Locals in and near Seattle, Washington were given the chance to enjoy some funny or thought provoking independent films at Couchfest, a new short film festival that took place back in September 2008. I had the joy of interviewing the Founder and Programmer for Couchfest and found out many fun facts about this festival.
I found it exciting to be able to up close with a film festival programmer and also found out more about myself and the world around me. One message that should be taken away from this interview is that out of all of us who have goals, only a few actually reach them. Craig Downing of Couchfest is one of those people. He gets things done and is helping filmmakers reach an audience without having to pay inflated film festival fees. Instead of doing a whole briefing, I'd rather you just enjoy what goes on before, during and after a short film festival like Couchfest:
Madlab Post: Couchfest is a clever film festival in the way that it uses residential homes to screen movies. Did you choose to do it this way for pure economical purposes or for the mere fun and joy of having people gather at a house instead of a movie theater?
Couchfest: While there is an economical benefit for having the film fest in houses, the main reason for having the fest in people's houses was to create a new cozy environment for strangers to bond over film. While I love going to a theater to see a film… sometimes it feels like there aren't many opportunities to discuss, grip or praise the film we had all just watched together. I wanted to create a place where people could come together and talk about films. I figured that living rooms are cozy enough places to accomplish this goal. I also purposely placed a 5 minute intermission during each program. My goal with the intermission was to create an awkward silence to encourage people to, you know, talk about the films.
Many film festivals in the U.S. try their best to get celebrity appearances, big sponsors, partnerships with theaters and other perks to attract large audiences which equals out to more tocket sales. What was your marketing strategy for Couchfest ?
Well, with it being our first year in 2008... our marketing strategy was really to just get our name out there. We knew it would be crucial to have great films...otherwise it would be a great film fest idea with crappy films. So, we wanted to be sure to have it as seamless as possible for filmmakers to apply...this included a simple one page application with no submission fee. Also, as our budget was minimal...we of course maximized our exposure on free resources. For example, newsgroups, craigslist and being sure our own website was clear.
We tried to create clever viral film fest commercials with the hopes that people would share the video for us. In addition, I flyer-ed the hell out of Seattle where I live. I ride my bike a lot...so, I just kept a stack of posters with me and would put them up as I biked around. My route to work was very well covered with flyers. You mentioned some great ideas for marketing...I'll have to abuse these ideas for next year. But, honestly, we didn't have a lot resources or experience going after sponsors, partnerships and theaters. I was nervous about what sponsors expectations were going to be and for the first year I wanted to run things the way I wanted regardless.
We did have New Belgium sponsor our after party and that was very helpful. But, we struggle about who might be a good sponsor for next year. We don't want to seek products that might give the impression that it's just a film fest about sitting on your rump on a couch... but on the other hand... some more active companies might not want to be associated with a festival that has people hanging out inside for most of the day. I've thought it might be interesting to approach IKEA as a sponsor...or a biking company. See, the film fest is both about being in strangers living rooms…but also about getting up early and trying to squeeze in 10 houses all in one day.
Attending Couchfest seems like going over a friend's house to watch a DVD. How responsive was your audience to this type of setting?
It is kind of like going over to a friend's house to watch a DVD...but then again it's different. We had programs, we had badges and each house enthusiastic hosts to great all the film-loving strangers. Overall, the audience was very responsive to the idea of going to people's houses to watch movies. I would sneak into houses just to observe how it was going during the fest... it was beautiful to watch attendees spontaneously offer to share hummus and pita with each other during the program intermissions... I couldn't have asked for more magical moments... it was silly but it was a little emotional for me to watch those moments. But, also, people bonded during the whole process too... people started asking each other which house they were going to next and trying to bike or car pool.
People started recommending film houses to go visit. Some people from out of town saw the fest as a great way to visit Seattle but experience Seattle more as a local…I mean what better way to discover Seattle than to hang out with Seattle residents on their couch, propping up your feet on their coffee table in their living room? While it was like watching movies in your living room, say, with you roommates, people still treated the event as a shorts film fest.
Why did you choose to program short films instead of features?
With a shorts program, I love the idea that if you don't like the short movie...you aren't committed to it for 2 hours. You can sit out 6 minutes of a short film and see what the next film is like. By having it as a shorts film fest, I think it made it easier for me to have a little of something for everyone. Also, while I was prepping for the fest...I was working a boring slow office job...by focusing in on shorts, I was able to comb the internet while at work for great shorts that I wanted to invite to play at couch fest films. Overall, with the limited time that I had, it was easy for me to sift through shorts than 2 hour features. But, this isn't meant to minimize shorts as a convenience... I also wanted to showcase the many shorts that I was seeing that just didn't seem to be getting the exposure that I felt they deserved.
Will there be more Couchfest events in the coming years?
The plan is to do couch fest films in 2009. The plan is to have it in Seattle...but I did ask other cities if they would be interested in hosting couch fest films... it was a long shot..but sadly I didn't hear back from Reykjavik, Iceland. I'd love to take the fest and try it in Portland, Berlin, Bergen or San Francisco but we'll see. I'm getting a little a head of myself there I think.
Do you plan on programming any feature films at Couchfest in the future?
We are thinking about programming features for the 2009 fest. It would just takes a lot more resources and time to evaluate full features than shorts. As I am screening most of the submissions, I would need to reach out for more help if I were to include features. But, right now I am trying to find ways to make this happen. I think having full features would open couch fest films to a larger audience. I playfully imagine that full feature directors are frustrated that only short film directors can currently brag about playing at couch fest films. Hopefully we give feature film directors the chance to brag in 2009.
The notion of screening films at random houses in Washington is generally cool and complementary of the DIY movement. It is also very risky. What was your selection process for the homes/venues that participated?
It was risky. I was nervous that a host house would cancel the day before...or that a host would wake up late on the day of the event. Thankfully, all the hosts were solid volunteers and they all came through. I did have my own house as a back up in case things went wrong. I had, what I called event ninjas, ready and waiting near their car to dash off to a host house with a replacement DVD player or program DVD. But, as far as the selection process for the event, it was mostly based on location.
I wanted to be sure that every neighborhood was represented. The goal there was to encourage people to visit neighborhoods they typically wouldn't visit. But, for every person that expressed interest for hosting for the film fest...I would visit their residency to mostly meet them and then see if the space was a good match. Lots of people in apartments wanted to participate...but in most cases their space was too small. But, this isn't to say that I didn't include at least on apartment. I wanted to have a variety of neighborhoods, yes, but also a variety of types of spaces.
So, I did include one apartment with the goal of having it be super cozy. Other than that, I just made sure the hosts knew what they were getting into....and made sure that the house could be appropriate for the public. For example, one host mentioned wanting to give away a fondue kit during the fest. I was so touched but reminded her that there would be 8 screenings at her house during that day... to which she explained how she had a basement full of fondue kits and couldn't wait to give away fondue kits all day. It was awesome.
Couchfest 2008 operated in a manner similar to Brave New Theaters where average citizens can host their own movie screenings. In your experience running Couchfest, do you think smaller venues like homes can be a viable market for filmmakers?
Well, as the director of a film fest in peoples houses, my answer might be a little biased...but yes I think that homes can be a viable market for filmmakers. Brave New Theaters is a great idea... The idea of having movies in homes means that you are ultimately matching filmmakers with film lovers which, sounds like a great match to me. Ultimately, I think films should encourage a reaction which ideally leads to a conversation. I think having movies playing to an audience in the comfortable atmosphere in someone's house encourages that opportunity to discuss the films that are being seen. My concern with media is that it some cases it can be isolating...
For example, we watch movies in a dark theater, we watch movies by ourselves on a computer, we sit on a bus and watch a movie on our cell phone and so forth. The idea of bringing people together to watch and discuss films in someone's house doesn't sound isolating to me.
How was Couchfest funded?
Shhh... but Couch Fest Films was funded by the foundation of me. I just wanted to see it happen...and I didn't want to wait around or have to convince someone it was a good idea. So, I sponsored the film fest. I can't say this is a good business model...but ultimately I was very happy to see it through.
The awards and prizes are great incentives for filmmakers to submit to Couchfest. How were you able to give away $1,750 in prize money when there were no entry fees for film submissions?
Having no submission fee for shorts was important for a number of reasons. First, I know how many great film fests there are out there... I didn't won't to exhaust the already challenged budget for a short film director by charging them to submit to another film fest. I wanted to have it be as easy as possible for filmmakers to submit their films. This way we could have more films to select from for the final fest program. Second and on a personal level for me, I didn't want to seem creepy when I was encouraging filmmakers to submit to the film fest.
I didn't want to talk up their film, talk up my fest and then remind them that there was a submission fee... I would have felt a little like a salesperson...I didn't want the filmmaker in anyway to question why I was encouraging them to submit their film to the film fest. This way it was easy. I would see a film and comfortably tell them I loved it and they should submit it to couch fest films. The prize money? Yes we had $1750 in prize money. I wanted to have a large enough purse to get filmmakers to notice the film fest and to take the film fest seriously.
Awards were given for...
We had the following awards:
Golden Couch: $1000
Silver Couch: $500
Bronze Couch: $250
I think next year...I'd like to offer more awards. For example, giving awards for best short in each genre, best director, audience awards, jury award and so forth.
Honestly we had so many great films. We had about 100 films screen during the fest. Utilizing the audience's vote, we had to narrow it down to three...but I would have been happy giving away $1000 to over half of the films that played during the fest.
What would do differently for Couchfest the next time around?
Next time around? I think I should reach out for sponsorship and/or grants. I would like to show full features, have bands play at houses or during intermissions, group more houses closer together, have more awards, be sure to let the hosts see all the movies in advance, have more movies in general, have the fest provide small scholarships, have a guest jury, have more Icelandic films and encourage more attendees to sneak in more food. I also have this dream where attendees can vote on the films immediately and then see dynamically what other attendees are voting positively for the same films. Hopefully this would encourage attendees to identify with their couch peers.
Ah, what else? I want to reach out to other small film fests, say, like the disposable film fest. You mentioned brave new theater…I should probably talk to them for next year. Im rambling now...but I also want to have a host house play randomly selected dismissed films to maybe give them a second chance... Oh, and I guess it would be awesome to have an ice cream truck in front of every host house. There.
What was your worst movie theater experience?
My worst movie experience? Hmmm? I guess it would be going to see a movie in a theater that has obviously never been cleaned...and you can smell the rotting popcorn that spores a horrible smell of salty foot.
Finish this sentence: The most annoying things about TV are.....
How passive they make the audience and how damn heavy they can be sometimes. Grrrr!
What was the best movie released in theaters so far this year? Why?
Crap...just one! Well, I'm going to cheat. I would select 'Ballast' and 'The Fall'. These are to very different movies..but equally stunning and remarkable.
What are some facts that curious movie lovers do not know about Couchfest 2008?
We had movies from over 17 countries. We almost always accept films that have ping pong themes and/or are from Iceland. The trophy for the Golden Couch award this year was over 2 feet tall--yeow! The couch fest films after party was so much fun that someone danced themselves right into a black eye... Ah, maybe I shouldn't have mentioned that. Oh, well.
Be sure to keep Couchfest on your Radar for 2009!
As I know film festival programmers are busy and even busier with minimum to no staff, much thanks to Craig Downing from Couchfest for taking the time to do this interview.
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Photo: Noel Paul and Stefan Moore Wins the Golden Couch award for their music video, Natalie Portman's Shaved Head Sophisticated Side Ponytail at Couchfest/Copyright, Couchfest Films.