Blogs » The Hermetic Life Of A Film Festival Programmer -- Part 4

The Hermetic Life Of A Film Festival Programmer -- Part 4

  • (Names have been withheld to protect the identities of programmers and filmmakers alike)


    So, it's been a few days since the group screening for one of our most popular programs, the Tim Gruver Spotlight On Kansas Filmmakers section of the film festival.  We had our programmers' meeting to decide what the program should look like, who our contenders would be, those we just absolutely hated, and which ones fell somewhere in the middle.  Little did I know going into it that this meeting would end in four-letter word rants and tears.

    The first thing that you need to understand about programming committees is that there is a hierarchy to them.  There is always a Director of Programming who, more often than not, will hold veto power over the films that are being submitted and screened.  This year, we are scoring all of the movies we watch online at a special website devoted to programming the [link=""]Tallgrass Film Festival[/link].  The categories where we score the films are as follows: Overall, Script, Direction, Acting, and Significance.  We rate each on a scale of 1 to 5 (five being the highest score in each category).  Now, I'm going to let you in on a little secret about Screeners and Programmers:

    Each one of those scores can be, at times, utter and complete crap.  Unless the programming committee is made up of film professionals and critics, your movie will be subject to being scored on the basis of the programmer’s tastes and not the quality of the movie itself.  Even then, it’ll still be subject to the tastes of the programmer.  Now, what does this mean for your movie?

    It means that unless you are friends with a Senior Programmer, have a movie with a few big name stars, or your movie falls somewhere in the realm of “not the best, not the worst,” then you are going to have to hope that your movie has an advocate who is a programmer.  All you need to do is get your movie to reach out to one person on the programming committee so much that they are willing to go to the mat for your film in all of the programmer meetings.  You also have to hope that your film is so inoffensive, funny, sad, or anything that nobody is fighting to pull your movie out.  Just as you can have advocates, you can also have detractors.

    Now, to further exemplify this, I’ll tell you what happened in our programming meeting the other day.  Our Associate Director of Programming opened the meeting up by giving us a list of movies that were in contention, as well as a tentative Shorts Program based on nothing else but the raw scores that had been submitted online as I described earlier.  These were the top films as rated by the programmers.  But, you ask, why would there be a debate if these are the top films?

    As I have said, do say, and will continue to say, it’s all about politics.  Well, in this case, it was a lot about politics.  Some of it was based upon practical matters as well.

    To explain.  The movies that had made it into the program were a broad comedy, a thriller, a drama, a comedy, a children’s movie, and a documentary.  The first problem that I noticed when I saw this program was that the SHORTEST film on the list clocked in at a testy 11 minutes.  If you’ve read previous posts about what programmers HATE, long shorts are number one on the list.  But, this comedy - Official Selection - is legitimately well-crafted, beautifully shot, and the story is tight and intriguing and it made every person in the screening laugh out loud.  Deservedly so, it has the number one slot in the program.

    The problem, though, is that the next-shortest film after that clocks in at 14 minutes, nearly three minutes longer than the shortest movie.  This is important, because 15 minutes is really pushing it with any short film, even if it’s amazing.  The longest movie on the list comes in at 18 minutes.  So, you ask, why does any of this matter?

    There were three movies on the list that were not being given ANY discussion whatsoever in the meeting, even though each deserved it.  One was a music video that utilized aspects of German Expressionism, much like the old movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari which, if you haven’t seen it is inexcusable if you are a student of film.  It is amazing and incredible.  If you like Tim Burton, you will like this movie.  But, I digress…  This is ONE of the movies that was being fought for in the meeting.

    The other two fall into two separate categories.  The first is the sequel to a festival hit from two years ago.  The filmmaker is a local engineer who has since gone on to world-wide YouTube success.  His entry might be more aptly classified as a “video” than a “film.”

    The second is a mockumentary made by two other filmmakers from the [link=""]University of Kansas[/link].  Now, like I said, politics has a lot to do with being a film festival programmer, and I do not exclude myself from that same category.  These two filmmakers are very good friends of mine.  If their movie had legitimately been bad (as a few movies by my friends have been), then I would have sat on it for a while and told my friends that the committee had made up their minds.  In this case, the film was not great, but it was good.  Remember, the key to getting your film in the festival is to get an advocate on the programming committee.  Some people make films that are just good enough someone wants to go to the mat.  In this case, the filmmakers had one of their best friends on the programming committee.

    Now, you may be saying, “But Tyler.  That’s not fair!  What about the rest of us who don’t have friends on festival programming committees?”  Well, my friends, my answer to that is that if you make a good film then you don’t have to worry about that.  I’ve had short films rejected from festivals where a Board member was the mother of one of my best friends (and my co-executive producer).  I’ve also had films accepted at festivals where I did not know a single soul and had absolutely no connections at all.  I’m just saying that it never hurts to have people who will fight for you.

    But that’s not the only reason I was fighting for these films.  If you read Part 2 of the Programmer Blog, these three filmmakers followed rules 1, 2, and 3 to the T.  Rule 1: Keep It Short.  Each of these movies clocked in at 4 minutes, 7 minutes, and 8 minutes.  We could have cut the longest film in the program and only added one minute to the program.  Secondly, they kept their concepts simple and funny – they were jokes that grew.  Lastly, they followed Rule 3.  The music video was so amazing I told everyone I know to get a copy of it.  The other two were two out of three movies in the screening that got laugh-out-louds.  At the right times.

    But they were in danger of not getting in.  Because other programmers were judging films by whether they liked them or not.  They were not judging them by whether they were the best films or not.  And they were fighting me.  But, these were not the only reasons this fight went down.  Check out the next blog story to hear about the other even more political side of this fight.  But remember that this is the lesson for this blog: It pays to have friends who are programmers.