The First Time Fest, FTF, was held this year in New York City from March 1-4 at the prestigious Players Club for the panels, meeting, and the opening and closing awards ceremonies while at nearby a multiplex cinema all screenings took place. In four days 12 feature length documentaries and films by first time film makers from North and Latin America, Europe, Australia, the Middle East, and Asia competed for the Grand Prize and numerous other FTF awards. Among the noteworthy entries was the first independent feature film from Belarus HORIZON SKY whose activist directors Andrei Kureichyk and Dzmitry Marynin could not secure visa to attend the festival. An intriguing Australian Mongolian documentary MONGOLIAN BLING by Benj Binks covered the link between current beats and traditional Mongolian music. A parallel section First Exposure featured 11 first films from established directors which proved to have a great impact on other filmmakers. This program included classics like Todd. Solondz’ WELCOME TO THE DOLL HOUSE, Barbara Kopple’s HARLAN COUNTY, John Huston’s THE MALTESE FALCON, Darren Aronofsky’ PI and Todd Haynes POISON. Special screenings of Mexico’s best 2011 feature DAYS OF GRACE by Everardo Gout, of the 1953 innovative LITTLE FUGITIVE by Morris Engels which largely influenced French New Wave filmmaking, and of the documentary The Police CAN’T STAND LOOSING YOU by Andy Grieve completed the screening program. Most of the directors of films in the competition and First Exposure Section were present during the festival.
Numerous panels analyzed under the appropriate HOW THEY DID IT moniker issues as diverse and topical as the discovery of new cinema, funding for indie film makers, sales approaches, and transmedia story telling platforms. For new and aspiring film makers, experts certainly provided important and pragmatic insights. In the panel ‘Show Me The Money’ practitioners offered a detailed review and discussion of new fund raising avenues via tax credits, crowd funding, and equity support, but also emphasized the need for being innovative, having an excellent script and networking. In the special event section STAND ALONE film makers benefited in one-on-one interviews from the experience of Harry Belafonte and Michael Shannon.
The First Time Fest certainly has delivered on its promise to discover new original film makers from all over the world, to facilitate the distribution of their productions and to provide them with an effective festival learning environment. More importantly, the festival has embraced innovative programming exemplary policies novel to the festival trade. To begin with, the Grand Prize Winner of the First Time Fest, SAL (Chile/Argentine) by Diego Rougier received guaranteed distribution by the well established Cinema Libre Studio company in domestic and international markets. There were seven other awards for outstanding acting, writing, editing, etc but all other 11 finalists will receive expert advice on the marketing of their films and a one year membership in Players Club. As noted, panels and individual presentations established a superb learning context for the filmmakers as did the judging process. Each film maker was in the hot seat right after the presentation of his/her film and exposed to questions from members of the jury and the audience. Another new element of the First Time Fest was the fifth member of the jury, the audience which rated all films.
As to the networking element, very few new international new film makers, even if they are in the official festival program have at a festival the opportunity to meet and discuss their work with well established directors and industry executives. The First Time Fest offered that. Apart from the luminaries and directors mentioned already insights were available from Martin Scorsese who presented the First John Huston Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinema to Darren Aronofsky. Among the others were Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ellen Burstyn, Melvin van Peebles, Tony Bennett, Hal Hartley, Christine Vachon, Gay Talese and Jenny Lumet to name but a few.
Sure there were problems for the festival which relied on private funding. The biggest according to Johanna Bennett was the lack of sponsorship and underwriting which resulted in severe understaffing and not being able to provide transport and lodging to the competition film makers. Yet as she stressed they were surprised by “the intensely positive reaction to the experience of FTF by the Filmmakers both the competition Filmmakers and the First Exposure Filmmakers …the strong reaction to the basic idea of FTE …and the difference to other industry events“. That recognition came as “a kind of shock”.
Credit for the innovation and ingenuity certainly goes to the co-founders of First Time Fest Johanna Bennett and Many Ward and their collaborators Mitch Levine the producer of the festival and its programmer David Schwartz. There is no other festival which matches the programming and learning approach of the First Time Fest and its close ties to established and emerging cinema artists. The unique First Time Fest model will be difficult to follow and one wonders how the second edition in 2014 can improve on the first. But the co-founder and collaborators may amaze us again.