Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Quick Observation on Women In Film

We're in the heat of programming, so no time for a long blog - but just a quick note.

Dances With Films could careless about who makes the movie as long as it's a good one.  Sure, when we enjoy a movie and then see that filmmaker isn't a rich white male, then great.  We're glad to support the cause.  But if the filmmaker is a rich white male, that's fine, too.  The merit of the film is all that counts.  Really, we don't care one way or the other.  Just please make a good movie.

The quick observation here is the number of women's names I'm seeing as Director's of Photography.  Anyone who has been in a film set knows that the camera crew - including Grip and Electric - is traditionally a testosterone-fest.  Not that you'll find bad attitudes toward women there, anymore than you'd find bad attitudes toward men in Oprah's studio audience.  A camera crew will get behind anyone who pulls their own weight and doesn't make their department look bad.  It's just that, traditionally, they've been men.

So, just a quick kudos to all of women heading up the camera department out there.  You won't get any special favors from DWF, but we're glad to have you.

Back to programming.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Hardest Part

Just a quick update:

Last night we went over and over on how to cram as many of the shorts we love into the festival - without sacrificing the features we love, too.

This year more than ever, Rule One Applies - until you get an official pass letter, you are still in the running.  We might do a little magic to find time for more movies after we announce the "official slate."

Hang on.  I know the waiting is hard.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Billy Bobble Makes A Magic Wand - The Novel Coming in December 2014

My debut novel, Billy Bobble Makes A Magic Wand, is being published by Elephant's Bookshelf Press.  It will be available as an e-book in December. 

Why am telling this to a bunch of filmmakers who mainly come here to see if they can glean some tidbit of information on how their submission is doing during Dances With Films' selection process?  One word:

Marketing.

In order for any independent work of art to earn its keep, people who are not friends or family of the artist must buy (or in the case of a painter or sculptor, hear about and want to buy) the artist's work.  Let's think about that for a minute.

Right now on Facebook, I have 645 friends.  If every single one of them buys my book, it will be a failure.  By that, I don't mean it will be a bad book.  This isn't about measuring good or bad art by the number of people who buy it or how much they pay for it.  This about the artist becoming self-sustainable on their art alone.  Filmmakers understand this more than most artists, since they have to raise a ton of money to create their work.  Investors aren't likely to lose money more than once or twice, so making art that turns a profit is as important to the artist as it is the distributor. 

Back to my book.  How am I going to reach beyond the 645 people I can easily bombard with Facebook? How am I going to get complete strangers to shell out cash for my little story?

There's a 2-step answer: First, get good reviews.  Second, get those reviews out beyond my 645 friends.

Luckily the literary world is full of people who love to read and write.  Being dyslexic, I have never been one of those crazed readers, but I'm glad they exist.  These voracious reader/writers often blog about what they are reading, so independent publishers like Elephant's Bookshelf Press find the most influential bloggers and beg borrow or steal reviews.  Hopefully, these reviews written on widely read blogs will be seen by people who are not in my 645 friend-pool. 

That's one way it works for books.  How does it work for movies?

If you're reading this blog to find out how your film is doing in the selection process, you already know one of the answers.  Get your movie into film festivals.  Those laurels go a long way into letting strangers know that you made a real movie.

But, for many of you, Dances With Films has just sent a letter asking you how you're going to promote your Los Angeles screening.  "What do you mean?" asks the inexperienced filmmaker.  "I thought that was the festival's job."

It is, and DWF does a fantastic job of promoting… the festival.  It's up to you to promote your movie.

That job will be easier once you have reviews, but do you really want your film to play to an empty house when the critics and distributors are there?  I don’t think so.

There is no one right answer to how you're going to get people off their couches and into the theatre for your movie.  Truth be told, if the cast and crew all come and bring a few friends, you'll do okay for your premiere.  If you're satisfied with okay, then great. 

If you want a career, you're going to need a line around the block.  You're going to need us to add another screening because you turned away a whole second audience.  Even that won't guarantee that your movie has a successful run, but it'll help.  Every little bit helps.

I've said it before on this blog and others, but I'll say it again.  Book publishing and movie distribution have become so similar that it's hard to tell them apart.  Both are transcoding files for iTunes, Amazon, Nook, etc.  Both are trying to tweak their poster/cover art so the thumbnail image will catch the casual shopper's eye.  Both are trying get their metadata just right to make sure browse engines find them.  Both are trying to dial in the right download price for the right time in the release.

Normally, in the off season for Dances With Films, I don't blog at all.  This summer, look for entries about the independent publishing process, in the hopes that you'll gain some insight into the independent film process.

Why am I doing this?  Duh! I want you to buy – and also enjoy – my book!


Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Let's Talk About Pace

Before a track race begins, the crowd has an expectation of what the pace will be.  The longer the race, the more deliberate the pace.  Notice I didn't say "slow".  You would never call a marathon gold medalist slow.  Similarly, a sprinter would never start a dash with a light jog.

When we start a short film, we expect a certain kind of pace.  It doesn't have to be fast.  We don't want to watch only Michael Bay wannabes.  It just can't be slow.  There is a difference between a deliberate pace and a slow one. 

Deliberate pacing – be it a burst of flame or a smoldering burn – gives the viewer confidence that the storyteller is in control.  We, the audience, can relax knowing we're in the hands of a competent artist.  Pace is the engine of the story, and no matter what the story is, the pace must continue to move forward.  Marathoners don't start fast, but neither do they meander.  They move forward.  So should your story, so should your characters, so should your edits, music, etc.  Whether it's a sprint, or cross country, everything must move forward.  The pace will change at points along the race, but still – everything must move forward.

As we are moving forward in the selection process.  

From now until the end of the festival, Rule One always applies – until you get a pass letter, you still have a chance – but like the pace, that chance changes over time. Here's what you can expect over the month of April. 

We will finish screening the shorts this week.  Starting now, you should: 1) make sure you received a "thank you for your submission" e-mail.  This confirms your address is correct in our system.  If you haven't, shoot an e-mail to info@danceswithfilms.com.  2) check your e-mail and spam filter at least once a day.  Every year we have filmmakers that fall off the face of the earth.  This is particularly frustrating, as we've put a lot of time and energy in finding films we love – only to be snubbed.  Everyone hates that.

If you haven't heard a peep from us by the middle of April, rule one still applies, but if another festival makes an offer, don’t be stupid.  You can shoot us a quick e-mail to brag and ask if you should take the other festival.  We're not going to say, "You should take that, because our screeners hated your movie!" but we might drop a hint about a bird in the hand.

If you get a second round letter from us, then definitely stay in touch.  Don't worry if you don't get a 3rd round letter.  If you've responded well to our first communication, we might not have to send you another one.  Let us know if you're planning any kind of screening, or have offers from other festivals.  Again, we won't be able to make the decision for you, but we'll want to know what's happening with your movie.  If for no other reason than, we really like it.

Toward the end of April, we're going to have to kick the pace up again and start making announcements to the press.  Last year, some filmmakers who had received second and third round letters got upset when they read the "official" slate in Indiewire.  While that announcement was official – and will be again this year – it doesn't mean it is complete.  Rule one always applies.

Of course, if you haven't heard a peep from us since the "we received your movie" letter, and you see the slate announcement in the press, rule one does still apply.  You do still have a chance to be in the festival, but that chance is now in the realm of Global Climate Change not being man-made, or Evolution being "just a theory."  Believe what you will.  At least with Dances With Films, you'll get a definitive confirmation or denial of your beliefs in the form of a pass letter.  I say this here, so you won't miss out on any opportunities that may come up in the second half of April between our final selections and a "thanks, but" letter.

This is a good opportunity to speak to our friends and alumni.  After 17 years, if we programmed nothing but alumni, we would still have to turn some of you away.  It is unbelievably difficult to tell people who we love and respect, "you didn't make it this time."  It doesn't mean we don't like you.  It doesn't mean your movie isn't any good.  It might mean that some other filmmakers made better movies – but that's a judgment call.

Alumni or newbie – not getting into Dances With Films does nothing to diminish your accomplishments or talents.  We just don't have enough screen time for everyone.


Thanks for reading.

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.