Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Submit artwork-free DVDs – don’t pre-dispose programmers to form opinions- it could hurt you.
Although I’m immediately thinking of film festival submissions, this DDF could easily apply to sending your film in for consideration by sales agents and distributors, at least to some extent. At the core, this advice is about the first impression your film (and you) make to those individuals who potentially may select your film to gain wider exposure.
While all festivals process their submissions in different ways, many separate out the screeners they receive from other materials – presskits, photos, letters, etc. Often programmers don’t look at these other materials in any depth or at all, wanting instead to approach a project without any predispositions. That’s the way I prefer to watch a submission – there’s time to look at presskits and filmmaker bios afterward if I have questions. Certain things you generally can’t help will have conscious or unconscious influence – your film’s title, or your name, if you have had a past body of work with which a programmer may be familiar, for example.
One thing you can control is the physical look of your DVD – something that programmers have to see. Consider the first, immediate impression it makes. I don’t mean to suggest that programmers would reject a film based on what the screener looks like – if they did, they’re not being fair and are probably pretty poor programmers. It does bear keeping in mind that programmers are often looking at hundreds of films in any given programming cycle, often in marathon screening sessions. A lot of those films frankly are pretty bad. We’re often crossing our fingers that the next submission we pop into our DVD player goes against the current and is actually pretty good – if we didn’t have that hope, I don’t know why we’d be doing this job. My advice here is basically not to do anything that can shift that optimism into pessimism. While it’s sweet that your boyfriend fancies himself an amateur graphic designer and has offered to blow up a low-res screen grab from your film to create a label for your DVD, best to pass on that. Beyond issues of labels interfering with playback, a cheesy-looking label can have an unintended influence on your viewer. Just follow the festival’s instructions, and use a Sharpie to write your film’s title and whatever other information they require on the disk.
I recognize that some screeners serve multi-functions – perhaps you’re already selling them to fans or have released your film in a different country, etc. If that’s the case, you may have worked with someone more advanced to design your packaging, and hopefully it looks better than an amateur approach – if so, then maybe this advice doesn’t fully apply to you. However, I’d still argue that a neutral screener with just the basic information needed is probably still best for submission purposes. When speaking specifically about submitting your film to acquisitions people, they’re likely to have their own ideas about packaging anyway – that’s not to say they won’t welcome your ideas or past approaches, but it would probably be to your benefit to give them a clean slate from which to work, at least initially.
Some of you might take this as a personal pet peeve, but I think it goes beyond that. This boils down to another variation of what I’ve said many times before, here and elsewhere: your film should speak for itself. You have to trust enough in what you’ve made to get your message across, and not interfere with it by throwing in potential obstacles. Ultimately, a programmer will have to base his/her assessment of your film on the film itself anyway, not on the packaging bells or whistles – so don’t even include the bells and whistles as possible distractions.