Monday, April 29, 2013

Want to Know What It's Like To Be a Film Festival Programmer?

What's the most number of movies you've ever watched in a day?  I think my record of films in a theatre is five when I was at Sundance.  It's exhausting.

So let's take that as a baseline.  Watch five movies a day for... let's just say three days.  Never mind that Leslee and the rest of the final screeners have been doing this for last few weeks.

Okay, mostly Leslee.

If at the end of that three day sampler you still have your sanity, then e-mail each of the filmmakers to ask them about their projects.  Keep track of the answers, they'll come in handy later.

While you're in the middle of all of this, have people like me come question you about not only the 15 movies you've just watched, but also the hundreds of movies you've watched since January.  See if you can give a coherent answer.

Oh yes, and let's not forget managing the rest of your life while you're at it.

That's a little bit of a feel for life as a festival programmer.

Things are winding down in terms of programming, but WE DO STILL HAVE SLOTS OPEN, so don't say rude mean things to us too soon... 'cause you never know.

Speaking of rude mean things.  We are bracing for the pushback on our "No stars" rule.  Keep in mind that we define stars as anyone – in front of or behind the camera – who could get you funding just based on their name.  This is always a hard bit to measure. A movie with a recognizable face in a single role might not be weighted the same as an ensemble of recognizable faces. 

Plus, and this one hurts for some of us, those big stars you remember from the 1980s – while they were bankable names in memorable movies then – the 25-year-old financial rep at the bank now wasn't born until after those movies were made.  That is not to say that the actor has any less talent, or is any less of a star in our hearts, but stardom has always been, and will always be, a function of time.  Just like everything else.

There are also changes in the business to consider.  Money is tight.  Production companies headed around big names have trouble finding money, so our loose definition becomes even harder to hold onto.  Still, we do use it as a star to guide by... no pun intended.

One last note to help assuage the hate mail we get every year on this issue.  The rule only applies to films in competition.  So are you going to see recognizable people in competition films?  Yes.  Are you going to see stars from The Princess Bride and Chasing Amy in the same move?  Yes.  Will that movie be in competition? No.

Good luck.  I'll see many of you soon.  Others, please, come by the festival.  All are welcome.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Some Light Reading While You Wait

From IndieWire. 

Of course, if you're a regular reader of this blog, you already know this, but if not, check on the blurb.

Win the Top Prize at Dances With Films Festival and Land Distribution With Gravitas Ventures

Where We @?

This is always one of the most of exhausting times for any film festival.  Our final programmers have spent the last week re-watching and discussing every single entry.  Granted, some of those are short conversations that range from: "Loved it, invite them," to a simple, "No."  A film has to have between three and five flat out no's to drop off the list that quickly, so it's not just one opinion.

The tough decisions come when we get down to the available screen times vs. the number of good films.  There are always more good movies than time to show them – even with our new, longer, schedule.  So if you don't get in, but other serious people tell you your movie is top quality, they aren't lying.  Keep up the good work.

We've been e-mailing back and forth between many of you, and some – I stress SOME – invitations for year 16 have gone out, mostly for short films.  We are about halfway done with choosing the shorts, and probably a third of the way on the features. 

If you have screened in the LA area already, you might well receive our heartfelt congratulations and well-wishes, and we mean it.  Does it piss us off when we've worked so hard to find the best-of-the-best, only to have them premiere at smaller festival?  Sure, a little.  We're human.  But we know each filmmaker has to find their own way.  If you've had your shot at The Big Nipple – as Milos Forman called Hollywood – then we might give another filmmaker a shot at it.

Then again, we might like your movie so much that it overcomes all obstacles.  These aren't laws, folks, they are guidelines.  Some people have a big problem with that.  Understood.  It's not fair.  Life's not fair.  If you're looking to make it so, then you've chosen the wrong profession.
What does that mean if you have not heard from us?  First, check your spam filter.  There are a couple of films that haven't responded to our e-mails.
I always get grief for this, but I want to help you make the right decisions.  If you submitted before the regular deadline, and you got your "we have received..." e-mail, but haven't heard anything since, it's not looking good.  Ouch.  I know.  I say this now in case you get an offer from another festival.  You'll probably want to take that right away. 
If you did not get a "we have received..." letter around the time you submitted, then check your spam filter. If it's not there, then something is wrong with the e-mail we have on file for you.  Contact us!
If you got a second round letter, then you are still under consideration.  If you get an invitation from another festival, do exactly what a filmmaker did this weekend.  CONTACT US.  If it's one of the two festivals in LA that have higher industry exposure than we do, we'll be bummed, but happy for you.  If you're hanging on the lower edge of our consideration list, we'll hint that you might want to take the bird-in-the-hand.  If you're strongly in the running, we'll tell you'd be crazy to premiere anywhere else.
By-the-way, the filmmaker that did the right thing in all the right ways, is in.  Congrats.  Others that tried to hedge their bets... we're still considering. 
For those that have gotten invitations and are holding onto the news for our official announcement, thanks!  I know it feels like you're going to explode, but you won't.  It's all good.
Finally, to answer the question we always get, we do send pass letters.  You will be notified.  And, FYI, everyone who entered is entitled to 2 free tickets to a DWF screening of their choice.  So come on down.
Good luck everyone.

Monday, April 15, 2013

As The Time Draws Near

We had our last screening of short films, and the absolute last deadline for feature entries is today, so the freak out time is here - for both you and us. On your end it's the horrible wait, and hourly e-mail checks. On our end it's cramming films into our brains, discussing them, sending out second and third round notification letters - and invitations.

A few invitations have already gone out.

I say that with hesitation, since I know someone is bound to post angry comments about having not heard from us. I've said it before and I'll say it again, we have a lot of slots to fill, and until the final posting is made, and you have a PASS letter from us, you're still in the running.

Of course, don't be stupid, either. From this point forward, every day that goes by without hearing from us is not the best indicator. If you get an offer from another festival, CONTACT US. We might not be able to tell you "yes, you're in" or "no, you're not," and we certainly can't tell you what you should do - that's your decision - but we can give you advice.

Here's a hint about how to read our tea leaves. If we say, "congratulations, that's great news," take the other festival. If we say, "can you give us 24 hours," then do that. After 16 years, I can say without any doubt that there are no other festivals making their decisions this time of year that would be a better place to premiere. Maybe Los Angeles Film Festival, but if you haven't heard from them by now, that's not looking good either.

Some other ways to help your chances.

Don't lie. We have Internet access. If you're telling us you're a world premiere, and you have laurels from another festival on your site, or IMDB information that says other wise, then you will be disqualified with a vengeance. If you've done some small screening somewhere, just let us know. If you've done something like remix your sound, so you're calling this your New World Premiere, fine. Better for us to think you're working an angle than flat out lying.

Another thing we get every year - the Without A Box devotees. I don't even know what they say our notification date is, so please don't post a diatribe about how we're not meeting our deadlines. Our deadlines are fluid. We've plugged in replacement films as late as the week of the festival, and I promise you none of those were from rude filmmakers.

Of course, sometimes the waiting gets to be too much to handle. So what do you do then? Feel free to post something nice on our Facebook page, or here. Tell us what you do to calm your nerves. Ask others what they do. Send us some virtual coffee and cookies. We'll need them.

Oh, and - we saw some fantastic shorts last night, and we have some terrific features, so it's going to be a good year.

Good luck.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How Can You Help Your Chances Of Getting Into A Film Festival ? Plus, BIG NEWS!

For year 16, digital distribution company Gravitas Ventures will be offering a Video On Demand deal for this year's Feature Film Jury Award Winner.  That's huge, folks!  So huge, we've extended our deadline FOR FEATURES ONLY to April 15th.  So turn in your taxes and get your movie into our office.  That's right IN THE OFFICE BY THE 15TH.  Post marks won't do.

I want to dispel a rumor before it starts.  The winning film will not be required to take the offer.  If you want to hold out for that worldwide theatrical release on a thousand screens, that's your prerogative.  You'd be nuts to do so, but I don't want to hear in the indie blogosphere that "if you get into Dances With Films you HAVE to take their distribution deal."  That's not the case.  This is a good offer from a legit company, but the final decision is up to you. 

On to other business:

People always ask, "What can I do to help my chances of getting into the festival?"  Well, here's the answer:

First – make a good movie.  Of course, everyone thinks their movie is the greatest thing ever, so let's keep going.

Next, check your e-mail, your spam filter, and carrier pigeons.  Every year we have more than one filmmaker who doesn't reply to our e-mails.  I can't tell you how frustrating it is to work so hard to find a movie we want to program, only to have the filmmaker drop off the planet.  If you submitted early, and you haven't heard from us, it doesn't mean anything, but feel free to shoot us a polite, short e-mail that says, "I'd like to confirm that this is the contact e-mail for [movie title]."

Speaking of polite, when you do communicate with us be nice.  You don't have to kiss up.  You don't have to try too hard, just do your mamma proud. Say "please," and "thank you."  We're going to spend about a month working together under high pressure with tight deadlines.  That'll be topped off with 11 of the most intense days you've ever experienced.  If you're unpleasant at the beginning of this process, there's a good chance you won't be a part of the middle or end of it.  Got it?

And, we're still watching movies. 

I've noticed a trend returning in  features this year, gender issues.  If you're working on a script right now, and all of characters of one gender either sound the same, or are all villains, or all flawed in the same way, then you might think about getting some therapy.  If not, definitely consider a re-write.  Show the script to at least ten people of the opposite sex and listen to their opinions. Not all women are Femme Fatales.  Not all men are sex maniacs.  Mix it up a little bit.  Make it like life.

A note to my fellow actors.  If you are in a low budget film with limited resources, speak up!  It's impossibly hard to get a clean recording of someone who mumbles into their collar for an entire shot, even in the best of situations.  If nothing else, at least talk loud enough for your scene partner to hear you.

From sound to light.  Filmmakers be warned! If you don't start lighting actor's faces, we have a screener who is going hunt you down and kill you.  There are extremely few times when you want the character's face to be hidden.  In all other cases, if the actor's face it's clearly visible, then you have failed as a director of photography.  If you're the director and the camera operator, then you've failed at both jobs.  Get a bounce card, a light meter, and the skills to use them.

This week I've seen a couple of films where bad visual effects were put in where real special effects would have been easier and better.  Digital dust, smoke, etc. looks like crap most of the time.  You've got a scene that calls for wind-blown dust?  Put your crew to work.  Get your actors dirty.  That will keep the audience in the story and not thinking, "why did they put in fake reality?"

That's it for now.  We have another week of screenings, then decisions begin to be made.  Please, be patient.  I know it's hard.  Keep in mind that until you get a notification from us one way or the other, then you are still in the running.

Good luck.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Down And Dirty

It's time once again for the annual running commentary on a night of screenings.

This is something I've stolen from literary agent blogs (and that's books, not screenplays).  From time-to-time one of them will open their query letters and comment on each one without revealing the author, title, or any details of the submission.  It's a lot of fun, and can be very educational, so I thought I'd do the same thing with festival submissions, so here we go.

Thanks to Easter, we had a shortened screening session and delivered pizza.  Once everyone was gathered, we split into our two rooms and the shorts began.

First up was a period piece with amazing production value and a true life topic that hasn't been done to death.  Kudos on both.  The dialogue was a little stiff, and I wished the director had given one of my favorite notes, "no individual line is important, so relax."  Some of the cast played every beat as if it were life or death, and most of the time it was just plain life – which is good.  But this wasn't a death blow to the film.  It was fun to see a DWF alumni show up on screen, especially since he was good and the movie was good.  Nothing sucks more than having to pass on an alumni's movie – which we do a lot.  I did not pass on this film, and the feeling in the room makes me think they will be getting a second round letter soon.

Our next movie was a short doc, which I always find curious.  Who are they making these movies for?  Sure, a 40-50 minute doc could play on TV, and a feature doc might find distribution – especially online, as they are becoming more and more popular.  But what does one do with a 10-15 minute doc? 

My questions were quickly answered as this story was about a group of people who don't care about such things.  They make art for the joy of doing it, and the joy that it might bring any individual who happens to come across it.  I found it delightful, and appreciated the friendly slap-in-the-face for thinking so commercially.  Los Angeles will do that to a person.

The note I wrote for the next submission was, "This movie is both bad and stupid.  You can't be both."  By bad, I mean it was technically below any kind of artistic standard.  The sound was off.  The dialogue was stiff and so were the actors.  I thought some of the ideas were clever, but poorly executed.  The whole thing became a mess and our room envied the cackles of laughter that poor out from behind the closed door of the other.

The next film was good.  Not great, but solid.  It seemed to present us with characters, knowing that we would assume certain things about them, then throw that back in our faces – in a fun way.  It was very clever, and certainly nothing I'd ever seen before, which is saying a lot as I have been doing this for over a decade. 

Somewhere about here we took a break for hot cookies, which might help our Twitter followers figure out my post a few days ago.  I think there was apple pie this time, too.  Damn Leslee!  Just when I was losing weight.

The next film was so bad is sucked the life out of all of us.  There are some actors ... who can only seem to say ... a handful of words at a time.  No matter what the scene, they speak the same amount of words, and take the same length pauses between each phrase.  All but one of the cast members in this film had that problem, and the one that didn't wasn't old enough to see a PG-13 movie, so there's hope for the future.  Added to the community theatre acting rhythm, the lead had that "I'm talking so softly that, if I weren't wearing a mic no one could hear me at all," thing going.  Acting sometimes is like singing.  Almost anyone can sing well at a whisper, and some people make a good living putting a microphone within their one inch audible range.  But when these people have to actually do the work of a trained artist, they don't have the chops.  None of us were fooled.

As for the bad phrasing problem – actors, please watch JamesWhitmore's work.  He, better than any other modern actor, could turn stilted – sometimes downright bad – writing into warm butter.  If you can find his sense of immediacy, you'll pop off the screen.

Speaking of popping off the screen, we had a family story that did just that.  Last week I talked about "drama must be earned," well this film is a lesson in how to do that.  It had a sense of humor, yet was serious.  The characters were complex.  You could like them and hate them at the same time – just like family.  The actors were all fantastic, especially the kids.  The story moved at a perfect pace, and at no time did I feel like there was a camera, or director, showing me how clever they could be, which always achieves the opposite.  Mazel tov.

Finally, we had a short that billed itself as a drama, but was really a dark comedy.   There was a little bit too much Tarantino, hipper-than-thou dialogue about nothing at the beginning, but not enough to kill it.  They did a bit from one of my favorite Terry Gilliam films, which fit, so not a big deal.  I would have liked to hear a little more of the filmmaker's voice apart from the homage, but the acting was good, as was the story and filmmaking skills.  The end made me write a note I usually put on movies I don't like, "filmmaker need therapy."  In this case, I put it on one I did.

And that's it.  We all grabbed some features to take home while chatting with the folks from the other room about what was good, what wasn't, and the typical blah-blah-blah.

There you have it.  As behind-the-scenes as you can get.   Now get back to making movies.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

While You Wait For The Slate

A little break while you wait for us to announce this year's slate.  As some of you may know, I write novels as well as screenplays, and blog at From The Write Angle with my literary friends.  This particular article might hold some interest to filmmakers, so I'm posting it simultaneously here and on FTWA.  Since most studio films start out as manuscripts or short stories (see my post on short stories), I recommend that filmmakers get to know novelists.  Something good is bound to come from it.

Here's my article in From The Write Angle: "Could The Next Hollywood Be New York?"

To work in the film industry, one goes to Hollywood; for publishing, New York.  But could that paradigm change in the near future?

Way back in the 1990's, a book was something that came on paper and a movie on film.  To buy a book, you went to the bookstore.  To see a movie, you went to the theatre or a video store.  They were two very different businesses.
Today, both movies and books are digital files.  If you want to buy a book, you go to Amazon, iTunes, or Nook.  To see a movie you go to ... Amazon, iTunes or Nook.
For computers, the only difference between film and literature is the size of the file.  Tour a publishing house or a digital film lab without looking at the computer screens and you'll be hard-pressed to know which was which.  They are both transcoding files for different platforms, QCing those files, preparing metadata and art (posters or covers), checking chapter breaks, compressing, and uploading them to the providers.
So, consider ...  Motion Picture Studios don't really make movies anymore; haven't for a long time.  Sure, they find the projects.  They develop the material.  They finance the productions, and they distribute them, but the nuts and bolts of turning ink-on-paper into images on the screen is jobbed out to production companies.  Imagine makes movies mostly for Universal.  Village Road Show for Warner Bros. etc.  Of course there is a tight partnership, since the Studios are often putting in most of the money, but even that is beginning to lean more heavily in the direction of the production companies.
Let's say you're a publishing house.  The book industry has become so volatile that you need some ballast.  You need to leverage the assets you have in a way that can spread the risk.  But what assets are those?  You have a company full of people who know a good book when they read one, and they are willing to read a ton of them to find the gems.  You have a library of good stories, and you're buying new ones all the time.  But does that make you a valuable company, or the most insane person in your neighborhood book club?
What's the first thing a movie studio does?  They find the projects.  You, as a publisher, are sitting on a mountain of them.  Not only have you found the diamonds in the rough, you've polished them and presented them to market.  You have developed the material. 
In your library are Romance Novels that could become a money machine in your own Harlequin YouTube channel.  And you're buying new stuff.  You just shelled out cash and resources for Mindy McGinnis's Not a Drop to Drink, which is screaming for a wide theatrical release.  If you're good, you can lock up the film rights before Hollywood knows what hit them.
In fact, the right of first refusal on the movie is now going to be in your standard contract.
What's the next thing a studio does?  They finance.  You're a publishing company.  You're in New York.  You can't swing a big black cat without hitting a handful of hedge fund managers who would love to place a bet on a Big Six project.  Where the independent film producer has to beg and explain what they are doing, you can say, "I'm the person who found Hunger Games and Harry Potter.  Wanna play with me?"
So, you've got the money.  You've got the properties.  Now comes the tricky part every homeowner can attest to, finding the right contractor to build on your property.  If only there was a high turnover rate in Hollywood.  Then there would be plenty of experienced executives looking for the chance to get back into producing.  They'd have the connections to put together a string of companies to produce your entire slate.
Oh, wait!  There IS a high turnover rate of executives in Hollywood.  You can't swing a hedge fund manager without hitting a former studio executive.  Or, in my case, a current festival director who gave you this idea in the first place.
So if this is such a brilliant plan, why hasn't anyone done it before?
Not everyone has access to the intellectual property you do, and there's distribution.  In the theatrical days, a company had to have a strong relationship with the theatre owners to squeeze their films into the crowded market.  That's still true of theatres, but the future is on line.  You, as a new studio, are going to have to have a working relationship with the platforms that distribute films, and – bingo!  You do. 
Amazon, iTunes, Nook, etc.  You've been delivering to them for years.  You have servers and staff in place to QC, package, and upload to all of these platforms.  Once you are delivering films, Netflix, Playstation, Hulu, Vudu, Cinema Now and more will come knocking.
And you're vertically integrated.  When people like the book they just read on their iPad; one click and they're watching the movie.  What?  The movie hasn't been made?  They can pre-order it  You'll send it directly to their device as soon as it's ready.  Talk about crowd funding, a movie could be profitable before it's even shot.
And none of this takes into account the lower budgets on films.  The guilds all have "made for New Media" contracts in place with attractive rates.  Shooting digitally is a fraction of the cost of the old film days.  You could crank out low budget Romance Movies as fast as Cali MacKay can write the books.  For the bigger budget theatrical releases, you can partner up with – and learn from – a major studio.  In fact, they probably own your company anyway, so the good faith negotiations will be a breeze.
But what about the writers?  Will new writers be willing to sell their film rights at the same time they do their book?  That's an individual choice, of course, and I hope agents and writers alike will comment here about their thoughts on the subject.  Personally, I'd say yes for a few reasons. 
First, you're not selling the rights, you're selling the exclusive option to buy the rights within a certain time period.  At the end of that time - if they haven't sold it - you get to keep the money  you were advanced, and go try to sell the option to someone else.  If your agent is good, you might sell a 3 year option from the contract date.  It will take two years to get your manuscript to market, and then one year to establish sales.  Hollywood will read an unpublished manuscript, but they won't take a lot of interest if it doesn't have sales behind it, so you've been paid for three years of an option, when it's only costing you about six months of post-publising time.
Another reason to sell your film rights to your publisher is that they will be into your project for a lot of money.  Turning the red ink on your balance sheet to black is a big motivator in the corporate world.  They are going to want your manuscript to be as big of a hit as possible, and that larger investment is going to keep you on their hot sheet.
And finally, it's money!  Take it!  Sure, most Hollywood movies are based on books these days, but most books don't get made into movies.  Yes, there's a chance that they'll hold onto the rights and do nothing, but they paid you.  That's better than you and your agent shopping the project around to production companies for nothing.  Let your publisher take the project to the same producers with the sales pitch, "and we have the money to produce it."  You're in a win-win all the way.
Now, if only I could figure out how to make this a win for me... because, you know, it's all about me.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Easter Delay

Due to the Spring festivities, this week's post is delayed a bit.  Look for a special post on Wednesday, and I'll get back to the screenings soon.