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 Рgood acting, filmmaking, story, etc. Рbut 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 clich̩ 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.