As an avid movie-goer and film fan as well as a working screenwriter and director I am always keen to get under the hood of the independent film industry and treat my senses to an array of visual cinematic delights that were not financed by the studio system and established production companies. And the perfect opportunity to do this and get down and dirty in the trenches (so to speak) is at a film festival. Film festivals are a crucial part of the industry of cinema yet I believe some new screenwriters do not fully appreciate their value…and it’s understandable, especially because screenwriting can be a very solitary process.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the Hollywood blockbuster and mostly write commercial fare myself but sometimes it’s important, especially as “creatives”, to step outside of our comfort zone and experience someone else’s story and unique cinematic sensibility…even if it is the polar opposite of our own. It’s all too easy to get lost in the deeply hypnotic tunnel-vision of our own personal artistic pursuits and forget that screenwriting and filmmaking is also about making money and forging relationships – and film festivals help us do both.
Festivals allow you to submerge yourself in all types of movies: from short to feature-length, animated to live-action to documentary. Some are produced on a shoestring, others on a modest low-budget. Filmmakers come from all over the world, from different cultures and religions, with different perspectives and with different messages. But one thing they all have in common is that the minds behind each body of work have an absolute passion for film. This eclectic mix of people can open your eyes and force you to widen your narrowly focused POV. Festivals can inspire you, make you question life and your own filmmaking raison d'être and crucially introduce you to your peers in a friendly film-centric arena with excellent networking opportunities.
The Hollywood Film Festival, which I attended last month while in LA for movie project meetings, is a good case in point and I’d like to share my experience of this fest, the people I met and the movies I saw there in the hope that I can encourage more writers to journey forth out of their cave into the real world.
The festival, located at the ArcLight Cinema in Hollywood, is relatively small when compared to higher profile fests such as Cannes, Sundance, Austin and Venice but those are exceptions and the Hollywood Fest more accurately represents the size, scope and “feel” of most festivals around the world. They are typically run by a small team, often volunteers, and last two to three days. The Hollywood Fest had a great program which was devised by its Executive Director Jon Fitzgerald who was also the co-founder and former executive director of Slamdance, AFI Fest, Santa Barbara and Abu Dhabi film festivals among others.
The program was well-constructed and included a documentary, narrative and short film competition and a European showcase. The shorts were collated into seven thematic programs such as “Exploring Culture”, “Identity Crisis” and “Growing Up” and were scheduled into 70 minute screenings. The Hollywood ArcLight was a great venue to showcase these emerging filmmakers and their work and in general there was good attendance but there is an important point to be made about marketing your films, which the fest’s director Jon and I discussed. You see, there’s only so much a festival can do to promote the event and the films within in it and some filmmakers simply do not realize the necessity of self-marketing.
And the importance of self-marketing doesn’t just apply to filmmakers at festivals, it applies to you as a writer and it should never stop…even if you’re lucky enough to sell a script and land an agent or manager. Your literary representatives and track-record only serve you so far and the newbie writer and director just starting out in the business should understand that at the end of the day it is YOUR career and nobody else’s. And to get your career off the ground and keep it there you need to approach it like any other business and continually spread your bets, analyze your competition, hone your craft and invest your own time and energy into getting your name and your work out there. Hence, attending film festivals – for the “show” and the “business”.
An excellent example of self-promotion at this year’s Hollywood Fest was veteran writer/director/producer Richard Zelniker. He really put in the legwork and as a result managed to fill two screenings of his latest indie-flick MISCHIEF NIGHT – a tale about a troubled teen (Myko Olivier) who gets in over his head with a group of social outcasts whose petty crime pranks escalate into a nightmare of disturbing violence. Zelniker’s solid direction gave the movie a very gritty and fluid feel and Olivier handled the complex lead role well and has great potential. The film also has commercial potential and was very enjoyable…feeling like a modern-day homage to cult movies like A Clockwork Orange and The Warriors – I look forward to seeing what Zelniker offers next.
But what Zelniker did after the shoot is arguably just as important as what he did during it. He did not wait around for distribution to come knocking at his door, he went out and started knocking down doors. And he did not just stroll up to the ArcLight expecting people to show up to his screenings. Folks, this is not Field of Dreams…okay? And as much as I love the memorable and frequently quoted line from that movie, in the context of building your career as a screenwriter it really needs to be revised to: “Build it…and then market it…and they will come!” And as a writer there is a lesson to be learned from this. Yes, writing a script is hard and takes a lot of sweat and tears but we must not fool ourselves into believing that when we’ve written “THE END” it is the end…quite the contrary – it’s just the beginning.
Another enjoyable feature at the festival was Brit/Irish romantic comedy Songs For Amy starring Sean Maguire as a struggling singer/songwriter trying to win back the love of his life. Konrad Begg delivered strong direction with a subtle touch, lovely cinematography and a great ensemble cast. It had the sentiment and musical tone of recent indie crowd-pleaser Once and the endearing Irish humor of Alan Parker’s The Commitments. As a random bonus the screening guests were also treated to a low-key live performance from the Alabama 3 (who featured in the movie) at an after-party around the corner from the theater! This was great fun and gave me access to the cast, producer and director…further serving to illustrate the opportunities a festival can create if you’re in the right place at the right time.
One of the stand-out movies for me that has certainly inspired me to crack on with my own feature directorial debut was a movie called Autumn Wanderer which was written and directed by Nathan Sutton who also took the lead role alongside his real-life wife Elisha Skorman. I found the film quite enchanting with great direction and milky/washed-out cinematography that helped amplify the thematic aspects of the protagonist’s mundane life and his spiralling internal journey as he struggles to deal with his ex-girlfriend, an over-bearing mother and an inherited mental illness. The movie was shot on HD in only twelve days and I was astounded by that fact alone – but the quality did not suffer in the slightest and it just goes to show you what can be achieved with a good script, good casting and a go-getter attitude. Sutton was rightfully awarded the “Emerging Filmmaker” award by the festival and I believe has great things to come!
Another highlight of festivals are the shorts programs which manage to cram a diverse spectrum of filmmaking talent into a traditional feature slot. Watching shorts from a writer’s perspective reaffirms the necessity for having a solid grasp of storytelling structure as well as a strong and easily communicable central theme. In my opinion, writing a short should not just be a means to an end, i.e., a way to showcase your talent so you can move on to features. Shorts are art forms in themselves and I would advise any screenwriter to visit this platform to improve their craft.
Robert Enriquez’s Cash For Gold was about a distressed woman desperately trying to get money for her jewelry from an Iranian pawnbroker (played by Homeland's Navid Negahban) – it was very short and sweet with sparse dialogue but had strong performances and was extremely effective. Richard H. Perry’s quirky sci-fi Home was an experimental short that questions if humans can return to a primitive state. It had no dialogue and was overtly stylistic yet entertaining and certainly made you think.
Lucy by Alicia and Libby Blood took you into the mind of an autistic little girl in 1939 France and shows how she turns her disability into a strength through her imagination. It was well-directed and cleverly used the concept of the foreign language of French to be a metaphor for the protagonist’s struggle to be understood.
For me, the stand-out short was an emotive animation by Daniel Sousa called Feral which told the story of a wild boy who is found in the woods by a solitary hunter and brought back into civilization. The film had a brooding moving-charcoal drawing style that invoked an ominous tone and complimented the story perfectly – I’d love to see a feature by this filmmaker!
All in all I thoroughly enjoyed the Hollywood Film Festival and congratulate Jon and his team for putting it together and making it run so smoothly. In terms of networking the fest has great potential and indeed this year included a “pitch-panel” event that proved a success with the attending filmmakers who were given the opportunity to discuss their ideas and the business with a group of respected industry professionals.
As a screenwriter it’s very easy to lock yourself in your room in front of the computer screen and spend your days typing up your next big blockbuster idea and imaging receiving an Oscar for it…and while this is important and enjoyable you must occasionally step away from the keyboard and engage with other people like you who love film and basically just want to tell stories.
The success of smaller film festivals like these prove that you don’t need to go to Cannes and meet movie stars in order to create connections and build relationships that may someday help boost your own writing endeavors. You just have to put yourself out there and get stuck in! That said, while at the festival I did actually bump into a snappily-dressed Gollum (Andy Serkis) so I guess you never know…