'Menthol' Micro-Budget Film Case Study Part 2: Confessions of a World Premiere
In Part 1 of this series, I talked about the decisions in creating the seminal piece of marketing (the trailer) for my first narrative feature Menthol. We just had our world premiere last month at the 29th Santa Barbara International Film Fest and, being my first festival experience from the filmmaker's side, I wanted to share a little bit about the experience and what it's got me thinking about -- the philosophical, the social, and the pragmatic.
I can sum it up by saying that the experience has been equal parts exciting and alienating.
World premiere night.
We had a sold out screening and the film played really well. It got laughs where laughs were due and silence where silence was due. It was fun, but it all happened so fast. It's still amazing to me that all this work, time, sweat and energy goes into an 84 minute experience. The picture needed tweaking before the screening and the theater didn't have the best sound system, though most people didn't seem to notice (is it really just me?). There were issues with ticketing, people who bought tickets online were having trouble getting in. I couldn't possibly talk to or hang out with all the people who I wanted to that came out to support me. I felt overwhelmed and on some level I wasn't fully present to the event.
So, I expected that the festival experience would be a little chaotic. What I didn't expect was how much in the following days after the screening I would be reflecting on the past few years of making the film. I've been thinking a lot about what it means to be a filmmaker, analyzing my own intentions and where (and why) to go from here.
The feedback I got at the screening was overwhelmingly positive, which initially worried me. I'm happy if I've made a film that people can connect to or can take something from, but I also want to be actively engaging in people's thoughts and criticisms of the film so I can keep learning about what we've created. Do they really like it or are they just saying that? How are my intentions perceived? Do people take it seriously? Do I want people to take it seriously?
There's a lot of 'real shit' in this movie, a lot taken directly from the lives of people around me, some sensitive stuff. Though there is an inherent alienating quality of Menthol that was part of my intention (the camera's gaze is cold, distant) I hope that by making films I will be, ultimately, enriching and deepening my connections with other human beings.
I want to be, as Cesare Zavattini says, a 'living soul,' an excavator of reality, not simply someone who watches coldly and at a distance. My biggest fear is that I am somehow creating a barrier between myself and others by making movies. A fear of separating myself from other 'living' people, a glass wall between myself and my audience -- but also my friends, family, and subjects.
What were my intentions behind making Menthol? I wanted to highlight some of the ambiguities in the way young people live their lives, but primarily (in the beginning) my intention was simple: I wanted to make a feature film. The great Sidney Lumet wrote in his book Making Movies:
For anyone who wants to direct but hasn't made a first movie yet, there is no decision to make. Whatever the movie, whatever the auspices, whatever the problems, if there's a chance to direct, take it! Period. Exclamation point! The first movie is its own justification, because it's the first movie.
Thanks in part to this first festival experience, I see clearly that this intention is not one I should ever have again. Movies shouldn't be made for the sake of being made. This is something I've always known, but now really understand.
Johnny Wactor as 'John'
Your premiere status, while important, is largely semantic.
We had our World Premiere at Santa Barbara, will have our International Premiere in Bulgaria, and what we're calling our East Coast Premiere at Palm Beach. Here's where those handy writing skills come into play -- as long as the word "premiere" is attached, your premiere status is a semantic juggling act.
When you're accepted to a festival, they invite you and then you have a brief window of time to accept or decline. Within this window, my producer Nate Kamiya spent some time emailing all the festivals we hadn't gotten into yet to see how our chances of acceptance would be affected if we were no longer a 'World Premiere.' Part of this is true curiosity, part is just simply playing the market and putting a little pressure on other festivals. You're basically asking them to check out your film one more time and make sure it's something they're not gonna regret passing on. It's also nice just to keep in touch with festivals, as everything we do in this business seems to be planting seeds for the future...
The Menthol Press Office (AKA nearest coffee shop)
A film festival is a social experience and press is depressing.
When you get into a festival, they'll give you a list of press outlets that may or may not be attending. You have the option of getting a publicist from the festival if you want to pay for one. We didn't have any money, so we were our own publicists. We printed 1,000 standard size business cards with our screening times and handed them out like candy to as many people as possible. Then it was a matter of Nate and I posting up at a cafe emailing people from the press list, giving them reasons they might like our movie.
The festival might have designated press events, usually including free food (!) and a room full of reporters and filmmakers. It can feel like a bit of a meat market, and I was acutely aware of the awkwardness inherent to the press / filmmaker relationship. Some people thrive in these conditions, but the truth is, I'm not that passionate about marketing. I'm actively trying to understand it and try it because I want to push myself, but I think a lot of the distribution and marketing side of things depends on what kind of person you are. If you're not that kind of person, then I'd say don't stress about it.
Going through the act of hustling your movie, talking about it, spreading the word, doing posters, interviews, breakfasts -- it can be very exhausting. We spent a lot of extra money, time, and effort to advertise our two screenings. Maybe it's because I was so focussed on getting people to come to the screenings that I wasn't fully able enjoy the events when they did happen. Maybe it's the philosophical questions that kept me from being present. Maybe we should've gotten a publicist.
It's waiting to hear back from film festivals that can hurt you the most.
Depending on your release strategy, it can be painful to wait to hear back from festivals and it can really slow down the potential momentum of your small film's release window. It can be months or even the better part of a year depending on where your production cycle falls. It's one of the slowest and most grueling parts of the 'getting it out there' process. If you weren't burnt out already, this part will do it to most. Unless you're sure that you're a shoe-in for an A-list festival (and you probably aren't), my advice is to not wait, get your film out there as soon as possible. Slamdance co-founder / filmmaker Dan Mirvish (who firmly believes in the quantity over quality approach) says it best:
Even before you hear back from Sundance, you will undoubtedly start submitting to SXSW, Tribeca and LAFF. And all three will tell you in no uncertain terms that they really, really just want premieres. F’real? They’re all nice festivals, but none of them get much of an audience beyond their local base. That means you’re now waiting almost a full year from finishing your film to showing it. And for what? So an audience member in New York, who’s never set foot in Austin, can be the first person to see your film? After being in this festival world for 20 years, I’m still dumbfounded and disturbed by this escalation of the premiere arms race. What ever happened to giving momentum to films that play at multiple fests? So, screw ‘em: You should use their premiere paranoia to your advantage.
I'm grateful for the experience and have learned a lot from it.
At a festival, everyone wants to congratulate everyone just for existing. But all the patting ourselves on the back has just left me with a reminder of how much better I want to do next time; how much more I need to give to the process. I didn't start making movies for congratulations, for praise, so I could go broke all over again buying drinks at bars and only getting half drunk.
In the end though, I have nothing real to complain about. It's a privilege to be alive and making movies and we shouldn't forget that. Part of me always wishes things were better, experiences were deeper, interactions more meaningful. It's the same part of me that drives to make a better film each time, to give more, to dedicate more. I'm happy to have finally seen Menthol with a real, live audience, and that alone has been worth it. An audiences gives you the best kind of feedback, with their sighs, their gasps, their laughter and their tears. It's real-time, it's real-live, it lives and breathes as you do, whether it's a Saturday night or a Monday morning.
The Morning After
Okay, enough of my philosophical quandary. Pragmatic tip: Subtitle your movie!
International fests will ask you for a dialogue list, which is basically a list of all the dialogue in your film with timecode attached. It's a tedious process but very worthwhile. I didn't know anything about creating one of these, so I did a lot of research trying to find the best software for getting this done on a budget, and I chose the InqScribe. They offer a free trial for 14 days which was enough time for me to complete the English dialogue list, which will then be translated into subtitles by international festivals into their language of choice.
Menthol is going to play at the Sofia International Film Festival in Bulgaria on March 9th and 10th, and they are flying me out there to present the film. They are a festival that specializes in first and second time directors, so I'm really excited to see how the film plays with a European audience and relish the opportunity to leave the country for the first time in twelve years.
Have any of you had similar thoughts after premiering your film at a festival? Join the discussion in the comments below and let me know some of your first-hand experiences.