Picking the flicks for the Vail Film Fest
Imagine having to watch about a thousand films throughout the year, at some point knowing you have to choose only a small fraction of them to be screened at your film festival. That’s exactly what happens every year behind the scenes of the Vail Film Festival. The programmers this year have chosen close to 60 films for this year’s festival – that’s 60 out of the 1,000 submitted.
“I know there are festivals who break down (films) in terms of criteria – production value, story, acting, directing and they rate them that way,” said Sean Cross, co-founder of the Vail Film Festival. He’s one of a handful of programmers responsible for evaluating the films for the festival. “We prefer to use a general overview of the film and we have a bigger picture selection process based on how engaging the film is. Is it compelling, does it grab you in some way?”
Cross said there have been times when he’s watched a potential film that was great for the first 70 minutes but fell to pieces during the last 20 minutes and he and the other screeners had to let it go.
“The films that we love, they tend to grab you immediately,” said Megen Musegades, associate director and fellow feature film screener for the Vail Film Festival. “The first couple minutes you’re in and you’re ready to take the ride.”
And since the Vail Film Festival is broken up into different categories, a similar theory for choosing films extends to short films, student films and even documentaries, but with little differences that address the nuances of each.
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“I always appreciate it when filmmakers are very clear about their subject matter right up front,” said Erin Sheppard, documentary film programmer for the Vail Film Festival. “Sometimes the focus is too diluted, which makes it difficult for the viewer to know what they’re seeing. A well-made documentary often presents more than one side of an issue – even if the intent is to create awareness or educate on one particular opinion.”
Musegades said submissions for the Vail Film Festival begin to trickle in around October and the festival takes place late March or early April, which gives the screeners only about six months to watch them all, decide which ones they like the best and then figure out how to schedule them all during the festival.
“You find one you like and you put it aside,” Musegades said. “By the end you have a certain amount you have to whittle down to just pick your top favorites.”
“We’ve had films that were in the yes pile until the end … but eventually you have to make tough decisions,” Cross said.
Musegades agreed, saying that there have been times when the screeners will have to fight passionately to keep a film in the festival over others, but in the end it always comes down to a general consensus between the screeners.
No matter which genre you’re talking about, it doesn’t get any easier to pick the best of the best, Sheppard said.
“(Documentaries are) a tough genre to program because there are so many important topics,” Sheppard said. “Since it’s for a film festival I always ask myself, ‘how does this hold up as art?’ That helps clarify tough decisions. Some docs read as extremely important news stories, which has a place, for sure – but in a festival, a doc that is also presented as a work of art will stand out.”
It’s also not about the celebrity factor, either, Cross said, noting that they’ve had the option to show films with big-name celebrities starring in them but have turned them down because they didn’t make the cut with the programmers.
“Those are tough decisions,” Cross said.
In the end, it’s impossible to please all the people, all the time, no matter how hard you try. Which is why Cross, Musegades and Sheppard all agreed that in the end, the audience benefits from the experience of seeing something new.
“That’s a part of film, or any kind of art, it’s so subjective,” Cross said.