Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Global View of the FIlm Festival

For every Avatar, there are a thousand films each year that are rarely seen. Each year, Bill Guentzler, of the Cleveland International Film Festival, culls the cinematic herd down to a few hundred. It’s not easy. We sat down with Bill for a few minutes to see how he does it. — Interview by Bob Carson

Q. Is there a window of time when the film must be produced to qualify?

A. We aim to screen the “newest and best,” so usually we try to screen films that are no more than a year old (having their first public screening since the previous March), but on occasion there are amazing films out there that still haven’t been shown in Cleveland that are a bit older, so we still screen them (nothing older than two years if it’s not part of a retrospective).

Q. How big of a pool of films do you wade through?

A. From April 2009 through January 2010, I watched 611 feature films. I don’t count shorts.

Q. Yikes! Do you have a posse of fellow film festival directors from other cities that kick around good choices?

A. Yes. I’m friendly with most of the U.S. directors that have their festivals in the spring. We talk about what we’re programming, maybe try to share some films — so we can share International shipping costs — and recommend a lot of films.

Q. Does showing a film COST the film makers anything or does it COST the CIFF anything to run them? Are these filmmakers merely hoping to be noticed or do they recoup any costs on the film festival trail?

A. Well, filmmakers that submit their film to us (opposed to me finding the films at other film festivals) pay an entry fee (which ranges from $25 to $85, depending on length of film and date they submit). We are charged screening fees for some films, mainly by sales agents or distributors.

Q. Do you ever have desperate producers and directors begging and weeping on your office floor to please, please, show my film? Any screaming and sending nasty notes if they do not make the cut?

A. All the time. Many filmmakers don’t like rejection. But who does? Often, filmmakers are happy that we offer committee comments — we are one of the rare festivals to do so — so they take the rejection a little lighter. At least they know why they weren’t selected. And they need to understand that what might have won the Audience Award at the Butte, Montana film festival just might not work in Cleveland. And when I see 611 films, and we have an additional 500 submitted, we do have to make a lot of tough decisions to bring that number down to the 150 feature films we’re showing.

Q. How do you spread out the decision-making process the rest of the year? Do you watch a movie a day?

A. I start traveling to other festivals in July. I’m out of town for over three months a year (spread out through the summer and fall) at other festivals. We also open our submission process in July.

Q. Do you use any other film festivals prior to the Cleveland festival as a sort of template for your selections and do reviews from these effect your decision?

A. We don’t use any festival as a template, but just by default, the other festivals that I attend have already done some work for me and have created a roster of films that they think work, and I make my decisions on what to see based on that. We, in turn, are somewhat of a “festival of festivals.”

Q. Can you walk us through the process? Say that I’m from Alaska and I just finished a documentary film about a racehorse titled Balls of Fire. What steps would I need to take to get my Balls of Fire running at the 2011 CIFF?

A. Submit your film. We open our submission process in July. We use an online submission service called and we also have forms available on our Web site. Then you wait. Many filmmakers constantly bombard us with calls/emails asking what the status is. If it’s a great film, it will get in; but being a “pest” doesn’t help your case.

Q, And finally, off the top of your head, any quirky "selection stories” pop into mind?

A. Someone sent a bloody baseball bat to the office with their submission (a horror movie obviously). I still have it in my office.

The Cleveland International Film Festival runs at Tower City from March 18th to the 28th. Check back each day starting tomorrow for some previews of coming attractions.

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