My Secret Past as the Writer/Producer of an Indie Film That Absolutely, Positively Did Not Get into Film Festivals.
July 10, 2015
One of the things about being an "expert" on anything is that people unconsciously assume that you've always been an expert. Non-experts didn't see the years of work you put into becoming an authority on the subject. They didn't see the times you failed. And flailed. Or when you picked yourself up and tried to learn from your mistakes.
Most of my early knowledge about film festivals did not come from my own flailing. I spent a lot of time watching others try to get into film festivals, and I asked festival directors a lot of pointed questions. But then, over the course of working with 300+ clients, I've flailed along with them as we looked for just the right festivals for their work. Sometimes we succeeded, sometimes we didn't. I claim those experiences as my own, at least in part.
But when filmmakers ask me "Did you ever make a film?" my answer is "No, I've never really felt the need to do that, so I never made a movie or tried to get it into festivals." And that's the truth.
Now seems like a good time to admit it, though -- I had a small part in the creation of an independent film, and we did try to get it into festivals. The experience did not go well.
I'm proud of the film itself and my part in its creation. I'm as ecstatic now as I was then that it got made at all. However, there are certain ideals I preach to aspiring filmmakers when it comes to making movies to play at film festivals. This film embodies few of those ideals.
I'll set the scene: January of 2004. (I think.) In the haze of an after-party following two days of delirium at B-Fest, an annual 24-hour celebration of vintage horror and sci-fi movies at Northwestern University, I mentioned to a small group of friends the only really good idea I've ever had for a movie.
It's a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a Michael Meyers-type slasher villain -- your typical '80s psycho killer who is always one step ahead of his victims. The right streets are always blocked off, the lights go out at the very scariest moment, and there's a handy pitchfork to impale his victims stashed just where he needs it.
How does he accomplish these seemingly supernatural feats? Simple: he has a pit crew -- a team of murderous ninjas who plan things out and handle mid-murder crises with aplomb. They are there to set their boy (or girl) up for maximum mayhem.
I didn't really know whether this was the setup for a horror movie or a comedy or what. I just knew it was a neat concept and that I was unlikely to ever do anything with it. So when one of those friends came to me and said he wanted to do something with it, I gave him my blessing and didn't think much more about it.
My memory gets pretty hazy at this point. At some point it became obvious that my friend Chris was really going to make this movie. His wife Vanessa made commercials and industrial films so they had the know-how and access to some equipment. With the help of a local improv troupe, the script for a documentary-style comedy emerged and I was permitted to contribute a few jokes. I was also permitted to contribute a few hundred bucks and before I knew it, "Make a Killing" was made.
The original site to promote the film is long gone, but you can see the trailer here:
In 2004, DVD was still the primary method of moving large chunks of video around. Chris & Vanessa had a bunch of discs made with actual cover art and everything. Because I was doing some shipping out of my house for the family business, I was tasked with warehousing and mailing the discs to festivals.
And so, in my first real encounter with independent film festivals and Withoutabox and all that jazz, we were off to the races to try to get "Make A Killing" some festival play.
Unfortunately, while the film was (arguably) funny and got some nice press from a DVD review site or two, it was made without any real understanding of the needs of (or standards held by) film festivals. Even in 2004, "mockumentaries" had been done to death. The mix of genres between horror and comedy didn't help. While the film had a script, large portions were improvised, which meant that the style of comedy could vary from scene to scene.
The death blow was this: weighing in at 40 minutes, "Make a Killing" was way too long for a short and didn't have nearly enough meat to play as a feature. The film was submitted to a handful of festivals, didn't get into any of them, and shortly after that we quit trying.
If I could go back in time and advise our fledgling group of filmmakers, I'd give them the following pointers.
* Time is precious, especially in short film. An experienced editor could whittle this down to a running time less than 15 minutes, which would make it much more acceptable to festivals. Save the extended version for the DVD extras.
* Go to some film festivals and watch the shorts they're playing so you have a better idea of what they're looking for. Your film may not fit that mold, but at least you'll see some good examples of the form.
* A strong story is the most important element in any movie, but even the strongest of stories can be overwhelmed by a film's other deficits.
* Maybe you shouldn't spend a bunch of money on printed DVDs and cases. Festivals don't really care about the trappings.
* Festival acceptance rates are low and there are many, many reasons for a film to be rejected. It takes more than just a few submissions to get an idea of whether your film is going to get in or not.
In retrospect I'm grateful for the experience we had with "Make a Killing." Though it's only "my" film in a tangential sort of way, it did give me some early perspective on the filmmaker submissions experience and helped shape the way I thought about the process. Working on this film taught me my very first Film Festival Secrets.