30 January 2012

Johnathan McFarlane on the Festivus Film Festival

festivus j

by Johnathan McFarlane

ED NOTE: After Kris and Lindy Boustedt's wrap-up of the Festivus Film Festival, festival director (and long-time friend) Johnathan McFarlane emailed me with a clarification. I invited him to write up the festival from his perspective. Enjoy.

It's hard to believe it's year 5 already. I was able to sleep in until about 8am, which is an incredible contrast to the first few years where panic would set in around 4am and I'd have to get up and get moving. That's usually how the first day of the festival goes for a fest director. Panic and utter terror. Nervousness. Anticipation. But as you rack up the years under your belt, it gets better and easier. You learn to harness the chaos that is directing a film festival. You build a staff that you trust, so that you can delegate responsibilities. That alone allows you to do a better job at the things that you can't delegate to anybody else. It still shocks me when I think back to that first year. Tim DeMasters (the other founder) and I had absolutely no idea what we were doing. All we knew was that we were overwhelmingly disappointed by our own experiences on the festival circuit, and decided we wanted to fix that. Or at least fix it in our own town, Denver, which at the time had only one major festival, the not-so-indie juggernaut that is the Starz Denver International Film Festival. Running a film festival is a learning process, a process of trial and error, failure and success, adaptation to your audience, creating a brand. With so many festivals out there today, and new ones popping up every single year, we knew we needed to create something unique. How many film festivals can you think of that have a film reel in their logo? Way too many. Or how about festivals that advertise a "red carpet gala?" Yawn. Even many minor festivals that have no presence and no reputation will do their best to raise the hype on some F-list celebrity that they've convinced to show up. Boring. It's been done. So that's how the Skull and film strip Crossbones came about. With that logo we wanted to say, "we're different, we're awesome, and we're edgy." Maybe none of that was true the first year, but fake it 'till you make it! Since year 1 we added a 4th day to the festival, have been slowly able to attract bigger and better sponsors, have re-built our website numerous times, added a filmmaker lounge open for the duration of the fest, turned our LLC into a 501(c)(3) non profit, expanded and refined our selection process, grew our all-volunteer staff from about 10-25, and created a board of directors, just to name a few of the changes. Yet when something is your passion, your baby, you're still never happy. That's how Festivus Film Fest is. We are always trying to come up with the next step in the evolution of the festival. Which brings us back to year 5; Our most recent measurement of success.

Day 1, (Thursday) started off well. Trever Alters (our hospitality director), and Chris McFarlane (my brother and Trever's right hand man) got to work bright and early shuttling filmmakers from the airport to the Curtis Hotel in our two 15-passenger vans. Assisting them were our squadron of filmmaker liaisons. Every filmmaker is assigned to one, and that person is their "go-to" person for the entirety of their stay here in Denver. Miss the shuttle and need a ride to the venue? Trying to find a good spot to eat near the hotel? Where is the best after-hours club to go when we aren't ready to call it a night? Your liaison is there to help you with all that and more. About noon we had another 10 of us meet at the Bug Theatre and across the street at the Next Art Gallery to start setup for our opening night. We rotate venues for both screenings and the lounge, but on Day 1 and Day 4 they are at the Bug Theatre and the Next Art Gallery, respectively. The Red Bull crew showed up about the same time to help set up the lounge (Red Bull is our biggest sponsor). They provide cool high-top tables, a bar, refrigerator, and a ton of Red Bull product. Then we set up the 10' x 8' photo backdrop, Festivus logo gobo light and sandwich boards. That and all the other minor things to be done take a few hours, but by around 3pm the lounge is pretty much set. After hanging our signage and checking discs at the Bug, we're pretty much ready to go there too. Que local artist Eric Matelski to come in and start his chalk art in front of the venue. He does a great job painting a really stylized version of the Festivus logo, and people get a kick checking it out as they start to show up. The first screening is at 6:45pm, and by 5:00 we already have our first big problem. The theatre doesn't have a working HDMI cable to connect their blu ray player to the projector. It was supposed to show up earlier in the day, but apparently UPS was running late. 3 of us get on the phone and start scrambling, trying to track down a cable. Not easy when you're trying to find one that's 75' long. Luck is on our side though! A Bug  employee shows up with the cable at about 5:45. Great, we should be all set. Except we're not. The blu ray player won't recognize the cable. We plug in the backup blu ray player that I brought from home for emergencies. Still no good, which tells us it's not the blu ray player or cable, but actually the projector. It's about 6:20 now, and we have to move to the very unfavorable backup plan: using the RCA outs. Essentially we won't be able to project in hi def. We break the news to filmmaker J.T. Gurzi who is behind our opening film, HEAVEN STREWN. He's obviously unhappy. So are we. Filmmakers expect us to provide a certain level of quality, and in this case we've let him down. The film didn't look horrible, but the picture just wasn't as sharp as it should have been. Nevertheless, the audience was very engaged and the Q&A was healthy, and nobody other than us film geeks complained about the projection. Despite J.T.'s protests we comped one of his room night's at the Curtis. It was the least we could do. The rest of the night went smoothly. The short block which followed J.T.'s film was extremely strong, and got a very positive response. Maybe because shorts are perfect for our short attention span, nobody noticed that the projection was not as crisp as it should have been. For the most part it looked good. The lounge was busy throughout the night, and passholders were slamming back plenty of Red Bull/vodkas, Buffalo Trace Whiskey, and beer (all free in the lounge, of course.) After the second (and final) screening of the night was over and folks were heading to the afterparty, I had a chat with Alex, the owner/operator of the Bug Theatre. He told me the projector was 7 years old, and I was stunned. It might as well be 100 years old. He promised to have a brand new one for Saturday, when we had 3 more screenings at the Bug. The afterparty at Forest Room 5 was a lot of fun. The filmmakers all mixed well together, and our DJ did a great job keeping the party going. Dan Meinerz and Christine Swerdozki (our Red Bull reps) were both there, and they were having a blast. Let's be honest- this is a business, and keeping your funding sources happy is an important part of it.

1 day down, 3 to go. Up next is Friday, where we are at the Oriental Theater, our much bigger venue, seating 250. Our lounge manager Dan Ito has a few volunteers with him and he's hard at work getting the lounge set up at Sellar's Space, another art gallery next to the Oriental. The Oriental has a huge screen, even bigger than most standard sized movie theaters. But their projector is not very good, and we need an HDCam deck there as well. Ceavco is the company that takes care of our video console and projection at the Oriental. We get a beautiful, bright picture off a great Sharp projector they brought in, and the content coming off the HDcam tapes looks incredible. The blu ray masters look great too. The signage gets hung, and for our first row of seating we have giant bean bag chairs. Who else does that? The place looks great. All we need now are people. Historically, our second block on Friday (8:45) is one of our busiest, with the first usually having healthy attendance as well. This year was no different. We had about 125 for the first film, a feature called CELLMATES starring Tom Sizemore, and over 200 for our second block, Laugh Track Comedy Shorts. We took things a different direction for our comedy shorts block this year. They were all comedy, no doubt, but very dark comedy. It was an experiment, to see how our audience would react. The feedback was mixed. Some people absolutely loved it, and others didn't quite get it. But that's what programming a fest is about- anticipating your audiences' tastes and interests, and then playing with them, throwing them curveballs, switching it up, challenging them. One of our board members, Nathaniel Eyde, had convinced Donald Zuckerman to come to the Laugh Track block with him. Donald Zuckerman is the head of the state film commission. He doesn't really have the ability to give us money directly, but he can connect us to the people that can. Having him there was a big deal, and I was honestly a little worried how he would take our dark humor programming. After the block was finished Nathaniel pulled me aside. "He gets it," he told me. Zuckerman liked the block. He liked the setup (especially the bean bag chairs), and was impressed by the attendance. I don't really know what that means for the festival, if anything, but it gave me a boost. After the block was over our band Wire Faces hopped on stage to rock out the afterparty, which was actually there at the Oriental that night. In the past we'd had a lot of trouble booking bands. At first we would pay them a flat rate, but then they don't have any motivation to promote the show. Then we tried paying 50% of their standard rate, plus giving them 50% of the door. Still no help from the band's side. Turns out musicians can be really lazy when they know they have a guaranteed paycheck. So this time around Wire Faces agreed to play for 100% of the door. No guaranteed deposit or anything. They played a great show, fast and furious, and the crowd loved it. Things were winding down around 12:30, and so I was able to get home and get to bed that night about 1:30am. I think that's the earliest I've ever gone to bed during Festivus. Is that a sign? Should I be doing something else? Am I forgetting something? I hoped not, and was able to get some solid sleep leading into Saturday, which is by far our longest and most difficult day.

On Saturdays we run screenings at both the Bug and the Oriental. The first screening at the bug is at 2:00, so I get there around noon to help get things organized. The signage from Thursday is still up so there isn't a whole lot of setup. I was overjoyed to see that Alex had kept to his word, and purchased a new projector. We fired it up and tested out the discs for the Experimental block, and it looked beautiful. Very crisp and bright. On Saturdays, Tim and I divide and conquer. He leads the crew over at the Bug, while I lead things over at the Oriental. He's the only other person in the world I'd trust to do the job, at least at this point in the festival. I helped some of the crew get the door set up for the day, and then it was over to the Oriental, to prep for our 3:45 world premiere of Lilith. For me, this was a big one. Not only was it a world premiere, but we had actress Julia Voth attending. She made waves as the basis for Jill Carpenter in the Resident Evil video games, and more recently starred in BITCH SLAP. It makes me a little nervous that she's there, as I am very well aware that 3:45pm is not a good slot for a horror film. When we were putting together the final program the decision was either to not play it at all, or play it in that spot, and we made the decision to go for it. Unfortunately there was a big X-factor on Saturday that we had no control over. Surprisingly enough, the Broncos had actually beaten the Steelers the weekend before and made it to the second round of the playoffs. This meant that essentially we were competing with the Broncos for our audience. Not easy to do, especially in football-obsessed Denver. But, like I said, nothing we could do. When we kicked off the film I was a bit dis-heartened by attendance. For such a big movie that we had pushed so hard (lots of press coverage, special promotions, etc), we only had 55 people in the audience. Basically, we got Tebowed. Luckily the people that attended were very interested and engaged, and the Q&A with Julia after the film went great. People had good questions. We didn't get the quantity I wanted for that block, but we got the quality. I checked that one off in the schedule and moved on. Next block was our Twisted Tales shorts, and it was a strong, weird block. Exactly what people were looking for. Attendance was very good, about 175, and the Q&A was fantastic. On stage we had a filmmaker all the way from Germany, one from Holland, and a talented young student filmmaker. All three would go on to win awards later that night. Checking in with Tim throughout the day it sounded like things were going well over at the Bug. Good attendance and happy filmmakers. There was a film in the experimental block called WIGGAH that was extremely controversial, but hey, we're pushing the envelope. Final block on Saturday night at the Oriental was a feature film called SEARCHING FOR SONNY. This spot, 8pm on Saturday night, is the premiere slot in the entire fest. It's where we put our best feature. SEARCHING FOR SONNY was no different. Starring Minka Kelly, Jason Dohring, Masi Oka, it was a fantastic cast, and it was incredible to see them in what truly was an indie film (which we discovered during the Q&A with producer Red Sanders. Great production stories!) Now we had our second "issue" of the fest start to bother me around 8pm. The Broncos game was still going, and the space we had booked for our awards party was still packed to the brim with Broncos fans. Okay no problem. The game will be over by 9pm, and they'll boot everybody out right away. But that was not so. When our crew got there at 9 to start setting up for our 10:30 party start time, the place was still packed and Broncos fans were line dancing on our dance floor. I got a call from the venue assuring me they would get everybody out and it would be fine, but it wasn't. I tried to stretch as long as possible on the Q&A to give the party-starters as much time as possible to get set up. When I got there around 11:00pm, the transition from Broncos to Festivus was just about complete. It was an awkward transition, but for the most part I don't think the Festivus fans noticed. I had it out with the sound guy who in my opinion was completely incompetent, and had to argue with the manager to have the lights turned down to an appropriate party-level, but eventually everything worked out. The party was a blast, the awards ceremony was a blast, and the flock of people in front of the step-and-repeat was testimony to the party. Our favorite local faux-German supergroup Total Ghost performed, and the crowd loved them. Now when they turned on the lights and it was time to shuffle everyone out, most festivals would call it a night. It was 1:45am, after all. Not us though. All the filmmakers hopped in the shuttle to be carted off to the after-afterparty. I was too exhausted, and headed home. I heard a lot of stories though, and the shuttle didn't leave the after-afterparty until 5:30am. When I got home at 2:30am, my wife told me it was "the most fun night of Festivus ever!" I trust my wife, so I'll believe her.

3 down, only 1 left. We get the lounge gear back over to Next Art Gallery to get set for our final day. The Bug is pretty much ready since we used it the day before. All the staffers are tired, but we're excited as well. Everybody has been happy so far, and despite a few minor setbacks, the fest has been smooth. Sunday is always a bit of a rally though. Good thing Red Bull is a sponsor because at that point that's how most of us are still running. We only have three blocks today, 3:00, 5:00, and 7:00. The first is a mixed short block we titled Rehab Shorts. It's actually a really strong block, with everything from comedy to zombie. Attendance was mid-range. Maybe 50 people or so. That's not bad for early afternoon on a Sunday. 5:00 was the world premiere of an Australian black comedy called BLOCKHOUSE BLUES. Attendance was light, about 30 people. It's a shame, because it was a fantastic movie, and very well received by the people that were there. I would have expected better. My Dad showed up for that one, and he loved it. Finally, it's the last block of the festival. The Locals Only block. We put it last because we want to finish with a sold-out block, and this one is sold out every time. 10 films, all local, and the filmmakers basically promote the block for us. Of course, we also want the filmmakers to see that we do support local films, as much as possible. The Q&A was a little crowded. With 10 films thats 10 filmmakers on stage, and even a few that decide it's necessary for them to have an actor or producer with them as well. But what can we do- it's their moment to get the recognition they deserve, so we let them have it. After the Q&A I hop up on stage for the last time of the season. Say thank yous, goodbyes, please come back next year. I keep it short. There is a very low-key afterparty at the Corner Office (inside the Curtis Hotel) and I know everybody wants to get there. I finish up my speech and people mingle and chat for a while as they slowly shuffle out of the theater. It's over, the last screening of our 5th season. As I sit by myself on the front of the stage I try to just soak it in. The inevitable post-fest depression will hit soon. I know it's coming. It's a very, very real thing, that everybody in the core group of staffers experiences. You almost don't know what to do with yourself. Imagine that something is the focus, the epicenter of your life for about 8 months. When it's finally over, you feel lost. I've heard of staffer's even crying the day after the fest.

We pack up all our gear and signage and head over to the Corner Office. I'm by myself in my car, which is stuffed full of Festivus "equipment." This last hoorah is very relaxed. Nothing to set up, nothing to break down. We just show up, relax, chat, exchange info with all the new friends we've made, and call it a wrap. When I walk in I look around the room, and out of nowhere everybody turns to face me. They applaud. They "get it." And despite the stress, the mistakes, the obstacles we had to overcome, I know that we have been a part of something truly great.

Some stats:
From year 1 to year 5 our budget has tripled
This year we had filmmakers from Australia, England, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, Netherlands, and of course all over the U.S.
Our crop of attending filmmakers was more than ever, 45+, with nearly 60% of the films represented by a filmmaker
Attendance has gone up every year, with year 5 being no different
We had 13 world premieres this year, including 2 that were features
Advertising included 4 billboards, 2 half page print ads, 5000 flyers, 200+ posters, Facebook ads, and "e-blasts"

Johnathan McFarlane is the director of the Festivus Film Festival. He also directed the feature documentary PROJECT CANADA. He and his wife Erika are newlyweds.