Editor's note: The following is excerpted from Thompson on Hollywood founder and Indiewire editor-at-large Anne Thompson's speech delivered earlier this week at the Art House Convergence Conference in Utah.
It’s fun being my own boss, trusting my own taste and instincts, writing about the movies I care about, the fun of discovery at Sundance or Cannes. The response online is immediate. They let me know if I make a mistake--instantly! (And there’s no reason why all of you can’t share your discoveries with your film communities the same way.)
In addition to my day job, for the last dozen years, I’ve been booking the prime fall season of the UCLA Extension series Sneak Previews, ten new movies with a Q & A, before they open. It’s harder than it looks, partly because I try to get the best films with the most in-demand talent.
1. Know Your Audience
Our 500 or so Sneak Preview subscribers are your typical older arthouse attendee, right inside the Weinstein Co., Searchlight, Sony Classics sweet spot. This group is sophisticated but mainstream, smart but relatively unadventurous. Over the years I know that I can challenge them to a degree, but there are places that they will not go.
I've gotten to know their taste, how to feed it and play to it. I look for that magic space where our genuine likes coincide.
That's the trick on the blog, too. What do my readers want to know? What questions do they have? It's about leading them to a well with fresh sparkling water, sharing with them what they may not even know they wanted, without pandering or fakery. And leaving them trusting that you will give them more of the good stuff. So they can come back and not be disappointed.
2. Watch the Violence
One year I had a hard time booking an early October night and took a chance on a movie I loved, Matt Reeves' English-language remake "Let Me In," an atmospheric and thoughtful vampire flick starring Chloe Grace Moretz and Richard Jenkins. It had earned great reviews. But as I sat through the movie again with the group, I knew I had made a terrible mistake. What was I thinking? It was a classic 'tweener: too violent for seniors, too arty for younger horror fans. At Sneak Previews, it inspired a flood of angry walkouts.
The wrong kind of violence can be a deal breaker. Even Tim Burton's family-friendly and visually elegant "Frankenweenie" was doomed to flop with my gang due to its black-and-white 3D stop-motion animation and horror elements. And on the opposite side of the spectrum, the real-world violence in "Blood Diamond" — even with Leonardo DiCaprio on board — was too much for them to take.
On the other hand, they went for both Guillermo del Toro's tastefully artful gothic fairy tale "Pan's Labyrinth" and Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's searing family drama "Babel," which both became Oscar-nominated arthouse hits. As long as it's a compelling story that is not in-your-face gory or too intensely scary, they're fine.
3. Foreign Language Films Can Work
...when they're accessible. Zhang Yimou's gorgeous festival hit "The House of Flying Daggers" didn't play for Sneak Previews because it lacked forward narrative momentum, while John Woo's historic epic "Red Cliff" lost them completely. I didn't understand that my years of exposure to various exotic cultures — especially Asia — had made me more receptive and understanding of their cinematic conventions and language. This audience simply couldn't go there. And neither did paying moviegoers.
4. Talent Makes an Event
One of the surprises of this past fall season was opener "Whiplash," which I was afraid would be too intense. But because the film goes out on such an utterly satisfying note, my audience rose clapping as Damien Chazelle and Miles Teller walked down the aisle to the stage. Standing ovations don't happen often at my screenings, so this was a real testament to the film's emotional impact.
I expected Oscar contenders "The Imitation Game," "The Theory of Everything" and "Selma" to play, and so they did. (By the way, edgier "Birdman" met mixed response.) I learn from this audience by sitting in the house and feeling how a movie plays. "Whiplash" clued me into how it would play for Academy. And of course having talent on hand makes a big difference.
Radius helped to make "20 Feet from Stardom" a hit by taking the different singers around the country for P & As and performances, not just for the opening weekend but for the second and third, which helped to support the gross, and keep it on screens for others to discover. It led the movie all the way to a win on Oscar night.
5. See the Films Yourself and Trust Your Gut
I've gotten better about knowing what this captive crowd will accept. And it absolutely requires that I see the films. No way can I guess on the basis of the elements. Each time I go by what I've read or heard I regret it. For example, one festival favorite, Agnieszca Holland's Holocaust drama "In Darkness," was way too disturbing and claustrophobic for them. They fled, even knowing that I had this world-class filmmaker on hand to talk afterwards.
This year's Israeli Oscar entry "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem" wasn't a disaster, but while they had adored another marital drama from Iran, eventual Oscar-winner "A Separation," "Gett" was set entirely inside a courtroom. As innovative and clever as the filmmaking was, the film was too visually limited. They just got restless.
So. The secret sauce for my job, as for you, is seeing as many movies as early as possible, at film festivals.
Sundance, to which many of us are bound, is packed with so many yet-unseen riches that it makes me crazy. The trick is to figure out what my agenda is and not worry about everyone else's. Many distributors have know what films they want to buy. Their schedules are mapped out ahead of time. They've scouted advance intel, read scripts, been approached for financing, been shown early footage. They just want to get that last confirmation that yes, the finished movie plays for an audience.
But Sundance also programs movies from new talent who are completely off the radar. Those are the riskiest screenings, because you don't know whether it's the next "Beasts of the Southern Wild" — a rare breed indeed with the right stuff to roll all the way to the Oscars — or yet another horrific coming-of-age story.
There's plenty to be found. I try to trust my gut and keep my ears open. I love hearing that something's terrible and I can skip it or that something's good and I must track it down. That's the fun of the chase, knowing I'll kick myself for what I missed. But seeing everything is impossible. It's always just a slice.
That's where other festivals come in. They are less intense and make it possible to play catch-up — where it's economically and geographically feasible — from South by Southwest, San Francisco, Tribeca, Seattle, Los Angeles and the fabulous Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic to the fall fests Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York and AFI.
SXSW is jammed with Sundance hits and leftovers — they usually have a Lena Dunham or Aaron Katz discovery or two — and more and more, strong TV previews. It's a great place to network and take advantage of the ways the interactive and film worlds intersect, mostly via panels, where folks from the music industry and Silicon Valley share their knowledge with us movie types. One year I went to an impromptu Twitter meetup with the New York Times' David Carr, who introduced me to Kickstarter's Yancy Strickler — long before the indie crowdfunder became an industry player.
Last year, I caught Jon Favreau's scruffy indie comedy "Chef," which turned out to be a rare example of an old-fashioned long-legged theatrical sleeper. It reminds us that nothing beats weeks of good word-of-mouth: It grossed a total $31 million domestic for Open Road, which also pushed Toronto hit "Nightcrawler" to $32 million, farther than some thought that disturbing film noir would go.
Well-curated festivals reveal the wealth of movies out there. It helps to see for yourself that "Timbuktu" or "Wild Tales" can bring a huge house to tears or laughter.
I wonder if some of the indies, docs and foreign language films at festivals — many of which won't be deemed commercial enough for top-tier pickup — could still play for your audience? The only way to know for sure is to see them and then bring them home — and advocate for them.