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in Filmmaking
on Sep 26, 2010

So if you’re reading this, it means Filmmaker Magazine hasn’t cut off my access to blog at this site yet, and I’m here with another report.  Independent Film Week has officially ended as I write this, but it’s a testament to IFP and the power of being part of the Emerging Narrative/Project Forum that it feels as if so much new has started—new connections, new possibilities, new friends, new outlook on the indie film world, and a new sense of my own work.

When I last checked in, I described the setup of the Project Forum meetings, which lasted through the next day.  I had a meetings scheduled on Thursday, and got some nice responses to cold e-mails that I had sent, offering to read my script but apologizing for not having time to meet during the week.  My Thursday meeting, which was my last, was also one of my best—which is to say, my pitch had really come together after being taken around the track a dozen times by that point, and I had really nice connection with the development executive, both about my material and some personal connections.

This meeting was the result of what I referred to in an earlier post as hustling.  I had e-mailed the development exec; knew that her company is active and seriously funded; and had not heard back from her.  So when I saw her sitting alone after one of her other meetings, I approached, introduced myself, she got out her calendar, and we set up a meeting for the next day.  I can’t overemphasize the importance of making one’s own connections at Independent Film Week; IFP set up meetings for us, but like little birds pushed out of the nest, once on the ground, it was time to fly.  Having had the good fortune to be selected to Emerging Narrative, I felt a sense of duty and responsibility to get out there and make the very most of this experience, from my preparation to final execution.  No promises come from these meetings, but I made absolutely sure to make the most of the whole experience.

On Thursday, I participated in the festival programmers “speed dating” session.  About two dozen festival directors and programmers were in attendance, and this event wasn’t scheduled ahead of time, but organized via a first come/first serve basis, in two heats—projects titled A-M, and N-Z.  Though I was there with my feature script Inside the Machine, I also have a Super 16 short called All in the Game just heading out to festivals.  The way IFP runs the show, even though I was “officially” there with my script, the door was wide open to build, enhance, and grow my career in any way possible—so I took the opportunity to sit down with festival programmers to chat up my short.

I arrived a little after 7:30 for the 8 AM first come/first serve, and someone had already started a sign-in list so that we didn’t need to physically stand in line or jostle for position.   I was in about fifteenth place, and was eventually called by the IFP staffer to give my four choices.  My luck was in, as I snagged the last spot to meet with the Sundance programmer for the first heat (and got the rest of my choices), and shortly thereafter the speed dating began.

I was lucky enough to meet my wife under fairly random circumstances, so I had never done one of these speed dating things before (are they even still—or were they ever—popular?)  My speed dates went like this:  sit down with the festival programmer, make small talk about familiarity with festival’s location/reputation/history/films screened, give highlight details about my short film, trade cards, move on, and hope she’ll call, or rather, take a look at my film.  My short is about seventeen minutes long, and I’m a little self-conscious about that heading out on the festival circuit, because a long-ish film like mine doesn’t just have to be great, and at least as good as the rest of the films getting programmed; it actually needs to be better than three six minute shorts put together, or a ten minute and an eight minute … I’m betting you get the idea.

Now, the nice thing is that each of the programmers I met with assured me—and it seemed genuine—that seventeen minutes “isn’t bad” (though none said “fantastic!!! That’s the length we love!!!”)  In fact, I was told that around eight minutes is the perfect sweet spot by one programmer, so that may be valuable if you’re working on a short.

The speed dating session was fairly chaotic, and pretty quickly started running late, so that a 9:30 really became a 9:40, but whoever had a meeting with that festival at 9:40 might not have realized that everything had been pushed, and meetings overlapped or got swallowed whole … but this isn’t a complaint; it was, in fact, the only element of IFP’s whole week that had any mild chaos about it, which is a testament to how smoothly everything ran, from registration through orientation through Project Forum meetings to the conference panels.  That being said, if you’re reading this a year from now and planning to go to the programmer speed dating session, show up at least a half hour early.

I met Judy Laster, the director of the Woods Hole Film Festival, which has a rep for having a focus on the filmmaker, and is in my home state.  She provided the “eight minute sweet spot” note, and made me feel okay about the length of my short.  I also met Jacobine van der Vloed, the senior coordinator of the Cinemart and Lab at Rotterdam, which, as I had learned (and hence my request to meet with her), runs both a co-production market (similar to the No Borders section of the Project Forum) and an emerging producers lab, smack dab in the middle of the Rotterdam Film Festival.  Jacobine was frank that it would be difficult if not impossible to have a project at the Cinemart without at least an experienced producer attached, which I can understand.  It’s one thing to meet with New York and LA based producers and development execs as one of 150 projects in Project Forum; it would be something else entirely to be meeting with financiers and producers from Abu Dhabi or Rome, Paris, Barcelona, etc., amongst over a thousand other projects, with just a script, look book, and a short (which was appropriate for Emerging Narrative.)

I also got to meet the senior programmer for the Sundance feature program and trade cards and talk up my short, which isn’t even her section.  Does this mean All in the Game will automatically get in to Sundance this year, or does it change the calculus of how good my film is compared against the three thousand other films that they have received this year?  Absolutely not.  But I had, and seized, the opportunity to meet someone else in the industry who is a tastemaker, who is connected with a meaningful and powerful organization, and who, if my career continues to grow as I hope it will, is someone worth knowing.

Warning:  transparency ahead.

The film industry is like many other industries, in that quality work rises to the top.  If you have a great script or a great film—truly meaningful and transcendent work that touches people in their hearts and guts—you are going to make connections and people will want to connect with you.  But there’s a lot of great stuff out there, and forging human connections is hugely important as well.  One of the (many) huge benefits of being part of IFP is the chance to make, and nurture, these connections.  I had a frank conversation with a few other filmmakers who said that they hated networking, or that “schmoozing” felt sleazy.  I agree that trying to meet someone with nothing in mind but using him or her as a means to your own ends is, indeed, sleazy.

But to meet someone else in the industry, who has had more success than you have, and may have attendant connections/power/sway in the industry, and to honestly approach that person with an open heart and confidence in your own work, and to simply open the door to dialogue without a preconceived expectation, and to remain open to ways in which you yourself can provide benefit or value to the other party—well, that’s networking, and that’s not sleazy; that’s business.  And as I knew going in, now, perhaps more than ever, the independent film world is a business.

When I speak of remaining open to the ways that I can “provide a benefit” to another person, I don’t mean just giving them the opportunity to be involved in my brilliant film (lol.)  I bumped into Janet Pierson at the bar at the Ace Hotel; I told her that her husband’s books have been meaningful to me in my career, and as our conversation turned to crime blogs, I promised to send her a link to a great (if chilling) LA Times homicide blog.   This wasn’t about getting in to South by Southwest; this was about making a human connection with someone else in the film industry, and when our interests intersected, to offer a connection of my own.

Likewise, in my own pitch meetings, I took time to recommend to at least two or three producers that they connect with a fellow Emerging Narrative writer whose work I admire.  Whether my script is right for those producers or not, maybe my friend’s script will be; networking works both ways.

I told Janet that a long-ago girlfriend had given me “Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes”, and I had a loose recollection that it was a lovely inscription from a troubled relationship.  I just looked at it for the first time in over a decade.  It’s the original 1995 hardcover publication of the book, not the “Reloaded” version from 2004, and it was a gift shortly after the book came out.  The dedication reads in part “I have faith that your name will be appearing in books like this in the future.”  That was fourteen years ago, and I’m still at it, and I’m still a long, long way from being a filmmaker the likes of Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, or the rest; but thanks to IFP, the camaraderie of my fellow filmmakers, and twenty years of preparation, after this week, I’m feeling a little bit closer.  And it feels good.

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