Festival Formula caught up with Chris Hastings, Festival Director of Satisfied Eye International Film Festival. It’s Satisfied Eye’s first year and Chris promises all kinds of creamy treats (it’ll make sense later) for filmmakers and film enthusiasts.
Tell us about your festival
I keep getting told off by my colleagues for this, but I’ve been calling our festival Little Cannes. Which might be slightly pushing it. Considering it’s our first year. And we don’t have a beach. Or yachts. Or Brad Pitt. But what is it they say about “if you aim for the stars?” It started when our research among filmmakers showed that the elements they’d like most to see at a new film festival were largely those you’d find at a market. So if you ask me where we are going to be in 10 years, I’d definitely say we’re aiming to be a place to buy and sell films; and thanks to our location, that’s a real possibility. If we achieve what we set out to do and if we get the support of filmmakers. And the industry. The timing of the Satisfied Eye International Film Festival isn’t accidental. Epsom & Ewell, where the festival takes place, is slap bang in the middle of the UK’s film and gaming industry hubs, is just launching a major annual arts festival (MGS04) and in 2019 is opening a huge arts venue (Horton Chapel), all of which are very exciting and will make the area a vital destination for creatives. So when I was asked about launching and running a film festival here, I jumped at the chance. The theme of the arts festival is discovery and, by chance rather than by design, that’s the mission of Satisfied Eye too. The intention is to bring together and promote the best upcoming creatives in the industry across features films, shorts, animation, documentary, TV and games. It’s very much about giving filmmakers a festival that provides genuine worth to them and that makes them feel valued. We want to be giving their films and their work the exposure they deserve while bringing them together with people who can genuinely add a positive impact to their careers. So our judging panel (which includes Oscar, Emmy and BAFTA winners, a literary agent, a film buyer and which we’re adding to week by week) are experienced industry people and, as well as prizes specific to each category, all winners will get to attend a private networking event with the judges and hopefully a host of other industry alumni. We’ll also be looking to get some of the bigger local businesses along to connect possible investment. At the same time, I want it to be a fun, relaxing environment where it feels more like a social event than a day at work!
What made you start your film festival?
I go to a lot of festivals and I think everybody knows they’re not all created equal. Which means it’s incredibly challenging because most of us only have a limited festival budget. Deciding where to spend your hard-earned cash is difficult. And if your film is selected or wins an award, you want to feel that it actually means something. That when you put that laurel on your poster or CV, that a distributor or producer is going to be impressed. The last film award I won, I had to pay $30 for the privilege of having it posted to me and when it arrived I had to superglue it together. Which rather diminished the value of that particular achievement! Satisfied Eye will be the absolute antithesis of that. I used to send out first drafts of screenplays (as a writer) to festivals, just to get feedback (because … writer tip! … it’s often cheaper than paying for reader notes!) and I was astonished at the number of festivals where a screenplay that I knew full well was underdeveloped and still needed lots of work managed to find itself a finalist. Which was my first indication that some festivals aren’t really very useful; and means the value of any award at that festival is negligible. In fact, if I see those awards on a film now, I immediately doubt that film. So I wanted to put together a festival where value is everything. Where your film is going to be screened in the way it was intended, where awards are a genuine indication of quality and achievement and where the networking opportunities are genuinely beneficial to career development. In short, and rather selfishly, I wanted to create my perfect festival – the kind of festival I want to attend. The final area that’s particularly important to me is the social element. As someone who has spent some years as a games writer at both small indie level to the biggest selling games, I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in games conferences and festivals. These tend to be incredibly convivial events, bringing together creatives at every level with the big producers, with players and fans, and it’s a far more fun, jovial, inclusive atmosphere with drink and hospitality, a party spirit and cosplay usually as standard (although I think that’ll probably be a step too far for Satisfied Eye, even if I do have a Daredevil outfit hidden away in my wardrobe)! I wanted to bring more of that to a film festival, shamelessly stealing some of the elements that work at events like EGX.
What are you most looking forward to in your next edition?
This is our inaugural event so it’s very much about showing what we’re about and I’m just looking forward to 26 October rolling up and connecting with all the filmmakers who are already ensuring this will be an incredible festival. In turn I’m excited about connecting these filmmakers to other people in the industry. I love film. I love the process. I love the creativity. The sweat. I can talk about film until the cows come home. And having seen some amazing submissions already, work that has left me in awe of the undiscovered talent, blown away by a piece of acting, laughing at a great piece of comedy writing, or all of the above, I want to be in the same room as the people responsible for those moments. Because the one thing we get so little of as independent filmmakers is genuine affirmation or acknowledgement of our work. Sure, the people we work with on set might give us a pat on the back. But there’s a lot of people I want to personally high five, let them know how damned incredible they are and that they’re doing things just as good as anything I’ve seen in my local Imax. And to keep at it. People whose careers I want to follow. People I want to work with. Some of the work out there has genuinely astonished me, in the most positive way possible. And being an international film festival I can already feel the pang of disappointment at the thought that not everyone will be able to make it in October, but we’ll do our best to help anyone who deserves to be there to be part of that collective high five! I don’t want to wish my life away but it’s a bit like boxers who always say they just want the night of the fight to arrive. That’s how I am right now. If every filmmaker doesn’t walk away from Satisfied Eye with a smile on their face, a sense of achievement, a feeling that they’ve got something from it and that they’ve made invaluable contacts (and had a great time to boot) then that’s a failure on my part. And I’d run naked through the streets of Epsom before I accepted failure.
What have you learnt the most from being involved with a film festival?
Balance is key. We’ve talked to other film festivals, filmmakers, industry people, carried out vox pops in terms of what filmmakers actually want, carried out a lot of research with local people, cinephiles and businesses. For a festival that is looking to bring all of these together, ensuring where the focus is, what elements are necessary, which elements are desired and which might only appeal to one demographic but deter another has been the biggest challenge. Just as an example, I don’t want screenings or networking events that are confined to the people who made that film. I want screenings to include other filmmakers, filmgoers, new networking opportunities, possibly the person who is going to buy your film or finance your next one. To do that however, when you’re not in the south of France and have only just launched is a massive challenge and is all about getting the balance just right. I’m sure everyone has been to empty screenings at Shorts Corner where you’re alone with the director, which proves how challenging it is. But that’s what we’re trying to do – trying to please all of the people all of the time. Otherwise known as achieving the impossible. And that’s all down to the perfect juggling act.
How does your selection process work?
Every single submission is initially viewed or read and rated by myself and my two festival colleagues, before being shortlisted for our judging panel. It’s a challenge but I don’t want to put my name to a festival where I haven’t been personally involved in every element of the judging process. The decision on prize winners and official selections will then be determined by myself and the judges. The judges have been selected not only because of their considerable experience but because as individuals they are useful connections who might help with someone’s next project or assist them in furthering their career. And while we’re not yet accredited to FIAPF, that’s our aim so we will be conforming as much as possible to the regulations governing film festivals in the way we select, judge and issue awards.
What’s your protocol for sending out rejections?
There’s nothing worse than soulless, blanket rejections which don’t tell you anything about your film. So we will be contacting everyone individually when our deadline closes. The judging panel rates and adds notes after viewing each submission so we’ll be passing those on. For writers we’ll be providing our reader report and for filmmakers we’ll include the comments of any of our judges. I know exactly what goes into making a film and how hard it is and everyone deserves acknowledgement. There’s a moment in an episode of the BBC quiz show QI (which will only mean anything to UK people!) that I often misquote, where comedian Alan Davies mocks the romantic-fiction writer Barbara Cartland. In response the host, Stephen Fry, admonishes him and says something along the lines of “anyone whose writing has the power to entertain just one person, to make just one person want to turn the pages of their book, then they deserve respect.” And that’s even more true of filmmakers, because even the smallest no budget movie has the blood, sweat, tears and heart of a whole host of creatives.
Length of short film. Discuss.
I’ve never been one to stress about the length of a short. It’s whatever is needed to tell the story the filmmaker wants to tell. There are 3 hour movies that whip by like a short and there are 5 minute movies that drag like they were 3 hours long. Indeed, there are a few shorts I’ve watched during the judging process that have ended and I’ve thought “I want more!” Tell the story. Then worry about the time.
Describe your festival in five words or three emojis.
I’ll be honest, I am a bit of an emoji nazi. I refuse to respond to any texts from my wife that include an emoji. Although that does mean she can win any text based argument by finishing it with a poo or smiley! So, in five words I’d describe Satisfied Eye as fun, highest-quality, valuable, essential and creamy (see last question below!)
What’s a personal favourite film festival of yours?
I love the Crystal Palace International Film Festival. I’d put it above any of the film markets and in terms of what Satisfied Eye is trying to do, it’s very much our role model. The balance of programming with events and the social atmosphere is second to none as far as I’m concerned and the organisers do a fantastic job of bringing together filmmakers and the community, while also being a festival of genuine value.
What do you wish more filmmakers did and didn’t do?
I’m not sure if this is in the context of a film festival or generally, so I’ll give you one of each! With my producer hat on the “wish filmmakers didn’t do” is very much about business plans. I spent several years as a producer specialising in UK/Canadian co-productions and found myself on a number of panels – including the Finance Forum at TIFF – helping filmmakers through the funding maze. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t get a project pitched to me via email and the first question I always ask (before reading the script) is “can you please send me the business plan.” Then when it arrives in my inbox I generally have to fight my inner rage. Because I’ve seen so many great projects and so many great scripts, where the business plan is a complete nonsense. A template taken from the internet. A logline that’s a slugline. A treatment that’s a synopsis. Unrealistic comparables. A first-time filmmaker on their first time feature budgeting $20m and giving themselves a $500k fee. Or a budget of $1m with a cast wish list of Matt Damon and George Clooney. A bad business plan is as bad as a script incorrectly formatted. I’ve seen a script with an A list director attached, I’m not sure how, and when I asked to see the business plan the response was “we don’t need one, we have such and such director on board.” That was six years ago. That film has never been made and I’m pretty confident it never will be. With that director AND a business plan I’m certain we would have seen it in cinemas by now. Which is a shame, because it was a great script, but the writers just put it in the wrong hands. So, don’t send out a project until you have a fully realised business plan compiled by someone who knows how to put together a business plan! In terms of what I wished more filmmakers did do, and this has come very much through my work on the festival, my answer would be: cast, cast and cast again. I know the industry adage is that you can’t make a decent film with a bad script, but I’ve very quickly learned (while assessing submissions with my team) that you can turn a great film into a bad one with poor casting. It breaks my heart, but we’ve seen a lot of projects where the script is great, the direction is masterful, in fact I have no other criticisms. But the acting is so poor that it becomes an uncomfortably painful experience to watch on a par with The Room. And I know that I couldn’t screen it to audiences because there would be howls of derision. So that’s the great work of a lot of people wasted because of one poor decision. I can think of at least a dozen submissions to our festival that would have been in contention if it weren’t for some below standard acting performances. There are plenty of great actors out there, regardless of where you live. And it makes me both sad and a little angry.
What question do you get asked the most by filmmakers?
We get so many requests for comps that it’s almost a full time job responding to them. When we first opened for submissions, we were getting as many requests for comps as we were genuine submissions. While, of course, we were happy to consider each project on its merit, those projects that sell their story, the quality of the film etc were far more likely to be considered than those who contacted us with a Bond villain swagger declaring that their film had already won 100 awards, they were clearly a filmmaker to watch and that we should be grateful to have their project. You wouldn’t walk into the Lionsgate offices like that (or at least I wouldn’t) so we tend to respond much more to a little humility and honesty and some background on their project. I think too many filmmakers have been watching Glengarry Glenn Ross. For us the fact that a film has already won 100 awards immediately makes it less appealing because it’s already likely stale in terms of any market elements we will be trying to bring to the festival (in fact, while we made a decision a while ago that we simply don’t have the resources to accept comps anymore, one of the very few we did take in was a film where the director clearly stated we were the first festival they’d submitted to and they were looking to be selective with their submissions – which is far more valuable to us as a new film festival looking to make its own stamp).
We were having this debate in the Hastings household at Christmas and while I found it easy to choose my favourite TV show (The Leftovers) and game (Nomad Soul) I agonized over choosing a film. And I mean agonized. It was like Sophie’s Choice. While the creative in me was looking at films like The Third Man (which originally made me want to be a filmmaker) or Casablanca (which made me want to be a writer) or Blade Runner (which got me into the industry) eventually I had to go with my heart and chose Unforgiven. I grew up desperately wanting to be Clint Eastwood and loved Sergio Leone as a director. I spent many an hour recreating scenes from the spaghetti westerns (although, thanks to my stature, I was invariably Eli Wallach!) My parents didn’t give me a middle name when I was a child, fully intending to let me choose one for myself when I was old enough to grasp the concept. Which is a lovely idea (and one all parents should follow, just because of the mayhem that would ensue!) but they hadn’t planned on me choosing the name Blondie, from the Good, The Bad and The Ugly, as my second name. Sadly, although probably rather sensibly, my parents vetoed that (largely thanks to Debbie Harry). I eventually went for the far more sensible James (named, in my boyish naivety, after my other hero of the time James Bond). So when Clint directed Unforgiven, it was the culmination of my childhood obsessions with my grown-up love for cinema. I think it’s a thing of beauty and I clearly have a penchant for the anti-hero. It doesn’t matter what time of day or night, whether the film has just begun or has almost finished, if I flip channels on the TV and discover Unforgiven is on, I HAVE to watch it. I even shamelessly ripped off the iconic poster for the first play I ever produced!
Drink of choice during the festival?
I’m probably not going to do my reputation any good but I’m a kid at heart so I’m going to forego anything alcoholic (whisky sour is my usual tipple of choice) thus it’s probably going to be a milkshake. I promise I’m not getting any free goodies or sponsorship for this, but our local burger restaurant does the most amazing Oreo milkshake and if I’m ever put on death row I intend to have one as my last meal! It’s the perfect balance of thick and creamy (thick enough that you have to give it a good suck, sufficiently creamy that you don’t break your jaw!) I might add it to the list of prizes for award-winners!
There’s still time to submit to this exciting new festival. Deadline is 30th June and the event is 26-28th October.