Filmmaking weasels

Posted in Uncategorized by johnwildman on March 10, 2009

Let me tell you a little story about how history repeats itself….

The first film festival I worked on was the 2006 edition of AFI FEST. And one of the first films I screened and got really excited about was a little documentary called GIRL 27. Directed by David Stenn, the film explored the story of Patricia Douglas, a woman that was raped at an MGM sales convention and through cover-ups, etc. basically had her life destroyed with nary a whiff of acknowledgement, let alone an apology from the studio or the guy who did it even years afterward. It was one of those stories that makes you want to grab a pitch fork and a couple of easy-light torches and make your way (presumably with the other people in the theater) to exact justice on men who have been dead for years.

Now, it wasn’t a perfect film. In fact, in many ways, the film simply served as a delivery system for the director who was much more interested in communicating the fact that he knew Jackie Onassis and actually had voice mail messages from her. Very exciting for him. And maybe his relatives and a few friends of his too.

But probably just him.

Okay – definitely just him.

Still – Patricia Douglas’s story was powerful and we leapt right into working on the PR for the film among other things. Stenn and the production company were thrilled because we were so enthusiastically pushing the film. We loved them and they’d get a lot of attention for themselves and the film and it was all gonna be great.

And then one day – something happened…

There were some problems with lawyers and getting clearances for interviews with Patricia Douglas’s relatives or something like that. We couldn’t really get a clear understanding what the issue was, but what we were fearing was that we might not get to screen the film. I mean, we had already announced that it was playing. We had included it in some feature pieces that were moving forward for the festival. The producers and Stenn were upset because they really wanted it to play at AFI FEST, but their hands were tied. There was no way they would be able to get this thing cleared soon enough.

Not only that, they needed every screener copy they had sent us sent right back to them. Quick! I mean, track them all down! Where were they?! If one escaped it would be disastrous! So we busted our asses getting everything back to them and bemoaned the loss. But what can you do, right?

And then the schedule for Sundance was announced…

And there was GIRL 27.

Huh?

Or, huh. (Depending on how jaded and cynical you were.)

Guess they got those rights issues cleared up just in time so they could make their world premiere at Sundance… Wow, that was some lucky timing right there.

Weasels. Stupid, shortsighted, filmmaking weasels.

Why stupid? Why shortsighted? Because it didn’t have to go down that way. There are a couple of film festivals that cling so desperately to their need to play world premieres that they will inspire this kind of bad filmmaker behavior. See, here’s the deal: Anyone who has any kind of decent sense of self awareness in film festival-land knows exactly where they stand on the film critics’ totem pole and the business totem pole and the filmmakers’ opinion totem pole. So a film getting a chance to play at Sundance and having to bow out because of that idiotic world premiere policy – well, we got it and we get it and as much as it sucked we would have understood.

But they lied.

Weasels.

And because of that, David Stenn better be fucking channeling Alex Gibney and Werner Herzog and Errol Morris combined if his next film ever gets within a 500 square mile radius of any film festival I’m working at. Seriously, dude could send Jackie O in a dusty pillbox hat AND JFK Jr. to personally haunt my ass and I would still be putting my foot down to let that guy back in the house, so to speak.

Because that integrity thing…? That means something to me.

A couple months ago, we planned on playing Lynn Shelton’s cooler than cool HUMPDAY at AFI DALLAS this year. We were tipped off before it even got to Sundance by the in-the-know-and-you-can-trust-their-taste tandem of René Ridinger and Dayan Ballweg and saw it right out of the gate. Loved…it! We told Lynn and Joshua Leonard we wanted the film, they were excited, the film company was excited, we were excited.

And then they got the call from another film festival. A grand daddy, make-your-reservations now film festival.

What are you gonna do?

Well, you get out of the way, congratulate them, and be happy that deserving filmmakers receive a rare day at the beach. But the important thing is – they told us immediately. There was no sudden issues with music rights or a dying uncle or a conflict with a rare provision in the indie filmmaker tax code that suddenly surfaced and then conveniently went away. No – they were transparent. They were truthful. And everyone at AFI DALLAS that saw the film and dealt with them will continue to champion that film and that company.

We also planned to play a documentary called PLAYGROUND. Directed by Libby Spears, the film explored the child sex trade industry. We featured the film in one of our early announcements, even made sure that some outlets printed art from the film because we were so excited to have it on the schedule. On several long lead pitches (magazines that need to write their stories a couple months ahead of time), I pushed PLAYGROUND and Libby to be included. She was getting the full-court press push from us and it was gonna be great to debut what we saw as an “important” film at Dallas.

And then one day – something happened….

There were problems with some clearances with interviews they had conducted for the film. Strange, right? To make it that far in the process and then figure out you neglected to get releases signed by people you interviewed for your film. But wait, maybe it wasn’t that – it might’ve been music rights issues that only pertained to festival play. I mean, that sounds kinda preposterous too, but that’s what they were saying. When we could get them on the phone, that is.

Then the final word came down. We had to drop it from the schedule. It would be a little embarrassing for us, but these things happen sometimes. They were really bummed. We were really disappointed, but what could they do, right? You have to listen to your lawyers in a case like that. We understood.

Today the schedule for Tribeca was announced…

And if I may quote the recently departed Paul Harvey, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

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2 Responses

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  1. Mark Bell said, on March 10, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    So annoying; integrity can be in such short supply sometimes…

    I’m happy Lynn handled the “Humpday” change as honest and straightforward as possible. She’s a good egg, and I’m looking forward to one day checking that one out (I loved “My Effortless Brilliance”).

    And I saw “Girl 27” when it played Sundance, and I felt the doc was more about the guy making it than the actual supposed subject of the flick. I mean, it’s not like doc filmmakers haven’t been stars in their own films before, but “Girl 27” felt like a video blog more than a documentary. I was, and still am not, a fan. Not impressed with the behind-the-scenes behavior now either.

    I think honesty is the best policy, obviously, but I do feel bad for the filmmakers, many of them new to the business, or perhaps personal politics, side of the festival circuit who find themselves victims of that “our festival plays world premieres only; screw every other festival” mentality. In some cases, they just don’t know better and whoever is advising them, if anyone, is steering them into the rocks. They deserve a second-chance, I feel.

    The ones that do better, though? Fuck ’em…

    • splitid said, on March 11, 2009 at 1:17 am

      For me, the key thought is this: we genuinely want filmmakers to succeed and for their films to find larger audiences. We are the cheerleaders and the enablers and we sincerely feel as if we have adopted a film if we’ve programmed it (at least I do). So no one would EVER begrudge the opportunities that are inherent with playing Sundance or Cannes.

      But be honest, be straightforward, don’t string us along or do the greener pastures thing. Even if your moral compass is for shit, the reality is that programmers and film fest faithful are a tight knit group and if you prove to one that you are willing to ditch in favor of what you think is the better deal then your options will keep getting more and more limited. So that’s just bad business sense.


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