DIFF 2017: The lineup

Part of what has made the last few weeks so crazy has been locking down a program. For the last eleven years, I’ve been lucky to be part of the programming team at the Dallas Film Society. This week we’re announcing the 11th festival program and I couldn’t be more proud of this lineup accomplished with my colleagues, James Faust (Artistic Director) and Daniel Laabs (Programming Coordinator).

I often compare the Dallas International Film Festival as being like a child for me. I’ve seen it birthed from nothing to supporting it through growing pains and now entering a new decade. This festival and it’s programming has been a big part of my life – I have met incredible friends, amazing artists, even my husband, through my work with DIFF. My experiences working with DIFF have helped shape me into the person I am today.

A lot of emotion and thoughtfulness goes into each film selected and where/why it plays within the entire event. It is a GIANT puzzle piece. Is this group/community/audience/voice represented? Is this topic covered? Will this film stimulate a conversation that needs to happen? How does it work counter to this other film? Are we piecing together any themes? Then you have to actually schedule them.

One of the hardest parts is keeping it a secret and containing my excitement around what I am working on. The announcement is like a breath of fresh air. To be working for months and finally having something to share is a thrill. It feels like a huge weight has been lifted.

Two very cool highlights to mention include a spotlight on one of the best years in cinema history, 1967, and L.M. “Kit” Carson Maverick Honoree, David Gordon Green.

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Bonnie & Clyde (1967)

My programming with DIFF focuses mostly on documentary features and shorts. While I’m proud of the whole festival program, I am particularly excited about the Documentary Competition, Showcase, Deep Ellum Sounds and Shorts Competition sections. These are films you’ll hear about later. Filmmakers that should be on your radar. My goal is to bring the best of what I see to Dallas audiences and this program reaches that goal and then some. The 2017 lineup includes a total of 122 films. That’s at least 122 friends being added to my DIFF family. What a great feeling.

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Quest (2017)

Take a look at the 2017 DIFF program here. I’ll be discussing more about DIFF in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

I’d love to hear what you find interesting in this lineup or if you have any particular questions about the process you’d like me to cover over the next few weeks. Let me know in the comments!

 

SXSW 2017 preview

SXSW is one of the top tier festivals on the circuit. Based in Austin, Texas the festival has three major (of many) components: music (which was the origin of the event), film, and interactive.

It’s also a festival I’ve never attended.

Sadly, it is one of the largest festivals I do not get to attend based on my own work deadlines. I experience it through all of the other hundreds and thousands of people that attend.

I’ve heard of how the festival has grown to excess with many of those attending the Interactive conference making it difficult for folks to see movies. Some people have said it has gotten a little more under control in the last two years, but between tech’s influence on all things media you can not be surprised that parts of the festival (and films themselves) may get overlooked through all the hype. I can imagine this festival has unique challenges that others may not face. (One key difference: this event is a for-profit company unlike many other non-profit film festivals.) I hope to experience it myself one day.

So while I don’t have any first-hand advice on where to go or where to eat during this massive event (though tacos or BBQ are always a good bet – and SXSW programmer Jarod Neece is a connoisseur of tacos), here are a few highlights from their film lineup to try to catch:

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Song to Song (2017)
  • Song to Song – Terrence Malick’s latest film will open the film festival on Friday before releasing later this March. I’m always curious to see what Malick is up to.
  • I Am Another You – Filmmaker Nanfu Wang stormed onto the circuit last year with her powerful documentary Hooligan Sparrow. One year later, she is back with a film she began making before Hooligan. It’s thoughtful and proves that Wang is a great storyteller.
  • Dealt –  Luke Korem returns to SXSW with this portrait of one of the nation’s finest card magicians. Richard Turner is quite the character.

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    Dealt (2017)
  • Muppet Guys Talking – I’m a big fan of the Muppets and this film directed by Frank Oz is one I’m most looking forward to seeing this spring.
  • Shorts – Programmer Claudette Godfrey always puts together an eclectic lineup of shorts, with a vibe that is oh-so Austin. A few to note: Perfectly Normal, The Mess He Made, Raised by Krump and Spring.

Sending best wishes to my fellow Texan festival cohorts this week!

If you happen to be traveling to Austin, let me know what you’re excited to check out and how you’re experience goes!

That’s a wrap: Sundance Film Festival 2017

The Sundance Film Festival officially wrapped yesterday (though for many industry folks traveling, they left after Tuesday or Wednesday of last week). This year’s festival will be memorable for many reasons, but not all good ones. This Sundance included a blizzard (great for skiers, awful for pedestrians and traffic), a cyber attack on the box office, power outage at a venue, a march on Main Street and Netflix/Amazon flexing its purchasing power en force. The festival has been growing for years. Beyond the film program, the “extras” of the festival continue to grow. The ski town bursts at the seams during the first five days. As one film critic writes (and others have commented on in the past), maybe the festival should go on a diet.

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When attending a house party at Sundance, please take off your boots.

What interests me most, however, is how many films Netflix picked up at the festival this year. They came into Sundance with major purchasing power. I don’t remember when a distributor has had that much cash to throw at films. In the past, a distributor like Fox Searchlight may have picked up one or even two films above $8 million. But then, beyond purchasing an additional film with a smaller price tag, that would be it. As of writing this post, Netflix has purchased eleven films and Amazon has purchased five out of Sundance (list below). Two years ago, Sundance films were not easily selling to Netflix or Amazon. How quickly that environment has changed.

This situation is interesting for various reasons. From a film festival perspective, it means that many of the now-Netflix films will not be programmed on the circuit later. Based on my experience and talking with fellow festival programmers, festivals are not part of the strategy for a distributor like Netflix*. It is much easier for their company to throw it up on their streaming platform and build word of mouth that way. Everything is done in-house and costs to distribute are low (no need to make several DCPs for theaters). These films could stream for six or eight weeks and then be pulled down. Audiences may not be able to find them easily later. It will be at the discretion of the streaming platform. Festivals may miss out on programming quality films, which may hurt their bottom line – ranging from ticket sales, press impressions and thus sponsorships (that are dependent on the “success” from the previous two elements).

(*In the past Amazon Studios has partnered with traditional distributors for theatrical releases of films in addition to streaming, whereas Netflix has not typically done this.)

It seems this trend will only continue, which makes me wonder what will happen to the industry that attends Sundance. Will less industry attend if they think they can not competitively purchase or showcase a film? The expenses to attend Sundance are very expense, especially for a non-profit festival. If films are being picked up by a distributor that cuts out festival runs…then you could see how that budget line could quickly be cut.

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Main Street is quiet on the opening night of Sundance 2017.

The smaller distributors that don’t have this kind of cash for a buying offer are going to have to get creative. These streaming companies are driving up prices. While I don’t think distributors will stop looking for films all together at Sundance, I wonder: will this open an opportunity for another festival(s) to court distributors and create another market festival? SXSW doesn’t have an industry office to handhold the agents and buyers, so many industry folks are frustrated when attending it. Tribeca doesn’t court most Angelenos and mostly serves their native-New York industry. Does this allow for another regional festival to step up to the next level?

The festival and distributor’s world is a delicate ecosystem for films (as several people discussed last week at Art House Convergence), so this trend will definitely have an effect. The question is how. What do you think?

As of 1/29, here is a list of Netflix and Amazon’s purchases at Sundance (gathered from as many different press releases as I could find):

NETFLIX
To the Bone (worldwide rights, $8 million)
Joshua: Teenager Vs Superpower (worldwide rights, “low seven-figure range”)
The Incredible Jessica James (worldwide rights, $2.5 million)
Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press (worldwide rights, $2 million)
Casting JonBenet (worldwide rights)
Chasing Coral
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
Icarus (worldwide rights, $5 million)
Fun Mom Dinner (streaming rights, partner with Momentum Pictures, $5M)
Berlin Syndrome (streaming rights)
Mudbound (US and other select rights, $12.5 million) *largest acquisition at Sundance 2017

AMAZON STUDIOS
City of Ghosts (worldwide, more than $2 million)
Crown Heights (worldwide, $2 million)
The Big Sick ($12 million)
Long Strange Trip ($6 million)
Landline (US rights, $3 million)

 

Festival Travel: Art House Convergence 2017

It has been a long ten days. It feels good to eat three regular meals a day and sleep in my own bed again.

Early last week I attended Art House Convergence in Midway, Utah. This was like Sundance-light. Lots of networking and conversations not based around “what have you seen?” or “what have you liked?”. It was more “what kind of work do you do?”. It was refreshing. Attendance for this conference nearly doubled from last year. If this trends continues, I may be hard to hold the event in the resort again. The Film Festival Alliance hosted panels within Convergence, many of which I attended.

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The view from my Midway hotel room. (brr!)

Most of the panels were nothing to write home about. The topics were often too broad to get into the nitty-gritty of problem solving or discussion. The “Cultivating Your Audience” panel was particularly frustrating. All the panelists were over 45-years-old and two of them programmed venues on college campuses. The panel failed to even discuss what they defined as “younger” from the beginning: High school students? College?  26-year-olds? Finally one panelist said “anyone who hasn’t had kids yet”. But even this is a wide gap. I am in a very different lifestyle from my 23-year-old sister-in-law, but we’re both considered “younger” by that definition. My frustration grew. Panelists focused on “throwing more parties!” or “students don’t want to see movies, so you need to include them in the work”.  No fresh ideas were shared. As someone who is on the older edge of the millennial generation, it was insulting, uncreative and very disappointing. After 30 minutes, I got up and left. (Apparently, some of the other, younger attendees were frustrated too and spoke up as the panel was ending.)

Other panels on programming discussed the ecosystem of the art house cinema industry, but many of these conversation turned into people airing frustrations towards distributors. Again, nothing fruitful here.

One night I attended “Art House Tales”, a presentation of managers/programmers from seven different art house theaters speaking about their theater’s history and programming for seven minutes. To hear from an eclectic group of theaters on how they are working in their communities and their personal success stories was quite interesting. Note to self: Next time I’m in Chicago, I want to check out the Music Box Theatre!

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Dinner at Art House Convergence 2017.

The better experiences were the more intimate conversations with fellow theater managers and programmers. After a panel that discussed the numbers from three different festivals – ranging in age from start-up to 15+ years old – I spoke with moderator and friend Matt Bolish (from Film Society of Lincoln Center). While informative (I had no idea a particular regional festival had a $4 million budget!) this two hour panel was dense. Matt and I discussed how it may be better to have mentorship like meetings with those you want to learn from based on a person’s years of experience and scale of festival operation. Hearing what the board members of FSLC pay to that organization is VERY different from what board members from a second year festival may commit. There’s so much context to share and details to unpack, yet little time to go deep. I’ll be sharing our ideas with the Film Festival Alliance and hope that something more structured and intimate can be created within the conference. I finally met a few distributor reps I’ve only known through email for years and other festival directors that are starting small, niche festivals. While the meals we chatted over were bland (hotel food, sigh), the conversations help create a stronger understanding and bond. That’s how this conference was successful.

On the final night of Convergence, I walked through the Ice Castles behind the Homestead Resort with my friends from the Seattle International Film Festival and Cleveland Film Festival.

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In the ice castle at Midway, Utah.

Apparently these ice castles are a very Utah thing, but I’ve never been to one before. I wasn’t expecting much, but it ended up being very fun. We each went down one of the slides made of ice and immediately felt like a kid again. It was 15 outside and I stayed as long as I could before my hands started to freeze.

I’m unsure if I’ll attend Convergence in the future. Adding those three days to my Sundance trip took a toll. By day three of the festival, you are actually on day six and your body feels it. I’m curious to see what both Art House Convergence and Film Festival Alliance plan for the future. Depending on how the program changes and grows, it may be worth another trip.

Once the conference ended, it was on to Park City and the Sundance Film Festival. Check back next week for more thoughts on this year’s fest and films!

How to avoid the Sundance Flu

Oh the Sundance Flu. It is more reliable than anything else in your life. As reliable as death and taxes.

Everyone I have ever known who has gone to Park City in January for Sundance or Slamdance has gotten sick during or directly after it at least once in their life, if not every year. My worse case was getting strep throat while there and staying in bed for two full dreadful days like an angry zombie while the festival continued on. There is nothing worse than being sick and not in your own bed.

It always starts out the same way. The entire film industry descends from Los Angeles and New York City – plus everywhere in between – and inundates a small ski town. You see old friends and colleagues as soon as you board the flight to Salt Lake City (airplane germs), then in the airport (more germs), then the grocery store (store germs), then the Marriott headquarters (hotel germs). You shake EVERYONE’S hand. There are hugs too.

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A crowded bus in Park City.

It’s chilly. Snow covers the surrounding ski slopes. Someone has a little sniffle here or a cough there, but it’s not a big deal. They’re just getting use to the altitude. It reminds you to drink some water. As the days go on, the coughing in the tight, long lines become more frequent. Every where you go you are in a petri dish of germs: the crowded shuttle buses, the tents of lines, the theaters, the bars. You meet people and shake hands. You have a drink because 1) that last movie crushed your soul and 2) you are attending your third reception for the night and the alcohol is free. You’re eating the small passed appetizer from the party because it’s the only thing you’ve had to eat in six hours. And so is everyone else with their germ-ridden hands. You stay out late. You are walking – no, you’re brushing against people – uphill/downhill on a crowded Main Street in the cold, multiple times during the night. You wake up early. You get back on a germ-covered bus. You get back in line. The sneezing follows you.

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Waiting in line at Sundance 2016.

Your hands dry out from the repeat washings and cold, harsh air. You get more coffee and your body wonders why you are still going. There’s a tickle in your throat. You take more airborne/Ibprofen/bourbon and move on. Your layers sit on your lap in the theater because the heaters are blowing at full speed above you, then bundle up quickly when you walk outside. Layers on and off… constantly. You hear rumors of so-and-so staying in because they feel sick. More uphill walking for blocks because the germ-buses are full.

You realize you need tissues all the time and not because the movies are making you cry. You try to hide your sneeze or cough. The plague is coming for you and there’s no way to hide it. It will either get you in Park City or as soon as you get home (because before you get home, all these flu-ridden people will get back on an airplane with you).

So how to avoid this? Well there are lots of theories and everyone has a technique to avoid the Sundance Flu. Obviously washing hands is a no-brainer. If you aren’t, then eww on you. How much it helps here is up for debate. Hand sanitizer is your friend.Take your vitamins before and during the trip. Hydrate. All.The.Time. Sleep is key too. Each person knows how many hours they can function on before all hell breaks loose. An extra hour of sleep can make or break you. The gamble: whether or not to miss a morning movie if it keeps you from getting sick. Eating helps too. I know it sounds dumb, but as I’ve written about before, you’d be surprised how eating regularly during a festival can be crazy hard. I believe the parties are where the immune system gives up though. As friend and fellow programmer Lane Kneedler likes to preach: “see more movies than parties.”

Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard and adhered to is simple: don’t touch your face. Just don’t do it. Don’t scratch your face. Use tissues if you’re wiping your face/mouth/nose. Think about it: how many times do you randomly touch your face in a given day? It’s way more than you think. Try to not touch your face for ten days (plus the other stuff above) and you may have a sliver of a chance to stay healthy while festing in Park City. If you do get sick, there’s the urgent care center which has been frequented by most Sundance attendees at some point. Including myself. They’ll be ready for you.

No guarantee the Sundance flu won’t strike you once you’re home though. Good luck!

Films & Food: Sundance Film Festival 2017

Today begins my eleventh Sundance. If you had told 14-year-old Sarah that future-Sarah would have spent over a decade trekking to Park City, Utah, she would have laughed in your face. (She would have also probably not realized that Sundance Film Festival was in Utah.)

But here I am. My eleventh time riding up the mountain to stand in lines, cry in movies and overdose on airborne while trying not to catch the plague. Sidenote: the Sundance flu is real and faithful. Post on that next week.

With an Industry Pass, I attend most of my screenings without a public audience and with fellow industry colleagues. There is a distinct difference between Industry and Public screenings. Industry are notoriously more critical of films and it’s common for people to walk in and out of screenings. Buyers or programmers may decide in fifteen or thirty minutes if the film is something they are interested in and will not waste time finishing it if it is not the right fit. This was an odd thing to witness when I started attending P&I screenings long ago, but now I’m use to it and have played my part in it. Public screenings have a general excitement filling the room as you’re often sharing the space with the filmmakers’ friends, family and supporters – or people just excited that they got into a Sundance screening. Through my work I receive a few public screening tickets and it’s fun to share in that experience too. There is nothing like catching a premiere at Sundance. The anticipation in the room is palpable and emotions run high. The environment you see a screening can influence your approach and perception of a film, so it is something to keep in mind when hearing opinions on the film from others.

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2017 Press & Industry schedule with my hope-to-see highlights. And yes, there are days where more than one film at a time is highlighted. It’ll be a roll of the dice.

One thing I’ve learned from my many years of attending Sundance is putting together the puzzle of your personal schedule. If you’ve ever attended a festival at all you know this struggle. For Sundance, this becomes ten fold. You must figure in your travel time (it’s ALWAYS slower to get somewhere on Friday or Saturday night of first weekend – be ready to walk in those snowboots). Industry often camp out at the industry-specific theaters all day, so it’s possible you’ll catch a movie in the middle of the day only because it is easier than going to another location. Industry receive the screening times a month before the festival in order to plan. The trick during planning a schedule is leaving room for surprises and spontaneity. Once on the ground, the schedule may go out the window. One day you want to end on a “good note” so you decide to call it and meet up with friends. Or your dinner party goes later than planned. You may end up at a party that someone gets you in or are given an extra ticket to a public screening from a buddy. You may over sleep that 8:30am screening (because catching a shuttle at 7:15am feels so early when you went to bed five hours before). The whole day shifts as you fill in the gaps and see a buzzed-about movie. All of that is part of the fun. It allows for discovery, new friends and memories.

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Sundance 2009: walking in the snow, on the way to/from a house party, around 2:00am. I seem to have a LOT of blurry photos from past Sundances…

As for fitting food into that schedule, that can also be tricky. The food in Park City is not exactly…amazing. Ok, so it mostly sucks unless you can spend real cash (read: not on a non-profit org budget). The key is grocery shopping upon arrival and making whatever quick meals you can make in the condo. My go-to meals include:

  • ravioli with pesto
  • salads (a few grocery-premade ones which are not the best, but again, you take what you can get)
  • cereal (breakfast, lunch or dinner)
  • salami or deli meat, crackers & cheese

There are a few good spots for dining (and drinking) in Park City too:

  • Davanza’s – the best little dive restaurant in my opinion. Tacos, pizza and hamburgers for the win. I probably eat here too often.
  • High West Distillery & Saloon – one of my favorite places to grab a drink with friend (if it’s not taken over by a party).
  • Riverhorse on Main – This is $$$$, but totally worth a real, sit down meal when you need to take a time out.
  • Butcher’s Chop Shop – Another one on the expensive side, but a decent bar and cozy place to unwind.
  • Flanagan’s – An Irish pub that has very basic food. If you’re uphill on Main Street, you could do worse.
  • El Chubasco – Another cheap Mexican option. I always see someone I know in here. Close to HQ, Eccles, Prospector theater.

I’m looking forward to what this eleventh experience will bring, seeing a few old friends and discovering new filmmakers. I’ll post a few of the (shareable)stories next week!

Will I see you in Park City? What tips do you have for making a festival schedule? Any favorite restaurants in Park City you recommend? Let me know in the comments.

Festival Travels: Arthouse Convergence 2017

Today I am off to Utah for 10 long days of films, festing, meetings and screenings. The Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals start later this week, but first I’ll be in Midway to attend the Art House Convergence and Film Festival Alliance conference. It’s my first time attending the conference and I’m not sure what to expect.

From what I’ve heard, this conference is informative and friendly. Seeing people at Sundance is always a hustle, but this conference is more relaxed. You’re not rushing to make a movie or navigating your way through a crowded party. There’s time to sit down, get to know people and chat. My hope is to make a few new connections and meet the folks I’ve only heard about by name or email address for years.

The conference schedule is full of different panels and I’m still debating on which ones to attend. One topic of interest to me is “Cultivating a younger audience”(aka how do you get 21-year-olds to buy tickets, engage in cinema and have them not snap chat in the theater the whole time?). This is something everyone struggles with. I hope the panelists share ideas that worked for them and don’t just complain about how it’s an issue (because that we already know about).

Last fall I volunteered with another attendee to curate the speakers on a panel called “Cultivating Your Lineup”. The discussion includes festival programmers and distributors who will share experiences about investing or supporting relationships and navigating the politics of programming. Relationships are a huge part of programming for festivals. People come in and out of different work circles and connect you with other artists all the time. As with most industries, your success is often dependent on your network. That network could also mean that films come across your path for political reasons and there’s a balance between what you want and what may help your organization for the future based on a certain connection. (This topic is a long one in and of itself. To be discussed!) I’m curious to hear what our panelists think.

My new business cards and snow boots are packed. Excited to let the cinema and logistics nerd in me come out to play and share ideas on the work of theaters and festivals. Some of those thoughts may appear here in the future, so stay tuned!

What panels do you think look the most interesting? Let me know if you think there’s one I should attend in particular. And how many days will it take before you think I’ll be tired of the snow?