Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Plot's The Thing

First, a little business: We’ve been having some computer trouble, so we haven’t gotten second tier letters out as quickly as we like.  If something changes about your movie’s status, feel free to drop us an e-mail.  If nothing else, we’ll be glad to hear the good news.

In the screenings, we’re seeing some non-traditional storytelling films.  By that I mean, surreal, non-linear, in and out of dreams, etc.  Nothing wrong with that when it’s done right – but when it isn’t, these films miss the mark by an extra mile. 

I thought of a nice exercise for filmmakers who want to get into non-traditional structure.  Give your script, or the finished film, to friends, family, screeners, etc.  Don’t tell them anything about it.  Once they’ve read it or screened it, ask them to tell you what the story is about.  Not how it made them feel; not what it reminded them of, just a simple re-telling of the plot.  Remember to listen to them.  They can’t get this wrong, since it’s what they got from your story. 

If they don’t tell you the story you thought you told them, then you’ve failed on the most basic level.

We watched more than one short last night where a room full of people who have watched hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of movies and opinions differed on the plot.  Sure, we might not agree on motivations, moods, emotions, etc. but if we can’t agree on what actually happened, then there’s a big problem.  And it’s not our fault.

In both features and shorts, we’ve had our usual collection of pee scenes.  Last night there was one where it was entirely relevant (and hilarious) and one that wasn’t needed at all.   Do a search on this blog for “pee” to see how creative and edgy it is to have a character pee in your movie.

And finally, I want to give a shout out to the most overlooked aspect of indie film – the Art Department.  I mean, sets, set dressing, props, etc.  Of course, we’re not going to pass on a well-written, well-acted, film with boring set-ups against blank walls, but when the picture is lifeless, your cast has to work so much harder to infuse interest in the scene. 

We see so many restaurants that are nothing but someone’s kitchen table shoved up against a blank wall.  Too many characters live in apartments that look like they belong to a starving artist filmmaker.  Before you roll, take a look at your shot without the cast in it.  Is it interesting?  No?  Then fix it.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Longer Festival: More Movies, More Fun, More Decisions To Make

First of all, apologies for being a little late with this blog.  I'm trying to get it out every Monday, but we are crazy busy around here. 

For those who haven't heard, we are expanding the festival to 11 days to get in another weekend of movies and more.  That's making for a lot of advanced planning – like, when should we do the awards party?  Sunday will be the last day of the festival, so do we do Sunday Night?  Sunday Brunch?  Sunday afternoon pool party, followed by a special screening?
Any ideas?  Post them in the comments.

People often ask us how we like to have films delivered, packaged on the DVD, etc.  I generally don't care a lot except for a couple of things:
First, we need DVDs.  It's friggin' impossible to track submissions if you can't stack them in piles on the floor.  Yeah, yeah, we could do something else – but really?  Watching your movie on line means I'll probably watch on my 17" laptop with slow downloads, high compression, etc. etc.  Wouldn't you rather I watch it on my 60+" plasma TV with 5.1 surround sound?  I would!  I need the tax write-off.
And – nothing that would make us pass on your movie but – it's a good idea to NOT have your movie automatically re-start once it's over.  We screeners are often trying to collect our thoughts about your film right at that moment.  There is nothing worse than a bunch of us yelling, "NO!" to the TV when your film starts again. 

About this week's shorts screening, we saw nothing good – which is actually a shout out to a particularly brilliant film that I hope has not blown its world premiere.  You would not believe how hard it is to fight for a film that has already screened, particularly in the LA area.  When faced with two good movies, and only one open screening slot, the world premiere will get it every time.  I hate it.  You hate it.  But that's life in the festival world.  We try more than most to help you guys decide on your World Premiere, so if you have any questions, please, please, please, ask.

Trends.  We're seeing a lot of nudity this year.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining.  I'd rather see natural nudity than the unnatural wrapping up in a sheet.  That always sticks out like a 555 phone number.  So nudity rocks!  Love it.  But it won't turn a bad story into a good one.  It won't make a bad film good.  It does make a bad film a little more fun to watch... but not nearly as much fun as a good movie, with or without naked people.
Okay... done giggling?

Can we retire the "This or That?" dialogue of couples meeting for the first time and falling in love? 

"Beatles or Stones?"
"Oh, I love you."
Stop it!  And if you think I just quoted your film verbatim, I have.  And ten others.  Stop.  Love is a valuable commodity.  Make your characters earn it.

So many times beginning writers are told, "write what you know."  It occurred to me while watching yet another movie about actors, that writers need to learn more.  Let's turn that lesson into, "write what you know that other's will find interesting."
I hope that you've found this interesting, and that you'll post some ideas about what you'd like to see during our extra days this year.

Monday, February 11, 2013

And So It Begins... Again

Work for year 16 of the festival unofficially began about a week after year 15, but things have started in earnest now that we are screening submissions.  And that means I'm firing up the blog for another season of behind-the-scenes action from the defiant fest of raw talent.

Okay, "action" might not be the right word.  "Insights" might be better, but you know how it is... marketing.
For those of you not familiar with this blog, here's how it works.  I hate watching bad movies.  I want – in fact, every film festival screener wants – each submission to be a fantastic film.  Good movies are a joy.  Bad ones are painful to endure. 

And the painful stuff seems to run in cycles.  When I started it was the countless Romantic Comedies that were neither.  Then there were the endless Mocumentaries.  This blog is an attempt to tell filmmakers, if you're thinking of making a movie like the 57 horrible ones with the exact same style and plot points I've had to watch – DON'T!

At least, that was the intent.  Naturally, it has become a place for nervous submitters to obsess over their movies and to hell with anyone else.  Okay.  I understand that.  Human nature.  So some rules have evolved.
First, no film will be mentioned by name.  Good or bad, it's just not fair.

When I talk about stuff that doesn't work, I'm never talking about just one film, but a trend we're seeing in a lot of movies.  So if you think I've just told the world your movie sucks, you're absolutely, 100% wrong.  Your movie might suck, but I didn't tell anyone.  If you decide to post an angry comment about how I said bad things about your movie, go ahead – but you'll be outing yourself, not me.

Not all of my comments are negative.  Sometimes I have good things to say about a movie, and when I do, I think it's nice for the filmmaker to know I'm talking about their movie.  After all, you've worked too hard and faced too many rejections, for a compliment to fly under the radar.  In these cases, I will drop a hint that only people who have seen the movie will get.  My way of saying, "Hey, you done good, kid," without causing a riot over who is in and who is out.
That brings me to another point.  Every year we have more good films than we have spots to fill.  Every year my heart is broken because a movie I love and fought for didn't make the cut.  So if you recognize that I've said good things about your movie, that only means you've made a good film.  You'll probably get one of those "You've made it to the second round" letters, but it doesn't mean you're in.  I know, that sucks.  I've been on both sides of submissions and it all sucks – right up until your movie premieres.

Speaking of premieres: should you get one of those "you've made it to the second round" e-mails, then your premiere status becomes even more important, so stay in touch with us.  If you get offered a premiere at a festival by the beach, we won't tell you not to do it, but we might be able to put you in touch with some filmmakers who have done both and you can compare notes.

Okay, on to the screenings. 
We get together once a week to watch short films, then take home features to watch and review.  Each film is seen by at least three screeners, sometimes more, and each film is watched all the way through.  This blog tends to be more about the shorts, but I will chime in with feature comments when I see something worth mentioning.

Tonight we started off with the Florida State University logo.  Always nice to see.  I don't know what they put in the water down there, but it's working.  You kids – and in this case, I mean kids literally – are doing some great work.  It's gotten to where we set aside FSU submissions to pop in after a string of bad movies.  Something to cleanse the pallet.  We used to do that with Chapman University films, but haven't seen as many of those lately.  What's up with that?
After FSU, we had a string of movies with great visual effects, but little else.  I lost count at three of four films with stunningly good graphics, and equally stunning - in a bad way -  writing, casting, etc. 

Folks, we human beings have been presenting narrative stories as entertainment for as long as we have been human.  We have over 3,000 years of written history on the art of storytelling.  I suggest you all master those skills before you start playing with software.  If you want to build a visual effect reel, great.  Find a storyteller to work with so your reel will be worth watching. 

Case in point – one of the best films of the night had family members holding up dolls and talking about coffee.  The story was brilliant.  It was suited to the art of short filmmaking, and not a feature script cut down to a confusing mess.  The cast was fantastic; the writing, subtle.  The photography and sound matched the story in skill. 
I think if I were to teach a class in visual effects, I would require first year students to make films without them.  Graphics are easy.  Emotions are hard.

On that bastardization of Edmund Gwenn's last words, I will make them mine.  For this week, at least.
Thanks for reading.