First, I have a handful of readers from Japan. As I write, it is less than 24 hours since the 8.9 earthquake and tsunamis that hit the country. I'm sure everyone agrees that when life comes down to pure survival, the arts seem like folly, but once society stabilizes it is through the arts that we heal from the myriad of emotional injuries tragedy brings. Let us hold a good thought and, where possible, take good actions for all the people all over the world who are suffering for whatever reason. We long for the time when you will laugh again, and when your tears will be for fictitious characters, and by shedding them you find a small measure of peace from the real losses life brings. May peace be with us all.
Last week Joe M. requested I talk about what types of stories we're seeing, common themes, style choices, etc., so I've decided to channel my inner Casey Kasem for a countdown of the ten most seen types of film submissions at Dances With Films.
10. Coming in at number ten on the countdown are Science-Fiction extravaganzas. With digital visual effects becoming possible on off-the-shelf laptop computers, we've been seeing an influx of movies with the look and feel of big budget studio films – at least as far as EFX go. In shorts, these usually hail from USC – no surprise there. Filmmakers considering this style should keep two things in mind: First, you will spend years in post production, literally, years with an "s". Second, like cameras, visual effects software packages do not write the script for you. Before you launch this type of venture, thoroughly vet your script. There is nothing worse than watching a film you know was years-with-an-s in the making, that looks beautiful, but still sucks.
9. Dance movies. These are usually shorts. Some of them are brilliant and we do program them, but just because we're called Dances With Films, it does not mean that we're looking for movies about, with, concerning, or limited to dance.
8. Horror. We're not technically a horror fest, so we don't get as many of these as, say, Shriekfest, ScreamFest, Blood, Beasts, & Boobs Fest – I made one of those up, not sure which one. We do still get horror/zombie/monster movies, and love to program them in the midnight slots. Occasionally, when we get one as good as The Scar Crow, we'll put it in competition.
7. Domestic Violence Past & Present films. Just had a slew of these last night in the shorts screenings. Like other heavy subjects, when these ring true they can be life-changing. When they don't, they are terrible – sometimes even laughably bad. If you're considering a story along these lines, either write from real life experience – which I hope is not the case – or immerse yourself so completely in the subject matter that you get beyond lip-service clichés.
6. Mocumentaries. We've seen far fewer of these this season than in the past, and I'm hoping the genre is well beyond its peak. If you're considering a project that is "like The Office" or "like Best In Show," please set it aside for about ten years until it's a new idea again. Thanks.
5. Romantic Comedies that are neither. Don't get me wrong, I love a good romantic comedy, especially on a rainy day when the Lakers aren't playing, but we see submissions where my notes read "filmmaker needs therapy." If you have anger issues toward the opposite gender, or you're denying your attraction toward your same gender, these will be painfully obvious to your audience. Find a reader of the opposite sex that you trust to give you a real, honest, critic of your work and LISTEN TO THEM. Do several table reads with actors and ask them for specific notes. While you're doing that, watch the chemistry of your actors. You might fix all of your neuroses in the script, but then have no spark between your leads – which is another way to fail in this very difficult genre.
4. Frat Boy movies. Whether they are actually in a frat or not, every year we get movies about loser guys who drink too much beer or smoke too much pot. Nothing wrong with that, but please, make sure the script is just as funny when you're clean and sober.
3. Essay Films. I've written about these a couple of times this season already, so you know they're trending hard and heavy. If you have a film with a single voice over narrator and no dialogue otherwise, then this pertains to you. As I used to say to one of my producer friends you have to, "write the hell out of it." The essay has to stand alone in its brilliance. After that, you have to make sure the narration is professionally recorded and that the speaker has some kind of charm or charisma that keeps us listening. Finally, it doesn't matter how well you do all of these things, you must keep it short. I don't care if you raise Richard Burton from his grave, any voice droning on for long period of time becomes monotonous. Get in, make your point, get out and you'll do well in this format.
2. Look, Mom, I just got a new camera! We're starting to see short films that appear to be nothing but playing with the camera. Glad you're doing it. Glad you gave us money to watch it, but don't for a minute think we're going to charge other people money to sit through your experimentation. Come back when you have a plot.
1. And the number one trending type of film we're seeing now – Soldiers returning from war. Okay, so this might not be the number one plot line of every submission, but we're seeing enough of these that I'd like to give a heavy warning to Joe M. and other filmmakers who might be considering what type of movie to make. Like domestic violence, films about soldiers returning from war can either ring so true that the audience's life is changed, or fall so flat that you want to bitch-slap the filmmaker for exploiting the subject matter. If you do not have personal experience, then it is best to steer clear. If you are still bound and determined to dive into it, then you are looking at a years-with-an-s type of time frame. You're going to have to find someone who does have the life experience and get inside their head so completely that you can recreate them, first on paper, then on screen. Yes, there are exceptions to this. If you're making a comic book, Rambo-style movie, go for it. Put some fun up on the screen. If you want to do a drama with some impact, then you're going to have truth in your bag of tricks – and sincerity can't be faked.
On to this week's shorts.
We've gotten so many submission in now that we're rocking two screening rooms. I missed out on all of those domestic violence movies I spoke of above, but got good reports on breaks. Having two rooms going is normal for us. The movies that are obvious passes are seen by the not-less-than three experienced screeners. The second-looks and must sees are bumped up to the next round of decision-making. This process has worked for 13 previous years, so no worries folks. Your movies are being watched.
We started with a movie that was near and dear to my dyslexic mind, but went on way too long. Initially, we all got a kick out of it, but as the thesis dragged I thought, "Ben Franklin did this over 200 years ago, why not just stick to his plan?" At five-to-ten minutes, this was a fun movie. At 30-minutes we were drained.
The next film had huge holes in the plot, so obviously there's a feature script out there somewhere that they used for their short. More troublesome is that none of the characters are even pleasant, much less likeable. Don't get me wrong, it is possible to do a story where the lead character is despicable. Richard III and Daffy Duck come to mind. This was neither.
We had a couple of films that were full of clichés. One in particular was nothing but. Granted, if your film is about clichés, then that can be fun. Again, not the case here. Especially watch out of this in dialogue.
We had the first short I can think of this season that had opening credits worthy of a feature film. For those who didn't read me last year, this is a bad thing. There's just something wrong with sitting through a preamble suitable for Gone With The Wind, when you know the movie is only ten minutes long. This particular movie was more like thirty minutes, and ten minutes into it, I had no idea what it was about.
Often the night finds an unintended theme. We'll have movies that all seem to have something in common and someone will say, "Oh, it's such-&-such" night. This was "Bad Acting Night." I made the following quote at a SAG meeting once and everyone wrote it down. You should, too. "A good picture of bad acting is a bad picture." Nothing can overcome bad actors, so find good ones... please!
Thanks for reading. As Joe M. can tell you, comments are appreciated.