As the New Jersey Film Festival in New Brunswick winds down its fall season and the Trenton Film Society prepares for its international film festival, running Friday through Sunday, November 9 through 11, it’s clear that film festivals are becoming as important to regional culture as are museums.
In fact, there are about 50 film festivals taking place around the Garden State. Yet all film festivals, like the films that are shown, are not all the same. And while some festivals may be more about glitz and glamour, others are about the nuts and bolts of making film and, more importantly, filmmakers.
Central New Jersey filmmaker and founder/former director of the Trenton Film Festival Kevin Williams says that for film artists, “Film festivals are huge. In many ways they are the first chance for a filmmaker to get it in front of an audience who are not friends or family, people who will give honest feedback. It’s the single best place to grow as an artist.”
By seeing one’s work through the eyes of a new audience, Williams says filmmakers learn what it takes to get an audience’s attention. “You really have to get the audience to bite onto your story. As a filmmaker you want to have people want to see your film more than they want to see someone else’s. When you’re making a film, you’re in a bubble.”
Williams says that filmmakers usually see three stages of filmmaking: pre-production or planning, followed by the production or actual filming, and finally the post-production editing. Yet there is actually an important fourth stage, and that’s getting the work in front of audience and learning from that experience. “The questions and answers segment after a film provides immediate connection,” he says.
Williams — whose most recent film is the political documentary “Fear of a Black Republican” — says that for him and other filmmakers, “film festival provides opportunities for a filmmaker who doesn’t live in New York or Los Angeles. A festival is the first place for a filmmaker to get attention. Sometimes it’s the first time that they even talk to a newspaper reporter in their lives.”
He adds that while festivals are important for young filmmakers, they are not the only artists creating. “We get films from people who are accountants or an English teacher by day or someone in mid career who wants to explore an artistic side. In a lot of ways a festival is more important for them than for younger people who have time on their side.”
Small festivals, such as Trenton’s festivals as well as the Princeton Environmental Film Festival in January, are also better options for emerging filmmakers.
“Unless you have a certain type of film that has demographics that are important to a larger festival, it’s more difficult to get into them. Smaller festivals — such as the one in Trenton — provide a great opportunity. For someone just starting out, it’s more of advantage to enter a small festival for exposure. You have a better chance getting into Princeton than Sundance. It’s the appropriate place to start,” says Williams.
Williams feels that large festivals and the film industry “are becoming more about money and who is in the film,” he says. “Being rejected doesn’t mean that someone’s not talented, it is just part of the industry.”
William Mastrosimone, a Trenton native and now a Bucks County-based screenplay writer (“With Honors”) and award winning dramatist (“Extremities”), has attended several festivals as a featured guest and provided seminars for writers. “I think of a film festival as a kind of arts bazaar,” he says, explaining that some people come to show their wares, others come to see the films, but others come because they want to learn how to make a film. The educational component seems most important to him, education for both the emerging and established filmmaker.
“Confucius has a great quote, ‘He who keeps on reviewing his old knowledge and acquiring new knowledge may become a teacher of others.’ So for me, having been part of a few movies, I had an experience to impart; and for the students who come to learn, they force me to review my old knowledge and often inspire me to acquire new knowledge. That’s how a film festival can benefit a community,” says Mastrosimone.
Albert Nigrin — filmmaker and founder and executive director of the New Jersey Film Festival at Rutgers University in New Brunswick — says that he’s seen a blossoming of film festivals over the past decade and breaks them down into three main categories.
First, there’s the big market place festivals where films with million dollar plus budgets hope to connect with distributors; those are the big name ones such as Sundance, Toronto, and Cannes. These festivals, he says, are usually out of reach for emerging filmmakers who lack fat wallets that can attach big names.
Next are the chamber of commerce film festivals that generate business in towns. While they have a positive aspect of including area filmmakers, they are often less judicious.
Then there’s the university-type festival that brings people together for informative or educational purposes. It’s a place that can engage, challenge, and inform the filmmaker.
Nigrin says that with today’s proliferation of digital technology films are being submitted up to 15 times more than they were several years ago. And while new technologies make filmmaking easier and cheaper, it doesn’t translate into good films. Many ramble and lack focus, he says.
Since, according to Nigrin, the New Jersey Film Festival is about showing well made films and encouraging filmmakers, there is a jury process that views about 1,000 annual entries to select 100 films to be shown throughout the year. “When you see the responses of the judges, you know that these are the films we want to show,”
The focus, however, is on the artist. “There are people who have visions and spend a lot of time creating. They area driven by making art,” says Nigrin.
Since documentary filmmaking does not bring in lot of money for filmmakers, they have to figure out other ways to support themselves and their work. Those dedicated enough to spend their days and resources for years and years need a place — such as a serious film festival — that encourages craft and growth.
Nigrin says that while the festival regularly receives 50 to 60 entries from New Jersey, it only selects a few.
This year there were two documentaries from the U.S. 1 region: Diane Ciccone’s “An Act of Faith” (dealing with overcoming racial prejudice and segregation in 1950s Princeton) and Leigha Cohen’s “99 Percent Solution” (an examination of the impending water crisis).
“Diane is very modest about her film. I thought it was great that a first time filmmaker did something so serious. It’s a tight little film. It’s the same thing with Leigha; I realized it was an essay type of film. These filmmakers do not have a lot of money yet are still able to create films about issues,” says Nigrin.
Ciccone’s comments echoes those of William and Nigrin, “Festivals are a great vehicle to get publicity about your film and serve as validation of the artistic merit of your work. It is a great boost to emerging and young filmmakers that your work is appreciated and noticed.”
She adds, “By attending the festival during the screening of your film you get great feedback from the audience. It is also a great opportunity to see what other filmmakers are doing.”
Ciccone says that she shoot with a professional Sony camera, edits with Final Cut Pro, and sets a very low budget for self funding. While she relishes the creative process of telling a story, she says that creating a film from start to finish is a long process, especially when — as in the case of a good number of emerging filmmakers — it cannot be a fulltime project.
Sensing that her filmmaking can be enhanced by learning to use different visual techniques to enhance the viewers’ experience, she says her participation in the New Jersey Film Festival has been beneficial. “It helps to see what other filmmakers are doing that make the film visually interesting yet keep the story line flowing.”
Story telling from local and foreign filmmakers continues to flow this weekend.
This Saturday, November 10, is deadline for entries for the New Jersey Film Festival’s 2013 spring festival, set to open in late January.
Also this Friday, November 9, marks the Trenton Film Society’s Trenton International Film Festival, part of its mission to explore local and international issues, while building an understanding of filmmaking. The weekend includes the opportunity to discuss filmmaking with filmmakers from Nigeria and Guadeloupe.
While this international event takes a world view, the society also thinks locally and will screen films by local filmmakers in December. As Williams says films today are becoming more about money, as attested to the segments on television news programs where news anchors announce film box office receipts rather than artistic quality.
However, there is something that brings in that box office in the first place. “New ideas and new talents are important,” says Williams. And our regional film festivals seem to be about the new.
Trenton Film Society, Mill Hill Playhouse, Trenton. For information, call 609-331-9599 or visit http://trentonfilmsociety.org/.
The society’s International Film Festival opens Friday, November 9, at 7:30 p.m., when Guadeloupean filmmaker Mariette Monpierre presents her film “Elza.”
On Saturday, November 10, at 12:30 p.m., Nigerian writer/director Chinonye Chukwu presents his “Alaskaland,” which will be followed by “El Camino Del Vino” (Argentina) at 2:30 p.m.; “The Lady” (France) at 4:14 p.m.; and “Sound of Noise” (Sweden/France) 8 p.m..
The festival closes on Sunday, November 11, with the 1:30 p.m., showing of “Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, 1984 to 1992” (Germany), and “Sita Sings the Blues” (USA) at 3:30 p.m.
New Jersey Film Festival’s spring festival of independent films and workshops runs at Rutgers University in New Brunswick on select nights from January 28 to March 1. 848-932-8482. www.njfilmfest.com.
The Princeton Environmental Film Festival, Thursdays through Sundays, January 24 to February 3, Princeton Public Library. 609-924-9529, ext. 247. http://community.princetonlibrary.org/peff/.