Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Handling Rejection, or It's Not You, It's Us

Over the last couple of months we sorted through an unusually high number of entries, which also means we had to send out many letters that began with "Unfortunately" rather than "Congratulations!" Nobody likes to be told "No," and we get that. However, this time we received some curious responses to those rejection letters, and we'd like to take a moment to address them. Let's start with this one:

"Iron Mule Team, Thank you 4 your consideration of "[REJECTED FILM]".(Hope U watched it Through. Doesn't make sense til END) Wanted 2 let U know that Comedy Central Late Night(New Division) has bought our project. Your Film Fest rejecting us, will make a Great Story for us to tell to many Future Filmmakers. Maybe also you might want to reevaluate your IMT and their Process of judging.
C U on the air Next Fall.
THIS and another of Our Projects have made it into SUNDANCE. Happy Holidays."

Although a little rough around the edges, this e-mail is a good summation of the more common complaints we receive. (It would also make for a fantastic lecture on English grammar, but, as we all know, in the world of online communication that ship has long ago and sadly sailed.)

As we mention in our rejection letters, we do not consider this to be any kind of definitive statement on the film. There are many factors that go into our decision to accept an entry, including previously-scheduled films, personal taste, time constraints, and a host of other artistic and practical considerations. Mostly, though, we're looking for something different, something unique, so if we've recently received a spate of mockumentaries (please see this previous post), we're not gonna be very enthusiastic about watching another one.

Sometimes, "unique" can simply mean a well-crafted, thoughtfully-executed, short film with an interesting story. Believe it or not, we don't get very many of those. Also, your film may just not work. We understand, we're all filmmakers, we've made things that don't work. Go make another one.

The nice thing about running your own festival is that you get to show the movies you like. There have been several entries we've received, highly-polished and technically-accomplished resume pieces, that we know will play well at other festivals but, for whatever reason, are just not our cup of tea. Our goal is not to predict the zeitgeist or be ahead of the Festival Circuit curve. We like showing things that make us laugh and encouraging filmmakers whose work we enjoy. We're not trying to be Sundance.

Speaking of Sundance: telling us your film, or a previous film, or your DP’s, or lead actor's last film played at Sundance has absolutely no bearing on our decision. There are many things that have played in Park City that we would never consider programming. "Hoop Dreams," for example. And, since one of our goals is to provide a platform for films that may not have found an audience elsewhere, touting your Sundance run might actually work against you. Besides, why would a rejection from a small short comedy series be that big a deal, if your film is so successful? There are plenty of other festivals that will be impressed with your pedigree; submit to them.

Our criteria for accepting a film is not necessarily whether a film is "good" or "bad," but whether it is right for us. There's no hidden reason or secret agenda, and very, very rarely is there anything that could be done in post (editing, sound mixing, etc.) that would change our minds (see previous post about feedback). So, we're at a loss when we receive comments questioning our "process of judging," extolling the virtues of a film we rejected, or explaining that other, more famous people liked it (e.g. "Comedy Central bought our project"), as if a reasoned argument would convince us to like a movie we didn't like. As anyone who's ever told a joke knows: if you have to explain it, then it's not funny. (And for the author of the email quoted above: If your movie "doesn't make sense til END," then what you have is an ending, not a movie.)

We also had somebody recently respond to a rejection letter by explaining that they submitted "only in order to get the short a page on IMDB." We’re pretty sure that's not how that works, but anyway, we prefer to focus on filmmakers who want to share their films with an audience, not chalk up imaginary points with "The Industry." Many of our guest judges are luminaries of their respective fields, from authors to directors to actors to comic book artists, and it never hurts to show your work to people who create for a living. Our monthly series has also seen connections made, collaborations develop, and even a recent wedding. Those who attend the screenings have the opportunity for a relaxed and friendly interaction with fellow filmmakers and film lovers during the Q&A sessions and at our After Party. Not every festival can offer that, because not every festival venue comes with its own bar.

Every entry we receive is watched by at least three people and our decisions are predominately reached by consensus. We take what we do seriously, and we know what we like. Above all, we like to be surprised. Having been rejected from hundreds of festivals ourselves, we know that the only productive response to a rejection letter is to make another movie. And if you really want to get into our festival, check out our archives and see what we've shown in the past. That should give you a good idea if our festival is right for you and vice versa.

For those who would prefer to send us snarky e-mails rather than start their next project, we say: "Success is the best revenge, and we look forward to being thoroughly humiliated by your inevitable fame and fortune."

And to everyone else, we say: "Thanks for sharing your movie with us, and we promise we'll give it a fair shake."

Monday, December 28, 2009

R. Sikoryak to Guest Judge Janaury 2nd Screening

We are thrilled to have acclaimed artist R. Sikoryak as our guest judge at our first screening in 2010.

R. Sikoryak is the author of Masterpiece Comics (Drawn & Quarterly), "where classics and cartoons collide." He’s drawn comics and pictures for Nickelodeon Magazine, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The New Yorker, The Onion and Mad, among other media giants. In his spare time, he hosts the cartoon slide show series Carousel.

Sikoryak will share some of his latest work with us on the big screen at the start of the show. Don't miss it!

Click here for tickets.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Notes from our December 6th Screening

For those who braved the cold and rain last Saturday, there was a warm glow of laughter to be found in our recent showcase of short comedy films. After host Jay Stern excoriated New Yorkers for being weather wimps (and co-host Victor Varnado politely pointed out that present company was of course excepted), we launched into our first block of films.

Starting off the holiday-themed mayhem was a film from the Iron Mule vaults, "White Blood Cell Saves Christmas," an animated short by Dano Johnson. As for what it's about, well, the title says it all. (If you want to check out this or any of our other selections, click here for our archives.) Following that was our very first (and hopefully not our last!) holiday film in Gaelic, "Nollaig Shona (Happy Christmas)" by Orla Murphy. Christmas is not so happy for the protagonist, who gets dumped on Christmas Eve and has to console himself with an overdecorated tree and a persistent stray dog. And concluding the holiday trio was a celebration of "Balls," in all the different forms they take, by Iron Mule favorites dpShorts. Filmmakers dp and Kasey Williamson were on hand to talk about the film, their second in a prolific year-long collaboration that also brought us Audience Award-winner, "My Apartment." They'll be back next month with one more short, "The Lake."

Moving beyond the seasonally-appropriate, our next film was by another Iron Mule alum, Josh Bass ("The Ninjews," "Debt Consolidated"). An epic of no-budget satire, "Joey & Jerome's Artistic Meaningful Independent Film," shows just how easy it is to crank out your very own Oscar-bait Indiewood masterpiece in under 3 hours. This was followed by "Knock Knock," our third of four films by Jack Ferry. The movie, a suspenseful mindgame starring comedians Pete & Brian about a joke with a potentially lethal punchline, has shown at CineVegas, Slamdance and SXSW, and we were honored to have it in our program as well. Jack was on hand to talk about how the film came to be; he said he heard the first few lines -- "Knock Knock," "Who's there?" "I'm seriously thinking about killing myself." -- and was sold.

Our last block of films began with our second film from France, "Yulia," by Antoine Arditti, an animated black-and-white film about a woman's surreal adventures in a room full of levers, and which one will bring her to love. And in closing, Iron Mule stalwart Will Carlough shared his latest with us, "Hungover Movie Pitch." Much like our first film of the evening, everything you need to know is in the title as Will skewers the usual criteria for pitching a Hollywood blockbuster, and the pitifully unprepared condition you can do it in and still be successful.

Before moving on to our Wanna Be A Star? film for the month (for more information, click here), hosts Jay & Victor shared war stories about their respective no-budget super-fast feature films which were shot during the last month over 1 (Jay) and 3 (Victor) days. See previous entries on the blog for more details and photos. For those keeping score at home, this officially means that Jay has met Victor's challenge from last February and will not need to host this February's show naked. The audience heaved a sigh, but it was hard to tell whether it was in relief or disappointment.

Then came "Shedge," directed by 92YTribeca programmer and Iron Mule BFF Cristina Cacioppo, and starring Wanna Be A Star? winner Ellia Bisker. Our first WBAS? movie shot on film, "Shedge" follows a hapless misanthrope and her encounter with a mysterious rock star. After discussing the difficulties of shooting on Super-8 in a dimly-lit concert space and editing in camera, the ballot counting was complete and we were ready to announce our winners.

The Audience Award for the night went to "Yulia," and the Judges Award was given to "Knock Knock." Congratulations Antoine and Jack! And join us Jan. 2nd for more by Jack Ferry, dpShorts, the latest episode of the hit web series, All's Faire, and other fun surprises.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

LASERGUN - A Three day feature film - WRAPPED

So for the movie LASERGUN I wanted to try an experiment.

I have always enjoyed the twists and turns that improvisation can produce but hated that it was generally great moments that were separated by imperfect or sloppy moments as well, so I had an plan; I wanted to transcribe improvisation and only keep the good parts and then transform what was left into a script.

On November 8th I gathered a handful of actors in my apartment and gave then the freedom to take a story anywhere they wanted. I coached the work from the side, sometimes suggesting that they go here or there with their improv, but for the most part it was up to them.

I had introduced the idea of a a homemade lasergun and one of my friends had already started building the prop. The group came up with some incredible stuff.

After the work was transcribed and edited, we met on the 15th for a read-through of the script. Some people had created more than one character in the improvisation so we had to bring on some more actors to fill the extra roles.

Finally, over the 18, 19 , and 20th of November, we shot a full feature script. We had such a tight shooting schedule because I was trying to do the feature for absolutely no money, which was not achieved, and one of my co-producers and DP, Matthew Bray, was able to come up with a free crew fro three days.

Yes we had an 18 hour day. Yes, at one point we all got really loopy and started singing songs while replacing the lyrics with references to poop, but in the end, the important thing to remember is that we shot a movie in just three days.

We operated with two matching HVX cameras so that we could get though the whole thing while shooting twice as fast.

Now the editing begins...

Many thanks to the amazing cast and fantastic crew. I would go through and name them all, but I am typing this at five in the morning and my eyes are burning.

The whole idea came from a challenge that I made to Jay Stern, my friends and co-producer of Iron Mule. I gave him a year to shoot a feature and somehow he ended up with nothing with three months to go on th clock. I jumped in the bet as well. The stakes were that if we have not both shot a feature by Feb 2010, then we would both host the show naked.

So, if we had three months, why did we both shoot our movies so quickly? Uh... because we're dumb.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Shooting Wrapped on Jay Stern's feature

We successfully got a feature film in the can yesterday.

An entire feature. Shot in one day.

Because of the time constraints it obviously had to be a simple project -- three actors and one location.

But to complicate things, we didn't have a script written going into it. I developed a basic story and characters beforehand with the actors (Marian Brock, Paul Herbig and Mickey Ryan) and the cinematographer (Alan McIntyre Smith). Dialogue was improvised, and we shot the movie in sequence so we could write as we went, stopping before each scene or sequence to figure out what needed to happen next.

We shot at Alan's apartment.

Alan had another self-imposed challenge: he wanted to go the entire day without using a single light. This led him to make some interesting decisions. For example, for the last scene, the sun had set, so in order to illuminate the location enough that we could see the actors' faces, Alan decided to light about 25 candles and use a slow shutter speed on the camera. This gave this scene, our only handheld shot in the movie, a completely magical quality that worked perfectly with the subject matter.

Obviously an entirely improvised movie will be a challenge to edit. And while we have enough footage to make a full feature-length film, I may find that it is better in a 30-40 minute version. We'll see once I start cutting.

I will say that I was really impressed by the willingness of the actors and cinematographer to really throw themselves into such a crazy idea. The actors especially were fearless in putting themselves on the line and making fully committed choices. They really gave up their egos to the service of the project, which is a really rare quality in an actor, even actors as talented and experienced as these.

We had a pretty short day to get everything done. Two of the actors had a job last night and we wanted to complete the shoot before Alan's fiancée came home from work. So we spent 11 hours, from 7am to 6pm, including lunch, to shoot.

Alan and I have a long working relationship, and I've also worked regularly with Mickey and have known Paul and Marian for several years. This was a major element which helped make it possible for us to pull this together in such a short time. Not to mention that my four collaborators are really amazing at what they do.

So that's it for my feature. Stills are below. I'm looking forward to seeing how Victor's shoot turns out!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Jay and Victor Feature Film Challenge

Last February, Iron Mule co-host Jay Stern announced before the Iron Mule audience that he was going to shoot a feature film by February, 2010. Iron Mule co-host Victor Varnado challenged Jay: if he fails to shoot a feature by February, 2010, then he'll have to host the February Iron Mule show naked. Jay, in the heat of the moment, flush with the prospect of an entire year before him, and, honestly, not thinking clearly, accepted the challenge.

Well it's November and no feature has been shot. Yet.

And the challenge has heightened; Victor has also vowed to shoot a feature by February. Both features shoot this month, and Jay and Victor have promised to premiere trailers for their newly-shot features at the February, 2010 Iron Mule show. Let's hope that's what happens. Otherwise there may be some nudity.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Notes From Our November 7th Screening

Hello and welcome to our November Screening Recap! An unseasonably warm day lead to another bang-up Iron Mule show, with short films from as far away as Dublin, Ireland and Portland, Oregon. Only years of extensive Programming Yoga could allow for this much stretching.

The show got off to a rousing start with the introduction of Special Guest Judge Michael Kupperman, cartoonist, writer and illustrator extraordinaire, whose work has been seen in The New Yorker, Fortune, and The New York Times, and on Comedy Central, Saturday Night Live and BBC2. Mr. Kupperman led us through a dramatic reading of several of his comic panels, illustrations and satiric advertisements. It was like cartoons with the closed captioning on, and it was fun.

Once Mr. Kupperman was briefed on the task ahead of him, we moved on to the first two films of the evening, also satires of ads. Not usually a fixture of Iron Mule screenings, the two "mockvertisements" nonetheless overcame the shortcomings of the format by being spot-on parodies, funny and short. "Debt Consolidated," by Josh Bass, focuses on a company offering to clear your debt by first explaining how money works (hint: it doesn't come from God), and "Expedulate," by dpShorts promotes a pill guaranteed to speed up the duration of intercourse for men so that their wives can get some work done. Josh Bass will be back next month with "Joey & Jerome's Artistic Meaningful Independent Film," a satire of epic proportions. And we're halfway through a series of four films by dpShorts; next up is "Balls," just in time for Christmas.

The next block of films introduced by hosts Jay Stern & Victor Varnado was composed of Foreign English films, or as Jay described them, "Films in English from countries other than America." After Victor & Jay debated which English-speaking country was more "foreign" (I think it was a draw), the set began with "Something for the Wickend," a British "Office"-type story set in a sexually-promiscuous candle distributor. Next up was "The One About the Sheep," a 2-minute short short from London by Iron Mule alum Toby Roberts about Australians, their wives and their livestock. And closing out the set, from Dublin, was "Bleeding Love," a shaggy-dog story of love won and blood lost. As Guest Judge Kupperman pointed out afterward, "Love transcends language." Or, in these cases, heavy accents.

Our penultimate pair of films started with "Who's Good Looking," an unusual short comprised of a single uninterrupted shot, from far-flung Portland, Oregon. And returning to Iron Mule after last month's successful screening of "Gazoontite," Jack Ferry brings us "Breaking News," a film he put together in a week about a live news broadcast gone awry. Two great examples of the digital revolution at work. And Jack was on hand to tell us about the parameters of his project, which was a Round 2 submission for the FOX reality show, On The Lot. He didn't get in, but we still love him.

Rounding out the evening's program was an experimental student film by Caleb Foss, "An Introduction to Physics." Caleb came down from Purchase, NY to tell us about the challenges of working on the film, which included developing errors made by the lab (fortunately adding to the "experimental" look) and special effects enhanced by the heavy inhalation of bleach. Kids today... The mockumentary, modeled after black-and-white educational films, wreaks playful havoc with it's self-serious, sternly-narrated source material.

While the ballots were being counted, audience members were treated to this month's Wanna Be A Star? film, "Aluminum Siding," a collaboration between dp (of dpShorts) and Iron Mule alum Michael Goldburg ("Happy Trails"). Previous WBAS? actress Jami Simon was more than game as a foul-mouthed, rapping door-to-door saleswoman targeting brownstones, the Met, and other unlikely prospects. For more details regarding this monthly competition, please visit our website:

With all the counting said and done, Guest Judge Kupperman announced the evening's winners. The Audience Award went to "An Introduction to Physics," and the Judges' Award went to "Bleeding Love." Congratulations to our winners, and hey, don't let it go to your heads.

Filmmakers and audience members alike gathered out in the 92YTribeca cafe to debrief and decompress. Meanwhile, Congress debated a budget-neutral, 3,000 page proposal to allow Iron Mule to continue bringing great short comedy from around the world to Tribeca. Tune in before December 5th to see if it passed!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Short Comedy Film Shortcomings Part 3b: Long Closing Credits

Much like over-long opening credits, long closing credits say a lot about where the filmmaker's focus has been. Usually: not on the film itself. And since nobody wants a burger that's all bun and no patty, here are some words of advice from our countless hours sitting in front of short film submissions.

1. No bloopers. Seriously, we're glad you guys had a fun time making it, but keep the outtakes for your cast and crew who are better able to appreciate them. An audience is just waiting for the next movie to start.

2. No long moody fade-outs. If you have an original score or a song you'd like to use to send the audience on it's way, that's great; keep it under 30 seconds. Using the end credits as a kind of denouement is fine for feature films, where the audience has already committed a couple hours of their time, but if your film is 5 minutes long, we don't need 2 minutes to come down from it. We're waiting for the next movie to start.

3. No interminably-held stills of cast & crew names. As with the superfluous "starring" lines in opening credits, chances are good that we don't know any of the people in your end credits (hell, we don't know most of the people in the end credits of Hollwood movies!). So get your scroll on and be done with it. There's another movie after yours.

On the positive side, screen credit is one of a very few things (along with food and copy) that struggling, cash-strapped filmmakers can offer to those working hard for little or nothing. And crediting those who have made your film possible is extremely important, both karmically and for the more earthbound practicality of getting good people to work with you again. That said, if a viewer wants to follow up on who your gaffer was, they'll search for your website.

The truth is, if we're screening a block of short films and the credits start to run a little long, we'll just cut them off. It's not personal, and if you're just doing it to look professional, it really doesn't. It looks like you don't want your movie to end. And ultimately, if you haven't made a good impression by the time the end credits start to roll, well, it ain't gonna happen.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Michael Kupperman to Guest Judge November 7th Screening!

We are pleased to announce that acclaimed cartoonist Michael Kupperman will be joining us as a special guest judge at the November 7th Iron Mule screening!

Here's a little something about Mr. Kupperman:

Michael Kupperman lives and works in Brooklyn with his wife Muire and son Ulysses. His cartoons and illustrations have appeared in magazines from the New Yorker to Fortune, newspapers from The New York Times to the Village Voice, and numerous books, including many published by McSweeneys. His first book, "Snake'N'Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret," was also adapted by the author as an Adult Swim animated pilot which can be seen online; two strips from that book were also adapted into cartoons for the Comedy Central series TV Funhouse. Other television work including drawing a TV Funhouse cartoon for Saturday Night Live, and writing for The Peter Serafinowicz show on BBC2 in the UK. He can currently be found on Twitter, where his user name is MKupperman.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Short Comedy Film Shortcomings Part 3: Long Opening Credits

We have always been perplexed with above the title credits for short comedy films.

Sure, if you are able to wrangle a name actor to appear in your film, then you want to splash that name all over the DVD and in the opening credits of your film.

But if you're making a short comedy and we put the DVD in the player and have to sit through a series of credits such as "Joe Nobody" and "Melissa Who" in a "So-and-so film," then we know pretty much right off the bat that this film is not for us. If we don't already know who these people are, then we don't care. You're just eating time. We'll watch the end credits if we're curious who was playing which role.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule. But most of the time, above the title credits show us that the filmmaker is misguided about what is important in a short comedy film.

We don't care what the names of your actors are. We don't need an expensive DVD cover with their names plastered all over it. On that note, we don't need anything on your DVD cover since we're going to watch it anyway (more on that in a future post).

The only reason for names to appear before the title or before the movie begins is if there is a contractual agreement that they appear there. For those of you who don't know, that's why you see actors' names in certain positions in the credits of Hollywood features and why they're listed the way they are on movie posters. An actor's contract may insist that his or her name appear at the start of a movie in a certain position. Other actors' agents may know this and also fight to get their client placed in a specific place as well. These choices are not creative, or even in the power of the filmmaker much of the time.

So if a filmmaker is doing this on his or her own, he or she is merely trying to appear professional by doing what he or she sees in Hollywood films. OK for your feature. You want to look like you're playing with the big boys with the opening credits of your feature. But for a short film, you're just eating up valuable time.

We often receive film submissions with long opening credit sequences in the 2-minute range. We even received one with a 5 minute sequence! We felt that no matter how good that movie was, we couldn't justify screening a movie that had an opening title sequence longer than many other very good short comedies we've shown. Luckily though, the movie wasn't any good, proving, as we mentioned earlier in this post, that filmmakers who spend time on long opening credit sequences don't understand how to make good short films.

We would like to note that an opening credit sequence that is used to set the mood of the film or reveal plot or character information is perfectly fine. A funny opening credit sequence would be great too. It's just that filmmakers who submit to us with long opening credit sequences tend not to do that kind of thing. Because, well, you know (see above).

Signe Baumane's "Teat Beat of Sex" now out on DVD!

Our good friend, animator extraordinaire Signe Baumane, has just released a DVD of her "Teat Beat of Sex" series!

Signe is a highly accomplished NYC animator, who seems to know absolutely everyone in the animation world. We've screened several of her films, and they always get a very strong reaction from our audience. Signe's (often surreal) work deals with sex in an explicit, yet charming, honest and fresh way. This series is a good example of Signe at her best.

Signe is an independent filmmaker who distributes her own work. She's always making new films and bringing them to festivals and getting them seen by audiences around the world. She's an inspiration to all us independent filmmakers who are trying to make original work and get it to an audience. So help support a real independent filmmaker by checking out the website and ordering a DVD!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Notes From Our October 3rd Screening

Thank you to those of you who made it out last Saturday to our October Short Comedy Film Screening Event Extravaganza. For those unable to make the show, here's how it all went down:

After introductions were made, hosts Jay Stern and Victor Varnado told us a little bit about their journey last year to Estonia, where the Iron Mule Festival was invited to do a show in an industrial warehouse. Since words could not describe the splendor, Victor thankfully cut together a two-part series culled from their video diaries of the experience. Although Jay and Victor seemed unimpressed (and at times, downright baffled) by Estonia's post-Soviet squalor, inexpressive audiences and gun-toting waitresses, we got a good chuckle out of it. And after the screen faded to a "To be continued..." we headed into our first block of films for the night.

"Every Seven Minutes" by Josh Bass started us off on the right foot as we began a program of horror comedies, just in time (well, a litttle early) for Halloween. The audience laughed and nodded in familiarity with one of the most terrifying sounds in the modern world: the alarm clock. Next up was Michael Goldberg's "Boo," his NYU thesis film about a babysitter's run-in with a persistant, oversized and possibly spectral trick-or-treater. Michael was in the audience and came forward to take questions about the film, his curious method of auditioning only one person (and then asking for a callback!) and his animation work for Sesame Street. Shouting corrective commentary from the audience was previous Iron Mule contributor and star of the film, Eliza Skinner.

Our Guest Judge for the evening was James Urbaniak, star of such films as Henry Fool, American Splendor and the animated series The Venture Bros. Jay asked if he had any thoughts so far, and boy did he! Flipping through his notebook, Mr, Urbaniak shared a few brief and pithy remarks he'd jotted down about the films. Despite having mentioned, when he was introduced to the audience, that he'd been to a few shorts programs before and "they can be spotty affairs" (it's true, they can be), he seemed to be enjoying himself.

And on to the next block of films which began with more footage from Estonia, this time featuring a dance party with wall-projected "art films," strangely-colored drinks and white face paint. By the end of it, the experience seems to have left our host-heroes exhausted, disoriented and ready to go home, but at least the audience was having a good time. Then came "My Apartment," by dpShorts, a collaboration between dp and Kasey Williamson, who were in the audience as well. The jaunty rap song that narrates the main character's tour of his tiny Manhattan bachelor pad got at least one request for a soundtrack copy, and possibly a sing-along. Though that didn't happen, Kasey and dp were on hand to answer questions about the source of the project (a friend complaining that he hadn't seen dp's new apartment yet), and also their other collaborations which will be featured at the next three Iron Mule screenings. Afterward, Guest Judge Urbaniak offered high praise for "breathing fresh life into the tired rapping-white-guy genre."

The final block of films began with Iron Mule's first featured short from France! It also happens to be our first submission from France, but any accusations of francophile favoritism are beside the point because the film is funny. "An Angel Stops By..." is a story about a porn director struggling with temperamental talent, a tyrannical producer, and an eager priest who must help him clean up his act before the angel of death takes his life. Continuing in a more morbid vein, "Gazoontite," by Jack Ferry, follows a young man who learns that tuning out the world can have its advantages, even if its achieved by rather gruesome means. The first film in the block piqued Mr. Urbaniak's interest in the possibilty of French porn, and the latter film he called "mythic."

Our Wanna Be A Star film for October (for more information, see our website) was entitled "There's Never Enough Cabbage," featuring audience winner Floria Chi and directed by Dan Simon. A disturbing tale of childhood trauma and vegetable imprinting, it was also a fitting end to our program of the hilarious and the horrifying. Star Flora Chi was on hand to draw the name of next month's winner: Jami Simon. Jami will be familiar to that night's audience as the cabbage-eating mother, and we look forward to seeing her again next month in "Aluminum Siding," which will be directed by Michael Goldburg ("Happy Trails," IM 7/09).

Once all the ballots had been counted, James Urbaniak announced the night's big winners. The Audience Favorite award went to "My Apartment," and the Judge's Award went to "Boo." Congratulations and beers were passed around as filmmakers, audience members and judges mingled in the 92YTribeca cafe before heading out into the warm October night. Thanks to everyone in attendance, and we hope to see you November 7th for our next round of the finest comedy shorts, featuring more from dpShorts, Jack Ferry ("Gazoontite") and others.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Short Comedy Film Shortcomings Part 2: In Praise of Story

Although we here at Iron Mule receive a wide variety of material, our submissions can usually be divided into three convenient categories: Mockumentaries, Parodies and Narrative (with a special, close-to-our-heart fourth category: Crazy-ass Bizarro Animation). This third category, the Narrative one, is the least common, and we’d like to take a moment to lament that.

For starters, we do not by any means believe that every movie has to have a story. Many of our award-winners, judges’ and audience favorites, have been from that mysterious fourth category, the plotless animated pieces that hurtle forward on the steam of their own creative hubris, seemingly making it up as they go along. However, being animation, the filmmakers have clearly had to consider every frame in detail. If only our live-action narratives received that much attention.

Though we are not expecting every film we receive to be structured around a story, it is actually much harder to NOT have one. Because, when a movie starts, a human audience will automatically seek out a story. It’s not our fault; it’s a survival instinct we’ve had for millenia, we can’t help it. If you’re eschewing a story, you’d better come up with something great to put in its place. And this brings us to the first category: the Mockumentary.

Rather than a story, the mockumentary often revolves around a subject or style the filmmakers think is weird (but in a cool way): exercise videos, infomercials, nature documentaries, art films, history. You name it, we’ve seen it mocked with a semi-serious tone. The problem is that these films tend to have only one joke: “exercise videos/informercials/art films/etc. are goofy and self-important,” and the audience will pick up on that pretty fast. Then comes the follow-up question, the raison d’etre for filmmaking (and storytelling): “Okay; so what’s next?” And more often than not, there is no “next.” So, if that’s all you’ve got, you’d better make it quick. We have certainly shown movies like this, structured around one punchline, but they are rarely over 5 minutes long, and often under 3. Mockumentaries also tend to exist because the filmmakers are cracking each other up. And while making each other laugh is a great place to start, it’s imperative that you show your movie (or, better yet, your screenplay) to people who don’t think everything you do is funny. It’ll save you a lot of time and money, and it’ll help ensure that your film works for an audience that consists of more than just your friends. Listen to what they have to say, particularly the criticisms, and then RE-WRITE IT. A few times. Always.

The pitfalls of a parody are a little different. A parody is, in many ways, almost always an inside joke. It comes from the filmmaker’s personal relationship with the source material. If he or she (though these films are invariably made by males) finds kung fu movies to be silly and poorly-paced and over-acted, then the filmmaker will make a silly, poorly-paced and over-acted movie as a bewildering “homage” to a genre he claims to love, not realizing that some people may find those movies pretty entertaining on their own terms, and not as camp. So a parody won’t work for anyone who feels differently about the genre being parodied. (Unless you actually have something to say about the material, or you’re using the source material as a metaphor to talk about something else, but that would be a satire. And that would require a story.)

As opposed to mockumentaries or parodies, narrative is exceedingly easy. You have a conflict; someone wants something they don’t have and other people keep them from acquiring it. For a short comedy, it helps if that “something” is a physical object or a readily identifiable goal: a job, a car, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, money, love, respect, revenge, etc. Even the most well-known and successful mockumentaries (“This Is Spinal Tap”) and parodies (“Airplane!”) have solid storylines. And the bonus: if done thoughtfully and with care, this NEVER gets old. We will watch stories unfold over and over until we die. However, we will quickly grow tired of hearing that ‘70’s cop shows are goofy, or that kung fu movies are over-the-top. If that’s really the subject you want to address, try sticking a story in there. It doesn’t have to have a by-the-numbers, three-act structure, it doesn’t have to be “conventional.” Just try giving one of your characters a simple objective. Then try telling this story to other people and see if they think it’s funny. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. Which is why it’s even more baffling to us that so few of the films we receive even attempt it.

When we sit down to watch a submission (and at least three different people will, by the way), the first impression goes a long way. If that first impression is, “Oh god, another mockumentary,” or “Oh god, another parody,” your film has an uphill climb ahead. Not just with us but with nearly every other festival you’re going to submit to. A simple story, well-told, will have a much better chance of getting shown than a more ambitious ten-minute, one-joke parody that leaves the audience thinking, as with any bad joke, “Well, I guess you had to be there.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why We Don't Like to Give Feedback

We often get people asking us for feedback about why we've rejected their movie.

In the past, we were more than happy to. We would write up detailed notes about what we thought worked in the film and what didn't. We'd offer helpful suggestions. We'd even rewatch the submission if necessary to make sure our feedback was thorough and helpful. We would take a significant amount of time formulating a detailed critique, and an honest, in depth, yet diplomatic email response.

Our mission as a festival has always been to create the type of festival - and the type of community - we would like to be part of. And, we figured, if filmmakers took the time and effort to make a film and spend the money on a submission fee, if they didn't get into the festival they at least deserved to get something positive out of the experience. So we felt obligated to give them feedback.

And what happened?

Nearly every time we gave feedback, the filmmaker responded, contesting our notes, sometimes point by point. The truth is, people who ask us for feedback never really want it. They just want us to explain why, although their movie is a work of genius, it doesn't fit into our lineup. Or they want us to reconsider our decision.

So why bother? We're not actually helping these filmmakers get better at their work, we're just spending a lot of time on a lost cause.

The Village Voice published a very interesting article about this issue this week. You can read it here. The author gets this right. And the comments are hilarious!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Short Comedy Film Shortcomings, Part 1: The Comedy Score

Quite often - more often than you might think - we get a submission with a "comedy" score. We find that in the more expensive submissions, where a filmmaker is able to afford live instruments (or a very expensive keyboard), the composer has chosen to use pizzacato, or the plucking of string instruments to indicate comedy. Sometimes woodwinds will substitute for the strings, providing some whimsical musical padding in the background.

We could go into a whole discussion about the role of music in film here, about how often music is overused to amplify an emotional or atmospheric effect which the director has been unable to achieve. In short comedy films, this music (almost always with "classical" instruments) is telling us: "Look how whimsical and quirky these characters are! What a funny situation! This is a comedy folks, can't you hear it?"

Every once in a while we receive a well-produced, well-written, well-made, and well-acted film which has such a "comedy" score, and we show it, in spite of the fact that the score bothers us. For the more expensive student films and many of our high budget submissions from LA, the music approximates what might appear in a Hollywood feature, since the film is being created as a calling card for the director, showing how "professional" and "slick" his or her production is. And a "comic" orchestral score is one of those elements the filmmaker chooses to spend money on.

But most of the time, such a musical choice points to larger problems with the film-- that the filmmaker is relying on the music to indicate the whimsy of an otherwise unwhimsical product. The hope is that by padding a scene with the comical plunking of strings (or the staccato of playful woodwinds) the viewer will be tricked into thinking that the scene is whimsical and the unremarkable characters are in fact quirky.

The best comedies don't shout "COMEDY!" while they're going about their business. They're simply telling a hilarious story. Pizzacato strings are never hilarious. A comedy score is a placeholder for hilarious.

Monday, September 14, 2009

New Website Design!

Check out our new website deign! Isn't it great? It's by our good friend and wonderful designer Jonathan Cousins. The best addition is that you can now search the site for movies in our database, many of which you can watch online. And we plan to make this blog a place where we can discuss films, comedy, and short comedy films. So check us out from time to time, we'd love to share some great films with you and hear what you think about them.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Iron Mule at MASS MoCA

The Iron Mule was invited to MASS MoCA in North Adams, MASS this August. Our special "best of" show included guest appearances by Dale Goodson and Will Carlough. Photos (courtesy of Craig Swinson) are below.