Monday, January 27, 2014

Good Cupcakes & Good Movies

This week's screening started with maple syrup cupcakes topped with icing and sausage, bacon, or nothing for the veggies.  These were provided by Cuddle Cakes in Burbank, so please shoot Juanita an e-mail to thank her for supporting the festival, and order some of the little temptations for yourself.

From time-to-time on this blog, I just go straight through my notes for each movie as it happens.  This post is one of those times, with a few annotations where applicable.

Film #1 – Good sound.  Good cast (Spanish-speaking).  Filmmaker is in control.  Nice to see a film that's not set in the filmmaker's apartment.  MUST SEE.

ANNOTATION – The key note here is "Filmmaker is in control."  What I'm telling myself is that, from the combination of good dialogue, good cast, and good technical skills, I feel like I can trust this storyteller.  If I have a question about what's happening on the screen, I trust that I won't have a question by the end of the movie.  That's very important at this "raw art" level of screening.

The "filmmaker's apartment" comment is a little snide way of saying I liked the location.  In many ways it was just a family dwelling – at the same time, it felt like they were living in a cave.  It suited the story well, was completely dressed, and most important, it was interesting.  Nice job.

Film #2 – Bad Sound.  Bad Video.  Campy style.  Funny, but production quality is too low to put on a big screen.  Bad Ending.  PASS

ANNOTATION – Some people in the room liked this film, so it will get another look, but the audio is so bad I have deep reservations.  Most of the dialogue clips – meaning, in short, the volume was recorded in such a way that the sound waves were too big to fit in the machine.  Literally, the tops and bottoms of the sound waves are clipped off.  This makes for pops and clicks that, when played on speakers the size of a house like they have at the Chinese Theatre, are painful to hear.  Yes, we've screened movies with bad sound before, but those films have had exceptional stories.  This one – in my opinion, didn't have the story or filmmaking skills to overcome the bad audio. 

"Campy Style" by the way, is a compliment.

Film #3 – Bad acting.  Bad sound.  That over-used feedback sound effect.  On the nose dialogue.  PASS.

ANNOTATION – "On The Nose Dialogue" happens a lot.  Anytime you're writing a character telling us what they feel, then it can almost always be cut – unless they are wrong or lying.  Think about it.  How often in life has someone told you exactly what they are feeling, or doing, or explained to you for the benefit of anyone who might be listening exactly what the eavesdropper needs to know to follow the plot of your life?  Write dialogue like dialogue, not like a synopsis.

Film #4 – This filmmaker is in control.  Good characters.  Great Dialogue.  Brilliant movie.  Nice to see the snow in NYC put to good use.  MUST SEE.

Film #5 – Just really, really bad.  PASS.

Film #6 – Good cast.  Good dialogue.  Nice showcase for young talent.  Good, campy, horror.  Good ending.  MUST SEE


Film #6 – Good logo.  (FYI – the rule of thumb is, "Good Logo = Bad Movie").  Poetic dialogue.  Points for trying, but it becomes cliché.  Good filmmaking skills.  Uneven talent.  So-so script.  Big Logic hole.  SECOND LOOK.

ANNOTATION – I have a sensitive ear for cliché dialogue – and the "good filmmaking skills" is always worth a second look.  Often, in a discovery festival like ours, the talent of the production team might outshine the script or cast – and that can be worth a screening.  This film will be on the bubble.  Things like, the quality of all the other submissions, its world premiere status, is it local, etc. will help tip it in or out.

Film #7 – A recognizable character actor.  Textbook shots.  Good dialogue.  Good film.  MUST SEE.

ANNOTATION – I happen to love the actor who is in this movie.  If this film gets into competition, we'll get some flak from people outside of Hollywood about it having a "star," but DWF has never had a policy against working actors, or character actors.  Just because you recognize their face, doesn't mean they are a star.  If you have to say, "It's… you know, that guy, from that movie with the superhero…" then you're talking about a fine character actor – not someone that a banker will open their checkbook for.

"Textbook shots" is not necessarily a compliment.  It can also mean "well-done, but uninspired."  In this case, I think the filmmaker will soon throw the textbook away, and that will open his/her career to a new level.  There's two steps to any artistic training: First, learning the right way to do it - then forgetting everything and doing it your way.  Both steps are necessary for greatness.

We finished out the night with music videos, which are always hard to judge.  We end up with a few categories.  Good song?  Good singer?  Good band?  Good filmmaking skills?  The first one had it all.  The second was fun.  Good song.  Good singer for the genre.  Not the best filmmaking skills, but not bad.  I didn't bring home any notes on the third one, so I don't remember it.  That means, I'll probably have to watch it again when it comes time to decision-making.  After a decade-plus, you'd think I'd learn!

Thanks for reading.  Comments welcome.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Know Thy Market

We had three of four 30-minute-plus documentaries at our screening last night, which is fine for the festival world, but filmmakers – like every artist who has ever existed – have to be aware of their markets.  Plays from Ancient Greece all have about the same runtime, and most of them end in some kind of Deus ex machine.  Comedia del Arte used stock characters everyone could understand from a distance without having to hear the words.  Etc.

Yes, in every time, artists came along and broke the mold, but they are few and far between.  Yes, given the insanity of online distribution, no one really knows what the mold is anymore –but, there is still television, which is where most docs under 2 hours look to pay for themselves – which is important if the filmmaker wants to keep on working.  On PBS, a 30 minute doc can be truly 30 minutes, but most are between 23 and 28.  None are 32, or 34, or anything over 30 and less than 45 – which is where you begin to be an hour long doc. 

Festivals have problems programming shorts that are longer than 10 minutes.  We'll do it, but it's a struggle.  DWF, will often program long shorts on a similar subject into one screening block, but you have to hope your 30-minute doc fits thematically with other long-short docs. 

And I have yet to see a 30+ minute doc that wouldn't be better at 20-something minutes or less.

We had a couple of erotic short films, which can be fun.  One was a hit.  One prompted a screener to say, "How could they make porn boring?"  (Don't analyze that comment too much, all roads lead to therapy.)

I'm going to coin a new genre here – Techno-Romance.  We've seen a few of those in the past, some good, some not.  A Techno-Romance is any Romantic story where technology drives the coming together of the couple.  You heard it here first – even if You've Got Mail is an old movie.

We had film last night that speaks to the balance we talked about in some recent comments – that is, the balance between storytelling and filmmaking skills.  Come to think of it, the film last night that got me on this train of thought had neither, but we can all learn from it.  Some people have interesting stories to tell, but they have no idea how to make a movie.  Some are great filmmakers, but have nothing interesting to say.  Any good film needs to combine these two diverse departments at an equally high level. 

We ended the night on a good note, literally.  We watched what I called a "black and white Fantasia." It was a joy, thank you for that.  I believe it has screened in several festivals, so it will be a fight to get it into DWF.  That's a reminder to everyone – keep your powder dry when it comes to premieres.  As we become more of a premiere-oriented festival, it gets harder and harder to squeeze in one or two excellent movies that have been seen at some beach festival, or screened with a thousand other shorts in Hollywood.  

Still – I'll be in there fighting for the ink spots.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Please, Shoot the Piano Player!

We had a crowd of screeners last night.  It’s often that way early in the season.  We’ll see how long the new folks (or the old) last, as the new people learn that exposing oneself to raw art is hard work, the old folks burn out.

We were greeted by a night of horrendous piano music in both screening rooms, as it becomes clear that new filmmakers are not taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge presented here over the years.  Look back on past posts about film scores and you’ll see that time and time again movies come in with wall-to-wall piano plunking, often accompanied by a cello or synthesized strings.  People, film scoring is an art unto itself.  It’s not just any ole music played throughout, and no music is better bad music.  Seriously, if you haven’t submitted your film and you have a score of nothing but random piano cords, you’ll be better off taking it all out.  If you have submitted, and you’re worried that the music will make us pass on your film completely, don’t.  No film is perfect.  If you’re strong in other areas, we let my little nitpickings slide, but in general, the less we have to let slide, the better.

We had a nice short doc that made me compliment it for the journalistic integrity, which is rare these days.  If you’re making a Doc, or considering one, remember, you’re a journalist first, filmmaker second.  Even if it’s an opinion essay, like Michael Moore’s work, it still needs to be in the style of good journalistic editorials.
Speaking of essays – we had our first 100% voice over film of the season.  We get these a lot, and sometimes they are good, sometimes great, but more often they get a big PASS.  When you limit yourself to just a single voice in a movie, you have to understand what a burden you’re starting out with.  One voice, one point of view.  That voice and the story must be engaging enough to hold our attention.  The words must all be special.  And when the narrator isn’t speaking, the pictures must be strong enough to hold their own.  It’s a big challenge.  Live up to it, or crash and burn.

This brings me to another thing we see over and over again – the total hyphenate.  A multi-hyphenate is the writer-producer-director.  A total hyphenate is the idiot who does everything and doesn’t listen anyone’s input – and it shows.  At every level of production, from “I’m thinking of making a movie” through script drafts, on the set, and in the edit bay, get other people’s opinions.  Sure, they might all say “it’s great, honey,” so you’ll have to read between the lines.  You’ll also have to find people who give, good, professional feedback.  The film industry isn’t non-competitive soccer.  Awards (and jobs) do not go out to everyone who participates.  Get help at every step of the process.

We had a couple of movies with great kids in the cast in very different projects.  From 1960’s little-known Cold War History, to lessons on gun control & gardening – we saw some future stars in action.  Nice job, kids.  (And the adults, too).

I’d like to leave this post with a challenge to the American Film Institute.  We see your submissions year after year, and they are often some of the best films we see – but they are all so heavy.  The one we saw last night was fantastic, but just once, I’d like to see a comedy from AFI.  Please!
If you can do that, then maybe we can get USC to make a movie that isn’t a visual effects extravaganza.

Monday, January 6, 2014

You're In - And Other Body Issues

While FSU sports fans gathered in Pasadena this week, their movie fans should have been at Dances With Films submissions screenings last night.  We have a stack of FSU films, which is great!  These are almost always well done, so we look forward to watching them, and we saw some good ones last night, so thanks for that.

But before we got to the shorts, a screener and friend told me he watched 3 features over the past week, and they all had peeing scenes in them.  Obviously, some filmmakers are not reading my blog.  It seems like every other indie filmmaker thinks it's uber-cool and cutting edge to show characters expelling things from their bodies - pee, puke, poop and other 3-year-old p-words.  Sure, if it's necessary to the plot, or tells us something about the character (besides the fact that they pee) or it's uncuttablely funny (and not just to you, but to little old ladies from the aforementioned Pasadena), keep it in - but don't fool yourself into thinking you're being original.  Almost everyone does it - and it's almost always a bad idea.

While we're on the topic of things we see every year, the very first short in my screening room (we have two going each night), was a dance film.  Of course, there's nothing wrong with a GOOD dance film, but they are extremely hard to do well.  We often get the feeling that filmmakers think we only show dance movies, or that they'll have an edge because they've made a dance movie.  Neither is the case.  Please, just make good movies - dance or otherwise.

We had a few shorts with something I don't recall seeing - little flashback montages of what we just watched. These would usually come as the character remembers the good ole days of way back when - but it was just a few seconds ago for us.  In some cases, it was just a few minutes ago for the character.  Neither the audience nor the character needs reminding of what just happened.  Save that for a mini-series.

We had some editing that didn't match in naturalistic narratives.  This is very jarring.  If you find you can't make two cuts go together, go to a quick reaction shot and come back.

We screen mostly on DVDs.  We have a lot of pressure from some to accept streaming files - which usually don't work very well - and when we come down to decision making time, it's harder to remember a film without the DVD in hand, or to pop it into a machine as a reminder.  At the same time, we saw some badly compressed films last night.  Folks, you're making a short.  You shouldn't have to compress it at all to fit on a DVD.  Watch your own movies.  Look at the background.  If the fog or a blank wall looks like little squares from the 1980's ... you've over compressed your files.  Try again.

We had a lot of hitting on the head in the shorts.  Sometimes with dialogue; when the characters talk more like they are summing up a book report or telling how they feel instead of just feeling or doing something.  Other times it was with the filmmaker's message.  Don't get me wrong, I like a good message movie, and in a short, you certainly can hit the viewer over the head with a blatant message.  Rod Serling did it all the time. But do it in one, hard shot and end the movie.  There's no need to pound over and over again.  We get it.

Ending on an up note:  I caught a nice single card for a Production Designer, which reminded me that, all too often, design is ignored in smaller budget films - and that is a big mistake.  First, a good designer can actually save money, and they can certainly make the audience forget they are watching something done on the cheap.  When you're ramping up for production it's easy to forget that the little things are going to be what make your story more entertaining than your average micro-budget film.  And designers are all about the little things.

Until next week.