What Women (Film Festival Programmers) Want

I went to support my esteemed Programmer friends participating in the Master Class that Women in Film put on last night called “What Film Festivals Want.” Representing the top festivals in Los Angeles was Kim Yutani, Senior Programmer at Sundance Film Festival, Roya Rastegar, Director of Programming at LA Film Fest, Jacqueline Lyanga, Director of AFI Fest, and Lucy Mukerjee-Brown, Director of Programming at Outfest.  Executive Director of WIF Kirsten Schaffer, formerly director of Outfest, was perfect to moderate the panel, keeping it new filmmaker friendly and full of insight.  Since I have the pleasure of knowing and/or working alongside all the ladies on the panel, I knew it wasn’t going to be another diluted, unproductive, bland conversation on Film Festival Tips. There were about 50 people there ($20 admission for non-WIF members), and it was by and large women filmmakers, across all colors and ages, from my friend, young dancer/actress Carmen Corral who just wrote and directed her first short film, to an audience member who shared she has just finished her first film at 67 years young.  The difference in practices and opinions heard is proof that each festival and each film festival Programmer has their own brand of curatorial focus, taste and sensibility.  As Kirsten summed it up, its worthwhile to listen to each of their takes, but do not forget that ultimately you have to follow your own instinct. Real Film Programmers Briefly each festival’s mandate: AFI Fest takes place in November so they screen LA premieres of the most acclaimed as well as under the radar international gems of the year. A big chunk is curated from other festivals, however they do have a Breakthrough section which they cull mostly from submissions. Also it offers its program for FREE!  Outfest seeks to obviously show films from the LGBTQ community.  However, Lucy noted more and more the programming has matured to one where LGBTQ is not the drive of the storyline but rather a perspective through which to explore different genres.  LA Film Fest has gone through a programming shift this year and it is more closely aligning itself with parent nonprofit Film Independent’s mission to “support artists who embody diversity, innovation and uniqueness of vision”. This year the festival has an unprecedented 39 world premieres and nearly half of the program is made by women and people of color. Sundance Film Festival – what can we say about the original rebel.  U.S. Competition, Next, New Frontier and Midnight is the discovery zone heard around the world for breaking innovative stories and talented storytellers.  Sundance’s submissions increases each year.  It received more than 12,000 submissions for the 2015 festival. Around 8,000 of them are shorts – of which they show 60-70.  Yep, that’s less than 1%

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Jacqueline Lyanga, Director of AFI Fest since 2009 before that as Programmer. Worked in independent film distribution and producing. Art History and Cinema Major.

On the topic of WHY IS MY FILM (S) NOT ACCEPTED. I can see why deciphering the festival code; “It is not a right fit” can be frustrating for filmmakers to hear.  It is a catch-all of saying a possibility of things.  First thing to remember however is that just because you don’t get into a festival it does not mean your film does not have artistic merit or deserve a platform.  You are talking about 3-4 people at one festival who watched it but did not respond ENOUGH to champion or select it in the festival (My own personal note as Programmer; you have to kill your darlings and pick your battles in the room).  A lot of times the reason your film may not get in is simply mathematical.  There are not enough slots at a festival to select all the films the Programmers like.  Sundance can theoretically program another entire (just as solid) festival program after locking their lineup.  Maybe your film does not get in because that particular festival does not offer the section, or cater to that particular focus/niche your film covers.  And yet another reason might be your film may be one of several films that tackles very similar issues or has a very similar storyline to other films Programmers see that year.

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Roya Rastegar,  Associate Director of  Programming at LA Film Fest. Published writer, produced and wrote film, Wildness. Previously at Tribeca and Sundance. PhD in the History of Consciousness from UC Santa Cruz. Studied mathematics and economics at Wellesley College

WHAT CAN I DO TO RAISE MY CHANCES? Sounds like common sense but follow submission instructions is number one tip (seriously not following instructions is a number one Programmer pet peeve).  Not all festivals are the same.  Some want press kits with film submissions.  Some of the panelists encouraged the audience to write cover letters while others admitted they never read them. (Personal note: If you have something relevant about your background that you think informs your vision then by all means write up a paragraph).  Roya made the point that if you had a crowdfunding campaign, or have a cast member who has over 2 million subscribers on Youtube that usually indicates you already are building an audience that is invested in your film, it doesn’t hurt for the festival to know given their concern is selling tickets to sustain the usually nonprofit’s activity. It is definitely vital to communicate these things once you have been selected so that the festival can disseminate the distinct and soundbyte aspects of your film to ‘pitch it’ (first film shot in Cuba since 1959, first indie film shot in Little Armenia).

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Kim Yutani, Programmer at Sundance Film Festival since 2006, first on shorts and then features. Former Artistic Director and previous Programmer for Outfest. Worked on Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation. Cat person.

CRITERIA:  Screeners are asked to submit a detailed synopsis of the films they watch and  rate technical proficiency, character and story development.  But inspired (and ripped off) by Sundance’s evaluation forms, most festivals want to frame it around ORIGINALITY OF VOICE/EMOTIONAL IMPACT. Roya mentioned that she tends to be  more forgiving of production value if she recognizes there is a strong, rarely heard voice driving the story.  Lucy mentioned she enjoyed abiding by this guiding principle during LA Film Festival’s programming process.  Knowing that films made by women/people of color tend to be the least funded and least commercial having this awareness is key, and underlines the bottom line criteria of a Programmer or anyone for that matter, wanting to find that film that can MOVE people above all.

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Lucy Mukerjee-Brown, Outfest Director of Programming. Producer credits include Jack of the Red Hearts and Cake. Worked as Development Executive and producer for Warner Bros, Lionsgate, Lifetime, Sony Pictures Television. Previously Assistant editor for Harlequin Mills books. English Lit and Film Major.

HOW DO I KNOW WHICH FESTIVAL IS RIGHT FOR MY FILM?  You can do your homework and check out the archives of the films that a festival has played to see if there is some alignment, said Jacqueline.  But take it with a grain of salt.  As mentioned by Roya there is a tendency of folks to carbon copy what they think is a festival film, and making a film driven by the desire to get into a festival tends to backfire.  Look into international festivals, smaller niche festivals.  Lucy, who is also a filmmaker, recalled being rejected by all the major festivals until they submitted randomly to new Arkansas festival, Bentonville where they ended up taking best prize.  (Note: Sign up to Withoutabox. You’ll have to do some digging but you can do a search by region, niche, specialty to find the most suitable festival.) GETTING THE MOST OF YOUR FESTIVAL EXPERIENCE. Squeeze your Programmers for advice. If you are wondering whether you should contract a publicist or a sales agent ask us for recommendations, encouraged Kim.  They have the relationships and know the sensibilities of all the established and emerging industry.  In many ways this is Programmers’ second job after locking.  Adopting film teams leading up to the festival who they can shepherd up the mountain.

DO YOU REALLY WATCH EACH FILM?  Why do people LOVE to ask if a Programmer ‘really’ watches a film from beginning to end??  That is our job!  First of all we get paid to do it.  Second, as Kim mentioned, the worst thing for a Programmer is to have ‘missed’ a film.  Make no mistake, if a film does really well at a festival or comes out somewhere else, and you don’t recall seeing it, you go back to your database to make sure it was fully considered by someone on your team (and see who the hell may have passed on it).  Senior Programmers do their due diligence and review screeners’ coverage, ratings, and exports lists whether it be by region or filmmaker background. Especially nearing the end of progamming lock, they sweat over making sure they saw everything they should, and some actually dig deep into the lower ratings like films that got a 1 out of 5, just in case the screener was turned off by the premise. That strong negative reaction could very well mean a film is polemic and possibly brilliant because of it.

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New Executive Director for Women in Film. Spent 14 years as Deputy Director and head of Programming at Outfest. Previously Co-Executive Director of the Seattle Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Managed a law office that specialized in American Indian and Family law. BA Liberal Arts, cultural studies and communications

WHAT IF I DON’T GET IN?  If you know your film has an audience, who cares if your film doesn’t get into festivals.   Get a network of filmmaker and programmer friends.  Get feedback. Festivals can’t supply feedback as a rule because of the volume but if you have a Programmer friend or trusted industry acquaintance ask them for input.  The dangers of asking friends and families for feedback on your film is that it usually won’t be critical.  As Lucy pointed out and I think everyone was in agreement;  We (read: good Programmers) understand that filmmakers set out to make a good movie. The ultimate criteria is asking ourselves “What was the filmmaker trying to achieve and how close did she/he get to it in the execution?”

Last words from the panelists: Lucy:  Keep making films Jacqueline:  Be bolder and louder. Kim:  Support other female filmmakers Sundance opens submissions in July.  In August, Sundance’s Next Fest will unspool a few film and music experiences at the Ace Hotel. Outfest will be announcing their program soon and will take place July 9-19.  Coming up soon is LA Film Festival, June 10-18.    AFI is currently accepting submissions until July 24 for its November festival.  Women in Film is accepting submissions until June 16 for their Finishing Films Fund.  Shorts and feature length films that are 90% complete are eligible.  Grants range from $1,000 – $25,000.

#Outfest – Where my hip Latinos be at.

If you are wondering where to meet and connect with the hip, new Latino generation of film and television right now, the answer is LA’s very own Outfest Film Festival. So get your booty over here. It runs until this Sunday, July 21.  If you are not in LA, don’t sweat it, I’m on the beat, finding out about all the crazy Latino talent coming up.  On the screen, and in the DGA Atrium where most after-screening receptions are being held, I got the chance this weekend to discover and meet some really fierce brown talent.  I was pleased as punch to look around me and see faces and bodies epitomizing the spectrum of LA diversity on so many levels, not just “Hollywood”.  Old, young, singles, couples. Sure you got your beefcake WeHo boys with jaw dropping sculpted bodies, fine ass butch and girly lesbians who look like they walked off the set of The L Word (and who I secretly wish would  hit on me), and fabulous transgender artists, but what’s more exciting to behold is the plenty of ‘regular’ folks whose unquestionable magnetic air of confidence, smile and style compete for my undivided attention among this colorful crowd.

I’ll be down there all week to meet more folks and hopefully get some video and more intimate conversation regarding the stories being told. For now, lets put these three on the spotlight:

Eloy Mendez
Eloy Mendez on the left, Polo Munoz of LatinoWeeklyReview.com

ELOY MENDEZ

Outfest’s Opening Night film last Thursday was C.O.G which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is directed by Cuban-American Kyle Patrick Alvarez (Easier With Practice).  Its the coming out and of age story about a college boy, David (based on David Sedaris’ short story) who goes on a sabbatical like journey to spend a summer picking apples.  Naturally the people he encounters on the fields are Latino. Instead of being relegated to background characters, however, Eloy Mendez plays Pedro who embodies him vividly, affecting David’s inner work in progress.  I met Eloy and learned that this role has opened  new doors from him, after years of working in television and film.  BIG SCOOP: He will next be seen in Mike Ott’s upcoming film, Lake Los Angeles, which apparently is mostly told in Espanol!  Mike is the visceral director of such festival faves as Little Rock and Pearblossom Highway.  I applaud Ott’s efforts in making this film in another language, and for really exploring and mining these stories of unanchored souls caught in the greater desert mountain landscape of Los Angeles.  Make sure to check out Lake Los Angeles Facebook page to find out where it will be premiering in early 2014.

Robles

AUGIE ROBLES

Augie Robles graduated from AFI Film school, made a few short films then landed a gig on CSI which ended up being 14 years during which he sharpened his cutting skills as an editor, and became restless and eager to tell his own stories again.  He recently did his editing magic on Aurora Guerero’s film, Mosquita y Mari which y’all know how I feel about. (love).  He edited the film, BIG GAY LOVE  which just premiered at Outfest, directed by Ringo Le and starring Jonathan Lisecki in a super sweet and tender love story about a hopeless romantic in LA who struggles to fit into LA’s lofty pressure and idealized gay man archetype.  Back writing and directing his own work, Robles recently screened his short film,  The Rookie and the Runner, set in Elysian Park at a number of film festivals.  He also has plenty of other projects in the works, including something a la Twilight Zone !  He has a lot of technical and narrative genre skills to unleash in his own voice, and I find it really sweet that he is sharing his wealth of experience as a mentor for Outfest’s program, Outset, created to empower and educate LGBT youth(16-24) to tell their stories through film.

HARVEY GUILLEN

In a show stealing/stopping cameo in Big Gay Love, Harvey plays a kid who represents the essence of gay youth who try with all their might and ferocity every damn day to battle and defy mainstream society’s twisted dictation of what normal, perfection and beauty should look like.  Encapsulating perfectly how important it is to see people like you in order to not feel alone is a bigger theme of the importance of Outfest and for that matter, a diverse representation.  Harvey can next be seen in Pantelion’s luchador comedy, Aztec Screen Shot 2013-07-15 at 8.50.24 PMWarrior directed by Scott Sanders (Black Dynamite) starring Luis Guzman and gorgeous Nadine Velasquez.  You might know have seen him in The Internship and on 2010 ABC Family television show, Huge.  He is absolutely charming, playful and a bon vivant with a deliciously fierce streak.

REFLECTIONS OF: Outfest is truly LA’s most inclusive and community driven festival.  Not just for the LGBT community but the organization picks up the slack of other festivals by embracing many underrepresented multi-ethnic voices.  The AFI Festival is a wonderful showcase of international film but as an extension of the film school, it has positioned itself as a program driven for cinephile-centric and auteur platform.  Meanwhile LA Film Festival certainly offers big broad fare for everyone, but also tries to inch in on AFI’s international showcase turf. Don’t get it twisted, I was really happy to see LA Film Fest screen three U.S. Latino films this year.  But just think how much more impactful it would be to tap into the U.S Latino film representing the rich and underplayed walks of life AQUI in Los Angeles.    Films like Water & Power, Vincent & Luzy and Pardon are really original and telling narratives with a distinct aesthetic, and all three have yet to have their official premiere even though they’ve been submitted to the festival circuit.  While I don’t think its reasonable to rely on the big distributors to be the platforms of discovery for these films, I do believe that festivals on this scale have that cultural responsibility, or at least it should behoove them to do so.  An often heard comment that I take issue with is that a film has to be ‘good enough’ to show at these festivals.  Every film is imperfect so this does not hold agua with me when we are talking about the discovery and expanding of marginalized voices.   I previously reported that The Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival has announced it is currently taking submissions after its sudden shutter last year. There is no doubt there is a sizable hungry audience and community for these films, and filmmakers who want their films to be seen by them, so even though its bewildering to me that LALIFF does’t have their festival dates set yet, I’ve a feeling they will still be looked to as the last beacon and chance for the array of Latino filmmakers and stories in LA trying to emerge through the bottleneck.

#Outfest doc shorts – The LA Latino Gay

I really enjoyed finding out about this local community organization, Payasos LA through the documentary shorts film block, Queerer Than Fiction at yesterday’s Outfest screening. This is the first episode of a series called RAD QUEERS by bright-eyed and charming Graham Kolbeins. The doc short form is a kind of an underrated, underplayed piece of film, so this selection of portraits, personal journeys and confrontations was a special and touching treat. I loved that each film reflected a super specific identity yet their plight couldn’t be more universal, and exploratory of the human condition. It’s especially neat to meet the people you just met on film, in real life right after the screening. The block is playing again tonight at 9:30pm so come on down to the DGA on Sunset & Fairfax to get your tickets and party with the most diverse, real and hip people in LA.

“Smashing taboos and redefining philanthropy, Payasos L.A. is an organization of gay Latino men who wear clown make-up, go-go dance, and try to make the world a better place for future generations. Rad Queers: Payasos L.A. takes a look at the Payasos’ optimistic philosophy as well as their sexy fund-raising parties. “Mr. Los Angeles Leather” 2011 title-holder and Payasos founder Leo Iriarte walks us through the wild world of his happy band of clowns, providing a uniquely personal perspective on this extraordinary group.”

Find out more about their work here