One of the unique aspects of the True/False Film Festival, which begins this week in Columbia, Missouri, is its secret screenings. These are showcases for documentaries with world premieres scheduled later in the year at other major festivals. To preserve the world premiere status, True/False keeps the title of the film under wraps, with the audience not knowing what they're about to watch until the curtains open and the movie begins. Meanwhile, members of press in attendance are embargoed from mentioning the film’s title — and prohibited from writing about it in any way that may reveal its identity.
According to the festival's co-founder David Wilson, the secret screenings were born out of a desire to show the best films possible, while acknowledging that other larger festivals like SXSW, Tribeca and Cannes offer a platform that they cannot. "We know that by design that True/False is not a marketplace," Wilson told Indiewire in a recent interview. "We know that True/False — while being as carefully curated collection of attending press — does not have the sheer numbers of press you'll see at other market festivals."
But True/False is certainly one thing: a celebration of nonfiction filmmaking that has, over the last decade, become the favorite festival for many in the documentary community. And while the secret screenings may be kept under wraps for practical reasons, they have also become an important step for many filmmakers bringing their films into the world.
"Filmmakers are often freaked out showing their films for the first time...in a way, we are giving them a dress rehearsal," explained Wilson. "Filmmakers at first often don't know how to talk about their films, so they learn this in the process of screening. They learn how audiences respond." More specifically, they're ready to handle the reactions. "They learn what kind of questions they get and how to craft a good response to those questions," Wilson added. " I've watched a number of filmmakers use their secret screenings to learn what they made, how other people see that, and how they can talk about it."
That insight is also something filmmakers can use to re-edit their film before their world premiere. What often gets lost in the lonely months of editing is how the audience will react, which can dictate so many choices for an editor. According to Wilson, it has become common practice after secret screenings for filmmakers to tweak their films, making both big and small changes, before their premieres.
"They may play it and realize they totally stepped on one of their laughs because they themselves stopped laughing at the material months ago," explain Wilson. "They may even reorder a scene with the knowledge of how the audience responded to the material. You never can know exactly how an audience will react at certain moments of a film until you screen it, and that information can be invaluable to a filmmaker."
More than anything, the True/False secret screenings allow filmmakers to enjoy showing their films for the first time. The pressure of unveiling a film at a major festival — where members of the press are tweeting 140 character reviews and distributors are determining the film’s marketability — can be tremendous. In many ways, those first few days of unveiling a film to the world can dictate its future. What can get lost for some filmmakers is the reason they dedicated years of their lives to making the film in the first place.
"I'm sure these people exist, [but] I don't anyone in the doc world who make films so they can sell them and make money," said Wilson. "It's a terrible idea if you did...you really blew it if that’s the case." He emphasized the non-industry leanings of the True/False audience. "They don't care about the festival life of your film, or what release strategy is going to work, or early awards chatter," he said. "They just want to engage in the film itself and see the world in a way they never have before."
The True/False Film Festival is March 3-6.