Monday, April 27, 2015

Getting Oriented

I know. I know. We haven't completely announced yet and I'm already talking about the orientation meeting that's coming up this Friday. That's the nature of this business, folks. Things move slow, slow, slow, then super fast.

I just want to drop a quick note to filmmakers who are not in easy road trip distance to LA. As famous as Dances With Films is for being the only film festival (we know of ) to have an orientation meeting - it's not worth a plane ticket and a hotel stay. We have had filmmakers fly in for the meeting, and they said it was worth it - but, personally, I'd save your money.

If you are in the LA area, it's definitely worth a 1/2 day off from work ... unless, you know, you're a brain surgeon or something. I highly recommend getting to know your fellow filmmakers. You're going to see each other again in the festival circuit and you'll want to trade stories about which are good, bad, and indifferent.

If you're smart, you'll use your festival passes to come to all 11 days of the festival. Soon, you'll be hanging out every night with your fellow filmmakers and when it's all done, you'll have made friends like you haven't since summer camp.

For those who don't get into the festival, you do get two free tickets to a movie. Use them. Better yet, buy a festival pass and learn from an 11 day intensive on uber-indie filmmaking. You won't regret it.

Okay... sorry to have interrupted your obsessive waiting rituals. Go back to pacing, biting of nails, gnashing of teeth, checking your e-mail every five seconds, and trying to read Billy Bobble Makes a Magic Wand.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

And The Dance Goes To...

We will be announcing our slate soon.

Just a reminder, as with anything in life, what is said publicly and what happens in reality are not always 100% the same thing. We have deadlines to get out a press release about our slate - and that press release is always 100% true - but, it doesn't mean that it represents every film in the festival.

There are always one or two slots still open.

And yet, every year one or two filmmakers go on public tirades about how they had to hear that their movie didn't get into the festival via Indiewire. Here's a news flash for them, if their film was still being considered for those one or two slots, they just made a difficult decision very easy for us.

When the slate is finally complete, it's always a bitter-sweet time at DWF. We're ecstatic about the films that are in, but sad for our favorite movies - often by alumni, who have become friends - that are not. I also feel bad for the films that we have sent so many e-mails to, grilling them about their plans for the film, getting them excited about how well their movie is doing in the selection process, only to end up passing.

I've been there so many times with my film, my scripts, and my books. The near miss is more painful than the miss by a mile. When you're not even close, you get to think, "Maybe I'm not very good at this," and move on to something better. When you're good, but don't get what you're looking for, you have to keep going. You have to keep banging your head against the wall because you know you've found a soft spot.

Let's just hope the soft spot is in the wall, not your head.

Good luck to everyone who submitted. To those who do not get in, remember that one festival is not going to make or break a career. It's just one step on one path - and there are as many paths as there are steps.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Harvesting

This is always the most difficult time of the year. 

Deciding what films get in the festival is easy. Deciding which ones don't get in is not.

Some of my favorite movies of all time submitted, but didn't get into, Dances With Films. Usually this is because the film has been seen at a number of other festivals - especially Los Angeles Fests. Filmmakers don't seem to understand that premiering their movie at a two-year-old festival named after some neighborhood in LA burns their chances of screening pretty much anywhere else in LA without doing their own 4-wall rental. They don't understand how hard it is to get the trades to review their films in these smaller fests. They also don't understand how hard it is to fill a theatre for a second screening.

Yes, filmmakers, premieres are also about ticket sales. Our mandate of "No Stars" in competition movies means we have a hard time getting sponsors. We are not a destination festival funding by a local Chamber of Commerce. We have survived for 18 years because of ticket sales. If you are a first time filmmaker, you probably have all sorts of arguments ready about how your movie is different. If you've been around the festival circuit - or Equity Waiver Theatre, you've played to empty houses and know what I'm talking about. 

Another frustration is when filmmakers don't answer our e-mails. One told us, "I don't check this e-mail address very often, can you just text me?"

"No," is the answer to that question. We have thousands of people to communicate with in order to produce this festival. We can't make an exception for each submitter. If we like your film, but haven't heard back from you, we will go to extraordinary means to make initial contact - but what we'll say is, "Check your e-mails."

This leads to another reason films don't get programmed - the filmmakers are unprofessional. This is rare, because I've discovered that good movies are usually made by good people, but it happens. If you're one of the exceptions to that rule, then you're probably not aware of it, so nothing I say here will help. If you're one of the good people, then yes, we notice. We appreciate it. Your attitude helps your cause.

Right now we are still making decisions. We are re-watching movies. We are sending out e-mails asking about your marketing plans. If you haven't gotten one of those e-mails, that doesn't mean anything ... yet. If another week goes by and you haven't heard anything from us, then the writing is on the wall and you should make decisions accordingly. We do send out nice pass letters, so you won't be left hanging.

Here's hoping no one reading this gets one of those.

Good luck.

Monday, April 20, 2015

What I Did This Weekend

I had a long eventful weekend so this will be short and, hopefully, sweet.

I took a break from DWF screenings to spend Saturday and Sunday managing the Society ofChildren's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) booth at the Los Angeles TimesFestival of Books. It went very well.

On Sunday, I had to slip away from the festival to attend a memorial for a friend from my theatre days. It was a beautiful service that got me thinking and feeling. My friend was not only a successful actor, but also a fantastic person. He had two great kids who he and his wife raised to perfection. He took life as it came, with a pragmatic approach to solving life's problems.

Why do I bring this up here? As a reminder.

We artist of all disciplines sometimes get lost in our work. We can lose sight of what is important. In trying to hold up a mirror to life, we sometimes forget that we must also live. Our books, our paintings, our performances become important to others, but our lives are what are important to us.

Or, they should be.

Live well. Stay in the moment. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Like Ducks On A Pond

Do you know the old saying about someone who is like a duck on the pond? Above the water, they appear serene and in control, while under the water their webbed feet are paddling like crazy to keep them in one place?

That's a good description of what life is like at Dances With Films right now. On the outside, we are as cool as a cucumber, but readers of this blog know we are working like mad to get the festival programmed.

If you've submitted, you're probably that way too.

"How's your film going?" your non-industry friends and family ask, thinking they are making polite conversation.

Inside, you want to explode from the stress and tear their head off for reminding you that you're waiting to hear from Dances With Films. Instead, you smile and say, "It's going fine. Just waiting to hear from the festivals."

My suggestion? Relax. Read a book. Something lite. Maybe even one of those kid's books that adults like to read, too. I know of a really good one about a kid who uses quantum physics to make a real magic wand. It's sure to take your mind off the festival jitters.

Oh, and... the AFI comedy challenge has been won. We watched a good one last night. Some didn't like the ending, but they're crazy. Blood can be very funny. Most of us laughed our behinds off. Thanks for that!

And thanks for your patience.

Monday, April 13, 2015

We're In This Together

This will be short and sweet, as we still have a pile of movies to watch and not much time to do it.

I wanted to touch base on something that applies to all filmmakers, whether you get into DWF or not. If you just got a sinking feeling in your stomach on the mention of not getting in, sorry. I know that feeling well, as I've been turned down by the best and worst of them. Regardless of whether the glass is half-empty or completely empty, you have to figure out a way to make it full and be ready to keep it that way – and you can't do it alone. You're going to need partners, and the best partners you have right now are your cast.

The first thing you should do is send your cast an e-mail with a link to this article, since they have a lot on the line as well. Make sure they know you haven't forgotten about them, and that yes, you will get them a free copy of the movie (hopefully at the World Premiere Screening in the Dances With Films festival at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood).

Cast members. I know, you've done about a million free or just-about-free movies and you never hear from the filmmaker again. You never get your free copy. I know this, because it has happened to me, too. Or, you might hear from the filmmaker when the movie got into its first festival – which you promoted and maybe attended if it was nearby – and that's about the end of your involvement. It might be the end because the filmmaker doesn't keep you up-to-date with promotional opportunities, or because you don't think there's anything in for you, so why bother?

There is definitely something in it for you. You need each and every one of your movies to be financially successful. That's what it means to be a "bankable" star, and that starts here and now. You need to use this movie to build your fan base, and you need your fan base to buy the movie, so when you nail your next audition you can leave the producer with the line, "Not only am I right for the part, but my films make money."

Filmmakers. This partnership works both ways. You need to make sure it's easy for your cast to promote your film. Keep in touch with them. Suggest ways they can help for festivals they can't get to – like Social Media promotion. Make sure they can buy the DVD at retail prices so they can resell them at conventions, etc. For festivals in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, etc. help your cast help you promote within the industry. You are partners. You have to share your success with each other. Don't drift apart.

Okay, that's about it on the business end for today.

In the screening room, the big trend we're seeing are movies that seem to be made right out of a textbook on how to make a good movie. The stories are exactly what they are supposed to be. The camera is exactly where it's supposed to be. The cast are all very solid. Everything is done exactly as a film school teacher would like it to be … and that's the problem. A textbook has no voice. A film school teacher is teaching you technique, which you definitely need to learn, and then you need to forget. It's good to make a movie that is everything it is supposed to be. It's great to make a movie that is more than the sum of its parts. Take it to the next level. Find your own voice.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for your patience. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Film Festival Orange

Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange
We have more movies to watch than ever!

Thanks to all of your submissions, we've added one day to our screening schedule, and will probably have to add another – and that's just for the shorts. We're also cramming feature films into our collective brains as fast as we can - so keep that in mind when whatever date Without A Box has for our announcement comes and goes in silence. 

Though, it's not all silence. We are sending first, second, and third round letters for films we're interested in, so obsessively checking your e-mails is a good idea for the next 3-4 weeks.

What do these e-mails mean?

The answer to that question changes with time. If the only e-mail you've gotten from us is a confirmation that we got your submission, you're fine for now. There is a good chance we haven't seen your movie yet. No worries. Three weeks from now, if that's the only e-mail you've gotten from us, then things aren't looking good for your submission. I say that to help you make decisions about other festivals.

If you have not gotten a confirmation that we received your film, then please check your spam filters. If you don't have an e-mail from us there, then please send us an e-mail to confirm we have the correct address. Typos happen. Every year we have at least one film that doesn't respond to e-mails, phone calls, or owls from Hogwarts. This is extremely frustrating, especially if we want to program the movie.

If we send you an e-mail asking for more information (2nd or 3rd round letters), then prompt, professional answers will help your cause. There is a reason why DWF has such a strong alumni. Given two good films and only one screening time left, whose film do you think we're going to go with? The filmmaker who is hard to work with, or the one that is pleasant and eager to be a part of the festival?

If you've only gotten a second round letter and nothing else, no worries - for now. This isn't a boxing match. We don't have models in bikinis walk around the screening room holding up signs that say "Round 2."  Plenty of films that played the festival never got a round letter at all. Having said that, the clock is ticking. If you don't hear from us in three to four weeks, and another festival expresses an interest... let this hint help you make your decision.

On the other hand, if another festival does express an interest now, let us know. In most cases, we can't say for sure that you're in DWF. We also won't say anything derogatory about other festivals. You'll have to do your own research. We stand by our 18 years of experience and encourage you to track down our alumnae for advice as to which festival to choose. We can and will drop big hints about how you're doing in our selection process, so read between the lines. If we have strongly encouraged you to wait for our decision, and you do, then the pressure is on us to make sure we find a slot for your film. It's not a promise, but I have seen it be a huge influence on the final choices.

Onto to the screening room.

Last night was one of our added screening sessions. We watched a lot of good movies – three FSU films in a row that were all fantastic. One proved the old adage, that when one door closes, another one opens… and it's really scary when it's the same door! (Nice work!)

We also saw five or six movies that had the same bad piano score. One in particular was a bit of a melodramatic – almost a kids' – movie, which is fine but the music was so 1970's after school special, sappy, piano, that the combination was terrible. If you have a sweet movie, don't be afraid to add a little salt. For those of you still submitting, I would suggest that if your score is nothing but a piano, stop submitting. Re-score your movie with an entirely new musical concept. Otherwise, you won't stand out from the hundreds of others the screeners are watching.

And, of course, keep in mind that a fantastic movie with a bad piano score is still a pretty damned good movie, so don't think you're out of consideration just because you have a piano score. It worked fine for Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut.

That's it for now. I have to find the guy with the eye drops and watch more movies. 

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 6, 2015

A Festival of ... BOOKS!?!

First things first. I want to get a shameless plug out of the way. On Saturday, April 18th 2015, between 2:00 and 3:50, I will be selling and signing Billy Bobble Makes A Magic Wand at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI – LA) booth 834. Please feel free to join my event on Facebook and if you're in the LA area then, come on over to get a book, an autograph, and pump me for information about your submission. Don't be disappointed if I'm vague about that last part.

There's another reason you should come to the Festival of Books, and it has to do with your movie.

Selling movies and selling books has become one and the same thing. If and when you get a distributor/publisher, they will put your movie/book up on Amazon, iTunes, Nook, and other platforms that are more for show than measurable income. Old-fashioned viewers/readers can order your DVD/Printed Book. The young-'ns can stream the movies/borrow the books from Amazon Prime, or download-to-own the files – movies and books.

Great, wonderful, there's your movie/book right next to movies/books you've loved and respected all of your life. You can and should be proud. Show it to all of your friends and family. Ten percent of them will buy a copy, and that will be the highest promotion-to-sales return you'll see. A word to the wise, don't get mad at your friends who don't buy your book. It gives you an out when they invite you to their play.

In the old days, your publisher/distributor would spend money on marketing your book/movie. They still do, but only for a select few authors/filmmakers. I emphasize few. You will not be one of the few. I know this because you're reading my blog. I doubt Steven Spielberg or Suzanne Collins are scouring the net looking for filmmaking or marketing tips.

That means, until the word-of-mouth pump is primed, you're going to have to sell every single DVD/POD and movie/e-book download yourself, one at a time. How many sales you need to prime the pump is hard to say, but think it terms of tens of thousands. I say that amount because it's a minimum number of book sales to show up as a blip on the radar of the major publishers according to an agent I spoke with from Andrea Brown.

Tens of thousands of sales, all done by you and you alone. You're going to need 100,000 Facebook friends to reach ten thousand sales if that's your only audience outreach. You're going to need a stack of reviews. For filmmakers, that's where festivals come in. For books, we do blog tours.

But the best results have always come from direct sales. That means you talking in person to a customer and selling them an autographed DVD/book. Don't have any idea how to do that? Come by the LA Times Festival of Books and watch authors who have years of experience doing just that. Learn from what the old-timers do right, and the mistakes of those new to the hustle. You'll never get a better education for a cheaper price (the Festival of Books is free!).

About last night's screening, I wrote down some quotes from my fellow screeners. I shouldn't admit this in public, but there are times when we talk during a movie. Usually, this is about the film we're watching, and always when it has lost our attention. Even so – unless the movie is just horrifically bad – our comments are blurted out wishes - wishes that our words could make the movie better.

The comment that got me on this train of thought was, "I'm going to yell at you until you get it!"

Too many times, directors let actors get into a shouting match, and too many times writers have characters say the same thing over-and-over again only louder. In both cases, the scenes hit just one note and stay there. Imagine a song that is nothing but one note played for the same duration and volume throughout. Boring, right? Right.

Another good quote. "Was that supposed to be funny?"

This is a bad thing for the audience to think regardless of what they're watching. Stage actors are well aware (or should be), that there is a thin line between a serious drama and uproarious comedy. Hopefully that line only gets crossed in rehearsal. In comedy, I've often talked about giving an audience "permission to laugh." That is to say, early in the story, let the audience know that you mean for them to laugh with your work – or even at it. Either way, it's fine with you. There are a million ways to do this, from a subtle laugh line in a slice-of-life story, to a pratfall in a broad farce. Without that permission to laugh, audiences will try to stay polite and not laugh at your work. Let them know it's okay.

The last quote I heard sent a chill down my spine as I was leaving. "We saw more good movies tonight than bad ones."

Our final selection process is coming soon. Every year we have more good movies than screening time to show them. Every year some of my favorite films don't get in. Every year it hurts. We did see more good movies than bad ones, but not all of them are going to get in.

I'll leave you with an on-line advertising trick I learned while promoting my book. Links at the top of an article always get the most clicks, but the second most come to links at the bottom.

I hope to see you at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.