Monday, February 23, 2015

While Waiting for the Godot Festival

I was away from the shorts screenings this week, so I'll have some catching up to do. I did see good feature submissions, so thanks to those filmmakers for that. I know other screeners will appreciate them as well. We all want your movies to be great!

We had a production meeting this past week, and got to the topic of distributors coming to the festival. This turned into a discussion of what filmmakers can do while waiting to hear from, not only Dances With Films, but any film festival. It all boiled down to filmmakers knowing their movie.

What does that mean?

In order to know your film, you have to know where it fits in an industry that is in constant flux. As artists, we all hate to think that our work is like anyone else's, but distributors hate to have a project that has no comps. As much as it pains you, you have to have a list of movies that are similar to yours – preferably ones that made money.

A good comp is a movie in the same style as yours with a similar level cast. You need at least 3 comps – a large, medium and small. That is to say, a big hit (with an unknown cast), an average hit with a similar cast, and a movie that just broke even.

Your short list of comps is for conversation and pitching purposes. For your research, you're going to want a long list of movies that are in your same genre with a similar level cast. You then need to do some digging to find out who distributed them and how. By how, I mean did they get an actual theatrical release, just a four wall rental to score reviews to lure in VOD, iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, etc.

These are the distributors you want to target. You could spend as much time tracking down an e-mail address and insider info on a Fox Searchlight executive as you will finding 10 e-mails for smaller companies, but Fox is probably not going to come to your screening. Chances are, 9 out of 10 of the others aren't either – but they will take screeners, they will watch them, and there is a good chance they'll make you an offer. Fox Searchlight probably won't. It's not that they are bad people or don't know what they are doing. They just play in a different league.

Once you get into a festival, you have another level of homework to do. Find out what movies in past years have gotten distribution and from which distributor. Last year, I one company took three DWF films. That's huge. If you get into this year's festival, your invitation to them should begin with, "Last year your took three movies from Dances With Films, this year I hope you'll consider mine," or some such reminder.

Go onto a festival's Facebook page and see who has posted about getting distribution. If they don't say who picked them up, IMDB will. In this information age, there is no excuse for not doing your homework.

One last note on all of this.

There are filmmakers who think they know what the next big hit is going to be, and try to make that movie. There are distributors who would buy that movie. I'd like to report that it never works, but sadly, some people make a pretty good living that way.

But they rarely have a break out blockbuster and they are never called great.

If you're a screenwriter facing the blank page, then you have to put souls into each and every one of your characters. You can't borrow someone else's. You have to put your passion for the story on the page, then on the screen. If you do that, you'll find an audience – but you'll have to do the rest of this hoop-jumping to find a distributor.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 16, 2015

All About The Talent

Before we get to the shorts, I'd like to talk about features for a second.

Last week I saw three films in a row featuring an early scene of a single character, usually mumbling to him/herself, with about a million jump cuts thrown in to look cool. It's not.

For my non-filmmaking readers, a jump cut is any edit that cuts from a shot of one person to another shot of the same person. Most often, and most jarringly, the cut is from the same camera angle.

I'm guessing that there's some popular indie film that did this recently – either a film I didn't see or have long sense forgotten. I don't know for sure, but I'd bet the first film to use this did so in a desperate attempt to fix a scene that wasn't working. Now people seem to think it's a good idea to plan on doing it. All I can say is that, if you plan to use what is normally a last ditch attempt to save otherwise unusable footage as a first choice, everything else about the movie had better be perfect.

One of the three movies to use this style had horrible shutter-flutter. Again, for none filmmakers, shutter-flutter has a specific meaning for directors of photography, and a general one for films that have been cut together. In the latter case, the problem can have any number of sources, but the effect is the same – a jumpy, jerky, unsmooth motion. It's the kind of thing that will give the audience a bad migraine. Add to that jarring jump cuts, and you have a recipe for a quick pass.

On to the shorts.

Our first film had a whole lot of walking in it. At first, this was clearly a style choice. Not a particularly good one, but I give any filmmaker points for establishing a style and sticking with it. The trouble was, he (or she, I don't remember and don't care one way or the other) didn't stick with it. When the style changed, what was a bold choice, became a bore. PASS

Next Film.

This film had several non-actors in it – at least, I hope they are non-actors, 'cause they aren't very good. I was fine with that since it's set in a world I know little about. The filmmaking skills (camera, sound, interesting shots, editing, etc.) were also rough, but again, because the setting is interesting I cut them some slack. In the end, the story could have been better. I would have liked to have seen some actors in roles that didn't need special skills. SECOND LOOK.


This film was a bundle of clichés and bad dialogue. The filmmaking skills were top notch, but bad writing cannot be overcome. PASS.

Side note: We got in a very brief discussion of "things couples only do in movies." For the past few years it has been playing the "this or that" game. "Star Trek, or Star Wars?" Stop that. Stop it now. In fact, I think someone should make a satire about things couples only do in movies. Start with a shot looking down a couple laying on their backs, ear-to-ear, staring at the stars.

Next film.

We get a lot of documentaries about someone's family member. I'm sure we might have programmed one before, but I couldn't say which. Unless you're related to JFK or BeyoncĂ©, chances are the story of your crazy uncle isn't going to work for an audience full of strangers. This one was close to getting to a universal point, but ultimately, I passed – as much for a lack of filmmaking skills as for it being a family doc.

All I wrote down for the next film in my blog notes was the title, which I now can't read, and "cute movie." That means I liked it, but for the life of me, I don't know which movie it is. My judging sheet will have the title and submission number, so when it comes time to making a final decision, we'll probably say, "which one was that again?" No one will know, so we'll watch the first few minutes and say, "Oh, yeah, I remember. Cute movie." MUST SEE.

Next Movie.

Holy cow! Absolutely nothing happened in this film. It was so boring that halfway through one of our screeners said, "At any point in time you want to tell us a story that would be great." Thank God she said that, because the laugh made those 20 minutes not a complete waste of time. PASS.

Side Note: There's an internal clock we all have when watching shorts. The art form is about efficiency. If you have any screen time that is not put to good use, then we feel it and feel it fast. Make every moment count.

The next film had a Twilight Zone thing happening on a subject that has been well covered by filmmakers. This one did a great job. MUST SEE.

The film after that was hilarious. The trouble is, we're not sure if we're laughing WITH the film or AT the film. The risk of screening someone's serious movie in front of an audience that howls with laughter is too great of a burden for us to take on. PASS.

We often see movies that seem to be made by men whose only motivation is to meet hot chick actresses. Yes, there is a high yuck factor in these movies, and the one we saw last night was no different. PASS.

Our final movie was also full of hot chicks, or more to the style of the film, lovely talented young women. This poetic movie was actually about something, displayed multiple talents behind and in front of the camera and was a delight to watch. MUST SEE.

That's it. Thanks for reading. If you want something to do while you're waiting to hear from us, check out the blog/review tour for my book. There's a giveaway, so who knows, you might win something!

Monday, February 9, 2015


At least once a year, I do a live-ish blog. That is, I share my thoughts about each short film as they are screened. I say live-ish because I'm not writing this during the movies, that wouldn't be fair to the filmmaker. Instead, I'll go through my notes as I wrote them.
Keep in mind, I'm not the only judge. I think we had five or six people in our room last night, so this is just a fraction of the audience reaction, and final decisions are not made until all of the movies have been screened.  

Here we go. First film.

Good Logo. Regular readers will know that generally means, bad film. When resources are limited, spending a great deal of time, money and energy on a logo often indicates the filmmakers aren't focused on the right thing.

The cast in the opening scene are below par, as is the dialogue. I can hear the typewriter clacking – meaning the dialogue isn't natural in a bad way.

As the movie goes on, the cast and dialogue get better.

There are multiple flashbacks that are hard to follow and not the best use of the short film format. This feels like a cut down feature – meaning the filmmaker wanted to make a feature, but for whatever reason could only make a short. That's always a bad idea. Short stories aren't little features any more than stage plays are stepping stones to the movie. Respect the format you're working in.

The end of the movie gets ridiculous. Beats that are supposed to be serious are so out of context that they get laughs. Ouch! PASS

Next Film.

No Logo. (I don't always make note of logos, but we got to talking about it in the room between movies).

This film has a nice use of silence and pace – meaning the dialogue flows naturally and the director isn't afraid to let the action pause when warranted. Not to be confused with a bad use of silence and pace, aka, slow.
Good in all departments.  MUST SEE.

I can always tell when I really like a movie because I don't take a lot of notes.

Next Film.

Good Logo.

Nice compression of time. This film spans many months/years and they do a good job of showing that without slowing the film down or hitting us over the head with it.

At the beginning of the film I wanted to hate this movie because the two leads were giggly and sickening in that cute couple sort of way. By the end of it, I loved them both. Nice character arcs by the cast and director. Subtly works wonders.

This movie ended nicely, too, which is rare. MUST SEE. (Yes, I'm aware that it was a good logo).


The opening scene lays flat. There is no clear objective/obstacle for the characters. The middle scene is funny and nicely done, if a hair over-the-top. It will make a nice bit for the cast's reel.

After that, the movie falls apart. The characters become unlikeable; the dialogue, unbelievable. If this were written by a 10-year-old, I'd say it was a great film. Otherwise, no. The cast should be commended for committing fully to the writer/director's vision. Too bad they couldn't buy him glasses. PASS


This film has a good cast and good, natural, dialogue for the most part. There are very clear objectives and obstacles for both of the characters, so that makes the scenes pop. I didn't like the end given how crisp and clear the rest of the movie is. SECOND LOOK.

Side note: In real life, how many women keep their bra on during sex? I don't mean, keep everything on for a quick one in the storage closet. I mean, grown up, romantic, all night long – naked in every way except for the-bra sex. We see this constantly independent films, and it gets in the way. I can understand that an actress might not want to bare it all in a project she's not sure about (or any project at all). That's fine, so directors, shoot around it. Make us believe these are real people, not two actors in a showcase theatre production.

Next movie.

Another film with a good use of silence and pace. The cast deliver their lines quickly with tight cues, so when it's quiet, we pay attention. This dialogue is hilarious and the cast are a perfect fit. The filmmaking skills are also good. The end is predictable, but who cares? This is a fun ride – if a little cramped and dark. (That's a hint about the movie, not a dis on the art and camera departments). MUST SEE.


This is an incitement movie – meaning, it looks like they filmed the first ten pages of a feature film. I'm on the record as preferring this over a short that tries to squeeze in every beat of a feature script, and it's certainly a good way to raise money to make the feature, but it's also tricky. To make it a short, the ending has to be satisfying. In the feature, it doesn't end, so it's fine to leave the audience hanging. Tricky stuff. This particular movie had a great start, but didn't hold onto the campy style promised in the beginning. It faltered in the middle as the style changed, so when the ending wasn't satisfying, most of the audience felt cheated. Still, there was some good filmmaking here. SECOND LOOK.

Next Film.

This film suffered from something I've seen a lot of in the digital world, and that's darks that are way too dark. We could not see faces when we should have been able to, nor could we see silhouettes when that is what it looked like the director was going for. This film had a strange dynamic in that the cast appeared to be skilled, but they weren't directed well. I got the feeling the director might have said, "Show me," or "We need to see what you're feeling."  Those two phrases are a sure way to make for over acting. The dialogue sounded typed as well. PASS.

Side Note: How many times in your life have you said, "My dear"? I'll bet none. How many times have you heard it in a bad movie?

The last movie.

This was an animated piece. The story didn't make a ton of sense, but I didn't care. It was so beautiful, and I felt like a kid trying to guess what the characters were thinking or doing. It was a nice way to end the night. MUST SEE.

That's it. Thanks for reading. See you here next week.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The AFI Challenge

If you screen for a film festival long enough, you can play "name that film school" with the rest of us.  USC students almost always do Sci-Fi.  FSU will usually have something with kids.  UNCSA, one of my alma maters, doesn't submit enough but I always know them for the brick colonial locations and southern accents somewhere in the cast.

Of all the film schools, the easiest to spot by far is AFI.  If a movie looks "important," chances are, it's AFI.  If it's about slavery, the holocaust, something Russian, or any of the other well-worn tales of man's inhumanity to man, it's AFI.  Foreign language?  AFI.  A feeling that the actors know what a deep and meaningful film they are a part of means it's AFI.

Except for that last point, there's nothing wrong with any of this.  It's only a bad thing if the movie isn't any good.  We've had movies from all of these schools in the festival, and we've passed on movies from all of them, too, so there's no prejudice.


Long ago on this blog, I threw down a challenge to AFI students.  Make a comedy, please!  Sure, it'll come out like Life Is Beautiful, but that's fine.  It can be an "important" comedy.  Mel Brooks has done more to fight Nazis by making them clowns than any other filmmaker, except maybe Chaplin.  So AFI, lighten up!

I'm having some fun with this, obviously.  We only tease the ones we love, but there is a real teachable point here.  I call it the 180 degree rule.

If you are making a tragedy, look for the humor.  If you're making a comedy, look for the pathos.  This will keep the audience from getting the feeling they are being preached to in a drama, or that you're a frivolous comedian. 

If you're on the set of a drama, and everyone is self-absorbed in the message of the film, for God's sake, make a joke!  Loosen everyone up.  Suggest to an actor that they find a place in the scene to smile, because that's what humans do. 

If the story is about a buffoon, make sure we get a little hint of his or her heart.  Show us the buffoon in ourselves.

That's it for this week.  Thanks for reading.  We'll keep watching.