I remember making my first short film, I had just broken up with a girlfriend and was desperate for a promotion at work. How about that for a perfect storm of motivation? My boss dangled a carrot, saying if I made something and it got into a festival I’d get the position I wanted and inspiration was provided by a messy break up and a slew of nasty voicemail messages left on my phone, this was pure emotional and creative gold.
At this point in my career, I didn’t know anything about festivals or shorts but plenty about making films, this was going to be easy. I made a call to my friend who had a camera, I called in an actor friend, a guy at work said he’d edit another said he’d do the audio. I couldn’t believe it was this simple, why were more people not doing this? I wrote a script about a guy who is dead and the messages on his phone allude to how this could have happened. So a dark but engaging topic, festivals were clearly waiting for this masterpiece.
Behind the Scenes of "Life Before Life"
I finished the film, very proud of myself, my friends all congratulated me and said it was a lovely piece of work. I sent it to a few big festivals and waited for the gold.
And the email came, “We regret to inform you that you film has not been selected for our festival”. This can’t be. Then another response “We regret to inform you that you film has not been selected for our festival” nonsense, clearly it’s rigged, then another rejection and another! No way, these guys are idiots, my film is good it’s deep and I’m a talented film maker, everyone who’s seen it likes my film, they just didn’t understand it, obviously they didn’t watch it. And a whole bunch of more excuses which didn’t collude to me being a first-time director with no clue.
So, I looked around at other first-time directors, they were winning festivals. What was their secret? I watched their film, well it’s not better. Maybe it’s because they had real actors? They had a bigger budget, a proper producer, backing of production company, rich parents, better cameras, better connected... Ok, ok, ok the green monster has clearly reared its ugly head. It must be me, I’m wrong, I had no help, I am unknown and on my own and no one believes in me, so I guess this isn’t for me. I should quit, there is no point even trying.
Behind the Scenes of "Crowtown"
This rollercoaster of emotions was kind of how I felt about festivals when I first started making films. In all honesty I didn’t do my homework looking into festivals, I never considered actually going to the festivals supporting them I just wanted laurels. I wanted to be recognized, I wanted my Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Frog, Bear, Antelope and Diamond Studded Fame Certificate, THEN they’ll know!
It was recognition I craved for the minute amount of work I actually did to this point, come on boys and girls it’s not that easy. However, I did end up getting selected for 4 festivals and a French festival picked it up and paid me a small amount to show it before a feature film in cinemas in France. As I said, it wasn’t a bad film but my attitude was bad.
Rejection is common place in the film world, not everyone can be chosen. So now, 9 years later a bunch more shorts under my belt, I have a much better style and experience and the films are far richer, poetically and visually. My approach is far more targeted and considered, short films are an expensive business and I’ve never qualified for any bursary working in the film industry, however the film industry looks after itself and I can call on favours so can fund my own films (still expensive but I can get the toys and labour for free).
Me at Cannes Film Festival
I made a film where I called on the best of the best, small but known actors, an Oscar-nominated editor, decorated operators and technicians from the biggest films, proper film cameras and film stock from Panavision, lenses they used in Star Wars which never go out for free but we had them. Anything I wanted, I had. The script was great and written by a New York best selling author. With this level of prestige surely, I couldn’t fail. The highest award this film was given was from our very own Stage 32 5th Annual Short Film Contest even where I placed in the quarter finals, very prestigious, humbling and exciting. Again, not quite what I had expected. And again, wrong attitude.
It wasn’t until this year when I met a fantastic Instagram influencer that all changed. I sat and showed him my films and he was in awe. He told me why I was keeping them hidden? Was I? Of course I wasn’t, no-one was noticing me. He sat me down and explained his ethos to life and his passion and approach was inspiring. Here is someone unskilled, unrefined, raw talent but no real great content (his words) but his attitude towards filmmaking was getting his work seen. He engaged with his audience and so his work was being noticed.
This was it. This was what I was missing. I needed to engage with my audience and not just expect people to come to me. Why should they? If I don’t engage with them, why should they with me? Same as festivals the hosts and judges work so hard behind the scenes of these festivals why should they just give awards to people who care more about winning than celebrating the actual films?
Behind the Scenes of "Crowtown"
I made another film, and I would do this differently. I wrote, produced, and directed it. As before I called in favours, cast it, rehearsed it and shot it. I had a festival strategy! I began to engage with everyone discussing with filmmakers about their films and about festivals they liked and why? I watched similar short films seeing where they did well, read descriptions on festivals contacted them and asked questions. I commented and tried to inspire others to go for it, I got involved with festivals, speaking to the judges and hosts, I engaged, I changed my attitude towards film making.
With the new film I am now on first name basis with some festivals, I make sure I attend interviews, talks, viewings and support the festivals online reposting bringing support to and commenting. With this strategy I have now managed to get this film 9 finalist places in 6 festivals so far and actually a richer experience of festivals. Naturally, I have received a few rejections too including Stage 32 6th annual short film contest, and my encouraging reaction to it on Instagram had them asking me to write this.
However, this is far from the lesson I have learnt and the advice I can pass on. To complete a piece of work from inception to delivery is the achievement not the accolades collected after. This is what should be celebrated. I have held screenings for the last couple films after completion with wine and snacks, I made gifts for my crew, friends and family celebrating their support for what we have done.
My festival submissions were for festivals who were friendly, engaging and my subject matter was suited to. I didn’t just go for the big festivals with this film as it didn’t match their criteria. There are many wonderful small festivals which you can go visit locally who celebrate film making, you have to be careful of the festivals who are just after your entry fee however.
We are artists - this isn’t sports, so winning a festival doesn’t mean your film is the best, we deal with subjective material so a “winner” is a film or role that spoke to the judges at this particular time and has no inflection on your ability or quality of your film. It’s not personal. We should as artists be supporting each other and listening and learning from each other. And there is the old saying “you learn more from failure than success”, it’s nice to be recognized and heralded but that’s not what you should be in this for. The festivals certainly aren’t, they are there to celebrate film perhaps you should too.
About Mark Kozlowski
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