Thursday, June 19, 2014

Wisdom from LAFF and DIFF

Over the last couple weeks I have attended two different film festivals – DIFF LA, an Art Center College student run festival for film students from around the world, and the LA Film Festival run by Film Independent. (Full disclosure: I am one of the faculty advisers for DIFF!) There were great speakers at both festivals, a few great films, a few not-so-great films, and some good networking opportunities. Here are some highlights you might find interesting:


Greg Silverman, President of Creative Development and Worldwide Production at Warner Brothers, gave the keynote at DIFF. He started his talk by asking, rhetorically, why a bunch of young, independent minded film students should listen to a “suit” like him. He said he saw his job as striving “to connect great artists to audiences through the right source material."

He elaborated that what he looks for in a filmmaker is a unique, original voice. His goal is to match the right voices to the right stories. And he’s looking for these voices everywhere, which is how Monsters lead to Godzilla, Swingers lead to Edge of Tomorrow and Zack Snyder’s Jeep commercials lead to 300.

(Here's a Hollywood Reporter article about this keynote)

Later, Tarsem, director of such films as Mirror, Mirror, Immortals, and The Fall, continued the theme of finding one’s voice and creating work that reflects that – in a hilariously honest and profanity-laced talk. His biggest piece of advice to students was to, “Put together a portfolio that reflects who you are. And it may turn out you’re shit, but then you’ll know.”

Tarsem also suggested the people who succeed are the ones who know they can’t do it all and find other talented people to collaborate with. (Tarsem attended Art Center around the same time as Michael Bay and Zack Snyder, and mentioned those two had this collaborative quality.)

Tarsem won my additional respect and admiration by taking a large group of students out to the lawn after his talk and sitting with them for over two hours discussing filmmaking and answering questions.

Los Angeles Film Festival

I love LAFF, particularly the Coffee Talks and the FIND party. This year I attended the Directors’ Coffee Talk featuring Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry, Carrie) and Debra Granik (Stray Dog, Winter's Bone).

One of the first topics was what draws the directors to material. Kimberly Pierce stated that she has to fall in love with the main character. The other panelists all pretty much agreed that an interesting, fully developed main character is the key draw for them to make a film. Jonathan Dayton also said that “Making a film is like getting a tattoo – it’ll be there forever so you better make sure you really like it.”

They talked a lot about craft – about sound design, score, mixing, how they find indelible images, working with actors – far too much for me to recount, unfortunately.

Kimberly Pierce made a great point for writers. She said there are scenes you like and scenes you need. And she advised writers and directors to get real about what they really need in a film. She described too often getting to editing and finally accepting she had to cut a scene she liked that wasn’t necessary. And then she was angry that she spent the time and money to shoot that scene. Jonathan Dayton suggested that’s why big studio popcorn movies (which he likes) are often so bloated – they’d be better if they cut 45 minutes out, but that 45 minutes cost $50 million to make so everyone is too attached to it.

When an audience member talked about how his father only likes mainstream films and asked how the panelists deal with relationships like that, Debra Granik gave her Trojan horse theory: you make mainstream films but slip in interesting characters and observations about the human condition. She went through a thought exercise of doing a romantic comedy but with two well-developed, realistic characters you wouldn’t expect to fall in love. This led to the panelists agreeing that every film has to be entertaining – even indie films.

The question that stumped the panel for several seconds was asked by a young actress (young meaning maybe 12 years old): What does success mean to you? The consensus that finally emerged was you have to love the process, not be results oriented. The result is too much out of your control.

I would summarize the underlying message of all the talks at both festivals as being two fold: First, it’s necessary to find your voice and to stay true to it. But it’s also necessary to collaborate and to be flexible with how you insert your voice into your work.

Film festivals are great not just for hearing talented people talk about their craft, or for seeing interesting movies (tip: Of Men and Horses was great), they are also a fabulous opportunity to network. Between chatting with people sitting next to me at the talks or screenings, and two parties – the WGA/SAG Indie party and the Film Independent members party – I met several writers, directors and producers, and a couple of film financiers. After a lengthy chat, one producer even asked me to send him a script.

Now, a few of observations about networking at a film festival or really anywhere:

First, the hard sell just turns people off. When you sit down next to someone at a festival, the wrong approach is to try to find out what they can do for you, then pitch them a project. The right approach is to talk about what films they’ve seen at the festival and what they thought of them. (Though be careful - at one of the parties someone was slamming a film only to realize one of the actors from that film was five feet away. Awkward!) At some point you’ll both probably talk about what you do. Invariably, upon finding that I’m a writer, producers or directors will ask what I'm working on. But it should be casual and friendly. And you should treat everyone exactly the same, no matter what their position. After all, making a friend is as valuable as making an industry contact – maybe more valuable!

Second, don’t make it about you. Try to find a way to help them, even if it’s just recommending a film you really like. I was able to recommend a writer’s group to a screenwriter I met, and after talking about the challenge of writing treatments with a director, she asked if I had any good samples I could send her – I did.

Third, networking laterally is the most valuable. Tarsem made that point when he talked about how important the connections he made at Art Center were to his early career. The big film financier I met ultimately may not do anything for me, but perhaps the fellow screenwriter will introduce me to a producer who will buy one of my scripts.

So when networking, look for like-minded people and, to paraphrase Kennedy, ask not what they can do for you, but what you can do for them.

If you’ve never been to a film festival, I highly recommend giving it a try. If you love film it’s hard for it not to be a great experience. These festivals also show why it’s so helpful for aspiring screenwriters to live in Los Angeles – a festival like DIFF would not get speakers like Greg Silverman or Tarsem if it were in the Midwest. There are small festivals at least once a month in LA that manage to draw real industry people.

Also, I recommend checking out Film Independent as an organization. In addition to LAFF they do the Spirit Awards, a film series at LACMA, and have tons of filmmaker resources.

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