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!

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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!

Shorts & Snacks: Treevenge (2008)

In keeping with the holiday spirit here, today I’m highlighting one of my all-time favorite short films, Treevenge

This short, directed by Canadian filmmaker Jason Eisener, made a splash on the festival scene in late 2008/early 2009.  Eisener and his team take a twist on a tradition of Christmas, picking out the perfect tree, and give us a glimpse of the experience from the trees’ perspective. During this particular Christmas, however, the trees have had enough and decide to fight back.

I saw this film at Sundance seven years ago and every Christmas since, it pops back into my mind. I showed the film to my family the following holiday and now we share a laugh each Christmas as we admire the family tree. I recommend watching this with others if you can – the howl of an audience laughing and cringing together makes the film that much more fun. When festival programmers talk about searching for a film that has an original and creative idea, they are talking about a short like this one.

Treevenge is definitely NSFW. If you are not a fan of over-the-top horror films then, fair warning, this short may not be for you. But if you are in need of a good laugh (and who isn’t during the holidays?), then grab your favorite Christmas cookie, take a break and check out Treevenge below. I bet you’ll never be able to pick out a Christmas tree the same way again!


Treevenge
Directed by Jason Eisener
2008 / 16 min / Canada
After being cut down, shipped off to christmas tree dealers, and brought home and decorated in celebration of christmas, the trees are fed up with the humiliation and abuse, and take their revenge on humanity.

Film Festival Highlights: Sundance 2017

December means the end of a festival season. While films are being pushed by studios and distributors for the awards season, a new crop of films are announced for the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. As films are bought (or not) they will be rolled out over the course of the new year and festival circuit.

December is also a time of anticipation as Sundance spends the first two weeks announcing their lineup. As a curator, it’s exciting to see what projects you’ve heard about or tracked over the past few months (and sometimes years) will have their premieres in Park City. The 2017 festival seems to have many great films in store for us.

Sundance has announced most of their titles and you can dig into the full lineup through their press releases: the competition films, New Frontier, Premieres/Midnight/Family and Shorts. These are a few of the new competition titles I’m excited to see:

US Narrative Feature Competition

  • Crown Heights / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Matt Ruskin) — When Colin Warner is wrongfully convicted of murder, his best friend, Carl King, devotes his life to proving Colin’s innocence. Adapted from This American Life, this is the incredible true story of their harrowing quest for justice. Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Bill Camp, Nestor Carbonell, Amari Cheatom.
    Quick thoughts: Always down for a film adaptation from TAL.
  • The Hero / U.S.A. (Director: Brett Haley, Screenwriters: Brett Haley, Marc Basch) — Lee, a former Western film icon, is living a comfortable existence lending his golden voice to advertisements and smoking weed. After receiving a lifetime achievement award and unexpected news, Lee reexamines his past, while a chance meeting with a sardonic comic has him looking to the future. Cast: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman, Katharine Ross
    Quick thoughts: Haley’s last film, I’ll See You In My Dreams, also premiered at Sundance and was the opening night film at DIFF. Any film that can pair Sam Elliott and Nick Offerman is on my list.
  • The Yellow Birds / U.S.A. (Director: Alexandre Moors, Screenwriters: David Lowery, R.F.I. Porto) — Two young men enlist in the army and are deployed to fight in the Iraq War. After an unthinkable tragedy, the returning soldier struggles to balance his promise of silence with the truth and a mourning mother’s search for peace. Cast: Tye Sheridan, Jack Huston, Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Patric, Toni Collette, Jennifer Aniston.
    Quick thoughts: David Lowery is multi-talented and an old filmmaking friend. Always interested to see his work.

US Documentary Feature Competition

  • Casting JonBenet / U.S.A., Australia (Director: Kitty Green) — The unsolved death of six-year-old American beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey remains the world’s most sensational child murder case. Over 15 months, responses, reflections and performances were elicited from the Ramsey’s Colorado hometown community, creating a bold work of art from the collective memories and mythologies the crime inspired.
    Quick thoughts: Green’s previous work includes an amazing short film called The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul. I heard about this doc when I programmed that short a few years ago and have been looking forward to it ever since hearing the premise.

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    Casting JonBenét (2017)
  • City of Ghosts / U.S.A. (Director: Matthew Heineman) — With unprecedented access, this documentary follows the extraordinary journey of “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently”—a group of anonymous citizen journalists who banded together after their homeland was overtaken by ISIS—as they risk their lives to stand up against one of the greatest evils in the world today.
    Quick thoughts: Been a fan of Heineman’s work for several years, having programmed his previous two docs. If you haven’t seen Cartel Land yet, then add it to your queue to watch ASAP.
  • Dina / U.S.A. (Directors: Dan Sickles, Antonio Santini) — An eccentric suburban woman and a Walmart door-greeter navigate their evolving relationship in this unconventional love story.
    Quick thoughts: I saw this as part of my consulting work for Sundance. It’s a beautiful story of intimacy and love. Put it on your must-see list.

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    Dina (2017)
  • The Force / U.S.A. (Director: Pete Nicks) — This cinema verité look at the long-troubled Oakland Police Department goes deep inside their struggles to confront federal demands for reform, a popular uprising following events in Ferguson and an explosive scandal.
    Quick thoughts: Topical film from the director of another great doc, The Waiting Room.
  • Unrest / U.S.A. (Director: Jennifer Brea) — When Harvard PhD student Jennifer Brea is struck down at 28 by a fever that leaves her bedridden, doctors tell her it’s “all in her head.” Determined to live, she sets out on a virtual journey to document her story—and four other families’ stories—fighting a disease medicine forgot.
    Quick thoughts: I’ve been tracking this film for a few months. Having dealt with odd health issues myself, I’m sure this film will hit home with me.

World Documentary Feature Competition

  • Motherland / U.S.A., Philippines (Director: Ramona Diaz) — The planet’s busiest maternity hospital is located in one of its poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines. There, poor women face devastating consequences as their country struggles with reproductive health policy and the politics of conservative Catholic ideologies.
    Quick thoughts: Docs about women and healthcare – I’m all about it.
  • Tokyo Idols / United Kingdom, Canada (Director: Kyoko Miyake) — This exploration of Japan’s fascination with girl bands and their music follows an aspiring pop singer and her fans, delving into the cultural obsession with young female sexuality and the growing disconnect between men and women in hypermodern societies.
    Quick thoughts: Another film topic I’m always interested in: exploring the issue of female sexuality.

NEXT Competition

  • A Ghost Story / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: David Lowery) — This is the story of a ghost and the house he haunts. Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham, Sonia Acevedo, Rob Zabrecky, Liz Franke.
    Quick thoughts: Lowery and company snuck in the production of a strange little film back in Texas (amongst finishing and a publicity tour for Pete’s Dragon)Very excited for this team to be back in Park City with a new film.

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    A Ghost Story (2017)
  • Person to Person / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Dustin Guy Defa) — A record collector hustles for a big score while his heartbroken roommate tries to erase a terrible mistake, a teenager bears witness to her best friend’s new relationship and a rookie reporter, alongside her demanding supervisor, chases the clues of a murder case involving a life-weary clock shop owner. Cast: Abbi Jacobson, Michael Cera, Tavi Gevinson, Philip Baker Hall, Bene Coopersmith, George Sample III.
    Quick thoughts: Dustin Guy Defa has been on the circuit with short films for a while. Excited to see his second feature-length film.

 

What are some of the Sundance films you’re excited about? Let’s discuss in the comments!

Shorts & Snacks: Bacon & God’s Wrath (2015)

Bacon is on the list of my favorite foods. A no-brainer. Breakfast, lunch, dinner or just a bacon snack. If I can include bacon in a meal I will certainly try. The how-much-bacon-is-too-much-bacon struggle is real.

So when filmmaker Sol Friedman created his last short film Bacon & God’s Wrath, I was immediately intrigued by the title. I’ve been a fan of Sol’s work for sometime now, sharing some of his unique blend of live-action and animation shorts at festivals over the years. Bacon is a turning point for his work however. It takes a personal story of faith, throws in some creative animation and becomes an exciting piece of documentary art. The Sundance jury that year thought so too, awarding it with the jury award for non-fiction.

Take a few minutes, take out a bacon snack and enjoy this short. I guarantee you’ll never think of bacon the same way again. Feel free to share you thoughts in the comments!

Bacon & God’s Wrath
Directed by Sol Friedman
2015 / 9 minutes / Canada
A 90-year-old Jewish woman reflects on her life’s experience as she prepares to try bacon for the first time.

Festival Diet 101

Have you ever attended a film festival before? If not, I highly recommend it. And not just because I work for them. Film festivals are a great way to interact with a local film community, meet filmmakers and new people. You make new friends (yes, it’s even how I met my husband). You’re able to engage in conversations and interesting discussions about films that you love (or sometimes hate) and topics that are important to you. You’re supporting the arts. I mean, what’s not to love about it?

Film festivals are held throughout the year, but there are three basic “seasons” to festing: January to May, May to August and September to late November. Sundance kicks things off in January, Cannes bookmarks the year in May and Telluride/Toronto/Venice benchmark the crazy third act in September. And then there’s all the thousands of other great film festivals that fall somewhere in between them.

In this series of post, I’ll share some of my favorite restaurants while attending a film festival. But first, let’s go over some basics of the “Festival Diet”.

Any fest vet will tell you the festival diet is real. And by diet I mean, if you don’t plan the time to eat, you may not eat anything at all. All day. It can be dangerous. People – like me and almost everyone else I’ve ever known – get hangry when they don’t eat. No one likes a hangry festival attendee (or staffer), so here are some tips and expert advice.

  1. When attending a film festival, snacks are your best friend. Always have a snack in a bag or pocket. Trust me. I’ve never eaten so many granola bars in my life than when I have worked during a film festival. Another good option: a small pack of almonds or trail mix. String cheese is good, but only if you eat it right away. No one likes limp, warm string cheese. Ew. When you want to see back-to-back movies and that involves standing in a line for 30 minutes too, you will need a snack. And there is only so much popcorn you can eat. Which leads me to…
  2. The festival diet sometimes only consists of concession stand popcorn. Corn is in almost everything we eat already. There is only so much popcorn you can eat before you feel like a walking goop of butter and corn. I speak from experience.
  3. Sometimes you need to miss a movie in order to eat dinner. (From a programmer, that’s hard to admit because I want your butt in a seat!) Even if that dinner is you only sitting down for 30 minutes, you must do it. If you’re lucky enough to sit down with friends for a true 90 minute meal, then bravo! You have it all. It is one of the most satisfying feelings ever. And sometimes it is actually better than whatever film you might have gone to. (Your hangry friends will tell you later.)
  4. If you’re working or volunteering at a fest, sometimes you need to remind your colleagues to eat. Or your intern/co-worker needs to remind you to eat, oh so gently. (Claire, you were always the best intern/coordinator because you GOT this.)
  5. Hydrate. And not with all that free Stella Artois in the festival lounge. Festing takes a toll on your body. The late nights, the sponsored alcohol, the dark auditoriums. (It really is amazing that any of us survive this work/lifestyle.) Bring a reusable water bottle and refill often. I’ve always thought the best in-kind sponsorship was Sundance’s partnership with Brita. We have at least a dozen green Brita/Sundance-branded water bottles in our house thanks to them and use them all year round. #NeverEndingImpressions. You’re welcome Sponsorship Dept.
  6. If you’re not a local, ask the staff or volunteers for restaurant recommendations near the venue. The locals take pride in their city and those working the festival often want to show off the best of what their city can offer. Then GO EAT.

Stay tuned for highlights from great restaurants, bars and other must-stop sites from my film festival travels.

What tips do you have for staying full while testing? Let me know in the comments below!