Today got off to a much better start. After an initial mishap, that is. I mentioned in the last post that I was staying with a documentary producer friend (Maggie), and I walked out the door to her apartment in Brooklyn this morning without my festival passes: a couple of over-sized laminated passes that hang around your neck and I.D. you to get in to all the events. So I arrived in the lower East side of Manhattan and met Monica and Andrew for our "speed dating" session with A&E, and immediately realized what I had done. The woman at the door seemed pretty strict that I couldn't get in, so I started calling up Maggie, hoping she hadn't left.
To make a long story short, one of the other volunteers vouched for me, I got in, did the pitch, and met Maggie at her office where she had my passes.
So how did the pitch go? Much, much better. Why? Possibly because Monica gave it this time, not me. She had just given it to someone in the elevator when I was running around trying to get my passes taken care of, and Andrew suggested that on this fast meeting Monica (who's a faster talker than I am) should give it, and I should do the longer meetings. Sounded great to me. So she opened it up and we both fielded questions. Andrew later said it had gone really well and in fact the A&E rep did seem pretty engaged. Regardless of whether there is any real interest on her part, just having a good meeting did wonders for our spirits.
Later, there was a panel with some of the programmers from the so-called "A-list" film festivals, including Sundance, SXSW, Slamdance, and Tribeca. Even though they were swamped by people clamoring for attention afterwards, I managed to hand the Sundance rep and the SXSW rep stuff on our film and gave the "elevator" pitch: the one sentence version of the film. What's the point of doing that? Will they really remember you? The purpose is to make a connection, hopefully stick an idea in their brain, so that when you follow up in a few days with a call, you can say "I met you at the IFP Market. My film is 'The Atom Smashers,' the one about the physicists looking for "the God Particle---" "---oh, yeah, I remember that. OK, I'll keep an eye out for that one when it comes through."
Or something like that. It is a strange shift, I’ll be honest. After spending the last three years of my life working with Monica and Andrew on this film, and debating, reviewing, contemplating, re-working and approving every micro-second of footage, it’s a bizarre exercise to try to suddenly come up with one sentence (one sentence!) that explains what the film is and why a perfect stranger ought to be interested. How in the world could this be a good system? Why should I have to compress thousands of hours of effort into one pithy sentence?
I guess the answer is because ten thousand people each have a 90-minute movie. Ideally, the work should be able to speak for itself, but the people in charge of programming, of distributing, of paying for films to be shown to the public, don’t have fifteen thousand hours to spend watching every movie. So they watch only the few, the golden few, that capture their attention, and pass on the bulk of the rest.
Why did I use the word “golden” just then? Because Leon Lederman used it when he described the process of how physicists examine the vast multitude of physics events, of collisions, in the tevatron. Most of them are average, unremarkable collisions. Maybe 10 percent are slightly interesting, and those get kicked up a floor to a bank of computers for analysis. Most of those are rejected as being ordinary, but maybe 10 percent of those are kicked upstairs another level to the next bank of computers for further analysis. And a tiny fraction of those, “The Golden Ones,” as Lederman described them, are flagged for actual human beings to take a look at, because they are really extraordinary.
So, when you’re a festival programmer or an industry executive and you have hundreds and hundreds of films being thrown at you, you can’t watch them all. You have to rely on a detection system like that at fermilab, and examine only the golden ones…
I'm being a little generous to the industry types. But Walter Murch, one of my film heroes, once described how a movie set worked by saying where there's a bottleneck in the process, there's power. There's a gigantic bottleneck at the intersection between filmmaker and audience. And it's the industry people who hold the cork.