Monday, December 26, 2011

So You Didn't Get Into Sundance - Merry Christmas!

Dances With Films is open for submissions!

My regular readers know that I don't blow the company horn here... much. This post is an exception. Of course, you still need to develop your own strategy for festivals, but DWF should certainly be on your world premiere check list.

 Festival in a major market (New York, Los Angeles or Chicago)

 Good press coverage – any festival that promises coverage in the trades is probably lying – unless that paper is a major sponsor. Every year The Hollywood Reporter and Variety say they don't cover festivals, and every year we get some films reviewed. Knock wood. That's not to mention coverage in:

Los Angeles Times • The New York Times • E! Online • Ain't It Cool News • CNN • Associated Press • Extra • Film & Video Magazine • Film Threat • Starz! • LA Times • Entertainment Today • USA Today • IndieWIRE • KABC • KCRW • US • Weekly • 60 Minutes • IndieWire • • Angeleno Magazine • Moviemaker Magazine

 Good track record. What can I say? DWF is heading into year 15.

 Good to filmmakers. Ask any of our alumni. Go ahead. Ask.

Hopefully, you still have your world premiere status. That's a huge help. Once you've premiered in the major markets, then you can build your pedigree in the destination festivals around the world.

We look forward to seeing your movies. Keep an eye out here beginning late January for my insight on what we're seeing in submissions. If your movie is good, you might recognize my comments. When I mention problems, it is always something we're seeing in more than one submission, so don't take it too hard.

Good luck.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Life in a Mafia

No, this isn't a crime story. In theatre and film a mafia refers to a group of artists with a common background that often work together. These groups can be centered around universities, like the Yale Mafia (Meryl Streep, Wendy Wasserstein, Sigourney Weaver, etc.), the Julliard Mafia (Robin Williams, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, etc.). They also form from writers or theatre groups, such as the (David) Mamet Mafia (Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy, Stuart Gordon, etc.), Steppenwolf alumni (Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, Glenne Headly, etc.).

I got to thinking about art mafia groups again while at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts West Coast Alumni Christmas party. For some reason, NCSA (or, now UNCSA) has never formed a strong mafia. It's something we often discuss, but no one is sure what to do about. Like so many who attended, I didn't graduate from there, but went on to Virginia Commonwealth University – another school with a weak mafia.

So what makes a strong one?

I think it requires a good mix of disciplines: writers, actors, directors, cinematographers and especially business people. A group that doesn't have a good mix is going to have a hard time putting projects together and getting them before an audience. Loyalty is important, but each member also has to look out for themselves. Many mafias claim people who "made it" outside of the group, which is fine. These stars can come back to their friends to launch projects in a familiar atmosphere.

Making do with less, or a certain level of discomfort, is an element. I fell into the Mamet Mafia in Los Angeles when I worked on the stage production of Edmond that years later became the film. It was amazing to watch actors with Broadway credits I'd kill for climbing ladders, sweeping the stage, taking tickets, etc. We formed a theatre group that lasted for about 10 years. Those who were willing to do the dirty work became trusted friends and co-workers. Those who didn't, didn't. From there, I was able to build an ensemble that got my film made.

Dances With Films has started to form a bit of a mafia. Mojave Phone Booth got started in the lobby of the festival, and yesterday, I got an e-mail from DWF alumni who have just gotten funding together for their next movie. They want me to play a role, which I'm always happy to do. The 2-Minute 2-Step, which is an exercise in less-is-more production, has put together teams that I hear have gone on to work together on other projects.

And it's not just filmmakers. The internet has helped novelists get together. As I write this, I've been exchanging e-mails with one of my partners on From The Write Angle. She has been kind enough to do a beta read on my next book. We got together on the net forum, Agent Query Connect.

Which brings me to another topic.

Without A Box, the submission service for filmmakers, has moved its forum to Facebook. That's fine, but I tend to get lost on Facebook. I miss the close connection a stand-alone, topic-specific forum can bring. So I've dedicated a page on this blog called QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS. This is a place for all of us to use as a forum. Please feel free to post in the comments section just as you would in a forum.

Who knows, maybe we'll get our own mafia started.

What about you? What groups did I miss? Have you gotten a project together from your experience with DWF? Would you like to?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Things are revving up.

Just a quick note to let you all know that the Dances With Films team got together for a meeting about year – holy crap! – 15.

I call these early meetings what-you-should-do's. In most any theatre group, or producing organization that deals with volunteers, there are tons of people who chime in with ideas, but damned few who roll up their sleeves and do the work. Worse still, are people who say they'll do the work, but don't.

But our circle of movers and shakers came without a what-you-should-do attitude. Instead, it was all what-WE-should-do. Brainstorming ideas were backed up by people taking the lead on actions.

Success is an interesting part of the entertainment industry. It can be as damning as it is wonderful. Over our fifteen years, we've seen fests come and go. Many of them had some measure of success, but then grew too fast. They got beyond their means.

We have always tried to make sure each expansion would be built on a strong foundation. Sure, every year that we add something new becomes an adventure in troubleshooting and problem solving – from the first 2Minute 2Step to last year's new Industry Choice Awards and panels. But with each successive year, the problems iron out, and what was once new becomes tradition.

At this past meeting we talked about what traditions will start with year 15.

While I have you - if you're thinking of submitting for year 15, you still have plenty of time to finish - and I mean, truly finish - your film.  Please, take a look at my past blogs to see what mistakes those who came before you made, so that you might avoid them and we won't have to watch them over and over again!

To get you started, check out The Best of the Blogs.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Film, Football, and Finance

It's inevitable. Potential film investors will at some point come by a set to see what moviemaking is all about. Of course, they don't show up the night before, when trucks are squeezing into place. They don't show up first thing in the morning when equipment is being staged, actors rehearsed, cable run, generators started, lights focused, sets dressed, props prepared, wardrobe, hair and makeup being done. Nope. They show up just before lunch, when the director is working on the last setup and trying to get the shot before going into grace.

And what do these visitors see? A lot of people sitting around doing nothing.

"What are all these people here for?" they ask. I actually had a director ask that question once, but he was reportedly on ecstasy at the time and couldn't figure out what shot he wanted.

The question reaches beyond films sets these days. Our world has become so overrun with MBA's, who are taught that cutting costs is equivalent to increasing revenue, that politicians and corporate execs are asking it, too.  And potentially screwing up as badly as the director on ecstasy.

I faced the question once by someone who knew nothing about film. Instead of trying to explain it in movie terms, I talked sports.

"Imagine if a business person who had never seen an NFL football game was suddenly in charge of a team. 'Why do we have two kickers?' this person asks."

'Well, one is for field goals, the other is a punter.'

'But that's all kicking, right? Why can't we run that department with just one of them? A field goal, that's just 3-points, right?  And we have more players on the sidelines than we do on the field. Why is that?'"

The film observer got the point, and to drive it home, I told him to watch what happens when they turn the world. (That's turning the camera around to look the other way, for you folks that don't know). I've had a chance to work with some of the best crews this business has to offer. I think you could sell tickets to watch them work.

Of course, that's the major leagues. Just like sports, if you're playing in the minors you make do with what you've got. Indie filmmakers achieve the same thing with less people, but it takes more time – and they don't have a multi-million dollar star with a 12 hour door-to-door contract waiting to work.

So if a film finance person, politician, or corporate executive asks, "can't we do that for less?" the answer may be, "Yes, but it'll cost you more."

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Perfect Martini

As some of you may know, I also blog with a group of novelists and non-fiction authors on a site called From The Write Angle. I think my recent post there might be of some use to filmmakers here, so I'm re-posting it. Any reports that I'm doing this because it's our off season, so technically my vacation, and that I'm too lazy to write a new article, are are absolutely true.


In a previous post, I wrote about an acting rehearsal that changed my approach to life, the arts, and everything, but I only told half the story in that article. Here's the most important part.

My acting partner and I had found what was missing from the Kent/Oswald scene in King Lear by getting back to the basics. Having done that, we worked on our monologues and sonnets. I had been having trouble with the sonnet:

Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their bodies' force,
Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill,
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest:
But these particulars are not my measure;
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments' cost,
Of more delight than hawks or horses be;
And having thee, of all men's pride I boast:
Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take
All this away and me most wretched make.

The problem was it sounded like a monologue. I talked with my acting partner about it, ending my diatribe with, "I've been talking for more than a few minutes, but why is it that – if I wrote down, word-for-word, what I just said, and repeated it, it wouldn't sound like what I just said?"

In other words, why did acting sound like acting and not real life?

So I continued to talk about the sonnet, then without notice, changed from my words to Shakespeare's. The transition was so seamless that when I was done, my scene partner's eyes were wide with excitement. "Let me try! Let me try," he said.

He did, and it was much better than he'd ever done before, but it wasn't quite perfect.

We worked on this new approach until we had a method for getting rid of everything we'd ever learned. We let every acting lesson we'd ever had slide off of us. We didn't start our monologues until we'd forgotten we were acting – and forgotten we'd forgotten we were acting.

The next week, after we'd nailed piece-after-piece in our semester finals, our teacher looked at me and said, "if you can bottle that, you'll make a fortune."

I'm still waiting for the fortune.

What we had done was take the final step in training—any sort of training.

Today, when I'm asked to speak about acting, I show up with the makings of the perfect martini. I put ice in the glass and pour in vermouth until someone tells me that's too much—which can really backfire if you're teaching kids. I then cover the ice, pour off the vermouth, making a show of how hard I shake out every last drop. Then I add gin or vodka, shake, and pour the perfect martini.

I enjoy a sip while explaining that the tiny amount of vermouth that clings to the ice is the perfect measurement for a dry martini. You have to put in too much in order to reduce it down to the right amount.

Then I turn the bottles around. Vermouth is labeled TRAINING. The gin or vodka is TALENT.

An artist, or a Navy SEAL, or an athlete, must immerse themselves in training. They have to learn everything there is to learn about their specialty—not just in their head, but in their body. They have to become so trained that a reflexive twitch of the knee is a textbook example of movement in their discipline.

That's the first step. At this level, many people think they are done—and most of the world would agree with them. A great number of successful artists work at this level. Plenty of soldiers serve our nation well by relying solely on their training, and locker rooms are full of athletes who play the game exactly as it is meant to be played.

But there is another level beyond the training. There is greatness. There is the perfect martini.

You don't get there on training alone.

You don't get there on talent alone.

It's a three step process. Learn it. Forget it. Do it.

And, yeah. The olives are the balls—which apply to either gender.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Best of The Blogs

Every year that I've done this blog, I see a big spike in readers around the time we're announcing our lineup for that year's festival. During the off season (like now) my readership drops. Of course, I understand this. It's human nature. That, and I don't write as much during the off season.

But folks, once you've submitted your film, it's too late to apply any knowledge you might gain from this blog. The idea is that those of you facing the blank page, or just starting production, or just beginning to think about your festival submission strategy, might learn from the mistakes of others.

Now is the time to be reading, not when you're eager to find out if you've been selected or not.

To help you get started, I've compiled a list of the best of Dances With Blogs. I hope these posts will help you on your journey from concept to completion. I also hope they will help you make a better movie, because we sure get tired of seeing the bad ones.

In honor of upcoming year 15, here are, in no particular order, the 15 best posts from the past two years.

Think Positive
The important thing to note in this post is the importance of your world premiere status. Be advised, Dances With Films takes this seriously. If you get into Sundance, Toronto, or the like, fine take it. If not, DWF should be on the top of your list. We will work with filmmakers by contacting you early if you're under consideration, so keep that in mind as well. Year 15 we're going to be tougher on this than ever, so spread the word, and plan accordingly.

No News is Bad Advertising
This is another good blog to read as you're considering your submission strategy.

Artistic Cross Training
This is a theme running through all my work, here and on From The Write Angle.

Possibly the most important aspect of any of the arts.

Louder, Faster, Funnier
Tips from the stage.

Top Ten Story Lines
Trends we're seeing too much of.

The 180 Degree Rule – One of my favorites

Great Isn't Good Enough

Three Cheers For Romance

Art and Business

One Lousy Point

The Never-Ending Need For Independence

Rules of Criticism

One Worked, One Didn't

Post Production Stress Syndrome

That's it. Please tell your friends to check this stuff out now while we can still help them.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Grand Experiment: Quality vs. Opening Weekend

Studios, and especially young studio executives, don't realize this, but they actually don't care about the quality of the films they make.

This is not to say that each individual involved in a production isn't doing the best job possible. They are. You don't rise to the top of a business as competitive as the film industry without skills. No one at a studio would say, "we don't care if the movie's any good or not, we just want a big opening weekend," but they will say, "we want a big opening weekend."

After the opening weekend, there are a handful of people in the business who will pay attention to drop off. That is, the difference between the first weekend and those that follow. Funny thing is, they call it a "drop off." They expect the second weekend to be lower than the first. Young executives will say, "but it always is."

No, it's not.

Step over here into indie film world for a second. Let's look at two movies that came out about the same time. One a tent pole, and the other an indie film.

This is the weekly box office chart for 2001's movie PEARL HARBOR, as reported on IMDBpro. That's a classic drop off.

This is the same chart for 2002's MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING. Sixteen weeks into its run, it was making more money than when it opened. This is a classic build.

What does all of this have to do with the quality of the movies? Everything.

On opening weekend no one knows if the film is any good or not. It's marketing's job to convince people to get off their butts and into the theatre. We should all tip our hats to those people, they do a great job. The quality of the film is not responsible for a successful opening weekend, since no one knows if the movie is any good or not. All the general audience knows is what they get from trailers, and possibly a few advanced quotes that the marketing executives have wined & dined from critics.

Young studio executives will tell you that word-of-mouth is the most important form of advertising, and in the same breath use the term "drop off." They will say that a small drop off is due to good word of mouth.

No. Good word of mouth would create a build, like GREEK WEDDING.

The business's obsession with big opening weekends, and the belief that drop-offs are normal, has become like the housing bubble was before the recession. "Housing prices only go up." Really? How's that working for you?

"Movies always drop off in the second weekend." It ain't necessarily so.

Indie films have no big marketing machine behind them. They don't have the clout to get advanced quotes. The only thing they have to rely on to pull in an audience is the quality of the movie. "My best friend said this movie is great! You have to go." The indie filmmaker is under much greater pressure to tell a good story well, where the studio filmmaker is under pressure to sell a story well – if it's a good story, that just happens to make it easier and more fun.

Think about this experiment. What if I were to pitch a movie to studios using nothing but stars who were attached. "Bruce Willis is on board as the hard ball detective, with Julia Roberts as the femme fatale, and the kids from Twilight are the white-collar gangsters, and it's nothing but action, romance and more action." If I actually had those stars attached, the project would get funded, right?

But... this experimental movie is nothing but trailer beats. "One man, stands between her and happiness..." No actual plot. No story. Just a collection of ads for a movie that never gets made. Except, we make the movie and marketing sells it. Pretty soon you're watching a preview of Willis saying cool, tough things to Roberts, who is looking smoking hot and sexy surrounded by the Twilight kids. "That looks good," you tell your date, and plan to come see it.

Think the drop off for that would be any worse than Pearl Harbor?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Let's Talk Business, Indie Film Business, Part Two

Like so many indie filmmakers, a few years ago, I sat down to write a business proposal for a movie I wanted to get financed. Like so many filmmakers, I knew nothing about writing a business proposal, so I got all the books, read all the blogs, and taught myself.

One of the first things I learned, which will come as no surprise, is the practice of presenting comps – short for complimentary films. These are movies like the one you want to make that are already on the market. You use their performance as an example of what your film might do. Typically, a business proposal would have three comps: a highly profitable, a mid-level, and a not-so-successful.

Really? Just three?

Most of the research I'd done on the subject talked of the difficulty of finding financial information on movies. That makes sense, IMDB Pro was new, so it probably wasn't around when these books were written.

So I decided to bring the digital revolution to the business plan. First, I e-mailed IMDB Pro to find out where they got their numbers. They said they are a compilation of information provided by the production companies and the trade magazine reports. Fair enough. The textbooks all said contact the production companies to get what information they are willing to share, and then dig into the trades. For $13 a month, IMDB did the work for me.

So, I did a search for all films with budgets between one and ten million dollars released between 1999 and 2006. [NOTE: I attempted to update these numbers for 2010, but IMDB is revamping their Home Video/DVD numbers, so they are no longer available. Given the change in distribution and viewing habits, that data is vital, so my old numbers have to do for now].

Many of these lower budget movies show no income whatsoever. These films either have no distribution – which is important, more on that later, or were direct-to-video which make for difficult calculations. I removed titles with no income data.

So, my statistical set becomes all movies with budgets between $1-10 million, that have reported theatrical income.

Instead of three comp titles to work with, I now had 260. I loaded all of them into Excel and got to work.

On the income side, we have two fields: Box Office and Home Video. Box Office was required for this exercise, Home Video was not. In many cases there was no HV income reported on titles that we all know are available, like: But I'm a Cheerleader, Jesus' Son, etc. Fifty-five titles in all had no Home Video reported, so that skews my income numbers in a conservative fashion.

Box Office is only domestic, so again my numbers are extremely conservative as foreign box office creeps up to equal domestic. I have no TV numbers, domestic or international - so, again, my income numbers are well below what might be expected.

In other words, the final report will be worse than real life. That's a good thing as far as investors are concerned.

Expenses include:
Distributor Fees = 50% Box Office
Prints & Ads = 3K plus 33% of box office (more on that calculation below)
Home Video costs = 40% of Home Video
Guild Obligations = 12% of Home Video.

For studio films the calculation for Prints & Ads can be as much as three times the budget. This is another reason tent pole movies have such a slim profit margin, if any, in the theatres. My calculation is based on a rolling open. Smaller distributors may only have a handful of prints to send to theatres, so they will open in select cities to get reviews for the DVD. The movie will stay in theatres as long as it makes money, but there isn't a huge advertising budget. To open a movie in New York, theatres require proof of $100,000 in advertising. My calculation figures on a three city open at $100,000 each, plus one third of the box office which might be churned into more prints and ads. It's not a perfect calculation, but it's more accurate than the studio model, and errs on the conservative side.

Given all of these calculations, what did I conclude?

116 movies showed a profit. That's 45%. Of those, the average return was 80%.

So if you give a filmmaker a million dollars to make a movie, you have basically a 50-50 shot at a profit. If you do make a profit, chances are, you'll walk away with 1.8 million off of your million dollar investment – and that's before international box office, international home video, pay TV, free TV, International Pay TV, International Free TV, and now, Video On Demand.

Of course, it's still a high risk investment. Remember those movies that showed no income. But as the high risk world goes, I'd say the film industry, if done smartly, is safer than most people think.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Let's Talk Business, Indie Film Business, Part One

During one of the panels at this year's Dances With Films festival, our guests pointed out that the most recent WGA strike ended with a horrible deal for top-tier writers. I asked if these people were seeing any participations (a.k.a. "backend") money. I got the reaction I expected from people used to working with studio films, laughter.

One of my many day jobs in the studio system was working in the Participations Department for both Universal and Warner Bros. I recall one of the senior analysts talking about the reports she slaved away on day-in and day-out. "I don't know why we bother. They never pay."

We were talking about tent pole films, so I asked, "What about the low-budget ones?"

"Oh, yeah, they pay."

Why would a smaller film that fewer people have heard of pay out more money than the household name, summer blockbuster? Lots of reasons.

The easiest to wrap your head around this is that they cost less to make. The film industry is a funny business. The price of the product is in no way related to the cost for the consumer. It costs you the same amount of money to see Harry Potter as is does The Hang Over. Participants – people who participate in the sharing of the profit of a film – don't see any money until there is a profit.

The more difficult reasons smaller movies pay out before larger ones has to do with the fact that the above sentence isn't entirely true.

Some participants – usually big stars – can negotiate a deal where they are paid based on gross income, not net. So their money is deducted from the pool before the other participants get to share. This makes the math really difficult.

Add to this, the initial investors are also participants. Different from the writer, director, hired producers, talent, etc. who are paid a salary to make the movie, the investors are the ones who paid these people. They must get that money, and the rest of the cost of production, back first, with interest, since they've taken the biggest financial risk. As an indie filmmaker, you want these people make money because you've probably got another project you'd like them to invest in.

All of this who-gets-paid-back-when stuff is called "the waterfall." Ideally, the people who took the most risks are at the top of the waterfall taking their fair share first. The people at the bottom may never see a drop. They are the ones you usually hear complaining about there not being backend money in the movie business.

But keep this in mind. The people at the bottom of the waterfall have already been paid. Sometimes they've made six or seven figures before there was any water in the stream. The people who paid them are at the top hoping against hope that there will be enough water to refill their reservoirs.

I've seen so many speakers at seminars wearing designer clothes, expensive jewelry, and driving fancy cars complaining that they never see any money from their movies. It's made me conclude that there are two types of people making this claim: those that have already been paid, and those that are making so much money that they don't want anyone else to know about it.

I also mentioned at the seminar that close to 50% of low-budget films turn a profit. In part two of this segment, I'll show you how I got to that number.

Until then, thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Journey of a Thousand Filmmakers

For those who couldn't make the festival, or who didn't get around to reading this year's awesome program, here's a re-print of my article.


Ever since Sex, Lies and Videotape, scored a big distribution deal at Robert Redford's little pet project in Park City in 1989, the term "Industry," when related to film festivals, has come to mean one thing – distribution. Yes, there is currently an argument that distributors aren't as important as they used to be, given online video on demand, etc. etc., blah, blah, blah.

I would never make that argument. One need only see the thousands of unfiltered submissions to Dances With Films to know that gatekeepers play a vital role in the arts. You as the audience do not want to be exposed to the dirt from which the gems are uncovered, believe me!

But something is lost when "The Industry" only includes distributors. At Dances With Films we know that not every movie screened here is ready for a wide, commercial distribution, but there is something about each movie – be it the direction, the cast, the photography, the script, the production value, something about each of these films that stands out above the rest.

When you watch Less and you realize that actors Zak Barnett and Rebecca Noon have you believing in an impossible love, and that Gabriel Diamond's words are pitch-perfect, then you'll know what I'm talking about. When you discover Jeff Gill, Adam Soule and actor-techie Gary Henoch in The Aristocrat – which also as fantastic dialogue – then you'll feel pride in the discovery you made.

When you see Charlie Anderson's photography in Close-Up you'll want to hire him for your next film. When you see the kids Caitlin Kinnunen and Joseph Montes in Sweet Little Lies, you won't be able to stop grinning. Evald Johnson's agile comedy in Stan will have you pulling for the everyman.

The cast and script of The Corridor. The comedy of Hopelessly in June. The smokin' hot intellectual erotica of Mortem, along with the talent of their cast. The "OMG, I just saw what kids'll be into in the next two years" feeling of Night of the Alien.

Rachel Boston.

Zack Parker's twists and turns in Scalene. Jamie Greenberg's mastery of comedy in Stags. The warmth of Love's Kitchen. The camp of Millennium Bug.

And that's just SOME of the features. Never mind the heart wrenching importance of docs like Certain Proof, or the cavalcade of talent in the shorts programs. I could go on and on.

For those of us in this business, the point is not so much to hit it big with one movie, but to keep working. In order for that to happen, casting directors, development executives, below-the-line agents, production houses, production executives, and yes, distributors of narratives and documentaries need to see our work. A discovery festival like DWF is a great place for that to happen. So, let's get away from this idea that The Industry means distributors alone. Let's remember; success can be a Director of Photography getting a job that pays, or a writer being hired to punch up some dialogue, or an actor that gets a more visible role.

Giant steps are great, but they come once a decade or so. If we take human-sized steps, we can cover that ground just as fast.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Post Production Stress Syndrome

When I got PPSS I thought I was the only one, but in talking with other filmmakers I've learned two things: First, it's common, and second, everyone thinks they are the only one.

A couple of days after we wrapped Jacks Or Better, I had to fly back east for a family matter. The shoot had gone great, thanks mostly to a well-rehearsed, disciplined cast and top notch department heads. Like many uber-indie productions, I, as writer/director, was the most inexperienced person on the set. My background was theatre, so I made sure the actors were honest moment-to-moment and kept my mouth shut about the film side except to constantly say, "I'm so glad Dave [my Director of Photography] and I are making the same movie."

So for the 12 days of shooting, I was calm.

A day after we wrapped I woke up in North Carolina in a panic. "What are we shooting?"

"I don't have a crew."

"I don't have any equipment."

"What scenes do I have to get in North Carolina?"

This went on for nearly a minute. Anyone who has experienced the "where am I and what am I doing here?" wake up moment knows that a minute is a long, long time. And it wasn't just once. The first night I woke up a couple of times like that. Over the next few days, panic became my morning routine.

Eventually, it passed of course, and I had seen enough TV psychiatrists to know what delayed stress was, so no harm done.

Flash forward a few years later and I'm acting in a student film. The director was a sweetheart, and cool as I remember myself being, though she faced insane challenges. Over the few days of the shoot, the weather had to be perfect, the actors were on horseback, and there was a period gun duel that had crazy-difficult coverage issues. She handled every bit of it without a problem and the days past without any major issues.

This sounded familiar to me, so I told her, "Don't be surprised if you have Post Production Stress Syndrome."

She laughed and said that wasn't like her. I told her my story, which she appreciated but didn't think it was a cause of concern.

A couple of days after we wrapped I got a call from her. Sure enough, she'd been waking up in a panic, freaking out, not knowing what was happening. She thanked me for the heads up and I thanked her for verifying that I wasn't the only one to go through this.

At the closing night party for this year's festival, I asked one of the 2-Step filmmakers – who was directing for the first time – if she had post production stress. She said yes and we shared stories.

So I'm not the only one. If you've had this, you're not either. If you're about to shoot, don't worry if you're calmer than you think you should be – your nerves will catch up to you and kick your ass as soon as they know you can handle it.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

And the winner is...

As you might recall, this year's 2-Minute 2-Step featured a new twist – Adobe Premiere Pro CS 5.5 editing software instead of the default Final Cut we'd been using for the past four years.

I say "default" because when talking about editing in the independent film world people practically assume you'll be on Final Cut. That's the system everyone knows. They've cornered the market, right? They certainly act like they have, as they pretty much ignore you once you've bought their hardware.

Since year one of the 2-step, I've been saying that Final Cut is vulnerable to a takedown by a company that evolves the software, provides cross-platform capability, and understands the needs of production. Has Adobe done that?

Judging from the spontaneous cheers that broke out when I mentioned their name at the closing night party, I'd say yes.

From Left to Right: 2-Step Winners Jon Hill, Tommy Smeltzer; DWF's Robert Mellette; from Adobe, Michael Kanfer; from Canon, Tim Smith

During the 2-step, we had a couple of Final Cut editors hit the ground running on Premiere Pro and finish our high-pressure competition without a hitch. Not only does Premiere Pro provide options for Final Cut users to automatically set the keyboard to FC standards, but their best technicians were sitting in the chair next to the editor answering every question. Not that there were many, but try getting that kind of support from Apple. You won't. I know, because we tried for four years.

And I haven't even talked about native editing of Canon 5D files, aka, no conversion time. Cards were flying out of the camera, over to the editors, and back to the set before the crew finished the new set-up. In most cases, editors were twiddling their thumbs waiting on new footage. Compare that to last year when we had to wait, and wait, and wait for the time-and-a-half conversion of the 5D footage. As I told the audiences when introducing the 2-steps, I got a lot more sleep because of Adobe.

Thanks, guys.

On another topic. We had some films, including the 2-steps, screen off of Blue Ray DVDs, even though we strongly, to the point of pretty much require, films to screen from HD-Cam tape. Why? Because Blue Ray is still a DVD, and homemade/semipro made DVD's fail at an extraordinarily high rate. For the purposes of a live audience screening, they are pretty much one-and-done, and even then run a high risk of failure, as one film experienced.

I know a lot of smaller festivals around the country only screen off DVD or Blue Ray, so as a word of warning, I suggest only do this as a last resort, definitely have a back-up in the booth, and make sure it is a brand new disc.

That's it for now. This year's festival was logistically the biggest we've ever had, so thanks so much to everyone for your patience and understanding. I hope it was as fun and informative for you as it was for us.

If you weren't in this year's fest, but are thinking about making a film, I hope you will read through past posts on this blog. They are written with you in mind. Please share them with your friends before you make your movie – so I won't have to see the same kind of mistakes over and over next year.

Posts here will slow down during the off-season, but keep checking in as you never know.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Breaking News

Cinematographer extraordinare, Russell Carpenter, (Titantic, True Lies, and more) will be dropping by the filmmaker's lounge at 4:30 for a chat with this year's DWF class. Our little lounge is becoming the place to be in LA. Like, kewl, ya kno?

I just came from the screening of one of the best little movies you'll ever want to see called, modestly, Less. Casting directors, filmmakers, and anyone who want's to follow talented actors take note of this cast. There's so much honesty on that screen that it makes you forget you're in a movie theatre - especially if you got rained on while waiting in line.

I was reminded by this film about the difference between trendy and quality.

The trendy people in Los Angeles cling to the stereotype of what they think this town is supposed to be. Oddly, they are usually the ones who haven't been here very long or are just visiting. Sure, they may be the beautiful people, but are they the attractive ones? If they stood next to a full length mirror - as they often do - could you tell the difference between the reflection and the real person?

This is not to say that people chasing the lastest and greatest aren't good people, or even quality people - but they are so busy chasing the spotlight that they can't see the lives they are running away from in order to get there.

The quality artists careless about the light shining on them, and more about it shining from them. During this festival it gives us all great joy to give these people their time in the light. To thank them for guidance their work has given us all.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

How Cool Is This?

It was about 4:30 yesterday afternoon. Dances With Films and our 2-Minute 2-Step filmmakers were kicking back with a beer in the filmmaker's lounge after having made a movie that morning. Alan Heim was due to drop by for our new "Conversations With" series.

Now, you may not know that name, so click on the link to IMDB. Take some time to explore the movies he edited. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Are you back? I bet at least one of your favorite movies is on his résumé. The man is the real deal.

Before he arrived we were sitting around trying to figure out what to do with this new "Conversations With" event, and someone said, "why don't we set up an interview?"

The best thing about the Dances With Films filmmaker's lounge is, we make movies there.

Two-Minute Two-Step line producer Charlise Holmes comes from a news background, so this was right in her wheelhouse. Before you know it, the Canon 5D Mark IIs are out and on tripods - not as good as an A-1 for an interview, but not for zero notice. The sound mixer from the 2-Step was still around, so he grabbed his stuff, and in a heartbeat, I'm sitting down in front of the Adobe edit bays to have a chat with Mr. Heim about All That Jazz, Lenny, Star 80, Network, and on and on.

When we have the interview edited, I'll post a link.

I've always said that the best artists are very often the best people. Alan is a good example. You can't help but feel good about life after a conversation with him.

Thanks for reading. If you're in Los Angeles, come out and see some of the movies I've been writing about all year.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Tips From The Fest

I'm tucked away in a corner of the filmmaker's lounge where a 2-Minute 2-Step film is being edited, posters are being printed, and crew members are solving the problems of the world. The shooting is happening one room over. All of this is to say, this might not be the best-written article I've ever done.

The president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ken Howard, stopped by our opening night party yesterday and it got me to thinking. Film festivals all claim to be "about the films" or "about the filmmakers." Good, great, no problem. The principle creative person on a film lives with it years before it is shot and years after it's finished, and to the general public, they are largely unknown. They deserve their time in the spotlight, and what's good for the film is good for everyone involved.

But Dances With Films is a discovery festival in the entertainment capital of the world. A screening here is a business opportunity for more than just the filmmaker or the film. The cast especially have a chance to take advantage of the screening, but how? Old-school LA actors have tons of experience drumming up attention for their 99-seat Equity-Waiver productions, but that's because they know how it feels to stand in front of a bunch of empty seats. I'm not sure the younger actors have that same experience. Some are great at it, some think "if you screen it, they will come."

The question I'm wrestling with is how can SAG, SAGIndie, and the festivals help get the casting industry off their butts and into the theatre to see new talent? That's an open question – please discuss in the comments below.

For the techie folks, here's the big discovery we've all made. TASCAM DR100 or DR680 digital audio recorders instead of the Zooms – which everyone seems to use. They are cheaper, have some sweet functions the Zoom don't, and can take advantage of the 5-D manual audio settings to patch directly into the camera. That's your filmmaking tip of the day.

Thanks for reading. Comments welcome.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Final Cut vs. Adobe

No, this is not a review with dry comments about processor speeds, software engines, layout designs, or Mac vs. PC.

This is a throw down!

In a week, eight filmmakers are taking the Dances With Films 2-Minute 2-Step challenge. They've been chosen from a pile of script submissions as the best written. Starting next week, we give them Canon 5D Mark II cameras to shoot and Adobe Creative Suites to edit their two-minute movie and prove who's the best shooter.

And they only have four hours to git 'er dun.

Yesterday at the Showbiz Cafe off Sepulveda Blvd. in LA, the filmmaking teams were introduced to their tools. Sure, most of them knew the camera. Not like a year ago when everyone was in a panic over making a movie under such pressure with a camera they'd never used that looked like it was great for stills but not video. Now many of them own one. Almost all of them have shot with one, and the Canon representatives will be on sight to help. So no worries there.

But no Final Cut? How can they be expected to edit a movie in such a short time on software they've never seen before? I was expecting a riot.

Then we got a demonstration by the Adobe crew.

Folks, it is on!

Not a single editor balked, or said, "what about...?" In fact, it was the opposite. Most seemed to be chomping at the bit to get their hands on this stuff. I'm sure they've downloaded the trials and are practicing at home right now.

I'm not one to do product endorsements, but I can tell you this. We've been doing the 2-Minute 2-Step Challenge going on five years now, and in that time Apple and Final Cut offered no support whatsoever. Sure, we got some software to give away as prizes, big deal, but the computers came from Hula Post. They're great.

When we couldn't get Final Cut to lay back to tape without glitches, and had to screen our films before a live audience in a matter of hours, who could we call? Nobody.

And it's not like we were some punks trying to make our home movies. We had Canon's best people working on this – in the room. On the set. On the phone trying to get someone to help. The internet was lit up with the best forum masters around trying to deal with this issue. Editors all over the world were following our plight. Except, of course, the support team from Final Cut.

Turns out, there was an intermittent problem with loading footage from a Fire Store into Final Cut and getting it back out again. Final Cut didn't seem to care.

Yesterday, for the pre-production meeting with our eight filmmakers, Adobe brought two experts for the presentation, the North American Technical Sales Manager for Pro Video/Audio Products and an Academy Award-winning visual effects artist. They get it. Like the Canon techs who have spent many an hour on a film set, the Adobe folks understand that they are making tools for artists, not a killer app for selling hardware.

So the game's afoot. Adobe is up ten points in my book and we haven't even started yet – but then again, good filmmakers know you make your day in pre-production.

2-Steppers, feel free to comment below with your opinions, and they don't have to be positive. From yesterday's meeting, through your production, to the closing night party, your feedback is our education and entertainment.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Challenge

We're two weeks out from the festival and the challenge is on. Move over Donald Trump, this ain't no game show. It's the real deal.

Filmmakers are faced with two tasks at any Los Angeles festival. They have to fill the house, and they have to get the Industry to take notice of them.

But really, that's just one job. Of the films that have had the most success after their Dances With Films screening, almost all of them played to overflowing houses.

Think about it. An acquisitions executive sits in an empty theatre to watch a movie with no big names. Eh.

Same executive has to push his or her way through a crowd to find the filmmaker to make sure there's a seat available.

Both movies may be of the same subjective quality. In fact, some might argue that the movie playing to an empty house could be "better than" (whatever that means) the full house, but it is the acquisition exec's job to find movies that people will come out to see.

Filmmakers are artists, yes. They are part of the performing arts, which means they are show people. Your festival screening is a show. It's a show in the theatre and a show in the lobby. As the leader of this show you have to tap into your inner P.T. Barnum.

You have to figure out what is special about your film – above and beyond the thousands of things to do in Los Angeles at the same time as your movie. Then you have to figure out a way to tell the people who might be into your show that it's happening.

None of that is easy.

The only advice I can give is that Los Angeles is a different animal. You tell her you're screening a movie and it's special and great and she needs to get off her couch, or off the beach, or down from the mountains, or whatever to come out and see this amazing event, and she will say, "Hey, that's nice. It looks great. Good for you."

"Are you going to come?"

"No, but ... good for you."

On the plus side, there are over ten million people in the area. If you can find a way to talk to the percentage of the whole that will get off their butts and come to your show, then you're set.

And while you're at it, don't forget to invite an executive or two.

Good luck. Thanks for reading.

Friday, May 13, 2011


Today is National Cocktail Day, which is a good thing, but it is also a sad day. Dances With Films lost an important member of our family this morning. Lura Scallon, Leslee's mother, passed away after a year-long battle with cancer.

Both the Scallon family and the Coors Brewing company are in mourning, as Lura was no slouch when it came to her Coors Light. She was quick to laugh with a genuine smile that would quarter no pretense. Be you pauper or royalty, she didn't care as long as you were nice to those around you.

I always knew the festival was seriously close when Leslee's mom flew in from Oregon. She would hold down the home fort while Leslee lived at the theatre. Dinner at Leslee's months later would include something old-school delicious. "You like that?" Leslee would ask, "Mom made it when she was here. I just took it out of the freezer."

Year 12 she came to the closing night party. You'd have thought she had won the competition by the way she worked the room. I had the honor of escorting her home that evening. She was quite a date.

John Lennon said it best. We take the love we make. Lura takes with her more love than she ever dreamed she made. Filmmakers all over the world, raise a glass to a woman you may have never met, but to whom you owe toast of thanks. In no small way, she made it possible.

Panels! Panels! Panels!

Panels, you say? You want panels? Not only do we have panels, but we're giving you a chance to post your questions here ahead of time.

We are still working out the details, but they will be free to anyone with a festival pass. They will also be open to the public for a nominal fee. We're talking $5 right now, but that might go up to $10 depending on the venue. Still, cheap at twice the price.

Keep an eye out on our website and here for more details on the location, etc. In the meantime, here's what we know:

Jeff Begun (Partner, Co-Founder: Film Incentives Group)
Jason Constantine (President of Acquisitions, Lionsgate)
Jay Cohen (Head of Film Financing and Packaging, Partner, The Gersh Agency)
J. Todd Harris (CEO/founder of Branded Pictures Entertainment, Exec Bottle Shock, Exec Producer: The Kids are All Right)
Ari Haas (Director of Acquisitions, Myriad Pictures)
David Madden (Pres, Fox TV Studios, Producer: Save the Last Dance, Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Exec Prod Something the Lord Made, Harlan Country Wars, Director: Separate Lives)
Heidi Van Lier (Author, The Indie Film Rule Book and Film Threat contributor)
Steven Wegner (EVP, Alcon Entertainment, Co-Producer: One Missed Call, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Blind Side, The Book of Eli)

Jeff Begun (Partner, Co-Founder: Film Incentives Group)
David Gale (Executive Vice President, MTV New Media)
Rena Ronson (Co-Head, Independent Film Group, United Talent Agency) Exec Producer: Blue Valentine, The Other Woman, Producer: Twin Falls Idaho
JC Spink (Owner Co-founder of Management, production co BenderSpink, Producer The Butterfly Effect, A History of Violence, Exec Prod The Hangover, and I am Number 4)
Tricia Wood (Casting Director: Laurel Canyon, The Human Stain, Wicker Park, Shop Girl, Disturbia, Smart People, Twilight, Red, Lincoln Lawyer)
Frank Wuliger: (Partner, The Gersh Agency)

Of course, panelists are subject to change.

In order to help us guide the discussion, we'd love to know what questions you'd like to ask these folks, so please, please, please – post them here.

I'll start.

Tricia Wood, when people think of "the Industry" in terms of film festivals, they really mean "distribution," yet in 2007 we had a quirky little movie called One Day Like Rain with Jesse Eisenberg as a part of a tremendous ensemble. I think I could go through every year of the festival and point out other such pre-discoveries. This year I could name 10 films off the top of my head that every casting director should see. Besides the few clips on an actor's reel, how important is it for you to see undiscovered talent carry a movie?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Primitive Film: Why Should I Care?

The final installment of my Primitive Film series.

In one word: Marketing. Unless you’re a professor of film criticism, the existence of a new genre of film is about as important to you as the weather at the North Pole. But, the weather there will eventually find its way to your part of the world, so it does have some relevance.

Marketing films is changing by the minute. The technology changes on that end of the business faster than anywhere else. In their case, the idea of being able to package and sell low budget films under one heading, "Primitive Films," means they could carve out a new niche in the Netflix of the world.

By giving this style a name over-and-above "horror" or "comedy," and separate from the Miramax/Focus/Searchlight films, Primitive Filmmakers might enjoy the kind of sales that their indie-brethren had in the 1970’s with the advent of the midnight movie. Through primitive films we might find the next David Lynch, John Waters, or Will Scheffer.

Imagine the New York, Chicago, LA, Atlanta socialites going on about how they discovered this new little film, "It’s cinema primitive, don’t you know?" Or their teenaged kids, "Dude, it’s primitive… Totally!" When one’s Netflix choices have all been seen, and new products aren’t out yet, "honey, let’s see what this primitive thing is all about." Bingo. A market. A complete market, with comedies, horror, romance, and things studios and film school grads haven’t even thought of yet. If small distributors unite to brand this type of film under the heading of primitive, they can carve out a niche where the studios dare not go.

So spread the word!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Ask Each Other

We have a ton of filmmakers from all over the world who couldn't make it to yesterday's orientation meeting who I'm sure have questions. We at DWF would like to know what was helpful and what questions you still have.

So here's a place for this year's filmmakers - and anyone else for that matter - to ask each other questions about festival preparations, marketing, industry info, or just a shout out to say how great we are.

'Cause, you know, it's all about us.

Use this blog's comments section like a forum. Have at it, folks.

Friday, May 6, 2011

2-Minute 2-Steps: Year One

I thought you guys might like to see our first year's 2-Minute 2-Step films. Some are great. Some are ... not as good as the great ones. :)


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Primitive Film: What Is It?

Continuing from last week's reprint of my 2006 article on Primitive Film.

Primitive movies are more than just independent. Movies with multi-million dollar budgets, big stars and major studio distribution deals somehow still get called "Independent" these days. We need a new label to separate the mini-majors from the kids in Kansas with a DV camera.

Primitivism begins as all great works begin; with a deep desire to do the best work possible. There is a lot of heart in these movies, and one gets the feeling these filmmakers aren’t trying to look primitive. They are truly making the best of what they have. I would actually hate to see this style catch on to the point that Steven Spielberg decides he wants to make a Primitive Film. Not that he wouldn’t do a good job of it, but the audience knows that he has all the resources in the world to tell his story. He should use them – just as the primitives uses all of the resources that they have available.

Along with technical limitations, Primitives face talent limitations. I’ve often said that a good picture of bad acting makes for a bad picture. Then some filmmaker will find a person who is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an actor, but they are honest.

I had an acting teacher in college who told us, "If you’re born to play the part, then you won’t need a thing I teach you, but if you’re a professional actor, you have to play the part you're given – whether it speaks to you or not."

A trained actor works hard to be as honest and relaxed in whatever role they play. In primitive films, people who don’t have the least bit of talent are often cast in roles that they are born to play – sometimes literally! It can take a while for someone who isn’t used to watching primitives films to get used to this, but if the filmmaker has done their job right, by the end of the movie, you couldn’t picture anyone else playing those parts.

Other departments, such as: art, wardrobe and sound, are often just getting by with what they can – though here talent can make up for lack of resources. In EAST OF SUNSET, for example both the art and wardrobe heads clearly had concepts that were noticeable to the trained eye, and invisible to the casual viewer – both an indication of a job well done.

I could name a hundred examples of fine Primitivism in film, such as: WHAT’S BUGGING SETH, ALICE’S MISADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, AMERICA 101, ATTACK OF THE BAT MONSTERS, MAKING MAYA, PURGATORY HOUSE, SELF LIFE, LOVE AND SUPPORT, TRUE RIGHTS, and so many more. And this list is just from a quick glance at the Dances With Films archives. The trouble is, unless you’re very much up on your truly independent films, you haven’t heard of any of these movies – so examples are hard to share. Which brings me to my final, and perhaps most important point.

Which I'll get to next week.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Why and What Next?

First, we do still have a slot or two open, so as I've said a hundred times, nothing is official until it is. This posting is both for those films that have gotten in, and those who will soon receive our famous pass letters.

Why a film gets rejected.

The easiest reason to reject a movie is because it's just no damned good. I hope the people who make these movies understand this about their work. In my head they kick the dirt and say, "Yeah, we were just goofing around," or "Hey, I gave it a shot and it was a good learning experience," or "we had fun and that's all we cared about." Good on ya.

The harder ones are the near-misses. We had an excellent road-trip documentary that covered a serious topic with a light sense of humor, but it was way too long. When we pass on this film we will encourage them to cut it down. Every year we have films that are moving along great, and then some left-field plot point turns the whole thing into a mess. We have good films with technical problems. We have pretty good films that don't pop off the screen (see my post on Voice). It's sad to see these DVDs in the "no" pile, but they are not the hardest, most heartbreaking ones to pass on.

That title goes to the great movies that have been seen by everyone. If I hear one more time, "...but it's showing at Newport," I'm going to scream. Nothing against the Newport Film Festival. They know a good movie when they see it just like we do. Nothing against Hollywood Shorts or the Beverly Hills Film Festival or any other small festival in Southern California or the world.

Yes, in a perfect world, each festival would program the best movies submitted, period. There would be no question of premiere status. All the festivals could just pass around the same movies each year. In the destination festivals, which are a way of attracting tourists to the area and so enjoy hefty sponsorships, that's practically the case. It's called the circuit. These fests are less dependent on ticket sales than the uber-indie crowd.

The cold hard fact is, world premieres draw better in a flooded festival market like Los Angeles. So while destination fests can live off their local Chamber of Commerce and angel donations, discovery fests like Dances With Films – which do have sponsors, and we love them dearly – are more reliant on ticket sales. Sure, some of you angry young artists may balk that film festivals should only be concerned with the art, period, end of story – but if that was the case, there would be no Dances With Films for you to be angry with. They would have gone under in year two. Since I didn't come on board until year three, I'm thankful they had a close eye on the box office.

Every film festival strategy book you read talks about the importance of your premiere. Most think that's just for the majors, and it is. Hey, if you get into Sundance, more power to you. Other regional festivals say they don't care. Well, let the word go forth from this day forward; Dances With Films takes the discovery part of being a discovery festival seriously. We are going to be a bitch about world premieres, not so much this year, but definitely in the future. Tell your friends and plan accordingly.

What next?

If your film is in the festival we'll cover this in e-mails to you. If you're in the LA area we'll talk more about it at the orientation meeting. I think we're the only fest that does these meetings, not sure. Doesn't matter. We've had filmmakers fly in for the meeting. That's not necessary unless you have more time and money than you know what to do with. If you can't make it, but have a friend in the LA area, send them to represent. If you are in SoCal, it's worth a ½ off from your day job for sure. I look forward to it every year.

If you haven't heard from us in the past few weeks and still want to be a part of the festival, get your 2-Minute 2-Step submission in ASAP. You'll get to make a movie that's in the festival the very next day.

Good luck.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Has Everyone Been Notified?

I'm seeing lots of questions on Twitter, Facebook, Without A Box, etc. asking if everyone has been notified. A couple of days ago someone said they saw screening times posted - this was before we'd even penciled in a schedule ourselves. Others are guessing at what have and have not been announced by what they see on our Facebook page (I think). Not every filmmaker is on Facebook, and we don't make selection announcements there until the whole schedule is set.

Here's a rough idea of the way it works. In the last few weeks we've sent out second and third round notices to start a dialogue with the films we're interested in. If you haven't gotten one of those it doesn't mean you are 100% out of the running. You have a lottery ticket, and about the same odds of winning - so work on your 2-Minute 2-Step.

Believe it or not, some filmmakers don't respond to our e-mails, so we have to call them to see if they're alive and kicking. If they don't get in touch, then a slot opens up and discussion of what film of the many good ones we haven't been able to program might fit starts up.

During this time, individual invitations are sent out, and we wait for confirmation from those films. We have had some films say they just KNOW they are going to get into, such & such festival but only if they are a world premiere, so they pass on us. I can think of two movies that did that and still had their world premiere status when they submitted the next year. When that happens, we go back to the good movies we couldn't fit in, discuss which one would be good for the open slot, etc. etc.

In the meantime, some of the films that have confirmed start Tweeting and Facebooking, but as you can see it's not a simple process of us sending out a bunch of e-mails and being done with it. That's why we can't give a simple yes or no to anyone just yet.

I hope this insight helps. Good luck.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

One More Thing

While you're sweating out our decisions - and, again, sorry for the wait; this has been a tough year - don't forget the 2-Minute 2-Step.

You write a two-minute screenplay - 2 pages or less, how hard is that? - and submit it to us.

We choose 8 of them - four alumni, four filmmakers who have never been involved in the fest. We announce the choices about a week before the festival, which gives you plenty of lead time to prep.

Then, while everyone else is watching movies, you're making one. Occasionally, the people watching movies take a break to watch you work. By the end of the day, you've got a finished movie that will screen the very next night in the festival.

Don't you wish you'd thought of this before you sunk your savings into your short film submission?

So quit waiting and get writing!

Some Quick Notes

We just did a marathon session of scheduling, moving titles around, regretfully cutting some movies we really like because there isn't enough time to show them all, etc. Things are still settling, but I wanted to make a quick point or two.

First, plot summaries. Folks, whether you're a filmmaker submitting to festivals or a novelist submitting queries, by the time we've finished reading about your work we should know what the story is.

In our case, we have hundreds of movie titles, some of which we watched in December. We occassionally need a little reminder, "what's that one again?"

So we turn to the summary filmmakers provide. "Our film opens with a vista on the mesa of anytown USA where egnimatic things happen to non-discript people."

Okay, I made that one up, but it's not off by much. We have literally read summaries that are three of four paragraphs long and still not known what the movie was about.

"I must not have seen this one," I tell Leslee.

"Yes you did," she says, checking the database. "You gave it a Must See."

"I did? What else did I say?"

"Great cast. Great Story. Book this movie."

Okay, so I'm just as guilty as you guys, but still! We need one sentence that tells us exactly what your movie is about. It's called a Log Line and you won't get far in the industry without learning how to write them, so get used to it. You'll thank me when you're at a festival party, cornered by the dullest person on the planet with the worst breath who says, "So? What's your movie about?"

Next thing. It's very helpful to chapter your features. Often at this stage of the process we want to take one more look at climatic scene - or we watched half of a movie when an urgent e-mail from a filmmaker asking when we'd be done with the list makes us lose touch and we have to go back. Nothing worse than hitting the skip button and getting all the way back to the beginning, or all the way to the end.

Finally, we've had more DVDs fail this year than ever before. FYI, people, home burned DVDs are good for about 3 screenings then they skip like an old 45 record left in a sand box. It's always good to send a back-up.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Obviously, we're going to be busy over the next month or so. Too busy for me to write new blog posts, so I've decided to serialize this article I wrote back in 2006. An abbreviated version appeared in the Dances With Films program that year. Here, for the first time, the entire, only-slightly dated, article will be presented over the next few weeks.

Of course, I'll still get notices when anyone comments and will reply to any questions, so fire away. Until then, enjoy:


A new age of filmmaking is upon us. Ours is an entertainment born and raised on technology. Without technology film wouldn’t exist, literally. As technology has changed, so has the art form, which goes hand-in-hand with the business. The latest change is digital. With digital, any savant, idiot or otherwise, can make a movie.

Of course, this is old news. Everyone knows the business is in the middle of a myriad of upheavals. Very few people know how these changes are going to affect the industry. There may not be one overall answer to that question, but I think I can offer some assistance into one small aspect of it.

The other day, I was screening shorts for the Dances With Films Festival here in Los Angeles. The 9-year-old festival only accepts competition movies from unknown filmmakers whose work does not have stars (working actors are fine). As such, we are on the front lines of the war on film – I mean; the digital revolution. I can’t speak for founders Leslee Scallon and Michael Trent, but in the 6 years that I’ve worked for the festival, the decline in movies on film has paralleled a decline in the quality of almost every other department. That’s a general observation. Another general rule is that a good movie is a good movie whether it’s on film, video, or cut in stone by the bird inside Fred Flintstone’s camera.

Making movies has gotten a lot easier – making good movies is just as hard as it’s always been.

So… while screening these shorts, we discussed a movie that was engaging but with many rough edges, and it occurred to me that the new technology has brought about a new style of film – or rather… "tape" … or… "data" … or "software" … or… screw it – Film now officially means "movie" regardless of what medium it’s shot on… there, I said it.

Ignoring the many new styles we have been exposed to by the fast & cheap accessibility of digital that would fall under the categories of: Bad, Piece-of-Crap, and Thank-God-One-Can-Tape-Over-This-Shit – I’d like to focus on one of the better new genre that I call PRIMITIVISM.

Yes, I know… I didn’t makeup the term. There have been primitive movements in painting, music, sociology, etc. but not so much in film. One reason is that film hasn’t been around long enough to be primitive. Everything about it has always been, "look at the new, hip, cool stuff I can do." But now there are cameras in the hands of people who don’t know how to do the new, hip, cool stuff. They don’t have any friends at FotoKem to give them a cheap color correction. They don’t have access to Hollywood actors – which can be a big plus, given that the "Craig’s List Actors" in LA know just enough about acting to be extraordinarily bad at it. They don’t have grip trucks, Chapman dollies, technocranes, etc. etc.

All they have is the story.

Wow. Remember those? Stories? It’s that part between the explosions and the long-lens shot of the hot model-turned-actress-de-jour flipping her hair out of the water as her wet white shirt clings to the living homage to her plastic surgeon which we once called breasts.

Rumor has it that, before they were based on package deals, scripts actually were derived from stories.

Over the next two weeks, follow this blog as we define Primitive Film and explore what it might mean to the digital marketplace.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ask The Programmers

Okay, this sounds like an open, transparent form of festival programming, but in fact, I've watched 25 movies in the past few days and my eyes are bugging out of my head and I don't have a thought between my ears, so I'm being lazy and throwing the ball into your court.

What questions do you guys have for me?

Are you a filmmaker waiting to hear from us on submissions? Have a question? Ask away.

Are you a novelist considering crossing over into film and have questions? I can help.

Have you locked your keys in your car and need me to call AAA? Just let me know.

If you don't have a question, but really want to read some crap that's spilled out of my brain, run over to From The Write Angle to read my April 20th posting, "Artistic Cross Training."

So... ask, or read, or both.

Thanks for ... which ever one of those things you decide to do.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Further Up and Further In

I am so jealous! When my film was in DWF, the winners got a statue by John Berry, which is friggin' cool. More cool was being in Mark V. Olsen and Will Sheffer's office on Big Love, pointing to their statue and saying, "I have one of those."

Then Canon USA came on as a sponsor and we started giving away top-of-the-line cameras along with the statues. Where's my camera? Just announced today, CAA has come on as a sponsor. I don't think they are doing anything fancy, like offering a career to the winners, but still, where were they when I won? Can I get a meeting?

You guys are so lucky!

Not so lucky are filmmakers who lie to us.

Folks, we have access to the internet, you know. We know how to use Google. If you tell us you've never screened in Los Angeles or California, or wherever, and we find you listed in other festival programs, you're toast! What are you thinking? We often take films that have screened elsewhere – though, admittedly, we're starting to toughen-up on that count – but we never take movies from people who lie to us. Period. DWF is very proud of our alumni. We feel like we're building a family, and in a family, you don't lie to Mamma. Got it?

This year's slate is forming up. We haven't made any hard decisions yet, but I can tell you the Jello is jigglin'. I shouldn't admit this, but most years there are one or two films that standout where each of us programmers think, "Yeah, one of those is probably going to win." We usually don't say it out loud; that would be bad form. Not that it matters, none of us are judges and we love all the films that are in the festival. This year, though, the field is truly even. The quality is high, as usual, but no one film is leaping up above the others. It's going to be a scrap right down to the final buzzer.

Okay, so the NBA playoffs start this weekend and I'm a Lakers fan, so sorry for all the basketball references.

But, as co-founder Michael Trent always says, we're not about the competition. When you can put Dances With Films on your resume, you're already a winner. I promise no one will ever ask, "Were you in competition? Did you win?" I always think of it like competing in pinball. You don't care how good the other guy does, you just want to play your best. The rest is up to gravity.

So good luck to everyone. You're all still in the running – well, unless, you know, as mentioned above. We will be in touch one way or the other, and I'll still be blogging, so:

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 8, 2011

140 characters

I watched a feature film submission a couple of days ago that was so good I sent out my first real Tweet – other than the ones I send to promote this blog. Right after that, I saw a movie so bad I felt the urge to Tweet again.

What's up with that?

I have 22 movies to watch before 1:00 tomorrow, so for all of you sitting on pins & needles who would like to make the wait even more torturous, follow me on Twitter. I'll see if I can't drop a few hints from there. I am @RSMellette.

Having Adobe on as a sponsor has gotten me to thinking about how the digital revolution has become the video revolution, and changed all of our lives – not just filmmakers, but everyone. A kid growing up today who doesn't learn the basics of movie-making will be as far behind the curve as someone who couldn't do math or use computers in our generation. My novelist friends over at From The Write Angle have been talking among ourselves about the latest trend in literary marketing, the book trailer. Different from a TV commercial, these are little short films – often made by the author – meant to entice you to buy their books. They range from full productions, to the author sitting in their backyard droning on in a monotone snore. The point being, when the literati start discussing rendering speeds and FLASH formats, a seismic shift in communication has occurred. The wise filmmaker will find a way to take advantage of their skills to stand out in this, the video revolution.

Speaking of which, we watched a cute movie last night that deals with the personal communication revolution in a charming way. That was followed by yet another "is it a doc or a moc?" film. Five of us watched the entire movie with no consensus as to whether it was a documentary or a spoof. That's not a good thing. If it was real, then it was hilarious. The people (not characters, if it's real) were ridiculous and needed to be laughed at. If it was a spoof, it was boring. The characters (if it's a spoof) were asking to be laughed with, but did nothing to let us know they were trying to be funny. I've talked about this before. We, the audience, need permission to laugh. Nothing big. Just a wink and a nod to let us know you've got that at/with thing figured out, and we won't be rude by laughing.

We need a couple more film convention moratoria. First, it's time to put on the shelf the bit where a character kills someone, or does some other outlandish thing, just before we jump cut back into reality and we all say, "Oh, that was a fantasy.. ... how clever." It's no longer clever. It's been done to death. Also done to death, the security camera / organic video source movie. "Oh, how ... clever ... an entire feature film taken from security cameras, or webcams, or cameras that the characters actually have." Blair Witch was so 1900's. Get with the 21st Century and just tell us a great story.

Last night was our last short screening get together for the season. With the exception of the inevitable stragglers, bad DVD's that need replacing, and possibly one that fell behind the filing cabinet, all of the short films have been seen. NOT all of the second round notices have gone out, so don't ask about that. It is possible to be accepted into the festival without ever getting an official second round notice – rare, but possible.

For the next week or so the programmers – myself included – will watch the shorts and features we haven't seen, but others liked. This is the fun part for me, since I know when I put in a DVD that it's probably not going to suck. I hate it when they suck.

This will be followed by the worst part, where we have more good movies than screening times. Worse still, what one programmer thinks is a brilliant film, might not be another's cup of tea. So the tea cup is thrown across the room, furniture is thrashed, and bedlam breaks out as we all fight for our favorite films. Once we do finally settle on a movie and notify them, they get back to us that they are saving their world premiere for Sundance, which they are absolutely positive they will get into. More than once, we've seen films re-submit a year later with their world premiere still unsullied – but their drop-out your opportunity. It ain't over 'til the "thank for your submission, but..." letter is in your e-mail.

So sit tight, and while I watch all of your movies, it's only fair that you get to watch one of mine. This was a little bobble I made with friends a few years back that I never finished to a level suitable for theatres, but seems okay on line. I'm sure I've made all the mistakes I point out in DWF submissions, so feel free to call me out on them.

Enjoy. Thanks for reading, and watching.

M.P.A.A. - watch more funny videos

Friday, April 1, 2011

You're Already A Winner!

Congratulations! Absolutely every film that submitted to Dances With Films this year has gotten into the festival!

Uh... check the date of this post.

Before I get to last night's screenings, I want to give a shout out to From The Write Angle. This is a new blog group that some of my novelist friends have started. It launched today... no, really, that's not an April Fool, it did. My first entry, A Name I Call Myself, might give some comfort to the filmmakers who get those terrible pass letters that will be coming out in the next month or so, or any artist that might be going through a hard time. Stop on by and leave a comment so I know you're there.

I have a stack of feature films to get through and last night's Lakers' game to watch, so let's get right to the shorts from last night.

We had a film from Chapman University, which is always nice to see. Like FSU, Chapman always seems to produce quality work. Other universities do as well, of course, but those two have stood out in the past couple of years. If you're at another university, it might just be that we aren't enough submissions from your school, so get those suckers over to us.

We often get, but I've rarely talked about, films with scenes that are overwritten. Usually, this is a problem that doesn't stand out because so many other problems mask it, but last night there was a film that was just right in almost every way – good acting, filmmaking, story, etc. – but a few scenes had more dialogue than necessary. When a character speaks their emotions, or tells another character something they should already know, or slips into cliché phrases, then you get the feeling the writer is putting in more than is needed. This is when script editing has to go from the big hammer & chisel to the fine work of sandpaper and polish. Little tiny snips of a sentence here, or a word there, make all the difference in the world. Often this can happen on set. The director and cast should keep a sensitive ear. An overwritten line will sound like a flat note in a symphony; hard to pick out of the whole, but glaringly obvious once spotted.

We had a film that not only laid flat for all of us in the room, but also suffered from what's known in the business as "Bonanza Casting." That's when actors playing parents and children seem like they are really the same age. Not a huge problem. I've done it myself, but it's rare one gets to work that phrase into a conversation.

We had another film with a sound issue we often hear – or rather, can't hear. It had an uneven mix. The effects were loud and clear. The dialogue was barely audible. The loudest sounds were blaring, the softest not there at all. Folks, sound is as important as picture. Get it right or 50% of your movie sucks right off the bat.

We saw a delightful little documentary, much of which was shot right across the street from the Sunset 5 Theatre where we hold the festival. We got a laugh out of that, as well as the film – which is good, since it's intended to be funny. Often our biggest laughs come from films that didn't mean to get that reaction. Never good when that happens.

There was another funny and intelligent short that came off like a Southern Mamet sketch. The timing of this film was interesting, as it dealt with race. Just before that, we watched a movie with obviously well-educated, middleclass, articulate actors playing street characters. The writer didn't seem to have a handle on the idiom, either, which didn't help. Being a Southerner, it kind of reminded me of some of those cooking shows where the hosts say "ya'll" way more than is natural, or where writers have characters say it to just one person. Word of advice, "ya'll" is plural – ya feel me?

Finally, we watched a movie that I would like to carry with me 24/7 – along with a portable DVD player. Not because the film was good. On the contrary, it was about five minutes long, but I swear it slowed down time. The movie took forever. Time nearly stopped. I want this film – or any of the numerous slow shorts we get every year – on me at all times in case of emergency. If I'm in a car accident with only 3 minutes to live, and the ambulance is 20 minutes away... "Quick! Put on that movie that stops time!"

Keep an eye out here as we get to making final decisions on films. And if you want something to do while waiting, don't put on the movie that stops time, but get over to From The Write Angle. Maybe you'll learn something.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Crunch Time

Our late deadline is March 30th, which is tomorrow as I write this.

That means on our end we've got to get down to decision making. On your end, it's time for the worst part of the wait. Believe me, I understand how hard the waiting is. I'm not only a filmmaker, but also a novelist. Glaciers move like jack rabbits compared to literary agents and publishers, and the higher up the food chain you go, the harder the waiting gets. It really, really sucks – but cheer up, it's about to get worse.

If you flip though the archived comments of my blog to about this time last year, you'll see that a few people got very upset with me the closer we came to announcing our final screening list. I'm sure that will happen again this year, as some folks can never be pleased, but in an effort to keep you all in the loop I thought I'd give you an outline of how things go from here.

Right now we still have features and shorts that have yet to be screened. Keep that in mind, I'll remind you about it later.

Over the next week we expect a flood of entries from the procrastinator set. It never ceases to amaze me how people insist on paying twice the amount of money for the same thing. A little inside information: Without a Box, the festival submission service, requires that we have this late deadline, which is actually well past our comfort zone. Consequently, we jack the price up to what we think is an equally uncomfortable level – and yet, every year we get submitters who'll pay it. Go figure.

So, with movies yet to be screened and the expectation of more submissions, we're under the gun. At the same time, there are movies we've already seen that we know we like. These have been sent an e-mail saying something about a second round, blah, blah, blah. We do this for two reasons:

  1. Screening history update since you've submitted. Did you get into the LA Film Festival? Great! Good for you! Good exposure. We'll give your DWF slot to another deserving film.
  2. To give you a heads up so you can plan your festival strategy.

That second one is tricky. Every year we have more good films than we do screening slots. Getting that second round notice means you've got a film to be proud of. It means someone like me is in your corner fighting to make sure you get one of those slots, but it's not a guarantee of anything. So say we've reached out to you and another California festival wants you in. Get in touch with us. You might have a bird in the hand with the other festival, but the two in the bush are singing at you. Is it a tough decision, yes. The kind of tough decisions you want to have to make throughout your career.

Now is the time I remind those filmmakers who have not gotten such an e-mail that we still have movies in the bins we haven't screened. So the answer to your "what does it mean if I haven't gotten a second round notice?" question is... well, you can figure it out. I will add that when screening, we pick the movies out pretty much at random, so yours might be the first movie submitted, but the last one screened.

As we move forward in time the fat lady starts warming up, but she does not sing until our final list is announced, and our pass letters have gone out. Why is this? Films drop out, last minute decisions have to be made, screening times change, a brilliant programming idea might shake things up, etc. Last year filmmakers complained on this blog about how we were slipping information out when they hadn't heard anything. In fact, we had slots still open. And FYI, if your film is on the bubble, pissing off the festival directors is a great way to make their decision an easy one... POP!

But not to worry. In over ten years of doing this, I've learned that good films are made by good people. In nearly every single case, the people who complain irrationally have made the worst movies. Rational complaints are another matter.

Good luck to everyone, and thanks for reading.