18 Movies in 6 Days: How to Survive a Film Festival


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What would it be like to spend all of your waking hours in the movie theater? To go from nine in the morning until past midnight, watching film after film?

It might strike you as boring, or lazy. But it's work (especially with a day job). Over the last six days, I've seen 18 films, and there are others I've talked to who have seen even more. Cinema almost seems like a way of life now, the place where all of the day and night are spent. It's lovely, in a way, a rare opportunity for days of solitary and pensive time.

But for the first time in a few days, I spent a solid day out of the theater yesterday, and experienced something akin to withdrawal. I noticed I wasn't as interactive as usual, the mind constantly preoccupied with films I'd seen (like Skeletons) or couldn't wait to see (Get Low). I caught myself more than a few times wondering, "I wonder if what that person just said would make a good line for a film?." It felt as if I was waking from a long dream, or really a series of dreams, where I imagined robots in love (Spike Jonze's short I'm Here), a first dates on Mars (Mars), and witnessed a surreal White Stripes concert in the Yukon Territory (The White Stripes Under Great Northern Lights). Space and time had been messed with in some delightful way, and I'm dreading a little the inevitable end of it all.

There's still much to write about these films and others, but as the festival wraps up I thought it might be good to list some tips that might come in handy for other festivalgoers in the future:

Don't be afraid to leave a film. Pick a seat in the aisle, and if the picture isn't worthwhile after a half hour or so, be ready to leave and try to make it to something else. There are some films that I gave 45 minutes to an hour to, and others I sat all the way through, but in retrospect nothing that I didn't like in the first 30 minutes ever got any better by the end.

If your festival is anything like SXSW, be prepared to spend some time in line. That means wearing comfortable shoes, always having a granola bar on your person, access to water, and the willingness to chat up your neighbors waiting with you. Many folks are here to network, and pretty much all of them love film, so the conversations are easy and mutually understood to be something to pass the time.

Allow yourself an extra hour of time after the stated end time of each film. Pictures will inevitably (and, sadly here at SXSW Film, almost without exception) start late, sometimes half an hour late. Add in that you need to stay for the full end credits sequence and will want to be around for the post-film Q&A, and that movie that was supposed to get out at four could easily take until five.

Normally at the movies, decent food and beer are hard to come by—but Austin is blessed with a small local chain of theaters that believes in stadium seating, cup holders, a long list of drafts, and enjoyable fare, called The Alamo Drafthouse. They are a godsend (and a great place to see all varieties of films, 80s music sing-alongs, and offbeat pictures when the festival's over). My rule for the festival has been to see at least one film a day at one of the Alamo theaters, to make sure I can have a good sandwich and a beer. The lines tend to be longer as their theaters are smaller, but I've been rewarded several times with some surprising films I wouldn't have seen otherwise. And the Alamo, festival or not, strictly enforces its no cell-phone and no talking policy, and never allows anyone under the age of six. Right now they're having a contest to see who can get a celebrity at SXSW to do a no-talking promo for them, the winner gets free movies at the Alamo for a year:
Have a Plan B. Your panel with Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth might have both of those star directors canceling at the last minute (which is exactly what happened last Saturday), or the lines might be so long that you won't get into a film. Like forcing myself to get to The Alamo each day, changes of plans have also resulted in seeing some films I otherwise wouldn't.

If you're a note-taker like I am you are going to spend a lot of time writing in the dark. I'm sure there's some good method out there, but I haven't discovered it. I just write in all caps and try and translate my notes later. I heard one person say that they wrote really big, one word per line, which might be worth trying out (but would require a much larger notebook than I'm accustomed to).

I'm sure there are some great ideas that we could crowd-source in the comments below. How do you write in the dark? What tricks have you learned for film festivals or moviegoing in general? Does your town have a unique theater(s) like the Alamo? Do you ever leave a movie and sneak into another theater instead? How do you deal with people talking in the theater? Let's get a conversation going.