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Jump Cut

The Monthly Column on Film and Media Arts
for the New England Entertainment Digest

By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive Director/CEO

 


(November 2005) I am writing this column while mid-air between Atlanta, GA and Madrid, Spain. For the first time in well over 15 years, I am taking a vacation; something I have not done due to work and family commitments. It’s been a flurry of activity and I’ve gotten coverage for my college classes and tried to ensure all my loose ends were tied up. When I say “vacation,” I mean something longer than a holiday weekend. This trip is 10 days and is a biking vacation from Seville to Granada. I’ve never done anything like this before, but my friend Larry Andrade and I have been working out over the past few months on weekends and I can do about 30-40 miles a day. Not bad for an old poop of 51.


While prepping for the trip, I’ve had time to put a lot of time to put things into perspective and it’s provided me some distance to look critically at what it means to be involved in the arts. Larry has told me that biking is a great way to experience our ultra-fast world in a more relaxed fashion and that it gives you a chance to step back a bit and enjoy life. No cell phones. No email. No high speed: just you, your machine and the road.


Since the Rhode Island International Film Festival was created, my fall ritual has been to work in cleaning up, then begin planning for the next year. As I write this, we have received over 50 titles for the 2006 Tenth Anniversary Festival and our call for entries was only announced a week ago.

 

So, early signs indicate that it will be a strong year with a great many choices for selection. In 2005, we received over 1,500 entries from over 60 countries; so what we are receiving thus far bodes well.


TIME TO REFLECT
The old adage is that when you think you know everything; that’s when you discover how little you actually know. Running an international film festival for the past nine years has been a challenge and every year I find it’s a learning experience as we pull things together. Just when you think you have things right, something goes wrong. Or, when you think things are a mess, they come out beautifully. It’s never predictable, nor is it a cakewalk. Film Festivals are a lot of work, regardless of size, staffing, financing, or advance planning. Once you add the human element into the mix, all bets are off and anything and everything can and usually does happen.


We finished this year’s RIIFF in the black with thousands of people attending the event over a six-day period. One film alone drew over 2,000 people for three screenings: Rhode Island documentary director, Cherry Arnold’s “Buddy.” The story of Providence’s notorious former mayor, now inmate at Fort Dix, NJ, the film drew enormous media coverage and significant advance ticketing. Crowds wrapped around the block at the historic Columbus Theatre in Providence’s Westside. The irony of the screening at the building was not lost on the festival staff nor the Columbus owner, Jon Berberian: at one point, Cianci had tried to take the building over by eminent domain. Of course, now it’s a growing arts center for the community, providing a perfect medium size performance space for groups as diverse as RIIFF, Opera Providence, Westside Arts, and Cinerama Latino.


What fascinates me about what appears to be cult of Cianci is that people are willing to forgive the man any indiscretion. Huey Long of Louisiana had that same level of charisma and ironically, so did Franco in Spain. No matter the crime or the hurt inflicted on others; the rationale has been that being a petty thug gets things done in government. For Long this was his justification: “you cannot make an omelet without cracking a few eggs.” For Franco, it was a call from God. And for Cianci, it was the hubris to think of himself as the city he ran.


During the premiere screening of “Buddy” to a packed house, one partisan in the audience said it all. As I stood on stage and thanked those in attendance for coming, I mentioned that their help was needed in helping to preserve the historic Columbus Theatre as a community resource. The loud blast from the audience member was most telling: the building would be preserved if Buddy was there and not in jail.


Gullible, stupid, blind, uneducated and moron were descriptions that popped into my mind when I heard this. No, if Buddy were there, the film would not be screening in the building at all. If the building were even open or left standing, it would be a minor miracle. I had been pointedly told by one of the Mayor’s cronies in 1998, when we were “invited” to screen our films in the city, that I was never to go near the Columbus Theatre or I would risk the Mayor’s wrath. No one in his city was to use the building. No questions were allowed. It was one of the many facts of life while living in the Providence. Call it caprice; call it abuse of power: but bucking Cianci when he was in office was political and professional suicide.


But I digress.


RIIFF screenings were held throughout the State of Rhode Island including Westerly, Kingston, Newport, Cranston and Providence. It was, to say the least, a logistics nightmare. Yet, it went off relatively smoothly. Only in Rhode Island can you attempt and bring off a “statewide” festival without breaking the bank or killing your staff.


It takes hundreds of people to put on such an event. RIIFF has been blessed with a remarkable volunteer base. Since there are no salaried positions at RIIFF, holding that volunteer base together is a feat in itself. Yet, every year, support grows, people commit and RIIFF goes off without a hitch: well, hopefully the public will never see the wrinkles.


I compare putting on the Festival to watching a stage performance of “Peter Pan.” With luck, the scrim will be down and no one will see the wires as Peter flies across the stage. It’s when the wires are seen that you have problems and the illusion is gone.


After nine years of producing the Rhode Island International Film Festival, I feel like I could write a book on the “do’s” and “don’ts” of dealing with the public, filmmakers and distributors. Every year, the list gets longer, but at core are some points; they just have different dynamics. One thing is definite: when you are dealing with the human equation, all bets are off since anything and everything is possible. And, if something is going to go wrong, it most assuredly will.


LESSONS LEARNED
One thing that has been constant in the nine years of doing this gig is that a film festival can bring out the best and worst in people. There is a certain “prima donna” factor, when you are dealing with artists; which takes getting used to and not taking personally. The Festival is the entry platform for these filmmakers to let the world know that they exist and for many it may be their only opportunity. Festivals need to be service centers for these artists and staff egos must be checked at the door. Unfortunately, that’s something you cannot easily tell a filmmaker with visions of Hollywood dancing in their heads.


I guess you can say that the Hollywood vision is more heady emotionally than the sugarplums at Christmas time.


Almost every year we have a few divas needing to be center stage and are high maintenance.
Most are benign, but many require constant attention. Without careful planning, staff time and festival resources can get bogged down as you attempt to provide good customer service. In many cases, it’s a bit thankless as the more you do, the more that is expected and demands do not stop. One sure giveaway is a phone call that drags out for over an hour, this is then followed by two or three more calls in the course of a day. It is not unusual to spend three to four hours on the phone with one person who will change and alter plans and needs on whim.


In the past, some of these people have been amusing. On the whole, most are outright annoying. As you glad hand and stroke, it is hard not to wonder how some of these people expect to succeed in the field they’ve chosen. Now I must qualify: we are talking only a small percentage of the filmmakers we deal with—maybe 5%; but of course, that’s more than enough.


There is one truism: those who have established careers are mellow, laid back and professional. New, yet to be discovered, or those who made one “hit,” can be demanding, shallow and obnoxious. They somehow believe that being that constantly annoying squeaky wheel gets results. Well, it mostly does; it just doesn’t bring respect.


THE CASE OF THE BRAIN DEAD CELEBRITY
I always chuckle when I meet or speak with someone new in the business attempting to coattail a well-known industry talent. It’s an old story, but continues to play time and again. This year, we intended to present a major honor to an individual who had a rather sordid personal history, yet had risen above it to establish himself as a respected character actor. We were impressed with his efforts to help young kids not repeat the mistakes he made. When speaking with the director of a documentary that chronicled his life, we encountered what in the flim-flam days used to be known as the “bait and switch.” Think “Paper Moon,” and you’ll understand my reference.


At first we were told that presenting some form of recognition would be a significant kudo and would draw a number of celebrities who were the actor’s friends. Names were dropped like water out of a fountain. Naturally we bit. Once on the hook, we found that the unknown and rather green director was part of the package. Why? Well, he needed to be present because the talent was, according to him, brain dead from his earlier life of booze, drugs and more booze. He could not speak in public; rarely knew where he was; and needed constant direction and prompting. His wife was equally damaged, so the director was the only salvation for this soon to be amazing celebrity package.


You can guess what happened. The costs soared through the roof. From our expectations of bringing in the actor and his wife, we now had the director and his wife. An exceptional B&B in Providence that sponsored the Festival was unacceptable for the young director; so a high-end hotel had to be secured. The actor was blamed. Travel became a limo from JFK in New York to the Amtrak station. The actor was blamed. The more that was asked and the more that was given, the greater the pushing on the part of the director. Finally a cap was placed and he backed down; but only when he was told that the entire thing would be cancelled. Amazing how that worked.


Was the actor brain dead? Of course not. Once here, the director kept a low profile; the jig was up. He had his free trip and had flexed his wannabe celebrity muscles. The actor was a charmer. The director was an also-ran with an inflated ego; which he had not earned. Were we thanked for spending three times our allotted budget? Of course not. And the moral? There is no such thing as a free lunch. Additionally, given something away to someone who has not earned it only opens the door for more taking and demands.


DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR
For some reason, we tend to excuse bad behavior as being something that goes with the territory for artists. I must confess, nothing disturbs me more than having to deal with individuals who have no substantive history and have frankly not paid their dues.


Maybe it’s the mystique of being a star. Maybe it’s ego. Whatever. Very few people in the arts are that special and unique that they can expect to be treated like an icon. How many real celebrity icons can you really name? Travel around the globe and witness some of the brilliance of local artists and you’ll soon realize that breaking out is not an easy thing to do. Add to that how quickly today’s celebrity becomes tomorrow’s “E! True Hollywood Story”—or simply forgotten.


Receiving and viewing over 1,500 entries each year has taught me one important fact: there are many many brilliant artists out there who are mostly unsung and who toil tirelessly to perfect their craft. Then there’s the one-note wonder, through political and personal connections, acts as if they were the greatest and most accomplished artist who deserves special privileges and recognition. Their innate brilliance has created what is soon to be a cinematic masterpiece and that they are gracing us with their presence.


Not.


We had one director who was so full of herself that when she introduced her film, a trite chick flick pastiche, she spoke to the audience as if accepting her Oscar.


Another director presented us a copy of their work on video without checking the copy out of the laboratory. It was on Beta SP, a standard with most fests for high-resolution presentations.

 

Unfortunately, when the film played, the sound was so low that even with extreme boosting, it was hard to comprehend. Then there was the issue of the color balance: none existed. The tape was badly engineered and an embarrassment. Of course, the director blamed our equipment. The film was played three times to an unsuspecting audience. Two screenings were a mess. The third was the VHS screener which had been sent to apply to the Festival. It was lesser quality than we are used to screening, but a far cry from the mess that he had provided for the Festival. The sad thing is that he never accepted responsibility for not checking the tape—even blowing off a pre-screening run-through. Of yes, I should also add that we ask all filmmakers to submit their screening copies early so that we can prevent this type of problem from occurring. He hand-delivered the tape the day of the screening. And no, he continued to look for someone to blame even when shown that the tape was defective.


This year, we had a director who had everything handed to them on a silver platter. A first-time director, the individual thought they knew how to play the game. So they pushed and pushed and pushed. What the individual didn’t understand was that they failed at showing one emotion that would have accomplished so much more—being grateful. The demands became burdensome and obnoxious. In the end when the film didn’t win a juried award, they pulled a temper tantrum and stormed out questioning the legitimacy of our professional jury. Of course, they did win an audience choice award, but apparently that was not good enough.


Compare this to seasoned actor, Stephen Collins who came to the Fest to present the World Premiere of his directorial debut short “Next of Kin.” Not only was he grateful to have his film accepted, but he flew in on his own dime, paid for his own hotel, and was accessible throughout the time he was in attendance. Gracious is a word that describes his behavior. Professional says it best.


So what separates a Stephen Collins from the dilettantes I’ve described? I think it’s maturity and paying one’s dues. Collins is an industry survivor. He has a solid career. He also knows that you don’t burn your bridges. As Buddy Cianci was known to say, “be careful of the body you step on as you climb up the ladder; they might be stepping on you on your way down.” Or something to that effect. Actually, I think it was a bit cruder.


So what’s the moral here, besides the fact that you need to take vacations more frequently than I do? I think that success within the industry comes to those who can at least submerge their egos in a public forum. Those who rise above pettiness and pretentiousness are the ones who ultimately succeed. The others have proven historically to be flashes in the pan and disappear—or change careers.


That gives me some satisfaction and tells me that bad behavior doesn’t always win out.


Now that’s a relief!



About the Author:
George T. Marshall is the Producing Director of the Rhode Island-based Flickers Arts Collaborative, the creators of the annual Rhode Island International Film Festival for which he also serves as Executive Director. He teaches film and communications at Rhode Island College and speech communications and documentary film at Roger Williams University. He is a director, writer, producer of commercials and industrials for numerous business clients in the region and is currently completing the multi-media components for a museum exhibit saluting American veterans in Woonsocket, RI. He can be reached at <flicksart@aol.com>