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WITHOUT-A BOX IN 16 STEPS
|by Mark Stolaroff, February 2015|
|I don't consider myself a film festival expert, necessarily, compared to those
who work or have worked for festivals, or those who write about them extensively or exclusively, or have written popular books about them, or teach courses on them, or whatever, but after attending countless film festivals for well over 20 years, often with films of my own, I've
certainly accumulated a number of pointers with regard to developing a festival strategy for your independent film. The first
rule is: develop some sort of a strategy! Too often filmmakers just dive into Withoutabox with no rhyme or reason, clicking
the next deadline that comes along. I hope this article will give you a basis to put a plan together, and provide you with
some helpful tips to make your festival experience a success.|
First a little about me. I'm an independent producer in Los Angeles and I also teach no-budget
filmmaking through something I created called No Budget Film School. I first started attending festivals in the late 80's when I was in Houston. Before many of today's top festivals
were even around, (SXSW, Tribeca), WorldFest Houston was putting on a pretty good festival in my home town. When SXSW created
the film festival portion of their annual music celebration in 1994, I was there, and attended religiously the next nine consecutive
years. Once I moved to LA and began working at Next Wave Films, a finishing funds company financed by the Independent Film
Channel, I started attending festivals all over the world, often to be on panels or juries, and most often with films. We
put together the sales and festival strategy for the films we invested in - which included the first features of filmmakers
like Christopher Nolan and Joe Carnahan - and took seven films to Sundance and five films to Toronto. I have attended Sundance
20 years in a row now, and have gone to Toronto 10 times. I honestly can't count how many other film festivals I have
When I became an independent producer,
I was required to put together festival strategies for my own films, (one of my recent features, Pig, was accepted into over 35 festivals worldwide and won 10 awards), and here's where it became more interesting. When
your film gets into Sundance, choosing festivals is a matter of process of elimination - festivals invite you to attend or
apply and you decide which ones of those you want to consider. When you don't get into Sundance, like my last three features,
(and while that doesn't mean the end of the world), you have a very uphill battle ahead of you to get your film noticed,
and you can spend a lot of money and go through a lot of heartache in that process, even with a good film. I hope to minimize
that frustration and cost with these tips.
|16 Step Festival Strategy|
- Be strategic.
You have to possess a bit of knowledge about what you're doing, the film you have, the ecosystem of the film festival,
what festivals are out there, etc., so you can step back and put together a workable festival strategy for your film. The
first thing I suggest is to attend as many film festivals as you can. Just about every city has a festival these days, even
the tiniest nooks of the world, (I took Pig to a festival called Trindiefest, where
they have invited me to do a presentation. It was in Trinidad, Colorado. Trinidad. Colorado.) You can learn so much about
fests by being at one: what the programmers are like, what the audiences are like, what the films are like, what the filmmakers
are like, perhaps even what the industry is like, if it's that kind of festival. Then read whatever articles and books
you can, just so you can get a lay of the land. I would say one of the first things you want to do, even before putting together
a strategy, is...
- Decide what kind of film you have. Is it a festival film at all? What is a festival film? What kind of festival
film is it? Is it a hardcore artfilm festival film? Is it a genre film festival film? Is it a soft, people-pleasing, feel-good
film festival film? There are festivals that cater to many different kinds of films, but you can't be strategic if you
have no idea what kind of film you have. If you don't know, get feedback. Show it to people who know, hold feedback screenings,
(there are a number of reasons to do this - see HERE), and while nothing is ever that certain with any of this, sometimes it's just obvious that you shouldn't be applying
to Sundance. Having said that, you will want to...
- Start at the top and move down. Maybe you're pretty sure you have a "Sundance
film," whatever that means. And that may be true in theory, but really in practice, Sundance is the only one who can
determine that. Even though it's expensive to apply there and a long shot to get in, an acceptance into Sundance can be
so important to the eventual success of your film and your filmmaking career, that you pretty much HAVE to apply there, no
matter what kind of film you think you have. You have very little to lose and so much to gain, in other words. The way this
all works with features, though, is you have to START at Sundance. They only take world premieres, with few exceptions, and
those exceptions don't apply to you. Most of the top festivals in North America (Sundance, Toronto, SXSW, Tribeca) want
world premieres, or in the case of festivals after Sundance like SXSW and Tribeca, world premieres and films that have played
in Sundance. So, while I hate to say this, you have to pretty much build your festival calendar around the order of these
major film festivals: Sundance, (Berlin, Rotterdam), SXSW, Tribeca, and Los Angeles. Of course, this varies depending on the
film and other factors, but the one certainty is to apply to Sundance first. But, here's what I'm also saying:
- Sundance does not decide
when your film is done. Don't let festival deadlines determine when you're finished. If your film is half-baked,
don't apply to Sundance. You pretty much only get one chance with these festivals, and you want to take your best shot.
I'm not saying you necessarily have to have a locked picture, with final music, sound and color, but I'm also not
saying you won't need some or all of those things in place to show what your film is. Different films are different. Some
don't need all the polish, while others don't come together until the last spot is buffed clean. You have to determine
this for yourself, (remember that "get feedback" suggestion?). I will tell you this, something I heard John Cooper,
Sundance's festival director, say to a friend of mine: if you have a really unique film, something really different that
they've never really seen before, then they are more willing to accept it even if they look at a cut that is clearly raw.
But if you have something conventional, and it's rough, and they have doubts, they are not going to give you the same
benefit of the doubt. Now, this I can tell you for certain: everybody submits rough cuts to Sundance, with temp edits, music,
sound, effects, and color. I've done it numerous times, and gotten in. Then everyone who gets accepted goes through a
mad dash to finish their films before the festival starts. I've been there more times than I 'd like to remember.
But if you have a 2 1/2 hour cut of your film, chances are you're not done editing it and you shouldn't submit. But
then you say, "well, then what, am I supposed to wait a whole year to apply to Sundance?" And the answer is: maybe.
It can often take that long to go from a rough cut or polished assembly to the eventual masterpiece you have in that block
- See where you land, then hit the ground running. So, generally you'll want to start by applying to Sundance,
SXSW, Tribeca, etc., and likely you will get rejected, because it's so competitive and these fests are hard to get into.
So, you'll also want to start applying to other festivals that seem right for your film - other Spring and Summer festivals.
But at some point if you get rejected from some festivals, you need to realize that you are also likely going to get rejected
from certain others, because there are certain other festivals that pull from the kind of festivals you were just rejected
from. You want to figure this out as soon as possible so you're not just getting rejected from every festival you apply
to. I can only talk about this in the abstract, because every film is different and there are a lot of festivals, but as an
example: if you're not a Sundance/SXSW/Tribeca film, you're probably also not a Florida (unless you shot there), San
Francisco Int'l., Hamptons, etc. film, either, (and probably not right for a whole bunch of top shelf international festivals, too, like Cannes, Berlin, Venice, etc.). Don't believe me? I spoke with the Executive Director
of DeadCenter Film Festival in Oklahoma recently. Of the 14 or so narrative features in the fest, about 1/3 come from
Sundance, 1/3 are local, and the rest are World Premieres. If you do the math, and your film wasn't in Sundance and you're
not from Oklahoma, you probably have no business submitting to DeadCenter, no matter how nice a festival it is. So, you'll
want to course correct and start thinking of the second and third tier festivals that you have a better shot at and start
applying there, always remembering that your World Premiere status is valuable. And not to be crude, but it's your cherry
and you don't want to give it up to just any old festival. Once you do premiere, however, once you do land, then it's
off to the races. Success begets success, and you can use your acceptance into one fest as a lure to get into others. So,
if you have a horror film that you think might be right for Sundance, even though it's just a straight-up horror film,
and it doesn't get into Sundance and a host of other top tier fests, it's time to call off the search, regroup, and
start applying to genre festivals, working with the best ones first. Of course...
- Research. You're going to do a bunch of research
and put together a list of all the festivals you might want to consider and know what their start dates are, their different
deadline dates are, and other information like cost, screening format, etc. If you're like me, you're going to have
a big Excel spreadsheet with all these festivals on it, sorted by either start date, when you applied date, when you expect
to hear date, or whatever.
- Budget for this. If all this trial and error, trying to figure out what you have and where you
land sounds expensive, it surely is, so you're going to need to budget real cash for this. Estimate the costs of applying
(festival application fees range from around $20 or $30 to as much as $100 or more, and I would say the average is about $50-$60);
postage, (don't FedEx if you can avoid it); submission materials, (DVDs, cases, envelopes - I use Shop4tech.com for white
inkjet hub printable blank DVDs & clam shell plastic cases and PaperMart.com for 6"x10" bubble envelopes); marketing
materials, (postcards, posters); travel; accommodations; screening copies, (blu-ray, HDCAM); publicist, (recommended for a
fest like Sundance); etc.
- You need to run your application process like a campaign to get accepted. You will need to campaign
for your film and get others to do the same on your behalf. You'll want to figure out (tasteful) ways to get a programmer's
attention before you apply, so that you don't end up just another disc in the pile. If you know the programmer, call or
email them. Get friends or colleagues who know them to contact them too. You'll want to start picking festivals based
on your ability to stand out to those programmers. If you know them, if you shot in their city or state, if you've played
in their festival before, if you grew up there, anything you can think of to give you an edge, you will want to express that.
If your film has played other festivals or won awards, incorporate that info into the design you print on your DVDs, (yes,
you'll need to purchase an inkjet printer that prints directly on discs, but these can be as cheap as $100. I love my
Epson Artisan 725).
- Be resilient. If it's not already painfully obvious, you have to have thick skin. Perseverance is a very
handy quality to have at this stage. I can tell you from experience it hurts to be rejected. And it really hurts to be rejected
over and over; they add up and pile on and when there's nothing but bad news, you have to believe in your film, even when
seemingly, others don't. Pig, for instance, was a successful festival film by
most measures, but we were rejected by eight festivals before we were accepted into our first, (and some of those programmers
I knew personally). And I don't even want to tell you how many festivals in total we've been rejected from. And hear
this: No one else will tell you either! Because it's embarrassing and it makes the filmmakers and their films look bad.
But know that every film gets rejected from festivals, even films that were accepted into top tier fests get rejected from
some smaller fests. And I can pretty much guarantee you that if a film has 50 laurels on it's website and one of them
isn't from a top tier festival, then they were rejected from over 100 festivals.
- Attend the festivals you get into. My mentor and
co-worker Peter Broderick, who founded Next Wave Films and now runs a very successful distribution consulting business says, if your film goes to a
festival and you're not there, it's like a tree falling in a forest. Was it really there at all? Everything you gain
from playing in a festival, you get from being there, (other than the laurel you put on your website). Realize that many festivals
will not be able to pay for you to get there or be able to put you up. This is one reason you'll want to pick fests in
cities where friends and family live. So, why do you want to be in a festival in the first place?
- Set goals. You need to know why
you are playing festivals before you can do any of this stuff. Here are some of the things festivals can give you:
(a stamp of approval)
- Awards (a bigger stamp of approval)
- A distribution deal, (really only at the very top festivals like Sundance can
you maybe expect this)
- Marketing information, (who likes your film and why; what marketing materials and techniques work,
- Investors for your next film, (even small regional festivals
are great places to meet rich, potential investors, or in the case of Sundance, agents and production companies)
- Fun (I think you can imagine the possibilities)
- Future collaborators, (DP's, writers, actors, etc.)
- A community, (more on this in a bit)
- Intangibles (maybe the most valuable thing to gain from attending a fest is
the thing you could never predict). Realize that some festivals are better than others for obtaining different items on this
list, so know what's important to you before you decide which festivals to apply to.
- Build a community. It goes without
saying, I hope, that you already have a website and robust social media pages going before attending any festivals, so you'll
want to use festivals to help you build on your existing communities. Besides posting on the festival's wall and tweeting
back and forth with the festival and festival goers, work on getting those in attendance to join your Facebook page and follow
your film on Twitter. Here are two Million Dollar Ideas:
- bring clipboards with email sign-in sheets to every festival and pass
them out after the screening, while you're doing Q&A. This is the best way to build what will become a very valuable
email list. Yes, it seems old school and tedious, but it WORKS! Asking people to go to your website once they get home and
join your mailing list does not.
- hold a Twitter contest to encourage
activity about your film on Twitter. We told audiences at our screenings that we were giving away a free DVD of the film to
the person who tweeted the "best" tweet about the film in the next 30 minutes, using a prescribed hash tag. People
got on their smartphones immediately and started tweeting nice things about Pig, which
we later re-tweeted, after following them, and then we sent the one we liked best the DVD. So, it cost us about $2 per screening
to generate all those positive tweets. Just be aware that with any social media, you can't control what people might say,
so be ready for the occasional negative tweet with your hash tag!
- Feed the social media beast. Give your Facebook
page something to post. Take plenty of pics at the festivals, and include the programmers and others you meet in the pics,
so you can then tag them when you post. Video you shoot of Q&A's can make great DVD extras.
- Go with a presence. Even on a
small budget, you need to have a presence at the festivals you attend. Go to the parties, meet other filmmakers and fest goers,
go to other screenings. At a minimum, you should be printing postcards. I use the online site Uprinting.com and it's pretty
cheap to make 1,000 two-sided 4.25" x 6" postcards, (about $80 if I pick them up; less when they run specials; and
it's only a 3 day turnaround). This is a good size to both drop off in different areas and also to put in your back pocket
to hand to people you meet. You'll want to have great artwork on the front that lures them in, and pertinent information
on the back, such as: an intriguing/provocative synopsis; a billing block, (yeah, not entirely necessary, but it makes you
look real and it reminds them who they just met); website address; Facebook page; Twitter handle; your contact information;
review quotes; festival laurels and/or a list of fests accepted to; awards; and maybe most importantly, screening times. I only make 1,000 at a time because this information is
going to change throughout the course of your festival life. You may find your artwork sucks and you'll want to change
that. You'll want to add new quotes, awards, and laurels as you obtain them. To make your postcards last, I design the
spot where the screening information goes to be the same size as an Avery 5160 Address Label. For the first fest, I might
print that information on the back of the card, but then I'll cover that spot with a label adorned with the screening
times and place of the next festival. Big one-sheet posters can be expensive, but I recommend printing a few, (if you print
three with Uprinting.com, they're about $30 per), and then make sure you get them back after the festival is over! I like
creating at least one cool, unique, eye catching promotional thing. For my film Some Body, it was a tongue cleaner
adorned with the film's name and screening info, (you have to see the film to get the joke); for Pig, we created a mini comic book, (it's a sci-fi film and we handed them out at places like Comic Con and WonderCon). We also printed a huge 6' x
4' vinyl banner of our movie poster, which ended up not costing us that much and really made an impact when we hung it
overdo it. You don't want to play festivals forever. Know your goals and once you achieve them, move on. This
can be hard, especially with a successful festival film. Applying to and going to festivals can be addicting. There's
always just one more you hear about and want to apply to. But realize that for all you can gain from going to festivals, there
is an opportunity cost for going and ultimately, a point of diminishing returns, (I'm sorry--two economics terms!). Is
going to the 20th or 30th festival really more important than working social media to build a community online? While you
may say you don't have the time or money to hire someone to work on aggregating your niche audience, realize that it takes
a lot of time and money to attend dozens of festivals. I spent, personally, not the film, thousands of dollars traveling to
festivals last year. Could that money have been spent more effectively? Maybe. You need to ask yourself these questions throughout
the process. It's very difficult to concentrate on distribution or the next project you want to make when you are spending
months on the road at festivals. And also realize that while festivals can do so much, they don't necessarily get you
distribution. Know what you want to get out of them and leverage them to the hilt, but then move on when you've gotten
what you've needed from them.
- Be nice. This either sounds completely obvious, Pollyanna or Machiavellian, depending
on the type of person you are, and to be honest, it's a little of all three. You will get pissed at a festival; it's
one of those immutable laws. They are going to fuck you around, screw up your projection, lose your blu-ray, give you shitty
screening times, promise you something they don't deliver on, or worse than all of those, not accept your film. I try
to be nice to everybody I come across in this business, but I've learned the hard way that it doesn't pay to be an
asshole to a festival, no matter what they've done. Yes, you need to be firm and fight for what's best for your film,
but being polite and understanding goes a long way. And here's the Machiavellian part--being nice can pay big dividends.
If you want to win awards at festivals, be a nice guy (or gal)!
So, I've said a lot and yet there's still so much more to say. Perhaps
I'll put together some kind of festival course to teach in the future. Until then, here's hoping to see your film
at a festival soon!
Copyright © 2015 Mark Stolaroff.
All rights reserved.
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