From a recent conference trip to Washington D.C. @kingsleydc brought me back this gem of a find, an issue of a magazine called Filmmakers Newsletter, from 1971.
It’s a magazine for student and independent filmmakers that seems to have grown out of the New American Cinema (Cassavetes, Clarke, Belson) of the early 1960s as it’s all about film clubs, societies, super8 and super16 shooting and editing. It’s pretty gear and tech-heavy but from what I can tell each issue focuses on a different facet of indie film life, and Kingsley, knowing I am embarking back on festival directing with Justin again after a ten-year hiatus I guess (for more info on that click here), picked out one on film festivals.
For a film nerd it’s a joyous trove of nuggets, but reading mainly made me think about the festival I run with Justin and what we do and why, and how that may have changed in ways I can’t foresee yet, because we are still relatively early in the new journey. So, after reading it in the sunshine this morning, I figured I’d try and collect and share some thoughts that came up while reading it - as well as a general treat for cinephiles that I’ll save for the end of the post.
WE NEED BAD FILMS
The feature on film festivals in the magazine, calls for filmmakers to have greater self-awareness and not waste the time of judges and programmers with films that are ‘bad’. While I don’t believe in, and we never did this, misleading filmmakers about programming, the harsh financial realities of running a festival mean that in terms of entries, there is a reliance on getting more films submitted than you can screen, and a reality is that some of the films are going to be ‘bad’ and that is a spectrum that is mostly subjective but also includes films that don’t fit the programme that emerges and aren’t going to work with the particular festival audience (more on that later) and this isn’t scientific and with the best will in the world can’t really be preempted. The magazine also suggests filmmakers don’t submit to festivals that don’t have cash prizes and it reminded how different the landscape must have been in the early 70s, how it was when we started in 2000 and ended in 2009, and what it is like now, with more festivals than ever, and trying to stand out in the crowd.
We also kept our entry fees as low as possible, because of the percentage realities and because as filmmakers ourselves we know how a festival campaign builds up financially, but without entry fees and all filmmakers entering into the ‘spirit’ of the festival culture, we would never have gone 10 years and we won’t be able to make this year’s work. We need filmmakers to believe in their work (even if it’s naiveté on their part)
FILMMAKERS V AUDIENCES
Tied in to the above is the question of who is the festival for? The magazine article is negative towards festivals that prize audience expectation over what they term ‘artistic merit’, seemingly again ignoring the vital financial contribution audiences make to the success and sustainability of film festivals. Festivals need audiences to enjoy themselves, ideally come back, and ideally+ bring friends. This doesn’t mean patronising them as most want to be challenged but there is a real need to try and understand what makes the audience tick and a lot of this is down to place and their relationship to the festival. At Filmstock, we’ve always tried to introduce our audiences to something new and different and the kinds of films that would never normally play in a town like Luton. However, the Luton part of it is important and much of the community spirit that Filmstock engenders comes from a shared belief that Luton is largely misunderstood, overlooked, ignored and neglected. Therefore, we as programmers try and screen films that may fall foul to those same slights elsewhere because their ‘artistic merit’ has not already been sealed by other bigger festivals or because the films are flawed, or rough, or cheaper because filmmakers may not have the same means at their disposal as their peers. We also took pride in including work from early career filmmakers that may get overlooked elsewhere, and our local audience could always see as shared spirit of solidarity in the films of that ilk we chose, and knew why we’d picked them. They were good, they just looked or sounded a little different.
One of the key factors for us was putting these films and their filmmakers alongside more established works by filmmakers further down the line of their careers or level of experience, and bringing the audience in too. No barrier between filmmaker and audience and festival team. It’s a festival for audiences and filmmakers, and we know that so many festivals don’t seem to be for either.
As filmmakers we’ve had horrible experiences but mostly we’ve witnessed apathy, turning up to film festivals and having no one from the festival interested that you’ve made the trip (usually at great personal expense). Then the film is not projected well, and you aren’t introduced before the screening so the audience don’t know you are there and neither do any other filmmakers, and you don’t know they are there either. You are left asking why? Why don’t you want filmmakers at the festival, and showing films poorly says to us that you don’t care about your audience either.
So many festivals remind you why festivals have a bad reputation. Filmstock was always imagined in response to this culture and part of our reasoning for coming back was having a feature film play the festival circuit and to all too often be met with the same thing again, déjà vu. We always said, if filmmakers made the trek to Luton (we were never really in a financial place to pay travel and hotel) the least we could do was make them feel like the trip was worthwhile. Coming back after 10 years away to such a positive response suggests we got some of that right.
It’s made me think about the role of film festivals, and the role of ours in particular (because that’s where most of my experience is) and I think I may write something on that further down the line.
No doubt the festival world has changed since 1971. There are thousands more, many online, many niche and specialist. One major change is that there are non-male filmmakers (and were in 1971 though you wouldn’t know it from the he/his prejudice in the articles). My baulking at those deterministic pronouns made me think of something else, taste, and in particular my own. I am a very different film watcher to the one I was 10 years ago. A doctorate, teaching in higher education, writing different kinds of criticism, podcasting and my relationship that became a marriage have all shifted what I am interested in and excited by, and also what I think is important, considerably. I start watching entries next week and I am intrigued and excited by how I engage with this process now (still holding of course to principles mentioned above) and what films I am drawn to and why. Watch this space.
The brilliant magazine cover, featured at the start of this post, was designed by the incredible, Oscar winning, Bill Plympton as a young man.
To close, I’m putting up a capture of one of the letters at the very back of the magazine. I was so pleased my curiosity antennae are in tact. As I was reading it I thought, this is a weird letter, doesn’t seem like the others, then when I got to the end I couldn’t believe who had written it. What a gem to find. I wont’ spoil it for you, but hopefully you will, like me, be amazed at this person writing to this kind of magazine, particularly with what was going on in their life in 1971.
It is a good omen. Justin knows why.
Thank you so much Kingsley, for bringing this amazing artefact into my life. You’re a great friend.