The wide world of film festivals isn’t something a lot of people really know about unless they’ve gotten an up-close and personal introduction. I got mine during my last year of film school. See, I was background talent for a friend’s studio shoot when I met this guy who worked with the Newport Beach Film Festival and swore he could get us internships there. Taking him at his word, I drove out to the festival office, put in an application and was thrust into a world which has been a huge part of my life ever since.
If you’ve spent your entire cinema-going, popcorn-eating, ticket-buying life in plush megaplex seats waiting for someone “up there” to start the movie, you’re only seeing a very small part of the picture. Don’t get me wrong, I like that part—a lot— but what I do is something else entirely. As a member of the programming department, it’s my responsibility to help wade through the thousands of submissions we receive and to supplement them with other films recruited through various means. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that your chance to score big can come any number of ways, from trips to other festivals, to cold calls, to reaching out to contacts with access to various titles.
For example, if you’re a regular Movie Smackdown reader, you might recall me waxing enthusiastic from Park City last January about a little documentary called Wild in the Streets. It was the best film I’d seen all week at either Sundance or Slamdance, and I knew I just had to have it for Newport. After getting the green light to go for it, I had my chance within 24 hours. At Slamdance’s closing night party, I met the film’s director Peter Baxter and started talking with him about the possibility of bringing the film to the festival. Within a week of opening a dialogue, we were able to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement, and I’m incredibly excited about sharing the film with our audience this coming week.
On the other hand, I’ve also been the guy with a stack of paper in his hand, cold calling production companies to request screeners of films that might be worth a look. Sometimes you get told the equivalent of, “No, it’s just not going to happen… so go away.” Other times, initially positive communication doesn’t go anywhere. But still other times, a project ends up being the little movie that could. I recall a year that one of my cold call cases ended up opening the festival.
When the festival itself actually hits, there’s nothing else quite like it. I liken the preparation time to stacking the dominoes and Opening Night to tapping the first domino and then sprinting to keep up with the cascade. It’s eight days of horrendously beautiful chaos that leaves me simultaneously drained and elated. Even though my primary task is to present and manage the films under my care, the week could contain any number of challenges and impromptu diversions. I recall a year when a group of us had to move a baby grand piano from the floor of the performance area to the stage. When I asked the volunteer director for as many people as she could spare to get this done, but she was epically stingy with her manpower. “I don’t think you understand,” I kept saying. “We have to move a piano!” Near-hernias aside, the ivories I helped relocate that day ended being tickled by the one and only Richard Sherman in “An Evening With…” experience that was truly special.
That’s another thing that sets the festival aside from other events. You never know who you might run into and/or have the chance to work with. There’s a certain satisfaction to planning a screening from the ground up and then seeing it work as intended. There’s also nothing quite like being the guy wearing the tie in the back of the theater talking frantically with the booth when something starts to go haywire with the presentation. Fortunately, that happens less and less every year, for which I am incredibly grateful. This year, we’ve got a very large number of celebrity guests and are extremely excited by the potential for connection that each guest—celebrity and non-celebrity alike—represents.
That’s really why we do this thing. Films, at their core, are about the communication of ideas and emotions, and the films that festivals bring to the public are often those that people might not otherwise have a chance to see in a film-going climate dominated by box office returns and wide releases. Any time we have a chance to directly connect a deserving artist with a wider audience, it’s a wonderful thing. There’s something special about seeing a filmmaker standing in front of a packed house after his/her film’s world premiere, and realizing that this thing he/she’s poured blood, sweat, tears and money into has spoken to an audience in just the right way.
With that, I’d best be off. The day is young, and I’ve got a lot to accomplish before Opening Night. Three-hundred-sixty-plus films. Fifty countries. Eight days.
Here we go.