Aug 28, 2008

Short Order

I'm just back from my very first film festival, the reputable Palm Springs Short Fest, where our short Close Relations premiered for the first time in America. I was happy to see my short perform very well, and I was ecstatic to show it in front of an audience comprised of filmgoers and filmmakers. The audience reacted the way they were meant to, laughing and cringing in all the right places, which means I did my job.
I had a great time at the festival, meeting wonderful, talented people and making new friends. And of course, watching a bunch of short films, some of them excellent.
I was lucky I attended Palm Springs, a very good festival, run super professionally, with a great breadth of shorts.
I learned many things that may be apparent to people with more experience than me in this circuit but to me they were kind of news.
The neglect of short films, the lack of interest and the lack of support of young filmmakers in this country is taking a noticeable toll. For the most part, it is not a coincidence that the best shorts, the awarded shorts, tend to come from countries that help their filmmakers: the U.K, Spain, France, Canada, Israel, etc.
Here, such a thing is considered communism, and therefore the American shorts (and for that matter many independent features) simply and for the most part do not have the level of their European counterparts. Not in production values, not in storytelling, not in originality, not in craftsmanship. It is interesting, right after the Olympics particularly, where Americans reigned supreme, to look at one niche in which we are losers; people mired in cinematic poverty. This is not to say that there were no good American films, but really, we can't compete.
It is ridiculous to expect our government to help. It doesn't do it with life and death issues like health care... But what appalls me is that we have the biggest film industry in the known universe, a place that generates thousands of millions of dollars in profits (by creating mostly appalling, immoral shit), and yet this industry gives almost nothing back.
I think that the only way Americans can understand how stupid and counterproductive this policy is, is to couch it in competitive terms. The Europeans are kicking our ass, big time. Now, they will tell me, who cares? Nobody cares for short films (unless you can put them in a cellphone screen). There is no market for them here, because it's not in the industry's interest. Instead of showing shorts before a feature, they show commercials. Would it be unthinkable to show 5 movie previews and one short?
But the problem is deeper. If young filmmakers had somewhere to go to for serious funding, and, having been given the responsibility, were encouraged to ply their craft with excellence, America could find its next wave of fantastic filmmakers and could compete and win in this arena, which in other places bears splendid fruit.
It really is not only about short film, which is as valid an entertainment and an art form as features, but it is about finding real talent for films. It is about the future of film. It's really just sad and ironic that American independent filmmakers have to go it alone.

The other thing I learned, or rather I confirmed, because I had heard it before, is that many festival programmers like to treat short filmmakers with condescension. Last year I was in a similar panel at the IFP Film Conference in NY, and in Palm Springs I attended a couple of panels in which these programmers are supposed to give us their pearls of wisdom about festival strategy. Some of these people have even written helpful advice books on submitting films to a festival (trying to make a buck by helping out, nothing wrong with that, right?).
To give you an idea, one of the books is called "How not to make a short film".
But that's all good. What is really offensive is the tone they use. They love recounting bad experiences with difficult filmmakers, and stupid things we all do. They forget that among us not everybody is a film student or a total amateur (and even if this was the case, this is not an excuse for the patronizing, disrespectful tone of the whole deal). Tough love is good. Contempt is not. I know the difference when I see it.
But does any filmmaker stand up and say, "don't you talk to me like that"? Did I? Nope. Why? Well, because these people wield the power to select your film or not. You don't want to antagonize them, and they know it. So they become this chummy, cliquish squad that supposedly talks about you and your film when you are not looking. So you better be on your best behavior.
I don't take these things personally. I believe they have every right to reject or accept my film under the set of criteria they see fit. But many filmmakers like me were very put off by their patronizing tone.
Still, you can always count on at least one asskisser in the audience, thanking them for all the hard work they do. He almost asked for forgiveness.
I would respectfully suggest to programmers they should stick to giving helpful, well-intentioned advice and zip the sob stories (my job is so hard, I have to watch 5000 films) and particularly the sarcasm, for their little clique. They talk about being tired of clichés, but if I ever hear a programmer again say that my film has to come from the heart, I will tear my heart out of my chest and eat it.
Filmmakers do not deserve to be treated like morons. We spend a lot of time, money and effort to try to make a film, pretty much on our own. Then we spend a lot of time, money and effort to try to make it into festivals. A little respect is in order.

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