My rookie season on the film festival circuit.
This past year has been such a incredible whirlwind for both myself and my first documentary feature, Getting Over. We had our World Premiere at SXSW back in March, and since then the positive feedback on the film has been simply amazing. Now that our festival run is over, and we begin our next life on DVD & VOD through Gravitas Ventures and theatrically self-distributed through Tugg, I wanted to share my experience as a rookie on the film festival circuit in hopes of paying it forward and motivating my fellow independent filmmakers. We can make our films and hope and pray, but if we don’t motivate and inspire each other, it just invites stagnation, and my worldview of being an indie filmmaker has always been that each new step should elevate our projects to the next level.
Getting Over was a dream of mine for 20 years. My uncle had recorded a series of interviews with my father back in 1997, only months before he passed away from complications due to AIDS, a disease that he contracted from a lifetime of intravenous drug use. I had a couple of starts and stops of trying to do something with them over the past 20 years, but six years ago, with only short film directing experience and years working in post on other people’s projects, I partnered up with my co-producer Nathan Oliver, threw caution to the wind and launched a Kickstarter campaign. We only raised $6,000 that first go-round, but it was enough to get us to New York City, interview my uncle, and shoot various scenes in the Bronx, Manhattan and New Jersey.
You do what you have to, and though people are kind and almost always willing to help, you learn not to rest on your laurels, or expect anything.
And though both Nathan and I each had production experience, there was no rulebook, no roadmap to a successful documentary. You just have to make do with the tools you have and push through the obstacles in any way you can. We worked the phones, got access where access is limited, and shot anything and everything we could that we felt could add to the film. We slept on my uncle’s floor in the East Village to save on hotel costs. You do what you have to, and though people are kind and almost always willing to help, you learn not to rest on your laurels, or expect anything.
After six years and a brief timeout to, oh, just fall in love and get married, we finally put Getting Over to bed. It was a true group effort. Even though it was me and my father’s life story up there on the screen, there’s simply no way it would have ever been finished without the hard work and support of each and every single name listed in the end credits. Many good friends and colleagues were very giving of their time and their talents.
The time came to submit to as many festivals as we could personally afford. We didn’t really have an official budget on Getting Over, and by the time we were done, my wife and I were already thousands in the hole, and our crowdfunding was long since spent. But push forward is what we do here, and about one year ago at this time, I received an e-mail from SXSW, warning me that although we weren’t to get our hopes up (yeah, right!), we were shortlisted for selection in the upcoming 2018 festival.
The next couple months were nerve racking. We got rejected from Sundance, sure, but when other well known indie and documentary festivals like Slamdance and Big Sky passed us by, I immediately worried that maybe we were setting our sights too high. But then the official e-mail from SXSW arrived in late January. I ran around the house that day screaming like a banshee, glee just oozing out my pores. I’ve always felt that SXSW is the premier festival for independent film in the United States, and with their reputation, maybe they can afford to take some chances that other festivals might not be willing or able to.
Being in Austin last March, sharing the moment with my wife and our powerful team of collaborators, was one of the most special times in my life. Being able to screen our work in front of a lively and engaged audience was a mind-blowing experience I really can’t describe. With such a deep, personal story adding an extra dimension, the experience was overwhelming. The first screening was a packed house. The Q&A afterwards lasted almost 20 minutes, ending with raucous applause.
I also took the opportunity to see as many films as I could fit in, because I love independent cinema, and I was at a film festival after all. And what films there were! I waited in line until well after midnight the night before my own screening to see the World Premiere of Upgrade, a fun horror/sci-fi hybrid in the style of Robocop. And even though I had plenty of reason to get to sleep early, the excitement of the film itself more than made up for the fact that I finally passed out around 4am that night!
Another highlight was meeting director Jim Cummings and producer Natalie Metzger, just two of the powerfully talented team behind Thunder Road, the indie darling that won the Grand Jury Prize for Narrative Feature, and has since gone on to many awards and accolades. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that I subsequently met producer Benjamin Wiessner after the festival, and he’s been a tremendous inspiration. See their film folks, it’s truly going to go down as one of the best independent films of the decade, and being self-distributed through Sundance’s Creative Distribution Initiative, I wouldn’t be surprised if it landed in a textbook someday. (Check it out on DVD if you can… I designed the artwork!)
Focusing back on docs, I also met Jeremy Workman and Matt Green, the director and subject, respectively, of what I thought was the best documentary at the festival, The World Before Your Feet. I was flattered when Jeremy came to our final screening. He too has been a constant inspiration throughout the year, and his film has gone on to receive many well-deserved honors also. And what a trip when I gave a DVD of Getting Over to Matt and he asked me to sign it for him! And it was the second autograph I signed at the festival too!
And just like that —
— our time in Austin was over, and it was back to the grind of hustling submissions to get into more festivals. Gotta keep the momentum going! And then we ran right into a brick wall. Rejection after rejection piled up. We were aiming high to be sure, but with SXSW under our belt, could you blame us? A couple months later, we were reinvigorated when SF DocFest in San Francisco accepted us.
Screening at the little Roxie Theater — legendary in San Francisco — DocFest was a blast, and we had a very fun and informative discussion with the audience. It always touches my heart when I hear from moviegoers who have a friend or relative battling addiction, and they come to the screenings to get some perspective on how best to cope and help these troubled souls. And this time, through the recommendation of Jeremy Workman, I met Chris Metzler, one of the co-directors of Rodents of Unusual Size, which was the opening film of DocFest. Chris would be instrumental in the success of our festival run a few months afterwards.
The festival circuit is very much a microcosm of life itself: don’t let the rejections get you down, and don’t let anyone else define the terms of your own achievement.
Getting back home to Long Beach, more rejections started rolling in. In fact, we only made it into one festival after SF DocFest, a total of three from over 50 submissions. (Drop me a line if you want my festival calendar spreadsheet template for your own project!) One after the other, the form letters rolled in. There were probably another 10–15 festivals that asked me directly to submit, some as far away as India and the Czech Republic. None of which accepted us. Frustrating to be sure, but I suppose it was to be expected. So be prepared for many rejections, no matter your previous successes, and make the most of the opportunities you’re given. Each festival has its own vision, and every programmer has different sensibilities. The letters might be form, but they do mean it when they say it’s not a value judgment on your film itself. The festival circuit is very much a microcosm of life itself: don’t let the rejections get you down, and don’t let anyone else define the terms of your own achievement.
And just as we were out of Withoutabox discount packs — which, don’t be fooled, aren’t much of a discount at all — I saw a Facebook post from Chris Metzler with a one day only waiver code good for a free submission on FilmFreeway to the Indigo Moon Film Festival in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I’d never heard of it, but hey, the price was right, so we threw our hat into the ring there.
While we were waiting to hear back from Indigo Moon, the rest of my dream festivals, along with the goal of playing in New York, my hometown, came and went. This was hugely disappointing, but during this time, I was contacted by well-known indie distributor Gravitas Ventures, and after digging back into our pockets even further, we brought on a law firm specializing in this sort of thing, and soon after, we secured distribution for an online and DVD release! Our film is almost half old videotape footage, so even without theatrical distribution, this was still far beyond my expectations! But being the neurotic person that I am, I couldn’t really enjoy this new victory, I was still bummed about the festival rejections. I got a better perspective on things when I told our old publicist about it, and he was amazed that we pulled that off without a sales agent. “That just doesn’t happen,” he said. Hearing that from someone with his impressive reputation really helped me see what we had truly accomplished. We are the little engine that could!
Always keep your eyes on the prize, never stop pushing forward, and don’t let anyone else dictate the rules of the game to you.
And then Indigo Moon came calling, and not only were we accepted, but we won the Audience Award for Best Documentary as well! It was a smaller festival, and North Carolina is far from home, but I am always honored and humbled when a festival tells me they enjoyed the film and want to screen it. And my weekend in Fayetteville was special to say the least. The organizers, Pat and Jan, put on an amazing show — so well-organized and professional right from the start — and the Q&A led by Brandon after our screening was just as lively and engaging as our very first one in Austin.
And so ends the festival run of Getting Over, my debut feature documentary, and on quite the high note at that. It’s been one hell of a successful rookie season. Not Aaron Judge record-setting levels of success, but pretty damn good nonetheless. I hope as you read though this article, that some of the talk of rejection and such doesn’t come across as sour grapes. Nothing could be further from the truth. But I did want to give an honest assessment of my experiences over this past year so future first-time feature filmmakers can steel themselves as they dive into the deep end known as the festival circuit. It’s been quite the roller coaster ride.
I am still honored and humbled every time I think of someone I don’t know sharing in my story. And I will always be grateful to SXSW for introducing me to a new level of filmmaking that I could never have imagined being a part of. They gave me permission to be the artist I now realize I was always meant to be. I love watching movies, I love making movies, and I’m happy to have made these new friends, and I can’t wait to see what they have coming up next.
In the meantime, I’m happy to report that I’m in pre-production on a new documentary, one that I hope to share with all of you soon. Like the old New York Lotto slogan, “you gotta be in it to win it.” Always keep your eyes on the prize, never stop pushing forward, and don’t let anyone else dictate the rules of the game to you. Now go and make YOUR movie, I can’t wait to see it!