Friday, November 6, 2009

Confessions of a Film Fest Screener

Screening for film festivals is a job that is filled with hours of devoting your mind and imagination to the would be filmmakers of the world hoping to discover the next hot talent. When that happens, it’s the greatest job on earth. The reality is that for the most part, you kiss a lot of frogs.

When I sit down with a screener, I get a visual of some guy who’s blown his last dime on the Sharpie he used to carefully write the title and his contact info in nearly legible handwriting on the face of the personally burned DVD while he murmurs a little prayer to the universe for this submission to be his lucky break. With that lump in my throat, I feed this representation he so carefully constructed into my all region player and wait for magic to happen. It’s not often that my expectation plays out.

The quality of the product entered into festivals has increased tremendously, both in film quality (thanks to digital) and material. However the number one problem we continue to see is poor writing (poorly conceived characters, lousy dialog, weak plot, and structural breakdown.) This list is in order of commonness of occurrence.

Number two is poor editing. There are some amazingly well-framed shots that will never be seen because the filmmaker didn't get material to put with the eye or didn't know when to change to another well shot frame. Stare at anything for sixty seconds. Now think about looking at that thing for that period of time with no sound in the room.

Budget isn’t the problem. Some of the worst films I’ve watched had a remarkable budget. Shorts with significant special effects, perfect color correction, spot on sound. No viewer will hold it against you if you don’t have the best camera, expert lighting or dazzling CGI. What will lose them in that sixty second introduction is the appearance of nothing. No visual, no character, no sound, and no dialog to pull them into the world they are eager to join.

How to spend your money when making a film:

Hire the best film editor you can afford (hopeful one that is also an amazing sound editor). It's life and death. It would be better if that person isn’t the director or the writer. A craftsman that knows when it’s time to shift off the beautiful sunset you accidently captured and on to the actor.

If you are not a writer, get one. Hopefully you can find a really good starving writer willing to contribute a script for cred and a potential Oscar nod.

Get talent. No, Uncle Nabob cannot play the lead role. I don't care if he was lead Pilgrim in the 5th grade harvest play. Only thing worse than amateurs is bad actors doing bad dialog.
Get a director that can find his ass with both hands. He doesn't have to be perfect; he just has to understand the script.

If you aren’t a cinematographer, hire a camera guy. Students are a great resource. They have learned to work the equipment at school; they can probably turn in part of it to meet some school requirement and will generally work for food. If you must man the camera yourself, at least try to make sure that you don’t film scenes that you can’t frame. It’s harder than you think to keep up with two actors in a staged fight. Buy, rent or steal a tripod and a dolly. A variation on your mother’s advice: Don’t run with cameras!

So what should you concentrate your tiny budget and endless imagination on? Something that will make me care I watched it. A character that will move me, a plot that has a beginning, middle and an end and visuals that convey the story well enough that if they forgot to run the subtitle edit, I still get the story. Certain genres are harder to succeed in than others.

Overdone, by species:

Lots and lots of horror, generally poorly written, crap special effects (tomato soup is NOT a good cheap alternative to makeup blood) bad acting and worse direction. That two minute hold on Angie's navel, in spite of that arts and craft belly button ring while Monster A breathes sinisterly in the background, just lost everyone. The good ones have a promising Act I then start to slide down the slope, dying quietly just before Act 3.. Asian horror is the current indy darling, with the adjectives sick and twisted always included. So the bench marks are original idea, sick, twisted and nothing too extreme: no stir fried babies. Strong second act, decent finish. Let the hero win, or the monster, just give me a reason to care which one.

Agony: I created this category to house the thousands of films where the entire crew thinks that staring at someone with a pained expression for five minutes will garner Oscar nods. This would include the love sick, the suicidal, the damaged by life, generally anyone prone to long periods of staring sadly into a camera in any location. I'm sorry grandma had to go to the nursing home. Seen that 109 times this week, truly I'm sorry but why is THIS grandmother different from the other 108? If you can tell me that, we have something to talk about.

What we'd like to see more of:

Comedy: Good comedy, any variety. A film that keeps you laughing (and not because of the terrible dialog) preferably something that doesn't have to air after 11 p.m. but there's an audience for that too. So if it’s raunchy, go for broke.

Art House: I'm not talking about somebody's rip off of another person's style, I'm talking about a true vision for a narrative approach that isn't what you'd find in a typical Hollywood film. Borrow from the masters, but don't copy them. Visually interesting in every frame, but with at least one character that is well drawn and a story line that at least has a beginning, middle, end and isn't so off the charts that you can't figure out at least what the filmmaker's impression of the story is. I think art house horror would be hot property.

Drama: Real drama. Characters we get into Situations that bring out the character's flaws and strengths. One I saw early on that has always stayed with me was Deep Shaft, a Chinese film that was so well done I quit reading the subtitles because the visuals carried the story. The premise was a couple of miners that would befriend a fellow miner with no family, then push him into a shaft and go collect his death benefit as family members. They didn't do this because they were bad, awful people. They did this to survive. Then they encounter this 16 year old boy working in the mine that fits their profile and there are no other good candidates. When it comes down to the end, there is a division between the two men about killing the boy. The boy is in the mine trying to earn enough money to go to high school because he has the grades. One of the most compelling scenes has a young girl holding up a sign begging for money to go to high school. After a brief exchange about grades, the boy takes his just cashed paycheck, drops some money into her bucket, then eats just bread instead of rice and bread like the other two men. That is universal. No need to translate.

Films that feature a mainstream gay or lesbian character: There is a separate category for G&L films at many festivals and in fact festivals that feature on films in this genre. By and large this category suffers from the same problems as all the others. With one exception; some filmmakers seem to think that this is a call for porn. Sex and nudity is okay, unless, well, that's all there is. Write a good character that happens to be gay orlesbian, back that up with a decent story and you'll be way ahead of the game.

The indy audience is smarter, hipper, looking for edgier material, a fresh voice, a new style. We get so excited when we uncover that gem in the pile of stones that we can't wait to get the other person to look at it to see if they like it too. It makes the hundreds of hours of horrible film worth watching. Which is why we keep coming back year after year to do the job again.

What is most interesting to me is that in the screening process we have a carefully selected demographic, gay, lesbian, male, female, old, young, film lovers, film buffs, film pros, conservatives, liberals, but when a film is good, it almost always gets the same rating be all of us. That speaks volumes. It’s true that personal taste accounts for something, but a well made film accounts for itself.

If you take these words into account and produce a nice little film, find a great festival and then sit back and wait to hear that you film has been accepted.

(Cat Stewart is a freelance writer currently living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her recent focus has been on writing screenplays and teleplays and putting together plans for a non-profit status production company aimed at helping filmmakers that have followed alternate career paths but have a passion for film. She also works with the film festival, screening entries for the festival’s programming needs.

Cat has published a variety of nonfiction articles and short stories through the years. Her work is currently featured in Greg and Roy Magazine and Higher Image.

In addition to freelance journalism, Cat has written ad copy for national corporations, advertising agencies and local businesses. She has written corporate manuals and technical manuals for a number of healthcare companies including Diversicare, GranCare, Inc. and SunHealth.

Cat completed the certificate program in Feature Film and Television writing at UCLA extension and plans to apply to the upcoming Master program.

Screenwriting awards:

Her spec teleplay, JAG -“Tainted Memories” placed tenth in the Writer’s Digest 74th competition, the only teleplay that was a finalist in a combined competition between original screenplays and teleplays.

Her spec short, Ashes to Anthrax, was an official selection of the 2009 GIAA film festival and is currently a semi finalist in the Expo screenplay contest and first round notification for American Gem Literary Short Contest.)

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