This discussion begins with Jeffrey Wells’ shenanigans at the Oxford Film Festival and continues with Karina Longworth’s (and Mark Bell’s and Dave Poland’s, etc.) attempts to broaden the discussion into something beyond his bad behavior into the question of who leads and who chooses the music during the ethics dance that takes place when a film festival arranges for airfare/ accommodations for a journalist to attend their festival.
The discussion won’t end here, but I’ll continue it from the viewpoint of someone who has done exactly that for AFI DALLAS, as well as having done the low grade version (inviting to attend premieres, panels and parties, but not having to take care of flight and room) for my other film festivals (AFI FEST, IFFLA, Lone Star and the Feel Good Film Festival).
There are two key points that all of this hinges on. The first being the thing that for my money was the most egregious of Wells’s way-off-the-mark crap-havior, which was his statement that the lunch he was served at a certain point at Oxford was of much more interest to him and his readers than the film that was playing that day.
Simple as that.
Because this stuff begins and ends (and throw in the middle part too) with the filmmakers and their films. Bottom line.
It is why the first thing I did upon my arrival at AFI FEST was institute the nightly red carpet which would involve every filmmaker and attending cast for the films that were premiering that evening. Feature or short, big budget or made with what was left from their school loans, auteurs, legends, or first timers – it didn’t matter and it doesn’t matter. They all get that “rock star” moment, because if they made it through the ringer and got their film programmed, they deserve it.
Now, I know the press on that red carpet wants and needs the movie stars to bolster their coverage because I am well aware of the Brangelina thing. However, what’s just as important (and personally – more important) is to get the other filmmakers in the mix. Because, while a picture of David Beckham posed all cozy-like next to an Audi has cashed my check with the sponsor, having Chris Hansen blog about his experience being sandwiched on the red carpet interviews between Bill Paxton and Lou Diamond Phillips while talking about his quirky little comedy THE PROPER CARE AND FEEDING OF AN AMERICAN MESSIAH is easily the bigger home run.
Because he’s gonna make more movies. And when that happens, I want him back at my film festival. And other filmmakers reading that blog will also put my film festival at the top of their hitlist.
This past fall at one of the AFI FEST premieres, a writer from In Touch Magazine arrived late for the red carpet and threw a lot of entitlement-laden attitude at me when I put him toward the tail end of the press line. As if it was my first movie star picnic, he said, “I’m always put up there where you’ve got Entertainment Weekly and People.” I told him he was lucky I was able to squeeze him in there in the first place and he’d get plenty of people to talk to.
What I didn’t tell him was this – he was even lower on my personal totem pole than the place I put him because I knew he was just there to get a quote from someone like Meryl Streep that night. Who wasn’t? Everyone there was going to try and score that one. I was being kind by putting him where I did knowing the extensive in-depth film festival coverage that we rely on In Touch for.
The movie star coverage? That’s not special. Do I need it? Sure I do. But everyone will clamor and claw for it, so that will take care of itself as long as I make the access to Meryl reasonable and convenient for all concerned.
The other part is tougher. Getting press for the unknowns, the first timers, and dear God…the shorts filmmakers. And that’s the most important part for the long term health of this whole thing. Because those guys, those girls, those men and women haven’t just made very cool films or exhibited some insane potential in what they’ve delivered to that particular festival. Often that’s just the beginning. And when the next one rolls around, I want first dibs.
But it SHOULD BE just as important to the journalists. Because that’s the “new.” Those people are the potential big story if someone has the foresight and good taste to single out a Wes Anderson after his BOTTLE ROCKET short, as opposed to his RUSHMORE arrival. Ramin Bahrani? That guy is exciting to me. I caught up with him on CHOP SHOP. Hell, that was after MAN PUSH CART. I still feel bandwagon guilt with him. The director/star tandem of Richie Mehta and Rupinder Nagra of last year’s AMAL? When people start latching on to them after the next or maybe third film, I’ll feel the same way Springsteen fans felt after the glut of “Born in the USA” people joined the ride.
The second key to all of this is the ethics involved when a journalist or critic is “brought in” by a film festival. This was the thing Karina was trying to get into. And it’s something that all of this discussion has caused me to reassess how we will approach this with AFI DALLAS this year and with all of the festivals I work for in the future.
The question is how much coverage (or more to the point – positive coverage) is implied or even possibly agreed to when that deal (so-to-speak) is struck. Frankly, I want all the coverage I can get from someone we are bringing in. And I’ll talk up the storylines that I feel are running through the festival that year or even the individual stories that have struck my imagination. But that’s all I can do. I would never expect I could ask for a set amount of coverage or demand a positive tenor in that coverage. But it wouldn’t matter to me because I believe so much in the festivals I work for. Each one has a distinctive personality and flavor with solid to fantastic people programming the films. Simply put – I trust. I trust that any coverage can’t help but be positive overall because the films are great and I expect the experience to match that.
Does that mean I expect every film to get a rave review? Of course not. But I’ll let the films and the filmmakers present the argument for themselves. Now, I’ll try to “set the table” – prepare a journalist or critic for what’s in store so they won’t go sit down for a dark, surreal comedy expecting TALLEDEGA NIGHTS, but other than that…that film was programmed for a reason.
I now think that I may have to make an adjustment to “protect” the journalists I invite, by ensuring their presence is tied to participation on a panel or a jury. Not everyone assumes fair play is the rule of the day here just because I say it is.
Yes, I would love for the attending journalists to “find” stories like Jeffrey Goodman’s struggle to find the 48 investors in Lafayette to make THE LAST GOODBYE and help Tom Sizemore remember what it feels like to put everything into a performance again or see the genuine spark of improv funny for the bargain price of $50 in Dann Sytsma’s and Daniel Jones’ COMIC EVANGELISTS. But, not only can I not dictate that, I need to do something extra to ensure no one could possibly get the impression that would ever be part of the equation. And other than involve them in specific ways to create that balance – I’m not sure now.
What I am sure about is that the effort to make it work is worth it. Otherwise, those same journalists are going to be stuck reviewing an ever increasing delivery of homogenized and product placed middle-of-the-road films courtesy of the most recent movie studio-media conglomorate-foreign or mass consumption product merger at a multi-plex near you.
So – if they want an alternative to Brangelina, they need to put the same energy into finding something and someone else to write about. Because, let’s face it – as prolific as they are – those two can only make so many films…and so many kids.