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The first to see films: film festival gatekeepers

A pre-screener's lot is double-sided. Yes, there's the possibility of being the one to discover a great new movie. But there are a lot of movies out there.

January 22, 2011|By Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times

It sounded like a dream job: plop down on a couch, throw some popcorn in the microwave and spend your days watching movies.

That's what Christine Davila thought, anyway. The 32-year-old Los Angeles resident had spent years toiling as an assistant to a number of Hollywood producers before she finally got a shot at her ideal gig — working as a programming associate for the Sundance Film Festival, the annual independent movie mega-event that kicked off in Park City, Utah, this week.

Davila landed the job in 2008, and every year since, she's been paid to screen hundreds of hours of film for the festival's international section. From June to November, she has to meet a quota: watch 200 films. After viewing each, she fills out an elaborate "coverage" form — writing a synopsis of the plot, sharing her opinion on the film's production quality or storytelling, noting if any famous actors or directors are involved and ranking it overall from 1 to 5, with 5 being the best. Her comments are used to help determine which movies make it into the prestigious festival.

"I love telling people what I do, because it sounds glamorous," admitted Davila, who now spends the other half of the year screening films for the Los Angeles Film Festival. "But the truth is that it sounds a lot more glamorous than it is."

With the technology to make a film — especially an indie film — getting cheaper and more accessible, the volume of submissions to festivals across the country is on the rise, meaning more work for people like Davila. This year, Sundance had more than 10,000 entries — including narrative and documentary features as well as short films — up from about 7,500 in 2006. To handle the deluge, the Utah festival employs 32 part-time screeners and eight part-time programming associates including Davila, in addition to the 22 full-time staff members who also view films.

Screeners such as Davila and the worker bees beneath her can't guarantee that a given movie will get into the festival — those final calls lie with the top decision-makers, and this year only about 120 feature films made the cut at Sundance. But the front-line gatekeepers do have a big say in what gets passed up the chain. She and others involved in the submission process for festivals held everywhere from California to New York say the work can be extremely tedious. You might watch days of material and only stumble across one gem. The films all start to blend together. Fatigue — or even delirium — begins to set in.

"You go to bed and have a nightmare because of a film you've watched, so you'll watch another film just to forget the one that came before it," said Darryl Macdonald, director of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which wrapped earlier this month. In addition to his 9-to-5 duties, Macdonald says he wakes up at 6 a.m. on weekends and watches films until 7 p.m.

"I wouldn't wish it on anyone," he said, only half-joking. "Of course, you take breaks. You have to. The process itself of watching them can be incredibly draining."

At least he's on salary. Many lower-level volunteers and contract employees sign up to sift through film festival submissions in exchange for almost nothing. Sundance's regular screeners — who do the initial viewing and ranking of most films to determine whether someone like Davila should then check them out — are paid $15 per film and watch a minimum of 75 films. (That's a rather underwhelming $1,125, considering minimum wage in California is $8 an hour.) And most other festivals only offer a pass to their event as compensation.

But that's more than enough reimbursement for Dan Paicopulos, 66, who has been a pre-screener for the Palm Springs fest for the last nine years. Now retired from a job he describes as "glorified social worker," Paicopulos spent three months last year watching 150 films because he wants to "support the art form of film in this tiny, little way."

"It's not for everybody, to be able to sit by yourself in a room and translate that experience into one for an audience of 300 or 400 people," Paicopulos said. "At a world-class film festival, not just anybody can get in. It really has to be something special. I didn't realize how difficult it would be."

Many would-be screeners don't comprehend what the process truly entails, said Candace Schermerhorn, director of programming for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. That festival, which begins Thursday, has a review committee of about 30 local residents who do a first pass on many of its submissions.

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