s the vice president of the film division of Gen Art, sponsor of the Gen Art Film Festival, Jeffrey Abramson knows the value of a film festival. He thinks actors should attend as many as they can, to learn what groundbreaking directors are doing before anyone else does. "Indie filmmakers don't fine-tune the process, so network through them," he recommends. "Go to film festivals and see what other actors are doing. If you don't come across as needy but do seem interested in the work, you'll find yourself meeting all the right people. But you must go to festivals to embrace the event for what it is. And don't be afraid of those gutter-punk film directors you meet. In two years' time they will be making something worthy of attention."
Abramson has experienced how festivals can help drive a career. A self-professed "fest junkie," he caught the festival bug while studying film as an undergraduate at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. He convinced his family to time its winter and summer vacations to travel to Utah and California during the Sundance and Palm Springs film festivals. It was at these events that he began a series of stints as a festival crew member. Abramson feels that his experiences working behind the scenes proved invaluable to his eventual success at Gen Art.
First, working at festivals introduced him to the right people at the right time. He learned the importance of networking in the ever-competitive field of filmmaking. He also gained an understanding of the difference between mainstream and independent filmmakers. "Indie filmmakers are less bound to the rules of the industry, so you don't have to follow the rules with them," he notes. "I would encourage actors to look for listings for crew positions on smaller films and to jump on them, as I did. It's a great way to break into an otherwise sheltered world."
Volunteer work at festivals led to production assistant jobs in the Midwest, where Abramson worked on such independent films as Feeling Minnesota and Fargo. Eventually he moved back to New York City to edit his Tisch senior film thesis. Around this time, he discovered a small starter organization called Gen Art. Founded by three friends in 1993, Gen Art has a simple concept: Bring art to the masses. Except it has a specific "mass" demographic in mind: It markets almost exclusively to young people. As its website proclaims: "Gen Art strives to provide access to the film, fashion, art, and music worlds for those that are interested in these areas but often are intimidated and made to feel unwelcomed by the exclusive nature of these art/entertainment realms.... It has cultivated a loyal following of 21- to 39-year-olds who want to keep in touch with new developments in the arts and who strive to be in the know about new happenings in their city." According to Abramson, it was an organization that "made it fun to volunteer."
He began to divide his hours among editing his own film, temping at Miramax, and volunteering with Gen Art. When his movie was finished, the Miramax temp job turned into a full-time position; soon thereafter, Gen Art offered Abramson a spot on its team. In 2000 he accepted a job as Gen Art's full-time screening chair, in conjunction with its fifth annual film fest. Half a year later he became head of the film department, and today he is responsible for organizing the festival. Attending film festivals is now part of his job description.
In just over a decade, Gen Art has grown from a small company best known for art shows held at NYU dormitories into a thriving national arts organization. Interestingly, Gen Art's events cater not to what type of person might attend but rather where, geographically, the event will be held. Abramson explains, "New York is the largest market, obviously. As a former intern once said, 'New York is instant gratification meeting never-ending possibility.' We come to the table with that in mind. On the other hand, Miami is an extremely social city. We take advantage of their party scene. It never hurts to have exposure out there. Chicago may be our most difficult city to work with, but in the past few months we've really exploded out there. Chicago has a strong sense of culture and a young demographic. San Francisco began differently. The San Francisco team displays emerging talent well but focuses less on the party and networking angle of the industry. L.A. is the industry town, and all of our events are mainly for networking purposes. Business generates interest in California, so the screenings aren't so new to them, but our events are."
Gen Art owes its success almost entirely to networking. Corporate sponsors such as Stella Artois, Acura, Starbucks, and MySpace.com fund Gen Art projects from start to finish. The people who attend screenings, festivals, and parties find out about the organization via word of mouth—but this doesn't mean what it once did. Abramson's film division uses websites such as MySpace to promote its events online, free of charge. It also saves money on workers: Many of Gen Art's employees, like Abramson, began as unpaid volunteers. Still, he notes, "we were happy to do it."
He is passionate about the film division's mission to serve as an antidote to the festival scene. Whereas most festivals feature hundreds of films, Gen Art showcases only a handful. And though most festival tickets can cost extravagant amounts of money, Abramson happily proclaims that his fest's do not: "We integrate sponsors into the party itself in order to sell it." A good example is the MySpace and Gen Art 2006 Sundance party, which Abramson immodestly refers to as the "highlight" of this year's festival. "This year we grew into the most anticipated event at Sundance," he exclaims. "We paired with MySpace.com to expose audiences to our organization and MySpace's new film initiative. We asked Gen Art members of MySpace to film and edit a new music video for the Beastie Boys. We offered the winners tickets to Sundance to see the new Beastie Boys documentary. The culmination took place at our event, where the Beastie Boys performed. It wasn't just about the live music of the party or the film; it was exposure on all fronts."
Abramson offers the following advice to actors wanting to break out on their own: "Be your own publicist. Be your own agent." He also professionally incorporates a Gen Art sponsor into the interview: "Utilize MySpace! People direct me to their MySpace pages all the time. It's a great free tool. Upload reels onto it, your headshots, and your film credits. Send me the URL to your page and save the cost of physical headshots." Everything, Abramson notes, is moving forward electronically. Though he is not directly involved with casting, he will open up an email from an actor; he will not look at hard-copy résumés.
Abramson also advises actors to focus on the current indie film boom. "Don't be afraid of acting in indie films, for two reasons," he says. "One, it allows you to meet people who might cast you in something else down the road. Even grips on these productions have their own film in the works. Two, no one looks at your résumé to see if you have film credits they would recognize. They look to see if you have them [at all]." On the other hand, he contends, "Too many theatre creds are definitely a turnoff for an independent film director. They just don't translate to the kind of films we make."
The main suggestion Abramson offers the actors he meets is to go out and make movies. "Make a short film and star in it," he urges. "You'll learn about the process of filmmaking and add a credit to your résumé. Get a film student to edit it, and then submit it to Gen Art for our upcoming festival for additional exposure."
After all, cultivating exposure is Abramson's forte. It's how he manages to profit in an industry that, notoriously, rejects talent.
The 11th annual Gen Art Film Festival will took place April 5–11, in various venues in New York City. For more information, visit www.genart.org.