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AIDC 2017: the inner game on the festival circuit

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David Tiley

US producer Amy Hobby provides a wealth of experience about the changing landscape of festivals, and the tools to fight for recognition.
AIDC 2017: the inner game on the festival circuit

Image: Mel Brooks in The Last Laugh, produced by Amy Hobby - a film that needed care in its release. 

‘If it's a documentary you have surely spent more than a year of your life working on a film. Maybe its seven years. What is six months to make sure it gets the proper placement? Its very hard for documentary directors in particular to wait once the film is done, but I encourage people to wait for the festival that’s right for the film.’ 

Amy Hobby is a producer who has successfully launched powerful documentaries internationally from her base in the United States. They include And Everything is Going Fine directed by Steven Soderbergh, and Love Marllyn and What Happened, Miss Simone from Liz Garbus.  Her latest is The Last Laugh, made by Ferne Pearlstein, a film about Jewish comedy through the lens of the Holocaust. 

She came to the 2017 Australian International Documentary Conference partly to talk about the intricacies of the festival system. 

‘One mistake is rushing to premiere at a festival, when the film isn’t ready,’ she said. They have already derailed the train at most basic level, because they need to start with an effective festival strategy. ‘I believe that the festival circuit is the first part of arthouse distribution. You can’t look at is as “I’m going to the festival and sell my movie. I’m going to make the film and premiere at Tribeca.” I think that is completely inane.’

The Last Laugh (d - Ferne Pearlstein, w - Perlstein, Robert Edwards, p - Perlstein, Edwards, Anne Hubbell, Jan Warner and Amy Hobby) is a good example of an effective festival strategy. Hobby premiered the film in New York with its large Jewish population and what she considers to be an audience with a sense of humour. After she packed the cinemas in its spiritual home town, and scored good reviews in key outlets like Variety, Hollywood Reporter and The Village Voice, she was able to ‘unfold a combination of documentary festivals, regular festivals and even Jewish film festivals.’ It helps that the documentary features people like Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman and Mel Brooks.

Amy Hobby is an experienced producer with a solid reputation, who has succeeded in that giant North American market. She understands the dynamic of her ecology, in which programmers look for content while creators look for festivals, in which ideas and names are swapped between insiders and the reputation for a film grows after the first big success. 

‘I am in a situation where I have a big track record at all the festivals,’ she said. ‘I have that relationship [with the programmers]. For sure, I’ll get my film looked at - it doesn’t mean my film gets in but it does mean I can have that conversation with the programmer, who may say to me, “I don’t think this is right for the festival this year”. And they might recommend it to another festival.’

Without that prior reputation, Australian producers experience the system as a crap shoot. The system is not about making a film that fits the ethos of a given festival and docking the film in the landing pod. Festivals are themed differently from year to year.  They look at audience figures and play to the community. They fill up with a certain kind of film, or abandon a strand. You simply become the fifteenth refugee film. 

Phillippa Campey has taken a number of documentaries to festivals, including Bastardy made by Amiel Courtin-Wilson, and was a producer on Kitty Green's The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul. 'The landscape shifts every year as to which one is right for a film,' she said. 'If you are looking for sales it is a different market to launching a debut director, possibly.'

What is more, she reminded me, TV is very different from feature documentaries. The television buyers are clustering at IDFA and Hot Docs, while long form cinema projects might do better at Cannes, Berlin or Sundance.

One thing is certain. Producers really do need to have publicity assets like a good trailer, an electronic press kit, a bunch of good photographs, and snappy human interest stories, with space to recruit a publicist from the festival city. It helps to have good click numbers on the net, and prior success in local communities with domestic reviewers. Programmers really will ask what extras you bring. 

As Hobby explained, ‘Programmers want to be assured that you have the best shot at the film being successful. It’s good for the festival and it means the filmmakers have a good experience. The programmers will remind the filmmakers they have to do something to stand out - having the main subject there, having someone show up with a song, whatever….

‘That is part of the conversation. Are you going to sponsor a big party. If Netflix is your distributor..’

And that brings us to an ugly fact which was leaking around the conference. In documentary, success at festivals and awards is important. ESPN was determined that OJ: Made in America had the best shot at the Oscar. Netflix is behind Kitty Green and Casting JonBenet, which it bought just before it premiered at Sundance. But we can bet that Taxi to the Dark Side, by Alex Gibney, Eva Orner and Susannah Shipman, did not have much hype behind it when it won the documentary Oscar in 2007. The truth is, the tactics of feature film awards promotion have come to documentary town. 

However, said, Hobby, all that support and theatrics doesn’t matter if the film is bad. ‘It really actually doesn’t matter. At least the programmers I know are quite serious about that.

‘I just feel like films find their own path and different festivals have different personalities.’ Besides the North American festivals, filmmakers can look to Sheffield and IDFA in Amsterdam, or the mainstream festivals in Berlin or Rotterdam - all strategies which Australians are inclined to prefer anyway.  ‘Less and less’, she said, ‘there’s no one direct path.’

Taking a film to a festival is very satisfying, and blows away the cobwebs of provincialism which threaten emerging filmmakers, even though the internet makes us all feel like world citizens. But the point is also to make sales, or facilitate sales by agents. That is a whole other story, but Hobby did emphasise one simple notion. The importance of power. 

In contracting, she said, ‘It’s just about understanding your power and making sure filmmakers are asking the right questions to ask and don’t be afraid to ask.’

Once contracts are on the table, the power game has already swung to the buyer. ‘I would just like to empower filmmakers to make that choice with all the information at hand, including copyright, understanding that there are three issues with distribution - time frame, media and also territories.’ 

The Last Laugh got a broadcast sale out of Tribeca. We asked them to allow us a longer festival circuit and a theatrical window. We agreed on a broadcast date and we’ve done fifty festivals and we are doing a ten cities theatrical release before it will be broadcast in April. So I am thinking of the festivals as one part of a longer windowed strategy. You need to be educated in that.’

A broadcast deal or a Netflix sale does not negate the value of a theatrical release, at least in North America. It opens the door to awards like the Oscar or the Independent Spirit, and can trigger a review in the New York or Los Angeles Times. ‘It’s just the launching pad. Usually for a small film it is not financially successful, but it is that legitimiser which takes the film to the next level.’ 

Festivals are also a fundamental part of the careers game. Key festivals trigger offers from agents, production companies and producers. Films may die, to the horror of the producers, but take off for the directors, writers and actors. 

Kitty Green’s trajectory is a fine example. She produced her first long film Ukraine is Not a Brothel with Jonathan auf der Heide and Michael Latham, who has been the cinematographer on all her work. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival where it ran out of competition and took the Lina Mangiacapre Award - Special Mention. Her short, The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, was produced by her and Michael Latham, with Philippa Campey, and went to Sundance and won the Short Film Jury Prize. Casting JonBenet evolved from discussions at the festival, and enabled her to refine her approach to the short to interrogate one of the key crime mysteries in contemporary US culture.  It was made through American production companies and produced by Scott Macauley and James Schamus.

There is much more to Amy Hobby than her work as a documentary producer. Here is her extended biography:

Amy Hobby is the current Vice President of Artists Programs at the Tribeca Film Institute where she oversees all filmmaker grants and mentorship programs. She is also an Academy-Award, Emmy and Grammy-nominated producer whose films include And Everything is Going Fine (IFC) directed by Steven Soderbergh, Shepard & Dark (Official Selection Cannes Film Festival), Secretary (starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Love, Marilyn (HBO) directed by Liz Garbus, with whom she collaborated again on her most recent film What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix). In 2013, she co-founded Tangerine Entertainment - a company dedicated to produce and build community for films directed by women. Tangerine’s films Paint it Black directed by Amber Tamblyn and The Last Laugh directed by Ferne Pearlstein are both currently active on the festival circuit and will be released in 2017. In her various capacities, Amy has been on numerous film festival juries and panels over the past 10 years.

About the author

David Tiley is the editor of Screen Hub.