully that line only gets crossed in rehearsal. In comedy, I've often talked about giving an audience "permission to laugh." That is to say, early in the story, let the audience know that you mean for them to laugh with your work – or even at it. Either way, it's fine with you. There are a million ways to do this, from a subtle laugh line in a slice-of-life story, to a pratfall in a broad farce. Without that permission to laugh, audiences will try to stay polite and not laugh at your work. Let them know it's okay.

The last quote I heard sent a chill down my spine as I was leaving. "We saw more good movies tonight than bad ones."

Our final selection process is coming soon. Every year we have more good movies than screening time to show them. Every year some of my favorite films don't get in. Every year it hurts. We did see more good movies than bad ones, but not all of them are going to get in.

I'll leave you with an on-line advertising trick I learned while promoting my book. Links at the top of an article always get the most clicks, but the second most come to links at the bottom.

I hope to see you at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Doin' Time Is Here

We are getting close to the final deadline for submissions, which means it's getting real, folks.  For those who have submitted, that means the waiting is going to get more and more intense. Sorry, there's not much we can do about that.

For us, it means it's time to actually do all of the things we said we'd like to do. … okay, maybe not ALL of the things we'd like to do, but most of them.

For me, one of the new things I'd like to start this year is an alumni store during the festival. This would be a place where alumni can come back and sell their DVDs, books, streaming movies, etc. to an appreciative audience. We can have filmmakers signing their DVDs, posters, etc. Maybe bring back some cast members who have gone on to do well – and we have a lot of those – to sign DVDs from their early years.

So if you're an alumni with something to sell, get in touch, let's make this happen!

We started last night's screening session with a drama that got unintentional laughs. That's always a bad sign. The entire movie was in passive voice. That is to say, the characters talked to each other about things that we would have rather seen. This structure also meant the character objectives were not active or immediate, and their obstacles were non-existent, which makes for an extremely boring movie, no matter how hard the actors emoted.

We had a music video where the song was okay – not great, but not horrible – the video portion was pretty good – not great, but had some good moments. The problem was, the visual images had absolutely nothing to do the song. Add that to the just okay-ness of the song and images, and it died the death of a thousand cuts.

In another short, some filmmaker decided that an actor's performance needed to be enhanced with jump cuts, which is a shame.  I would bet dollars to doughnuts that the monologue worked just fine without the jerkiness of the hip-editing style. The story had built up to the big monologue, and done so in an okay fashion – but again, just okay. Once we became overly aware of the filmmaker behind the scenes with the jump cuts, the rest of the problems in the film magnified.

We saw two good short docs both set in the mid-sixties. If it works out, they might just end up in the same screening block.

I'm told there was a comedy from AFI that screened in the other room. I can't wait to see it, if for no other reason than to stay up-to-date on my challenge.

Finally, we had a terrific animated short that reminded me that I need to call my Dad… in a good way. Nice job.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 23, 2015

On Being A Programmer

Last night, I spent the evening as a different kind of programmer. While all of our other screeners spent the night watching shorts, I tweaked our Filemaker Pro program to track who is watching what feature film regardless of format, and unsuccessfully tried to calculate a sum using three separate WHERE parameters. I have an SQL equation that works for two of them, but the third is a problem for a self-taught hacker like myself. No worries, though, I think I figured out a work around while walking my dog this morning.

Times have changed for film festivals. When I started screening in 2001, all submissions where on VHS. Sure, they didn't look anything like what the actual film did – especially if it was shot on 35mm – but we knew that. Today, we have at least six different ways to see your movies, and; thanks to bad transcodes and the idiosyncrasies of file-based media, they still don't look anything like what the finished film might look like, but we have no way of knowing that for sure.

Where we used to use a pen and paper to write down who has taken home what VHS, now we have to have a database to keep up with who is supposed to watch which movie to make sure they are all viewed in a timely fashion. Two years ago we had a handful of streaming submissions. Last year, it was about 50-50. This year, nearly 100% of the submissions have a streaming screener. I for one, am very grateful to all of filmmakers who also provide a DVD and/or Blu-Ray. Bad transcodes give me migraines.

Times have also changed for what's in front of the camera, namely, stars. When I submitted my film in 2000, I'm told that the subject of one of my cast members, Meshach Taylor, started a heated discussion about who is and is not a star. Mannequin and Designing Women were well in Meshach's rearview mirror by then. Thankfully, DWF stuck to their guns about differentiating between working actors and stars who can get a movie funded on nothing but their name. My film was allowed into the festival, and they've been trying to get rid of me ever since.

Today, funding is difficult for everyone. There are no business models for feature films anymore. Streaming, DVD, and POD income data is a closely guarded secret, so it's impossible for an indie filmmaker to turn to investors and say, "Movies with this big star consistently earn X-amount." Without that, funding is hard to come by regardless of who stars in your film.

On the flip side, production costs have come down so much, and SAG-AFTRA rules have changed, such that uber-indie filmmakers can afford to hire top-level working actors. For DWF, this means we've gone from a star-or-not discussion for one-or-two films per year, to one-or-two films per week.

Deciding who is and is not a star by DWF standards is not a perfect science. In fact, there's nothing scientific about it at all.

Obviously, if the name in question is Julia Roberts or Johnny Depp, that's easy. The movie would not be allowed in competition. It could still be in the festival, just not in competition.

For actors, writers, directors, etc. who are on the cusp of stardom, it's not so simple. In that case, we evaluate not only individual cast members, but also the ensemble. A film full of recognizable non-stars might be more of an issue than a movie with a single recognizable face. We'll also look at the overall production team. We're not going to punish a first-time director or production company for getting the best talent they could. Stardom is also a function of time. A name that could once get a movie funded, might not be so hot now. Conversely, a name that couldn't get a film funded when we programmed the festival might turn red hot by the time the movie premieres.

Eventually, it comes down to the DWF powers-that-be sending e-mails to each other saying, "What do you think about so-&-so?" We kick it around and come up with a completely subjective decision.

And, something else that's new since 18-years-ago, are haters on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Every year we get one or two people screaming at us about how we've broken the "No Stars" rule. I just take that as a sign of success. I would advise the haters that they should stop bad-mouthing people in the business. Instead, send the filmmakers a nice, honest, e-mail congratulating them on getting into the festival. If you're jealous, tell them that. It's always my highest compliment.

Thanks for reading. More about movies next week.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Why A World Premiere?

Last night I was digging through the bin of unseen short films looking for which ones we'd screen in the room that I'm in charge of, when I realized that you, the filmmakers who submitted these movies – as well as the filmmakers who might want to learn more about how film festivals work – might benefit from knowing what I was looking for.

The answer is easy. World Premieres.

Let me clarify. All the movies that have been submitted will be screened, but here's a kick in the head: Not all of the films have an equal chance of being in the festival.

Oh, shock! Oh, controversy! Quick, run to Twitter and say how unfair film festivals are!

Or… keep reading and see what I mean.

First, life isn't fair. It isn't a game of scoreless soccer. There are no level playing fields. If you are looking for anything remotely close to fairness, then the film industry is the LAST place you'll find it. Given all of that, Dances With Films bends the rules in favor of the indie filmmaker. What is a big advantage in the rest of the world – namely, names – is a disadvantage when it comes to competition at DWF. That leaves thousands of films a year fighting for the few screening slots we have. We try to make that fight as fair as possible – but that doesn't mean all films have an equal chance.

Why not?

Let's say there are two filmmakers. From the moment they each get an idea to make a movie, the inequality begins. One filmmaker has a story that he or she feel needs telling, and has a passion for that story. The other filmmaker has a passion for making movies, but no particular story to tell.

Advantage storyteller.

Given two filmmakers who both have a passion for a story, where one knows how to get a good performance out of actors, and the other knows lenses and camera moves – advantage actors – unless the other filmmaker gets lucky with casting.

And that goes on right up to the point of submitting to festivals.

Dances With Films has always been very clear that World Premieres are preferred. We also understand that you've submitted to more than one fest and it is extraordinarily hard keep your World Premiere status. So, given a film that has a world premiere status vs. one that doesn't, we're going to watch the premiere first. If it's good, we're going to reach out ASAP to let the filmmakers know we're interested and that they should keep in touch with us about the other festivals they've submitted to. We can't program these movies yet – we have to watch all submissions before we start programming – we can't make promises, but we can start the conversation with the filmmaker.

We went through a stack of world premieres last night, and have more to go, so obviously the conversation will start with the premieres before it does the others. Advantage world premieres. Then advantage North American premieres. Then advantage West Coast premieres. Then advantage LA premieres. 

Why are we so obsessed with premieres?

There are lots of different kinds of festivals. In my hometown, the Riverrun Film Festival does a great job of getting the community out to see movies that normally don't make it to North Carolina. Some of these already have distribution and have already been seen in New York, Los Angeles, etc. That's great. Good for Riverrun! They get support from local businesses who benefit from all of those people who have come downtown to watch movies, and indie filmmakers have a venue to build an audience.

Every year the Los Angeles Film Festival takes some heat for showing big budget studio movies. I say, good for them. Would you ask Detroit to do a car show and exclude Chrysler, Ford, etc.? If you're going to call yourself THE Los Angeles Film Festival, you'd better have some industry movies, because this is an industry town. A festival is a celebration, so I say go for it! Celebrate this industry that is as old and as American as the automobile industry. Good for LAFF.

Dances With Films is also in Los Angeles. I would bet that every day of the year there is a film festival happening somewhere in LA. Most of them no one has ever heard of. For the first 3-to-5 years Dances With Films was just another one of those. (Sorry, Michael and Leslee, but it's true). By being a premiere festival, by sticking to the No Stars rule, and by showcasing indie films at the beginning of their festival run instead of the end, DWF has not only survived for 18 years – it has thrived. We are on the radar of indie distributors and that industry that LAFF celebrates.

As the business model of film distribution begins to favor uber-indie, ultra-low budget movies, DWF stands by the mark that it spent 18 years carving into Hollywood. When the industry wants to see a good indie movie that no one has ever seen before… when they want to see actors that can carry a 90 minute story, but don't have recognizable faces… when they want to find a new DP with a clear vision… they don't play fair. They come to Dances With Films.

Thanks for reading. More about submissions next week.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Screenings Continue

As of today, we are tracking to have more submissions this year than any other year of the festival.

Last year, getting all of the films screened and programmed nearly killed us. It will be interesting to see how it goes when push comes to shove this year.

With that in mind, I'm going to start now saying the two things I say every year over and over again.

First, I don't care what Without A Box says about when we will announce our slate. That's just a date we have to give them so they'll leave us alone about it. Every year when that date passes and we still haven't announced our slate, some filmmakers start saying how stupid we are and how can a festival be any good if they can't make their deadlines. Just a word of advice… if your film is in contention for a festival, don't say bad things about the festival directors. At DWF, the squeaking wheel gets replaced.

I have to start the second thing I say over and over again with an apology to a few filmmakers from last year. For one of the few times in our 18-year history, we didn't get a few of our pass letters out. That was our bad, and we've taken steps to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Having said that, please remember – until you get a pass letter from us, your film is still in the running.

At some point we do have to announce our "final" slate in order to make press deadlines. I don't think this has ever been the actual final slate. Some years there are one or two slots not filled. Sometimes a filmmaker drops out for whatever reason (we usually hear back from them with regrets the next year). We've had film prints not show up in time for the festival and had to make last minute replacements. The point being, if you want to bad mouth us about not picking your movie, best to wait until the festival is over.

About last night's screenings.

We started screenings last night with one of the best short films I've ever seen. Why? The filmmakers made bold, but invisible choices. They left the camera on sticks for long static shots. They did long tracking shots, but moved the camera with majesty. It wasn't shaky cam, with the implied, "look how real we're being because we're letting the camera shake around." Instead, the effect made us feel what we were watching was real because we didn't notice the camera. The audio mix kept the city – which is as much of a character as the two young cast members – at an equal level with the dialogue. This made the kids a little hard to understand, but that was definitely a choice. We sat on the edge of our seats following what was being said, and that was a good thing. The story was so simple and clear: a single objective with many obstacles. The true motivation revealed itself nicely. The cast, most of whom couldn't possibly be professional actors, were fantastic.

The only downside for this film is that it's nearly forty minutes long. That's not a criticism of the movie, it just means it will be hard to program. We could include 2-3 more films in that time, so it's going to come down to a fight. On the plus side, it's a world premiere. If that holds up, it will weigh heavily in favor of programming it. Whether it gets in or not, these filmmakers should be proud of their work. Nice job! At some point, you'll have to tell us what the title means.

This film was followed by a beautiful animated piece. After that, was a movie that was just so-so. That's the luck of the draw, folks. Ultimately, the scores for all the movies balance out, but we felt bad that this one, which was almost up to par, had to follow two fantastic works. The solution to that, of course, is to always make great movies.

We had more than one first person P.O.V. film last night, and for the past couple of years we've had two or three submissions in this style. I say this because, if you're thinking about doing something hip, cool, and different by making an entire movie from one person's P.O.V. … someone beat you to it. As far back as the 1940's, someone beat you to it. One of the shorts last night came as close as I've ever seen of making it work, but still movies work best in 3rd person, and gimmicks don't replace a good story.

For the record, the POV movies last night had pretty good stories and I think I scored one of them fairly well, so don't draw any conclusions from this observation about 1st person movies. I might not be talking about yours.

Some of the bad trends we're still seeing…

Last night was the night of the too-close close-up. If you're going to put us so close to a person's face that we can see their pores, make sure you have a damn good reason for it. The jump cuts continue. Again, nothing wrong with them in a single movie, but you should know that they have become a cliché.

We watched a lot of movies last night, so I can't possibly write about them all. I know that the waiting gets worse the closer we get to the festival, so try to relax. Read a good book. Maybe one about a kid who uses quantum physics to make a magic wand. ... just sayin'.

Monday, March 2, 2015

It's All About The Connection

Before I get into the films, I want to talk about walking my dog.

Wait – don't run. I have a point.

When I walk my dog around the neighborhood, I see tons of people out and about for whatever reason. Most of them are wearing headphones, listening to God knows what. For non-Artists, that's fine. Sherman Oaks is hardly NYC, Detroit or Moscow. We probably have more than fair our share of burglars, but very few muggers. Wearing headphones is safe, as long as the volume isn't too high.

But if you're an artist – a writer, filmmaker, actor, painter, etc. – then tuning out your surroundings is a missed opportunity. It is our job as artists to reflect the human condition. To do that, we need to be hyper-aware of the humanity around us.

As filmmakers, you should have a mental long lens that can peer into the everyday details of your immediate surroundings. You should have an empathy filter that allows you to understand the feelings and motivations of everyone you see.

Because if you don't see it, you can't recreate it.

On to the shorts.

We saw enough bra-sex to fill a Victoria Secrets catalog. For those who haven't read about this in past posts, a bra-sex scene is a sex scene where characters who would, under normal circumstances, be completely naked are for some reason wearing their underwear. The effect to the viewer is to stop following the story and think, "Why are they wearing clothes? … Oh, yeah, they are actors and none of this is real."

This is no slight on the actors. It's a tough world out there and decisions on nudity are hard to make. Directors, on the other hand, have a choice of how to shoot a scene. Writers have a choice of where to set a scene. If the sex scene is vital to the plot, and the actors are dubious of the nudity, then shoot around it. Use the magic of filmmaking to keep us from ever thinking, "Oh, yeah, they're actors."

Further on that point, one of these scenes appeared in a film that was, up until the bra-sex, a family movie. Every screener in the room simultaneously said, "Whoa! Where did that come from?" This happens a lot, but usually with language. Sudden F-bombs throw judges for a loop. Here we are watching a movie that could be programmed with a slate of kid films, when all of sudden one character decides they are in a Mamet play. That's an indication that the filmmakers don't know what kind of story they want to tell. These films almost always fall apart due to a lack of a good foundation.

We had a couple of shorts that had good scripts, good cast, but not-so-hot filmmaking skills. One screener said, "I'll forgive them that."

This sums up an important point. In a perfect world, a film would be good in all departments, but the world isn't perfect. If you have the choice between a great actor or a great lens package – go with the actor. If you have a choice between shooting a so-so script, or not shooting anything, don't shoot. Fix the script or find a better one.

Human beings, those people all artists should be observing, do not respond to a brilliant lens choice, or a perfect camera move, if they don't care about the story or the characters. Conversely, if we care about the story and the characters, then we'll forgive a deep depth of field or static shots.

Filmmaking is about connecting to your audience, not a textbook.

Thanks for reading. We are still accepting submissions – so if you haven't gotten your film in yet, hustle up!

Monday, February 23, 2015

While Waiting for the Godot Festival

I was away from the shorts screenings this week, so I'll have some catching up to do. I did see good feature submissions, so thanks to those filmmakers for that. I know other screeners will appreciate them as well. We all want your movies to be great!

We had a production meeting this past week, and got to the topic of distributors coming to the festival. This turned into a discussion of what filmmakers can do while waiting to hear from, not only Dances With Films, but any film festival. It all boiled down to filmmakers knowing their movie.

What does that mean?

In order to know your film, you have to know where it fits in an industry that is in constant flux. As artists, we all hate to think that our work is like anyone else's, but distributors hate to have a project that has no comps. As much as it pains you, you have to have a list of movies that are similar to yours – preferably ones that made money.

A good comp is a movie in the same style as yours with a similar level cast. You need at least 3 comps – a large, medium and small. That is to say, a big hit (with an unknown cast), an average hit with a similar cast, and a movie that just broke even.

Your short list of comps is for conversation and pitching purposes. For your research, you're going to want a long list of movies that are in your same genre with a similar level cast. You then need to do some digging to find out who distributed them and how. By how, I mean did they get an actual theatrical release, just a four wall rental to score reviews to lure in VOD, iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, etc.

These are the distributors you want to target. You could spend as much time tracking down an e-mail address and insider info on a Fox Searchlight executive as you will finding 10 e-mails for smaller companies, but Fox is probably not going to come to your screening. Chances are, 9 out of 10 of the others aren't either – but they will take screeners, they will watch them, and there is a good chance they'll make you an offer. Fox Searchlight probably won't. It's not that they are bad people or don't know what they are doing. They just play in a different league.

Once you get into a festival, you have another level of homework to do. Find out what movies in past years have gotten distribution and from which distributor. Last year, I one company took three DWF films. That's huge. If you get into this year's festival, your invitation to them should begin with, "Last year your took three movies from Dances With Films, this year I hope you'll consider mine," or some such reminder.

Go onto a festival's Facebook page and see who has posted about getting distribution. If they don't say who picked them up, IMDB will. In this information age, there is no excuse for not doing your homework.

One last note on all of this.

There are filmmakers who think they know what the next big hit is going to be, and try to make that movie. There are distributors who would buy that movie. I'd like to report that it never works, but sadly, some people make a pretty good living that way.

But they rarely have a break out blockbuster and they are never called great.

If you're a screenwriter facing the blank page, then you have to put souls into each and every one of your characters. You can't borrow someone else's. You have to put your passion for the story on the page, then on the screen. If you do that, you'll find an audience – but you'll have to do the rest of this hoop-jumping to find a distributor.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 16, 2015

All About The Talent

Before we get to the shorts, I'd like to talk about features for a second.

Last week I saw three films in a row featuring an early scene of a single character, usually mumbling to him/herself, with about a million jump cuts thrown in to look cool. It's not.

For my non-filmmaking readers, a jump cut is any edit that cuts from a shot of one person to another shot of the same person. Most often, and most jarringly, the cut is from the same camera angle.

I'm guessing that there's some popular indie film that did this recently – either a film I didn't see or have long sense forgotten. I don't know for sure, but I'd bet the first film to use this did so in a desperate attempt to fix a scene that wasn't working. Now people seem to think it's a good idea to plan on doing it. All I can say is that, if you plan to use what is normally a last ditch attempt to save otherwise unusable footage as a first choice, everything else about the movie had better be perfect.

One of the three movies to use this style had horrible shutter-flutter. Again, for none filmmakers, shutter-flutter has a specific meaning for directors of photography, and a general one for films that have been cut together. In the latter case, the problem can have any number of sources, but the effect is the same – a jumpy, jerky, unsmooth motion. It's the kind of thing that will give the audience a bad migraine. Add to that jarring jump cuts, and you have a recipe for a quick pass.

On to the shorts.

Our first film had a whole lot of walking in it. At first, this was clearly a style choice. Not a particularly good one, but I give any filmmaker points for establishing a style and sticking with it. The trouble was, he (or she, I don't remember and don't care one way or the other) didn't stick with it. When the style changed, what was a bold choice, became a bore. PASS

Next Film.

This film had several non-actors in it – at least, I hope they are non-actors, 'cause they aren't very good. I was fine with that since it's set in a world I know little about. The filmmaking skills (camera, sound, interesting shots, editing, etc.) were also rough, but again, because the setting is interesting I cut them some slack. In the end, the story could have been better. I would have liked to have seen some actors in roles that didn't need special skills. SECOND LOOK.


This film was a bundle of clichés and bad dialogue. The filmmaking skills were top notch, but bad writing cannot be overcome. PASS.

Side note: We got in a very brief discussion of "things couples only do in movies." For the past few years it has been playing the "this or that" game. "Star Trek, or Star Wars?" Stop that. Stop it now. In fact, I think someone should make a satire about things couples only do in movies. Start with a shot looking down a couple laying on their backs, ear-to-ear, staring at the stars.

Next film.

We get a lot of documentaries about someone's family member. I'm sure we might have programmed one before, but I couldn't say which. Unless you're related to JFK or Beyoncé, chances are the story of your crazy uncle isn't going to work for an audience full of strangers. This one was close to getting to a universal point, but ultimately, I passed – as much for a lack of filmmaking skills as for it being a family doc.

All I wrote down for the next film in my blog notes was the title, which I now can't read, and "cute movie." That means I liked it, but for the life of me, I don't know which movie it is. My judging sheet will have the title and submission number, so when it comes time to making a final decision, we'll probably say, "which one was that again?" No one will know, so we'll watch the first few minutes and say, "Oh, yeah, I remember. Cute movie." MUST SEE.

Next Movie.

Holy cow! Absolutely nothing happened in this film. It was so boring that halfway through one of our screeners said, "At any point in time you want to tell us a story that would be great." Thank God she said that, because the laugh made those 20 minutes not a complete waste of time. PASS.

Side Note: There's an internal clock we all have when watching shorts. The art form is about efficiency. If you have any screen time that is not put to good use, then we feel it and feel it fast. Make every moment count.

The next film had a Twilight Zone thing happening on a subject that has been well covered by filmmakers. This one did a great job. MUST SEE.

The film after that was hilarious. The trouble is, we're not sure if we're laughing WITH the film or AT the film. The risk of screening someone's serious movie in front of an audience that howls with laughter is too great of a burden for us to take on. PASS.

We often see movies that seem to be made by men whose only motivation is to meet hot chick actresses. Yes, there is a high yuck factor in these movies, and the one we saw last night was no different. PASS.

Our final movie was also full of hot chicks, or more to the style of the film, lovely talented young women. This poetic movie was actually about something, displayed multiple talents behind and in front of the camera and was a delight to watch. MUST SEE.

That's it. Thanks for reading. If you want something to do while you're waiting to hear from us, check out the blog/review tour for my book. There's a giveaway, so who knows, you might win something!

Monday, February 9, 2015


At least once a year, I do a live-ish blog. That is, I share my thoughts about each short film as they are screened. I say live-ish because I'm not writing this during the movies, that wouldn't be fair to the filmmaker. Instead, I'll go through my notes as I wrote them.
Keep in mind, I'm not the only judge. I think we had five or six people in our room last night, so this is just a fraction of the audience reaction, and final decisions are not made until all of the movies have been screened.  

Here we go. First film.

Good Logo. Regular readers will know that generally means, bad film. When resources are limited, spending a great deal of time, money and energy on a logo often indicates the filmmakers aren't focused on the right thing.

The cast in the opening scene are below par, as is the dialogue. I can hear the typewriter clacking – meaning the dialogue isn't natural in a bad way.

As the movie goes on, the cast and dialogue get better.

There are multiple flashbacks that are hard to follow and not the best use of the short film format. This feels like a cut down feature – meaning the filmmaker wanted to make a feature, but for whatever reason could only make a short. That's always a bad idea. Short stories aren't little features any more than stage plays are stepping stones to the movie. Respect the format you're working in.

The end of the movie gets ridiculous. Beats that are supposed to be serious are so out of context that they get laughs. Ouch! PASS

Next Film.

No Logo. (I don't always make note of logos, but we got to talking about it in the room between movies).

This film has a nice use of silence and pace – meaning the dialogue flows naturally and the director isn't afraid to let the action pause when warranted. Not to be confused with a bad use of silence and pace, aka, slow.
Good in all departments.  MUST SEE.

I can always tell when I really like a movie because I don't take a lot of notes.

Next Film.

Good Logo.

Nice compression of time. This film spans many months/years and they do a good job of showing that without slowing the film down or hitting us over the head with it.

At the beginning of the film I wanted to hate this movie because the two leads were giggly and sickening in that cute couple sort of way. By the end of it, I loved them both. Nice character arcs by the cast and director. Subtly works wonders.

This movie ended nicely, too, which is rare. MUST SEE. (Yes, I'm aware that it was a good logo).


The opening scene lays flat. There is no clear objective/obstacle for the characters. The middle scene is funny and nicely done, if a hair over-the-top. It will make a nice bit for the cast's reel.

After that, the movie falls apart. The characters become unlikeable; the dialogue, unbelievable. If this were written by a 10-year-old, I'd say it was a great film. Otherwise, no. The cast should be commended for committing fully to the writer/director's vision. Too bad they couldn't buy him glasses. PASS


This film has a good cast and good, natural, dialogue for the most part. There are very clear objectives and obstacles for both of the characters, so that makes the scenes pop. I didn't like the end given how crisp and clear the rest of the movie is. SECOND LOOK.

Side note: In real life, how many women keep their bra on during sex? I don't mean, keep everything on for a quick one in the storage closet. I mean, grown up, romantic, all night long – naked in every way except for the-bra sex. We see this constantly independent films, and it gets in the way. I can understand that an actress might not want to bare it all in a project she's not sure about (or any project at all). That's fine, so directors, shoot around it. Make us believe these are real people, not two actors in a showcase theatre production.

Next movie.

Another film with a good use of silence and pace. The cast deliver their lines quickly with tight cues, so when it's quiet, we pay attention. This dialogue is hilarious and the cast are a perfect fit. The filmmaking skills are also good. The end is predictable, but who cares? This is a fun ride – if a little cramped and dark. (That's a hint about the movie, not a dis on the art and camera departments). MUST SEE.


This is an incitement movie – meaning, it looks like they filmed the first ten pages of a feature film. I'm on the record as preferring this over a short that tries to squeeze in every beat of a feature script, and it's certainly a good way to raise money to make the feature, but it's also tricky. To make it a short, the ending has to be satisfying. In the feature, it doesn't end, so it's fine to leave the audience hanging. Tricky stuff. This particular movie had a great start, but didn't hold onto the campy style promised in the beginning. It faltered in the middle as the style changed, so when the ending wasn't satisfying, most of the audience felt cheated. Still, there was some good filmmaking here. SECOND LOOK.

Next Film.

This film suffered from something I've seen a lot of in the digital world, and that's darks that are way too dark. We could not see faces when we should have been able to, nor could we see silhouettes when that is what it looked like the director was going for. This film had a strange dynamic in that the cast appeared to be skilled, but they weren't directed well. I got the feeling the director might have said, "Show me," or "We need to see what you're feeling."  Those two phrases are a sure way to make for over acting. The dialogue sounded typed as well. PASS.

Side Note: How many times in your life have you said, "My dear"? I'll bet none. How many times have you heard it in a bad movie?

The last movie.

This was an animated piece. The story didn't make a ton of sense, but I didn't care. It was so beautiful, and I felt like a kid trying to guess what the characters were thinking or doing. It was a nice way to end the night. MUST SEE.

That's it. Thanks for reading. See you here next week.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The AFI Challenge

If you screen for a film festival long enough, you can play "name that film school" with the rest of us.  USC students almost always do Sci-Fi.  FSU will usually have something with kids.  UNCSA, one of my alma maters, doesn't submit enough but I always know them for the brick colonial locations and southern accents somewhere in the cast.

Of all the film schools, the easiest to spot by far is AFI.  If a movie looks "important," chances are, it's AFI.  If it's about slavery, the holocaust, something Russian, or any of the other well-worn tales of man's inhumanity to man, it's AFI.  Foreign language?  AFI.  A feeling that the actors know what a deep and meaningful film they are a part of means it's AFI.

Except for that last point, there's nothing wrong with any of this.  It's only a bad thing if the movie isn't any good.  We've had movies from all of these schools in the festival, and we've passed on movies from all of them, too, so there's no prejudice.


Long ago on this blog, I threw down a challenge to AFI students.  Make a comedy, please!  Sure, it'll come out like Life Is Beautiful, but that's fine.  It can be an "important" comedy.  Mel Brooks has done more to fight Nazis by making them clowns than any other filmmaker, except maybe Chaplin.  So AFI, lighten up!

I'm having some fun with this, obviously.  We only tease the ones we love, but there is a real teachable point here.  I call it the 180 degree rule.

If you are making a tragedy, look for the humor.  If you're making a comedy, look for the pathos.  This will keep the audience from getting the feeling they are being preached to in a drama, or that you're a frivolous comedian. 

If you're on the set of a drama, and everyone is self-absorbed in the message of the film, for God's sake, make a joke!  Loosen everyone up.  Suggest to an actor that they find a place in the scene to smile, because that's what humans do. 

If the story is about a buffoon, make sure we get a little hint of his or her heart.  Show us the buffoon in ourselves.

That's it for this week.  Thanks for reading.  We'll keep watching.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

We Begin Again - #DFW18

Welcome to all of those who have submitted to Dances With Films year 18!

Welcome to those who have not yet submitted to Dances With Films year 18.  Keep polishing that sound, tightening up those edits, and making sure your score is more than random notes on a piano.  As you follow this blog, you'll learn how much that helps.  Do try to submit before the late, late deadline, since that'll cost you a fortune.

For those who are past fans of the blog, welcome back.  This post will sound familiar.

I've been doing this blog for more years than I care to think about.  It's based on something literary agents do on occasion.  They will, without mentioning the titles or submitters, comment on the hundreds of query letters they receive on a daily basis.  By showing their reactions, the submitters learn how to improve their pitches.  I found it very helpful, so I've been paying it forward here ever since.

The Dances With Films screening process has two aspects: features and shorts.

For feature films, screeners – usually DWF alums – take home DVDs or have Vimeo links and passwords sent to them.  They watch the movie and send back comments.  Each feature is watched by at least three screeners, and at least one of them watches it all the way through.

About that.  Some of us have been doing this for 18 years.  I've been doing it for 15.  Deciding to turn a movie off is not something we do lightly.  Case in point, I have a DVD downstairs that I know I'm going to pass on, but it was the third movie I watched the first time I put it in.  It's very slow, which might be the filmmaker's voice and might prove itself to be the right pace.  So I will start it again this evening.  If I still don't make it all the way through, I'll pull rank.  A screener with fresher eyes will have to watch the whole movie.  If their comments come back positive, then I'll look at it again.  On one occasion, this happened with a movie that I believe won an audience award, now has distribution, and is one of my favorites.  I guess I just didn't spend enough time roller skating in the 80s.

For shorts, a bunch of us get together once a week to watch in two groups.  A minimum of three screeners must be in each group.  We eat, watch shorts, and write down our individual comments.  It's actually a lot of fun.  Any movie that gets good comments from one group will be given to the head of the other group for a second look over the week.

After each shorts screening session, I write an article for the blog.  My objective is to let you know the trends we are seeing, so you might avoid clichés, understand technical problems, and generally get a better insight to the uber-indie film world.  I never mention the name of a movie. 

If I write about bad things, I'm never talking about a single film, but a trend.  If I say something in a particular movie is outstanding in a good way, I'll drop enough hints so the filmmaker knows I'm giving them a pat on the back. 

For example: above I said, "…making your score more than random notes on a piano."  We must get fifty movies a year like this.  If you're still finishing your movie and have a slow piano score – often with cello droning in during the serious emotional scene – then it would serve you well to change that.

I also mentioned that one of my favorite movies is a period roller skating story.  Since that one screened in the festival, not only the filmmaker, but anyone who has seen it knows which film I'm talking about.

Looking for hints about your movie is a fun game to play while you're waiting to hear from us.  Keep in mind that if you read something not favorable that: 1) I'm not talking about your movie specifically, and 2) one problem never sinks a movie.  You still have a good chance of getting in.

This week, I didn't get to watch shorts.  I was stuck working on a new database for the festival, which reminds me, if you haven't gotten a confirmation letter from the festival, or your letter looks different from a friend's letter, relax.  I'm pushing my limited programming skills as fast as I can.

I will catch up on the movies I missed this week, but I want to leave you all with cautionary tale.

Please, please, please, before you shoot, run a test of your entire digital workflow.  Shoot a test scene in bright light, low light, with pans, movement, etc.  Have the editor you're going to use, cut these scenes together, transcode the files and burn them to a disc.  Then check for shutter flutter, dropped frames (jerky motion), duplicated frames (stuttering motion), etc.  Watch the test on different screens.  Make sure all of the motion is smooth.  If it's not, work backwards to find where the problem creeps into your work and fix it.

If you've already submitted your film, you can do the same thing, but if the problem is in your dailies, you're kind of screwed.  If your online screener has this problem, but a disc version doesn't, then you have a bad transcode.  Please fix it and send us another link and password – and always make sure to get us a DVD or Blu-Ray. 

Fixing the problem before you shoot will make your life a lot easier.  Fixing it afterward, if you can, will be necessary for distribution.

That's it for now.  Keep an eye out here the first part of each week from now until the festival and follow us on Facebook and Twitter #DWF18.

Thanks for reading.