Over the years we’ve been lucky enough to travel the world and experience a number of festivals – both as filmmakers and audience members. We recently had the privilege of premiering our short film The Summer Home at the Festivus Film Festival in Denver, CO.
When formulating a festival plan, we do a lot of research in selecting which ones to submit to. Some we choose for marketing, networking and career building; others we choose in order to connect with our truly independent filmmaking compatriots around the world, to find storytellers like us who are doing everything they can to make quality, engaging, art. Festivus is one of these festivals.
WHAT MAKES FESTIVUS UNIQUE?
No barriers to festival execs
The first e-mail we received from Festivus was from Tim DeMasters – one of the festival founders. And it wasn’t just a form letter; it was an honest-to-goodness communiqué that originated from his fingertips, which ultimately turned into a lengthy thread with the same man! This might sound minor, but it made an impression right away. If you’ve ever worked with a festival in the past, you know this is a special thing; usually emails are foisted upon a volunteer charged with wrangling us eclectic, scattered filmmakers.
This trend didn’t stop once the festival started, either. All three founders attended most every event; they were incredibly approachable and easy to talk to. In fact, on several occasions they initiated contact and checked in with us! This wonderful attitude towards their filmmakers leads us to our next point.
Festivus pulls out all the stops when it comes to taking care of their filmmakers. They claim to be a festival for filmmakers and they’re not kidding around. From day one you get above and beyond service – including a personal liaison. That’s right. A person dedicated specifically to you. A super awesome, cool festival volunteer whose whole job is to make sure you have the best festival experience possible. This includes a personal pick-up from the airport, recommendations for food/activities around town and someone to hang out with and introduce you to other people at festival events.
Our liaison, Seneca, was amazing; a warm, inviting, knowledgeable and all around kick-ass person. She truly made our festival experience unforgettable.
Abundant chances to mix and mingle
Festivus knows how to throw a party and practice clearly makes perfect - they have a party every night of the festival! Not only do they have amazing sponsors (including Buffalo Trace Bourbon), they booked us in some really cool locations around the city. And each event was catered to filmmakers mixing and mingling with each other as well as festival-goers. The way everything was set up, it was virtually impossible not to make meaningful connections.
Beyond the official parties, each screening venue also had an accompanying lounge just across the street – pre- and post-film discussions, free booze and snacks. Can’t go wrong.
Filmmaker bowling social
Yes, Festivus organized a filmmaker bowling social. Want to find the inspiration for your next awkward black comedy? Put a bunch of sport-challenged, uncoordinated filmmakers together and ask them to figure out ways to throw a weighted ball down a greasy lane in order to knock down the most pins. Good times for all!
To add some extra fun/complexity, they added “Feats of Strength”: spinning around 10 times before throwing the ball, throwing it between your legs, buddy bowling, etc. Silly? Sure. But by breaking down the barriers of the detached, ironic “cool” we’ve all become so adept at and forcing everyone into the abyss of ridiculousness, they created a perfect recipe for fun and camaraderie.
Not to mention Lindy was the highest scoring girl. Oh, and there was free beer.
Last but not least, and the most important part of any festival, is the quality of programming. And for a festival in only the fifth year of existence, Festivus has some undeniable chops. All the films were truly independent and we were shocked by not only the production values, but the storytelling skills many of the filmmakers exhibited. We also appreciated Festivus pushing the boundaries and programming some truly risky films.
OUR FAVORITE FILMS
We saw many films while enjoying all this festival had to offer – 43, to be exact. Here are our Top 11 (because 10 is so last year):
Ghosts of Old Highways (dir. Dan Bush // 16 min): A thematic and structural cousin to the 1962 French short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, this is a magnificently beautiful film, ultimately winning the award for Best Cinematography. It’s a music video, but one with a very strong (albeit abstract) narrative and great performances. Only one complaint: the credits felt longer than the actual film. This is an odd trend we’ve noticed, and it needs to stop. Believe us, as filmmakers, we know it takes a lot people and a tremendous amount of effort (not to mention blood, sweat and tears) to make a film. But on short films, the credits should be just that – short. We’re certainly not advocating for no credits, but if people are genuinely interested in the film’s colophon, let’s be honest, they’ll go to IMDb.
Blunderkind (dir. Zak Mechanic // 20 min): A little bit Rushmore(1998), but with more time travel, beer and video games. Cheeky, clever and highly entertaining. A boy-genius and his trusty sidekick build a time machine, but the sidekick gets lost in the future. It’s only when the prodigy grows up that they meet again; except time itself has not been kind to the one-time wunderkind. It features a gleefully self-referential and sarcastic voice-over and uses the tropes of time-travel cinema to create an emotionally compelling, bittersweet conclusion.
The Forgotten Fruit (dir. James Williams // 9 min): A short documentary about gooseberries and the men who love them – specifically, the men who compete to see who can grow the biggest. While it might sound like a slight story, the beauty of this film lies in its refreshingly non-ironic earnestness. There are a number of wonderful double entendres peppered throughout, but the bulk of the movie is a simple celebration of life’s small pleasures, of a sense of innocence, and a forgotten era.
Remake (dir. Chris Tomkins // 7 min): A hilarious, inspired burglary-comedy for film nerds. Two men break into a house, only to discover one of the world’s greatest DVD collections; this promptly starts an argument over, you guessed it, remakes. Wonderful – and fun! – all the way around.
A Finger, Two Dots, Then Me (dir. David & Daniel Holecheck // 8 min): On paper, this should be a sappy and downright ridiculous film: spoken word poetry about the cosmic glory of love. But the way it’s manifested, the way the poem is visualized, the energy of the performer, everything coalesces into a transcendent and affecting experience. Deserving winner of the Best Editing award.
16-bit Sunrise (dir. Vinnie Pomp // 20 min): when asked during the Q&A about his inspiration, the director responded: “Well, a funny thing happened. I was a teenager and went to High School.” That pretty much sums it up. It’s an awkward, affectionate and occasionally dark story about an outcast, the girl after whom he pines, and the video games he uses as a safety blanket.
Self-Sabotage (dir. Scott Brignac // 27 min): We don’t use the term lightly when we say: this film is epic. It’s quite long for a short film, but it’s a sumptuous feast for the senses. A collaborative project branching out from the music that acts as the score/soundtrack, it “follows” the verses of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s experimental, oblique and wondrous.
Kama Sutra King (dir. Ben Jones // 10 min): Using the archetype of the Hot Librarian as a jumping off point, this gratifying, big-hearted film is ultimately about inaction and regret, but with a lovely and happy ending. As a film professor once said, brevity is the soul of the short film; this one is short and sweet.
Searching For Sonny (dir. Andrew Disney // 94 min): The one feature on our list. A suburban black-comedy/neo-noir, from within the first few minutes, you know that you want to spend time with these characters. Set during a High School reunion, it’s the mystery of a missing friend. Some great twists and turns, a lot of laughs and gunshot wounds for everyone!
Bunker'd (dir. Chris Canfield // 15 min): Thoroughly entertaining comedy about two men trapped in a bomb-shelter after nuclear war breaks out in the 1950s. Well, one man and a dead guy. And a lot of canned peaches.
Spoiler (dir. Daniel Thron // 18 min): The world doesn’t need is another zombie film; but this one has a unique perspective. After a zombie outbreak, what do people do? Adapt and get on with the lives, most likely; assimilate the fear into daily routine, keep calm and carry on. This movie uses that premise to examine a macro concept in a micro narrative of a father trying to protect his daughter from a zombie-fied mother, while the police zero in and are about to “neutralize” the entire house. Taught, well-acted and intriguing.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT?
These are a couple of areas we feel could use a little improvement; but we only say this out of love, to make an already great festival even better.
More Diverse award categories
For such a small and diverse festival, Festivus had a very limited amount of awards. While they had some specific awards – Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Short Short, Best Foreign Short, Best Documentary Short, Best Experimental – they didn’t separate the larger categories like drama from comedy. Now, of course, having too many awards simply dilutes the value, but it’s nearly impossible to compare a film like, say, Remake with Ghost of Old Highways. Since awards can help make or break an indie film, Festivus could really continue to help filmmakers and expand their award categories slightly.
In our opinion, they could probably remove the more specialized awards (like editing and cinematography; while filmmakers can appreciate these, a general audience likely can’t discern why one film would win over another, especially for editing) and instead just focus on the best films within sections. Best Feature (they only program a few), Best Short Short, Best Foreign Short, Best Documentary Short, Best Experimental Short, Best Comedy Short, Best Dramatic Short.
Tailoring programming & advertising to an outside audience
After attending the entire festival and experiencing 43 of the films offered, it seemed that the majority of the attending audiences were other filmmakers. Festivus can boast some incredible growth since their inception five years ago, and they definitely had an advertising presence in Denver (we noticed at least two billboards while driving around town), but perhaps more general-audience outreach can be done. And yes, we’re fully aware that this is easier said than done.
But, as an example: package marketing. Our film, THE SUMMER HOME, was in a package called “Rehab Shorts”. To an outside audience, it would make sense that all the films in this package would have a rehab theme. That’s originally what we thought ourselves. However, the festival labels it “Rehab” because it’s the first screening after one of their blow-out parties: going to it will help you “rehab”. We admit, this is clever. However, it’s targeted toward the inside crowd – to the filmmakers and hardcore festival-goers who went to the party – and not necessarily to a more general/casual audience.
Post-film Q&As at Festivus typically begin with the host handing the microphone to the filmmaker and walking off the stage. In principal, we totally understand the rationale: remove any sense of boundary between audience and filmmaker. But, a good Q&A needs help from a moderator. Not someone who takes over the conversation, but someone who helps guide the audience and their questions. A good moderator is one who has seen the film and, because of their special knowledge of the filmmakers and the stories behind the films, can lead the audience into questions that hit on a deeper and more useful level. Without moderation, the Q&As can become awkward and consist of the same few questions: What’s your budget? What did you shoot on? What was your inspiration? While these are great questions, audience members usually want to get to the meatier discussion without the unnecessary warm up period. A moderator can help with that.
All in all the Festivus Film Festival is an amazing festival. It features fun, engaging, quality programming and focuses on the true artistic spirit and talent brewing in the US and around the world.
Personally, we can’t wait to make another film and (hopefully) attend Festivus again!