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Keeping True/False secret screenings a secret

Find out how to keep the deepest secrets of True/False

February 28, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

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Can you keep a secret?

If social media is any yardstick, the answer is a resounding no. Countless secrets have been revealed over social media by organizations as large as The New York Times to as small as your grandma’s social security number, and it’s easy to believe that nothing, especially something popular, can possibly stay under wraps forever.

True/False founders Paul Sturtz and David Wilson gamble every year that everyone who attends the festival’s secret screenings will abide by the ban on spreading information about the films.

“We want to reflect [that] these are among the best 40 titles of the year,” Sturtz says. “That’s our goal.” Secret screenings help achieve that by allowing True/False to show high-quality documentaries that are already reserved as premieres by other film festivals.

With the rapidly growing popularity of True/False, however, a larger spotlight has been cast on the festival’s secret screenings. Social media logic would dictate that someone somewhere would post what True/False was showing. But as the tenth festival commences, the remarkable fact is almost no one has.

“We rely on the kindness of strangers and audience members,” Sturtz says. At the first secret screening, they did make people sign a document forcing them to not talk about the screenings. But they haven’t taken such formal steps ever since.

“Usually the person who’s going to introduce the film will get up and say sort of the ground rules, like please don’t tweet, and get everybody’s verbal assent,” Sturtz says. “And it works. It’s worked so far, and we have hopes that it will continue to work.”

“It’s an honors system,” he adds. “And I think in the end that’s a much better system.”

Hannah Carlson, the press liaison for True/False, says: “I think people have been mostly pretty good about it. Many of the journalists that do come love True/False so much that they definitely don’t want to burn any bridges.”

There have been a couple of slip-ups; Sturtz says three times journalists have forgotten which films were secret and accidentally referenced them in stories, but these references were taken down almost immediately upon request. Likewise, Dan Steffen, the blogs and social media editor for the festival, mentioned having to delete a handful of Facebook comments about secret screenings that specified film or director names.

It’s instances like these that have prompted other film festivals that show secret screenings to clamp down like True/False hasn’t. The Palm Springs Film Festival requires viewers to sign a written oath of secrecy and has a total media embargo on the films according to Helen du Toit, their artistic director. Journalists aren’t even allowed in the doors of Palm Springs’ secret screenings.

“Could there be a bad egg who comes in and just wants to tear us down?” Sturtz asks. “Yes. I’m sure that person exists out there in the world.” And they do have some procedures in place if the worst happens. Any journalist who intentionally releases a secret screening can’t ever come back to True/False, Carlson says.

“And we do have the power to embarrass,” Sturtz says, “which is a very big power to have.” But those measures are definitely secondary. Like everything at True/False, the secret screenings are mostly done with love and a lot of good will.

“I guess we have a certain naiveté about the general goodness of our audience,” Sturtz says. “And hopefully that naiveté is never challenged.”

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