INTERVIEW WITH.. DONOVAN AIKMAN OF VICTORIA FILM FESTIVAL
On the blog today we speak to one of the longest running festivals we’ve had chance to interview, and a firm favourite of ours, Victoria Film Festival. Their late deadline is September 11th, with the extended deadline falling on September 17th – submissions can be made by either FilmFreeWay or Withoutabox. We grab Programmer Donovan Aikman to discuss festival myths, formats, and most importantly film.
Tell us a bit about your job, and what you do…
I program for the Victoria Film Festival and The Vic Theatre as well as some of the many smaller screening series we do such as The Free-B Film Fest and The Foodie Film Fest. For the main festival, I both look through the incoming entries to determine what might be worth showing and I also look out for films at other festivals that may be of interest to us too. Once the films have come back from jurying, I work out the logistics of how the program should be put together. As we’re a relatively small office I also usually get tasked with handling the technical aspects of our office and events (such as projection).
You’re one of the longest running festivals we’ve spoken to, racking up 21 years. What’s the secret?
Persistence. We’ve got a great audience in Victoria but getting the word out takes time.
And how has it grown over the years, have you seen a change in audience or filmmakers?
The audience has remained similar but growing and we feel great about that. We’re in a well-educated, university and government town so we’ve always felt consistently appreciated. Filmmakers though have come a long way. When we started, we really only supported a few screening formats: 35mm, 16mm and BetaSP. All of these were fairly expensive formats for indies to work on so we had a lot less entries but they were usually quite strong because of that cost hurdle. During the DV years, there was explosion of formats and we support as many as 13 different formats at one point. It was easy for people to make movies so there was a lot of entries but there was also a lot more entries with very weak technical production values then. However, we’re back down to about 3 formats again for screening (DCP, Blu-Ray and Quicktime but others would be considered) and although the number of entries hasn’t really gone down, the quality of production has climbed right back up again. It seems that filmmakers have really figured out the technology.
Can you let us know of any films you’ve got lined up for next year’s festival we should keep an eye out for?
It’s too early to say anything. The turn around from confirmed to announced is quite short for us.
Feel free to dispel a film festival myth to the filmmakers out there…
There’s no formula for a “festival film”. I’ve been asked more than once about how to make a great short film “specifically for a film fest audience”. It doesn’t exist. However, some filmmakers have been fed this idea that there is a magic formula for selection. San Diego Asian Film Festival had a great spoof of this (click here to see). I think the perception that such a thing exists is because people pigeon hole some works as a “festival film” but only because they aren’t market-driven films. They’ll still have an audience so there is a market for them but they’re not market-driven films. Films become festival hits because they have been scrupulously made with a genuine passion. If you’re setting out to just meticulously copy or fake that passion, it just doesn’t work.
What’s your advice to someone who gets a rejection from a festival?
First, don’t take it personally. Even really great films and filmmakers turned away for a whole variety of reasons so you need to be persistent and expect a high rejection ratio. Truly fantastic films that I have seen go to 15 or even 50 film festivals often had to submit to 3 to 8 times that many and that had to plan out a strategy to get it.
Second, always take at least a second to consider what your festival plan is after each rejection. You don’t have to abandon it but you need to examine it. If your plan was just to “send it to a bunch of festivals”, that’s not a plan. If Philadelphia doesn’t take your movie but Calgary and Seattle do, does that tell you anything? If Cannes won’t take your experimental spiritual self-documentary, was that really your audience? I firmly do believe every film has an audience. It may only be your family and friends. It might be everybody in Brooklyn or Serbia but nowhere else. I don’t know myself who that audience is. You know your film. You should always be working out who and where your audience is.
Tell us the best and worst part of your job.
Best part is talking with other film programmers about hidden gems or discovering one on your own through the Call for Entries. Discovery is so much fun. Even when we can’t program something we love, we often champion it on to others and try to give it a life of its own.
The worst part is still rejection letters. We say “no” to a lot of stuff we like but there isn’t the space. Even if we’re not your audience, we know the effort it takes to make any kind of movie and rejection isn’t easy. As I said, don’t take it personally. Move on. Find your audience.
Share with us one of your favourite films and tell us why you like it…
‘Phil Touches Flo’ was our “best short” when I first came on 18 years ago. It shows its age a bit technically but I still love it and we’ve even had the filmmaker on as a juror. The main part of what appeals so much about this is not just the deadpan humour but that it’s so genuinely simple. It has a finite number of elements, plot points, characters, locations and budget but it works. It’s never boring and it’s never clever for its own sake. Also, the care in making it is so clear and concise, it’s charming. It has everything a great short film should have and nothing more.
Thank you so much to Donovan for taking the time to speak to us, Victoria Film Festival is a favourite festival or ours and we very much encourage filmmakers to check it out for future submissions.
Donovan Aikman is the programmer for the Victoria Film Festival and The Vic Theatre in Victoria, BC, Canada. During the summer he also programs and runs VFF’s outdoor screening series The Free-B Film Festival which shows classic genre-films under the stars in Beacon Hill Park. He has worked for VFF for 18 years years of its 21 years and run The Free-B for 14 years since it’s inception. Before joining VFF, he was a board member of film film co-op CineVic: Society of Independent Filmmakers where he worked on various short and feature length independent and locally made films.