Note to filmmakers: enjoy your festival year

Oh, what a year for My Shanghai.

2014 began with an air of finality: after two and a half years of work, it was time to marry sound and picture and create the master. Let me tell you, I was a little freaked out because Heidi, my assistant editor with all the experieXmas logonce, was tied up on another job and I would have to do it myself. I was alone in the cockpit. Heidi talked me through it in advance, assuring me I would not crash the plane. Even if I did crash the plane, it was only a digital plane and I could try again with a backup if I had to.

I didn’t crash the plane. I delivered it safely to Mission Control who mastered it onto HD-CamSR, a stable digital tape format. I had to decide how many copies to make, but at the start of our supposed festival year it was impossible to know when and where My Shanghai would go. What if we had two acceptances for the same week in different states? Or three? But that’s the optimist talking, and without the optimist, My Shanghai would never have been made in the first place.

I had a couple of HD-Cams made (a decision I would come to regret, but I’ll save that for another column) and a half dozen Blu-Rays for exhibition. You’d think it would’ve been a smooth glide once the mastering was done, but no. Something went wonky with the Blu-Ray duplicator. Fortunately, I caught the error in time to make new ones, and we were ready to go. Ready for those festival invitations to arrive in my inbox.

My plan was to premiere in Santa Barbara. Well, why not? says the optimist. Joan and I had even scouted restaurants for our premiere party. We were that ready. Santa Barbara, on the other hand, was not ready for us, which made our quick acceptance into San Luis Obispo International Film Festival that much sweeter.

Note to filmmakers waiting for festival acceptance emails: sometimes you don’t get an email. You get a phone call. You get to hear how much they love your film. You might not hear it again, so savor every word. They love your film.

SLOIFF was the ideal opener for us. “Slo,” as the locals say, is a small town on the central California coast with big screens and great restaurants and an abundance of heart. It also happens to be in our leading lady’s back yard. Virginia was able to go and was the hit of the evening at our sold-out premiere on March 8th. She even surprised us by going to the second screening the next day in Atascadero, just north on the 101 — “over the grade,” the Slo locals say.

It’s a good thing we had such a good time. It carried us through the next few no-festival months. The no-festivals we no-attended included no-Ashland, no-AmDocs, no-Los Angeles, and a bunch of others I no-think about now.

I’d planned to take the summer off anyway — yes, really — due to a big production in my back yard. I’m trying to convince IMDb to add the Wells Family Wedding to my producing credits.

And then we did Portland. It was awesome to screen My Shanghai on our home turf at the Portland Film Festival at the end of August. This was PDXFF’s second year, and I’m amazed how well it came together given the ambitious screening schedule and all the panels and filmmaker interviews and live music and movies in the park, cloudbursts and all —

Note to filmmakers who are bummed to be scheduled for only one screening: sell out your one screening in advance and festival organizers will likely give you another one. Which we were and we did and they did.

As soon as PDXFF was over, Joan and I jumped on a plane and headed to DOCUTAH (long name: Southern Utah International Documentary Film Festival). We’d been invited months earlier — another phone call! I’d written everything down, but the best word was “lyrical.” Our film was lyrical!

I have to say, DOCUTAH was a blast. This is a college-based festival at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah. All the films were shown on campus, so going to as many films as you wanted was easy. DOCUTAH also organized a non-campus event for us: a field trip to Zion National Park (only an hour away) with the local press. Spectacular. Red rocks and reporters! You’re just not going to find that at a big festival.

A bonus round from DOCUTAH: My Shanghai was selected from DOCUTAH’s slate of films for Mesquite’s Best of Fest Film Festival in Mesquite, Nevada. Unfortunately, my plans to attend were washed out along with I-15 between St. George and Las Vegas!

Next up, Big Bear Lake International Film Festival in Southern California. Joan’s “Motherload” script had done well here in competition a couple of years ago and both of us have read for the screenplay competition, so we knew it met the criteria we’d come to love in small-town/big-screen/good-food venues. Although we were underwhelmed at the turnout for the first screening — 10am on a Friday morning — the vibe was good, the praise was sincere, and I think we attracted some long-lasting attention. Oh, and from a technical standpoint, we were thrilled at what BBLIFF did with “My Shanghai” by converting it to DCP format for exhibition. DCP is state of the art in digital projection. My, oh, my, I’ve never seen it so pretty.

Big Bear also has an inside track on the industry, having to do with its resort location in the mountains east of L.A. Some very interesting people come to Big Bear, and they speak on panels and you can talk to them about your projects and exchange business cards and whatnot.

Note to filmmakers: small can be mighty. Put BBLIFF on your radar. September.

There was one more festival coming up: Moondance in Boulder. Of course, we’d thought we’d go. We wanted to go. Joan had won a screenwriting award at Moondance a few years back. We no go, and what happens? “My Shanghai” wins two awards:
– the Columbine Award for Best Feature Documentary; P.H. Wells, Director. The Columbine Award is given to a film that promotes non-violence or portrays non-violent conflict resolution. I have to assume, because I wasn’t told, that Virginia’s acceptance of the Japanese people and Japanese culture after the war had some bearing on winning this prize;
– and the Seahorse Award for Best Film Score; Jonathan Geer, Composer.

So that was our festival year. We may have a few more festivals to explore in 2015, but that’s not all. One of the more interesting folks we met recently was someone who spoke on a panel in Big Bear. He and I have entered into an interesting discussion on the future of My Shanghai. There’s not much to report at this point, which is why I’m ending with this bit of news instead of starting with it. With any luck, the new year will begin with a whole new life for My Shanghai.

Note to filmmakers: Feed your optimist and let yourself fly.

Wishing you health, peace, and prosperity in 2015!

PHW

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