Back in the heyday of videotape, I used to make VHS copies of my short films patiently, one by one, with two VCRs oddly connected one to the other. These were the prehistoric days of the Internet, when we couldn’t find any decent information about film festivals on the Web. Thanks to a film festival book that I had found in a Frisco bookstore some years before, I started to submit my end of studies short film. I did eventually get into a few nice festivals; maybe it helped that at that time the competition wasn’t so fierce, as festivals didn’t receive thousands of entries like they do today.words by Jean-Julien Collette
I learned to promote my films the hard way all through the DVD era and into the digital one: asking many dumb questions of festival programmers, sending my short film to too many festivals (often the wrong ones — I’ve still got to realise I don’t make video art or experimental films) and learning along the process when was the right moment to send my short. Of course, there are a few distributors who do a great job at promoting your film to festivals, and who, like a chess master, juggle with times and schedules while respecting the world and regional premieres. Why did I decide to do it all myself then? For a simple reason: I didn’t have any budget to pay someone else. After many years of practice, I have become more and more skilled at it; now my films have been selected for more than 600 festivals in 50 different countries, and have won more than 120 awards, including at Palm Spring Shorts and the Prague Short Film Festival.
It is also true that I haven’t yet been among the chosen ones to be part of my Fab Four (Cannes, Sundance, Berlin and Venice). Does this make my short films or my method a failure? Of course not. Time after time I have waited with clammy shaking hands for the good news, that I had finally made it. And then BANG! My film ended up being rejected. Some people tried to comfort me, because they heard that I nearly nailed it, but I used to say: “who remembers about the ones finishing 2nd in the Tour de France?” I did get angry and frustrated like thousands of aspiring filmmakers. But I have realised that, at the end of the day, it’s just a big lottery; festivals receive thousands of entries, and it’s only a handful of people, all very human and with their personal taste, that are going to judge your piece of art. If you are a dedicated filmmaker, you want to spend as much time polishing your project artistically as finding the right audience. Of course, it all depends on the quality of the product. You’re not going to fool people that what you have is Belgian chocolate when in fact your piece of work barely contains real cocoa. But if what you have in your hands is decently made, and if you know how to handle the market, then you might be able to build a bigger audience around your films than someone with a better product who doesn’t know how to communicate it.
If knowing your target audience is important, so is knowing your target festival. Some film festivals just don’t care about shorts as they see them as by-products, while other festivals will select more than 200 shorts, and you will find yours lost in the shuffle in between programme N°56 (family and migrants) and programme N°57 (all about love). And then you’ve got what I call the “Black Pudding Fair”; you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, presenting your short film to a packed assembly (the whole village in fact), yet they actually care about your film, and they say that it has changed their lives (or maybe not, maybe they punch you in the face — but still it feels so good to be special sometimes).
Where am I today? I am currently applying all my know-how to distribute Electric Indigo, my latest short film, a coming-of-age drama depicting the life of a little girl, Indigo, who never knew her mother and whose only reference is the love of two heterosexual fathers united by the bonds of a “non-carnal” marriage.
One curious anecdote: at the beginning of its festival career, a big French TV channel refused to buy Electric Indigo because, following the violent extreme right-wing demonstrations against gay marriage in France, they didn’t want to take any chances and make a political statement. I didn’t quite understand their reasoning at the time, because I was sure that my two characters were clearly straight: they get married to escape from any emotional commitment with women, and consequently treat them in a misogynistic way. I was subtly trying, I thought, to reflect men-women relationships nowadays. I started to think that maybe I had, without knowing it, made a fascist film against gay marriage. A few months later, the film was selected for some important gay and lesbian film festivals and it won the Best Short Award at the Madrid International LGBT Film Festival. Members of the jury told me not to worry, the film was not at all homophobic, on the contrary, it was a postmodern look at love, sex and education in a pluralistic society.
Electric Indigo still has one more year to go on the festival circuit before I can submit it to the on-line competitions. But as it stands there are still a few countries immune to my cinema, such as Sweden, Norway, Finland and Japan. Repeatedly, across the years, my films haven’t reached their potential there. On the other hand, for the first time one of my films has been successful in Taiwan. As a film director, it’s very interesting to try to decipher the reasons why a certain audience is more receptive to certain themes, sensibilities or types of humour. But sometimes it goes beyond your understanding, and that’s when you have to let it go and let your work speak for itself.
Read more interviews and articles in the Venice 2014 issue of World of Shorts, here: