14 hours of student films

As regular readers might have noted, my posts over the last few weeks have really dwindled. There are good reasons for this, as I've been phenomenally busy. One of the many reasons is that I was overseeing the production of Temple's annual student film festival. I had never organized something of this scale (31 short films, jurors from London and L.A., closing awards ceremony to feed 200 people, etc). Luckily, I had a group of six student volunteers, all of whom did a fantastic job.

I thought about writing a long post about how to organize something like this, but I assume there are better resources on the internet by people more experienced in film festival management. Instead, I'll just offer one piece of advice to student (or beginning) filmmakers, which I was reminded of while we put the fest together:

If you're interested in being a filmmaker, volunteer to be a pre-screener for a film festival.

By my estimation, the student volunteers and I watched over 100 short films in one 14 hour stretch to select the films that would screen in the festival. They chose the work; I mainly voted in tie-breaker situations.

What was really amazing for me was not watching the work itself. It was watching the students watch the work.

The students making the selections want to be filmmakers themselves, and I think they probably learned as much about filmmaking from those 14 hours as they did from any single course they've taken. Why? Because they saw more bad films than good ones and, seeing them in such close succession, they saw that bad films often have the same, simple problems:

- Too long. Comedies and documentaries are especially guilty of this. The docs are too long because the filmmakers haven't yet found their story or they're in love with their footage. The comedies... well, you know that saying, "brevity is the soul of wit"? Shakespeare knew what he was talking about. A comedy that overstays its welcome isn't, well, a comedy.

- Bad sound. So what if a film looks great? If we can't hear the dialogue we don't care. The first moment the students heard that a piece had bad sound, they'd cry "Next!"

- Underwriting and overacting. The saddest of the movies with these problems were those that looked phenomenal. Sad, because time should have been spent on re-writing and rehearsal instead of production design. Sad, because so much money had been spent.

This isn't meant as a slam on student filmmakers. They're learning the ropes and, honestly, you can run into the first and third problems in any kind of film -- Hollywood, "independent", foreign, etc.

My point is that there's something about seeing the problems back to back for hours on end -- as well as having to make choices about what stays and goes, and learning to articulate the reasons -- that is specific to the film festival selection process. It's a phenomenal chance for developing filmmakers to think about what makes a film "work."

What did the films that were selected have in common? Not much. They were a diverse group. But all had a simple, engaging story, technical proficiency, and a least a little style.

So much time in film school is spent watching "great works" and talking about what to do. (I am guilty of this as a teacher myself.) Conversely, so little is spent talking about what not to do. I guarantee that the students that sat through those 14 hours will make better films now. And maybe I will too.