So ... why do film festivals still exist?
Well, we could talk about the festival experience, about the power of seeing a film as a community, about the sense of a special time and place, about creating scarcity and creating timeliness ... but let's set those aside for another time.
I'd like to argue that the reason film festivals are valuable is exactly the reason so many are frustrated with the experience of submitting to them: the gatekeeper process.
To me, the reason festivals still have value is exactly their strength as gatekeepers. Now, for many people ... that's a huge downside. Someone makes a judgment, and your film is kept out. Believe me, I've been on the receiving end of the "We've had more submissions than any previous year ... so we regretfully suggest you set fire to your film and go away ..." letter a lot of times. A lot. Many, many times.
As much as that can sting I feel better if I look at a festival schedule and -- whether I'm included or not -- see that they've done a serious job of making an interesting festival with seriously interesting filmmakers included.
So, yesterday my short documentary The Readymade on the Corner screened at the New Urbanism Film Festival in Los Angeles. It was a good match to the themes of the festival. Probably some good films were kept out, but the listing I saw for the event seems right on target -- very current films addressing urbanism, architecture, street art and the desire so many have for a walkable, bikeable, new and exciting urban life.
"Readymade" addressed, in the form of a very short mystery, how one urban art experience came to exist. It asked a question people interested in that film festival could relate to, and possibly in an unexpected way. And bringing that to the festival is, in my opinion, good gatekeeping, good programming, good curating.
Now, up next is another short doc -- very short, actually -- showing in North Carolina. My short film Camera Story: DC215 will screen at the 100 Words Film Festival in Charlotte, NC on Saturday, November 22, 2014. You can get tickets here:
Creating this involved writing a script exactly 100 words in length, then filming the piece. The film didn't exist, even on paper, before I saw the listing for the film festival. It was made for the festival.
Now, that's even better gatekeeping -- the curatorial process inspired me and many (or perhaps all) of the other filmmakers in the fest. The challenge the fest set resulted in new films.
Here's why I'm taking this angle: the 100 Words Film Festival has put up a list of some of the filmmakers participating in the festival (I'm happy to be on it) and I feel it shows great gatekeeping.
It's filled with interesting filmmakers:
Linda Midgett: Based in Charlotte, Linda is an Emmy-award winning director/writer/producer. She has written and directed multiple documentary films and produced for networks including A&E, Discovery, and NBC-Universal. Her inventive film takes a fresh look at the current immigration crisis.
Mitchell Rose: The Washington Post acclaimed his work as “…in the tradition of Chaplin, Keaton, and Tati – funny and sad and more than the sum of both.”
David Johnson: Filmmaker, photographer,author, lecturer and founder of Silent Images, a Charlotte-based nonprofit organization devoted to telling both local and global stories of those who are most unheard.
Dana Wilson: Writer/director/editor/production coordinator/supervisor. A former producer on the ABC series Desperate Housewives, her comedic short showcases an entirely different kind of desperation.
Nick Confalone: Nick is best known for writing and directing six-second Vines. His work has been featured on CNN, The Ellen Degeneres Show, and at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Cecil Stokes and Josh Summers: Cecil and Josh are award-winning producers with over 500 television credits on networks including A&E, ESPN, Food Network, HGTV, Ovation, OWN and Turner.
Anna Christopher and Regina Taufen: Bringing a trio of comedic films to the festival, the credits of this LA-based duo include the MTV series, Awkward, and feature films including Night at the Museum and Date Night.
Beverly Penninger and Alyson Young: Local filmmakers, their collection of award-winning films includes: Wild in Corolla, The Spirit of Sacajawea,and The Newport Effect.
Eric Davis: Locally-based writer/producer of documentaries, television and online content for more than twenty years.Now, my short doesn't have a hope of winning anything against that crowd -- it's a pretty simple film and the goal was never "winning" anything, anyway. But, as they say, it's an honor to be in such great company.
I'm sure, like always, some great films were submitted but left out. But to me reading this list of filmmakers shows the programmers of this first-time festival had a great idea, provoked new work, and put it into a package that will make for great screenings.
Now ... imagine the straight-to-YouTube version of this challenge to make a 100-word film.
Possibly unwatchable, right? 500, maybe 1,000 submitted films being voted up quickly by the videomaker's friends. Good films lost with no votes, cheesy in-jokes rising to the top followed by Tweets pleading for more votes. There's a place for that, maybe, and there is something nicely democratic in having everyone's submissions out there a click away. But ... the result is typically a mess.
So, my answer to the "why festivals?" question is that the process, when handled well, is equivalent to the best curation museums strive to achieve.
As a viewer, I'm not here to hand out perfect-attendance awards. You made a film, and that's a quasi-miracle. On to step two, however: do I need to see it?
I want to see films that have some interest, some value, some character, some surprise, some connection to today. I want to avoid seeing films that depend on cliche and the current in-joke and that play out as clickbait.
Good curation, good programming, good gatekeeping is a strong step towards that. Film programs will still be hit and miss, of course, in the same way any room in a museum can be. But to get a screening, a program, a festival that far -- to the point that we can consider it curated art -- is a great result.