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Seed&Spark’s WestFest: Streaming to Theaters

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Both a selective crowdfunding site and curated streaming platform, Seed&Spark has proven itself a unique enclave for filmmakers and viewers since its inception in 2012. From October 1-3, the hybrid will fully realize its “Cinema” component with a three-part film program at The HUB LA. Screening a total of six films from the recently launched Conversation series, the festival calls upon S&S founder Emily Best, Sundance programmer Christine Davila, and Twitch Film editor Ben Umstead to bring their selections to a live format. Filmmaker spoke with Seed&Spark’s director of content, Amanda Trokan, about the unprecedented event, and bridging the gap between online and theatrical platforms. Tickets are available for purchase here.

Filmmaker: With the creation of WestFest, Seed&Spark is bringing streaming to theaters. It’s a great idea, and a natural step for a site that relies heavily on programming. Why has no one else thought of it?

Trokan: Well, I don’t know why no one else has thought of it! But perhaps it came more naturally to us because we are constantly thinking about how we can bring together film lovers with filmmakers. It’s what we are doing online, but we also get lots of requests from our community for in-person events, for real connections, as well as hearing from filmmakers about their DIY theatrical tours. Putting those two together, it just made sense. Why not try? Also, we are programming the Cinema side of our site in “Conversations” — collections of films grouped together by interesting theme as opposed to by genre, films that speak to one another in some way, or have the ability to spark a larger, well, conversation — and using guest curators programming in their area of expertise to do so. Turning the Conversations into real life conversations really was the next step. Our site is in beta, and our festival is, too!

Filmmaker: You’ve dubbed WestFest a “fair-trade” film festival. What earns it that title?

Trokan: Good question! All films in WestFest are also streaming in the Seed&Spark Cinema where they receive 80% of the revenues earned and keep 100% of their rights. We also promote transparency — any filmmaker can sign in at any time and see exactly how much they’ve earned — and meritocracy — you can’t make a back-end deal for homepage space, the algorithms are such that you need to earn it with followers, recommendations, views, and supporters — for all streaming films and crowdfunding projects. More specifically as it pertains to WestFest, filmmakers will take home half the ticket sales. They can sell merch or even have a tip jar should they so choose. We’ve made tickets incredibly affordable (just $5, and that includes beer and wine!) because we want to make indie film as accessible as possible. And we think if people connect with a film, well, why wouldn’t they make an additional contribution to the filmmaker after the screening if they can afford it? Basically, we are looking to shift how audiences think about content, similarly to what happened, once upon a time, when people shifted their thinking about where their food/coffee comes from — caring that the people who help grow/harvest it get paid fairly for it. Audiences want to support artists directly and feel their dollars matter, just like they go out of their way to support the mom & pop bakery with whom they have a direct relationship or buy fair trade coffee wherein workers aren’t getting the short end of the stick. We’re a small festival, but it’s a principle, which means we have to stand by it at every level in order to effect change in the ecosystem.

Filmmaker: Can you speak a bit about each of the three programs and their curators? Any particular reasons they’ve been singled out for theatrical play?

Trokan: Christine Davila is a long-time associate programmer for Sundance and now the Director of Ambulante Film Festival – California. She also has a blog ChicanaFromChicago.com where she really champions films and filmmakers she believes in. Her program, Mas American was born from her desire to bring attention to historically underrepresented voices in film. She used the word “mas” meaning “more” in Spanish, because her slate is “multi-culti” –inclusive, not exclusive to one kind of identity. The films we are showing on her night in WestFest are Gabi, a short about a woman who returns to her hometown in rural Puerto Rico, and The Crumbles, a feature about two young women living in Echo Park who attempt to get their rock band off the ground. Honestly, it’s opening night — they are both films that leave you hopeful, and are simply fun. Emily Best and her Unconventional Women program will be our centerpiece evening, starting with Cafe Regular, Cairo, a great short film featuring a woman who suggests an idea very untraditional for her culture (the director’s new film, The Lunchbox, will be out in theaters soon via a SPC deal after Cannes) and followed by I Send You This Place, a beautiful experimental documentary that follows a young woman (the filmmaker) as she connects with her mentally ill brother via her exploration of beguiling Iceland. We are a predominantly female company and have been frustrated, like many, by how women are often [marginalized] in film — this Conversation really felt like an obvious decision to include. Finally, Twitch Film East Coast Editor Ben Umstead programmed Shared Spaces which includes some amazing films wherein he connected one common thread: the immediacy of distance. The films we are showing at WestFest are the Slamdance-premiering The Sound of Small Things, a dryly humorous drama about newlyweds as they are getting to know one another, preceded by short film True Colors, a relationship drama of a more serious sort. Shared Spaces as our closing night felt appropriate — they are sharing spaces in the film while remaining distant in their relationships, while we will all be sharing a space in one room watching with the intention of bringing everyone closer to one another. After watching any film in a Conversation, part of the conversation that follows should be, “What does this film have to do with that concept?” We hope to spark discussion that way, too.

Filmmaker: There seem to be some concerns amongst filmmakers regarding festival versus online premiere status. For instance, if I make my film available online, who’s going to go see it at a festival. Where do you stand on that argument?

Trokan: Well, I love what film festivals do for independent film and feel they play a very important role in getting films seen. I do believe that a film’s world and US premieres should be strategic, but beyond that I’m not convinced that it should matter if the film available online. First, people have already been able to see it as is, so it’s not like by now the next festival would be getting some sort of exclusive preview. And second, most film festivals have so much more to offer than a screening (well “screen” shouldn’t be skipped either — they have a bigger one, and let’s be honest, nothing will replace that experience), they have talent, discussion, experts — and generally know how to throw a good party. If they are doing the festival right, it wouldn’t matter. Besides, sometimes audiences need that event in a theater to actually get them to go out and see what they’ve been meaning to see. I don’t think I’m the only one whose Netflix DVDs would lie around for months on end — and it didn’t mean I wasn’t also going out to the movies.

Filmmaker: Are there plans to bring the event to other cities?

Trokan: Yes, we’d love to! With WestFest we have an LA-based curator or filmmaker (or both) in person each night. As you might have noticed, naming it WestFest certainly allows for traveling Seed&Spark films as SouthFest, NorthFest, or EastFest. But first, we have to put our theory to the test.

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