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By Chris Gore | January 17, 2001

Geoff Gilmore came to Sundance in 1989 and has been instrumental in the festival’s emergence as the number one market for independent films in the United States. Gilmore truly cares about supporting independent films and has used Sundance to forward this admirable agenda. ^ In order to get into Sundance, you’ve got to get into the mind of Geoff Gilmore. He alone must embrace your film. Gilmore reveals how he selects films and his philosophies about what makes a successful independent movie. In this exclusive interview excerpt from Gore’s second edition of “The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide,” Geoff Gilmore offers his thoughts on the state of independent film today…
What can filmmakers do to increase their chances of getting into Sundance? I have said time and time again that people have to realize the standard has been raised: the increase in the number of productions hasn’t lowered the standard of quality-it has increased it. Filmmaking is so hard; people make films and they feel they have achieved something by just getting the film in the can, and they have. But that it isn’t good enough and then you have to look at work that isn’t good enough. It’s good, but it isn’t great. As a filmmaker you really have to look at your work and say, “Is this as great a film as I can make it?” More often than not, flaws surface because they rushed through production. They’ve had very limited resources or they make unfortunate casting decisions. They don’t think through the fact that it’s better to go off and make a better film than to rush it through because they are determined to make this year’s festival. They have to understand that they have to make a great film, not a good film. I think that means a lot of different things, but it really means bringing quality to the film. And it’s not just the standard required to get into Sundance. It’s the standard required to get your money back. It’s the standard required to be able to find any kind of distribution deal whatsoever.
If you could sit down with some of these independent filmmakers before they started writing their screenplays and give them some advice, what would you tell them? ^ Don’t just go out and make a film, make a great film. It’s so hard to make films and I have so much respect for people that do it. A lot of people are very often angry at us for having to make choices, for being in a position where we have to say: these are the films we have chosen and these we have decided not to take. So often, we have people filled with righteous indignation at being rejected. We have people who think, because it is so hard to make films, that just having made a film is a significant enough accomplishment in itself. It’s just not enough to spend a couple of years of your life making a movie, finally finishing it, and thinking, “Oh my goodness, I’ve made a movie,” and pat yourself on the back. You really have to look at what you made and say, “Is this successful? Does this convey the kind of energy and inspiration and storytelling and excitement? Does it work the way I want it to work?”
I’ve heard this many times, primarily from filmmakers who have been rejected from your festival, that getting into Sundance is very “political.” Some say, “It’s who you know.” How do you respond to that kind of criticism? ^ It’s a “I hear you stopped beating your wife?” remark. If you tell anyone what the reality of the situation is, no one really believes you. Over the years the people that we’ve discovered, the people that have come through Sundance and gone through the process and been recognized has almost invariably come from staff. Staff recognition of talent and quality. I’ve heard a lot of people try to take credit for getting films in Sundance. They want to claim credit for getting films in based on the calls they make. I still have to smile and say, “Guys, it just isn’t true.” It’s very hard to get inside these doors. ^ That when I think about the ability to program, it comes out of the fact that you can look at a lot of different kinds of things and even though it’s not your cup of tea, and say “this is terrific.” And this comes from a skill that recognizes a genre film like Blair Witch — and give it credit for what it has. It knows horror film. It knows documentary. It understands independent work. It understands how to mix and play with genres. It has self-reflexivity in it. It brought digital filmmaking into another world that hadn’t been done. These guys are playing with various different elements. For all of the lambasting the film has taken, it doesn’t get the credit for what it did that made it interesting in the first place.
It was revolutionary. ^ It’s not just a marketing win or just a victory of web site marketing. It actually had interesting things in it.
Since the first edition of this book came out, there are now more than 100 new film festivals. I’ve heard some say that there are too many festivals. I disagree. What do you think? ^ The functions of film festivals are now so multifold that now you have festivals being created for regional tourist bureaus that have no other function than to raise the media profile of a small resort than to fill any function on the national scheme of things.
But is that necessarily a bad thing? The way I see it, these festivals bring independent film and filmmakers to audiences that might not have otherwise seen them. In a way, they’re providing alternative distribution outlets for indies. The irony is that these, in some cases, very non-commercial independent films, will play 30, 40, 50 festivals and more people will see them on the festival circuit than after they get picked up by a distributor!!! It’s like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz – she could always get home with those ruby slippers. It’s as if the “festival tour” itself is really the thing that filmmakers should focus on and not getting distribution. These films are, in a sense, already being distributed to an audience passionate about indie film. ^ I really agree with you. I think that those that say that there are too many film festivals are those that come from a perspective that flows from the industry, media kind of nexus in which they’re sense of what the function of film festivals are is a specific and rather limited one. Festivals are for discovery of work for later distribution. Or they’re meant to be launch places to get into specific national markets. I think the film festival circuit is a little bit like the cinematheque circuit in the ’60s. Except that the cinematheque circuit failed because they didn’t have the marketing dollars. I do think that there are audiences for this. There’s very much a pay-off for filmmakers and audiences that are able to see work that is not simply what the major multiplex world and major mainstream sources would have us see. So, it is, in some ways, a substitute for some kinds of theatrical distribution.
Especially when it comes to films that will never make it to the multiplex, whether it be a Gay-themed film, a short, a documentary, or some truly experimental indie. These movies will probably never open at a mall theater and festivals are providing distribution for these films. The films that get out on that circuit and play 25 or more festivals and get a critical response and an audience response are, in some sense, accomplishing the same thing. Except that it doesn’t have a gross attached to it. Are we saying that the only way this work should get out is if it has a gross attached to it?
I believe that after a film has had its debut, if it’s invited to another festival, the filmmaker should be paid. I think they should get a percentage of that boxoffice take. ^ Unfortunately, most festivals are not in a position to do that. And most of the smaller film festivals are in even less in a position than the big festivals. There are quid pro-quos in this business that say “I’m supplying the theater, I’m bringing in your audience, I’m providing an exhibition platform for you and then you want me to pay you for it?”
True. The reality is that most festivals don’t make money. That’s the bottom line. But most of these indie films will never get significant distribution beyond a video release. If it weren’t for the filmmakers and their movies, there wouldn’t be film festivals. I think it’s an idea worth exploring and if it can be made to work, festivals should begin this practice. ^ I’m not sure from an economic sense, if this makes sense. I’m not going to stand here and argue to you that there’s a way to create an economic system that pays off the filmmakers to allow them to work. That has a range of different complexities to it that we’ll have to look at a range of other systems. I don’t know if that’s net distribution systems or other kinds of systems. But in the meantime, we’re really broadening the possibilities of bringing independent film to communities and I’m for that.
To read the complete interview, get a copy of The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide from the Hollywood Creative Directory web site.
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