The Future of Indie Film & the Maryland Film Festival: A Conversation with Festival Director Jed Dietz
L-R; Barry Levinson, Maryland Film Festival Director Jed Dietz, MFF programmer Skizz Cyzyk, at the 2008 Maryland Film Festival (photo by Jason Putsche)
Sujewa: I guess, barring any obvious/unavoidable signs like total poverty/homelessness/being banished from the land or death, the judgment on the quality of the times we live in is based on how optimistic or pessimistic we are; and I think at the core people who are involved in film - perhaps specially indie film - have to be very optimistic people because there are so many challenges to overcome in getting movies made and shown, even in this digital enhanced age of filmmaking & distribution; so I naturally think we live in a great time period for indie film - real indie movies - like many of the ones that were screened at your festival this past weekend, are being taken seriously (more then they have been in the past, w/ out having a well known director name or a slumming Hollywood star or some kind of a news worthy/very high $ Sundance distribution deal), cost of production has gone down, there is more interest in indie film - if we are to go by the large number of indie film festivals now active in the country & also the high volume of indie film related activity on the web; so, how do you feel about the near future, with regards to your festival and the role it might play in both bringing interesting movies to people in Baltimore & nearby areas and in helping indie filmmakers develop their careers?Jed: You're right: filmmaking has grown more accessible and democratic. But, the distribution channel is still pretty narrow and that's where we come in. While we're certainly not a market festival, a number of filmmakers have used us and other festivals as a way to help distributors actually see a regular audience react to a film the distributor thought might be difficult. We're very good at programming and marketing- it's not just getting movies into theaters, it's also crucial to help audiences find those movies- and that has helped films here get to broader audiences than the genetically nervous marketers thought possible. From a filmmakers' point of view, it's smarter to use the film festival world broadly than than it is to go to one major festival and hope for lightening to strike.
Sujewa: A few years ago, when I looked at the indie film festival scene (granted, I may not have seen all possible options, this was my general impression), and specially when I compared it to the indie rock scene, I was a little disappointed because I did not see film festivals championing young, ultra-low/no budget, real indie filmmakers (the way that SXSW has been doing for a couple of years/the "Dentler Era", & quite possibly into the future & the way that your festival did this past weekend), and it was weird to see most mainstream indie film festivals programming work mostly by "white" filmmakers, and minority filmmakers being perhaps forced to go to the only festivals that would have them - the smaller, ethnicity based film festivals (not that there is anything wrong with them, but I figured that in a post-segregation society, and in a very liberal & progressive area of art & culture in a multi-ethnic, post-segregation society, it would be natural & even expected for mainstream/bigger/widely publicized indie film festivals to be multi-ethnic in their programming). So, I was very impressed by the fact that your festival this past weekend showed movies by directors from, and featuring actors from, multiple ethnic backgrounds - & of course your closing night event featured Melvin Van Peebles - a legend in indie, & specially African-American indie film, worlds. Has the programming in MFF always been that diverse or was this a special year - perhaps the availability of good films (Medicine for Melancholy, and for the director gender diversity front - Yeast, etc.) was higher for this most recent festival?
Jed - We work hard to display the full diversity that is the movie art form, and we do everything we can- no categories, no competition- to encourage our audience to seek out all kinds of films. But, truthfully, some of it has come naturally: as filmmaking equipment gets better, cheaper and more accessible, you'd expect to see a broader range of people making films, and as you point out, that's happening. There's no way for us to know the exact background of our filmmakers when we're programming the films, or sometimes even when we meet, but they certainly produced a wildly diverse program this year, and in the past.
Sujewa - And now, for a shorter question :); how did the Maryland Film Festival get started 10 years ago, and how did you get involved with it? And what has kept you involved with the fest for 10 years?
Jed - The first impulse was to bring filmmakers to Baltimore so they'd want to come back and work here. Then it became clear what powerful economic and cultural events film festivals can be, assuming of course we could create something with its own identity.
Sujewa - How has Baltimore changed, in your experience, over the last 10 years? Is the city going through a renaissance/revival? I saw a lot of people at the festival this past weekend, obviously there is a lot of interest in film & art over there; which I think is a healthy sign for a city (with the first wave of gentrification being artists & perhaps even fans of art); maybe not so great for real estate affordability in 5 years :) - but maybe good overall for quality of life, economy & taxes wise for the city. So, is Baltimore getting better; is it happening fast enough, and what areas of the city (geographic & also services, business & social needs) need special attention at this point?
Jed - Baltimore has a long history of interest in and support for art- world class museums, theater, music- beyond our size and dating back to the mid-1880s. We've had good political and private sector leadership (Mayor O'Malley, now our Governor, personally took Jim Sheridan out for a night of bar crawling during our festival a few years ago). There are other cities with great art institutions, but Baltimore is an unusually relaxed and unpretentious place, which makes it a great place for filmmakers and other artists.
Baltimore is getting better by almost every measure, and, no, it's not happening fast enough. We need a faster growing economy. One key solution is to dramatically build up the film industry, but in the past few years our state government has shoved it away.
Sujewa - Let me just get this Wire question out of the way, for all the Wire heads out there :); as a resident of Baltimore or someone who goes there every day for work (I assume), how do you feel about The Wire's portrayal of Baltimore? Did you watch the show?
Jed - Everyone I know who really knows something about urban America thinks it's the single best portrait of American cities ever made. It could be set in any city, and it's certainly not the whole story of Baltimore, as you know from attending our film festival. From a pure filmmaking standpoint, it's universally admired, and is the best showcase we have for Baltimore's budding film community.
Sujewa - Some festival movies never become available on DVD, let alone theatrically; do you see festivals becoming more involved in distribution of movies - specially the real indie movies - that they program? Such as selling DVDs of the movies at the festival, during the festival or through the festivals' web site, etc. Or maybe even internet VOD (video on demand) when that technology becomes affordable for festivals (this might already be the case, or should soon be) or in partnership with a cable TV station?
Jed - Every film festival should be driven by one primary goal: to help filmmakers. There are lots of ways non market film festivals can help filmmakers, including those you mentioned. We've done a lot to push films and their filmmakers that have played here beyond the festival.
Sujewa - And, along the same lines as the previous question, here's an idea that I proposed in one of my blogs a year or so ago; one that got a lot of heated debate going; how about festivals sharing a part of their revenue from screenings of a given film with the director or the owner of that film? I know screening fees are paid for some films & also that festivals pay for travel, lodging, etc. in many cases for filmmakers. But it just feels like there is more opportunity to give more to filmmakers (many low budget/real indie directors will not see any money from their movies for a long time to come, if ever, I think) from a festival situation. I guess this is more along the line of making festivals more of a distribution alternative, one that yields money to filmmakers. What do you think? Is such a thing doable in the near future or is it just impossible given the financial picture of most film festivals in America?
Jed - Movie distribution is tricky (just ask the recently fired art house crowd at the various Warner companies), and a supporter of ours here who has had some involvement in art house distribution warned about getting mired in the traps of distribution: money collection, audits, etc. But, your point is a good one: every film festival ought to be thinking about helping their filmmakers. Every film is a unique marketing challenge, but if the filmmaker wants us to, we can help, in this market and beyond.
Sujewa: How important are submission fees to most festivals, and specifically to your festival? Do festivals raise a very useful/significant amount of $s from submission fees or do you think that if there were no submission fees more people would submit their films and the festival would have a lot more movies to choose from (resulting in a better/more attractive offering to the paying audience)?
Jed - It is not a significant revenue stream for us, but it does weed out really casual submission. Warning to filmmakers: if you find a festival that makes a lot of its operating expenses from submission and other filmmaker fees, run.
Sujewa - Can you think of a few best of and worst of situations from MFF from the last 10 years? What are some of the awesome things that have happened at past versions of the MFF? And some not so great things, if any.
Jed - There are too many "best ofs" to list and no "worst ofs."
Sujewa - The increase in filmmaking, indie filmmaking, due to low cost digital technology is very exciting and I think this is a good thing overall, specially in the long run, for cinema. Also, like I said a few questions ago, tons of people are writing about film, including a lot on indie film, on the web these days (the down side being print critics and reviewers losing their jobs, but the two events might not be very related, hopefully the web will provide new employment to those same writers who lose print jobs), and I think the theatrical experience is here to stay, no matter how popular Netflix, cable VOD, etc. gets. What are your thoughts on those 3 areas (& any other relevant ones of course); re: increase in production due to digital, explosion of web writing re: film, watching movies at theaters? Is the current shape of things the way for a while, or are we all going to be watching digitally shot movies on our HDTVs in 5 years after reading about them & seeing ads for them on the web, while all the movie theaters get converted to CVSs or Wal-Marts or whatever?
Jed - The demise of the movie going experience has been mistakenly predicted so many times, it's hard to believe it will happen now. More movie tickets were sold last year than for all major sports events COMBINED; people like being in a theater together and there is no technological replacement for that experience. In fact, much of the pending technology may make the theater going experience even better.
Sujewa - I talked a bit about this with Yeast director Mary Bronstein this past weekend (5/4) at your fest, and also New York Times's Manohla Dargis talked about this same topic in an article recently; why do you think there seem to be so few female directors working in fiction features? And does it look like this is going to change, at least in the indie/festival arena, in the near future?
Jed - Until now, at least, it's taken a monomaniacal drive to be a movie director; with even many of the people surrounding the director shredding their personal lives to make movies. That is changing- Mary, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Kuras, Emily Hubley, Liz Miller, Julie Checkoway, are just some of the women filmmakers at this year's MFF that are making movies on their terms. As we're seeing in other parts of our society, it is always better when women participate fully.
Sujewa - Any advice for filmmakers who maybe interested in submitting to MFF 11 next year? Also, while I was waiting in line for a screening on Sunday, a young Baltimore indie filmmaker who was new to the festival (attending for the first time, as an audience member) wondered how easy or difficult it is for Baltimore filmmakers to get their movies into the fest; let me know if you have any advice for that young man.
Jed - The way to get a film into MFF 2009 is to make a movie that grabs someone here by the throat and doesn't let go; whether or not you're from Baltimore is irrelevant.
Sujewa - I know Team MFF is probably still recovering from MFF 10, but I'm ready to check out MFF 11! But perhaps I should ask about some of the year around programming that MFF does. So, please tell us a bit about what's coming up from MFF, year around programming wise, and also about the Friends of the Festival type thing that I heard a bit about, a few times, this past weekend.
Jed - Between now and next years' MFF, we'll do scores of Friends of the Festival screenings and other events. The best way to hear about them is to sign up for regular emails (FREE!!) at our website: mdfilmfest.com