|How to Start Your Own
Film Festival: A 12-Step Program
by Brian Flemming - Creator of Slumdance 1997
Having trouble getting your film into the
major fests, esppecially that really important one in Park City? Can't get your calls
returned as you try to form the all-important "political" relationship with a
festival programmer? Have you tried pressing every slightly connected person you know to
put in a good word? Have you followed up with additional materials, personal notes,
flirting and cash bribes, all to no effect?
Don't ever bother with all of that. Really,
the best thing you do is to start your own festival. Your film will get seen, you'll make
a lot of new friends (and enemies), and reporters and acquisitions execs will be calling
you instead of you calling them. The start-up vanity festival, besides being the art form
of new film making generation, actually works. Every filmmaker should have at least one.
Here are 12 easy steps to your own festival drawn from my experience with slumdance.
Step 1: Come Up With A Catchy NameIn the first week of December 1996,
actor Keythe Farley, who appears in a feature film I write and directed, Hang Your Dog in
the Wind, was in a funk about us not getting into the Sundance Film Festival. Angry and a
bit depressed, Keythe struck upon a notion:" Why don't we just re-title the film
'Sundance Festival Winner '? That way they'd have to call it that on theater marquees.
I told Keythe this was a brilliant idea, but it would likely be prohibitively
troublesome to use the word "Sundance." Perhaps a name close to that, though, to
create the illusion of "Sundance" would be a good idea. We immediately started
calling out derogatory sound-alike names for "Sundance." After we
free-associated through some predictable and obscene ones, Keythe chimed in with
"Slumdance." The room got very quite. That word was like a virus. We
looked at each other, forming the same, new, absurd idea in our minds. That moment, for
better or worse, was the birth of Slumdance. We had the name, the rest would come.
Step 2: Go To Park City
A few days later, Stan Nakazono and George Kelly (respectively, the producer
and assistant director of Hang Your Dog in the Wind) were roped into the scam. On Friday,
December 13, we arrived in Park City for two-day location scout. One of our first stops
was the Chamber of Commerce. A kind of woman in charge there heard what we had planned and
immediately said, "No. You can't do it."
She listed many reason why we shouldn't come back to Park City: The Chamber and the
rest of the city government consider Robert Redford to be a "god"; the Police
Chief would never grant us a Master Festival Permit, and without one we couldn't call
ourselves a "film festival"; the Sundance Film Festival would consider us a
hostile presence - and we wouldn't want that, would we?
But she could sense that we weren't about to stay home. She advised us that if we did
give it a shot, at least we should stay away from Main Street.
Step 3: Head Straight To Main Street
We headed straight to Main Street. Stann, George and I walked up and down both
sides of the street asking everyone we saw if they knew of any property that would be
available during Sundance for "private screenings." Fortunately, almost everyone
who lives in Park City is a real -estate agent, and we got many leads.
Most rooms we viewed were just 2,500-square-foot white boxes of empty office space -
not exactly the environment we were looking for to stage our event. Who wants to party in
a cramped little box except the people who go to Sundance parties?
On the second day, however, just two hours before our plane was to leave, we finally
found the perfect Main Street location: a basement that long ago was a Mrs. Fields cookie
factory. We walked around the 6,000-square-foot space in amazement. It was dingy and ugly,
with rooting ceiling tiles, a water stained floor and the look of, well, an abandoned
factory. It had hallways that led nowhere, so many rooms that you could get lost at
first, and it came with a desperately price lease of $1,700 - by far the
lowest amount we'd yet been quoted. And, to boot, it was directly across the street from
Slamdance, and just a few doors up from Egyptian Theater, the heart of Sundance. We took
Step 4: Create A Web Site
The good news about creating a web site is that it's cheap and easy. And there
is no bad news. For www.slumdance.com, I spent $100 to register the domain name , $75 to
get the first 30 days of service and $25 to buy a CD-ROM of cheesy line art. I downloaded
a free beta version of Claris Home Page (www.claris.com ) and went to work.
As everyone else enjoyed the holidays, I stayed up at nights turning my anger and
bitterness at the commercialism of the indie scene into something resembling satire. The
web is fine vehicle for satire-click, laugh, click, laugh, click,-and before you know it,
people are enjoying your rants about Sundance and Miramax, and you have about a thousand
new friends who are also filled with anger and bitterness. (Oh yeah, it helps if the indie
WIRE, the associated Press of the independent film community, announces your
website's debut to their 3,500 subscribers.)
Step 5: Become The Enemy
The website debute was the official announcement of slumdance, and it occurred
on January 8 - just ten days before the Slumdance Experience (named in cowardly compliance
with Park City's moratorium on the word "festival") was to start. Programming
Vagrant Douglas Glazer and the rest of us knew that we couldn't manage to slog through
many hundreds submissions in that time. One very bad idea we had originally was just to
accept everything, without even looking at it, but after the hangover wore off we realize
that sweet but insane plan wasn't going to curry favor with audience.
So I designed the entry form on the website to be an audition. You had to believe in
your work to geo into the Slumdance, and we could judge your entry form by its creativity
to determine if we would even look at your film. It was a snotty thing to do, but reality
demanded it. We e-mailed the senders of the most entertaining forms (you can see samples
on www.slumdance.com) asking them to FedEx their tape to us.
Dough and the rest of the Vagrants look at about 200 films and selected 30 for
inclusion in Slumdance. The sole criterion for a film: It had to turn us on. The main
thing to remember: avoid thinking,"Who am I to judge other artist work?" It'll
only slow you down.
Step 6: Ethics Are For The Privileged
One of the innovations we had our hearts set on the Slumdance was the
"Built Your Own Festival" Experience. We dreamed of setting up a Tent City,
where a guest could select from a number of movies and get a private screening immediately
on one of a number of monitors.
The problem: We need many monitors an VCRs, preferably a good quality. The solution:
the 30-day Free Rental Program at the Good Guys electronics store in Salt Lake City. Under
this unique plan (which the Good Guys call a no-question-asked "guarantee" ) ,
you can get monitors and VCRs for free, as long as you "purchase" them
and then take them back within 30 days for a full refund. In addition to monitors and
VCRs, Slumdance also rented a ninety digital camera, which made it easy to put pictures on
website every day.
Step 7: Find Your Audience
When you start your own festival, one development might surprise you: too many
people. Before Slumdance's first day, we were naturally concerned that nobody would show
up, but then we were surprised when the lobby became packed with impatience guests on
opening night. And the, well, nature of some of the guests confused us. What was the
furcoat-and-cellphone crowd doing at Slumdance?
We knew we had to do some weeding. So far our opening ceremony, Keythe and I engaged in
that time honored Hollywood tradition: ass kissing. Except Keythe and I actually dropped
our pants and literally kissing each other asses. That stunt cleared out half the people
in the room. Those who stayed were our kind of people: guests who either appreciated
theatrical satire or just enjoyed watching adult kissing each other's bare asses.
Step 8: "Can You Say Starfucking?"
The last issue of filmmaker thoughtfully probed the issue of whether it helps
to seek stars for your low-budget debut feature. Don't worry about puzzling this out when
you start your own film festival. Stars are good. They usually don't stay long, there are
no SAG concerns, and somehow they lend credibility by their presence.
Tim Robbins, fresh from receiving honors at a Sundance ceremony that celebrated him as
that festival's guest of honor, showed up on Slumdance opening night. He smoked a
cigar in the screening room, but still it was good to have his picture to show the press,
who would suddenly look upon Slumdance with new eyes. (if John Waters shows up at
your festival, be sure your camera is ready. At Slumdance, he managed to tour the
entire place, trailed by his own photographer and get out the door in 2 minutes flat.).
When the mainstream entertainment press comes around, don't even bother to
tell them how innovative your festival is or try to get them to see some of your
films. Just roll off a list of stars who have stopped by -- that's all they're
interested in, and it's the quickest way to be rid of them.
Step 9 : "Wear fashionable attire"
A few days before we left for park city, Vagrants Ann Closs and Saadia Goddard
(who, with Rachel Hauck, were responsible for the art direction in the Slum ) went out
shopping and came back with the Official Hat of Slumdance; a safety-orange beanie ( from
Army Surplus) with a smiley -face patch glued onto it. The orange smiley hats were
the ugliest things any of us had ever seen, and we promptly put them on our heads.
Those hats turned out to serve two functions during Slumdance. First, all of the
Vagrants were easily identifiable on the streets , even from very far away, aiding our
promotional efforts. Second, the hats were soon in high demand-- and we had every limited
supply. We wouldn't sell the hats, no matter who asked or how much was offered, but we
told people that they could get them by becoming full-time volunteers for slumdance. It
worked. We enlisted more than a dozen needed bodies as Vagrants during the Experience, and
it would be foolish to believe the hats didn't have something to do with it.
Step 10: Don't Lose Your Focus
As your festivals build in momentum, you will probably notice a strange thing
happened to you: You Forget that the whole thing started as a promotional effort for your
film. As Slumdance grew to become a mecca for Park City visitors sick of the schmooze
Scene elsewhere, I became convinced that we were providing a Sanctuary, not just an
alternative film festivals, and I was hesitant to pollute our Sanctuary with
self promotion. Beware of this happening to you -- it really ticks off the people
associated with your film, who are the ones who threw down with all of the original hard
labor that got your fest off the ground.
The people associated with Hang Your Dog in The Wind were probably right to be
disturbed. I was so busy with Slumdance that I didn't call a single acquisitions
Filled with the grass-roots Slumdance vibe, I was more worried about the 'real' people,
and the film actually got a stunning response from our Park City audiences. We had to add
an unscheduled screening to accommodate the people who had heard about the film by word of
the mouth and came by the Slum to ask for it. That added screening was standing-room only,
and I was surprised to see that people actually stood through the whole film.
Step 11 : Write An Article For Filmmaker
There's no such things as bad publicity, but there's no better publicity, than
the kind you write yourself. After you pull off your alternative festivals, you'll have
enough cred and insider knowledge to qualify you to write an article for Filmmaker .
Exploit this opportunity. mention your movie's title at least three times.
Step 12: Plan The Future
Once you recover from executing your festivals ( average times: three weeks),
you'll want to think about the future. You'll have many e-mails in your box asking "
Are You going to do this again next year?" and " How can I get involved?"
and even " I offer you my body."
While Slumdance has always been a bit
self-conscious and snide on the surface, beneath that facade there is actually a sincere
center burning with social/ political/ quasi-religoius fervor. At our meetings, away from
public view, we talk about how we Did Something Important, and we want to keep doing it.
We have many plans. We want to be a road
show, going town to town with our take on indie-film presentation. we want to stage "
Con '97" our answer to the Cannes Film Festival. We want to become a
grass-roots collective to empower beginning filmmakers with information and other
resources. In short, we have the kinds of plans that almost every other start-up festival
has, with no money execute them.
How do you let the indie scene know that
you're dying to do something important for the community, but you need financial support?
See Step 11.