4 Tips for Programming Better Film Festivals
When we launched Pendance in 2017, we had one thing going for us—great mentors. As filmmakers ourselves, we’d had so many opportunities to talk to and connect with programmers at film festivals we respected in order to understand the day-to-day grind of putting on a great festival.
And while there’s so much that we’re still learning in our fourth year about the larger elements of festival productions—press, film market, publicity, distributors, etc, we think we know a thing or two about programming great films.
We see programming holistically as a 4-stage-process; getting submissions, watching submissions, choosing submissions, and finally putting those submissions together in a carefully curated program which maximizes the potential impact and reach of each film. For the sake of keeping this brief, we’ll hone in on one critical stage which we’ve always felt is the most overlooked—watching submissions.
It is becoming increasingly rare that a festival director or programmer watches every film submission. At Pendance, we had over 257 hours worth of submissions last year and it took 4 programmers months of dedicated viewing to get through them twice. We can only imagine how many hours of films larger festivals like TIFF or Sundance receive. It’s not realistic to expect head programmers to watch every film. But whoever is watching these films has a great deal of responsibility.
Whether they’re recent film school graduates or outright random volunteers, here are four things that will help provide more accurate reviewing, and subsequently, better programming. Naturally, anyone being tasked with screening films should have at least an intermediate understanding of film and film theory. Let’s just pretend that one’s a given.
How you Watch
Watch early, watch consistently, watch by genre, and always give a 5 minute break between films. There’s so much psychological research to back this up from studying how people grade tests in college. You’re not you when you’re hungry. You’re also not you when you’ve just had a fight with your partner, are sleep-deprived, or after a long flight. It’s not enough to just watch the films. You have to watch them in the right state of mind.
You’re a part of this film. What happened that day, or five minutes before you sat down impacts how you see the film. The third toxic masculinity film is going to rate differently than the first. So whenever possible, clear your mind and meditate for five minutes before viewing. If you find yourself emotionally impacted, give a longer break before viewing the next submission.
Till the End
Sometimes, it’s obvious that a film is bad. Like really bad. Sound’s off, color’s off, performances are bad. We’ve all seen these. Still, watch it to completion. Because frankly, you don’t have an accurate read two minutes in. And we can prove it.
In 2019, we asked screeners to rate the first 2 minutes of films, and then asked them to rate the full films on a separate viewing. The average deviation between the two scores was 1.3 grade points out of 10. Being 13% inaccurate is probably a bad solution long-term. In fact, one film dropped from a 7.6 to a 3.4, and another rose from 4.5 to 7.9. If it’s a 16 minute film, it’s likely 16 minutes for a reason.
Address Your Biases
Who you are, your experiences, shape what you see on the screen. Whenever possible, try to pick diverse programming teams and pair programmers and screeners from opposite ends. You can address for gender, socio-economic background, cultural backgrounds, political leanings, and even age.
Can 4 22-year-old Caucasian cis men from Vancouver, who attended the same film school, all voted Liberal, and grew up in the same neighbourhood program a great film festival? Yes.
Will they? Likely not.
Keep an Open Mind
Film is subjective. There’s a way to do things, and then someone changes the way to do things and the way we do things becomes the way we used to do things. So dare to imagine. You’re holding people’s work and if you’re programming at a bigger festival, you may even hold the keys to a big career boost. Don’t waste it by picking the same types of films by the same people over and over because it’s safe.
Following these four tips is not going to help you program a lineup of films that rivals Sundance or Berlinale. But that should never be the goal anyway.
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