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.
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.
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.”
Back at Sundance – Day #3
So I’m getting ready to go out and face the Sundance today and at a certain point I look in the mirror and realize that my turtleneck and sweater layering strategy combined with a new haircut had made me look like ‘Greg Marmalard’ or ‘Niedermeyer’ from ANIMAL HOUSE. I started accosting myself in the mirror, “Where’s your pledge pin!”
Moving on from that, I had a lot of needless internal debate on which film was going to be first on the list for today. The winner was 211: ANNA. The loser was me. And AFI DALLAS programmer Sarah Harris – who also went to the screening. The documentary looks at the assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya who had been a strident voice of journalistic dissent against the Russian government’s war and actions of cruelty in Chechnya. A worthy subject to be sure. And potentially riveting along with being informative. Unfortunately, in execution the only thing it truly succeeds in is making you very sleepy tired.
A film we’re trying hard to give a one-way ticket from Sundance to AFI DALLAS is HUMPDAY. And that was a very happy movie number two for me today. The premise is a one line pitch winner: Two former college buddies decide for various reasons of heterosexual one-upmanship to make a gay porn art film with each other. It’s the kind of idea that gets someone a big check to write a script and then comes out of the other side of studio development morphed into a lame toothless comedy (and I’m being generous using that last word) by the numbers starring…oh, let’s say for arguments sake… hmmm…Adam Sandler and Kevin James. Fortunately, this one had Lynn Shelton at the helm and Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard at her service. It’s funny, it feels real, it hits all of the necessary notes and clears all of the hurdles you hope for, all the while genuinely keeping you wondering if we’re going to get the promised “climax”. And whether or not we want to see it in the first place as well. I think one of the age-old clichéd ideas of what a Sundance movie is goes something like this: Two or more people sit in a room talking about their feelings. And the camera never moves. And the truth is, a lot of HUMPDAY is exactly that – only here, those people are talking about the idea of two straight guys having to have sex with one another – and they’re all freaking out about it. Great stuff.
The third film on the day’s schedule was WHITE LIGHTNIN’. The animated short film I LIVE IN THE WOODS (directed by Max Winston) started things off appropriately enough with its candy coated ultra-violence courtesy of a mad hillbilly muppet guy who goes on an unbridled homicidal and graphic rampage. Delightful. Well, to me. Maybe not so much for the two horrified old ladies sitting behind me.
But back to WHITE LIGHTNIN’. Inspired by the life of Jesco White, a tap dancing ex-con hillbilly whose life’s exploits were fueled by his thoughts of gaining revenge on the men that killed his father, the film may be the most vivid portrait of crazy that I’ve seen in recent memory. Jesco says at one point, “My life’s been a party and a joke and a tragedy.” And filmed in extra crispy black and white, director Dominic Murphy shows us all of that and more. He is clearly a man with a plan to push our visceral buttons and loiter in the head of Jesco’s bat-shit crazy. There are certain actors that are “blessed” with that wild-eyed thing that keeps them off of planes and several feet away from children, and Edward Hogg’s got it. And bonus points go to Carrie Fisher’s portrayal of the love of his life. Now – let me be clear – I’m not recommending this one for everyone. I don’t think you can acquire this taste. You’ve either got it or you don’t. And the old ladies sitting behind me would back me up on that thought. In fact, their constant carping about the black and white flourishes of gore and crazy reminded me to specify that.
I don’t think they’re sleeping too well tonight.
But I am.