Notes from a Festival Programmer: You Should Program More [Insert Genre/Niche/Culture/Country] Films

Call for Entries for the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival have opened, so I'm back on it with Notes from a Festival Programmer. This week I was at a non-festival related meeting and one of the attendees started asking me about selections for 2012. His questions were motivated by a local filmmaker he knew who was disappointed (upset was actually the word he used) that we hadn't programmed their film. It was not only local, but the filmmaker was also part of a group, Latinos specifically, that's been collectively underrepresented in festivals like ours over the years. And the filmmaker was a woman. So her exclusion felt like a triple blow. Add to that, the film was selected for several other festivals. So make that four blows.

Long before I worked for ATLFF I was always privy to a few conversations every year about our festival's lack of local films or focus on filmmakers of Color. Some were public and appeared on boards like Atlanta Films (rest in peace). More often than not, it was a private email discussion among friends, with a filmmaker venting their frustration that their film was not accepted.

In 2009, as I was I working my second ATLFF as communications director, I was at a party thrown on the second week of the fest. One of the women there said she stopped submitting to the festival because she never saw her films or films by African-Americans get in. In her words "they were programming those weird ass films instead." In her mind ATLFF's commitment to filmmakers like her was more lip service than reality.

When I asked her when was the last time she attended the festival it had been 8 years. As for the lineup for those years, she admitted she never really looked very hard. So she had missed the 2006 festival when over 20 films  featured African-Americans in front of and behind the camera, including the Closing Night film. She had missed the 2008 fest when we had KINGS OF THE EVENING, 'BAMA GIRL and LIBERTY KID, just to start.

As the gentlemen this week advocated for more films featuring Latinos, films like SAL, TODOS TUS MUERTOS, ASALTO AL CINE, SIN PALABRAS and O PALHAÇO, which all played ATLFF12, instantly came to mind. And it reminded me how disappointed I was when the Latina director of one our New Mavericks, Women Directors shorts pulled her film about two weeks before the festival.

As for local films, this year alone out of 234 films we programmed nearly 70 shorts, music videos and features by locals. Yet, we still heard complaints about Georgia's presence.

Over the years I have found the questions of representation and inclusion aimed at ATLFF both illuminating and frustrating.

Atlanta is one of most diverse cities in the nation and the festival should reflect that. The Atlanta Film Festival as an event has a strong reputation for programming. That standing is made stronger by a maintaining and growing our international and multicultural lineup. Being the go to place to see a snapshot of what locals are doing, enhances our position as a discovery festival.

As an organization, we have always been keenly aware of what the independent film scene looks like. Founded by filmmakers to support filmmakers, we've never wanted to settle.

Before I worked here, when I was covering the fest for CinemATL, I had spoken many times with the current staff at the time. I know that diversity and local filmmakingwas a focus then. A great example was IMAGE'S ACCESS program that was created to introduce kids from Title I schools, which are predominately African-American, to filmmaking. It was an initiative that only ended when the grant money dried up. And digging in the archives, you'll find that folks like Julie Dash and RuPaul showed their early works here.

Can we do a better a job of diversifying the festival and being a resource for locals? Always. Internally it's a conversation we have been constantly engaged in as long as I have been involved with this organization. As I said, we've never wanted to settle. Not then, not now.

However, filmmakers have to realize that any film festival worth a damn is always juggling several goals and missions. That a festival's curatorial mission is more than just subjectively selecting the "best" films. That diversity doesn't just extend to who are the leads and who is behind the camera.

It also encompasses the genres being programmed, the different categories the festival includes and representing the myriad of styles and approaches filmmakers have tackled in their work. It's being aware of the conversations and real world events taking place globally and locally when thinking about what films to select for the documentaries. It's knowing what the festival has screened the last few years and balancing keeping the festival fresh, current,  forward thinking and respectful of our cinematic heritage, all at the same time.

It's taking risks on films we feel strongly about, while being brutally honest when a film that was loved by the screeners and programmers may not fit as well as another film. It's knowing that you can have  a few films that share themes and similarities, however, it's the variety of stories and chance to discover something different with each new screening that most excites audiences. And it's knowing that diversity means representing films from around the world.

And filmmakers have to be involved.

Like voting, it's hard to take a filmmaker's criticism seriously if they aren't attending a wide range of festivals and film events--not just ATLFF but any of the events that exist that they can get to--and if they aren't aware of the wider film world, even if that's just their backyard.

It's when filmmakers are informed that their observations, critiques and complaints take on real power. When a filmmaker can name, not just their film, but another 5, 10 or 20 films that they think could have and should have been in the lineup, it can put many festivals on alert and open their eyes. It also can frankly be a help, because with the number of films out there, it's sometimes hard to know where we as organizations should be looking. There are always up and coming filmmakers who should be on our radar and they need someone advocating for them.

And when a filmmaker can point to a program they think can be replicated, it often gets us excited about the possibilities and gets our internal wheels turning. Our New Mavericks, Women Directors exists in part because of the feedback we have received from filmmakers.

But, when a filmmaker speaks without having attended the festival, let alone looked at the lineup, it can get a little frustrating. Especially when you then point out that you have indeed programmed the films they say are missing. Not only for that year, but over the last several years. Or, when a filmmaker wonders why you didn't select X film. You desperately want to explain how you and your team spent months going after that very film, to only not get it or be unable to reach the filmmakers.

How do I want to end this? I'll go with some advice for filmmakers.

First. Don't stop pushing us. It may at times appear we are not listening, but we always are. I'm going to freely admit that we will at times roll our eyes out of frustration. Yet, if you're sincere, ignore that. Sincerity really will win the day for you and the community.

Second. Get involved. Not just with us. Being part of any film community is more than just making films. Volunteer from time to time. Meet with local organizers to see how you can help them do their jobs better.

Third. Attend as much as you can, when you can. It's hard to argue with someone who has a good understanding of what films are playing and what films are not.

Fourth. Don't just advocate for yourself. When you widen the doors for others, it often widens the door for you and everyone as a whole. But, don't assume that we should know who is out there. Folks like me try to attend as many events as possible, read as many sites and blogs as possible, and we still are discovering people who escaped our notice.

Fifth. Research the festivals. See what films  have won awards where. Find films that are like yours and see where they have played.  Make sure you're submitting to festivals that align with your goals. Contact other filmmakers who have attended a festival to get their perspective.

Sixth. When you know a film festival programmer is at another festival or event, try to meet them and casually chat. Invite them to your screening or give them a copy of your film right there. You'll be surprised how, even if we don't program your film for a given year, you'll be on someone's personal watch list.

Seventh. Temper all that with some perspective. The Atlanta Film Festival received over 2200 submissions from over 90 countries last year, 234 films screened from roughly 20. It's the part of the festival world that sucks--ask us how often many of us do shots, seriously do shots, or pop xanax, before we start working on the non-acceptance notices--but no festival can accept every film. Add to that the estimated 12 to 20,000 plus features and shorts submitted to festivals around the world every year. Since I've been with ATLFF, that's 60 to 100,000 films submitted. There will be limitations.


*For us, roughly 90% of our lineup comes from submissions, while the rest are films we go after or films that came through distributors.