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5 things this filmmaker hates about festivals

can you feel the love tonight...?
earlier today, i got a newsletter from the raindance film festival, to which i subscribed some time ago. beyond being a festival, they're also a resource network for filmmakers, offering workshops in several countries and allowing people from different parts of the industry to connect. i like some of the articles i've read from them and have learned a thing or two. but today's newsletter got my ire up- as it might well have been meant to do- with an article called "16 reasons why festivals hate filmmakers".

properly, of course, it isn't the festivals that hate, but the people organising them, like elliot grove, the person behind raindance. if you are a filmmaker, i recommend reading his list, because there's a lot of stuff in there that would drive me batshit crazy if it kept happening too.

but in the interests of equal time for the opposition, i'd like to say

1. i've actually never done any of the things on his list. [some of them i've not had the opportunity to do.]

2. i hate the people who run film festivals at least as much as elliot grove hates the people who make films.

as many of you know, i produced [along with a small group of others] a feature film called "conversion". although complete, it's never received distribution, which is a real bummer if you've sunk a lot of your time, your money and yourself into something, but really, the odds are against you. for something completely independent of either government or studio funding to make it, film festivals are a very promising option. that said, "conversion" struck out really hard with every festival we tried to get into. and we did try.

but this isn't sour grapes.

i do get that festivals receive far more applications than they can hope to accept and that means, as with most creative pursuits, that your chances of being selected are minimal. sure, i think "conversion" is pretty good, but that's like trying to be objective about your own children. it's generally gotten very positive reaction from others, too, including people from festivals who didn't have the space to accommodate it, so it's not only me who says so. it could be the worst film ever made. i doubt that, because i've seen the films of godfrey ho and i know we're better than those, but if "conversion" is really terrible, it's terrible in that "not hilarious, but just forgettable" way. that would be sad. perhaps we should have just done bad dubs on the dialogue.

all this is to say that, although it's a blow to the ego, i never had any illusions that it would be difficult to get festival placement. the things that i've come to hate about festivals are things that make them uniquely problematic for an outsider to the industry, which means that more obstacles are stacked in the way of projects that have a pretty slim chance of acceptance anyway. even if all these problems were corrected, i don't know if our results would have been any better. but for posterity, all of the following really grind my gears...

1. undercutting your mission statement :: most big festivals have a mission statement so broad it means that pretty much anything they want it to mean. but if you're a festival and you've given yourself a raison d'être that does seem to mean something, for gods' sake, stick with it. if you're a festival that highlights films by women, make sure that women are playing key roles in the production process, not just that the films are about women. if you say you're a festival of independent film and several of your biggest events are for films that have a major distributor [fox, alliance, sony, etc.], you're actually screwing the little guy who hasn't made it yet. if you're catering to a specific genre, don't book an unrelated film just because it's going to put asses in seats.

at best, festivals that compromise their mission statement are doing a disservice to the community they're purportedly trying to help. at worst, it's a sort of hypocrisy that means you're really just in it to serve the industry and the mission statement is just your hook into that succulent tuna's flesh.

2. being unclear about submission requirements :: i'm a fairly straightforward person. this makes me a terrible negotiator, because if i say something, i mean it- i'm not aiming to find a middle ground. but the process of applying to a film festival should not be a negotiation to begin with- it should be perfect for someone like me. therefore, if you tell me something isn't necessary- like a press kit- i'm assuming you mean it isn't fucking necessary. i'm funny about how i interpret words that way, like they're supposed to mean the things they say in the dictionary. if i find out later that you were only looking at films that forwarded press kits, i'm going to think that your entire organisation is full of shit.

likewise, if you say that something is allowed- such as a work-in-progress- i will assume that means you've steeled yourself for the possibility that someone will take you up on that. if it turns out that you really meant that someone could submit it, but that the people adjudicating the decision would be treating it the same as all the finished submissions they were getting, that makes you kind of a douche, because finished things aren't the same as unfinished things. i'm willing to bet that you're capable of making that distinction when you evaluate houses, so i'm not sure why it should stump you with this one issue.

and if you assume that people will know what you "really mean", then you're assuming that everyone who submits to your festival will be as versed in the realities of film industry-speak as you are. which means you really have one set of rules for insiders and outsiders.

3. practice the professionalism you preach :: this is actually what set me off about the raindance piece. reading through it, i was astonished that a document that tried to impress the need for professionalism and professional appearances had the words "liek" and "worng" in it. but i'm not singling out raindance. it's absolutely shocking how many times i've caught really stupid shit like this in the process of applying to film festivals. you know what that looks like? it looks like you're living by a different set of rules than the ones you enforce on others. it also looks like you dropped out of second grade.

4. whining about your marketing budget :: i get it. film festivals can't afford big downtown billboards for every film they show and that means they need the filmmakers to help get the word out about their project. an effective way of putting that is basically by repeating what i just said and nothing more. getting an internet lecture from a festival about their lack of funds while they're rolling out the red carpet for hollywood's elite is insulting. do you know what i call my marketing budget? "the money i would otherwise spend on food." so don't tell me your tale of heartbreak.

i've worked in marketing for over ten years and everyone has to make due with a budget that's way less than they really need to accomplish their aims. the difference is that you get to set a budget. i need to scrounge mine from the rest of my life. so let's both take our underwhelming budgets and work together like we're supposed to. when you have brad and angelina crashing on a volunteer's sofa, you can kvetch all you want. until then, stop trying to make me feel guilty for taking up a small portion of your money.

5. giving preference to the people you know :: i really do get sick of hearing that competitions of any sort are about who you have on your side or who you have advocating for your cause. this isn't limited to filmmaking by a long shot, but in competitions that are supposed to be about merit, it really galls me when i hear that you basically have people running around like lobbyists, ensuring their guy gets what he wants. the next person who tries to tell me about the importance of connections is going to find out in a hurry about the importance of having an icepick connected to their eyeball. if that's what it's all about, i'm just going to call up newt gingrich to be my lobbyist. trust me, once i've set newt on your ass, you're going to be begging for a system that's free of politics.

like i said before, i don't know that any of the things i've listed above had an effect on my own personal tumble into the pit of ruin. i like to think not. but it bothers me to think that it's even possible these things made a difference and therein lies the acorn of my anger tree.

i know that for a lot of people getting into the film industry, festivals can be a boon, a quick hit on the accelerator after a seeming eternity in neutral. for my part, if anyone were to ask my advice [which they likely wouldn't, because why would you take the advice of someone who hadn't amounted to anything in the film industry?], i'd say that there are probably a lot better ways to spend your money. you're already walking along a very precarious cliff. it just so happens that there are land mines planted along the route.


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