Future of Film Festivals – Part One
What follows here is the first of what will become a series of essay entries about film festivals — my experiences at them, how the festival scene has changed, their boom and bust, and where it may be heading.
This first one was written in the days after Nightbeats played in the 2010 Method Fest in Los Angeles earlier this year…..
Film festivals are a crap shoot and I don’t like to gamble. When you set out to make a film you have no idea how it’s going to turn out. Or even if you’re going to like it. Then you do everything you can to get it out there, having no idea if anybody is going to make the effort to see it.
With Nightbeats we were very excited and grateful to have it play in the Sacramento film and music festival. But it’s never enough to be satisfied with only having played on your own turf — you need to get some validation outside of your own zip code.
I started sending Nightbeats out to other festivals. I have a rule: when you submit to a festival, you forget about it. Filmmakers make films and festivals put on festivals and the two are very much different.
The festival scene has been visibly changing in the past few recent years. It used to be that you would get a letter in the mail either acknowledging that you have been accepted or, more often than not, sending their regrets. Then it became e-mails. But for the past year or two I’ve noticed that you can’t even count on the courtesy of an e-mail to let you know that you have not gotten into a festival. I’m now to the point where when I send a film off to a festival I have no idea what is happening in the mails or, this is increasingly on my mind, if people are even bothering to watch all of the films being submitted.
From the very beginning of starting out to make Nightbeats, I had wanted to play in The Method Fest Film Festival in Calabasas, California, a community in the Western edge of Los Angeles County. This festival had a strong reputation for playing films that have strong acting and I always wanted Nightbeats to be a performance-driven film. The festival was rapidly approaching and we hadn’t heard anything. I was really feeling kind of in the dumps, win one Sunday night the phone rang and it was Don Franken, director of The Method Fest calling to inform us that we had been accepted and that the festival would be kicking off in four weeks.
You typically get 6-8 weeks notice so that you can put together your publicity materials and have a tape of the film transferred for projection. Four weeks gave us desperate little time.
I always say, “The only thing worse than not being accepted into a festival is being accepted into a festival.” I say this because the minute you are accepted into a festival Monday starts flying out the window: a DigiBeta transfer of the film — $250. 4 x 6” film cards of the screening — 500 cards for $100. If you were going down for the screening — another $100-$150 for gas, then there is food, then there is lodging, then there is etc., etc., etc. And you know this going into it that there is no guarantee that anybody — anybody — is even going to bother to come to the movie. But being that The Method Fest was a festival that I wanted to play in, and that it is in the Los Angeles area, it was a must to attend.
One big plus for Bonnie and me was that two of our actors from the film, Julianne Gabert and Galen Howard, are going to be there as well. There is strength in numbers and Julianne and Galen have such great positive energy and enthusiasm that their presence was going to be a good plus for the festival experience.
The Method Fest Website featured photos of Anthony Hopkins, Laura Linney and Bruce Dern, who were all uncaring in films having their US premiere at the festival. It was also very cool that prominent among those photos, the biggest close-up was of Lori Foxworth, the star of our film — so we felt that we were in very good company.
The Method Fest itself was kind of an odd thing. Movies were playing on three different screens — two screens were in and eight screen multiplex that was also playing Alice in Wonderland and a few other blockbuster titles — as well as having films play in an auditorium in a community center. It’s great that they had so many films playing in the festival that they needed three screens to be running films simultaneously. The downer is that the multiplex and the community center were 9 miles away from each other. Anybody going to any of the films playing at the community center really had to make the effort to go and see them.
The festival accepts and schedules for films, but it is the job of the filmmakers to promote and get bodies in the seats. Bonnie, Julianne, Galen in and I were handing out film cards to everybody we could see and talking up our film. But, I again, it was an unusual kind of festival. You could spot the people who were a part of the films that were playing. The male actors all looked like they were straight out of the cast of “Entourage” with coiffed hair, long sleeve button down shirt on the outside of their genes, and boots. The women, regardless of age, or in the shortest skirts and highest heels. The filmmakers and other crew members all looked like they were out of a grunge band. And everybody was on their cell phones constantly.
At other festivals that I’ve been to there have been camaraderie between filmmakers. At this festival filmmakers just showed up for their own film and then left. Perhaps this is because it was an LA Festival. But there was uniformly no interest of any filmmakers in anybody else’s movies. There was also incredibly low turnout of regular festival-goers coming to see films. The audiences were all small. Those attending movies were either a part of the film or friends and relatives of people who were a part of the film that was playing. Regular festival-goers coming to see the movies would number between five and 10 — 10 being the highest number that we ever saw. And the festival-goers could easily be spotted because they looked like the kind of folks that would be going out for an art-house movie as opposed to going to see a blockbuster that was what was showing at the other screens at the multiplex.
We all made a point of going to see some of the other movies that were playing and participating in the festival.
Come the nighttime screening of our film Nightbeats at the community center our expectations for any kind of turnout were extremely low. So we were very pleased — and surprised — to see some people standing around outside the theater before our movie was planning. Bonnie and I would go up to folks and ask if they were there for our movie and, to our surprise, they have were. Again, the number was low, 10 or so, but they had made the effort to come to the community center specifically to see our film, which was appreciated.
I do have to commend the festival and the Calabasas community Center for their auditorium — the seating was excellent throughout and the projection and audio system was perfect. Chris focus. Perfect sound. It was an excellent screening technically. Afterwords there was a hearty round of applause for the film and lots of questions. You can always gauge the reception of a film by whether the audience stays for the zoo and a bar quickly make their exit. In this case everybody say. We asked the people what drew them to calm and make the effort to see our film, especially since it was planning so far away from the larger, main venue for the festival.
Everybody said that they had looked through the rundown of the films that were playing and that our film specifically appeal to them. One fellow came up to me and introduced himself as Steve Milner, a writer for Bell air magazine. He asked a number of questions, which I took to be the soft interview. He said that he was there to write a story about the festival. I asked what he thought of the festival so far? “Oh, I think it’s fantastic,” he answered.
“That’s great,” I said. “What have you thought of the other films?”
“Oh, I haven’t seen any of the other films. This is the only one that I’ve seen so far, and based on this I think the festival is terrific.”
“So how would you rate our film?”
“Oh, two big thumbs up!”
The next day Bonnie and I got on the freeway and left Los Angeles, heading back home with mixed feelings. The screening had been small but with excellent reaction to the movie. We got a sense that, at least with this festival, filmmakers were using it as a platform of acceptance into the LA film scene. But, across the board, audience attendance was extremely low. I don’t know if this is typical of festivals and Los Angeles because of the vast amount of films to choose from and in non-top bombardment of movies on the public senses — or if the film festival scene is just changing. Perhaps it is the effect of the economy. Perhaps it is the impact of table television and having hundreds of channels to entertain you. Perhaps it’s the overwhelming number of DVDs that you can rent of anything, so why bother to make the trip to see a movie that you very likely may never hear about again. I don’t know.
A few days later I remembered Steve saying that his review would be up in a couple of days. I typed into the website and was staggered by his praise. It was the kind of review that every filmmaker dreams of getting, no matter how big or small their film is. I also got an e-mail from another highly respected festival in the Midwest asking about our movie. They said that they follow the film selection of all of the best festivals, looking for new work to present to their audience. And, best of all, they wave the entry fee.
So in the end, wraps it was worth. We did get screened, got a great review, and got some notice by other festivals. You never know if anyone is going to watch your movie when you set out to make it, then after it’s done you still don’t know. You can only decide whether it was worth it and you want to do another one. I’m already at work and have a new camera.