Aspiring filmmakers who produce short films usually have one goal in mind. Festivals.
One of the biggest festivals in the world is the Toronto International Film Festival. A massive gathering of some of the biggest stars, filmmakers and the up and coming artists of tomorrow. Getting your short film into a major festival like TIFF can be absolutely huge for people trying to make their mark in the industry.
But what does it take to get your film accepted? What do selection committees and programmers look for?
As an independent filmmaker myself, I decided to find out what it takes to get a short film into TIFF. So I contacted the festival and was granted an interview with Magali Simard. It’s her job to help decide which films are accepted into the prestigious festival so there is no better person to ask. Her wonderful responses offered a unique look inside the process including a number of great tips and helpful advice.
So how do you get your short film into a major festival?
Here is an exclusive look behind the scenes from someone who has seen a TON of shorts and knows what it takes to get accepted.
Special thanks to Magali Simard and TIFF.
Can you briefly summarize the overall selection process for short films?
The Festival is in September, and filmmakers get to submit to us between February and May, by filling our form online through Withoutabox and sending us their films. We make our decisions in July and announce our selection in August.
What’s the first thing you look for in a short?
Maybe it goes without saying, but we look for excellence! Some films achieve high levels of production value, but if the content isn’t there, it just isn’t. It’s about artistic value, originality, execution. We see over 600 short films in couple months, so a film needs to stand out.
What are the most common mistakes filmmakers make?
There are so many steps to making a film – things can go wrong on so many levels. I’d say a recurring mistake is overwriting. The image usually conveys enough. It’s important to trust that the audience will be able to understand and absorb things without having to hammer it over and over.
In your experience, what is the ideal length of a short?
It really depends on the subject. The best run time is the one that is appropriate for what the film needs to achieve. Cutting back is hard for filmmakers, it’s their material and it’s hard to let go of some of it during the editing process. This past Festival we had a 1:30-minute short, and a 30-minute short. They were both wonderful, and time-appropriate.
Does a movie shot on film have a better chance of being accepted than one shot on a lower quality format?
Certain subjects are rightfully approached with a less polished look, and it serves them well. There’s something to be said about the ever changing formats people use. Just about anyone can make a film, and it creates a ton of new content. Some great, some not at all, but the bigger the pool of production, the more chances good things can come out of it. Nothing should be limiting people from going ahead with their projects.
What would you say is the number one reason that a film is rejected?
Some films nearly make it, we have a certain amount of slots, and it’s heartbreaking to reject some excellent work, but it’s the nature of the beast. Others are not close to making it, of course. Films fail to impress for as many different reasons as they succeed. Concept, plot, character, and aesthetic – you basically need everything to come perfectly together. Yes, bad production can hurt a film, but so can a bad script, bad dialogue, untimely editing, choppy acting, etc.
Each festival usually asks for a submission fee which can add up quickly for many indie filmmakers. Would you say it’s better to enter only the biggest festivals, the smaller festivals or a combination of both?
For short films, the Festival circuit is vital. So I suggest investing in those submissions but it’s not about submitting just anywhere – there thousands of festivals. Filmmakers should research the places they submit to and see the kind of selection they usually tend toward. Some festivals are more niche and that can be an advantage depending on the film at hand.
What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers before they begin their projects? What would you say to those who have submitted their films but have yet to be accepted?
Keep on submitting. Having your film(s) seen by programmers is invaluable. As a programmer, I want to follow filmmakers’ careers, see what they are up to, how they develop from year to year. Without the submissions, it’d be nearly impossible to track so many. Also: you can have a word with programmers after the submissions process to get some feedback. And festivals talk to each other, and if your name’s not out there, it’s kind of impossible to have it discussed. Keep’em coming.
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH SHARON WRIGHT WRITER/DIRECTOR OF CHANGE FOR A DOLLAR
Short films need an audience. It’s a pretty obvious statement to make but it means a lot if your project fails to attract attention at first. Most independent filmmakers set their sights on the major festivals of the world. You work hard, save room in your budget and send your film everywhere along with high hopes it will be accepted. This can get expensive so others focus on smaller festivals to get their work in front of an audience. Sometimes, this works out and your film shows up on a theater screen. But it can be tough when the acceptance letters don’t arrive as planned.
Regardless, a filmmaker must also decide what to do with their film once the festival circuit is over. Whether your film is accepted or not there are still countless opportunities out there for your hard work to be seen. Today is a golden age for short films with sites like YouTube & Vimeo paving the way. Combined with the skillful use of social media platforms, you can generate a massive audience.
Writer/Director Sharon Wright’s film Change For A Dollar is an incredible example of what can happen once you put your film online. Since uploading the short a few months back, the film has generated more than 1.5 million views (and rising) and a mention from a world famous movie critic. Not to mention thousands of comments and feedback.
I had the opportunity to find out more about what inspired the film and what it was like to find an audience that eludes so many. Read on for proof that anything is possible if your believe in your film.
What inspired Change For A Dollar?
It’s funny really, I never really thought about writing or directing. I was on the board of the Independent Filmmakers Coalition of Kansas City and would look for different opportunities once in a while for our filmmakers and ran across this one minute film competition sponsored by Pepsi. One of the categories was “How far can you go with a dollar”. I found it kind of intriguing. I mean, what could you do with a penny? A nickle? A quarter? What little thing could you do with them that could have an impact on something else…
I started to kick it around and as I was on a very long drive one night across the state it hit me. I started to put it all together and was driving as fast as I could so I could check into my hotel and write it all down. I knew the title and most of the scenes but at the time, I didn’t realize just how significant all these actions were.
Writing a story meant to inspire others is a difficult task and you’ve succeeded. What challenges did you face when crafting the screenplay?
Thank you! I didn’t start off writing it thinking I was going to inspire others really. I was just so focused on getting from point A to B, lol. I knew I wanted the sign to have a question mark, to make people think a little but it wasn’t till the end when the boy returns the penny that it came full circle and then I knew it was something special.
What was life like on set? What challenges did you encounter while filming Change For A Dollar?
Being my first time directing, I was REALLY nervous, I seriously don’t think I slept for about two days leading up to it. We started at about 5:30am at the grocery store and thankfully we were well prepared and had a fantastic team of pros that had worked together before so we started out like a fairly well oiled machine. Everyone worked really well together. Late that night though our toughest shot was coming up and laying the incredibly long dolly tracks was a challenge. It had been raining and so everything was just sinking in mud. We have this very long complicated shot, it’s late, we were cold and tired and we are all in the mud, lol. But we managed to get through it and every single person there was a trooper!
Can you talk about your strategy when the film first entered the festival circuit?
Because it is a positive film, I knew our best bet going into it would be to find theme based fests, christian festivals, The Feel Good Film Festival, etc. Course I didn’t just submit to those, I wanted other festivals to recognize us as well.
The film did very well at smaller festivals but wasn’t accepted into the larger festivals. As most short filmmakers aspire to gain acceptance into the major festivals, what was it like to miss out on that experience?
It was a little disappointing, not gonna lie about that. Festivals are so expensive to submit to and you always hope that someone will see it and fall in love with it. But it didn’t happen. I spoke with a director of a large fest, that I won’t name, and he remembered seeing my film and said that the reason it didn’t get in was that it dragged a bit and I should consider editing it. Well, it’s 10 minutes (a good fit timewise already) but there was no way I was going to change the film. Right, wrong or indifferent, it was the way I wanted it to be and honestly, there was no way to cut it without taking away the story. It just didn’t resonate with many of the festival people for whatever reason. We had some luck with some other great fests like Action On Film, Kansas City Film Festival, Gig Harbor, Barebones, and many others.
Today, the end of a festival circuit doesn’t mean the end of a project. With so many avenues out there for indie filmmakers to promote their work, talk about your approach to promoting Change For A Dollar online?
Wow – it really was kind of an accident. I thought that I had the film here and wasn’t doing anything else with it really so why not put it online. I thought maybe I’d get 3 or 4 hundred views (more than most who saw it at festivals btw, lol) It went crazy! I really think I lucked out on the timing with the holidays and people just ran with it!
With one of our other projects FOR WORSE, a web-series I did with Gary C Warren, we wanted to test out going direct to the public. We created the concept and shot it ourselves for the most part and threw it on YouTube. We posted links to it to any site that liked funny or relationship content. We got some good views and started to develop a good audience but wrapped the season up after 8 episodes with a cliff hanger and haven’t really had time to go any further with it.
I would say that you really need to consider who your audience is and do your research on what sites/blogs/etc. are available online to market it. You don’t want to upload it everywhere, you want to link it to as many sites as possible so that you aren’t diluting your views. With CFaD I have it embedded with 2 other major sites but all the views go through Youtube so I have a larger base and can see all the analytics. Because it is copyrighted, I do not allow anybody else to upload it to their pages, if it can’t be linked, it doesn’t get posted. Or if it does, I get it removed.
I maintain all control as much as possible and with the info I collect, I can speak directly to the people that are watching it, build a relationship with them and ultimately build my database to use for promoting my next film or for fundraising. It is invaluable information I am collecting!
Change For A Dollar found a massive audience online with over 1.5 million views on YouTube and rising. What was it like to watch the number of views skyrocket?
AMAZING! That’s really the only word for it! I would check the numbers all day long and just be so shocked! I kept saying maybe we’d hit 20,000 by Christmas, then it was maybe we will reach 500,000 but I was certain we would never reach a million, lol. Boy, was I ever wrong! I never dreamed it!
The feedback on the film has been tremendous with thousands of comments online. What is it like to know your film has inspired people around the world?
There is nothing more satisfying as an artist than to know that something you created has inspired or moved someone. I get comments and emails every day about how they were inspired to empty their change jars and go by food for the homeless or to give to the Salvation Army for the first time. There is a paper in Canada doing a story about how a hockey coach used the film to inspire his team to do charity work for the holidays….the list goes on and on. Honestly, I don’t think I can ever do anything in this world that will mean more to me than what this film has accomplished. To be able to say that I helped change someones life, in some small way, is the greatest accomplishment ever. This film will be my legacy, lol….and I’m okay with that!
The film was recently mentioned by Roger Ebert. What was it like knowing he saw and praised your work?
This is a Quote from the Ebert Club Newsletter of 12-14-11:
My friend Bill Nack, the great sportswriter, emailed me this video with only four words: “This one touched me.” It touched me, too. Sharon Wright. Remember that name.”
OMG! It was one of the highlights of my life! Someone sent me a message and it listed the quote and I thought it had to be a joke, or it was a different Ebert, lol. I wasn’t going to believe it till I saw it with my own eyes. But there is was! I mean it doesn’t get much better than the movie man himself posting a link to your movie and saying things like that. Any filmmaker in the world would give their right arm for that. I was just shocked, and honored!
This was your first film. What lessons did you take away from your experience with Change For A Dollar?
I learned that I don’t need to be a control freak, I can let others do things, I also learned that you never have enough money and that it is a brilliant test to friendships, lol. But really I learned that even if a film doesn’t get attention on the festival circuit – there is still an audience, and sometimes, it is a LOT bigger than you realize!
What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers out there?
Four simple things: Don’t quit, be smart enough to know that you don’t know everything, surround yourself with people who know more than you, and never sacrifice your vision!
What’s next for Change For A Dollar?
We are submitting it for a region Emmy this spring and have a few distributors and charities looking at it, but I really don’t know, nothing would surprise me with it any more!
What’s next for you?
I’m in pre-production for my next film and I’m feeling the pressure now as I know everyone is watching and waiting to see what follows CFaD. It’s a scary place to be, I gotta admit! I’m doing another feel good film. This one is about a dog looking for a home and a little girl looking for a best friend and their journey to each other. It’s a really beautiful story and I can’t wait to shoot it. We will be filming in Kansas City and some in LA. Of course they always say “Don’t work with kids or animals” – yup, I’m doing both!
Special thanks to Sharon Wright for the interview.
Looking back on a film after nearly 7 years is a great way to see where you were as an artist, where you are at that moment and where you hope to be in the future. In Left Behind, director Eric Gamache created a touching story that won Best In Shorts at the 2006 Cinefest International Film Festival.
I recently had the opportunity to interview the director on what inspired the project, what it took to pull it off and much more.
When did you first become interested in filmmaking?
My interest in filmmaking started the summer before I started the 9th grade. I was visiting my cousin and some friends and one night we decided it would be fun to make a movie. We shot a 4 minute short, making it up as we went along. We didn’t have any way of editing it so we edited on the camera as we shot, If we needed a second take, we’d rewind the tape in the camera and hit record at the right moment to start the new take. I don’t think anyone ever saw the film. Actually I can’t even remember if we even finished the film that night but I was bitten by the bug.
Around that time I also became obsessed with “Scream” and “Scream 2″. I started watching horror films and made my own. Eventually, I moved away from horror, but it was a great way to get into filmmaking and film appreciation.
What inspired Left Behind?
“Left Behind” came about so randomly it still surprises me it turned out so well. I had been working on another short film for a long time. It was going to be a 1940′s gangster film. But the script wasn’t coming together like I’d hoped. The day I put that gangster film to bed, I met with my friends Andrew and Adele. I was venting my frustration with the process when Andrew mentioned we should make a short film together again (we had co-directed a short film a few years prior). I agreed and we starting mapping out what was supposed to be a treatment. We also established some rules:
1. It had to be black and white. 2. No coverage. Every scene is to be one shot. 3. Little to no camera movements. (there is only one pan in the film). 4. Minimalistic style (performance, music, etc.)
Four hours later I went home with the shooting script in my hand. Essentially, we wanted to stand back and observe an older gentleman cope with the loss of his wife.
That was October. I then went off and worked on my first professional film set so we started prep in December 2004. We didn’t have any money so everything was done for cheap/free. The cast & crew all worked for free. We didn’t have craft or catering and all the equipment was borrowed.
We shot the film over a day and a half in mid-January. We took 2 days to capture the footage (We shot on MiniDV) and lock the edit before handing the film over to our composers Robert and Mary-Ann Saltstone who did the wonderful score. We premiered Left Behind 2 weeks later at the North Bay Film Festival where we took home the Audience Award for Best Short Film.
Describe the production process for Left Behind. What was it like on set?
The production of “Left Behind” was amazing. We shot in North Bay, Ontario, where I was living at the time. The crew was made up of former college classmates so it was a reunions of sorts. It was a very light and fun shoot. We probably could have shot the film in a day but I wanted to take my time, so we could experiment on set. For the first time I did not storyboard any of the shots. Steve Newman (my DP and former college professor) and I discussed the scenes and found the best angle to tell the story in a visual manner. It was almost as if we were making a silent film.
I got very lucky with the cast. Everyone I wanted, I got. People seemed to respond to the script so we were able to get everyone. Things came together so quickly and easily I keep waiting for something to go wrong. It didn’t seem possible.
What’s it like watching the film again after all these years?
In a word, painful. But I feel that way watching everything I direct. Still, it’s the closest I’ve come to achieving the vision in my head so I’m still proud of the film.
Independent filmmaking has evolved a tremendous amount over the years. What would you say has been the most important leap forward? Likewise, what has, or should have, remained the same?
There are a lot of challenges facing new filmmakers. The first is just getting the film made in the first place. The 2nd is having the film seen by people.
But the internet is a huge help with both of these common problems. With social media sites helping out on both fronts with sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Not too mention YouTube and vimeo make it easy to get short films out to the public. Beyond that, it’s now easier to get the word out about a screening, casting call, funding, etc. Unfortunately, I’ve found grant options seem to be shrinking. It’s never been easy to get government funding, but now it seems harder than ever. I suppose it could be a sign of the financial times.
Looking back, how have you evolved creatively as an artist?
It’s hard to say how I’ve evolved. I certainly have more life experience now than I did when I made “Left Behind”. I’ve also seen a lot more movies. But my tastes have stayed the same. I’ve been striving to get back to a “Left Behind” style short film again. Stylistically, this short film is the perfect representation of me as a filmmaker.
Being one of your first films, what advice would you give filmmakers today who are about to embark on their first production?
Be prepared. Know your shots, know what you want. Get a good crew. For a first time filmmaker, there’s nothing more important than a great 1st AD and DP, Production Designer and Editor especially if you’re working with an experienced crew and money.
What’s next for you?
I’m producing a short film called “The Autumn Girl” for Writer/Director Eric Boissonneault that is in post production now. I’m also developing a few other projects as both producer and director.
Tell me about the Circalit Screenwriting Competition you held and what led to the selection of Smoke by Stuart Curran?
The competition was for the Circalit writing community to the write a five minute short in response to my film, “Thrush”. There were over two hundred entries and I read of all them. The scripts were pretty diverse and it was really tough picking the winner but Stuart’s had everything I look for in a short. It was simple, moving and had a really cool visual concept.
What was it about the script that inspired you?
Not to be clichéd but it was basically the writing. Good characters and a lovely central idea. When I first read the script I knew it was something special. It’s a simple idea that’s easy to shoot but with a really neat twist.
What advice would you give a filmmaker looking to find a screenplay using Circalit? (Or for aspiring screenwriters in search of directors.)
Trust your instincts and have a good idea of the type of work you’re looking for. If you are looking for something in particular then get in touch with the guys at Circalit and they can put out a brief for you as well.
What inspired the look and style of the film?
The script and my director of photography Graham Turner!
Planning a film that’s told in reverse requires a unique approach. What challenges did you face during the pre-production process?
We just had to be really clear on the story and effect we wanted to have. The film is less about plot and more about conveying an emotion.
What was life like on set?
I had a great team and used actors I’ve worked with before so it was fantastic. Boring I know, but the only fight that broke out was over who wanted the last muffin.
A film like Smoke relies heavily on the execution on set but most importantly in post-production. How did it all come together?
I edited it myself which was actually easier than you think thanks to the great script, and then my friend Gwilym Gold composed an awesome soundtrack.
What did the complete experience of making smoke teach you as a filmmaker and artist moving forward?
That you don’t need a big budget or a completed script to make an ambitious and engaging piece of work.
What’s next for Smoke?
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a couple of feature films and developing some new plays. I’m also rehearsing my comedy act Guilt and Shame for next year’s Edinburgh festival.
AMELIE IN 60 SECONDS: BEHIND THE SCENES EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH FILMMAKER JASON ROBBINS
Empire is running a competition in which filmmakers must remake a feature film in 60 seconds. 20 finalists were recently announced including No Country For Old Men, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future and an especially clever take on Amelie.
Amelie in 60 seconds was created by Jason Robbins and I had the opportunity to learn more about the inspiration behind the short film and what it took to pull it off.
What led you to Amelie?
These open briefs can be really overwhelming and I didn’t know where to start. So I just looked for ways to help keep the project manageable. My wife (Aine) is an actor so that was a starting point, I shortlisted films with female leads which cut down the options to start. Amongst my shortlisted ideas were Black Swan, Amelie, Coco before Chanel, and Contact. All great films to work with. My instinct was to go for Black Swan as I felt the light and dark sides were a great basis to work with and allowed a lot of flexibility. After discussing it with Aine she felt it was likely that quite a few people would be choosing that film and it would be better to try and be a bit different. I then narrowed it down to Contact (I’m a huge fan of this movie) and Amelie, the kicker was that Aine happened to have a very similar haircut to Amelie, so much so that we’d joked about it previously and she’d posed for a photo that ended up being Amelie’s profile picture in the film. So the decision was made.
What inspired your unique approach to the material?
I knew from the start that I didn’t want to just do a straight remake of the material condensed into 60seconds, I felt it wouldn’t bring anything new to the table and for me wouldn’t be worth the trouble of putting it all together. I’d had an idea for Black Swan that the main character had two personalities representing light and the dark sides as different profiles on facebook/twitter. That she’d be posting as the two sides of herself and it would end with the reveal/transformation. After watching Amelie I was mulling over what I could do with it and it struck me I could use the same ‘social network’ framework to allow Amelie to get in touch with everyone from the film, and do her good deeds. It was a perfect fit and very economic on locations, I was ready to start planning it all out.
What challenges did you face with only 60 seconds to work with?
My main goal was to create a short film that worked by itself. I didn’t want it to feel like a barrage of quick cuts serving only to just get through the most amount of material in the time available so some tough decisions needed to be made.
On my second viewing of the film I sat with my notebook and wrote down the themes and how the story was told rather than specific plot points. These would serve as guides my version would need to follow if it was to retain the feel of the movie. The third run through was plot points, noting everything that happens during the film (although I’d already decided to drop the market stall scenes as those characters are easily removable). Glassman, Painting-girl, Box Received, Amelie Alone, Take Gnome, etc.
Then it was a matter of cutting out and combining those plot points into my social network theme. I had initially planned to have an intro and a voice over to start with, that got cut pretty quickly. I worked on things such as Georgette and Joseph’s relationship, instead of showing both the introductions and them getting together, I could just show the introductions via splitscreen and then add a ‘Georgette is in a relationship’ status update into another shot which someone might spot on a repeat viewing or if they’re looking around, this made it more economic and added depth to the film.
Elements such as her relationship with Quincompoix was reduced to a text message about the bandit poster she made and then the Glassman telling her to ‘go get him’, before tying it up with Amelie’s relationship status, which I was really pleased with.
Finally a few credits for the free photos I used in the film. It was a nice finish as opposed to the video just stopping without some kind of signifier to tell you it’s come to a close.
Jason was also able to give an in depth look at the technical aspects of the project.
Amelie was filmed on my Canon 600D(1920×1080 @ 24fps) over two days. I only decided to enter the competition at the start of January and the deadline was the 20th so I didn’t have as much time as I would’ve liked. Fitting it around my day job (animator/3D generalist). I decided to spend 2 weeks planning and refining the idea and a week to put together an animatic and then assemble everything from there.
The location is in my flat. I’ve still got a lot to learn about lighting so I’m not entirely happy with the look. Lamp lighting for the sofa and laptop close up shots and we have no plug sockets downstairs so just had to suffer the ceiling halogens.
I used a bare bulb for the close up shots of the hands which I’m happier with. I used the Tamron 17-50 2.8 for all of it, I’m kicking myself for not using the 50mm 1.8 (what was I thinking!?) mainly on a tripod and a shoulder rig for the final shot outside the door.
Edited in Premiere and graded in After Effects using Colorista II, once again I was short on time but was able to get a general warm hue on the live action shots and a green hue on the computer screens in fitting with the Amelie movie and the color palettes used for her apartment and the outside world. Ended up being so tight on the deadline I didn’t get to do a noise reduction and sharpening pass unfortunately.
I was going to just do the computer shots in after effects and apply a filter to get the screen look but after some tests it actually worked best just filming the monitor so I stuck with that, most of it is just me manipulating layers in photoshop in real time(in the split screen email shot the cursor that appears is the move one if you look closely, couldn’t find a workaround for that
What’s next for you?
I’ll definitely be entering more competitions but I’m looking to step things up and start building a crew, being a one man band tends to spread you a little thin for my liking. One area I’d really like to work on is the lighting, I could go and buy a bunch of equipment and try things out but I’d rather just find someone who has the knowledge and has already spent the money and get them on board, plus it’s great to have people to bounce ideas off and who can bring their own suggestions to the table. Away from competitions I’m also looking at some short film scripts and in discussions to work with an established director on an animated short.
Every time I make a film I learn something new, so I’m just going to keep making them. My long term goal is to make a feature.
Special thanks to Jason Robbins for the interview.