Nobody's Clapping - How to Survive a Bad Festival Screening - Raindance

Guest Post by B. O’Malley

It was Park City, Utah, in the year 2000. I’d just completed my second feature film, Minimum Wage, about a talent agent who sells his soul to the devil. The film was invited to play the No Dance Film Festival, a small, but decent little festival that ran concurrently with the Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals.

The film that played was a digital output from an Avid editing system. It had temp sound with zero sound mix, and absolutely no finishing. The editing wasn’t even complete.

Even it had been a complete film, with fine finishing and audio and color, the film had no business being within 200 miles of a film festival, let alone playing in Park City. It was a wreck of a screenplay.

Yet there we were. On a weekday morning in Park City, in some convention-ish center ballroom of some sort, playing this Avid output of this terrible feature film, to a teeming throng of probably 30 people.

Within 2 minutes, the crowd was down to 25 people. I knew all was lost.

The good news is, it wasn’t my first film screening where the audience left, or stayed unwillingly glued to their seats in an obviously polite gesture of pity. So I happened to be armed with two key skills on that fateful January morning in Utah:

A) How to handle a “meh” audience reaction to my films with relative aplomb
B) How not to get hurt

And you wanna know a secret? Those aren’t hard skills to learn. If you ever find yourself in a situation where your film might not be going over so well with a crowd, consider a few of my helpful hints on how to cope:

Rule #1: Don’t Panic!™

Believe it or not, there is absolutely nothing at stake with your film screening that’s worth panicking over, or even sweating over. It might seem hard to believe, after working for years on your film, jumping through hoops, pushing the final cut over the line, winning a roll of the dice to get into a festival, and then spending all the time and money to get yourself out to the screening…

… But it’s true.

Your film screening may be worth planning for, executing for, and worth pursuing and exploiting any good opportunities that may develop from it, but it’s absolutely not worth panicking over.

If people walk out, fuck ’em.

If people walk in, who cares?

If people don’t laugh, or cry, or clap, to hell with the bloody lot of ’em. They’re not the film’s only audience. There’s lots more audience ahead. In theaters, on streaming, on spinning golden discs that are quickly going the way of the dodo.

Festival audiences are savvy. And worth listening to. And any first audience of any type will give you a fairly good idea of whether or not your film is working. But remember: the demographic composition of most film festival audiences tends to be fairly heavily weighted towards filmmakers, and/or cinephiles. Sure, they know their craft, most of them at least, and sure, they tend make no bones about tearing a film down or singing its praises in detailed, frame-by-frame glory, and yeah, they probably have a blog, but in truth, they represent only one small sliver of the audience your film will hopefully find its way to.

What’s the worst that could happen? Could one of them with a big blog and a vendetta for your film kill your career, or your film’s chances? Sure.

But it’s unlikely.

And unlikely is not worth panicking over.

Rule #2: Don’t be crushed, but be crushed

High school kids get crushed when someone doesn’t like them. Filmmakers don’t get that privilege.

Why? Because you’ve spent the better part of your short film career telling everybody who’ll listen that “Filmmaking is war.” Trust me, you’ve used the metaphor. Maybe not lately, but if you’re a filmmaker, you’ve used it.

If filmmaking is war, then you don’t get to cry when things don’t go your way.

Those brave men in the Spitfires. Those brave women in the makeshift bomb shelters. They didn’t cry.

That’s war, baby. So if you wanna cry, you can pack up your 4K wallet cam with the custom PL lens rig and your big fat ideas on how to revolutionize the next reboot of Batman and you can go straight home and cry in your embroidered little “filmmaker” throw pillow.

I get it though. The idea is: your screening isn’t going so well, so you pout, hoping others will see your pouting and change their behavior, a la engage in some fake laughing or clapping for your benefit.

It’s a good idea. For a three-year-old. But for a grown filmmaker, it’s more than weak tea—it embarrasses the rest of us in the craft.

But in another sense, in a private sense, being crushed IS okay. Let the lack of clapping and laughing soak into your pores. Let it grip your heart. Let it sink into your colon with so much agony that it makes food poisoning seem like a holiday picnic.

Getting crushed on the inside is essential to growing as an artist. There’s nothing like sitting in a theater full of people who aren’t laughing to make you really, really want to get better at making people laugh. There’s nothing like stewing in your own juices as an audience buries their noses into their food cameras while the zenith of your film’s dramatic journey unspools.

Feel it. Live in it. Let the agony change you.

But don’t let them see you get crushed. If you do, you could alter your audience’s behavior, as they coalesce around a fake reaction in order to make you feel better. No other force warps an artist more than false flattery, or congratulations when they’re not deserved.

Rule #3: Watch faces, not your film

Seeing a film with an audience for the first time is one of the most thrilling experiences a filmmaker can have.

If it’s going well.

If it’s not, why keep staring at the thing? You’ve seen it.

Turn around, watch your audience. Not in a creepy way, but in a casual-creepy way. You know your film’s beats like the back of your hand (or you should.) Gauge facial reactions when those beats hit. Gauge your audience as those beats approach.

Watching an audience watch your film adds a dimension to your education as a filmmaker like no other. It’s been said by better filmmakers than I that “You write the film when you write the film, then you write it again when you shoot it, then you write it again when you edit it.”

I’d like to add “You write it yet again when you watch it with an audience.”

Rule #4: Don’t be a snot in the Q & A

So your screening sucked. As we covered earlier, it could be that your film actually sucks, or it could just be the audience. (Err on the former. You’re an artist.) Either way, pointing fingers or shifting blame during the Q&A after the screening is not the way to vent your frustrations.

Here are a few case study quotes from Q&A’s. You tell me if they’re appropriate or not appropriate:

A) “We had a great time shooting it. So much fun and so many great people.”
B) “The scene with the candy truck would’ve been a lot stronger, had Alan not forgotten the spaghetti.”
C) “The producer was a total knob. I hope a tree falls on him.”

Here are the correct answers:

Wait. You know what? I’m not gonna list the answers, because you should know the answers, because you’re an adult and a filmmaker and a decent human being. Did you forget? Well, don’t. And don’t let all that’s good about you go flying out the window just because you’re upset at your bad screening.

Why? See #1: It’s not worth it.

Passive aggression, blame, pettiness, self-aggrandizement – these are the 4 deadly sins of the post-screening Q & A, but they rear their ugly heads much more often after a screening-gone-wrong. If they do rear their heads, lop them off. Then burn them.

What it all boils down to is that a bad screening at a festival isn’t going to end you, and it isn’t going to end your film. What ends you, and what ends your film, and what ultimately ends your film career, is if you handle your bad film screening… badly.

So be ready for the festival to drop the ball with the film projector, or the sound, and be ready for the audience to not like your film, and be ready to watch as half of them walk out.

Because those moments aren’t supposed to destroy you.

They’re supposed to build you.



Brian O’Malley started his career in film production working for legendary B-movie maverick Roger Corman in 1997. He’s written and directed three feature films, including Bleak Future, Minimum Wage, and Audie & The Wolf, and in 1999, assembled a team of experienced script readers to launch the script coverage company, Screenplay Readers, providing brutally honest, actionable script feedback for screenwriters, agents, and filmmakers.

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