Festivals: The Founding and Future of Dances With Films

It started on a dark and stormy night…no wait… that’s another story.  Dances With Films started with festival founders, Michael Trent and Leslee Scallon (that’s us!), in the days of indie film still being shot on (gasp!) film. and Robert Rodriguez had just sold his blood to finance his indie epic El Mariachi.

Inspired, as so many have before us, by people daring to dream a dream and achieve it, we set out to make an unusual indie film, not through a bunch of people sitting around and talking in a room, but through an action/thriller set in the backwoods of Oregon. It was fun to write it, workshop it, find the actors, gather the production tools, shoot it, edit it—well, sort of fun—as all our fellow filmmakers will understand. Then we hit that moment. We felt it was ready to exhibit.

We submitted to festivals. By this point we were beyond broke. So, we chose our festivals very carefully. One was where we knew industry went.  After all, we wanted distribution, we wanted Spielberg to see the film and ask us to star in his next film, we wanted Paramount to call on us for their next blockbuster series—well, maybe we weren’t thinking quite that grand, but hey, it is Hollywood right? And what is life if you can’t dream?

Unfortunately we weren’t that one in a zillion to be “discovered.” And that hurt. But onward and upward, as all filmmakers know. We knew we had to hold a screening on our own (ala Swingers!) and make our own magic. That is when Michael said “Let’s bring together other filmmakers—just like ourselves—who have made great films that aren’t being recognized because they don’t have stars in them!”

Hold the presses folks… this was a crazy, insane idea in 1998. No, better to do an individual screening, have good wine and cheese in the lobby and just invite everyone we knew, who knew someone, who knew someone, who knew someone. That’s what we should do. But, we didn’t. No. We created a festival.

Dances With Films celebrates the dreams of everyone who dreams. When we created this fest, in all honesty, we were being selfish. It was just one week in one year to promote our own film.

But guess what happened? All of a sudden, here was a community. A community that banded together not as adversaries, but as co-conspirators. We held a small gathering for the festival participants after that first fest, and will never forget this as we were in a fourth floor apartment at the time. Aaron Downing, first DWF Grand Jury winner, who just happened to work at 20th Century Fox, began stomping his very heavy Doc Martens on the floor saying we have to do another festival, that this gave him hope to continue with his vision, to keep on creating. At that point we knew we had to do another year—to keep up the fight, even if, back in those days, people thought independent film with ‘no stars’ meant pornography!

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There are some things we love about DWF and some things we aren’t as fond of. Let us start with what is awesome in our eyes: the actual fest itself. We’re introducing filmmakers to other filmmakers, to creatives, to execs, and to simply the indie film fans of Los Angeles. How awesome is that? We love the Q&A sessions after the screenings. There is nothing like an exuberant audience cheering at the end of a film and then standing with the filmmaker down by the screen and hearing about their journey to this exact spot in their life. The inspiration of their film, their fight to get the film made, the behind the scene antics (good and bad) that make up the creation of a film and having us select it for the fest.

What do we not like as much? Looking for funding (again, just like finding financing for a film), because with every dollar we bring in we can create more programs, bring in extremely important support staff and create more ways to promote the films that make DWF the discovery festival it is. It’s not fun. Sometimes it feels like we are begging on the street: “Please support indie film. Please help us to help others.” And so on. But we do it because we believe in the institution we’ve created.

And we did have a dream come true recently—DWF was voted by MovieMaker Magazine’s readers as one of the top 25 Coolest General Film Festivals in the world in 2013. What’s more, we are the only one Los Angeles fest on the top 25 list. You have no idea how much that means to us. That’s the true indie world saying we are doing exactly what we are supposed to—creating opportunities for filmmakers where they need them to happen!

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We’re always looking for good talent to be behind the scenes and filmmakers who create awesome films for us to show. We think this is true of any festival directors out there—we want to present the films the way we would want our own film presented. We want great picture, great audio and awesome filmmakers who know how to utilize their time at DWF. That’s the whole purpose: to give filmmakers the opportunity to further their careers, to form friendships which last a lifetime, to present their work and be proud of what they’ve done—as none of it is an easy task. However, this year, we decided to go one step earlier—to the kids themselves.

Which is why it is very exciting to start up our newest discovery program—Dances With Kidz! We will be presenting the most creatively inspired, kid and family focused films on the indie circuit. This year we are holding it as an adjunct to our regular festival with a two-day invasion of the 8 to 18 year-old wunderkids of new cinema. The independent film scene has had a dramatic impact on mainstream entertainment for nearly two decades and yet there are relatively few independent venues championing family friendly films.

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As we grow up, we begin to understand there are rules in life and filmmaking. Like don’t cross the line, don’t put your finger in a light socket, or, if you want to believe SAG, don’t cast a family member. Well, kids haven’t necessarily learned all those rules. Thanks to the digital revolution, they now have cameras… and computers… and the imagination to use them all.

So a bit of advice for all filmmakers, young or old or anywhere in between—you are going to spend a lot of time on a film you love. So do it to the best of your ability. Take time with the script, workshop it, have friends your read it, have your enemies read it. Be smart when you decide to film it, work favors where you can to cut your budget. Have a realistic budget. Have everyone and their sister watch what you think is your final edit. Take their critiques with a grain of salt, but if you keep getting that same grain of salt pointed out to you—take note. Maybe you do need to change something, no matter how much you love it. And when applying on the film festival circuit realize we can’t program all the good movies.  We only have so many screening slots & venues. Don’t be mad when we say no—say “I’m going to show you what you missed,” and make another opportunity for yourself. Filmmaking is not for the faint of heart. MM

Visit Dances with Films’ official website here. The festival runs from May 29 to June 8, 2014, at the TCL Chinese Theaters.

Leslee Scallon and Michael Trent are actors, writers, directors, producers and the film festival organizers of Dances With Films.

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