Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Submitting to Festivals, Part One

Phase Two has officially begun. I have started submitting Saberfrog to film festivals.

Three upstate screenings, two major holidays and a serious case of burnout prevented me from sending the film out before now, even though it's been officially finished for three months. This meant that I missed some sweet deadlines, including Slamdance (which would have been a long shot anyway) and SXSW (which bothers me quite a lot, as Karyus said several times that the film would be an ideal fit).

But with a new year upon us, and the birth pangs of the movie finally subsiding, I have no more excuses. Time to send this sucker out.

Today I sent the film to 360|365 (formerly High Falls Film Festival), the most prominent film fest in the Rochester area; and the Knickerbocker Film Festival in Albany, which I hadn't heard of until a friend from that area suggested it to me. The UK festival Sci-Fi London has been bombarding me with email bulletins since the last time I submitted a film to them, so it seemed only fitting to send them a copy of Saberfrog (that'll teach 'em).

This time around I'm going after more interesting, off-the-beaten-path film festivals. Getting into the likes of Sundance, TIFF or Cannes used to be the dream of every independent filmmaker, but it's a new and more fragmented film world now, and I've already popped my first-public-screening cherry anyway. Going forward, any other festival that gets a copy of Saberfrog will have to meet one of three criteria: 1) cheap or free to enter; 2) has a theme that indicates a good fit for the movie; 3) has a wacky name.

Wish me luck!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Amherst screening

This past Wednesday, Saberfrog had its third public screening, this time in Amherst, a suburb of Buffalo.

This screening was held at the Screening Room, a location I've gotten to know as the site of Buffalo Movie-Video Makers (BM-VM) meetings. It wasn't a huge turnout, but I once again turned a profit. Much of the audience was made up of BM-VM club members or friends.

Each of the public screenings has been for a different audience, and each time there have been differences in the audience response. The Rochester screening generated laughter from beginning to end. The Buffalo screening at Squeaky Wheel seemed slower to warm up to the film, but were laughing a lot by the end.

Both of those screenings were for a presumably arty/culty/nerdy audience, who weren't fazed by the film's multi-layered narrative or its shifts in tone and genre. The Screening Room audience seemed less “extreme”, and so certain elements of the film played differently.

The Canadian references seemed to get a stronger reaction this time. A throwaway reference to a Canadian actress had never gotten a laugh from any other screening, public or private, that I'd had for the film – but it got a huge laugh from one viewer this time. By contrast, John Karyus' final line of dialogue got no audience response at all, which was unusual.

Watching the film this time was a strange experience. I was now far enough from the events of the film – both the production experience, and the real-life experiences that inspired the script – that I was able to view the film fresh, as if it was made by someone else. For perhaps the first time, I realized what a truly strange film it is, and how bold some of the story twists are during the climax.

The post-screening Q&A was fun, as the audience was a small group who mostly knew me and had heard about the film during its long development. One viewer told me how (pleasantly) surprised he was by the amount of seriousness in the finished film, considering how the trailer (which I'd shown at BM-VM meetings a couple times) had been largely comedic. He was also impressed by the number of themes and story threads in the film, which also weren't hinted at in the trailer. I explained that I chose the film's most easily-explained aspect – Josh's quest to find his friends – as the focus of the trailer.

Both of the Buffalo-era screenings were attended mainly by friends or friends of friends, a clear indication that the flyers I'd been putting up along Elmwood and Main were not effective advertising in terms of drawing the public's attention. Putting up those flyers was a fun excuse to hang out in arty sections of Buffalo during the past week or so, but they obviously weren't doing the trick.

Getting the film's debt finally paid off has changed my priorities a bit; I'd like to have more screenings of the film, but I don't have to. I'd originally planned to roadshow the film in other cities and states, but without the hometown advantage of Rochester and Buffalo – or the ability to attend or promote screenings in person – I would need to find a new approach to publicity. For each of these three screenings I was scrambling just to get the word out in time, and while I've always got the film mentioned in event listings, I'd never had time for the extra step of getting real press or reviews.

With the year drawing to a close, and winter weather kicking in, I think I'm ready to take a break from public showings of Saberfrog and start submitting the film to festivals. It's time to let the rest of the world, not just Rochester and Buffalo, see the film.

Friday, December 10, 2010

About Katie Goldman

This past Wednesday was the third public screening of Saberfrog, and I plan to report on that soon, but there's something else I want to get to first.

Today was Proud To Be Me Day, at least at one particular grade school in Evanston, Illinois. This came about after 7-year-old Katie Goldman, a big Star Wars fan, got teased by boys for carrying a Star Wars water bottle. You can read the CNN story here, but the upshot is that Katie's mom, Carrie Goldman, blogged about it, and subsequently received a lot of positive and sympathetic attention from many readers – including the cast of the Clone Wars TV show, who sent her some Star Wars merchandise; and the online retailer ThinkGeek, who sent her a toy lightsaber.

Katie's story has received a fair amount of media attention, inspiring her school to celebrate Proud To Be Me Day to “wear something that shows what they're interested in, whether it's princesses, sports, animals and anime”, while Facebook users decided to wear Star Wars gear today in support.

For me, this story raises several issues that I would like to talk about a bit more deeply.

Those who've never been bullied seem to believe that it's the antisocial, misfit kids who do the bullying. Anyone who's actually been bullied knows that it's the complete opposite – bullying is a weapon of the popular and powerful, used to crush anyone who doesn't fit in. Looking back at my own youth, I can't think of many “popular” kids between 12 and 18 who didn't deserve to be fed to piranhas (or at least thrown in jail, where they probably would have ended up anyway).

As a boy who preferred intellectual and creative pursuits over anything athletic, I endured more than my share of crap growing up in a small town where even the girls had mullets. I like to believe that things have changed since then; the digital age and the modern boom in sci-fi and fantasy seem to have made being a geek more acceptable now. But several highly publicized teen suicides in the past year have drawn a lot of media attention to bullying as a continuing problem.

Katie's mom asks, in her blog, “Is this how it starts? Do kids find someone who does something differently and start to beat it out of her, first with words and sneers? Must my daughter conform to be accepted?” To which the sad answer is: yes, yes, and – at least until high school ends – yes.

The CNN story indicates that Katie was already a misfit for being adopted, being Jewish, wearing glasses, and wearing an eyepatch to correct a lazy eye. That her classmates might give her a hard time for being Jewish and/or physically imperfect would seem to speak volumes about her classmates. Let's just say that my classmates had roughly similar values, even though our grandparents had fought a world war specifically to prevent that attitude from catching on.

That's probably too melodramatic of me – neither the CNN story nor Carrie Goldman's blog entry choose to go there. We are talking about little kids here (at least in Katie's case; my classmates were still like that through high school and thus have no excuse). Besides, it seems little Katie usually played happily with these other kids; it was really just the Star Wars water bottle she was getting a hard time about.

Much of the media support for Katie Goldman so far seems based on geek pride. I find myself increasingly ambivalent about this topic, particularly the notion that people who like sci-fi or fantasy are still targets of widespread scorn. “Whole genres of pop culture are devoted to ridiculing them,” claims the author of the CNN article, a statement I find totally baffling. What genres are those, exactly? I've seen far more pop culture in which the nerdy misfit is the hero, while jocks, gym coaches and bullies of every stripe are the villains. Even back in the blow-dried Reagan years, teen comedies encouraged us to root for the embattled nerd, not the high school quarterback trying to pummel him. Besides, how many gazillions of dollars have been made off of Star Wars, Star Trek, Twilight, Harry Potter, Spider-Man, et cetera? How are these things not “popular”?

While I certainly got picked on for nerdy interests as a kid, it wasn't necessarily the interests themselves, but the depth of my obsession, that made me a target. For example, my childhood interest in dinosaurs coincided with the rise of new theories declaring that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, intelligent and agile. I remember an incident back in sixth grade, when a close friend insisted to me that dinosaurs were cold-blooded and stupid, then laughed as I angrily corrected him. Only when I remembered that incident some twenty years later did I realize what should have been obvious – that he knew I was easy to provoke on this subject, and was just having a laugh at my expense.

That combination of over-sensitivity and self-importance is what makes so many nerds a target, and there are many who, regrettably, never outgrow it as adults. Everyone other than nerds has realized this; the stereotypical sci-fi fan is no longer the cheerful enthusiast who wears a Starfleet uniform in public and has a house full of merchandise, but the surly Comic Book Guy who insists on announcing his disapproval in the belief that hostility and negativity are a sign of intelligence and sophistication. (I've had too much interaction with people like that to fully identify with Gen-X fandom ever again.)

Getting back to the main topic, though, it doesn't seem that this was Katie Goldman's problem. Apparently, her classmates weren't mocking her for being a sci-fi geek. Her classmates mocked her for carrying a Star Wars water bottle because, to them, Star Wars was for boys. It wasn't that Star Wars was uncool per se; she was mocked because she was a girl acting like a boy. This was a gender-role issue.

I have to admit that this, too, is a fraught issue with me. As I mentioned earlier, I wasn't the most macho kid growing up, so I know how bad it is to be pressured into being something you're not, and to be told that there's something wrong with you for not being like everyone else.

Yet the spontaneous public sympathy for Katie Goldman indicates the other side of the coin. Look how cute she is with her blonde hair, her glasses, and her little toy lightsaber. How could anyone be mean to her?

Now imagine if that was a boy, with those same glasses and that lightsaber. You'd probably be thinking, “Little creep. I hope he dies.” OK, you personally might not think that, but I'm sure there are loads of people online who would. Comparing the Star Wars Girl (as Katie Goldman is becoming known) with the Star Wars Kid says it all.

As kids, we are all vulnerable to insecurities and peer pressure, which potentially makes us targets for bullying. However, the degree and type of sympathy we can expect from our elders depends very much on whether we are male or female.

We can't just blame this on society. I believe we are all hardwired with the idea that men should endure danger while women should be shielded from it, and that we naturally instill this idea in our children.

It's not the healthiest lesson for boys or girls. Boys learn that they should silently endure pain, and that they can expect no sympathy from anyone. Girls learn to expect other people to come to their rescue and solve their problems for them. (Even feminists, who claim to oppose traditional sexism, often seem to embrace its core premise that women are helpless victims, and that they deserve to be protected from the adult world's difficulties, rather than being expected to cope with them as men are.)

I guess what I'm getting at is that whatever ribbing a 7-year-old girl might get for liking Star Wars is as nothing compared to what a boy might face for having an interest in something girly.

And in that event, he wouldn't get much sympathy. Boys who get bullied are told, in effect, that being afraid to go to school builds character. That they should face, on their own, threats that would be a police matter in the adult world.

Katie Goldman's story is heartwarming and seems to have a happy ending. But there are many other kids who are not so fortunate, who tragically destroy themselves or face a lifetime coping with emotional scars. What can we do about this?

Kids need to know that they are loved and supported, and that they have someone to turn to when things are bad. They need to have self-confidence and self-worth instilled in them. As a kid I had the support of my parents, and – because I was a bright and creative student – from my teachers as well. Without that support, things could have been so much worse.

I think kids also need to somehow understand that their dumbass friends are not the whole world, and that there are other, better values besides peer pressure. Once I had my heart set on going to film school, I stopped worrying about high school bullshit because I had a better life to look forward to. I think I somehow realized that if I applied myself, my current classmates would be the dumbest people I would ever have to deal with in my life.

But the most difficult lesson, I think, is how to become a person who can cope with bullying – or better yet, not invite it in the first place. Bullies are like dogs – they smell fear. The hard reality is that, even with all the anti-bullying programs in the world, sometimes respect has to be earned. Think of all those macho action movies where two guys start out hating each other, but by the end have earned each other's respect and become friends.

Kids do have to get socialized to some degree. There are rough guidelines for how you're supposed to talk, walk, act and dress, and even if you disagree with those standards you do have to learn them in order to survive. The trick is to survive long enough to gain confidence and know how to play the game, while still holding onto your identity.

I'm sure Katie Goldman will make it. I hope everyone else does too.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Saberfrog trailer shown in New York City (and other adventures)


I spent the weekend after Thanksgiving in New York City, visiting my old NYU classmate Greg Draves. It was the first time in a while that I'd managed to make it down to the Big Apple, as the demands of my day job have kept me from traveling much.

There's something about New York City that toughens a person up. I don't exercise much at home, but I have no hesitation about running like hell to get from one destination to another in NYC, even if it's many blocks away. NYC traffic also gets me to drive like a cabbie, which I would never do at home.

On Friday, November 26, I got to show the Saberfrog trailer at Millennium Film Workshop. Millennium has a monthly open screening of short films, and the holiday weekend presented a rare opportunity for an out-of-towner like me to participate.

The other films in the program that night were a mixture of formats – film and video, Super-8 and 16mm, sound and silent. A technical problem that evening unfortunately resulted in all of the videos being shown in black-and-white.

Most of the shorts being screened that evening were abstract and experimental. I saw films of shaky street footage, and videos of abstract computer-generated patterns.

One of the few narratives was called Erica Wexler Is Online, and was presented as a fake documentary consisting of staged interviews. It told the story of a college student who had died, but whose Facebook account is still active and still sending and receiving messages. None of the interviewees can say for certain whether the messages are being sent by a hacker, a family member or someone else, but most seem to prefer to believe that Erica is still there somehow, still participating in their lives.

The other narrative was an erotic cartoon – actually a series of still images, like a comic book – depicting a scantily-clad female demon being fought over by two scantier-clad male demons, to the tune of Duran Duran's “A View to a Kill” (“Dance into the fire...”). Interestingly, the projectionist was the director of this particular film.

The Saberfrog trailer was the final work to be screened. Several shots in the trailer (mostly flashbacks) are in black-and-white for dramatic effect, and it was unfortunate that the impact of this was lost by the entirely black-and-white projection. But these things happen.

My memories of NYU film school, plus the fact that all the other films that evening were experimental, led me to expect that a New York crowd might be unsympathetic towards a genre comedy. But the trailer got several laughs, and a couple people told me they looked forward to seeing the whole movie at some point.

It wasn't a huge turnout that night, but knowing that an arty Manhattan film-buff audience had watched and/or heard J.D. Edmond, Reuben Tapp, Wendy Foster, Liz Mariani, John Karyus, John Sindoni, Jahaka Mindstorm, Mary Criddle, Jesse Conklin, Val Perkins, Jes Gonzales and myself (plus Derrick Petrush if you looked quick) was definitely cool.

On Sunday it was back to Rochester, and time to promote the next showing of Saberfrog, this time at the Screening Room in Amherst.


The Thursday after Thanksgiving, I drove to Buffalo to do some advertising, and to see if the latest issue of Artvoice carried a listing for the screening (which it did).

It was a long way to drive just to put up a few flyers (I made it to the Market Arcade theater, Guerrilla Gallery and Just Pizza before it got too late), but I was lucky to do even that much, as the Thruway (Route 90) was partly shut down due to a huge amount of snow.

Then, on Friday, December 3, I reached a milestone: I PAID OFF THE CREDIT CARD DEBT from the movie. That only took two-and-a-half years ...

This past Saturday, December 4, I returned to Buffalo to post more flyers on Elmwood Ave and Main St, and also got to have coffee with Liz Mariani, who I hadn't seen since the October screening. From there I drove to Toronto to view a program of films at a space called CineCycle.

I've been researching various offbeat spaces that might be open to showing the movie, and CineCycle was one of several spaces in Toronto. That night, CineCycle was playing host to a curatorial group called Pleasure Dome, and it seemed as good an opportunity as any to check the place out. I had no idea what kind of film I'd be seeing … and there was no way I could have predicted what I got.

If you've ever been to a modern art gallery, you're probably used to seeing some placard basically explaining at length what the artist intended and what s/he was trying to say. Sometimes, whatever aesthetic pleasure you get (or don't get) from the art itself is contradicted by the political statement hammered home in the artist's statement. I kind of got that feeling watching this show. The program notes seemed to threaten a lineup of dull political propaganda, but the films themselves were actually quite entertaining.

This particular show consisted of two longish short films, Home 2 and Blondes in the Jungle, plus the seventh and eighth episodes of a British video series called Paul and the Badger.

Created by a cheery bloke named Paul Tarrago (who also stars), Paul and the Badger seems to be a parody of children's puppet shows – sort of like Pee Wee's Playhouse, but done in the more deadpan style of Wallace and Gromit. It's proudly low-tech – the sets are blatantly greenscreened, and the puppets are clearly puppets – and I found it very enjoyable. In fact, it's one of the most creatively inspiring productions I've seen in some while. It made me go “Yes!!! I want to make something like that!” (Warning: I just might.)

Home 2 (a 2007 sequel to a 2004 film Home, according to the program notes) was a 30-minute mockumentary about a lanky, curly-haired, overenthusiastic American doofus visiting many foreign locations and making a fool of himself. Imagine a cross between Napoleon Dynamite and Borat, but a lot more hyper.

This character, played by Brian Kerstetter, was never given a name onscreen as far as I recall. He had weird beady eyes that, according to the program notes, are contact lenses meant to suggest his “inability to truly see and understand his surroundings.” This, and other statements in the program notes, imply that we're supposed to condemn the character as a boorish Ugly American, but I must not be that politically correct because to me the character's joy and awe at the world around him seemed quite infectious. The on-camera locals seem to enjoy his antics, so it's hard to fully buy the idea that it is he who is exploiting them.

It's also hard to be sure how many of the locals might, in fact, be actors taking part in the joke; there's one scene, in which the hero pretends to kidnap four Arabs, that was almost certainly staged. If the main character is actually meant to be culturally insensitive, it raises the question of whether the filmmaker – jaunting around the world to provoke on-camera reactions from local people – is in any position to judge.

Anyway, the film was quite funny, since the protagonist is clearly out of his mind and never seems to calm down at any time during his journey. The variety of location work was also quite impressive – the bulk of the film takes place in Papua, New Guinea, but various (equally goofy) flashbacks show the character in other locales such as Japan and Switzerland. The audience was still chuckling for some time after the film finished.

Blondes in the Jungle was made last year and shares Home 2's theme of “honky fools in the Third World”. Set in 1987 and filmed in the Honduras, this film follows three American adolescents (two male, one female) on a quest to find the Fountain of Youth. A fourth character, looking and acting like the Harold and Kumar version of Neil Patrick Harris, also makes sporadic and not-really-explained appearances.

Whereas Home 2 used a handheld-vacation-video approach, Blondes in the Jungle was shot more conventionally; the celluloid photography and slower pace went a long way towards selling the 1987 setting. This film was also more condescending towards its childish protagonists than Home 2 was, and their relentless dumbness (while true to my memories of the 1980s) got old well before the 48-minute running time was up.

The film did have one killer line, though. During the night, the girl in the group has a sexual dream, and in the morning she deduces that she was visited by a Mayan jaguar god. When the two guys express alarm at this, she mocks their fears: “Gods don't have AIDS!” I don't remember the last time I heard an audience roar so much at a line of dialogue in a film.

What follows is a spoiler for anyone who thinks it's remotely likely they might get to see this film at some point, but … our heroes finally find the alleged Fountain of Youth, and go swimming in it. What happens to them next can only be speculated upon, since the remaining half of the film consists of the previously glimpsed Mayan jaguar god giving a John Cleese-like anthropology lecture to the camera.

Again, the program notes hint that all of this is a political statement – this time about the Reagan era – but the possibility that the filmmaker was simply eating coke by the spoonful should not be entirely discounted.

In fact, the oddness of this entire program was quite impressive. I've been slowly resigning myself to the idea that truly idiosyncratic filmmaking was dead, and that everything now was just remakes, sequels, and comic book adaptations. Yet these films were not only defiantly weird, but comedic as well, which made them entertaining rather than pretentious.

After the screening, I gave a DVD of Saberfrog to one of the Pleasure Dome curators, in the hopes that they might be interested in screening the film at a future date. We shall see. Until then, there's still the showing at The Screening Room - tomorrow!