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Ten Things Every Producer and Director Should Know
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Making the Tin Man: How I Made My First Feature Film
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All About Completion Bonding Companies
Money Savers!
The Strange Tale of Peter Borg
An honest look at film festivals
The Death of the Hollywood Dream Factory
Nice script. Where is the budget?
The TRUTH about the SAG Ultra Low Budget Agreement
Screenplay Structure the PROPPER Way (NEW!)

An Honest Look at Film Festivals

“Nobody goes to that restaurant anymore
because it’s too crowded."
Yogi Berra

Among filmmakers, opinions about film festivals are like cell phones – everyone has one. And, quite honestly, if my first feature had been selected for Cannes or Sundance I’m sure I’d have a much different point of view than I have now. But my first feature wasn’t selected for one of the biggies.

Lets face it, we all know of films that made it into the Berlin or Toronto fests that were outright pieces of crap. They selected this or that awful film and bypassed your own. I did some post work on a film selected for Sundance 2003 and I’m telling you it was one of the worst pieces of crap I’ve ever seen! I saw more than a few real stinkers at the 2004 Cannes festival. I also saw some wonderful flicks which never had a chance. There are others who believe that film festivals can do no wrong. One filmmaker said that the festivals were “…one of the last hopes for democracy.” Go figure.

From what I can determine, the first film festival took place in Venice, and required a special concession from Mussolini in order to remain uncensored. Over the years, of course, things changed. What was once considered a clever hotel room-filler by your local chamber of commerce has mushroomed into the thousands of so-called “festivals” we see today.

So what’s going on here? Why does it seem that all of the festivals are so obviously compromised? Are all of them playing us average filmmakers for suckers?

I’m not a big festival person - I’ve had just two actual “festival experiences.” Somehow or another my first feature, “Tin Man,” made it to the San Sebastian festival, (Imagine that!). And my next-to-last film (“Healer”), was the opening night selection at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. In the first case I believe it was somehow arranged that “Tin Man” would screen in the Spanish resort town’s homage to film. It was a long time ago, but I seem to remember a distributor-type person saying “we’re gonna put it in San Sebastian.” And it was, “put in,” that is. (I didn't go, couldn't afford the airplane ticket!) Although the Santa Barbara folks had very early on expressed mild interest in “Healer,” it was only chosen as the opening night film because “Universal Pictures changed their mind at the last minute,” and withdrew their film. “Healer,” became the designated hitter even though I’d never actually entered it in the festival in the first place…or any other festival. Look, I’m not complaining! It was a wonderful experience. Free hotels, food, drinks and babes. I may have been "Mister Second Choice" but it was a beautiful evening, a sold out 2,000 seat theater, movie stars and fun post-screening parties. But I’ll never forget that a certain person at Universal Pictures seemed to be able to play the Santa Barbara festival honchos like his personal piano.

What makes me very angry is that while the festivals gleefully deposit your check, they already know your film will not be selected. And here’s a real shocker: they may not even look at your film at all! In most cases they may not have even seen the films which were pre-selected over your own entry. A neighbor of mine who is also a filmmaker had an interesting experience with the Sundance festival. He already had suspicions that Sundance had been bought and sold years ago. But just to test them, he purposely left his videotape entry cued at a certain spot with a permanent mark on the back side of the tape where it couldn't be seen. When the tape was returned, it was cued at exactly the same spot. They never even looked at his film! To them, we are…for lack of a better term…SUCKERS.

EVERY film festival does this.

It would be a fun experiment to re-title a copy of “Citizen Kane,” and enter it in a bunch of festivals. We could call it “Citizen Bob.” I wonder how many rejections we would get? Out of ten festivals how many do you think would reject our masterpiece? I’m thinking…nine. Do you think Venice would pick it up? Cannes? Humm? What’s interesting is that most of ‘em will just reject our little B&W film with this Orson Welles guy. It was good enough to make everybody’s top ten list, but “not good enough for our (fill in festival name here) festival.” Fact is, 98% of all film festivals are bought and sold. I say 98% because I know of a very few that don’t seem to play the usual games.

I was a judge for a smallish documentary competition and we DID look at every film that was entered. Now, we didn’t look at the whole film if it was bad, but it WAS threaded up and screened. We all began by assuming that the next film would be great. If anyone personally knew the filmmaker, they would declare this openly and they didn’t vote on that entry, (Exactly the opposite for today’s film festivals). Unfortunately, most of these are smaller festivals that nobody goes to anyhow. Of course, sooner or later, if they're lucky, they’ll appear on the radar screen and become like all the others.

I would love to hear from a film festival that has just a bit of integrity. Write to me and tell me that you look at every film equally. Tell me that when so-and-so calls you from Hollywood and whispers, “Stars!,” in your ear, you’ll tell them “You’ve got to get in line like everyone else.” If you run a film festival and disagree with me, let me know. Prove me wrong! Please!

Why not be brave and show all the other festivals that you are for real, and all the others are a bunch of crap?

Well, I’m not gonna hold my breath.

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Last Updated in May, 2009
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