Ever wonder how film festivals come together? Noah Charney, Selector of Feature Films for the first annual Bled Film Festival, provides an inside look.
Six weeks, thirty-five films, eight slots to fill. I was brought in, rather on the late side, as Selector of Feature Films for an exciting new international film festival, to be held at one of the most beautiful locations on earth: Lake Bled, a tea-cup, fairy-tale lake in the Slovenians mountains, featuring a perfect church perched on an island, and a cliff-top castle hovering in the clouds above it. The festival is the brainchild of Marko Gajic and Daniel Utjesanovic, both of whom grew up in Bled. They gathered an all-star team of cinema icons from throughout the former Yugoslavia, to serve on the Board and participate in the festival: Rade Serbedzija, Branko Djuric, Boris Cavazza, Tanja Ribic, Cedo Kolar, Danis Tanovic, Srdjan Dragojevic, Nikola Kojo, to name a few, as well as a smattering of Hollywood actors, including Armand Assante and Vanessa Redgrave.
Film festivals are a dime a dozen, so it takes something special for one to stand out, particularly one in its first year. The first film festival in history was in Venice, beginning in 1932. It was quickly followed by Moscow (1935) and a flurry of others after the Second World War, beginning with Cannes in 1946. It is no surprise that Venice and Cannes remain the two most prestigious and storied. What does the Bled Film Festival have that will put it on the cultural world map? Initially, it struck me that its team is high-profile, particularly in this part of the world, and it has the further strength of what is arguably the most photogenic location on the planet. How its reputation develops artistically, only time will tell. But when my friend and script collaborator, Bosnian actor and director Branko Djuric, asked if I would come on board, I did not hesitate.
My task was to choose eight feature films that would be included in a juried competition. The festival is starting out small, with eight feature films, eight documentary films on the theme of water and ecology, four films by special guest director Srdjan Dragojevic, and four features that will be shown for free in an “open air” program, under the stars, projected onto a screen on the shores of the lake. My only instructions were these: choose films from as many countries as possible, nothing too big-budget Hollywood nor anything too slow and artsy, nothing that has already screened in Slovenia, and nothing that is more than a year or so old. So far, so good, but timing was an issue. I was recruited in April and the festival is June 17-21. I had to get moving.
The other tricky part was that, in all honesty, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’m a professor of art history and a writer. I’ve written screenplays, I’ve written film criticism, and I’ve watched a lot of movies, but I didn’t know the first thing about choosing and booking films for a festival. It would be a case of learning on the job.
The relatively short amount of time was a factor in how I proceeded. I had to separate the wheat from the chaff, because I didn’t have time to watch films that were not of a certain quality level, and that would not warrant true consideration. To facilitate this pre-selection, I first read the film sections of my two favorite newspapers, The New York Times and The Guardian (for which I write), and took a look at reviews of films that were released in the past six months. Based largely on these reviews, and seeing which new films had won awards at other recent festivals, I made an initial list of thirty-five films to watch. That is not so daunting a number, except when you consider that I had only a little more than six weeks to go, and I have a one-year-old daughter who wakes up early, which means that I’m pretty much ready for bed by 9.30 at night. I would somehow have to squeeze in at least a film per day, ideally two, in order to find eight great ones, and that was on top of my regular full workdays as a writer. I needed to call in some reinforcements.
My father, Dr James Charney, is a psychiatrist and taught at Yale Medical School. But his true love is film, and I grew up watching all the classics that he had carefully recorded on VHS, skipping the commercials, whenever something noteworthy came on TV. These days that sounds quaint – you can now stream any of these films in HD, on-demand. But not long ago you had to stand, poised, at your VCR, to time the recording at the start of the film and pause it during commercials. We had a home collection of some eight-hundred films, most of which I saw in my youth. For many years, Dad taught a hugely popular seminar at Yale University, which was officially called “Psychopathology in Film,” but affectionately referred to as “Madness at the Movies.” In it, he used film clips portraying mental illness and psychiatrists, as a way to study psychopathology. He was just the man to call.
I had to consider what my criteria were to consider a film for selection. After a good deal of thought, I realized that I was thinking too much. I could develop a rating system for everything from acting to cinematography to soundtracks, but what it came down to was far simpler. I watched films and, if I got bored or didn’t like what I saw, I turned them off. I truly believe that a gut reaction is best, most straightforward, and a wise choice when time is limited.
When I look back on the films I chose, they look and feel very different, but they do have one thing in common. A lack of bullshit. I have a very good bullshit radar. I can especially tell when a film mistakes inertia for artfulness. I can tell when a film is made with passion, when the film-makers, regardless of experience and budget, absolutely love and believe in what they are creating. The low-budget films I chose understood their own limitations and made the very best of what they could within them, making up for lack of funds with intelligence and heart. The higher-budget films used their assets wisely, without frittering away cash on explosions and special effects that added glitter without content. I also tend to prefer thrillers above other genres. While this festival was not to be thriller-themed, I was looking for a narrative trick employed to great effect in thrillers, but applicable elsewhere: propulsion, the desire to learn what happens next, the impossibility of stopping the film before the credits roll.
The most basic way to do this is to ask a question and delay the answer. Which member of the team is a double-agent? Will the amateur boxer become a champion? Will Luke Skywalker find his father? Will Macbeth get away with those murders? Will the male and female lead, who seem to hate each other, get together in the end? Questions may be asked in individual scenes (will they kiss yet?) or over the course of an entire film. Whatever the format, unanswered questions, which the director helps us to become invested in learning the answer, are what drive us to keep watching. Thrillers do this more easily, because the main and repeated question is usually “Will the protagonist die?” which is a pretty good way of adding urgency and danger to the mix. But regardless of genre, I want a film that urges, or rather forces, me to keep watching. If I feel comfortable turning off the film halfway through, then it’s not a film for me.
My father and I divided my list of thirty-five films in two, and got started. We wrote short reports on each film, and tried to set aside those that seemed promising from those that did not grab us. I watched any that he thought were particularly good. In order to get review copies of the films, I had to identify the producer or distributor of each film. This involved a simple but effective method: looking on the film’s IMDb page, going to the website of the production company, and emailing whoever seemed to be in charge of festivals. In larger companies, there is a dedicated contact person for festivals, whose job is to send links to preview the films via private streaming videos online, and then to arrange for films to be booked and shipped to festivals. I would be emailed a password-protected link to a low-quality copy of the film to watch online, often with “watermarks” on it to prevent piracy (such as the words “for review purposes only” flashing on the screen, which does remove some of the atmosphere from a tense drama). Through this process, I whittled down my thirty-five films to a wish-list of twelve, and got in touch with producers to see what we could book.
I honestly didn’t know, before I got started, whether festivals pay for the films they screen. The answer is: sort of. If a film has been acquired by a local distributor, meaning in our case that a company has purchased the rights to distribute the film in Slovenia, then the distributor expects a screening fee – after all, they purchased rights in order to sell permissions. Most distributors ask for around a thousand Euros in order to screen a film, with subtitles, up to three times as part of a single festival. I’ve never heard of any festival actually paying that much. It is entirely negotiable, and a reasonable fee for a single screening is about €150-250, with more popular films demanding a higher amount. The screening fee should be recuperated through ticket sales, and another option that some distributors are happy to accept is a 35 percent cut of ticket sales – this is the amount received by films shown at cinemas.
It is a different story if there is no local distributor for a new film. If you deal directly with the film’s original production company, then they are happy to give you the film for free, because in doing so, they hope to catch the eye of a local distributor, and sell them the rights for your territory. So our films cost anywhere between nothing and €250. Some of the films on my wish list would have cost more, and we chose to eliminate them. The truth is that there are tens of thousands of films made each year (perhaps hundreds of thousands, if we count all the independents), and thousands of these are good, and hundreds of them are very good. There are so many good ones to choose from, that there is no need to overpay. This abundance of choice is good for the festivals, not as good for the film-makers. But festivals are a vehicle for films to advertise, and therefore everyone wins in the end.
The final hurdle in choosing the definitive film lineup was logistical. Most films for festivals are screened in DCP format, which is a portable hard drive that holds an encrypted, high-quality digital copy of the film that plays through a projector. This is easier to ship around the world and screen than 35mm films, and the quality is higher than digital video files that could be emailed around. But for any given film, there might be only a few DCPs made (each one costs the distributor around $1000 to produce), and so a complicated calendar of inter-locking festivals must be mapped out. Our festival runs June 17-21, meaning that I had to find eight films that were less than one year old, had not screened in Slovenia, cost less than €250, and which had a DCP available during our festival. We topped that off by giving precedence to films for which one of the stars or the director could attend our festival to present their film, and to accept a prize for it, should the jury award it one. And so emails flew around the world, between distributors and producers, our festival coordinators, and the coordinators of other festivals that were screening the same films just before or after us.
In the end, with a number of high-adrenaline searches for replacement films as one or two proved impossible to include at the last minute, we ended up with our eight solid choices. Five are very good, three are truly excellent. These films range from comedy to thriller, and hail from Sri Lanka, India, USA, Austria, Iran, Poland, Belgium, and Israel. The nation conspicuously absent is Slovenia. I very much wanted to include a Slovene film (after all, this is a Slovenian film festival), but Slovenia produces so few films (around two per year) that there were none available that fit our criteria of having not yet screened in theaters. Instead we included two classic Slovenian films as part of the free, “open air” program.
In the end, I watched nearly fifty films in order to finalize the list of eight that will be featured. It was a quick learning curve, and I will be far better prepared in the future (who knew, for instance, that we needed dialogue lists for each film, to facilitate preparing Slovenian subtitles?). For next year’s festival, I’ll take a good six months, rather than six weeks, to make my selection. But the process has been fascinating, working with a great team and seeing how, from nothing, a beautiful film festival develops, held at one of the world’s most beautiful places.