Film Fests Archive for February, 2011

More on Hollywood as Brand

Clearly, David and I disagreed on the validity of the premise of Mark Harris’ GQ piece “The Day the Movies Died.” Over on the Hot Blog, David more or less tore Harris’ arguments to shreds in making his own points. But while I don’t agree with every argument Harris makes, and I don’t disagree, necessarily, that tonally his piece is a bit of a Chicken Little, look out the Hollywood sky falling melodrama… on the other hand, I agree with Harris that the sky is falling and has been for some time.
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Building the Indie “Brand” — If We Build It, Will the Audience Come?

I was just mulling over the importance of indie filmmakers and regional film fests in the afterglow of the Oxford Film Festival and the slew of upcoming regional fests, when lo! A trend (well, if you can call two articles a “trend”) arose this month on pieces about the whys and wherefores of Hollywood making shitty movies. Apparently I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about why this is so.
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Documenting Social Justice and the Racial Divide

Right now I am particularly interested in the role of regional film fests in addressing greater social issues through both films and ancillary programming. I believe strongly in the role of regional fests to educate and inform as well as to entertain.
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Oxford Film Festival 2011 — The Wrap

I got swamped with fest activities and travel, so I’m just now getting around to writing a wrap up the Oxford Film Festival, which just completed its 8th year this past weekend. Now that the awards ceremony is over, I can talk a bit about the winners and other films I liked this year at Oxford — which, it must be said, has been steadily improving the overall quality of their programming slate every single year.
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OFF11 Dispatch

It’s been a busy-busy couple days here at the Oxford Film Festival, but taking a few minutes before getting ready for tonight’s big awards ceremony to catch up with some notes on how the fest is going this year. We got in Thursday night after a long day of no sleep and delayed travel, at some dinner with Jen Yamato, Todd Gilchrist and James Rocchi at Boure, one of the many Oxford restaurants owned by terrific chef — and even more terrific fest patron — John Currance.

And speaking of fest sponsors:

You cannot — and I mean CANNOT — operate a successful regional fest without the financial support of local patrons, both business and individual. I’m not saying the OFF folks don’t have to bust the proverbial hump to fund raise because I know they do. But you do not just build an awesome regional fest like Oxford off of wishes and good intentions, it takes money.

From the Malco Theater that hosts the screenings, to government support from the Oxford Convention and Visitors Bureau to indivdual Super Patrons like the lovely, charming Donna Ruth Roberts (my Oxford adoptive grandma, who is so lovely and charming and delightful that I come here every year, in part, just to be graced by her presence), chef John Currence, to Rock Star Taxi, this year’s transportation provider, to countless individuals and businesses who support this fest year after year, I want to say this: Sponsors are a huge part of the reason that Oxford Film Festival is not just a name in Oxford, but is getting nationally known in the indie film and indie journalism world. Your support makes that happen. This fest does not even have an airline partner, but they manage to fly filmmakers and other guests in, put them up in local hotels, feed us incredibly and non-stop with good Southern cooking, and generally make us all feel so welcome in their town.

Anyhow. So Friday morning we had the jury breakfast to determine winners in the various categories. I am jurying docs this year here along with Michael Rose and Skizz Cyzkyk, and our deliberations were interesting and energetic and Arik, our jury wrangler, did not have to intervene to prevent bloodshed this year, and no mud wrestling was involved in determining the winner of the docs competition.

I also had the privilege yesterday of moderating the Q&A at the sneak preview of Where I Begin, a film directed by Thomas L. Philips, whose underseen Rattle Basket I greatly enjoyed a couple years ago. The script was co-written by my good friend Melanie Addington (who’s one of the co-directors of the fest), and Thomas and Melanie asked me (along with a few other industry folks) to look over their script in earlier iterations and provide feedback.

This was my first time seeing the finished result, and while I can’t say much in the way of reviewing the film because I am too close to the project, I will say that the audience was completely packed, and response was overwhelmingly positive, which made me incredibly happy for al involved. It’s a stellar, truly indie film made for a very small budget, but the writing was strong enough to attract folks like Lance E. Nichols (THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON and much, much more) and Johnny McPhail (BALLAST) to the project. I was so pleased for all involved that response to the film was so very positive.

Friday night was all about the social side of the fest, which here at Oxford is an important component. Dinner at my beloved Ajax Diner, which would totally be my secret boyfriend if it was a person and not a diner, was procured, and so many Oxford Fest guests where on-hand there that I barely sat down long enough to eat my scrumptious meatloaf (stuffed with CHEESE, people) served with obligatorily Southern sides of squash casserole and turnip greens. Heaven on a plate, mmmmm.

Then we headed a couple doors down to attend the Friday night party at Roosters, which featured — and I am not making this up — blues legend T Model Ford. Much dancing ensued at the front of the stage, and the more alcohol people consumed, the looser folks got about getting out on the dance floor to get down. T Model Ford’s catchphrase is, “It’s Jack Daniels time!” and he does not mean that metaphorically. It was one of those “once in a lifetime” things that tends to happen at this fest, which is partly what makes Oxford great.

Speaking of once-in-a-lifetime action, the late-late night event Friday night was a trip to Graceland Too, which 10 of us bravely embarked upon. Too much for this post, but look for a whole separate post and a photo gallery coming on this.
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Also coming: The fest awards. Woo-hoo! But first, the farewell breakfast at John Currence’s City Grocery, catered, I hear, by John Currences Big Bad Breakfast. No doubt, there will be cheese grits and biscuits involved. More yum. I don’t leave Oxford until tomorrow, so more later today to wrap things up.

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These Are the Random Things You Think About When Your Flight is Delayed and You’re Stuck at the Phoenix Airport.

I am slowly wending my way from Seattle to Oxford, Mississippi, home of Faulkner and Ole Miss University, for what has become over the years an annual pilgrimage to the Oxford Film Festival, one of my favorite regional fests. And this year, for the first time, I’m not traveling alone to Oxford, because I’m bringing my husband Mike along for the fun.

I say “slowly wending” because our travel day started at the ass-crack of dawn so we could catch a 5:15AM flight out of Seattle. Which would have been great, except for the part where they waited until everyone was on the plane to figure out there was some (apparently serious) mechanical problem with the plane. Whatever. So they deplaned us all in a grumbling group (90% of the people on the flight had connections to catch, including us) and then we waited another half hour to board the new, hopefully not broken plane.

It was about this time that I decided to check our connection window and realized there was no way in hell, barring the flight to Memphis getting delayed, that we were going to make it. So I checked at the counter and they informed me cheerily, “Great news! You aren’t going to make your connection, heh, but we already bumped you to the next flight to Memphis.” Why, that’s nice of you, I said. And when does that leave? “It leaves Phoenix at (unintelligible mumbling) and gets you into Memphis at (more unintelligible mumbling).” Er, what was that? “ItleavesPhoenixat7PMandyougetintoMemphisjustaftermidnight … NEXT!”

Well, bloody hell.

I do not like sunny places, and have you ever been to Phoenix? They have sun there. A lot of sun. And many, many windows through which this bright, annoying sunlight is allowed to come through unfettered by clouds or dark blinds. And I hate, really hate being stuck at airports, unless it’s Denver and I’m smoking because they have a smoking lounge. But it’s not Denver, it’s Phoenix, and I quit smoking. So that leaves scrounging up something edible and then sitting around forever with other grumpy people and maybe falling asleep and missing my next flight too. Bah.

However! My Catholic grandmother always said to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst (my inner Jewish grandmother, OTOH, always counters with, “Eh. It can always get worse.”). Fortunately for me, we were not flying on either American or United, because many unpleasant experiences with those airlines have convinced me they are owned by the Devil, who has set a corporate policy of “let’s piss off more customers than any other airline.”

We, however, were on US Airways. And by the time we landed in Phoenix and were directed to the counter to find out how bad our new delay would be, they had already figured out ALL ON THEIR OWN that I did not want to wait until 7-freaking-PM for a flight out of there, and they had transferred us to a much earlier Delta flight, and we had two seats together on that flight. Holy crap! I would like to take credit for this myself — maybe the evil raised eyebrow I shot the US Airways chick back in Seattle paid off and they were terrified of me.

But I must say, it appeared they were doing their level best to get every single person who’d missed a connection on their way, and they were SUPER nice about it, and so were the Delta people. So now we are set to board a plane in an hour and then a few hours after that we will be in Oxford, which has become a bit like coming home for me every year at this point.

Mike’s beloved Sketchers boot fell apart, literally, here at the Phoenix airport, but fortunately for him, he had his Converse in his carry-on and so the boots went buh-bye, into the trash. I will kinda take credit for that because I loathed those shoes and had been thinking mean thoughts about them and muttering obscene words at them under my breath, and deliberately polishing my Docs with special leather preservative right in front of them without giving them a single swipe of the polish and giving them the stink-eye regularly for the last year, so clearly those efforts to destroy the hated boots by sheer force of will finally paid off. And now I can perhaps persuade him to upgrade to some sexy black Docs if we can find them on sale, because we have adopted a “cheapskate” mentality and we aren’t allowed to buy expensive shoes for full retail anymore. Unless there’s a really good reason like I NEED them.

We ate a couple of very meh burritos (but hey, it was something resembling food). And the wifi at this airport kinda blows, but we are keeping our chins up about the lousy wifi and refusing to fall into mood pockets over that.

Why? Because we are grown-ups, that’s why! And so we have back-up plans for when the wifi sucks — two of them, actually. I have my corporate wifi card courtesy of MCN, which is on Verizon, AND my handy-dandy AT&T-connected iPhone, through which I can tether to the Internets in case of wifi emergencies. And in a pinch, I have my very own mood pocket, hand-knitted for me by Oxford Film Fest co-director Michelle Emmanuel, in which to keep my mood safe and cozy-warm should I feel it slipping.

More from Oxford, and stuff about the actual festival, when we finally make it there. Expect to get there in time for most of the opening party proper, and all of the late night after party. And I heard a very sad rumor that there is no karaoke this year, which is a bummer because I am pretty sure everyone last year universally agreed that the karaoke party ROCKED and that Jen Yamato and I, who regaled the appreciative crowd with our stunning rendition of the Backstreet Boys “I Want it That Way” (complete with back-up dancers!), rocked particularly impressively. So I guess we will have to find a way to karaoke on regardless.

For now, though, I need to watch one last screener for the docs I’m jurying, so I will be responsible and sign off until later.

See you from the Oxford Film Festival ….

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Step in the Right Direction

Now here’s an example of someone in film who has an idea and is taking active steps to implement it.

There’s a piece in the New York Times on Ava DuVernay, filmmaker and publicist, who wants to see black-theme films thrive (the story is behind the wall, but you can register for free if you don’t already have a NYT account).

Her idea? Target those cities which already have existing audiences for black-theme films. Take advantage of the independent film program announced by AMC theaters, which has chains everywhere, to get those films in there for two-week runs. Support those films with grass-roots efforts from the cities’ ethnic-themed film festivals, using social marketing tools. Aim for 50 cities, but start with five to show it’s a workable model.

These are the kind of innovative ideas we need more of from the independent film community in general. We need to be thinking outside the model that says the only way to achieve “success” with your film is to make that elusive high-6 to-7 figure distrib deal at Sundance or Toronto.

I love the idea of targeting a specific niche and finding ways to market to that niche. I don’t necessarily agree with her that the only market for black-theme films is African Americans … that to me is just the reverse of asserting that African Americans can’t or won’t see indie films, which, while it may be true in terms of actual ticket sales at the moment, is not necessarily a truth that’s etched in stone. Get black audiences seeing some smart, indie black-theme films, and maybe you can expand their interest into other niches as well. Encourage white audiences, or Latino audiences, or Asian audiences, to explore black cinema, and you open minds to new ideas. Draw on the commonalities that unite us, not just the differences that divide.

I know, I know. Kum-ba-ya and all that, but I’m a touchy-feely liberal who believes, truly, that there are commonalities across cultures: love, death, happiness, fear, grief, celebration … things that tie us together. And for me, a big part of the role of independent cinema of all stripes is to make the world a smaller place, to bridge those cultural divides.

Still, I applaud this effort as a model. For me, the money quote from the article was this bit:

“Chris McGurk, who was then vice chairman of MGM, even tried to position the studio as a gathering point for black filmmakers.

But the strategy faltered, Mr. McGurk said, as costs rose, and black-theme films, which generally underperform in foreign markets, outgrew their niche. “The economics of that business really only work if you’re able to produce them for $10 million or less,” he explained.”

Well, yes. That’s true across indie film, folks. And really, you can produce a hell of a movie for under $10 million. That’s a LOT of money in the indie film world, and I can think of many, many superior films made on much smaller budgets than that. Really, the economics of the business, whether you’re making black-theme films or any kind of indie film is this: How much can you raise to make your film without going substantially into debt? How much can you get financial or in-kind support to help finance it? And, most importantly, what is your realistic plan for selling your film enough that you can make that money back, plus enough extra to live on and make the next film?

But still, this is an interesting idea, and it’s a start. We need more smart people thinking outside the box like this about how to promote indie film.

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Wish List for the Future of Indie Film

Out of the blue, I woke up this morning thinking about Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc . Maybe I was pondering on this whole AOL/HuffPo thing, and even more about The AOL Way and how it tries to reduce into Powerpoint slides geared toward traffic and keywords how writers should write, and how editors should assign stories.
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Another View of Sundance Sales

I started to comment on David’s Hot Blog post on Sundance sales over there, but it got too long. So moving my thoughts over here, with apologies if it’s confusing to have to go back-and-forth.

Most of what I heard in lines and at a couple social gatherings later in the fest with regard to Sundance sales among press and publicity folks this year was not so much a theme of “indie is saved!” as it was just a deep breath of relief that some sales were actually happening this year at the fest … and that, for the most part, the films didn’t suck. No, there weren’t any really spectacularly huge sales ala Little Miss Sunshine, but smaller sales that actually generate some profit for their investment might overall be a good direction for Sundance sales to head, n’est-ce pas?

And I’m not even convinced that the idea of sales — especially “big” sales — happening at Sundance or any other fest even should be the measure of a festival’s success. Of course it’s great for filmmakers to get their films picked up, and of course everyone is hoping for a theatrical release.

But my sense overall is that there is a shift coming that’s been brewing for a while in what we mean when we say a film has succeeded financially. I’m reminded of animator Bill Plympton, who did this great presentation at Ann Arbor a few years back about exactly how he makes a living making the animated films he wants to make. He talked about DVD, about marketing, about controlling costs and knowing how much he had to make back on a given film to be able to both make a living and make the next film. This, IMO, is where the conversation about indie film needs to head, because if you are making an indie film with the sole goal of making a 7-figure sale at Sundance, you are delusional and in the wrong business. And I feel strongly about the importance of regional fests and the role they can play in the future of indie film, but that is a longer discussion for another time.

Back to the Sundance sales, or at least, those I am most interested in:

Perfect Sense is more of an artsier, better take on a global pandemic ala Blindness than “arty sex.” Not really much of that in the story at all, for all that we see Ewan MacGregor full frontal and Eva Green’s boobs. I’d liken it tonally more to Never Let Me Go than anything … but yeah, that didn’t do so well theatrically, did it? A shame, because I really loved that film. Perfect Sense is a solid, smart movie, but maybe a little to smart for mainstream audiences. Time will tell on that one.

As for Pariah, Christ almighty, this is my biggest beef of the fest. I’m glad it sold at least, but can we stop with the Precious comparisons already? It’s a better film — much better, structurally, than Precious, but will likely get overlooked because everyone keeps comparing it to Precious.

I guess we can’t have more than one film with a strong lead performance by an unknown, young black actress, and a surprisingly strong supporting turn by an older black actress in a decade or so, though, right? Too bad for Dee Rees and Pariah, I guess, that there was already an artsy black film out of Sundance. Timing just sucks, right?

And too bad for Adepero Oduye that she wasn’t blond enough or white enough to qualify as a Sundance “It Girl.”

It might help both of them to remember, though, that coming out of Sundance a couple years ago hardly anyone was taking realistic Oscar buzz for Push (aka Precious) because it was too black/urban/depressing, so if we MUST compare the two because they’re both “black films” then perhaps we can look at the positive side, too.

As for the rest, what will be interesting is to revisit all these sales a year from now, and see which films did well by their buyers — and which buyers did well by the films.

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“I went through my Twitter feed recently, muting anybody talking about politics. I’ve just had enough. My attitude is to always be encouraging, be as positive and as constructive as possible. People are too quick to form an opinion and to judge. It’s a scramble up the hill to the moral high ground isn’t it?”

“It’s quite weird going from never having been interviewed before to being interviewed 500 times. Suddenly people are writing down what you’re saying, they’re recording it and putting online. We lucked out with Down Terrace because people were really kind about it – it was a first film and low budget, we felt we’d been given the benefit of the doubt. With Kill List, I thought critically we were gonna get really fucked. But it didn’t happen. It’s a very weird film, you know. And it’s a mean film, it’s much meaner than most movies are. I watch a lot of modern horror movies and they’re scary, but they’re not mean like that.”
~ Ben Wheatley

“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray