Friday, February 25, 2011

No News Is Bad Advertising

We had a discussion last night about certain Movie Making magazines and why Dances With Films is not listed in them. It turns out some of these journalistic publications make film festivals pay to be listed, while purporting to be a news source for filmmakers. Is this the most horrible thing in the world today? No, not by a long shot, but it's an interesting distinction. A festival would be wise to buy a nice big shiny ad in a Movie Making trade journal in an attempt to snag as many entries as possible, but an informative, and supposedly comprehensive, list of festivals is not an ad. It's news.

Dances With Films has been around for 14 years now and has a long reputation as a highly visible discovery festival in the filmmaking capital of the world. If we're not listed in a magazine or dot-com claiming to have a comprehensive list, then you as a filmmaker should question if that source is giving you the whole story. Given that these Movie Making Magazines and dot-coms are treating news as advertising, one has to wonder about the value of their rankings of Festivals You Should Enter. Integrity is a currency. It can gain or lose value over time. In journalism, integrity is a must. We have to trust that a reporter is telling us as close to an unbiased truth as possible because we don't have the ability to go find the story ourselves. Once there is a doubt in that trust the value of their integrity is deminished.

Why should we as artists care so much about this? Because not knowing could cost you money.

Just this morning I ran across Kim Brittingham's blog via Writer Beware. In it, she discusses a new trend in bilking writers called "branded entertainment." These are talk shows, on TV and the internet, where guests pay to appear. Different from infomercials, where the producer of the product and the show are one-and-the-same so only the 6:00 AM audience is fooled (buyer beware), branded entertainment often charge "appearance fees" from their unsuspecting guests. The guest goes on a show assuming they have a large enough audience to generate sponsorship money, when in fact, the guest is the sponsor and there may be no audience at all. To my filmmaking readers, you should be just as warned as authors. If you get a call to appear on a talk show about your movie, be prepared. Follow Kim's advice on how to tell legit from quit.

On to this week's films:

There are a few shots we need to put a moratorium on:

  • Feet hitting the floor – getting out of bed, out of a car, out of a helicopter, I don't care. Unless the feet, or the ground they hit, are an important part of the story, we don't need to see that happen. We will assume that there is gravity. If the character successfully stands, we will give you the fact that there is some sort of solid surface under their feet. Of course, when you're shooting and you don't feel confident that you have a good shot of the transition between sitting and standing, get the shot, but tell your editor to use it only in case of emergency.
  • The long & wide shot of a person walking or driving from one side of the frame or the other. You know this one. For driving, it's usually done in the desert; walking, in front of a building with a cool wall – usually with pealing plaster. It's definitely a cool shot. So cool, in fact, that everyone uses it. EVERYONE. The first filmmaker to come up with an even cooler way to show a character getting from point A to B will probably become as rich and famous as I would like to be.
  • The close-up of some random part of a person's face. I don't need to see how big an actor's pours are or the hair on their upper lip – unless these things are an integral part of the plot, which would be a really weird ... please don't make that movie.

Something else we see a lot, which pertains to any written dialogue; it is 100% of the time a bad idea to have one character tell another something they should already know. If you find yourself typing, "As you know..." STOP.

Objection your author! The artist is trying to introduce exposition into the story in a way that makes his characters appear to be stupid.

Sustained. Artist, you must try another way to get that information into your story without compromising your characters.

I put it that way because when writing exposition I often feel like a lawyer trying to present evidence in a trial – especially when writing a novel in first person. The more stern the judge is in my head about the rules of presentation, the better my story will be.

We had a couple of more films last night that a good short premise but went on too long. Folks, watch the old Bugs Bunny cartoons. Get in. Get your laugh. Get out. Leave us wanting more.

We've had quite a few films this year that feel like someone got a new cool camera, figured out it can shoot video, shot some pretty stuff and then realized they could edit it on their laptop. Great! Good for you! Nice start. We will love to see your submissions year after year and watch you grow as filmmakers. Really, we would. And when you get to be filmmakers, we'll program your stuff – so don't be discouraged when you get that PASS letter in your e-mail.

We've had a few films – and I suspect we will get many more – about soldiers returning from Iraq and/or Afghanistan. We screened a short last night on this subject, and as the jeep drove away in the last shot we paid the highest compliment any audience can pay a drama – a deep, long silence. I've been on stage and gotten that reaction. It's a little freaky when the applause doesn't come right away and a room full of a thousand people sounds like it's empty. The first time it happens you think they hate it, until they stand and applaud. Bravo.

We have also had submissions on this same subject that did not ring true. I can't say for certain, because I don't know anything about the filmmakers, but when this happens it seems obvious that the artists involved have never experienced war, returning from war, or anything else that they've written about. In other cases, it's obvious the artists have experienced what's on the screen, but don't know anything about making movies. Both elements need to be given equal respect or the project – no matter how noble – will fail.

That's for this week. Again, comments are appreciated and thanks for reading.

Friday, February 18, 2011


I couldn't sleep the other night. Of all the things in my life that could legitimately keep me awake, my mind kept coming back to the submissions that technically have nothing wrong with them, but for some reason don't work. Yes, we here at Dances With Films are losing sleep trying to make you all better filmmakers.

If you read last week's post, you know how bothered I was with films that "lay flat," or "don't pop." As an artist myself, I have to wonder what they are doing wrong? I need to know the answer so I might avoid those mistakes in my own projects.

Okay, so maybe I wasn't as concerned about your work as I am my own, but we can all get better together, right?

I finally figured it out when, once again, artistic cross-training came to the rescue.

Those movies aren't working because the filmmakers have no voice.

Right now all of my novelist readers are saying to themselves, "Ah, voice... of course," while the filmmakers are saying, "What the hell are you talking about?"

In fact, many novelists might say, "Ah, voice, of course... What the hell is that, anyway?" If you are trapped in a desert in need of rescue, start a discussion about voice and a gaggle of authors will suddenly appear to offer their opinions on the subject. Why? Because agents and editor all say they are looking for authors with a "unique voice," and then leave it up to us to figure out what that means.

Voice is kind of like pornography; you know it when you see it. The trouble with that definition is that we as artists have to create it (voice, not necessarily pornography). We have to know our voice when all we see is a blank page. It is so hard to define that many people say it can't be taught. They say it's one of those, "you either have it or you don't" type of things. I've never liked that attitude. I think human beings can accomplish anything we put our minds to, though we all have more talent in some areas than others.

So, what is this voice thing? In publishing, agents and editors say they want "a unique voice," and the unique part is key. I suggest that all artists have a voice, but that some have developed it more than others. They have discovered their unique voice. For novelists a definition of voice might be, "the way a story is told, from overall plot and structure, down to the choice of every word on the page." If an author is in the habit of using passive verbs and lays out a story with no twists or turns, then their voice is not going to be as compelling as one who drives a story forward with action in every sentence and leaves the reader wondering what's next.

Filmmaking is infinitely more complicated. First, we have to define who's voice we're talking about; the writer, director, or in some cases the producer (Jerry Bruckheimer, Spielberg, Imagine, etc.)? For many DWF submissions these are all one and the same person. That makes things easier. The current fad among major studios and production houses is to find a team that share the same voice and have them repeat it over and over again.

This wasn't always the case. I remember reading a criticism of director George Roy Hill that said his style was all over the place, like that was a bad thing. In fact, he was a master of "the invisible art of filmmaking." He found the unique voice in each script and enhanced it. In his day, that was a director's job and he was one of the best. His voice was an amplification of the writer's. Bravo!

Over the years, Dances With Films has discovered many filmmakers with unique voices. In 2006 the Stern Brothers gave us This Is A Business, and later 2-Minute 2-Step films Desmond Jones: Professional Background Actor and It's Hard To Apologize. The last link is to a YouTube version of the movie, where you can see a great example of their dry sense of humor and human observations. Others that pop out at me from our archive include: Attack of the Bat Monsters, Easter, Eve of Understanding, Interstate, Miss Ohio, Rigged, Shelf Life, Solitary, What's Bugging Seth?, and so many more.

If we have any hope of breaking out on the world stage as artists, we must all find in ourselves what makes us unique. Why are we the only person on the planet who can tell that story, make that film, carve that sculpture, choreograph that dance, etc. in such a way that it will touch the hearts and minds of all who experience it? The answer is not in our words, but in our voice.

On to this week's submissions:

We've seen a couple of films this year where the bad actors are bad for a specific reason – one that directors can correct if they know how to recognize it. That is, playing attitude. Let's say you have a scene where one character doesn't like another one. If the hater is playing attitude then you'll get the feeling they are saying the lines in a way to make you know their character doesn't like the other character. This is also called indicating. You can sense it behind their fa├žade. "I am saying this in a way that will clearly indicate to all the people watching that I don't like you," rather than "I don't like you." The fastest way to fix this on set is to tell the actor, "You're playing the obstacle, not the intent. You don't like the other person, but you have to deal with them, so instead of showing us how much you don't like them, just deal with them."

We had a film that made the classic mistake of pulling a gun and not using it. I don't recall what filmmaker said that if you show a gun, it had better go off – The first person to post the answer, wins a cupie doll. (Actually, my vote is for Chekhov re: Three Sisters, or maybe The Seagull). But the point is, a weapon of any sort makes a powerful statement. Use them with discretion.

On the plus side, we had a film that told an entire story with color timing and production design. For those who don't know, color timing is an old film term. Each of the three primary colors are developed separately in film, so by adding or subtracting more time for the process, you can enhance or suppress each color. Want to turn day into night? More blue, less red and green. Match this with the human eye's desire to see colors that are absent, and you have a powerful tool to manipulate the audience. This was done on stage in the 1970's in a production of Dracula (I think it was Dracula, might have been Sweeney Todd). The production design – set, costumes, lights – was subtly devoid of color, especially red. Meanwhile, over the actor's heads, yellow sidelights shined across the stage, but because they hit nothing, they went unseen. Yellow is red's complement (or opposite, my terminology may be wrong, help me out designers). So when the first blood appeared in the story it was flung up into this light. The audience had seen no color whatsoever for so long that the backlit red jumped out at them, giving a pop to the horror. The short film last night did the same thing, to the point where I couldn't help but say out loud, "red" just before a rose appeared. Nicely done!

Our next film was in black and white and thankfully, shot on film. Beautifully shot. As it was a morality play, the reason for the black, white, and shades of gray was perfectly clear. No one asked "why is this in black and white?" We knew.

Again, we had a couple of essay films, and again one worked, one didn't. The one that didn't work was really friggin' long – over 20 minutes – and didn't tell a compelling story. The narrator's voice was bad and poorly recorded. The one that worked was seven minutes long, told an uplifting story, and gave us some beautiful images. Brava.

If you read last year's blog, you know that I railed against bad sound. So far this year, submissions have been much better on that front. Thank you all for that! Last night we did have a movie where the mix was uneven – an impossibly quiet scene followed by an impossibly loud one, done by mistake not for effect. We also had a film where the combination of confusing story, mumbling actors, and a bass-heavy mix made it difficult to know what was going on. We could all hear it, but couldn't understand what was being said.

On a final note for the week; like all of the other screeners, I've been taking home features to watch and I have to say the quality of filmmaking has gotten much better this year. I've seen some terrific stuff. I don't know why – maybe the bad economy has weeded out people with more money that filmmaking skills, or maybe I've just gotten lucky in which films I blindly pull from the bin. Whatever the reason, keep up the good work, folks. Good movies make this job fun!

Thanks for reading. Comments appreciated.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

DWF - Live!

It's time once again for the "live screening" blog. Here's how it works: I've got my laptop open while watching this week's short submissions. As the movie plays, I'll touch type my thoughts. At the end of each paragraph on the movie, I'll say whether I gave it a Must See, Second Look, or Pass.

It's important to remember that I'm not the only screener. My vote is not final. So if you think you recognize your work, the vote that follows is only one of many factors in the final decision.

I've edited for clarification after-the-fact. Those edits are in brackets.

Movie #1
Looks great. Nice subtle scare. Close and wide [that's a shot where the camera is close to the actor and the lens is wide angle, causing a fish-eye type effect]. Not the most flattering lens on the actress. Pace a smidge slow, but not horribly so. Cute ending at the right time. SECOND LOOK.

Movie #2
Looks international – I might not be able to read the screen and type. It's a dance piece. We've booked many dance shorts before, but FYI, just because we're "dances with films" doesn't mean we prefer dance movies. The performers are good – not great, but very good. Same for the filmmaking skills. It's a consider because it's short and so easily programmable – hey, them's the facts, folks. SECOND LOOK.

Movie #3
Terrible sound – badly looped dialogue [meaning the dialogue was recorded after the film was edited, and it doesn't sound like it's in the same room as the shot] – though, the foley is good. [Foley is sound added after editing for things like footsteps, props, etc. that were too far from the microphone in production and have to be sweetened. In this case, it might be foley, or it might be the mic was in a good place for the footsteps and a bad place for the voice – which would explain the looped dialogue.] About 3 minutes into the movie and nothing has happened that couldn't have been cut around. The dialogue is badly written and acted – the camera set-ups are flat and do nothing to help the actors ... and they could use all the help they can get. This is a one-joke movie that doesn't get to the point or the punch line until 15 minutes in. Painful to watch. PASS.

Movie #4
A Short Doc – always a strange combination, but I have seen some good ones. Nice professional set-ups for interviews, which helps people look like they know what they are talking about. The story is moving a smidge slow, but the music behind it has a driving beat. A narrator suddenly appeared. Would be nice if that voice opened the film so we would be comfortable with it when it's needed at this point. I hope this film gets in the festival, as I'd like to give the nurses a big hug and buy them all a drink. MUST SEE.

The other films are going to seem superficial after that.

Movie #5
Clever premise for a short, but I'm not sure I'm connected to it. Something about this little film lays flat, and I hate that I can't put my finger on what it is. Maybe my brain is just tired. SECOND LOOK.

Movie #6
Dystopian Future – very big in the publishing world these days, though Kevin Costner might have killed the genre in film [The Postman, Waterworld]. Good cast. Good direction. Okay script. Movies like this are hard to call – not a stand out, but very solid. Have to wait to see how the submissions round out to see if it makes the cut. SECOND LOOK.

All of these Second Look movies are exhausting – Great movies are easy to judge. Bad ones are painful, but require no thought. The ones in between are killers.

Movie #7
Again, bad acting not helped by bad filmmaking skills and bad dialogue. Well, I wanted a movie that was easy to judge. Should have been more careful what I wished for. 23 minutes of hell. PASS

"A Florida State Movie next?" our DVD loader asks after that horrible film. We set aside some films we think might be good for just such emergencies. Music videos are reserved to cleanse the palette after long, slow, shorts.

Movie #8
Good filmmaking in all departments, but again, something is missing here. There's no pop. I think this filmmaker is so enamored of the style of film he's working in that he hasn't made it his own. There's nothing new here. In this genre there's a requirement to do something so cool that it knocks the viewer's head back. My head is firmly in place – even though the movie is very well done. SECOND LOOK.

Movie #9
Animation. Fun! Delightfully kid-spooky. Good way to end the night. MUST SEE.

There you have it. Inside the head of a Dances With Films submissions screener – and just in case some future digital archeologist digs this up, there is no sign of the Army of the 12 Monkeys... yet.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Artists, Marketing, and Models

A break from Dances With Films for a bit of a rant. What good are blogs if not to blow off a little steam, hopefully in a Vishnuvian kind of way. My frustration at the moment is an old one – the Art vs. Business tension – specifically how the arts are sold these days.

In film, publishing, fashion, and just about any other art form that is sold to a mass audience, a new dynamic has come into play. When I say new, remember that I'm a Theatre Snob. Old to me is Ancient Greece, and they got their ideas from Egyptian religious ceremonies, which were brand new when Stonehenge was already an historic landmark. For the purposes of this discussion, let's say "new" is 1960's to the current day.

The dynamic I'm talking about is the idea that the creation of the art is separate from the marketing.

I propose that, like it or not, artists are trained marketeers.

No one is going to like this idea – not artists, not marketing executives. Artists like to think they are above all of that commercial stuff. They will talk about history, what they've done in the past, and who they've studied under. Marketing executives like to point to numbers, spreadsheets, focus groups, and their MBA's. There are exceptions, of course, but for the purpose of this discussion, we'll stick with the stereotypes.

What both sides have forgotten is that, when an artist of any sort sits down to work, they are marketing. They are packaging their idea in a marketable way. How many ways could Arthur Miller have told the story of Death of a Salesman? Michelangelo could have painted that ceiling a nice eggshell blue. He didn't. He also threw out the idea of painting the apostles like everyone else was doing. Why? Probably because it had been done – and artists have a deep distain for doing what's been done before. Why? Some will say it's their big egos, and they aren't entirely wrong, but it's also a bad sales idea.

Today, marketing executives almost insist on doing what's been done before. Their models and spreadsheets don't work for products that are new. They need to say to ... whoever they say things to ... "this will work because something just like it worked not too long ago."

Artists tend to say things like, "People love a blue sky... until they see a sunset." We are trained to learn from what worked in the past – that long past I talked about before – and use that knowledge to create something new.

Artists strive to create what has never been made before. Business has a hard time with breaking new ground.

So what's to be done? Do we as artists pocket our new ideas until we can make enough of a name with re-hashes to sell the good stuff off our names alone?

Some seem to think so, but that philosophy reminds me of teenage "nice guys" who see girls falling for the bad boys and thinking all they have to do to get-the-girl is act like a jerk. Ladies, has that ever worked? No.

We all have to be who we are. Artists have to create the product that their inner marketing departments tell them the world needs/wants to buy. For some, that will mean catering to pop culture, and that's fine. Culture that isn't popular isn't culture; it's just a bunch of stuff nobody knows about. Pop Art requires the same skills as Fine Art. It's just as hard to create and sell and no one should put it down – especially other artists.

So what about marketeers? Why should marketing give ground? Their models work, that's why they are models. Give them a product that is like another product and they call tell you within a few thousand dollars how much it will earn. Sales targets can be set up. P&L reports can be created with estimation and actual numbers. Stockholders can rest assured that their money is safe.

A business person who has raised their game to an art will balk at that word, safe. Safe means low returns. Safe means mediocrity. Safe means a tie game and that means no winners.

Show me a Businessperson who plays it safe, and I'll show you someone with a very nice cubicle. Nothing wrong with that. You've got kids to put through college. You've got retirement to think about. You're not in this to change the world, you just want to pay your bills and maybe have a nice vacation once a year. And for you, I say, great. No worries. No one is asking you to stick your neck out, but we who are trying to win would like it if you didn't get in our way.

Many an Artist has said this same thing. We've all ranted to destroy, that's easy, but to be like Vishnu, we must also create.

So how do the competitive Artists and Business People get together for the big win? How do we create a model for a new product?

First: we need mutual respect. Artists have to see the value of focus groups and spreadsheets and not dismiss them without consideration. Nine times out of ten, the old ways will work. Why do it the hard way? Business has to respect that the Artist has done a lion's share of the marketing already. Any work of art that has landed on the desk of a publisher, studio or fashion executive, etc. has gone 95 yards toward the goal line. Business's job is to get those last hardest yards and the best player is the one that got first ones.

Second: we need to make a place in the spreadsheets for products that don't fit the model. One win-oriented executive needs to be able to say to another one, "this is a gut feeling." Then, together, they can go to the cubicle-set and say, "that space we reserved for projects without models, this is it. Start a new model based on this project."

Third: sales staff needs to sell. There was a time when salespeople took pride in their ability to sell. It wasn't politically correct, but they'd say they could sell "rice in China," or "sand to an Arab." Now they say, "I can't sell that, so change it" or "get me something I can sell." When one of these gut-feeling projects hit their desk, then they need to step up to the challenge. Learn why the Artist created the piece in the first place. Figure out why an agent, an editor, and their boss got behind this new thing. Get excited about it and make your clients excited about it as well. Yes, that's all hard work, but you're the last link in a chain of people who have labored for years – sometimes all their lives – for you to sell what they have created. Don't tell them why you can't do it; tell them how you are going to do it. Get your butt out of a cubicle. Send your kids to a better college. Take that vacation you never could afford, and retire with stories about how you changed the world.

No risk, no reward.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Film Industry, You, and Us

There are some exciting things happening this year at Dances With Films. Plans have yet to firm up so there's nothing to announce, but our discussions with "the industry" sparked an impromptu chat before screenings started last night. Both independent filmmakers and industry professionals might benefit from what we had to say to each other, so I'll bring some of it out here to the light of the internet.

First, a cold hard fact: Most uber-independent films are not distributable via main line independent channels. That shouldn't be news to anyone, but we struggling artists do tend to ignore statistics thinking that our talent will rise above it all. If we didn't we wouldn't be in this business.

What has been enlightening to us at DWF is that "the industry" will look at an uber-independent film that is clearly not going to find distribution and say, "that's a bad movie."

No. It's not.

In the film festival world "the industry" is often confused with distributors. Distribution is only one aspect of filmmaking. Production is another. Sure, the whole film might not be someone's cup of tea, or the story might fall apart in the middle, but the photography may be great. One or two cast members might be worth following. I just watched a feature submission the other day that might get into the festival solely on the work of the cinematographer and one or two of the cast.

I'll never forget watching Dikla Marshall in East of Sunset and thinking, "that's the definition of a supporting role. Casting directors should take note."

At Dances With Films we reach out to the industry in a slightly different way. Sure, we love distributors. We even love them when they snub one of our films only to come back begging for contact information when one of the cast breaks out in something else. Distribution is extremely important, no question about it, but so is getting work.

Are you a production company thinking of shooting in India? You should have seen The Memsahib. No problem, we'll put you in touch with the director. Are you looking for fresh young actors? You could have seen Jesse Eisenberg in One Day Like Rain before he even dreamed of being an Academy Award nominee. You say you have funding for an edgy crime drama but you can't afford David Mamet to punch up the dialogue? We could put you in touch with the writer of Jacks Or Better.

Oh, wait, that's me. Just shoot me an e-mail from here. I could use the work, too.

Industry, take note. DWF is the place to get a jump on your competition and find the rising stars in front of and behind the camera.

Filmmakers take note. Distribution is your big goal, for sure, but there's more to it than that, right?

On to this week's submissions.

I have railed against indie filmmakers trying to be cool with excrement before, but when you have a girl running away from the torment of puppet germs and she does a header into a pile of pig poop, and we all bust out laughing, that's a good use of toilet humor.

We get a lot of movies that start with a sense of drama that is so pushed we're all silently saying to ourselves, "please be a comedy... please be a comedy." Last night, with a bolt of lightning, it was. Thank you for that.

We had another short that was a drama that got unintended laughs. That hurts. I've been on stage in that situation and it's not a good feeling. It happens to the best of us. I remember seeing a production of Streetcar when Stanley wasn't strong enough to sweep Stella off her feet after yelling her name. Suppressed giggles rippled through the crowd. Ouch.

In the case of the film last night, a couple of judges really liked it, so we'll see how it goes. Still, when you shoot at drama and miss, you hit comedy. Sometimes, it's worth a re-edit to make people think that was your target all along.

We had something we haven't seen in a while, but is still very common. A one-joke short film that goes too long. Leave us wanting, people – and by that I don't mean "wanting it to be over."

We also had a one-joke movie that was two-and-a-half minutes long and was absolutely perfect. Bravo.

A general note that I think is important to bring up. I thought of this while watching features this week.

There has been a change in the digital world over the past couple of years – and believe me I don't say this because Canon is a sponsor. This is real. When the chips in digital cameras got to be the same size as 35mm film, the industry changed forever.

Back in the film days, if you weren't shooting film you weren't taken seriously. Video looked like video, aka bad. Three-chip cameras came along, and video started to look a little better, but still, it was only tolerated because of the cost difference. If you wanted to make a movie, it had to be on film.

Today, video that's shot with video lenses is back to looking like video. It doesn't matter if it's HD, a movie shot on a camera with a fixed lens cannot compete with one using prime 35mm lenses. There are times when the lens does the acting – if the actor is smart enough and good enough to let it. A just-okay lens will give you a mediocre shot. The right one will make the whole movie pop.

That being said, a good picture of bad acting is a bad picture. Lenses and chips don't write and they don't edit. A beautiful movie with a bad script is like a musical with great songs and no story. Who cares? We can get that from the radio.

That's it for this week. A lot to digest. I'd love to know what you all are thinking, so comments are more than welcome.

Thanks for reading.