Blogs » The Hermetic Life Of A Film Festival Programmer -- Part 2

The Hermetic Life Of A Film Festival Programmer -- Part 2

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    So, I just got back from a programming meeting a couple of hours ago.  Like most festivals, we do a lot of catering to our local professionals because local sponsors like to see that and because I think we have an obligation to do so.  Especially in a state like Kansas where there it doesn't feel like there is a lot of enthusiasm for filmmaking (a lie, by the way.  Production in Kansas was responsible for more wages earned than New Mexico was responsible for in 2007.  Yet they have a competitive tax break and we don't?  What gives?  But, sigh, I digress...)

    So one of our programs is always dedicated to the Tim Gruver Spotlight On Kansas Film shorts program.  Traditionally, these are films and/or filmmakers who have a strong connection to Kansas -- were born and raised here, went to school here, shot their movie here.  But it can also be a tricky bit of programming and politics.  Often, the Kansas films fall into one of two categories: really, really, really good (very small percentage of short films) and really, really, really bad (small percentage, but still larger than the percentage of good films).  And, of course, there's the movies that fall in the middle somewhere.  In years past, we've joked that the programming battles often occur over not wanting to fill up a 90 minute program with bad movies and make the programs 30 minutes with an hour and a half Q&A.  But, of course, we can't do that.

    The sad part about those films that usually end up not getting into the festival is they suffer from at least one, if not a series, of cliches and terminally bad habits.  The following rules apply mostly to short films and filmmakers, film school students, and amateurs.  Though some can be adapted to features, since most people are into short filmmaking, here they are.  These are some of the common complaints that I hear from programmers from festivals all around the country.  So, if you wanna impress the gatekeepers, here’s a few hints.

    1. K.I.S.S. part un - Also known as Keep It Short, Stupid!  Short films are called short films for a reason.  Just because the festival entry form defines a short film as anything under 60 minutes, it is not a short film.  Now this may seem arbitrary, especially those of you who have composed 25-minute masterpieces, but there is a method to the madness.  As a film festival programmer, you have to be able to create a program, hence the title.  This means that you are dealing with time constraints.  My general rule when I’m dealing with any short film goes thus: five to eight minutes is gravy-on-the-nose-perfect.  Less than that is fine, as long as you tell a whole story.  8 to 12 minutes is okay.  15 minutes is really pushing my buttons.  And anything that is 20 minutes or longer?  You’re writing half-hour television, not short films.  Your 28 minute short film might be a masterpiece the likes of Taxi Driver or Gone With The Wind.  But I’ll never know.  If I even put it in my DVD player, I might watch the whole thing.  Even if I watch the whole thing, I’m still going to reject it out of hand because I have 120 minutes of space to fill in a shorts program and this movie will take up almost a quarter of the program.  And half an  hour is way too long for the average audience to sit through before you get to the feature they came to see.  The shorter, the better.  This is the single most common reason short films do not get accepted to festivals.  Just like mini skirts, we like ‘em as short as you can get ‘em.  You will find that this complaint trumps every other one, and most come right back to this.

    2. K.I.S.S. part deux - Keep It Simple, Stupid!  If you follow Number 1, you should have a simple storyline anyway.  There’s no time for subplots.  There’s no time to do character development on more than two, maybe three, characters.  There’s no time for people to become “invested” in your characters, so simple stories work best.

    3. Make 'em laugh, Make 'em cry, Make 'em think - The exception to Number 2.  Sort of.  In keeping with Number 1, you need to attack your short films like a general would execute a battle strategy: Get In, Get It Done, Get Out.  If you make me laugh out loud, if you make me get a lump in my throat, or if you have me thinking about your film so that I can’t pay attention to the next one in the shorts program, then I will program your short in a heartbeat.  But I need a visceral reaction to do so.  Otherwise, you go into the Reservations pile.  That’s where we deliberate and where otherwise good short films often meet an untimely demise.  Make me react.  I watched a short film that was beautifully shot, decently acted, impressively directed.  I watched a short film that made me gag and schedule an appointment with my doctor for the next day.  The first one probably won’t make it in the festival.  The latter definitely will.  Some examples of each:

    Make ‘em laugh: Sunday’s Game, He’s A Good Monkey, Learn Self Defense, 405, Tits and Blood, Full Employment

    Make ‘em cry: American Made, Sebastian’s Voodoo, The Littlest Ones

    Make ‘em think: Swallow, Hush, Crotch Rot

    4. Just Because You Own A Camera And Final Cut Studio Does NOT Make You A Filmmaker - For any of you who have over a million hits on YouTube or your friends have told you  that the video you made for class was awesome, here’s a reality check.  We are in the business of programming films, and NOT Internet media.  If your video looks like it belongs on the Internet (if your video IS on the Internet) I won’t program it.  Don’t expect us to allow you to compete with people who take their craft seriously in the only venue that is still accessible to them.  Videos belong on the Net.  Films belong at film festivals (And by this, I don’t mean the medium.  I work on digital cards and video more than film.  The difference between the two is a social distinction, not a material one.  Many of the best short films the last several years have been shot on video.  Wedding videographers make videos.  Filmmakers make films.  But they may both use the exact same equipment).

    5. No Bad Audio - ADR out of sync?  Buzz in the background?  Actors sound like they’re being muffled by a pillow?  I won’t even finish the movie.

    6. "Look At Me, I'm A Director!" Shots - One of the WORST mistakes that a lot of short filmmakers make.  Just because you have access to a jib crane does not mean it is necessary to use it.  As a programmer, I’m looking for movies that work as storytelling devices for a lay audience.  If there are Dutch angles or “The Speilberg” without reason for it, that really irks us.  I worked on a short film where the director (a first-timer) was really excited about this one dolly move.  He talked about it the whole shoot.  He was so excited.  He screened the movie.  Everybody hated the shot.

    7. Blatant Miscasting - We know when you cast that girl you have a crush on in the romantic lead just because you want to land her in bed.  We know, because a good actress would never give doe eyes straight into the camera during an over the shoulder shot.  Also, don’t cast ugly people as supermodels, and never, never, NEVER think that casting your friends to play “older” will work.  There is a TREMENDOUS difference between 18 and 22, a HUGE difference between 22 and 25, and a BIG difference between 25 and 30.  This goes into the “Acting” category, which is one of many that we score in order to deliver a final score for your film.  I worked on a feature a couple years ago where the director insisted on casting one particular woman to play the mother of the main character.  There were flashback scenes where she was supposed to be a young mom, so those worked.  But when the main character is supposed to be 17 and the actress playing his mom is 21, it just looked ridiculous.  The rest of the movie, the other characters worked.  But the mom - who was a major supporting character - did not work.  Subsequently, the movie is not getting screened at the festival this year.

    8. One Joke Films - Films are a storytelling medium.  But some of the BEST, most original short films are not even stories at all, but jokes.  If you have a joke in your film, then you have to take it bigger and better each time you use it.  In my film “Elijah Returns” there are four separate vignettes.  But Elijah gets more drunk and more drunk each time.  It’s the same joke, but it gets bigger and better each time.  There’s no story to it.  But it was a well-played joke.  I made people laugh.  And now Dan Glickman owns a copy of my first short film.

    9. "Slacker With A Gun" - You're not Tarantino.  Stop trying to be.

    10. Interminable Credit Sequences or Titles Sequences With More Production Value Than The Film Itself - I think this is pretty self-explanatory.  I know you’re excited about your first film.  But you don’t need an entire credit sequence with separate cards for you for being the Screenwriter, Director, Producer, Editor, Visual Effects, Cinematographer.  On the flip side, if you do have a big enough cast and crew, just make your credit sequence go by faster.  This takes up valuable time in a shorts program.  Also, your opening credits?  Should NOT look like you put more effort into them than into the movie itself.  Also, opening credits should NOT last anywhere close to as long as, let alone longer than the film itself.

    11. DVD Covers and Labels - Quality of your covers and labels better not exceed the quality of the film.  First, it sets expectations really high.  Second, it's going to make me think you put more effort into marketing a bad product than in creating a good product.  I've seen short films that absolutely wreaked but had amazing cover and label art.  On the flip side, I've programmed features with big name actors and well-known indie directors that were sent in a paper sleeve with the title written on the disc in Sharpie. 

    Also, if you give a description on the back of the cover, give me the logline.  Don’t tell me “it’s a wonderful story about a man, his dog, and his best friend and the importance that they find in each other.”  Tell me “Fatty McFatterson and his best friend, Manly McManlyMan, and their three-legged dog Cody all  hop into a beat-up woodie beach cruiser and take off to Vegas for the National Gay Dog Groomers Competition.  On their way, they run into the most conservative (yet strangely alluring) sheriff east of Barstow (Dennis Hopper, Speed), a lesbian biker gang, and an Indian shaman (Wes Studi, Dances With Wolves, Geronimo) with a penchant for crepes suzette and magic mushrooms all intent on keeping them from their rendez-vous with destiny.  Will these bumbling canine coiffurists make it to the MGM Grand before sign-in and win the prize they know is theirs?  Set against the backdrop of  the Painted Desert and starring Matt Damon and Ron Livingston, “A Dog’s Day In Hell” is a delight for the whole family that you’ll savor again and again.”

    (Sincerest apologies to Dennis Hopper, Wes Studi, Matt Damon, and Ron Livingston.  You all rock my face.  Seriously.)

    12. Scene One The Protagonist Wakes Up and Gets Ready for School/Work/Whatever - Hate it.  Never do it.

    13. Get Creative With The Camera - It is always better to go overboard than it is to shoot everything safely on sticks.  Just be careful that your story necessitates the shots.  See Number 8.


    14. Experimental Shorts Suck - I don’t care if Andy Warhol was a genius or you think I just don't get it.  If I don't get it, chances are other people won't either.   Filmmaking is a visual storytelling medium, not a visual art form.


    15. DVD Menus Suck -- You made a short film.  You really don’t need to include a director’s commentary track, behind the scenes featurettes, deleted scenes, or any other DVD menu buttons that I have to drudge through before I get to your short.  Just make it play for me.  Short filmmakers already have enough going against them, don’t make it easier for me to send you to the “rejected” pile.


    16. Laurel Wreaths - It’s nice to see your movie made it into Telluride, Hamptons International, and Sedona.  I don’t need to know if you made it into the Norman Oklahoma International Zombiefest Extravaganza.  Pick and choose your laurels carefully.  We pay attention to what other festivals picked you up.


    17. DVD Encoding - Make sure your DVDs are region encoded for the country the festival is in.  It drives me absolutely insane when I have to find somebody with a region 0 PAL DVD player that I can borrow.  I finally broke down and just bought one.  Don’t make me do that.


    18. Works In Progress - If you are sending a movie as a work in progress, LET ME KNOW, either on the DVD label itself, on the movie itself, or on the cover itself.  If I don’t know it is a work in progress, I will assume it is done to the best of your abilities and will judge it as such.  If you want me to judge it as a work in progress (we give some leeway on works in progress.  We know they are being finished up and the finished project will have a full sound mix, possibly be shorter, and have visual effects done) then let me know that this is the parameter I need to base my score on.


    19. Houston, We Have A Problem... - Make sure your DVD is playing fine all the way through.  After a long day at work, then coming home and watching movies and it’s 11:45 and I pop a movie in only to find out that it skips two to three minutes every five minutes, I will not be kind to you.  I want to hate your film.  I want your movie to be crap so I can go to bed.  Aside from all the things that make a movie good in the first place, if you want to make it into festivals, do not give us any reason to say “no” to your film.  Make sure it plays fine all the way through.  If not, be prepared for me to take it out on your film.


    20. ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS follow rule Number 1!




    If I’ve been harsh with any of these rules, it is because your job as a filmmaker is only half done once you lock picture, hold your cast and crew screening, and start thinking about your next movie.  If you have a publicist and representation for your movie, I suppose that’s all you have to do.  But, if you’re like most filmmakers, getting the movie made is only half the battle.  Now you need to get it in front of audiences.  And that means festivals.  Which mean making it past programmers.  Like me.


    We want to choose the absolute best films in every category, every genre, every length to put into our festivals.  That’s how festivals build audiences and name brands like Sundance, TriBeCa, and Toronto.  If you make a great movie, you will have advocates on the Programming Committees that will fight to the bitter death to make sure your film gets into the festival.  They may not even know you personally, but they LOVE your movie that much.  On the other hand, if your movie is too long, meanders, doesn’t have a payoff at the end, created expectations with a label or cover that were just too high, or maybe even it wasn’t bad.  Maybe it just wasn’t great.  Don’t forget, you’re competing just to get into the festival.


    How do you endear us to your film?  That’s a matter of making a great film.  Don’t forget that programmers are the crème de la crème of cinephiles in the movie industry - they are the film historians.  We compare submissions this year to hits from ten years ago.  Surprise us.  Follow Number 2.  Making us like your film is a matter of making a great film.  But you also have to keep us from hating your film.  Because, often more so there are no fights to keep a film in a festival.  These films often die a quiet death because nobody wants to fight for them and everybody wants to see them get rejected.  But there are lots of things you can do to make sure we have the best viewing experience possible with your film.


    If you are in doubt, always put yourself in this position: It’s 2:00 in the morning.  You've watched a stack of movies, not good and not bad.  Will I put your movie in and laugh, cry, or stay up all night?  Or will I watch three