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.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Billy Bobble Makes A Magic Wand - Order Now!

What good is having your own blog if you don't get to promote your own work?

Regular readers know, I'm big on promoting your work.  Without promotion, no one knows your work exists.  So, with that in mind...

My Science-Fiction Novel for the Whole Family is on Amazon!  Pre-orders for the Kindle version can be made now.  The book's street date is December 8th.

Book Description

"E = mc2 is no longer the most powerful force in the universe. Your wand is." 

Twelve-year-old Billy Bobble and his best friend Suzy Quinofski didn't mean to change the universe. Billy, a quantum physics prodigy, just wanted to find a way to help his hoarding, schizophrenic mother – and maybe impress a coven of older girls in high school. Suzy, his intellectual equal, wanted to help her friend and cling to her last remnant of childhood, a belief in magic. Together they made Billy a real, working, magic wand, and opened a door to the Quantum World where thoughts create reality, and all things – good and bad – are possible.