Archive for April, 2010

Film Festival Programming Do’s and Don’ts. Actually, Just One Big Don’t

April 15, 2010

I’m a movie lover and struggling film critic, but I’m not a “festival-goer.” I don’t buy plane tickets each year and try to get credentials to cover the major film festivals in Cannes or (let’s be a bit more realistic) Toronto. I’ve never bothered to travel to major festivals in New York or Colorado for the film festivals that take place there each year.

I keep up with those events by reading the ever increasing number of articles speculating on which films will be selected to screen at the major festivals, followed by articles about how those screenings went, followed again by which distributor picked up which film. Then I forget everything I’ve read and eventually, months or years later, sit down in a theater and am reminded that the film I’m about to see won this or that accolade at some festival or other. Sometimes that’s exciting news, sometimes it elicits nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders.

But I’m not completely immune to the lure of film festivals. In fact, I try to attend at least one screening each year in the fall at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, Va., and each spring at FilmFestDC, with venues that are just a subway trip or car ride from my work place and home in Northern Virginia. So, in a sense, I am a festival-goer. But just ask anyone who seriously attends film fests and they’ll let you know that people like me don’t count.

This year’s FilmFestDC starts tonight, April 15, and continues through next weekend. I hope to get to one screening (two screenings is to dream) before the festival wraps. I’ve seen several fantastic films at FilmFestDC over the years. Hawaii, Oslo, Silent Light, Opera Jawa – each was among the best films I saw in the respective years they screened at FilmFestDC.

However, that final entry, Opera Jawa, was nearly sunk by the nasty surprise that greeted me and the other screening attendees at FilmFest DC a couple of years ago: The film started with a black screen and a hard-to-ignore “PLAY” icon in the upper left of the screen. Clearly we weren’t watching a film; we were watching a projected DVD.

Forget that the imagery of Opera Jawa was lush enough and suitably fascinating to override my concerns about the presentation during the film’s running time. Just what was the festival thinking in screening a DVD at a film festival?

I left the screening conflicted. Opera Jawa was great, but there had been no announcement of the film being screened on DVD, and nothing was said to us on the way out by the festival volunteers. An e-mail sent to the FilmFestDC staff the next day went unanswered. Did anyone on the staff care?

That experience was still smarting when I set off for the Virginia Film Festival in the fall of 2009. On tap: A screening of Norman Jewison’s The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! with the director in attendance for a Q&A after the screening. And once again, the film was projected on DVD. Jewison noted during the discussion that the “print” we’d seen had been recently restored, but he never mentioned that the “print” had been transferred to video before we viewed it.

Outside the theater, I questioned a volunteer who had no idea whether the film had been projected on video. I walked to the festival office, where yet another staffer looked stunned and confused when I asked her to confirm that the Jewison film had been projected off DVD. Only later, before  a screening of the low-budget film “Corked!” did a festival worker confirm that the Jewison film was a DVD projection. But “Corked!” wouldn’t be, he assured me.

The Corked! screening was a DVD projection. Although the film’s slight ambition and talking-heads mockumentary style doesn’t demand 35mm film-print treatment, the fact that I had been assured it would be projected on film was the most upsetting betrayal of the event.

I fired off an e-mail to Jody Kielbasa, who was overseeing the festival for the first time in 2009.

 Hi, John. I came to festival last Friday for a couple of screenings and wanted to share a concern I shared with a couple of festival volunteers, in hopes that someone in a position of authority will respond.Northern Virginia for the film festival, both movies I screened were projected DVDs, not films. This bugs me. I feel cheated.Washington Area Film Critics Association

After driving more than two hours from

During Friday’s screening of The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, I recognized that I was watching a projected DVD and approached a festival staffer afterward who admitted that was the case because efforts to get a quality print had fallen through.

I understand that this happens sometimes, but no effort was made to publicly explain the situation in either case. This was doubly odd because the staffer introducing the screening had apologized for the film’s lack of subtitles for the Russian dialogue. However, he said nothing about the actual medium of the source material! So you located a DVD for the screening, but one without subtitles? I guess it wasn’t from the local Blockbuster.

After the screening, Norman Jewison, who was a featured guest, mentioned that the reason the film looked so “good” was because it a recently struck print to honor Eva Marie Saint, who stars in the film. He didn’t mention that what we’d just seen was a projection of a DVD of that new film print. The staffer acknowledged that fact to me and was apologetic, saying the festival should do more to make it publicly known. When I asked if my later screening of Corked! would be film or DVD, he assured me it would be film. I stopped by the festival offices and asked another woman working there about the DVD projection. She was surprised and seemed taken aback that the earlier feature was a DVD projection, but she, too, assured me that Corked! would be a film print.

It wasn’t. I was unable to confirm this — a volunteer usher said he couldn’t confirm the details and didn’t offer to get the projectionist — but the black bars above and below the image (on a standard size film screen) looked very much like a video. Because the film is a “mockumentary” with a low-budget, I wouldn’t have expected it to look all that sharp on film, but it was definitely soft in spots.

This would’ve really irritated me if I’d seen films that were more notable for their visuals. When I attend something called a Film Festival, that’s what I expect: film. It’s not the Virginia Projected DVD Festival. In any case, to be told by two festival volunteers that I’d definitely be watching a film, not a video, for my second screening suggests that they were either misinformed themselves, or that they deliberately lied. Neither option is acceptable, in my opinion.

In the future, I would suggest that you the source of each film print (I hope the films will be film prints, not videos) be listed in the online festival program, so that those few of us who still care about these things can make more informed judgments about which films we choose to see.

Thank you for reading.

Christian Hamaker
Film Critic,

 To his credit, Kielbasa replied. His is a model response, relaying everything I had hoped Kielbasa would say.

 Dear Christian,

I apologize in advance for taking the wind out of your sails, but I agree with you wholeheartedly. I am committed to screening on film whenever possible. Unfortunately, with CORKED it was only offered on DV CAM. Either they have not struck a print or they were unwilling to part with one. There were other challenges with THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING! THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING! as well that did not allow us to screen it on 35mm. That being said, I hope to fix these issues moving forward and you are well within your rights to express your dismay at not having been notified in advance.

 I assure you the volunteers did not lie. They just did not have the proper information. I should have made this clear in advance to them and made sure it was posted on the website before you journeyed here. I can only throw myself on the mercy of the court and say that with just five short months since my hire I’m glad that we were able to pull a program together and hope that you will believe that we will iron out these wrinkles next year.

 Again, My sincere apologies for the inconvenience and you have my promise we will do better next year.

 Very Best Regards,


Jody Kielbasa


Virginia Film Festival

So, FilmFestDC officials, take a lesson: That’s how it’s done. No refunds are required—just an apology. I understand that there are no guarantees in life, and that prints sometimes don’t show up, or can’t be located in time. But surely you understand that the expectation of a film festival-goer is that he’ll be seeing a projected film and not a DVD — and you could make an effort to at least alert screening attendees to what they’ll be watching before the lights go down.

 It’s good to know that the director of the Virginia Film Festival cares about these things. I’ll certainly be returning to the Virginia event in the future.

 And if I do make it to a FilmFestDC screening this week, I’ll just keep my fingers crossed.