earlier this year Luke Spears wrote a personal account of his experience at Sundance for this website. This month I, Johnny Salvatore, will try topping that with my own account of the Queens International Film Festival. Sundance is America's most famous film fest on the tour. Queens should be the most infamous. First, just a little backstory.
I was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and raised in Astoria, Queens. I love Astoria (an area home to more languages than anywhere on Earth) and still call it home. But while the hipster colony which is now Williamsburg sickens me, my heart will always belong to Brooklyn first. That is why this site is BrooklynAtlantic.com and not AstoriaEastRiver.com. As a filmmaker, getting into the Coney Island Film Festival has been my greatest joy. That said, getting into the Queens International Film Festival, located not only in Astoria, but three short blocks from where I grew up and where my mom still lives, was, for a very brief moment in time, a close second. It's now a not so close last. For four days however it was the most memorable of them all.
Infact, even before the Thursday opening night party, the festival opened with a bang. I was posting a promo poster outside the Bizaare Cafe, a festival meeting point for filmmakers, when the bizarre happened. Festival director,Marie Castaldo, stepped out to cross the street towards the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. FSSA is the brand new 100 million dollar school that played primary host to this year's festival. As Marie, a diminutive but feisty looking French woman passed by, we exchanged a few polite words. She got about five steps closer to the school when ambushed by Fox-NY news reporter, Arnold Diaz, and his cameraman. He asked Marie where all of the money from the festival's 800 submissions had gone. Marie didn't answer. Instead she sprinted down an industrial section of 36th street with Diaz and his cameraman in hot pursuit.
The camera was on me on Sunday night, shortly after the closing night ceremonies. Dan Nuxoll, festival director of the Rooftop Films Series asked me questions as his cute assistant taped my ever word. I didn't run but did stutter a bit before asking to talk to him off camera. Although I never told Nuxoll, in between Thursday and Sunday nights, QiFF provided lots of drama, incompetence, rudeness, disappointment and lies. They also stiffed me out of $250, plus two $30 concert tickets.
The following is my insight of a festival that even before Arnold Diaz (famous in this town for his "Shame on You" reports) came on the scene, left me with doubts.
Those doubts started last year when I submitted my first short film, Under the N, to QiFF. I had already completed my second film, Sodom by the Sea, but figured "N" shot in Astoria about Astorians would be a better a fit. I was surprised at how cheap the entry fee, 25 dollars, was. 25 bucks in this post-Withoutabox age is a pretty sweet deal. While going through the application however I found a bunch of hidden fees. 50 extra bucks to gain consideration for best film. 25 extra bucks to be in the running for best director. 25 more for male lead; female lead; cinematography, and so on and so on. Having just played at the 25th annual Long Island Film Festival, being confident in my work, being a local, having a local story, and perhaps most importantly, being broke, I didn't play along. I submitted my film along with a check for 25 dollars and that was that. Except that wasn't that upon receiving the official rejection e-mail.
All rejections hurt. Aside from obvious reasons, they hurt because I know that no matter how big or small the festival is, no matter how many movies they've selected which are clearly superior to my two shorts, ALL OF THEM contain at least a couple of clunkers. Clunkers which are not as good as "N" or "Sodom." Luke witnessed that himself at Sundance this year. I've witnessed those same clunkers at smaller but still recognized festivals that I had been accepted to like Coney Island and the Big Apple Film Festival. I knew that not every single movie which got into QiFF last year was better than N. Instead of moving on, the way I tried to when Sodom was snubbed by the rather dinky Boston Underground Film Festival (OK-OK, I still sorta scratch my head about that one too) I wondered about those hidden fees. Did not paying them cost me a slot? Were other filmmakers buying their way into QiFF?
This year while browsing the Withoutabox message boards I noticed that some filmmakers were happily announcing their acceptance letters into QiFF. Wondering now if this year's crew had bought their way in, I decided to re-check QiFF's website. To my surprise it had improved greatly. I also noticed that the submission fee had jumped to 50 bucks but that the hidden fees were gone. Immediately I realized that for me to be going through their application form to begin with, they were still accepting submissions. I went back to the Withoutabox thread and typed something out like "Ain't it shady for a fest to be announcing accepted work before their own submission deadline?" I was expecting a bunch of "Yeah, that is shady!" responses followed up with a few "buying your way in" stories from last year and possibly years before that. Instead, the few responders agreed that it was a rare but not "shady" practice. That's all I needed. Beating the deadline by just a day, I submitted my second short film, Sodom, to QiFF.
There was one problem with this second submission. I didn't have any new dvd's lying around. Wanting to make deadline, I sent out an old version from last year. Not exactly a rough cut or anything, but not a 100% polished either.
Just a few weeks later I got my official selection e-mail. Aaah, brief happiness. I got in with an old version and without having to pay any extra fees. Later I found out that my short would be playing at one of the smaller theaters inside their main venue, the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. Coincidentally, I had once worked on a shoot to secure funding for the very building that I'd be screening in. A building located just three short blocks from mom's house! I sent a note to Marie Castaldo, the festival director thanking her for the acceptance. I also mentioned that my work wasn't exactly a finished product and that I wanted to send her the updated version. She didn't get back to me but knowing how hectic things get for festival directors, I figured I'd just write her again later.
Around that time, a friend of mine, Dan Turkewitz, called with his own good news. He landed a gig working as one of the festival's photographers. This will be almost as cool as Coney Island, I thought. Again, briefly.