Documentary filmmaker, journalist, and man-about-town Russ Spencer is the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s programmer in charge of selecting and presenting filmmakers from Santa Barbara. He’s been doing it for a few years now, so has a good perspective on what works, what doesn’t, and what this year’s slate looks like. Here are his thoughts.
How’s the stock of SB filmmakers look like this year?
The stock of filmmakers varies from year to year - this year we have a great selection from some people we’ve seen before and some great new faces. Some years we get people out of the blue, non-filmmakers who just decide for whatever reason that they want to make a film, with varying results. But as the years go by, we are starting to see more consistent work from people who, even if they have a day job, continue to make films that get better and better each year. These are the people I tend to get excited about. This includes people like director Jason Hallows, who has had shorts in the two previous years in a row and this year did Singularity. Each year his films get better technically and thematically. New faces this year are a team of women who both used to work for National Geo, and they have brought us a great film, Unleashed about the Big Dog parade. It’s a really fun, well-made movie.
Has the category grown much in the last few years?
We have hit the limit in the last few years in terms of the number of films we can accept. We always get lots of submissions, but there are only so many screening slots, and as you know this festival is more generous than any in the country in accepting local films. This year especially, though, we have decided to set a high standard for what we will accept. In the past we may have accepted some films that had technical and narrative problems just because we didn’t get that many films, and the film may have shown some directorial promise. But we are no longer accepting films from local directors unless they meet professional standards, production-wise, and story-wise. The competition is just too fierce now. And it’s better for our audiences.
Have SB filmmakers gotten more exposure thanks to SBIFF?
As the fest grows in stature, anyone who get accepted is also blessed by the fact that the we are now considered a major fest. That said, just having the film in the fest guarantees nothing. I see lots of filmmakers who think that just because they made a good short film, or a good little doc, and that it’s gotten into the festival, that agents and studios are gonna come pound down their door. That’s really naive. It doesn’t work like that. Getting your film into the Santa Barbara fest is just the beginning-it’s a little bit of luck that you have to work very, very hard to leverage for yourself. You’re the one who has to start pounding down doors.
The growth of the fest has happened simultaneously with the incredible explosion in digital filmmaking capabilities, and also vastly increased venues, online and off. It’s strange and exciting that it’s all kind of happening at the same time, and that that time is really now. Local filmmakers are in the perfect place to take advantage of all of that.
We have an “experimental shorts” section this year, something new, made up of films that fit into categories which are just now being explored: a digitally made dance film from UCSB prof Tonia Shimin, a pensive thought piece by Pablo Frasconi, a surrealist short called Firebird by James Kahn. These are cool little films that can hopefully find a venue when audiences are more segmented and niche than ever, but also, via the internet, more accessible.
What advantage does it give local filmmakers to have a film fest in their town?
It’s all here waiting for them, and they should absolutely take advantage of every part of it. If they can get in the fest, they get a free pass to everything, including the parties and all that, but also the director and writer panels, which to me are always the most valuable and important part of the fest for actual filmmakers.
Once a filmmaker is in, they are golden, they can get in free and ahead of the masses to see awesome movies that will inspire them, they get access to industry pros who they can share ideas with, they can hit up the media to do stories on their work, they can feel what it’s like to have the lights go down and have an audience watching your work. It’s absolutely exhilarating. It lays a foundation which can really be built upon, if they are willing to do the follow up work.
Like I said before, the fest is the beginning, it’s where the seeds are planted, but then they have to make those seeds grow. It makes me sad when I don’t see them doing that. We are really generous to our local filmmakers at the fest, we always hope that they will see that and show their appreciation by building upon that and winning an Oscar.
Any words of advice for SB filmmakers aspiring to get into the fest?
It’s very unprofessional to submit a film and ask us to consider it when the sound is bad, or the lighting is bad, or the room tones are all different, or it hasn’t been color corrected, or no one considered using a tripod, or the music is way too loud, etc. Or it’s a home movie that has no real story, or no entertainment value. We are open-minded, and appreciate interesting, quirky, adventureous filmmaking. But not films that are indulgent and sloppily made. If a filmmaker is going to do all the work that it takes to make a film, we urge them to go the extra step and use a decent microphone, or a decent camera, whatever it takes to actually make all the effort worth it. Most of all, we look for a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Something that is well-crafted, well thought-out, and that might, like a movie should, help us see our world differently than we might have before.
Also, running time. We get crazy, unprofessional running times. A short film is between five and 15 minutes. A made for television documentary is 50 minutes, and a full length film is 90 minutes. Those are the professional standards, with some obvious leeway. We appreciate it if filmmakers keep this in mind, it will help them get accepted.