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Six Things I Learned at the Maryland Film Festival, from the Indie Marketing Gap to Upcoming Divine Doc

Festivals
by Anne Thompson
May 14, 2012 12:34 PM
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I love regional film festivals, because they are labors of love achieved on a limited scale for the enjoyment and education of their local audience. Hence the 14th installment of Baltimore's Maryland Film Festival, led by Jed Dietz, was a chance to catch up on some missed fest circuit hits, from Jonathan Lisecki's hilarious relationship comedy "Gayby," which could do some crossover business, to Andrea Arnold's gorgeously intense "Wuthering Heights," featuring a black Heathcliff (Yorkshire's James Howson) which Oscilloscope will release to art houses. But how many? That is the question. (Trailers below.)

To get some answers to the myriad questions facing filmmakers these days, directors Joe Swanberg ("V/H/S"), Craig Zobel ("Compliance") and Rachel Grady ("Detropia") hosted the fest's second annual one-day film conference, attended by a stimulating mix of knowledgeable filmmakers (the ubiquitous David Lowery, Slamdance founder Peter Baxter, Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky), journalists and critics (The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday, Filmmaker's Scott Macaulay, Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, The New Yorker's Richard Brody, GreenCine's Steve Dollar, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky), distributors (Ryan Kampe of Visit Films, Matt Grady of Factory 25) and exhibitors (John Vickers of Indiana University Cinema, Adam Sekuler of Northwest Film Forum, Jim Healy of the University of Wisconsin Cinematheque).

We sat in two circles of folding chairs in a tent and grilled each other for hours on what's going on with self-distribution and marketing, film coverage, art house theaters and the move to digital. (This peer-to-peer format yields far better results than your standard panel.) The filmmakers were fascinated by what forms their films can be sent and shown; clearly, there are wide margins for error in this realm, where it seems that the prohibitive virtual print fees charged by distributors are pushing smaller theaters to show Blu-rays, which can look pretty damn good.

I learned a lot at this fest and conference; here's a smattering.

1. Festivals are the new theatrical release.

We already know this, but my recent experience at Ashland and Maryland made me realize how much this is now the case. You see the same young filmmakers schlepping from fest to fest, making connections and building the network of collaborators they will work with --often for nothing--for the forseeable future. Shorts and feature filmmakers if they are lucky get booked by major festivals like Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, SXSW or Tribeca, but beyond that they enter a second tier of bookings where they can actually get paid to show up for Q & As around the world. There's even discussion of distributors of popular films sharing the take with the festival when they can fill up a big theater. Many small films never get seen in theaters with audiences after the fest circuit. They go straight to VOD and DVD. And many filmmakers (like Swanberg) are growing personality cults that get them booked on the film lecture circuit.

2. The end of 35 mm is at hand.

We're going to have to accept--in my case reluctantly--that there will be no more 35 mm stock, no new projectors, no new cameras. Chris Nolan may be fighting for 35 mm, but when Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee are drinking the 3-D koolaid, we know the end is at hand. The studios have given theater owners 2012 deadlines for when they have to convert to digital (or lose their financial aid) and have no intention of continuing making or shipping 35 mm prints. Many theaters will hang on to a few 35 mm projectors for showing old prints. That's it. As of 2012, it's over. Even on the film preservation front, continually updating and storing digital film files costs a lot of money. Which films will the studios pay to keep? It will be the greatest hits. And in the end, the remaining preserved 35 mm prints will be the classics that last through the ages. So much will be lost.

3. Mind the marketing gap.

More and more filmmakers like Rachel Grady of Sundance Detroit doc "Detropia" who are unhappy with the onerous deal terms available these days are deciding to jump into delf-distribution. She already has an IFC Center opening planned, is hiring a knowledgeable theater booker, and will pay for some publicity, by raising a P & A budget from Kickstarter. Just judging from the sample in the room, clearly some folks (say True/False Fest's David Wilson) have superb marketing instincts, while others don't have the self-promotion gene. But for every Swanberg, who is voraciously curious about how to work the system, others are less comfortable pushing themselves out via Facebook and Twitter. When do you stop sharing information and start turning people off?

As someone with healthy respect for the people who know something about distribution, marketing and publicity, it worries me that these young filmmakers whose films are marketing challenges anyway are facing an even more daunting mountain to climb: teaching themselves to market and release their own films.

4. Emerging indie women filmmakers don't yet know that there's a glass ceiling.

I moderated a panel with young filmmakers Martha Stephens (Appalachian drama "Pilgrim Song"), Kris Swanberg ("Empire Builder") and more veteran Alison Bagnall ("The Dish & the Spoon"). They shared their (limited) experiences and felt no sense of being impaired by their sex. Nor should they. At these microscopic budget levels on strictly personal films, there are no barriers because there are no stakes. As they move up the ladder and try to break into bigger budgets, they will start to see the light. Commercial director Maria Demopoulos (doc "The Source") admitted that she wants to make big movies. All power to her. On the other hand rising actress Kate Lyn Sheil--who broke out at SXSW in Amy Seimetz's "Sun Don't Shine" (interview below) and Swanberg's "Empire Builder," and will star in Bagnall's next along with her equally promising "Sun Don't Shine" co-star/filmmaker Kentucker Audley--knows perfectly well that an actress has a tougher slog than an actor.

5. John Waters loves "Wanda."

Every year Baltimore's own Waters, who is on the fest's board of directors, hosts a special screening of one of his favorites, from Joseph Losey's Taylor/Burton vehicle "Boom!" to Patric Chiha's coming-of-age story "Domaine." (When I was at Film Comment Waters' Guilty Pleasures included Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries.") "I'm doing great everywhere except movies," he told me. I had never seen Barbara Loden's rarely screened only directing effort, 1970's "Wanda," which she also wrote. She plays the deliciously scatter-brained (OK, dumb) divorcee Wanda opposite Michael Higgins as a nastily sexy peripatetic bank robber. It's good! It played Cannes and Venice in its day; Waters admits that the film inspired him and he happily stole from it early in his career on such films as "Pink Flamingoes" and "Female Trouble."

6. There's a documentary coming up on Waters' late great star Divine.

Jeffrey Schwarz of must-see gay activist doc "Vito" is directing "I Am Divine." I can't wait.

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