Ask a Film Festival Programmer | SFIndiefest’s Jay Wertzler

| February 3, 2015

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To how many film festivals have you submitted? A few? Dozens? Hundreds? Don’t you wish you could get inside the mind of these gatekeepers?

They can take a while to warm up to your film.

They can take a while to warm up to your film.

What goes into the insane process of picking and choosing? Better yet, how can it help you? Well, we got a chance to chat with Jay Wertzler over email. A festival juggler of sorts, when he’s not managing the comedy festival SF Sketchfest, he’s sifting through hundreds of short films to bring the best to SFIndiefest. So before you scope out the amazing short films at this year’s SFIndiefest starting February 5, get a peek at what you can do to get your film to the top of the heap.

SFIndiefest short film programmer Jay Wertzler doesn't want to hear your piano music.

SFIndiefest short film programmer Jay Wertzler doesn’t want to hear your piano music.


Hi Jay! Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into the programming game?

Hi! I started out working in operations for the San Francisco Film Society back in 2008—first seasonally, then year-round. I’d volunteer to be on prescreening committees for shorts programs at SFIFF (San Francisco International Film Festival), Mill Valley Film Festival, and SF Indie, and kept coming back as others dropped out. (Watching submissions can be a grueling endurance test.) There was an opening at IndieFest 2014 and Jeff Ross asked if I’d be interested in programming their shorts on a non-volunteer basis, and it was a no-brainer.

Walk us through the process. How do films go from hitting the submissions desk to being screened in a showcase?

You know, I tried a different process this year. Normally, I’d arrange for several groups of 3-4 people whose taste and opinions I hold in high regard to take a chunk of shorts and prescreen them for me, taking notes on criteria like quality of story, originality, look and feel, and more. Their notes would help me see which films floated to the top, and which ones nobody liked. I’d start watching those films that were rated highest across multiple groups. (I put eyes on every single film—but I did not watch all of them from start to finish. More on that later.)

This year, I decided to forego that process and screen all 650 entries myself without any prescreeners, because I am an idiot. I went in mostly blind to every single film, and tried to let the work speak for itself. I assign a rating of zero to five, make some notes about content to remind myself about the film, and once I’ve watched them all, I can start to compile the programs.

Can you tell us a little about your programming strategy?

IndieFest’s shorts programs end up being about 85% submission-based, meaning they were submitted to us for review directly from the filmmaker. I like to sprinkle in a few shorts that I’ve seen at other festivals, or that have been recommended to me. So I never really know what the programs are going to look like until I look at all of the possible films. Then patterns in the films start to reveal themselves, and the programs start to congeal in a way that feels organic. It’s a bit like making a mixtape—you have a bunch of songs you like, and there is a through-line from track to track that takes the listener on a bit of a journey. Some songs, even though they are great, don’t make the cut. But you’re probably not going to follow up Beethoven’s 5th with a Weird Al jam.

What are some essential criteria for a short film to make the pass?

It varies from festival to festival and programmer to programmer, but for me, there is a hierarchy of four criteria that a film must satisfy in order to be considered at all. If you don’t pass the first criteria, it doesn’t matter if you hit numbers 2-4. Each builds upon the previous.

First, you need to have a good story. This includes plot, writing, structure, and originality. Not unlike the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography, there’s no objective definition of what a good story is—but I know it when I see it.

Next, the film needs to look good. This means everything from cinematography and mise-en-scene to editing pace, art direction and costumes. If anything about the look feels unintentional or half-assed, it’s going to take me out of the story and distract.

Third, the film needs to have great sound. I don’t want to be thinking about the hisses and pops, or overuse of music, or the poor mix of dialogue while I’m watching a film.

Finally, the film’s subjects must be interesting—and by subjects, I mean the people in front of the camera. Bad acting or uninteresting characters can ruin an otherwise intriguing film (documentaries have characters, too—they’re just shaped in post-production rather than during development.)

If all four of those criteria are satisfied, then (and only then) can I suspend my disbelief as a viewer and really engage with the film. The best movies are the ones where we don’t even realize we’re watching something.


OK, so you’re going through I-can’t-imagine-how-many screeners, what practical things are a programmer looking for in an initial pass? In other words, other than making a great film, what can a shorts filmmaker do to better prepare their submission to rise to the top?

Always research the festivals you submit to. This is a common mistake I see happen all the time. Online festival submission websites have made it easier to blanket-submit films to dozens of festivals at once. It’s efficient for the filmmaker, but more often than not, they’re just throwing their money away.

Look at the previous years’ shorts programs and see what played. Look up those shorts online and watch them. Look for themes and patterns. Don’t see any sci-fi shorts in the program from the last five festivals? That’s a good indication your sci-fi short probably won’t get in. I’ve seen shorts that I loved but didn’t program because they didn’t fit with the festival’s ethos. It’s just like a job application—you probably wouldn’t apply for a job at an auto body shop if you spent the last 10 years as a dentist.

Is shorter better from a programming stance?

Yes. The filmmaker has a very small window of time to intrigue the audience. I’ll usually know within the first 30 seconds whether a short is worth continuing (though I never turn it off that early). Get to the point, and get to it early.

That being said, there are some excellent longer shorts in this year’s program. But I’ve also had to reject some shorts because, while they were good, they were too long. Programming one 20-minute short means not being able to program three 7-minute shorts.

For a short film, is it possible to play too many festivals?

Not necessarily. In IndieFest’s case, we’re an audience festival, meaning we show movies for audiences to enjoy, not for those in the film industry to come and discover new works. San Francisco has a zillion film festivals, and it is absolutely possible for a short to play too many festivals in the same geographic location. There is a wariness of programming a film that has just played recently in the same city, as the audience is limited.

What should every filmmaker do to get the most out of their festival experience? How can they work best with the festival?

Hang out and talk with other filmmakers and staff members. See as many movies as you can. Network. Make friends. Keep in touch. We have a lot of returning shorts filmmakers from last year whose new works I would have otherwise not seen, but who sent me their films directly.

Tell us about SF Sketchfest. Are there aspects of festival management that cross paths with programming?

The bottom line for both is making sure that audiences enjoy themselves and that we put on a good show. Festival management is a lot of the nuts and bolts, while programming is by nature more content-based. But in the end, I just want everyone to have a great experience and get to see something they otherwise would not have been able to see.

Any words for short filmmakers who want to submit for next year? Any advice?

Come see this year’s shorts programs and see what IndieFest is all about! And for the love of God, please, don’t start your movie with sentimental piano music. I don’t know who is teaching people to do that, but it’s the worst.

Jay Wertzler programs the shorts programs at SF IndieFest. He works as the Festival Manager for SF Sketchfest, and is the co-founder of The First Annual, which presents (and subsequently abandons) a different niche film festival in San Francisco each year.

The 17th Annual SFIndiefest runs February 5 -18. See the short film schedule and buy tickets here.

SF Indiefest is a year-round, non-profit organization that has been operating since 1998. They present three annual festivals: the SF Independent Film Festival (SF Indie for short), the SF Documentary Festival (DocFest for short) and the genre festival Another Hole in the Head. In 2012, they also premiered the Northern California Action Sports Film Festival and the US edition of the touring Shnit International Short Film Festival.In addition to the film programs, IndieFest is known for throwing some great parties, including the annual Roller Disco Costume Party, the annual Big Lebowski Party and many live music events. Recently IndieFest produced a play in conjunction with the Primitive Screwheads theater company called Much Ado About Lebowski. They also launched a Bad Art Gallery (and Bad Movie Playhouse) and are planning more theater, music, art and film events right this very moment!
Last year, over 21,000 film and event goers attended SF Indiefest events.

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