Film Festivals, on a rolling basis, will often disseminate media through members of the press that they’re in some way or another affiliated with, to give filmmakers some indication that their programming processes are fair and balanced. Sundance, Toronto, and a handful of others come out of the woodwork from time to time to remind filmmakers of what they’re looking for in submissions, but the information is often too broad and the few details they give are too subjective to be remotely useful. It’s clear to any educated reader that these articles, which often appear in the form of programmer interviews, are complete BS.
In the fall of 2001, while America was reeling from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I got wind that “some film magazine was looking for interns” and that I should apply. Fresh out of film school, I ended up applying and being accepted for an internship at MovieMaker magazine, which at that time had been operating out of a dinky apartment in the old port district of Portland, Maine. My tasks were relegated to data entry and updating information on their website. I commuted two or three times a week from an island just off the coast, forty-five minutes each way.
I had made a handful of experimental films up to that point, a couple that I thought were worth screening at a film festival but none ever got accepted into the handful of festivals I had submitted them to. There were also a number of projects I had been involved in at film school the year before, but I never really saw them as “real” films that had an ounce of value and it never occurred to me to submit any of that material. During this time the magazine was in the process of planning a film festival they were going to hold in town. The woman, whose name slips my memory, was pretty much the only person working in the office and second to her magazine duties, she had to watch film entries for the film festival. She didn’t seem qualified and often only gave good marks for films when she recognized one of the actors. I remember her commenting to a pal of hers that she had recognized William Baldwin and suddenly, “well, I guess we’re taking this one”. It was a pretty straight forward process, she’d put the tape into the VCR and go back to her computer. The film would mostly play to no audience, no programming official – no one. Sometimes without sound as this was a working office and the sound of a movie playing in the background was deemed distracting. Occasionally she’d glance over at the tube to see if anything peaked her interest. Most of the time, at least from what I witnessed, few films ever did. This was my first indication that the festival programming process was something to be questioned and researched and that filmmakers should avoid blindly paying festival submission fees without an education as to who is going to watch your film, how many times and what the decision-making process entails.
I didn’t last long – paying for the commuter ticket back and forth to my home on the rock got too expensive for me to continue providing free labor to the rag. I ended up getting a paid job at a coffee shop, which also didn’t last long. All of the coffee shops in downtown Portland tend to avoid hiring islanders (unless you were from Peaks Island) because they don’t want your shifts restricted to the incredibly limiting ferry schedule. With that, I stuck to the island, saving up my money to move to New York. A year before I moved, My friend Branden and I ended up hosting our own film screening, showing a number of locally made shorts to the community. This was in the summer of 2002 and it’s that screening I’ll always remember because it was one of the best times I’ve had while living in Maine. Whenever I volunteered at or screened with a film festival in New York or elsewhere, I always look to have that same experience. It’s much more difficult than it should be, with the current culture of the film industry and the high level of snooty personalities that this field attracts, but I think if we can all look for that amazing, community togetherness, it’s a good step to a much more honest event and a positive change in an industry that desperately needs a dose of good energy.
Note: MovieMaker Magazine is in fact a great magazine and this article is not meant to degrade its current editorial practices or people. I am a big fan of their top festivals lists and often use those lists as a means of figuring out where to reach out first whenever I complete a new project. -Eby