Monday, March 30, 2015

Doin' Time Is Here

We are getting close to the final deadline for submissions, which means it's getting real, folks.  For those who have submitted, that means the waiting is going to get more and more intense. Sorry, there's not much we can do about that.

For us, it means it's time to actually do all of the things we said we'd like to do. … okay, maybe not ALL of the things we'd like to do, but most of them.

For me, one of the new things I'd like to start this year is an alumni store during the festival. This would be a place where alumni can come back and sell their DVDs, books, streaming movies, etc. to an appreciative audience. We can have filmmakers signing their DVDs, posters, etc. Maybe bring back some cast members who have gone on to do well – and we have a lot of those – to sign DVDs from their early years.

So if you're an alumni with something to sell, get in touch, let's make this happen!

We started last night's screening session with a drama that got unintentional laughs. That's always a bad sign. The entire movie was in passive voice. That is to say, the characters talked to each other about things that we would have rather seen. This structure also meant the character objectives were not active or immediate, and their obstacles were non-existent, which makes for an extremely boring movie, no matter how hard the actors emoted.

We had a music video where the song was okay – not great, but not horrible – the video portion was pretty good – not great, but had some good moments. The problem was, the visual images had absolutely nothing to do the song. Add that to the just okay-ness of the song and images, and it died the death of a thousand cuts.

In another short, some filmmaker decided that an actor's performance needed to be enhanced with jump cuts, which is a shame.  I would bet dollars to doughnuts that the monologue worked just fine without the jerkiness of the hip-editing style. The story had built up to the big monologue, and done so in an okay fashion – but again, just okay. Once we became overly aware of the filmmaker behind the scenes with the jump cuts, the rest of the problems in the film magnified.

We saw two good short docs both set in the mid-sixties. If it works out, they might just end up in the same screening block.

I'm told there was a comedy from AFI that screened in the other room. I can't wait to see it, if for no other reason than to stay up-to-date on my challenge.

Finally, we had a terrific animated short that reminded me that I need to call my Dad… in a good way. Nice job.

Thanks for reading.

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.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Why A World Premiere?

Last night I was digging through the bin of unseen short films looking for which ones we'd screen in the room that I'm in charge of, when I realized that you, the filmmakers who submitted these movies – as well as the filmmakers who might want to learn more about how film festivals work – might benefit from knowing what I was looking for.

The answer is easy. World Premieres.

Let me clarify. All the movies that have been submitted will be screened, but here's a kick in the head: Not all of the films have an equal chance of being in the festival.

Oh, shock! Oh, controversy! Quick, run to Twitter and say how unfair film festivals are!

Or… keep reading and see what I mean.

First, life isn't fair. It isn't a game of scoreless soccer. There are no level playing fields. If you are looking for anything remotely close to fairness, then the film industry is the LAST place you'll find it. Given all of that, Dances With Films bends the rules in favor of the indie filmmaker. What is a big advantage in the rest of the world – namely, names – is a disadvantage when it comes to competition at DWF. That leaves thousands of films a year fighting for the few screening slots we have. We try to make that fight as fair as possible – but that doesn't mean all films have an equal chance.

Why not?

Let's say there are two filmmakers. From the moment they each get an idea to make a movie, the inequality begins. One filmmaker has a story that he or she feel needs telling, and has a passion for that story. The other filmmaker has a passion for making movies, but no particular story to tell.

Advantage storyteller.

Given two filmmakers who both have a passion for a story, where one knows how to get a good performance out of actors, and the other knows lenses and camera moves – advantage actors – unless the other filmmaker gets lucky with casting.

And that goes on right up to the point of submitting to festivals.

Dances With Films has always been very clear that World Premieres are preferred. We also understand that you've submitted to more than one fest and it is extraordinarily hard keep your World Premiere status. So, given a film that has a world premiere status vs. one that doesn't, we're going to watch the premiere first. If it's good, we're going to reach out ASAP to let the filmmakers know we're interested and that they should keep in touch with us about the other festivals they've submitted to. We can't program these movies yet – we have to watch all submissions before we start programming – we can't make promises, but we can start the conversation with the filmmaker.

We went through a stack of world premieres last night, and have more to go, so obviously the conversation will start with the premieres before it does the others. Advantage world premieres. Then advantage North American premieres. Then advantage West Coast premieres. Then advantage LA premieres. 

Why are we so obsessed with premieres?

There are lots of different kinds of festivals. In my hometown, the Riverrun Film Festival does a great job of getting the community out to see movies that normally don't make it to North Carolina. Some of these already have distribution and have already been seen in New York, Los Angeles, etc. That's great. Good for Riverrun! They get support from local businesses who benefit from all of those people who have come downtown to watch movies, and indie filmmakers have a venue to build an audience.

Every year the Los Angeles Film Festival takes some heat for showing big budget studio movies. I say, good for them. Would you ask Detroit to do a car show and exclude Chrysler, Ford, etc.? If you're going to call yourself THE Los Angeles Film Festival, you'd better have some industry movies, because this is an industry town. A festival is a celebration, so I say go for it! Celebrate this industry that is as old and as American as the automobile industry. Good for LAFF.

Dances With Films is also in Los Angeles. I would bet that every day of the year there is a film festival happening somewhere in LA. Most of them no one has ever heard of. For the first 3-to-5 years Dances With Films was just another one of those. (Sorry, Michael and Leslee, but it's true). By being a premiere festival, by sticking to the No Stars rule, and by showcasing indie films at the beginning of their festival run instead of the end, DWF has not only survived for 18 years – it has thrived. We are on the radar of indie distributors and that industry that LAFF celebrates.

As the business model of film distribution begins to favor uber-indie, ultra-low budget movies, DWF stands by the mark that it spent 18 years carving into Hollywood. When the industry wants to see a good indie movie that no one has ever seen before… when they want to see actors that can carry a 90 minute story, but don't have recognizable faces… when they want to find a new DP with a clear vision… they don't play fair. They come to Dances With Films.

Thanks for reading. More about submissions next week.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Screenings Continue

As of today, we are tracking to have more submissions this year than any other year of the festival.

Last year, getting all of the films screened and programmed nearly killed us. It will be interesting to see how it goes when push comes to shove this year.

With that in mind, I'm going to start now saying the two things I say every year over and over again.

First, I don't care what Without A Box says about when we will announce our slate. That's just a date we have to give them so they'll leave us alone about it. Every year when that date passes and we still haven't announced our slate, some filmmakers start saying how stupid we are and how can a festival be any good if they can't make their deadlines. Just a word of advice… if your film is in contention for a festival, don't say bad things about the festival directors. At DWF, the squeaking wheel gets replaced.

I have to start the second thing I say over and over again with an apology to a few filmmakers from last year. For one of the few times in our 18-year history, we didn't get a few of our pass letters out. That was our bad, and we've taken steps to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Having said that, please remember – until you get a pass letter from us, your film is still in the running.

At some point we do have to announce our "final" slate in order to make press deadlines. I don't think this has ever been the actual final slate. Some years there are one or two slots not filled. Sometimes a filmmaker drops out for whatever reason (we usually hear back from them with regrets the next year). We've had film prints not show up in time for the festival and had to make last minute replacements. The point being, if you want to bad mouth us about not picking your movie, best to wait until the festival is over.

About last night's screenings.

We started screenings last night with one of the best short films I've ever seen. Why? The filmmakers made bold, but invisible choices. They left the camera on sticks for long static shots. They did long tracking shots, but moved the camera with majesty. It wasn't shaky cam, with the implied, "look how real we're being because we're letting the camera shake around." Instead, the effect made us feel what we were watching was real because we didn't notice the camera. The audio mix kept the city – which is as much of a character as the two young cast members – at an equal level with the dialogue. This made the kids a little hard to understand, but that was definitely a choice. We sat on the edge of our seats following what was being said, and that was a good thing. The story was so simple and clear: a single objective with many obstacles. The true motivation revealed itself nicely. The cast, most of whom couldn't possibly be professional actors, were fantastic.

The only downside for this film is that it's nearly forty minutes long. That's not a criticism of the movie, it just means it will be hard to program. We could include 2-3 more films in that time, so it's going to come down to a fight. On the plus side, it's a world premiere. If that holds up, it will weigh heavily in favor of programming it. Whether it gets in or not, these filmmakers should be proud of their work. Nice job! At some point, you'll have to tell us what the title means.

This film was followed by a beautiful animated piece. After that, was a movie that was just so-so. That's the luck of the draw, folks. Ultimately, the scores for all the movies balance out, but we felt bad that this one, which was almost up to par, had to follow two fantastic works. The solution to that, of course, is to always make great movies.

We had more than one first person P.O.V. film last night, and for the past couple of years we've had two or three submissions in this style. I say this because, if you're thinking about doing something hip, cool, and different by making an entire movie from one person's P.O.V. … someone beat you to it. As far back as the 1940's, someone beat you to it. One of the shorts last night came as close as I've ever seen of making it work, but still movies work best in 3rd person, and gimmicks don't replace a good story.

For the record, the POV movies last night had pretty good stories and I think I scored one of them fairly well, so don't draw any conclusions from this observation about 1st person movies. I might not be talking about yours.

Some of the bad trends we're still seeing…

Last night was the night of the too-close close-up. If you're going to put us so close to a person's face that we can see their pores, make sure you have a damn good reason for it. The jump cuts continue. Again, nothing wrong with them in a single movie, but you should know that they have become a cliché.

We watched a lot of movies last night, so I can't possibly write about them all. I know that the waiting gets worse the closer we get to the festival, so try to relax. Read a good book. Maybe one about a kid who uses quantum physics to make a magic wand. ... just sayin'.

Monday, March 2, 2015

It's All About The Connection

Before I get into the films, I want to talk about walking my dog.

Wait – don't run. I have a point.

When I walk my dog around the neighborhood, I see tons of people out and about for whatever reason. Most of them are wearing headphones, listening to God knows what. For non-Artists, that's fine. Sherman Oaks is hardly NYC, Detroit or Moscow. We probably have more than fair our share of burglars, but very few muggers. Wearing headphones is safe, as long as the volume isn't too high.

But if you're an artist – a writer, filmmaker, actor, painter, etc. – then tuning out your surroundings is a missed opportunity. It is our job as artists to reflect the human condition. To do that, we need to be hyper-aware of the humanity around us.

As filmmakers, you should have a mental long lens that can peer into the everyday details of your immediate surroundings. You should have an empathy filter that allows you to understand the feelings and motivations of everyone you see.

Because if you don't see it, you can't recreate it.

On to the shorts.

We saw enough bra-sex to fill a Victoria Secrets catalog. For those who haven't read about this in past posts, a bra-sex scene is a sex scene where characters who would, under normal circumstances, be completely naked are for some reason wearing their underwear. The effect to the viewer is to stop following the story and think, "Why are they wearing clothes? … Oh, yeah, they are actors and none of this is real."

This is no slight on the actors. It's a tough world out there and decisions on nudity are hard to make. Directors, on the other hand, have a choice of how to shoot a scene. Writers have a choice of where to set a scene. If the sex scene is vital to the plot, and the actors are dubious of the nudity, then shoot around it. Use the magic of filmmaking to keep us from ever thinking, "Oh, yeah, they're actors."

Further on that point, one of these scenes appeared in a film that was, up until the bra-sex, a family movie. Every screener in the room simultaneously said, "Whoa! Where did that come from?" This happens a lot, but usually with language. Sudden F-bombs throw judges for a loop. Here we are watching a movie that could be programmed with a slate of kid films, when all of sudden one character decides they are in a Mamet play. That's an indication that the filmmakers don't know what kind of story they want to tell. These films almost always fall apart due to a lack of a good foundation.

We had a couple of shorts that had good scripts, good cast, but not-so-hot filmmaking skills. One screener said, "I'll forgive them that."

This sums up an important point. In a perfect world, a film would be good in all departments, but the world isn't perfect. If you have the choice between a great actor or a great lens package – go with the actor. If you have a choice between shooting a so-so script, or not shooting anything, don't shoot. Fix the script or find a better one.

Human beings, those people all artists should be observing, do not respond to a brilliant lens choice, or a perfect camera move, if they don't care about the story or the characters. Conversely, if we care about the story and the characters, then we'll forgive a deep depth of field or static shots.

Filmmaking is about connecting to your audience, not a textbook.

Thanks for reading. We are still accepting submissions – so if you haven't gotten your film in yet, hustle up!