Festival Programmers: Hot Docs

Hot Docs' director of programming Sean Farnel says a good title is one of the first things that can make your film pop out of the pile of submissions.
September 25, 2008

Hot Docs
Dates: April 30 – May 10, 2009
Submission deadlines: December 15, 2008 – January 16, 2009
Director of Programming: Sean Farnel

How many films do you screen?
Somewhere around 350, I would say that’s the average.

What kind of films do you want to see?
Films that realize their ambitions, either in form or content, ideally both.

What kinds of films don’t you want to see?
I can’t say because as soon as I say I don’t want to see another prison doc, I’ll see a good prison doc. There are subjects that are frequent touchstones for documentary filmmakers. Prison-set films are definitely one of them, and for a while it was basketball films. People say there’s a notion of Iraq fatigue, but if there’s another good film about Iraq to be made, I want to see it. I try to be open and not get too exhausted or cynical about certain subjects being covered.

So you want to see a basketball film set in an Iraq prison?
That’s the film I’m waiting for. That’s going to open the festival next year.

What advice can you give filmmakers to make submissions stand out?
There are a lot of bad titles out there, so get a good title that makes yours pop. I think a simple clean presentation in your DVD package is important. I wouldn’t put graphics on there because it increases your odds of a programmer making some initial wrong read on the film and not watching it. On a DVD put title, run time, director or producer name and contact. Make sure your DVD works; test your DVD in standard commercial players. It’s surprising how much that can impact the submission. We’ve got to ask for the screener and it comes two weeks later and [by then] it’s somehow out of the mix.

What has been the standout film for you?
I remember how excited I was when I popped in a couple of films [like] Spellbound and The Story of the Weeping Camel. I still remember being blown away by this film called Los Angeles Plays Itself.

What has surprised you about submissions?
I’m consistently surprised by the quantity of production. You think its going to stop at some point but every year there’s 20% more than the year before. Especially given how difficult it is to get these films funded and how unprofitable documentary filmmaking is as a lifestyle.

What kind of audience member do you have in mind?
What I’m trying to do is make the program as a whole reach all audiences. I want to make sure we have those quirky idiosyncratic films as well. I don’t get too hung up on a film that I know is obscure or difficult and yet you also want those broad crossover films like Man on Wire.

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