Finding an audience

I’ve written previously about Comic Book City being rejected by film festivals and, taking off from a post at the Raindance blog, I’ve also written about working in an academic mode and how that may put my film in a different frame than those used by festivals when evaluating of submissions.

In thinking about the last several months of trying to secure formal review and screening opportunities for my film, I should thank Elliot Grove for his Raindance piece. That blog entry, followed by a couple of rejections from festivals that I had had some hope for, prompted me to think more critically about who the potential audience for Comic Book City might be.

While I had already given thought to submitting the film to conferences and journals in film and media studies, and that, at some point, I would try to negotiate opportunities to screen the documentary at a geography venue, it was not until the aforementioned retrenchment that I started looking closely at comics studies events.

I initially focused on festivals for the simple reason that film festivals are set up to exhibit films. Most academic conferences, let alone journals, are not. In addition, acceptance into a film festival struck me as a kind of peer review that would be readily understood by colleagues and administrators on my campus, which will have value to me when I finally decide to apply for promotion to full professor.

However, if that route is a dead end, obviously I need alternatives, and as recently announced, I seem to have discovered that a significant part of the potential audience for the film is with comics studies scholars.

As I’ve suggested before (see my response to Grove above) I can understand why festival programmers/selectors are not finding Comic Book City to be appropriate for their events. My mom, (yes, my mom) remarked after watching the film that she could see how if someone were not already interested in comics (or Portland) that the documentary would lack appeal. The film doesn’t have a conventional narrative structure (in fact, I think of it more as creative non-fiction than as a documentary, but the latter is better shorthand for most purposes). It doesn’t address a critical social or political issue. It doesn’t tell any stories about the triumph of the human spirit (at least not in a significant or highlighted way). It has an experimental visual design. The themes that it explores – place, creative process, the spatiality of different media – are fairly abstract. Which is all a way of saying that the academic roots of the project show. If I were a festival programmer, I don’t think I would see the film as something that would sell tickets or passes, or that would contribute to my event’s reputation in ‘the industry’.

While most academic conferences are not organized for film screenings, what they do have are specialized audiences, and I suspect that with Comic Book City, I need to find those audiences, that is, the people for whom the film has intrinsic interest. I am grateful for the interest shown so far by my colleagues in comics studies and only wish that I did not have to wait until May for the first conference.

I am showing the film, and have shown related works, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Ultimately, I want to release it, and significant parts, into the wild and let the larger audience find it in their own time and own ways. Refereed screenings, like the ones I have coming this spring and summer are important to me, though, not just for the base professional reasons I’ve already noted, but also for the opportunity to watch and discuss the film with an interested audience, which, I imagine, is what any filmmaker wants for their work.

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An academic’s perspective on film festival submission: take two

Earlier this week Peter D. Marshall, via Twitter, linked to Elliot Grove’s post at the Raindance Canada site on, “16 things that film festivals hate about filmmakers“. Reading Grove’s list I gained some additional insight into some of the mistakes I have made in submitting Comic Book City to festivals, but also how the culture from which I am working, academia, is different from that of film as an industry.

In general, Grove’s advice reads as pretty sensible, essentially telling filmmakers to, “be professional, don’t make a festival’s job harder than it needs to be.” Substitute “article” for “film” and “journal” or “publisher” for “film festival” and, with some minor changes for context, the advice would still make sense.

At the same time, there is a clear implication that a film festival is necessarily an industry showcase, that the purpose of holding a festival is to provide films and their makers with exposure to people looking to buy and hire. When films and filmmakers are “discovered” at a fest, the festival solidifies its position in the industry. What unites everyone is this commercial purpose (see Grove’s comments to “#14: Filmmakers who don’t understand the role a festival”).

As someone who undertook filmmaking as part of my scholarly work, I do not share this commercial purpose. As a result, my submissions are lacking in areas related to publicity (see Grove’s #10 and #12). I do not have PR skills, nor do I have the resources to hire people to do that work, and I did not think about publicity during the making of the film anymore than I would have with a journal article, which is to say, I didn’t think about it at all. The area where this has put me in the most awkward position in relation to festivals is in provision of high resolution images for catalogs and advertising (#10). I have done what I can with the online press kit function in Withoutabox, and I have an IMDB page, but both are minimal. When it comes time to announce screenings, I do have social media I can use – like this blog and the production blog, for examples – but my social network, and networking, is likely not up to the standard advocated by Grove (see #11).

In one sense, lesson learned. On my next project I will at least know to produce a few high quality stills for use by festival organizers. In another sense, while I want my film to be seen, I do not see my film as an entrée to the industry. For me, festival acceptance constitutes a form of peer review. Whether and what an “industry person” might do with Comic Book City is beyond me, but that doesn’t make a festival screening meaningless either. It just doesn’t have the meaning assumed in Grove’s advice to filmmakers.

This would seem to make me guilty of #14, but I’m not sure that a festival’s purpose can be reduced to, “Together, the festival and filmmaker hopes that you get ‘discovered’ ie: that someone gives you a cheque. That way, we can both say ‘this is the film that was discovered at Raindance – enhancing both of our press kits.”

For one thing, many festivals include categories of films that would not normally be seen as ways to break into the industry or to have someone cut you a check. There clearly is a function of festivals that relates to filmmaking as art, and not as commerce, to access to audiences, but not necessarily access to the industry.

I think that these distinctions matter in terms of the performative aspects of festival submission that Grove focuses on. The advice in his post seems most relevant to filmmakers who have commercial aspirations, but are more curious for those of us without such expectations.

I still agree with the general sentiment that it is in a filmmaker’s best interests to not make a festival programmer’s job harder than it needs to be, but the limited resources that Grove points to for why filmmakers should have good publicity materials, and thick social networks, would seem to apply equally to, if not have more salience for, individual creators, especially those working with minimal personnel and finances, if not as, essentially, one-person shops.

As I discussed in my previous post on submitting to festivals, I am learning to read between the lines when looking at how a festival is represented. Many festivals, as implied by Grove, place a heavy emphasis on the idea of “discovery” and on connections to industry and industry celebrities. I have decided to sidestep such events, even where they would seem to be promising in other respects (size, location). Others frame what they do more in terms of providing an audience, and bringing films to communities that otherwise miss out on, particularly, unusual or less commercial offerings than in terms of being places where filmmakers can “make it”.

Obviously, Grove is on-point for most festivals when he writes, “Your job is to deliver a pleasing and entertaining film, and if you attend the festival, to be available for interview and Q&A sessions after your screening.” On the other hand, there should be room for a film to be, “challenging and interesting”, too, or where what constitutes “pleasing and entertaining” has a wider meaning than “commercial potential”.

An (outsider) academic’s perspective on submission to, and rejection from, film festivals

On Monday I received my first rejection from a film festival for Comic Book City. This wasn’t particularly surprising. Not only is this my first long form film, it is also only the second time I’ve taken one of my works and submitted it to festivals.

Of course, this time around, the stakes are higher. The first film I submitted to festivals is “5 Cups of Coffee“, a scripted short that I directed, edited, and co-produced with Maren Anderson, who wrote the script. With “5 Cups” I targeted a small, local event, the Mid-Valley Video Festival, and after being accepted there, made a couple of additional submissions before stopping. What I wanted out of MVVF was a sense of the festival experience and a chance to screen a work with a group of strangers. “5 Cups” was also a project I undertook primarily for the doing of it, and not as a “publication” (that being said, a few years later, I did submit the film and an accompanying essay to Aether – still waiting on publication – and am generally pretty happy with the work).

Comic Book City, by contrast, is a film that I made with the intent of it being (fully) counted as part of my scholarship. Film festival review and acceptance needs to work here in the same vein as peer review and publication works for more traditional publications in my fields.

One of the challenges for an effective novice to the festival circuit, like me, is how to decide where to submit. One starting point is AJ Schnack’s listing of the top twenty-five festivals for documentaries, but there are, potentially, thousands of festivals to consider, and at this point in my filmmaking career path, I have only so many resources available to apply towards submitting my work for consideration.

Unlike journals, conferences, or book publishers, film festivals typically charge a fee for submission of work. And one additional cost I had not considered until recently is the cost of media for submission. Where possible, I have relied on my Withoutabox online screener, but in some cases organizers want DVD copies for review. Whereas I can count on access to paper, when needed, as part of the supplies and services provided by the division office, I have to buy DVDs myself.

In any case, submitting a film to a festival, more often than not, costs money, and, on average, I think I have been paying about $50/submission. Whatever the risks associated with, say, journal submission, paying $50 for the pleasure of rejection is not one of them. Being appropriately selective about venues for one’s work is always important, but adding a financial cost to these decisions attaches a new significance to making the best choices.

One way in which submitting to festivals is like submitting to journals, conferences or book publishers is that there is a clear top tier of places to get your work seen and recognized, but equally true is that not all of your work will be suitable to those outlets. In both forms of “publishing”, beneath the top tier is a thicket of choices that is more difficult to navigate in terms of appropriateness, quality and reputation than is the consensus “best” places.

For example, the festival from which I just received a rejection is one of a myriad of self-named “underground” events. That word, “underground”, is used in different ways by different festivals, sometimes clearly defined, as when identified with certain genres, and sometimes not, as when it is being used as an “edgier” expression of “independent”. Depending on the event, “underground” maybe promising for my work or it may be a waste of effort and resources.

There is also the question of reputation. Fortunately for me, one of the advantages of working at a smaller public university, with a focus on undergraduate education, is not having to worry about this matter as much as someone at an R1, for example. I can afford to think about appropriateness or how interesting a venue is more than I need to  think about the “right” places.

For Comic Book City, I have trained my attention on Pacific Northwest-based festivals and events dedicated to documentary and non-fiction film, and on calls for entries that show an openness to works that may or may not have mainstream appeal or that have an academic intent. So far, I have made a few exceptions for fests that seem cool or interesting or that would raise the profile of my film were it to be selected (the aforementioned rejection came from one of these outliers).

I expect that this recent rejection will be the first of a number to come, I would be surprised by any other outcome, but I also know that I have other notifications coming up this month that represent more of a test for the film’s (external) viability. Not sure how I’ll feel if those come up “not accepted”.

Recommended daily reading – 17 September (day late edition)

A few items from yesterday:

On MTV’s Spash Page is a story about Anthony Bourdain writing a graphic novel for DC (presumably on Vertigo) that is “sort of like ‘Fistful of Dollars’ meets ‘Eat Drink Man Woman.'”

In the article, Bourdain’s references are all cinematic, which is not entirely confidence inspiring, and while I think that Douglas Wolk is generally right about avoiding comics with celebrity names slapped on them, Bourdain is a talented writer, with both fiction and non-fiction works to his credit, and he strikes me as someone who probably understands genre and form well enough to adapt his talents to comics. In any case, he seems smart enough to do a good job, and this notice has me curious.

Ben Gilbert at Panels on Pages writes a defense of Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003). I also think that this film is disproportionately maligned, and that it will likely have a very different position in the history of Marvel adaptions than its initial reception would indicate. Gilbert focuses on Lee’s ambition and A-list cast. One point about the former that I think merits more attention is Lee’s creative use of comic-like panels to show the action from different perspectives, sometimes simultaneously. Most adaptations of superhero comics are made as conventional action films, and as Gilbert notes, Lee’s Hulk, if nothing else, stands out for not being that.

Finally, on Torontoist is a story about Stiffed, a festival for those films rejectected by TIFF – the Toronto International Film Festival. Having had a few frustrating experiences with peer review, with both print and film, I admire the ambition of the new festival’s founders and wish them the best.