Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Film-Making During Lockdown

 With the current pandemic forcing people to stay apart and shelter-in-place, film productions of all budgets and sizes have come to a screeching halt. However, necessity being the mother of invention has brought forth a trend of stay-at-home films either made entirely by people living at the same location or by editing together scenes films in separate locations with each being taped by the occupants of that location.

Stay-at-home videos can be tricky and a lot depends on the script. While traditionally the writer doesn't concern him/herself with how a scene will be filmed, for this type of project it is imperative for the writer to know exactly what type of props and costumes each cast member has access to, what their location looks like, and if there is someone around to hold the camera for them.

It is possible to film a scene with two actors in it while the actors are in two separate locations. To do this, make sure that both actors have access to a room with similar painted walls. (This is usually, but not always, easy with many folks having at least one room with basic white walls in their homes.)  Arrange for the actors to talk while facing opposite directions and being placed in different areas of the room, and you will be able to cut it together in editing to make them appear to be in the same place.

Using off-screen dialogue is also a tool that comes in handy to make characters appear to be in close proximity of each other even if they are miles apart in actuality.  Having one character call out to another from a different room gives the illusion that they are both in the same house.

Another easy technique to use is to create found-footage or documentary-style film, where it would be expected to only see one or two people on camera at a time and in the case of documentary-style, all characters at different locations.



 Have a topic you'd like us to cover? Or a question? Or even a criticism? Feel free to let us know by commenting below!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

August 2020 - Taking a Break!

The COVID-19 outbreak has changed some plans that we would have been announcing this month, so we have to take a short break while we do a bit of reorganizing!

We'll be resuming our monthly newsletter soon!

In the meantime, Siren by the Sea just opened for submissions for its third season. They are accepting film, screenplay, trailer, and poster submissions  until the end of the year.


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Avoiding Fly-By-Night Film Festivals

Unsure if an impressive-looking festival is really worth the fee? This month we're talking about how to spot film events that aren't quite what they seem.


Browsing through festival services like Withoutabox and FilmFreeway can be as overwhelming as selecting a wine at a fancy restaurant. How do you be sure that it's a good one?

It's an unpleasant fact that dozens of new festivals pop up every year and some of them exist only to prey upon film-makers. There really isn't a sure-fire method for weeding out these scoundrels, but there are some things you can look for to make a determination if a festival is worth the price of the submission fee.

Although many online contests seem to be created solely for the fleecing of film-makers, don't make the mistake of thinking that you are safe by just sticking to live events. There are quite a few bare-minimum festivals out there that count on the idea that you'll spend a lot of money for the chance to see your work on a big screen... and many of them won't even deliver on that.

You can usually get an idea of what you're in for by looking at the venue. Festivals held in cinema houses or large event halls will probably have everything one imagines a film festival should have.

Smaller festivals that don't have the thousands of dollars needed to rent a big theatre for a day may take place in a more social-friendly setting like a community center or even a bar. (Tavern festivals can actually be a lot of fun!)
And then there are the least expensive alternatives, which are usually rented warehouses, temporary office spaces, or library meeting rooms. The very bottom of the barrel is a festival held in a residential home, or worse, the backyard.

Most festivals will include the address of the event on their listing with film submission services. Thanks to the magic of Google Maps, it is fairly easy to determine what type of location is hosting the event. If they only list a general area or state that the location will be announced at a later time, it may be a warning sign that a live event may not actually be planned.

While it is entirely possible that a festival with a small venue may be worth its weight in gold with the networking opportunities, there are a few things that may indicate that a festival is either out to drain the wallets of its participants or that attendance by the film-makers is actually being discouraged.

Be wary of festivals that charge the selected film-makers for tickets to the event. Unless there was no submission fee and ticket sales are the only way that the event covers its expenses, this is a very unusual practice. Most reputable festivals will offer at least two free tickets to each of the selected films and screenplays.

Some predatory festivals will offer free “basic” admission to selected film-makers but then strongly encourage them to upgrade by purchasing a V.I.P. ticket with a pitch that is designed to prey on one’s fear of missing out on great opportunities.

These expensive upgrades usually involve access to exclusive parties where unnamed but super-important special guests have been invited. The operative word here is invited, which doesn’t mean that the invitation was accepted.

So how do you avoid these vampire festivals that were designed to bleed your wallet dry? It’s not always easy because some of them put out some really impressive bait.

Ask questions first.

If a festival boasts about special VIP parties, ask the fest if entry is complimentary for selected film-makers. Ask who the “special guests” are. A reputable festival that has confirmed the attendance of celebrities will usually advertise them.

If at all possible, reach out to someone who has attended the festival in the past. Google the festival and look for anyone who may have let loose with the criticism on a blog, forum, or social media. When people get burned they do tend to talk about it.

Of course, this may be impossible if the festival is listed as being in its first year. So the best thing you can do if you suspect that a festival might be a fly-by-night scam is simply not to submit to it.

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Monday, June 1, 2020

Avoiding Scams in the World of Online Film Festivals

Many of the festivals created solely to line the pockets of the organizers are fairly easy to spot. They are generally online-only contests that put nothing of monetary value up as prizes and have very little (if any) operating expenses. Often they will have prestigious-sounding names with the word "Awards" in the title.

Such a festival may have a low entry fee to attract a lot of submissions and ridiculous amount of award categories that suggest that anyone can win a nice pair of auto-generated digital winner's laurels if they submit often enough.

Others may have much higher submission fees and a pitch that suggests that they are a very prestigious awards competition. They are a bit more stingy with the free laurels and almost all entries are treated to an auto-generated rejection letter. 

A growing trend among these festivals is to put their awards into separate submission categories.  This essentially forces the film-maker into paying multiple fees to basically nominate themselves for more than one award. 

Some of these festivals might offer impressive trophies to their winners for an additional fee. (We've seen some charge well over $100 for them!) Of course there are also the additional shipping and handling charges too.

If you're a trophy-hunter, these fests might be exactly what you are looking for. However, it should be pointed out that you can have your very own trophy made at a local engraver shop for a lot less than what these festivals will charge you for it.

Quite a few of these shady online festivals sweeten the pot (and demand higher submission fees) by offering attractive prizes that you would have no way of confirming. They may promise that the winners will be shown to studio executives or "industry professionals" for consideration, giving film-makers the impression that they have close relationships with some of the top dogs in Hollywood. However, they'll never name these "industry professionals".

Others might promise a consultation session via phone or Skype with an industry professional to their winners.

The catch here is that there will not be a solid appointment date for this phone consultation. Those industry professionals will always be busy on some project whenever you contact the festival about arranging for it, assuming that the festival responds at all.

(As of this writing one of our editors has been waiting over a year for such a prize to be fulfilled and has been contacted by other "winners" who have been waiting even longer.)

Another trick we've seen are monthly online festivals that list themselves as live events. They will claim that select films from the winners will be screened at their big live festival at the end of the year.

While some of these festivals are actually legitimate, the shady ones can be difficult to spot unless you happen to be looking to submit on the last month and see that the event date is the exact same day as the selection notification date. Most online-only fests will use the same date for both, but a "live" festival will only do this if they don't want anyone showing up!

Before you start black-listing every online festival in existence, there are some notable exceptions to consider.

Most screenwriting competitions operate online simply out of practicality. Unless they are holding live table reads, writer workshops, or an extravagant awards ceremony, these competitions often just consist of a website and a jury.

Reading scripts is time-consuming and requires knowledge of the craft, so many writing contests will require submission fees to compensate the judges. It is not uncommon for those fees to be very high for later deadlines in order to encourage early submissions.

Another type of online festival that may be worth considering are those that offer services, feedback, scholarships, or even just cash prizes. These are sometimes hosted by organizations or production companies looking for scripts or shorts that can be produced into larger projects and they are usually not shy about stating their intentions straight up in their listings.

If you've submitted to a festival and begin to feel like you've been duped, especially if a promised award or service has not been delivered, the first thing you should do is contact the festival directly. Many small festivals get dozens, if not hundreds of submissions and it is possible that the festival director missed you when sending things out.

(One festival we entered was extremely embarrassed when they discovered that the email with a script analysis they thought they had sent us was saved as a draft instead.) A legitimate festival will try to fix the problem immediately.

As a rule of thumb, give a festival two weeks after the notification date to deliver on the goods unless they give you a solid date for when to expect your prize. After that, contact the festival about the problem and see how they respond. 

Keep in mind that many small online festivals are only run by one or two people who may have just been overwhelmed by the amount of work that goes into a legitimate contest.  However, if the issue hasn't been resolved within two months, you may have fallen prey to a dishonest festival.

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Friday, May 1, 2020

Recording for the Role - Part Two

Welcome back to our series on self-taped auditions!  In this day and age of social distancing, the taped audition is even more important than ever. Casting is slowly starting to emerge again as productions think ahead to their needs once we are free to move about the cabin once more.  But inside information from casting directors at all levels from indies to larger SAG features and television series indicate that once restrictions are lifted, the days of in-person casting (which have already begun a slow decline) may be even fewer and further between.

As such, you my find that not only are your first auditions held digitally, your callbacks may be as well. In fact, services such as Zoom are making one-on-one callbacks in a virtual environment much more commonplace.  Later we will discuss video chat platforms, but today we'll focus on what you can do to make your taped audition stand out.
We have already covered plain backgrounds and minimal distractions, and having good lighting is a must, but these are all technical aspects. Once the scene is set, what can you do as an actor to make your audition the best it can be?

First, know your sides. There is really never a time in a self-taped audition that you should not be "off book" and if you make a mistake, you have the luxury of re-taping it. As you learn your scenes, remember that it is not just about saying the lines. The foundation of these concepts are based on Uta Hagen's "Nine Questions" and they are the foundation for bringing any character to life in a believable manner on film.

WHO are you and what do you WANT in this scene? What is your objective? And how are you going to achieve it? Knowing this about your character is a good way to help connect in the role. Also, don't just focus on your lines. Who are the other players in the scene? Are they stopping you from achieving your objective (becoming obstacles)? How will you overcome this?

Next, when it is time to tape your scenes, think about the "moment before" - audition sides are a slice of life. They start in the middle of a reality that has been ongoing, so it is your job as an actor to bring the audience into that reality. If you jump right in, shifting from you to the character when you say your first line, you have likely already lost the casting director's attention. If you need to, you can improvise a few lines with your reader leading into the scene (just be sure to cut those from the actual tape before you submit it!)

Finally, really SEE where you are in the scene. What are the "given circumstances" in this scene? Visualize the space. Are you inside? Outside? In a crowed restaurant? A hospital room? How would you behave in these locations? What's around you? When you can see it, then casting can see it in your eyes. It's up to you to bring this character to life in a very confined space, and that life must be contained in your eyes.

If you do all of this, it does not guarantee that you will get the role but it WILL help you make a good impression which may not get you there this time but will help get you back "in the room" for the future.

Enjoy these tips, make use of them, and HAPPY AUDITIONING!

Have a topic you'd like us to cover? Or a question? Or even a criticism? Feel free to let us know by commenting below!

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Recording for the Role - Part One

Looking for an edge when it comes to getting acting work? This month we're diving into the subject of taped auditions.

The digital landscape has changed the landscape of film in a variety of ways. The use of digital cameras has made it possible for movie-makers to create an entire universe and even allow tornadoes full of sharks to attack all over the gobe. But it is not just the post-production phase that technology has reinvented in the industry.

During the casting process, more and more filmmakers are using taped auditions and Eco casts to allow them to look at talent outside their own backyard. In fact, in recent years the in-person audition is much more common for a callback situation than it is for a first-round audition. As a result, it is important for actors to not only keep up with technology but also to avoid some common mistakes that can cost them the role.

Casting directors are incredibly busy people. When an audition goes out it is not uncommon for there to be hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of submissions for a single role. Digital auditions have made these numbers even larger.  So, when you submit to an audition to a casting director one of the first things you want to make sure of is that it is actually looked at and taken seriously.  That can be as simple as making sure that you follow the directions given in the submissions on the breakdown. Sounds obvious, right? Yet far too many people seem to overlook this.

One thing all actors want to do is try to sell themselves to casting and to do that they will often go to extreme lengths to become the character. This can be something that works in your favor, but it can also work against you.

You may have noticed that most taped auditions ask you to record your sides in front of a plain, solid background. The reasoning behind this is that you don't want things to distract from your performance. However, having worked in casting on several indie films, we can tell you the horror stories of tapes that we've received that did not follow this one simple instruction.

One actor decided to create the entire scene. He went so far as to bring in his own production company, find his own location for the scene, and create his own mini-film. He bragged about this in the submission notes! The problem with that is that what he created was nothing like what the production had in mind and a large part of the tape was spent with the camera focused on the back of his head.

Another actress chose her location because the sides mentioned that the scene was outside and the character was sitting under a tree. Kudos to this young lady for reading the sides carefully, but the shot was so wide that we could not see her face. And unfortunately, there was also a bird playing in that tree and our attention was drawn more to that than this poor actress's audition.

It is not just the backdrop that matters. In another audition, the actor had not learned his lines and so he was holding his sides. Rather than keeping the pages low and out of frame as much as possible, he used them as a "prop". Paper flying around draws the attention away from the actor. When he started using the paper as a weapon and looked to be attacking the camera with it he became less interesting and more than a little bit frightening.

Other actors have been upstaged by heir children or pets frolicking in the background, audible television sets, and a host of other "real life" distractions that are not part of the scene. Basically, anything that is not the actor auditioning and steals the focus away from the actor on the recording is a fairly good way to guarantee that the casting director is going to pass on you.

 This also includes the use of costumes. It is perfectly acceptable to suggest the part. For instance, if you are auditioning for a detective, a business suit will work. For a doctor role, a simple polo shirt will do the trick.

But if you are auditioning for the villain in a slasher movie, dressing up like Freddy Krueger for your audition might get some laughs but it probably won't get you the part.

And if you're actually wearing the Freddy Krueger fingers (suffice to say that we did see this!) you really come off as being just a little bit creepy and even horror filmmakers want to make sure that their actors are at least mentally stable. Creep them out with your take on a character, not with your ability to cosplay.
So the takeaway from this first in a series on taped auditions is to follow directions and keep it simple. Tape your auditions inside and up against a plain wall, sheet, curtain, or neutral photography backdrop with good lighting. Minimize all other noises and distractions in the room and let YOUR take on the character be what casting remembers. And happy auditioning!

Have a topic you'd like us to cover? Or a question? Or even a criticism? Feel free to let us know by commenting below!

Sunday, March 1, 2020

The Great Laurel Debate

For a novice film-maker, receiving those first set of laurels is a monumental occasion that goes right up there with the first IMDb credit. It makes no difference which festival they came from, they are like a badge of honor that proves that somebody out there thinks the film is good.

More sets of laurels follow. Most are Official Selections, but there might be some Semi-Finalist or Finalists in the mix. And if the Film Gods are smiling down on the project, there may even be a few Winners. All are proudly displayed on the film's poster for everyone to see. 

If the film is good and the film-maker keeps it in the festival circulation for a while, the laurel collection can grow into a vast forest that reaches beyond the open spaces on the poster and begins to deface it.

And so the great debate begins as to how many laurels should be displayed, from which festivals, or should they even be there at all?

It really boils down to what message the film-maker wishes to send and the audience that is to receive that message. 

If the goal is to impress the masses who aren't keen to the hierarchy of film festivals, then a poster overflowing with laurels certainly does the trick. It's a good idea to plan ahead for this and make sure that the poster design has plenty of open space to display the laurels without obstructing the artwork.

However, if the aim is to impress saavy film-makers and investors, a poster covered with laurels from lower-level festivals may bring about little more than a few snickers. To make an impression on that crowd, you need laurels from top-tier festivals like Sundance or Cannes tastefully displayed on the poster.

There is some debate as to whether or not Official Selection laurels should be displayed. It seems unfair that these are looked down upon by some, given that they are earned by beating out hundreds, if not thousands, of other entries. A truly knowledgeable person will recognize it as an honor, but there are those uppity folks who argue that only winning or nomination laurels should appear on a poster. 

The safest route is just to keep laurels off of your poster altogether and just use them on the film's website or other promotional materials.

Yes, this is a real movie poster.

Another option is to have three versions of the poster: one clean, one with only Winner laurels, and one that showcases every set of laurels the film has earned. That way you can use whichever poster best suits the occasion.

Regardless of how you decide to decorate your poster, don't ever let the laurel snobs get you down. You may not have a Sundance-worthy film, but you do have a film that several other festivals have a high opinion of.



Have a topic you'd like us to cover? Or a question? Or even a criticism? Feel free to let us know by commenting below!

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Improving Your Chances at Submission Roulette

You have a new film or screenplay ready to go and there are hundreds of film festivals out there clamoring for new submissions to choose from. It can be both overwhelming and also pretty hard on the wallet. For many film-makers it can seem like you'd have better luck at the tables in Vegas than getting your project into most of the festivals you submit to.

The first thing to remember when you submit to a festival is that your project's fate is generally in the hands of a few judges who simply just might not like your story.  Even the very popular indie films have their share of critics and it's not uncommon at all for such a film to sweep up all the awards at one festival and not even be accepted into another.

Entry fees can be pretty expensive so it really pays to do some research on the festivals you'd like to submit to. See if you can find some of the films that screened at a particular festival to get an idea of the festival's  quality standards. Some will reject films that don't earn high scores all across the board on technical aspects while others are more forgiving and will accept flawed films that have a really good story.

It's important to have realistic expectations here. If you dream of getting into Cannes or Sundance, you have to be able to compete with the type of films that regularly screen at those events.

Setting your sights on smaller festivals is a good choice if your project has a few snags in the weave, but it's important to read the submission rules carefully and follow instructions. When a festival gets hundreds of submissions in that they have to cull down to a few lucky dozen, any deviance from the rules gives the judges an excuse to reject a project.

If the festival has specific genre categories for submissions, make sure that your project is easy to identify as fitting into that genre. One of the top complaints we've heard from festival judges is the amount of submissions they get that aren't appropriate for the genre. (One festival we know rejected over 400 submissions for this reason alone!)

Pay attention to run time limitations. There are many one-day festivals that only accept films that are less than 15 minutes long. The reason for this is that they can screen more films in a short period of time.  For films that just miss this mark, speeding up the end credit roll may do the trick.

Read all the policies and rules before submitting to a festival. Never just assume that a festival will make an exception for your film no matter how good it is.

Many festivals have film age restrictions, premiere/release status rules, and require additional materials from their selected projects. If your film or screenplay doesn't meet those requirements then you are just wasting your money and their time. 

Honor a festival's policy about not issuing student or hardship waivers.  Sending a sob-story letter to a festival that has clearly stated that it does not issue waivers will generally be ignored. If you cannot afford the submission fee then look for competitions that offer waivers or are free to enter. 

If you are ever unsure about whether or not your project is eligible for a particular festival the best course of action is just to contact the festival with your question before submitting.  Most submission fees are non-refundable, so a little bit of research can save you a lot of money while navigating around festival submission sites like Withoutabox and FilmFreeway. 

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