Mike Steinberg, festival director of Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, has a lot of films to sift through before the closing date of October 20. Here he gives his advice to late-comers and gives hope that as long as the film is in before the deadline, it definitely has a shot.
Dates: February 13 to 22, 2009
Deadline for entry: October 20, 2008
Director of programming: Doug Hawes-Davis
How many films do you personally screen before the festival?
We have a six-person panel and we have close to 1,000 films submitted and we whittle it down to 100 to 120 tops, period. I broke my record this year: I think I’m up to about 140 with plenty of time to go.
What are you looking for in a film?
I want to see cinematic theatrical documentaries. Not necessarily documentaries that will have a theatrical release, but films which deserve a cinematic venue, like this wonderful historic theater that we screen in. I have a fondness for essay films and art docs, so I want to see those. We have a really diverse audience though, and we end up screening anything from first-person docs to polemics to classic cinema. This year we’re set to do a retrospective of Ron Mann’s films and we’re bringing him in, so stuff like Grass, Comic Book Confidential and Tales of the Rat Fink.
What aren’t you looking for?
I don’t want to see TV. Unfortunately we do see a number of films that are good TV, but there’s a real difference in theatrical documentaries that we’re interested in promoting. A television documentary – there’s value – but we just don’t really want to see those.
Is there a standout film for you from last year’s festival?
A Snowmobile for George is a pretty standout film, it’s kind of an issue film, a first-person film. Shadow of the House is a film about a Cuban photographer. Oh My God! It’s Harrod Blank! was also quite a good one. The Wild Horse Redemption was pretty amazing.
What advice can you give filmmakers to help their submissions stand out?
The first piece of advice is to follow the guidelines that we set out. That’s what we want. We ask for a copy of the DVD, and we don’t really want press materials. It doesn’t reduce the chance of a film getting in, but it’s just clutter in our small office. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by submitting a film that is really not ready to be seen. With that said, we are accepting works-in-progress and rough cuts on the condition that the film will be ready to be screened in February.
The submission deadline is less than a week away. Will filmmakers who submitted early have an edge over submissions coming in just before deadline?
Not necessarily. I think historically we’ve seen some of the better films coming in late. There’s a couple reasons why – our proximity with other large festivals in terms of their deadlines and selection announcements – it puts us in a place where they’re tidying things up for Sundance, for instance, and they’re able to get in to us right after that deadline. We have some shortlisted films that we’ve already seen, but we only have so many slots, and we’re going to watch everything that comes in. If you come in two weeks late and you’re begging for an extension, I would say try again next year, or maybe try a different festival.