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.

Meet Edgar Muñiz: The Most Prolific Filmmaker You Don’t-but-should-definitely Know

Bio_Pic_photo_2“I’m a compulsive filmmaker,” admits Eddie Muñiz the 33 year old California native who has 12 films under his belt.
One of them is The Never Daunted, his 10th film. Not too long ago I saw it as a festival screener dvd and I vividly and immediately felt that rare exhilarating rush of discovery amid the dvd stacks of derivative story lines.   The film is about a  man who, unable to cope with his infertility and the monotony of a dead-end job, becomes withdrawn from his relationship and grows obsessed with a strange Western that comes on television late at night – which only he can see.   The film’s captivating sincerity and epic  male psyche exploration makes Muñiz not only a writer/director to follow, but one to actively support.  He’s one of those creative manic types who are actively pursuing their art of storytelling without frills, on the fly and for the love.  On the weekends and perhaps limited by budget but never held back by its raw, transcendent humanity.  In talking to him you can tell he is completely immersed in and relishes the craft.  So much he hasn’t had the bandwith to fully explore the mine of distribution outlets.  Thanks to our brave new world of Direct to Fan online distribution, we can finally check out some of his films, in particular the singular The Never Daunted.  Now available to stream on Seed & Spark.  Once you get hooked you’ll want to see more of his work, some of which is available on his website.   Read on, get to know this cool cat and get a  taste of his sensibility and work ethic and tell me if he’s not inspiring.
The_Never_Daunted-2Adjusted1. Putting together one film no matter how modest the budget requires a lot of collaboration, an insane amount of tenacity and organization.  What is it about your creative process and style that has allowed you to be so prolific?
 
You’re right.  Making a film does require a lot of collaboration, and I think there are either filmmakers who embrace this aspect of filmmaking or they don’t. I completely rely on it, but that’s also because I work with a lot of like-minded people and really talented, smart people. I think that the only real trick I have is that I won’t start with a script. The only reason I’m able to complete so many projects and get them done so quickly is because I’ll take care of the scheduling first, which I think is the hardest part, and then force myself to write something under pressure before the day I have to shoot. I never really start with an idea or theme in mind; I’ll start with a person I think is interesting or that I love being around. I know that sounds weird, but so many of the films I’ve done started from just hanging out with a friend or with new people. After hanging out and getting a sense of their personalities and of their views, I always think it’s interesting to take a version of that person and place him or her in different scenarios that I later come up with. This approach not only opens up several narrative possibilities for me, but it also makes it so that I can make the film and keep discovering new things as I’m going along. The part that I play in this is almost nonexistent. I just have to make sure to listen very carefully, work within my means, prepare for any setbacks or last-minute changes and finally remain objective enough to shape a film out of all of it. It is a compulsion in that filmmaking is a priority for me, and I’m constantly thinking about it. I never stop and it drives a lot of my friends and family crazy. I would always rather film than go to bars or to parties or to lunch or to dinner…unless I can film when I’m there!
 
2.  The dialogue feels so natural in your films.
There’ve only been a few times that I’ll have specific lines I want my actors to hit.  Sometimes I’ll be married to these lines because I overheard someone say it a certain way, but all of the credit here should really go to my actors. I’ll know the emotion I want from the scene, I’ll know the tone, and specific expository points, but that’s it, and that’s only the structure or the blueprint. They’ll improvise off my sides, and sometimes this will be a page with four or five lines on it – between two or three people – and what would’ve been a 1-minute scene on the page, they’ll turn into a 3 to 4 min. scene full of twists and turns, with sharp, understated, and insightful subtext, sometimes strange, sometimes bizarre, sometimes hilarious. But always unexpected, and that’s the point. 
_DSC22313.  In The Never Daunted, there is such a genuine vulnerability not often found in male driven films.  You said you were raised by your mom and aunts, do you think this helped you get in touch with this modern masculinity side?  You show such a profound and illuminating notion of the pitfalls of having to live up to a macho masculine, cowboy, protector and provider role, it really expands my perception and elicits my empathy for the male perspective.
That’s really cool of you to say!  Because my mom was always working, I’d spend a lot of my days with my aunts and my grandmother…. I have two uncles that I admire very much, but I don’t think I ever measured up to that Mexican macho male thing, nor did I ever really care to. For what it’s worth, I grew up with more of a feminine perspective – because of my aunts and my mothers – and this kind of allowed me to see how proud men can be, how delusional, overbearing, fearful, and how selfish we can be as well. And I do love to look at this in my films, and I’m often guilty of all of this male posturing too. Although I understand the culture of cool cinema and even appreciate some of those films – the cowboys, the gangsters, the hitmen movies- I can’t help but see that same macho bullshit from my childhood being perpetuated over and over again in our culture. It’s also a constant reminder that I’m none of those things and that maybe I should be feeling like I ought to be. I think men are much more interesting than that though, much more complex and multidimensional. But a variation in movies is great – don’t get me wrong. Nevertheless, if there’s a story about a bank robber being chased by the cops, and he’s forced to pull a man and his little boy out of their car, and speeds off, I’d rather see the story about the man having to explain to his boy what just happened.
 
The Never Daunted STILLS 384. You mentioned you’ve gotten feedback from Guy Maddin and Monte Hellman, have they inspired your approach and aesthetic?  Who else contemporary filmmakers do you draw from and connect?
Guy Maddin and Monte Hellman were the only two that took the time to respond, and they were also the two that I was desperately hoping would respond, so I did make more of an effort with them. I do love movies that are very postmodern and abstract and these two guys are still making very interesting and provocative work. Guy Maddin continues to find new ways to tell stories and I can’t passively watch any of his movies. They require my complete attention and that’s what cinema should be, I think. With Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, I had the experience where I had to keep watching the movie over and over again so I can decide whether or not I liked it.  And Road to Nowhere was a movie about movies, which is something that still interests me, as indulgent as it might sound, and this meta-fictional element comes up in not only The Never Daunted, but in other movies I’ve completed since then. And I love all types of films and filmmakers, but as far as the ones that make me excited about not only watching their movies but going out and making more of my own, I’d say Hong Sang Soo, Carlos Reygadas, Lynne Ramsay, Agnes Varda, Gus Van Sant, Miranda July, Alfonso Cuaron, Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming-Liang, and Mary Harron are maybe my favorites right now. And obviously, this list is always changing .
 
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5.  Does is it get easier with each film you make?
Working with actors and non-actors has gotten easier for me. It’s a different language I use with both, but I’ve learned to appreciate this aspect of filmmaking more than any other. It’s the part where I get to work with them as people, but the discussions aren’t always about choices or behavior or the psychology of a character. A lot of times it’s them telling me personal stories and me sharing personal stories with them as well, which is why I feel that the friendships I’ve made through filmmaking have been so rewarding and amazing to me. There’s no chit-chat or formalities; there’s no time for that. So a person will go from being an acquaintance to a deep personal friend you feel you’ve known for a long time, and this will happen simply because they’re willing to bring their personal experiences and specific views to the table. As cheesy as it sounds, it can feel like the purest expression of the self and art. Learning that a lot of them are willing to do this, or maybe because they trust me, has given me much more confidence when directing a scene, so it feels much easier. All the other technical stuff is a pain in the ass, but I learn it because I have to and because I didn’t go to film school.
 
_DSC16696.  What do you personally get out of making a film from the creation and observation of the human condition? 
I guess it’s the same thing that I get out of teaching, but to be honest, teaching is much more rewarding. Both require a lot of self-reflection and discipline, but in teaching, the results are right there and you can actually see the light bulbs go on in front of you. With filmmaking, it can be very painful and I can think that I’m addressing several questions that are important to me, but once the film is done, I’m sometimes left with even more questions and concerns than before. The greatest pleasure that I derive from making a film is having connected with people in the process. At the end of a film or at the end of a screening, I often feel like a fraud and like I didn’t complete what I set out to do. I start wondering what I even want to gain from all of it, and I’ll just watch other people’s films and wonder, “Who the hell do I think I am, making my own movies, or assuming that people even care?”. But the one constant pleasure is my relationships with my friends. The fact that I built friendships in the process and that they trusted me and that we completed something together. Then, inevitably, I’ll get excited about another project and I’ll bury myself in another opportunity to work with them.
 
Haley_Project_STILL_137.  In your words, what is Haley, your latest film about?
The Haley Project has a couple of stories running parallel throughout, but at the center is the story about a girl named Haley, who we only see in the beginning of the film and in a flashback at the end. It’s loosely based on my friend Laura Benson, who actually plays Haley, but it’s also about other people in my life who I’m always in awe of. I have a few friends who are always telling me stories about these exotic places that they’ve visited and these crazy adventures that they’ve had.  My friend Nick Null, who plays Murray in The Never Daunted, has a lot of stories like this too. But I thought it would be interesting to look at this kind of person, but from the perspective of all the supporting characters in each of their stories. How are these supporting characters, who don’t get to float on from place to place, affected by having met someone with a seemingly more interesting life? So I had two guys, played by Seth Johansson and Brian Randles, become competitive and mean with each other over their love for Haley, without Haley even there anymore. And in the same movie I have a romantic Frenchman who arrives in LA, in hopes of finding love. And I love this idea because it’s usually the other way around: the starry-eyed, American Francophile visits Paris in search of love.
Check out the trailer for The Never Daunted below and click here to watch the film on Seed & Spark.