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.