Let's set the stage.
It's late in a very long week. I was up until 3:00 in the morning the other day working on my own project, and I'm facing a long weekend with it – it's a novel, by the way, not a movie.
My eyes are closing before we even begin. I have a bad headache and I'm grumpy. I say to the room, "These movies had better be good, 'cause I'm not in the mood to be kind."
The first short comes up. It starts in period black & white, which you all know I love so much – but it's doing a good job. There's a cameo appearance by a recognizable name – but not someone that would disqualify it from competition, so fine.
The movie then moves into modern day. It is beautifully shot. The art department's attention to detail is overwhelming. Wait. That's not the right word, because the photography is so beautiful and the two actors are so fantastic that nothing can overwhelm. They are all working together in perfect harmony – and sometimes that's literally true.
To top it all off, this is a drama – which is so hard to pull off in a short. By the end of it, my headache was gone, I was awake, and there wasn't a dry eye in the room. Truly fantastic filmmaking. I hope they have their world premiere, or west coast, or even Los Angeles status in tact because Dances With Films wants to be the festival that discovers this great filmmaker and all of his/her supporting artists.
After that film we took a five minute break, then watched a music video – a very good Hispanic Rap song – to cleanse the palette so the poor next film didn't have to stand up against what we just saw.
We then shifted gears and saw another good movie out of New York. This was truly an original film, which is saying something when you've been screening as long as I have. The movie felt like an painter had sat down on a street corner in Brooklyn and done sketches of the people passing by. Then, this artist took it a step further and got to know the people – but still only showed us sketches, doodles, little scenes of their lives. All of this with jazz music in the background that let us know the filmmaker was riffin'. This story was going to flow like the music, syncopated, loosely connected, with unique solos – from a talking dog to cartoon notes to the audience – this film was off the hook.
And it could have sucked, if not for the cast. Every single actor in this film rang true. If there was a tiny moment when they didn't – when we might have caught them acting – it would have fallen like a house of cards. Casting directors should take note of this New York gem, 'cause it could be the next Lords of Flatbush.
Somewhere in the evening a movie had one character give out a phone number. It wasn't a 555 number, so we all said, "Let's call it." (We didn't). Yes, we all hate watching movies where they give out a number and it begins with 555. Of course, the reason for that is that there are no 555 phone numbers, so no one can call it. Yes, it takes us out of the movie. I get it. But now, giving a non-555 number does the same thing.
So write around it.
In this case, a character was saying the number to someone who was dialing it into his cell phone. Great. Have the character take the phone, dial in her number and hand it back. Or, since getting the number is usually the end of the conflict in the scene, have them start talking, "818-506…" and cut to the next scene. There are a million ways to avoid the number, and so avoid taking us out of the scene. Try them.
There's always a discussion about this on the Without A Box forums, and I've come down on both sides of the issue. Sure, it's legally and morally wrong to use another artist's work without paying them – and if you're trying to achieve professional standards then don't under any circumstances use anyone's unlicensed work. At the same time, if you're just doing a student project, or a skit for friends and family – or if production sound happens to capture a song on the radio in your verity short mocumentary – I don't think you need to worry about the copyright police kicking in your door.
We had a film last night that pummeled song after song at us as featured, foreground, sound tying to the action on the screen. Did they have the rights? Ultimately, it didn't matter because the movie was a pass – but even if the movie was good, it didn't matter because:
1) If they didn't have the rights we wouldn't have let the movie in – not with such blatant disregard for decorum.
2) If they did pay for the rights to all of the songs, then we would be so wary of their business sense (why have music rights be the highest line item on your budget, easily raising your costs beyond any expectation of recovery) that a yellow caution flag would be all over their submission.
That brings me to another little thought as we get closer to final selections.
When you're chosen to be in Dances With Films, we essentially enter into a loose partnership.
LAWYERS, BACK OFF! Down, lawyers, down! This is antidotal, relax.
More than a lot of festivals, we try to work with the filmmakers throughout the process of screening in Los Angeles. When the filmmakers are smart, happy, hardworking professionals, this is a joy. When they aren't, not so much.
We've been very lucky over the years in that most of the films we've chosen have been made by some of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet.
This proves a point I've always said – you have to be a good person to make good art.
There are exceptions; so if you've worked on any big budget action movies with a camera that never leaves the techno-crane, and a director that makes little girls cry – I know, they are out there. But they are not the rule.
I don't know why I bring this up except to say that having a good heart shows up on the screen. If you want to be a better filmmaker, writer, artist, musician, beat poet, whatever, work on being a better person and you'll get there.
Thanks for reading.