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A batch of screeners on a distressed floor.

Just finishing, belatedly, my spring job — as submissions editors for Edinburgh International Film Festival. There’s a bunch of us, and what we do is, we look at the films submitted and classify them from A to D, A being something that should definitely be considered higher up, D being something that’s been considered enough, and B and C being in between, worthy of being seen by another submissions editor for a second opinion. No system is perfect, but this one seems fairly fair. I hope we catch all the masterpieces and reject all the disasterpieces.

Of course, most of the films shown are ones that the EIFF has chased down, rather than ones that have come chasing after us. So even after I recommend not accepting 90% of the films I see, a good 50% AT LEAST of the films I do recommend don’t get accepted either.

We submissions editors like to moan, but the truth is, the job has major perks. Working for the Film Fest gets you a pass to the Film Fest, and working before the Fest is on means you have free time to USE that pass. You might also say that the job itself consists of watching lots of films, which is a perk, but you would mostly be wrong. I would have failed as a regular film reviewer, gone catatonic down the back of a chair with the chewing gum and popcorn crumbs, since being compelled to watch any one film cuts off most of my pleasure receptors. Fortunately I always have a stack of screeners when I’m submissions editing, so the illusion of choice is there — an 85 minute Turkish film or a 123 minute Canadian film? That’s typically all the info I have to make a choice on, and so there’s a pleasurable element of pot luck that holds good until the first image actually appears on the Toshiba.

A fellow SubEd told me, “It’s the middling ones that get you down,” and she was bang on. A really putrid film evokes a kind of awe, and you can kick back, giving it a fair shake while also basking in its dreadfulness. A great film, or a really nice one let’s say, shines out and is an obvious pleasure I needn’t attempt to explain. The tiresome stuff is the films which seem like they have a shot at being OK, so you give them your best attention all the way through, and are rewarded with a squib fizzle thin beer long sigh. And such films constitute the majority of films submitted to film festivals.

(The majority of films programmed at film festivals are not submitted at all, but headhunted by programmers who find them at other film festivals [where maybe they were submitted] or via sales agents, distributors, whatever. I have no role in that side of the Fest.)


Our judging panel.

Maybe it’s worth me putting down some thoughts about what might help a submitted film stand the best chance of acceptance, or at least further consideration.

1) Sound design. Almost nothing I see has imaginative, rich, interesting sound. The ones that do generally have other virtues, which is the reason I give them As and Bs. Having good sound design — sound that enriches the film and goes beyond what we’re seeing –isn’t enough by itself, but it would totally make your film stand out from the crowd.

2) Duration. A film should be the length it wants to be to be effective, so there are no rules. I see a lot of films that are 75, 85 minutes long, and I sort of like them because I can watch more in a day. Maybe have time left for a J. Lee Thompson flick at the end. But when I get a really slow 75 minute film I may suspect that it’s a padded short, that the filmmaker was fearful of cutting more lest the film not qualify, however tentatively, as a feature at all. As the co-creator of a 66-minute “feature” I sympathise. But I gave an A to a 45 minute film recently — it might not get programmed, being a really awkward run-time, but it’ll get considered, and it certainly wouldn’t have been if the filmmaker had padded it to 90.

3) Pace. I see a lot of slow films, many of them good. I see very few fast films, most of them bad. But I still think that some strategy that allows you to hit the ground running would make you stand out from 90% of your competitors. We love slow films when they’re good, but it is still notable that “slow” can be used as an insult for movies, whereas “fast”, by itself, never is.

4) Tone. I nearly always stay tuned to something that’s intended to be funny, because it’s quite a rare thing. Most submissions I would characterise as sombre. My tolerance for terrible comedy may be higher than some, mind you — it fascinates me. The one tone/genre I would counsel against is parody. It’s unlikely you have the budget to successfully parody a Hollywood genre, unless it’s a 50s B-movie, and why would you be parodying a 50s B-movie in the twenty-first century? The only guy who can do 50s Bs and make it seem reasonable is Larry Blamire. You are not him, unless he’s reading this in which case he is. But not the rest of you.

5) Gloss. This year there was a lot of stunning photography. Not always attached to stunning films, but it never hurts. What hurts is those middling films that have smooth tracking shots and a lot of elegantly-composed medium shots and long shots and no life at all and no focus, no awareness of where the drama is or who the main character is. Those films I guess are doomed anyway because they’re dramas without drama, but the last thing they need is a smooth finish. “Quality” is nearly always a byword for boredom, and these legless wonders could only be rescued, if at all, by stylistic excess and joie de vivre. Try to *have fun*.

6) Lack of tension. See above — it’s probably the one fatal thing. It’s a cliché to say that a good script is one thing a cheap film can afford (and most submissions are low-to-very-low budget) but it is of course true, except that such films usually start by exploiting the writer… Anyway, viewing a bunch of screeners gives you new respect for the screenplay gurus, even if the majority of them are full of themselves, have achieved nothing, and use examples like THE KARATE KID to demonstrate the value of great screenwriting. Here are the “rules” from that camp that might actually be useful —

a) Quickly establish a protagonist with a goal and show her/him struggling to get it. (Exception: DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, a huge commercial hit with an almost totally passive lead character.) As Jeffrey Katzenberg would say, “Where’s the ‘I WANT’ song?”

b) All interpersonal  scenes must hinge upon an immediate source of tension such as a conflict around a goal or some problem that must be urgently addressed. (Exception: 2001, a huge commercial hit.) Because films are not plays, we find many exceptions where the purpose of the sequence is just to wallow in an environment or feel time passing or whatever — but some ticking clock probably still needs to be running in the audience’s mind to keep them seated.)

c) Who the film is about, what their struggle is, and what kind of film it is, and what kind of tone it has, should all be established as quickly as possible and certainly within the first half hour. (Exception: PSYCHO, a huge commercial hit.) If you have a brilliant idea for how to fool with us, fine, but it had better BE brilliant.

Lots of filmmakers are secretly more interested in other stuff that has nothing to do with the above. The successful ones tend to smuggle it in while making sure that the crude, almost barbaric demands of the audience for plot (set-up, development, complication, resolution) are satisfied. The frustrating thing is that plot, that crude, barbaric thing, is very tricky to pull off. The high-brow screenwriter can take satisfaction in the undoubted truth that a film which gets plot right and nothing else will have tricked the audience in to sitting through the whole thing, but leave them, along with the disgruntled submissions editor, feeling totally cheated.

7) Theme. In fact, most of the films submitted are about something. Some idea or emotion or truth motivated the filmmaker, and you can at least get a sense of what it is. The film has, somewhere, some reason to exist. But if this isn’t expressed through the film’s form — its story, if it is a story, and its technique in presenting itself on the screen, then this is nothing more than a platitude. A good film makes us feel what it is about poetically, by the beauty of its form. (Exception: none, I think.) You can’t really separate form and content, and THE WIZARD OF OZ isn’t *about* “There’s no place like home.” It’s about everything you saw and heard while experiencing it.

That’s all for now. Break legs!

4 Responses to “Contenders”

  1. As Salman Rushdie remarked, it’s about the exact opposite.

  2. As someone who has been through the process of submitting a couple of short films to dozens of festivals over the past five years, this was actually very helpful. Thanks!

  3. You’re welcome!

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