Part 1 is here.
So you’ve sent your film into a festival. They send it to me. I sit down to watch. What happens next?
Before I push play, you should know that I’m rooting for you. I want your film to grab me. I really want to see something that demonstrates talent, vision, and a unique voice. I can forgive a lot if a film has that intangible blend of vision and skill. The stark reality is that over 90% of what I screen gets a thumbs-down. Most of what I screen is missing something vital.
Trying to describe what I’m looking for is like trying to tickle yourself. It almost can’t be done. I want something that grabs me and surprises me. I want to see vision and voice, a filmmaker who knows how to use silences and is in control over all the parts of the process to create that intangible sense of excitement. Rare as it is, there’s plenty of ways to achieve that. What’s not so rare are the reasons films fail to come together.
Here’s five big red flags. These aren’t going to get you immediately DQ’d, but if I see more than half of these, the overwhelming odds are that your film is not going in the right direction.
* THE 100 MINUTE MILE
If your film is over 95 minutes long, I’m wary before I see a frame. Indie film and pacing issues run hand-in-hand. As a career editor, I’m very sensitive to pace, and the biggest mistake that plagues indie feature film is a leaden tempo. Seriously, 95 minutes is the limit. Every minute over 95 is an additional 3% chance I’m going to cut your film. OK, maybe I made that math up, but that formula holds up. A 110 minute film really does have a 45% greater chance of falling flat for me.
To date, I haven’t given a thumbs up to anything over 110 minutes. That’s not because I inherently hate long films, it’s because I haven’t seen anything 110 minutes long that merits making a festival cut.
Think about it this way: Filmmaking is such a grueling, resource-intensive project that it’s barely possible to sustain well for 30 minutes. Forget about two hours, if you get 60-75 minutes working, you’ve achieved a miracle and I’ll forgive the 15-20 minutes where things get thin. Discipline in the edit bay is absolutely make-or-break for your film, and if you can’t exercise it, you’re going to try my patience.
Or think about it this way. A major studio picture has countless sets of eyes on it, and regardless of what you think of the studio notes process, all those eyes aren’t going to let a story drag. In the big leagues, you’ll get notes on top of your notes, and frustrating as that may be, one of the positives is that indulgent, lethargic storytelling doesn’t happen.
On the other hand, when your development team is just a couple of people who are heavily emotionally invested in a project, it’s very hard to cut half that scene you killed yourself to shoot. If you don’t have the discipline to “kill your babies”, you’re going to arouse my ire. I can think of only two features over 105 minutes that I’ve given a thumbs-up to. One of those didn’t even make it in, and the other had the lowest ticket sales of the entire festival. Not good. So is your movie over 95 minutes? You better fix that or you better be bulletproof.
* SUCK/REVERSE SUCK
I hate shot/reverse shot. Let’s be clear about that. In most filmmaker’s hands, it’s a lazy wander through a garden of exposition.
If you cut back-and-forth to the same character in the same space and the same shot more than three times in a row, your scene is failing. If your character’s emotional state hasn’t changed enough to demand a new composition after any 6 lines of dialogue, you’ve done something wrong.
There’s a misconception that more coverage + more edits = more engaging movie. That couldn’t be further from the truth. When you go through a page or more of dialog, toggling your A and B cameras on every line, you’re not making cinema. You’re not using the language of the big screen to tell a story. You’re just treading water.
You get five cuts to cover your exposition. More than that, you’re missing something. That alone won’t kill your chances with me, but it sends a very strong message that you’re not imaginative with your camerawork.
* COMEDY MONTAGES
If there’s one thing I hate more than shot/reverse shot, it’s the comedy montage.
Now, I have long arguments with my comedy writer friends about this. When your protagonist is stalling for time in the bathroom, who doesn’t want to let him run wild with the wacky faces? Everybody cracked up on the set when you “let the actor have some fun with it”. The whole crew had a blast watching your lead make silly face after silly face. And it’s a great way to fill up a minute of screen time.
What’s wrong with that? To paraphrase the ancient Chinese wisdom, the man with one punchline knows what’s funny. The man with two doesn’t have a clue.
* WORKS IN PROGRESS
You get one chance to grab me. Why would you half-ass it? Your screening is fighting with the host of distractions in my life, including my own creative process and this week’s episode of Top Chef. Asking me to fill in the gaps in your cut is asking too much. What I imagine may or may not be what you intend. Also, considering the amount of resources and energy it takes to finish a film, I don’t have a guarantee your film will be finished by the screening deadline.
Things like slight color-correction tweaks or final credits don’t count. If you’re missing music, sound design, have temp green screen, or god help you if I can hear off-camera direction in your audio tracks, your film isn’t ready to send to a festival.
* CONSISTENT INCONSISTENCY
This is the worst.
If your rom-com has a female lead who gets fired from her job, bats eyes at a sexy barista, then her grandpa gets hit by a bus, then three minutes after the funeral she’s laughing it up with her girlfriends at a winery, that’s trouble.
This may be the single biggest flaw I see, characters that aren’t consistent from scene to scene. They’re care-free, then sad, then angry, then happy, then sad again. When a character’s emotions are arbitrarily set to meet the needs of the scene, rather than shaped to fit the arc of the story, you lose me. Now if the point of your lead is that he’s a manic, emotional wreck, that’s one thing. But there still needs to be a consistency in your character for me to tune into.
Emotions are a big part of your viewers experience, not just your characters. It may be convenient for you to have your character be happy in one scene and sad in another — that’s what screenwriting teaches you to do. But if there isn’t a believable, telegraphed connection between those two points, you’re losing me.
You can’t write off the disconnect by saying “On Monday he’s a sad barista because he lost his dream girl’s number, and on Wednesday he’s happy because he got a new job!” That’s not how stories work. If you have me concerned about your sad barista’s inability to decipher a girl’s number from a coffee-stained napkin, I’m not shifting gears to cheer about his new job at the sandwich place next door. Each scene needs to set up the next one, and each scene needs to drive the story forward. When you arbitrarily bend the action to fit your narrative formula, you lose. I don’t care if the scene works in isolation, if the scene clashes with the emotions you’re trying to elicit from the viewer, it’s going to sink your film.
Are you a film festival screener with horror stories you’d like to share? A festival volunteer with something you’d like to get off your chest? A programmer with a pet peeve? I’d love to share your story, e-mail it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and confidentially get it out there.