Observations from a Film Festival Judge

In January 2018, I had the privilege of serving as a festival judge. Out respect for the process, I will not mention the festival or the individual films in this post. Instead, I wish to share some observations on the overall procedures.

My primary responsibility was the shorts category, which meant viewing 38 films ranging from 8 minutes to 28 minutes. Shorts is a broad category that can include all genres — fiction, documentary, animation, experimental. A short also is incredibly challenging to do well, as managing timing is key for grabbing attention and keeping it. Many can tell a good story. With festival submissions, you hope that everything tells a good story, but few tell amazing stories — the ones that grab you and make you forget you’re watching a film for the next few minutes. Some shorts feel incredibly long despite their running times.

What I really appreciated was the breadth of international submissions to this festival. So many languages and stories, including some that connect with contemporary global news headlines and some that perhaps should be global news headlines. For comparison, at least with documentaries, Sundance received 1,635 sumbissions in the feature documentary category — 740 domestic and 895 international. Of those, the festival accepted 47 films, with 37 domestic and 10 international.

Serving as a judge makes you a member of three audiences: the festival, the potential viewers, and yourself. Every festival has a mission, and that mission guides everything from promotion to programming. In a couple cases, I wondered if people read the festival’s mission before submitting their film.

The potential viewers also sat in the back of my head as I watched. (I wish I could draw that image.) People attending festivals generally seek something different from television, movie theaters, and streaming options. But how different is too different? How different is just different enough?

And then there’s me. I have judged student festivals and organizational competitions before, but never something on this scale. I have a healthy sense of what I think works in a documentary and in fiction films, but I’m not like mainstream critics who have a well-worded and strong slant to their views. (They’re critics — that’s their jobs.) With how I approach this kind of viewing, I try to understand each film on its own terms, waiting to see what and how it wants to show me. Sometimes I agree with those terms, and sometimes I don’t.

Technology has changed festival judging. In my previous experiences, one instance involved a stack of DVDs and another involved a long afternoon in a screening room with other judges. While home viewing has its advantages, I actually enjoyed the group screening because I heard the other judges’ opinions in real time alongside my own.

Today’s streaming services make this kind of activitiy much more convenient but also much more insular. This festival used two submission services: FilmFreeway and Withoutabox. Of the two, I liked FilmFreeway better — nicer interface, more structure for comments and ratings, and clearer navigation overall. Withoutabox felt more clunky to me, more difficult to inuit my way around. Withoutabox did offer the chance to upload descriptions and connect to IMDb pages (Amazon owns both sites so those connections make sense). To their credit, both sites allowed direct upload of the film files.

The application that offered the most trouble? Vimeo. Many filmmakers submitted their films using that site, and I understand why — convenience in sharing, monitoring who is viewing, and conserving bandwidith perhaps. But some filmmakers changed their passwords or added expirations to their passwords so I couldn’t see their films. Vimeo also had a lot of trouble streaming through the embed into the fest submission sites. I had to set the resolution to the lowest possible just to get a stream that didn’t judder or choke. One five-minute title paused 25 times — on an unshared ethernet connected to a fast box. Every time I reset to the lowest resolution Vimeo prompted me to use the automatic option. Nope.

While international selections understand that closed captions are necessary due to language comprehension issues, I do wish more domestic filmmakers would add titles to their own films. Though I do understand why some filmmakers refuse them due to aesthetics and cost issues, I see neither as valid excuses for excluding captions. Captions help with for more than just aiding those with hearing impairments. They do take time to complete, but they include more people in viewing your film. Costs vary, but Movie Captioner starts at $130 for a single license. Plenty of paid services also are available.

My previous experiences with festivals included volunteering at the information desk and serving as an audience jury member. Serving as a festival judge offered another layer of insights, ranging from artistic to technical, into the process.

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