Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Keeping it Personal at Shriekfest: Denise Gossett on Running a Successful Independent Film Festival

By James Latham

Based here in L.A., the Shriekfest Film Festival specializes in horror, thrillers, Sci Fi, and fantasy films. In addition to showing shorts and features, Shriekfest also has award categories for screenplays and filmmakers under eighteen. I recently spoke with Denise Gossett, who founded Shriekfest eleven years ago and continues to run the festival, which takes place this year from September 29th to October 2nd. I wanted to learn more about one of our fellow local film festivals, and to indulge my inner geek.

James Latham:  Your festival’s genres used to be sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of movies, often getting no respect.  But that’s changed a lot.  What are some lingering misconceptions about the genres you screen, or their audiences?

Denise Gossett:  Horror is still considered the lowly genre, but that is changing....with better scripts, strong acting, and the amount of money these films can bring in.  Horror is not so cheesy anymore, nor is SciFi for that matter...with the help of computer graphics. 

JL:  As a woman running a festival for films that traditionally have tended to be male-centric, what key changes have you seen in the last ten years with women as producers and consumers of these films?

DG:  There are many more women filmmakers, directors, writers, producers.  It's wonderful.  Men are digging the strong, talented women who are into the same genres they are.  And, it's changing the formats of the typical horror film too; the characters are stronger, not so weak, the stories are smarter and not so exploitative. 

JL:  How easy or difficult has it been to attract distributors to attend Shriekfest?  

DG:  It’s been very easy...that is part of the perks of submitting to our festival...we give out referrals all year long.  95% of all films (shorts included) that have screened at Shriekfest have gotten distribution!

JL:  That’s terrific.  What is it about the festival that has yielded such great results?  And what sort of distribution?  Do these films tend to generally do better than other genres, because their primary appeals are often visual and physical (less verbal), so they cross barriers of culture and language better than, say, romantic comedies?

DG:  Well, Shriekfest screens quality films and the distributors have come to know that, so they come to the fest and scoop up our films.  Many of the features that were submitted this year already have distribution via a referral from Shriekfest!  These genres do tend to do better than most genres...there is a HUGE following in horror and scifi and these fans are loyal...they are willing to fork over money to buy an unknown's DVD.  It's refreshing.

JL:  What makes for a great film festival?  Which is your favorite one, besides Shriekfest and, of course, The Valley Film Festival?

DG:  I think a great film festival should be personal, hands on, treat the filmmakers and screenwriters with respect, go out of their way to help further the careers of the submitters, and be organized and timely with their schedules.

JL:  When you first started Shriekfest eleven years ago, there weren’t many horror film festivals around.  Now they’re all over the world, and even several here in L.A.  Some of them are pretty specialized.  How does Shriekfest fit into that universe?  Besides the screenplay awards, what else distinguishes your festival from the others?

DG:  Well, the under 18 category and the fact that we truly champion indie filmmakers!  We don't cater to studio films or star laden projects.  That's not to say our films don't have some stars in them, but there is a difference.  The big boys don't need the recognition, the indie filmmakers do.

JL:  A flip side to that question is whether you have or would want to collaborate with any other festivals, whatever their film genres.  Regardless of that, what are some ways that festivals in general realistically can / should collaborate in a mutually beneficial way?

DG:  Hmmm...that is a good question.  Sure, we'd be open to it if it was to everyone's benefit.    It's tough, we've had festivals approach us through the years, but if the festivals aren't on an equal grounding, then it's not beneficial to both entities.

JL:  Your interview with Altered Realities Radio (podcast link on the Shriekfest website) covers a lot of ground.  Shriekfest also has active Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace accounts.  Tell me about how social media have worked (or not) for you.  Any advice for other festivals on how to best leverage these media?

DG:  It's amazing...I cannot believe how quickly word travels with social media!  It has to be used, daily...not every now and again.  You have to be personal with your followers and help them as well.  It can't be all about you.  Share, retweet, help out others.

JL:  After eleven years, what keeps you doing it year after year?  What synergies does your career as an actress provide you in running a film festival?

DG:  Well, it's tough; as an actor first and foremost I am very busy.  I am also a Mom and it all becomes a juggling act.  The people are the main reason I keep doing it...our following...I don't want to let them down.

JL:  What were some of the bigger challenges you’ve overcome in creating and running Shriekfest? 

DG:  The balancing act of life and the full time job of a festival and all that goes into running it....I don't think people realize how much time and effort go into it, especially if you do it personally.  And, by that, I mean keeping all correspondence personal.


The Shriekfest Film Festival takes place this September 29th - October 2nd.

For more on The Valley Film Festival, visit our website or Facebook page.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Countdown to VFF11...T-Minus 54 Days: Curating a Festival Program

Post-It notes are our BFF's
For the last 3 months, more than 25 volunteers have dedicated their time to view short films, in a group with their peers, or watch features at home. We started meeting once a week, then, as the submission deadline approached, we added a second day. By the final weeks, we were running marathon screenings from 10:00am to 10:00pm (or longer). And, just in case you were wondering, we watched every film from start to finish.

Over the months, films blend in with one another, which is why filling out the short synopsis on our application is so crucial. It allows us to quickly scan the paperwork, reacquaint ourselves with the film, and remind ourselves what stood out. We take extensive notes, too, so these help as well. 

Now that everything has been viewed enough times, by enough people, the fun begins: Programming!

This last week we spread out every short and feature we were considering across the floor, labeled each with a Post-It that included the running time (rounded up), genre, and any special features. Then, we started pairing films programs we discovered we could build: Alumni Shorts and Future Cult Classics -- y'know, the ones that break tradition, follow their own rules, and are ambitious in a bad-ass sort of way. Bravo!

As we tallied up total running times per program, and broke down our screening schedule for 2011, it became real clear, real fast, that we needed to eliminate even more films. Sigh. This really is the hardest part. And this is where screening time plays a huge role -- if we love 4 films, and one is 30 minutes long, and the others are 10 minutes or less, we're going to share the love and program the 3 shorter films.

This weekend, we've been watching feature films, some for the 3rd and 4th time.  What makes us choose one feature over the other at this stage? There's no right or wrong answer here, in the end, we're not able to screen some awesome films because we simply don't have the time. We take our personal feelings off the table and try to be as objective as possible -- what would appeal to a general audience? Or, do we have enough of a fan base for a niche genre?

Our goal is to be fully programmed, alert the filmmakers, and have our website updated to unveil our program by October 1st.  Will we make that deadline? Stay tuned.

The 2011 Valley Film Festival will take place November 11-13 at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

If You Like Sports of Any Kind, Here’s a Festival for You

By James Latham

Pat Battistini runs the All Sports Los Angeles Film Festival here in the San Fernando Valley.  The festival’s third annual screenings will be at the El Portal Theater on November 11 – 13th, the same time we will be at the Whitefire Theatre.  Altogether, it should be a great filmgoing weekend in the Valley.

The All Sports Los Angeles Film Festival promotes the art of screenwriting and filmmaking in the world of sports and competition.  It is one of only three festivals in the U.S. solely dedicated to this genre, and the only one west of the Mississippi.  I wanted to talk with Pat about the festival to learn more about it.

James Latham:  What led you to develop the All Sports Los Angeles Film Festival (ASLAFF)?

Pat Battistini:  I’ve always enjoyed sports films and watching “Real Sports” on HBO, so I was surprised there wasn’t a festival solely dedicated to this genre.  After toying around with the idea for a couple years, it finally came down to one of those things that, if no one else is going to do it, I need to. 

JL:  What background prepared you for developing the ASLAFF?

PB:  I played football and wrestled in college; then coached college football for four years.  After realizing that I really wanted to work in film and TV, I transitioned to the “biz.”  This work has included writing, directing, producing, and editing eight short films of my own.  Also, from submitting and going to festivals, I learned a lot about how they work.  My friend Denise Gossett, who runs Shriekfest, also has been very helpful with the many challenges of developing a film festival.

JL:  The VFF is pretty wide-ranging in terms of genre, while your films focus on sports competition.  But there’s a huge range of possibilities within that one category.  What are some of the more innovative films you’ve screened?

PB:  We’ve had some very surprising and interesting films about events that I didn’t even know existed.  The documentary that won our first year was Bicycle Dreams.  It’s about racing across America, coast to coast, on bikes…in less than twelve days.  The riders at the front of the race sleep as little as 90 minutes a day.  It’s an incredible feat.  Another documentary we screened was about solar powered cars racing across the continent of Australia.  Others that were just as interesting were about Iraq’s Women’s Rugby Team (scarves and all), Beer Pong, and Freediving.  These films are a lot more fun to watch than people expect.

JL:  What are the latest trends in the films you’ve screened, for example in their subject matter, styles, or production technologies?

PB:  We have a lot of boxing, martial arts, and mixed martial arts showing up this year.  It has really exploded as a popular sport, thus more people are making stories about it.  As far as styles go, a lot of it is driven by new technologies.  Because decent cameras keep getting smaller and more economical, we have a lot of DPs and athletes strapping them on to themselves and getting into places a lot of people could never go.  For example, we’ve had POVs on surfboards riding through amazing waves, or on bicycles and motorcycles ripping through city streets and the countryside.

JL:  Your filmmakers focus on competition in its many mental and physical forms.  What have you learned about competition from this festival?

PB:  No matter what the subject matter is, the will to finish or win is incredible.  We had a doc on junior high school kids competing to build a robot that could play soccer.  They were happy with the fact that they built this incredible machine, but they wanted it to be able to score too.  We also had another film about athletes running a 100-mile race through the mountains in less than a day.  Getting first place wasn’t the most important thing.  It was the drive of just being able to finish that made these people train so long and hard.

JL:  Los Angeles is a large media and sports hub, which I assume provides a lot of local people for you, such as filmmakers, sports professionals, and audiences.  What types of filmmakers tend to screen the most at your festival?  Film students, sports professionals, fans? 

PB:  Like most films, the filmmaker is connected to the project through his / her passion.  Thus, I think that about 75% of the filmmakers are sports fans who have been dying to tell their story for a while and the other 25% stumble on a story that they feel connected to and want to share.

JL:  What are the demographics of your typical audiences?

PB:  You would think it would be male dominant, but it’s been pretty even, partly because some stories are about women’s sports, such as professional football and roller derby.  As for the ages of our audience, it’s pretty much as if you would look up into the stands of a high school football game.  It’s so diverse because everyone loves a good sports story.

JL:  What luck have you had attracting distributors to screenings?

PB:  I’ve actually found it more difficult than I thought, but we do occasionally have distributors approach our filmmakers.  However, the deals haven’t been very beneficial to the producers of the films, thus they’ve passed.

JL:  Do you or any of your associates attend many other film festivals?  Which is your favorite one, besides your own, and, of course, The Valley Film Festival?  What makes a great festival?

PB:  We try to go to more and more festivals each year.  The folks at the Bare Bones Festival in Oklahoma are so warm and friendly.  Palm Beach has a great fest, too.  But I think my favorite so far has been Austin, where the panelists, guest speakers, and honorees have been so approachable.  They aren’t shuffled in and out like in a lot of festivals in L.A.  I remember one time I was sitting on the curb outside a restaurant eating and Herschel Weingrod (writer of Trading Places, Kindergarten Cop, Brewster’s Millions) just came up and sat down next to me to chat and eat.  That doesn’t happen around here.

JL:  There are only a few other film festivals that specialize in sports.  Have you looked into possibly collaborating with any of them in some mutually beneficial way?  Regardless of that, what do you think are some general areas (if any) where small independent film festivals might sensibly collaborate?

PB:  We are collaborating with the Federation Internationale Cinema Television Sportifs out of Milan and the Georgian Bay (Canada) Extreme Film Festival.  I would like to work more with them in exchanging films to help the filmmakers get their work out there.  Social networking is another area.  I think the smaller fests (ourselves included) should start cross promoting more through Facebook, Twitter, etc.

JL:  What elements, if any, would you like to change about your festival; for instance to expand upon?

PB:  My biggest goal right now is to get more people in the theater.  L.A. has so many fests that you can call in favors only so much with your friends.  Premieres are easy to get people to attend, but three days worth of films is a tough thing to do to continually get people out to watch films.  My other endeavor is to give a Sports Achievement Award to actors / athletes who have made contributions to the sports world through film / cinema.

JL:  What parting words of advice would you have for filmmakers who want to submit to your festival?

PB: Don’t be afraid to show us your work.  We love any kind of film or documentary that touches the element of physical and/or mental challenges.  Your film on the haunted baseball stadium will be just as entertaining as the documentary on a junior high spelling bee.  Also, we do our best to get as many films in the fest as possible.  If we have to add screening times, we will!


The regular submissions deadline for the All Sports Los Angeles Film Festival has passed, but latecomers have until September 21st.

For more on The Valley Film Festival, visit our website or Facebook page.