I go to Sundance and Toronto every year, (this was my 13th Sundance and this year’s Toronto will be my 9th), and I usually cover the local LA festivals pretty extensively: LAFF, AFI Fest, Silver Lake Film Festival, Dances With Films, etc. But other than being invited to attend or being asked to participate on a jury, I don’t generally stray to many smaller regional festivals. So it was an interesting experience to visit several this year with my film “True Love” and assess how they were doing and see what they were programming. Several observations have already been noted in PART 1—there are a bunch of specialty studio arms putting their films in these little festivals now, the press and audiences are flocking to those films (and their celebrities) first, some locally-made films garner press attention and audiences, (surely those who contributed to the project are there), and the overall quality of lesser-known films is higher than it was a few years ago. Something else I’m seeing is the star-directed film, where a famous, or at least relatively well-known actor directs a film and invites their star friends to be involved. There were several out on the trail this year: “Battle in Seattle” (directed by Stuart Townsend), “Then She Found Me” (directed by Helen Hunt), “The Cake Eaters” (directed by Mary Stuart Masterson), and an interesting little film called “Karl Rove, I Love You,” directed by an often-seen, if not well-known character actor named Dan Butler, (you may remember him as “Bull” on TV’s “Frasier”). Here are some of the films I caught over the last few months that are worth checking out, by festival:
* Method Fest - carving out a unique niche as a festival that focuses on the actor, Method Fest featured a number of performance-based films that I enjoyed. The quintessential film for this kind of festival may be “Choose Conner,” written and directed by Luke Eberl. It wasn’t hard to see why this film didn’t make it into Sundance—quite frankly, it was pretty horribly shot and directed. What was so amazing about it was how much the good writing and good performances managed to save the day. I wouldn’t normally denigrate a film here (if I don’t like something, I just don’t talk about it), but I think it’s useful to once again point out how important good performances are to any film, especially ones made at the lowest budget levels. “Choose Conner” is ultimately a very good film. The story is told with honesty and subtlety, and the performances are across-the-board terrific, especially the young Alex Linz and the always dependable (but lately very slimy—in a good way) Steven Weber.
Another interesting film, the first of my faux/moc docs to speak of, is “Fix” directed by Tao Ruspoli. The film uses the conceit of two documentary filmmakers who have to take a family member to a rehab facility, and film the whole event with their cameras—everything you see is from that camera’s perspective. If you’re like me and you’ve seen this kind of thing in one form or another ad nauseum, then you probably get a little queasy just thinking about having to sit through another one. Well, the good news is that “Fix” transcends it’s somewhat limited conceit is several interesting ways. The filmmakers have made a very dynamic piece that doesn’t get trapped by its own strict rules; and it doesn’t break those rules either, which is another pet peeve of mine. The perfs are strong and the camera work, by DP Chris Gallo, is excellent. If you have any doubts about the Panasonic HVX-200, see this film.
* Atlanta Film Festival - another faux doc, “The Project,” which like “Fix” premiered at Slamdance, (if SXSW is the place where mumblecore films get programmed, Slamdance is the place faux docs get programmed); Sundance isn’t really programming either of these kinds of films anymore, (with a couple of exceptions). Director Ryan Piotrowicz is a talented filmmaker who has done a wonderful job here. There’s never a false note, in a film where false notes could be easily rendered, and the actors do a terrific job. A fake documentary about filmmakers who get too involved in their own film, this is the kind of film that would have played Sundance 10 years ago, but now seems a little “done.” Doesn’t take away from the fact that it is extremely well-“done”.
Alex Karpovsky’s mock doc “Woodpecker” was also incredibly well-done. One of those fake docs that’s so realistic and so subtle that you never really know if it’s fake or not, “Woodpecker’s” strength lies in the film’s central performance from Jon Hyrns, and in Karpovsky’s confident direction. Perhaps a bit slow for most people’s tastes, Karpovsky never lets the conceit get away from him, which is often the downfall of the phony documentary.
* WorldFest-Houston - amazingly, this is the third oldest film festival in the U.S. And you ask, why haven’t I heard more about it? Well, that’s a topic for another time. Interestingly, the number of film festivals across the country has exploded in just the last 15 years, going from two-digits to four-digits in that time. Don’t believe me, just check the editions of the next festivals you apply to; most will be in their 5th year, or 10th year, but few will be in their 20th year. SXSW is in their 15 year; Tribeca is in their 8th year; AFI Dallas is only in their 2nd year. Back to WorldFest: “Before The Rains” is the kind of film I will often skip at a festival—big, expensive period piece not being distributed by a major company. Usually these films, well, suck. But this popular festival film, while not necessarily David Lean-like, was certainly well worth watching. Set in the Kerala region of India, the cinematography and landscape captured was just stunning. And the story, about a British imperialist who has an affair with a native Indian woman just before India’s independence, had a bit of bite to it. This film is getting a limited release around the country by Roadside Attractions.
* Indianapolis International Film Festival - not to be confused with the “other” Indianapolis festival—Heartland—IIFF programs the real festival films: the tough artfilm; the depressing, but honest drama; and OK, also “Young @ Heart,” (who didn’t program it this year? These young festivals have to find ways to be around next year). One day I saw a trilogy of downbeat dramas back-to-back-to-back that will never get (substantive) releases, but will please hardcore art film fans nonetheless. And isn’t that the point of a film festival? To program high quality films that we can’t normally see at our multiplex, or even on cable? Well, that used to be the priority. It still is at IIFF.
JJ Lask’s “On The Road With Judas” is an extremely unique film, one of those mind twisters. I missed maybe the first 30 seconds of it, but thought I’d missed more and had no idea what the fuck was going on. Turns out, you’re really not supposed to know what’s going on until the end. Very funny and interesting film with a strong ensemble cast.
Another little-seen Sundance feature at IIFF was “Chronic Town,” director Tom Hines drama about the kinds of lost souls who wash up in Alaska, which featured a strong performance from lead JR Bourne. This was one third of my downbeat trilogy, which also included “Take” starring Minnie Driver as a mother who loses her son in a grocery store hold-up, and “This Beautiful City,” director Ed Gass-Donnelly’s ubiquitous hyperlink drama about troubled upper- and lower-class souls in Toronto.
Joachim Trier’s “Reprise” was a bold feature debut that will be opening soon in the States and is well worth seeing for its unique and energetic visual style and narrative structure. “May the Best Man Win” was a somewhat slight, but mostly funny mock-doc about the competition between old friends vying to be their best buddy’s Best Man. Adam Fleischhacker’s film features many faces familiar to fans of Comedy Central and SNL.
There’s nothing like attending three or four festivals in a row to teach you what kinds of films to be making and what kinds to be avoiding. If you don’t have a star in your film and it can’t be described in a provocative way in 1-2 sentences, good luck getting anybody in the theater. If you don’t have an interesting production still for your key art, forget it. If your film doesn’t have an obvious audience, or it’s not an “issue” doc, or a horror film, or a comedy, or a horror/comedy, then you’ve got an uphill battle ahead of you. I’m not saying you should make a horror/comedy, I’m saying keep these points in mind when you start preparing your festival film. Then be unique, be bold.
I’ve been out on the road—or as I like to call it, the “ole regional film festival trail”—with my feature “True Love.” Whether you premiere in one of the major domestic festivals—Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, LAFF—or not, you’re likely to hit a number of regional festivals on your way to some kind of ultimate distribution. Of course, let’s be clear, it’s not a given that you will get into many of the smaller festivals, even if you’ve made a pretty good film. The competition is fierce, not only from the burgeoning number of new filmmakers forged by inexpensive production tools, but also from more established filmmakers and films, even those with big distributors, (more on that in a bit). Statistics from consultant and film festival programmer Thomas Ethan Harris state that a typical feature filmmaker spends nearly $3,500 on film festival submissions and only gets into around two festivals, on average. Another way of looking at it is that the average filmmaker gets into less than 10% of the festivals they apply to. My own experience with “True Love” confirms these numbers, and while my film may not be perfect, it’s not a disaster either. It was a Sundance Screenwriters Lab project made by an award-winning director. The few reviews I’ve been able to garner have been strong and it has won a couple of awards already. But make no mistake, this is a tough game and it’s getting tougher—it should be said that I had personal relationships with many of the festivals I didn’t get into. The head of one of those festivals grew up down the street from me and was in my sister’s wedding!
If you’ve got a good film and you apply enough, however, you will get into a few festivals. But then what do you do? Hopefully you will be invited to attend, meaning they will pay for your travel and accommodations. Some of the better funded festivals will do this automatically, and if they don’t you should insist on it. As producer’s rep and distribution consultant Peter Broderick says, if your film is at a festival and you aren’t, it’s like a tree falling in the forest. Your film becomes invisible; all the things that you may hope to reap from that festival appearance will not come your way unless you are there. This brings up one of the most important parts of festival strategy—setting goals. You need to have specific goals for what you hope to obtain going to all these festivals. Things like: securing distribution, collecting press quotes and festival laurels for your marketing materials, networking with other filmmakers and industry professionals, experiencing the joy (hopefully) of screening your film to a live audience, getting audience feedback for your film, finding fans who sign up to your website, meeting potential investors for your next project, seeing the world, having fun, drinking and eating for free, etc. Some of these things are more important to you than others, and some festivals will be able to deliver some of these things better than others. Without clearly defining these goals to yourself and working hard to achieve them, much of your festival experience will be a waste of time. You can’t expect these things to just happen without a plan to make them happen, and a successful implementation of that plan.
So what are a few of the realities that I’ve discovered on my own festival sojourn?
1.) No matter how good the festival is, (how well organized they are, how strong their programming is, how good their projection is, etc.), they will have difficulty getting folks into your screenings. Now there are exceptions with certain festivals and certain films—Sundance, SXSW and some other festivals are known for sell-out houses; and some films for a variety of reasons pack them in, (“Dance Of The Dead”—a locally-shot comedy/horror film sold out three performances at the recent Atlanta Film Festival)—but the grim reality for most regional festivals is that it is very hard to get butts into seats, especially if your film is a “relationship drama” or something as hook-lacking as that.YOU
have to help get people into your screenings. Apply to fests where you have some connection to the town, work on getting press for your film, blanket the place with postcards (a very good place to order postcards is Digital Room) and 11 x 17 posters that you can print for cheap at Kinko’s, network the hell out of the place, whatever. There is nothing more demoralizing than standing in front of four people when they introduce your film; and nothing happens if nobody sees it.
2.) Publicity is HARD! Getting something written about your film in the local paper is next to impossible, especially if you don’t have stars and didn’t win a prize at Sundance. I probably don’t have to tell you what’s happening to newspapers across the country—they’re laying off their staff, especially local film reviewers. When I got to Houston, my hometown, to screen “True Love” at WorldFest-Houston, I found the Houston Chronicle—the only daily in the fourth largest city in the country—had just laid off Bruce Westbrook, a 20 year veteran, and was down to one critic, who WASN’T covering the festival! (The third oldest in the U.S.). The free weekly “alternative” paper, The Houston Press, hasn’t had a local film reviewer in years; they only run wire reviews. Good luck getting a preview or review in that environment. Some festivals have galvanized the community and have gotten the local newspapers behind them (Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham, AL or AFI Dallas, for instance), but beware! The films that are going to get the most attention are 1.) locally-made films 2.) films with stars who will be in attendance, and 3.) films distributed by major distribution companies, who employ full-time publicists. Wait, we’re talking about regional festivals, right? Why are these films in regional festivals? Welcome to the new film marketing math—big distributors have discovered a new cost-effective marketing strategy for their indie-oriented films—regional festivals. (Read John Horn’s recent LA Times article). I’ve been running into the same festival hogs at all the festivals I’ve attended this year: “Son Of Rambow” (Paramount Vantage), “Young @ Heart” (Fox Searchlight), “The Visitor” (Overture Films), “Then She Found Me” (THINKFilm), “Mongol” (Picturehouse), and several others. They get all the newspaper ink. They’ve got one-sheet posters and hundreds of 11x17 posters splattered all over the place. They enjoy all the benefits a multi-million dollar distribution campaign can amass. Shit, I’ve got $20 to market my film at the Atlanta Film Festival! And even worse, these films’ veteran stars are winning the acting prizes at some of these festivals. What’s a $50,000 feature with a no-name cast to do?
3.) Spend whatever it takes to screen your film on tape. Yes, most smaller festivals are offering the opportunity to screen your film on DVD-R, but if they offer Digibeta or some other tape format, spend the money to get your film on it. Listen, this is the No Budget Film School guy telling you this. I don’t believe in wasting money, even at the end of the process, but if it’s Digibeta, I’m sure you can find someone to pull you a favor, (HDCAM is another thing). And this isn’t only because the quality will be better. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed films stop in the middle, or throw up all manner of digital artifacts, when they’ve screened on DVD. Twice at one festival they couldn’t show a preceding short film at all because it wouldn’t play, (another reason to be in attendance).
4.) Uniqueness is king. I say it all the time in my classes. Uniqueness is the most important quality a festival film can have. Uniqueness is the reason your film gets into Sundance or SXSW. Uniqueness trumps talent and competence, (although it certainly helps to have all three). Genres to stay away from: mock or faux documentaries, first-person camera films, hyperlink films, (where there are multiple intersecting characters and stories), to name a few. I’ve seen several well-made mock/faux docs this year, and none of them were at Sundance. This is a genre that was pass? for Sundance 10 years ago. Doesn’t mean these films aren’t well-made or entertaining, but they’re not unique enough to get accepted now. And without that Sundance stamp of approval, even good films have a hard time getting into smaller festivals, attracting a sizable audience, or garnering substantive press.
COMING SOON: PART 2 - Some of the good films I’ve seen out on the Trail…