Friday, December 10, 2010

Give Me Money - Money Can't Buy Me Love

While submissions roll in, which puts our focus on the finished product of the uber-indie film world, I ran across an ad on Craig's List that has my thoughts turning to other end of the process – fundraising.

We've all seen these ads before, where some filmmaker has a script that's "a guaranteed hit." All they need is a producer with funding. This particular ad boasts "access to A-list talent." They are looking for five million dollars and expect to find it from an "executive producer" that must provide "proof of funding."

Well, hell. All any of us needs to get a project off the ground is funding. And you know what? If you have five million dollars in your war chest, you've got access to all the talent you want. It's called a casting director, and they'll work for whoever can pay them. Some will even work for a producer credit and backend participation if they believe in the project.

But I can't fault these guys for asking. (The Securities and Exchange Commission might, but not me). The fundraising process is impossible. Doing the impossible is extraordinarily frustrating. I remember going to conference after conference trying to learn how to raise money for my first movie. I summed up all of the advice I heard as, "To raise money to make your movie, first, you make your movie, then..."

Major studios have difficulty finding investors. Major production companies with distribution deals with major studios have difficulty finding investors. So you're an inexperienced filmmaker with access to "A-list Talent," whatever that means, and a script? In other words, you're an average Los Angelino. Why should a stranger consider your request, when the A-list talent has a pile of scripts of their own that they'd like to get funded as well?

So, enough of the negative. Let's look for the positive.

I'm positive you can't raise five million dollars on Craig's List.

What's a filmmaker to do? Let's take a closer look at the advice I gleaned from all of those conferences. "To raise money for your movie, first, you make your movie, then..."

You've got a script with a five million dollar budget, but you don't have five million dollars. You believe in your filmmaking skills. Chances are, you've got friends and family who either believe in you as well, or can be guilted into an affordable investment. But, you'll never raise anything like five million, so what do you do?

You make your movie. Your OTHER movie. You think you've got skills, then it's time to show them off. Sit down in front of your computer and write a script that you can afford to shoot. This will be a lot harder than the million dollar script. You're going to have to write-the-hell out of it. Dig deep into your imagination, your emotions, your soul. You won't have expensive film tricks to make dog & pony show gags to hold your audience's attention. Sure, if you're doing a slasher film, you can use cheap film tricks – but those have been done so often that you'll need a boatload of imagination to make them fresh.

When you're done with your script, read my blog from cover-to-cover. There's a good chance you've written something exactly like a thousand other finished movies that are making the festival rounds. If you want to make your five million dollar movie, you're going to have to prove that you're a good investment risk – that might mean you write two or three scripts before you get one that pops off the page for the budget you can afford.

One good writing trick I recommend is the 180 degree rule. If you're writing a drama, make sure you've got plenty of comedy. If it's a fast-paced action film, make sure you've got some nice quiet emotional scenes, etc.

Once the script is done, polished, re-read, re-write, work-shopped, thrown away, re-write again, etc. then you're ready to hit your friends and family up for the money. Make it for less than $10,000, since that's about what you can hope to recoup in the best possible world of Netflix and Amazon downloads. If you do better, great. The main thing is to be able to say your first film made money.

Now it's time to put those filmmaking skills you think are worth five million dollars to work. Your no-budget film has to look like a low budget one, since it will be your calling card. Make the very best movie you can make. Shop it around. Do the festivals. Find a distributor. Pay back your investors.

Then do it all again.

After a couple of hits with movies below $100,000, you might be ready to look for the bigger money.

Final bit of advice: Don't think of the ultra-low budget movies as a stepping stone. You have to love them. You have to put your heart and soul into each of them, because if you don't, it'll show up on the screen. With no money, no stars, and no big distribution deals, all you have in your corner is your own love for the story and the process of telling it. Without that, you might as well quit right now.

Good luck, and thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

We're Open For Season 14

We're finally open for submissions.

So what does that mean for you folks that have just finished the first cut of your film? Should you rush off a DVD to get that worm the early bird keeps bragging about? I don't know. Is your film finished? I mean, actually FINISHED?
Here's a quick check list to help you answer that question.

Sound: Have you put the headphones on to listen closely to the background noise around your dialogue? Conversely, have you run your movie on the biggest screen and sound system you can find? Is the sound even? Are there any clips? Any drop outs? Does is sound like a "real movie"? Don't know for sure? Then you might want to hold off on that rush to the post office and run to a post house instead.

If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know how I spent all last year bitching about unfinished sound. Movies are an illusion of light and sound. The latter is 50% of a production, so why do so many people short change it? If nothing else, beg borrow or steal some time from a professional post production producer, editor, or sound designer to lend you an ear – literally. I understand if you can't afford the expense of a full post-production extravaganza – which was the minimum basic requirement back in the film days – but bad sound is the first and loudest way to shout I AM NOT A PROFESSIONAL.

Picture: Do you have shots of silhouettes in front of sliding glass doors with daylight streaming in when the script demands that we see characters' faces? Best to cut around those. Do you have long scenes of people walking from one place to another, without saying anything or advancing the plot, while slow, droning music drags the pace into the tar pits? Please cut those before submitting. Please. They are painful to watch. You have the time to take them out now, so do.

Story: Do you have a short film so full of subplots that we have to have a spreadsheet to follow them? Is there some ridiculous thread in your elegant character study that you thought you needed to have a solid plot structure when you were writing it, and now can't see that it's in the wrong movie? Cut around these things. Get a group of trusted friends to screen rough cuts, and listen to what they have to say – because it's better to hear it from them than from me. Right?

You've got the time now to make these fixes. You can take as many shots at your film as you need to make it the best project it can be – but you only get one shot at us.

Well, one per entry fee.

Our regular deadline is March 2nd. A slew of higher-priced late deadlines come up shortly thereafter. If your film is ready, submit now. If you just think it's ready, keep working on it and submit after the holidays. We won't notice the difference in dates, but we'll surely notice the difference in quality.

And don't call us "surely." RIP Mr. Nielsen.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Novelist vs Screenwriter vs Playwright

I've written stage plays, screenplays and novels with nearly the same success, and lack thereof, so I thought a comparison might make for a nice distraction while we wait for Dances With Films submissions to get rolling. I have no doubt arguments will abound, which is a good thing. Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.

THE STAGE: "Theatre is dead." That proclamation was made to me by the late, great, set designer, John Paoletti, as we met to discuss the set for a 99-seat production in Los Angeles. Such "Equity Waiver" plays are to theatre what garage bands are to Rock & Roll. This particular play had an all-star cast, so it was a great little garage band – but could only be considered professional by the quality of the work, not the dollars earned. Paoletti designed sets for theatre all over the country. As we talked about this particular production, he was drawing pieces for a play back in Chicago. He worked constantly. In any other profession his labor and skill would have made him a rich man, which is what prompted him say what he did. "Theatre is dead, and television killed it."

I had no argument against it. Still don't. But the skills of the stage, the lessons learned in front of a live audience night-after-night are invaluable when it comes to film and television – where the artist may never hear or feel the audience's initial response to their work. In film, 1920 is ancient history. You're considered a scholar if you know what Thomas Edison might have to do with Steven Spielberg's success.

Theatre can trace her roots back to before God. An understanding of what moved an audience in ancient Egypt, or Greece, or what made Italians in the 16th Century laugh, or how Theatre survived the hard economic times of English reconstruction – and how these same human storytelling techniques have worked in our day – give a writer a deep pool of knowledge to work from. Damn the marketing people and their test screenings – a writer with a strong theatre background has 3,000 years of research and feedback from billions of people to draw from. Better still if this writer has spent time on stage performing other writer's work. The best teacher is the instant feedback of a paying audience.

In writing for the stage you are capturing the power and majesty of the human voice, from kings to paupers, the supremacy of the words are yours to wield. Sure, you might write in a deus ex machine, but without the deity to speak from atop the device, the special effect isn't much good.

With minimal stage effects and limited settings, a playwright is forced to entertain and educate with nothing but words and the interaction of characters – but this is the basis of all writing, isn't it? The stage demands a higher level than books or film, and is the only medium that offers the immediacy of the moment. An actor speaks the words, the audience hears them, and the playwright is there to gage the reaction. Quickly, the author learns what resonates and what doesn't. Soon, he or she can play the audience like a violin. Actors often say they can literally control how an audience breathes, but it is the writer that gave them the setting and words to exercise that power.

THE SCREEN: No critic or academic can speak intelligently about film if they haven't rolled up their sleeves and done the grunt work of production. If they haven't worked as a grip, a producer, and director, then they have no real idea of where the writer fits into the picture. The production crew see the writer as someone who lounges around with the director and producers, or who might talk to the cast from time-to-time. More often than not, they have no idea who the writer is at all. He, she or they might not ever come to the set. The director and producers, working with the cast, may make last minute tweaks to the script, and so the writer is seen as superfluous.

But a good producer or director knows what the writer has done. Months or years prior to production, they've been working together to turn blank paper into living, breathing characters in a real world. The author can be so cavalier on the set because their hard work was done long before anyone else had a job on this project. If the script started as speculative – written first and sold later – then the author has worked more hours on the film than anyone else has or will.

But if the screenwriter faces the blank page, he or she does not face a blank audience. They are writing for other professional in the business for whom a shorthand has evolved.

Brad's studio apartment is as much of a wreck as his life.

That's all the writer needs to include to give those crew members who work so hard during production the picture of what they need to achieve.

Some writer's find it hard to learn this shorthand, and I think their work suffers for it. They lack trust in their designers, directors and cast to do the detective work necessary to flush out the details of the world everyone is trying to create. The designers are going to read the entire script. They will know what kind of wreck Brad's life is, and can then apply their talents to reflecting this in the set. No spoon-feeding necessary, and by allowing more input from various sources, the finished product has a depth to it that a spelled out description might lack.

This type of writing, once mastered, can become a lot of fun. All the author need deal with are characters and story – the meat and potatoes. They have a cast, crew and editors to take care of the minutiae. The art of screenwriting is to use the least amount of words to make a clear image pop into the minds of trained, professional, readers – and to be able to make them all see a similar picture.

NOVELS: You're a control freak? You want to be the auteur? Forget about film, become a novelist. Here you are the art department, the cast, crew, editor, director and craft service person picking up the trash – and yet, if you are successful, you will still have to collaborate with editors, marketing people, agents, etc.

The novelist faces a blank page in both the creation and production of their work. All they know about their reader is they speak the same language as what's on the page – and yet, the author has to put the same story into every reader's head. They have no soundtrack. No special effects. No magic of the theatre. Nothing between their brain and their audience's but the written word.

I can tell you, having made a feature film (on film) and written two novels, they are comparable in their tedium. An editor will work for sometimes an hour or more on a single cut of a film that flashes by in one 24th of a second and is never seen by the audience again. An author will do the same with a word in a sentence.

An animator once told me that cartoon characters must blink when they turn their heads, or they don't look real. A novelist once said, "if you use the word 'suddenly' then whatever follows, isn't."

With all of these differences, what I'm finding as I work in all three media is how they are becoming more similar. Modern novels require less description than their 18th-early 20th century counterparts. Perhaps it is because television has shown us so much of the world that the details of exotic locations or people are now common knowledge. Perhaps it's because we have so many ways to fill our free time, that a book had better cut to the chase or it will never compete with the explosions and spectacle of the big screen or video games. What theatre that has been successful lately has been based on movies – just as they used to be based on histories or commonly known tales.

No matter what medium a writer chooses to work in, they seek the same result – resonance. They must touch the reader in a way that it amplifies within them. That's the art of it, and it's the same for all. The craft is what will differ.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

...And We're Back

It's getting close to that time of year again. Dances With Films will be putting out a call for entries soon, which means screening will start shortly thereafter, so once again this blog will take you behind the scenes of our selection process.

For those of you new to the blog, the idea is this: Year-after-year we see patterns in the kind of movies floating around the festival circuit. For several years it was the Romantic Comedy that was neither – written and directed by someone with serious issues with their opposite gender. Twenty-somethings drinking too much is always a favorite bad idea. And let's not forget the million mocumentary movie march.

I get tired of seeing the same kind of film over and over, so this blog is selfish on my part. I want future filmmakers to read about what's not working and fix their scripts before it's too late. If you're thinking about making a movie, I hope you'll read every entry and take notes. You might not make the best film ever made, but you certainly won't make the worst.

If you're submitting this year: no, I will not mention titles or names; yes, I might drop enough hints to let you know I'm talking about your film – but only if I'm saying good things. When I talk about what's not working, it's more about trends. If one movie does something that doesn't work, good for them. Failure usually means the artist is trying something new and difficult. Repeated failures by multiple artists means something is wrong with the collective standards. If you read my criticism about a movie that goes on too long, and you think I've just told the world that your movie sucks – trust me, I'm talking about several films with the same problem.

What if you aren't a filmmaker? Not to worry, I believe strongly in artistic cross-training. My degree is in acting/directing theatre, and my current projects are novels. The skills in one discipline definitely translate to another, and I try to point out the similarities.

Case in point. The other night at the Dances With Films alumni get together we were talking about submission fees. We all agreed that filmmakers should include in their initial budgets a film festival category – submission fees, travel, promotion, etc. Among my novelist friends it has become commonplace to budget any advance money you might get toward promotions, travel, conferences, etc.

Okay, not the best example of artistic cross-training, but it's the best I can do on the off season.

TIP OF THE MONTH: If you are using one of the few services out there to submit to multiple festivals with just one submission form, consider contacting the festivals individually and asking for a discount. The services take a large percentage of your submission fee from the festival, so you might save anywhere from 10-25% by asking to submit directly. Sure, it's more work for you, and many festivals might not take direct submissions – but it doesn't hurt to ask.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Never Ending Need for Independence

Dances With Films festival is going on all around me as I type this on an unfamiliar laptop graciously provided by Hula Post Production. A few feet from me filmmakers are shooting a 2-Minute 2-Step movie on the Canon 5D Mark II cameras that will be seen on the big screen tomorrow night. I'm having to pause between sentences so the clicking of the keyboard doesn't show up on their soundtrack. In a few minutes I might have to run up to do a Q & A with a filmmaker for a movie I saw months ago, but the audience just experienced. I say all of this as much to set the scene as to beg forgiveness for typos, grammar mistakes, or thoughts that wonder off into the abyss.

I've written before on the importance of gatekeepers like agents, producers, film festivals, distributors, publishers, etc. to filter the massive amounts of raw artistic product down to what is of some kind of professional quality - but as important as these bar-raisers to the artistic community are, it is equally important that there be a way to work around them.

Business and the Arts have always been siblings. Squabbling, fighting, dysfunctional, jealous, loving, horrible brothers and sisters. Neither can exist for long without the other. Even in an Artless world, Business would need artists to help package and promote their products. When the product is the Art, then the rivalry gets even more intense.

One of the biggest thorns in this relationship's side is how they deal with risk.

In Business risk is to be avoided. Sure, they pay lip service to the saying "Nothing ventured nothing gained" or "High Risk, High Reward" but at the corporate level there are stockholders to consider. Every business plan must include a risk management assessment. Sure, if an executive takes a big risk that pays off s/he is the hero of the day - but no one has ever been fired for playing it safe. Don't make waves, and you'll have a long and happy job in the corporate world. And there is nothing wrong with that.

In the Arts, bland is death. Doing what has been done before, in the same way that it has been done before guarantees you a short, not-so-profitable career. We all know Picasso, but who knows the artists who today paint just like Picasso? We all know Star Wars, but who made a lifetime's worth of money making the many derivative space operas of the late 70's/early 80's?

So, the Artist struggles hard to create a work that is unique in some way. This is of course, impossible, given the 100,000 years of human existence - chances are, whatever an artist might think of, it's been done before. Still, they apply their creativity, sweat, blood and tears to make something unique.

When they are done, they present it to their brother/sister, Business, to say, "Hey, let's get this out to an audience."

And Business's first question is, "What's it like?"

"It's like, what it is," says the Artist.

"Yes, it's very good, and quite unique, and I personally like it - but it's not like anything that's come before it."

"Yes," says the Artist, "Exactly! It's that great?!"

"No, it's not great. I have to present this to a committee and tell them what kind of budget we'll need and how much return we can expect."

"Yeah, so?"

"I need to know; is this the next Harry Potter? Is it the next Notebook? What is it?"

"It's the next new thing," says the Artist.

"I've got kids to put through college," says the Businessman. "I can't risk that on the next new thing. I need another version of the last successful thing."

And so it goes.

Stepping into this void are the Independents.

They say to the Artist, "I'm small. I'm light. I don't have a board of directors, just a few crazy investors who want to make the kind of high rewards that come with high risk. I can see your vision, and I have the means to present that to the world."

And the Artist says to the Independent, "Really? What have you done that I'd know?"

And so it goes.

Somehow from this chaos, the content - call it art, call it product, call it popcorn entertainment or literature - flows like water to the sea. Some of it falls from the sky directly on its destination. Some of it falls as snow on the highest mountain and may not find the ocean for centuries. Some falls in a desert and will not reach an audience until it has evaporated and fallen again.

But wherever you look, it is there. The Art. The Ocean, the rivers, the rain. Struggle though we might to see our projects through, we know there is a way. No obstacle is too great to stop the flow. That's why Business builds waterwheels and power generators. They profit from the flow.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Luck Be A Socially Responsible Person of Either Gender Tonight

The slogan for this year's Dances With Films Festival is "Luck Is For Sissies."

I would have suggested "Luck is for Suckers," myself, since we do screen in West Hollywood and don't want to hear from the Sissy Anti-Defamation League. I bare witness that the festival has never discriminated against, nor passed judgment on, any individual, group, film, or submission based on how an individual and/or member of that group throws a baseball, catches any ball for sports, punches, dresses, argues, dances, or in anyway interacts with the outside world in a manner that might be construed as "Sissy," "Sissified," "Wussie," or in the case of male individuals and/or members of said groups, "like a girl" – which is especially not the case, since young women have proven themselves quite capable of accomplishing traditionally labeled "masculine tasks" with as much skill and grace as any of their male counterparts.

Whereas, "Luck is for Suckers" is perfectly acceptable since suckers have never bothered to organize a lobbying group for themselves – though several of them have paid dues for false organizations via Nigerian internet con artists.

So, forget all of that. Let's talk about luck.

Some people think that luck is something that comes to the lucky. They wait for luck to come to them. Other's claim that you can make your own luck.

The military says that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. This seems to be a perfectly legitimate equation for defining luck. If an opportunity comes a long that you're not prepared for, you can't take advantage of it. You might say that you weren't lucky, but in fact, you weren't prepared.

By the same token, if you are prepared, but you sit on your couch watching the Academy Awards, or reading the latest new hot author, and grumble that "those people just got lucky," then you have not been working to create opportunities for yourself.
For those of you who remember your grade school algebra, by the Transitive Property of Equality:

If Luck = Preparation + Opportunity, and both Preparation and Opportunity can be made possible, then by a = b and b = c then a = c, Luck can be made.

That is not to say that if you prepare yourself with the skills of your chosen art form, and if you get out there to make all the opportunities that you can, that everything else will be easy. The thing about working in a glamorous, fun, high profile profession is that everyone wants to do it – or at least it seems like everyone. There is a mob of people out there who are just as prepared as you are, and working just as hard to make their own opportunities. And for every one thousand of them, there are only a few opportunities available.

I think of it sometimes like getting a rebound in the NBA. Everyone there has skills. Everyone is blocking out, positioning themselves for the best chance of getting the ball after a missed shot, but if the ball doesn't bounce their way, they don't get it.

Still, two kinds of people get more rebounds than the rest. Some have a team concept. Four guys making sure the other team can't get the ball, while one on ours does. Others have that uncanny skill, that's close to magic. They seem to know where the ball is going to go, and they get themselves there no matter what. To their equation for luck, you can add Insane Talent.

Your job is to figure out for yourself how you can best create your own opportunity. How you can follow the ball, to put yourself not where it is now, but where it's going to be when you get there.

Work on your skills. Make your opportunities. Then count on your talent.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Guest Blog - To DWF and Beyond!

We're all busy getting the festival together... and, for those of you who would still like to participate, I believe the 2-Minute 2-Step deadline has been extended. Check the link to your right.

So while we get all of our ducks in a row, I thought I'd bring you a guest blog from The Shumway Brothers. They are two times alumni of the festival and wrote to us recently about there experience here and how it helped them down the line.

Enjoy --

In June 2009 we finished our 5 year project called "Enigma." Now we had a decision to make: which festival should be our world premiere? We had premiered a previous film, “Over the Moon” at Dances with Films and the experience had been great – it even won “audience choice!” We decided that DWF was the best place to premiere Enigma. After a wonderful, problem free screening, we repeated history with another “Audience Choice” award!

Wow! Our world premiere had gone without a hitch! The festival was fun, and now we were excited to do this a bunch more times! Awesome! So we got accepted to more festivals, and were all ready to have the same experience we had at DWF... And then our eyes were opened.

We had been to “Dances” twice, and twice had a great experience. So we thought that all festivals would be like “Dances.” And then we discovered…not all film festivals are created equal!

Communication is key with film festivals. You have to know what’s going on to get the most out of the event. “Dances” takes this a step further with the orientation meeting. Here we got the chance to meet other filmmakers before the fest. At the meeting, the DWF staff told us what we should be doing to help promote our films and the fest. They covered postcards, posters, and they planted great ideas about S.W.A.G! (You know. $h!t we all get!). So we got our stuff and saw how well it worked and how much better it made the entire experience.

This meeting prepared us better than we realized. At many of our future festivals we took what we learned from DWF and applied it. We were quite lucky to have received this preparation at our first fest and not our last. At every fest we went we were more prepared and knew what and how to advertise our film and in turn we put more people in the seats.

"Enigma" has now been to 18 festivals, we have been awarded 20 festival awards and 16 nominations and it all started with Dances with Films


The Shumway Brothers are:

Jason Shumway

Jason Shumway has been making movies since the young age of 14. After getting his first taste of video editing at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Jason became an award winning filmmaker while studying in J. Everett Light Radio/Television program. For college Jason was lucky enough to be accepted to the prestigious University of Southern California. In this top rated film program Jason directed eight films and crew on many more. He has recently worked on shows for G4TV and NBC. Currently he is a staff editor at E! Entertainment Television. Jason produced the indie Feature Film “Bloomington” Premiering at Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco on June 23rd 2010.

Matt Shumway

Matt graduated with distinction from Art Center College of Design. There he created his award winning film “Over the Moon.” That film led him to Rhythm and Hues Studios where he works as an Animation Supervisor. His feature film credits include X2, Garfield 1 & 2, Chronicles of Narnia, A Night at the Museum, The Golden Compass, The Incredible Hulk, and Land of the Lost. Matt was nominated for and Annie Award in 2006 for his work on Aslan for Narnia. He is currently the Animation Supervisor for Cabin in the Woods, A Drew Goddard / Joss Whedon Film due out Jan 14th 2011.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Hang In There

I know I didn't post anything this Friday. I'm working on getting a guest blogger.

But thanks for dropping by.

Friday, May 7, 2010

What Are You Crying About?

Stay in the entertainment industry long enough and you'll run across at least one actor, writer, director, cinematographer, or producer who has gotten bitter. They haven't worked in a long time, and you know right away from talking to them that they aren't likely to work again. They have a chip on their shoulder about the business, to which everyone's reaction is not to knock it off, but just walk away.

Sure, we all get angry sometimes. We've all had our "what are they thinking" tirades, but these are superficial – or they should be. If that anger is allowed to fester and seep under the skin, then it becomes bitterness, and that is fatal to an artist.

Some things to keep in mind that might help get you through the bad times:

No one forced you into this. The entertainment industry isn't coal mining. You didn't have to get into it to put food on the table so that your father's black lung will be covered by your health insurance and your baby sister could go to college. You're not share cropping. You've chosen a career – which in and of itself is a luxury most people on the planet don't enjoy – that almost never pans out. You knew the chances were close to impossible when you started, and yet you still chose it. Fine. Everyone loves a good hero struggling against all odds, but no one likes a person who picks that life, then complains about it.

It only takes one person to launch a career. That statement is both true and false. It has taken hundreds of people to get you to where you are today – a trained artist. You create your work and do your best to get it out on the market. From there, it takes just one person – the right one person – to say, "I like this" and/or "I can sell this."

What happens if you've gotten bitter and your response is, "Yeah, well, it's about time you opened your eyes to my work!" or "so what?" Suddenly, the one person who liked your work doesn't like you so much – and given that there are thousands of people as good as you who aren't bitter, that one person is going to move on. Guaranteed.

So keep your chin up. See the light. You're living a blessed life whether you know it or not. I can say that because you are reading this blog. That means you can read. You have access to a computer. You have the time to kick back and scan my silly words.

Whenever I run across an artist who is bitter, I'm reminded of the old lines from the stereotypical tough-love Dad.

"What are you crying about? I'll give you something to cry about!"

We are all wonderfully spoiled in this world. Bask in it. Celebrate it. Create some art.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Got Game?

I wasn't going to write a blog this Friday since I'd written one earlier in the week and we didn't screen last night, but hey, who am I to deny people their harmless addictions?

This is a marketing success story or sorts. It just happens to be about my own festival run experience, so I'm telling it not to blow my own horn, but to hopefully help those who are about to hit the festival circuit – be it with Dances With Films, or any other fest around the world.

My film, Jacks Or Better, is a movie set around a nightly poker game. During the game, one of the players calls for suicide queens to be wild. Well, there are no suicide queens in a deck of cards, so later when a player sees that card in his hand, it becomes an issue.

So for our Key Art (aka, the poster, postcards, stickers, etc.) we had a graphic artist/photographer do a special still shot of the card. I thought playing cards with a label of when the show was screening would be a cool promotion. Our graphic guy did much better. He printed up suicide queens on card stock to hand out. Since six cards could be printed per page, we had six different funny saying about the movie printed on the back, and our artist made slight changes to each queen. One had a tear; one had her eyes closed, etc.

Year 3 of Dances With Films (2000) was our world premiere and the cards worked great. First of all, they fit in my shirt pocket, so I could carry a stack of them, have my hands free, and still whip out a card like an old west quick draw. I could also put one of them on the lanyard with my festival pass, stuff like that that wouldn't work with a postcard.

Very soon I'd find myself mistakenly giving a card to someone I just gave one to five minutes ago, or I'd offer a card to someone my producer just hit up.

Instead of being embarrassed, or having that be the end of the conversation, it very quickly became something like:

"Oh, I already have one."

"Really? Which one?"


"They're different."

The person takes out his/her card and I take one out of my pocket and we compare. The quote is different. The queen is different.

Soon, people started collecting them. It became a game during the festival to see who could get all six. That put a smile on a lot of faces, which was fun.

Next festival is in Hawaii.

Roger Ebert goes to this festival every year. My entire cast came from the Organic Theatre in Chicago, famous for producing David Mamet, and others. Their names might not have been enough to win over distributors, but to Broadway and Chicago critics, they are all major atars. I knew exactly what I would say if I got a chance to talk to Ebert.

There was a filmmaker's lounge in the hotel with a table for all of the promotional materials. I had printed up stickers with our screening times to put over the DWF info on the left over cards. So with a pocketful in my Hawaiian shirt, and stacks to put on tables, I hit the lounge.

The volunteers staffing the lounge loved the cards. Once the fun of hanging out with the filmmakers wore off, they were bored out of their minds, so every time they saw me, they tried to get a different card. The collection game was on.

Day three of this weeklong festival, I'm in the lounge having coffee and one of those Portuguese doughnut things they have (what are they called? Love them!), when in walks Ebert. He sat down by himself across the room from me, and you could feel the nervous energy from the four or five independent filmmakers that were gathered in the far corner. We were all trying to be too cool.

Ebert looked like he was in a good mood, but didn't want to talk to anyone about anything before he'd had some coffee and gotten his day going. He especially seemed to not want to talk to young, hyperactive, star-struck, filmmakers fresh out of school. I can't say that I blamed him. It must suck having to defend his opinions 24/7 to every one who didn't agree with what he thought about they're favorite movie 15 years ago.

Anyway, the minute he sat down, the volunteers – who knew him well, as they see him every year – ran up to him and said, "You've got to get one of his cards," meaning mine. Then they turned to me, "Give him one of your cards."

A command performance. The promotion had done it's job. [And less to all of you – BE NICE TO THE VOLUNTEERS!].

I let them ask me one more time, until it was clear they wouldn't shut up until I talked to Ebert, then walked over to hand him a card.

I had seen the look on his face on another celebrity, when I bumped into Diana Ross in a bookstore in LA. It was total and complete fear. In her case it was, a look of "please, please, please. Don't recognize me and start a scene." (I didn't). In his case, I could see the fear building of "please, please, please don't talk to me about movies, not right now. I don't want to talk about what 'real' independent movies are verses… anything… just let me have an hour's peace."

Okay, maybe I was reading a little bit into that, but not much.

So, I did exactly as I had planned. I handed him a card and said, "You know all my cast."

"Really?" His expression changed a bit to that "polite, but limited interest" that celebrities get for an appropriately timed conversation with a fan. Perfect for me. "Who are they?"

"Jack Wallace." I said, and stopped.

Wham! His expression became true, interested, respect. "I saw him in Cuckcoo's Nest."

He was referring to a stage production in Chicago. I nodded like I knew Jack had done the play. Jack's done about every play there is, so it's hard to keep up. "Vinny Guasteferro," I continued.

"He just did In The Old Neighborhood." A David Mamet play on Broadway.

"Meshach Taylor," I said. Subtle marketing there. Meshach was my biggest name as far as distributors were concerned, but among those in the know, Jack was the headliner. By listing him third, I was indicating he was a part of an ensemble of talent a la House of Games.

"When is this screening?"

"It's on the card," I told him.

When he looked at it, the volunteer started to explain. "Yeah, and there are six different ones..."

I made a polite exit. Always leave them wanting.

He cut short a seminar he was giving that night – meaning he only went an hour over instead of his usual 2-plus – to come to the screening.

We had the volunteer who works has his liaison every year ask him what he thought of the movie and he said, "I never tell."

Probably a good thing, since anything he says will get back to the filmmaker. Case in point, I heard through the grapevine that he'd told the festival director he thought the movie was "…disturbing," which is exactly what I was going for.

I've never used the quote in any of my PR as I didn't get it from him first hand, and he hasn't written an official review.

Still, it lives in my head along with a few other memories. I think of them like mental newspaper clippings, folded up and tucked away in the wallet in my head. Every now and then, I take them out, unfold them, and share them with someone – or just relive them by myself when I need a reminder that yes, I've got game.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

So You Got In A Film Festival - Now What?

Since Dances With Films is in Los Angeles - where many of the filmmakers reside - and since we often have world premieres, which means first-festival experiences, we've taken to having an orientation meeting with the filmmakers.

Much of this meeting covers marketing. I thought it might be helpful to say here what I often end up saying at the meeting.

Marketing a film in Los Angeles is different than any other place in the world. She is a great city, and I love her dearly, but her level of polite apathy can not be over estimated.

"Hey, my movie just got into a very prestigious festival in Los Angeles," you say to her.

"That's great," she says, "congratulations. Good for you. How much money has it made?"

"Well, none yet, but this is our big premiere. Will you come?"

"No, but good luck with it."

"But, you should come. It's a really good film about the struggles of..." and pretty soon you find you're talking to yourself.

To get Los Angeles off her couch and into the movie theatre - which, lets face it, is like asking you to pay money to go into your day job - requires more energy than you can possibly imagine.

So here are some ideas that have worked:

Start gathering your troupes.

As you'll learn, film festivals are partnerships between the festival and each individual filmmaker. The festival will promote the festival - and that will include pushing whatever story we think we can get press to bite on, which may be a tie-in to specific films - but you've got to promote your screening.

The best way to do this is with your cast, and to some extent, your crew. The cast are the faces that are seen, so they are the most vested in having a large turn out for your film. The more lead time you can give them, the better. You'll also want to provide them with promotion materials (post cards, jpgs for e-mailing, etc.)

Cast will also help with getting professionals to the screening. Make sure they invite agents, managers, casting directors, etc. since those that work in larger houses write up reports on what they saw. They might also be married to or dating someone who knows someone, etc.

Promote individuals within your film to Hollywood. People get tired of hearing "My movie this" and "my movie that," and very few people in the business are able to help get a finished film in front of a paying audience. So rather than blowing your own horn to people who could careless (because, let's face it, unemployment in this industry is 100% all of the time, so we are all by necessity looking out for number one) talk about the individual stand-outs in your movie.

For example: say you've got a great DP, or a leading actor who everyone things is going to break out. Don't just try to sell your whole movie to a distributor - if you're talking to a production company, tell them they might want to come check out the photography, or the cast. That's how buzz gets going. Change the selling points for your film depending on who you're talking to.

Make it fun! Silly little promotions are great. Make sure the screening time, etc. are easily visible. Remember, this is only a life-or-death screening for you. For everyone else, it should be a fun time at the movies.

Last, but not least, make it fun for you, too. You've worked your behind off to get to this one moment. Drink it in. Enjoy the hell out of it. Because as soon as it's done, you've got to start trying to make it happen again.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Stress

As some of you may know, I'm not only working for Dances With Films, but I'm also have a novel I'm trying to sell, which is going very well. I'll keep you up to date on it as events happen.

I bring this up because I realize that submitting films to festivals is a lot like submitting queries to agents, and then publishers. As I have readers that are both authors and autuers, I'd post something I wrote a while back about the unique type of stress we have in the entertainment industry. So here you go:


It's very subtle, the stress of success in this business. It's not the stress of the last second shot for a championship game. It's more like the stress of tactonic plates in the earth - a slow build up that will occassionally be relieved by a snap of activity, only to start building again.

And the closer we get to the prize, the more the stress.

Submitting queries to agents is easy at first. There are hundreds of them. Shoot 'em off ten at a time and expect not to hear anything. In a few weeks, pick ten more. Maybe revise your query.

Suddenly, you get a bite. An agent wants a full. So you send it off. You pause on your querying if this is your first full, 'cause you think you'll have an agent and a book deal by the end of the month. The stress is high, but fun. You're like a sprinter at the start of a marathon. "What's all this talk about pacing yourself? This is easy."

If it's your 3rd or 4th full, you try to forget about them the way you do queries. Doesn't work, but you try. Have to keep up a good, steady pace.

Several fulls out. Agents are interested. They're giving you notes. You're working like mad to not lose your mind while you try to adapt your story. The stress is high, but again, you're on your sprinter's pace. You can see the end of the race. Once you sign with that agent, you can slow down.

Finally, you sign with an agent. You've crossed the finish line. You're panting, leaning on your knees, trying to control your breathing and sweat when your agent comes to you, points to the top of a mountain in the distance and says, "Let's go."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

You May Pass

There's a thread running in Without A Box about feedback from festivals, so I thought I'd cover that this week, as we're about to send out our acceptance notices and will soon get around to ... the other letters as well.

Since year one (before my time) Dances With Films has included a "positive comment" in their pass letters. I don't like calling them "rejections" - we have passed on some great films for any number of reasons, so it's not always a negative thing to not get in the festival.

The logic of the positive comment is simple. Making movies is hard. Just finishing a film is a worthy achievement. There has to be something positive to say about it. After 10 years of screening myself, I might argue that point - but still, it makes sense.

Something to keep in mind - you pay the festivals to watch your movie. It's different than a submission to an agent or manager (neither of whom should charge a fee for doing their job, and by the same token, don't owe you a thing in feedback).

From time-to-time, filmmakers will ask us for more information about what the screeners thought. Leslee will then look up the movie in our handy-dandy computer program and find some genius insight like TLTB (Too Long, Too Boring) from a judge who is too lazy and seen too many films to elaborate much more than that. (I wonder who that might be).

On more than one occation Leslee has had to re-watch a movie in order to give more constructive critism. 99% of the time the reason there aren't better notes on those films is because the movie sucks so much that the screeners sat there, jaws dropped, wondering what planet the filmmaker is from.

And those are always the ones who e-mail to ask why they're movie didn't get in. It's a good thing I don't answer those e-mails, 'cause my response would be, "This is a joke, right? You really don't know? NEVER MAKE ANOTHER MOVIE AGAIN."

Unless, of course, I liked it, then I'd end up with, "Great movie, you've got skills, but you played 5 different festivals in Los Angeles. We're giving another good filmmaker a shot."

The thing is, you have to know in your heart the quality of your own work. If you don't, then get out to a film festival near you and see what's out there. See if you're playing in the same league. I had a distributor tell me once that my movie was too good for them, and she wasn't kidding. Film festival screeners are not the end all and be all of your art. You are.

Good luck everyone. Hope to see you at the festival, whether you're screening, or just sitting in the audience like me.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Guards and Vanguards

The last of our official short films screenings was last night. Now the work really begins. Over the next week or so, we will hash out who's in and who's not.

For those of you who have been notified that you are still under consideration, I hope you've kept your premiere status. World premieres have a major advantage for the coveted few screening slots. Like other festivals in Los Angeles, we will pass over films that have already been seen around town. There are just too many movies and too few screening hours to go around.

This part of the process can be a very bumpy ride. Last year we had a little feature out of somewhere in the mid-west that was adorable. It fit what I call "Primitive Filmmaking" style. (I'll have to post that essay during the off season). In short, it felt extremely regional in cast, location, and story – which gave it a charm you can't find outside of the festival circuit. We told the filmmakers they were in, and they freaked out a bit. Said they weren't ready and pulled out of the festival. That was a real shame, and it added to our bumpy ride. Suddenly, a slot we thought was filled, wasn't. A film we loved wouldn't be in the festival. Heartbroken, we had to push on.

I have no idea what happened with that film.

We watched another heartbreaker last night. An intellectual little film with a delightful lead actress looking for religious harmony in a convenience store. They didn't have any end credits, so we are all hoping and praying that they aren't finished, because their sound is not projectable. The entire movie needs to be looped – which is fine, happens all the time. The trouble for us is, we can't tell from watching the submission if the filmmaker understands what is needed to have a complete movie. Their submission might say "temp sound" but their idea of finishing might be to add a couple of effects and some music – which would only make it worse. Often, that's not a problem for a submission because, frankly, the rest of the movie is so bad that it can be easily assessed as is. In this case, the movie looks to be very good. The cast is good. The story is truly a short subject. But we could barely understand the words. We all made notes to pass this along to the filmmaker – and hope to see the finished product someday.

We also saw some of the worse submissions of the year last night. One was so bad that I began to wonder if it wasn't some kind of social experiment to see how long we'd watch (we watched the whole 30+ minutes, as per usual). I couldn't believe how bad this movie was. Have people not grown up in modern times? Have they never watched a movie or TV show before? Do they not understand what qualifies something as a film – or even a story?

But I've already lost 30 minutes of my life to that, so let's move on.

When I started the blog this year, I asked if we were entering a Golden Age of Digital Filmmaking. My thought was that shot-on-film moviemakers, who bring more discipline and craft to the table than most newcomers who have never experienced lab costs or the lag time between shooting and dailies, would raise the anti on quality. Would the increase in film-level productions squeeze out the fast & loose video-makers? Would we see more thought out stories, rehearsed scenes with better actors, more attention to details in set, sound, costume and production design?

Sadly, I think the answer is no. People who have a camera and some editing software, and therefore think they can make a movie worth our hard-earned time and money without bothering to learn the craft, still outnumber those with skills. The uber-independent film business has become like all others affected by technical revolution. First it was painting in the face of photography. Then photography in the face of cheaper, easier versions of itself. Writing with the electric typewriter and computers. And all the arts in the face of the digital age.

Just because a person can make a work of art, doesn't mean it's a good work of art. Just because a person can shoot a film and post it on YouTube, doesn't mean they are a filmmaker worthy of our attention.

So there must be guardians for the vanguards, gatekeepers to weed through the all to find the deserving. It has always been so, but never more needed than now. Never has there been more content of varying quality from so many sources.

How is an audience to know which film is worth their time and money and which one isn't? How can a reader know which e-book to download? None of us has the time to do what I've been writing about all these months, sift through every possibility to pick out the gems. We need someone to do it for us.

Artists have forever complained about the gatekeepers: the agents, publishers, producers, distributors, critics, professors, and film festival directors, but I have seen art unfiltered and it has made me an advocate for higher bars, greater standards, tougher values so that we as an industry of artists might deliver better product to our consumers.

I'll be blogging throughout the festival and the off-season, so please come back and point your friends to this unfiltered essay on the Arts.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Right Work

Let's set the stage.

It's late in a very long week. I was up until 3:00 in the morning the other day working on my own project, and I'm facing a long weekend with it – it's a novel, by the way, not a movie.

My eyes are closing before we even begin. I have a bad headache and I'm grumpy. I say to the room, "These movies had better be good, 'cause I'm not in the mood to be kind."

The first short comes up. It starts in period black & white, which you all know I love so much – but it's doing a good job. There's a cameo appearance by a recognizable name – but not someone that would disqualify it from competition, so fine.

The movie then moves into modern day. It is beautifully shot. The art department's attention to detail is overwhelming. Wait. That's not the right word, because the photography is so beautiful and the two actors are so fantastic that nothing can overwhelm. They are all working together in perfect harmony – and sometimes that's literally true.

To top it all off, this is a drama – which is so hard to pull off in a short. By the end of it, my headache was gone, I was awake, and there wasn't a dry eye in the room. Truly fantastic filmmaking. I hope they have their world premiere, or west coast, or even Los Angeles status in tact because Dances With Films wants to be the festival that discovers this great filmmaker and all of his/her supporting artists.

After that film we took a five minute break, then watched a music video – a very good Hispanic Rap song – to cleanse the palette so the poor next film didn't have to stand up against what we just saw.

We then shifted gears and saw another good movie out of New York. This was truly an original film, which is saying something when you've been screening as long as I have. The movie felt like an painter had sat down on a street corner in Brooklyn and done sketches of the people passing by. Then, this artist took it a step further and got to know the people – but still only showed us sketches, doodles, little scenes of their lives. All of this with jazz music in the background that let us know the filmmaker was riffin'. This story was going to flow like the music, syncopated, loosely connected, with unique solos – from a talking dog to cartoon notes to the audience – this film was off the hook.

And it could have sucked, if not for the cast. Every single actor in this film rang true. If there was a tiny moment when they didn't – when we might have caught them acting – it would have fallen like a house of cards. Casting directors should take note of this New York gem, 'cause it could be the next Lords of Flatbush.

Somewhere in the evening a movie had one character give out a phone number. It wasn't a 555 number, so we all said, "Let's call it." (We didn't). Yes, we all hate watching movies where they give out a number and it begins with 555. Of course, the reason for that is that there are no 555 phone numbers, so no one can call it. Yes, it takes us out of the movie. I get it. But now, giving a non-555 number does the same thing.

So write around it.

In this case, a character was saying the number to someone who was dialing it into his cell phone. Great. Have the character take the phone, dial in her number and hand it back. Or, since getting the number is usually the end of the conflict in the scene, have them start talking, "818-506…" and cut to the next scene. There are a million ways to avoid the number, and so avoid taking us out of the scene. Try them.

Unlicensed Music.

There's always a discussion about this on the Without A Box forums, and I've come down on both sides of the issue. Sure, it's legally and morally wrong to use another artist's work without paying them – and if you're trying to achieve professional standards then don't under any circumstances use anyone's unlicensed work. At the same time, if you're just doing a student project, or a skit for friends and family – or if production sound happens to capture a song on the radio in your verity short mocumentary – I don't think you need to worry about the copyright police kicking in your door.


We had a film last night that pummeled song after song at us as featured, foreground, sound tying to the action on the screen. Did they have the rights? Ultimately, it didn't matter because the movie was a pass – but even if the movie was good, it didn't matter because:

1) If they didn't have the rights we wouldn't have let the movie in – not with such blatant disregard for decorum.

2) If they did pay for the rights to all of the songs, then we would be so wary of their business sense (why have music rights be the highest line item on your budget, easily raising your costs beyond any expectation of recovery) that a yellow caution flag would be all over their submission.

That brings me to another little thought as we get closer to final selections.

When you're chosen to be in Dances With Films, we essentially enter into a loose partnership.

LAWYERS, BACK OFF! Down, lawyers, down! This is antidotal, relax.

More than a lot of festivals, we try to work with the filmmakers throughout the process of screening in Los Angeles. When the filmmakers are smart, happy, hardworking professionals, this is a joy. When they aren't, not so much.

We've been very lucky over the years in that most of the films we've chosen have been made by some of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet.

This proves a point I've always said – you have to be a good person to make good art.

There are exceptions; so if you've worked on any big budget action movies with a camera that never leaves the techno-crane, and a director that makes little girls cry – I know, they are out there. But they are not the rule.

I don't know why I bring this up except to say that having a good heart shows up on the screen. If you want to be a better filmmaker, writer, artist, musician, beat poet, whatever, work on being a better person and you'll get there.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Short and Sweet

I didn't take a lot of notes last night, more from exhaustion than anything else. As we get closer to the end of the submission season the brain starts to get a little blurry. Not to worry, a good movie is still appreciated, as they make us sit up and take notice. A bad one is less likely to start a discussion as they do early in the season – so I end up with less to say.

As we were leaving last night, I asked the room if there was anything they wanted me to talk about in the blog.

"Sound!" was the answer.

"I've talked about sound so many times already," I said.

Their particular gripe has to do with sound levels across scenes. You can barely hear one scene, and the next one is way too loud.

Sound is harder to get right than picture, no doubt about it. I'm no expert, and even if I was I couldn’t give an entire lesson in sound mixing in this blog, but uneven levels across scenes is a sign of lack of sound compression (I think). Sure, when you're putting the scenes together, you have to try to get the levels as close to each other as possible, but once you're done, you might want to add a compressor like Sony's Wave Hammer. I'm sure there are ton of others, that's just the one I know.

What's the beer commercial where they talk about "drinkability"? Well, sound compression helps with "listenability." It will pull up the lower levels, top off the higher ones, fix clips as much as possible, all while still keeping the tone of the sound. Of course, your mix has to be clean and relative levels – dialogue can be heard over music, effects, etc. – have to be good before you apply compression software, so it's not a one-step fix, but it definitely makes a difference.

On other topic: We get a lot of short films that are dance pieces, which is fine. Some of them are very good. Some aren't. But they make us wonder if people think the name of the festival is literal. It's not. We're not a festival that shows only dance pieces, and if you make a modern dance movie you don't have a better chance to get in with us than any other movie. In other words, it has be really good no matter what.

We're seeing a lot of movies with beautiful deep depths of field. This is no doubt due to new cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II that can take 35mm lenses with a chip that can handle the depth of field variations. Really pretty stuff. This makes it all the more agonies when you run across a scene where actors stand only inches from a flat, blank, wall. If nothing else, have the actors step out a foot or so and put an up light on the floor to knock the shadows off the wall. Give your work some depth, in writing and picture.

Speaking of flat. We see some scenes, and occasionally entire movies, that just lay there. We had one last week, and I asked the room, "what is it about this scene that keeps it from holding our interest?" Nothing was obviously terrible, but the whole thing taken together was.

We talked about it and decided that each department – acting, camera, sound, writing, overall directing, etc. – was so under par that no one thing brought the scene down, but nothing lifted it up, either.

So what do you do when this happens? Hopefully, you discover this during the writing phase when it's cheap and easy to fix the problem, since that's the core of the issue. If not, you might be on the set when you realize that nothing interesting is going into the camera. Editing is your last chance to inflate a flat scene.

In all these cases, the fix is the same. Go back to the basics. Objective. Obstacle. Tactics. What do the characters want? What's stopping them from getting what they want? How are they going to overcome the problems? Sharpen up those aspects of the scene. Cut anything and everything that doesn't apply, and get out as quickly as possible.

On that last point, I'm going to get out to work on my own project and try to put my work where my criticism is.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Entertain and Educate / Art and Business.

We get a lot of submissions from film schools. Sometimes it's fun to play "guess that university" – if it's Sci-Fi and visual effects, it's bound to be USC; a drama about an important international or human relations issue, AFI, etc. This is all great. We love film school submissions.

The last few years we've had small floods of films from one university or another that are head & shoulders above the rest. We might argue over this, but I'd say the last two years Chapman took the prize. Great scripts, good casts, highest technical quality. We'd see the Chapman logo at the beginning of a movie and think, "Oh, cool, a good one."

But this year – so far – it's been Florida State. We haven't screened all the submissions yet, so there might be an exception in the pile somewhere – but so far every film from FSU has rocked our world. I'm not saying you'll all get in – so many factors go into selecting a program – but I can say that you all deserve it. So take a bow, Seminoles. Job well done, and thank you for the entertainment.

Ever since Ancient Greek merchants decided they could package and market Egyptian religious theatre, there has been a struggle between Art and Business. With a very few exceptions the works of art that have survived were made by people who understood the business needs of their time and fulfilled them with the greatest craftsmanship and sensitivity. A good artist doesn't see limitations, only challenges.

Short films are no different.

I bring this up because we had a film last night that was beautifully shot: nice sound, a great display of talent, in many ways a very fine piece of art. But it had no plot and it was 30 minutes long. We all agreed that it would a terrific piece to put on your TV during a party as background entertainment, but there was no way an audience would sit still and watch it. It just didn't stand alone.

So from the artistic standpoint, it fit all the requirements of fine filmmaking – but it didn't hold up from a business perspective. It wouldn't give the audience their money's worth. I get in big trouble every time I bring this issue up with some theatre crowds, but it is the artist's responsibility to create a good value for the audience's dollar.

Entertain and Educate. Art and Business.

We had a terrific film last night with one small issue that's not a deal-breaker, but oh should it be avoided. During the climatic emotional scene, the actress's face was too dark to see. This was especially a shame since the rest of the movie was so well lit. I was dying to slip a bounce board just below the fame to get a splash of light on her face.

Before you say it, yes, there are times when an actor's silhouette can be a powerful image. The Exorcist comes to mind. This was not one of those times – and it happens a lot. I don't understand it in the digital age, you've got a monitor right there. Can you see the actor's face? No? Fix it. Better to screw up with too much light on a face than none at all.

There is no more powerful storytelling tool for our species than our faces. We are hardwired from birth to read what's happening there. If you take that away, you'd better have a damned good reason for it. In this case, they didn't. The poor actress was working hard, ripping her guts out, and we couldn't see it.

So, please, make sure you've got a good ole white piece of poster board handy at all times. You never know when you might need it.

We had another good "incitement" film. I think it might have been from FSU, in fact. If you're not a regular reader, an incitement film is a movie that feels like the first ten pages of a feature script. It is a complete story in and of itself, but the ending hints there is more to come.

This is a far better way to turn a feature script into a short. Regular readers, say it with me: If you can cut your feature down to a short, then the feature can't be any good. If the feature is good, then it won't make sense as a short.

Plus, if you're planning on using a short as a fundraising tool for your feature, the incitement method is fantastic. A good incitement is designed to … incite … the viewer into watching the whole story. Hook them. If I had money to invest in film, I'd have written a check as the lead character drove away at the end of the movie. I wanted to know where she was going. I wanted to know the consequences of her actions. At the same time, I felt like I'd seen a complete story.

That's the way to do it.

Thanks for reading. See you next week.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Three Cheers for Romance

Before I get to the shorts this week… I watched a feature submission the other day that made me want to give a shout out to Romantic Comedies in the independent world. I think the genre gets a bad rap; maybe because they are so light and fluffy, maybe because they aren't serious or dramatic, people think they are easy to make. Having seen more noble, but bad, attempts than any one person should have to sit through in a lifetime, I can tell you that's not the case. I don't think there's a more difficult genre to pull off, especially on a low budget.

You've only got two things to work with in a Romantic Comedy – words and chemistry. No MTV filmmaking tricks are available to save you. You can't cover up bad acting or a slow script with flashy editing, a dramatic soundtrack, or anything else. It's old-school, invisible art of filmmaking. Your cast has to be believable from the leads down to the extras. It all has to work.

And the scripts in Romantic Comedies have to be so personal. In a good one, that's great. We all love to see that others share our foibles and frailties. In a bad one, I tend to write in my notes, "filmmaker needs therapy." They usually display their anger for the opposite gender. If you get the sense the writer/director never got a date in high school – or worse, was humiliated on one – then chances are, you're watching a bad Romantic Comedy.

And that's what makes the good ones nice to see. So let's all take a moment to appreciate the well-made Romantic Comedy.

Okay? Back? On to our shorts. (Pun intended).

We had two movies that wouldn't play. This happens a lot with home burnt DVDs. No worries, we always contact the filmmakers to ask for a replacement, but you guys should do yourselves a favor. Send two copies when you submit.

While I'm on that. Opening menus are nice. Nothing fancy is needed, just that little pause to make sure everyone's paying attention before we hit play. Please, please, please, don't have the movie loop back to start again when it's over. Nothing kills a great ending like going back to the beginning.

I've complained before about shorts that seem like cut down features. One of the ways we diagnose that syndrome is when a movie just doesn't make sense. The plots get so convoluted, and have so many major points missing that I find myself wondering how the cast knows what's going on in the scenes they're in. We watched one like this last night and it reminded me of a saying they have in theatre:

If it's not on the page, it's not on the stage.

If you find you're having to explain plot points to your cast, then you have a big problem that needs to be fixed right away. No one is going to study your script more closely than the actors playing the roles (okay, your department heads will, too – but they don't have to memorize it). If a cast member says, "I didn't understand why…" then big red flashing lights should go off in your head. Sure, you might be able to explain to them everything you're thinking. They'll figure it out and play the hell out of it – but read the rule again. You won't be in the audience to make those same explanations. Figure out a way to get the conversation you just had with your actor into the mouths of the characters.

I railed against the misuse of Black & White video last week, so right on cue; we get a great one last night. Talk about "on the page, on the stage" the characters come right out and talk about what motivated the story to be told in B & W – which answered the question everyone has when you see a new film sans color. And the DP did a masterful job. The blacks were deeply black. The faces were full of character. Nicely done.

We had a couple of films that were nicely done up to a point. These are so painful for us screeners. Believe it or not, we want your movie to be good. We are pulling for every film at the start. And when it's good, we rejoice. So there's nothing worse than be in the middle of good movie that suddenly goes south.

So many things can go wrong. One last night – another beautiful, purposeful, Black & White – just extended its parable too long. Cut that movie in half, and it'd be great. As it was, it fell flat.

Another film introduced an entirely implausible character and subplot. It was like they started to make one movie, then changed their minds half way through. So sad when that happens – unless it's Dusk 'Til Dawn, then for some odd reason, I'm coming along for the ride.

Finally – it's getting late in the submissions season. This means there's a good chance I'm going to babble on this week about something I said back in January. I try not to do that, but we do see a lot of the same types of problems again and again – so, I hope you'll cut an old man some slack as we get closer to the festival. In return, I'll try to keep this blog as entertaining and informative as possible.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Words on Words on Film

After screening last night, I was up late working on my own stuff, so I'm a bit bleary-eyed. I hope this comes out coherent.

The night started out with two movies and two different peeing scenes. Gee, thanks guys. If this blog accomplishes nothing else, I hope it will teach independent filmmakers that 90% of scenes containing the expulsion of body fluids are not unique, cool, hip, edgy, or uber-indie. We see them all the time.

Last week I talked about how the Art Department saved a movie. This week we had quite a few bare-walled apartments. Hey, I get it. You're a starving artist – which means you have no money for art. But is that the case for your characters as well? A wide, long shot of two people talking in front of a blank white wall is boring. Learn from good designers. Use that space to help define your characters and at the same time, draw a wondering eye back to the action of the scene. Empty space is a missed opportunity and the sign of a lazy filmmaker.

That brings me to something Leslee brought up in a good way. "Location, Location, Location." In this day and age of easy digital, find an interesting place to shoot. Get some depth behind your characters. Give us some eye candy by way of the space. Show us something we've never seen before. That's what makes a movie worth the ticket price.

Every year we get movies by actors about how difficult a life it is to be an actor. They all have one thing in common – bad acting. There's nothing worse than a scene where a character is complaining about how stupid "they" are for not giving him/her the part, when it's clear to everyone watching the movie that the actor playing the actor can't act.

And even if they were the best talent in the world, becoming an actor is a choice, not a right. It's nearly impossible to make a movie about a person complaining about something they've chosen to do. One notable exception is LARRY THE ACTOR, which is hands down the best movie about the profession in recent memory.

Regular readers know how I rail on about slow music over slow scenes in slow movies. Last night, we had a film that got it right. Pumping, fast, intense music over a slow, emotional shot of a young girl missing her father. Worked great. Terrific young actress, too. This particular film also nailed the concept of surreal imagery. It wasn't crazy shots for crazy's sake, but pictures rooted in deep human emotions that came together to tell a story. Good job.

A heads up to all you folks with emotional monologues – usually featuring a woman, usually about a break-up – last year I screened two features in this style. Last night we had one that had some very nice moments – but ultimately these films come off looking like someone's acting reel. The writing tends to be very good, but essays or personal emotional venting aren't well-suited to cinema. That doesn't mean it can't be done, but you should be aware that several filmmakers are trying it, so you can find yourself up against the "not another one of those" feelings from a screener. In our defense, when they are good, we get over that feeling.
We had our first black & white video short last night. Some thoughts on that: If you're thinking of shooting in black & white, please understand that your decision changes everything. You can't just turn the color off on your video camera. For one thing, video doesn't handle black & white very well – so you have to do some fancy DP tricks to make the blacks truly black – or shoot on film. Once that homework's complete, then every set-up – angle, lighting, action, etc. has to be done with black & white in mind. What works with color doesn't always work without it, and vice verse. So tread lightly.

Finally, I want to say a word about dialogue.

Capturing natural speech is the art of screenwriting. Having a good story is imperative, but if that story unfolds via dialogue that sounds like it's there only to get the plot points out – which often makes me say I can hear the keyboard clicking in the background – then the story will crumble under the weight of broken suspension of disbelief.

Bad improve has the same effect. Actors aren't writers. It can be so painfully obvious when a director has told the cast what plot points are important in a scene, then asked them to improve. It sounds about as natural as a 3-headed cow singing Dixie.

Visual artists are trained to see. Actors and writers are trained to listen. Spend time out in the world listening to real people in real conversations. Then when you're polishing your script, hear the words in your head and make them natural on the page. If you're also the director, you must then forget the way the words are in your head and see what the cast gives you. Don't be afraid to ask them to "loosen up" your written words. If you've done your job in casting, then you'll have a ton of experienced people to work with. Take advantage of that. Get their feedback – always with the understanding that the final decision is yours. As a director, you don't have to come up with every idea, but you do approve or disapprove them.

Have a dialogue with your fellow artists, so the dialogue in your movie doesn't sound typed.

Thanks for reading. See you next Friday.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Think Positive

Someone told me I should be more positive in my blog; that I'm always focusing on what's not working. Obviously, this someone has never been to an art school.

But point taken. This week, I'm Mr. Positive – and I picked a good week for it, as we had a ton of great movies last night. You'll notice with the good ones that I offer a few more details. If you've submitted a short this year, have fun trying to figure out if one of these is yours.

Before we got started, I talked with Leslee Scallon, co-founder and head honcha of the fest about why world premieres are so important. I always thought it was for ticket sales – which is true. Extremely independent festivals like DWF rely heavily on box office as a way of keeping afloat – but Leslee made another good point.

It's the energy. When this is the first time a movie has been on the big screen, something magical happens. There's a buzz in the crowd, as cast & crew mingle with the audience before hand. Pictures are taken. Drinks are consumed – sometimes to well-deserved excess. At DWF, the filmmakers for that night are the kings and queens of the ball – and in their court are the producers, writers, directors and stars of the movies that premiered the night before, or will the night after. Friendships are made at events like these that last a lifetime.

Compare that to the movie that has been seen 3 or 4 times at a cast & crew screening, then smaller festivals around town, on a big screen TV at a producer's party… The friends and family that show up for the fifth screening are all supportive, and happy to be there, and sure being at Dances With Films is still a milestone – but the magic is gone.

The best films still get in, but given a choice between two wonderful movies and one time slot left… We like the magic.

On to last night's short films.

We started with an International Must See that nailed the short film format – likely because it was based on a short story and from a country known for its poetic, allegories. Great acting and filmmaking skills didn't hurt either.

For those facing the blank page and wanting inspiration, look to the allegory. Shorts are a great place to have characters that represent more than themselves. You can hit us over the head with it if you like, since you've just got the one shot.

The next film got mixed reviews, but a Must See from me. I can't tell you how many times I've shouted at the screen when it fades to black, "Be the end! End it right there," only to have it fade back up to bring us more story than can be covered in a short. Last night this movie did the right thing. It stopped just as I wanted to watch a feature's worth of these two characters and their families. Brava! Had the door opened on the next scene, the story would have had to continue for an hour and a half to do it justice.

The old stage adage is true – always leave them wanting.

The next film was a lot of fun, and brings me to a positive point about style. This particular short was a broad comedy, complete with some nice shtick – which I always love when done right. From the opening shot, this filmmaker let us know we were watching a silly, but well-made movie, and that he was in control of his craft. That puts an audience at ease. We can relax and let a professional take care of us.

I always think of defining style like kids playing baseball. Before the game starts – or before any of the artists can create – the players lay down the grown rules. The curb of the street on the left side is the foul line. Hit it over Mrs. Smith's fence is an automatic out, 'cause we can't get the ball back. No sliding into third base because it's a car, and so on.

These rules must be established before the game is played, or before filmmaking can begin. Unlike rules from the outside world – where breaking them becomes the art form – rules of style are set by the artists, so how they are adhered to is more fun to watch then how they can be broken.

We had a couple of Must See movies that established and stuck to their style wonderfully – one of them with little kids in it, which made it even more amazing. Good job.

There was another film that was a mystery to all of us screeners. We all agreed that we should have hated it. A frat-boy type slackers movie. We see these a million times a year. 99% of them suck, but this one didn't, and it was very hard to figure out why. Part of it, I think, was the Art Department. For those not in the know, that covers the set and props. Since most indie films shoot on location it's not actually the set, but how it's dressed and the props that are used.

This curious film had props that gave us the same sense of being in the hands of skilled filmmakers as the opening shot from the afore mentioned movie. From a simple shot of garbage on a table, we got the feeling that these folks might be good. That feeling lasted long enough to get to the first joke, which was cute. The plot was slow to develop, which is usually death in a short, but thanks to the little things done by props – little things that I'm sure took hours and hours of work – this movie won us over.

That doesn't mean it – or any of these films – will get in the festival. A lot of other factors go into the decision making. It's easy to nix the bad ones. It's a shame to have to pass on the promising, but not-quite-there-yet movies. It's horrible to have 2 or 3 great films and only one slot open to program.

There I go getting negative again. Guess it's time to leave it until next week.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Rules and Regulations

The sparks were flying last night as we screeners lobbied, discussed and argued over whether or not particular films were any good. Perfect time for a reminder that mine is not the only voice in the room – so if you think I'm full of it, you're not alone and chances are your opinion is well represented in the screening room.

To the movies:

Can we have a moratorium on slow piano and/or guitar music in short films - solo chello, too, while we're at it? Sure, sometimes it's exactly the right thing – but those are rare and ruined by the thousands of bad usages that we just need to stop for a few years until it becomes new again.

We had a film last night with a nice dramatic moment that had no music, then just as one of the screeners said, "Great that they had the courage not to put music over that," in came the slow piano plunking out random notes and chords. "Spoke too soon," we all said.

I don't know what the composers are thinking with this stuff. Insomniacs would pay good money for a CD of the soundtracks we're exposed to every week. When I was at North Carolina School of the Arts I talked to a musician about how some classical music concerts just puts me to sleep. "That's fine," he said. "It's a perfect human reaction, especially if it's a lullaby."

Well, people, movies are not meant to be lullabies. Your objective should not be to put your paying audience to sleep. This is especially true if you have a slowly paced scene. Slow music over it, under it, or anywhere around it is going to bring everything to a halt.

This brings me to another one of my rules I like to keep in mind when writing, directing, etc.

THE 180-DEGREE RULE: If you are working on something dark, make sure you read through to find the light. If you're working on something slow, find the natural fast rhythm. If you've got a great melody, find the base notes. If it's a drama, find the humor. If it's a comedy, find the pathos. In nearly every case, if choice A works, then Opposite-A will also work. You don't always have to go with it, but you should know it's there.

If you're really good, you can use this to find what musicians call "implied notes." These are notes that aren't played, but the listener thinks they hear. That look behind an actor's eyes that says there is drama behind his humor. The smile on a character's face that punches through the tears. When you see these in great performances, they aren't accidents. They are a well-placed application of the 180-degree rule.

I've also been considering a new rule. It's a work-in-progress so maybe you guys can discuss it here. I call it, EARN YOUR DRAMA.

So many films start heavy and go down from there. You get the feeling watching them that the actors woke up that morning thinking, "I'm going to work in a drama, so I must be serious and stern all day." I picture the crew sinking into deep depression as the shooting goes, until finally the boom operator can't hold her arms over her head for the emotional weight on her shoulders.

And it doesn't work. From the first frame of the movie, we don't care about these people who do nothing but wallow around with a weight on their shoulders. Just once, I'd like to see a character with a heavy emotional load tap dance in the opening scene, you know? Of course, in a short, you have to get right to the action, but if you know you're making a drama remember, you're going to have to earn it. Start us off with something light, something normal, even if it's just for a second (literally). Then you can come down on that character with an emotional ton of bricks and we'll be right there to help lift the burden – because we want to get him back to the happy person we saw before.

Like I said, this rule is a work in progress – would love to hear your thoughts.

Back to the movies:

There is nothing worse in storytelling than to be behind your audience. The most obvious example of this is a murder mystery where we're not supposed to know who the killer is, but we do – and the characters don't. We can even call out the twist that's supposed to be a big surprise long before it happens. As the storyteller, you have to constantly be aware of what cards you've dealt your audience and how they are going to put them together. You can't let them get gin before you're ready. You want them eagerly awaiting their next plot point. And you must make sure they win the game only when the last card is dealt.

We had a few movies last night that had problems in script logic. A character says something in one scene that doesn't jibe with a plot point in the next. This is a complete failure in writing, editing, storytelling. Make sure the logic of your story is sound.

We had a lot of phone conversations in the films last night. One was brilliant – they obviously new their film history, climbed the shoulders of giants, and did a nice homage to Doris Day and Rock Hudson. The others, not so much. As a general rule (someone else's not mine), phone conversations should be avoided in movies. They don't make for great pictures, so write around them. With cell phones, this gets harder and harder – how many times can the battery go dead or the coverage be lost? But still, if you can write around a phone call, do it. If you can't, then understand that you're breaking a filmmaking 101 rule, and make it interesting.

Finally, a word about the one joke movie that goes too long. I touched on this in the play-by-play article, but it's worth another mention. If your movie is basically one joke, that's fine. Get in, get out. You do that, and I guarantee you that you'll enjoy a long festival run. If you go one frame past what is obviously the natural end of the joke, then you'll be one of a million entries with the judge's note, "one joke that goes too long – PASS."

That's it for this week. Have a good weekend, and thanks for reading.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Masculine vs. Feminine Art

Taking a break for a moment from screenings to discuss an academic (meaning, not very useful) theory I've had about art in general over the years. While it is purely an intellectual discussion, the concept has sometimes helped when I'm faced with different styles of art or settling arguments between friends over the question of whether or not the movie we just saw was good or bad.

I think that all art can be categorized as more Masculine, more Feminine, or a nice balance of both.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about male or female. Gender has nothing to do with it. I could just as easily call them Conservative and Liberal – but that opens another can of worms. In this case, I'm thinking of Masculine and Feminine as the French do in language. Some words are Masculine some are Feminine. Why? Who knows, they're French. It sounds sexy, so go with it.

To me, Masculine Art is more structured. It obeys the rules that professors like to teach. A Masculine painting will be in the realistic style with proper lighting and composition. A Masculine film, novel or play will be plot-driven with a strong hero, a good villain, and a neat and tidy ending. Masculine dance will have a plot as well. It will tell a story. Etc.

Masculine Art appeals to the brain. Its skills can be taught, learned, and repeated.

Feminine Art appeals to the heart. Often it is more personal to the artist. A Feminine painting will be of the modern style – where colors and abstract composition evoke an emotion in the viewer more than the information or painting skills of a realistic style. Feminine stories are more character driven; the psychology of the characters will influence actions more than the logic of the situations. Feminine dance will be more about the movement, color, music, etc. than the story of why the characters are dancing. At its purest, Feminine dance would be everyone dancing, with no audience at all.

All works of art (and by art I mean The Arts – without a considering the quality of the work: TV sitcoms are included in The Arts as much as classical Opera or dime store novels or Shakespeare) contain some elements of each quality. I think great art finds a balance that is specific to the work, which might or might not be equal between the two.

So much for musings. Back to the movies on Friday.

Friday, February 19, 2010

One Lousy Point

To start with, the Lakers-Celtics game was last night during our screenings. Grrrrr… I recorded it for when I got home, stayed up until 1:00 watching it and the Lakers lost by one point.

I'll try not to let my lack of sleep and bitterness spill over into the blog – but I can't guarantee it won't effect my grammar.

It was Therapy Night last night. So many of the 15 movies we watched were either about therapy, had underlying themes of therapy, characters that needed therapy, or sometimes filmmakers who obviously could use some time on the couch. This is all fine in a great film, but we didn't see a lot of greatness last light – in the movies or, later, from the Lakers. When I get the feeling that making the film was a life-changing experience for the filmmaker, I get a little upset. It's supposed to be a life-changing experience for the audience. If you're going to make me sit through the vanquishing of your inner demons while doing nothing about mine, then pay me $200 an hour.

We also had a few movies that just made no sense from a plot point of view, prompting one of the screeners to suggest I write about test audiences. Before you lock picture, make sure you show your movie to as many honest, trustworthy, non-friends-&-family as you can. Get their honest feedback. See if you can pick up their body language as they watch it. See where they have questions or don't understand something. It's okay to have them while the story is unfolding, but if the film doesn't answer all the questions by the time it's over, your story fails on the most basic level – communication. The old days of experimental theatre arts, where the auteur would say, "The audience is too dim to understand my work" are over (thank God). The audience pays you to tell them a story. If you tell them one that makes no sense, you've failed.

Moc vs. Doc. The Mocumentary has become such a prevalent genre among submissions, which run along side actual Documentaries, that often it's hard to tell if something is a Moc or a Doc. In neither case is this a good thing. Okay, Orson Wells got us all with War of the Worlds. Ha-ha, very funny. Stop it. The best Mocs – or the best comedies for that matter – all give the audience what I call "permission to laugh." Some little wink and a nod to the audience early on that tells us, it's okay, I'm being funny on purpose. When watching a movie where you're not sure if it's real or a parody, you spend the entire time trying to answer that question – and miss the point of the film. So, if you're a serious documentarian, understand that anything even close to satire is going to make us wonder – if you're a comedian, make sure you let us in on the joke. Cast Fred Willard in an early cameo – then we can all settle in for a fun ride.

Sound. Sound. Sound. I've said it before, I'll say it again.

As a filmmaker you only have two tools to work with: Light and Sound. If you don't spend as much time and energy on your sound, then you are ignoring 50% of your job. Every other aspect of your movie could be perfect, and you'll still get a failing grade. This is especially true of voice over / narration, but I wrote about that the other day.
ibid. op sit.

On that note, there is a sound effect that needs to be retired. They don't have names, so it's hard to say exactly what it is. Some call it the David Lynch/Twin Peaks grinding metal feedback sound. It also sounds a lot like the very last piece of the Dr. Who end credits – which was first done in 1963, so that shows you how original everyone is who uses it. I swear this sound is in 75% of the movies we watch. Not only that, it blares over dialogue. It clips. It intrudes on the story. It walks into the room and says, "Aren't I cool?" which, of course, means it's not.

That brings us to video effects. Just because we can now all do them, doesn't mean we have to. Try cutting your movie together the old-fashioned way. Figure that for every edit that isn't a simple splice of film, you're going to have to pay a lab a ton of money. Then see where an effect is so required in the telling of the tale, that you're willing to dig into your pocket to pay for it. Put those one or two in. The rest are not necessary and detract from what you're trying to say.

I wrote in my notes, "We get the point, move on." I write this a lot. When you're making a short you don't have to follow Shakespeare's 3-rule (say it three times so the audience gets it). It's a short. If your character is paranoid, one example is all we need. If you want to do more, fine, but make them quick and subtle. You're a boxer in a one-round fight. Jab-jab, bring on the big punch, and go to a neutral corner.

To end on a positive note, a word about the power of committed, talented actors. One of those movies I mentioned that made no sense had such a fantastic cast that every one of the screeners was riveted. I don't know what the scores were like, but there's a good chance that film will be carried into the festival on the shoulders of the cast. Somehow they found something in the words they could relate to on a moment-to-moment basis, and their commitment to each moment made us want to watch the next – even though, collectively, the pieces didn't add up to anything.

Good acting can save a filmmaker when all else fails.