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Film Festival Secrets A Handbook for Independent Filmmakers Christopher Holland with a foreword by Gabriel Wardell

A Stomp Tokyo Book

Film Festival Secrets: A Handbook for Independent Filmmakers by Christopher Holland Copyright © 2009 by Stomp Tokyo ISBN: 0-971-8356-1-6 All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system – except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review – without permission in writing from the publisher. For information contact Stomp Tokyo, 3616 Far West Blvd #117-145 Austin TX 78731. Find our current contact information at Cover design by Roger Erik Tinch.

For Christina & Elizabeth

Thank you for downloading the e-book edition of Film Festival Secrets. This freely downloadable electronic edition of the book is provided as a “try before you buy” service to readers. If you read Film Festival Secrets and find it useful, please consider supporting the author by buying a copy of the print edition for yourself or as a gift for a fellow filmmaker. You may also donate a voluntary amount by visiting the web site below.

iv Film Festival Secrets

Table of Contents Acknowledgments Foreword by Gabriel Wardell Introduction

vii ix xiii

Chapter 1: Before you submit


Chapter 2: When you submit


Chapter 3: While you wait


Chapter 4: When you get the call


Chapter 5: The pre-festival push


Chapter 6: At the festival


Chapter 7: Aftermath






Film Festival Secrets v

vi Film Festival Secrets

Acknowledgments A book is perhaps not as collaborative an endeavor as making a movie, but there is still a cast and crew working in support of the author to make it happen. A book’s acknowledgments, then, are the literary version of an awards speech – no matter how many people you thank you’re bound to forget someone. So let me begin by saying: if you contributed to this book in any way, no matter how small, you have my humblest of thanks. Your possible exclusion from the list below was inadvertent and unfortunate. So thank you. Many thanks to those who got me started in my transition from mere film festival attendance to life “on the inside” at the Austin Film Festival, particularly Barbara Morgan, Kelly Williams, John Merriman, Linnea Toney, and Jesse Trussell. My time with them and the other characters at the festival sparked the idea for this book. Much of its wisdom is theirs. My gratitude to Chris Hyams and Lize Burr, who have helped to make Austin a home for my family in a number of ways. Thanks also to my colleagues and friends at B-Side: Meetesh, Cassie, Steph, Joe, Skip, Berko, Ian, Mike, Ryan. If you are a festival director and don’t yet know about B-Side’s amazing set of services for film festivals, check out To all those with whom I’ve worked and befriended on the festival circuit, especially those who agreed to critique the book in advance: Saskia Wilson-Brown, Nat Dykeman, Gabe Wardell, Charles Judson, Paula Martinez, Linda Ball, Drea Clark, Lisa Film Festival Secrets vii

Kaselak, Landon Zakheim, Christen McArdle, Donald Harrison, Michele Emanuel, Melanie Addington, Molly Fergusson, Scott D. Hanson, Catherine Pfitzer, Claudette Godfrey, Janet Pierson, Nick Robinson, Adam Donaghey, Mark Wynns, Will Hartman, Rachel Goslins, Jay Edwards, Brian Udovich, Glenn Abbott, Lisa Vandever, Brooke Keesling, Mike Flanagan, Cacky Poarch, Melissa Scaramucci, Tim League, Zack Carlson, Lars Nilsen, Tiffany Sullivan, Jette Kernion, Robin Lambaria, Joe Swanberg, Erik Jambor, Alex Orr, and many, many others. To all the filmmakers on the circuit whose questions and festival war stories inspired this book. To the tireless festival staffers and volunteers who make each event possible and special in its own way. To the film fans who sit in the dark and prove to me repeatedly that there is such a thing as an “audience picture.” To Roger Erik Tinch, for unwavering cheerleading, moral support, and a kick-ass cover design. To my editors Robert Holland and Chris J. Magyar, upon whom I rely for simple coherency. To Christina Holland for her enduring patience and support, to Amy Morrison for loaning me that algebra book, to my extended family for reminding me of who I am, and to Elizabeth for daily reminders that life exists beyond the motion picture.

viii Film Festival Secrets

Foreword By Gabriel Wardell, executive director, Atlanta Film Festival

Each December, film festival presenters, programmers, producers, and the entrepenuers involved in the cottage industries that have sprung up in service of festivals gather for the International Film Festival Summit in Las Vegas where we network, share war stories, discuss strategies, and learn from one another through a series of panels, workshops and presentations. It is both telling and appropriate that the organizers have chosen Las Vegas as the destination for this annual event if only because it underscores the element of risk at every level of the film festival enterprise. Filmmakers gamble too when they make a film. They gamble that they can pull off a minor miracle with a fish and loaves budget. They gamble that daylight will hold out for one more setup or that a one-take-only car crash goes off without a hitch or that the subject of this documentary will open up for a cathartic, confessional moment. They gamble that they can “fix it in post.” After all of that, the “fortunate” filmmaker emerges from the process with a completed film. Now the real gambling begins. To let the analogy ride — as it were — think of the tribbleload of film festivals like the multitude of casinos in Vegas—from the Strip to Freemont to those dives on the outskirts of town. Some offer more flash while others specialize in the customer service experience. Some have outrageously high table limits, while others offer lots of perks. There are glitzy, glamourous, highFilm Festival Secrets ix

concept behemoths and there are modest workhorses. There are venues that fawn over celebrity and those that cater to everyday folks. Yet each and every casino offers the possibility to hit the jackpot. This is what keeps everyone coming back. This is the dream. Each year, of the thousands of filmmakers who submit to a major festival like Sundance—only a handful get in. Of that handful (a phone book-sized directory!), only a select few will land a distribution deal. Of those, all but one or two will lose money upon their release in an exceedingly crowded and competitive theatrical marketplace. Others may be released into the evolving world of online and on-demand distribution. And still others will try to do it themselves. For every filmmaker who “hits the jackpot,” (whatever that means: after hearing accounting stories from filmmakers whose film grossed a fortune, it remains clear that the house—in this case the distributor—always wins) there are thousands of filmmakers still at the tables looking for the keys to succcess. Perhaps you picked this book up because you are looking for those keys. There is one simple truth about this: there is no silver bullet. Beware the know-it-all guru who tells you otherwise. There is no one path to success. There are no shortcuts. This book will not tell you how to hit the jackpot. Successful gamblers—those who do it for a living—share a few key traits: discipline, persistance, stability, and calm. Long term success only comes to those those who don’t get rattled by the whistles and bells, those who take wins and losses in stride, those able to walk away with modest winnings, on a regular basis. In a world of risk, winners limit their exposure by formulating a plan and sticking to it. x Film Festival Secrets

This book is grounded in that reality. Chris offers valuable insight, practical advice, and unguarded feedback from a collective braintrust of festival insiders. This book provides you with the tools you’ll need to develop a successful plan for your ďŹ lm. Use it. Gabriel Wardell September 15, 2008

Film Festival Secrets xi

xii Film Festival Secrets

Introduction Film festivals are under siege. Every year thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of independent movies are made by aspiring filmmakers eager to make their mark on the film festival circuit. According to Sundance programming coordinator Landon Zakheim, the Sundance Film Festival alone received over 8500 submissions for 2008, and it is just one of the thousands of film festivals that exist across the globe. New festivals are born every day and they each have their own rules and regulations, their own personalities, their own way of doing things. With more than enough “front end” glitz and glamour to promote, festivals call little attention to their “back end” workings and filmmakers are too focused on completing their films to pay much attention to how films get into festivals afterwards. As a result, filmmakers who enter the film festival system for the first time are often taken aback: at the expense of the submission process, at the astronomically small chances of playing in a top-tier festival, and at the even grimmer prospects for reaping some financial reward for one’s work. Independent film is the furthest thing I know from a get-rich-quick scheme, but there are enough examples of indie directors who found success (usually after laboring for years in obscurity) that the spark of hope remains. In fact, self-deception and an endless capacity for denial are personality elements almost as crucial in a filmmaker as actual talent, since any reasonable person would probably look at the numbers involved and take up a more sensible occupation like day trading or the trapeze. It took me a long time to write this book, and even so it is a mere shadow of the comprehensive film festival bible I had Film Festival Secrets xiii

hoped to write. Eventually I had to face facts: with the available time and resources, only a scaled-down nuts-and-bolts version was likely to get finished in the desired time frame. By deciding what I really wanted from the book and by organizing the work into a series of discrete, do-able chunks I was able to accomplish a large part of the goal: to provide you, the filmmaker, with the basic information required to navigate the film festival circuit without reinventing the wheel. While not every piece of advice in these pages will hold true for every festival, Film Festival Secrets will help you accomplish your aims in much the same way. The book breaks down the vague generalities of the festival world, helps you to identify your goals, and provides you with a flexible framework of to-do lists that you should be able to adapt to just about any event. Before you dive headlong into this book and into the world of film festivals, I will offer you the only piece of advice guaranteed to apply to every festival situation for every filmmaker. Consider that failure and rejection are inescapable parts of the process. How you cope with these lows may be more important than what happens during the highs. Your festival path will be fiercely personal and in some ways unique; in other ways you will have much in common with your fellow filmmakers. Don’t let the pressure of the festival setting sour your existing relationships. Instead make an effort to get to know the people around you at the events where your picture plays. Professional connections and personal friendships are the longest-lasting rewards that the festival circuit has to offer. Your friends and colleagues will sweeten the good moments and sustain you through the bad ones. I’ll see you in the aisles. –Christopher Holland, September 2008 xiv Film Festival Secrets

Chapter 1 - Before You Submit

Chapter 1: Before You Submit 1

2 Film Festival Secrets

It all starts with a great film Let’s begin with the tough love: all the tips and tricks in this book won’t amount to a hill of beans if you’ve made a lousy film. Statistically speaking, chances are good that you have made a movie that is not destined to be this year’s darling at Sundance. This is not to say, however, that all is lost if you haven’t made the next Little Miss Sunshine. The festival field is wide enough and adventurous enough that most competently made pictures eventually find a home at one festival or another, though usually through much trial and error and a lot of money in submission fees. The aim of Film Festival Secrets is to limit those mistakes, but there’s only so much to be done with a movie that no one wants to watch. What this means is that you need to take a good, hard look at your film. Are you sure that you want to spend a year or more of your life convincing the world’s most jaded audiences (festival screening committees) that your work deserves to play to a festival audience? These tips will help in evaluating your film’s readiness for the festival circuit. Private test screenings with objective feedback are a crucial component in evaluating your film’s quality. Test screenings need to happen when changes can still be made and you need to be open to making those changes. Conduct as many of these screenings as you can reasonably hold, and take steps to ensure that the audience’s input is as objective as possible. Don’t take Mom’s word for it! You need to hear some approval of your film from people who don’t know you. You may discover that your picture needs just a few tweaks or that you’re in for a serious reedit. Either way give yourself time to accomplish what needs to Chapter 1: Before You Submit 3

be done. There are a number of common filmmaking mistakes that will almost guarantee your rejection from the film festivals to whom you submit. Chief among these: an unremarkable story, hackneyed dialogue, poor sound, a lengthy running time, inappropriate style for the festival, and bad acting. Your test screenings should help you determine if your picture needs adjustment in any of these areas. The Short Story: how long is too long? One of the most common questions asked by the makers of short films is –how long should my short film be? Every film should be only as long as is required to tell the story, but the length of a short is a crucial element in its chances for being programmed, and in general the shorter the better. Most festival programmers I’ve talked with say that anything over 20 minutes is regarded with some skepticism. Not because there aren’t subjects that don’t fit into that running time, but because the overwhelming majority of “short films” that run that long simply could have been edited down to something leaner while delivering the same value. If you can get down under ten minutes you’re in prime festival territory, but your edits should be done for the economy of storytelling, not simply for improving your festival screening chances.

Do you have the rights to the music in your movie? The failure to clear rights to music can not only damage your distribution prospects, but it can also prevent your film from playing at festivals. Festivals don’t always check up on rights clearances but most of them do at least mention it in their submissions/exhibition paperwork. Some ask you to sign an agreement confirming that your film violates no copyrights. Hire a music supervisor or make changes to your film’s score if necessary. If you’re still confused about where you stand with a particular piece of music, a legal representative may be necessary.

4 Film Festival Secrets

Checklist for Art Film Viewing Festival screeners have seen hundreds upon hundreds of independent films, most of them by young, first-time filmmakers who have made a lot of the same minor mistakes. My friend Linda (who screens films for a festival she’d rather not identify here) loves independent films, but after seeing a significant number she wrote this “Checklist for Art Film Viewing,” where “Art Film” is not a complimentary term. If your film has a number of these rookie moves, you run the risk of rejection – or at least not being taken very seriously. Below is Linda’s original list, with a few editorial comments by festival staffers included in italics. This is necessarily an incomplete list, but after two or three checked boxes you know you are onto something. Someone is rudely awakened by an alarm or outside noise or knocking. Preferably the person is twenty-something and looks like they have shouldered the world’s troubles…or just drunk too much last night. Sometimes the film goes on to chronicle the subject’s entire morning routine – a cliché that simply should be skipped most of the time. Someone says ‘shut the fuck up.’ People walk down a sidewalk with a backdrop of colorful graffiti. A scene in a convenience store switches to security camera footage. Chapter 1: Before You Submit 5

Someone sits at a bar smoking and drinking shots or martinis while a worldly-wise bartender waits on them. Extra points if the bartender is wiping down the bar with a rag. Someone points a gun at someone. Preferably while saying ‘shut the fuck up.’ Someone takes a leak. Preferably outdoors. Points if urine stream goes astray. Someone answers a phone only to be hung up on. Someone tosses a portable phone or cell phone in disgust at the call received. Points for throwing it out the window of a moving car. A profound quote is displayed on the screen. Someone takes a shower or brushes teeth. Preferably while someone else uses the toilet. Someone vomits, particularly as a precursor to finding out she is pregnant. Camera pans up into trees to denote passing of time or space. Camera pans down to shoes to denote passing of time or space. Preferably shoes are Chuck Taylors. We realize it was all a dream. Someone goes to a party only to retreat outside in a funk 6 Film Festival Secrets

while everyone else gets completely drunk. Someone tries on different outfits in front of a mirror while also trying out dance moves for the party to come. Someone sits in a cube farm pretending to work. Points for abuse of office supplies. Linda’s list was written in the spirit of fun but these are all tropes I’ve seen dozens of times in movies submitted to film festivals. You probably recognize a few. If you find yourself using any one of them, stop for a second and think – is it really necessary? “As a film festival programmer and a former film festival director, I’ve seen every single variation on the 50’s musical, the Woody Allen-esque rom-com, or the Tarantino style crime caper,” says Saskia Wilson-Brown, former director of the Silver Lake Film Festival. “I’ve seen 500 gritty-voiced cigarette-smoking leading men with a mysterious past, and even more film noir styled, tough-talking female leads. I am always thrilled to see a story or a character that is not readily accessible at the local Blockbuster. Often the tried-and-true has been re-tried ad nauseum, to lesser effect. In other words: unless you’re working within a specific genre (e.g. a zombie flick), do not be derivative or overly self-referential. Adding your voice to that particular chorus does not add to the art form. There is no point.” Once your hands have stopped shaking and you’ve convinced yourself your film is ready for viewers like Linda and Saskia, it’s time to move on to the next section.

Chapter 1: Before You Submit 7

What are your goals? Before you plunge headlong into the festival circuit with only a vague idea of what you and your film might gain from the experience, it helps to identify your goals both for yourself and for your film. All of the following benefits are available from festivals, but only some of them may be of interest to you. Distribution: Though harder than ever to attain these days, distribution is the holy grail of filmmakers at festivals. The festival circuit has traditionally been a marketplace for distributors looking for material, though the statistics have always been grim. Whether your film is purchased at a festival or finds its audience sometime afterwards, a successful festival run is often an essential first step in proving your film’s worth. Networking. Festivals provide an unparalleled opportunity to make those crucial connections that may eventually sell your film. This is also a chance to meet your contemporaries, some of whom may be able to help you in the future. Festivals are inhabited by people inspired by films. Whether they are in the industry or not, meeting those people (especially those who like your work) can be reinvigorating after too many months in the editing bay. Exhibition. You didn’t make your film to hide it in a closet – you wanted it to be seen! Festival audiences contain the most appreciative and knowledgeable viewers out there. For many pictures, the festival run is the de facto theatrical distribution. Cash prizes and prize packages. It’s common for festivals 8 Film Festival Secrets

to offer cash prizes for the best work of the season. A handful of such prizes can help pay off those credit cards or at least defray your travel expenses. Other festivals get sponsors to kick in prize packages worth more than the cash prizes. I’ve seen lavish giveaways like laptops and modest prize packages like gift certificates, but none of the filmmakers seemed sorry to receive them. Other awards. Even if there’s no cash involved, festival awards are a nice way to draw attention to your film. More media coverage is given to award winners and you can draw future festival audiences to your film with some laurel wreaths on your poster. Learning opportunities. Many festivals feature panels and seminars in addition to their film programming. Take advantage of your complimentary badge and add to your filmmaking knowledge by sitting in on a few talks. Festivals are also a great place to learn from example. When you see the ways that other filmmakers market their work and talk about making their movies, you can learn by their example. Media coverage. Festivals are covered by local and industry press alike -- the amount of coverage is naturally proportional to the size and prestige of the festival, but with the right strategy and persistence you can build a nice portfolio of press clippings. Reviews can make or break a film, but as a filmmaker you definitely want as many reviews as you can get. Parties. Not only are these great fun, they can be great places to make connections. In terms of networking, parties are where the action is at any film festival. If you’re a starving filmmaker, Chapter 1: Before You Submit 9

parties are your refueling station as well. Cool movies. There’s no better place to see the new, weird, and wonderful in cinema. Enjoy the privileges of your filmmaker’s pass and take in a few films. There is a difference between being an audience member and truly being a part of the festival; it’s an experience you should embrace as much as possible. You can grow support for your own film by attending others’ and getting to know the filmmakers afterwards. You may even bump into your new friends at later festivals. Travel. If you’re lucky, the festival will fly you in or put you up. If you’re smart, you will have put a line item for festival travel in your film’s budget. Either way, your film’s stint at a faraway film festival is a great excuse to see another town or even another continent. Once you know which benefits of the festival circuit are most important to you, prioritize them and keep them in mind when making other decisions. Your goals on the festival circuit should also be a reflection of your overall aims for the film. There are of course the vague hopes for your picture to be a “success,” but it’s important to define what success looks like. Are you looking for a distributor to purchase your film’s rights and get it into theaters and retail stores? Are you looking for paid work in the indie or studio film industry? Is it more important that your film’s message be seen by as many people as possible? Maybe you want to expand your short into a feature. The festival circuit can be the right path for all of these destinations, but the individual festivals you might want to play and what you do once you arrive at them could vary 10 Film Festival Secrets

greatly based on your particular ambitions.

Identify your target festivals With more than 1000 “English-speaking” festivals in North America and Europe and an estimated 5000 festivals worldwide, the array of choices faced by the typical filmmaker is dizzying. For the purposes of organizing your submissions strategy, we’re going to view the festival circuit as a pyramid with 4 tiers.

tier 1

tier 2

tier 3

tier 4

This is for illustration only and not to be taken as gospel — the exact placement of any individual festival is a matter of opinion Chapter 1: Before You Submit 11

and your estimation of a festival may bump it up or down the pyramid as it suits your needs. The pyramid structure, however, helps you to visualize the path your film will ideally take through the festival circuit: premiering at the top with a small number of submissions to the most beneficial festivals for your film and working your way down through the tiers with more screenings at a wider number of festivals with less visibility.

The concept of premieres will come up a lot during your festival run. For some festivals it is of no consequence and for others it is a very big deal. This is a much more important concept for feature filmmakers than it is for shorts but you should always bear in mind your film’s premiere status in any territory and what that might mean for its acceptance potential at any given festival.

Tier One There is a small list of “top tier” festivals where most filmmakers will want to start, though only a handful of the thousands of annual entrants actually play those festivals. The definition of “top tier” is subjective, though few would dispute the inclusion of festivals like Sundance, Toronto, or Cannes. If your film falls into a category of specialty interest, however, your top tier festivals may look a bit different. Got a horror flick on your hands? Maybe Sitges or Fantastic Fest is where you want to start. Frameline is one of the top gay & lesbian festivals out there and could be the right launching pad for your transgender self-discovery film. Documentary filmmakers may well want to start with a docs-only festival their first time out, so the top tier of that pyramid might well be IDFA, Hot Docs, or Silverdocs. The important thing to remember is that you’re only likely to play a handful of the top tier mainstream festivals if any at all, so don’t 12 Film Festival Secrets

shoot below the mark and then expect to play a more prestigious festival later.

Tier Two On the second tier of your festival pyramid you should list the larger regional festivals you’d like to play once your film has had its big premiere and a shot at one or two other top tier fests. This may well include fests like the Austin Film Festival, the Atlanta Film Festival, Cinevegas, or the Hawaii Film Festival. Any one of these could be considered a top-tier fest for your film, but in general they are not considered to have quite the prestige of the festivals I mentioned in Tier One above. Also occupying the second tier are small-but-significant events like the Ann Arbor Film Festival and the Sidewalk Moving Pictures Festival which by virtue of their longevity, entrepreneurial spirit, or industry cachet have influence beyond their modest audience numbers. The Short Story: the placement of a festival on your short film’s pyramid can be even more confusing than for a feature-length movie. Many festivals have special criteria for short films that might bump them right out of consideration for you. For example, Toronto accepts only shorts from Canadian filmmakers. This does not prevent them from receiving hundreds of shorts from inattentive filmmakers around the world.

Such “second-tier” festivals can be just as competitive as the top-tier fests. However, because festivals at this level don’t quite have the combination of age, prestige, or funding as the aforementioned top-tier events, they tend to see fewer submissions. Such organizations are therefore hungry for world and national premieres of great pictures. Premieres are the stuff of which glitzy events and organizational prestige are made, so every festival Chapter 1: Before You Submit 13

How do I find festivals? Is there a list of all the film festivals in the world? As far as I know no such canonical list exists, but there are lots of people who have tried. Typing “film festival” into the nearest internet search field should give you more results than you can handle, but a more organized list is of course a handy thing. Here are some internet and print resources that should help. indieWIRE ( - Probably the most relevant publication online or off for those interested in film festivals and indie film distribution. The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide by Chris Gore is rightly regarded as the most authoritative book on the subject; it features a 200 page directory of festivals with varying degrees of detailed information on each one. A new edition is scheduled for release in Fall 2009. Film Festival World ( has a large online database of festivals with basic info and links about each one. The Britfilms Directory ( ) information updated frequently and highly browsable. Organized nicely. MovieMaker Magazine ( regularly features lists of the festivals it considers to be “worth the entry fee.” Variety ( has listings as well as coverage of festivals around the world. Want more? I’m keeping an updated list of festival resources at:

wants to prove its worth by “discovering” a handful of films that haven’t been seen previously anywhere else. The popular phrase in filmmaking is to treat your film’s world premiere as you would its virginity – you can only give it away once. (Though there are creative ways around that, as we’ll discuss later.) Another factor that may affect your list of festival prospects is the fact that some festivals are accredited by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which means the winners of their short film competitions become qualified for consideration 14 Film Festival Secrets

to win an Academy Award. If you’re the proud creator of a short film you want to identify these festivals and put them high on your list of places to submit. You can always find the latest list at the Academy’s web site, Make sure to check the rules of eligibility; they are quite strict and it would be a shame to accidentally become ineligible.

Tier Three Your third tier is where things start to get a bit murky. Generally speaking, the festivals on your third tier should be less wellknown festivals that have been around for a while and that serve their regional audiences well. These festivals can be the most fun; depending on their funding and philosophy they may treat their filmmakers more lavishly (and with more respect) than some of the top-tier fests. The smaller, more intimate feel of such events can make them the best experiences you’ll have on the festival circuit – you’ll have more time to connect with your fellow filmmakers, you’ll get more face time with the festival staff, and it’s easier to win awards at this level. Once your film has made its big splash at your top tier fests and made a name for itself on the second tier, you should find yourself playing a number of thirdtier festivals. Not that smaller festivals are necessarily easier to get into, since they often have fewer screening slots, but it can be easier to win awards at this level than higher up in the circuit.

Tier Four Fourth tier fests are young fests without much reputation or established festivals with poor reputations. There’s not much reason to spend a lot of money pursuing these festivals — if the Chapter 1: Before You Submit 15

fourth tier fests are all you can get into then you’re probably not going to get much out of the festival circuit anyway. Go back to the drawing board and make another, better movie. If your film has had a good run on the top three tiers and you feel there’s something to be gained by continuing to play at even the smallest festivals, by all means accept those invitations and submit to the festivals that have meaning to you. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between third- and fourth-tier festivals; there are very young festivals that put on incredibly professional events and there are long-standing fests that barely keep it together from year to year. Depending on variables like funding and staff turnover, an individual festival can bounce between tier three and four annually. If you find yourself playing at a disorganized event, try not to take it too seriously and get what you can out of the experience. (We’ll cover how to handle such situations in a later chapter.) You never know what opportunities will arise from even the most disastrous festival experience, so don’t forget to budget for travel to some of the smaller events and be sure to submit to (or at least make contact with) all of the festivals within easy driving range.

Reality check Only a select handful of first-time filmmakers break into one of the top-tier festivals. The overwhelming majority are turned away. Their films premiere at less prestigious festivals and there’s no shame in that. On one level I would encourage new filmmakers to spare themselves the expense and heartache of submitting to the top-tier festivals by going straight for the second-tier fests where they are more likely to find themselves welcome. On the 16 Film Festival Secrets

other hand, if you’re confident that your film is of the highest caliber then skipping the top tier fests would leave you forever wondering whether you could have made it. So by all means submit to Sundance, but try not to take rejection personally. There’s lots of room on the festival circuit and somewhere within it there’s a receptive audience for your picture. Filmmaker Scott D. Hanson (Parts) puts it this way: In talking to other filmakers at festivals I have encountered the feeling that places like Sundance and Toronto really are less for discovering talent than a place where the most talented take their passion projects. Yes some are first time directors, but they may have established careers as actors or producers or editors. I think it is important to keep in mind that those festivals are there to show the very best filmmaking they can (to even call it independent is a stretch). Yes, some come from out of the blue and capture gold, but that is winning the lottery. If winning the lottery is a filmmaker’s career path they are in for a rough ride.

Finding the right fit Beyond what a film festival looks like at first glance – its relative size and prestige – there are many other factors that may push a particular festival up or down on your film’s pyramid. Scout out your target festival’s web site and see what you can learn about the things that may make it more or less appropriate for you. Such factors include: Your personal connections on the festival staff. If you personally know people who work at film festivals, you should exploit those connections – politely. Knowing someone on the inside is no guarantee of acceptance but it gets you a lot further than a cold submission. Chapter 1: Before You Submit 17

Timing conflicts with other events. Is your leading man’s wedding going to conflict with the film’s world premiere? You’d better check. Location, location, location. Some festivals look kindly on local filmmakers (they usually bring in local audiences), so if there’s a festival nearby you should definitely submit. (You’re going to want to have your hometown premiere at some point.) If your film is of local interest to a particular place you should target the festivals in and around that region. Don’t forget to look for festivals in places you’ve been meaning to visit, or where you have family/friends who can put you up for free. Your budget. The festival submission fee - anywhere from $20 to $100 per festival - is the bane of filmmakers everywhere. Festivals use them as a barrier to keep every Joe with a camcorder from entering willy-nilly, but the revenue does count for something so fees are unlikely to go away any time soon. Check into the submissions fees at your target festivals and make sure your budget can hack it. Previous festival selections. This one can cut both ways; you want to look for festivals that program films similar to yours, but not too similar. If a programmer has a penchant for screwball comedies or competition documentaries that may be something you can use to your advantage. But if you’ve got a film about motocross and they played a demolition derby doc the year prior, the festival may not want to explore the same territory again so soon. This includes special-interest festivals (or specialty sections within festivals) with themes that match your film – children’s film, outdoor/wildlife, human rights, etc. Consider also your film’s tone – if it’s a scrappy first-time doc with a great narrative but low commercial potential, it might be better placed at a filmmaker-friendly festival like Slamdance instead of a high-powered 18 Film Festival Secrets

market like Toronto. The Short Story: This is where the previous warning about festivals with odd criteria for short films balances out. There are a number of “shorts only “ festivals, some of which are quite prestigious. Attending these fests can be a refreshing change for the producers of short pictures who generally live in the shadows of the feature filmmakers at other festivals.

Word of mouth. Filmmakers write about their experiences at film festivals all the time — just do a quick web search for the festival’s name and see what they’re saying. If you can’t find exactly what you want to know, don’t be afraid to contact another filmmaker personally to ask their opinion of the overall experience at that festival. Scams. Fortunately these are few and far between, but festival scams do exist. Some “festivals” charge exorbitant entry fees or make extravagant promises about their ability to connect you with a distributor. Others give away hundreds of “awards” annually with an eye towards selling the winners handsome trophies for their mantelpieces. Though there may be some legitimate screenings involved with events like these, they are not legitimate festivals and distributors know the difference. Don’t waste your money; be sure to check out festivals that seem too good to be true.

Set your timeline & fill your pyramid Creating a festival submissions strategy, as with comedy, is largely a matter of timing. The first rule: Don’t rush production to meet a festival deadline. The film is done when it’s done, and there are plenty of festivals to submit to once that happens. There’s always the temptation to submit a rough cut of your movie and Chapter 1: Before You Submit 19

plenty of filmmakers do, but in most cases those filmmakers are doing themselves and their movies a disservice. If you miss the deadline for a particular top-tier fest there are always more following right behind. With your completed film in hand, envision the ideal timeline for your film’s world premiere and subsequent festival run. Compare that to your knowledge of your own patience and tolerance for rejection. For example, if you’ve completed your film in January but you have your heart set on Sundance, you’re in for a long year of waiting. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing – you could use the extra time to test your film further or polish your marketing strategy – but if you’re like most filmmakers, you’re anxious for audiences to see your film sooner than that. Fortunately there are top tier festivals year round. Festival deadlines are generally three months out from the events themselves (sometimes longer) so a typical festival run might look something like this: 1. Completed film submitted to several top tier fests (now) 2. Film accepted at first top tier fest (2-3 months out) 3. World premiere (3-4 months out) 4. Film accepted by another top tier fest (3-4 months out) 5. Film plays additional top-tier fest & submitted to secondtier festivals ( 4 - 8 months out) 6. Film plays second-tier fests & invited/submitted to thirdtier fests (6 - 12 months out) 20 Film Festival Secrets

7. Film plays third & fourth-tier fests as invitations and occasional submissions continue (12-24 months out) Depending on your own determination to play a top-tier festival and your patience, the time between steps 1 and 2 can be as long as a year. (I wouldn’t recommend waiting much longer than that. If you’ve submitted to all of your top-tier festivals in a calendar year and been turned down uniformly, it’s time to face facts and lower your sights.) In extreme circumstances the entire process can take as much as three years, especially if you’re the kind of person determined to get every last bit of mileage out of the festival circuit. As your film reaches the bottom of the festival pyramid it can and should be playing multiple small festivals at once, hopefully picking up some awards along the way and giving you the excuse to travel in the name of networking. Of course the ultimate decision of when to stop is yours, since no one can make you submit to or exhibit at any particular festival once you decide your time on the circuit is done. The festival submissions process is often likened to applying to college. Just as every student is different, so too is every film and likewise the submissions strategy for each film. Gabe Wardell, executive director of the Atlanta Film Festival, encourages filmmakers to submit to first- and second-tier festivals simultaneously, similar to applying to a variety of colleges instead of just the Ivy League. Doing so gives you more options in the short term, especially if you take second-tier festivals seriously – and you should. Also, keep in mind that the Ivy League is not for everyone. Finding the right fit for your film should be the priority of a thoughtful filmmaker. Consider the impact of debuting your feature in competition at SXSW instead of the Spectrum at SunChapter 1: Before You Submit 21

dance. A red carpet opening night world premiere at a regional fest is an unrivalled experience that could trump a lost-in-theshuffle screening at a big deal event. “Consider the damage done by waiting,” says Wardell. “Film festivals don’t exist in a vacuum; we generally know what films are making the rounds. It can easily become apparent that your picture has been sitting around doing nothing because you held out for a year submitting to top tier festivals. Then you have to convince everyone else that your year-old film is still fresh just as the next bumper crop is arriving. By playing too close to the vest, you end up looking desperate or arrogant or both. Shopping your film around to a variety of festivals keeps your options open.”

An alternate view There has been a trend in recent years to restrict a film’s festival run to only a few large festivals before yanking it from the circuit. The theory is that making a big splash at a handful of industry-heavy events is a good thing, but that distributors will view a film as being “overplayed” if it makes a full festival run. Not only is this a narrow-minded view of the moviegoing public (though perhaps a fair estimation of the way some acquisition execs think), it can also be an extremely frustrating experience for the filmmaker. Do you really want to labor over a film and then rob yourself of the only theatrical screenings you’re likely to see? I’ve known films that received heaps of buzz upon their initial premiere but then vanished behind a curtain of distribution strategy initiated by a producer’s representative, laying dormant for years before finally surfacing later in limited theatrical release

22 Film Festival Secrets

and finally sale on DVD. From the outside it doesn’t look like much fun. There may be some merit to this strategy – if you have produced a film with a large budget and name actors (or a documentary with similarly huge commercial potential) and you already have a sales agent involved. It’s hard to predict what will make a film attractive to any particular distributor, so perhaps limiting the festival play on a film with high commercial potential is a smart move. Even so it seems a shame to put your film on a shelf so quickly. Do-it-yourself filmmakers should aim for as much festival play as possible until (and sometimes even after) a distributor becomes seriously involved.

Fill in your pyramid Now’s that you have some festivals targeted and a rough timeline in mind, fill in the tiers of your pyramid with the events you’ve picked. Don’t worry if it seems incomplete; this is an evolving document that will change over time.

Get organized Grab a calendar and start marking it up with the deadlines you’ll need to meet (find them on the festival web sites) and the actual dates of the events themselves. It’s one thing to see a list of dates, but on a calendar it will be easier to see the overall picture and spot conflicts. Since there will be lots of “paperwork” involved, it’s crucial to keep good records. For you this might mean a simple spreadsheet into which you type your submissions info, or go even older school with a notebook. As an irrepressible geek I encourChapter 1: Before You Submit 23

age you to look into some of the organizational tools online where you can easily keep detailed records and share them with others. My favorites are Backpack ( and Google Docs (, but there are plenty of alternatives out there, many of them free. For the purposes of discussion I’ll refer to this information (however you decide to store it) as your submissions notebook. In your notebook, immediately enter the following: a copy of your preliminary festival pyramid the first set of festivals to which you plan to submit their deadlines their entry fees their festival dates Leave room alongside each entry for more information; we’ll be adding to it later. Other things you may want to put in your notebook: Dollar amounts for your submissions fee and travel budgets. Whether you have a firm ceiling on how much you’re willing to spend on submissions and travel, it’s good to put some numbers here to prepare yourself for the fact that money will have to be spent. A list of the cast & crew you’ll want to bring along for the world premiere. Contact info for each festival

A word about premieres As I mentioned previously, festivals are always on the hunt for films to premiere at their events. The prestige of a world or 24 Film Festival Secrets

national premiere is taken seriously, so you should give it careful consideration. Your world premiere is obviously the big one, but you also have (in order of significance) the continental, national, regional, state/province, and city premieres as cards in your deck. Don’t be afraid to highlight the film’s premiere status in your film’s application to the festival and think carefully about what each screening you hold does to the film’s premiere status. In particular, it’s important that if you hold a “friends & family” screening before your festival debut, do not call it the world premiere. It’s a “sneak preview” or a “private advance” or whatever else you want to call it – just not the premiere. Similarly, filmmakers have played festivals while still preserving their “world premiere” status by allowing a festival to show their picture as a “work in progress” screening. This is kind of a shifty thing to do but it works.

Prepare your festival screening disc The lingua franca of the festival world, at least as far as screening copies goes, is the humble DVD. Most often that means a burned DVD-R straight out of your editing bay, which most any festival screener should be able to watch. Before you warm up your DVD burner, however, consider the following rules of thumb for your video output. The festival screener version of your film can and probably should be a bit different from the version you expect to prepare for theatrical exhibition or home video. The festival screener disc should be a no-frills presentation of the movie with as little fuss as possible between putting the disc in the player and watching the film. (Use auto-play if you know how, otherwise a simple Chapter 1: Before You Submit 25

menu will do.) Your film should speak for itself. Don’t send an unfinished cut of the film. Submit when your film is in its picture-locked final state and looks and sounds reasonably professional. That said, don’t worry about having every little I dotted and T crossed. It’s expected that a few technical details may change or that names may be added to the credits — so long as the basic cut of the film doesn’t change. Don’t burn a watermark on your video that lasts for the entire duration of the film. Paranoid about piracy? Pop your “property of Joe’s Studio” watermark up for about ten seconds once every half-hour and you’ll be covered — without annoying anyone. Include chapter stops! Every ten minutes or so is fine. Pay attention to the festival’s requirements for video, especially things like NTSC vs PAL video. Test the final disc on 3 different players. Different hardware can react in varying ways to burned discs, so give yours a decent shot at success by verifying that the DVD-Rs coming out of your burner spin correctly on a variety of players. Written on the DVD itself, you should include: The title of the film Category of submission (as defined by the festival) Running time in minutes Your name (identify yourself as the primary contact) Your e-mail address and/or phone number Other information as requested by the festival If you have room, you might also include the name of the festival, the URL of your web site, and the submission number if you 26 Film Festival Secrets

know it. With this information included, the festival will be able to get in touch with you easily, regardless of what happens to the case or anything else you send along with the DVD.

Do not use paper labels. Do not use paper labels. Do not use paper labels. Though the majority of discs labeled with those special DVDshaped labels play just fine, a large number of them (I’d say as high as 1 in 4 ) don’t spin correctly in many players – the weight of the label throws the disc off balance and it won’t read correctly. Hand labeling is a much better option if you can’t print on the disc itself.

Here’s the information you should include on your DVD case: The title. This should be the largest text on the case. Principal cast and crew listing, especially if you have a recognizable name actor in your film. Identify the film by category. Include pictures from the film: not too many – definitely opt for bigger, more intriguing photos over a series of stills you can’t really make out. A logline (25 - 50 words tops) on the front, but only if you have a really good one. Otherwise leave it off. A short synopsis (100-300 words) on the back. Don’t give too much away. Consider finding someone else to write this. Total running time. Your contact info: web site, e-mail address, and phone number. Include your mailing address if you have room. Leave yourself some room to hand-write additional information requested by the festival.

Chapter 1: Before You Submit 27

Prepare your exhibition copies One of the aspects of screening that often escapes filmmakers until they begin to submit is the exhibition format. The more intimate festivals may show films directly from a DVD, but many festivals prefer to give their audiences a more upscale presentation. The two most common projection formats are digital projection (from a DigiBeta tape or the high-definition HD-CAM tape format) and traditional film projection (35mm). The festivals to which you submit may be determined in part by the formats in which you’re prepared to exhibit. Digibeta/HD-CAM is by far the more economical of the two, with 90 minute dubs usually costing less than a few hundred bucks. That’s still not chicken feed for many indie filmmakers, but it’s much more feasible than striking a 35mm print for tens of thousands of dollars. Not only is it cheaper (and faster) to make tape copies of your film for exhibition, but it’s also much more practical from a shipping perspective. Tapes weigh a fraction of the equivalent length of film (for a feature, anyway) and cost much less to ship.

Now that the Sundance Film Festival accepts only 35mm prints and HDCAM tapes as valid forms of exhbition, I expect that DigiBeta will start to fade from the festival scene. There are several different sub-types of the HD-CAM format out there, so be sure that you have the right kind of tape for your target festival or that you can have one made in a hurry.

Don’t wait until you receive your first festival acceptance letter to have your exhibition copies made. Festivals are on notoriously tight schedules, and you’ll want time to check your exhibition copies for video and sound problems before you ship it off to your first fest. You might want to spend some time researching 28 Film Festival Secrets

the average cost to ship a DigiBeta tape (or 35mm print, if you went that way) across the country or to the countries of your international target festivals so there aren’t any nasty surprises when you do decide to ship it out. The good news is that festivals generally pick up the cost and responsibility of return shipping or, if you have upcoming festival engagements, the shipping to your next festival destination. Don’t assume that this is true, however – check with each festival to confirm their shipping practices. Exhibition copy checklist: Determine screening formats accepted at your target festivals Decide on a screening format for your film Have two copies made Check both copies for video and sound problems Label the copies differently so you can tell them apart Investigate shipping costs Store the copies somewhere safe, dry, and cool (see manufacturer’s recommendations) until you need them

Chapter 1: Before You Submit 29

Chapter 1 review checklist Nothing will affect your rate of festival acceptance like the quality of your film, so be darn sure your film is ready. Hold private test screenings to help you find the flaws in your film. Then fix them. Make sure you have clearances for the music in your film. Identify your goals for the festival circuit. Look up festivals to identify prospects and sort them into the four tiers of your festival pyramid. Further sort your festival prospects by timing, location, budget, content fit, etc. Be realistic about your festival circuit timeline. Start a festival submissions notebook and calendar. Prep your screening DVD with as little as possible to distract from the film itself. Decide on your exhibition format and prepare two exhibition copies of your film. Be prepared for rejection. 30 Film Festival Secrets

Chapter 2 - When you submit

Chapter 2: Submission Strategies 31

32 Film Festival Secrets

Submission Strategies The mechanics of submitting to a film festival are pretty straightforward – obtain the festival’s entry form, fill it out, enclose your DVD and a check, and send it off by the deadline. What isn’t so obvious is what happens next, and how to make sure your film has the best chance of distinguishing itself from the hundreds or thousands of other candidates clogging the festival mailbox. The most effective way – to make an astonishingly original and wellexecuted film – is also the most difficult, and it’s not a particularly helpful answer for a book about film festivals. Let’s move on to other things you can do that can realistically help your chances (however slightly) and ensure a smooth submission process.

Attention to detail The number one submissions strategy is also the most obvious, and yet it’s also the one that a significant number of filmmakers fail to follow: submit to the right festivals for your film and follow instructions during the submissions process. You should have covered the first part while researching festivals for your film’s pyramid; the second part is largely a matter of paying attention to details and resisting the temptation to play fast and loose with the process to draw extra attention to your film. “Festival Staff Pet Peeve #1: Filmmakers who don’t follow directions. The submission information for South by Southwest is pretty simple, but you would not believe how many people do it incorrectly. It’s especially absurd because they actually have to print out and include the instruction sheet with their submission! If a filmmaker isn’t paying enough attention to read and follow our instructions it makes them seem like they don’t care about their movie or our festival. It’s unprofessional.” - Claudette Godfrey, SXSW Film Festival Coordinator

Chapter 2: Submission Strategies 33

Your first stop on the submissions path should of course be the web site of the festival(s) to which you’re submitting. That’s where you’ll find the submissions forms to be filled out online or printed and mailed. Fill out the forms completely and accurately. If something doesn’t seem to apply to your film or is just confusing, don’t guess – call or e-mail the festival and ask.

Submissions strategies that work Include a short cover letter with your submission. Along with the question “is this film any good,” the screening committee who watches your film will be asking “Why is this film appropriate for this festival?” A cover letter is your opportunity to enumerate the reasons that your picture is particularly wellsuited to play a certain festival. Make sure to highlight things like: potential local interest (local cast? Crew? Locations?), appropriateness for a category unique to that festival (particularly if it’s a special interest festival like a wildlife or animation fest), and your film’s similarity to other films the festival has played before. (Some of this information can go on your disc sleeve if it’s relevant.) Indicate the film’s premiere status and your intention to attend the festival (with cast members?) if accepted. In short, make festival staffers take special interest in you by proving your interest in their particular festival. “I am continually amazed by how many filmmakers using WAB do not include a cover letter, either online or with their shipment,” says Michelle Emanuel, co-director of the Oxford Film Festival. “Even when they are returning filmmakers. Even when we’ve given a waiver. Even when we’ve met them at another fes34 Film Festival Secrets

tival and encouraged them to submit. But for every filmmaker who does not include a cover letter, there is another who uses a 300-word synopsis in lieu of a cover letter.” Present yourself and your film professionally. If you’re filling out the forms by hand, do it legibly and include all of your contact info. Just as you wouldn’t show up to a job interview in shorts and a t-shirt, neither should your submission be sloppy or inappropriate. As I mentioned earlier, your film’s screener DVD should be free of extra frills like color bars or cutesy video introductions. Similarly eschew colored ink, decorative envelopes, or unusual packaging for your DVD. It won’t help and is often taken as a warning sign that the film inside is lacking. If your film has already played at other festivals, accentuate your proven track record. Add festival laurel graphics to your disc sleeve as your film progresses. If you’ve played the circuit with other films, mention them on the sleeve and in your cover letter. Festivals love returning filmmakers; it indicates their ability to attract people capable of completing multiple projects and gives them more to talk about when they announce their programs. “When I see new projects from filmmakers we’ve programmed before, I’m immediately interested,” says Austin Film Festival Program Director Kelly Williams. “I want to know how they’ve grown as a filmmaker and I want to see what’s coming next. This is particularly true and rewarding when shorts creators send us their first features.” Take advantage of your alumnus status at festivals you’ve played before by offering your favorite the world premiere – especially if it’s a top-tier event. Make sure you’re submitting under the right category. According to Atlanta Film Festival communications director Charles Judson, “probably 75% of the submissions under the Chapter 2: Submission Strategies 35

experimental category at our festival are not experimental. Some programmers and committees watch films by category. If your film is in the wrong category, it’s possible that your movie will be overlooked and not make the cut. Don’t be cute about the category either. If your doc is really a narrative piece, then put it in the narrative category. One, doing otherwise can put many screeners and programmers in a foul mood when they realize what the filmmaker was trying to do. And two, whoever is watching will probably spend more time trying to figure out if the film is in the wrong category than if it’s a good film.”

Submissions strategies that don’t work Don’t highlight your film’s shortcomings. Even if your picture has a miniscule budget or flaws that can be explained away with some background information, don’t risk rejection by drawing attention to those things. Good movies rise above their limitations instead of asking the audience to overlook them. Your cover letter and sleeve should highlight the things that make your film entertaining or authentic (“shot guerilla-style on the city streets of Philadelphia”) rather than amateur (“shot on a shoestring budget with a cast of college friends”). Don’t “forget” to include payment with your film, hoping that the festival staff will watch it out of curiosity and be so overwhelmed by its quality that they forgive your oversight. Not only is it an unlikely scenario, it’s disrespectful to the festival. If your budget is restrictive enough that you can’t submit to festivals with fees, there’s a list of festivals with no entry fees here: If you do “forget” your entry fee, expect to hear from the fes36 Film Festival Secrets

tival shortly thereafter as they will politely request payment. Bribes/tchotchkes/promotional items (hats, shirts, keychains) are a waste of money, at least at this stage of the game. As with fancy packaging, the inclusion of such items is generally the sign of an inadequate film. I have heard of rare cases in which such ploys actually worked (like the film-branded mouse pad that ended up sitting on the festival programmer’s desk for years afterwards), but for the most part such trinkets are separated from their original DVDs and divided among the interns long before the programming team encounters the film. Save yourself the expense and the additional postage by keeping your submission lean and mean. Similarly, press kits and other supplemental material are unnecessary and probably won’t help your chances. This includes commentary or photo slideshows on the DVD itself. Even if your film gets in, the press kit won’t be of much help to the festival staff. Creation of printed film guides and web sites gets done electronically, so information will be pulled from web sites and emails rather than re-typed from a press kit. Exception: there are festivals which ask for press kits only and then request screeners from filmmakers based on their interest in the press kit. These festivals are unusual but they are out there. See chapter 3 for more on preparing a press kit. No whining, no pestering. It’s OK to call the festival a couple of weeks after you submit to make sure your package got there, but it’s not OK to call every week thereafter to ask how things are going. If your film doesn’t get into the festival, don’t write about it petulantly on your blog or post about it on a filmmaking message board. Venting publicly (or otherwise making a nuisance of yourself) is a good way to give festivals an excuse not to program your film. It also brands you as someone who will Chapter 2: Submission Strategies 37

complain when things don’t go your way.

Submitting through Withoutabox Withoutabox ( is an online service that positions itself as a central clearing house for film festival submissions. Withoutabox (WAB) allows filmmakers to complete a central profile of their film and then submit that film to multiple festivals with relative ease (at least, compared to filling out each form by hand). In exchange for handling this process WAB takes a percentage of the entry fee paid to the festival. WAB also performs various marketing tasks for the festival in exchange for additional fees and offers “upgraded” accounts to filmmakers willing to pay for certain services. WAB’s presence in the festival world is controversial. There’s no question that it has helped to lubricate the gears of festival submissions and allowed young and obscure festivals to attract numbers of entries previously unattainable. The service’s ability to spread information about new festivals and the fact that it enables filmmakers to “impulse shop” from their account has been a significant factor in the proliferation of small festivals and the way they do business. Unfortunately, WAB has also contributed to higher fees overall as festivals increase what they charge to filmmakers to offset WAB’s commissions and required discounts for its users. (The company offers “exclusive” discounts to WAB users but insists that the festival cover the cost of the discount.) Practices like these are the reason that some festivals refuse to use WAB at all. It’s no accident that most of the top-tier festivals prefer to control their own submissions process — since they don’t need WAB in order to attract large numbers of submis38 Film Festival Secrets

sions, why give up a percentage of the revenue? When deciding whether to use WAB or not, consider the implications for your own budget and for the festival. Filmmakers may use the directory to search for festivals for free and may even qualify for a discount at the free level, but the steepest discounts are reserved for those filmmakers who pay a fee to upgrade their accounts. (Check WAB’s current filmmaker agreement for rates.) You’ll want to calculate how many festivals you’d have to submit to before breaking even to figure out whether an upgraded account is a good idea. As for festivals, well – when you submit the old-fashioned way, they get to keep more of the submission fee for themselves. I’m not sure there’s a better way to score points with a festival director than by putting more money in the event’s coffers. As a filmmaker, you may have no choice but to use WAB at some point. Some festivals use it as their exclusive point of entry and for those you’ll need to register for an account.

Tips for using Withoutabox Take the time to completely fill out the information about your film, including the obscure crew positions they ask for. Festivals don’t often make use of this information but it’s better to cover your bases than to be found wanting. Resist the temptation to impulse shop. There’s no faster way to blow through your submissions budget than by poking around on WAB, looking for cool new festivals. Once you’ve done your research (and WAB is a great place to start that research), stick to your submission plan. Take advantage of the search features that WAB offers, but Chapter 2: Submission Strategies 39

check out the festival web sites too. Event information on WAB is often incomplete or incorrect, especially for festivals that have listings but don’t actually participate in WAB’s service. WAB will occasionally list festivals with open calls for entry as “not currently taking submissions” when in fact they are simply not currently taking submissions through Withoutabox. Check in on your WAB account every week or so to check the status of your submissions, but don’t believe everything it says. Some festivals never update their films on WAB past the point of “received, under consideration” (preferring to notify their filmmakers of acceptance or rejection by other means) and other fests don’t notify their filmmakers any other way. WAB’s killer app is its message board (boards.withoutabox. com), which features dozens of filmmakers and the occasional festival staffer discussing the finer points of filmmaking and festivals. Go forth and learn, but beware the crusty denizens who have seen every question ever asked by new filmmakers and who will wag their fingers at you when you ask yours. Try searching for the answer first, then ask. Don’t allow Withoutabox to be your only window on the festival world. Many worthwhile festivals don’t use it and WAB doesn’t represent every festival correctly. Find out about festivals through other sources: other online sources, your fellow filmmakers, industry publications. (See for more sources.)

40 Film Festival Secrets

Controlling postage costs Don’t send more than is necessary. For the vast majority of festival submissions in the U.S., the DVD (in its case) and the submission paperwork (if any) in a plain padded envelope will be all that’s required. Some might tell you to use a non-padded envelope to further cut down on postage costs, but why tempt fate? Avoid the “fiber filled” envelopes — they tend to shred upon opening, spreading little particles everywhere. Plastic bubblewrap padding is best. Apply early. Not only will this allow you to pay the fee for the earliest, cheapest deadline, but it will also keep you from unnecessarily buying expedited delivery service. Don’t overspend on postage. It may be tempting to use a FedEx overnight envelope or even one of those eye-catching redand-blue Priority Mail envelopes in a bid to draw attention to your film when it shows up at the festival office. Don’t waste the money. What distinguishes your film will be your film — not the envelope in which it arrives. In the U.S., FedEx overnight starts around twenty bucks and Priority Mail flat rate costs about five dollars. A DVD case in a padded envelope can be shipped for right around one dollar. Tracking numbers and insurance are a waste of money, especially when you can get Delivery Confirmation on USPS First Class mail for less than a buck. Alternately you can include a self-addressed, stamped postcard with your entry for the festival to put back in the mail to you. Read the festival’s rules to find out what sort of confirmation they are willing to provide. Consider an internet postage service. If you’re planning on submitting to more than a dozen festivals you might find an internet-based postage system quickly becomes a necessity. Chapter 2: Submission Strategies 41

For a nominal service charge ( charges about $15 a month on top of the postage itself), you can practically have your own post office at home. With the right setup you can prepare all of your packages on your home computer and drop them in any mailbox instead of standing in line waiting on postage. It’s a huge time-saver. The USPS offers “click n print” shipping on its web site but only allows printing for its more expensive mail classes like Priority Mail. For First Class mail packages and the like you’ll need a home postage setup. Home postage vendors include: Endicia Internet Postage ( Pitney-Bowes (

Drop those disks in the mail Following your festival pyramid and the timeline you created in the last chapter, prepare submissions packages for your chosen top tier fests. You probably don’t want to send submissions to more than two top tier festivals at once – if and when you’re accepted to your first top tier festival, there’s always the chance that you can negotiate directly with the programming department at your other top picks. When you’re ready to move on to your second tier, you can start sending out progressively larger numbers of submissions packets. Try and stick to one tier at a time until you feel that tier is tapped out, then move down a tier and continue sending submissions. Keep an eye on the calendar to spot potential conflicts and 42 Film Festival Secrets

prioritize if they exist. If it becomes an issue, you should already know which of two concurrent festivals you’d rather attend. Remember the scene in When Harry Met Sally in which Meg Ryan compulsively checks each letter for a stamp as she puts them individually into the mailbox? That’s the frame of mind you want when you’re mailing out your submissions packets. Tick off the following boxes as each submission goes out: DVD properly labeled DVD and sleeve/box in envelope Festival forms completed and included Cover letter included Payment included or completed online Festival/WAB tracking number properly marked on DVD, forms, and envelope as necessary Return postcard with proper postage included (optional) Envelope sealed Envelope properly addressed to festival with clear return address Proper postage and delivery confirmation/tracking forms completed Dropped at post office by festival postmark deadline (or in enough time to meet their received by deadline)

Get organized: keep records As you send off each packet, use your festival notebook to record the submissions and pertinent information about them like: The date you sent it The festival’s expected notification date (sometimes listed Chapter 2: Submission Strategies 43

on the fest web site) If the festival provided one, record your film’s unique tracking ID for that event Delivery confirmation number or other postage tracking info If you included a return confirmation postcard, record when the festival sent it back to you Whether the festival accepted or rejected your submission, and when you found out This may sound like a lot of trivia to track, but once you collect it for a few festivals you’ll be able to compare the festivals for overall responsiveness and you’ll also have a quick reference dashboard for which festivals still owe you a response. Including the expected notification date will keep you from freaking out prematurely and remind you when a polite inquiry is appropriate.

No word? Check in with the festival If enough time has passed that a festival should have received your submission and you haven’t received confirmation, it’s OK to give them a call or send an email to confirm. If the person on the other end of the phone engages you in conversation, that’s great — feel free to answer questions about your film and to express your desire to play at the festival. This is a perfectly reasonable and polite thing to do. This does not, however, mean that the festival programmer is now your personal friend. This goes back to the “no whining, no pestering” advice from earlier, but it’s worth repeating. Clogging up a festival programmer’s email inbox with additional informa44 Film Festival Secrets

tion following your submission, however well-intentioned, will likely brand you as an annoyance. After confirming that your film has arrived, limit your interactions with the festival to important concerns that affect your film and its exhibition (or not) at that event.

Wait and repeat Now comes the hard part: the waiting, followed by the almost certain rejection (at least at first). For at least a few months after your first round of submissions you’re going to be sitting on your hands waiting to hear whether your your film made it through a screening process that is murky at best. When you do hear back from the festival, the answer is likely to be “no” and most festivals don’t spend time telling filmmakers exactly why their film didn’t make the cut. With hundreds or thousands of submissions per festival it’s not hard to see why they don’t make the extra effort, but the end result can be frustrating. While your chances of acceptance are in direct proportion to the quality of your movie, even excellent films get turned down for a variety of reasons. No matter the quality of your movie the festival submissions process can feel like a lottery with very expensive tickets. There are plenty of things you can do to stay busy while you wait and we’ll cover them in the next chapter. But when a rejection letter does come (and it will), don’t waste time feeling sorry for yourself. Pull out your festival pyramid, bump up the next festival in your list to the top, and submit again. Your own patience will tell you when it’s time to stop chasing top-tier festivals and move on to your second- or even third-tier fests.

Chapter 2: Submission Strategies 45

Banging your head against the wall It does occasionally happen that a filmmaker will submit to ten or fifteen festivals and not be accepted by any of them. Even with a great film, your film can be knocked out of the running by a number of factors that have nothing to do with the film itself -- maybe it’s too similar to something that played last year, or touches on a subject that the festival programmer doesn’t think the audience will respond to. Spending a few hundred bucks with nothing to show for it isn’t the best feeling in the world, but don’t give up yet. First let’s look at a few good things about your situation. If you haven't been accepted to any film festivals yet, then you haven't given up your world premiere either. Your film is still essentially starting with a blank slate. It could be worse -like if your film had already had its premiere at the NoPlace Film Festival and you couldn't even offer your world premiere to a more prestigious festival. You can still go back and fix some of the things that might be wrong with your film. Maybe the sound is bad, or it needs a re-edit to excise ten or twenty minutes of footage that stop the story dead in its tracks. Maybe all your film needs is a bit of extra investment (time, money, talent) to make it acceptable to a wide range of festivals. What you’ve spent in submissions fees so far is probably still less than it would have cost you to hold a four-wall screening, and you wouldn't even have the benefit of experience to let you know that your film was less perfect than you thought. By now your movie has been seen by at least two dozen people who watch hundreds of indie films every year; the rejection letters are their way of telling you that your film needs some work. 46 Film Festival Secrets

What to do about repeated rejection Call every festival you submitted to and ask to talk to a programmer. Do this in the off season, preferably a month or so after each festival ends so that the new crop of films hasn't erased the previous set from the programmer's mind. That programmer may or may not have seen your film, but they can put you in touch with someone who has if you ask nicely enough. That person may be kind enough to give you some constructive criticism. With 10+ festival rejections under your belt there must be someone willing to share an opinion with you about your movie. Ask specifically for constructive criticism and be respectful of the programmer's time. Expect some festivals to give you the runaround and call back if you don't get a return call within a week. Gentle persistence is the name of the game here, but at this point you've earned the right to be told why your film isn't getting any traction on the festival circuit. “We receive too many films to do detailed coverage of each one,” says film competition programmer Jesse Trussell at the Austin Film Festival. “But I do believe in helping filmmakers understand why they’re not doing well on the festival circuit, so I do answer e-mails for help – eventually. The time when rejection letters go out is our busiest time of year, but after the festival I’ll go back and try to answer each of those requests personally, especially if I’ve seen the film myself.” If your test screenings went extremely well and you’ve been given impartial advice that your film deserves festival play, consider resubmitting to the festivals for which you are still eligible. Sometimes a film rests on the edge of acceptability, or simply faces a year of extremely stiff competition. Don't forget that your film is judged not only on its standalone merit, but also against Chapter 2: Submission Strategies 47

all the other entries in the festival. Plus, the judges are human beings slogging through hours of mostly mediocre movies. A submission in the following year may be greeted with friendlier eyes. Keep in mind that this is a long shot and some festivals may reject your film simply on recognition that it was submitted the year previous. If you deem a re-edit to be necessary, complete the new cut of the film, conduct some more test screenings, and submit to the festivals that rejected you or apply to a new set of festivals. After a re-edit, your film is probably eligible for submission in the next festival year but check each festival’s fine print. (A change of title may also help you in this case.) Yes, this means delaying your festival dreams for a while, but if you think your film has a shot at the top-tier festivals after your changes then you should start the cycle again from the beginning. (This also gives you some time to save up some extra change from your day job for submission fees.) Shoot for the moon and then adjust your sights downward. At some point you may come to the conclusion that a toptier festival is simply out of reach of the grasp of this particular film. In the brutal light of the typical acceptance rates of those festivals, it's more than likely the truth. It's time to look at smaller festivals where at least your film can be played in front of an audience of independent film fans. Go back to the first stage and do some obsessively thorough research about the kinds of festivals to which you should be submitting. For every festival submission you send out, visit the web site of 25 festivals and get to know their characters. Look at their past lineups to get a sense of the kinds of films they want. You're searching for a philosophy and a programming style that matches your filmmaking personality. 48 Film Festival Secrets

If you've done all of the above and you're still coming up empty but you still crave that festival experience, you can always try the shotgun approach. Pick as many small festivals as you can with low entry fees that you can cram into your already depleted budget and submit en masse. Someone somewhere has to accept you, right? I don’t actually recommend this method – it’s just throwing good money after bad. If you’ve reached this point even after trying the strategies above, chances are your film is fundamentally flawed. Get as much feedback as you can from festival staff and fellow filmmakers, learn from your mistakes, and start funneling those submission fees into the budget for your next film.

Saving money on entry fees Entry fees are the bane of filmmakers everywhere but railing against them is a little like cursing the sun for rising each morning. Film festivals aren’t getting rich from this income but it’s unlikely they’ll be abolished wholesale any time soon. Here are a few things you can do to increase your chances of festival play without spending unnecessarily. Be honest and realistic. If you’re a student who made a film for under $500, it’s understandable that you don’t have a ton of money for festival submissions. If your picture’s budget was in the millions then you’re probably in a better position to pay for a few entry fees. (You should have included them as a line item in your movie’s budget.) Respect festival directors enough to realize that they’ll figure out if you’re just being cheap. Submit early. As mentioned previously, many festivals have early deadlines with reduced fees. Keep in mind that most deadChapter 2: Submission Strategies 49

lines are postmark deadlines, not delivery deadlines, so that can buy you a little extra time. Locate festivals without entry fees. There are many festivals out there that charge no fees to filmmakers, particularly those seeking films related to special interests. I maintain a list of these on the web here: Festivals outside the U.S. are much more likely to offer nofee submissions so if you’re an American filmmaker, don’t forget to look at festivals abroad. You always wanted to visit Europe, right? Festival fee waivers exist, but they usually occur as part of a specific negotiation between a festival programmer and a filmmaker in whose work they are already interested. Some festivals give waivers for particular reasons and others refuse to give waivers at all. If offered one you should of course take advantage of it, but keep in mind that the festivals most likely to give fee waivers are usually the ones that can least afford to give up the revenue. If you simply must ask for some consideration from a festival, see if they’ll extend an early deadline or grant you a small discount to lessen the burden on your submissions budget. Erik Jambor, co-founder of the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival and executive director of Indie Memphis, advises filmmakers to be honest and friendly when seeking waivers but to realize that fee revenue is often directly tied to the festival’s ability to perform its functions –- including travel, lodging, awards and other perks for filmmakers. That said, he does admit that waivers can be granted for the right films. “Filmmakers who have received awards or recommendations from festivals or programmers I know and trust are more likely to be considered for a waiver, since they can essentially skip ‘round one’ of our selection process. It is also important that the request comes as 50 Film Festival Secrets

an individualized message that indicates a clear interest in my specific festival. Mass emails asking for a waiver are pretty easy to ignore.” Negotiate with visiting festival directors at festivals where your film is playing. If you’re lucky enough to play at a large film festival where programmers are scouting for material, it’s likely that some of them will approach you after your screenings about your film and their festival. Be sure to have screener DVDs on hand that they can take back to their selection committees and ask directly: “Is there anything else you need from me to be considered for your festival?” If the answer is “no,” consider the fee waived. Be sure to grab the programmer’s business card and follow up in a week or so. (See chapter 6 for more things to do on the ground when attending a festival.)

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Chapter 2 review checklist Be sure you're submitting to the right festivals for your film and pay attention to detail during the submissions process. Submission do's: Do include a cover letter. Be professional. Accentuate your track record. Rely on your previous festival connections, if any. Submission don'ts: Don't mention your film's flaws. Don't resort to subterfuge or bribery. Don't bother with a press kit or supplemental material unless the festival asks for it. Don't whine or pester the festival. Don't overspend on postage. Follow the submission checklist to make sure you've included everything in your submission packet. Keep detailed records of each of your submissions in your notebook. Check in with the festival as necessary but don't try to make friends. Rejection is an inescapable part of the process. If it becomes excessive, try to learn why it's happening and fix the problem if possible. There are ways to save money on festival fees, but keep in mind that fees support festival functions including filmmaker 52 Film Festival Secrets

perks. Seek out festivals that charge no fees and be prepared to negotiate for reduced fees if you truly feel like you need the special consideration.

Chapter 2: Submission Strategies 53

54 Film Festival Workbook

Chapter 3 - While you wait

Chapter 3: While You Wait - Marketing and Logistics 55

56 Film Festival Workbook

While you wait At this point you are a festival fisherman – you’ve cast a few lines out there and you’re waiting for a bite. In the meantime, there’s plenty to do. Whether your film gets into a big festival and sells its first time out or if you end up playing the lower tiers of the festival circuit before distributing the film on your own, the weapons you’ll need for your marketing arsenal are essentially the same. Now is the time to assemble those weapons and arrange things in advance as much as possible without spending money on unknowns. When the time comes you want to be ready to pull the trigger on your film’s marketing campaign. Similarly, you’ll want to become familiar with the conventions and rhythms of a film festival, not to mention the logistics of travel and communication while away from your home environment. It’s difficult to execute a festival marketing campaign under the best of circumstances. The festival routine of constant distractions and late nights will make it even harder. Take the time now to pay attention to the details that will make your life easier when you’re in a strange town and festival madness hits.

Create a visual identity In this chapter we’ll cover a wide variety of marketing tools from postcards and flyers to web sites and social networks, all the way up to hiring a publicist. An important watchword when constructing each of these tools for your own film is consistency. Take, for example, the marketing campaign around any typical Hollywood movie. All of the individual instances of that camChapter 3: While You Wait - Marketing and Logistics 57

paign — the web site, the promotional popcorn bags, the television commercials — draw from the same set of visual elements. Fonts, still images, color schemes, and catchphrases combine to form a visual identity (or a brand) for that film. From the outset it is important to define the visual identity for your picture and then stick to it with every piece of marketing material you release. Mismatched marketing campaigns give off an air of amateurism that may not be fatal to your attempts to draw attention to your film, but well-executed branding will definitely give your picture a leg up on the competition. Once you’ve figured out what you want the elements of your brand to be, take the time to write them down. This may seem like a silly exercise but it’s crucial for your own reference and for the use of anyone else who becomes involved in marketing your film. Did you decide to use Helvetica or Helvetica Neue for your logo font? Is the color scheme black and seafoam or black and chartreuse? Your visual identity record will let you know. For extra credit, gather your selected stills and logo files into one (private) place on the web with your notes on visual identity and how these things should be used together. Again, I like 37signals’ Backpack ( for projects like this, but any online repository for files and information that can be accessed privately will suffice. ( is another good one.)

Business cards It happens every time I go to a festival: I see a great film, I sit through an entertaining Q&A, I walk up to talk to the filmmaker afterwards. After a pleasant conversation I ask for his business card, and I’m met with a rueful grin and the all-too-familiar 58 Film Festival Workbook

phrase: “I don’t have any cards with me.” This is a frustrating situation for both parties; a distributor or other industry type wants to know how to get hold of a filmmaker later, but other methods of transferring that information (a handwritten note, a cell phone number hastily typed into a cell phone) are awkward and often lost in the shuffle. There’s a reason that business cards have survived into the twenty-first century; they’re convenient, simple, and inexpensive. So get some! Start off with about 500 cards to really do it right. The statement “I’d love to give you my card, but I ran out” sucks almost as much as “I forgot to bring some.” Because of their simplicity and size, business cards are still the primary method of information exchange during film festivals and conventions. The object of any professional gathering is to establish new relationships, and in the (often alcohol-soaked) haze of a film festival the business card is your ticket to remembering and being remembered. You can get cards printed at Vistaprint ( for not a lot of money or you can print some yourself on a laser printer with those perforated sheets. Go for the VistaPrint route A phone number where the public can reach you is important. In these days of cell phones we’ve become more protective of our phone numbers in favor of e-mail, but you don’t want to miss out on an opportunity because you were hard to reach or slow to respond to an e-mail. If you positively don’t want to give out your home or cell number, consider a virtual voice box that can be rented for a few dollars a month. Providers include: • eVoice ( - Just voice mail. • PhoneFusion One ( -A number that can follow you to other phones, also provides voice mail. • Skype ( - Free voice chat and lots of add-on telephony features. Whatever you choose, make sure that you get notification of new voice mails instantly so you can return those calls quickly if necessary. And don’t forget to keep your phone charged at the festival! Chapter 3: While You Wait - Marketing and Logistics 59

if you have time; it’s less trouble and they’ll look much better than the homebrew kind. Some people eschew VistaPrint for their cookie-cutter templates and ad-supported “free” cards, but if you’re pressed for time, don’t worry too much about what they look like – just make sure they have your name, the name of your film, and your e-mail address. If you’re the outgoing type, include your phone number. If that sketches you out too much you can hand-write your number for those people you feel you can trust. If your film has a web site (and it should), include the address for that too. Some filmmakers use company cards or personal cards that don’t include information about their film. In the context of a festival, that’s a mistake. Don’t make your new contact scratch her head the next day when she tries to remember which movie you made or why she has your card. Sure, she can probably check the festival web site but anything you can do to grease the wheels of networking is helpful. If you find yourself at a festival with a handful of generic cards, at least do your new friends the This is one of the better favor of handwriting your film’s title cards I’ve seen out there – funny, unusual, memorable. on the back. Adam has a number of projIf you really want to do things ects out at once so he has a right, take some time with your card’s general purpose card. design; work out a trade with a graphic designer friend and make some cards that pop. How much you spend on things like double-sided cards and full-color printing is up to you, but a memorable business card certainly can’t hurt. 60 Film Festival Workbook

Build a web site for your film As a filmmaker, your web site is one of the best marketing tools you have. Long before the lights go down at your first screening, your web site is where people will learn about you and your film. Months (years!) after the festival ends, your movie’s site will be the touchstone for those curious about your work. Dollar for dollar, there is nothing else you can buy that will work for your movie as tirelessly and as effectively as the electronic sentinel that is a web site. So make it good. There are three basic types of people who will be using your web site: those who want to see your film (the audience), those who want to promote your film (journalists and festivals), and those who want to do business with you (distributors and other filmmakers). Fortunately they all want the same basic things: information about your movie and information about you. Include lots of text about the film, including the names of the cast and crew, so that the site shows up in Google searches. The fancy name for this is “search engine optimization,” but in regular English it means that search engines like Google grab onto plain old machine-readable text best. If you’re rendering that text as graphics or you’ve embedded it into a Flash presentation, you could be shooting yourself in the foot. Keep it simple and leave the flaming logos to the site for the next Tomb Raider film. The text on your web site should include: » A short synopsis (one or two sentences) » A long synopsis (about 500 words - get someone else to write this) » The cast and crew list (as complete as possible) » A list of your screenings, past and upcoming Chapter 3: While You Wait - Marketing and Logistics 61

» Quote excerpts about your films from positive reviews (link back to the reviews) » A brief statement about the current distribution status of the film » News about the film and/or the subjects of it (see: blog). The Short Story: even if you’re “only” submitting a short film, you need to create a web site for it. If you already have a web site for yourself as a filmmaker you can simply create a new page for the film, but there needs to be a place on the web where someone looking specifically for information about that film and you can find it. You can also scale back some of the other recommendations here but I highly recommend that even short films have some internet presence.

Post a number of striking photos at different resolutions, and make them easily available for download. The less you make a journalist (whether an editor from Variety or a local blogger) work, the more likely you are to get good coverage, and photos are a major part of what journalists look for from a film’s web site. Taking screen captures from a screener DVD is work. Resizing photos is work. Do that work ahead of time so that they don’t have to. Suggested sizes for photos (from biggest to smallest) include: » Giant, press-ready TIFF files at 300 or 600 DPI. (If you don’t know what DPI stands for, find someone who does and have them prepare your images for you.) These are for the print journalists — they’ll need something at an extremely high resolution so stills that look fine on the web just won’t do. You should only need a couple of these (representative images of your cast in a key scene from the movie) and you may want to put these in a compressed ZIP file to reduce the time it takes to download them. You might also include some black-and-white shots for newspaper press as well. That way your graphic designer gets to control the conver62 Film Festival Workbook

sion from color to B&W (unless of course your picture is B&W to begin with), balancing contrast for maximum effect. Otherwise some newspaper tech will do it in five seconds and no one will be able to tell what’s going on. » Computer wallpaper images (JPEG or PNG), about 1000 pixels wide. Your biggest fans will want images from your film on their computer desktops, and there’s no reason to deny them the opportunity to promote your movie in their own small way. A logo or a watermark with the movie title and/or URL of your film’s web site is appropriate. Include your two key images from the TIFF files above and a few others. Close-ups of young, attractive cast members are always good. If you have some particularly scenic establishing shots or aerial photography from your film, include that too. » Blog-ready JPEGs or PNGs, about 400 pixels wide. Most blogs can accommodate images at about this size. Include a wide variety of images in this category — action shots, cast photos, etc. Include a head shot of the director if so desired. Make sure these images are properly labeled so that someone browsing the web site knows exactly who is in each picture. Festivals often pull stills for their online program guides directly from the film’s web site, so proper labeling is important. Still photos should be taken during the shoot, but not while the film/ video camera is rolling. (You don’t want the sound of the camera clicking captured on the audio.) If you failed to get still images during your shoot, get your cast back in wardrobe and stage scenes from the film in as many of the locations you used as possible. Beg, borrow, or steal time from a professional photographer, because an iconic photo – something that instantly grabs attention and gives the viewer a sense of your film’s subject and tone – can do more to attract audiences and buyers than just about anything else.

» Thumbnail pictures, about 100-200 pixels wide. You’ll want Chapter 3: While You Wait - Marketing and Logistics 63

to create these anyway to use as a click-through index to the larger images, but they should be available to download as well, just in case someone wants to use one of them to promote your movie. » Banners, buttons, and badges: very simple web graphics that may (or may not) include images from your films, but definitely help fans and other webmasters link to your site. Make sure that your visual identity is applied here, and create them in a number of different sizes and shapes. See for a list of standard banner and button sizes used in internet advertising — adhering to those sizes will help ensure that your button fits into the designs of other web sites. » As with text, don’t hide your images inside a PDF, a fancy Flash slideshow, or assume that a trailer is a sufficient substitute for still photos. If you want the word to spread, you have to make the spreading easy, and that means providing easy access to relevant media. I am of the opinion that filmmakers should not write the synopses for their own films. They’re usually not writers and have no idea how to create a short, compelling synopsis. Instead they usually give too much away, writing a full plot description instead of a synopsis. Find a friend whose writing you trust (preferably someone who has done some film criticism before) and get them to write your synopsis. If he despises your film but likes you, so much the better – he’ll work doubly hard to describe the film accurately while masking its faults.

Make posters, flyers, other promotional materials available for download and printing. If you’re going to go to the trouble of designing posters and flyers, you might as well make them available to the public electronically too. You never know: some enterprising person who loves your film might just print out a few and put them up in their favorite coffee shop when your film comes to town. (Make sure you upload different versions for different festivals, not just one generic flyer.) Bloggers and other journal64 Film Festival Workbook

ists have been known to use film posters as companion graphics to their writing, so make sure you can accommodate such activity as well. Publish your contact info, including e-mail, telephone, and snail mail. Your web site is your business card to the world so it should include the same information. If the world can’t get in touch with you, it can’t write nice stories about you. Or offer you a new job on a film crew. Or buy your movie. So get your contact info out there, and get a good spam filter. I recommend using Gmail (, as their powerful spam filters counteract the vast majority of unsolicited e-mail. In fact, you might want to set up an e-mail account or alias specifically for the purpose of receiving mail about the film, rather than dumping everything into your personal inbox. This is a common practice and can be easily done through Gmail or any number of free e-mail services. See the previous section on business cards for advice on making yourself available by phone. Post a trailer. Or five. Different people may find different cuts of your trailer more appealing than others. If you have different cuts, make them all available on the site. If you can track the rate at which the trailers are viewed relative to one another (your site may have a web statistics package that can track this), you can tell which ones are the most popular and might be most useful in other situations. See the section later in the chapter for tips on cutting a trailer. Any halfway entertaining footage (bloopers, deleted scenes, etc) that didn’t actually make it into the film should be present somewhere on the site. Include links to your previous work, especially short films that can be digested quickly and easily online. Chapter 3: While You Wait - Marketing and Logistics 65

Make sure your trailer and other supplemental material is on YouTube or a similar video site so that visitors can post it on their own web sites and blogs. (Get familiar with the mantra “Embed and Spread.” It works.) Give away as much free entertainment as you can, because it’s a good way to win fans who will later pay to see your work at a film festival or on DVD. Start a blog. Yeah, you read that right. A blog. A blog is a great way to promote your film, both before and after it’s made. During production you can keep a diary of each day’s work on the film. Afterwards you can use it to promote special events in the life of the film -- the festival submission process, upcoming screenings, other work by the cast and crew, and (for documentaries) updates on the film’s subjects. People always want to know “what next?” and “what happened to so-and-so?” Let your blog be the delivery mechanism. Starting a blog is pretty simple. You can sign up for a free blog on a site like or, or you can install blog software on your own server. Ask your web designer how best to integrate a blog into your site. You can also find a list of resources for beginning bloggers at book/blogging . Most filmmakers like the idea of starting a blog but don’t have a clue what to put in it. The answer is pretty simple — it should be the record of the life of your film. Post about the making of the movie. Profile your cast and crew. Mention your other projects. Announce your upcoming screenings. Post recaps of your question-and-answer sessions. If your film is a documentary, post news about your doc’s subject. (You can even get Yahoo News to e-mail you the latest stories on your subject of choice.) It’s a big world out there, and there’s lots to talk about. A blog provides 66 Film Festival Workbook

your fans with a reason to come back, so even if you just post once a week, post. RSS is a method by which blog posts get pushed out to interested readers. Visitors who subscribe to your blog’s RSS feed will be notified of updates to your blog without having to visit your web site. Make sure your blog software supports RSS and that you feature the feed prominently.

Create a mailing list. Your web site should ask visitors to sign up for e-mail updates. There are many different web-based services that offer easy-to-run mailing lists where your visitors can subscribe to the latest news about your film. Create a group on one of these services and use the HTML code they give you to place a subscription form prominently on your web site. Anyone who cares enough about your film to actually sign up for e-mail updates about it should be considered part of your close, personal fan club. Treat these people right and they will return your kindness in unpredictable ways — all because they have an interest in your movie, or its subject matter, or maybe even in you. Do not sign people up for your e-mail list without their permission — an invitation to join is fine, but simply tossing them on the list and sending messages they didn’t ask for is called spam. Mailing list messages should be less frequent than updates to your blog, but once or twice a month is fine if you have something to say. Be sure to announce upcoming screenings in your emails, and mention the existence of your blog. Every e-mail you send to the list should have a link to your web site.

Chapter 3: While You Wait - Marketing and Logistics 67

•Free e-mail list services like Yahoo Groups and Google Groups have obvious advantages, but they come with a hidden cost: each outgoing message will include an ad from the host, probably unrelated to the subject of your e-mail.

• Hosted, paid services like Constant Contact (, Emma (, and MailChimp (mailchimp. com) allow you to send customized, ad-free messages from their servers. Pricing can be by the message or per subscriber. • Host-it-yourself software options like DadaMail (, Mailman (, and Lyris ( offer the advantages of the paid services for a one-time fee or even for free, but they require a level of technical expertise that you may not have. In addition, some web hosting services look unkindly on users who employ hosting accounts for bulk e-mail.

Take advantage of existing social networks. People spend hours each day on services like MySpace and Facebook; insert yourself there and take advantage of the tools they provide. A Myspace page isn’t a substitute for a real web site, but you’d be foolish not to have a presence there at all. Ditto for Facebook. Sign up for a number of social networking sites -- as many as you can reasonably manage -- and duplicate your content across the services. Just make sure your profiles all link back to the mothership: your main web site. When you start receiving reviews, post complimentary quotes from those reviews on your site and link back to them. E-mail the author of the review mentioning your link and ask for a link back. You should be doing periodic Google searches for your film’s title to find the latest mentions of your movie. Anywhere you find your film referenced, e-mail to make sure that an accompanying link is included.

68 Film Festival Workbook

Your web site address or “URL” should end in .com. It should also be as simple and easy to remember as possible. These days it seems like every conceivable web address has been claimed, so that can be a challenge but do your best. Then spread the URL everywhere. It should be on all of your printed material and most especially in the signature of every e-mail you send. Think about all the e-mails you send out in a day – sometimes even your friends and family need to be reminded of your film’s existence. Start a links section and link to your favorite films on the festival circuit. Link to your friends’ films and projects, and ask them to link back. Yeah, a link exchange is pretty 1997, but you know what? It still works. Don’t just set it and forget it – a web site needs tending. Think of it as your end of an ongoing conversation with your audience. If you don’t hold up your end of the conversation, the audience will get bored and move on. Similarly you need to update your social network pages on a regular basis. You (or someone on your team) should always be reaching out to existing fans and potential new fans through every electronic avenue possible. You don’t have to do it all yourself. This all probably sounds like a lot of work, and you’re not wrong. The good news is that you don’t have to learn HTML or CSS or programming, and you don’t have to write every word of content on the site. Recruit from within your crew or elsewhere in your personal network. Chances are your girlfriend’s brother is just the nerd you need to get your film’s web site up and running. Maybe your D.P. or Chapter 3: While You Wait - Marketing and Logistics 69

assistant producer is a budding writer who would be willing to keep the blog updated. You just have to ask.

Printed material It’s one of the most pervasive images in the fantasies of indie filmmakers — a town plastered in posters advertising the movies at a film festival. Posters can be attention-grabbing, but my feeling is that flyers and postcards posted or distributed at random on walls or in stacks rarely convince anyone to go to one movie over another. Rather the repeated reinforcement of the fact that the film exists is the goal, so that when a potential viewer encounters more concrete information about the film, they have some vague idea of a connection to something they saw earlier. That “oh yeah, I remember hearing about that” moment is an important psychological weapon – people like to be in the know or at least have some familiarity with something (a film, a book, a musician) before they commit to the experience. The more you can prime that pump of the mind, the more people you’ll see at your screenings. The common types of printed material are: Postcards. Probably the most widespread physical marketing tool of the indie filmmaker, postcards are durable, transportable, attractive, and cheap. » Many promotional postcards at festivals are miniature reproductions of the film’s poster, a move which can be effective but just as often can be a mistake. A poster designed to take advantage of the large format can be unrecognizable at the reduced 70 Film Festival Workbook

size; in this case you’re much better off using a still from the film and adding elements like the logo, tagline, and web site URL. Postcards are generally cheap enough to print in full color. » Discounts are available at larger print runs, so you’ll want to design postcards that can be used at multiple festivals and print up a bunch. Leave some room on the front and/or back for custom messages about each festival; you can print these up on mailing labels and do a quick peel-n-stick as the festival approaches. » Make sure the front says enough about your film that just the one side will do, as there are situations in which you’ll want to use just the one side. Glue a postcard to the front of an off-theshelf pocket folder and voila! – instant custom press kit folder. Posters. The most glamorous of printed promotional material, posters are definitely the way to make a splash. Posters can be colorful and fun, they offer vast expanses of space for promoting your film, and they’re visible from yards away. Their strengths can also be their weaknesses, though: large posters can be difficult to post in shop windows or in other public places, they can be unwieldy to carry around, and it’s all too easy to go overboard on poster design and end up with a complicated mess. To top it off, large-format printing can be expensive and time consuming. A few tips on doing posters effectively: » If you’re going to hire someone to do graphic design, the poster is probably where you want to spend that money, since it’s a visual element you’ll use over and over again. Insist on getting the original design files (Illustrator or whatever your designer uses) so you can make small edits later. Get a recommendation from a filmmaker friend to a designer who has done movie posters before – you don’t want to pay for the time it will take some neophyte to learn what the standard sizes and conventions are for this kind of layout. Chapter 3: While You Wait - Marketing and Logistics 71

Some of my favorite sources for printing postcards and posters are:

• Jakprints ( - postcards, stickers, posters, apparel – these guys do a lot of different printing and their online uploadand-proof process is pretty simple. Good for those in a hurry, too. • Psprint ( - another online printer I’ve used, though not as often as Jakprints. Worth a look if you’re comparison shopping.

• Local print shops - a mom-n-pop shop can be the best bottom-dollar option since you won’t be paying for shipping, and you’ll be supporting your local economy in the bargain. However, they may have certain time or quantity requirements that the internet shops can bypass. If you’re a student, tallk to the staff of the student newspaper and see if they can help you cut a deal with their printer. Slip them a screener of your film for some local coverage while you’re at it.

» If you can’t afford (or can’t barter for the time of) a graphic designer, you’ll have to give it a go yourself. In this case it’s best to keep the poster as simple as possible — less is definitely more if you’re not exactly sure of what you’re doing. At the very least try to get hold of a computer with Adobe Illustrator or similar design software installed; there are few things as frustrating as trying to design a movie poster in Word or Powerpoint. » Contact any given festival ahead of time to find out what size poster is appropriate. If you won’t be able to post the full-size posters anywhere, you can save yourself the trouble of carrying them to your destination. » Invest in some good poster tubes so you can carry more than 2 or 3 at a time while traveling. If you’re ordering a new run of posters just before a big festival, consider having them printed in that town or having them delivered to your destination. The festival might even take delivery for you. » As with other printing jobs, quantity is everything – at least from a pricing perspective. One-off printed posters are available 72 Film Festival Workbook

from photo developers like Costco and Walgreens, but those can cost as much as $30 each. Professional printers can print posters for less than a dollar each, but usually only if you’re ordering in quantities of a thousand or more. The chances that you’ll need a thousand posters over the course of your entire festival run is pretty slim, so shop around and find the best break you can. Consider making your posters available for purchase on your web site. When some rabid fan asks you for a poster at a festival you may want to just give one up, but at least you’ll have the option to explain that posters are expensive but people who really want one can buy one. How much you charge is up to you, but at first I recommend selling them cheap – good will towards your fans is a great way to encourage them to spread the word.

Screening flyers. More practical and portable than posters, 8.5 x 11-inch flyers have the additional advantage of being cheap and easily printed just about anywhere. Your flyer should have your film's title, synopsis, and screening times and places, along with the URL for your web site. Include a strong still from the film, one that conveys a lot of emotion and that will reproduce well on a photocopier. Keep it simple and to the point, and then have a bunch made at your local copy shop. Spring for some bright colored paper -- yellow, green, whatever works best for your film. If you're driving into the festival it's probably best to print 1000 or so (depending on the size of the festival) and store them in your car rather than waste time making copies while you're in town. If you're flying, consider whether the time saved is worth the extra bulk and trouble of lugging flyers on the plane. Create the basic flyer layout now. When you’re accepted to the festival you can plug in the festival name, and your screening dates and times and be ready to print. Create an Acrobat PDF file as well so you can forward it to others. Chapter 3: While You Wait - Marketing and Logistics 73

Press kits are one of those industry standards that everyone acknowledges but no one seems to use. With the advent of the web and electronic press kits on CD, the idea of lugging around a folder with paper printouts seems inconvenient at best and primitive at worst. Of course deciding to do without a press kit is the best way to ensure that someone at a festival will ask for it, so I encourage you to go through the motions. Press kits generally contain the following: » A press release pertaining to the festival at which you’re giving the press kits away. You can recycle your press release at each festival, just change the fest name and any other particulars. The press release should give the basics about your film, the running times, and a quote from you about how excited you are to play at that festival. If you can get one, a quote from the festival programmer is great. » A one-sheet about your film. Movie one-sheets are basically screening flyers with more information about the movie and a little less info about the screenings. They should include a lengthier synopsis, some information about the festivals you’ve played (a good use for those festival laurel graphics), and an indication of what distribution rights are still available. » Once it was common for press kits to come with glossy still prints from a film. Now that publishing is mostly electronic, a CD of stills is more appropriate for the press. Feel free to include your trailer in Quicktime format and behind-the-scenes pictures on the disc as well. If you’re looking to impress distribution execs on the ground, you might consider a couple of glossy paper stills just in case.

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I feel safe in saying that no distribution exec ever refused to acquire a film saying “I loved the movie but the press kit was terrible!” As in festival submissions, distribution is mostly about the quality of your film. The same is true for the press; an attractive press kit might make your picture stick out among piles of screeners in a festival press office, but it won’t do much if the critic has a low opinion of your work.

» Supporting material. This can vary from film to film, but the idea of supporting material is to give a journalist easy access to writing that they can cut and paste or to provide them with inspiration for their own piece. Supporting material typically includes cast & crew bios, reviews of the film from the press, synopses of various lengths, and an interview with the director. I’ve also seen lists of commonly asked questions about the film with answers – sort of a cheat sheet for potential interviewers. » Your business card and your film’s postcard. Don’t forget these. In some cases they’ll be the only thing that goes home with the person who picks up your press kit, or perhaps they’ll be passed on to someone else. » Other possibilities: Mini-poster? Soundtrack CD? Be creative. Whatever it is, keep it simple and keep it flat. Stickers are fairly common in indie film marketing and they have countless uses. Slap a logo sticker on just about anything and you’ve got a branded promo item – coffee mugs, popcorn bags, DVD cases, you name it. There are a wide variety of sticker printing options, from cheap paper stickers to the custom-cut vinyl type to the static cling variety and more. Sticker vendors abound but my favorite is Sticker Giant ( Not only do they have a killer web site but their service and products are top-notch. Chapter 3: While You Wait - Marketing and Logistics 75

Swag Film festivals are a great place to pick up promo items: I’ve seen (and collected) baseball hats, cigarette lighters, wristbands, flashlights, condoms, baked goods, t-shirts, pens, 3-D glasses, and more. Clever promotional gimmicks become part of the festival story (“Remember the year those filmmakers brought the inflatable baseball bats?”) and spread buzz by being noticeable. Unexceptional giveaways just waste money. How to make sure yours are of the clever variety? If possible, your promo item should reflect the spirit and/or subject of your film. A baseball cap with your film’s title on it might be appealing to you but probably won’t mean much to an audience member who hasn’t heard of it. Instead try matching the item to a prominent theme in your film. A documentary about culinary school might benefit from branded oven mitts. Customprinted baseball cards (don’t forget the bubble gum!) could help get the word out about your comedy set in the minor leagues. If your film doesn’t lend itself to a particular item or theme easily, try giving away something practical in the moment. Knit caps are popular giveaways at Sundance because they’re immediately useful. So many people misjudge the cold in Park City that they gladly turn themselves into walking billboards in exchange for the extra warmth. Make sure your promo items are reusable – at other festivals and/or by the recipients. Don’t spend money on items you can only give away at one festival unless the idea is to persuade audience members to take them as a souvenir of the event. In that case the giveaways should last long enough that the recipient will advertise your film for months or years to come. 76 Film Festival Workbook

Consider how much surface area you’ll be able to use on the item for your message. Sturdy plastic cups are a promo item I favor because they’re useful, reusable, cheap, and they offer relatively vast amounts of printable space. (They are, however, somewhat inconvenient to carry around in large quantities.) Cigarette lighters and pens, on the other hand, barely have enough room for a film’s title and web address. The Short Story: I don’t see a lot of value in spending money on promo items for short films, but it’s a judgment call. If you have the extra cash to spend and feel like the fun factor of giveaways will add to your festival experience, knock yourself out. Just don’t expect much return from a practical perspective.

Once you’ve decided on what your promo item will be, there’s still work to be done. Figure out the required lead time. Most promo items can be printed in a few weeks but specialty items may take longer. Preplanning will help you avoid the ultimate giveaway bummer: a festival without your promo items, followed by a box of stuff waiting on your doorstep when you return. That said, it’s best to delay ordering until your film has actually been programmed at your target festival. Figure out what your tchotchkes will cost and do some comparison shopping. Weigh the cost against the potential benefits and don’t fall prey to the false economy of bulk discounts unless you really think you need large quantities. Depending on the size of the festival you may need a few dozen giveaways instead of hundreds. Don’t forget to add in the cost and logistics of shipping your widgets to the event.

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Even if you don’t intend to give promo items away to drive an audience to see your film, consider making up a few nice film-branded items to use as thank-you gifts. There will be people (such as the festival staff ) who be of tremendous help to you on the festival circuit. Be prepared to express your gratitude in a meaningful way.

Keep in mind that film-branded tchotchkes are ultimately a vanity item and shouldn’t be viewed as an investment, marketing or otherwise. A print ad in the festival program guide would probably be a wiser purchase, though not nearly as much fun. See chapter 6 for tips on how and when to give your promo items away.

Make a trailer I’ve heard it said that cutting a trailer is a completely different process from editing a film. Trailers have different goals and therefore different rules. Not being a film editor myself I defer to Mike Flanagan, whose article on trailer editing for MicroFilmmaker Magazine is a trove of great suggestions, including: Remember that the people watching your trailer haven’t seen your film. They don’t know how awesome the thing is in its entirety, so you’ve really got to make sure you put your strongest stuff forward. Use your best shots. Use your best takes. Avoid shots with bad lighting, shots out of focus, or other production bungles no matter HOW much you may dig them in the finished product – sometimes, people are watching these things only for reasons to AVOID your film. For a link to the full article visit and look for Mike’s name in issue 14. 78 Film Festival Workbook

The Short Story: Yes, short filmmakers should make trailers for their films. It may seem silly given that the trailer can in some cases be almost as long as the film itself, but get creative and see if you can edit an effective trailer for your short film. Not only is it good practice for future pictures, it allows you to promote your film more effectively on the web without giving away the entire movie.

A few suggestions of my own about trailers: Make a few different versions of different lengths. Three minutes is about the longest a trailer should be, but my favorite trailers are the really short ones between 30 seconds and a minute. Different festivals are going to want different lengths of trailer, and it’s not a bad thing to let visitors to your web site choose for themselves whether they want to see a trailer that’s short or more in-depth. If you can’t sell you film in under a minute, it’s doubtful you’ll be able to sell it in three. Don’t narrate. This rule of filmmaking definitely carries over into trailers: show, don’t tell. The rules of music rights still apply. “Because Hollywood films often recycle film scores for trailers, some filmmakers think trailer music is free,” notes Chris Magyar, writer and co-director of horror comedy Make A Killing. “Use your film’s score or pay for the rights if you want to use something else.” Include the web site URL at the end. If someone is watching your trailer out of context you want them to be able to find your film on the web for more information. Get it on the film festival site if possible. Some festivals provide each film in their program with a page of its own for information, stills, and trailers. Alternately they may have a page of trailers for the festival. Don’t wait for the festival audience find their way to your web site from the festival site – get your trailer in front of them as quickly as possible. Put your trailer on YouTube and other video sharing sites so Chapter 3: While You Wait - Marketing and Logistics 79

that bloggers and other press can help spread the word by putting your trailer in front of their audiences.

Create a clip reel More than just a trailer, a clip reel is a tape of distinct scenes from your film specifically for use by television journalists promoting your film. The clip reel should contain clips of various lengths with slates or title cards describing the length and content of each one (e.g. “Car chase, 3 minutes 10 seconds”). When television stations present a story on a film festival or specific film, they generally like to narrate over a scene instead of a trailer (trailers are more distracting than cut scenes). Your clip reel should make it easy for a TV journalist to select an appropriate clip to fill the length of time that they plan to describe your film. Having a clip reel available on industry-standard video tape (Beta SP should do it) ensures that when the media comes calling, you’re ready. So few filmmakers arrive at film festivals with clip reels in hand that it’s almost a guaranteed way to ensure that the footage that represents the festival will be yours. Contact the festival before you arrive and make an appointment to hand your clip reel over to someone in the festival marketing department – or better yet, directly to the TV journalist covering the fest. The Short Story: Clip reels are most commonly used for feature films but if you have a short with a substantial running time (15 minutes or more) and of significant local interest, you may be able to convince a broadcaster to give it some air time. You probably won’t need that clip reel for every festival you visit but TV coverage for a short is a pretty nifty trick if you can manage it.

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Who’s on your team? When you’re on the ground at a film festival you’ll want to have some people backing you up. The team will be composed of not just the cast and crew you take with you, but behind-the-scenes people and folks back home who will do the things you can’t do easily in the film festival environment. Your friends and family, your fellow filmmakers, the festival staff, and hired professionals – they need to be recruited (or at least researched) before your first festival acceptance and they need to know what’s expected of them when the time comes.

Step 1: Establish Mission Control Only a few of NASA’s employees get to travel into orbit; many more sit on the ground monitoring every aspect of the mission from afar, making sure the astronauts have everything they need to be successful. While your mission control may consist of just one person, it’s important to have someone back at your personal headquarters who can be relied upon to do the things you can’t do while you’re away from home. This might be something as mundane as looking up directions on the internet or sending an extra batch of screeners overnight to your hotel when the demand overwhelms your supply. Whatever last-minute things you’ll need, you’ll need them right away and your Mission Control will look after you while you attend to more immediate business. Find one or two reliable people and make sure they’re available and on call while you’re gone.

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Step 2: Pick your flight crew Your flight crew – the people you take with you – will largely be a function of your budget, so unless you’re rolling in cash or frequent flier miles, keep your fellow filmmakers in the loop when it comes to festival planning. Let them know to which festivals you’ve submitted, when those festivals are, and what your budget will allow when it comes to paying for their travel expenses. That way they can start making their own arrangements and won’t be surprised when you say, “We got in – if you want to come you’ll have to pay your own way.” Mailing list software and services (as discussed previously in the section about web sites) can be used for private lists as well as public ones. To make communications about group travel easier, set up a private team mailing list for festival planning and add your fellow travelers to it. That way you can disseminate information rapidly without needing to remember exactly who asked to be kept in the loop.

Your extended filmmaker family should also be aware that they will likely have to pay for tickets to their own film and/or a badge to get access to the parties. This varies from festival to festival (some festivals give filmmakers an allotment of tickets to their own films) but it doesn’t hurt to plant the seed of possibility in the minds of your travelling pals. Festivals will (almost) always pay the airfare and lodging of a celebrity actor whose film is playing in their festival. Celebrities bring in crowds and crowds pay for tickets, so that hotel and plane ticket may seem like a worthwhile investment to a festival looking to beef up its attendance. If you have a recognizable face in your film who is willing to show up to the festival screening, don’t hesitate to play that card. In the process, try negotiating for some extra perks – an additional badge, an extra night in the hotel room after the actor has departed – anything that helps defray your own costs. If you’re bringing value to the festival you shouldn’t be afraid to haggle. Just don’t take it too far.

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When it comes to your own budget, keep in mind that not every festival pays for filmmaker travel and lodging – those that do are the exception rather than the rule. Some festivals provide only admission to the festival for two people per accepted film and that’s it. Take advantage of the perks that the festival affords you but be prepared to pay your way beyond that and don’t complain. It’s OK to feel like you’re dealing with a bunch of cheapskates, but never let on to them that you think they’re anything but wonderful. You don’t know the ins and outs of the festival’s finances and you never know where you’ll encounter these people again. If someone on staff ends up at a more prestigious festival down the line they may not remember your awesome short film but they will remember if you were a jerk. Finally, pick your “plus one” carefully. Film festivals are definitely more fun with a friend, and in this case that friend should be your co-pilot, ready to help you deal with whatever the festival brings your way. (Have I tortured the space mission metaphor enough?) This should be someone from the film’s cast or crew with whom you’re compatible in a travel situation – one of your lead actors, your DP, your producer – someone with whom you won’t mind sharing a hotel room and someone who can take the pressure off of you by answering a few questions about the movie during a Q&A. Chances are you already tested this relationship during the stress of shooting a movie, so your friendship should be able to withstand the pressures of the film festival environment.

Step 3: Talk to the professionals If you’re taking a feature film to the festival circuit with the primary goal of selling it for theatrical and home video distribuChapter 3: While You Wait - Marketing and Logistics 83

tion, you will need to involve professionals. That level of involvement should be proportional to the size of your film’s budget and the amount of compensation you expect to receive for the picture. Just as it’s your job to make movies and it’s my job to help filmmakers formulate festival strategy, there are professionals in the industry who know how to do things like read contracts and sell films to studios. Distributors employ these people to make sure they get the best deal possible; you should do likewise to protect your own interests. The tricky part is knowing who the good ones are and when to get them involved. These professionals include: Lawyers. The first non-filmmaker on any production’s payroll, in my estimation, should be a lawyer. But then I am not a laywer and none of the content in this book should be taken as legal advice. The only person whom you should trust to advise you on legal matters pertaining to your particular film is a good entertainment lawyer. In fact, the sooner you get an attorney involved the more likely it is that they’ll save you money and trouble by preventing legal problems before they become an issue. Before you sit down with a distributor you’ll need to know everything about your film from basic music clearances to E&O insurance. (And if you’ve never heard of E&O insurance then you should probably pick up the phone soon.) At the bare minimum you need to have an attorney picked out and have an initial interview so that when you’re ready for representation it’s ready for you. If you made your film as a business venture and you’re intent on selling it at a top tier festival, you’ll need someone who will either travel with you or will be standing by to review documents as the festival progresses. Where to find one: a good lawyer is like a good barber – there’s 84 Film Festival Workbook

a lot of trust involved, so you want someone who comes recommended by a fellow filmmaker whose opinion you respect. You want someone who has handled lots of indie films before and has satisifed clients. Ideally, an entertainment lawyer should be based in New York or Los Angeles.

Additional resources: Mark Litwak’s Entertainment Law Resources ( The Pocket Lawyer for Filmmakers: A Legal Toolkit for Independent Producers by Thomas A. Crowell (book) Links to more film law resources at

Sales Agents. Again, if your feature has a large budget and you anticipate selling your film at a festival, you’ll want to have a sales agent on board. Sales agents know who the buyers are in the indie film market and what they want. Sales agents work on commission and the best ones represent a number of films at any given time. Chances are you probably won’t get much traction with any of the good ones unless you come recommended by a previous client or until you’re accepted into a top-tier festival. If you are accepted by Sundance or Toronto, firms like Cinetic and William Morris will probably start returning your phone calls. Until that time, however, you might want to wait until you start talking to distributors. A sales agent can jump in and help out if you’re trying to negotiate the best deal, but depending on your film and the level of interest you’re getting you may be able to do just as well with only the help of your lawyer. Where to find one: If you get into a top-tier fest, they’ll find you, but there’s nothing wrong with doing some research and making a few phone calls once you have that first festival screening date. As with attorneys, recommendations from other satisfied Chapter 3: While You Wait - Marketing and Logistics 85

filmmakers are important. Always ask for the agency’s references and check up on them. Publicists. Not every filmmaker needs a publicist, but a good one can pay for himself with the right publicity campaign – particularly if you feel unable or unwilling to mount such a campaign yourself. No one will ever know your film like you do, or work as hard to market that film as you will. I’ve seen determined filmmakers fill festival screenings, charm the press, and garner industry attention without publicists, but it’s incredibly hard work and not everyone is suited to it. Great publicists are entrenched in their chosen industries, pick only the best films to work with, and have contact lists longer than King Kong’s arm. They open doors and make things happen. Bad publicists make themselves unwelcome in delicate situations and tarnish not only their own reputations but their clients’ as well. If you think a publicist would be good for you, get some recomendations (look up the agencies that represent some of your favorite films that did well) but don’t pull the trigger until you’ve been accepted to a festival that’s worth the expenditure. If your film isn’t going to play festivals with heavy industry coverage, even the best publicist won’t be able to do much for you. For a festival industry party held in the office where I work, our company invited all of the exhibiting filmmakers at the festival. One group arrived with their publicist in tow, a young lady who proceeded, surreptitiously, to plaster the office with the film’s postcards. She even tucked one in the face of each clock on the walls. At one point she cornered me at my desk while I was checking on my e-mail and asked me repeatedly (though not particularly politely) to promise to come to the picture’s next screening. I deflected the question as best I could and tried not to look the clearly embarrassed producers in the eye as the publicist knocked over a drink on her way out. Moral: pick your publicist carefully and be prepared to pull the plug if it isn’t working out.

Festival staff. Obviously these aren’t the professionals you 86 Film Festival Workbook

can hire, but they are professionals and once you’ve been invited to play at a festival, part of their job is to help you make your screenings successful. Some fests do a better job than others at supporting their filmmakers, but you’ll never know what is possible until you ask. See the next two chapters for more on working with festival staff. Consultants, both formal and informal. A festival consultant works with a filmmaker to formulate festival strategy and to manage the film’s run on the festival circuit in myriad ways. You may find a professional consultant to be of service or you may luck into meeting the right “angel” who can show you the ins and outs of a film festival just as a way of being friendly. I know the programming director of a major film festival who pays for his lodging at Sundance each year by crashing with filmmakers whose films play the festival. With his insight into the workings of Park City and the festivals there and his connections to the film festival world in general, he’s the perfect tour guide and all he asks in return is some couch space in their rental condo. If you’re playing Sundance, shoot me an e-mail and I’ll see if he’s booked for this year.

My own work with filmmakers has included advice on what festivals would be appropriate for an individual picture, low-budget marketing campaign ideas, the construction of press kits and web sites, introducing filmmakers to one another and to industry types at events, providing honest opinions on a film’s festival prospects, and many other tasks that require specialized knowledge of film festivals and the indie film industry. (Knowledge of local restaurants has also been handy.) I’ve enjoyed providing this advice informally to filmmakers but it was the ever-present need for this advice that inspired me to write this book and start my own consulting business, helping filmmakers make sense of the festival circuit without breaking the bank.

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Professional consultants can help to evaluate your film before you start submitting or provide advice about your film’s future path if you’ve already started your festival run. If a consultant really likes your film, she may even be able to get it into other festivals by recommending it to her festival director contacts. Don’t count on this though – a recommendation is only as good as the previous films that person has recommended. If a consultant has a habit of gushing to festival directors about every film that crosses her desk, her opinion won’t be worth much. More resources:

Make sure everyone knows the mission Returning to the metaphor of your film as a NASA mission one last time, it is your responsibility to make sure that everyone understands the mission objectives and knows their part in achieiving those objectives. Make sure that your team members have been introduced to one another (especially the ones you’ve hired, if any) and that they have the means to communicate amongst themselves if necessary. While you should definitely be in the loop, you don’t need to be the switchboard operator for every mundane conversation between your team members.

Now for the fun part With the heavy lifting out of the way, it’s time to concentrate on the more pleasurable aspects of getting ready for a festival run. There’s a lot more to a film festival than just the travel and the activities afforded by your festival badge, so a little work to 88 Film Festival Workbook

learn the ropes and be prepared for the little details of travel and festival life can go a long way towards making your festival trip a good one.

Attend a film festival “We did a survey this year and it was shocking to discover that only about 30% of [our] filmmakers said they had attended a festival in the last year as an audience member – with only five or six of those saying they had attended more than one,” says Charles Judson at the Atlanta Film Festival. If you’ve never been to a film festival before, you’re setting yourself up for twice as much trouble as you need to: not only will you be trying to manage the business of marketing your film, but you’ll also be learning the daily rhythm of a film festival as a complete newbie. For extra credit, volunteer to work at a film festival and get to know festival life from the inside out. Volunteers typically work a few shifts during the festival in exchange for a badge or a pass. You may also be able to volunteer before the festival in order to have free time at the fest itself. Make yourself useful enough and you’ll have a contact or two to call upon when you’re ready to submit your own film.

Give yourself permission to go to the local film festival or take a trip to one of the big ones. This is a business research trip and you should treat it as such. It’s OK to have fun, but the primary objective is to collect information about how festivals work. Take it all in: watch the way the audience behaves before, during and after each screening. Observe the interaction between the filmmakers and the festival staff and volunteers. Peek behind the curtain and talk to the projectionist about the unique challenges of conducting a hundred or more one-off screenings. Chapter 3: While You Wait - Marketing and Logistics 89

(Maybe you can do that part when he’s not working – offer to buy him a drink after his shift.) Take notes and decide for yourself how you’ll handle the situations you observe when it’s your film up on the screen. Don’t forget to make friends with some of the exhibiting filmmakers – just walk up after the Q&A and introduce yourself. For the price of a drink and some polite conversation you can gain a wealth of information about the festival you’re attending and how it compares to other festivals where that filmmaker has played.

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Chapter 3 review checklist Create a visual identity for your film’s marketing and document it. Design and print business cards. Build a web site for your film, including lots of text, pictures, and video. Make sure it includes your contact info and try to engage your audience through regularly updated features like a blog, mailing lists, and profiles on social networking sites. Decide what printed materials are appropriate for your film and design them to be ready to print when you are accepted by a festival. Brainstorm ideas for promotional giveaways if appropriate and research the costs and production time. Create trailers and a clip reel for your film. Establish your festival support team, including friends and family, cast and crew, and the professionals necessary to accomplish your goals. Attend a film festival and learn as much as you can about how they work. If possible, work as a volunteer.

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Chapter 4 - When you get the call

Chapter 4: When You Get the Call 93

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When you’re accepted You’ve waited weeks. Maybe even months. Rejection letters may have piled up in your inbox. Whether your first acceptance comes from a festival on your top tier or somewhere below, the thrill of that first notification is pretty much the same. Now is not the time to lose your cool, though – the real work is about to start. Pay attention. Every festival programmer notifies their selected filmmakers in their own way. Most commonly it comes by phone with follow-up mail, though some festivals go old school with postal mail for the first notification and others opt for the efficiency of e-mail. Whatever the delivery method, the message is the same: Congratulations! You’re in.

That first phone call Keep it together. You can be excited and show enthusiasm, but there’s some important information you’ll need to gather during this call and you don’t want it to slip away. Pull over to the side of the road (they inevitably call at the worst times), open your festival notebook, and get ready to write. “For a lot of programmers,acceptance calls are a highlight of the job.In the end they are hoping to help start these filmmakers’ careers and get filmmakers recognition for their work.So I think seeing someone’s excitement is key to feeling like they are on the right track – with programming, with accepting that certain film,and feeling that the filmmaker is‘in it to win it.’” –Linnea Toney, Conference Director, Austin Film Festival

Say thank you. Let the programmer know that you’re flattered to be included. Then shut up. Chapter 4: When You Get the Call 95

Save your questions. Most programmers have done a few of these calls and they know what needs to be said, so wait to ask questions until she’s done. She’ll probably tell you all you need to know before you ask. Determine the festival’s needs. Once you’ve gotten the spiel, ask what the festival needs from you right away. If she’s already told you, repeat the requirements back and ask for the deadlines. Write it all down. Ask if you should expect a “welcome packet” – some festivals send out information to their filmmakers to let them know what the festival offers and other practical advice. Find out when you should expect it and how it will arrive (e-mail? Regular post?) so that if it doesn’t come in you will know to ask after it. Find out when you’re allowed to announce that your movie will play the festival. Some fests keep a stranglehold on their programs until a press conference or similar unveiling; others are happy to have you start promoting right away. If you need to wait, mark the date on your calendar. Schedule a follow-up call. Now is not the time for the million questions running through your head. The programmer probably has more of these calls to make today, so ask when the best time would be to talk again. Make it clear that you’ll want to discuss marketing and logistics so she can be prepared. Write down the date for the follow-up call, and be sure to get the programmer’s name, e-mail address, and phone number. Say thank you again and hang up.

Send a thank-you note This is one of those simple things that no one does anymore. Even the film festivals themselves, who used to make all notifi96 Film Festival Secrets

cations by regular post, have largely moved over to e-mail for rejections and telephone for acceptances. With pen-and-paper correspondence so far out of daily use, it’s pretty easy to make this guarantee: if you write a thank-you note in your own handwriting, shove it in an envelope with a stamp, and send it to the festival programmer, you will make a big impression. You’ll probably be the only filmmaker who does so. Could there be an easier way to stand out? Here, I’ll even give you the text. Let’s assume your film “Eating Cheese” been accepted to the SuperDuper Film Festival and the programmer, Bill, called you to break the news. Of course you thanked him on the phone, but a few days later you follow up with this note: Dear Bill, Thank you so much for programming “Eating Cheese” at the upcoming SuperDuper Film Festival and for calling me personally to let me know. I know you received hundreds of other films so it is especially gratifying to know that you chose “Eating Cheese” as one of the few to fit in your lineup this year. I look forward to meeting you at the festival in a few months and if there’s anything you need in the meantime please let me know. Sincerely, (Your name - sign legibly)

Why seek to make a good impression after you’ve already been accepted to the festival? This is the beginning of what could be a Chapter 4: When You Get the Call 97

long and beneficial relationship for you both. Festival programming is regarded as a glamorous job but for most of them it’s actually a grind – lots of work, not much pay, and constant requests for favors from people they barely know. Show some consideration for Bill’s unenviable position and he’ll be more likely to grant you those favors. Maybe he’ll even pass your name on to some other programmers he knows – and in a year when you’re ready to submit your next film, Bill will remember how much he likes you. Of course a simple thank-you note guarantees none of these things, but it’s a good start.

Delivery details One of the most important details you’ll need to clarify right away is how the festival wants your film delivered. The submission application should have mentioned the festival’s projection formats, so confirm your available format and be sure to send the print (in this context we’ll call projection-ready tapes “prints” as well) in time to meet the festival’s deadline. The event’s production manager (the person in charge of print trafficking) will curse your name to Hades if you push it to the last minute, so save him the stress. The festival may also ask you for additional screeners on DVD for press or jury members. Don’t grumble at the additional trouble – in fact, be sure to offer them if they don’t ask. We’ll cover more about screeners and marketing in the next chapter. A word about shipping: unlike mailing submissions, this is not the time to skimp on shipping. Send your print via UPS, FedEx, or some other shipping company with internet-traceable tracking numbers. Plan ahead so you can send by ground instead of overnight, but definitely get that tracking number and a guaranteed 98 Film Festival Secrets

delivery date.

Award eligibility In order to properly plan your festival marketing and awards strategy, you need to know where your film stands in relation to the other films in the festival. Some festivals separate the films “in competition” (those eligible for awards from the festival jury) from the “non-competition” or “out of competition” movies. Noncompetition films are sometimes eligible for audience awards based on viewer voting. Sometimes every film in the festival is eligible for jury awards. It really depends on how your particular festival is run. Figure out what your eligibility is so you’ll know whether to encourage attendees to vote for your film and how much sucking up to the jury you should do.

Travel arrangements If you’re not planning on attending your film’s world premiere at a film festival then I’m a little hazy on your reasons for submitting the picture to festivals in the first place. Most of the benefits to be had from playing film festivals comes from traveling with your film to the larger events where it plays – even if your film’s “larger” fests are small. Later in your festival run you may decide that you don’t need to follow your film to every mom-n-pop festival out there, but in the beginning you definitely want to be there to soak in audience reaction and to make connections.

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The Short Story: For the creators of short films, travelling with the film is just as important (if not more so) than for features. That your short was admitted into a prestigious festival is a stamp of approval. The festival itself is your opportunity to capitalize on that approval. Small festivals in industry towns can provide opportunities just as rich as the larger festivals – you never know who will be there or whom they know. Read more on networking in chapter 6.

If the festival programmer doesn’t mention details on covering your travel expenses in the first phone call or in your welcome packet, they probably can’t offer to do so. If travel expenses are truly unbearable, don’t be afraid to ask what the festival can do to help. In the best case such assistance means comped hotel rooms, plane tickets, or meal vouchers. If those aren’t available you may find that the festival has some creative ways to help filmmakers get to the events and put roofs over their heads each night. (It helps that most indie filmmakers seeking assistance are a young bunch who don’t mind sleeping on couches or stuffing themselves into coach-class middle seats.) “Our festival commits itself each year to find local host families for all accepted filmmakers attending in order to help with travel costs and to provide a more meaningful experience. As our filmmakers predominantly make art-driven short films, they generally do not have travel budgets with their projects. For many the AAFF represents one of the top forums for their work and it’s important to attend in person and engage with an enthusiastic community. We are fortunate to have many supporters within walking distance of downtown Ann Arbor who provide wonderful hospitality to filmmakers from all over the world. Hosts receive a full festival pass and sometimes create long-lasting relationships with the filmmakers they meet.”

- Donald Harrison, Executive Director, Ann Arbor Film Festival

Once you know what (if any) freebies you can throw into the mix, alert your plus-one and Mission Control that it’s time to gear up and use the permanent marker on the festival’s dates. If you 100 Film Festival Secrets

plan on being at the festival for its full duration you can go ahead and start booking hotel and plane tickets. If you can only afford to be there for a few days, however, you should find out when your film will be playing and try to be there for both screenings. (This assumes a week-long festival with two screenings for your film, which is customary for larger fests.) Some fests don’t announce their screening schedules until a few weeks in advance so the timing may get dicey and you’ll end up making a guess. Stay in touch with the festival staff, get the best information you can, and book when the time is right. Your cast and crew probably won’t want to travel to every festival where the film plays, but you should let them know about every acceptance so they have the option. Even if they don’t go they may know someone in your destination city who can put you up or act as a guide while you’re there.

Other creative ways of saving on travel: Explore your extended network. If you don’t have friends or family in your destination city, try asking if there are people they know who might be willing to put you up. Film fans enjoy being associated with festivals by proxy; hosting a scrappy band of indie filmmakers may be someone’s idea of a good time. Of course you’ll want to reward their hospitality with some free tickets to your film or a similar token. If couchsurfing through personal contacts doesn’t work for you, try, which formalizes the process in an eBay-like way, including background checks and reviews of both hosts and guests. Additional investment/sponsorship. If you were able to convince investors to give you money for your film, you might be Chapter 4: When You Get the Call 101

able to use those powers of persuasion to find additional investment money for a travel budget. Similarly, an airline or other corporation might sponsor your trip to Tribeca in exchange for logo placement on your hat or shirt during Q&As and photo opportunities. Government grants. If you’re Canadian you can apply for a travel grant to one festival per year, so long as your film has been officially selected to play in that festival. If your film features a certain locale prominently, your local government and/or film commission may be willing to sponsor your trip as a way of promoting that state or province as a filmmaking location. See for links to government grant info and film commissions. Other filmmakers. If you’ve played a number of festivals already, try reaching out to your previous festival contacts to see if any of them live in the area of your latest fest or can recommend particularly cheap lodging. Of course you need to be ready to reciprocate if they come to your town. Your fans. Reach out to the fans who signed up on your mailing list, some might be willing to donate cash or airline tickets earned through frequent flier miles to your cause. Sell merchandise on your site or at fests – ask the festival if it’s OK to sell t-shirts, hats, etc. at the event. Don’t be shy about asking festival attendees who enjoy the movie (they’re the ones who stick around for the Q&A) to help support your festival travels by buying something.

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When you have to say no There will be times, particularly at the very beginning of your festival run, when you’ll need to decline the invitation to play at a festival. If you followed the college application model of submitting and applied to a few safety festivals, it’s possible that one of those less prestigious fests will get back to you with an acceptance letter sooner than the larger ones. With your world premiere on the line, you will want to know whether the larger festival (let’s call it Festival A) accepted your film or not before you commit to the safety fest (Festival B). This can make for some awkward phone calls, but you can minimize that awkwardness by taking a few steps. Decide ahead of time on your terms of acceptance. If Festival B has play dates later in the year than Festival A, then realistically you can play both. It’s important to decide, however, whether your Festival B acceptance really depends on what Festival A says. If your plan is to pursue Festival C (another large festival on par with festival A) in the event that Festival A says no, think carefully about taking advantage of Festival B’s offer while it still stands. Be honest about the situation. Don’t accept now, only to have to pull out later. Let the programmer know that you’re still waiting to hear from another festival before you commit and ask when the very latest date is that he needs to hear from you. Reassure the programmer that you submitted to his festival because you felt like it would be a good fit, but you want to do right by your film. Missing out on the opportunity to play Festival A would be foolish, and the programmer for Festival B knows it. Chances are a number of great films cross his desk every year that end up playing at Festival A instead. Your honesty and flatChapter 4: When You Get the Call 103

tery will help to preserve the relationship with Festival B. Keep the lines of communication open. If Festival B asks for an update respond promptly, but don’t overcompensate by calling or sending e-mail every other day. Don’t let Festival B pressure you. The better festivals won’t resort to this tactic but there are programmers out there who will employ high-pressure tactics to get you commit. Take it as a good sign that a festival wants your film so badly and you can file the info away in your notebook, but don’t give in and don’t burn any bridges just yet. Deliver your decision to Festival B as quickly as you can. As soon as you hear back from Festival A, figure out your next steps and give Festival B a call immediately. It’s better to answer with a decisive “no” earlier in game than to string the festival along until the very last minute. The Short Story: Festivals generally care far less about the premiere status of shorts than features. If a medium or even small festival accepts you sooner than one of your top tier festivals does, there’s little harm to be done by playing the smaller festival first. If you want to be cautious about it you can offer the smaller festival a “work in progress” or “advance sneak” screening that won’t be the world premiere and they’ll probably take you up on it.

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Chapter 4 review checklist It’s OK to be excited, but stay organized and get all the important info from the festival’s acceptance phone call when it comes. Send a thank- you note. Get the festival’s delivery details and use a reliable shipper with a tracking system. Find out your film’s award eligibility during the festival Traveling with your film is important, at least for a while. Find out of the festival can help you; if not there are a number of creative ways that you can save on travel. The politics of the festival circuit are such that you may have to say no to a festival that extends your film an invitation. Be honest and realistic when turning down such invitations. Do your best to preserve the relationship with that festival.

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Chapter 5: The pre-festival push

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The pre-festival push With the possible exception of the festival itself, this is probably the portion of your festival run during which you will be the busiest. Not only do you need to fulfill the requirements of the festival by delivering a projection print and cooperating with their marketing efforts, but you also need to figure out your own travel logistics. On top of that is the hardest job of all: making sure your screenings are packed to the gills by conducting a marketing campaign, usually from another city. This is where all that prep we did in chapter 3 really pays off, but there’s still a lot to be done, so let’s get started.

Confirm festival logistics Make sure that you fulfill all the festival’s requirements regarding the delivery of your print. Do this first to get it out of the way - mark out the plan and delegate if possible. Put it in your notebook, on your calendar, make sure that committing this print to this festival doesn’t conflict with another festival engagement. (Not a problem if this is your first festival, obviously, but it can quickly become an issue unless you invest in multiple prints.) If possible get the last festival where your film played to ship the print forward to the next. (Most festivals pay for print shipping in one direction.) A production manager of your own who can track things like this is ideal, but oftentimes that person is you. Confirm, confirm, confirm. Keep tracking numbers. Make sure to get the name, e-mail address, and if possible phone number of the person responsible for print trafficking at the festival. Work with the festival’s marketing staff to figure out what Chapter 5: The Pre-Festival Push 109

they want from you (screeners, press kits, posters). The festival will make these available in a central place for the media but they will not perform the functions of a street team. If you want your posters plastered all over town, that’s something you need to do for yourself. � Set up a system that makes it easy to churn out screener copies – both for you and for your support team while you’re out at a festival. If you’re concerned about piracy you can watermark these as much as you want, but keep in mind that watermark overload can color a critic’s perception of your film’s quality – or at least your own self-importance.

Confirm travel arrangements Get organized about your travel and your appointments. Resources abound for putting your life on the road in order. Take advantage of them. The less you have to think about your itinerary and its details, the more brain space you’ll have for promoting yourself and your film. For more on this see chapter 3 and the web site travel page. If you don’t know your destination very well, get a good city guide and study it beforehand. I like the smaller guides that fit in a back pocket, but go with what appeals to you. Just make sure you carry it with you. Find out what you can about the festival from the audience perspective, particularly the venues and their locations. You’ll want to know which venues are within easy walking distance and which aren’t. Some festivals are lucky enough to have whole cultures built up around them — there may be existing tools like interactive maps etc that will help you figure out the festival and its surroundings. 110 Film Festival Secrets

Research the locations and phone numbers of useful businesses near the festival - Fed-Ex/Kinko’s, ATMs from your bank, restaurants you want to visit, local landmarks — and put them in your festival notebook. Put their phone numbers in your phone’s address book so you can dial them quickly. Some cell phones allow you to arrange contacts together in a group; try creating a festival group for easy access.

Travel gear: festival essentials There are a few pieces of travel gear that I never go to any festival without. I’m one of those obsessive types who always has a shoulder bag loaded with the necessities, but in a pinch I can get these basics into the pockets of a roomy jacket and be set for the day – or night. Business cards - I have one of those fancy business card cases but it only carries a dozen cards. For most festivals I carry a fat stack of fifty or more wrapped in a rubber band, with a backup box in my luggage. For easy access I tuck some cards in my festival badge or shirt pocket and retrieve more from the rubber-band stack as I need them. Protein bar & bottled water - This is particularly important during the day when you’re trying to see as many movies as possible before settling into the social scene for the evening. Sometimes you have to make the choice between lunch and a screening, and some sustenance can make that choice less painful. Flashlight - a keychain LED should be sufficient, but if you drop your keys in a dark theater you’ll be glad you packed it. Breath freshener - Whether you prefer mints or strips or Chapter 5: The Pre-Festival Push 111

spray, this is a must for close-talking social situations. Remember the old saw that in conversation, there are two things you should never refuse: a breath mint or a change of subject. A good pocket notebook and a couple of pens. If you’re a filmmaker and you want to make movies for a living, it’s time to start thinking of film festivals as career fairs. Since a cornerstone of any good business is impeccable record-keeping, you should always have the means to take notes. I like the Moleskine Reporter, but a 99-cent memo pad will contain writing just as effectively. Your notebook should be the record of the people you met (you’re going to lose one or two business cards along the way), the things you learned, and the promises you made. It sounds corny but I promise you’ll get more out of any festival if you write a few things down. If you have a pocket camera, bring it along. This is probably the wrong time to be lugging your DSLR and its thousand-dollar lens, but there’s lots to see at a film festival. You’re bound to want to take one or two pictures along the way (like the crowd at your screening?), and if you rely on your camera phone you’ll be sorry. When you get home, make sure to upload those pix to your web site. Bring a lightweight phone charger that you can carry with you during the day. Take advantage of random electrical outlets when sitting in panels or waiting in line. Remember the ABC rule: Always Be Charging. You probably won’t get back to your hotel room until the wee hours of the morning, and by that time your mobile phone battery may be as worn out as you are. You don’t want to contend with a dead cell phone when you’re half-drunk in a strange city at 3 a.m. Trust me. Find more travel resources online at: 112 Film Festival Secrets

Packing the house Picture it: your world premiere. Every seat is packed and there is an excited chatter from the crowd. Your cast and crew are terrified and elated at the same time. Somewhere out there in the half-lit audience are the critics, bloggers, festival directors, and industry execs who could make your career. The festival programmer introduces your film, encourages the audience to stay for the Q&A, and thanks a few sponsors. Your heart jumps against the back of your teeth as the lights go down. Now picture it a different way. There’s a crowd, all right, but it’s headed for the theater across the hall. Somehow you got programmed against a film which has massive buzz at the festival. Their buttons and stickers are everywhere and somehow they scored a positive review in the local alternative weekly, so now everyone wants to see it. A few curious badgeholders are shuffling into the seats for your picture but the majority of your audience is composed of your friends and family. Maybe you can pick up a few people when the other film starts turning them away? Your heart sinks to your knees as the lights go down. The first scenario is obviously the desired one for everyone on the festival circuit – few things are quite as impressive in this context as the words “sold-out screenings.” The latter course of events is where all too many filmmakers find themselves, especially their first time out. What makes the difference between an evening to remember and a night to forget? Unfortunately, there are many events outside your control that can dictate the size of audience turnout: weather, competing local events (including other films at the same festival), venue location, screening time, and a host of other factors. Your job is to prevent such calamity by mitigating those factors and applying marketing techniques Chapter 5: The Pre-Festival Push 113

to overwhelm them. You need a sell-out plan.

Get creative, get specific You should already have most of the elements of your sell-out plan in place: your web site, designs for your printed material, your tchotchkes, etc. Now it’s time to tailor those generic ideas to the festival at hand and create a specific plan for getting the attendees to choose watching your movie over the other movies playing at the same time – and, for that matter, over the million other things happening in that city on that day. The key to putting butts in seats is to make your screening more than just a movie. It needs to be an event. A movie you can watch any time, right? “I’ll catch it on DVD.” A movie with that little something extra accompanying it, however, happens only once – or rarely enough that you feel motivated to go see it that night. As a filmmaker, you want to instill that sense of urgency in the moviegoer. If you want them to show up, they need to believe that they will have just this one chance to see an event like this one.

What is that little something extra? If you’re lucky enough to have some recognizable faces in your cast, you’re ahead of the game. (You probably knew that already.) Depending on the actor, just that person’s presence may be enough to draw a sell-out crowd without further work on your part. It’s risky to pin your entire strategy on the one person, though – actors have notoriously fluid schedules and the possi114 Film Festival Secrets

bility of a cancellation looms large. If star power is a major component of your sell-out plan, I recommend you get a commitment from the actor etched in stone. Escort them personally to the festival city, and then baby-sit them until the screening. Anything else is just asking for trouble. Beyond the obvious draw of a famous face, there are plenty of things you can do to make your screening special. Some involve an element of live performance, while others offer more physical rewards. They can be serious, silly, or downright absurd. William Castle was the absolute master of the event-driven film in the 1960s – not that you should start wiring theater seats with buzzers, but his showmanship drew crowds in a way that the films themselves never could have. Whatever you do it should either be something splashy and fun or something of intense interest to your target audience – a target audience large enough to fill a theater, preferably. It’s impossible to give specific advice about this without knowing the specifics of your film (which is why I expect there will always be a need for consultants like me), but here are a few rules of thumb and a few examples from actual campaigns I’ve seen or helped to create at festivals. If your film involves fancy costuming or special effects (particularly fantasy & sci-fi films), deliver your cast in costume or provide an exhibit of the props and models. If your film profiles a particular skill or talent that lends itself to visual display, bring along some of the practitioners of that skill. Bring some of the folks from your movie if you can, but if not someone who can demonstrate the skill will do. At Cinevegas in 2008 the producers of Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong created a stir by flying in a number of the competitors Chapter 5: The Pre-Festival Push 115

from the film. Not only were they on hand to answer questions but the whole theater moved to a nearby ballroom where beer pong tables were set up and audience members could test their skill against the champs. Hold a contest. If you can’t bring in the beer pong champs, at least set up some beer pong tables and let people compete for a prize of some sort. If your film’s theme doesn’t lend itself easily to a contest, don’t fake it – a generic raffle isn’t going to excite anyone unless you’re giving away a car. Experts - Inviting an expert to speak on your film’s subject (especially a well-known personage) is a great way to attract people to your screening. The crowd may be there to see the expert, but they have to watch your film first. Chances are they’ll like what they see and tell their friends. Be sure to get your specialist to agree that you can use her name to promote the screening. Stir up some controversy. Maybe your film contains some contentious issues – why not find the local authorities on those issues and let them know about your screening? A spirited debate may be just the thing to liven up the evening. If you can get someone to decry your film’s screening, so much the better; it will be easier to get the press involved when they smell conflict. Make sure the festival won’t fold under the pressure and cancel your screening before you try this one. Get creative. There are so many ways to turn a mere screening into an event that you’re bound to come up with something. Whatever you do, get the festival staff and the venue management involved so there are no surprises. Getting the Humane Society to bring dogs to your film about rescue hounds may sound like a good idea, but the theater’s health code may have something different to say. In a case like this, try to find a happy compromise 116 Film Festival Secrets

(maybe the dogs can wait outside). The Short Story: If you’re presenting a short film at a festival, you may find yourself with less influence over your attendance figures. It’s tough to get people to commit to an entire shorts program based on one film. That doesn’t mean you should give up, just be aware that it’s an uphill climb. Consider banding together with other shorts filmmakers in attendance to build “brand awareness” for the program you’re in. Apply the principles in this chapter to your short as best you can but don’t beat yourself up if people seem more interested in the feature films.

Bring your own audience Much of the previous advice has been concentrated on taking advantage of the existing festival audience. In some circumstances – for example, if the festival locale is small enough or remote enough – that may be all you have to work with. In most cases, however, there’s a vast untapped audience in the city surrounding the festival. These are people who wouldn’t ordinarily come to the film festival or may not even know it exists, but some number of them have an interest in the subject matter of your film and will buy a ticket for it. The hard part is identifying who those people are and how to reach them – we’ll cover that in the next few sections. If you bring your own audience you won’t have to worry about what film plays at the same time yours does because you’re not competing (as much) for their attention. Naturally there will be hard-core attendees of the festival at your screenings and you want to market to them because they’re easier to reach. The idea is to whip both groups up into such a frenzy of anticipation that Chapter 5: The Pre-Festival Push 117

there isn’t room for everyone who shows up. Sold out means turning people away, which is a good thing. You might think that more people seeing your film at a festival is better, but if your film is so popular that people can’t get into it then that word of mouth reflects well on your film too.

What if there’s nothing “special” about my film? At this point you may be thinking that your film isn’t the kind that can be marketed to special interests. If you told me that in person I would think that you a) had a very boring film on your hands or b) weren’t looking hard enough at your own film. Sure, this exercise is easier with a documentary than it is with a romantic comedy, but the principles are the same. Who are the people in the film? Where are they from, where do they live? What do they like to eat? What do they do for a living? What sports do they play? What music do they listen to? All of these things and more are potential special interests to which your film caters. People like to see themselves on screen, so figure out who you’ve got on your screen and go out and find those people.

Research special interest groups Now that you’ve identified your audience, it’s time to find out where they live. Metaphorically, anyway. Many filmmakers assume that they have to build their networks from the ground up. The key to niche marketing, however, is to find out how the members of your special-interest audience communicate with one another already and then insert yourself there – politely. Find local organizations around your special interests with big mailing lists (or message boards or similar) and approach them with news about your film’s screening. Do not try to join such lists and send out the news yourself; you’ll be viewed as a spammer with no interest in contributing to the community. 118 Film Festival Secrets

Instead, approach the group leader by phone or e-mail and explain your desire to provide the community with the opportunity to see a film that represents their interest. Such news coming from the group leader has instant credibility and will get much more attention. If your film deals heavily in the special interest (like maybe it’s a doc about that interest) you may already have connections to the community on a national level or in a different locale. Capitalize on those connections to make contact with the group leader in your festival’s town; if your film comes recommended by another authority you’ll have an easier time getting help to promote it. Get a commitment from your contacts that they will send out one or more messages to the community and confirm the date they plan to do that so you can be on the lookout for increased web traffic and questions from the community. Diversify your promotional efforts across communities within the same special interest. If your film is about stray dogs, don’t settle for an alliance with the Humane Society alone. Get other animal rescue groups involved and give them all a chance to help. You can reciprocate by offering to help them get their messages out to the moviegoers at the screening. (Let them bring literature or act as an expert during the Q&A.) Diversify your promotional efforts across interests. A documentary about cats who make cheese should appeal not only to lovers of the feline species but also connoisseurs of cheese. Make sure you reach out to both groups. If there’s a local newsletter, magazine, or blog about the interest (and you have time before their print deadline) consider paying for a small ad to promote the screening. Not only will you raise the film’s profile in the community but you may also be buying a bit of goodwill from the publisher, who may help you in other ways. Chapter 5: The Pre-Festival Push 119

During your outreach to the local community, you may find a local “angel” volunteer who can assist you on the ground. This person may be able to help reach out personally to local enthusiasts and media, help with distributing printed material before you arrive, etc. Angels are few and far between (especially if they haven’t seen your film yet!), so take advantage and then be prepared to make your appreciation known with free screening tickets, big grins, and drinks.

Research the media We lump it under one name, “the media,” but there are so many different factions within that it’s easy to become confused about the different rules for dealing with each. A few items for your to-do list when it comes to researching your media options for a particular festival: Start a list of media prospects with three tiers: strong prospects, maybes, and long shots. Find the people who did previews and reviews of the same festival last year. It shouldn’t be hard with a little Googling, particularly the BlogSearch and News search sites. Writers who covered the festival last year are among your top prospects, so put them up top. Get input from the festival on which local radio, TV, and newspapers gave the festival coverage last year. Often the festival will arrange interviews for the local broadcast media so make sure they know that you’re interested and available. Put these folks in your top tier. Think about reporters with beats outside of entertainment and film who might be interested in your film’s subject. A film about baseball might have more traction with (and get a better 120 Film Festival Secrets

response from) a sports reporter than with the local film critic. If your film is mentioned in the sports section it’s also more likely to reach people outside the typical festival audience. These reporters are in your top tier. If the festival is large enough (or simply organized enough) to have an industry directory, take advantage of it. Not only should attending press be listed, but you can also figure out which industry execs and festival directors will be in the crowd – information we’ll put to use later in this chapter. Put the reporters from your industry directory search in the “strong prospects” list. Film blogs and publications (including the big national outlets like Variety) that cover other festivals should go in the “maybe” list. If they don’t have a reporter covering that particular festival it’s unlikely that they’ll give you much time but it’s worth a try. This can be a pretty big list but don’t go nuts. » National publications about your subject matter (such as Cat Fancy for our imaginary cats-who-make-cheese doc) but don’t normally cover film should also be on the “maybe” list. » National mainstream press outlets like Entertainment Weekly and CNN should go on the “longshots” list.

Make media contact For the people on your strong prospects list, start contacting them directly. By e-mail at first, but follow up by phone. This can be an intense, repetitive, and laborious process, but you want to find the live wires (people who respond right away to your film or to you personally) as quickly as possible and weed out the journalists who have no interest. Once you have a handful of people who have agreed to at least give your film a look, send out Chapter 5: The Pre-Festival Push 121

some press kits and screeners. These people need to know about your web site, your screening times at the festival, and the fact that you’ll be in town for the event. Offer to make anyone from the film available for interview by phone or in person (especially prominent cast members, if you can swing that). Don’t forget to tell them about your “something extra” during your screening so they have extra incentive to show up at the screening itself.

If this is your feature’s world premiere then it might be wise to hold back on the screeners. Sometimes a cloak of mystery is a good thing. Get the festival’s opinion before you make a decision – like you they want butts in seats and the media covering the actual event and soaking up the audience reaction to a highly anticipated film, but there may be reasons to let screeners out there ahead of the big debut. Once you’ve had your world premiere, however, there’s not much reason to hold back screeners from the press.

Your “maybe” prospects should get an e-mail with your film’s festival press release (see the section on press kits in chapter 3) and the offer to forward more information if desired. If you get a response from any of these you can bump them up to your strong prospects list but otherwise don’t waste a lot of time chasing these folks down when you have strong prospects who need your attention. The “longshots” list can certainly receive an initial e-mail press release from you for your world premiere, but throwing effort at these is mostly futile. What you can do with these prospects is some deep research: do you know anyone who knows a reporter at one of these publications/outlets? Is there a journalist who did a story recently that relates to your film? Approaching a specific person with a topic in which they’ve already shown an interest is a much better way to make meaningful contact than throwing generic press releases at an e-mail address intended for 122 Film Festival Secrets

general inquiries. The Short Story: Your short film is your cinematic business card to the world. If you clutch your screeners too tightly you’re defeating the purpose – especially if the someone who wants to see it is a journalist! Shorts don’t get much media attention so jump at the chance to get some coverage for yours.

Make as many media contacts as you can to line up those interviews prior to your arrival in the festival city. Sometimes you can do an interview by phone and have the coverage waiting there for you when you arrive. Don’t be discouraged by a lack of immediate results; sometimes journalists can’t devote time to a festival until it’s actually upon them. The keys are to cast a wide net and to be persistent.

Research the festival You’ve already arranged to make a splash at your screening, but it may be necessary to make a splash at someone else’s –well, sort of. I’m not saying you should crash someone else’s screening with a publicity stunt, but those periods of time during which people wait in line for a movie are prime marketing moments. Get out there and take advantage of them. Part of your festival research is to find out where largest gatherings of people will be prior to your screenings. That’s where you want to concentrate your marketing efforts – registration, big screenings at the large venues (opening night is a prime target), parties, etc. Public spaces are best and you should be outside if you plan to make a lot of noise, but the most important thing is to be somewhere with a lot of festival attendees milling about. Chapter 5: The Pre-Festival Push 123

Figure out how to attract attention at the gathering — if you have recognizable faces in your cast, take advantage. Otherwise do something that will make people turn your way and wonder what’s going on. Maybe it’s as simple as having everyone in your team at the festival dress in the same “uniform” — film t-shirts with a catchy slogan. Or maybe you want something grandiose – your Mexican love story might call for a mariachi band. Once you start snagging the attentions of individual fest attendees, make sure your team is there to hand out fliers for your film and to explain the connection. (More on working the crowd in the next chapter.) If your marketing efforts will be splashy or visually intriguing, alert local TV & print media for photos or coverage. At the very least take some photos of your own so you can show them off to the media you meet later. It’s so difficult to make film festivals look exciting that they may ask to use your photos. I once had a reporter from Variety ask for my pocket camera snapshots for later inclusion on the web site – not bad for impromptu photography.

Other items on your festival research list: Find out where and when you’ll be playing as soon as possible, and then find out what that means in terms of natural audience attendance. You may need to find someone who’s been to that film festival a few times and can tell you that. The festival may be reluctant to admit that they stuck you in one of the more remote venues. See the “common problems” section later in this chapter for more on this. Find out where the best hotel bars are within walking distance. Not only are they great meeting places but they’re also a great place to accidentally-on-purpose bump into industry types. (Again, see chapter 6.) Call the venue where your film plays to ask if you can buy 124 Film Festival Secrets

some tickets to the show and rope off a VIP section. This is for people in the press and industry you’ll meet both before and during the festival. (More on this in the next chapter.)

Order printed material It’s time to order those postcards and flyers if you haven’t already. First thing: confirm your screening dates and venues. Quantity will depend on how many overall attendees there are at the festival and how large a venue your film will play, and of course on your budget. I usually advise buying as many postcards as you can reasonably afford well in advance, and then customizing them with printed labels bearing your screening times & venues. This can be a time-consuming process but it’s much more cost-conscious than printing customized postcards each time. As a quick example of the economies of scale, you can typically get 1000 postcards for about $100 or 10,000 postcards for about $400. That’s a decrease from 10¢ per postcard to 4¢. If you had the foresight to leave room for a label on your postcards, consider purchasing a small label printer that you can take with you to festivals. Dymo ( makes a nice line of super-portable USB label printers that don’t even require ink refills. The thermal labels they print on are somewhat more expensive than cheap laser labels, but if your screening times unexpectedly change you’ll have the ability to run back to your hotel room and re-label a mess of postcards.

Customized flyers, on the other hand, should be cheap enough to produce at any quantity, so get cracking and put your screening times & places in big bold type and hit the Kinko’s. This is also a good time to assemble those press kits (if you’ve decided to make them) and make sure you’ve got anything else you opted Chapter 5: The Pre-Festival Push 125

to print up (posters, tchotchkes, whatever) in hand.

Start marketing Now that you’ve got all of the pieces in place, reach out to those contacts. It’s time to start the e-mail and phone call blitz to your media, industry, and personal contacts to let them know that your film will be in the festival. Update the web site. Blog about it. Send a message to your mailing list subscribers. In short, go nuts telling the world about your film’s festival dates. Your marketing messages should all contain the following: » The film’s screening dates during the festival » The festival’s location (people will ask) » A short synopsis » A description of your special event plans (special guests, etc.) » The URLs for your web site and the festival’s site » Your contact info If your first marketing push takes place a ways out from the festival dates (more than a month), consider a second push closer to the actual screenings. A reminder of the upcoming event one to two weeks out is appropriate, especially if you have gotten a positive response from your initial marketing volley. Apart from the media and special interest groups, check in with the manager of the venue where your film will play. Independent theaters have web sites (and, more frequently these days, blogs) where they promote their upcoming shows. They may respond positively to a filmmaker who approaches them 126 Film Festival Secrets

and offers additional marketing support in the form of an interview or embeddable trailer. Local film societies, too, may have some interaction with the festival already but it never hurts to raise your profile above that of the mass of films at the festival. You’re looking for anyone with an audience in the festival town who might have an interest. Don’t assume that the festival staff is necessarily looking out for your best interests when they have a hundred or more films in addition to yours to market too. Got a friend in publicity? Offer to fly them in and put them up for the festival -- it’s still probably cheaper than paying them.

Distributing printed material All of those posters and flyers and postcards aren’t going to do much good sitting in your closet. Get them out to the people! Here’s how: Send some to the festival. Don’t overdo it here – chances are the festival may put a poster up in the festival office and at the venue, but they are not going to act as your personal street team. They will put extra posters and material out on the “goody tables” at registration once the festival begins, but getting your flyers out on the street is strictly your business. Arrive early and do it yourself. This is the option most filmmakers take, if they even think to arrive early. More often than not the cast and crew arrives on the day the festival begins and plasters the same four light poles and coffee shops as every other film in town. Effectiveness: pretty low, unless your film plays a few times during the festival and the posters have a chance to Chapter 5: The Pre-Festival Push 127

work. Ideally you should give your posters two to five days to work their magic. Send material to your local contacts and ask them to post in public spaces where your target audience hangs out. If the film features a bicycle racing team, get the posters into cycle shops and the nearby juice bars. You want your posters in places where movie posters don’t usually show up, and you want them in the right places where the right people will see them. If you can’t get help from your local contacts, you can hire a local street team to help out. This can be pricey, but weigh it against the cost of spending an extra couple of days in the festival city before the fest begins. A more reasonable solution might be to post on Craigslist or inquire at a university local to the festival. See if you can find a local film, business, or marketing student who would be willing to help as a way of gaining experience and expanding their Rolodex.

It’s not too late If you discovered this book somewhere in the middle of your festival run, you may be thinking to yourself “Holy crap! All the missed opportunities! I’m doomed.” Find a paper bag to hyperventilate into and then listen (or read, or whatever): It’s never too late to make the most out of your festival experience. You just need to slow down and recognize the festival for what it is: an opportunity to further your career by getting your work recognized and connecting to others in your chosen industry. (There is also the possibility of finding a distributor for your film, but more about that later.) There are lots of great stories to tell about filmmakers I’ve 128 Film Festival Secrets

worked with who made the most of their festival experiences with a little advance planning. This example is one of my favorites, however, because it demonstrates that you don’t need months of strategy to get big results. You just need to be creative and put forth some effort. Rachel Goslins, director of the documentary film ‘Bama Girl, responded to an e-mail I sent congratulating her on her film’s acceptance to the South by Southwest film festival. That e-mail, which went out to a number of accepted filmakers about two weeks before SXSW, also contained a link to an article I’d written with last-minute prep tips for filmmakers coming to Austin. It struck a chord with Rachel, who wrote me the next day. After a volley of messages back and forth, she sent me this e-mail: [For clarity I should mention that ‘Bama Girl is the story of a plucky, charming young African-American woman who decides to run for Homecoming Queen at the University of Alabama, in defiance of the campus political machine that has allegedly kept minorities out of such school offices for over a decade.] To: Chris From: Rachel So here we are one day before I leave for the Festival madness, and, largely thanks to you, it has been an interesting and crazy week. For all my bluster about not caring about whether I found a distributor, after a few conversations with you, I realized I did NOT want to go to all the trouble of making my own film, and then sit in an empty theater with my parents watching it. And hey, I wouldn’t turn down someone who wanted to buy it either... So in a very short span of time, I went from thinking of going to SXSW (or any festival, really) as a prize for all Chapter 5: The Pre-Festival Push 129

my hard work (“Yay - I made a good film! Now I get to sit back and be interviewed by the press, watch it in a packed theater, and attend swinging parties!”) to realizing that no, it was just another opportunity to be capitalized on, which would require a big learning curve, figuring out ‘the game’ of festivals, a lot of hard work, and finding someone to dress up in full Homecoming Queen regalia. From a cold start, this is what I’ve managed to do in one week: - Found and hired a Marylyn Monroe impersonator to dress up in a prom dress, sash and tiara and hand out screening flyers for the film during the peak hours of registration at the Austin Convention Center on Friday, and for an hour in front of the Paramount Theatre. - Designed and printed full and half page color screening flyers on cardstock to be handed out and posted by my hordes of minions (uh, me and my family) - Bought domain name and put up basic website at (goes live later today) - Ordered a crap load of tiaras - a few higher end models for myself, my parents (this means you Dad) and my friends to wear throughout the festival, and a few dozen cheaper ones to give out in the VIP section of my premiere screening. Hopefully the excessive tiara wearing will lead to many conversations about the film, not to mention a new fashion trend in Austin. - Talked to the theater managers to establish a two-row VIP section of the theater for the first screening where people we specifically invite (distributors, press, supermodels etc) will get a free drink and a tiara. The 130 Film Festival Secrets

idea is to have a list to put people on, even if they already have a pass, to make them feel slightly more obligated to actually show up. - Arranged for a member of the Austin chapter of the NAACP to be at the premiere screening, as well as the president of the AKA chapter at UT (the black sorority of my main character). Also got the president to circulate my screening flyer by e-mail to her sorority sisters and post it in the house. - Got the film mentioned in the Efilmcritics “Top Ten Films to Put On Your Schedule for SXSW 2008” article. - Hopefully get the film mentioned in your blog. - Get the film mentioned on-air during the UT’s college radio station’s morning show, and schedule an interview with them and Jessica (it will air after the festival) *****This is what I have NOT managed to do in the last week: Despite my best efforts (and e-mail and phone calls that may border on stalking) get any other publication interested in a pre-festival interview or review. Mostly because they don’t call me back. Mobilize any real support on the UT campus, within the Greek systems or from the campus newspaper. Lose 10 pounds so I look great at the opening night party. Pre-sell the theatrical right to THINKfilms. Chapter 5: The Pre-Festival Push 131

So there we go. And here we go. Bring on the pageant hair. Both screenings of ‘Bama Girl at SXSW sold out.

Common problems The unwritten rule of many film festivals – and it is a fact that most programmers won’t volunteer – is that films do not get equal treatment, particularly when it comes to venues and screening times. The logistics of venues are mind-boggling; there are union rules, insurance considerations, rental costs, and projection format challenges, just to graze the tip of the iceberg. So when it comes to putting movies at the “best” venues (closest, cleanest, biggest, best attended – pick your own criteria), choices must be made. Big studio premieres and sneak peeks are usually top of the heap (they bring in the most ticket revenue), followed by feature films in competition, followed by shorts in competition, and on down the line. Your short playing out of competition may or may not end up in a cherry spot, but it’s good to have an idea of where you are in the pecking order. A few tips on dealing with such problems: With venues, the internet is your friend up to a point. Google Maps can tell you if a venue is within walking distance to the heart of the festival, and what the foot traffic there might be like. Your best bet, however, is to call the theater manager for facts and to find somone who has been to the festival in previous years for opinions. You’re looking for a general idea of the venue’s size and average attendance during the festival. Small venues are less of a concern than venues that are too far away or are otherwise inconvenient for attendees. More problematic is a venue that is 132 Film Festival Secrets

too large for the festival – if you draw 300 attendees (no small feat for most fests) to a 900 seat theater, the room still looks mostly empty. If you believe that you’ve been completely, utterly shafted on your film’s venue, take a step back and evaluate. Is this your picture’s world premiere? Is it playing at the festival in competition? Is it a feature? If the answer to two or more of these questions is “yes,” then you owe it to yourself to at least ask the festival programmer why your film has been slotted there. It may turn out that the venue isn’t as bad as you thought or that the festival was forced to make some tough choices and you came out on the short end. Screening times can have similar drawbacks; attendance tends to be lower in the morning and on weekday afternoons when people are otherwise engaged. If you have two screenings one of them will very likely be in a less desirable time slot, which is fine – so long as you have a prime spot for your other screening. Calls to the programmer are appropriate if you believe your film will really be in a bind attracting an audience, but it’s much more appropriate to ask for marketing help from the festival than to ask a programmer to unravel her schedule just for you. In general the way to deal with inconvenient screening times and venues is to redouble your marketing efforts. People who really want to see your movie will turn up regardless of the location or time of day, so you need to work hard to reach them. You can also try to turn the venue’s weaknesses into strengths. For example, if your screening is in the morning you might show up at nearby coffee shops in the morning on preceding days. Hand out flyers (these are people who will be up at this time of the morning anyway) and offer to provide free coffee at the theater for ticket holders. Chapter 5: The Pre-Festival Push 133

Regardless of how disadvantaged you may feel with your film’s screening time or venue, remember that it is not the festival’s duty to justify its decisions to filmmakers. Programmers have very specfic reasons for programming films in certain places and often those reasons have nothing to do with you. The trump card, of course, is that you can always refuse to play your film at the festival. I do not recommend playing this card in any but the most disastrous of situations. Whether you are in the right to do so or not, it will brand you as a “difficult” filmmaker who left a festival in the lurch. Better to have a poor screening at a festival than to jeopardize your future festival or distribution prospects.

All hands on deck Hold a meeting of all your essential personnel before you leave. Make sure everyone knows what’s expected of them and where they need to be. Let them ask all their questions now so you don’t have to spend time on the road figuring out logistics that could have handled better back home. Now pack those bags and shine your shoes – it’s time to go to a film festival.

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Chapter 5 review checklist Confirm all festival logistics including print delivery and the festival’s marketing needs. Confirm your travel arrangements and learn about your destination town. Think about what you’ll carry with you during the day. Create a sell-out plan by finding ways to make your screening more of an event than just watching a movie. Research and engage special interest groups so that you can bring your own audience to screenings. Do research on local, industry, and special interest media. Create a prioritized list and engage the media when the timing is appropriate. Learn as much as you can about the festival and its public spaces, including venues. Order your printed material. Start your marketing engine for this specific festival. Find a way to distribute your printed material a few days before your screening. Check your screening schedule for problematic venues and Chapter 5: The Pre-Festival Push 135

screening times; adjust your marketing plan to compensate. Hold a ďŹ nal team meeting before you depart to attend to last-minute details.

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Chapter 6: At the festival

Chapter 6: At the Festival 137

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Revisit your goals It’s been a while since we talked about goals, and hopefully you kept those goals in mind as you created your strategy in the preceding chapters. This is a perfect time to examine your hopes and expectations for your film and your career, especially as they pertain to the upcoming festival. Take some time as you travel to your destination to reflect on where you want your film and your career to go. Set discrete, measurable, attainable goals. Of course you should think about what your overall goals are for your film and your career, but for the purposes of any one event you need to write down the bite-sized goals that you can accomplish while you’re there. “Find a distributor” is not a bite-sized goal. “Talk to ten distributors and establish contact with an acquisition rep at each” is more reasonable. Some of your goals will have to do with your marketing groundwork and others will be larger in scope. You may need to adjust your goals based on what you find in the festival environment.

Practice your elevator pitch As the primary spokesman for your film, you will need to answer the question “what is your movie about?” dozens if not hundreds of times. Come up with two or three different ways of explaining your film in fewer than a hundred words – fewer than fifty if you really want them to listen. Test out your different pitches on a variety of different people before and during the festival; it should quickly become apparent which one works best. Refine that one and stick with it. You will of course be sick of this pitch within a day, but it will be novel and interesting to every Chapter 6: At the Festival 139

new person you meet so try not to let your contempt for the question creep into your delivery. The other important question that will come up is “What’s next?” You should always have a series of “next project” ideas ready so that if someone expresses an interest in working with you or wants to invest in your next project, you’ll have something to discuss. There’s an even chance that this will also be the last question at your post-screening Q&A, so have an answer ready. Now that you’ve done this, get some sleep on the plane or in the car. It’s your last chance to be well-rested before the festival madness begins.

Make contact Upon arrival at the festival you will come into contact with some of the festival staff, most likely volunteers at first. Depending on the size and the personality of the festival, the programming director and the person giving you a lift from the airport might be one and the same. At other festivals you might never meet the head programmer. If you are able to have some personal interaction with the person who programmed your film, show enthusiasm for the festival and express your gratitude once again. Small thank-you gifts are appropriate, as is the offer or a drink or a meal. Be polite - have a short conversation, thank them, confirm they have everything they need from you, then go. You may want to inquire about a tech check of your film. They’ve probably already checked the tape on a deck at the office, but the schedule of a film festival doesn’t always allow for checking the actual theater equipment against your print. If you brought a backup print, let the production manager know it’s available and make sure she has your cell phone number.

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Some festivals hold formal orientation sessions for their filmmakers – you should definitely attend. Not only will you get valuable information about the festival and the resources available to you, but it will also give you a chance to meet the other filmmakers in attendance. If you’re friendly enough, these are the people you will hang with for the bulk of the festival and possibly at other festivals. Introduce yourself and ask politely about their films. Make friends.

Survey the scene With the introductions out of the way, it’s time to get acquainted with the festival environment. Make sure you have your badge with you at all times and understand where it entitles you to go. Check out the filmmaker lounge and the press area, if they exist. If you arranged for someone to distribute printed material ahead of your visit, now is the time to walk around and check it out. If you haven’t done any posting of flyers or posters yet, now is the time. There should be plenty of opportunities for posting flyers around the festival venues, but you should always do so with permission and without posting over others’ flyers or posters. Businesses in the surrounding area should be approached politely. If there’s time before your screening, arrange to see a movie in the venue where your film will play. Get used to the space and watch how the other filmmakers handle their Q&As. Note any quirks in the projection. Depending on what you see and your own personal need to control the situation, you can attempt to introduce yourself to the projectionist. In some cases it’s possible to go over your particular print’s technical quirks (aspect ratio, sound, etc) and fix problems before they occur during your actual screening. Chapter 6: At the Festival 141

Jay Edwards, director of Stomp! Shout! Scream! relates this story: “I was screening a documentary short at a fairly big, well-known, festival in 2003. I used a recycled Digibeta as a screening master, but the previous festival didn’t rewind the tape before shipping it to the next festival. The projectionist popped the tape in and hit play... on a big-budget action movie electronic press kit. My short, Y’all Come!, was about a small town festival of distinctly southern events—grease pole climbing, arm wresting and tobacco spitting, so the four-wheeler jumps, explosions and Vin Diesel sounds bites didn’t strike the projectionist as odd, I guess. It wasn’t until the shorts program ended that I realized the mistake. I had to run out and have my film screened in the middle of the Q&A. Lesson: Always check with the projectionist before every screening. Try to get them to test your tape before hand, if possible.”

Work the crowd For the bulk of the time leading up to your screening you should be in sales mode, campaigning on behalf of your picture to get butts into seats. Your posters will do some of the job and if you’ve planned a stunt that will help too, but the bulk of your work at the festival will be done on an individual level, convincing festival badge holders one by one that your film is the best thing playing at that time. The Short Story: In my opinion, creators of short films should do less work convincing individual attendees to come see their movies and concentrate more on making professional connections. It’s difficult to convince anyone to come to a program of short films based on a single picture and practically impossible to track who showed up to see your film as opposed to the ten others in the block.

You may not be the type to approach strangers and introduce yourself, but if you want a sold-out screening you need to summon the courage – or bring someone with you who comes by it naturally. Actors are great for this. For his eco-horror feature 142 Film Festival Secrets

Blood Car, Alex Orr persuaded his attractive leading lady to pin 1-inch buttons on to the badge lanyards of everyone she met at the Atlanta Film Festival. Most of the young men were more than happy to be “pinned” by the actress and you couldn’t walk three feet without seeing one of the little yellow badges peeping out at you. By the second day, everyone at the festival had at least heard of Blood Car. When you introduce yourself as a filmmaker with a film in the festival, the very next question is usually “what’s it about?” hopefully followed by “when is it playing?” Your screening flyers contain that information of course, but take the opportunity to answer the questions personally. Follow up the conversation by handing over a flyer with a smile and a question of your own: “Will you come see my film?” Personal commitments like these may be your best chance of filling your screening, so you should always ask. If they say yes, say “I’m looking forward to seeing you there!” If they say no or are non-committal, point to the flyer and ask them to hang onto it just in case they find their prior engagement has fallen through. If you want to dip a toe into the water, try practicing on festival volunteers. Not only are they the friendliest festivalgoers around (they work for the event for free) , but they quite often get asked their opinion on what to see. If they haven’t seen anything at the festival yet, they’ll repeat what they’ve overheard – or what they learned from an affable filmmaker.

Cozy up to the press When Kissing on the Mouth played SXSW in 2005, director Joe Swanberg wrote a travelogue about the festival with tips for filmChapter 6: At the Festival 143

makers. You should read it in its entirety, but I like this passage: It’s not a bad idea to spend a few afternoons hanging around the Filmmaker Lounge, which is conveniently located very near the Press Lounge. Stay visible, and spend some time walking between the two places, seeing who you can bump into. Sometimes press will be conducting interviews with other filmmakers in the Press Lounge, and you can piggyback and do an interview after they are finished. We got some good coverage just from being in the right place at the right time, but the right place was almost always somewhere near the Press Lounge. The full travelogue is here: The press have a job to do: present the most interesting news to their audience before their competitors do. In order to make sure you get good coverage, you need to make their job as easy as possible. That’s where your web site comes in, and, if you’re particularly prepared, your electronic press kit (EPK). EPKs have an advantage over web sites in that they work when the laptop isn’t connected to the internet, so consider carrying a few copies around with you. If you’ve decided it’s OK to give screeners away at this event, the press should definitely get them. You should have arranged press interviews before arrival at the festival, but if you were less than successful there’s still time to nab interviews and coverage on the spot. Critics and other press should definitely be invited to your VIP section if you set one up. Make sure the festival gets an extra press kit or two and make sure they know that you have a clip reel available. One last word on the press: do not be intimidated. They are there to cover the festival, and you’re part of the festival. So if you 144 Film Festival Secrets

present yourself politely and provide compelling reasons that your film should be part of their festival coverage, the average member of the press will give you serious consideration. That’s not to say that the media doesn’t house its share of schmucks, or that anyone owes you coverage, but you have a right to conduct business the same as anyone else. Have your screeners and your flyers ready, and go get ‘em.

Panels and screenings Panels can be educational and useful for networking. Keep the festival program guide to hand so you always have options if you’re not actively promoting your film; panels are a great way to learn more about filmmaking and the industry. Even panels that aren’t great will have some interesting people at the front of the room, so stick around afterwards and introduce yourself. With journalists and industry types alike, the phrase “I have a film in the festival this year” is the perfect icebreaker: it identifies you as someone with talent and of potential interest. Use it to your advantage. The same goes for screenings; after the Q&A, approach the filmmakers and introduce yourself. Be sure to say something nice about the film and ask about their experiences at the festival so far. Chances are good that other filmmakers have met journalists who haven’t found you yet, or have learned lessons about the festival experience that could benefit you. You want that knowledge. Be polite about this, and always present it as an exchange of wisdom rather than a brain dump. When you find someone who seems particularly well-informed, offer to buy the next round. The collected wisdom of the other filmmakers at a Chapter 6: At the Festival 145

festival is well worth the price of a few drinks. If you’re lucky enough to be sitting in as a panel participant, don’t be shy about using it as a platform to promote your film. When asked to introduce yourself, mention your film and when it’s playing at the festival. Indie film consultant Mark Wynns cautions filmmakers: “If you do get on a panel make sure that you a) know enough about the subject matter to be helpful to the discussion and b) particularly if this is your first film: don’t be a jerk. Believe it or not, the old adage is right. If you don’t have anything nice to say keep your trap shut or at the very least be diplomatic about it. Don’t belittle other filmmakers or films you’ve seen. Don’t disparage the festival staff or accommodations. Don’t be cocky to the point of arrogance if you’ve gotten some positive buzz. This may seem obvious, but it happens. It’s a small world and the film industry is even smaller. Remember – you never know who you’re talking to. Think of yourself as Patrick Swayze in Road House- no matter what happens, ‘Be Nice.’ This doesn’t mean you can’t be assertive and you should never be a pushover, but use your head.”

Before your screening Try to relax. Wear something nice. Get there early. Breathe.

Introducing your film If the festival asks you to introduce the film, keep it brief. Thank the festival staff, express your gratitude just to be there. If 146 Film Festival Secrets

you have a very short story to tell that helps set the scene, tell it. Cell phones have been common for more than a decade now, but people still forget to turn them off before a movie. A polite reminder is absolutely appropriate. Thank the audience for coming and ask them to please stay afterwards for the Q&A. Mention the cast and crew if they’re present. Encourage everyone to enjoy the show.

How to nail your post-screening Q&A Accept the fact that people are going to walk out before the Q&A. There’s little you can do about this other than to make your ending credits as short as possible, but even so people will scoot out the door as soon as the film is over. Don’t take it personally; there are many reasons for bolting out of a screening at the end, not least of which is to run a few blocks to make it to another screening. Just think: people are leaving other filmmakers’ Q&As to make it in time for your screening too. Of course there are also people running off to the bathroom, which is less flattering. In any case, the people left are the ones who really liked your film and want to hear what you have to say. Those are the ones you want to stick around. Get everyone from your film up to the front. Particularly the cast (people enjoy seeing on-screen characters in the flesh), but don’t leave crew members out either. The more people you can have with you up there the better, particularly since the audience will ask them questions too and take some of the heat off of you. Bring an expert. When showing her doc Election Day during the Atlanta Film Festival in 2007, director Katy Chevigny brought Chapter 6: At the Festival 147

along the director of a local voting rights organization to answer tricky questions about the elections process. Not only can a local expert lend credibility to your Q&A, but they can also help you market your screenings by reaching out to the members of local organizations with an interest in your film’s subject matter. This is as important for narrative films as it is for documentaries -- if your film involves any kind of special interest then you can get the local members of that special interest involved. Have some opening remarks ready, or get the theater manager to lob you the first question. Often the questions won’t really get going until someone breaks the ice. Let someone else pick the audience members. If you’re having trouble making out members of the audience due to lighting or the size of the venue, get a festival volunteer to pick the raised hands out of the crowd for you. You have enough to think about, and the volunteer will have a better sense of when it’s time to wrap up. Repeat the question before you answer. Even if you can hear the question, don’t assume the audience can. This is particularly important in large venues or if the Q&A is being recorded by the festival; you want there to be some context for your answer. It also gives you a few extra seconds to formulate your answer. Practice your answers to the most common questions. Over the course of your festival run you’re going to hear these questions a zillion times, so have the answers down pat before you have to answer them. • • • •

Where did you get the idea for the film? How much was your budget? What did you shoot on? How did you find the cast?

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• •

When and where did you shoot? Who did the music/makeup/whatever?

In addition, decide ahead of time the questions that you will and won’t answer. If your film has a second screening, use the Q&A to encourage the audience to tell friends about your film. Good word of mouth after the first screening can pack the house for the second. Audiences are always curious about your budget – naturally they want to know how much money you raised and how much they might have to raise and spend to make something that looks comparable. Unfortunately revealing your actual budget can make your life (or your sales rep’s life) more difficult, so it’s best to prepare an answer that can partially satisfy or even deflect the question. Scott D. Hanson, director of “Parts,” likes to say that his budget was “two relationships and a trip to the hospital”.

Above all, try to relax and appear as if you’re enjoying yourself. The audience will forgive nervousness, but you really don’t have that much to be nervous about. You’ve just had a great screening and the people who hated your film left before the Q&A. Right? After the Q&A you will be approached by a number of people, including programmers from other festivals, industry types, and your new fans. Be gracious, try to keep conversations short so you can get to everyone, and collect business cards. If you want to keep talking to one person in particular but there are others waiting their turn, suggest a coffee date later in the day.

When the screening stops With your screening out of the way it’s time to switch modes. Chapter 6: At the Festival 149

You’re not selling the event anymore, you’re selling yourself. The good news is that this should not be a hard sell. You want people to think of you as talented, yes, but also friendly and easygoing. Like any other business, the entertainment industry is as much about personalities and face time as it is about talent or common business goals. The festival grapevine spreads news quickly, and since you never know who you’re talking to (or being overheard by), your negative opinions on anything (including the color of the tablecloth or the way that drink tastes) are best kept to yourself. “Nothing goes as far a little humility,” says Mark Wynns. “When your film does get in that Tier 1 festival, be confident in your work, but also realize that besides you making a good movie, a lot of other things happened that got you there. Don’t stand outside the theatre and say negative things about other films and filmmakers at the festival – even if you really hate their film – to people you don’t know. Trust me on this, you do not want to find out what happens if you start badmouthing to the wrong person. You’ve made a film that can stand on its own, so let your film do your talking.” Go to the parties. There are some of you out there who need to be told to do this. When it comes to film festivals, parties are where a lot of business relationships begin. You don’t need to stay to the bitter end of every party, nor do you need to go everywhere you’re invited, but get out and engage in the art of the schmooze. If your schmoozing skills are rusty, ask for advice from the schmooziest person you know. Be sure to pass out those flyers when the opportunity presents itself. Don’t forget to ask for business cards from the interesting people you meet, and try to take it easy on the open bar. 150 Film Festival Secrets

The Short Story: Don’t be shy about giving away screeners of your work. Feature filmmakers may have financial reasons for restricting access to screener copies, but the commerical potential of a short film is miniscule compared to the rewards if a producer sees your work and wants to hire you as a result. Your film is both your ticket into the world of working professionals and your business card to the industry – don’t guard it too jealously.

Take good notes. Your festival notebook is as important here as it was in the previous chapters. You don’t need to scribble out every word you hear verbatim, but you should get in the habit of jotting down a note or two after each conversation you have. Make sure you take note of the person’s name (even if you got their business card) and what the main points of the conversation were. Don’t rely on your memory; it will fail you when you most need it. Take pictures. Of course you should take pictures of the sellout crowds at your screening (or at least frame the shot so it looks like a sellout crowd), but make sure you get some shots of the festival poster, the theater marquee (especially if your film’s name is on it!), and of the people you meet. Yes, you should get a picture of yourself with that celebrity over there, but don’t forget to capture the memories of your newfound friends and newly converted fans. Stay tuned to the festival news. Subscribe to the official festival newsletters and text message updates and read some of the third-party coverage of the festival as a whole. You want to get a sense of where the action is and what events are likely to draw crowds. Most especially you want to be aware of lastminute schedule changes and additions – things can change in the middle of a festival and you can’t make intelligent choices about how to spend your time if you aren’t in the know. Chapter 6: At the Festival 151

Wheeling and dealing It is the not-so-secret dream of every filmmaker who steps onto the festival circuit: to play at a prestigious festival, to generate enormous buzz before your screening and sell out, and to receive a huge check from a smiling distribution exec as the credits roll. It is with 99% certainty that I can say that this will not happen to you. (If you’re in the other 1%, congratulations! You’ve made an awesome film and I want to see it.) The more likely scenario is that, if your film does well at prominent festivals, distributors and sales agents will approach you during the festival and after to “see what your plans are” regarding distribution. If you’re starting to get serious inquiries from distributors and you’ve been able to get representation before now, you should be able to secure a producer’s rep at this point. Brian Udovich, co-producer of The Wackness, cautions against trying to go it alone. “Representation makes the whole process easier. You need an expert who knows what similar projects have sold for in the past, who knows who the players are, and knows the lay of the land.” That doesn’t mean that you can sit back and watch it unfold without your participation, he says. “Sometimes you have to hold your rep’s feet to the fire, to ask them ‘what are you doing today to sell this film?’ It’s important to be part of the process.” If you find yourself at a festival with a serious offer from a distributor and no representation, don’t sign anything without talking to a lawyer and making an attempt at finding that sales agent. “If you have an offer on the table it’s hard to think of an agent who wouldn’t step in to protect your interests for that ten percent,” says Udovich. Don’t worry about the offer evaporating, and don’t cave in to 152 Film Festival Secrets

high-pressure sales tactics. If there’s serious interest during the festival, there will be serious interest later.

Handling disappointment The number one rule of handling any negative situation at a film festival is: don’t wig out. I’ve seen a producer pull at his own hair and moan over relatively minor projection issues, ignoring the packed house that obviously enjoyed the film. Another director screamed curses at a hapless volunteer working the ticket booth for a perceived slight. Perhaps worst of all are the filmmakers who take their grievances to the court of public opinion, complaining about the festivals that have wronged them on internet message boards for months afterwards. Such behavior rarely helps your cause in the short term, other than to draw attention to yourself, and in the long term being unpleasant only alienates potential allies. Things that can go wrong include: • A poorly attended screening • Bad projection • A lost print • A dirty hotel room Nearly every other page of this book is devoted to anticipating and preventing such unpleasantries, but if something happens try the following steps: Take the initiative. If there’s something you can do to fix the problem without involving the festival staff, try that. If it’s a problem with your hotel room, negotiate directly with the hotel Chapter 6: At the Festival 153

staff. If your beta tape breaks during a screening, step up front to apologize and keep the audience in their seats while you replace it with your backup. Be firm about your complaint but don’t whine or raise your voice. Describe the problem precisely in a normal conversational tone and ask for help. Suggest resolutions. If you know how to change the settings on that projector to display your film in the correct aspect ratio, speak up. Accept apologies but don’t insist on them. Acknowledge when someone is doing their best to help. No one at a festival sets out to create a bad experience. They’re probably more upset, embarrassed, and stressed out than you are. Be open to compromise if a perfect solution can’t be found. Be gracious afterwards. If you write a festival diary for your web site, acknowledge the problem and praise the festival for acting to correct the situation. If they completely failed to address the issue it’s probably best not to mention it at all. The world is smaller than ever before, and the film festival world even smaller than that. Festival directors talk to one another, and to the distributors, sales reps, and other industry types who used to be festival directors. When they talk about you to one another, it’s your job to make sure they have only nice things to say.

When it becomes old hat If you’re having a successful festival run, you may start to weary of the routine. The festivals you attend later in your film’s run may not be as glamorous or organized as the events you play first and it can be easy to become cynical. Try to maintain your 154 Film Festival Secrets

enthusiasm – if not for the festival circuit itself, then at least for the audience members who haven’t seen your film yet. These are the people who will potentially support your career in the movies to come; if you appear indifferent to their admiration you probably won’t keep it for long.

Heading home If you depart before the festival ends, be sure to say goodbye to the programming staff and show them your appreciation one more time. If you hang around to see the festival to its conclusion, go to the closing night party and appreciate the more relaxed atmosphere. Some of the most interesting conversations to be had at any festival will be with the event staff as the fest comes to a close and as tensions ease. Now pack up your suitcase and board that plane; it’s time to go home and start thinking about the next festival.

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Chapter 6 review checklist Revisit your goals for yourself and your film. Reduce them to smaller goals that you can accomplish during the festival. Practice your elevator pitch and be ready to talk about your “what’s next” projects. Upon arrival, make contact with the festival staff and get used to the festival surroundings, including the venue where your film will play. Work the crowd -- get your marketing materials out there and talk to as many people as you can about your film. Spend some time hanging around the press. Make sure they have your marketing swag and copies of your screener and EPK if appropriate. Attend some panels and get to know the panelists afterwards. If you’re lucky enough to be on a panel, be nice. Prepare for your screening intro and/or Q&A -- you don’t want to make stuff up on the spot. After your screening, spend time getting to know the other filmmakers and attending industry & press. If you start to get serious interest from distributors, make sure you have representation and advice from your professional team before you sign anything. 156 Film Festival Secrets

If there are aspects of the festival that disappoint you, try to ďŹ nd reasonable resolutions. Don’t whine or shout. Do not air your grievances in a public forum after the festival. Try to maintain your enthusiasm even when the festival routine becomes exhausting.

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Chapter 7: Aftermath

Chapter 7: Aftermath 159

160 Film Festival Secrets

Aftermath The party’s over. Filmmakers and moviegoers alike shuffle their feet down airport concourses to board their departing flights and nurse the last vestiges of their carefully cultivated hangovers. As a filmmaker returning home in the afterglow of a festival, you should check the following items off your to-do list before “real” life reclaims your attention. Organize and digitize those business cards. If you did nothing else this book advised you to do, I hope you gave away your own business cards and collected those of the people you met. Dig them out of your bag or wallet or wherever you stashed them and get that data out of the physical realm and into the digital. Whatever you use for storing contact data is fine, just make sure it’s accessible and synced up with your e-mail client when you need it. If you have some way of tagging or grouping the contacts by festival, you’ll have a ready-to-go contact list that you can ping if you decide to revisit that festival next year. Better yet, ask everyone you met to sign up for your film’s mailing list. Once you’ve got your business cards digitized, save the physical cards in a way that is meaningful to you. I have a Rolodex and I file the cards by company or film name, handwriting notes on the cards if necessary. I just staple the business cards to the rolodex cards and I’m done. Rarely do I gaze into the Rolodex, but it’s nice to know that if I ever lose my electronic version, I have the paper cards for a reference. Go back over your notes and follow up on to-do items. Hopefully you took good notes and you have a list of tasks to do, whether it’s sending screeners to distributors and journalists or simply following up on the previous work of a filmmaker whose Chapter 7: Aftermath 161

feature you enjoyed. Complete these in the first week after you get back so they don’t slip through the cracks. Send follow-up and thank-you e-mails. Dedicate a block of time just to e-mail every single person you met. Whether they’re “it was good to meet you” e-mails, thank-you notes, or followups on specific inquiries, touch base one more time with everyone. In particular you should follow up with journalists; offer to answer any further questions they might have as a polite way of reminding them that you’re expecting some coverage. Update your web site. One of the keys to encouraging repeat visits to your web site is to post new content, and a festival trip is a great reason to update. Post pictures from your screenings and a quick blog entry or two about the festival, the people you met, and the films you saw. Giving good “press” to other films is a good way of encouraging links back. Once the updates are complete, send a message to your mailing list subscribers inviting them to come back and check out the new stuff. When you checked in at the festival you should have received a program guide. Though you likely flipped straight to your film’s listing when you first got it, take some time afterwards to check out the guide thoroughly. Read what they wrote about your film. (Hopefully they didn’t just use the synopsis you provided.) I always enjoy it when festival staff take pride in their selections and write original synopses; it provides some insight into the personalities of the programmers and reveals the character of the festival. If you like the synopsis well enough you can always ask to use it as your official synopsis in the future.

Set up Google alerts for press and blog mentions of your film. Both Google and Yahoo offer e-mail alerts that let you know when a phrase or word combination of your choosing appear in the press. I suggest starting with your film’s title in quotes. If that results in too many unrelated results, use the director’s name to narrow things down a bit. Consider setting up a specific alert 162 Film Festival Secrets

with the name of the film festival included to make it easier to break down coverage by festival. Analyze the promotional efforts of the festival and of your fellow filmmakers. Look for ways that you can adapt their techniques to make your own marketing better. Plan for your next festival. If you’re fortunate enough to have a dance card with more festivals on it already, review the roster of films and panels for the upcoming festival. If you spot anyone you know from a previous festival, get in touch. At the very least you can set up a time for a drink to compare notes; with some planning you can share resources to cross-promote your films or just get tips on the best ways to promote your own film locally at the upcoming festival. At times other filmmakers will know more about an upcoming festival than you do or even live in that town – you might even be able to score some free lodging if you play your cards right.

What about distribution? You may have noticed that I have deliberately steered clear of any in-depth discussion of film distribution. While film festivals are in many ways the gateways to distribution, one’s inclusion in even a major film festival is a far cry from a guaranteed distribution deal. Volumes longer than this one have been written on the distribution of independent films and the recent shifts in the indie film landscape (especially the collapse of so many major indie distributors in the summer of 2008) have made those tomes at least partially obsolete. Everyone in the industry is desperately searching for the next profitable model of distribution for indeChapter 7: Aftermath 163

pendent films. Is it direct downloads? Streaming video? Highdef DVDs? Boutique theaters with frozen margaritas and robot ushers? (Please let it be the robot ushers.) I don’t claim to have the answers, though I’m certain that festivals – at least the reputable ones – will always have a place as arbiters of quality and as venues for the celebration of film. Festival screeners will continue to rake through the dung-heaps of movies made every year and extract the cinematic gems, and programmers will polish those gems for presentation to the world. Cinephiles the world over will flock to the festivals for the movies and the glamour, and filmmakers will continue to use them as combination coming-out parties and career fairs. Whether distributors invent methods to deliver those festival gems to audiences profitably or if filmmakers opt out of the old system and find a way to reach their audiences directly remains to be seen. My favorite book on the subject of independent film is Lloyd Kaufman’s Make Your Own Damn Movie. If you’ve never read it I suggest that you make it the very next book on your shelf. Kaufman is the mad genius behind the Troma Studios movies like The Toxic Avenger and Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D. In Make Your Own Damn Movie, Kaufman espouses a philosophy that every first time filmmaker should take to heart (and I’m paraphrasing here): If you got into the movie business to get rich, you completely missed the point. If you’re still looking for some clues as to the future of distribution and how your film might make some of its budget back, check out the distribution page on the Film Festival Secrets web site. I’ll try to have something intelligent and helpful waiting for you there. 164 Film Festival Secrets

This is not the end By now it should be apparent that a run on the film festival circuit is not merely a series of discrete events but an ongoing process of promoting your film and building your career. One festival flows into another, building up your media portfolio and buzz (both personal and film-specific) to the point that you sell your film or embark on another project. Not that beginning a new project absolves you of promoting your past projects. Your films are your children; you owe it to them and to yourself to devote time to ensuring long, happy lives for each of them.

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Afterword I always intended for Film Festival Secrets to be an evolving document. As the world of independent film changes, so will the festival world and so too will this book. I look to filmmakers like you to tell the stories and ask the questions that will shape the next edition. Please send them to: Now put down the book and go make a great movie. I’m looking forward to seeing it at a film festival soon.

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168 Film Festival Secrets

Appendix: Additional Resources

Appendix 169

Festivals Contributors & film festivals mentioned in this book: Ann Arbor Film Festival ( Atlanta Film Festival ( Austin Film Festival ( Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival ( Cinekink ( Cinevegas ( deadCENTER Film Festival ( Fantastic Fest ( Frameline ( Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival ( Hot Docs ( Indie Memphis ( Intl Documentary Festival of Amsterdam ( Marfa Film Festival ( Oxford (MS) Film Festival ( Sidewalk Moving Pictures Festival ( Slamdance ( South by Southwest ( Sundance Film Festival ( Toronto International Film Festival ( Tribeca Film Festival (

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Sites I Like An incomplete list of the author’s favorite indie film web sites: Alamo Drafthouse Blog ( All These Wonderful Things ( Anthony Kaufman’s Blog ( Around the Block ( Cinema is Dope ( D-Word, The ( Gabe’s Declaration of Principles ( FilmThreat ( Greencine Daily ( Slackerwood ( SpoutBlog ( Twitch ( Workbook Project, The (

Appendix 171

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Index Symbols 35mm 28

A Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences 14 AKA 131 alumni filmmakers 35 Ann Arbor Film Festival 13, 100 Atlanta Film Festival 13, 21, 35, 89, 143, 147 Austin Film Festival 13, 35, 47, 95 awards 9

B ‘Bama Girl 129, 129–131 blog. See marketing Blood Car 143 Britfilms Directory 14 business cards 58–59, 161

C Cannes Film Festival 12 Castle, William 115 Chevigny, Katy 147 Cinetic 85 Cinevegas 13, 115 clip reel 80 CNN 121 common mistakes 4–7 101 cover letter 34 Craigslist 128 Crowell, Thomas A. 85

D Diesel, Vin 142 DigiBeta 28, 29 disappointment 153 distribution 8, 22, 84–88, 152, 163, 163–164

Donaghey, Adam 60 Dymo label printer 125

E Edwards, Jay 142 Efilmcritics 131 Election Day 147 electronic press kit 144 elevator pitch 139 Emanuel, Michelle 34 Entertainment Weekly 121 entry fees 36, 38–39 reducing 49–50 exhibition copies 28

F Facebook 68 Fantastic Fest 12 fee waivers 50 festival directories 14, 38 festival pyramid 11–14, 19–20, 42 Film Festival World 14 Flanagan, Mike 78 Frameline Film Festival 12

G Gmail 65 Godfrey, Claudette 33 Google 162 Gore, Chris 14 Goslins, Rachel 129

H Hanson, Scott D. 17, 149 Harrison, Donald 100 Hawaii Film Festival 13 HD-CAM 28 Hot Docs 12

Index 173

Humane Society 116, 119


MovieMaker Magazine 14 music rights 4 MySpace 68

IDFA 12 indieWIRE 14 Indie Memphis 50 International Film Festival Summit ix




Jambor, Erik 50 Judson, Charles 35, 89

Orr, Alex 143 Oxford Film Festival 34



Kaufman, Lloyd 164 King Kong 86 Kissing on the Mouth (film) 143

panels 9, 145–146 Park City 87 parties 9, 150 Parts (film) 149 phone services 59 postage 41, 42, 43 posters. See marketing, printed material premiere 12, 24, 25, 46 press kits 37, 74 projection 141–142 promotional items. See tchotchkes publicists 86

L Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong (film) 115 Las Vegas ix lawyers 84 Little Miss Sunshine 3 Litwak, Mark 85

M Magyar, Chris 79 mailing lists 67 Make A Killing 79 Make Your Own Damn Movie 164 mariachi band 124 marketing 142–143 blog 66 case study 128–132 printed material 125 printed materials 70–74 special interest 117–120 still photos 62 stunt 115 to the media 142–144 visual identity 57 web site 61–68, 162 MicroFilmmaker Magazine 78 Moleskine notebook 112 174 Film Festival Secrets


Q Q&A, post-screening 147–150

R rejection 45–48 rights, music 79 Road House (film) 146 Rolodex 161 RSS 67 Ryan, Meg 43

S sales agents 85 screener copies for festivals 25–26 screening copies 110, 151 sell-out plan 113–134 Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D. (film) 164

short films, length of 4 Sidewalk Moving Pictures Festival 13 Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival 50 Silverdocs 12 Silver Lake Film Festival 7 Sitges Film Festival 12 Slamdance Film Festival 18 South by Southwest 21, 33, 129–131, 143 stickers 75 Stomp! Shout! Scream! (film) 142 Sundance Film Festival x, xiii, 12, 17, 20, 21, 28, 85, 87 swag. See tchotchkes Swanberg, Joe 143 Swayze, Patrick 146 synopsis, writing 64

waivers. See entry fees Wardell, Gabriel xi, 21 When Harry Met Sally (film) 43 Williams, Kelly 35 William Morris Agency 85 Wilson-Brown, Saskia 7 Withoutabox 34, 38, 39, 40 Wynns, Mark 146, 150

Y Y’all Come! (film) 142 Yahoo 162 YouTube 79

Z Zakheim, Landon xiii

T tchotchkes 37, 76–77 test screenings 3 thank-you note 96–97 THINKfilms 131 timeline for submissions 20 Tomb Raider (film) 61 Toney, Linnea 95 Toronto Film Festival 12, 13, 17, 19, 85 Toxic Avenger, The (film) 164 trailers 65, 78–79 travel 81–82, 99–101, 110–112 festival-assisted 100–101 Tribeca Film Festival 102 Trussell, Jesse 47

U Udovich, Brian 152 Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide 14 University of Texas 131

V Variety 14, 121 Vistaprint 59–60

W Wackness, The (film) 152 Index 175

About the author In 1996 Christopher Holland co-founded Stomp Tokyo (, one of the first web sites dedicated to fringe cinema. The site was touted by the New York Times as “a place to indulge one’s questionable taste.” Holland went on to co-author the book Reel Shame: Bad Movies and the Hollywood Stars Who Made

Them, and his writing has appeared in numerous other books and magazines. After serving as the Marketing Coordinator at the Austin Film Festival, he now works at indie film distributor B-Side Entertainment as the Director of Festival Operations and consults with independent filmmakers on festival strategy and marketing. He lives in Austin, TX with his wife and daughter.

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If you’ve devoured Film Festival Secrets and are hungry for more, don’t forget to visit the constantly updating Film Festival Secrets web site: for news, articles, interviews, and festival tips. Also: the mind behind the book can work for your film! Get help applying these strategies to your particular movie and your individual circumstances. Inquire about Christopher Holland’s filmmaker consulting services: Where do you need help? • tailor-made festival strategy for your film • festival marketing ideas / audience attraction & event planning • specific festival recommendations appropriate to your picture • construction of press kit & matching printed materials • in-depth knowledge of and connections on the film festival circuit • short film strategy • more! E-mail today for more details on reasonable fixed-price packages or per-hour consultation. Index 177

178 Film Festival Secrets

Film Festival Secrets