Not My BFF: Five Lessons Film Festivals Can Learn from Bergenfield Film Festival

On Cinco de Mayo, traditionally a time for celebration and revelry, my short film Cerise screened at Bergenfield Film Festival in my home state of New Jersey. “Screened” probably isn’t the most appropriate term––“Stretched along,” “skipped throughout” and “stopped occasionally” are more accurate descriptors.

The screening at BFF was nothing short of a disaster, but not so much for Cerise, although we did have our share of mishaps––from being projected in 4:3 instead of its proper aspect ratio of 16:9 with moments of low audio to a handful of skips and pixelation––but my good friends and fellow filmmakers Sam Platizky and Robert Lise, producer and director of the zombie comedy Blaming George Romero of which I’m a proud backer and cameo actor, got the dark brown end of the stick. This feature-length film, which played to a packed house of laughing moviegoers, skipped and skipped after the first 40 minutes or so, then completely froze on a single, horrifying image:

What’s worse is that after a fifteen-minute break (and because of that losing more than half of Blaming George Romero’s audience), the film continued where it left off only to skip and stop during the final twenty minutes of the film, which took a lot longer before the final credit bumper-to-bumpered away.

Now, if you’re a filmmaker reading this, you’re probably shaking your head at this unfortunate fiasco because you know as well as I do that it is completely unacceptable. But I did receive some tweets from film festival programmers who wanted to know all about the wrongs that BFF imposed on us so they might never fall into that easily avoidable pit themselves. So here’s a quick list of five things every film festival should make sure to do before festival time arrives. Some of this may seem like common sense, but apparently common sense is not as common as it once had been.

And here we go!

Watch (in Its Entirety) Each and Every “Official Selection”
As a filmmaker, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes film festivals can get a bad DVD from us (not all of us can afford DiscMakers, so we opt for Staples brand instead), but if you don’t test it out by watching the film from beginning to end on the exact same equipment you’re going to use during the festival, you run the risk of inviting problems like what happened with Cerise and Blaming George Romero. My disc, which is a copy like all the other copies I’ve sent to every other film festival, worked perfectly fine when I tested it on my seven-year old Coby DVD player at home. So it must be the fact that BFF used a cheap Protron DVD player––a brand no longer in existence––to screen our films from. This brings me to my next point:

Use Up-To-Date Media Players and Projectors to Screen Those “Official Selections”
Protron? Really? I don’t even want to know what brand the projector was, all aslant and standard definition! Please invest in up-to-date equipment; Blu-ray players and HD projectors are the norm at many festivals now, but even if a festival can’t afford to screen everything in HD, DVD players and SD projectors are cheap enough nowadays for anyone to afford, so there’s no excuse not to have some tried and tested names playing and projecting the filmmakers’ work. Believe me, most filmmakers don’t give a darn about laminated badges and sleek programs; all they want is for their films to look spectacular projected on the screen, so screen them on equipment that will keep the integrity of their work intact. Granted, a friend and film festival director informed me that sometimes festivals use “Made in China” players because they can play both NTSC and PAL DVDs, which is a valid point, and understandable. But, we both agreed that it’s only common sense to…

Hire “Projectionists” Who Know Something About Projection
Admittedly, I know very little about projection, but I know enough that if a movie’s playing and it looks stretched, something needs to be fixed ASAP. As soon as Cerise began, I noticed the volume was too low. Easy fix: turn it up. The second thing I noticed was the aspect ratio was wrong. I was willing to let that slide, but once I saw my film start skipping and colorful pixels lighting up around my characters’ heads, I had to leave my own screening and, when I couldn’t track down anyone who knew anything, I spoke with the two older gentlemen manning the projection booth who had no ideas on how to fix the aspect ratio or pixelation. The moral of this part of my parable is to please be sure to hire projectionists who will pay attention to things like stretched picture and inaudible dialog, and who can make tweaks without affecting the audience’s enjoyment of the films at hand.

If You’re Running the Festival, Be Around To Run the Festival
If something goes wrong at a film festival, filmmakers need someone to go to immediately. In this case, the main person at BFF was nowhere to be found when the skips hit the fans. I figured he was either in the theater where his own film was screening or he was watching the movie that the entire evening was blatantly centered around (more about that in a few). The bottom line is that I needed a helping hand, but the crew from Blaming George Romero needed divine intervention, and in both instances this person was MIA, which is inexcusable. At one point we were directed by one of the projectionists to another person, one of the actual festival directors, I believe, but she was just as clueless as they were about the goings on of a film festival. The same way a film can’t be made without a director, a good festival director can make or break a film festival, and if you’re not around, well, it’s broken by default.

Make Filmmakers Feel Like Celebrities (Even in the Presence of “Celebrities”)
Nothing breaks a film festival like bias. This was my biggest issue with BFF. I can confidently say that I speak for all of the filmmakers who were misrepresented that evening when I say we all felt no more special than the audience did in the presence of the director of a film BFF was proud to have acquired. Now, this direct0r’s only real claim to fame is a few appearances on The Soprano’s, but that was enough to warrant a red carpet gala, an incessant speech (with introductions to all his principle cast members), and a live performance of a song featured in the film for no other reason than because the singer/songwriter grew up in Bergenfield. All this, mind you, was done on the street in full view of people sitting in rush hour traffic, and we––filmmakers and audience alike––stood and watched (except Cerise cinematographer Alain Aguilar, who was like “screw this!” and was next spotted across the street enjoying a nice falafel sandwich.

It’s no secret that a film festival is nothing without filmmakers and their films and an audience to enjoy them. At NYC Downtown Short Film Festival, when a director’s present, the festival director asks the filmmaker to say a few words before his or her movie screens. At EgoFest, my face was beamed to the small town of Brainerd, MN via Skype and projected (on top-notch equipment, I’m sure!) onto the big screen for a Q&A after Cerise ended the festival’s first block of short films. At each of these events, whether or not I was present, I felt darn special, and that’s how all filmmakers should feel, regardless of what “real celebrities” may be in attendance.

BFF is the first film festival I’ve ever really had an problem with, except for a Q&A session at Staten Island Film Festival two years ago, in which an obnoxious filmmaker took solipsism to a whole new level by talking about his short film while two other filmmakers were awaiting their turn to answer questions from the audience. But in the case of Blaming George Romero, it was their first film festival experience (for their first film), so the kind of egregious behavior exhibited by BFF is inexcusable and unacceptable and should be avoided by any self-respecting film festival.

As a final note: film festivals, especially young ones, should realize that filmmakers and audiences are their top priority, above celebrity, above workshops and seminars. Above the festival itself even. Therefore, they should screen those films chosen as “Official Selections” with the respect and integrity they deserve. And if they don’t, well, it won’t take long in today’s social media world before every filmmaker knows all about it.

Thoughts? Comments? Write ’em down; I’d love to hear what YOU think! Also, what are some film festival nightmares YOU’VE had the unfortunate displeasure of witnessing, either first hand (as a filmmaker, for instance) or as an audience member?

10 thoughts on “Not My BFF: Five Lessons Film Festivals Can Learn from Bergenfield Film Festival

  1. Terrible, and terrifying.

    If festivals can’t screen your film the way it was intended (on time, with good projection, etc) I don’t see why they aren’t responsible for to return the filmmaker’s entry fee and direct cost of promotion related to the fest. That would seriously change things. I’m curious as to when one of these guys are going to get hauled before Judge Judy. Why is there so much risk to filmmakers without recourse?

    Of course the smart solution for fests is either don’t screen on DVDs, or if you do, use top of the line equipment and require filmmakers to send a back-up screener that’s never been played (for those of us on the Staples brand budget).

    So sorry you had to go through this! So messy and futile.

    1. I appreciate the comment, Wonder! Thanks so much for reading. As I wrote in a lengthy Facebook message to the festival director, if I had found him that night I would have demanded not only our submission fees returned ($25 is nothing to shrug about), but everyone whose enjoyment of Blaming George Romero was cut short by skips and stops should get a refund ($12 is nothing to shrug about either!) But yeah, I’m usually one of those filmmakers who are wary about festivals wanting HDCAM or even DigiBeta tapes to screen from, but after this experience, I welcome the chance to be screened with little chance of pixelation, jumps or skips!

      Sometimes we have to go through these things to come away with newfound knowledge, so it’s all good and in the grand scheme of the cosmos, nothing more than a bad night. But you’re right, we could definitely use a courtroom show in favor of filmmakers!

  2. I totally agree on every point, except possibly one. I don’t think festivals with a lot of films have the time and manpower to watch every film in its entirety on the same equipment it will be screened on. Sometimes that equipment is rented or brought in. But EVERY film should be tested on that equipment before screening, for aspect ratio, etc. Also, as a filmmaker myself, I will check the entire disc before I send one out.

    Sorry there were so many mishaps at BFF. But just for your information, you’ll always be a celebrity at EgoFest!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Phil! Always a pleasure hearing from you. I see where you’re coming from on the whole “time and manpower” aspect of running a festival, and that’s more than understandable if you’re running a three-day festival or a week-long one. But BFF was one evening of films, films which they’d acquired with plenty of time to view each film, especially the shorts, in my opinion. Great point about the renting of equipment (I didn’t think of that), but again, it’s understandable if you’re screening in an event space versus an actual movie theater that actually plays movies, which is where BFF held their screening, at Cleaview Cinemas 5! At the very least they could’ve tested each disc for all the things you mentioned, and disaster may have been averted.

      And you always make me feel like a celebrity, Phil, and I think that goes for every filmmaker you screen at EgoFest.

  3. Oof! John, we’re so sorry this happened to you and your BLAMING GEORGE ROMERO buddies.

    Your BFF experience gave us flashbacks of when we screened SNOW BUNNY at the Queens International Film Festival in 2009. We had a great time on our trip, but it was no thanks to the fest director (who later faced charges for, among other things, not paying her fest employees.) Most of the film fest selections, including ours, were “screened” in classrooms on TVs by students who left the room between movies. We were also asked to pay for our festival passes, which we did because we had no idea they are traditionally comped to filmmakers featured in the fest.

    QIFF was an awful fest, but it was also a great lesson. Now we spend more time vetting fests before writing checks. And we’re especially delighted when good fests have no submission fees, like Flyway Film Fest and Egofest. Makes you feel like they really put the movies before the money.

    Now that we think about it, you’d better do some research before you head off to this Cannes thing-a-ma-jig… 😉

    1. Hey girls! Man, I JUST saw this comment now, so my apologies for being a bad blog-comment-responder. Yeah, I’ve heard a few stories about QIFF (mainly, that it was a huge money-making scam by the director, who had done this sort of thing before and was never caught.) But that’s the way to do it…research, research, and even more research about the fests before submitting and above all, heading out to the festival, especially if it’s a ways away. I’m learning that lesson as well, and I’m sure the boys and BLAMING GEORGE ROMERO are, too. Lessons learned, and we move onwards to bigger and brighter horizons! Thanks for reading and commenting, and again, my apologies for this month-late reply!

  4. This is the EXACT reason I created the Golden Door Film Festival of Jersey City. I too had a miserable experience at a film festival which I shall not name here. My film (which I was the lead in) was screened in a….get ready for this one… a conference room in a condo building!! They didn’t even bother to move the conference table! The feature folowing our film had a number of well known actors and this was all shown on a plasma TV! (42″ inches or so no less) Talk about bias, the idiotic Festival Director hyped a horrific film which was the opening night film in which 75% of the audience walked out on 30 minutes in to it…..oh by the way, it won best picture!! And about the whole “screw the little filmmakers and their little films” in favor of the famous (read “has been”) actors, it was as if we were a nuisance to this jack ass! I could really go on and on. The silver lining is that the experience was so potently a motivator that I have a very strong sense of the way in which our festival will be conducted (and was a big reason to create it in the first place). My prime directive beside the very inportant community aspect of the event (we are a true non-profit in every sense of the word) is to create a “red carpet” atmosphere for ALL who are “official selections”.

    1. Hi Bill! Thanks for the comment, and I’d like to apologize for this ridiculously late reply; lots going on with Cerise which has kept me a bit too busy to check my comments…until today! But man, that sounds like a horrendous experience! (Sounds like it was Queens International Film Fest – see Julie of (King is a Fink)’s comment below…) I like the way you’re thinking about the Golden Door Film Festival of Jersey City – Community is key, and JC is a great community! I hope Cerise finds it’s way into the festival so I can be there first hand to congratulate you on a job well-done!

  5. Charles Inman May 2, 2012 — 6:36 pm

    I agree. The same thing happened to me at BFF. My film was shown at the wrong aspect ratio as were all the others I saw. It was obvious. Why didn’t the person who did the screening see for himself and then change it, it’s just pressing a button. I complained about it but was shrugged off by the guy running it. He didn’t know what he was doing and neither did anyone else. The person who won the festival for some really lousy movie, was the guest but he was nothing more than an extra in the Sopranos. They treated him like royalty. He gave a lousy speech, & his movie was crap. They should have been ashamed of themselves for picking this lousy movie. I was at other fests where the film played the wrong ratio, some times I complained and they fixed it. I agree, these fests should put more effort and care when screening the films so they are the best presentation possible and most of all, the correct aspect ratio. BFF was a poor experience. The screening schedule was shabby too. They put features in the middle of short films. In some cases, the theater emptied right out while the feature was playing. The people running it have no feel for running a film fest. There were a few good shorts that night, one of them should have been the big winner, it was much better than Lotto,. The night was so long that I just left and went home. I heard later that Lotto won the big award. The BFF lost all credibility after that one. For this year, their application noted aspect ratio to check off. I wonder if they’ll have quality this year and do it the right way. I didn’t submit this year, once is enough

    1. Thanks for reading this post, Charles, and for adding your own story to the mix. It was quite an unfortunate event, and after speaking with the guy who runs BFF, who apologized wholeheartedly for the mishaps, it still doesn’t change the fact that it did happen and yes, the “festival,” as it is, lost all credibility. This year, I was invited to submit my latest film free of charge, and/or submit my film Cerise again to be screened properly, but again, at the end of the day, a film is screened at one festival and you move on to the next. I believe BFF is happening this week, but I won’t be in attendance, and it’s not simply because of the digital mishaps and the clueless staff, but the favoritism that I experienced firsthand at last year’s festival. You’re absolutely right, they have no idea about running a festival, since much of it was self-aggrandizement, and I for one have come to expect that kind of behavior at Sundance and Tribeca, not from a small town festival. Again, Charles, thanks for commenting.

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