Q&A with CUFF Director Brenda Lieberman
Robert Misovic | January 7, 2017

Recently, we attended a CBC panel for film makers which focused on the Toronto International Film Festival. At the cocktail party afterwards, someone said “I’m so tired of hearing about these random festivals. Newport Beach? I mean, what’s that?" 

In a nutshell, this is the prevailing mentality among most newer filmmakers.

Sundance, Tiff, Venice, Cannes, Berlin, or bust.   

Maybe it feels cool to say you’re submitting to Sundance or Cannes. Maybe getting into one of these festivals will finally prove to your parents that the film school tuition fees they cry about each morning may actually result in a career for you. Maybe, people like the woman at the cocktail party just aren’t researching their options. 

What many don’t factor in is that each festival offers a unique set of opportunities to filmmakers in exchange for their submission fee. Screening in a theatre can't be everything. Who runs the festival? Who attends? Why do they attend? Is there a film market? Are there unique networking opportunities? Is the festival actually known for the type of film you’re submitting? Is it better to get your short film into Aspen, or Berlin? The answer isn't as obvious as you might assume. 

While filmfreeway.com is full of festivals that will either end up screening in a basement or end up cancelling the event altogether, there are a handful of established festivals that seem to be less known to most filmmakers. We’ve made it a goal to cover these gems, and we’re going to start this process by covering one of our favorites; The Calgary Underground Film Festival. 

We interviewed festival director Brenda Leiberman ahead of  CUFF.14 to talk about the festival’s history, their selection process, her advice to filmmakers, and plans for CUFF in 2018 and beyond. 

If you're interested in submitting to the Calgary Underground Film Festival, you can find their submissions page here.If you're interested in following the festival on Facebook, or are interested in learning more about the festival and it's past screenings, check out their website

We'd like to thank Brenda Lieberman for chatting with us, and look forward to seeing what CUFF has in store this spring. 

Robert is a screenwriter and writer for Pensare Films Media. He loves cinema in all its glory. Follow Robert Misovic on Facebook  for more Film Reviews and Film Festival-related goodies

Great festivals seem to have, among other things, a clear identity. What would you say sets CUFF apart from other festivals?

We program a tight, diverse, package of films that are primarily genre films, but we have a definite interest and taste for quirky indie films of varying genres and styles from a variety of Countries. Everything from romance or relationship films, to absurdist, or animation. We love targeting niche audiences, and sub cultures, and also films that you really feel need to be experienced in a theatre, and with an audience.
We have created an experience with every film screening, from guests, to giveaways, and extra elements we can add when possible. We have live DJ’s set up in the theatre before all screenings, our festival is licensed 18+ serving liquor, and have had some really amazing guests. I really feel that our audience loves the energy of the festival, the screenings, and overall what we've set out to do.

In 2003, was there a particular festival you looked at as a blueprint for what you hoped to do with CUFF? If Yes- which Festival, and why? If No, then can you put into words what the vision was and how it came to be? (In other words, who were you trying to give a voice to through CUFF?)

Yes, we were definitely inspired by Fantasia in Montreal the most (and still heavily to this day), and researched many film festivals before figuring out our plan. We wanted to create something that stood out in Calgary, and Western Canada in terms of what wasn’t being as commonly showcased at other festivals or art house cinemas and intentionally to not be seen as local competition against other festivals. So we looked at what was being covered/programmed already, and felt if we focused on more genre film, or more provocative, boundary pushing films (films we are most passionate about anyways), we’d likely be able to have more of our own curatorial style shine through.

We also really want our festival to feel personal to the attendees, and really targeted to Calgary, being built up and programmed by fans for fans. So communicating with the audience, listening to what they want to see or what excites them, helped us shape CUFF and still does each year. We still do this. We have had the same team for years, and our interests and types of films we like to program, and watch, are very similar. One thing I always love(d) about Fantasia too, which is something we like to do ourselves also, is the feeling of no matter how big your festival is, or small, that it somehow still feels very intimate, or connected on a ground level locally with the audience, and staff. So we are all very hands on, very seen by everyone who attends, and just very involved in both the festival, and local cultural footprint in Calgary. We show guests the same experience, and it resonates.

About the Festival

Founded in 2003 by Brenda Lieberman and Andy Eyck, CUFF is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to programming films that defy convention. The festival takes place in mid-April for 7 days in Calgary, Alberta, bringing audiences a unique program of mainly genre films rarely seen in North America. Last year, CUFF received 650 submissions, and programmed a total of 26 shorts and 28 features. Backed by audience demand, CUFF has plans to expand from their 7 day program to a 10 day festival in 2018. For documentary filmmakers, there's also CUFF.DOCS which takes place for 3 days between November 16th and 19th, and is heading into it's fifth year in 2017. 

What makes CUFF Special? 

What's not to love about CUFF? The festival staff and programmers are friendly and diligent. They waive submission fees for all Canadian submissions, and also offer screening fees to Canadian filmmakers. The festival packs the house with enthusiastic audiences, offers live Q&A panels with filmmakers, and is just overall a blast to be a part of. With few sponsors to satisfy, there's no mandate to program certain types of films, or feature a particular set of directors. This lack of corporate sponsorship contamination truly sets CUFF apart from other established Canadian festivals, and allows the festival to focus on the important things; their audience, the filmmakers, and the films themselves. 

Brenda Lieberman's Advice to Filmmakers

We spent a great deal of time chatting over the things that filmmakers get wrong. After 14 years of screening submissions, you'd imagine there are few mistakes Lieberman hasn't seen. Here are a few things filmmakers should do when submitting to CUFF, or any quality festival for that matter.

1. Learn about the festival a bit, and understand the types of films they usually program. 

2. Read the rules and guidelines. If they don't accept experimental films, don't submit experimental films. If they don't accept films over 12 minutes, don't submit one. It just shows that you're not paying attention. 

3. Don't submit until you're ready. Most festivals won't re-watch 3 copies of the same film just because you decided to improve a scene, or improve the sound. It's better to bite the bullet and pay a bit more to make the late deadline with a film that's good, as opposed to making an early deadline and submitting an unpolished version that you intend to change 40 times. 

4. Mind your press kits. Film Festivals have to sell your film! Help them out. Have a decent website so potential audiences can figure out who you are. Have a well designed poster, and at the very least 2 high quality horizontal stills which tell a story. Unless you have Robert De Niro in your film, try to avoid just having stills of actors doing nothing. Pick vibrant images and make sure they're not too dark. Lastly, cut a tight and relevant trailer. Help the festival take you seriously by taking yourself seriously. 

5. Be responsive. If a festival requests something of you, be sure you reply within a reasonable amount of time. What's a reasonable amount of time? 48 hours would be pushing it. 

6. Don't always hold out for the big festivals. Often, films will get into great festivals but not send their materials over until they've received their rejection letters from Cannes, Sundance and tiff. While this is sometimes fine, be realistic about your odds. It's foolish to lose an opportunity to screen at a festival like CUFF for a 0.3% chance you may get into Sundance. 

You're one of very few festivals that offer free submissions, not only to Alberta-made projects, but to all Canadian projects. Can you explain why you felt this was so important to do? And have you always done it?

We only started charging submission fee’s about two years ago, and want to encourage as many submissions from Canada as we can, with the hopes to program more each year. We really feel it’s important to support our independent film industry to help not only build a fan base for the  filmmakers, and audience for the films, but it all helps to build their careers going forward. Especially if their plans are to move into features. It’s hard to articulate, but we are big Canadian film supporters. We were also conflicted on charging submission fee’s at all, but for various reasons’ we needed to move into that direction. 

Recently, at a CBC panel in Toronto, a Sundance programmer told us that 70% of their submissions were wedding videos, family home made videos, and in general total toss-outs. What percentage of films would you say do you seriously consider, and what specifically sets them apart? 

It’s hard to say but I think somewhere in the 10% range. We also find, as do likely most programmers at various festivals, that part of the problem is filmmakers not always understanding the types of films the festival they are applying to, actually screen. Too, films which are part of their learning process, and not necessarily meant for an audience. We often encourage filmmakers to really take a look at what the festivals tastes are like, what their competition in the industry is, watch lots of films doing well on the circuit and really get a better sense of the genres, styles, production values, guidelines or even just festivals more likely to program their film.

Brenda Lieberman & Guy Lavallee at the Calgary International Film Festival

Director Ramin Eshraghi-Yazdi discusses his film Wreck City after it's world premiere at CUFF.13. 

Q & A

CUFF packs the house for 7 days each year. 

Brenda Lieberman is an integral part of 3 major Calgary festivals; CUFF, CUFF.Docs & CIFF

Most festivals scout other festivals which happen earlier in the year, and attempt to bring their favorite films to their own festivals. Assuming CUFF also does this, which festivals do you tend to scout most extensively, and why? 

Yes, we definitely do. We find our audience, as much we love discoveries, gets excited about what they hear of, read about, or see that’s interesting and buzzed about on the circuit. Some of the bigger festivals we follow the closest are (by attending): Fantasia, TIFF, Sundance, Slamdance and SXSW. However, we work closely with Boston Underground FF, and several others in North America, and Internationally. We program a certain number of films from what we have seen at these festivals, and then the rest from submissions.

Alberta is home to some very established festivals, namely NORTHWESTFEST for Documentaries, and the highly respected Calgary International Film Festival. With CUFF.docs and the 14th Annual Calgary Underground Film Festival, what sets CUFF apart from these long-running festivals?

We do also have some staff overlap with CIFF, but with CUFF we aim to create a unique, fun experience that really has a strong festival experience, includes many grassroots and small businesses as partners, and as a whole brings the audience closer to the work we’re screening. Even though you would see similar types of films in certain specialty series of CIFF, with CUFF our entire festival curation is of these films that we feel stand out in certain ways.