Dallas International Film Festival 2017: Recap part 2

Last week, I posted a few highlights from the first weekend of DIFF. Today, I’m continuing my recap of the 11-day festival.

As the first weekend of the event comes to a close, I move into the awards and jury process of my job. Coordinating multiple juries is no easy task. The invitation process takes months. I asked over 35 people to fill 12 spots during that time. There are different personalities to juggle and travel itineraries to communicate. In the end, we had one of our best group of jurors yet (you can read about them here).

Screenings continued as Monday kicked off the week. The jurors who were not local to North Texas began arriving on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, all screenings were being balloted and DIFF programming coordinator, Daniel Laabs, was leading a team of volunteers to count ballots following each morning’s staff meeting.

@stradstylemovie director Stefon Avalos at the Q&A! #stradviolin #diff2017 #filmfestival

A post shared by Dallas International Film Fest (@dallasiff) on

We set up private screenings for the jury in the morning and they watch a few with the public. Every year is different based on what is allowed between schedules of both people and films, available screeners of the films (vs. encrypted DCPs) and the venues themselves.

After viewing all the films, the jury comes together to deliberate. It is during these two hours that my world begins to spin. I try to communicate next steps with several departments at once. Time is of the essence. This day is an adrenaline rush and always surprising. Then I am deep into spreadsheets for DFS Honors, finalizing show flows and seating charts. You can read about all the DIFF 2017 winners here.

DFS Honors became our awards presentation a few years ago, the idea being a Golden Globes style dinner with awards that would act as a fundraiser for the non-profit. I think it’s a mix-bag event. Lots of moving parts with different egos involved, constant last-minute changes, expensive and typically more money spent than raised. It is another event where I’m also playing a kind of stage-manager role – this time without a headset – while a show host. Because it typically includes several different speakers both from sponsors, jurors and other special guests, there is only so much you can control once the show begins. The event usually runs long and by the end almost all the filmmakers, jurors, guests and sponsors are happily…drunk. Then the party moves to the festival lounge for late-night karaoke, where the staff tends to finally cuts loose after a long nine days/nights. Of course, you party hard only to get up and start screenings again at 11:45am with honorees, winners and late-to-the-program films.

On the last weekend, I snuck away from the theater after my final intro for a sunset walk around my old stomping grounds at SMU. Even though I lived near the campus for some six years after graduating, I never went back and never properly showed Eric where I spent those “formative” years. It was a quiet night on campus, barely any students walking around (they were all getting ready for their greek parties I told Eric, as we saw the buses lining up near sorority row later). Wandering the halls of my old class buildings felt like a relief, a strange feeling of nostalgia combined with closure. It seemed like a proper way to end my two weeks in Dallas and this particular film festival.

DIFF 2017 was a tipping point year. We succeeded in the usual places – a strong program of films and making filmmakers feel welcome – but the years of a struggling budget showed in a way that could not be avoided. Changes need to be made and I think there are opportunities to refocus the festival that will only improve it. It is something James and I discussed often during my time in Dallas and we’ll continue to chat about throughout the summer. Venues, length of festival, major fest events, marketing, and, at the core, fundraising – all key elements that must be addressed before the fall.

There are a lot of people who care about this event and I truly believe it is an important cultural part to the city of Dallas. It is a disservice to continue on the same path we’ve been on, thinking it will somehow improve without actually making the necessary changes needed. I realize this may sound vague, but the discussions are still in the early stages. (Happy to chat offline to anyone interested.) My hope is that some of these ideas get a chance. Time will tell.

Below are more of my favorite photos from this year’s Dallas International Film Festival. Back with our regularly scheduled program next week! Thanks for reading!

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Q&A following Shorts 3 program
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James and I actually sat down together one night to eat dinner. This is incredibly rare. Not sure when the last time this happened in eleven years of the festival.
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One night in the DIFF 2017 Lounge.
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WHILE I WAS GONE filmmakers chat with coordinator Daniel Laabs at the SAG Indie Filmmaker Party.
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Director of Operations, Scott Rosza, and Operations Manger, David Jeter, take a break after building the DFS Honors red carpet.
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DIFF 2017 Shorts Jurors on the DFS Honors red carpet.
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DIFF 2017 Narrative Feature Jurors at the DFS Honors red carpet.
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DIFF 2017 Documentary Competition Jury at DFS Honors.
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Filmmaker Noel Wells accepts the Texas Grand Jury Prize from Panavision and the Texas jury for her film, MR. ROOSEVELT.
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Dallas Star Award Honoree, David Gordon Green, at DFS Honors.
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Beastie Boy karaoke after DFS Honors.
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Epic post-DFS Honors Karaoke: Power of Love with a dancing Lea Thompson!
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With Eric in town for the second weekend, we had to go back to Pecan Lodge to pick up BBQ with friends Claire (a former coordinator at the fest in town to visit) and Karen (DIFF marketing manager).
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Garland HS step team before screening of documentary STEP.

Sunday Mornings

Texas, here I come!

My suitcase weighs 49.5 pounds. It is packed to capacity. The other bag is full of shoes. Why a bag just for shoes? Because when you stand on your feet for 12+ hours a day (sometimes running into a theater) one or two pairs of shoes for two weeks is not going to work.

I’m ready for more BBQ and breakfast tacos, familiar faces and a big Texas sky. Plus Whataburger. I’ve been craving it all week.

Keeping it short and sweet on this travel day. Here’s a few odds and ends that have been on my mind lately:

  • A new podcast from the crew of This American Life and Serial! S-Town is here on March 28. I’ll be binging on my flight post-festival, until then no spoilers please!
  • Face palm.
  • ICYMI, Cate Blanchett & Richard Linklater start shooting the adaptation of Where’d You Go, Bernadette this summer.
  • I was sad to hear of the passing of Amy Krouse Rosenthal earlier this month. In case you missed it, grab some kleenex and read one of the of her last (beautiful) essays.
  • One of the tricks about finding a place to live in LA is figuring out how far you are from the freeway or airport, both as a convenience and for all the noise/pollution. You can look up your neighborhood here: National Transportation Noise Map. #NoiseNerd
  • More science to geek out: Scientists Catch Star And Possible Black Hole In A Rapid, Dangerous Dance. Space. is. so. crazy.
  • Late March/early April is FULL of great film festivals. Kudos to all my friends out there making it happening with amazing lineups this year. Indiewire (which use to have larger coverage of film festivals in general) has a post that gives a run down of some announcements.
  • This Tropical Strawberry Hibiscus Rum Spitz cocktail looks so deliciously bright and colorful.
  • This: “At the root of this is the American obsession with self-reliance, which makes it more acceptable to applaud an individual for working himself to death than to argue that an individual working himself to death is evidence of a flawed economic system. The contrast between the gig economy’s rhetoric (everyone is always connecting, having fun, and killing it!) and the conditions that allow it to exist (a lack of dependable employment that pays a living wage) makes this kink in our thinking especially clear. “

Enjoy this lovely spring day! Thanks for reading!

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!

 

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!

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?