Lately I’ve been engage in a lot of discussion regarding what constitutes “good” and “honest” programming practices, at least as far as film festival programming is concerned. It’s a hot topic this year and I feel I should weigh in. For years I’ve struggled with the film festival circuit – the system as a whole, mainly because I disagree with it. A few years ago I started volunteering for several film festivals and screening series’ in an effort to understand it better but this only made things more confusing. The only constant that seems to exist in the festival world is that there aren’t really any truly honest programming practices taking place, at least, that I witnessed.
My first behind the scenes festival experience came when I was an intern at a film magazine in the fall of 2001. This particular magazine was putting on a film festival and their editorial staff was responsible for viewing the submissions and making the official selections. I’ve written about this experience before, mainly as a warning to filmmakers: the editorial staff didn’t watch the films, they played the tapes while they worked but only when something of signifance stood out did they pay a little more attention. For example: one of the submissions had William Baldwin as an actor, one of the editors noticed this and immediately approved the film for exhibition, without watching it further. Not a very honest way to program.
A programmer in New York once told me that he doesn’t consider any work that isn’t shot on a superior format: film or Red cinema. He wouldn’t even take 1080pHD anymore. I told him “but Hugo was shot in 1080″ and he’d say “and I probably wouldn’t have accepted it”. This guy didn’t last long – in fact he only had three years and abruptly quit the festival game because he wasn’t getting the content he had “hoped” for. I assure you too, he might be gone but there are other film festivals that stigmatize raw format just as much as this guy – and some of them are ultra successful. Recently, my arch nemesis, Indiewire, published an article where staff from SxSW give their tips to filmmakers who are thinking about submitting. While these tips are generally meant to be helpful, I can’t help but to be conflicted as far as seeing eye to eye with their programming practices. For example, one thing I agree with is that you should wait until your cut is final before submitting – programmers often only watch films once and if you send in a rough cut or an assembly and that version of the film is mind blowing – you’re out. This is true for every festival and series – wait until it’s actually completed before submitting! Janet Pierson insists that premier status matters and this is true for a lot of the bigger film festival and honestly I think it’s the most ridiculous rule a festival can have. The way I see it is that premiere status should NEVER matter – if it’s a good film and worth screening, it should be considered just as much as any other film, whether or not it has officially “premiered”. Additionally, many filmmaker have started to label every single one of their screenings as premieres, often resorting to classifying each “premiere” by geographical location: New York Premiere, LA Premiere,. “this is our TEXAS premiere” and the fuckers actually get away with it too. I continue to be baffled that this obvious bullshit flies with most of these film festivals.
This morning Emelyn Stuart, one of the organizers and programmers for the new Ocktober Music & Film Festival published a comment on her Facebook page, in regards to her first time experience as a festival programmer:
As a first time Festival Director (who was also in charge of programming) there are several lessons I learned that I want to share with you.
1) Make your opening scene as strong as possible. If the judges aren’t “captivated” in the first couple of scenes, they may not watch your entire film.
2) Several Filmmakers only submitted ONE DVD even though we asked for two, in several cases the ONE DVD they sent had problems, so they were disqualified. Follow instructions!
3) Your synopsis is the introduction to your film, it is the first thing Festival programmers see – make sure it is interesting & intriguing.
In this comment, Emelyn openly admits that she will not watch a film all the way through if it starts off slow. This in and of itself is complete and utter dishonestly as far as programming practices and festival integrity is concerned. Obviously taste is an issue for all programmers, however, if it becomes a common rule that stories which take their time are to be rejected, there’s something seriously wrong! In addition, I’ve seen fantastic films made by some incredibly talented filmmakers who couldn’t write a synopsis if their lives depended on it – I think maybe Emelyn needs to re-evaluate some of her core guidelines as far as festival programming goes. Emelyn: you’d be surprised by some of the fantastic content that’s out there, provided you actually watch it and stop looking for reasons to take the lazy way out! Additionally, Emelyn received a comment in response to this posting from Robert LaRue, who insists that sending a festival a “24 minute experimental animation is not a good idea” essentially admitting that he would reject a work based on those perimeters alone without giving the film an honest consideration. The fact that Stuart Film Group “liked” the comment suggests that her festival programmers agree and hold the same bias up against such films.
Some of the ideals I’ve instilled on the festivals I’ve worked with, and managed to change for the better, is honesty in programming. Among the rules I’ve pressed festivals to adopt when reviewing and programming paid submissions are: All films are watched twice by at least four different people – this rule is important and should be common across the board. Those four people should always consist of two men and two woman with an age range of 25-40 years. This is the bare minimum I believe a festival can get away with, as far as having a sufficiently balanced programming jury. The more the better too, with numbers comes honesty – you have people keeping one-another in check. Mix it up: race and culture is a huge issue with programming content. You need to have people on your jury who understand that America is a mesh of different cultures and therefore you’re going to receive films made by people you might not understand and you can’t adequately create a program that caters to all those cultures if you don’t understand them. Art house: art house cinema is incredibly important and I believe all film festivals should have a section for this, if at least, for no other reason than to generate street cred and to maintain the integrity of the core art. There are a lot of cinemaphiles who would be willing to donate their time to help get art house and Avant-garde projects programmed into the festival circuit, more so than is currently done. This is something I’m constantly pushing for, but tend to get little traction.
Thanks for your time and as always, cheers.
IndieWire: 5 Tips for FIlmmaker Applying to SxSW: http://www.indiewire.com/article/5-tips-for-filmmakers-applying-to-sxsw-from-the-festivals-programmers
Emelyn Stuart / Stuart Film Group: https://www.facebook.com/emelynstuart