26 February 2010

News & Views from the Festival Circuit 2010

by guest columnist Frederick Marx.  Follow him on Twitter.

At my world premiere screening two weeks ago, in front of an audience of ~ 300, the first image doesn’t come on the screen for the first 7-8 seconds.  The sound is fine, there’s music, but no picture.  Finally the image appears but only for 2-3 seconds and then the whole opening title is gone – nobody’s really had a chance to read it. 

The whole context of the film – the definition of the Boddhisattva Vow – is MIA.

Then the houselights start to come up during the end titles – the images and graphics where I bring the stories of the monks and kids up to date.  They stay partway up but are at least readable.  Then when the end credits start, they come up full and the MC takes the stage while the credits continue to roll, completely illegible, in the background.  They call me up.  I take the stage, embarrassed at talking while my own film credits roll behind me, completely unseen but not stopped.  It is really painful for me and I say so.  I explain that volunteers are passing out sign-up sheets for audience members to join our email list.  But I find out later those volunteers never appear.  Somehow the programmers have allowed only 15 minutes between films and the theater has to be cleared soon.  To maximize Q&A time they’ve decided to bring me up before the film ends, sacrificing the credits.  I finish my announcement,  introduce project originators Barry and Laura England Weiss, publicly thank my wife, and take only two questions.   We shout out we’ll be signing DVDs in the theater lobby and I run off stage.  Ouch!

Festival organizers and staff are all underpaid, hard-working, well-meaning, film lovers.  They’re good people doing their best.  I respect that.  I know how hard it is to put on a film festival.  But one of the beauties of a film festival is giving the audience a chance to interact meaningfully with filmmakers.  When you take that away with only a 15 minute gap between films you’re doing that mission a disservice.  And to not screen the end credits of a film is to disrespect the very object you’re professing to venerate.  Can things like this happen at even the best festivals and venues?   I suppose they do.  Years ago I screened some short films at MOMA that were poorly projected.  But it’s attention to details like these that separates the festival best from the rest.

There are these problems and yet, there are not these problems.  By that I mean the audience seems to be little affected, if at all, by any of this.  The festival and the films still work their magic.  Is it because of the age of digital interruptus?  Have too many young people watched movies poorly projected on postage stamp screens in shopping malls? 

I was stopped on the street the day after my Boulder screening by a father with his 17 year old daughter.  They were both effusive about my film.  The young woman said she wanted to interview me for her high school paper so that she might inspire other students as much as she was.  She said she couldn’t wait to go out into the world to start making a difference.  Beautiful words and heartening to hear.  You will always find audience members who love your work.  Learn to take this in.  All too often praise gets filed in that “they’re just being nice to me” drawer.  Breathe.  Ground yourself.  They are not wrong or misguided.  Your work has stirred the heart of another being.  This is what you wanted.  You deserve it.  Festivals exist to remind you you are special.  Which is good because…

Festivals exist to remind you you are not special.  They are a sobering experience.  Festivals are god’s way of awakening you to the realities of the marketplace your film has just been born into.  We all work so hard for so long to bring our babies into the world that we forget how many other parents there are out there.  Especially these days:  It’s an invasion of the breeders.  We’re rightly proud of our kid, full of every expectation that she’s gonna make her mark on the world, be something of a prodigy.  Then we drop her off at pre-school and realize she’s just one of a roomful of screaming monsters crying for her Mommy.  This is a painful but necessary awakening. 

In festival pre-school, if you’re very lucky, you’re one of at most 50 films that are selected to screen in your class: feature doc, fiction short, whatever…  “We’ve already got one Tibet film we can’t take another.”  (In the real world, they call this racial profiling.)  “This is an HBO film.  They’re one of our sponsors.  We have to take it.”  “We have too many observational docs, we need a personal essay.”  “This guy’s a legend.  It may be his last film.  We should take it.”  Or: “This guy’s a legend.  But he’s washed up.  Forget it.”  “This is a work of genius.  We have to show it.”  Or: “This is a work of genius.  But our sponsors will defund us if we show it.”  “We had his last film two years ago; we need to go with somebody new.”  Or: “We had his last film two years ago; we have to take this one too!”  Every festival has its own politics, its own commercial demands, its own idiosyncrasies.  They’re driven as much by the vision and ego of the founders as they are by the realities of (usually meager) pocketbooks.  There’s no end to the levels and variety of decisions programmers make: whether power-driven, discreetly nuanced, or seemingly petty. The bigger and more prestigious you are the more you can demand.  Sundance, for example, basically only takes world premieres.  Every festival finds itself somewhere in the pecking order.  Your kid’s going to that expensive private school you always coveted or you’re hoping for a grant to Head Start.  Either way you’ll be shocked to find out just how many other kids are in with yours.

I’ve had judges tell me they didn’t award my film because it had done so well elsewhere they wanted to help other “lesser” films.   Now that I have a lesser film I’m hoping for some return favors.  None have yet appeared.  The critical darling of the feature doc world this year seems to be LAST TRAIN HOME.  Have you seen it?  It’s a masterpiece.  Truly amazing.  Still, when they won last week at the Big Sky Film Festival I’m thinking “Jeez, they’ve played IDFA in Amsterdam, Sundance, they’ve won plenty of awards already, how ‘bout spreading the wealth?!” 

There is no justice in the schoolyard.  Especially after you’re commonly viewed as one of the biggest bullies! 

Frederick Marx  is an internationally acclaimed, Oscar and Emmy nominated producer/director with 35 years in the film business.   He was named a Chicago Tribune Artist of the Year for 1994, a 1995 Guggenheim Fellow, and a recipient of a Robert F. Kennedy Special Achievement Award.  His film HOOP DREAMS played in hundreds of theatres nationwide after winning the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and was the first documentary ever chosen to close the New York Film Festival.  It was on over 100 “Ten Best” lists nationwide and was named Best Film of the Year by critics Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, Gene Shalit, and Ken Turran and by the Chicago Film Critics Association. Ebert also named it Best Film of the Decade. It won numerous prestigious awards, including an Academy Nomination (Best Editing), Producer’s Guild, Editor’s Guild (ACE), Peabody Awards, the Prix Italia (Europe’s top documentary prize) and The National Society of Film Critics Award.  The New York, Boston, LA, and San Francisco Film Critics all chose it as Best Documentary, 1994.  Utne Reader named it one of 150 of humanity’s “essential works,” the Library of Congress recently added it to its prestigious National Film Registry and the International Documentary Association named it the Best Documentary Ever.


Copyright 2009 Multi-Hyphenate. Powered by Blogger Blogger Templates create by Deluxe Templates. WP by Masterplan