Interview with Festival Director Michael Helman (WILLiFest)

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Interview with Festival Director Michael Helman:

Matthew Toffolo: What is your Film Festival succeeding at doing for filmmakers?

Michael Helman: Our festival gives independent filmmakers an opportunity to have their film screened professionally in New York City. There are not many opportunities for that in NYC. The few opportunities that do exist like Tribeca and NY Film Festival are incredibly difficult or impossible for the small filmmaker to get into. There are many other film festivals in NYC but screenings at many of them are not quite professional.

We also offer additional events like networking events and panels. Many festivals skip or skimp on these important events. When filmmakers are traveling from another city, it is the festival’s responsibility to play host and at a minimum, entertain and educate those filmmakers who have spent the money to travel to NYC and support the festival.

MT: What would you expect to experience if you attend the festival this year (2016)?

MH: Our festival is continuing to narrowly focus on the emerging filmmaker. We have offered many other events at our festival, street fairs, concerts but we have found that filmmakers find these to be a distraction for what they are really interested in, which is watch film, talk film and learn about film. We have heard them and are focusing on doing just that as well as we can.

MT: What are the qualifications for the selected films?

MH: Nothing specific. We offer many categories of films and are simply looking for the best in those categories. We have reduced the number of films this year that we plan on exhibiting in order to make entry into the festival more competitive and feature the best of independent film at the festival for the audience.

MT: Do you think that some films really don’t get a fair shake from film festivals? And if so, why?

MH: Of course. Top tier festivals are very political and are somewhat slaves to their sponsors and partners so they have only so many slots available to discover new filmmakers and small films. Very small festivals are not receiving enough submissions and variety to find the next major filmmaker. Mid-tier festivals are the sweet spot because they receive enough varied submissions to discover new talent each year. One year we showed a short film from an NYU filmmaker and saw something in the film. That film went on to win the Academy Award that year for Best Short. This film was passed over by the larger festivals.

MT: What motivates you and your team to do this festival?

MH: We are filmmakers ourselves with a long history in film production. We produced a short film several years ago. The film was accepted to a bunch of festivals so we decided to travel the country with it and see what festivals we like. We were quite unimpressed and decided we could do a better job. Producing a good festival is an incredibly difficult process. We have found it to be as complex as producing a feature film… perhaps more difficult. Pulling off a well run event with limited staff and financial resources is no easy feat. We enjoy the challenge and the opportunities it brings to struggling filmmakers to find an audience and have their work be seen.

MT: How has the festival changed since its inception?

MH: We started as a LARGE, multi-disciplined arts festival. Our first year included an arts exhibit, storytelling competition, 47 indoor/outdoor concerts, street fair, half a dozen parties, opening night gala, closing day awards ceremony and almost 200 screenings. It was a monster spread out over 12 venues throughout Brooklyn. We have learned from the first year successes and stumbling blocks and have adjusted the festival each year. The rest of the answer was addressed in question 2.

MT: Where do you see the festival by 2020?

MH: No clue. We see our focus continuing to narrow. Depending on how this upcoming festival goes, we will probably continue to narrow the focus of the festival and numbers of screenings. We are continuing to grow our screenplay competition. We are trying to offer our filmmakers more benefits that they don’t always receive at other festivals like full festival passes for them and their co-producers so anyone coming out to support the festival can enjoy the entire event at no cost. We have always had an issue that most festivals charge visiting filmmakers to attend any events as well as screenings. The festival only exists and excites audiences because these talented filmmakers are attending these out-of-town festivals so they can address the audience who has chosen to view their film and answer any questions they might have. Q&A is pretty much the only thing that separates the festival experience from the movie-going experience.

MT: What film have you seen the most times in your life?

MH: The Graduate or Back To The Future.

MT: In one sentence, what makes a great film?

MH: Story. We look for a professionally produced film with good lighting, camera work, acting and especially sound. However, we have accepted less technically proficient films because the story was so compelling. Entertainment these days are driven by content. Youtube videos can be most poorly produced disaster you have ever seen but still achieve over a million views because the content is compelling to a large, general audience. If you start with a good idea, take your time and turn this compelling story into a well-written screenplay, you are already ahead of most films out there, including Hollywood films. It starts with the story and the script and everything else just enhances it and hurts it. Bad acting is a killer, so there is no easy path to making a great film. But it all starts with an interesting story. It is a lot more difficult to achieve then it sounds.

MT: How is the film scene in your city?

MH: What is there to say, New York City is arguably the center of the entertainment world. You feel it as you walk these storied streets through Manhattan and Brooklyn. If your film is going to show anywhere in this world, most filmmakers dream of a New York City screening and we aim to offer just that.


Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

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