What I plan and what happens often differ. I’ve found it’s best to be flexible.
While I was writing ALGORITHM, my plan was never to submit it to festivals because I knew film festivals were merely markets to sell movies. Then, I learned that most of the movies that sell at festivals were actually the final move in plans that had begun sometime earlier. In other words, the filmmaker/producer had begun talks with the distributor months before. They sign the deals at the festivals because it adds to the luster of the movie, creating the sense of immediacy and demand where none truly exists.
But, the fact that the film festival buzz is just as fictitious as the movies that sell should come as no surprise. Creating a coherent universe, fictitious or otherwise, is something Hollywood has gotten pretty good at. They’ve been doing it for over 100 years. They’ve had practice.
But the knowledge that the news of the sale is a fantasy brings up something I thought might be useful; the festival is where news happens. Every movie at 1st tier festivals gets mentioned in the industry newspapers, magazines, and blogs. So, even if I didn’t want to sell the movie, which, at the time I did, those festivals had a very good use.
As I learned more about the distribution business, how shady it is, I decided to distributed it myself. Thus, the festival gained a different purpose. I could use it to generate news, just like the studios use it, only instead of sharing the profits with some greedy and dishonest distributor, I could keep the profits for myself, and share them with the rest of the artist who helped make ALGORITHM. In other words, I would have a more efficient business model that cut out the middle-men.
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Of course, that whole bit of logic hinges on a single fact over which I have little to no control. It hinges on the opinion of the festival screeners.
But, I wasn’t worried.
ALGORITHM has 100% approval rating from everyone who has seen it anywhere near its completed form. That’s unheard of. It doesn’t happen. It gave me enormous hope, that bordered on arrogance. I knew ALGORITHM was good. I still know it.
However, it has a fatal flaw. It’s something I knew about and it’s something Stu Kennedy picked up on and mentioned in our first meeting. The first scene of the movie, the one that’s supposed to set the quality and style of the movie has deliberately bad sound and mediocre to poor picture quality.
It’s intentional. It’s perfect. It sets the mood. It’s a gritty torture scene in black and white, slightly degraded to give the impression that what we’re seeing is actually a video stream over the Internet. It does it’s job wonderfully. Without it, the movie begins with Will, talking about computers, and walking around. It’s kind of boring. The torture scene lets the viewer know ALGORITHM has teeth.
The movie Sling Blade does the exact same thing. It starts with a gritty, dark description of the main character talking about how he had murdered his mother and her lover with a razor. For the rest of the otherwise slow, dramatic movie, the tension of this brutal killer with a young, trusting child sits with the audience. We’re wondering when he’s going to snap and kill someone.
The flaw is, from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about the movie and that’s the first 2 minutes they see, they’re going to think that ALGORITHM another low-budget, low quality home video. They’re not going to watch it into minute 3. They’re going to turn it off and move on to the other million options they have.
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Back to the aforementioned hinge. The film festival has a programmer. That person makes the final call of what gets in and what doesn’t. Sundance got over 12,000 for the 2014 festival. No one person could watch 12k movies in a year. And so, we get festival Screeners. They are the people who watch movies… all of them, assuming the festival is honest and not entirely based on relationships (That may be a bigger assumption that is represented by fact. Many believe the entire system is rigged.).
The Screeners have to watch movies, hundreds of them in a several month period. Most of those movies are horrible. Most of them are a cruelty. Sure, they represent someone’s hard work and their dreams, but that person hasn’t spent the time to get good at their craft and so they produce low quality work.
And the Screener has to sit through it. Hour after hour after hour after hour. Day after day. There’s little glory in it. Eventually, weariness sets in and they can tell the quality of a movie in the first few minutes.
* * *
Back to ALGORITHM.
When the first few minutes of ALGORITHM are low quality, the Screener will assume the entire movie is low quality. They may not even watch past the minute 2.
I understand the system. I even have a moment of sympathy for the position of the Screeners. They’re almost always volunteers, people who have other jobs, or just love independent movies.
The problem I have with the system (I’m speaking a little bit of anger, probably more than I should have when I’m writing something that’s going to get published). I paid the festival between $70-$150 with the understanding that someone was going to give ALGORITHM a fair screening.
Here’s where the anger comes from. ALGORITHM was rejected from Film Festival X. It’s kind of understandable since that’s largely a <insert whatever the word for the international version of Hollywood is here> machine.
Last night, just before I was about to try to sleep, I got an email letting me know ALGORITHM was rejected from Film Festival Y. I immediately emailed Stu and let him know that his deadline had been extended by another month, and spun it like it was good news. That’s how I felt, for about an hour.
And then I got angry.
As I mentioned above, ALGORITHM has a 100% approval rating. The fact that it’s getting rejected from festivals like FFY, which is not a top-tear festival, and City Y is one of the tech capitols of the world, lets me know with near complete certainty that the Screeners did not finish the movie. They turned it off at minute 2 and wrote their review. That same thing is probably going to happen with Film Festival Z, and any other festival I submit ALGORITHM to as well.
* * *
I should know better than to be angry. My understanding of the plight of the Screeners should tell me I should feel better. I don’t. Instead, I’m turning my anger into usable energy and focussing it at something creative.
* * *
I had lunch with Janet, my pro-bono lawyer. She suggested I cut out the first scene and send that cut to the festivals. Then, once it’s accepted, I add the scene back in and screen it as it’s intended to be. She’s clever like that. I’m glad she’s on my side.
But, the fact is, ALGORITHM’s festival run is finished. Most festivals won’t show a movie if it’s already been released and ALGORITHM is getting released on August 1, 2014, with a 24hr sneak preview on July 14, 2014. There simply isn’t time to submit to another festival. And, that’s to say nothing of the fact that I don’t have bundles of $70-150 to spend on something that has little to no redemptive value.
* * *
The question remains, did I do it to myself? Yes… perhaps I did. But, is ALGORITHM a better movie because of that scene? Yes. Could I have the movie cut in a different way? Yes. Would that be the same movie, with the same emotional arc? No. Would doing that compromise my artistic integrity? Yes. And if I’m going to do that, I might as well not put all the risk and effort into this artist thing.
I have to make what comes out of me. I have to be true to what I feel and what I believe. I have to have a clear vision and I have to execute that vision. I can’t truly control how other people react to my art. But, if I make art that isn’t at least true to myself, I’ve not only failed myself, I’ve failed the people who give me their time and trust that I’m going to take them somewhere interesting.