The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the any policies or position of Dances With Films. 

WHAT I DON’T WANT TO SEE

When you screen films for a season, it’s fascinating to see storytelling trends emerge year after year. In some ways, I am getting an overview of what you all are making, and the parallel trains of thought that emerge are pretty cool to track.

Sometimes the trends that emerge are frustrating, because they fail over and over again. Every screener is different, and I definitely have a preference for more esoteric, challenging films. Those come with their own red flags and I’m even harder on films like that, but I appreciate them when I see them. In fact, I’m writing this post right now instead of finishing a review of a film I did not care for at all, because I want to make sure I’m bouncing it for the right reasons. Sarcasm aside, your festival screeners really do care and we want you to succeed.

That said, there’s things I love to see in films, and there’s things that are almost repellent when they pop up. For fun, and in no particular order, here’s a list of things that I see a lot, and feel the sadness of lazy storytelling every time they pop up:

* Drug Dealers

Boring and cliche.

* Hitmen

Boring and unconvincing.

* Gun-driven narratives of any type

Guns are a crutch.

* Prostitutes

If your story needs a female actress to be a slut, your story is wrong. If you have a group of half-naked women writhing on a couch in a drug dealer’s den and a hitman rushes in, then 1991 is calling and New Jack City would like their cliche back. Even if one pulls a gun out of her bra, the answer is still ‘no’.

* Anything over 96 minutes long

If you have the resources to make a 110 minute movie, you have the resources to make a stronger 95 minute movie. The extra sixty seconds is a grace period for credits.

* Anything with clearly uncleared music.

No, you did not license that Bowie song.

* Comedy montages.

The filmmaker with one punchline knows what their joke is. The filmmaker with many has no idea. Extra negative points for bright, poppy, wacky music underscoring the montage.

* Creative wannabes pining over ex-girlfriends

It’s therapy, not storytelling. You got dumped. We all got dumped. I made this movie once, too. This goes for my dopey short all the way up to La La Land. It wasn’t interesting when I made it. Yours isn’t any better. Tell me something new in your story.

* Pretty much ex-girlfriend involved narratives of any type

Funny how guns & ex-girlfriends rank the same.

* The gay/lesbian sidekick

Gay is not a character trait, especially if it’s just a launching pad for lazy jokes. If you’re a gay filmmaker exploring gay issues with well-drawn gay characters, then side-kick away. If you’re settling for cheap jokes, then this applies to you too.

* VFX driven sci-fi pieces that play like demo reels, not stories.

Yes, I do After Effects tutorials too. Laptops are magic, but they won’t do the storytelling work for you.

* Anything shot in an LA apartment

Seen it.

* Anything shot in your friend’s Spanish-style LA home

Seen it.

* Los Angeles itself, especially when your characters drive around the Valley a lot or hang out in the alley behind your apartment

I live here, and it’s the last thing I want to see when I watch a movie. I viscerally perk up with extra interest when the film isn’t shot here in LA. Most of the time I’m reading street signs tracking where you shot your film. If you’ve got to shoot here, you have to raise the bar and shoot carefully because it’s absolutely over-filmed terrain.

Sarcasm aside, I still watch your movie. And I will pass along a film with these red flags even if it has every one of these deal-breakers in it… if the story matters. Everything up there, most of the time, is a storytelling trap. They’ve all been seen too many times before, so if you’re working with those ideas, you need to be absolutely exceptional to stand out of the crowd.

(As always if you have questions, comments, think your three hour-drug-dealing-lesbian-hitman-in-Pasadena opus is the exception or want a review of your synopsis, tweet me @jeffrey723)

IT’S LIKE PRETTY WOMAN, ONLY IN ISRAEL

So you want to get your film screening in that Hamiltonian room where it happens, like this:
Awesome! Unfortunately at the moment you’re stuck on the Les Mis barricades, armpit-to-elbow with the rest of the pack like this:

That is where your film is right now, in actual size. There are literally thousands of films vying for this year’s festival, and this is what you’re up against as a filmmaker. You need to do everything you can to stand out of that crowd and at this stage, it’s all about your presentation.

Last time, I wrote about the importance of having a good synopsis to sell your film. Now let me give you a real-world case study on exactly how important that is, because one filmmaker just might have thrown away their shot due to some easily avoidable mistakes.

I screened a film this week that I loved. To respect the filmmaker, I’m changing the details, but my second and third screening notes were:

            Opens in Israel. Instantly has my attention
            The beaches at Tel Aviv! I’ve been there! Please be good.

What was my first note?

Excuse for the mix, no synopsis

That’s bad. Instead of posting their film with a winning ’50 words or less’ that helps me understand the film, their agenda, and why I should care, they put in “final locked picture cut October 2017, still need final mix”.

Guys, you all absolutely cannot do that.

Look at that crowd up there, then tell me you think a cut that’s only at 80% or even 90% is good enough? Your film is either good enough to screen, or it’s not. No excuses. If you hadn’t told me, I’d have thought the mix was perfectly fine. I’d never have noticed. Instead I spent ninety minutes distracted from the film just enough to bug me, wondering what was missing, and if and when that work would ever get done.

Don’t ever submit something that’s not final. Worse, when you date your work in progress, I now know that you haven’t gotten it done five months later. I live and breathe post-production. Letting something languish means it’s not getting done anytime soon. This is a case where the filmmaker would have been far better off leaving this space blank, because now I have to factor in the basic ability to finish a film into my report. And on top of that, I still have to figure out how to sell the story because the filmmaker didn’t do it for me.

“Please be good”. That’s what your first impression should be. You want my first impression of your film to take my breath away, and have me hoping this is one of those rare films that will sustain that energy all the way through. Instead, this filmmaker lingered under a cloud of “what the hell is this about and what’s wrong with the mix.”

The filmmaker’s negligence with presentation turned a slam-dunk gold star into a hesitant “well maybe but, with reservations”.  So the best film I’ve seen so far this season got passed along to the programmers with a bunch of reservations, and my own personal synopsis of “It’s like Pretty Woman, only in Israel.”

If that was your film, with all the time, energy, and resources you’ve poured into the entire process, do you want it boiled down to seven snarky, short-handed words that somebody else makes up? Attached to giant asterisks about your ability to get it done? This should make you queasy. It makes me queasy. I’m writing this blog because I want you to never, ever be in that situation.

I loved this film, and I did put some extra love in my report, but it was also full of reservations about “will it be done in time” and “is there an audience for this”. I couldn’t begin to answer the most important question of “is there a compelling reason we need to program this?” Instead, the filmmaker got “It’s like Pretty Woman, only in Israel.” Maybe this will get through to the next round, but when push comes to shove, even though I loved it, I can’t push for this film to get over the final hump, and that filmmaker is going to be washed away in the crowd.

Guys… girls… non-binary aspirants… you are the biggest advocate for your film. Right now, even those with the best of the best films in the bunch are lost in that crowd. We want to find you, but you’ve got to help us help you. Write a compelling synopsis, help us understand why your film needs to be seen and we’ll pass that message along.

Because if you don’t, you’re going to get “It’s like Pretty Woman, only in Israel.” Or worse.

(And if you have questions, comments, or want a review of your synopsis, tweet me @jeffrey723)

VIMEO AND MARKETING

Hello, filmmakers!

I’m part of the Dances With Films screening team.  If you’re reading this, hopefully you’ve submitted your film.  And if you’ve submitted your film, you are probably a little curious about what goes on in the long wait for a response.  After you send in your film, it winds up in front of someone like me.  Depending on your process, I could be one of the first people outside of your creative orbit to watch, and really evaluate your work.  That can be pretty intimidating so I’d like to de-mystify the process a little.

First, there are a lot of screeners donating thousands of hours of their time to watch all your films.  What follows are just my personal criteria, and how I evaluate films.  I want you to succeed, but right now 87% of you are getting on my bad list before I push play.

This is just my first, biggest pet peeve, but ignore this advice at your own peril. 87% of filmmakers this year don’t have a 50 words or less synopsis on your Vimeo page.

This means when I click through to screen your film for evaluation, all I know about your project is a cryptic file name like “TDOSTP_final output_0915_final_final_final”.

This tells me you don’t care about presentation.

That’s really bad.

If you have submitted a copy of your film to any festival anywhere, go look at your Vimeo/Film Freeway/Withoutabox page right now. If the 50-words-or-less summary of your film isn’t on that page, you’re screwing yourself because I hate you as a filmmaker before I even push play.

Go now. Post your summary. Then come back here for more insight.

***

Got that straightened out? Good.

So who am I?

I’m a filmmaker like you. And I’ve volunteered to screen your films because I love being a part of Dances With Films. So the good news is that I’m doing this out of love of indie film. I learn something from every film I screen, and the excitement of finding an amazing film is unbeatable.

Here’s the bad news. I also have a full-time career as an editor so I’ve already spent the whole day sitting in front of screens, watching cuts. I also have a wife, children, a TiVo full of shows I really want to watch, a PS4, and a couple of books I’d like to be reading. So right off the bat, your movie is fighting for my attention. You don’t want me watching your film, you want me excited to watch your film.

Here’s more good news: I’m a pro at screening things. Even if I’m not into your movie, I can and will give you a thumbs up if you hit the right creative marks. I’m not judging your film by “did I like it as much as I liked John Wick” metric. I’m looking for something compelling. An artistic voice, a compelling story, a way of looking at the world I haven’t seen before, something that represents indie filmmaking at its best.

So I really do want to like your film when I push play. However, when I have to push play on a blank slate, you lose a lot of points from me. When I have to spend the first five minutes of your film just trying to figure out what to expect for mood, tone, genre, lead character, point of view, and in more cases that you would think, even a title, you lose your best chance to hook me as a viewer.

Don’t assume that all the information in your application automatically gets passed along to everyone who will handle your festival application. Festivals are run by fantastic and dedicated people, but they’re powered by volunteers and you need to make life as easy as possible for those volunteers. Vimeo has a big, empty, user friendly space on the page of every video that’s there to have a good summary of your film project, and when you don’t use it, it tells me two things about you right off the bat:

  • You’re lazy.
  • You’re going to be poor at marketing your film.

Neither of those are good qualities for filmmakers.  I’m a creative professional and a filmmaker, so you’re not getting by me on charm. Filmmaking is hard work, and if you don’t respect the last mile of the process, you’re not winning brownie points from the judges.

Not convinced yet? Think I just sound like a bitter and cynical hater who is being unfair to your film? Think of it this way. That 50 words or less synopsis is the lifeline for your film. For a festival, I’m just the first hurdle to clear. If I love your movie, I have to get the programmers excited about it. I’ll write up a solid page about your movie, but if I can’t explain it in 50 words or less, we all know it’s a problem. Why? Because if the festival programmers love your movie, they have 50 words or less to sell it to the people attending the festival. If I can’t sell your film to the programmers, they can’t sell it to audiences, and your whole venture winds up in a Vimeo desert getting pity clicks from your mom.

This is the reality of filmmaking today. You’ll expend a ridiculous amount of energy and resources to make your feature, and you have less than a paragraph to convince me to love it. Like it or not, selling your film is part of the game, possibly the most important part of the game.

A good rule of thumb is that you should be revising and refining your 50 words or less synopsis from pre-production on. Then once you have a compelling synopsis, it should be pretty much attached to everything connected to your film. The good news is that it’s never too late to revise your synopsis, so if you’ve got a film ready to hit the festival circuit, go re-write it one more time. The screeners will thank you.

Jeff Williams

Guest Blogger

Jeffrey Williams is a five-time Dances With Films alumni and volunteer.

His short film A Day In The Life Of Your Cats won the audience award in 2012. Follow him on Twitter @jeffrey723 and feel free to bother him with questions about the screening process there. Except “did you watch my film” because the answer is ‘no’.

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