“What’s Your Secret?”: Eight Sundance Directors on Short Filmmaking and the Festival Circuit
“Do you have a film in the festival?”
The first thing people say to you when they meet you at a festival is usually this question. And for many of us, the answer is a negative. We’ve emptied our bank accounts, called out of our day jobs, skipped out on weekends upstate or by the beach to work on beckoning projects. And when we get rejected by a film festival, it can feel like those sacrifices and hard work were for naught.
For new filmmakers like us, festivals, along with a good online distribution plan, are a coveted way to get exposure. And with the number of epic buys at Sundance this year from Amazon, Netflix, etc, and the branded content and commercial work new directors can get after their premieres, festivals can also be a way to morph a passion for filmmaking into something resembling a profession — i.e., something with an income.
After attending the Sundance Film Festival last month, I found myself exhausted by my answer to this “Do you have a film in the festival” question. I did not. I had a short film, my first, in hand but not handed off. I’m pretty hard on myself and, regretfully, had high expectations. Ya’ll feel me? It’s hard not to when you have an amazing team, a story you’re deeply passionate about and over 100 people who supported you on a crowdfunding campaign. No matter where you are in your career as a filmmaker, you’re always going to want your film to do well, and it’s probably going to be stressful. If you don’t, well, we should talk because that’ll be a first.
Instead of looking inward and overanalyzing what I’m doing right or wrong in the process of getting my film out there (and how I made it in the first place), I decided to reach out to eight other shorts filmmakers who have had their work in Sundance and beyond. Many of them have also made features, but I wanted to focus solely on their shorts, asking questions my filmmaking pals, at all levels of experience, and I wrack our brains about. I wanted to debunk some of the myths around what it means to play your film in a prestigious film festival and how one gets to that point. To be cliche, it’s all about the journey, not the destination, however easy it is to invest in the latter.
I also preface this piece with the notion that not every film should focus so much on playing the festival circuit. There are a number of other ways to get exposure due to the frontier of new online media. But for those of you who do want to tackle the festival circuit, here goes digging into this whole crazy process with some stellar people. (And click on their links to view their work.)
What’s your secret?
Makoto Nagahisa: (And so we put goldfish in the pool, ’17 Sundance Short Film Grand Jury Prize): To be stressed. By doing things I don’t like, and talking to people I don’t like, I accumulate stress, and so build up the desire to release it, to produce something with it.
Bernardo Britto: Submit animated short films to film festivals that aren’t known for animation. I think ‘animated short’ is probably the least competitive section in most film festivals. I’m only half joking.
Anu Valia: (Lucia, Before and After, ’17 Sundance Short Film Jury Award): I have so many secrets! Who doesn’t? The most interesting things about a person are their secrets. I won’t share a personal secret, but I’ll share something in regards to filmmaking. It’s my opinion that one of the most difficult things about making a film is keeping the tone consistent. You’re trying to create a full experience for a viewer, and the first part of that is creating an environment, a tone. If you can constantly remind yourself that this is your sole goal, then I believe you’re taking care of the hardest part.
Francisca Alegria: (And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye, 17’ Sundance Short Film Jury Award: International Fiction): Telepathy… and very serious humor.
Gasiorowska: “I don’t think or analyze too much while making up a story and writing. I’m honest.”
Calvin Reeder: ( The Procedure, ’16 Sundance Short Film Jury Prize: Fiction): Just try to keep it brief and original. Longer shorts are hard to get programmed. My two most successful shorts (festival wise) were three mins and eight mins, respectively. And in both cases I didn’t think very hard, the ideas just kinda came to me and I trusted it.
What’s the best way to fund your films?
Sol Friedman: (Bacon & God’s Wrath, ’16 Sundance Short Film Jury Prize: Non-Fiction; Day 40, ’14 AFI Fest): As a Canadian, I’ve been fortunate to have access to funding from several arts organizations.
Reeder: For short films, I think Kickstarter is a miracle. As long as you are realistic about what you can raise, I think it’s the best possible avenue if you aren’t wealthy. When I first started, Kickstarter didn’t exist. Back then, first step to any film related endeavor was to empty your bank account then try to find a producer who is as crazy as you to do the same.
How do you build relationships with programmers at festivals you want to screen at without being obnoxious or creepy?
Garrett Bradley: (Alone, 17’ Sundance Short Film Jury Award: Non-fiction; Like, ’16 SXSW): If you’re offering something you care about and think a festival would appreciate it, I think that’s all you can really do. They’re looking for the best possible work, and you’re looking for the best possible venue. I think you want to come from a place of being gracious and genuinely enthusiastic about that partnership.
Britto: Don’t. Only build relationships with programmers if you think they’re cool and would like to be friends with them. don’t do it if you’re just trying to get them to accept you at a festival.
Alegria: The first thing for me is to start conceiving this relationship in different terms. If you approach a programmer only because you want to screen a specific film at their festival, it’s not appealing to them. I would certainly not be interested in someone that approaches me just to get something out of me. I feel like the fear of not being acknowledged, and this very palpable thirst for success, makes people act in inconsiderate ways. Programers are a fundamental piece of the film industry. They curate the selections of films that will set the trend for the years to come. They do this because they love film and they believe in the importance of this art form. They go through a thorough process to bring the best works to the surface, for the world to see. So I feel it’s very unconscious-like to approach them without acknowledging all of these aspects of their work and experience. Once you approach them with this in mind, you can arrive to a natural base for a relationship, like natural human beings. I hope this doesn’t sound too vague, but to me this is just life. The film industry is much alike any other industry, where people like connecting through a common philosophy and passion.
Did you submit your film completely finished? Is it a faux pas to submit an unfinished short to a festival?
Alegria: I did. I don’t think it is a strictly bad choice, but I would suggest to submit a film that has all of the elements working already. If it’s a matter of color correction and fine tuning the sound, I would do it. If you aren’t sure and feel the film needs more editing, I would hold back and keep working before I release it into the world. This is just my gut. I am sure some great films have been submitted and accepted without being completed.
Britto: Usually I submit a rough version but the story and the edit are locked. Just sound design and color correction and things like that are what still need doing. I think programmers are smart enough to be able to watch rough cuts and imagine what the finished film will be like.
Can shorts be monetized or should you go into the process not expecting a return?
Bradley: That question applies to art in general. I’ve learned to expect something in return only because it positively contributes to future work, but it shouldn’t incentivize what you’re making.
Gasiorowska: I never expect that, and I wouldn’t think about it during the process. I just focus on making a movie. And if I win a money award or the film earns money, it is always such a nice surprise.
What failures did you go through before the success?
Britto: Lots and lots and lots of rejections from film festivals. The people who can make it past all the initial rejections are the people who end up achieving some sort of success later on.
Alegria: Many! From directing specific scenes that were a disaster, to short films that had an interesting atmosphere, but just didn’t work as a story. I am of the philosophy that you learn the most through failure, so these attempts have been fundamental for my learning experience. I know exactly what I did wrong (as a writer, director, editor, but also through certain personal choices, and I know I won’t repeat them in the future.
Did you go through a phase where you thought your film was complete crap? If so, how’d you pull yourself out of it?
Renata Gasiorowska: (Pussy, ’17 Sundance Film Festival): Every time! I’m in this phase right now with my newest film! It’s a signal to take a break and come back with a fresh mind & view after some time.
What’s something you know now, after making a handful of shorts, that you would tell yourself on your first one?
Friedman: That editing is most important. These days I’m thinking about editing as early as first drafts.
Gasiorowska: Try to keep it simple. Don’t worry that everyone will see all the little defects in a film, because really, only you can see them. I don’t know, I feel like I’m repeating these mistakes again anyway! Still learning.
Reeder: Shot list!
How did your short serve as a launching pad for other projects, or how did it not? On to a feature?
Britto: It showed people what I was capable of, but then people think that particular thing is the only type of thing you’re capable of.
Alegria: My short film explores a language that is transversal to the features that I am working on right now, so it has been helpful for producers, financiers, etc. to see this language and understand the very specific world I am pursuing in my future work.
Nagahisa: It helped me stand in a position to start making a feature film — both as an environment, but also emotionally. I’m going to jump higher.
Friedman: I’ve gotten some really interesting meetings as a result of the exposure from Sundance. And since my background is not in documentary (more in animation/comedy), it opened a few doors that I probably wouldn’t have spent much time considering otherwise.
Reeder: Launching pad sounds a little dramatic but it has been helpful in getting work. My last two films to play Sundance were features The Oregonian in 2011 and The Rambler in 2013. After the festivals, industry folks really don’t wanna watch entire feature films so if you can show off your vision in 3mins that will open a lot of doors. In some ways “The Procedure” has been better for me than my features which is oddly painful to admit.
Valia: I made this short in part because I wanted to make something while I’ve been trying to get my feature, We Strangers, off the ground. We Strangers also deals with a woman trying to get an abortion, but it more focuses on the lives of four women in my hometown in Indiana.
Who was your biggest champion?
Valia: My dad is my biggest fan, and I think it’s safe to say that he knows more about movies than any other geologist in America. Additionally, there are a few professors at NYU who still lend a helpful voice when I am in need.
Alegria: Many people have supported me throughout this process. It started with my Columbia Professors and peers, to whom I owe a lot. If I had to name one person, this is Eric Mendelsohn, my thesis advisor at Columbia University. He is an outstanding filmmaker, a passionate professor and generous friend.
Reeder: Sundance by a mile. They’ve played three shorts of mine plus the aforementioned features. I also got into their episodic labs this year for a pilot I wrote. That said, I have been rejected a lot from there too. In fact, they rejected my other film The Bulb the same year The Procedure won that prize (2016). We played Slamdance with The Bulb. It was a blast.
Britto: Too many people to name. All my good friends that I went to film school with, all my Borscht fam in Miami. Landon Zakheim, Claudette Godfrey, Dilcia Barrera and lots of great other programmers who supported my work at the beginning. Also my parents and John Canemaker, my animation professor at NYU. I could list so many more people.
Nagahisa: Luis Buñuel. I’d like to work on blurring the line between the audience and film. And I’d like to outdo Bunuel. I will outdo him.
Friedman: My wife, Sarah Clifford-Rashotte, has been on the front lines on all my projects, often as producer, and always as a supporter.
Gasiorowska: My boyfriend, who was making me food when I was sitting in my animator’s cave, drawing and making my film!
Bradley: I’m lucky to have friends and family that I get support from in different ways and I, in turn, try to provide the same for them. Artists need support and love and encouragement. It’s a full circle.