Film programmer Sarah Harris (’05) says channel your artistic voice and leave the movie clichés behind
With 12 years of experience deciding which films are accepted to film festivals, professional film programmer and Meadows alumna Sarah Harris (B.A. Cinema-Television ’05) is the queen of screen. Harris has assessed thousands of shorts, documentaries and features, searching for films that have “that extra something” for the big screen in a wide variety of festivals.
She has been senior programmer for the annual Dallas International Film Festival since its inception in 2006. She is also a programming associate for the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentaries Competition; shorts curator for the Denver Film Festival; programmer for the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF); and programmer for the EARTHxFilm Festival.
When asked about trends she notices in submissions, she is ready with her answers and advice: avoid movie clichés, and tune into your artistic voice.
“There are always short films that include the generic ‘getting ready in the morning’ routine with some combination of alarm clock/brushing teeth/making coffee, etc.,” she says. “Unless a character has a really unique morning, there’s no need to see this. We all live and know it.
“The ‘steaming teapot during a tense scene’ or ‘vomiting woman discovers she’s pregnant’ are other clichés.
“Also, drone shots used for no reason and overdramatic scores should be avoided.”
Instead, she says, create something fresh to capture your audience. “Currently in the documentary landscape, for example, there are countless films about the 2016 election and Trump’s administration,” says Harris. “If the story is going to be about a common topic, there must be a different artistic perspective or approach in order for it to stand out amongst the crowd.”
Regardless of what the film is about, Harris says film programmers will always gravitate toward unique storytelling and perspective. “When you watch 700+ short films and 300+ documentaries a year, you know when you see something different and creative,” she notes. “I know that’s no easy task for a filmmaker, but I encourage filmmakers to stay true to self. Find and use your own voice and the work will speak for itself.”
Whether or not your film is accepted, Harris says film festival programmers know each other well and will recommend your film to others if they see promise in it and you. “We recommend material to others often,” she says. “If you are accepted in a festival and can attend, do so and make friends with other filmmakers. They may just be the partner on your next project or they might introduce you to someone for another job. You never know what connection will lead to your new project or success.
“And as with all parts of the industry, be kind. No one wants to work with jerks.”
NEXT in the series The Big Screen: Getting Accepted to Film Festivals, Part 2: film programmer Sarah Harris on researching festivals and making plans before you shoot your next film.
Read more about SMU Meadows Division of Film & Media Arts undergraduate and graduate programs and the Summer Film Production program, in which students produce feature-length films during a two-year cycle. Many go on to win festival awards in the U.S. and abroad.