Wednesday, August 18, 2010

BREAKING NEWS about Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE. And what, exactly, is it like to select titles for a film festival crowd?

Upon seeing Anne Thompson's tweet about New York Film Festival selection committee member Todd McCarthy's incisive new post about what it's like to attack that laborious job, I was immediately reminded of my own odyssey as the Programming Director for the Dahlonega International Film Festival (now the Rome International Film Festival) back in the early 2000s. The festival's Executive Director, Barry Norman, as generous and radically creative as he is, offered me the position and I jumped at the chance to make my mark. But it ain't a cakewalk: Being a film festival programmer is a more serious task than most could possibly imagine. So I replied to Thompson's note:

As a former film festival Programming Director, I have often characterized the job as such: Imagine you're walking into a brand new video store, and all the 1200 videos there on the shelves have blank covers. The only information on them is the film's title, director, genre, length, and maybe a one-line synopsis. 99.5% of the filmmakers are unknown (not something the top film festivals have to worry about, I'm sorry to say). 55% of the titles are shorts (from 2 to 50 minutes long), but 45% of them are full-fledged features. And then the store's owner offers you a deal: you can watch all of these videos for free, but you must watch them all in four months, and provide a precise review on each one--that is, unless you hate them outright, in which case you give them the no-go gong and move on. Would you take the challenge, or not? How tough is your love of cinema? Will it withstand the effort? What will make you bang the gong? What does a movie have to do to keep you rooting for it? And what will you learn about cinema, and yourself, as a result?

I really have a lot more to say about my Programming Director experience, but it'll have to wait. It's a great big story, and must be told correctly. Let it suffice to say that the assignment was more challenging, but more exciting--even for a new, tiny but vivacious festival--than I could have ever expected. 1200 films a year, from 35 countries a year, for two years in a row, for little pay but for a surplus of good karma? It was a supremely difficult, hungry trip I'm very happy I took (and here I have to thank my lovely, too-understanding mother Lynn for helping me do it). McCarthy's comments bear this out. If you're a filmmaker wondering what the hell that film festival selection committee you hit up goes through--whoever may be on that board, and for whatever film festival in question--you'd do well to read this article. And later on, and very soon, I'll go into my own related experiences in greater narrative detail. (In fact, a fine movie could be made about the road I took through the apocryphal film festival adventure; mine was a life-changing journey.)

Terrence Malick intruding in on Kit and Holly's murder spree in his Badlands (1973)

Now back to Malick's The Tree of Life. I take Todd's opinions on definite faith: we will not be seeing this film--once the most anticipated of 2010--this year. I have been afraid of this, especially recently, given the death of its parent company, Apparition, and its present-day search for a distributor. After all this effort, Malick isn't going to rush his film out there. No way, no how. And now it seems to be certain--McCarthy posits that the earliest the film will drop is as part of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and he hopes it'll be a major feature of the 2011 New York Film Festival. That means we have another year to wait for it here in the USA. Somewhere up there, Stanley Kubrick is smiling. He knows the deal.

POST NOTE: According to Thompson, as of 8/19/2010, the plans are still in place for The Tree of Life to open this year. It still, nevertheless, sounds like hopeful thinking, but I'm perfectly willing for her to be deemed correct.


Kevin said...

All good things are worth waiting for!

J.D. said...

Between TREE OF LIFE and its Imax documentary companion piece, Malick must be a pretty busy guy but I'm confident he'll deliver the goods and he's worth the wait.

Joseph said...

So true, Kevin. The more work put into it, the better. This is definitely not a film that I want to see rushed.

Dean Treadway said...

Yeah, I do agree with you guys. Sometimes the wait is delicious in and of itself.