Film festivals are a great way to see new and interesting movies from around the country and around the world, but what does it take to run a festival? To discuss film festivals in terms of their employment and behind-the-scenes job opportunities, the Mediascape Blog convened a roundtable of four film studies graduate students who have worked at festivals of various sizes. Their conversation can be read or listened to below, or downloaded in MP3 format.
Moderator: J.M. Olejarz
Mediascape Blog: Hi, and welcome to the Mediascape Roundtable. My name is Josh Olejarz, and I’m coeditor of the Mediascape Blog. Today we’re going to be talking about film festivals. We have four people here with us today who have worked at festivals of various sizes, and they’re going to talk about their experiences. This is geared toward people who are interested in working at a festival but aren’t sure what that entails or how to go about getting a job at one, but also people who have maybe been to a festival and are interested in seeing behind the curtain, so to speak. I’ll have our experts here introduce themselves one at a time and then we’ll jump right in. Kim, can you start?
Kimberlee Granholm: Sure. I’m Kimberlee Granholm. I’m a recent graduate from the Moving Image Archive Studies Program at UCLA, and I’ve worked at Sundance [Film Festival] in special events as well as [working as] a screener for them, and then at the Starz Denver Film Festival in special events as well.
MB: OK, great. Alice, next?
Alice Royer: Hi, my name is Alice Royer, and I’m a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. I also went through the Moving Image Archive Studies Program for my master’s. And I have screened for a few festivals around Los Angeles: Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival, AFI FEST, and the Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF). I’ve also written some of the content for the catalogues for those festivals, and for the year between my master’s and my PhD, I was on the year-round staff of Outfest, doing all of their social media and web maintenance work.
Dana Covit: Hi, I’m Dana Covit. I am a recent graduate from UCLA’s Cinema and Media Studies Master’s Program, and I have just worked for LAFF in their education department, helping out with all of the special events and panels and that type of good stuff.
MB: And last but not least, Laura.
Laura Swanbeck: Hi, I’m Laura Swanbeck, and I’ve worked in the programming department of the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF), which is about half an hour north of San Francisco, for three years running. I also screen for San Francisco International Film Festival as well as work for them and for San Francisco Independent Film Festival. And then most recently I helped out with LAFF this spring, in the education department as well, taking the reins after Dana interned for them.
MB: All right, that’s quite a diverse group of festivals that people have worked at, so that’s good. So, I think a good first question is how you each got interested in working at a festival in the first place, and how you got your first job at one. Anyone feel like going first?
KG: I’ll kick it off. I got interested in working at a film festival when I was programming at the International Film Series in Boulder, Colorado. Seeing the programming side was awesome, and I really wanted to know how major programs ran. So, I applied after I graduated from my undergrad in film studies, and luckily, I was accepted and ended up being the right-hand lady for the special events director. And it ended up being a great experience for me. That’s about it. [Laughs]
DC: When I moved out here, I wanted to work at one of the festivals. LAFF is organized by Film Independent out here, so I applied through them when they had an open call for people who were interested in working for LAFF that coming summer.
AR: I can go next. When I decided to get my Master’s in Moving Image Archive Studies, I had intended to pursue a career in curatorial work for film, but obviously those jobs are super-duper limited. When I got out to LA, some people I knew suggested, because of my interest, that I screen for Outfest. And I started screening for them, and that led to screening for the other festivals, and then also that definitely was my foot in the door to be on their year-round staff. So I’ve seen the programming end of things, in the volunteer capacity, but then I’ve also worked in what’s technically the more administrative end of things, although I never liked to admit that that’s what I was doing. [Laughter] But in terms of how I came to be involved, it was definitely because I still am really interested in a more museum-programming, curatorial setting. But film festivals are much more readily available.
LS: The way I got my start was I had moved out to the Bay Area after graduating, and I actually thought I’d go into journalism initially. [Laughs] But this was at the height of the recession, and they were laying off all newspaper staffers. I ended up freelancing quite a bit and covering all these amazing film festivals in the area. And it just hadn’t really occurred to me that programming was a job you could do. I ended up interning for MVFF, and I interned and helped them develop this new film program they had called Active Cinema, which dealt with social, environmental, and human rights–driven films, and just sort of fell in love with it. As a film festival–goer, first and foremost, it seemed so seamless from the outside, so it definitely was interesting getting to work in the programming department, dealing with filmmakers and distributors and programmers themselves and seeing that it’s kind of chaotic. [Laughs] And I fell in love with that chaos and decided to keep on doing it.
DC: I had a similar experience at LAFF. I could not believe all of the moving parts that made that thing happen, and how people who were just at the festival were experiencing a really seamless and easy experience. But behind the scenes, there’s so much happening, and it’s really kind of an awesome thing to peer in on and to be able to be a part of.
MB: And for people who might not be aware, what exactly are the jobs at festivals that are out there? We’ve mentioned a few that you all have had, but maybe we could talk about what opportunities there are at festivals if you’re interested in working at one.
DC: I can start, because I was just talking about that. So, I was in the education department, which I didn’t really ever realize or consciously think of as obviously this really big, important thing. The education department is basically there for all of the people who are attending the festival. So any panel, any Q&A, any kind of event that is disseminating information about the movies or about the filmmakers, about the screenwriters, about the actors—that’s all part of that department. And it’s a lot of event production, really, and a lot of managing contacts, and also hospitality, in a way, too. I did a lot of ushering actors and talent to and from event spaces, and cutting through the crowds and managing that type of thing, which you don’t really think of as being one of the jobs when you want to work at a film festival. But it’s a really crucial part of it.
KG: I was really surprised when I started working in Denver, and then also at Sundance later, to see how many jobs you don’t think about. Even just somebody having to hire people for transportation or film trafficking—that sort of stuff. Somebody that can control the walkie-talkie and be in charge of emergency situations—it’s just crazy how much is thought out that the general public doesn’t see when they’re going to festivals.
AR: I think that was Dana who was talking about the wrangling aspect of visiting talent, and, actually, among the many jobs at I’ve done at Outfest, one of them has been to wrangle the juries, which is something that, absolutely, someone attending a festival would never have to think about but is actually a huge amount of work. So, yeah, there are a lot of behind-the-scenes sort of things that are happening. And then on the administrative end of things, Outfest, I think, is a unique example that seems distinct from what other people have been talking about in that it not only is a film festival, but it really views itself as a community festival. And like the way that Film Independent is sort of the umbrella organization for LAFF, Outfest is itself an umbrella organization, so it actually has many programs. And it’s a little confusing because they use the same name for the bigger organization and the festival, but they do a lot of other programming, too. And I think a lot of places—obviously, the Sundance Institute—lots of these festivals are run by bigger organizations that do lots of other work. And you can still be involved in the festival and work for the larger organization as well.
LS: Definitely. I experienced that myself, working at MVFF: the California Film Institute was actually the umbrella organization and had year-round programming through the Rafael Theater, which was this great art deco theater in downtown San Rafael. But, again, I feel like these festivals are a good reminder, and, obviously through people who work in membership, a great tool to draw people back to the umbrella organization itself as well.
KG: I should have mentioned, talking about Sundance, that one of the really interesting things—and I actually don’t know if this is going on in a lot of their festivals—is there’s not just the focus on film—it’s moved toward incorporating musical acts or concerts to go along with it. So not only do you have the planning for that, but also having to coordinate where the musicians can play and who they might be compatible with around a certain film, and organizing the parties around that, as well.
DC: I came in just the week before the actual festival, so I was really just in there for on-the-ground craziness of the happening of the festival. You guys who’ve done screening and stuff, what else is there about more of the lead-up rather than just the actual event happening? Because, also, obviously, there’s an amazing volunteer population of people who give their time and work at a festival, and they’re so truly indispensable for making things happen. But before the festival happens, what goes into it? Because I wasn’t really even there for that.
AR: The screening process is, I think—the only exception I know of to this is Sundance—screening is almost always done on a volunteer basis. There are a few programmers, usually, who are paid, and then a larger pool of screeners who are volunteering and writing coverage. And they give the screener person the random blind submissions that come in, so it’s a lot of varied quality. [Laughter]
LS: But they’re typically compensated for their contributions, for their coverage.
DC: To attend screenings and stuff? I know that’s how LAFF is.
LS: Yeah. For, at least, publications and stuff, oftentimes we would double up on people who would be pre-screeners as well as doing coverage. I don’t know if that is case with Outfest.
AR: Do you mean in terms of access to the festival? Because I feel like, actually, very few places pay dollars for the pre-screeners.
DC: Yeah, I almost did it for LAFF, and I ended up not because school things came up. But they were saying that they have a few paid positions, but those go early, and I don’t know to whom, and they would compensate with passes to see movies at the actual festival when it took place.
LS: Right, yeah, that’s pretty standard for pre-screeners.
AR: Yeah, I screened for LAFF and that was what I got. And AFI FEST now has this thing where they give you a teeny-tiny stipend if you reach a certain level of screening. But otherwise I don’t know of any festival except for Sundance that pays you per film that you screen and cover.
KG: Yeah, that was pretty awesome.
DC: How many films did you guys screen when you were doing that?
AR: For me, it varies based on what’s going on with me in school. I’m really excited that, this year, I’m screening for AFI right now. And it’s summer. And then, in the fall, I’ll be All But Dissertation, so I’ll actually have more time to cover and watch movies. I’m hoping to get to 100 because that’s where they give you the teeny-tiny stipend. [Laughter] So I’m going to try. But usually it’s far below that for me. I don’t know about you guys.
KG: For Sundance, because of all their submissions, the numbers are a lot higher, so I thought I was being a slacker by doing about—I did 72, I think, in total. But most people who are doing it, it’s kind of just as many as you can grab. I know a lot of people who were doing 150, 200. It’s pretty intense.
AR: Yeah, I’ve heard some stories about Sundance screening, because you get paid per film, right?
AR: Yeah, it’s, like, people who are actually trying to support themselves doing that. [Laughter]
DC: Oh my gosh.
AR: It’s an unpleasant period of time for them.
LS: Whoa. Is that even feasible?
AR: If you have other sources of income, I think.
DC: How much do they pay per film? Do you guys know? That’s kind of crazy to me. I love that concept. [Laughter]
KG: I think it was $15 a film for me, I can’t remember exactly. I guess if you break it down, if it’s an hour and a half, it’s not horrible. But if it’s one of those epic movies, that’s not that good. [Laughter]
AR: Well, they have very specific requirements for coverage, right?
KG: Right, right.
AR: It’s a little bit sweatshop-y, I think, if you’re trying to live on it.
LS: Kim, just out of curiosity, what are those requirements?
KG: Oh, gosh, I wish I had written them down. I know that it was talking about, do you recognize any actors or actresses in it? Is there anybody notable? Give a summary of the plot. Were there any aesthetic qualities that stood out to you? Describe the tone. They ask you to talk about, maybe, lighting or direction, that sort of stuff. And then rate it. You need to rate it on a scale of 1 to 5, and you can use half points. And I don’t think that I gave any 5s out of the bunch that I saw. I gave, maybe, two 4s or 4.5s, maybe three. And then everything else, maybe I was being harsh, but I think only the two that I did grade as 4s made it to the final round of judgment. And none of the films that I judged actually made it into the festival.
DC: I was just going to ask you that. That’s interesting.
KG: It’s kind of bad because after seeing all of those movies, you want to root for at least one.
DC: Yeah, sure.
LS: The programmers will be tracking, year-round, films. And that’s in a completely separate pool. Most of the time, I’m assuming, especially at some festivals as competitive as Sundance, most of those films are going to be films that programmers already have their eye on, that they’ve been tracking year round.
KG: For the international circuit, that is. For the U.S. or domestic market, it has to be something that premieres here. But for international, yeah, they’re of better quality, because they’ve screened at other festivals.
MB: Is only one person watching each movie to give the recommendation, or how does that work?
AR: No, usually there’s at least two.
KG: They have screeners and then they have the programmers at Sundance, and every programmer will watch every film. A lot of people think, “Oh, it just gets passed over if the screeners say it sucks,” but they’ll actually watch it. They’ll read the notes, and if it’s horrible then they’ll at least watch some of it and assure that that’s actually what it is. But every film that is submitted gets watched by at least two people.
DC: I was just going to ask if there’s some aesthetic test, or how to become a screener—they’d have to trust you. It’s kind of a crazy concept, but they end up watching it eventually anyways.
KG: For me at Sundance, I think I got really lucky. I had interned the summer before in their special events department [laughs], real special events. And I had the chance to talk to some of the programmers, I expressed my interest, and a position opened up in an intimate club of people who get picked to do the Sundance screening. Somehow I got pushed in for the next season. And that’s how I got in. I don’t know how the other festivals work.
AR: I’d say that’s a likely story, right? It seems to me—
LS: Yeah, I think it’s through recommendation.
AR: Yeah, it seems to be about recommendation, and also it’s a very interesting and sort of tight-knit group of people. But also, the people who work for festivals, a lot of them work for multiple festivals. And they all know each other, and it’s just like once you’re in the club—
LS: Yeah, it’s kind of an incestuous world.
DC: That’s what I was going to say, that it was really interesting to me to learn that there’s really very few full-time, year-round positions at a single festival. There’s that core group that work in the office and work on all the administrative stuff, like you were saying, Alice. But then a lot of people are just contracted for the different festivals, and they will literally travel from festival to festival during active festival season. A crazy kind of lifestyle.
AR: Yeah, festival gypsies. [Laughter]
LS: I was one of those, but I was really lucky in the sense that my contract was six months. Since I worked in programming, it was a good deal of the year, and then I could go to various festivals and get my feet wet at other places. But I can’t imagine that kind of lifestyle. And I do know some of those contracts are really, really short—a month here, a month there. People going from Sundance to San Francisco to Telluride to—it’s kind of a crazy lifestyle.
MB: Is it helpful to have a film background, at least in terms of an academic background, to work at a festival, whether as a screener or something else? Or do you just have to love movies a lot, or does that matter?
AR: Well, it’s not required that you have a film background, but certainly, like we were saying, it is so much about connections between other film enthusiasts that that is a really good way to get involved with the film community.
DC: Yeah, I’d agree with that.
LS: I think in certain departments it’s more essential. For instance, guest services, people who have direct contact with filmmakers—typically guest services, programming, people who are the first point of contact—it’s really helpful to have a film background just to connect with people. But other areas, not as much, I would say—for instance, marketing. Our development team relied a lot on our programming staff, but I wouldn’t say that they were all total cinephiles. So I don’t think it’s a total requisite.
AR: Yeah, I think it does depend on what department you’re in, for sure. Obviously, in programming you need to have the film background. But actually, talking about these larger organizations, there’s a trend of these organizations really supporting emerging talents. And so a lot of those people who are putting on the events for the filmmakers who attend the festivals, to try to encourage them to continue doing new work, those people a lot of times come from a production background. That’s just been my experience. I don’t know if others have also seen that.
MB: As you all have worked at festivals, what have you found to be the most helpful, in terms of skills that you have? What have you used again and again?
KG: Coffee. [Laughter]
DC: I would say, at least if you’re going to be working at the festival when it’s happening, you have to be able to be juggling a million things and not look panicked.
LS: Yeah, that’s totally true. [Laughter]
DC: There was one time when I was wearing a headset and I had just escorted the whole cast of Breaking Bad into the green room, and there were some fangirl-y people kind of hanging out outside. And, I mean, I’m fairly good at not being stressed out, but I think my eyes were reading a little bit of panic and confusion as to what I was supposed to be doing to handle these crowds of people. So, really, I think that that’s a huge skill that when you love film and you want to be involved in film festivals, you don’t necessarily think about. But everyone whom I worked with at LAFF was so good at doing a million and one things—keeping track of everything, having a headset in one ear and having a conversation with someone at the same time, and just doing everything at once and keeping it all together. It was kind of masterful.
KG: Yeah, I worked as a server for eight years, and I expected that once I made some transition or took a break from that to go into the film festival world, it would be different. But, honestly, it’s very similar. Like you were saying, Dana, you have to juggle a lot. For a restaurant, you’re a host and you’re a server and you’re somebody who can help with talking to the chef and all of these things. And meanwhile you’re running back to the dishwasher. It’s basically the same with being involved with a festival. You have to play so many roles. When you’re assigned to one, it doesn’t mean that that’s all you’ll be doing.
AR: Definitely. Definitely. You need to just be versatile, and just be able to jump in and take care of something right then—I think that is a lot of it.
AR: But I do also think that, obviously, for programming, my film background—my academic film background—has been incredibly useful. Also, for programming, you need to know how to write, which I think is why to people who are now increasingly having master’s degrees, to do programming makes a lot of sense, because it’s not just having a certain degree of film knowledge. It’s about being able to articulate that well and in ways that are not only smart, which actually works against an academic background, honestly [laughter], but also accessible.
AR: Which is a skill that they don’t teach you in grad school, but if you’re interested in film festivals, you can apply your grad school skills to that, I think.
LS: And to add to that, I would say, at least from a programming standpoint, there is a certain finesse to writing film notes when perhaps you didn’t like the film, you know? You need to convey information to the audience, you know? Because obviously, even though you might not have liked it, you know there’s an audience out there who will like it. You know you’ll find some person with whom this kind of film resonates. I think that’s really important. So there’s a little bit of spin involved, I’d say. [Laughter]
MB: Is that tact or just lying? [Laughter]
AR: I think it’s finding the audience.
LS: You just have to be diplomatic, you know?
AR: But I do think it’s really useful to have a film background for that task also, because being trained, for lack of a better word, in analyzing film allows you to sort of step back and understand it outside of your own taste a little bit more, or understand whether or not a film is successful outside of your own taste, which I think is really important as a programmer, because, definitely, we all have particular tastes, but that’s not going to keep a film festival afloat. The Alice Royer Film Festival would have, like, four films in it. [Laughter]
DC: Adding to that, I also feel a really important skill in the space of a film festival is enthusiasm and interest in the films. You’re going to see a film, and you might not like it. But like we were saying, it’s important to be excited about what that film might bring to the table as far as the festival and the program of films in general.
DC: And talking to people about the films, and not just saying “I hated it,” but why it was interesting or whatever—I found myself having a ton of those conversations around the festival with people who worked at the festival. And I think that that’s an important skill, to be able to watch a film and be enthusiastic about it for reasons X, Y, Z, even if you didn’t love it and maybe you wouldn’t go see it in your free time. I think that that’s important in a weird way.
LS: Definitely. And I think it’s also important not just to be a film enthusiast, but really to be a film advocate on behalf of filmmakers and to realize that these festivals aren’t just screening venues. Even though the filmmaker has made a film and gone through this arduous process, the work is not over, you know? It’s making those contacts at these film festivals—the work continues. So, encouraging them and being there and supporting them is also really important when working at a film festival.
MB: OK, going off of that, this might be the same question I just asked, but are there skills that you picked up at festivals? Or maybe a better question is how useful has working at a festival been as a professional experience, especially if you’re not trying to make a career out of it?
KG: I’ve learned a lot of patience, which maybe is a funny thing to say, but I don’t know, I’m not a very patient person. In general, there’s a lot that can go wrong, so getting it right the first time might not happen, so as long as you’re persistent and you’re patient with the results, I think a lot of times it’ll work out. [Laughs]
DC: And quick recovery, too, if something goes wrong, being able to react and fix it. It’s kind of cheesy, but that’s a good skill in life in general—if something happens that you weren’t expecting, or something goes wrong, that you don’t wallow in it and kind of wait around, but you just respond and make it better as much as you can. I think that that’s something that being in that type of fast-paced, multitasking, wearing-a-million-different-hats type of environment will really afford you.
LS: I think once you’ve worked at film festivals for a long time, you also start to anticipate, and I think that’s another important skill to have, to try and anticipate any issues, any problems, that you see coming down the road. I know for certain we always had to do that in the slotting process, the scheduling of films, because like one of you said, there’s a million different pieces. And so all the different departments have to communicate and be on the same wavelength if there’s going to be an event that conflicts with, you know, this filmmaker coming to town, and another person might be out of the country. There’s just so many moving pieces that you have to account for. And you also have to be flexible and be able to get that phone call a few days before the festival saying, actually, this filmmaker can’t make it, and then, you know, try and find someone to fill that gap. So I think that’s important, to just kind of go with the flow.
KG: Yeah, to go off of Laura, I think film festivals are the epitome of teamwork, and I think that learning proper communication is something that goes along with that. You learn quickly that it’s not rude if you have to repeat yourself or ask a few times, or ask them a few times. It’s really just getting your back and making sure that you have all the bases covered.
DC: Yes, definitely.
MB: Getting back to working at a festival in the first place, is it difficult to get these jobs? Is there a lot of competition? Does that vary by festival size? Is it a whole Hollywood thing, where you need contacts to get in the door, or what has been your experience with that?
AR: My experience has been pretty much entirely contact-dependent, which, at least from the people I know who work at festivals, who are these committed festival gypsies, seems to be a pretty common experience. Even the people I know who have moved to LA and are now working at festivals have worked at festivals elsewhere, you know? And it’s like, “Oh, you’re in the club.” But getting in the club is the real question, right? I don’t know.
LS: Definitely. Yeah.
MB: So how do you get in the club?
AR: I just had a friend of a friend. [Laughter]
MB: But if you didn’t have that, what would you do?
DC: Well, I just applied via the Film Independent website, one of those big websites where, you know, you send your resume and cover letter to their email address. But it helped because when I went in for my interview, the person who was interviewing me and who ended up being my boss had just graduated from the same program, the same cinema and media studies–type program at USC, had just gotten out of there, and so that helped. So I didn’t get in via a friend. But once I was there, I’m sure that that helped.
LS: I kind of got in the old-fashioned way. I wrote to the programming team, and I just—it was a slog, to be honest, that year of interning, but it was completely rewarding. And I found it useful, actually, to start at a smaller film festival because it’s kind of a trial by fire and they give you so much more responsibility. I learned so much in that year. And I guess I did something right, because they hired me on the next year, and I just slowly made my way up in the programming department. But one thing that was a little epiphany I had my last year working—because it’s so incredibly difficult, because there are these limited number of jobs at all these festivals—is that I kept searching for a mentor or someone who had all the answers, but I think it’s really important not just to look upward in terms of a support system, but look around you to your contemporaries as well. I know that once I had a firm footing at MVFF, I worked with a great girl that I met at San Francisco, and she was like, “So, what’s the deal with Mill Valley?” And I recommended her for the position. I feel like sometimes people are looking for any sort of direction from people in really high-powered positions, but friends can be even better in terms of building that crucial support system and actually getting those jobs.
AR: Yeah, the reason that I’ve been able to screen for multiple festivals has been because of a friend of mine, whom I met working at Outfest, who is a committed festival person and has really done well for herself and moved up. And she’s actually younger than me, but whatever, no big. [Laughter] But she is very much involved in all of the festivals in town and has been recommending me to different things, so it doesn’t have to be a big, fancy mentorship, I totally agree with that.
MB: If we’re comparing something like Sundance or AFI FEST—which, in my view, is sort of a more general or open festival—versus something we might call a specialty festival, like Outfest or a festival for a certain ethnic group or a certain country’s films, are there different considerations when you’re trying to work at those? Or are they pretty similar?
AR: I think, absolutely, when I worked at Outfest, because I do have a film background, I really struggled with the organization’s priorities in a lot of ways. And I think I’ve sort of come to terms with this now, but they really wrestle between “Are we a community organization or are we a film organization?” Because they do have a similar mission to, for example, Film Independent, which is very much committed to supporting emerging talent, and that’s part of their mission. And Outfest is also, but for queer filmmakers. But then, at the same time, a huge part of their mission is to provide a space for queer community, and to foster queer community in other ways that sometimes relate to film, but not always. And so that was really hard for me because I hadn’t developed my film festival programming skill of respecting people’s taste that is not my own [laughter] and was like, “Why?” You know, “This is garbage, why are we showing it?” But then I learned a lot about the audience and what the point of the festival was for the audience, you know? It’s not a film market festival, although things sometimes do get distribution from some of these more niche companies like Wolfe or Strand at Outfest. But it’s not a film market, it’s very much about the audience interacting with each other and seeing their stories onscreen, whereas AFI is explicitly about collecting the best of the festival circuit from the whole world in a given year and giving that to the people of Los Angeles for free, in recent years. So I think every festival has a different set of priorities, and I think, depending on the scale, maybe there’s some overlap. But a community festival is—sorry, Josh, to get back to your actual question—a community festival seems to me to be a lot more about the audience’s experiences with each other and, together, seeing these films in a sort of identity politics way, and less about film art.
KG: I think that’s really well said, Alice. I was going to say, from the festivals that I’ve been to and the festivals that I’ve worked at—I go back to Sundance, but I feel like it’s such an interesting festival because you get that kind of community vibe, but it’s really not meant, necessarily, for that. I think it’s just because it’s so—I don’t want to say secluded, but because of the location, a lot of people do have to travel to Park City in order to participate. And it becomes this really interesting mesh of people who are film buffs and also people who are in the market who are just looking to participate as part of the audience. But, I don’t know, I think it hits on both of those areas that you were talking about.
AR: Yeah, well, and also because Sundance is such a huge organization, it has the development for a community of filmmakers—in this case, mostly American independent filmmakers, right? That’s kind of the community. So, it has that. It has the professional development end and then it also has the film market end because it’s just so massive.
KG: I’m excited to see what happens within the next month, is it Next Weekend, here in LA? [Editors note: Sundance launched Next Weekend, a four-day film festival in Los Angeles, this year.]
LS: To add on to you, I’m excited for Next Weekend as well, to see how that plays out outside of Park City. But it’s been interesting for me to see the evolution of Sundance over the years, and the reputation in terms of how it has blown up and become much more commercial. And then another festival kind of crops up and takes its place, like South by Southwest. And the competition aspects of the festivals really intrigue me. Being in the middle of that was really interesting, to see these festivals warring for various films. I don’t know if any of you encountered that.
AR: Oh, yeah.
LS: I just found it really intriguing, the politics behind it all.
AR: Yeah, LAFF is a month before Outfest, and there’s always, like, the programming teams meeting, like out of a gangster movie. They would come to the table and be like, “Why are you taking all of our gay movies?” Because if they show at LAFF, they, most of the time, don’t want to show at Outfest. And Outfest needs to have big titles, and LAFF has all of these very glossy films that they premiere now. But it’s like the two mob teams come together [laughter] and have to broker a deal every year.
LS: The Jets and the Sharks. [Laughter]
AR: Yeah, exactly.
KG: I know for Sundance it’s even written into the guidelines that you cannot accept anything from Slamdance sponsors or anything like that. Only accept things from official sponsors and make sure that you’re trying to wear off whatever this plague of that festival is, you know? They really do not like Slamdance.
AR: But also, the flipside of that is festivals that work together. I think a lot of festivals leech off the Sundance clout, right? They’re like, “Oh, this got accolades at Sundance, and now it’s at our festival, and you get to see it. It might not get distribution. See it at our festival.” The former director of programming for Outfest is also a programmer at Sundance, so she knows the slate very intimately every year and she knows what to bring to Outfest and what not to bring to Outfest.
LS: There’s actually a lot of overlap. I know the head programmer for Seattle International Film Festival is also a programmer at Palm Springs International Film Festival, so it is interesting to see how the programming teams handle that. And also, in terms of statuses—I actually overheard a conversation at LAFF about people being more lenient, because it used to be they wanted that exclusivity. They wanted to be able to say it’s the U.S. premiere, or it’s at least the California premiere. And now it’s kind of this tension between “Should we go for quality?” and “Do we want that premiere status?”
AR: Right, yeah. And it’s funny what becomes the definition of “premiere,” right? Because it’s, like, “North American premiere.” “Oh, no, it was in Canada.” “OK, U.S. premiere,” “West Coast premiere,” “L.A. premiere.” It’s really funny.
LS: Or it’s, like, an “advanced”—quote, unquote—“an advanced screening.” So sometimes they can get away with not counting that as having screened. [Laughter]
AR: Right, right, right.
LS: It’s ridiculous, but very inventive. People are very—filmmakers, I should say—are very resourceful in terms of strategizing, I think.
KG: Josh, I hope you don’t mind if I ask a question?
KG: It’s hard not to notice that there are four ladies here who are talking about festival work. [Laughter] And I wondered, for you guys, what do you think about being a lady in this kind of industry? What’s been your impression?
AR: I actually think that, compared to any other industry I’ve worked in, I’ve felt very OK about being a lady. I think that I’ve encountered far more powerful women in the festival world than I have in the production world, or compared to film production, and I used to work in television production in New York. And I just feel like there are many more powerful ladies around in festivals. But maybe my experience is anomalous. I don’t know what you guys think.
DC: No, I would agree.
LS: Yeah, I definitely agree. The three programmers I worked closely with at MVFF were all women, so that definitely influenced me. They were great mentors. The thing, unfortunately, that I always worry about, though, is that the production end tends to be skewed more toward men. And that’s not being reflected in the programming, regardless of the people at the top of festivals and making these decisions, making the programming calls. What they have to draw from isn’t necessarily a lot of work by women, as we see reflected in festivals year after year. The statistics are dismal in terms of how many female directors get into, say, Cannes International Film Festival, you know? It’s just heartbreaking to see that year after year. I don’t know about you guys.
AR: No, absolutely.
LS: Not to be Debbie Downer. [Laughter]
AR: I think that, statistically, women in the production world are on the wane. Like, the numbers are not climbing. At least in above-the-line jobs.
LS: Yeah. I’m just curious because I’ve been reading articles about this. They come out all the time about women who don’t want the label “female filmmaker” versus women who embrace it. I think that’s a really interesting debate, whether that’s harmful in terms of their career or whether that’s kind of ignoring the fact that there’s this whole gender kind of being ignored in the process. I don’t know how you guys feel about that.
KG: I don’t know. Maybe that’s [laughs]—I think that could go into a different discussion.
MB: Or maybe a different roundtable. [Laughter]
DC: A good thought for another one, Josh. A good question, though.
AR: But I think I can bring it back to festivals, although sorry to keep bringing up Outfest. But it does matter for festivals when a festival is sort of themed, for lack of a better word. So, for Outfest, for example, The Kids Are All Right did not screen at Outfest because it had already been picked up for distribution and the distributor did not want it to be ghettoized as a gay film. And so they wouldn’t let it play at Outfest. There are, I’m sure, tons and tons and tons of examples of things like that, not just with Outfest but with any sort of identity or subject position–based festival. I think there are definitely festivals that are just for films made by women. I can’t think of any, but it must exist, there’s a festival for everything now. So, yeah, I think that that could come back to festivals in that way, of people who—of filmmakers who did or didn’t want to be placed in any particular niche.
LS: No, I definitely encountered that at LAFF this year, not in terms of women, but in terms of the African American community with Fruitvale Station, which I thought was really interesting, how the Weinsteins were trying to market that film as sort of a universal tale rather than this kind of very specific experience to this African American young man. I thought that was really intriguing. So, anyway, sorry. [Laughs] Detour.
MB: Well, we’ve hit most of the points I was hoping we would. I do want to ask you all what your favorite festival to work at has been and why, but before we close with that, any final thoughts? Anything I haven’t asked about that you would like to mention?
KG: I was just going to say, thinking about this, for those who might be thinking about working at festivals, I think that you need to go into it knowing that—maybe it’s obvious, but being a participant is not the same as being somebody who works there. One of the more disappointing things for me at each of the festivals that I’ve worked at versus gone to has been I usually don’t see as many films as I’d like to see—probably just a handful. You know, you really do have to be in it for supporting the artists or the community or audience, and have that as your main prerogative rather than having some sort of benefit to see the films when you are working there.
LS: Definitely. Having film as a hobby is not the same thing at all as working a film festival, which I definitely soon realized after starting working at one.
AR: Although, I will say that if you really do love film and you want to support its proliferation—or not just film, I guess that’s maybe not the word anymore—but working for a festival, regardless of whether or not you actually get to see the films, is really exciting because it is a way to really support filmmakers now, which is a really hard thing to do. And the culture, totally. Someone was saying this earlier, about being a film advocate, and I really think that that’s a huge part of working for a festival.
KG: I agree, definitely. Good phrase. Good phrase, Laura.
LS: [Laughs] Thanks. And one other thing, just to maybe make this come full circle, is after a festival is over, I feel like at least it was my experience that one of the most rewarding things was actually to follow these filmmakers from festival to festival and see the evolution, the trajectory of their careers down the line—it has been incredibly rewarding. In one instance, I remember, it was kind of a big moment for me, a UCLA alum, Justin Lerner, had his first film play [Girlfriend] at our festival. And it won the Audience Award, which, you know, is just an audience award, it’s not like the Grand Jury Prize or anything, but it made them eligible for a Gotham Award, and so they won this national award. And just seeing that and being a part of that was a really incredible experience, after the fact, even.
MB: All right. In closing, briefly, what’s been your favorite festival to work at and why?
DC: I’ve only worked LAFF, Josh. [Laughter]
MB: Well then, there’s your answer.
LS: But isn’t it the best, Dana? [Laughter]
MB: We hope it’s the best.
DC: It was fun. I mean, I was cleaning the table and I was smoothing the surface of the hummus in the green room when Skyler from Breaking Bad was in there and complimented me on my efforts. [Laughter]
AR: Wait, I haven’t watched Breaking Bad. That’s not the main guy, is it?
DC: No, no, it’s the wife. It’s the wife of Bryan Cranston.
AR: Oh, Skyler is a lady.
DC: Yeah. So that was awesome. [Laughter]
MB: Other opinions? Favorite festival to work at?
AR: I actually think that AFI FEST is my favorite festival. I mean, I love Outfest, and Outfest was last week, and it was great, and I love it. But in terms of actually working for a festival, I really like AFI FEST, and this is terrible—all my politics are going to go out the window right now—but they just have the most money and everything goes so smoothly [laughs] because they can actually hire the number of people they need to hire to do the jobs that need to happen for the festival.
LS: And free tickets.
AR: Yeah, free tickets.
LS: That was mind-blowing to me. That was my first time encountering that, moving to LA. I was like, “What? How is this possible?”
AR: And you know what? The five of us need to go on a PR campaign to tell everyone in Los Angeles to not be discouraged by tickets going really quickly online, because I have not once seen anyone turned away from a screening at AFI FEST. The tickets go really quickly online, but if you go and get in the rush line, you are almost certainly going to get in. So you should just go see as much stuff as you can. And it’s such a great festival because it’s bringing all of the best of the festival circuit here for free. And everyone in the city should be taking advantage of it.
DC: I loved attending AFI FEST.
AR: It’s so fun.
LS: They have the best guests, and I was kind of shocked, too, because there weren’t that many screenings I attended that had a full house, you know? Whereas in the Bay Area, I feel like the Bay Area is such a film festival culture. There’s, like, a film festival every single week there and packed screenings and everything. And I don’t know, that was just one thing I encountered. Maybe it’s because of the industry. Maybe it’s because there are so many other alternatives in LA for people to go see instead. But that really surprised me.
AR: No, that’s what I’m saying. I think people are discouraged because they try to get the tickets online, and they release very few. And then they’re like, “Oh, it’s sold out.” But it’s not. I think it could be because of the free ticket thing, it gets really confusing. And people are just like, “Oh, there’s no way I’m going to get in.”
AR: But you will, and you should go all the time. [Laughs]
LS: Yeah, I had an experience because I was dying to see Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa, and they were like, “Sold out, sold out.” And then I checked back the day of and they had released more tickets. So I think it’s definitely a misnomer that they’re all full and you’re not going to get a seat ever. So, yeah, we should spread the word.
MB: All right. Good advice about AFI. Kim or Laura, briefly, favorite festival to work at?
KG: Laura, go for it.
LS: Putting me on the spot. Oh, that’s a really tough one. I feel like I’d be betraying any of them to say one in particular. You know, they’re all so different, just because I had different responses to all these at each one. Mill Valley, you know, is really my stomping ground, which was wonderful, although I had a great experience in the education department at LAFF this spring. I guess if I’m being completely genuine—and God, I hope this does not get back to the programmers [laughs]—San Francisco International. I just—that was my first film festival I had ever attended, and there’s just something about that festival and that experience and the kabuki theater, it just, I don’t know, it just stayed with me. I even flew back up there specifically this year to attend because I just couldn’t bear the thought of—even though I wasn’t working it, I couldn’t work it this time around—I wanted to make it back up just to see people.
KG: For me, that’s really tough because I’ve only really worked at two. And it’s hard to compare to Sundance, but they’re both really different. It’s like Alice was saying, I mean, each festival that you work at is going to be different and have different reasons why they’re around. So I think I’m going to have to go with—and then, for me, honestly, probably just because Ryan Gosling hasn’t gone to either, so [laughter] if Ryan Gosling shows up at one festival that I work at, that’s automatically my favorite. [Laughter] There you go, Josh.
Special thanks to Alice Royer, Dana Covit, Kimberlee Granholm, and Laura Swanbeck for their participation.
Alice Royer is a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA whose research interests include representations of electoral politics in American film and television, neoliberal citizenship, social media, documentary, archival studies, and film festivals. She holds an MA in Moving Image Archive Studies from UCLA and a BA in Film Studies and Sociology from Vassar College. Outside of academic life, Alice is an Assistant Programmer for AFI FEST, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival. In addition to her dissertation, she is currently working on a curatorial project for the 2013 Outfest Legacy Awards.
Dana Covit received her BA in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University and her MA in Cinema and Media Studies from UCLA. With a love for descriptive language, she is still honing in on that elusive scholarly tone. Alas. Her research interests include visual language, experimental film, and psychology in film. She collects heaps of visual and aural inspirations at indreamsittouches.tumblr.com.
Kimberlee Granholm is a recent graduate of the Moving Image Archive Studies program at UCLA. She has worked at the Sundance Film Festival and the Starz Denver Film Festival.
Laura Swanbeck is a staunch cinephile, film festival enthusiast, and Master’s student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. She spent the last few years working in film programming and championing independent filmmakers at the California Film Institute and San Francisco Film Society. Areas of interest include Middle Eastern and European transnational cinema with a specific focus on immigration, exile, and diaspora. This year she is looking forward to delivering an eclectic lineup of docs and features, contemporary releases, and retrospectives as Programming Codirector of Melnitz Movies, UCLA’s graduate student–run film series.
J.M. Olejarz holds an MA degree in film from UCLA and coedits the Mediascape Blog. He has written two books of poetry, had a letter to the editor published in The Amazing Spider-Man #588, and won a Vulture haiku contest whose prize was Season 3 of True Blood on DVD. For more of his thoughts on movies, TV, and a glut of miscellany, see mangetstowherehesgoing.tumblr.com.