By redmachine, November 22nd, 2009

A few months ago, the New Breed contributors ran a discussion about our expectations for film festivals. I put myself on record as being somewhat ambivalent about the whole idea — about whether fests can attract the right audiences for each film, about whether filmmakers can get decent exhibition and screening times, and about whether fests are really the right environment to build the connections and collaborations that will sustain us through our careers.

But what really stuck with me from that New Breed discussion was a blistering rant by Justin Evans, about all the ways that filmmakers themselves fail to contribute to festivals — about how we’re flakes and selfish and ill-prepared and ill-mannered — not to mention poorly dressed. His accusations gnawed away at me for months.

Then our feature The Red Machine got very lucky: the movie was selected by the Mill Valley Film Festival, and we had our world premiere there last month — October 11 and 12, 2009.

Mill Valley is a world-class festival in northern California that has been in existence for 32 years, and they are completely on their game. We knew that they would do their part — that our exhibition would be phenomenal (and it was – HDCAM in both of our two screenings in the festival’s excellent Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, California) and that they would know how to program well for their audiences (and boy, did they get that right).

We felt that we needed to match their effort and do everything we could to make the festival experience a great one for everyone. We treated it as an experiment — for now, I’ll call it the Justin Evans Experiment. Here’s a run-down of what we tried; some things will be relevant for other films, some less so, some went really well, some could use refinement (or abandonment):

1. Scout.

We treated the fest like we would treat a shoot. We’d never been to Mill Valley, so three weeks before the fest, my directing partner Alec Boehm and I drove the eight hours from Los Angeles to northern California to check out hotels and restaurants and get a sense of the place — and most importantly, to meet the festival staff. When we saw how hard they were working, we began to think of them as an extension of our own crew, and to see that our interaction with the festival was one more collaboration. It made us realize how much we had to do.

2. Participate as fully as possible.

Alec and I both attended the fest, and we were very lucky in that many of our cast and crew were willing to make the trek to Northern California to join us, including six of our actors — both of our leads, Lee Perkins and Donal Thoms-Cappello, plus Meg Brogan, Maureen Byrnes, Madoka Kasahara, Chad Nadolski — and many of our crew. The stage was a little crowded during our Q&A’s, but it was great to have many voices answering questions.

3. Take part in everything you can that’s associated with the fest.

We know an old-time agent/manager who says he used to tell his actor clients going to a shoot to “become family.” Our variation on this for filmmakers going to a fest to “become local.” If a fest offers you any way to connect more to its audiences and to the community, take them up on it.

One of the coolest things about the Mill Valley Film Festival is that it’s run by an educational foundation called the California Film Institute. The CFI does a great program during the festival called Filmmakers Go To School — and it’s exactly what it sounds like.

The festival hooked us up with a local high school, the Marin School. We sent script pages for three scenes from The Red Machine to their film teacher, Kieran Ridge, and their drama teacher, Philip Van Eyck, who had his students prepare their interpretations of our scenes. When we got to the school, the students showed us what they had come up with — and after living with our own versions of the scenes for so long, it was really thrilling to see them reimagined by someone else.

To give the students a hint of the difference between stage acting and film acting, we chose one of their renditions of a scene and created a mock film set environment around them, with other students standing in as film crew. Finally, we showed them the scenes they’d prepped as they appear in the final movie. All in all, one of the best experiences we had at the fest.

There are panels, there are workshops, there are all sorts of ways to get involved.

4. Suggest More Things

In honor of a Red Machine character named Agnes Driscoll — a real-life mathematician and linguist who was the head of U.S. Navy cryptanalysis during the 1930s — we proposed a panel called Girl Geeks, a conversation among some of Driscoll’s nerd chick descendents — including me.

Mill Valley took us up on the idea, and programming administrator Holly Roach ran with it, booking an interesting group of women out of northern California, including moderator Tiffany Shlain (The Tribe) and artists and technical people from ILM, Pixar and YouTube.

5. Displays

Because The Red Machine is set in the 1930s, we have costumes and props that are a little out of the ordinary. Mill Valley was fantastic about letting us create a display of our women’s costumes (which we put on mannequins and changed out from time to time so that there would be variety) and the Japanese code machine that is our title character (and the target of the movie’s heist).

6. Giveaways

The costume display fed nicely into our one big giveaway — we got together with Annamarie von Firley, who designed and custom-tailored the women’s costumes in The Red Machine, and gave away two $200 gift certificates for clothing made by her salon — one certificate handed out at each of our two screenings.

We weren’t the only ones to do a giveaway at Mill Valley: the filmmakers of the feature Passengers taped a postcard for their movie on the bottom of a theater seat, then gave the person in that seat a bottle of wine; we thought that was a nice idea, too.

The giveaway was one thing I would have done differently: originally, we’d envisioned it as a way to attract people to our screening. But because Mill Valley is so good at promoting the fest, and because they have such a supportive community, we sold out both of our screenings less than a day after tickets went on sale to the general public. As a result, we never really promoted the giveaway or even talked about it that much, and on the first night, when we gave away the gift certificate, the audience was frankly confused. The second night, we mentioned it before the movie played, but it’s still something that could have and should have been promoted and presented better.

7. Swag

The Red Machine was actually our second movie to premiere at Mill Valley; the first was our short film Gandhi at the Bat. Unfortunately, we missed Gandhi at the Bat’s Mill Valley appearance because we were shooting The Red Machine when it played — but Mill Valley still gave Gandhi at the Bat a great launch into the world. In recognition of that, and as a thank-you to Mill Valley and its audiences, we decided to give a Gandhi at the Bat DVD to every single person who came to see The Red Machine at Mill Valley.

We put the DVDs into muslin bags that we rubber-stamped with “The Red Machine” and “World Premiere, Mill Valley, 2009.” We created miniature 1930s-style lobby cards for The Red Machine, with cryptograms on the back, and we put a small assortment of those into each bag. We also created replicas of some of the prop documents from The Red Machine and put one of those into each bag — letters, a menu — but ultimately I didn’t think those particular prop documents were special enough or worth the effort they took.

Our decision to give away swag became more complicated and expensive when less than a week before our premiere, we had a call from Mill Valley, telling us that they had moved our first screening into the biggest theater at the Smith Rafael — bumping us up from 260 DVDs to give away at the two screenings to a possible 470. But we took a deep breath and gathered up what we needed to cover the new estimate.

An interesting side effect of giving away the Gandhi at the Bat DVDs: somehow, one of them found its way to Karen Redhook Dallett, the operations director of the Santa Fe Film Festival. Karen watched the Gandhi at the Bat DVD, then emailed us and asked if she could screen Gandhi at the Bat at Santa Fe; we said yes, of course, and oh, by the way, did she know that we’d just finished our first feature? She asked for a screener of The Red Machine, which we Fed Exed to her immediately from Mill Valley. She ended up booking both movies, which will play together at the Santa Fe Film Festival on December 4 and 5.

8. Clothes

Finally…one of Justin’s comments that that provoked particular controversy was his contention that filmmakers at fests dress like slobs.

We’d found the value of dressing up before, when Gandhi the Bat played the Baseball Hall of Fame. For that screening, a friend made a dress for me — a short Yankee pinstripe dress with “Gandhi” on the back. (Women tourists at the Hall would gasp and ask where they could buy a dress for their own team — a possible lucrative ancillary stream for the movie, if we could ever work out the licensing with Major League Baseball!)

This is a tale that probably won’t be useful to my mostly male New Breed colleagues, but for our Mill Valley/Red Machine screenings, I ended up finding the perfect dress, in a fabric made up of typed text, very much in keeping with the cryptographic/linguistic tone of the movie. The dress was bright white, and on stage among all the people in dark and muted outfits, I looked like a lit-up lightbulb. (Handy info for those filmmakers who want to be easy to spot — perhaps for you gentlemen, a bright white Tom Wolfe style suit?)

The result of all this effort was that we and our cast and our crew had an extraordinary experience at Mill Valley. Part of it was being at a great, well-run fest that loves and cares for its filmmakers; part of it was being there with a feature rather than a short (at the grown-ups’ table at last!), but part of it also came from having engaged so fully in the fest.

So thank you to Justin — and also curse you! You forced us to set a new standard for ourselves, and like a bell that can’t be unrung, now we’re stuck having to live up to that for the foreseeable future — which in addition to Santa Fe on December 4 and 5, will also include a screening in Prescott, Arizona on December 16, and the Sedona Film Festival in February, 2010.

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  • Hi Stephanie,

    Thank you for this: as a film festival director, it is so heartening when a filmmaker really embraces the opportunities and works the festival as you did. You were/are a fantastic guest, and it was great to have you and the Red Machine gang at Mill Valley Film Festival. Just being able to connect with the community of people who come together at a festival can be an incredible thing--you never know when a conversation and connection will turn into something, some time.

    And what Justin says about Q&As is great. It's a skill definitely worth developing. We work on it, too: our programmer/moderators usually ask one or two questions at the beginning so as to set a direction and tone for the conversation. It's good to be proactive in driving the discussion: otherwise you may spend all your time answering The Three Big Questions (how much did it cost, how long did it take, what's your next project)--which may not provide the most creative insight or invoke the greatest stories about your film. Though that said: I moderated a Q&A with Todd Haynes for I'm Not There, and the last question was someone asking how long the film took to make. My heart fell. But instead of saying how many years it took, Todd launched into a fascinating five minutes or so on the genesis of the project, where and how he took inspiration--it was quite brilliant. So I guess the thing to remember is, like politicians, you don't have to answer directly, but you can engage and fascinate.

    Good luck with The Red Machine. And we look forward to more!

  • Stephanie,

    First time reading one of your posts. You provide us a lot of great information here. Love to hear of your tremendous start with your feature film. Looking forward to following your progress. And once again thank you for the useful and practical ideas.

  • Stephanie Argy

    Thank you very much gentlemen -- and thank you for even more great ideas, Justin.

    We'd be thrilled and honored to have you at one of our screenings. If you make it, please be sure to say hello, and come out to eat with us afterward!

  • Justin Evans

    Stephanie, you make me blush! Thank you for taking my remarks to heart. I bet your typographic dress is fantastic and that's definitely taking filmmaker participation to the next level. I'll try to catch your screening at the Santa Fe Film Festival next week. We're gearing up for a city-sponsored screening here in Albuquerque. I'm trying to go all out:
    1.) I'm having my team do a couple Q&A rehearsals. I have a public speaking background, but most of my team doesn't. I want them sounding confident and smooth on stage. Just as actors and musicians should practice for their first time on Letterman, we're practicing the Q&A. It's part of show business and the audience deserves a well planned show.
    2.) We're giving away maxi-single CD's for the first 250 guests...which also will include investment information for our next project. Our lawyers are vetting the language to make sure we're in compliance with securities regulations. Assuming that we can do that, this means we can turn every screening into a soft-sell investment pitch.
    3.) We've got pop-up standees for the lobby and we're working on a "pre-show reel" that will be loaded onto an Apple TV or laptop. This gives us the ability to play excerpts from the score along with a slide show that contains conceptual designs, behind-the-scenes stills (that don't reveal plot) and contact information for our company.

    From the moment an audience walks in the doors to the moment they leave, we're in the business of giving them a show.

    You're doing a bang-up job! You should be proud! You're definitely holding up your end of the deal!

  • congrats. great ideas and recap!

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