Rejected from TIFF, filmmakers turning to 'Stiffed'
A still from the film "A Conversation with Lars Von Trier," winner of the inaugural Stiffed Film Festival grand jury prize.
Published Sunday, September 9, 2012 7:00AM EDT
When Toronto filmmakers David Amito and Michael Laicini found out their short film "Beware Pickpocket" was rejected from the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, they went through a two-day period of mourning.
But in the midst of their despair they hatched an idea: they would show their film anyway, at a festival of their own, along with others who had been turned down by the mother of all Canadian film fests.
"The rejection was a form of heartbreak," Amito said in a recent interview with CTV News.ca. "Because we loved the film, and we really loved TIFF."
"Then we realized we're not the only ones, there's hundreds of people exactly like us," Laicini said. "There was an opportunity to pick up the pieces for a lot of people and to not make this something to be mournful of."
In just six weeks they pulled together the first annual Stiffed Film Festival – an event for the films stiffed by TIFF.
Tapping into their film school network, their own funds, and launching an aggressive postering campaign featuring a suggestive logo (two film reels placed strategically at the base of the CN tower), they reached out to fellow TIFF rejects.
The filmmakers received about 30 short film submissions and picked 13 of them to show in the back of an art gallery on Queen Street for their inaugural one-day festival.
"We attracted enough of an audience to pack the place," Laicini said.
Now in its third year, Stiffed has gained enough traction to graduate to the 295-seat Projection Booth Cinema in Toronto’s east end and it has even attracted a crop of corporate sponsors.
As the festival’s popularity has grown, so has Amito and Laicini’s sympathy for the TIFF programmers who rejected them two years ago. The two filmmakers are now in a position of having to tell people no.
"It's awful to get a rejection letter, but it's also pretty awful to give one. And it's more brutal for us to do that because we're for the rejected. So we're going to reject you twice," Amito said, cringing at the thought.
"It's not easy," Laicini agreed. "Because we are those people. So we're saying no to ourselves."
As TIFF garners more attention and draws bigger stars every year, the Stiffed programmers could find themselves having to say no more often. The Toronto International Film Festival’s Short Cuts program, which showcases short films from new and established Canadian filmmakers, received roughly 700 submissions this year. Just 44 of those were selected.
Programmer Alex Rogalski said the number of films the festival receives for the short film category is “absolutely” increasing every year. But there are no plans to increase its line-up, said fellow Short Cuts programmer Magali Simard.
“It's difficult. In our job we know that we're going to have to say no a lot more than we say yes,” Rogalski said.
It is therefore important that a festival like Stiffed exists in Toronto, Laicini said, “because every year TIFF gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and every year that demographic of people who are rejected grows.”
As local filmmaker Adam Schafer -- whose film "Down Bob" won the grand jury prize at Stiffed 2011 -- puts it, “It’s really hard to get into TIFF now unless you’re Ryan Gosling and you just directed your first short and it’s starring Natalie Portman.”
Although they can only show a fraction of the films they receive, TIFF programmers say what they have in common with Stiffed is their support for filmmakers.
“It is heartbreaking to reject 650 films,” Simard said. “Those are not easy phone calls to make.”
She added that she would recommend many of the films TIFF ultimately rejects, but there simply isn’t the space to program them in the festival’s 11-day run, and the competition is fierce.
“Some great films don't make it in, and that is absolutely the nature of festivals,” she said. “In a nutshell we're looking for the best films in the country.”
The Stiffed programmers’ sights are not set quite so high.
"We’re focused more on the spirit of the festival than on production value. We want films about overcoming adversity and triumphing," Amito said.
For instance, in the case of the 2010 Stiffed Spirit Award winner, "A Conversation with Lars von Trier," the story behind the making of the 10-minute film attracted the Stiffed programmers’ interest as much as the film itself.
When filmmaker Eva Ziemsen set out to interview the titular Danish filmmaker, first she called his production office and was told no. Then she flew to Copenhagen and showed up at his studio, where she was again told no.
Eventually, she hung around long enough until she spotted von Trier and persuaded him to submit to an on-camera interview.
“How she made it, what she went through to make it, how she refused to take no for an answer and still kept moving forward, that combined with the very inspirational things Lars von Trier had to say in the interview really communicated everything about the festival,” Laicini said.
Even though her film was accepted for other festivals in Canada and abroad, Ziemsen appreciates initiatives like Stiffed.
“It’s about giving people hope because filmmaking’s really tough, and even though we know that film festival rejections aren’t personal, it feels personal and it can actually discourage you from applying to other places,” she said. “Something like this, you have regained hope and you persevere on.”
The Stiffed Film Festival will take place on Thursday, Sept. 20.