Wednesday, March 2, 2011

My very first film festival programming meeting last night!...

I've done many things, but I've never formally been part of the programming team for a festival. Certainly not a large festival. Filmmakers Alliance took over Digidance (an early "all digital" festival that ran concurrently with Sundance in Park City) in 2002 from founder Shiron Bell and produced it for one year - and only one year, once realized how much work producing even a small festival can be and how far it can pull you from your core mission. Diane Gaidry handled most of the programming duties, along with a small team of people, and I just weighed in here and there.

I do pick the films for our regular Echo Park Film Center screening series and have been part of the selection committee for VisionFest, so I'm not a total stranger to programming. But our events are relatively small and very straightforward in terms of programming considerations. As for Echo Park, the question is simple - is it good or isn't it? If I think it's good, we show it. If I think it's bad, we don't. Well, that's not always true. I certainly try to refrain from programming bad films, but sometimes they are just too much fun. For VisionFest, it is the same basic question. If we have too many good films to show at VisionFest (it almost never happens), we jump for joy and try to find some alternative way to showcase the films we can't fit in the regular program.

For a big, world-class film festival there are numerous additional considerations - what is the over-all "brand" of the festival? What are the various program categories? What is the festival's relationship with the filmmaker or filmmakers? What core community/demographic are we servicing? Is there a thematic agenda or zeitgeist we want to capture? And on and on....

...Or so I thought.

I was invited to be an Associate Programmer for the Los Angeles Film Festival by Associate Programming Director Doug Jones. Doug is an awesome guy so I was honored both personally and professionally by the invitation. He didn't tell me much about what was expected of me beyond watching a lot of films and discussing them at weekly programming meetings. It was pretty exciting to think about those meetings and truly understand what it's like to be on the other side of the fence after having submitted various films to literally scores of festivals. At last night's meeting, I realized why Doug only told me about watching films and talking about them. It's because that truly is all I'm supposed to do. Watch films and talk about them. Intelligently and eloquently, if possible. I may have to introduce a few films during the actual festival...or not. Not sure, yet. But basically, my job is to watch films and discuss them. AWESOME!!

As an Associate Programmer, I am part of a programming team of about 12 or 13, made up of seasoned programmers and newbies alike (although only a couple of us newbies, I think). It is basically our job to make intelligent, articulate and even passionate recommendations to the programming directors and Artistic Director (David Ansen) who ultimately set the final program. The team is mostly made up of women with five of us guys in the mix. As it should be, in my opinion, but why I feel that way will be the subject of another blog. Anyway, the programming and artistic director (Doug and David) happen to be men, but there's nothing nefarious in that. It just seems to have shaken out that way over the years. They both obviously know their sh##, and have put in the miles, so to speak. Beyond that, however, the team is not particularly culturally or ethnically diverse, although I got a sense that our backgrounds are pretty varied. Although it's great to see diversity, I'm not sure how diverse the team needs to be if the programmers are smart, aware and sensitive and want to create as diverse and eclectic a program as the quality of submissions allows. And that definitely seems to be the case here. I really, really like everybody on the programming team and my first brush with the way their minds work.

What struck me the most in this first meeting was that - despite the size and scope of the festival and how political the process can be given we are in Los Angeles - the discussion was first and foremost about the quality of the films. Now, I know that sounds like a big "of course!!" But for a festival of this size, it's not always as simple as that. I'm also fully aware that quality assessments are very subjective at best. But as I already pointed out in my previous blog asking "Who the f#@$ am I to judge a film?" there are indeed clear ways to understand if a film displays basic cinematic competency and if the filmmaker is compellingly accomplishing their own creative objectives. And that's precisely what was discussed - intelligently, insightfully and sensitively. We each went around the room and talked about the films we saw, focusing on the ones we were most excited about. We gave a brief description of each film, our response to the film, and a brief critical analysis explaining how we came to that response. If others had also seen the film, they could weigh in with their opinions, as well (the films had been pre-screened and then went through another check process on top of that, so some of the films had already been watched by multiple programmers). But there was little talk of any other consideration than whether the film was or wasn't compelling for some reason or multitude of reasons. As the selections narrow down, I'm sure many other considerations will come into play (you don't want to program too many animated muslim lesbian karate films at one festival), but for now, it was all about quality.

I felt I was a little shaky in this first meeting as I was just imagining what was at stake for the filmmakers and not wanting to make any mistakes with this responsibility. I also wanted to be sure my responses were articulate or in some way easily understood by my fellow programmers. But ultimately, it really boils down to whether or not the film in question is one worth fighting to see on the screen. If you are really passionate about a film and feel it needs to be seen at a major festival, then you just know it in your gut and you don't second guess it. Also, your ability to articulate your response suddenly comes alive no matter how much of an indecisive stumble-bum you've been up to that point. Most of the films I saw in this first go-around had something to recommend them. Some were clearly far more solid than others. But few would have me fighting tooth and nail to screen at this festival. It hurts me to say that because I know how I would feel hearing a programmer say that about my film. But that's the truth of my response and that's all that I can rely on to guide me through this process.

And as I'm processing these raw responses to films, I'm discovering how much I'm learning/re-learning about filmmaking by watching these films through the lens of a programmer. Each fresh filmmaking moment feels palpably triumphant and each misstep feels like a punch in the gut. In essence, the filmmaking lessons I am gleaning are as clear and visceral as they can possibly be and hopefully they will not be lost on me in my own work.

Maybe it's not this way for all film festivals, but this one seems particularly "clean" and focused solely on the quality of the films. That's exciting. It will make it hard for me to grumble too much about a festival rejection in the future. In the meantime, I'm on this side of the fence and I get to watch a lot of movies. And talk about them. It kinda rocks.

1 comment:

  1. this is a fascinating account of the process! Can I ask - what is the background of a typical programmer? What kind of experience is hired for this type of position? I admittedly don't have much in the way of formal experience with film, but have always been incredibly passionate about the art form and, personally, feel I can offer some insight...I'm excited about this as a possible prospect...what do I have to do?? Thank you!