The Questions You’re Asked at Film Festivals: On the Meanings and Evasions of Movie Small Talk
Every week I send out an email editor’s letter that isn’t published here on the site. Our weekly newsletter also includes lists of movie openings, festival deadlines and other, hopefully useful, information. I often use the newsletters to riff on ideas or try out topics that might later make their way to the site or print magazine, and I always ask for feedback. A couple of weeks ago I wrote the below piece on the four questions you get asked at film festivals, and it prompted a smart reply from filmmaker and script doctor Fernanda Rossi, printed her with permission. In the comments, what questions do you ask, and get asked, at film festivals? And, while you’re here, why not sign up for the newsletter. It’s free! — SM
Do you have a film in the festival?”
That’s the question Meredith Alloway found herself on the receiving end of at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. A journalist, she’s also a filmmaker, and, no, she did not have a film in the festival. But rather than be bummed out by the repetition of this query, she decided to throw it back at people, using it to glean insights from eight short filmmakers that might help her in the process of completing her own short (and, by extension, should help you in the process of completing yours).
I liked Meredith’s approach to this piece because I’m aware of the repetition of that question too. (This year I did, actually, have a film in the festival.) And her piece made me think about the other questions you hear over and over again when you attend a film festival.
The first is the question you hear the most, which is, “So, when did you get here?” I probably heard it two dozen times at Sundance this year. It’s an easy, non-threatening conversation starter, and one that has the advantage of being answered briefly, so as to ensure the conversation doesn’t drag out long enough for you to miss your shuttle bus. But it’s also an odd question to be asked, because, really, what is the other person supposed to do with this information? Calibrate their dialogue according to their assessment of your level of fatigue? In its temporal specificity the question — which, I admit, I’ll ask by rote myself — is completely meaningless. It’s designed to say, “Hey, let’s not talk about anything serious right now.”
The second question is a corollary: “When do you leave?” You might think this question would be followed up with, “Oh, Wednesday — great, we’re having a party on Tuesday night so maybe you can stop by.” But, no, it’s also just another conversation starter that’s a conversation ender — although, if you are staying to the end of the festival, it will prompt a nod of knowing sympathy.
But the fourth question is, if you have a film in the festival, the most destabilizing: “So, what are you doing next?” It’s asked by everyone, whether they’ve seen your film or not, and again it’s a question involving a temporal shift. And it’s destabilizing because, if you do have a film in the festival, you’re worried about making a sale, or your reviews, or getting your cast tickets, or completing delivery — not your next project. But for the person you’re talking to, what’s important to discuss is not what’s in the present moment but what’s sometime else. (Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy actually titled his memoir the subtext of this question, You’re Only as Good as Your Next One.) The question, obviously, has transactional value. If you’re in the film business, a producer can’t give you a job on a film that’s already made. Or a financier can’t finance a film that’s already in theaters. No, the “what are you doing next?” question is all about information and deal flow. Say, “I’m starting a new equity fund” and watch those business cards come out.
Of course, deeper conversations do occur at film festivals — just late at the bar, or at a panel. Not at the shuttle stop. And, I’ll confess, at a time when the standard conversation-opener is, “Did you hear the latest from Trump?”, there’s a reassuring quality to these mostly anodyne questions. Outrage and action must be deployed strategically, and at the right times. Between those moments, small talk is okay.
So, dear readers, what are you doing next?
And here’s Fernanda Rossi’s response:
So many things to say – and enjoy – regarding your Editor’s Note about questions we are asked at Sundance, or any festivals.
First, with a background in semiotics and spending my waking hours analyzing scripts day in and day out, I can’t help paying attention to how people structure their speech in every day life – call it professional hazard if you will. It was good to see I’m not the only one who picks up on these patterns. What are people’s opening remarks. Closing remarks. Phrases people repeat in casual conversation.
In addition, traveling back and forth, across cultures, it is always illuminating to realize how people let chit chat reveal their customs. You may enjoy the book Watching the English, by a hilarious anthropologist who study the English in the natural habitat. How when in stress or not knowing what to say, the English resort to, Would you like some tea?
For all those reasons, hearing about the common questions strongly resonated with my experiences at conferences and festivals. Yes, there is the, Do you have a film? Or, How long have you been here? When are you leaving? I couldn’t agree more with you in terms of what motivates those questions and their futility.
At times, I ran my own experiments, trying unusual questions to provoke and in a way denounce our bad habits. My favorites have been, Are you having a great time, or this festival is not all that is cracked up to be? Or, Do you think you had the best experience so far or the best is yet to come? People do a double take, I smile in complicity. Most appreciate a question that forces to think an actual answer.
Daring to ask off-script questions may make me look like a snob or unhinged, but as creative people we risk more by falling into rot exchanges which numb de brain and our relationships.
Can’t thank you enough for bringing your insights to the foreground.