Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tomorrow (May 1st) last day to enter Doorpost Film Project

I'm just hearing about this today, but the Doorpost Film Project is offering crazy money to its winning filmmakers - $300,000 total with a grand prize of $100,000. Plus they're flying the finalists to Nashville for screenings and an award presentation. Submitted films agree to a 3-year exclusive distribution window on their short films -- so if you don't win, you're sunk. I'm not sure what the business model is here. Do the contest holders think they can make their money back on advertising and licensing revenue on short films over three years?

Whatever the reasoning, that's a lot of prize money just sitting there for the taking. If you've got a short film that fits one of their themes and you don't mind giving up the rights for three years, here's the link to submit.

Marfa Film Fest rolls out the red -- sleeping bags?

MarfaJust saw this on the lodging page for the Marfa Film Festival, which starts tomorrow:

Camp cheap in TENT CITY! 150 bucks for the week, 30 bucks a night for a four man tent with two air mattresses and two new sleeping bags. Showers and bathrooms on site. Bring your own pillows. A few blocks from Marfa's main intersection.

What a great example of a fest going all out to accommodate its attendees. Lodging has been scarce in Marfa during the festival weekend (I was contemplating staying on a random stranger's couch). The idea of camping out not only fits in a tight budget but, in the setting of West Texas, has some romance to it as well. Kudos to the Marfa FF staff for creative thinking and a willingness to serve.

Festival events include an opening night outdoor screening of There Will Be Blood on the film's set, a Cinco de Mayo street party, and a closing night screening of The Last Movie with director Dennis Hopper in attendance. Should be a blast.

I'll be in Marfa for the first three days of the fest and will report back upon my return. Watch the Twitter feed on the right for updates during the fest.

(Disclosure: Marfa FF is a B-Side partner festival.)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

LA diary: Are film festivals really worth entering?

Atlanta Film Festival 2008, originally uploaded by stomptokyo.

Lisa Marks at Guardian Unlimited wonders, after spending 400 quid on festival entry fees and getting into only one festival out of a dozen, if film festivals are really worth entering. It's a valid question but only if you know what your goal is for your film -- something that Marks never mentions in her column. Does she want distribution for her movie? Networking opportunities? To see the flick with an audience?

It's tempting to look for systemic problems when facing repeated rejection from film festivals, but more often the problem lies with your festival strategy or your film. People make good movies all the time, but making a really great movie is tremendously difficult. If you're submitting to major film festivals like Sundance and SxSW without a truly great film, rejection is near-certain. (There's a little more leeway with shorts -- I've seen some pretty questionable shorts at major fests but the sheer numbers involved can make it extremely difficult for your short to stand out.) Even with a great film, your film can be knocked out of the running by a number of factors that have nothing to do with the film itself -- maybe it's too similar to something that played last year, or touches on a subject that the festival programmer doesn't think the audience will respond to.

Marks also voices the thoughts of a lot of filmmakers:

I might start my own festival; I reckon if I can get 3,000 entries, charge about $40 a pop, and show maybe 100 movies in a mate's back garden, I could turn a nice profit. I'm not saying that's what any festival promoters are in it for but who really gains?

Here Marks displays at least some understanding of the numbers involved -- with some festivals getting thousands of entries and usually fewer than 200 slots to fill (shorts and feature-length films combined), it's a sure bet that a festival will find more viable candidates than the staff can reasonably program. Over the course of a dozen submissions it's reasonable to find yourself repeatedly in the position of "good, but not good enough."

Marks' inspiration to start her own festival is one that strikes a good many filmmakers, and some have gone on to do exactly that. However, even a small festival needs far more than entry fees and a DVD player to run successfully. As Tribeca film fest exec director Peter Scarlet said recently:

"Folks tend to think a fest is exclusively about the films," Scarlet says. "Indeed, the films are the most critical part, but the idea that people hang a sheet on the barn and people come ... a fest is as complicated a logistical task as landing people on the moon."

The only idea more laughable than a backyard film festival getting 3000 entries (most first-year fests get fewer than 300) is the thought that festivals profit from entry fees. Well-known major fests like Cinevegas might get upwards of 2000 entries but the revenue from those entries -- especially after Withoutabox takes its substantial cut -- is a small fraction of a large fest's operating budget. That's not to say that there aren't festivals out there that prey on filmmakers with exorbitant entry fees and a less-than-impressive screening event, but word about those gets around pretty quickly. (If you're not googling the the name of every festival you enter with an eye towards complaints from other filmmakers, you should be.) Festival entry fees are, more, than anything, a barrier to keep festivals from being flooded with entries from every Dick and Jane with a Handycam. Annoying? Yes. Expensive? Yes. But they are a fact of festival life and aren't likely to go away anytime soon.

As to who really gains, well -- hopefully, everyone. The festival staff gets to show excellent independent films to an appreciative audience. The filmmakers get exposure for their films, networking opportunities, and the possibility of a prize -- be it in cash or simple prestige. Audiences get to see movies of a nature and quality that some believe Hollywood has forgotten. I'll touch more on the benefits of festivals to filmmakers in an article in the near future.

In retrospect, I think the way forward is internet competitions. Most of them are free and the traffic is high. I'm waiting to hear about the Sony/Crackle shorts contest (of which I am one of the 10 finalists) and you can see my entry in the Babelgum festival, which is being judged by Spike Lee.

Maconie's List has now been viewed over 20,000 times on Crackle - where else would you get that sort of exposure?

If it's simple eyeballs you're looking for, loosing your film upon the internet is absolutely the way to go. Unless you're selling merchandise or collecting a share of advertising revenues, however, exactly what happens from there is wildly uncertain, not to mention way less fun. In an industry that thrives on personal relationships, internet competitions offer no face time and none of the location-based benefits of traditional film festivals. Certainly the internet will play a role in film discovery and distribution, but I don't think they will ever supplant film festivals. People still enjoy sitting in the dark with a crowd of their fellow humans to watch movies, and I suspect that's likely to continue.

Read the full text of LA diary: Are film festivals really worth entering?.

Monday, April 28, 2008

POWFest 2008 - inaugural Portland Women's Film Festival

Sour Apple Productions, in partnership with Film Action Oregon, is proud to present the 2008 Portland Women’s Film Festival Schedule of Events. The mission of the Portland Women’s Film Festival is to showcase the very best contemporary international independent films made by women, promote and create opportunities for women working in all areas of the film industry, and educate the greater community through filmmaker panels and hands-on workshops.

Spanning May 15-18, and held at Portland, Oregon’s historic Hollywood Theatre, POW Fest will throw a rockin’ kick-off party at The Cleaners at the Ace Hotel, exhibit select women-made movies, moderate several exciting filmmaker panels, host an expo of women-owned and served businesses, offer a day-long screenwriting workshop, and present a variety of emPOWering Q&As with the numerous filmmakers who will be in attendance. In addition, the festival will spotlight a retrospective of the Guest of Honor, female indie director pioneer Allison Anders’, award-winning feature film work, including Gas Food Lodging (Co-Presented by Portland State University) and Border Radio (Presented by Video Vérité).

New niche festivals are always welcome news, since they provide additional screening opportunities for the niches they serve. Some people worry about being pigeonholed by such festivals, but I think it's silly to be concerned with that when it's difficult enough to play any festival. It's a gift to have such direct conduit to your audience -- if somone's providing you with the means to reach people who want to see work by women, why wouldn't you want to play there?

Visit the POWFest web site.

(Disclosure: POWFest is a B-Side partner festival.)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

MovieMaker's 25 Festivals Worth the Entry Fee

moviemaker composite.jpg, originally uploaded by Alamo Drafthouse.

MovieMaker mag just released their 2008 Film Festivals issue and a lot of my favorite fests are listed, at least from what I can tell by this composite image. Fantastic Fest, Cinevegas, Ann Arbor -- yup, yup, looks good. I'll jet out to the local Borders tomorrow to pick up a copy and report back if there's more to talk about. I suggest you grab it off the stands while it's still around.

Update (July 25 2008): Here's the list, rather belatedly. My comments to come soon.

The Accolade Film Awards

AFI Dallas

Ann Arbor Film Festival

Big Apple Film Festival


Cinema City International Film Festival

CineVegas Film Festival

Cucalorus Film Festival

DC Shorts Film Festival

Fantastic Fest

HollyShorts Film Festival

Independent Film Festival of Boston

The Indie Gathering

Nashville Film Festival

Now Film Festival

Palm Spring Intl. Short Film Festival

Rhode Island Intl. Film Festival

Route 66 Film Festival

San Diego Film Festival

San Francisco Frozen Film Festival

Stony Brook Film Festival

Student Shorts Film Festival

Trail Dance Film Festival

Very Short Movies Festival

Also of interest: the Film Festival Secrets list of festivals with no entry fees.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Atlanta Film Festival 2008 - Southern hospitality ain't dead

Atlanta Film Festival 2008. Filmmakers Danielle Bernstein and Ann Slick talk shop with Mark Wynns.

If you want to find the heart of the Atlanta Film Festival, just look up. One floor up and one door over from the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema is The Independent, where filmmakers, badge-holders, and harried festival staff swill (festival sponsor) Stella Artois longnecks between screenings. There's the usual exchange of business cards and war stories, but there's also a sense of cameraderie that grows over the course of the festival week as names and faces become familiar through repeated contact. You may not have seen Jay Zimmerman's short Done in One (winner of the festival's Rapid I Movement short filmmaking competition), but after an afternoon of trading jokes with him and lead actor Matthew Cornwell you'll be making mental notes to catch the next screening. Across the room Exec Director Gabe Wardell schools an unsuspecting filmmaker on the second level of Donkey Kong before dashing down to introduce the next round of screenings.

The Atlanta Film Fest's venue is hardly isolated -- it's an easy walk from Piedmont Park and a bevy of other city landmarks. However, with the various screens located just steps away from one another (the fest takes up about half of the cineplex's screens), the lounge upstairs, and a good selection of eating alternatives in the same shopping center, it's easy to think of the festival as an ecapsulated world unto itself. All this coziness makes it hard to inject glitz into a festival by moving the proceedings to a swankier location for the evening (parties are held at a variety of off-site locations), but the fest staff manages to do so even if the locals make faces at the thought of driving anywhere.

When it comes to movies, ATL FF (under the watchful eye of programmer Dan Krovich) strikes out on its own, apparently drawing from its pool of submissions more often than relying on crowd pleasers from larger fests. Some of the usual suspects were in the program -- American Teen and Son of Rambow can hardly be considered "undiscovered" -- but for the most part the lineup feels cultivated for the Atlanta audience. Locally-made (Rome, GA) horror comedy Dance of the Dead packed three screenings and Southern-interest doc 'Bama Girl earned an additional screening after a strong first night. This is good news for submitting filmmakers, particularly those with local ties or with pics of special interest to a Southern audience. The fest's homegrown "Teen Screen" and "Rapid I Movement" segments make for programming unique to Atlanta.

The festival is not without its quirks -- post-flick Q&As can be a bit awkward without proper lighting or PA systems and films can jump from theater to theater without warning. (Confusing but hardly fatal when the alternative venue is a few yards away.) More important, however, are the fest's growing pains: how do you add more opulence, attract more prominent filmmakers, and bring in bigger crowds without sacrificing the intimate vibe that current participants seem to enjoy so much? I don't have an answer, but I think the tight-knit bunch at the Atlanta Film Festival do. I look forward to finding out at future ATL fests.

Anatomy of a Film Festival Badge - Newport Beach 2007

Part of an ongoing series of articles that examines the particulars of that ubiquitious festival accessory, the all-important badge.


#1 - With this big (4.5 x 6.5 inch) badge plastered on your chest, there's no mistaking which festival you're attending, or what the dates are. I really like the date written into the sand -- someone really thought about bringing all the elements of the badge together. A badge this large could have supported much more information but the festival directors keep it simple and reveal that their primary focus is on branding and style rather than identity exchange or counterfeit prevention. There's really no reason you couldn't just loan your badge to a friend, and I get the feeling that the organizers have more important things to worry about, which is refreshing.

#2 - Badges are color coded by type - blue for VIPs, aqua for Industry, purple for Filmmakers, orange for Volunteers, etc. That makes it really easy to spot the kinds of people you're looking for, even if you can't "badge-peep" to find out who they are at a glance. (See #3.)

#3 - The section where one might expect to find an attendee's name instead displays their badge type. You can tell if someone is a filmmaker or industry type, but their name remains a mystery. You have to do it the old-fashioned way: introduce yourself. At least you're given some clues as to how to start the conversation. ("Which film is yours?")


#4 - The back of the badge is devoted to information, beginning with a listing of which events the badge will get you into. Sorry, you can't bluff your way past the bouncer by claiming that you bought that badge thinking it would get you into the opening night party -- the details are bumping against your tie-tack. I also like the fact that the procedures for attending screenings are also included.

#5 - A venue listing -- how practical! The only improvement here might have been some phone numbers for directions in case you don't know your way around. If I recall correctly, some of the party venues were omitted from the badge as well.

A few other tidbits might have been included on the back of the badge -- the fest web site or information number, for example, but overall it's a pretty good use of the space. Some fests sell the back of the badge to a sponsor, which is fine, but as an audience member I naturally prefer something functional. The badge is fully laminated rather than slipped into an envelope, so you'll need to keep those business cards in your pocket.

Newport Beach's badge matches the personality of the festival -- splashy and fun -- but also manages to be useful.

Where 'Speed Racer' meets 'War' -

Co-founded by Robert De Niro after September 11 to help heal his Manhattan neighborhood, the [Tribeca Film] festival had previously enjoyed a thankful reception. But as it expanded further into New York and the number of screenings quintupled, some began to resent Tribeca's growth into the already crowded festival circuit.

"You can't please everybody," De Niro said in a recent interview. "If everything's going nicely, there's always going to be somebody to say something."

Read CNN's profile of Tribeca -- there's some priceless back-and-forth here about non-profit vs. for-profit festivals.

Atlanta Film Festival 2008 slideshow

Atlanta Film Festival 2008

View as a slideshow.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Short film competitions pop up everywhere

Timed film competitions have blossomed all over the world, with aspiring filmmakers given extremely short windows ranging from 15 minutes to 48 hours to write, shoot, edit and deliver a short film. And these all-nighters are attracting big-name sponsors.

. . .

Diesel's Film Racing Tour is in its second year. "It's improv for filmmakers," says competition director Charlie Weisman, who assigns a theme like "revenge" or "bad advice" and gives teams just 24 hours to finish.

As I started to read this article about short filmmaking competitions, I mentally rolled my eyes and thought, "There's one in every town." But the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that there should be one in every town. Competitions like Filmmaking Frenzy not only encourage budding filmmakers outside of the traditional "film towns" but also foster creativity by placing constraints on the type and content of the films entering the competition. It's true that few masterpieces emerge from these contests but they usually produce a few entertaining entries, especially if the contestants are encouraged to take risks and be funny. It's not as if cinematic master works are flowing forth from the nation's film schools, either -- those movies are just better looking and cost more to make.

Here's hoping that short filmmaking contests continue to proliferate. If nothing else, they help filmmakers realize that the process of creation, completion, and moving on to the next project can be the best way to approach a career in filmmaking -- or maybe just provide needed, consequence free distraction from an involving project.

Read Clock's ticking on short film fests at Variety.

Anatomy of a Film Fest Badge: SxSW 2008

This is the first part of an ongoing series in which I examine the differences between one of the essential tools of any film festival: the festival ID badge. Every event has different needs and this series will observe how the design and usability of each badge reflects the festival's personality.

sxsw badge

This is an example of the badges used by South by Southwest (SxSW). As an event SxSW is hugely popular (the mixture of film, technology, and music events provide a big draw) and the prices of the badges reflect both the high demand and SxSW's unusual status as a for-profit festival. The motivation to counterfeit, steal, or just plain swap badges is high, so the organization has gone to some lengths to protect against such activities. With the mix of activities and attendees, the badges also demonstrate the levels of admission flexibility that the festival is willing to provide.

#1 - Badges are color-coded by type for at-a-glance identification by admissions monitors. Individual conference badges for specific interests like Interactive and Film are available, as are Gold badges (which combine admission to Film and Interactive events) and Platinum badges, which give access to pretty much everything. Badges provide priority access to individual films and music events, ahead of pass & ticket holders (films) and wristband holders (music). Badges also provide access to parties.

#2 - Large, readable type makes it easy to identify people you haven't met in person before. This is also useful when you need a quick memory refresh for someone you met earlier in the week -- and with the huge number of people hanging around, many from out of town, this happens all the time. For an attendee, the large type size is probably the most important usability feature of the badge, and one I wish more festivals would adopt.

#3 - ID photo cuts down on badge-swapping. I especially like the fact that SxSW lets you upload your own photo in advance, though they will certainly take a mug shot style pic at registration if that appeals to you.

#4 - Punch out icons let the staff know if you've claimed your goody bag, party invites, etc.

#5 - Hologram sticker is shiny but also makes the badge harder to counterfeit. May conceal an RFID chip -- I know that SxSW has been using RFID for their music event wristbands but I don't know if that extends to badges as well. I haven't cut my badge apart to find out.

#6 - Open-ended plastic sleeve (as opposed to sealed laminate) allows you to slip other items into your badge holder -- like business cards or a pocket schedule.

Overall, the badge is very utilitarian (standard size, not too ostentatious, easy to read), serving both the needs of the festival and the attendees. It's the kind of badge you see at hundreds of conventions and festivals, but the distinctive downward pointing arrow, the unmistakeable SxSW abbreviation, and the attractive banner design make it more than just another badge.

For a listing and price breakdown of all the badges that were offered in 2008, visit the 2008 SxSW registration page.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

LA Times - indie and studio films alike use festivals as box office launching pads

Film festivals are justifiably infamous for gluttonous parties, craven swag suites and break-the-bank bidding wars. But does having played the festivals actually help sell tickets when the movie finally hits theaters? The makers of two movies opening this week -- "Young@Heart” and "The Visitor" -- pray that the answer is yes.

Read the rest of 'Juno' set high box office standard for fest fare.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

3 questions about your film and its distribution that you need to answer

As promised, a quick recap of the panel I sat on at the Ann Arbor Film Festival a couple of weeks ago, called "Multiplying Eyes: Film Distribution."

Panelists were myself, moderator Debra Miller (of Outfest & AFI), Bob Alexander of IndiePix, Mitch Levine of The Film Festival Group, and filmmaker Brooke Keesling.

The panel ostensibly concerned distribution but ranged to any number of topics related to making a living as an independent filmmaker. Below are some of threads of the conversation based on my notes and fuzzy memory. A lot of these ideas came up during the panel but I've also included my thoughts since then.

• Mitch Levine introduced his 3 essential questions as a starting point for the distribution of any film:

» What are your goals for the film? These should be as concrete and actionable as possible -- do you want your film shown on TV? How important is theatrical exhibition? Do you want to make all of your production money back, or is it enough to get the film "out there?" How long are you willing to wait before you move on to other forms of distribution? Don't close the door to opportunities you didn't think of, but you should definitely think about what you want.

» Who is your audience? Beyond just "moviegoers," think about specific segments of the populace who appear in or are otherwise represented by your film. Does the film appeal to senior citizens? 20-something skateboarders? Ice fishermen? Identify particular interests, hobbies, occupations, and pasttimes that appear in your movie.

» How do you reach that audience? Not just "by email," but what specific groups already exist to reach those people? Those groups have existing mailing lists, often segmented by geographical location, that can help you fill your festival screenings and sell your film. Are there current movements in popular culture related to your film or upon which you can capitalize? Exploit them.

• Brooke Keesling's Boobie Girl went to 80+ film festivals, and she went to as many of those film festivals as she could. Meeting so many different people helped her secure not only more festival appearances but also distribution for the film itself. Brooke emphasized the importance of keeping a short short - under 12 minutes if possible.

•  My main launching pad for conversation in this panel was a pair of concepts I encountered recently on the Technium, one of Kevin Kelly's blogs. The first is the concept of the concept of 1000 true fans -- that an independent artist could be supported for life if he captures the true fandom of 1000 people. A "true fan" is defined as a person who loves your work so much that he's willing to spend about $100 a year on just about anything you put out there. Read the whole thing, it's a compelling and thoughtful blueprint for the future of independent artists.

• The second concept is the idea that internet is a giant copy machine, and that trying to hold back anything that can be easily copied is essentially a losing proposition, especially if there's a large demand for it. Hence the decline of the music industry and (one guesses) the film industry, because their business models traditionally depended on selling things that couldn't be easily copied. This area is a huge tangle of laws and conflicting desires that I won't get into here -- read Better Than Free instead. Kelly argues that selling copies on the merit of simply having a copy is a business model that will diminish (if not evaporate altogether) -- rather, adding value around the copyable object by selling things that can't be copied (tangible and otherwise) is the winning move.

Kelly presents his ideas in a way that can be applied to many disciplines, but it is especially relevant to filmmakers, in particular those who specialize in shorts. (The ideas will be more applicable to features when they can be copied, transferred, and consumed in a way more convenient than is currently possible.) It's a fairly safe bet that your short film will be co-opted by YouTube or similar at some point in its life, so you're better off including YouTube in your plan instead of policing all the different video sites.

The ways that these two concepts can be applied to independent filmmaking are manifold and I'll continue to write about them. For now though, I'll simply point out two examples of filmmakers who have applied these principles to their work and seem to be doing fairly well at it:

Lone Sausage/Beyond Grandpa - the folks behind the amazing "Doctor Tran" series of films. The concept is simple but the execution is so amazing that true fans are created in mere minutes. In Doctor Tran, Breehn Burns and Jason Johnson have created a beloved character, but the real star of these short films is their warped sense of humor -- that's what people keep coming back for. So long as they continue to churn out depraved animated material (and it's been a while since the last short, though I hear another one is on the way), these guys could probably sell t-shirts and compilation DVDs until the end of time.

Bitter Films - Don Hertzfeldt may animate his films the old fashioned way, but he makes good use of the internet to connect to his fans and to offer them incentive to buy his shorts on DVD. And when it comes to selling things that can't be copied, Bitter Films is a great example: when the collected works "Bitter Films Volume 1" came out, Don included goodies (like strips of film cut from the 16mm prints and hand-drawn sticky notes) with the DVDs of those folks who pre-ordered. Not only are the shorts brilliant, but the marketing and delivery of the work (the DVDs are crammed with extras, etc) is top-notch.

• Some of the questions that came up in the panel were pretty basic. It's obvious that there's a hunger for the simple facts about film distribution -- how it works, what a "standard" deal looks like, etc. This is very likely because there don't seem to be any good, free resources about film distribution out there on the web. Those resources that exist offer sketchy, imprecise information up front, and often hide the real information behind a wall of paid membership or in the pages of a book or ebook you have to pay for.

This is not to say that information about film distribution and ideas about how to accomplish it for your film aren't valuable things for which one could logically expect to pay. However, I find it interesting that you can find reasonably good information about most other aspects of filmmaking for free. This makes me think that 1) film distribution is a murky and unpredictable subject about which few solid "facts" are known and 2) when money enters the picture, the knowledgeable are reluctant to give up information without compensation.

The facts of film distribution aren't that difficult to understand but are beyond the scope of this blog entry -- I promise I'll write something to illuminate the subject soon, and hopefully a bit more research into the subject will reveal some good web resources on the subject too. (Feel free to email me good sites if you know of them.)

• Don't be intimidated by the festival "rules." One of the better takeaways from the conversation was a reminder of the fact that festivals are desperate for great films -- if you have a real winner on your hands (and so very few filmmakers really, really do), a festival will bend the rules for you, especially if you're polite. Festivals put their submission rules into place for a reason, but a quality film will always trump a rule. The trick comes in convincing the festival staff that you have a really great film.

• Take advantage of whatever prizes you get for your film -- use it as leverage with distributors and other festivals. Do it quickly and don't be embarrassed by an award from a smaller festival.

• Use the low budget of your film as a selling point, not something to hide. Don't run down your own film by saying it was "only" made for $800, that you "only" had non-professional actors, etc. etc.

That's the extent of my notes and after-panel thoughts; thanks to my fellow panel members for their expertise, to those who attended (standing room only!) and to the Ann Arbor Film Festival for putting me on a panel and for creating an amazing event. I wish I'd had more time to spend there.