Friday, April 30, 2010

Got Game?

I wasn't going to write a blog this Friday since I'd written one earlier in the week and we didn't screen last night, but hey, who am I to deny people their harmless addictions?

This is a marketing success story or sorts. It just happens to be about my own festival run experience, so I'm telling it not to blow my own horn, but to hopefully help those who are about to hit the festival circuit – be it with Dances With Films, or any other fest around the world.

My film, Jacks Or Better, is a movie set around a nightly poker game. During the game, one of the players calls for suicide queens to be wild. Well, there are no suicide queens in a deck of cards, so later when a player sees that card in his hand, it becomes an issue.

So for our Key Art (aka, the poster, postcards, stickers, etc.) we had a graphic artist/photographer do a special still shot of the card. I thought playing cards with a label of when the show was screening would be a cool promotion. Our graphic guy did much better. He printed up suicide queens on card stock to hand out. Since six cards could be printed per page, we had six different funny saying about the movie printed on the back, and our artist made slight changes to each queen. One had a tear; one had her eyes closed, etc.

Year 3 of Dances With Films (2000) was our world premiere and the cards worked great. First of all, they fit in my shirt pocket, so I could carry a stack of them, have my hands free, and still whip out a card like an old west quick draw. I could also put one of them on the lanyard with my festival pass, stuff like that that wouldn't work with a postcard.

Very soon I'd find myself mistakenly giving a card to someone I just gave one to five minutes ago, or I'd offer a card to someone my producer just hit up.

Instead of being embarrassed, or having that be the end of the conversation, it very quickly became something like:

"Oh, I already have one."

"Really? Which one?"


"They're different."

The person takes out his/her card and I take one out of my pocket and we compare. The quote is different. The queen is different.

Soon, people started collecting them. It became a game during the festival to see who could get all six. That put a smile on a lot of faces, which was fun.

Next festival is in Hawaii.

Roger Ebert goes to this festival every year. My entire cast came from the Organic Theatre in Chicago, famous for producing David Mamet, and others. Their names might not have been enough to win over distributors, but to Broadway and Chicago critics, they are all major atars. I knew exactly what I would say if I got a chance to talk to Ebert.

There was a filmmaker's lounge in the hotel with a table for all of the promotional materials. I had printed up stickers with our screening times to put over the DWF info on the left over cards. So with a pocketful in my Hawaiian shirt, and stacks to put on tables, I hit the lounge.

The volunteers staffing the lounge loved the cards. Once the fun of hanging out with the filmmakers wore off, they were bored out of their minds, so every time they saw me, they tried to get a different card. The collection game was on.

Day three of this weeklong festival, I'm in the lounge having coffee and one of those Portuguese doughnut things they have (what are they called? Love them!), when in walks Ebert. He sat down by himself across the room from me, and you could feel the nervous energy from the four or five independent filmmakers that were gathered in the far corner. We were all trying to be too cool.

Ebert looked like he was in a good mood, but didn't want to talk to anyone about anything before he'd had some coffee and gotten his day going. He especially seemed to not want to talk to young, hyperactive, star-struck, filmmakers fresh out of school. I can't say that I blamed him. It must suck having to defend his opinions 24/7 to every one who didn't agree with what he thought about they're favorite movie 15 years ago.

Anyway, the minute he sat down, the volunteers – who knew him well, as they see him every year – ran up to him and said, "You've got to get one of his cards," meaning mine. Then they turned to me, "Give him one of your cards."

A command performance. The promotion had done it's job. [And less to all of you – BE NICE TO THE VOLUNTEERS!].

I let them ask me one more time, until it was clear they wouldn't shut up until I talked to Ebert, then walked over to hand him a card.

I had seen the look on his face on another celebrity, when I bumped into Diana Ross in a bookstore in LA. It was total and complete fear. In her case it was, a look of "please, please, please. Don't recognize me and start a scene." (I didn't). In his case, I could see the fear building of "please, please, please don't talk to me about movies, not right now. I don't want to talk about what 'real' independent movies are verses… anything… just let me have an hour's peace."

Okay, maybe I was reading a little bit into that, but not much.

So, I did exactly as I had planned. I handed him a card and said, "You know all my cast."

"Really?" His expression changed a bit to that "polite, but limited interest" that celebrities get for an appropriately timed conversation with a fan. Perfect for me. "Who are they?"

"Jack Wallace." I said, and stopped.

Wham! His expression became true, interested, respect. "I saw him in Cuckcoo's Nest."

He was referring to a stage production in Chicago. I nodded like I knew Jack had done the play. Jack's done about every play there is, so it's hard to keep up. "Vinny Guasteferro," I continued.

"He just did In The Old Neighborhood." A David Mamet play on Broadway.

"Meshach Taylor," I said. Subtle marketing there. Meshach was my biggest name as far as distributors were concerned, but among those in the know, Jack was the headliner. By listing him third, I was indicating he was a part of an ensemble of talent a la House of Games.

"When is this screening?"

"It's on the card," I told him.

When he looked at it, the volunteer started to explain. "Yeah, and there are six different ones..."

I made a polite exit. Always leave them wanting.

He cut short a seminar he was giving that night – meaning he only went an hour over instead of his usual 2-plus – to come to the screening.

We had the volunteer who works has his liaison every year ask him what he thought of the movie and he said, "I never tell."

Probably a good thing, since anything he says will get back to the filmmaker. Case in point, I heard through the grapevine that he'd told the festival director he thought the movie was "…disturbing," which is exactly what I was going for.

I've never used the quote in any of my PR as I didn't get it from him first hand, and he hasn't written an official review.

Still, it lives in my head along with a few other memories. I think of them like mental newspaper clippings, folded up and tucked away in the wallet in my head. Every now and then, I take them out, unfold them, and share them with someone – or just relive them by myself when I need a reminder that yes, I've got game.

Thanks for reading.


Tracey Birdsall-Smith said...

I love this story. I also love the fact that he used the word "disturbing." We try hard for that in filmmaking. I see that as a compliment also. BTW, just love this blog! Tracey, Tick Tock, DWF Official Selection 2010!!!

RSMellette said...

Congrats! Can't wait to see you at the fest.

And that goes for all my readers, whether you're in the festival or not - come on by the Sunset 5 theatres June 3rd-10th check out some movies and come say hello.

Victoria Dixon said...

What great examples. Thanks for sharing!

Kenneth said...

heya Rob, I still have not heard. Should i just giveup now and try other festivals?

RSMellette said...

Festival submissions are like agent submissions for novelists - you have to look out for number one. That means never having all of your eggs in one basket, though, you also want to make sure the best eggs have a basket of their own.

So, yes, by all means try other festivals. You have a good film. It will find a home.

Kenneth said...

I am giving DWF their very own basket for sure :). Wish i was this year's alumni. You have been a great communicator. Thank you so much.