CMJ Filmfest '98 -- No Longer Learning To Crawl
by Amanda N. Nanawa
The Filmfest at CMJ (College Music Journal) has always operated under
the shadow of its mega-sister, the Musicfest. Despite an impressive
location at the Sony Theaters Times Square, sponsorship from the
Independent Film Channel and a slate of films better than in previous
years, the Filmfest hasn't yet made a deep impression on CMJ. In the
event's 1999 Directory, for example, there doesn't exist a single page
for film participants.
This year, the convention moved its date to November from September,
placing the film and music fests in an interesting position. For
starters, the music industry is not exactly keen on pushing new talent
near the end of the quarterly year. Bottom line, labels would like to
see big sales from their already signed artists before the year is out.
For the film fest, however, November means a potentially important
preview slot before the following year's important festivals like
Sundance, Slamdance and South by South West.
Among the films selected at CMJ was Sony Pictures Classics Cannes
pick-up, "SLC Punk" which painted an '80's Salt Lake City, Utah riven
with punk attitude and no place to properly display it. Stevo (Matthew
Lillard) recounts the story of growing up in a world filled with punk
posers, fielding questions such as the difference between British Punk
and American punk. The answer: American punk is harder, louder and from
the heart. Written and directed by James Merendino, the film is set to
open April of '99. Also with distribution attached was the
now-in-release "Hard Core Logo" (Rolling Thunder/Cowboy Booking) the
third installment of Bruce McDonald's road trip trilogy about the
unappealing reality of a rock 'n roll lifestyle.
In the undistributed feature "How To Make The Cruelest Month,"
up-and-coming actress Clea DuVall ("The Faculty," "Committed") delivers
a memorable performance as Bell Bryant, a woman who has only one month
to fulfill some New Year's resolutions she made a year before. Her
character's hapless endeavors with family and friends sets off an
engaging chain reaction of mayhem. Hole's bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur
also makes her on-screen debut, proving that the silver screen has room
for two Hole members (Courtney Love is the other).
Attendance for the two short films, Sophia Coppola's "Lick The Star" and
Steve Hanft's "Strange Parallel: The Elliot Smith Short Film," were
encouraging. The latter screening received the largest audience as
people continued entering the theater to catch a glimpse of the
enigmatic musician Smith. "I think the music industry will eventually
crush me...But I'm ready," admits Smith on film. In the short, Smith is
forced to replace his writing hand for a robot hand, which sketches the
metaphor of the music industry's pressures to dehumanize Smith's work.
Give Hanft credit for capturing this introverted and complicated artist
Above and beyond some popular screenings, CMJ is still mostly about
heated debate and discussion. The soundtrack, score, and film
distribution panels turned out to be as dramatic as the films they
represented. Aboard the elevator, a convention-goer asked, "How are the
panels?" The answer: "Bitch sessions."
At Reel Quick Money: Movie Soundtracks, people had to leave their ideal
soundtracks at the double doors. Rather than inciting hope, the panel
presented a cutthroat business that left most filmmakers, music
supervisors and musicians frustrated. One important down note -- if a
soundtrack has no potential single ready for airplay, then consider the
project a failure. Panelists also explained that creating a soundtrack
album is just like playing the lottery -- you'll never know if the film
it accompanies hits or misses. And reiterating the importance of
establishing a relationship with music supervisors, panelists advised
that the sooner you start, the better it will be for your film.
At the Q & A, several questioned were hurled at the panelists: Is it
better approaching indie record labels rather than major labels for a
soundtrack? While Matador Records' Lyle Hysen agreed this was the best
method, moderator Randy Poster of London Records felt this was the wrong
question to be asking. Rather than attach a band or label after the
film is finished, Poster believes filmmakers should plan their music at
script stage. What about acquiring festival rights for film music?
Poster feels filmmakers might as well pursue a full license, because
they're already spending money on tracks that they'd most likely use
after the festival circuit.
Good Machine Music's Tracy McKnight moderated a panel that included
"Chicago Cab" co-director John Tintori, composer Page Hamilton of
Helmet, "Apocalypse Now" record producer David Rubinson, and composer
Moby. Questions such as, "How do you get the project?" and "Who has
musical control - you or the director?" were high on people's minds.
Helmet's Page Hamilton said the reason he immediately latched onto John
Tintori and Mary Cybulski's "Chicago Cab" was because he loved the
trailer that was sent to him. To those familiar with Helmet's sound, you
won't find it on "Chicago Cab." (Recently, Helmet announced they've
officially broken up, leaving Hamilton to follow a different musical
Having written music for "Heat," "The Saint" and the 007 film "Tomorrow
Never Dies," composer Moby (Richard Melville Hall) talked about the
accessibility of synthesized or electronic music. It can be made simply,
quickly, inexpensively, and artistically in a home studio where there
are no limitations, according to Moby. He also confessed interest in
working on lower budget projects, but made clear he'd only accept
projects in their finished state.
What is the ideal relationship between the director and composer?
Producer Rubinson claimed that the director should do their film, hire
the composer, and leave the music to the composer. In other words, "Call
me when its done." Rubinson relates the tale of Director Francis Ford
Coppola asking him to do what was considered impossible in 1979. In
"Apocalypse Now," Coppola wanted to make the music blend with the
environmental sounds such as the helicopter blades. It was a
breakthrough in sound composition, starting a practice that is now
commonplace in most productions.
The most entertaining, informative, and well received panel was Why Did
The Film Cross The Line?: A Discussion Of Films Deemed Too Edgy For
Distribution. According to the panelists, a new form of censorship is
starting to take shape -- corporate censorship. "Sex doesn't sell
anymore," comments Stephen Schiff, Executive Producer of "Lolita." The
panel agreed. This past year, we have seen quite a few distributor's
corporate parents making it harder for challenging films to find any
light of day in theaters. "People get angry at these films without
having seen them," says Schiff, noting films such as "Happiness,"
"Orgazmo," and "Lolita," which all found themselves mired in controversy
over whether or not they deserve an R-rating. With studios cowering over
MPAA rules and corporations having the final say in what they release,
the filmmaker is now left with one other option: cable television. The
panel professed that television is much bolder than the studios [with
MTV as an exception] where cable networks such as Showtime aired
"Lolita" into homes nationwide. "[It's] the death of the art house,"
commented Schiff. "Gone are the days of walking to an art house with a
CMJ's Filmfest and film panels are moving in a positive direction.
Looking ahead, CMJ has plans to expand and give the Filmfest what it
deserves. For 1999, expect to see more documentaries, student films,
more shorts, workshops, post screening parties and a keynote address. If
CMJ plans it right, they could become an important, viable music and
film festival on the East Coast. South by South West -- watch out.