I got my start in filmmaking helping Jacob Okada and Adam Morrow with the ITVS application for our documentary, PAINTING THE WAY TO THE MOON. It felt like grant writing for anthropology. We didn’t get the grant, but we got very helpful feedback from the panel both times we applied. It gave us energy and pushed us further with the film which we ultimately funded through a Kickstarter and released on Fandor and Vimeo. Festival deadlines help push us to complete the film.
A couple years later, we started applying to screenwriting competitions with the narrative feature we produced last summer, currently called NARWHAL-AMERICAN. The deadlines helped propel each draft forward… without them it was too easy to let the business of our freelance work overwhelm incremental progress toward our long term goals. It was encouraging to place in BlueCat, Sundance Sloan and TFI Sloan’s screenplay competitions, some of which offered helpful feedback. We stopped applying to screenplay festivals when we realized that, at least for this project, revising for screenplay competitions and revising to create a producible script might be not be compatible goals.
We started applying to development and post grants as we moved through pre-production into post. Again, the deadlines have served as valuable catalyst to think through our filmmaking approach (ex., our first budget was created for a TFI Sloan application) and much needed adrenaline to finish a cut. With Jacob freelancing full-time and much of our post-production budget spent during a chaotic start to the shoot, I’ve ended up taking on the role of assistant editor: organizing footage, doing string outs of scenes, creating the first assembly, and now working closely with Jacob as we move through the rough cuts. Without deadlines (TFI, IFP, Film Independent, Sundance) we might not be at Rough Cut 2. It’s getting better because we chose to apply and I’m thankful for that.
But here’s where the experience diverges from anthropology. So far, ITVS and the Roy W. Dean Grant (by our fiscal-sponsors From The Heart Productions) are the only competitions to give us feedback on an application or a cut of a film. With low acceptance rates (ex. 6% for IFP Labs), not getting in isn’t much feedback. Is it the project and/or us? The film's premise? The unusual focus on intellectual curiosity? The current cut? The modest budget? The talented but not-yet known actors? The too-academic way I wrote the application? Or is it something that has nothing to do with us? That another applicant's project is farther along or has a bigger name or budget? Or that the filmmakers are better known? Or at least better known to the programmers? It could be all, some, or none of that.
In many ways the "why" is irrelevant: the choice is the judges' prerogative. I’ve got no beef with that. I've graded enough papers and judged enough films to know a thousand considerations influence a decision. I’m thankful for the chance to apply, to push our work further, to make a few more people aware of the project. We keep applying because it makes our work stronger and we know that we—and the film—would benefit incredibly from the learning opportunities of a particular workshop or lab and the kickstart their stamp of approval would provide. We keep going without it, but it’s a slower slog.
What I’m lamenting isn't a rejection letter a film grant or application: it's the lost opportunity for feedback. Every application has a big opportunity cost: time not working on the film. I wish the applications were more of a direct learning experience than a shout in the wind. Interpreting a "no"--or figuring out whether it's worth reapplying--is a futile guessing game.
With ITVS and the best screenplay competitions (as with research grant applications), no matter how we placed we got concrete feedback from experienced reviewers. The competitions weren’t just good for internal deadlines and a shot at something more, they were a chance to grow and improve the project no matter how/if we placed.
We rewrote the script several times and incorporated feedback from Page, BlueCat, The Black List, and Stowe Story Labs, as well as from two internal and public table read. I so valued BlueCat’s insights that I later signed up for their 10-week online rewrite class with an adaptation of Mjke Wood's SciFi short story, THE LAST DAYS OF DOGGER CITY.
I hope, down the line, film application processes include more feedback. I truly value the opinion of reviewers. Meanwhile, we’ll keep applying because we'll keep pushing to improve.