Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I'M NOT DEAD YET: Confessions of a Horror Film Festival Judge

DISCLAIMER: This article is in no way talking about the Killer Film Fest in a negative light. The festival itself supports an independent base of films for its selection and we commend them for that. This is only the account of what it is like to be a judge at a festival.  To have movies you love not be selected. To be a cry baby when they are not selected, but most importantly to illustrate that winning a festival may not necessarily make or break a film or guarantee that you will find an audience in every horror fan. I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to judge in 2011.  The creators are truly amazing folks.

When someone asks you if you want to judge a film festival you say... what? Well, it's pretty much the same answer you give to metaphysical being that asks you if you are a God. You say yes.  I've watched my fair share of movies and I think I can tell when a movie is worth a good God damn. That's not to say that I hold myself to be any kind of authority. How could I? I have no credentials. That PhD... the whole Doctor label... a sham! (no... YES!) But I think as long as you watch movies, love film and can at least express an opinion in some fashion that others might identify with you can evaluate film. There's nothing to it really. Just pick the good ones. Pick the original ones. Pick films that fit the judging schema and then determine which films you think best fit into the pre-fab categories as determined by the good folks who are putting on the festival. You're really being asked which movies you'd watch or at least that's how I see it. Which films you, as a fan of cinema, think other folks need to see.  It's what we do every day. We tell our friends or readers what films we think are worth their time. Why we want people to see 'em. Why they should avoid 'em (and there are just plenty of those to go around). Never could I have imagined how very wrong I could have been about what it means to be a film festival judge; the fortitude you must have to actually get through the films you are being asked to evaluate and the angst you feel when the films you so dearly love don't make the grade and the worse yet... the feeling that you have attached your name, as a judge, to films that you may not have enjoyed and may have in fact despised.

I want to make clear that I'm not going to bash films throughout this article. I'm not going to give you specific recommendations for films from the festival until the end of the article because it's not fair to the festival entrants. I want to give you my experience in the judging said festival and not a record of a how mean I can be to people trying to make it in the industry. So I'll give you some semi-nonspecific anecdotes and then tell you which films were truly novel.

I'm not sure that's it's everyone's dream to judge a film festival. I had always found the prospect exciting, so when I was asked the answer was instantaneously, "yes".  How did this prospect come about? I simply shared a link for the Killer Film Feston FaceBook and was contacted by one of the good folks who run the festival. He knew that I did some writing for the online horror world and thought I might be a good fit. I can safely say that I have seldom met a nicer group of folks.  The festival was to be held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a short five hour drive from my humble abode in New Jersey, and, hey, if I couldn't make it, all the judging was done online well before the festival anyway. Score. I wasn't entirely certain I'd be able to travel with a new baby on the docket. The film load was estimated at about seventy movies. Mostly shorts but a few full length films would be included from around the world. Again, no problem. I can handle a pretty heavy viewing load given enough Mountain Dew with Rockstar energy drink chaser.  The viewing and preliminary judging would take place beginning in late July and running through the end of September. Final judging would occur shortly thereafter with announcements made at the festival come the first week in Novemeber. Bring it on! Each judge was announced in turn (four "guest" judges").

A bit of history from the KFF:

Killer Film Fest emerged in November 2009 at the Orpheuem Theater in Foxboro, MA as the premiere of the feature film “Kill Everyone” from Producer Michael Vallier II and Writer/Director Richard Tobin Jr. After completing “Kill Everyone” and seeking a venue to host the premiere, they decided to invite other local filmmakers to show a series of short films before “Kill Everyone” sharing the venue space and bringing the filmmakers together for a night of “Killer Films”.  After searching for short films, Michael and Richard received feature film submissions even though that was not what they were looking for and since there were so many local filmmakers who want to show their work, why not book the theater for a complete weekend and make a small fest out of it. Well they did and it was a big success with a turnout of over 500 horror fans throughout the 3-day weekend event.  With no real indie horror film festival in the Massachusetts area and after many people asking if they would do Killer Film Fest again, it just made sense to continue and turn the 3-day local film screening into an all-out international indie horror film festival.

Come late July I received an email with access code and instructions concerning judging schema, time frames for submitting ballots etc. Films were posted on Vimeo, password protected and comments disabled.  The only contact with other judges would come through a rarely visited forum. The internet can act like a marvelous isolation chamber if one so desires to have it as such. I avoided the forums and stuck my nose deep in some of early entries. As the festival runners would received new entries, films would be posted and updates would be sent to each judge.

At first I thought we were deciding whether films would simply be accepted into the festival for judging, but quickly found out that all films put on the website had been accepted. Not all films that were entered to the Festival were accepted, but there were a few here that needed re-watching.  It's no skin off my tits what films a festival chooses to embrace for judging, but after watching a few of the films I realized that entrants love to take the common trope in popular horror and exploit it to the absolute max. While the judging schema embraced standard quality categories including editing, effects quality (both computer generated and practical), sound and cinematography, the category that seemed to stand out was the "story" category. Was the story orignal? The category was pretty clear that it higher scores would be based on stories that pushed boundaries; truly original works that moved the horror genre forwarded. Say what you want about internet piracy and big studios destroying independent cinema. The number one enemy of the indy filmmaker is the copycat. Take a great story and then watch as you are cannibalized by anyone with a handycam. The outcome is oversaturation. Oversaturation turns off audiences faster than killing and dismembering a turtle in a cannibal movie. If you've seen it before, why watch it again? So the story category seemed to be a paramount category. You can have as many technical difficulties as you want. You can use terrible CGI in leiu of practical effects. You can even send me a film that was clearly shot on a VHS camcorder circa 1988 using the onboard microphone, no lighting and without the assitance of a tripod. If you do any of those things and tell me a story I haven't heard before I'll look past 90% of your flaws. Send me in the unofficial Saw VIII under a different title and you won't be considered at all. You can call me Judge Judy (and not Harry Stone as I'd prefer).

Three of the first four films I watched were unoriginal, well shot, well scored, well acted films that clearly played off the recent success of several popular pieces of horror fiction. The only outlier was a foreign film that told a story so beautiful and organic I can only say that I felt sad. I didn't feel scared or grossed out; just an overwhelming feeling that I needed to go find my Goth Rock CD's circa 1999 and paint my nails black. I'm not sure you can say that one out of four films gives you any kind of hope, but the festival was only in its infancy and there would be plenty of other movies to view.

Quickly I realized the indy filmmakers can make some pretty powerful short films using only about five to fifteen minutes of your time. There are some truly talented actors and filmmakers who understand that fleshing out a short story that can capture your attention in just three minutes doesn't need to be a full 90 minutes. The full length movies weren't poorly made. They were highly unoriginal or drawn out beyond necessity. What was worse was that I began to realize that most of the full length features played on a film that had been popular in the last two to three years in major releases (not necessarily Hollywood releases, just major theatrical presenations). I turned to the shorts for salvation and to find something/anything worth watching. I'll tell you that everyone thinks they can make a zombie movie these days. Slap some latex on your buddy's face and insert John Hughes plot point and you can have yourself an instant movie. Musicals are really coming into their own. I'm undecided as to whether this is a good thing, but at least the musicals don't take themselves as seriously as the Paranormal Activity rip offs or worse yet, the faux documentary based on film X. Film X probably involves somebody kicking a map in the river or visiting an abandoned mental hopsital.

All in all I'd say I enjoyed fifteen of all the entrants and when asked to submit my ballot for judging I found that those same fifteen films fit in each category. I submitted my ballot and awaited the next step. When I received the final ballot, the top films had been chosen, placed in each category and we were told to order the films awarding points for our favorites. The list I got back barely included any of my inital selections and did instead include any number of the copycat films that I found destestable. Up until this point I had been having quite a lot of fun. Sure I was watching half filmed, half editted reduxes in found footage, but there were some talented mofos who needed our help. That's who we judge the festival for, right? The fans.  In that moment it became quite clear to me that A. I was not simply picking movies I thought were good. I was picking movies that were supposed to be good for the genre that I loved. Movies that would drive and move the genre. I was supposed to pick films to take the next step.  And.. B. that wasn't going to happen because the folks that chose alongside me made very, how shall I put this, SAFE choices. I have never conferred with the other judges. I don't pretend that my opinion should be weighted any more than there opinion. It seems to me that my vote was not going to be accurately represented. The movies I had truly loved would not be in play. I became saddened. Suddenly my decision making prowess took to lofty expectations. This must be what all the kids who played saxophones in Ska bands in high school felt.

With one last round of judging I had to make sure that the film I truly loved for each category that still remained under consideration would move along. Was it to be? Nay. I will not divulge which films I did vote for at the festival, but I will give you a list of movies to beg, borrow, steal, purchase, trade for or ask for nicely from the film creators. I'm not writing this to bash the festival (as previously stated). The judges are excellent folks. The festival was handled professionally; the voting schema, scoring and tallying were on the up and up. It's just a matter of taste. It's one man's trash being another man's treasure. The only real difference here is that when you sign up to judge a festival, you're name is on the trash or the treasure. If what you choose doesn't win, you still have your name attached to it.  I look at who I would have liked to have win each category. I think about how I might have voted differently to help them out in the early rounds. Probably couldn't have.  But future film fest judges and audience members, the final say isn't with any of you. It all comes out in the distro.

One last note before we cut into the trailers for the movies you MUST see... Killer Film Fest is an outstanding outfit that puts on a mighty fine festival. This year it was in Cambridge, MA, but I believe a new location will be selected next year. It looks to be in Somerville, MA November 1-3rd. Look for adverts around September/October. We'll make sure to keep you updated. Remember, the festival is a great festival. This piece is about my misconceptions of what it means to judge a festival.  And if your curious, if the KFF asked me to be a judge again this year, I would say YES. We need to keep on trying. You'll notice that some of these films actually placed or won awards. We make our difference!

Here are the entrants  that you NEED to keep your eyes on. I adored these films. You friggin' better give 'em a shot.

First Flesh Eating Fog (I feel no shame in telling you this was my pick to win the festival). Think Street Trash on an even lower budget. Hilarious but fun gore.

Incubator (Actor to Director: What's my motivation? Director to actor: You're an egg sack...)

Tonrar Yuralria (Did someone watch Rare Exports alot?)

WILT (I got teared up... real tears.)

O Risco (The Line... HILARIOUS... even the brevity of the trailer is funny).

Hell Blaster Bastards (Gore!)

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