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March 1, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
David Wilson wants you to know there will be no premieres at True/False Film Fest this year. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Even if it does happen, it doesn’t.
That’s right, Secret Screening Pink is not actually the title of a documentary — don’t worry, neither is Secret Screening Green or Secret Screening Silver for that matter. Those are often code names for films yet to have their scheduled world premieres or even films trying to keep their number of public screenings at a minimum. Let me explain.Related Articles
If, perhaps, James Marsh’s gripping Man on Wire had been a True/False secret screening, it could have been in a dark, crowded Missouri Theatre packed with casual Midwesterners and documentary enthusiasts in a city about one-hundredth the size of New York City. The memory of Philippe Petit in his all-black attire on a theater screen in Columbia would have somehow vanished into the cloudless sky on the beautiful day he steadily traversed a tightrope stretched between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.
True/False is Wilson and co-conspirator Paul Sturtz’s brainchild, and the secret screenings are like the athletic, smart and funny genes that make True/False good at everything. Secret screenings are what give the film festival a unique identity among countless competitors and what bring droves of nonconformist, do-it-for-the-film documentary lovers to a hip college town in central Missouri.
It was only five years ago when director Brett Morgen had his award-winning film Chicago 10 secretly screened at True/False, weeks after premiering at Sundance — on opening night, with a sell-out crowd in a 1,270-seat theater. It was his chance to show a screening before another festival like Cannes, which has rules against having more than one screening at festivals other than its own. But, as he puts it, his secret screening was “pretty anticlimactic” because “it wasn’t even advertised.” Precisely, Mr. Morgen.
Secret screenings are what sit on the other side of a strictly enforced press embargo that leaves documentary critics sitting in the darkness of the theater with only their censored thoughts. Getting Wilson to talk about secret screenings from even five years ago is like trying to crack into one of the Federal Reserve’s gold vaults, only with the title of a film inside that is likely nationally renowned by now. Even years later, Wilson will fight to maintain the protected status of a secret screening.
Any journalist who disobeys the embargo is banned from True/False. The restriction allows critics to write reviews, but a reader shouldn’t know what movie it is after reading. In fact, a simple Google search of “secret screenings True/False” will yield multiple reviews of prior secret screenings. But, as Wilson pointed out, in practice people more often search for the documentary title. As for making sure no one breaks the title rule: “We have ways to track these things,” Wilson says.
The secret has been spilled before on blogs and on social media. Director Ben Godar once broke the rules on his blog, but it was an honest mistake, and he quickly edited out the title of the screening. Wilson and Sturtz do their best to prevent these goof-ups from ever happening.
But if you’re not a journalist, the rules are really simple: Keep your mouth shut. Secret screenings are really just an elaborate honor system centered on theater goers’ ability to not “blow it for everybody else,” Wilson says. It takes only a few seconds to tweet or post a status update.
“It operates purely on this sort of goodwill of the audience,” he says. “And it operates purely on the fact that people want to be able to have this experience again. … We can’t check everybody’s walls on Facebook.”
So what is the lure to high-profile directors of the best documentaries in the world to bring their films to True/False? After all, they can’t publicize the films, and the press can’t write about the film. Even so, the added fame would be marginal for those films that have already premiered at Sundance. That’s what makes True/False different from any other major film festival in the world; Wilson and Sturtz do it for the filmmakers, and the filmmakers truly appreciate it.
True/False is one of the only festivals where filmmakers can enjoy the company of their peers, watch a dozen films and not feel inclined to be selling their next project to investors, Wilson says.
As for the films, Morgen says he had never seen an audience applaud throughout the entire film. He will never forget the screening of In the Shadow of the Moon where people were cheering, laughing and crying for a film.
“It was crazy, man,” Morgen says. “I’d never seen anything like it. I even saw a pretty crappy film that I could not believe the reaction people were having. They were going bonkers.”
The secret screenings are like Wilson and Sturtz’s jackhammer, helping them break through the entry barriers to hosting a pick of incredible documentaries and becoming an elite film festival. Without secret screenings, True/False would be what it was about seven years ago when Wilson and Sturtz were still flaunting premieres. The online archives showcase 15 Midwest premieres in the 2005 festival. It didn’t take long for that plan to fade.
“We were like, ‘This is stupid,’” Wilson says. “What people care about is if it’s a great movie, if it’s gonna make them happy, if it’s gonna change their lives.”
The solution, secret screenings, was not Wilson and Sturtz’s idea. The Seattle International Film Festival has a longer history of secret screenings. But in most other cases, such films are often blockbusters. True/False secret screenings have different criteria; they are films that Wilson and Sturtz love so much that they are willing to show anyone the work without any promotion or any prize.
To Wilson, in a lot of cases a premiere serves a festival more than the film. It’s a gaudy sticker that says, “Look at me! I’m cool because I’m first, and I’m first because I’m cool!” Many film festivals get sucked into the fame; whereas, the festival’s passion goes beyond the need for attention, Wilson says.
After devoting a chunk of their lives to a project that will now be scrutinized, many filmmakers use the secret screening as an icebreaker into the film festival world. Wilson believes what True/False does for filmmakers is more personal: It helps push filmmakers past the terrifying moment of screening a new film. It helps that True/False offers such a warm and welcoming community, one that is appreciative and thankful for the opportunity to see amazing films, Morgen says — even if they can’t tweet about it.
“If the people in the community are in the know, then secret screenings should be the first thing that sells out, and that’s a tribute to David and Paul,” Morgen says. “What you’re buying is David and Paul. And those guys are two of the best programmers in the country.”