Your film’s in competition.
As one of the very many judges at BIAFF, I was privileged to see a vast cross-section of films over three days of intensive film appraisal. With only a running time given to us at the start, I could feel the expectation and excitement mount as each film hit the screen. A hotel room TV screen admittedly, but read on.
All the judges are in lean-forward, poised concentration mode, acutely aware that potentially this one screening is the only chance they’ll get to evaluate the feel, pace, storyline, editing, photography and overall competence of the filmmaker. It’s a lot to ask of the three people that sit in judgement because potentially they’ve been in this mode for hours, if not days, before your film hits the screen.
I should point out here that the availability of 'take-home' evaluation DVDs and web links is a tremendous boon to anyone tasked with passing judgement. I'm always acutely aware that the 5 minute film that unfolds before me may well have taken as many months to get made, and as such I feel it demands my time, space and OLED TV to see it and hear it at its best.
And so my point is this: remember that however good your film is as a stand-alone work of art, when you’re in competition with others the boundaries change. Maybe even the rules change. You want to get noticed? You want to get lots of stars, fame and recognition? The best bit of advice I can give you is to make a film for competition and not necessarily for showing as a stand-alone entity.
The film has only been going 10 seconds, maybe less. Yet in this very short time all the judges know. Expectations are raised or hopes dashed. The opening seconds of a film tell the judges what to expect, what lies ahead.
I cannot stress enough that you only have a few seconds to captivate the judges, to convince them that to keep watching will burn your film into their memory, want them seeing more, even change their lives. These few opening seconds are your first impressions, where you meet the judges for the first time. These seconds, as too are the same seconds at your job interview, are precious, a never to be repeated experience, so you should treasure the opportunity and make the most of them.
I’ll let you into a little secret, and that is that judges are only human. Despite our very best intentions, we humans tread life’s path and come to the judging table warped by circumstance. We come from all walks of life and arrive with our frailties and biases, likes and dislikes, skills and worries, prejudices and assumptions.
We try to be as objective as possible in our appraisals, but judging art is not a game of numbers. Years ago we used to mark films out of 10; so many points for photography, editing, sound, that sort of thing. Happily those days are long gone, but maybe unhappily for some the judges are looking ever deeper into your film in an effort to understand and be emotionally moved, however slightly, by it.
So your film is seen by three randomly-chosen judges and as the film fades from the screen they have to quickly write down their feelings, thoughts, impressions and comments. These same judges then discuss amongst themselves as to where your film lies in the overall competition, thrashing out a star rating that befits the standards of the competition as a whole.
Then after days of judging they have to retire and do constructive write-ups using all the notes made by the two other judges that they sat alongside. I had nineteen films to appraise and writing constructive and helpful comments on so many takes a determined effort of will and a great deal of concentration.
But let me come back to my opening line and it is this: remember that your film is in competition with others, with all that this implies. Remember too that the judges sit through many hours of what I might term ‘worthy documentaries’. As I say, nothing wrong with these as stand-alone information boards, but when you’re in competition your film needs a special something to get noticed.
It may not be obvious what this special something is, but here’s a tip: get your film seen and judged before it’s entered in competition. This may sound like a needless occupation as you feel you’re entering this very competition to get feedback, to see where you stand alongside other filmmakers, to get to hear ideas from people who have trodden that path before you. But it’s worth doing, I promise you.
So before you enter, get a truthful pair of eyes to appraise your film. Sit someone down and ask them to watch your film and tell you as honestly as possible what they see, what they would change, what they particularly liked, how they felt at the end of it.
Does your film have repeatability stamped all over it? Does it plod, state the obvious or entertain, surprise and delight? Armed with this honest appraisal go back to the timeline and make changes, and make them knowing that in this digital age nothing is lost. You can keep any number of different versions of your film; just make sure that the film the competition judges see is the one that will stand muster when it’s one of 220 films that are going to be shown in three days.