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.


Balls to the Wall

Meet a Dysfunctional Dodgeball Team on Ball or Nothing

Catch new Comedy Crib episodes every Tuesday.

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In the first episode of Comedy Crib‘s Ball or Nothing, Chloe just wants to hit her ex in the face — with a dodgeball. Since her ex really, really deserves such a fate, her teammates are more than happy to have her back on this one.

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The new series will take you onto the sidelines of an adult dodgeball team, revealing that like on Benders, sometimes real life happens on the sidelines. The show is written and created by Megan Rosati of the hit comedic web series 52 Ways to Break Up and features actress Brea Grant (Heroes, Real Housewives of Horror) as the very intense teammate Chloe.

Also on Comedy Crib this week, the latest episode of Does Dave Know We’re Here? shows how a group of friends kill time in the car while waiting for their pal Dave. If you’ve ever wanted to get into the tuxedo shirt business, this episode is for you.

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Documentary Now Dronez

Fred Roasts Vice

Fred Armisen Roasted Vice CEO as His ‘Dronez’ Character From Documentary Now!

Documentary Now! returns in 2016.

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Normally, receiving a prestigious award and praise from your peers would be a validating affair, but it’s a decidedly different experience when every facet of your personal and professional life is ruthlessly mocked by a dais of roasters. Such was the case for Vice CEO and gonzo journalist Shane Smith who got both barrels from comics and associates in honor of his Frank Stanton Award win for Excellence in Communication.

Along with Johnny Knoxville, HBO CEO Richard Plepler (who referenced Smith’s recent collaboration with President Obama by joking, “The President called Shane to thank him for the interview and the delightful contact high…”), and other media elites, Fred Armisen took Smith to the mat while dressed as Jeremiah, one of the many gonzo journalists who can be seen getting in over their heads in the Documentary Now! episode “Dronez: The Hunt for El Chingon.”

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And in case you missed Fred and Bill Hader as the Vice-like reporters of “Dronez,” you can stream the entire episode of Documentary Now! for free right now.


New Arrivals

This Week on IFC: Benders and Gigi Does It Are Here!

Benders and Gigi Does It invade IFC Thursday, October 1st starting at 10P.

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This Thursday, October 1st, get to know two great new shows on IFC. At 10P, get on the ice and join the team on Benders. On the premiere episode, Paul’s (Andrew Schulz) grandpa makes him an offer he can’t refuse, even if it interferes with his busy schedule of hockey playing and beer drinking.

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The stay tuned at 10:30P for Gigi Does It, the new show starring David Krumholtz as a grandma who gets her groove back. This week, Gigi Rotblum inherits her late husband’s secret fortune, hires an assistant (Ricky Mabe), and takes unexpected measures to protect herself. James Urbaniak (Difficult People) guest stars.

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Can’t wait until Thursday? We’ve got you covered. Click below to watch FREE episodes of Benders and Gigi Does It.

Watch an episode of Benders

Watch an episode of Gigi Does It

In addition to YouTube and right here on IFC.com, an episode each of Benders and Gigi Does It can be seen on VOD and TV Everywhere platforms through IFC’s cable partners.

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Stale Love Life?

5 Ways to Get Ready for Tonight’s Benders and Improve Your Relationship

Catch Benders tonight at 10P ET/PT on IFC.

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Tonight on a brand-new Benders, Karen has a surprise for Paul while Andrew has to deal with a motormouth girlfriend. Before you settle in at 10P ET/PT to watch, check out five ways tonight’s episode can improve your romantic life.

1. Communicate Your Needs in the Bedroom.

Communication is important in any relationship. Sometimes you want to talk about your day, and sometimes you feel like Anthony and just want to fall asleep listening to the latest Marc Maron podcast.

2.  Work on your excuse game.

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However, if you do need to find a way to, say, drone out your talkative girlfriend, don’t follow Anthony’s lead. Come up with an excuse that doesn’t lead to you mispronouncing “tinnitus.”

3. Rescue a cat together.

A pet can be a great way to inject some warmth into your relationship. Just make sure your significant other doesn’t break out into hives at the sight of a friendly feline.

4. Keep your lady away from Jim Breuer.

The Breu-ski cannot be trusted around the fairer sex.

5. If all else fails, remember: Use the Chubby.

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To make a relationship work, remember: there is no try, only do. If Paul didn’t work hard to keep Karen, she’d probably be Mrs. Brue-ski right now.

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