I'll be straight up honest. Being a film critic, which at times I thought was hard because of the difficult--and admittedly sarcastic and snarky--conclusions I made about films, compares little to being a festival programmer. If I truly see something of merit in a film, I do try to highlight that. I haven't always stuck to that in the years I've written for CinemATL or in the comments I've verbally made or posted to my own Facebook page. However, I have always strived to point out worthy elements if a film included ones I found or liked. So it's rare I find a film that I can't defend on some level. Now, how vehemently I want to defend that film as a whole has varied.
As a programmer though, there really is a different mind set. Critiquing a film, is critiquing a film. You may reference other films to create context or to judge how well the final product is put together. However, critiquing isn't choosing. It's not taking a mountain of film and boiling it down to a tiny subset. As a programmer, you have to look at X number of films, measure them up both to their selves and to each other. Then reduce that down to a finite Y.
What's also different, is that I have many friends, and even folks in general, who allow me to tell them the absolute truth about what I think of their films. If I have issues, they're cool with that, and they gladly take that knowing I'm judging the film, not them as people, or even their potential. Yet, I'm not picking their film. There's nothing tied to my analysis, beyond maybe a point of pride.
Now, as part of my current duties for this year at ATLFF, I'm head programmer. I, along with my screening committee, had to judge the films that came in and then using that feedback, had to pick our lineup for this year's Atlanta Film Festival. It's a process that places a different onus on how the critique is applied. Especially when there are so many other tangential decisions. From how important the discussion around a film can be, to how much a film may have a local connection, to supporting new and emerging artists, and to highlighting the work of festival alums that maybe the next big thing and aren't quite there yet. There are dozens, even hundreds, of variables that have to be assessed in deciding why a film is selected over another.
Having watched the man who was in my spot before, Dan Krovich, make these decisions, I knew what he was going through, however, I didn't understand.
There is both a level of assurance, based on experience that has to go into this, as well as a healthy dose of trusting your gut and taking a few risks.
Anyone that has seen or read some of my takes on festival submissions, or just film in general over the last few years, knows I warn against thinking of films in terms of "best" of. Being technically proficient at anything isn't enough (as an example, I find Scorcese himself always on top of his game, even when I think films like Gangs of New York are woefully underwhelming) .
There are athletes who aren't precision practitioners, however, their passion not only creates plays, they connect with audiences. By shear will they still achieve, racking up stats that put them on the map. It's the same with film. Knowing the "rules"--which can be twisted, broken and discarded--doesn't mean you'll make a interesting and/or great film. Nor does not knowing the rules--because they can be twisted, broken or discarded--mean you can't create an interesting and/or great film. As such, success cannot and should not be measured by a finite set of criteria. One has to be open to the idea that success can never be narrowly defined.
I wish I could say there is a magical formula that can be modulated carefully to ensure a film will always connect with a film programmer or an audience. Yet, it doesn't exist. From a filmmaker perspective, if you think the process is mysterious, I can now definitely tell you that from our end it's often equally so.
Think of it this way. You have a box of 2000 legos. You can only pick 150 of those to create something. Some of those you'll get immediately, some you won't get till weeks and months later. Which ones do you pick and why? And what are you creating when you pick? You can't decide at the outset what you want to create, because you don't have all the pieces and you don't know what they'll look like. And you can't wait till months later to decide, because you don't have that luxury. At every point, it's a constantly shifting process.
I write this, not to make excuses, but hopefully to give a bit of insight. Just as when you create a film you have to make hundreds and thousands of choices, so do programmers. Some are easier than others. Yet, if you think the entire process is easy to quantify, I assure you it is not.
Being frank, if I ever return to my screenwriting roots--which I plan to do--and dreams of one day directing--which I also plan to do--I'll be even more nervous now than I was before. Maybe all this experience will give me a leg up. However, deep down, I am already less assured about my own abilities as a writer. If I now can't tell you specifically what I would always choose, how in the hell can I be confident that I'll write something that won't find a computer hard drive as its only home?
So if you wonder why I haven't written a screenplay in 7 years, it was originally because I have been busy--which isn't the greatest excuse, but let's go with that.
Starting 7 months ago, it's because I have gotten a better understanding of folks like me and a even better glimpse into how many great films don't get selected and how many that did are.
So will I never write another screenplay? Hell, no. I'm going to look folks like me in the eye and say fuck you, I'm going to write what I want to write mutherfucker. But, if my voice cracks a bit when I say mutherfucker, you'll know why. Because nothing is assured.