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How to Attack a Film Festival (or a preview of Independent Film Festival Boston 2010)
by Jay Seaver

Film festivals can be great fun for movie lovers, although that should be fairly self-evident from the fact that they are called "film festivals". However, like all good things, they can also be daunting; there's so much to see at the good ones, and there are a few things that many festival-goers only learn with experience. And since that experience often comes at the cost of movies missed, why not learn from my mistakes? I'll be applying these lessons to this week's Independent Film Festival Boston 2010, so even if you're an experienced festival attendee, you can at least check out what the Hub's premier festival has on tap.

Step One - Identify What You Want

That seems obvious, right? You want to see movies and filmmakers. But what kind - many festivals have various programs; for instance, IFFBoston 2010 has a fairly strong line-up of musical documentaries. Some people are interested in getting to see films likely to get a theatrical release early, maybe having a chance to pick the filmmakers' brains afterward at a Q&A, while others choose to focus on those unlikely to get distribution at all. Or you may be willing to trade seeing some movies for more direct interaction with filmmakers at panels and parties.

It can seem expensive, especially for those not used to dropping more than $10/week on movies. For most festivals, it's not so much the individual tickets - prices at IFFBoston 2010 run $8 (standard screenings for members of local independent theaters) to $12 (opening and closing night films, purchased at the box office), roughly the same as what a first-run film costs here - although the big-name festivals charge more; it's the cumulative effect of buying a dozen of them in a week. There are also various types of passes available; at IFFBoston, the Film pass ($185) gets the wearer into any film at the festival; the Chrome pass ($300) gets that as well as access to panels and parties.

For IFFBoston, the price of a film pass and getting individual tickets is roughly a wash, but it's worth noting that seating order is counter-intuitive for first-timers: Generally, pass-holders get seated first, then the people with tickets. Not a lot of tickets are sold ahead of time, relative to seating capacity, although some will go on sale in the "rush" line once the people running the show count how many people with passes have shown up.

For IFFBoston 2010: I'm getting a press pass, but even if I weren't, I'd be getting the paid equivalent, the Film Pass. No matter what your goal for the festival is, chances are that the Opening Night film, The Extra Man, will appeal to most attendees. It's an independent comedy about writers who support themselves by accompanying single women to social events. It has a recognizable cast - Paul Dano, Katie Holmes, John C. Reilly, and Kevin Kline, who will be on-hand to receive an award and answer questions afterward. The opening night party is just down the street.

Step Two - The Two Types of No-Brainers

Assuming you intend to maximize your movies seen, then it's time to fill out your itinerary. Let's start with the easy stuff.

First, there are the films playing without competition for your attention. For some festivals, that's everything; they only have a single screen. Other festivals have no nights like that, with alternative screenings for even the opening and closing night events.

The other type of no-brainer is the movie that you push everything aside for. That's different for every attendee, although you can get a pretty good idea of what the programmers think will be big hits by checking out what is being played on the festival's largest screen. Don't just trust them, of course - flip through the program and/or watch previews, if the festival provides them on DVD or as links from their website.

Once you've got those, block that time out on your schedule, either old-school by circling them on the paper version handed out at festival venues or, if the festival is using B-Side's Schedule Genius software (as IFFBoston 2010 is) or something similar by adding them to the calendar on-line.

For IFFBoston 2010: Three nights at IFFBoston have only one screen running: Opening night (above), Closing Night, and the second-to-last night. Closing night at The Coolidge Corner Theatre is Saturday Night, James Franco's documentary on the making of Saturday Night Live. The night before is, as it was last year, a pair of documentaries at the Institute of Contemporary Art that focus on the creative impulse: Marwencol is about a man who rehabilitates himself after a severe beating by creating a 1:6-scale town in his backyard, populating it with dolls at that scale, and photographing them; Jean-Michel Basquait: The Radiant Child covers the life and environment of one of the most prominent American artists of the 1980s.

The gotta-see-thems are more personal. Fans of filmmaker Todd Solondz will likely be drawn to Life During Wartime, where he recasts various characters from his previous films for a dark comedy of love and forgiveness. Music lovers have a lot of options: Do It Again, wherein a Boston journalist documents his attempt to reunite The Kinks; Lemmy, which follows the founder of the band Motorhead; and Searching for Elliott Smith, which attempts to make some sense of the reclusive indie musician's private life and bizarre death.

The one I'm blocking out time for, though, is Sunday afternoon's Hipsters, a Russian musical set in post-WWII Moscow about the clash of cultures between solemn communist youth and the jazz-loving garish dressers of the title.

Step Three - See it Early or See it At All

As mentioned back up top, there are some festival films that will probably play regular theaters at a later date. Sometimes guessing which ones they are is tricky, especially if you live somewhere other than New York or Los Angeles; there's a number of films I kick myself over missing at festivals because I was positive that they would open in Boston that didn't even make a blip.

My preference is to see the ones that I might not get a chance to see in theaters otherwise. Others like seeing films early, and that's a valid choice as well: For independent fiction films, it's a quick and easy test for production values and mainstream appeal, and when they do show up, it's nice to be able to recommend good indie films to those who don't hit the festival.

For IFFBoston 2010: Thursday night offers a couple of choices of this variety; I'm likely choosing to mix and match. One of the early-evening shows in the large main theater is Perrier's Bounty, a very cool-looking Irish crime flick with a killer cast (Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Gabriel Byrne, Jodie Whittaker, and Jim Broadbent); it has a May release date scheduled, and I'm pretty sure an Irish crime movie will play Boston. Less certain is Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, about underground Muslim rock in America; it has an intriguing subject that's a hard sell to theaters and general audiences; this may be the only chance to see it. Later that night, Cyrus plays the big screen, with indie-film veterans Mark and Jay Duplass stepping up to a budget that allows them to cast the likes of John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, and Catherine Keener rather than themselves and their friends. Meanwhile the intriguing Cracks plays on a smaller screen, but Jordan Scott's 1930s boarding-school melodrama promises beautiful soap. Cyrus will be released by Fox in July while IFC plans a September release for Cracks, but I may go for Cyrus.

Similarly, Sunday night offers the choice of two great casts: The Killer Inside Me has Casey Affleck as a Texas sheriff with violent tendencies torn between Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson in a harsh noir story directed by Michael Winterbottom; Solitary Man offers Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Jenna Fischer, Mary Louise Parker and Jesse Eisenberg in a comedy-drama about Douglas's character trying to put his life back together.

Sometimes, even when it's close enough to make the decision obvious, it's not as clear as you might think. One of the "IFFBoston After Dark" shows is The Good, The Bad, The Weird, which opens in the Boston area the Friday after the festival ends. But how would I rather see it: At a packed late-night screening at the Brattle, or with the small, less-excited audience that dots the smaller theater used when movies like this hugely-praised Korean western get a one-week booking? Director Kim Ji-woon, who made the original A Tale of Two Sisters and the criminally still-unreleased-in-America-even-on-DVD A Bittersweet Life (whose star, Lee Byung-hun, is "The Bad" in this film), absolutely deserves the former.

Step Four - Plan for Time

The harshest lessons you will learn at your first festival are more or less interrelated: First, nothing starts on time, not even the first show of the afternoon; second, everything runs long, and not just because the running times listed don't include time for introductions, festival promos, and filmmaker Q&As (and if a short film is playing with the main feature, make sure that's figured into your scheduling). The only exception to this is when you attempt to make plans that take this into account, which will have the second show start promptly at its advertised time, after it has sold enough tickets that you can't get in even if you have a pass.

Another place where Murphy's Law can wreck your perfectly composed scheduling is when a festival spreads its programming over multiple venues; out-of-towners especially should leave some extra time for getting from theater A to theater B. If you can manage it, I suggest tweaking your schedule to allow for as much "camping" as possible - that is, taking in as many shows in a row on the same screen. After all, they can't start seating for the 9:30pm show until the 7:00pm show has let out! Also, some festivals will let you leave your coat/bag/etc. in your seat, or even just let you stay in the theater between shows.

And, of course, make sure that you exercise a little common sense. If you are going to see midnight movies, make sure that you can get home afterward (why yes, I have come out of movies only to realize that the subway had stopped running and I was thus in for a walk; friends have had their cars locked in garages). And try to leave space to eat some real food. Unless the festival uses venues like Austin's Alamo Drafthouse which serve good food as well as good film, it is very easy to get into a loop of seeing a movie and immediately getting in line for the next, maybe with a stop at the concession stand. A week-long diet of popcorn, candy, and soda isn't healthy and will make it harder to enjoy the movies as the corn syrup builds up. I recommend a good breakfast and doing what you can when a 45-minute-plus window opens up between screenings.

For IFFBoston 2010: For the most part, transportation between venues isn't an issue, with the ICA and Coolidge each being the only place running movies on their respective nights. The Somerville Theatre and Cambridge's Brattle are both running movies Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, they are but two stops apart on the MBTA Red Line (or the 91 bus, if you've got a little more time and want to save a few bits).

I'm choosing to see Down Terrace on Friday night, even though the British comedy about a struggling crime family also has a screening Saturday afternoon. This lets me stick around nifty-looking backwoods drama/thriller Winter's Bone no matter how long the director and star take with their Q&A, as they're on the same screen. Besides, Saturday afternoon is a potential tangle; I'd like to see documentaries Bananas!*, about a lawsuit between Nicaraugan laborers and Dole Foods, and Beijing Taxi, a ground-level view of China's capital as it transforms itself for the 2008 Olympics, but I worry about the former running into the latter. Maybe a better move is Pelada, in which would-be futbol pros travel the world playing various pick-up games, and/or War Don Don, an examination of the recent war-crime tribunals in Sierra Leone.

Also Saturday night, the T is likely to make my late-night movie decision for me. Cell 211, a Goya-winning thriller in which a guard is mistaken for an inmate during a prison riot, looks fantastic. I might normally choose it over Drones, a sci-fi comedy by Buffy alumni Amber Benson & Adam Busch that combines office drudgery with alien invasion, even though the second looks like a lot of fun. But the former is longer and starts later, and it's a lot easier for me to get home at 12:15am then 1am...

Step Five - Make Time for Shorts

In some ways, short films are some of the most vital parts of the festival experience, but they are also often the most easily overlooked. These movies are the training ground for feature filmmakers - it's not uncommon for directors to return to festivals that supported their shorts with their first feature - and tell good stories in just the right amount of space. But it's also very difficult for any short film to get attention individually; they don't have money for publicity, and they are generally either screened attached to features, which tend to drive the decision on whether or not the pairing gets seen, or in packages, which are often relegated to smaller screens at inconvenient times (such as daytime hours versus evening).

Still, some festivals are able to develop short packages as a brand name - the Montreal-based Fantasia Festival has even released DVDs of their "Small Gauge Trauma" series, for instance. Some short filmmakers are able to develop a following, especially in animation, but occasionally in live action: A new Guy Maddin short, for instance, is a Big Deal.

The film festival experience really isn't complete without seeing some of these odd (and surprisingly effective) little films. It's hard to remove a feature from one's schedule to replace with a short package - we're just conditioned to see the features as more important - but often worthwhile, especially if it's a slot where none of the other choices are particularly exciting to you.

Plus, maybe you'll have an inside track on your next Oscar pool in those difficult categories!

For IFFBoston 2010: Unless I'm reading their schedule wrong, there are no shorts playing as companions to features this year, so it appears that I'll have to see a package for any short films. There are six (two for documentaries, one for animation, one for live-action comedy, two for live-action drama) to choose from, and I'll be checking out Shorts 3: Animated. It screens on the relatively quiet Monday night, and has Don Hertzfeldt's "Wisdom Teeth" in it. Since Hertzfeldt has never failed to make me laugh, this one may actually fall into the "No-Brainer" category.

Step Six: Plan for Change

Stuff happens. Films get purchased at other festivals and their new owners decide to pull them off the festival circuit; prints don't arrive and the backup digital file has incomprehensible subtitles. Sometimes, the festival schedule will have obvious gaps in it, either for announced surprise screenings (which are often not-particularly-well-kept secrets) or as places where unexpectedly popular films can get encore screenings. Sometimes, entire days can be tacked onto the end of the festival.

Fortunately, it's easier than ever to keep track of these changes; the festival organizers will almost certainly have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds that can be pushed directly to one's mobile phone. Follow them, and when new screenings come up, pounce.

For IFFBoston 2010: Two days before the end of the festival, they got word that Saturday Night, the planned closing night film, would not be available. Fortunately, they were able to scramble and pick up Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Micmacs. For the most part, reaction was positive, although they have offered to refund the ticket purchase of anyone disappointed by the change.

Of course, there's no shame in just going to the one film at a festival that interests you, or just going to the parties (unless you're Ben Lyons) - these things are supposed to be fun, after all! As a friend and I were discussing this weekend, the twenty-films-a-week, six-in-one-day marathon is certainly not for everyone. It's exhausting, using the same specific part of your brain for that much time in a row. But if your definition of getting the most out of a festival is seeing the most movies you can, you can do it much better with a little planning.

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originally posted: 04/20/10 11:01:02
last updated: 04/27/10 14:26:32
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