The Sarasota 350: Reject This!

Independent filmmakers band together after being publicly rejected by the Sarasota Film Festival.


Producers of Calypso Dreams, Michael Horne and Geoffrey Dunn, with calypso singer Lord Superior.
Producers of Calypso Dreams, Michael Horne and Geoffrey Dunn, with calypso singer Lord Superior.

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“I don’t think we should see each other anymore.” “It’s not you, it’s me.” “I just want to be friends.” “Thanks, but no thanks.”

However it’s put, rejection sucks. It makes us question our worth and, yes, even our very existence. It happens when we get dumped, passed over for a job, or, if you’re an independent filmmaker, when your work is denied access to a festival.

Rejection is painful and not something we like to share. But for a group of 350 independent filmmakers who submitted films to the Sarasota Film Festival, privacy wasn’t an option.

On Monday, March 2, 2009, they received an email from the programmers of the Sarasota Film Festival, Holly Herrick and Tom Hall, telling them that their films would not be a part of this year’s festival. It was your standard rejection email — except for every recipient seeing the email addresses of every other rejected filmmaker. A festival intern was tasked with sending the email, and he mistakenly sent the mass mailing with the addresses as CC (carbon copy) rather than the BCC (blind carbon copy), making the addresses public to the entire list.

Talk about public humiliation. Not only were these filmmakers and their work denied entry to the festival, their rejection was laid bare for 349 others to see. Filmmakers were angry, and understandably so.

But not everyone was quick to cry foul.

“It’s a very positive way to get rejected, if you have to get rejected,” filmmaker George Kachadorian, whose film Shooting Beauty (view the trailer here) was rejected by Sarasota, says. “It was sort-of a lesson in the real world for a lot people, but from my perspective it was a really warm and wonderful lesson in the real world because we all got to do it together.”

The bonding between filmmakers began by email. After some people replied to the rejection with vitriol — calling the festival everything from “unprofessional” to “Sarasucker” — the ones who took the gaffe in stride joked around with each other and even praised the intern for the opportunity he created. The chain of replies quickly reached 20 or so emails, and it became clear that the group needed to move to a bigger clubhouse.

Enter rejectee Chris Bessounian, who had the ignominy of having two films rejected by Sarasota: The Kolaborator, a short that won a BAFTA, and a feature titled Detached. He began a Facebook group called the Sarasota Film Festival Rejects allowing other rejectees to “bond, share stories, and unite.” Bessounian also created a parody film festival laurel— “Official Rejection Sarasota Film Festival 2009” — that was picked up and used by numerous filmmakers on the rejection email. Some even slapped the Official Rejection laurel on t-shirts and sold them online.

The Facebook group proved instantly popular, boasting nearly 200 members to date. And like the email chain before it, the filmmakers and their aspirations soon outgrew Facebook.

Patrick Nagle submitted a film he produced called Andy Warhol’s Factory People to Sarasota and received one of the infamous rejection emails. Nagle, who splits his time between New York, Paris, and Sarasota, received his rejection while in Paris and was relatively blasé about the whole thing: “I laughed and went to sleep,” he says. After waking up the following morning and considering the situation, he had the idea of creating an alternative film festival for the rejected filmmakers.

With the help of other filmmakers, including Susan Gervasi and Tamara Hines Gilman, Nagle set out to organize the first Sarasota Fringe Festival. A mere 30 days after the idea was hatched, the 2009 Sarasota Fringe Festival opened on April 2 (the only day the Sarasota Film Festival, which began on March 27, was dark). It had three screening salons set up in the restaurant the Rustic Grill, films from 150 members of the Sarasota 350, and $5 admissions. The festival closed on April 5, which was also the last day of the Sarasota Film Festival, after attracting over 800 attendees. Although the festival lost $6,000, as far as Nagle and his cohort are concerned, the festival was a smash success.

“It’s younger, it’s more hip, it’s more interested in film, more conscious of the filmmaker in relationship to his film,” Nagle says of the Fringe Festival. “Naturally there was a lot of localized interest because we had a lot of films that were made locally and then were supported at the festival by the local people.”

That issue of film festival involvement in their communities became vital to the evolution of the filmmaker response to the Sarasota rejection email. Nagle says one of the determining factors in organizing the alternative festival was what he perceived to be a marginalization of the local filmmaking community by the Sarasota Film Festival. And before the idea of the Fringe Festival was floated, another filmmaker raised similar concerns.

Geoffrey Dunn, a 30-year veteran of independent filmmaking whose film Calypso Dreams was rejected by Sarasota, took his rejection in stride. Instead, he said he was “offended” by the way the festival ignored and excluded its local filmmakers.

“There’s no rule, it’s not written in stone in Rome, that film festivals have to have local components,” Dunn says. “But I believe local film festivals have a duty, a responsibility, and yes even an obligation to support, embrace, and reflect the local filmmaking community. And the way [Sarasota] dismissed it was troubling to me.”

Holly Herrick and Tom Hall, the Sarasota Film Festival programmers, declined to comment beyond a press release for their festival. But one component of their 2009 festival highlighted films made by high school students from the Sarasota area.

Nagle plans on engaging the local filmmaking community well after the Sarasota rejection email fades from memory. He is looking into buying a building in Sarasota that can be turned into a factory — a Fringe Factory, he calls it — with dedicated screening space for the Fringe Festival and workspace for local filmmakers. He also plans on supporting the nascent Digital Film program at the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota and the Florida Film Consortium through monies raised by the festival.

Long-term civic activism is hardly the typical response to rejection. But independent filmmakers aren’t your average rejectees — they’re masochists who invite rejection into their lives by submitting their work to as many festivals as they can. Some get discouraged, but most thrive on it. The situation that arose around the Sarasota rejection email is a testament to that: They banded together and created something communal and meaningful out of what would otherwise had been private and nightmarish.

“You can’t keep a good group down,” Kachadorian says. “And that’s what the independent film community is, as far as I’m concerned. They’re interesting, creative people, and this affirmed that for me. I love these guys!”


Embarrassing Piece of Journalism

To quote the Sarasota Fringe Festival founder from above: "...[our festival is] more interested in film, more conscious of the filmmaker in relationship to his film."

The number one stance a film festival can take to show that they are not only truly invested in the art of cinema, but that they are conscious of a filmmaker in relation to their work, is to exhibit their film in the most cinematic environment and on the highest quality format possible. Under the leadership of director of programming Tom Hall, the Sarasota Film Festival makes an unwavering commitment to do just that (more so than almost any film festival I've ever attended, in fact). Showing movies on DVD in a restaurant might be a well intentioned gesture, but it shows an egregious gap in the understanding of what it really means to show a filmmaker the utmost respect. Ask any Sarasota Film Festival alumni from the past three years and they will corroborate this fact. This "article" would be humorous if it weren't so misinformed and offensive.