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:

Song to Song
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.

    dealt-F71346
    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!

Rejection

Rejection sucks. There’s no other way to describe the feeling. It sucks to be rejected and it sucks to do the rejecting.

The fun part of film programming is discovering the unique, the great, the special. Those are few and far between, which leaves a lot of rejection in its wake. That is one phase of my work this week.

There are typically two kinds of rejection within the film festival world: the “this movie is way to amateur/bad to program” usually from an unknown filmmaker and the “not quite” from someone you’re familiar with. The first kind is common enough and there is not much emotional attachment involved. But the second kind is more difficult. These are the people you respect, care about, have some kind of relationship with from the past. The ones you believe have talent and a spark inside, but the stars didn’t align this time.

There could be various reasons for why that is the case: the film’s topic was covered in another way (or stronger) by another film; the film has some structure, story, acting or production issue that the screening team couldn’t ignore; we can’t figure out a way to sell this film to an audience (because in the end…it has to sell tickets); or just flat out the festival runs out of money (so many screening fees, so little budget) or room (the slots left are not the best times and work for a certain kind of film). Sometimes the reason a film doesn’t get in is because one reason is too big, but often it is because there’s a mixture of many of these reasons and the film.

It sucks to write that email or make that phone call to someone. You can’t explain all these reasons. Feedback about a film can (and sometimes should) be given, but the filmmaker should be in the right headspace for it, which is not always in the same moment of rejection. It doesn’t matter how many rejection letters I have sent, the week I have to send them, I’m always in a somber mode.

No matter how many rejections are sent, there are always a handful of responses from filmmakers acting out in emotion, typing up a snarky reply as quickly as they read the email. Of course, the key is never to respond to these anger-ridden replies. I gave in once, when a filmmaker wrote saying about us not knowing better and then ending with “I hate the Dallas Cowboys too.” I wrote back, “Me too. Geaux Saints.”

I’ve been rejected plenty of times before, both professionally and personally. It always hurts. I have a written rejection letter from Telluride Film Festival, back in the day when you got a letter in the mail. Upon reflection and experience, there is NO WAY my short film would have played there. I’ve learned a lot in the twelve years since that letter (and each time I get rejected from something else, which is still more frequent than I would like it to be these days). Rejection plays a role in your creative journey. It stings, but you move past it. Rip the bandaid off and press forward. Because if you get stuck in that rejection, your creativity gets stuck too.

How do you deal with rejection?

Sunday Mornings

Good Sunday to you!

First, I must report that the chocolate cake decision was the best decision of 2017 yet. This cake+frosting was easy to make and richly delicious. We ate cake for days (and it just so happened that when I went to the grocery store for a few ingredients, the girl scouts were out in full force. How could I not buy a couple of boxes of thin mints and samoas?) Our house has been fully stocked on the dessert front the last two weeks.

There have been a few extreme highs and lows since my last Sunday post. I’m grateful for supportive friends and family. They are spread far and wide across this world. Thank god for Facetime. And brisket tacos. We’ve been to Home State a few too many times in the last ten days… (photo credit Homestate’s instagram, because I inhale my tacos too quickly).

Here are a few things that have been on my mind lately:

  • Tater tots. Napoleon, give me some of your tots!
  • An intriguing read on Broad Green Pictures (a distributor) and clearly there’s more going on than reported here. Lucy’s latest film was one I had been pursuing for the last two months until a few weeks ago when I got a generic “we’re not playing festivals” reply. Films rarely pull themselves out of Sundance…Something is up for sure.
  • If You Care About Food, You Need to Care About Immigration Policy.
  • Revisiting an article from a few years ago about Norma McCovery, the “Roe” of Roe v. Wade upon her death this week. Pairs well with Radiolab’s More Perfect podcast episode: The Imperfect Plaintiffs.
  • Classic rom-coms rewritten for the Trump era.
  • Gross. Come on. Things are getting out of hand.
  • Oscar carpet is expensive and a particular shade of red. (And how American of them to throw it away after one use…) I’m so ready for awards season to be over.
  • All this rain has made for some beautiful views in Yosemite. Follow along here.
  • I have fond memories of Popeyes chicken: from picking it up with my grandparents in Louisiana as a kid to taste-testing our wedding wines with a to-go box last spring. Something about those biscuits too…
  • Tuesday is Mardi Gras! If you can’t go to a parade, then wear some beads around the house and cook up something yummy. I always miss Louisiana this time of year. Because I didn’t order a king cake in time, we’ll be having purple/green/yellow sprinkled cinnamon rolls for breakfast.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Sunday Mornings

Good morning dear reader! I hope your weekend has been filled with fresh air and a little sunshine. I can feel spring coming. Can you? Hang in there.

The photo above is a picture of bacon-and-chocolate -covered -strawberry-roses. Remember how on Thursday I mentioned I once did one fun Valentine gift for E? That was it. It was during my first year in Los Angeles and I decided to get crafty. Needless to say the roses (and how I delivered them) were a big hit. Now the bar has been set too high. (Also, I apparently had sushi that week?? I dunno.)

As for this week, I want to bake a chocolate cake. Not for Valentine’s Day per say, but mostly because I know it will be a rough work week. I feel like it will be good therapy/self-care: baking (and eating) a chocolate cake. Options one, two and three. (Feel free to add your vote or share a favorite in the comments!)

Besides looking at several dozen chocolate cake recipes, I found a few other tidbits on the ‘net this week.

Enjoy the day! Chocolate cake for everyone!

XO

 

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.

img_6002
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.

img_5999
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)

 

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.

sundance-2017-pi-spreadsheet
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.

sundance-2009-photo
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.

The Rollercoaster of Film Programming

First week back after a long holiday break is hard, amiright? Even if only a four-day “work” week. These are some looong work days.

I’m in the stage of my job where most of my waking hours are spent watching films, back to back to back. Documentary after documentary. All day and into the night. It is binging on a different level.

It is an emotional rollercoaster.

photo by Ilnur Kalimullin

In the past 48 hours I have watched documentaries spanning the following topics:

  • severe illness and the health care system
  • a biography of an author
  • the historical oppression of the LGBTQ community
  • the profile of an artist with cancer
  • the serial murder of prostitutes
  • a homeless artist
  • an exposé on bad police officers
  • racism in America
  • opiate addiction

The subjects above are vague to respect the filmmakers, but you get the idea. Telling a good story means showing the darker sides of humanity. And there are so many shades of darkness in this world. By the end of the day, I’m emotionally exhausted from the empathy and intellect that’s involved in watching each story. Even if the film is really, really bad – and believe me they can be – emotional effort is involved.

Tomorrow will be very similar to today. More stories of tragedy and hope. More stories of the world going to hell, slivers of hope and how we can try to make it better. I feel like I’m in a daze. The days blur into one and I loose track of time. This rollercoaster is going full speed and I can see the ups and downs ahead. My head hurts and my eyes burn.

All this watching means I am not leaving the house much. Other than emailing, socializing is minimal. The grocery store clerk probably wonders why I’m so chatty at the check out. “I really like your nail polish” counts as human interaction in my book.

This is the tough part of the job. The non-glamourous part. Some days are more rewarding than others. Yesterday I was fortunate. I saw a beautiful film. One that connected to a personal part of my own experience. I understood the character’s pain. My heart ached for her and the others in her world. I went through a journey of anger, sadness, and hope. It was magic. My heart was racing. I am excited that others will discover it soon as well.

Then, just like that, the moment was over and I was in the midst of a bad film again, dissecting the elements and issues. Seeing the world at its worst, holding out hope for a glimpse of magic again.

This emotional rollercoaster is at the core of festival programming. Watching and filtering and analyzing. Repeat. It is not for everyone and there are days when I struggle with it. I want to change the world, but get frustrated when I think I’m only “watching films”. I have to believe that curating can better the world, if only in a small way. It may be too difficult to measure, but this rollercoaster will lead me to sharing a moment that may change a life or inspire action. Remembering my place in this magic keeps me going.

Have you ever been in the deep end of your work or life and yet felt like you were right where you’re suppose to be? How do you describe your role to yourself when things are rough?