Making the transition from ink-stained journalist to first-time filmmaker feels like seeing the world from the other side of a two-way mirror
By Katherine Monk
TORONTO — “Did you know everything already?” asked Cameron Bailey, artistic director for the Toronto International Film Festival, looking way too good (as always) for a man who is chronically sleep deprived this time of year.
The answer was a wonderfully wishy-washy “yes, and no.” After being a career journalist for 25 years, and after covering TIFF since 1993, when it was still called the Festival of Festivals, the idea of “learning the ropes” could have felt a little remedial.
After all, I do know what a publicist does, and I know what sales agents do, and I know personal handlers have a dominant obnoxious gene that has yet to be mapped. I’ve been writing about the film industry for so long, I’ve pretty much seen it — and done it — all.
But as I learned at today’s TIFF Filmmaker Boot Camp, I may have seen it all, but only from one side of the looking glass. As a journalist, I was a vested and educated observer. But since Wednesday afternoon’s Canadian press conference, I’ve become a participant.
Rock the Box, the short film I made with the National Film Board, was accepted to TIFF15 as part of the shorts program. And as a first-time filmmaker, I was invited to attend this year’s Telefilm-sponsored filmmaker boot camp in Toronto— a one-day event designed to help newbies get the most out of their festival experience.
It started with a salutation from Bailey, congratulating us for getting this far. Then moved on to a talk from Telefilm’s Dan Lyon, who spoke about the government-funded agency’s role at TIFF, such as helping and supporting Canadian filmmakers in their bid to get world exposure.
He said we should look at every meeting the way an actor looks at a scene: What is the motivation? What does character A want from character B?
He also said we should be flexible, then related a story about French actress Jeanne Moreau to serve as an illustration. He said Moreau was supposed to do press for her film at venue across the street and that he would escort her over the crosswalk on University Avenue. But Moreau demanded a limo. “There was no way,” said Lyon. “I wasn’t going to pay for a limo to drive across the street.”
The solution was moving the media across the street, because when push comes to shove and scheduling goes down the overflowing festival crapper, media — especially print media — are the ones who get squeezed.
It’s the celebrity pecking order, and as a member of the media, I always understood I was a bottom-feeder, or as local Toronto freelancer Jason Gorber put it in the afternoon session: “We are the remora to your shark.”
Indeed, no matter how big the outlet, press are little fish. But today, I got to feel like the shark — a little toothless sand shark, but a shark all the same because even if we’re all swimming in the same ocean, it’s an entirely different experience.
For starters, people congratulate you all the time. Since I arrived in Toronto Wednesday morning for the press conference, everyone I have spoken to has offered felicitations. It may be a hollow and meaningless reflex (that I, too, have exercised), but it feels totally awesome — and entirely foreign.
No one congratulates press. On anything. Ever.
People assume we just show up — like the free canapés at a schmooze, or a pimple.
It’s a feeling I’ve grown accustomed to, which is why the Boot Camp really did feel like a whole new world, and why I’ve decided to share this entry-level filmmaker experience with those of you who have read this far.
I am moving from the position of an engaged observer to that of a participant, and even though it’s a small sideways move in the same world, it feels significant — even profound — because I can’t just sit back to watch and listen anymore.
As the panelists said, repeatedly, you have to be pro-active about making the most of your festival. So, with an eye for helping out those other first-timers looking for wisdom, here are some solid nuggets of advice gleaned from my day at the Lightbox with a group that included Lyon, Bailey, Andrew Cividino (director of Sleeping Giants, selected for TIFF15 and Cannes Critics Week), Karen Harnisch (producer, Sleeping Giants), Aeschylus Polos (executive producer, Sleeping Giants), John Bain (President, Search Engine Films), Todd Brown (head of international acquisitions, XYZ Films), Mike MacMillan (producer, Lithium Films), Jeffrey St. Jules (filmmaker, Bang Bang Baby), Julia Rosenberg (producer, January Films), Angie Burns (vice-president Strut Entertainment), Angel Cheng (senior TIFF publicist), Jason Gorber (freelancer, Twitch, CTV), Norm Wilner (movie critic, NOW Magazine), Genevieve Parent (senior manager of communications, TIFF), Kerri Craddock (director of programming, TIFF), Kathleen Drumm (director, TIFF Industry Office), Geoff Macnaughton (manager, TIFF Industry Office), Savine Wong (manager, TIFF Industry Programming), Hayet Benkara (STUDIO programmer), Gail Gendler (vice-president, acquisitions, AMC/Sundance Channel Global Networks), Christina Piovesan (producer, First Generation Films).
WHAT I WROTE DOWN AT BOOT CAMP:
“Network. Network. Network.”
“Focus on what you have right now, but always be prepared to talk about your next project. You’re not just thinking about now… you’re developing a career.”
“It may feel big and overwhelming, but it’s important not to think of this as a competition, think of this as a community.”
“If your film doesn’t get into TIFF (or the festival of your dreams), it doesn’t mean it’s not good. It just may mean there’s another place for it.”
“Everything has to be about moving forward with your project.”
“Meet programmers from other festivals. If one programmer can’t find a place for you, they will lobby another programmer to get it into theirs.”
“Don’t bore people.”
“Show up for your interviews.”
“You don’t need to hire a publicist for a short film.”
“Research. Know who you are talking to. Find out which companies buy the kind of movies you want to make.”
“Be a white man with glasses.”
“Realize that it’s a business. People may like your film, but at the end of the day, distributors have to make money.”
“NEVER EVER attend a press and industry screening of your movie… people are on their cell phones and often walk in and out.”
“Don’t take criticism personally. Don’t take anything personally.”
“Pack some nuts.”
“Figure out where you want to be, and get there. Get people to include you.”
“Catch and release: If you find someone you think you need to talk to, talk to them, but keep it short. Everyone in the room is busy. Let them move on and mingle.”
“Film festivals are designed for extroverts, so if you’re an introvert, find an extrovert to partner with.”
“Programming is not about quality. It’s about taste.”
“Keep your press kit under ten pages.”
“Everything has to be HD. Pay attention to the deliverables.”
“You’re not in the wrong place. You were invited to be here.”
“Negotiate. Sometimes people make low-ball offers, because some people accept low-ball offers.”
“Always ask for exactly what you want.”
“Think long-term and have realizable goals.”
“Approach press before the festival starts, especially if you’re a small film with no names. Get them a screener. Make it easy. Once the festival starts, media are swamped.”
“Everyone shares information. Bad behaviour will follow you.”
“You’re going to get a little drunk. But don’t get too drunk.”