A film festival judge takes us behind the scenes of how awards are dolled out

The Sarasota Film Festival

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By Jordan Hoffman

At some point in mid-February one of the many publicists I deal with on a regular basis in New York asked if I was planning on going to the Sarasota Film Festival in April. If I had my druthers, I’d go, I said. I love film festivals. You watch movies all day and eat prosciutto-wrapped asparagus all night. But it didn’t look like it was in the cards.

My superpower, however, is getting publicists to think I am far more important than I actually am. Seriously, if it were an Olympic event I’d be a five-time medalist. I was soon offered a position on one of the three juries at this prestigious fest, which meant a couple of days down in Florida on someone else’s dime. Who was I to say no?

I’ve been on a festival jury before (2011 Fantastic Fest) and I have been a working critic for five years, but what the folks making the offer may not have known was that, in a previous life, I was (and hope to one day be again) an independent filmmaker. Two of my films have gone off to various corners of the Earth and each came back with their fair share of laurel wreaths for the poster. Did it make me rich and famous? No. But it kept me from hitting rock bottom a few times, as family members and girlfriends could remind me that, hey, at least we won that audience award up in Rhode Island.

Considering that I’d been “on the other side,” I was going to take my job as a juror very seriously. There were nine films in my section, a division dedicated to low budget and, in some cases, first time films. Five of the films were being sent to me on DVD, the remainder I’d see down during fest.

When the package came I popped ‘em without doing any research. The first film I watched was called “In Our Nature,” and when the opening credits ran I was surprised to see some known Hollywood actors. Jena Malone (whom I’ve been fond of since “Contact”) and Gabrielle Union play opposite Zach Gilford and John Slattery.

The movie is awful. It’s everything you worry an independent movie is going to be. A bunch of whiners go up to a cabin in the woods to sit around and talk their feelings to one another. The camera doesn’t move, the scenes are endless and I immediately regretted saying yes to being on the jury. What if the other 8 movies were this bad?

The next movie I put it was called “Richard’s Wedding.” It starts with two people walking down a street in Brooklyn just yapping. The scene doesn’t end, but they’re being a little funny. It has a neo-Seinfeld vibe. Then I notice that some of zings get really good. Still there’s hardly anything resembling a plot and the camera and sound work make it seem like this flick cost 89 cents to make, but I find myself laughing out loud quite a bit, then really starting to like the characters.

“Richard’s Wedding” soon presents itself as something of a three-act play. In the first act, a man and a women walk to an apartment to meet up with others before going to a wedding. In the second act they hang out at the apartment and rib one another and drink. In the third act they all go to the park where the wedding is, of course, a disaster.

Something odd happened when they got to that apartment, however. When the actor opened the door my skin got cold. I KNOW that guy! The actor playing the douchey rich guy was actually someone I worked with for two years back in the early aughts. We both worked part time at a horrible place and made fun of our dipshit boss. In fact, he even showed up for one quick line of dialogue in my first film.

I was devastated. Clearly this was a conflict of interest, no? I mean, I would be rooting for my friend, right? But the thing is, I was really digging “Richard’s Wedding” on its own merits – and I haven’t seen this actor in at least five years. I pressed on.

The third film was called “Welcome to Pine Hill” and it grabbed me from the first scene. It is a moody and evocative film about an African-American from Brooklyn trying to sever the ties to his criminal past by working a boring job in Manhattan. He discovers he has inoperable cancer and decides he must settle his old debts before he can find peace.

Wow, I just made the movie sound really maudlin, and I swear it is anything but. It is artfully shot and understated – and loaded with natural performances and finely observed set pieces. I’m instantly smitten with this film and don’t see how anything else could top it.

Then I see the next film and think, hey, this one is pretty good, too. It is called “The Unspeakable Act,” and my mind is somewhat blown. The titular act is incest, but this is no exploitation film. It’s like Eric Rohmer’s “The Green Ray” meets Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress.” It has mannered, almost surreal dialogue and is shot with bright colors in one of those gorgeous Victorian Brooklyn homes like in “Sophie’s Choice.” It is one of the most steadfastly true to its own peculiar vision things I’ve seen in quite a long time.

I get a return of the queasy feeling again when I realize that the director, Dan Sallit, is someone else I know. He, at least, I haven’t seen since around 1997, but way back when I met him when I was working for an independent producer in New York.

The last film I watch on DVD called “See Girl Run” also has some known stars, Robin Tunney and Adam Scott, and it might even be worse than “In Our Nature.” And I really like Adam Scott, so this was particularly annoying.

A few days later I fly down to Sarasota and immediately proceed to get my ass kissed by volunteers and filmmakers who see the word “jury” on my badge. I’m a married man and don’t get out that much, so this was a very gratifying experience.

I quickly confess to the fest director that I kinda-sorta know some of the people involved in some of the films. I expect to be sent back to New York on a bus. I’m told, however, to just be fair, and be a professional, and let everyone else on the jury know.

I meet my two fellow jurors. One is an old friend, Keith Uhlich of Time Out New York, whose tastes often align with mine, and a fella I don’t know named Michael Dunaway from Paste Magazine. (After fifteen minutes, however, I feel like I’ve known him for years. He may be the most gregarious person I’ve met.) We were three not at all angry men.

On my own I see Kris wife-of-Joe Swanberg’s “Empire Builder.” Another story about people going up to a cabin in the woods, but this one stars the current low budget it-girl Kate Lyn Sheil, and that alone makes it stand out. It is a really emotionally reserved and subtle film about marital infidelity, but it doesn’t get too hysterical. How could it have time, it is only 72 minutes? I like the movie a great deal, but I’m not bananas for it.

After this came a real joy, Jonathan Lisecki’s “Gayby.” The premise may not jump out as the most original idea in the world – gay man and straight woman decide to have a kid, shenanigans ensue – but the writing is really hilarious and the extended supporting cast is simply fantastic. We jurors watch this as a group and everyone has a good time.

After this came another Kate Lyn Sheil vehicle, “Sun Don’t Shine.” This time she’s on the lam with her boyfriend after stabbing her husband. Even though there’s a lot more stuff going on in it, I find myself more intrigued by “Empire Buildier.” But, really, it shouldn’t be a contest. Oh, wait! Actually, it IS a contest! And I’m the judge! Pressure!

The last film we saw was called. . . um. . .oh, crap I can’t remember the name. And I can barely remember the movie. Hold on, let me look it up again. Ah, it was called “Leave Me Like You Found Me.” It’s about people walking around the woods being mad at each other.

So we’d seen our nine films. (And I snuck in two other ones not in our category, too.) Then we had to hammer it out. Where best to decide? Brunch!

The nine jurors (three panels each with three people) gathered and the head of the festival (the esteemed Tom Hall) quietly observed the discussion, fingers poised over an iPad ready to take the names of the winner.

The only rule was that we pick at least one winner. We could give jury prizes, too, but we should restrict it to only two. So this meant we could honor three films.

From my point of view, I wanted to give the awards to the movies I liked best, but also the ones that could really benefit from an additional laurel leaf on the poster.

I really loved “Welcome to Pine Hill,” and it won the best film at Slamdance. An additional award would make it seem like a mandate, and, hopefully, help the film get distribution. “The Unspeakable Act,” however, is a really challenging film, and this was its debut. An award first out of the gate could help this uncompromising film get programmed elsewhere. Then there was “Gayby” and “Richard’s Wedding,” both very funny and crowdpleasing.

Of the three groups there, we were the first to reach a decision that everyone could sign-off on. I’d like to believe that it is because we picked the right winners.

It would be unfair to my fellow jurors to lift the veil back too far, but we came up with a compromise we could live with. “The Unspeakable Act” is a movie that is intense and unique and wholly original. It would win best film. We all loved “Welcome to Pine Hill” (though, I may have been its strongest booster) and felt a special jury prize was in order. Much of what makes that film so memorable is its lead role, so we gave a prize for performance to its lead actor Shannon Harper. Next we wanted to award something for writing, and, at the end of the day, we felt we had to salute the zing-tastic “Richard’s Wedding.” We felt a little guilty about leaving “Gayby” out to dry, but just a few days later it landed a distribution deal, so I think it may have all worked out in the end.

So that’s how the sausage gets made. I left out all the stuff about the parties that included Mexican wrestlers, the Flying Wallendas and David Carr, but to experience an extended weekend at a place as welcoming and enriching as the Sarasota Film Festival is really something you need to do on your own. I also recommend wearing the coveted purple lanyard because it can get you in ANYWHERE.


Stephen's Lavish Life

Stephen Merchant Has Big Real Estate Dreams on This Week’s Comedy Bang! Bang!

Comedy Bang! Bang! is all-new Thursday at 11P with guest Stephan Merchant.

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Stephen Merchant says “Hello Ladies” on this week’s Comedy Bang! Bang!, dropping by to tell Scott all about the lavish lifestyle that comes with having cocreated The Office.

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The British actor and comedian sits down with Scott and Cudi to talk about his many homes and what he has in common with Elton John. Learn all about how Stephen rolls Thursday at 11p PT/ET after an all-new Benders and an encore of this week’s skate-tastic Gigi Does It.

That 70s Show Superfriends

That '70s Spoofs

8 Movie and TV Parodies From That ’70s Show

Catch That '70s Show Mondays & Tuesdays from 6-11P on IFC.

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That ’70s Show never missed the chance to make a mockery of major movies and TV shows from the Me Decade. Before you dive into IFC’s Thanksgiving Day Sweatsgiving That ’70s Show marathon, check out some of the show’s best spoofs of Star Wars, the Superfriends and more.

8. Star Wars

Star Wars That 70s Show

The 1977 release of Star Wars affects the That ’70s gang as much as it affects the rest of society: totally and awesomely. The season one episode “A New Hope” sends the gang to a galaxy far, far away (well, the cinema), leading Eric to star in his own Force-powered dream with everything from Red Kenobi to a R2-D2 vacuum.

7. Batman

Batman That 70s Show

When a drunken Jackie makes Fez‘s dreams come true by hitting on him, he faces a superheroic internal struggle starring himself as a tiny Batman and Riddler. Of course, Fez-man hasn’t always been so heroic.

Fez That 70s Show

6. The Super Friends

Superfriends That 70s Show

Kelso gets to be Batman in an entire ’70s gang of Super-pals in a super-powered fantasy. Though their battle against Red Luthor — who, let’s be honest, would triumph over the REAL Super Friends — is weakened when all Wonder Twins Hyde and Jackie want to do is make out.

5. Shaft

Isaac Hayes, who wrote and performed the original and incomparable theme for the ’70s flick Shaft, provides a significantly less tough “Theme for Fez” in the episode “Spread Your Wings.”

4. The Continental

Big Rhonda That 70s Show

When Fez tries to get to third base with Big Rhonda in the basement, the camera switches to second-person as she watches him making his attempts in the style of Renzo Casena in the TV series The Continental. (The 1950s series was also famously parodied by Christopher Walken on SNL.)

3. Psycho and other Hitchcock classics

Psycho That 70s Show

Halloween episodes are always a good excuse for costumes and parodies. “Too Old to Trick or Treat, Too Young to Die”  memorably parodied Hitchcock classics like Rear Window, The Birds and, of course, Psycho‘s iconic shower scene.

2. Annie Hall

Eric and Donna took on the roles of Alvy Singer and Annie Hall in a spoof of a memorable scene from the classic Woody Allen and Diane Keaton comedy.

1. I Love Lucy

In a fun take on the Lucille Ball sitcom classic, Fez’s fantasies veer all the way to monochrome, creating an alternate world where he has a relationship and Red might even talk to him for two sentences without calling him a dumbass.

at arrivals for PORTLANDIA Second Season Premiere on IFC, The American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY January 5, 2012. Photo By: Eric Reichbaum/Everett Collection

Carrie Loves Madonna?

5 Things We Learned About Carrie Brownstein From Her Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl Q&A

Get the scoop on Carrie's live book release event.

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Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl is out on shelves both physical and digital, and the book tour kicked off with a Q&A session for fans at the metal bar Saint Vitus in Brooklyn. Questlove from The Roots and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon joined the Portlandia star on stage to moderate a conversation before a huddled crowd holding their plastic cups filled with draft IPA. “It’s familiar to both of us,” Brownstein joked. “There’s no bathroom backstage…it’s very humbling.”

From Madonna to Portlandia, check out some highlights from the Brownstein-Questlove extravaganza.

1. Carrie and Questlove Are Now BFFs

Portlandia pregnant

After the Portlandia funny gal read a passage from the book, which follows her life in music with the band Sleater-Kinney, Questlove remarked how surprised he was to hear he would be accompanying her for this event. “I don’t know if growing up we’d be best friends, but I know that we’re the same person,” he said. As proof that they would totally be Bffs, Brownstein continued to say how the first thing they bonded over backstage was the TV series The Affair, which she said is so unrealistic because both stars are British. “Half of The Wire is British,” Questlove said.

2. She Has a Major Madonna Obsession

Carrie call me

Some of the topics discussed were Brownstein’s band experience, absorbing feminism through punk rock, taping pictures of Dennis Quaid and Mel Gibson to her wall, and — more impactful — her obsession with Madonna. “I remember sitting on my bed and crying because I’d never be friends with Madonna,” she said of her 10-year-old self. Brownstein still hasn’t met her, though Questlove only hesitated a moment before bragging about how the “Material Girl” is “kinda” his manager. Guess we know what to get Carrie for her birthday.

3. She Went Incognito at Traffic Class

Portlandia driving

You know that traffic class you have to take after you get a ticket? No? Well, Brownstein does, because she had to take one. Not only that, but she took it just after the season 2 premiere of Portlandia. As she said, this wasn’t even season 1 when most people didn’t know her name. She was quite recognizable at this point, so to ward off unwanted attention at driver’s ed she tried to disguise herself as best she could.

4. Music Is Her Lifeline

Portlandia cat nap

Things got a bit real when Questlove asked Brownstein whether she would be okay with the possibility of her acting career overshadowing her musical endeavors. He likened the subject to how most people recognize him as “Jimmy Fallon’s drummer” instead of everything else he does with The Roots or his writing. The short answer is yes. She said she wouldn’t do anything creative — music or otherwise — if she didn’t want her named associated with it. That said, music has and always will be her “lifeline.”

5. Shocker! She’s Not a Ben Carson Fan

Portlandia what are you

Things got even more real when a fan asked a question about politics. Brownstein said that the fact that Ben Carson, and many other presidential candidates, came out against abortion and Planned Parenthood is “madness” and also shared her thoughts on racism and police brutality. She also noted “a collective voice of dissent” and “people starting to be more connected,” especially on social media. To lighten the mood, Carrie then joked, “Let’s have another clothing question.”

For more Carrie quotes, check out her Tumblr Q&A and our live-tweet of the Brooklyn event.

Ghostbusters II

Lost Belushi Roles

10 Roles John Belushi Almost Played

Catch Ghostbusters II Thursday, November 12th starting at 5P ET/PT on IFC.

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Photo credit: Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection.

Before his untimely death in 1982, few in Hollywood could match the sheer comedic force of John Belushi. For a brief moment in 1978, he had the number one album (The Blue Brothers’ Briefcase Full of Blues), the number one show in late night television (SNL), and the number one movie in theaters (Animal House). Drugs and the vagaries of Hollywood didn’t allow Belushi to remain on top for long, but at the time of his death, he had several projects in the pipeline. Before you catch the Ghostbusters movies (a franchise literally haunted by the ghost of Belushi) on IFC, check out a few projects that could’ve been different had they featured Belushi’s singular talent.

10. Ghostbusters, Peter Venkman

Columbia Pictures

Ghostbusters had a long, complicated road to the big screen. When Dan Aykroyd first developed the project, he envisioned it as a follow-up to The Blues Brothers about a team of time traveling ghost hunters in the distant future. But then, just as the project started moving forward, its supposed star died of a drug overdose.

From day one, Belushi was envisioned as Peter Venkman, the smooth talking ladies man/paranormal investigator, but his death threw the project into a tailspin. Richard Pryor was briefly considered for the lead role, before it fell into Bill Murray’s lap. It’s near sacrilege to picture Ghostbusters without Murray’s unique persona steering the ship, but it’s fun to imagine what Belushi would’ve brought to the comedy classic. Aykroyd and director Ivan Reitman have always said that lovable ghoul Slimer is basically a tribute to Belushi in slimy, spectral form.

9. Moon Over Miami (aka American Hustle), Shelly Slutsky

Columbia Pictures

Shortly before Belushi’s death, famed French auteur Louis Malle began developing a script based on the FBI Abscam story, a sting operation in the 1970s that led to the arrest of numerous politicians. If that sounds familiar, it’s because filmmaker David O. Russell mined the same true story in 2013 for his Oscar favorite American Hustle.

Moon Over Miami, as the project was known at the time, would’ve allowed both Malle and Belushi to step outside their comfort zone, creating more of a sharp satire than a flat out comedy or drama. Belushi would’ve played Shelly Slutsky, a slobbish conman similar to the role Christian Bale played in American Hustle. Belushi’s partner in crime, Dan Aykroyd, was also being eyed for the role of Otis Presby, otherwise known as Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent on the edge. If all the pieces had come together, this movie had the potential to be a major turning point for the creative partnership of Belushi and Aykroyd. Playwright John Guare, who penned the script, would stage the screenplay years later, but this version of the story would never make it to the big screen.

8. Fatty Arbuckle biopic

Keystone Studios

Belushi was the first of many larger than life comedic actors to explore the possibility of playing the legendary silent film star, who all but invented the idea of the chubby comedian on the big screen. The story of Arbuckle’s rise and tragic fall at the dawn of Hollywood could’ve provided Belushi with a chance to be funny, while also exploring the inherent darkness of being the “fat guy who falls down.”

7. Animal House 2, John ‘Bluto’ Blutarsky


Animal House had the biggest box office ever for a comedy when it came out, so it’s no surprise a sequel was immediately put into development. The story would have followed Bluto, Otter and the boys reuniting during the Summer of Love, but Belushi resisted, for fear of being typecast, and the project never came together. Belushi’s passing thankfully spared moviegoers from what would no doubt have been a lesser sequel to a comedy classic.

6. Noble Rot, Johnny Glorioso

Buena Vista Television

This dark comedy about a dysfunctional family of winemakers was a passion project for Belushi, who co-wrote the script with fellow SNL writer/performer Don “Father Guido Sarducci” Novello. Alas, his death would leave the project in limbo, and we would never get to see what a movie co-written by and starring Belushi would’ve looked like.

5. Nothing Lasts Forever, Cameo

This odd outing, that never saw a theatrical release, came from the mind of SNL‘s resident filmmaker Tom Schiller. After years of churning out shorts for the late night show — like the Belushi classic Don’t Look Back in Anger and La Dolce Gilda — Schiller made a movie that truly defies description.

Set in an alternate universe New York City, where everything has the feel of a 1930s musical, the Lorne Michaels-produced film features cameos from SNL favorites Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray. Rumor has it Belushi was supposed to cameo, but sadly died six weeks before filming.

4. Spies Like Us, Emmett Fitz-Hume

This cold war comedy is a relic of its time. Not the funniest movie on anyone’s filmography, it’s still good for a few laughs. Belushi was slated to play Emmett Fitz-Hume, the role that eventually went to Chevy Chase. Considering Belushi was reportedly no fan of his former SNL cohort, that casting just seems like adding insult to injury.

3. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Dr. Gonzo

A big screen take on Hunter S. Thompson’s novel starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi makes so much sense, it’s a wonder it never came together. Aykroyd’s odd, clipped intensity as Raoul Duke, alongside Belushi’s unhinged, swarthy madness as Dr. Gonzo, is pitch perfect casting. Sadly, the project evaporated with Belushi’s passing and the novel floated around Hollywood for another decade before Terry Gilliam finally made his adaptation.

2. Gangs of New York, Bill “The Butcher” Cutting

Martin Scorsese’s passion project was in development for so long, Belushi was the first choice to play the role that Daniel Day-Lewis later made famous. While the film that Scorsese eventually made has its merits, it surely would’ve provided a drastically different type of part for Belushi to dig into. Even more amazing is the fact that Aykroyd was being considered for the part of Amsterdam Vallon at the time. If only we lived in a world where the The Blues Brothers duked it out in period garb in a Scorsese film.

1. Three Amigos, Ned Nederlander

Yet another in the long line of supposed Aykroyd/Belushi projects that were in development post-Blues Brothers, Belushi was set to play Ned Nederlander before he passed away. Martin Short was brought in as a replacement, giving a wonderful performance, but one that would seem to be the polar opposite of what Belushi would’ve done with the material.

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