BLOG: Preparing for Sundance
Edward Lawrenson, who is headed to Sundance with short film Abandoned Goods
Later this week, Abandoned Goods, a film Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson co-directed, will screen at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Ed and Pia will be there to support the screening, thanks in part to the British Council’s Short Film Travel Grant Fund. Ed is also sharing his Sundance diary, starting with this first instalment about how they have prepared for the festival.
Ed writes: Sundance, which kicks off tonight, is a major international festival, one I’ve admired from afar for its championing of bold and independent-minded cinema. We’re thrilled by the prospect of screening the film there.
Abandoned Goods is about a collection of artworks, made by residents of an English psychiatric hospital. Some of the art pieces we focus on are exquisitely beautiful, some profoundly disturbing, and all speak with a rare emotional power. For years the paintings and sculptures that comprised the collection were hidden away, the people who made them forgotten about. Celebrating the achievements of these unrecognised artists was one reason Pia and I made the film. Showing the film in Sundance is deeply gratifying for us as filmmakers; but it is also, we hope, a tribute to the talent and expressive abilities of these extraordinary artists.
And naturally, we’re also a little nervous about the screening. How will the film be received? I have no idea, and it’s a question that will remain unanswered until we’re there, 11:30 am on Saturday, 24 January at the Egyptian Theater, sitting with the audience for our Sundance premiere.
So, how best to prepare for a festival like Sundance? To defray the queasy feeling of excitement and nerves, I can only say I’m obsessing unhealthily about the correct attire for a ski resort in late January. But there are also, I think, a number of practical steps we’ve taken during and after the production of our short that helped us get the most from our festival experience, and which I’m happy now to share with fellow short filmmakers.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR A FESTIVAL
Tip One: Think before you submit
Abandoned Goods is a documentary about a collection of artworks made by residents of an English psychiatric hospital in a pioneering art studio established by the artist Edward Adamson. The original collection was huge: some 100,000 items were made between 1949 and 1981. But when we came to hear of the artworks – through Pia’s involvement with another project – there were only 5,500 or so pieces surviving.
Pia and I started small, back in 2012, filming with our own funds the removal of the collection from imperfect storage conditions in a South London hospital to state-of-the-art vaults in the Wellcome Collection, but even then we were keen that the completed film have a festival life. We were grateful to receive funding from the Wellcome Trust and the Maudsley Charity, and a (welcome) requirement of both applications is to describe how to the film will reach an audience. At this stage it was really helpful for us to think of particular festivals that showed work we admired (which shared stylistic or formal DNA with the film we wanted to make), a process that benefited from the contribution of Kate Ogborn and Lisa Marie Russo from Fly Film who came on board in 2013 as producers.
Thinking about which festivals to enter while you’re in production has certain practical consequences. The submission criteria for short films varies across festivals, most crucially over the matter of running time. We knew our film was likely to run for longer than 30 minutes, which meant we’d be ineligible for a number of festivals. But most of the festivals we were interested in accepted ‘longer’ shorts – and so we were comfortable our eventual running time. Certain festivals, like Rotterdam, even accommodate medium-length films (between the hitherto ‘dead-zone’ of 45 minutes and hour) so don’t feel you have to cut things down to an arbitrary length to get festival exposure: just be aware of the options while you’re in the edit.
Also be aware of each festival’s premiere regulations: many festivals, especially in Europe, demand at least national premiere status, even for shorts. Oh, and deadlines: if there’s one festival you’re set on, make sure your film is ready before the submissions close.
Tip Two: Don't second guess programmers
We premiered Abandoned Goods at the Locarno Film Festival (in Switzerland) in August 2014. It was a wonderful experience. Locarno is a real cinephile festival, with a great programme and terrifically committed audiences, and it was one of the festivals, along with Sundance, we always wanted to submit to. So we were obviously thrilled to play there.
But being selected was another matter, and certainly not something we could have banked on. Mixing archive, rostrum photography and oral testimony (and running on the long side for a short), Abandoned Goods isn’t an easily classifiable work, and it was our good fortune that the film struck a chord with the programmers (and further good fortune the Locarno jury awarded the film the main short prize – which has helped with its continued festival life).
In other words, I don’t think there’s anything to be gained from second guessing what festival programmers are after. Programming is also about achieving the correct mix across each edition so you can’t really be too dispirited if you’re not selected: it’s often less about the inherent quality of the individual work as striking the right balance with the other titles. Or at least that’s what I tell myself when we receive those ‘I’m sorry to let you know...’ emails.
Tip Three: Get ready for press and marketing
This might sound an obvious point, but try to think about your publicity material. Limit your stills to the ones you really want, because these images will go viral. Make sure you're happy with your synopsis before sending it out – because it will acquire the status of lapidary truth once posted on any festival’s website. And if possible have an English dialogue list ready as soon as, to save the last-minute scramble if you are accepted by an overseas festival.
Also, it helps to bring to publicity cards for your film (complete with your contact details). Networking for me is a fancy word for meeting likeminded folk and discussing future projects (although I haven’t had the pleasure yet of those intense industry events whose lingua franca is the hardnosed pitch). But if only the sake of politeness it’s good to stay in contact with people – and I know from my own experience scribbling down emails on scraps of paper is not a good look.
To see how well I follow my own advice, I’ll be blogging my diary from Sundance 2015, covering the experience for British Council.
Stay tuned to @British_Film on Twitter to make sure you don't miss any of Ed's Sundance blogs.
British Council's Short Film Travel Grants, run in partnership with the BFI, are awarded to shorts filmmakers going to key festivals. To learn about criteria for the grants, and more advice for shorts filmmakers going to festivals, click here.