Tag: Sundance Film Festival

Five Reasons Why “Whose Streets” is Essential Viewing

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While at the Sundance Film Festival this past week I had the fortune to to see the premiere of “Whose Streets” by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis – produced by Jennifer MacArthur.   It was even more fortunate because I was able to view this powerful film on inauguration day and it provided wonderful counterprogramming. I was struck by a number of things in the film that still resonate with me almost a week later.

1. The film shows how far we still have to go as a nation to confront a legacy of slavery that is still with us.  The film wisely starts with a reference to the Dred Scott decision in 1846 and compares it to contemporary St. Louis and Ferguson. (In the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court in one of its most notorious decisions, declared that since Dred Scott was a slave he was not a citizen. As such he did not have a right to sue for his freedom even though he lived in a non-slave state.)  This initial juxtaposition, along with the quotes from prominent black leaders that served as chapter breaks, was all the contextualization the audience needs.   Very soon we see the largely white police using overwhelming force to intimidate and control the primarily black citizens of Ferguson.  The dogs used for “crowd control” is enough to throw you back to the 60s and beyond.

2. The film does an incredible job of constructing the story of people living through the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death focusing on four activists:  Brittany Farrel, David Whitt, Tef Poe and Kayla Reed. Weaving a narrative from a wide range of filmed and archival/cell phone material the filmmakers provide a visceral experience where you feel that you are there on the streets with the mourners and protesters. You live the events with them, and see how truth unfolds through their eyes.  

3. I believe it might have been the LAPD under Daryl Gates that spearheaded the militarization of local police with armored battering rams being used in the early 1980s. (http://www.laweekly.com/news/the-militarization-of-police-started-in-los-angeles-5010287). The film Do Not Resist (http://www.donotresistfilm.com/) which came out last year, uses Ferguson as a backdrop to examine the increase in militarization of police forces across the country. But Whose Streets is the first film that I have seen that gives a sense of what it is like for American citizens conducting peaceful protests to come face to face with police in full combat gear flanked by armored personnel carriers.  Our founding fathers would be aghast.

4. I like to feel that I am a savvy media viewer – but the contrast presented by this film between the stories of the people on the ground and traditional news media was stunning.  As shown in Do Not Resist, the events of Ferguson have been used as a justification to increase the militarization of police forces in the US.  But Whose Streets deftly shows the distortion of the mainstream by constructing the reality of events as witnessed by those on the receiving end of force.  There is much talk about media bias these days and real stories not being told.  Somehow my bet is that most of the untold stories and media bias is of and against the marginalized.

  5. On the bus after the screening a white women commented on how she felt that there should have been many more interviews with white people to broaden the appeal of the film. But why does a film about black experience in America need to be mediated by white people?   I think she perhaps missed one of the key points of the film:  having a lived experience of how racism in American society has stayed embedded in our society.

I was inspired by the bravery of the activists in the film and their families in the face of such intense opposition. The film shows through the lives of Brittany Farrel, David Whitt, Tef Poe and Kayla Reed how difficult the struggle for human rights can be.   Coming at a time when our country is facing an attempt to push back gains made across the board in civil rights, women’s rights, environmental protection, etc., the film is a much needed inspiration for activism and the need for continued struggle.



Exciting Times in Park City

I just returned from Park City where I had the pleasure to judge the Slamdance Documentary Competition. I saw some compelling and inspiring work. Being a judge forced me to actually see films at a film festival for the first time in two years since embarking on the TOTBO project (usually I am lucky to see one film). In addition, I got to catch nearly all of “Gandu Asshole” – a stunning visual and narrative feast by first time Indian filmmaker Q that is headed to the Berlinale. Last but not least, I got the opportunity to see the finished version of the moving and brilliantly structured Kinyarwanda, a film I mentored in the IFP Filmmaker Labs.

It was a very exciting time at Park City. First off, more films have sold at this year’s Sundance Film Festival than in recent memory and that is good news for independent film as Ted Hope points out in his blog it “should give investors more confidence that you no longer have to rely just on foreign; the US acquisition climate seems quite robust again.”

However, I am concerned that filmmakers see these sales and think they can revert back to depending on the festival acquisition system to handle the distribution and marketing of any and all of their films. I hope all will analyze the elements that were most attractive to the buyers (name cast, compelling documentary subjects, past success with a similar film) before assuming that the old days are back.

I got the sense there is a growing awareness that while sales happen for some films, filmmakers understand that the system cannot and does not handle all films. In fact, these sales make up a small percentage of films on the festival circuit each year, much less than the films produced every year. More and more filmmakers are understanding the need to engage audiences on their own – or with partners – and craft unique distribution and marketing strategies for their films.
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Lessons from the Lab: Advice to Films Heading for Their Festival Premiere

Almost two weeks ago I wrote a piece for those who did not get into the Sundance or Slamdance Film Festivals. Today, I want to write one for those who got in, or will be getting into similar sales oriented prominent festivals in the coming months. First off – congratulations – you got into one of the premiere film festivals in the world for independent film.

This post was inspired by the recent completion of the first year of the newly expanded Independent Filmmaker Labs run by IFP that I helped convert into completion distribution and marketing labs. (I plan to do several of these posts highlighting information that we either learned as a group – or were stressing to the participating filmmakers). To be honest, this advice applies to all filmmakers – whether or not they are going to a premiere festival.

1. Know yourself, know your film. When you are accepted into one of these prestigious festivals you are accosted by many people who want to help you sell your film. You should have a sense of who you are and what your film is in order to evaluate what you are being told by those who want to help you. In order to do this you must: Continue reading →

Didn’t Get into Sundance? A World of Opportunity Awaits

by Jon Reiss

The Sundance Film Festival has started announcing its slate for the 2011 festival. This has traditionally been a nerve wracking time for independent filmmakers who, in the past, have put so much stock into premiere film festivals like Sundance. They have traditionally done this because it has been believed that a premiere festival can 1. Sell your film for lots of money (or at least enough to pay back your investors) or 2. Potentially launch your career (but normally only if #1 happened).

But in the new world of distribution, marketing and audience engagement the world is a much better place than it was just five years ago for the thousands of films that do not get into Sundance, or any other premiere festival.

Here are 6 thoughts on the importance of getting into a premiere film festival for you films distribution and marketing strategy.

1. Premiere festivals are not the only gatekeepers to independent film anymore. In fact there are no gatekeepers. The knowledge and the technology exists so that anyone can release their films themselves. I don’t think I need to elaborate on this anymore – right?!?

2. Getting into a premiere film festival is not a distribution and marketing strategy. It is common knowledge now that only a small percentage of films that go to Sundance, Toronto, SXSW, Cannes, Berlin etc end up with traditional all rights deals that make any kind of financial sense. 98% of filmmakers at least still end up being responsible for the distribution and marketing of their film – even if they obtain a distributor partner hear or there for specific rights. The less you mentally rely on what I call the Festival Acquisition Model, the better off you will be. Filmmaker now must have a plan that doesn’t rely on selling all of their rights to a distributor. they need this plan before they go to their first festival (frankly – it is best to be engaging in this plan from inception) so that you can:

3. Incorporate festivals into your larger release strategy. This will vary for every film. But just because you didn’t get into Sundance doesn’t mean that there aren’t other, perhaps more appropriate festivals for your film. These festivals can be worked into a robust Live Event/Theatrical release for your film that you coordinate with your other rights, as well as your audience outreach and engagement. There are a plethora of good festivals that are connected with their community and/or provide great experiences for filmmakers throughout the world.

4. Just because your film didn’t get into Sundance or any festival does not mean that it is not a good film. There are many reasons for this. Festivals and programmers have particular tastes and perhaps your film didn’t suit them. (Did you take a look at what that festival tends to program and see if your film fit?) In addition – they might have loved your film, but didn’t feel that it fit into that year’s program for one reason or another. Finally, some films are just not “festival films” and need to find their audience in different ways.

5. Festivals used to be one of the few ways for independent films and filmmakers to connect and engage with audiences. Now there are not only a myriad of ways to do this – primarily through the web but:
A. Relying on festivals to do this work for you is not reality. In other words they will do some of this work (and are quite good and it and can make great partners)– but you are crazy to rely solely on them (eg it is a partnership.


B. You should be doing this work well before you get to your first festival anyway.

6. I would take the time to reevaluate your approach and your film. Many films are submitted to festivals and released into distribution before they are really finished. Have you screened your film to people outside of immediate friends and family? Have you screened your film to a large audience, in a theater (for a private pre lock screening)? What was the reaction? Do you need to do more work on the film – shorten it, make it more understandable, make it funnier, scarier etc.

Are you submitting it to festivals that support the kind of film you have made?

Are you submitting it at the end of the submissions process when programmers are deluged with films? Or are you submitting it earlier in the process when more programmers will have a chance to see your film and perhaps champion it?

In sum – more filmmakers are finding distribution and marketing paths for their films (in other words – connecting with audiences) outside of the Festival Acquisition System than are doing it inside of this system. A wonderful case in point Hunter Weeks and Mike Dion who wanted their film Ride the Divide to play at a premiere festival – it didn’t. But they created a wonderful, inspiring release for their film that all filmmakers can take lessons from. (if you didn’t read them before – there is a three part series on their film in this blog: Part1 Part2 Part3.)