I had to ask myself tonight whether I give films in film fests a bump in my reviews just because they're part of a festival. Did I like The Brothers Bloom and Slumdog Millionaire even better than I would have otherwise because they were screened at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House last weekend and I had a press pass? I'd have to admit that might affect my judgment a little. The first film I attended to a press screening to review for Movie Habit was The Hours, adapted from the beautiful book by Michael Cunningham. I still cringe at having given the film four stars because I don't ever feel a need to see it again. Mostly, I preferred the book. I liked my own internal images of Virginia Woolf, and now Nicole Kidman is all mixed up in those forever. She was terrific in her breakout film, To Die For, but she has seemed a bit opaque in the way of a porcelain doll ever since. Today, the thing I really remember about The Hours is Meryl Streep straining eggs with her fingers. I could watch that all day. But it alone wasn't worth four stars; I was just so impressed that I got to go see the movie for free. (I was less impressed soon afterward when I realized that my reviews took at least a couple of hours to write, plus the time spent watching the film and getting to and from the screenings. "Free" in this context quickly turned into a little joke for me.)
So here's a bit of advice on how to get your film into a film festival. Incidentally, I speak from experience. Now that I have been on the selection committee of a film festival for two years running, I have had some time to reflect on my experience plucking the gems out of the submission stacks. I figure it might be helpful for all you ambitious filmmakers who want to get your films into festivals.
- I don't care about the packaging. Sure, it's nice for you if you have good graphic design, but a DVD in an envelope or clear jewel case with the title scrawled right on the DVD with permanent marker is all I really need, as long as your DVD will play.
- Hold your pizza parties to reward your faithful friends and family after the labeling and packaging and addressing parties. We've received some really filthy DVDs that weren't even pornos. (The one porno we did get was an accident; some mortified filmmaker's assistant called and begged, "Please swap the disk you received from us with the one we are overnighting. We sent you the wrong one." I was never enlightened about whether the porno they sent first was a copying error or another film by the same filmmaker.)
- Take stills during production that you can send us for our promotional materials, or, if you forgot to do this, use editing software to extract stills. Remember that these images may be blown up or shrunk to tiny thumbnails, so bold, high-contrast images often work best.
- Don't worry about giving us perfect writing; we have to rewrite your synopses to suit the program and other promotional materials anyway.
- We'd prefer to watch your film free of a time code displayed throughout or a watermark on every frame; every year I hear some sniggering about the stencil "Screener Copy." Look, all the films go directly into big stacks in cloth grocery bags. We carry them from the film fest offices to our screening rooms (sounds so much more glamorous than living rooms, no?). I've been tempted to take films on trips that occurred during my viewing months, but I don't because I couldn't stand it if I were to lose one or more of your DVDs. So trust us. None of us want want to leak your film on the internet, really. If we love your film, we'd prefer to surprise the dedicated film fan who attends our film festival if we love it. Nor would leaking your film be our first impulse if we don't like it.
- It's tough to do comedy well, but I judge horror infinitely more harshly. Like the Peggy Olson character on Mad Men, it has to prove itself especially well to get my blessings. Just shocking or showing something gross or disturbing isn't enough. It has to have some redeeming value, some reason for watching this horrorshow or zombie flick.
- In your submitting your film and my giving you somewhere between a few minutes to two-plus hours of my time, we are entering into a contract with one another. I agree to watch your film with an open mind as long as you sustain the rules you declared early in your film convincingly throughout your film. If it's experimental, fine; it still has to have some internal logic or a discernible reason for being. If you're going to change your story's rules or tweak conventions, because that's half the fun for many of us creative folk, do so with all the confidence and imagination and heart you can muster. Put yourself in my shoes: I'm putting myself in your hands and hoping for the best; please don't give up on what you've pledged part of the way through my time with you.
- If you send me any fancy promotional stuff for a film you are submitting to a film festival, be forewarned that your film could suffer a bit of backlash on my part. Go ahead and promote it like crazy once your film is accepted -- our staff will love you forever. Until then, keep everything but your film under your hat. Every film in the stack is equal to me until it proves itself otherwise.
- When you do write your synopses, remember that we are all curious about new ideas but no one wants to be told how to think about a film (which means, for example, avoiding superlatives like "best" and "greatest"). Let us be the judges. A good film speaks for itself.
I sincerely wish you all the best. I am always hoping for something great every time I watch a film, whether I am popping into my player a DVD you burned days earlier on your laptop and submitted to the festival or I'm all dressed up and attending opening night at the Starz Denver International Film Fest. More than anything, I just want to be wowed.