I write today with a damaged heart. For several years now I have made a conscious effort to build up the independent film community in New York by volunteering at various film festivals, interviewing filmmakers and essentially networking the hell out of the artists who live and work here. The idea of course is to connect every single one of us in a way where we don’t have to function as strangers or fear each other’s success. Prior to 2010, so many filmmakers in this city treated their peers like they were competition but this just isn’t the case. Art is so drastically different, especially on the independent level, that it’s absurd to think indie filmmakers are in competition with one another. I have applied this logic to film festivals as well, united many of them by introduction or bridging them together through programming.
This month, some of the festivals I’ve worked with to solidify their involvement in the indie film community have come under attack.
On July 30th, IndieWire.com had published an extremely venomous article written by one JASON GUERRASIO. It’s called “Is This Film Festival A Scam? Sometimes, It’s Not So Obvious“. The title was changed the following day to “Can You Trust This Film Festival” after a notice was posted on the message board, by a lawyer citing that the title crosses the line from free speech to defamation. I’ve taken an evening to break down Jason’s article, or should I say, rip it the fuck apart, in an effort to defend one of the festivals I truly respect, MFF. I screened with MFF in 2012 and have been working with their founder, Philip J. Nelson for about a year now, to help with the branding of the festival and find new ways to build it as a service to the indie film community. When I met Phil last year at the 6th annual festival, I gauged right away that he was a good man who believed in the future of independent film and wanted to be a part of many filmmakers’ successes. That is why, upon seeing Guerrasio’s ridiculous article, I flipped a lid. I initially responded to the article with a very well thought out comment that was four paragraphs long. It was polite and offered a very good argument to why the article is inappropriate and biased. The comment has since disappeared from the site.
My missing comment aside, I find Guerrasio’s article suspicious to say the least, mainly because this “journalist” managed to pinpoint the top most troublesome filmmakers of the past two years and tell their “horror” stories to the indie film world, only to do the entire indie film community a disservice. It turns out, after some light investigation, that Jason is actually an employee at the Tribeca Film Institute, which as you all know, is an affiliate of the Tribeca Film Festival as well as Tribeca Cinemas. This is important information for later. The first part of the article I would like to comment on revolves around one Mira Gibson, a filmmaker who made a movie called “Warfield“:
“It was a fucking nightmare.” That’s how Mira Gibson described the premiere of her film “Warfield” at the Manhattan Film Festival last year. Certain it wouldn’t be accepted at the New York Film Festival or Tribeca, the Brooklynite wanted to screen in the city and thought MFF would be a good fit. (Editor’s note: Manhattan Film Festival should not be confused with the Manhattan Short Film Festival, a completely separate organization.)
She submitted her film and entry fee through online service Withoutabox; when the film was accepted, Gibson hustled to put the final touches in post. About 10 weeks before the 2012 MFF, she sent “Warfield” in the form of a thumb drive, along with specs.
When her big night arrived, Gibson was anxious—and not because she was about to unveil a film that she’d been hyping for months to her agent, manager, family, friends, cast and crew. The venue wasn’t readymade for a movie premiere: That year, the festival was screening films at The Producer’s Club, a Times Square space more suited for theater work.
It proved to be an omen of things to come.
As the lights went down and the picture came up, Gibson was horrified. “It’s the wrong one!” she yelled out. Her first audience was watching the version she’d submitted for acceptance—a work-in-progress with no color or audio correction, no credits or the score.
I remember Gibson from the 2012 season. I remember her wigging out at her screening because she didn’t like the venue and felt embarrassed that it was being held at the Producer’s Club. This was the same venue I got to screen my film, Caroline of Virginia, and I had no complaints. My cast and family had no complaints either. In fact, none of the filmmakers that screened in my block had complaints, ‘nor did most of the filmmakers of the other blocks I sat in on. In 2012 I attended almost all of the screenings, between the first Sunday of the festival and the last and she was maybe one of two filmmakers who pitched a fit about the quality of the projection. Phil responded by re-programming the film on another day at another venue, the Hunger College Lang Auditiorium.
This woman doesn’t look too unhappy, judging by the tweet and the pic she attached.
I had the pleasure of talking to Mira again, at her second screening. She was in a relatively good mood and told me she was “impressed” by the festival and by their response to the situation. I tried to talk to her about the film, but she didn’t seem to want to talk to me about it. Her film was about a child rapist getting let out of prison so I thought it warranted some sort of discussion on the social ramifications of the subject, but she didn’t seem to have the ammo to go there. It’s strange that she was so angry about not having a Q&A.
It should be noted that Mira responded to the article on the comments section, regarding her interview with Guerrasio. Gibson responded to me directly, insisting that she did not remember me and that she had plenty of nice things to say about MFF but Guerrasio chose not to use them. Her comment has also disappeared from the website.
On the surface, the festival sounds like a hidden gem among the thousands. However, after seven years, its profile remains very low (although for its first four years, its name was Independent Features Film Festival). And all the filmmakers interviewed for this story — whether they enjoyed the festival or not—commented on its rampant disorganization, lack of communication and screening ineptitude.
Seems like the writer, who works for the organization that works side by side with the Tribeca Film Festival, is throwing words around the MFF name to discredit it and keep it from growing. Festivals start small – you can’t expect a festival that doesn’t have Bobby DeNiro as its mascot, to operate on that level do you? Seriously, it’s an INDIE FILM festival! It’s small, it operates on a very tight, out of pocket budget and it has kept a low profile because that’s the intention of its founder. Just because a festival is high profile, does not make it a good festival, at least, not for independent film.
L.A.-based filmmaker Timothy L. Anderson screened his debut feature, the Coolio-starring dark comedy “Two Hundred Thousand Dirty,” at the 2013 MFF. Only available to fly to town on the day of his screening, Anderson was having lunch with a friend in midtown and prepared to do a final social media blast about the premiere when he got a call from his AD that the location on their Screen Booker page suddenly changed from the East Village’s Quad Cinema to Hunter College on the Upper East Side.”I was never emailed or called at all,” said Anderson about the change.
Panic ensued: Unable to get in touch with his festival contact over the phone, Anderson rushed to the Quad for answers and found only volunteers and staff who had none. Anderson then spent two hours waiting in the lobby until Nelson showed up, who only explained that there were booking problems.
“We did postcards saying it was at the Quad and they were right next to him as we were talking,” said Anderson. “So no one at the festival saw these and saw they were wrong? My lead actor was at the opening night party, no one said anything to him about it. I told [Nelson], ‘If you walk to the Quad and find out the film is now uptown, you’re just going to go to a bar.’” With only three hours before his screening, Anderson suggested a shuttle service.
“There were such repeated instances of clusterfuck.”
Philip went above and beyond to correct this mis-communication and initially I was appalled that the filmmaker had cooperated with the interviewer, until I had been informed, by the filmmaker, that Guerrasio had omitted a very important piece of information: the filmmaker never felt scammed, and still doesn’t. Philip paid for limo rides to the Hunter College venue, out of his own pocket, to keep things on an even keel.
You can see Anderson’s response posted in the gallery at the bottom of this article as an un-edited screen shot.
As I stated before, I was a selected filmmaker at the 2012 film festival. Yes, I won an award. It might not mean much to the main stream film industry, but it sure the heck meant a lot to me and it still does. Someone liked my work enough to give me a screening and on top of that, a plaque. Call it ego, or whatever the hell you want, but when you’ve gone through what I did to get my films made – dammit I want a place to screen and MFF provided it and I couldn’t be happier. Mind you, the same film had been rejected from almost every other independent film festival in New York because of its awkward running time. At 40 minutes most film festivals were unwilling to try and fit it into their program. Phil took the challenge and made it work. He has since acquired the reputation of being able to accept medium length films that other festivals are so unwilling to take a good look at. My invitation to submit to the 2012 festival was done so because I had submitted to the 2011 festival and Philip couldn’t fit it into that year’s program because of the awkward run time that I mentioned. He invited me to resubmit because he truly believed in the film, regardless of its run time.
As of this year, at my recommendation, it is now MFF policy to invite filmmakers who have been rejected from the current season’s acceptance list, to invite them to resubmit their films the following season with a fee waiver – in an effort to strengthen the relationship between the festival and the filmmakers – whether they screen or not.
This year I had the pleasure of advising Philip on programming at MFF on top of his festival’s branding. I introduced a lot of filmmakers to Phil and the festival. Why didn’t Jason interview any of them? Or any of the other filmmakers who were happy with the festival this year? I would have done an interview. I know lots of happier filmmakers who would have and they’re not too difficult to locate.
THE TRIBECA MONOPOLY
Monopolies in New York City are nothing new, especially when it comes to the film and television industries. In fact, the Los Angeles film industry wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for greedy organizations like Edison, who held patents on many of the technologies filmmakers needed to achieve their works. Filmmakers responded by heading out west, where the long arm of Edison couldn’t as easily reach them. Without the need for city permits or the worry of wealthy and powerful men like those from the Edison company, film making in California thrived.
Tribeca is a massive organization that dominates many aspects of the film industry in New York and the tri-state area and is growing at an alarming rate. For an organization that’s only about a decade old, Tribeca is massive and powerful. This is disconcerting because of their influence in city politics, specifically with the Office of Film, Theater & Broadcasting. For Tribeca to openly allow one of their staffers to publish defamatory and slanderous content against the smaller indie fests like this, is a slap in the face to the independent film community that I’ve worked so hard to strengthen. Organizations like Tribeca often overlook films that don’t have celebrities or bigger budgets in the hundreds of thousands. MFF on the other hand has no bias when it comes to a film’s budget, shooting format or whether or not it can appeal to academia. If Phil and his programming advisers feel it has any level of value or true indie spirit, it will be seriously considered. He’s taken films I don’t particular have an interest in, but has also taken films he doesn’t have an interest in, at my suggestion. He’s advised by many filmmakers and promoters, from all facets of the industry, both indie and mainstream. As far as programming goes, Philip Nelson is one of the most honest programmers I know.
This isn’t the first time that Tribeca has committed a misdeed toward Phil and MFF. In 2010 Phil was forced to file a lawsuit against the Tribeca Film Festival for theft of his innovative interactive concepts. You can read more here: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/jul/07/new-york-tribeca-film-festival
Tribeca Cineams vs. The Quad
In his article, Guerrasio insinuates that any festival that uses the Quad Cinemas is likely a scam. This just isn’t true and is further proof of Guerrasio’s ultimate intention with this article. It is clear to me that Guerassio, seemingly on behalf of Tribeca, is making a play to destroy the reputation of the Quad and any festival that rents the facility. This makes sense when you realize that the TFI is affiliated with Tribeca Cinemas, another NYC movie theater. It too is often rented by smaller film festivals.
Under The Bus
What’s of bigger concern is that the filmmakers Guerrasio interviewed were more than willing to throw the festival under the bus, because they didn’t get their way or were in some way, unhappy with their experience. They failed to see the bigger picture or have an ounce of respect for the local indie film community, which depends on lower tier festivals, like MFF, to thrive. I know many of you filmmakers will disregard or elect to not comment on this article because you want to stand a chance at gaining entry as an official selection of the Tribeca Film Festival, but everyone needs to understand why speaking out is more important than yourselves and why this cause is bigger than you. People like Guerrasio and the other people over at Tribeca cannot be the only ones responsible for your future, you have to take control and not give them the satisfaction of putting this perfectly legitimate film festival out of commission. They cannot be allowed to become the only people who have the authority to say what is good and what is bad in filmmaking. They cannot be allowed to become the only people who have the credentials to dictate what is good or bad independent cinema.
MFF is a good festival run by a good person, Philip Nelson, who truly means well. I’ve known him since the 2012 festival, it’s not long, but long enough for me to know that he’s an individual truly dedicated to independent cinema and the success of filmmakers worldwide. Tribeca’s goal is growth and sponsorship, that’s it. Truly independent cinema doesn’t matter to them, I assure you. If it did, they wouldn’t make such a blatant effort to destroy the reputation of a person they’ve never met and a festival they’ve never attended.
It is time that filmmakers take control of the indie film world in New York and tell Tribeca to leave the boutique film festivals alone. This is not the first festival Guerrasio attacked and it won’t be the last. This article is part of a series he has started in an effort to further rip apart the community of independent filmmakers and the festivals that support them. In addition, Tribeca needs to pressure its staffers to not post defamatory media about other festivals and organizations, as it reflects badly on the part of Tribeca. If Tribeca truly wants to contribute to independent film culture in a positive way, they’ll order Guerrasio to issue a retraction and cease with his ridiculous series of articles that explore the “underbelly of the film festival world“. By publishing these articles, IndieWire has done a lot of damage to the festival and to the filmmakers whom the festival has supported.
Shit Happens – Get Used To It
It seems like some of these filmmakers haven’t been around the festival circuit much and aren’t aware that they need to come prepared and ready for anything. Filmmakers need to understand that circumstances change and sometimes events don’t go as perfectly as they should. Festivals aren’t locked down. I’ve seen Tribeca change show times, venues and even cut Q&A’s. This is COMMON practice. I don’t see Guerrasio calling Tribeca out on this. But I KNOW it happens because I know a lot of filmmakers who have screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. I am friends with filmmakers who have won awards at Sundance and picked up like recognition at Cannes. These same people have also screened at MFF and saw what took place there to be common with boutique film festivals. It is not a scam, it doesn’t make it non-trustworthy, it just is what it is.
The author of the article insists that its not honest to boot a filmmaker from a festival and that a legit festival would never do anything like that. This is complete BS. The author’s own employer, Tribeca, has engaged in similar acts, even going as far as to booting ticket holders from a screening because they were asking difficult questions to the filmmakers. Check out the details of that situation at the New York Times website: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/22/tribeca-film-festival-turns-away-protesters-who-had-tickets-to-gasland-sequel/
Other Festivals & Sponsors:
It’s important that I inform all of you that some of the festivals that the filmmakers that Guerrasio interviewed have had major successes at, also have similar complaints. Solvan Naim, the musician that made the movie Full Circle, claims that he’ll only screen at festivals with sponsors. Solvan Naim did well at this year’s NYCIFF, but if you look them up on RipOff Report, they’ve got a complaint from another filmmaker who had the same problem that Mira had with MFF: he was pissed off that he had been programmed at the Producer’s Club. In addition, other complaints included screenings being canceled and awards being given to people that had previously been affiliated with the festival’s founder/director. Mind you, I only found it because I was reading Solvan’s Ripoff Report against MFF. Guess what? NYCIFF has Paramount Pictures on their step & repeat. Does this make a person’s complaint any less important than those complaing about MFF? Sponsorship mean nothing. Although I’ve never attended NYCIFF ‘nor have I talked with any filmmaker who has screened there about their experience, I would never assume that the festival or its founding directors had any other intention but good intentions when they decided they wanted to screen films on an annual basis.
The people involved in the defamation of MFF and the other festivals Guerrasio has targed are a vicious circle of filmmakers and film promoters who have nothing but selfish intentions. Or maybe they want to bully Phil into giving up the MFF name. Who knows. One thing is for sure, this guy Guerrasio, while heavily credentialed to write about Hollywood, is clearly not qualified to write about independent film and IndieWire is clearly not trustworthy a source of true independent filmmakers.
I urge everyone in the indie film community in New York and abroad to do your research and ask around before submitting your work to any film festivals. Don’t go on Guerrasio’s article alone – from a filmmaker who has extensive experience with MFF, I can assure all of you that this festival is GOOD and operated by a phenomenal person and his amazing family.
Thanks for the ear,
-Eric Norcross | 2012 MFF Selected Filmmaker turned Volunteer
Mira Gibson tweet during her MFF event.