“Oh, yeah, you guys are infamous,” said Bruce Fletcher as he leaned back in his chair, his trademark jack-o’-lantern grin stretching across his face. “You’re downright notorious.”
He was referring to the reaction our documentary about film festivals, Official Rejection, generated when it came up in conversation during a recent informal gathering of various festival directors at the Toronto International Film Festival. When I asked him exactly which festival directors where there, Fletcher, himself the head of the Idaho International Film Festival, refused to name names. While all of these directors had seen the movie, he’d determined that only a few of them had done so because we’d submitted to their festivals; most had obtained a copy through other means. Fletcher didn’t wish to identify anyone because then we would then know which ones had been guilty of illegally duplicating our DVD screeners.
I nodded my understanding, then asked what exactly he meant by our being infamous among this group.
“About half the festival directors were on board with Official Rejection,” he said, fishing in his shirt pocket for a pack of smokes. “The other half thinks it’s obnoxious as hell. Of course, when I asked them exactly what they found obnoxious, the whole thing just turned into them trying to justify the questionable behavior and tactics that your film calls attention to in the first place.”
It was a reaction we’d anticipated, even during production. Trying to play a movie about film festivals at film festivals, especially one that explores the unwritten and unspoken politics of the circuit, was always deemed a dicey proposition. So many of the imperfections in the system we wanted to explore—premiere status, nepotism, studio interference, the favoring of star power over quality—were the elephants in the room that most moviemakers were afraid to simply discuss, let alone question.
As my friend and fellow moviemaker Karl Hirsch quipped, “Playing Official Rejection at a film festival is like trying to play Super Size Me at a McDonald’s.”
The response from film festivals did indeed turn out to be quite bipolar. Some genuinely embraced the flick, even going so far as to create special events around it. The deadCENTER Film Festival of Oklahoma City hosted an “Official Rejection: Life and Times of Independent Film” panel following our screening, and Fletcher’s IIFF played two movies featured in our documentary,Ten ‘til Noon and Johnny Montana, along with Official Rejection as a kind of festival-within-the-festival.
“We offered the double whammy screening and panel because we felt the film was enlightening for both audiences and moviemakers alike,” says executive director of deadCENTER, Cacky Poarch. “A record number of film enthusiasts attended both events and the feedback we received was tremendous.“
Then there were the other festivals; ones who tended to have a more negative reaction. A top programmer at a major film fest even went so far as to call me to deliver his rejection of our documentary personally; although to his credit, this was done completely without malice and was taken, by me, as a great courtesy. This programmer told me that he’d really liked the quality of the moviemaking, but took issue with much of how we approached the subject matter. I didn’t argue or counter him; after all, it was amazing to be able to get this feedback and well worth every penny of the submission fee just to listen.
One particularly sticky area for him was the section of the film about programmers. “Are you implying we don’t watch the movies submitted all the way through?” he asked. “Okay, okay we don’t watch all of them all the way through, but come on. If they’re bad in the first half an hour, they’re not gonna suddenly get better. And I know you have some idea of just how many submissions we have to get through.”
It’s an understandable point: Programmers are notoriously overwhelmed with literally stacks and stacks of movies to watch. But what about the issue from the moviemaker’s side, where a submission fee of $80 means that the festival has been paid more than 40 bucks an hour just to have someone sit and watch a film? That’s a pretty fantastic wage simply to plant oneself in front of a television. As such, it’s not hard to understand how failing to watch the whole flick, and giving it every chance all along its entire running time, could be seen by a moviemaker as a violation of trust. Both points of view here are valid, but rarely before our documentary had that of the moviemaker’s been heard.
This issue seemed to be endemic of the way these festivals regarded Official Rejection overall: No one was saying that the content of our movie wasn’t true. Rather, they just would have preferred it if we hadn’t gone there.
“The fact that Official Rejection played so few of the larger fests shows how cowardly some of those festival directors are,” says author of The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide Chris Gore. “When the camera is pointed their way, they take cover. The potshots are fair. Festival programmers need to grow a pair.”
In the end, though, whether it’s been accepted or shunned, Official Rejection seems to have opened up the discussion about the realities of the circuit, good and bad, for moviemakers and programmers alike. And if it has then every rejection we’ve received is a badge of honor and we’re proud to wear them.
For more information on Official Rejection and to order the DVD, being released November 17, 2009, visit www.officialrejectiondocumentary.com.