What’s going on behind the scenes in the film festival selection process? We thought it would be helpful to reveal some of the thoughts of the selection committee members. We have opened up an anonymous channel for screening committee members to reveal their true thoughts about a film’s viability in the festival.
There are always exceptions to every “rule” the screeners may spell out below, but it is good to consider them artfully and carefully before breaking them. For example, poor sound quality is usually an instant rejection. If you intentionally create poor sound for artistic reasons, that is a different story and the film will not be rejected based on that issue.
Any of our screening members may anonymously post their reactions to films here. So here we go… the secret to impressing festival screeners:
I just finished a film that was really cool and visual. But I couldn’t understand a single thing about it. As a consequence, I feel like I am stupid for not understanding it. But it turns out, none of the screening members understood the film. It’s good to be mysterious. It’s good to let the audience figure a lot of things out on their own. But ultimately, the audience needs enough information to connect the dots. If you are concerned that your movie is too obscure, how about show it to a couple strangers (not your friends or your mom) and when the lights come up, ask them to write down the main story beats using only simple bullet points. You may be surprised at the results.
We see so many movies that would work great if they were more concise and less bloated.
No matter how long a movie is, it would be great if the filmmaker would consider cutting out 20-30 percent of it. Maybe it doesn’t need it. Maybe it is the perfect length. Maybe ask your circle of friends “Would this movie play better if it were 20-30 percent shorter?”
Sometimes it is really frustrating to be a screener. I’m thinking of a recent film that had a solid script that was very entertaining and could have been a strong movie. But a poor casting choice gave the movie an amateur feel that pushed the movie into an irrecoverable dive. This particular movie was about a young couple struggling with a relationship issue. The guy was perfectly cast and did a great, believable job… drawing us into his character. But the woman, probably cast out of friendship instead of auditions, was a very amateur actress at best. She was one note. All she could do was get angry with no depth or subtlety. So it took me right out of the movie and was a big distraction, completely ruining the rest of the movie’s feeling. Too bad because the movie could have worked.
Many times, we reject films because they don’t fit the tone of the festival. It’s not that there is anything wrong with the film itself. In fact, the films can work perfectly on all levels, but sometimes the emotional tone of the film just doesn’t fit the personality of the festival. For example, one filmmaker submitted a horror movie that was listed in the category of “Drama” because we don’t offer the horror genre. But it plays exactly like a horror movie. So the film is rejected.
But other times, the tone mismatch is much more subtle. Maybe a film is coming from a particular point of view that is too specific for general audiences to enjoy. Again, this is a very subtle distinction. For example, perhaps a film goes overly deep into a subject matter that would only appeal to a small group of people. The film’s content is too esoteric for presentation to the average filmgoing audience.
A festival’s personality and tone is set by its official film selection. Unfortunately, that “personality” has to be cultivated at the expense of rejecting certain films that feel out of place in the body of festival films.
Here’s a common trick we have run into that is really hard to pull off. Filmmakers keep important information from the viewers by merely not showing it on camera, instead of hiding that information in the story.
As a rule of thumb, the big twist at the end of the story should be revealed to the audience at the same time as one of the main characters learns it on screen.
For example: A character is driving in a car talking to a passenger off screen in a long monologue. We never get to see the passenger. Then finally… as the filmmaker is ready to ready to reveal the big plot twist, the the camera swings around and we see that the driver has actually been talking to an dead person.
This is a big let down because we feel cheated. The character knew all along that the person was dead they were talking to. But the filmmaker deliberately tricked us by not giving us the real information of the scene. It’s a manufactured emotional twist that doesn’t affect us emotionally.
There are lots of exceptions to this rule. But generally, this feels false to audiences. Also, the entire length of the movie is arbitrary. The only purpose of the story’s duration is to set up the false twist at the end. So that means the film could be half as long or twice as long and it still reveals the twist in the same way.
For a story twist to feel genuine, either the protagonist or villain needs to discover the twist at the same time as the audience. A superb example of how this works is in The Wizard of OZ:
Dorothy and the gang discover “the man behind the curtain” at the exact instant as the audience. It works powerfully. This is an example of how the twist is delivered organically in the story instead merely keeping the audience away from certain information.
I just saw a film that was not very good. Though there was a lot wrong with it, one thing that didn’t help was that between scenes, the film would fade out and then fade back in again, often in the same location. Fades aren’t used very often in movies nowadays, but when they are, it denotes a radical change in time and location. In a stage play, a fade would be equivalent to the curtain coming down and then the curtain going back up again. Even old fashioned Hollywood movies that you’d watch on Turner Classic Movies don’t use fades very often. They used dissolves, which are now used more sparingly. It seems that the editing innovations of the French New Wave have been largely adopted into modern film language and so in most cases a straight cut (perhaps with a sound or music transition) is usually preferable to an elaborate film transition
I just finished a film that had an excellent beginning that introduced the characters and laid out the obstacles each had to overcome. All of this was done with the elegance and economy that only exists in the best of short films. Half-way through the film, I was fully engaged empathized deeply with how the characters were feeling as they coped with the new and uncertain circumstances in their lives. The story, direction, and acting was strong enough to last a two-hour film.I was on my way to recommending it for inclusion into the festival program when the film abruptly ended without the sort of denouement one expects in any sort of drama. The ending of a film doesn’t have to be happy (in the case of this movie, there really was no way for the ending to have been happy), but it has to at least be satisfying. The conflicts ought to be resolved in some way that provides some form of catharsis. Otherwise, its like telling a joke without telling the punchline. I still thought the film was worth considering, but it probably won’t play in the festival because there are too many films we’ve seen that have more satisfactory endings and we’re constrained for time to show only the best of the best.
One of the first things a writer learns is that imagery and detail matter in storytelling. Film critic Roger Ebert often says that a movie is good or bad not by what it is about, but how it is about it. I just saw a movie with an amazing, epic story; a story that took place on two continents and featured all kinds of interesting themes about modernity, religion, and international politics. Unfortunately, this entire story was mostly narrated by an offscreen narrator over shots of trees and houses. The stuff that wasn’t narrated audibly was narrated visually with text scrolling up the screen! Reading paragraphs of text in a movie is almost a sure sign that a movie is in trouble. Even Star Wars, which used this technique most famously, didn’t use it to tell key story points and used the technique extremely sparingly.
Everyone wants to be the next Quentin Tarantino and for good reason. Tarantino is internationally regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers currently working in the medium. One of the hallmarks of Tarantino’s films is that they display a deep knowledge of film culture, history, genre, and jargon. While this aspect of Tarantino’s films add to the overall quality of his films, it isn’t this aspect alone that make his films so special. Tarantino has a unique and distinct voice and his stories are populated by interesting characters. Sadly, too many short films we see submitted to the festival seem to be written and shot as if they are trying to make a Tarantino film by including a lot of movie references, but without providing the human interest that Tarantino provides so skillfully. Sometimes a filmmaker is able to use his or her own unique voice and apply it to a film similar to Tarantino’s style. There were some films like this in last year’s festival in Bodega Bay. Most of the time though, these films feel like copy-cat projects with lots of jargon and lingo and hip costumes and stock characters, but without soul.
One of the questions we screeners ask ourselves after watching a short film is whether or not the film makes us empathize with the characters. Usually, if the answer is no, we pass on the film. Most of the films we consider allow us to empathize strongly with only one or two basic the characters are experiencing. If your character is unlikable at every level, it is difficult for us to consider the film as a contender. By contrast, if your character, even as a bad guy, has some very likable aspects, then your movie has a great chance of overcoming other possible shortcomings.
It is rare for a film to make us feel a variety of emotions, but those are the films that almost always get recommended to play in the festival. Eliciting complex emotions is a difficult feat to accomplish even in a two-hour feature film, but to experience the ups and downs of the human experience in a film that is shorter than twenty minutes long, and to do it in a way that is dramatic and engaging, is an exceptional achievement and deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
Nothing gets our attention like something outside of normal. Whether it’s a situation, a plot point, a character trait, a crazy location, or a production element. When something really pops off the screen as unique, and fits organically within the character’s world, we will definitely be watching closely. Last year we had a drama about a lady who falls in love with a human hand. The film is brilliant. It’s not a even a comedy. We also had a film whose main characters were designed as candle wax. The film won best animation! Of course, it’s story was incredibly well told, but it had the added bonus of something unique in the candle wax design.
One of the best things about a film festival like this one is that you get to see short films from all over the world. Seeing good films from other countries reminds us of how similar our problems, hopes, and personal relationships are despite differences in our culture. I just finished a film that was made in a country whose politicians are hostile to the United States. The characters in this film dress very differently from how most of us dress in the United States. Their religion and race is different from the majority of Americans. The city where the film takes place looks different too. This country is often in our newspapers, but the film I saw highlights something so common that it never makes the front page: a personal family drama. Anyone who watches this short film anywhere in the world will be able to sympathize with the characters and perhaps even know people in their own family like these characters.
Almost all of the films submitted to us are made with the best of intentions and many of them exhibit ample filmmaking flare. Sadly though, good intentions and filmmaking flare are not always enough to recommend a short film for inclusion into the festival. I just finished watching one that I was sorry to have to have to pass upon even though it was beautiful in design and appeared to have something of value to say about the human condition. The film couldn’t quite say what it wanted to say in a way that made sense. It would occasionally abandon its central theme, cut to a bunch of unrelated scenes, and then return to its central theme without a clear, logical flow.
This technique rarely works even in a two-hour feature film, but the film I just finished was less than six minutes long. At a length like that, every scene really counts. Every scene really ought to be furthering the story along and if it isn’t, it really ought to be cut or minimized from the film.
Please make your characters talk when they are supposed to. I just passed on another film with this strange new problem. Now that we are in the age of DSLR films, you can’t imagine how many films we get where the filmmaker does not record sync sound when they should have. There seem to be two things going on here:
1) The filmmaker decides that recording the sound is not necessary and avoids it by having the characters mug and mime with each other. This is usually a very effective technique at key moments in dramatic tension and can usually work great to add extra drama. But when a whole movie has no talking it (especially in scenes where we are expecting poignant dialog) it is really distracting when the characters don’t talk. It really takes us out of the movie.
2) The filmmaker decides that recording the sound is not necessary and solves the problem by dubbing the voices with wall to wall ADR. It’s really hard to get a genuine feeling from actors in a film when all the dialog feels false.
And by the way, the images in these films often look stellar in their lighting and quality! The DSLR shoots a amazing image, especially in the right hands. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for having no dialog. It’s a great cinematic tool. But it has to be organic in the scene. Poetic films can also get away without recording the production dialog. But in real acting scenes, it would be best to leave the miming to Marcel Marceau.