Monday, March 23, 2015

On Being A Programmer

Last night, I spent the evening as a different kind of programmer. While all of our other screeners spent the night watching shorts, I tweaked our Filemaker Pro program to track who is watching what feature film regardless of format, and unsuccessfully tried to calculate a sum using three separate WHERE parameters. I have an SQL equation that works for two of them, but the third is a problem for a self-taught hacker like myself. No worries, though, I think I figured out a work around while walking my dog this morning.

Times have changed for film festivals. When I started screening in 2001, all submissions where on VHS. Sure, they didn't look anything like what the actual film did – especially if it was shot on 35mm – but we knew that. Today, we have at least six different ways to see your movies, and; thanks to bad transcodes and the idiosyncrasies of file-based media, they still don't look anything like what the finished film might look like, but we have no way of knowing that for sure.

Where we used to use a pen and paper to write down who has taken home what VHS, now we have to have a database to keep up with who is supposed to watch which movie to make sure they are all viewed in a timely fashion. Two years ago we had a handful of streaming submissions. Last year, it was about 50-50. This year, nearly 100% of the submissions have a streaming screener. I for one, am very grateful to all of filmmakers who also provide a DVD and/or Blu-Ray. Bad transcodes give me migraines.

Times have also changed for what's in front of the camera, namely, stars. When I submitted my film in 2000, I'm told that the subject of one of my cast members, Meshach Taylor, started a heated discussion about who is and is not a star. Mannequin and Designing Women were well in Meshach's rearview mirror by then. Thankfully, DWF stuck to their guns about differentiating between working actors and stars who can get a movie funded on nothing but their name. My film was allowed into the festival, and they've been trying to get rid of me ever since.

Today, funding is difficult for everyone. There are no business models for feature films anymore. Streaming, DVD, and POD income data is a closely guarded secret, so it's impossible for an indie filmmaker to turn to investors and say, "Movies with this big star consistently earn X-amount." Without that, funding is hard to come by regardless of who stars in your film.

On the flip side, production costs have come down so much, and SAG-AFTRA rules have changed, such that uber-indie filmmakers can afford to hire top-level working actors. For DWF, this means we've gone from a star-or-not discussion for one-or-two films per year, to one-or-two films per week.

Deciding who is and is not a star by DWF standards is not a perfect science. In fact, there's nothing scientific about it at all.

Obviously, if the name in question is Julia Roberts or Johnny Depp, that's easy. The movie would not be allowed in competition. It could still be in the festival, just not in competition.

For actors, writers, directors, etc. who are on the cusp of stardom, it's not so simple. In that case, we evaluate not only individual cast members, but also the ensemble. A film full of recognizable non-stars might be more of an issue than a movie with a single recognizable face. We'll also look at the overall production team. We're not going to punish a first-time director or production company for getting the best talent they could. Stardom is also a function of time. A name that could once get a movie funded, might not be so hot now. Conversely, a name that couldn't get a film funded when we programmed the festival might turn red hot by the time the movie premieres.

Eventually, it comes down to the DWF powers-that-be sending e-mails to each other saying, "What do you think about so-&-so?" We kick it around and come up with a completely subjective decision.

And, something else that's new since 18-years-ago, are haters on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Every year we get one or two people screaming at us about how we've broken the "No Stars" rule. I just take that as a sign of success. I would advise the haters that they should stop bad-mouthing people in the business. Instead, send the filmmakers a nice, honest, e-mail congratulating them on getting into the festival. If you're jealous, tell them that. It's always my highest compliment.

Thanks for reading. More about movies next week.

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