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Starting a blog

A blog is a great way to promote your film, both before and after it's made. During production you can keep a diary of each day's work on the film. Afterwards you can use it to promote special events in the life of the film -- the festival submission process, upcoming screenings, other work by the cast and crew, and (for documentaries) updates on the film's subjects. People always want to know "what next?" and "what happened to so-and-so?" Let your blog be the delivery mechanism.

There are lots of ways to get started on a blog and I have lots of opinions on the subject (naturally), but for now I'm going to refer you to the Caffeinated Librarian, who has put together a good set of resources for first-time bloggers.

If you've been blogging to promote your film, feel free to let me know by e-mail (chris at stomptokyo dot com) or in the comments. In a future post I'll link to some of the best film blogs I encounter.

Reasons not to use MySpace as your film's web site

MySpaceA few months ago while wandering the internet in search of indie-film related advice (let's call it pre-pre-research for FFS), I came across a blog entry that suggested filmmakers eschew building their own web sites and use MySpace as their primary internet presence. (Many apologies to the author of the piece, whose blog escapes me at the moment -- I'll be sure to link if I stumble upon it again.) I can't help but respectfully disagree. A well-built web site is one of the most powerful marketing tools an indie filmmaker can possess. A mere MySpace page is no substitute. Here's why:

- MySpace wasn't designed for the promotion of movies. The original purpose of MySpace was to provide online connections for real-life social networks. Along the way it has mutated a bit as professionals and organizations (most notably musicians and entertainment companies) have been drawn to the massive viewership and multimedia hosting capabilities. MySpace has capitalized on these unintended uses by introducing new sections of the site (including a special account type for filmmakers), but at the end of the day the site works best for those who use it for its intended purpose. For example: when you register your film as a "user," what age do you give for the film? Is your film single, or married with kids? Little inconsistencies like this make promoting a film slightly awkward on MySpace.

- MySpace is ugly, and those plug-in MySpace templates just make it uglier. The MySpace interface is a usability nightmare and the layout is either too simplistic or difficult to customize. There's a lot of effort required to make it look good. Not that it can't be done, but if you have that kind of HTML skill, why not make a web site that looks exactly the way you want?

- MySpace is inflexible in the kinds of things you can put on your page. This goes back to the first point: MySpace was designed for something other that promoting films, so a filmmaker ends up either crowding everything onto the first page, using fields for purposes other than which they were intended, and cramming third-party widgets onto the page to make up for MySpace's shortcomings. Then you just have to pray that MySpace doesn't intentionally break that widget's functionality. A web site is almost infinitely flexible in layout, and you can reproduce most (if not all) of MySpace's functionality with other free online tools.

- MySpace is a spam magnet. Take a look at the comments on any independent film's MySpace page. Odds are you'll find a smattering of compliments from people who have already seen the film and an overwhelming number of messages that say "Thanks for the add," followed by a garish banner advertising someone else's film, band, web site, or toothpaste. That doesn't even count the menagerie of ads that MySpace itself imposes upon your page. If someone plastered stickers all over your movie's poster at a film festival you'd be irritated to say the least -- why would you tolerate it online?

- Is your potential audience really on MySpace? It seems to me there are two kinds of people on the service: those who keep up with their real-life friends there, and those who have something to promote. So your message is going out to people who already have something better to do on MySpace, and people who have their own ulterior motives for visiting your page. I'm not saying you can't find new viewership on MySpace, but you can probably find more viewers with less work in other departments.

- It's amateurish. When a MySpace page is the only online presence a film has, it looks like the filmmaker didn't care enough -- or wasn't smart enough -- to support his film with a real web site. Web sites aren't exactly expensive to build, and you almost certainly know someone who can help you design and maintain a professional-looking site. When a Hollywood studio makes MySpace the online home for their film, it looks like they're reaching out to the youth audience or jumping on a bandwagon. When an indie filmmaker does it, it just looks sloppy.

This is not to say that a MySpace page for your film can't be a valuable adjunct to your film's official web site. For the sake of fairness here are a few points in favor of keeping a MySpace profile for your film and keeping it current.

- People do actually use the service -- in massive numbers. Even if you're only marketing to other MySpace users who have films of their own to promote, having a MySpace presence can at least expose you to other people who are hip deep in independent film. I suspect that those people are a significant fraction of the market for indie films. Even if they don't buy your movie, they might be good contacts for future projects.

- It can provide a touchpoint for who your actual fans are. There's something about MySpace that encourages people to "friend" one another (when did "friend" become a verb?) and leave a comment where they wouldn't ordinarily send e-mail. Maybe it's the added layer of anonymity? Whatever the reason, someone who becomes your MySpace friend and doesn't use your comments box to promote their own work is probably an actual fan of your film. Cultivate these fans as potential evangelists for your movie.

- People seem to be impressed with profiles that have high numbers of friends. If you can rack up the friends then it might be a good way to sell your film to a distributor and/or prove your worth as a marketer. There are some semi-automated ways to do this; seek them out and then feel free to trumpet your success at grassroots Internet marketing to those who are easily dazzled by such things. Just don't fool yourself that your 500 new friends signify anything other than that you've become adept at acquiring new MySpace friends.

Convinced? In a future post we'll go over the whys and hows of creating a "real" web site for your movie, even if you don't know the first thing about it.

Disagree? Let me know in the comments.

Michael Moore Announces Traverse City Film Fest Lineup - Cinematical

Cinematical's Jette Kernion notes the announcement of this year's lineup at the Traverse City Film Fest Lineup. This is definitely one of those festivals that benefits greatly from the celebrity association, however polarizing he may be.

As Jette writes:

I admit I was one of the people who thought that this Michigan film fest might be a way for Moore to promote propaganda-like documentaries. But to be honest, the programming doesn't support that. One category of films at Traverse City is called "Dangerous Docs," and although it does include issue-driven films, it also includes selections like The King of Kong, probably the least political movie I've seen this year. If the festival is promoting anything, it is indie filmmaking -- my guess is that films like Waitress and Paprika don't usually get much theatrical time in that part of Michigan.

See the Traverse City Film Festival lineup for yourself.

Try to show some graciousness

It's a tough biz, this indepdendent filmmaking. The film festival circuit may not be the hardest part, but it has its peaks and valleys just like anything else. You slave over a film, massage it to the best piece of work you can manage, and then send it off with a check to a film festival. And another. And another. And another. The thanks you get is usually along the lines of "thanks for submitting, but there were too many other films we liked better." For every festival that accepts your film there are a dozen who turn it down.

In the face of such rejection, it's natural to feel a little whiny. We can all be really good at complaining when we feel unappreciated, and misery loves company. Over coffee, at a party, or (most especially) on an internet message board in the company of comrades, the urge to grumble takes control and the snarky comments fly.

However: as legitimately indignant (and amusing) as the Bitter Man might be, here's why you might want to restrain yourself.

1. You don't know the whole story. Yes, the Bumbledyfloop Film Festival rejected your mind-blowing documentary short about that Olympic pole vaulter. And while it may be the very best doc short ever about pole vaulting, you submitted it the year after Bumbledyfloop did their big "Olympic Heroes" program. Their local audience has seen all the Olympic docs they can handle for a while, so Bumbledyfloop decided to pass. This is kind of a silly example, but the reasons for turning a film down are as countless as the stars -- and they don't always have something to do with the quality of your film.

I've heard filmmakers grouse about this, too: that festivals dare ever take anything into consideration but the quality of the films they program. My answer: welcome to the real world, kid. It ain't fair, but sometimes that unfairness works in your direction, so be grateful when it happens. Personally, I like seeing festivals that program imperfect films because they took a shine to them, or because they fit a theme. Oftentimes that's where the really interesting stuff happens in cinema.

2. You never know who's listening. People will form opinions of you based on what you say, whether you intended it to be for their ears or not. So whether you're at a festival party trashing that pretentious piece of junk you just saw or relating the story of a particularly disastrous screening experience you had at the Southwest Poughkeepsietown Cinema Celebration on a message board, consider how your words will sound to someone who doesn't know you. It's a small world; festival directors talk to one another, and they troll the same web sites you do. Your reputation will precede you, so don't hurt your film's chances by being known as a "difficult" filmmaker.

3. Nothing grows on scorched earth. Here's one I've seen a few times: a filmmaker receives a personal invitation to submit new work to a festival that has previously passed his movies over. Suspicious that the festival just wants his submission fee, the filmmaker refuses to submit -- or worse, actually voices his suspicions and/or hurt feelings. In the vast majority of cases, festival programmers are far too busy to solicit submissions from individual filmmakers unless they genuinely have an interest in that filmmaker's work. An invitation to submit is not a guaranteed acceptance, but it's a far better shot than not being invited. (I'm not counting the mass invitation e-mails that go out to previous submitters.) You've done something to merit the programmer's attention; don't squander it by holding a grudge.

(As a side note, while submission fees are a significant source of revenue for many film festivals, let me reassure you that the film festival that exists merely to collect such fees is an exceedingly rare animal, if it exists at all. Festivals cost far more to run than submission fees alone could ever support.)

4. You're better than that. Seriously. Unless you really are a creep (in which case I can't help you), you probably don't want to be perceived as one. This is particularly true when your career is on the line. Personality is a large part of the hiring process in any industry. If you want to build a career in filmmaking, you have to sell yourself along with your work. It's a lot easier to do that if you're known as the easygoing sort with a kind word for everyone. So the next time you're tempted to blow off some steam or give an incompetent festival worker a well-deserved thrashing in the filmmakers' forums, think hard about whether that's really the way you want to be remembered.

Do all the whining you want in the comments. I won't hold it against you. Promise.

Producer's Reps - A Warning

Director Mike Dorsey (Dearly Departed, Vol 1) posted this message to the WAB message boards and I just had to reprint it here (with permission). It's an amazing peek into the other side of the world of (some) producer's reps.

I worked for a Producer's Rep as a sales director for about 8 or 9 months a while back. It was an eye-opening experience and I have decided to write about it here so that any of you considering signing with a producer's rep will know of the potential pitfalls.

1. The producer's rep that I worked for was a lawyer, as many producer's reps are. The upside: it gives them the power to handle all negotiations and contracts. The downside: they're greedy lawyers who will utilize every loophole in the book, and take advantage of the "legally ignorant" artists they represent, at every opportunity.

2. The producer's rep that I worked for usually tried to get a "retainer fee" out of clients up front before he would sign them. As a lawyer, this is perfectly normal. As a rep, it was usually robbery. From the rep's point of view, he's covering his *** because the odds of getting a distribution deal for an indy film are slim, and therefore the odds of him seeing a profit down the line are also slim. He doesn't want to work for nothing, so he needs to at least get some money up front to make it worth his while.

I saw many filmmakers get taken advantage of with this "retainer fee." We would screen a film, say to ourselves "no way this gets sold" and he'd tell us to try to get a retainer fee out of them anyway, knowing full well he'd never be able to sell the film, short of a miracle. It's just a way for him to grab an extra three or four grand that month. Half the time the overexcited producers with stars in their eyes would fork over the cash, thrilled that anyone was even paying attention to them. The answer to this is that if he REALLY wants your film and REALLY thinks it will sell, you will be able to either negotiate this fee down or even bypass it altogether. If he won't budge, pass.

3. Once we had a film: This rep had about 40 films on his shelves at any given time. That is an INSANE amount of films to be juggling for an office with only TWO salesmen. Basically, only 5-10 films were really getting actively promoted while the others sat on the shelves until their producers called up and demanded a progress report. When that happened, we'd get on the phone with all of the distribution companies, who had probably been sent the film 6 months ago and completely forgotten about it. If a film hasn't sold within the first year, it's pretty much shoved to the back burner until the contract expires. For this reason I don't recommend signing any contract that goes beyond 18 months. If they haven't sold it by then, it isn't happening and it's time for you to try something else.

In addition, the massive amount of films meant we weren't very selective, which means we had a pretty terrible reputation with most of the bigger distributors because we were always sending them total crap. Some distributors wouldn't even look at our films anymore. Is that what you want from your rep?

One solution to this issue is to be the squeaky wheel. Be the producer who calls your rep's office twice a week to see how things are going. Your contract with them will probably have a schedule for receiving progress reports listing who they've sent the film to and what the response has been. Make them stick to this schedule.

4. Some distributors are either shady or bottom rung, and the filmmakers usually don't know the difference. These distributors would "buy up" six of our films in one giant group, with no money up front and everything deferred. It was usually a backroom deal where we'd sell them a film they really wanted but they had to "buy" a few others as part of the deal. We would then turn around and try to convince the producers/filmmakers of these other films that it was a good deal and that they should take it. Of course, most of those films would never see daylight, but it got them off of our backs.

5. Upfront money: You probably already know that a deal that offers nothing up front and everything deferred is almost certainly never going to pay you anything. A "no money upfront" deal should send up the same red flags as a rep demanding a retainer fee. If the distribution company really thinks they can make money off of your film, they'll pay you something upfront.

6. Deferred payment: Why deferred payment deals will rarely pay you any money.-- you know this, but it's because of that great clause that says you get your percentage of profits after the distribution company recoups all marketing and other costs. A lot of distributors will lie through their teeth about their costs to keep from paying you. If the film makes $100,000, they'll tell you they spent $100,001 on the packaging and marketing. Then you have to audit them and it's a mess. Do you think your lawyer is going to help? Well, you're fighting to get a few dollars out of your distributor, and your rep only gets 10-15% of that. Worth his time? Probably not.

7. Your producer's rep is not always on your side. Consider that he's known you for a few weeks, and you're a one-shot deal. He's known the distribution companies for YEARS, and has sold to them before and will continue selling to them. Whose relationship do you think he values most? He will sell you out to maintain his relationships with them EVERY TIME.


I don't like to point out problems without offering solutions, so here's my advice:

1. Not all producer's reps are evil, and even the evil ones will do something good occasionally. If they were nothing but scam artists they wouldn't be in business because distribution companies would never accept their submissions.

2. If a producer's rep calls you up and asks for a screener, it means one of his assistants probably found your name on a list of films accepted to festivals and is simply feeling things out. Before you send them anything, ask them how many films they represent. If it's more than 20, or if they won't give you an answer, they probably aren't going to give your film much attention. They just want your money.

3. If they ask for a retainer, tell them you're already fielding calls from other reps, you have a buddy who's got an "in" at a mid-level distributor, and you'll have to get back to them. Let a week pass and then call them up saying you can't justify paying a fee right now, and see if they counter. They know you're a poor indy filmmaker with no money, so if all else fails and you can't negotiate their fee down, play the "I have no money card" and tell them how much you can pay if you scrape together some favors. Odds are they'll go for it. If they don't budge, you'd be wasting your money anyway because they obviously don't think the film is worth their risk. If they won't risk anything, why should you?

4. Do your homework. Find out which distributors are good and which ones are crap, so that when you're rep comes to you with a deal at one of the crap ones, you can tell him you want to wait for something better (he can't force you to sign a deal). If you sign with a crap company, you're basically putting your film on ice for at least 3 years. If you think selling it now is hard, just wait until it's 3 years out of date.

5. Finally, it's possible that your film just isn't marketable. It was a lot of fun to make, you learned a lot, and most of the time that's all it is. If you're relying on a producer's rep you've never heard of to sell your film, chances are distribution was more of an afterthought for you anyway. Take the money you would have wasted on hiring a rep and put it into the budget on your NEXT movie.

Sorry if some of this is common knowledge -- just wanted to cover all of the bases. Best of luck to you guys. As a filmmaker myself, I couldn't stomach working at that place and got out of there as soon as another opportunity came around.

Mike Dorsey directed Dearly Departed, Vol. 1 and operates Movie Threadz - clever shirts and gifts for movie fans, filmmakers, writers and actors.

If you have a positive producer's rep experience to share, I'm looking for you. E-mail me at

Bitter Man: The Rejection E-Mail

You spend your fifty bucks, wait for what feels like forever, and what do you get?

Hear it straight from the Bitter Man himself.

Can't wait to hear him act out the complaints of other filmmakers.

KC Jubilee call for entries - fee just $15

KC Jubilee just put out their call for entries for 2008.

Go to our website - - for complete details, entry form, and pay fee online.

Check out our special CinemaJAZZ division if you have made a work (short or feature) inspired by JAZZ.

It's rare that you see an entry fee under $20 these days, even for shorts. All the more reason to apply early.

15 Must-Have Freeware Programs for Filmmakers

I have resisted writing too much about filmmaking here, mostly because I'm not a filmmaker (or at least, not much of one). But when something like this comes along it just makes sense to share. FreeGeekery (a youngish blog, six months of age) posted an article today that lists out 15 Must-Have Freeware Programs for Filmmakers with a mini-review of each. There are some great finds listed here and they're even arranged by stage of production -- from screenwriting through storyboarding and budgeting, all the way through editing and post-production. A great resource for cash-strapped filmmakers.

(Thanks to Lynn of The Lady from Sockholm for the tip.)

What to put on your festival screener DVD case

First impressions are important. When it comes to first impressions, the case your festival submission DVD comes in may be the best shot you have at starting off on the right foot with the person who sees your movie first. The person who watches your movie may not be the person who takes it out of the envelope, and film festivals often separate the press kits and other material that come with a submission from the DVD or tape when they put it in the pile of films to be watched. That leaves the case itself to communicate something about your movie to a prospective viewer before they pop it into the player.

I've seen submissions come in all kinds of packaging: simple paper sleeves, CD jewel cases, regular black DVD cases, colored plastic "seashell" cases, and even elaborate metal boxes. For my money, the best of all of these are the "Thin-Pak" cases. They hold the DVD in place, give a nice roomy surface area for cover design without taking up a lot of room on a shelf (skinnier spine), and rarely break in transit. (There are few worse feelings in everyday life than pulling one of the standard black DVD cases out of an envelope and feeling the DVD bouncing around inside because the little spindle broke.) You can buy Thin-Pak cases for about 35 cents each in bulk from internet retailers like Tape and Media.

The next step is to design a cover that will attract a screener's attention. There are lots of different kinds of people who screen for film festivals, but you want the kind who cares enough about independent film to go pawing through stacks of DVDs, looking for "the good stuff." Those are the people who will give your film a fair shake and an honest appraisal. If you can make your film stand out from the other discs in the stacks with a good cover, it might mean the difference between rejection and acceptance. I should note that not every film festival gives its screeners the opportunity to select their own films so this strategy might not work for you. Regardless, you need to make the most of every chance you have to distinguish your film from the rest of the pack.

If you don't have artistic layout skills or software, get some help from someone who does. Failing that, do it yourself and keep the design as uncomplicated as possible. Even with basic page layout tools a novice can create a simple layout that is informative and professional-looking without being cheesy. Just don't try to over-reach your abilities with fancy fonts or Photoshop effects. Pick one or two basic fonts (something other than Helvetica and Times, please) and stick with them. Use stills from your movie but resist the urge to use those fun artistic filters.

I've seen a lot of submissions come in with the film's poster as the DVD cover. Sometimes this is a good idea, sometimes not -- usually the text is way too small to read on the DVD-sized presentation and it doesn't always represent the film best to a festival screener. Make a judgment call on this one but don't do it automatically just because you paid someone to design a poster.

Here's the information you should include on your DVD case:

  • The title. This should be the largest text on the case.

  • Principal cast and crew listing, especially if you have a recognizable name actor in your film.

  • Identify the film by category as a doc, narrative, short, feature -- whatever categories it falls into.

  • Include pictures from the film: not too many -- definitely opt for bigger, more intriguing photos over a series of stills you can't really make out. This can be especially bad if you print your covers out on an inkjet printer.

  • A logline (25 - 50 words tops) on the front, if you have a really good one. Lame loglines should be simply omitted.

  • A short synopsis (100-300 words) on the back. For Pete's sake, don't give too much away. If you have a short with a humorous setup and/or payoff, it's better to be teasing and mysterious on the cover than to give too much away. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to keep the viewer from anticipating the gag. On the other hand, if you have a documentary feature that starts slow and builds to an impressive climax, you might want to make it clear that the film's conclusion is worth sitting through the first twenty minutes of exposition. Again, it's all about capturing the screener's attention before they put the disc in the player.

  • Total running time. Festival screeners are busy people. If I only have a little while before my next appointment or whatever, I'll scan through the stack of discs I have to watch. If I find one short enough, I'll watch it and be grateful that the filmmaker was thoughtful enough to include the running time on the disc. It also helps me budget my time to know that the four short films and a feature I have left to watch add up to almost three hours of total viewing. Clearly marked running times are helpful for the final stages of festival programming, too -- the programming director won't have to look your film up in his database to know that your short is the perfect length to round out the comedy shorts program to a full two hours.

  • Your contact info: web site, e-mail address, and phone number. If the viewers want to know more about your film or want to get in touch with you, don't make them search anywhere else for that information! Include your mailing address if you have room.

  • Leave yourself some room to hand-write in additional information requested by the festival. Don't make it too obvious, but strategically placed blank spots are perfect for information like the Withoutabox submission number, which will be unique for each festival.

    Below is an excellent example of a DVD cover for a film festival submission. It's for a documentary called The Pool by Sam Griffin (read more about Sam's film at Notice how Sam and her designer Sol Armada used photos and the color scheme from the swimming pool (greys and blues) to give the reader an immediate impression of the film's tone, and also to play on the reader's own memories of swimming pools in the summer. Read the synopsis to see a great example of setting expectations -- if you've read the cover, you're probably curious to see what a pool looks like with 3000 people in it. Click the image below to see a version large enough to read.

    The Pool

    (Thanks to Sam Griffin for allowing me to use her as an example. I've blurred out her e-mail and phone number on the cover here but I'm sure you could probably find her if you looked hard enough.)

Slamdance Programming Coordinator positions available

SlamdancePosted at

The Slamdance Film Festival Programming department seeks two persons to fill position of Film Festival Coordinators. This is an unpaid part time position (18 hours per week) that spans from early August to December. Persons will work closely with the Slamdance Programming Director, and will be involved with the administrative side of the programming of one of America’s top independent film festivals.

If you're an aspiring filmmaker living in L.A. with the time to commit to an internship like this, it's a fantastic way to get to know what film festivals want -- from the inside. I talked to Sarah Diamond (the Programming Coordinator mentioned in the description above) and she indicated that they're looking for people who will commit seriously and can support themselves financially while working such a position.

The position ends in December but I suspect you'd have the opportunity to attend Slamdance in Park City in January. I also suspect that you'd end up working the festival more than enjoying it, but I could be wrong about that. Regardless, the internship is a great opportunity for anyone in independent film -- a few months of serious volunteerism could set you up with contacts that would last the rest of your career.

Apply here.

Toronto 2007 Festival Site online

Second only to Sundance in prestige among North American film festivals, the Toronto International Film Festival commands the attention of the independent film world in September. This week they put their new site online, though it doesn't have any of their program information just yet. Check it out.

Vancouver IFF announces $25,000 environmental award

Vancouver, BC (June 27, 2007) - The Vancouver International Film Festival today announced that it is launching an annual environmental film series and a $25,000 juried environmental award, one of the largest cash prizes at any film festival in North America. The new series, called Climate for Change, is sponsored by new festival partner Kyoto Planet. The series will include both dramatic features and documentaries and emphasize fresh information, vision and cinematic artistry. The jury will award the prize to the director of the film that best meets these criteria. The 26th annual VIFF takes place September 27 to October 12.

(Via Mad About Movies.)

Long shorts at a disadvantage

Adam T writes on the WAB message boards:

Hello, I have recently completed a documentary short entitled "La QuinceaƱera" which has a run time of 42 minutes. This felt like the best length for the film but I wanted to get some opinions from festival Programers on how they view a film of this length? It seems to be on the long end for a short and yet short for feature length. Grateful for Any feedback.

Louis P responded:

The unfortunate reality is forty two minute shorts are going to be very difficult for many fests to program. This WILL be taken into consideration when they are making selections. Where do you put a short of that length? It can't stand alone. It can't open for most features. And in a short block it will seem like an eternity next to a group of punchy five minute comedies. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this has been written about extensively on these boards. I don't think you should make changes if you are indeed at the correct length for your film. I'm just preparing you for a slew of rejections that you will no doubt receive, regardless of quality.

I'm going to have to agree with Louis on this one. As a screener for a festival I can definitely say that anything over 20 minutes is regarded with some skepticism. Not because there aren't subjects that don't fit into that running time, but because the overwhelming majority of "short films" that run that long simply could have been edited down to something leaner while delivering the same value.

Another thing you should consider: there's a 90-minute drama of roughly the same name ("Quinceanara") that came out last year. You're bound to come up against some confusion there. That might be to your advantage since anything that catches the attention of a programmer is a good thing ("didn't we play that already? Oh, it's a doc short... interesting."), but it might work against you in the long run. If you weren't aware of this before, consider the implications carefully.