Interview: Jason Connell, New York United Film Festival
Wed, 03 Sep 2008 16:18:59
Tulsa, Oklahoma probably isn't the first place that pops into your brain when you think of film festivals, since the city isn’t known as a hotbed of artistic activity. Don’t tell that to director/organizer Jason Connell, the wunderkind who founded the Tulsa United Film Festival and followed it up with the Los Angeles and New York United Film Festivals. Connell is an industrious filmmaker and an artisan seeking to open doors for fringe moviemakers and unite a community that's flying below the mainstream's radar. We grabbed a precious few minutes out of Connell’s jam-packed day to discuss the New York United Film Fest, which hits the Big Apple on September 6 and 7, and why his trifecta offers something that more well-known, branded fests don't. He also breaks down the process of festival submission, so all you aspiring filmmakers, take notes.
First things first. How hectic and hard is it to run a film festival?
It's time consuming, so you have to love it. How hard? Well, I mean, it takes a lot of time and you better have passion. I am working on it right now!
Thanks for taking time out of your day to chat with us! What's the most valuable thing you've learned since immersing yourself in this massive undertaking?
I started it back in my hometown and I never realized the networking that could come out of it, and it's been manifesting over the past few years. Other filmmakers are getting together and I'm working with them, or they are working together with other filmmakers to expose their work. When I started, I hadn't done any features, just short films. I have gotten into feature films and exposed myself to more people, so to speak. It's been a progression. It's the networking. I started the Tulsa United Film Festival six years ago, when I still lived there. After doing it, I moved to Los Angeles to get into feature films. I kept the festival in Tulsa for the second and third year, and the fourth year, I was working on post-production on a film. I thought to myself, "I love what I do in Tulsa. Why not do it in LA?" After the first LA festival, I thought, "Why not do one in New York, too?" Last year was the first New York United Film Festival. From last year to this year, we went from two feature films to many more. It's fun to go to new cities and tap into them and watch them grow from year one to year two. I look forward to three and four in each city!
You organize three fests in three different cities every year? You are passionate, to prove the point you made earlier.
Yeah, we do! But we don't want to get too big too fast. We want to keep our niche. It's a lot of films and a lot to do. What do you do, though? You get great people to help and keep it going. The lineup is not the same for each city, either. It's not a repeat in multiple cities. I try to get premieres and make each lineup different. I'm certainly not trying to compete with Tribeca, but we want to do our thing. We like to have niche premieres and marry short films with features that fit the audience, so it exposes short films and builds upon that.
It's nothing if not ambitious!
It is that, for sure. That's how things get done. Think big.
Shoot for the moon, because you'll probably land among the stars. Can you break down how you choose the films you screen? Do you get thousands of submissions? What's the process?
It doesn't number in the thousands. I use the service "Without a Box," which is a forum for filmmakers and festivals where people can do research and see if their films fit the particular fest criteria and they can submit online. I get my submissions that way. I went to features recently, so we're getting 50-100 features, but we get about several hundred short films. In Tulsa, it was just short films. There are more shorts to sift through. We have people who watch and rate the submissions. Then, I watch those with higher ratings and look for films that have not played out in New York. We like to have people who are not overexposed. We have to whittle down but I take it so seriously. Being on the festival with my own film, I got to meet short filmmakers who didn't submit to my festival. Those shorts can be so tricky to make work.
Any advice for up and coming filmmakers?
I was on a panel at the Maryland Film Festival about a month ago, giving filmmakers advice on getting into festivals. There are so many and the shorts are incredibly long. They have a tendency to be longer than need to be. 16-minute shorts are hard to program, but if it's a great 5-7 minutes, it's easier to program. But it has to be special. Also, have someone else look at your film, since a director is too married to the film and someone else has a different eye and can offer objectivity. Festival competition is tough, so be sure to submit early, too. If you submit late, the lineup for an evening may already be locked up, no matter how great your film is. Our submissions are cheap, too. Those things are key. Oh yeah, make a great film. That's important, too. You have to start somewhere. I would love to create some feedback system. But that's unwarranted advice. I'd like to develop a workshop type environment for films that don’t make the festival. It's all tricky. It takes practice. I remember my first short film years ago and still think that I always want to get better.
What makes your fest stand out? Seems like there are tons of festivals, big and small, to choose from.
I didn't want to give up the Tulsa fest. It's my hometown and I wanted to keep that going. There is a not a lot of competition there. But standing out in these two towns—LA and New York—is not easy. I want both coasts connected and [want] people to talk about it. We like to show great films that have not been shown at every other festival. You have to do it with sponsors, kick off parties, and brand [it] to make a bigger name for yourself. We'll slowly get to 100 films. We're not corporate, showing big studio pictures. We hope we catch on. The post-press on the last LA fest was great and we built off that. People have to see it for themselves. It's fun and not pretentious at all. I went to 23 festivals all over the world last year and got to see what many are like and learned what to do and what not to do and what to supplement my own fest with. Another thing: good parties always help. That's what attendants remember more than the films, unfortunately. We might even do awards when we evolve and take it to the next level.
Your film, Strictly Background, is being featured at New York United in September. It follows extras and actors trying to break into Hollywood. It's a tough town and an occupation that few are able to achieve success in. Why did you want to give them a film voice?
It's a feature length film and I never did a documentary. When I moved to LA, I was a movie extra for a month. I wanted to get on a big set and was fascinated by the industry. I worked on Six Feet Under and met people doing extra work as their livelihood. I never even knew about this. I knew I could make a documentary for a lot less money than a narrative so I went into casting it and in February 2005, I was shooting. It's about seasoned extras still chasing the dream. We do this cool thing where we show movie clips and we did effects, making everything black and white but the extra as a nice visual aid. You root for and fall in love with the characters and it's uplifting and heartwarming. It took a year of editing 'round the clock but we got there. Today, it's on Netflix and Amazon.com. There's a special screening of my film at the fest in September. It's been an amazing ride and the extras in my film have grown since I met them in 2005. It was neat to see. They sign autographs now. It's been a transformation for them. Some are landing commercials and speaking roles in films and don't have to just be extras anymore. There may even be a TV series based on the movie and I've been approached by executives about it. The film is really a look at blue-collar Hollywood.
That's a phrase you don't hear every day, since Hollywood is a city of people with big dreams and a lot of money.
You're right. And that's what these extras are. Hollywood blue-collar workers!
The only way to chase the big dreams is through sweat equity, which you are doing with your fests and the extras in your documentary do the same.
I live in a town where people talk about doing a lot of things. I can't even associate with folks like that. I don't have time to talk about what I can do because I am too busy doing it.