For independent producers and directors making top-quality short films, these terms from the business world underscore the challenges to succeed and stand out in a new film world that continues to shrink in terms of budgeting and financing while the quantity of projects expands at a relentlessly growing pace.
Trying to juggle the challenge of promoting and building ‘word-of-mouth’ buzz for your project even while the film is still being made easily can become especially stressful for any conscientious artist. The logistics of putting up a Web site, keeping a blog or developing press kits and media backgrounders add yet further stress to demystifying the task of how to promote a film even while it is still a work in progress. And, then trying to make sense of the submission process to film festivals is by itself a potential full-time task.
Of course, luck might seem to be the most important behind-the-scenes factor for a short film to rise to the top of the pack.
In various ways, four directors of some of the most talked about films at the tenth annual Fear No Film screenings of the Utah Arts Festival appreciate the value of acknowledging and learning how to master these concepts that undoubtedly have become nearly as important as the artistic and aesthetic impulses which shape their cinematic visions.
Jonathan Martin, director of ‘An Evening With My Comatose Mother,’ hesitated a bit when the final cut of his horror short film came in at 33 minutes. ‘Usually, any short longer than 30 minutes is vulnerable to the kiss of death,’ he explains, referring to its potential acceptance at festivals and options for distribution and marketing.
This was the first narrative short for the Texas native and Utah Valley University alumnus who directed a 2009 short documentary ‘I Am From Nowhere: The People History Ignored,’ which tells the nearly forgotten story of the Lemko culture and people in the heart of Europe’s Carpathian range.
During the production of ‘Comatose Mother’ – a film that fully restores classic elements and tropes reminding viewers about the most successful horror films of the 1970s and early 1980s including ‘The Evil Dead’ and ‘Poltergeist’ – Martin sensed the film’s potential for success. ‘Each day, everybody – from the cast and crew – came to the set with this incredible vibe and energy,’ he explains. ‘They couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen next when they got to the set.’
While confident that his film, which was made on a $10,000 budget, was good to go, Martin knew that only exhaustive research about festivals, their protocols for submissions and selections, and the best times to reach certain venues would help him realize his original goal of 50 festival screenings and 30 awards. ‘I knew right away that Sundance was not an option,’ he says, adding that the festival rarely takes short films which run longer than 30 minutes and perhaps only one or two horror films are picked up for screening.
The research paid more than what Martin originally hoped for in the process. With acceptances outrunning rejections by about a 3-to-1 margin, the film – named by more than a few critics as the best short horror film ever made – has made 84 festival appearances and has garnered 67 awards, at time of press for this article. The Fear No Film screening is the last in Utah for the film, as Martin contemplates whether or not to proceed with distribution or expand the film into a feature-length project.
Likewise, the audience and critic reactions from the outset helped Martin leverage the buzz for a much wider outreach campaign. He initially screened the film twice at a local suburban theater to a packed house, which included a Q&A session afterward. Meanwhile, one of the earliest appearances for the film was in Beverly Hills at the Screamfest Horror Film Festival where ‘Comatose Mother’ nabbed awards for best short and best effects.
The awards coming so early in the process of building a visible brand for the film were akin to winning a lottery, especially at a festival where the audience might be small but filled with many of the best connected people in the horror film industry. ‘No doubt, festivals talk to each other and there is no better way to build a relationship than if people know you put your heart and soul into your work and follow the highest standards of production,’ Martin adds.
Likewise, networking and the professional quality and work ethic of individuals were just as essential to the success of ‘Life According to Penny,’ a 19-minute short film directed by Ali Barr and written by Sally Meyer, also in the competition screening for Utah Short Film of The Year. Set in the American South during the 1960s, the story focuses on two girls who escape from a wayward home and how the film’s main protagonist relies on her faith to see the way to safety and freedom for her as well as her companion.
Completed last year, the film gradually has been gathering steam on the festival circuit, winning at least nine awards and described by Fear No Film’s curator Topher Horman as the ‘hottest film in Utah right now.’ So many of the film’s elements and components reflect an unmistakable synergy and cogency, especially given the narrative arc in the story covers so many layers and territory in this compact format.
The evidence is immediate, though, why the film’s structure is so tight and clear. Barr and Meyer have developed a dynamic collaborative relationship, going back to earlier projects including a documentary film about autism and ‘Fifty Cents,’ a short film that was a contender in the 2009 Utah Short Film of The Year competition. Their daughters (Caitlin Meyer and Stefania Barr) also play the lead roles in ‘Penny’ and Barr’s daughter composed the music. While the film’s budget was an estimated $4,000, there was much more additional financial value accruing in terms of in-kind contributions that brought the project to its full realization.
Barr and Meyer did not wait until the film was completed to begin their public relations efforts. Facebook proved to be one of the most strategically effective tools during the production process, especially because individuals with an active or close interest in the state’s film community were closely following the page. ‘We posted a journal as filming progressed and uploaded high-quality action stills throughout production,’ Barr explains, adding that it sparked the ideal ‘word-of-mouth’ buzz that could eventually go viral especially among a closely-knitted circle of well-placed influential individuals in the film festival community.
Yet, one of the film’s intrinsic strengths for building a strong brand identity arises quite naturally from its capacity to delve into the equally sensitive and provocative competing subjects of child sexual abuse and faith without sensationalizing the subject matter or proselytizing about the value of religious beliefs. Thus, Barr and Meyer have acted wisely to shape the branding identity of their film so that it is not defined primarily by genre. The film’s first festival award came earlier this year at the LDS Film Festival, which surprised them. Earlier this month, at the third annual ‘Who Likes Short Shorts? Film Festival,’ which offers a broad range of films that extend to edgy topics and treatments, ‘Penny’ took dual honors as best Utah short and best overall feature.
After the first Fear No Film screening, Meyer recalls an audience member who said he was ready to walk out within the first few minutes of the film, being wary that the film was really a vehicle for preaching and proselytizing. By the end, he was convinced otherwise, indicating to Meyer how the film had deeply touched his heart. Likewise, many victims of child sexual abuse have come forward to Barr and Meyer after screenings in other venues. And, its bold yet appropriately nuanced treatment has begun to attract the attention of out-of-state venues, such as San Antonio Film Festival, also occurring the same weekend as Fear No Film.
On a smaller scale yet with similar challenges is German filmmaker Teresa Hayer whose film ‘Love in The Kitchen’ (Liebe in der Küche) is a definite candidate to be the among most talked about entry in ‘Fear No Film,’ even at its three-minute length. The film seems like a comedy at first but it takes an unexpected turn as a young man tries desperately and clumsily to rejuvenate the affections of his woman partner.
The Utah Arts Festival is Hayer’s third appearance and the second in the United States. The film played at a festival in Melbourne, Australia and then earlier this week in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania at the Southside Film Festival. While she completed the film in 2010, she didn’t submit it to any festivals for at least a year. A bit anxious about how the film would be received, she said the process of building a promotional basis for the film was completely unknown to her. In addition, while films such as ‘Comatose Mother’ and ‘Penny’ lend themselves handily to promotional trailers that can be played on Vimeo, YouTube, and numerous other social media platforms, her film’s structure is so tight and concise in telling a complete story in less than 180 seconds that trying to doing a meaningful trailer would be impossible.
Quiet fortunately for her, the best bit of audience research came somewhat unexpectedly from Melbourne, a festival location that she did not attend. Festival organizers sent her the complete unabridged MP3 file of the audience discussion following the screening of her film, which provided lots of raw data to help Hayer develop the most effective talking points about her film.
Without spoiling the film, it is safe to say that Hayer’s film can generate visceral opinions on both sides of the aisle. Simply, it is the type of film some will love and others will abhor.
‘It was great because the audience members said whatever they wanted to, knowing that the filmmaker was not present in the room,’ she says. One of the most encouraging moments in the discussion came, she recalls, when others in the audience – who apparently were mostly teachers – disagreed with one commenter who thought one element of the film’s theme was about ‘who is going to clean up your mess that you made?’ It confirmed for her that, except for one deviation, audiences discerned what she was trying to accomplish in this sharply observant vignette.
Indeed, the challenges for marketing a film of five minutes or shorter to festival outlets are as difficult, if not more so, than longer shorts such as Martin’s ‘Comatose Mother.’ Daniel Loyd, a bassist for Radiophonic, directed a five-minute music video for the band’s song ‘Sunrise Over Venus’ which comes from the album ‘I Could Have Been A Rocket Scientist,’ its debut release for Soona Songs.
Fear No Film is the first festival stop for Loyd’s video, which is a great example of how narrative strengthens the music video genre and its capacity for creating context that amplifies the music upon which it is based. For Loyd, the video also is an important outlet for experimenting with his artistic instincts and sensibilities. Currently residing and working in Austin, Texas, he has a 13-year career with extensive experience in editing and production in traditional and digital media with at least 13 awards and honors. Among his current gigs is producing a variety of Web content for America Online (AOL).
Loyd sees the video as the creative epiphany in his ongoing development of his identity as a filmmaker and as an artistic test of amassing the momentum to propel through whatever doubts or hesitations he might have in fulfilling all of the essential roles as primary director, producer, writer, and editor of a complete cinematic piece. ‘It is an addictive process but one that I definitely always wanted to try,’ he says.
With his broad and diverse experience in both traditional Hollywood settings and the open-frontier elements of digital media, Loyd takes full advantage of the networking opportunities arising in Austin, home, of course, to the annual mega-conference South by Southwest (SXSW). He interacts frequently with industry colleagues – including those in creating Web content, video games, videos, and all sorts of experimental and art films – who are want to lift the tide for all artists. And, hopefully, the efforts will persuade the traditional gatekeepers at festivals and venerable, powerfully influential organizations such as the Austin Film Society to consider and curate the new generation works of filmmakers and creative producers.
As commonly sensible as it appears, cultivating these relationships is more difficult than what one might imagine. High-quality films, video, and content alone are not sufficient to compel a jury to accept one’s work. Because the volume of submissions is so often overwhelming in number, a filmmaker might even be lucky to receive a boilerplate email response or rejection. And, unless one’s name strikes a tone of familiarity in the ears of festival directors and programmers, even good filmmakers will be ignored or appear as annoyances.
In fact, filmmakers often realize that the process of building a festival platform for their works requires replenishing their full reserves of creative energy that have just been depleted in finishing their films.
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