FILM FESTIVAL KING: CHRIS KING of Watermark Films
Chris King has a new short film, Happiness, playing in the Sacramento Film & Music Festival at The Crest Theater on Saturday, September 14 at 4 PM. Happiness has already screened at VisionFest in New York where it was nominated for 7 awards and ultimately winning 3 (Best Short Film, Best Actress [for Sierra Hersek], and Best Editing. This was the most awards of any film, including the feature films, that played at Visionfest. It also just screened at the Oscar-qualifying Rhode Island International Film Festival.
I met Chris at the 2005 Sacramento Film & Music Festival where his first film Touching Down, a feature-length film, was playing. It went on to win both the Audience Award and the Jury Prize for Best Feature Film. Chris and his wife Heather had just moved up from Los Angeles where he had been a promotions and puzzle writer on Wheel of Fortune. Now in Sacramento, he was writing, shooting and editing promos for FOX40. We immediately got along as zero-budget micro-indie filmmakers and started getting together for frequent Mexican lunches to talk about what we were doing and what we wanted to do. We would read each other’s scripts and then critique them with brutal honesty, which bred greater mutual respect for each other’s work. (No-holds-barred criticism is always the best if you want to seriously get anything accomplished).
A few years later I was editing a KCRA magazine program on my MacBook in the newsroom (long before the station had moved to nonlinear editing) and heard a voice say, “Hey there, buddy.” I looked up and it was Chris getting a tour of the place by our promotions manager. Within a few weeks he had joined KCRA and began originating and putting out stellar promos for the station, which he continues to do today.
When we aren’t on the clock at the station Chris and I are living, breathing, writing, shooting, editing and thinking about movies. Every couple of days we are checking in with each other on what we’re up to at the moment or what film we’ve recently seen.
Chris’s primary focus is on the writing and creation of the scripts of the films he embarks on. He is a ruthless stickler for structure and character. After spending 3 years on the making of his feature film Touching Down, Chris made a pivotal shift from long-form filmmaking to short subject films. This has allowed him to be much more prolific in getting his films out there. And I know of no more successful individual at getting his films out and into film festivals – and major film festivals – across the country.
I helped Chris with one short film, Rachel, where I was a cameraman along with Jason Knight, a fellow KCRA-3 TV news photographer who has since moved over to promotions and now works alongside Chris. Rachel was made as a filmmaking experiment for Chris. I had turned him onto British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom and his film Wonderland, which I regard as one of the best made films in the last twenty years. Wonderland was shot handheld on two Super-16mm cameras employing natural light and photofloods fitted into regular room lighting sockets. He had actors individually mic’d with wireless microphones as he used a free-form documentary-style approach to capture an amazing level of honesty in his characters. The film was a revelation for me and directly inspired how I made my first feature film Year.
Up to this time Chris had shot films in the more traditional manner of using lights, tripods and boom microphone for recording audio. Chris wanted to try something different and more liberating. Rachel was shot over the course of one day and resulted in a 16-minute short film that went on to play in over twenty festivals across the country, including the New York Visionfest, where lead actress Kelly Nixon was named Best Actress – the first time in the festival’s history that an actor from a short film won that award over the feature film nominees (the previous year’s award went to Oscar winner Mira Sorvino).
After the day of filming Kelly Nixon in the lead role of Rachel I cast her for an ensemble lead in my feature Nightbeats, which we began filming just a few weeks after this.
Chris’s films, produced under the banner of Watermark Films, have been accepted into more than 80 film festivals and have played in over 140 cities in 90 countries. Every now and then I’ll get an e-mail from Chris saying that Rachel has been accepted or invited into yet another festival or is scheduled onto a cable channel. Or that one of his other films is playing in a terrific festival in New York or Los Angeles or London and has been nominated for awards or had won some great prizes. Sometimes I become so green with envy that I consider putting a block on receiving any more of his e-mails. He’s someone who I could definitely learn from the next time I have a film to send out.
This interview with Chris was recorded in fall of 2012.
MC: What’s your strategy for getting into so many festivals?
CHRIS KING: There’s an unwritten, non-delineated tier system to film festivals. My approach is first and foremost to the quality of the film. If I am very pleased, by which I mean overly pleased, with our film, I’ll submit it to everyone—Sundance, Seattle, SXSW, and everybody on down. It costs a lot of money to do that, but since our films have been accepted by so many fests out there over the years I’ve kind of gotten a grasp on what kind of festivals we can get into.
Granted, there’s the exception to every rule. There’s the miracle (read: “big”) film festival that you’ll get into and you’ll go, “Holy, shit. I can’t believe I got into that festival.” Or a friend whose film that you think sucks gets into a big film festival and you’re scratching your head thinking, “That got in and mine didn’t?” There’s always that little caveat of the miracle festival that you can’t believe your film got into, so I submit to a few of those on the chance that we get lucky.
For the most part, though, it’s because of the film fests that we have gotten into and the ones we’ve been rejected by that Heather and I have developed a grasp on which tier we’re able to get into. We’ll submit to that highest tier, Sundance and SXSW (for the “miracle” aspect of it), but we never hold our breaths. There are also a lot of festivals that I consider as being of a higher tier that we have gotten into.
With our short film Rachel we got into Raindance in London, the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, Manhattan Shorts Film Festival, which only accepts twelve films a year from around the world. To be included as one of those is great.
I’ve been very pleased, with all humility, with the quality we’ve been able to get both photographically and, most importantly, with the acting, that I’ve been very confident to submitting to all the festivals, no matter how high tier they are.
I suggest, though, for the starting, budding indie filmmaker to save your money on the big festivals. Save your money on the Sundances and Seattle Internationals and all of those. You’re just gonna flush that money down the toilet, as we did on our first efforts. Just forget it. Statistically speaking, there’s no way. You’re not gonna get into those because, normally, your film is just going to be sub-par to everybody else who’s been making films for years.
MC: People think that Sundance will be running 150 movies, but of those there are really only about fifteen slots for the unknown filmmaker to submit their film from out of nowhere and be accepted into. And every year the number of entries gets bigger and bigger. When I submitted Year to Sundance in 2005 they had 3,000 submissions. By 2013, they had over 12,000.
CHRIS KING: It’s crazy numbers. Our first film Touching Down was a feature and we’ve been doing shorts ever since, not that we wouldn’t like to do a feature again, but it’s crazy for short films to get accepted as well.
The whole Sundance thing is just so ridiculous. There are so many political considerations involved that you can’t control. There’s something like 90 slots for shorts at Sundance. But only sixteen or so of those films are American acceptances in the animation, documentary, and other categories. Only sixteen American, films are going to get in. if you’re pissed off about not being one of those that are accepted into Sundance out of the thousands that are submitted, then you’re flat-out delusional or an egomaniac or a combination of the two.
MC: Yes. So many of the Sundance “new discoveries” are people who’ve been through the Sundance labs and workshops who’ve been making connections.
CHRIS KING: When you do get into a film festival it’s nice to take the time to develop some kind of relationship with the people associated with that festival. For instance, L.A. Shorts Fest or Cleveland International are Oscar-accredited festivals where, if you win, you qualify to be in the running for an Oscar. For some of those bigger festivals I send an e-mail or a reminder update note to the organizers that I’ve met saying, “Hey, Chris and Heather from Watermark Films here. Our film Marry Surratt has also been accepted to play as a short on the HD Film Channel.” I periodically put update bugs in the ears of those film festival people so that the next time they get a film entry from us they’ll hopefully remember, “Oh, these are the people who made The Killing of Mary Surratt,” or one of our other films that they’d screened. I think periodic updates, without being harassing or annoying, is a smart bit of p.r.
MC: Your first film Touching Down got into Method Fest in L.A. Did that create a portal for your next film to have a better chance of playing there? Does it make a difference when you submit again?
CHRIS KING: Absolutely, it makes a difference—especially if you submit again the next year. You need to remind them that a film of yours previously ran in their festival, and once they do remember, it’s definitely a much better edge to be able to get in again because you were “legit” enough to have been accepted the previous year.
MC: And if you can include in that a note that you were a success story because your first film played in their festival.
CHRIS KING: Now, funny that you mention Method Fest because not all the time will that “in” with a festival work out. One of my more frustrating experiences was with Method Fest. We got in there with our first feature Touching Down. Three films later we sent them Rachel, which got into a lot of festivals and played all over the world, and which has an amazing method acting performance by Kelly Nixon, who played Rachel. Method Fest didn’t accept it.
You can’t slam your head against the wall if you don’t get accepted. Film festivals have themes and if you don’t fit into one of their themes then you don’t get in. But, just to be proactive and to do a double-check because I have a sort of a relationship with that festival, I emailed the festival organizer and said, “Hey, this is Chris King from Touching Down. I notice that we didn’t get in with Rachel. I understand that. Not all films get in. But because Rachel has gotten into this fest and that fest and has received so much acclaim, I’m hoping that you might give a second pair of eyes to it if you have the time. If not, no harm, no foul.” And he wrote back, “You bet, Chris. Absolutely. I remember Touching Down. I didn’t see Rachel myself. One of the other screeners saw it. But I’ll personally look at it.” About two weeks later he wrote back, “Chris, I took a look at Rachel and I guess it was just a situation where we had enough films. I can see by your website that Rachel has played fucking everywhere! So, for that reason, I don’t have a slot for it this year.” So I wrote back, “Okay. Cool.” But I was appreciative that they gave it a second look. Whereas, if I’d been rejected by that fest without ever having played in it before, I’m sure their response would have been, “Sorry, but wish your film well and hope you submit again next year.”
But it’s critical to maintain a relationship with the people who you submit to the next time around.
MC: Is there any festival that you’ve played in consistently with all your short films?
CHRIS KING: L.A. Shorts Fest, which is wonderful because, again, it’s one of those Oscar-accredited fests. It’s always an honor to get into that one. We’re three films in a row now with them.
MC: Tell me about some of the e-mails you start getting when your films are accepted into festivals.
CHRIS KING: Those e-mails will not be from Warner Brothers or Sony Pictures but from all these independent distributors. “Hey, I’m with so-and-so distribution. Heard about your film at L.A. Shorts Fest (or some other festival) and would like to see a screening copy of it.” The very first time you get one of those e-mails you get super-excited about it. “Wow! A possible distribution deal!” There’s that nebulous word, “distribution,” and you’re new and have this grandiose idea that my film is going out to the world and that it’s going to be in Best Buy and Redbox and Netflix.
A good 99% of those “distribution channels” are really John and Jane who are running a start-up “distribution outlet” out of their studio apartment. They’ll take your film and list it on their website, then if anyone ever buys or rents a copy you’ll get maybe 3 cents out of every $1.39 that they’re making.
And for shorts—there’s no money in shorts. As successful as we’ve been, both in all the festivals we’ve been to and on the Shorts HD Channel, we hardly make anything from our shorts. We do it purely for the fun and the art of it.
There are plenty of “independent distribution venues” out there online where you can see short films and feature films that are available to purchase or rent online. In terms of Netflix, that’s so difficult to get into unless you’ve got something that’s just brilliant and your distributor has a relationship with them. For me, it’s a non-existing aspect to the short filmmaking world, at least in terms of financial return and money.
There are Oscar-winning short films that are distributed through the same channels that our films are available through and, granted, the Oscar shorts may sell a lot more than our films will—there is still very little money to be made in short films, even if you win an Oscar.
Credentials are the biggest thing to be gained from being accepted into film festivals because that’s what matters to all the people you’re trying to convince to invest in you. If our films weren’t getting into festivals then we wouldn’t be able to raise money for our films. No way. It’s vital to establish a reputation and a legitimate film festival resume.
MC: Shorts typically serve as resume reels.
CHRIS KING: Exactly. I’m overly resume’d in that respect so I’m very confident that, should we choose to make another feature, my wife Heather and I have enough experience now to feel fully capable of handling that. I don’t feel that I need a reel anymore—we’ve got plenty of films. But short films are definitely a great way to build your reel.
I did it backwards—I did a feature first before I did shorts. You almost always do shorts before features so you can improve your craft and work on it before you do your feature.
Up to that time in my life I’d only written feature-length scripts and never considered or even thought about short films, that’s why we did our feature. If I knew what I was getting into there’s no way I would have made Touching Down first. But I was completely naïve and, as a result, everything turned out to be ten times bigger and more complicated and more expensive than I thought it was going to be.
MC: I would argue that it wasn’t naïve. You made that film on the heels of the mid-1990s when there was excitement about “independent films” and those films were features—Kevin Smith and Clerks, Ed Burns and The Brothers McMullen. Self-financed, out-of-nowhere Sundance movies that got theatrical distribution. That’s what everybody was trying to do.
CHRIS KING: It was definitely a bucket list thing. I was living in L.A. and working on Wheel of Fortune and I was with an agency where I was a hip-pocket client. I was getting some recognition in screenwriting competitions like the Nicholl Fellowship, the Chesterfield Film Project, Project Greenlight. My agent was trying to sell a couple of my screenplays, which she wasn’t able to. I finally just got tired of that and decided to make one myself. I was thinking, “If I died next year, at least I made one of my dreams come true and made a film.”
It was a terrific experience, and then going into our first film festival acceptance at Method Fest. That was a heady acceptance because Method Fest is known for accepting films based on the actors’ performances. I’m proud of that as a first-time filmmaker. Our production value was shit, we just planted a tripod and shot. And, as with all first-time films, it was way too long.
While it was really cool to get into Method Fest with a first acceptance on a very first film, that was a tough act to follow. I must have submitted to thirty other festivals after that and I think we got into only six more, which isn’t bad. I read somewhere that you only get into 3% or 4% of all the festivals you submit to.
Our lead actress Sarah Lewis did really well too. She was the only actor to be a double-nominee at that festival for both Best Actress and Best Breakout Performance. I’m very proud of those kudos from that festival. It was an awesome experience heading down there and meeting a bunch of stars.
MC: What’s been the best film festival experience for you?
CHRIS KING: Manhattan Short Film Festival in New York. Twelve films chosen from around the world. You’re only one of two films chosen to represent your region of the world. For one week all of the films were played in 140 cities in 45 countries. It’s just an awesome thing to know that your film is playing in that many theaters around the world. Then the people in the audiences judge the films for best short film.
In New York all the films are screened outdoors in an awesome venue with top-notch projection. You meet and party with filmmakers from all over the world, from Israel, Ireland, Egypt, and with the organizers, watching each other’s films. Eating, eating, eating and eating—in New York. It was an amazing experience and a wonderful honor.
MC: Which of your films has played in the most festivals?
CHRIS KING: The Killing of Mary Surratt, about 22 festivals. Good ones too. L.A. Short Festival, Cleveland International to name just a few. It was a well-shot period piece film which is a really hard thing to pull off. You know the deal—you’ve seen independent period piece films and you cringe sometimes at how “well-intentioned” they are and just how amateurish they come off. But this one managed to work.
I’m inspired by so many filmmakers, like Michael Winterbottom and Terence Malick. Mary Surratt was definitely my homage to Terence Malick. That lyrical, voice-over type of approach that I wanted to do with Mary Surratt, because this was about one of the most epic American courtroom criminal trials in U.S. history, which was the Lincoln assignation.
I knew it was going to be long-winded as a short film about a woman who figured into that assassination plot. I thought I could cover an awful lot of ground through some lyrical montage moments with some voice-over in the form of a letter from Mary Surratt to her daughter before she was hanged.
By the second or third festival that our Mary Surratt film was playing at, we got a bunch of e-mails from people saying, “Oh my God, have you heard about this?” And in these e-mails are links to articles that said, “Robert Redford signs on to do The Conspirator, the Mary Surratt story.” I was so horribly depressed. As soon as I saw that I went, “There goes any aspirations I have of ever making a Mary Surratt feature,” which I would love to have done.
It only took me about fifteen minutes of sulking before I realized, “Wait a minute. Reality check. Like I’m really going to raise $20 million to do a feature on Mary Surratt. Who am I kidding? I work full-time. I’m married. I’ve got two kids.” Then I started to make lemonade with this whole revelation and the whole Mary Surratt thing suddenly boomed and the interest in our short film boomed as well. And we’re very pleased with the performances and the film in general. We cover a lot of territory in a very short amount of time. It also didn’t hurt that we got better reviews than Robert Redford’s feature-length film. That didn’t suck.
And thanks to Createspace.com, Amazon’s self-publishing and distributing arm, we were able to self-distribute our film on DVD. It’s a terrific additional venue to get your film out there and a whole other level of legitimacy to the film’s content. When somebody clicks on Robert Redford’s The Conspirator on Amazon our film pops up on the same page next to his. A lot of the times it’ll say, “Buy both films for this price.” We’ve had a lot of good sales as a result of the serendipitous nature of Redford’s interest in the same subject a year after our film came out. Whereas, if we’d tried to make a Mary Surratt film after Redford, it would have been terrible.
Here’s another reality check for all the filmmakers out there with stars in their eyes about money. Even with all the sales we’ve had on Amazon and on our own website, with Mary Surratt and our other films, it’s still pennies compared to what it cost to make those films. We’ve probably made back only 30% of what it cost to make Mary Surratt. We’ll be paying on that film for a long time. But that’s okay, we make films because we love it.
MC: Talking about screenwriting, one thing I always tell people who want to be screenwriters is to make a movie out of one of their scripts because they’ll learn more about writing from actually making a movie than they’ll ever learn from just pecking at a laptop and filling a screen with words.
CHRIS KING: Absolutely, because you’re going to learn all kinds of editing considerations. The art of brevity will serve you even greater after having seen your material filmed.
MC: So many beginning writers pad out their scripts with “shoe leather” of, for instance, describing a car coming down a street, pulling into a driveway, a man gets out, walks in the front door, goes up some stairs, enters a bedroom and has a conversation with his wife. When all they really needed to do was to cut directly to the scene in the bedroom.
CHRIS KING: All that should just get pared down to the meat, the bones of the script. The really interesting parts of why you wanted to write that script in the first place.
I became an editor because I wasn’t able to retain our editor for Touching Down. I didn’t know how to edit, I was just into screenwriting when we made Touching Down. Once it was all in the can I had this editor friend of mine who was going to cut the film, but who wasn’t able to spend as much time on it as we needed him to. We had no money and we were just hoping that someone would edit it for free. He was a nice guy but he was just too busy. At the pace he was cutting the film, it wasn’t going to be done for four years. Finally he said to me, “I’m just not going to be able to get it to you as soon as you want. You might be able to edit it yourself.” That whole concept was so otherworldly to me, but he hipped me to a basic editing program and I just started editing it piece by piece, clip by clip. I was just doing very basic cuts, but over the course of a few months I became completely proficient at editing. My first cut was 150-minutes, which I knew was too long. But this led to me becoming a television editor and as a TV news and commercial editor you learn to make your cuts quicker and quicker and quicker.
I began to realize that I didn’t need as much time to hold on something before I’d go, “Okay, I get it. Now, Chris, will you cut already and move on!” Eventually I got it down from 143-minutes to 123-minutes and finally down to 102 minutes. In retrospect, it was still 20-minutes too long.
It was just a process of writing it and seeing it filmed and then editing it, and just cutting out all the bullshit. You know, so-and-so wakes up and they sit up and they stretch. Just move on with the story.
MC: I always tell people that you have to edit your films yourself because no one is going to work as hard or care enough about your film as you will. Editing, as much as anything else, is a lot of work and when you can’t afford to pay someone, then you can’t expect someone else to do your work for you.
Yes, and when it comes to acting the only person who can be blamed for bad acting is the director, and I believe that wholeheartedly. You’re the one who’s saying, “Cut. Let’s move on.” Then in post-production you can try to work away some of those bad acting moments or mask them out through editing techniques.
MC: When I watch a movie now all I see are edit points, especially in older movies from the forties. There’s a preconceived notion that older movies are slow, but there are some lightning cuts in those films. There may be more dialogue than we have nowadays, but the cutting between the actors is tight. There’s no space between the shots.
CHRIS KING: Another thing that I see a lot of, and that’s painful to see, is the naïve notion that a lot of beginning indie filmmakers make in the choice of cameras to make their films and that somehow the camera is going to compensate for the deficiencies in the script.
A friend of mine gave me a short script to read and it was atrocious. I give honest feedback. I’m not brutal, but I’m honest. If someone asks for my feedback I’ll tell them in advance, “If you want a pat on the back, send it to your mom.” When I want brutal honestly I give my script to a few of my friends whose opinions and sensibilities I thoroughly respect and who I know will be honest with me.
So this person gave me his script and I read it and I gave him honest feedback and I remember him saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You see, that part that you’re mentioning right there doesn’t matter because we’re shooting it with the RED.” I was like, “I don’t understand what you mean by that. What does that mean?” And he said, “Dude, it’s going to be shot in such a way—we’re going to have a dolly going past the camera. It’s going to look so beautiful that it’s going to make the scene make sense to you.”
And when you’re hearing that kind of a thing, there’s really nothing you can do to get through to that human being that it’s shit.
To me, story is everything. It’s the alpha and the omega.
I’ll always remember being at a screenwriting seminar in L.A. several years ago, where the great William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All The President’s Men) was speaking. During the Q&A one of the students asked, “Have you been to any independent film festivals and, if so, what do you think about the proliferation of independent film in this day and age where cameras have become so available, pricewise, to students?” Goldman pondered this for a couple seconds and said, “Good question. First of all, you know what? You’re right about a couple things. I’ve been to a couple festivals and I’ve got to tell you that with the advent of the new cameras and how inexpensive they are and how filmic they look, I’ve got to tell you, I have never seen so many beautifully shot pieces of shit in my life.”
I just loved the clear point that he was making. “Screw your camera. What does that matter? Shit is shit, no matter how you film it. Cameras are secondary, if not fourth on the level of importance, Story is everything.”
MC: I always point out The Blair Witch Project, which was shot on a Hi-8 camcorder that cost $249 and is one of the most successful independent films of all time. They just got actors who were smart enough to go along with this project and film themselves and then the filmmakers were smart enough as editors to realize that they needed to forget the movie they were thinking of making and to go with the terrific footage that the actors made for them.
Your first film was a feature, why did you go in the reverse route and switch to focusing on making short films?
CHRIS KING: Just simple practicality. Full-time job, married, two kids. A short film is a quicker turnaround. Financially it’s certainly more feasible to do. And after you make a first-time feature film and have asked friends and family for the money to do that, and there’s no financial return, it’s tough to ask for money again.
During the editing of Touching Down I started to become interested in the short film form, just to try it. Just to try some new equipment out, that’s all. Just a practical application.
MC: My take is that features are the main draw at a festival and there’s always a short or two preceding a feature program. If you can make a short—especially a short short that’s only three- to five-minutes long versus fifteen to twenty—you stand a better chance of being accepted. Also, many festivals have programs made up solely of shorts. A three- or four-day festival might have twenty films made up of six or eight features and then everything else are shorts. As a person who’s made both, does it make it any easier for a short film to get into a festival rather than a feature?
CHRIS KING: I don’t think it makes any difference. I thought it might make a difference at first because so few features are accepted compared to shorts. But once I learned more about the math in the submissions and that three to four times as many short films are submitted as features are, it sort of evens out as to whether you can get in.
One thing you said that is definitely true is that the shorter your film, like a two- to four- or five-minute little film, if there is a hook of some sort that’s catchy and has a big and unexpected laugh in it’s climax, you could play everywhere with that sucker. If there’s a gimmick that provides a chuckle, a punch line of some sort, especially if it’s universal in theme, you could play everywhere in the world. You can do a hundred festivals with that one short film. Comedy shorts are invaluable.
MC: The same thing with comedy features. People love comedies at festivals. But making a comedy is tricky. The question is, will it be funny to anybody else?
CHRIS KING: Because they’re so rare and they’re so hard to pull off.
MC: When you play in a really good, well-known festival, do you get e-mails from other festivals and does that help you to get into others?
CHRIS KING: Absolutely. From Newport Beach Film Festival, which is another terrific festival, to New Hampshire Film Festival, we’ve definitely gotten e-mails from other film festival programmers who go to those festivals, shopping for films to potentially have in their own festivals.
What I don’t pay attention to are the e-mails that say, “Hey, I heard about your film at . . .” I immediately delete those because they just saw our film listed somewhere, but didn’t actually see it. However, when I get an e-mail that says, “Hey, I saw your film at the Woodshole Film Festival,” or something like that, then I know they’re legit. And that’s nice because they saw your film and they liked it so much that they want it to be in their festival. Yeah, we’ve definitely had those and that’s cool.
MC: Okay—festivals. When I’m accepted into a festival I go, “Great! We made it into a festival!” My second reaction is, “Crap! Now I’ve got to spend all this money!” How much does a festival cost for you? How many do you attend? How many are worthwhile for you to attend?
CHRIS KING: Heather and I are almost film festival’d out—and that’s a great place to be. We hardly attend any festivals anymore, with the exception of a few that are just damn fun to attend, like the Sedona International Film Festival, where they’re just supremely entertaining.
We’re festival’d out for a few reasons. One reason is because of the financial aspects of it. A lot of the festivals will ask you to bring posters and those little 5×7 postcards. The travel, the flights, the rental cars, the gas, the hotels—that adds up.
Now if you’ve got lightning in a bottle with a film that’s just brilliant and the buzz is, “This sucker’s gonna play everywhere,” for your own benefit you’re gonna want to travel to a lot of the best festivals because that helps your visibility with your film and the Oscar potential it might have. With us, there’s a lot of terrific festivals that we’re so pleased and honored to have been accepted to and we have attended those. But once you’ve been there and seen that and done it over and over again it just gets too expensive.
If we don’t attend a festival they’ll still ask us to send a poster and some postcards and that’s still important to do because you don’t want to be remembered as the filmmakers who got accepted but didn’t send shit promotionally. So we definitely send those out with letters of gratitude.
MC: It’s better to spend $100 on promotional materials for a festival, even if you can’t attend, because you’re still going to save a whole lot of money that you would have had to shell out if you did attend.
CHRIS KING: Right. Another way that we save money is that we design our posters and DVD jackets ourselves. People just showed us various templates so we just do it ourselves. You can only imagine how much that costs if you hire other people to do that for you
I had somebody doing DVD jackets for me for years. It was just one of those additional things that I didn’t want to deal with. The back and forth through e-mails and corrections and little tweaks here and there can just get exhausting. And if you’re working with other people it can take days or weeks or longer, depending on their schedule, before you can get anything back. So I just found a template somewhere and I went, “Oh my God, this is all there is to it?”
There has been a complete over-saturation of film festivals. They’re everywhere. But I don’t think festivals will ever go away. What they will do is diminish. You’ve got big cities from Seattle to Dallas with international film festivals and smaller towns have been feeding off of that for the past ten years or so—the Tulsa Film Festival, the Topeka Film Festival, the Tri-Cities Film Festival. A lot of these have been folding up because they just can’t maintain the audience and the numbers needed to finance them. I’m a believer that film festivals will always be around, though, because movie theaters have always been and will always be around. Thirty years ago when VHS came out people were saying, “People are going to stop going to theaters.” That hasn’t happened. It’s a whole different experience seeing a movie projected on a massive screen with state-of-the-art sound than it is at home on your TV or on your laptop. Theaters, just as I think film festivals—the bigger, more reputable film festivals—will always be around.
MC: You’ve made a lot of shorts now, what’s your long-term goal?
CHRIS KING: I keep making shorts because I keep coming up with ideas that I want to film! So many of them. It’s so cool to see an idea for a film that I made a note on my laptop three years ago, “Do a film about this. Blah-blah-blah,” and now to have it done, packaged, in film festivals and for sale on Amazon.
I’m sure I’ll keep doing shorts, but I want to do another feature. Touching Down took three years out of my life, filming and editing. That’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re working full-time with kids. I don’t want to do another feature ever again unless I’m 100% confident that it will be memorable. Even if it’s not a moneymaker, I want it to be respected, critically acclaimed. I want it to matter.
It’s one thing get the first feature out of the way, the whole life experience thing, but to continue making features that are either poorly written and/or poorly acted, not well received and that nobody gives a shit about—I never want to experience that. But until I have something that is simply phenomenal, I’m not interested in “just doing” another feature. That would be just a colossal waste of time and money.
MC: It has to make an impact, because there’s so much out there. It has to be compelling for there to be a reason why people should want to go to see it, because there’s so much out there that we’ve already seen a million times.
CHRIS KING: There’s no career goal in filmmaking for me other than the pure satisfaction in art and the art form that it is. Getting actors together and making an interesting story that people think about when they’re walking out of the theater—to me, that’s the biggie. I have no grand plans of some production company taking me on as a development producer. No, none of that. Maybe if I were younger in my twenties I’d have some grand scheme, but not now. No, I do these purely for the artistic challenges in them.
CHRIS KING’S FILM FESTIVAL ENTRY ADVISE:
Don’t waste time on special DVD boxes with printed jackets and DVDs, postcards or any other crap when you’re sending in your festival submission. They just want a disk inside a paper sleeve or a jewel box. Use a Sharpie marker and just write the film’s title and the entry number on a plain DVD and let the film stand on its own.
Don’t get angry at those festivals if you don’t get in. Don’t send out pissy e-mails when you get the rejection letters that say, “Screw you and your film festival anyway.” Don’t do it because they’ll remember you for it. They’ll literally blacklist you. I’ve talked to a couple festival organizers where they literally have a list with filmmakers who’ve sent them a “fuck you” e-mail. Don’t screw yourself by that. Film festival people have to watch hundreds of films and, this isn’t arrogance but just industry truth, 95% of those films suck. And these poor people have to watch them all. And they may like your film but they don’t have the room in their schedule to get your film in. A nasty e-mail is only going to haunt you for the rest of your career, at least in terms of ever trying to get into that particular film festival again. And word spreads.