First off, the type of movie you made determines your course of action.
Did you make a short? You can build momentum by doing as many festivals as you can get into. Maybe you’ll get into a top festival or maybe someone from a top festival will see your film at a festival they attend and they’ll invite you to show at theirs. Great. Attend as many of the festivals you’re in as you can and meet as many filmmakers as possible. This is our industry conference. Meet the people who run the festival so when you send them another movie they know you. That always helps.
Did you make a feature? HOLD IT. You need a strategy. A feature can only premiere once. Did you premiere at a tiny home town festival your friend runs? Then Sundance is off the table. A top tier festival WILL NOT CONSIDER YOUR FILM IF IT’S NOT A PREMIERE. You have to decide if you want to spend the year it will take to pull in the rejections to all the top festivals before you start applying to second tier festivals, a whole year with no movement where the likelihood is that you won’t be going to Park City or Austin or Toronto or the Côte d’Azur. It’s a big decision and based on the kind of film you have and what your distribution plan is you’ll have to make it. Once you’ve premiered then do all the festivals you want. As soon as you get that “yes” start submitting. You’ve got about a year and a half of being relevant and acceptable as a new film. You’re already late because submission deadlines for the next season are about to close.
There are 8340 festivals listed on the IMDB owned festival submission website Withoutabox. It’s the most widely used website but festivals have to pay to be on it so there are tons of them that aren’t listed there, which means the official count of film festivals in the world is somewhere around a bajillion. At around $25-50 per application that’s 50+ bajillion dollars a filmmaker can spend on submissions and years and years of research and form filling out time. Don’t do that; don’t spend that.
I ran the festival side of the feature film The Selling. We premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival (a top tier festival) and did over 30 other festivals over about a year and a half. The Selling is a horror comedy so we were able to play genre festivals in addition to regular ones. We also had no festival budget which means I was asking for fee waivers from most festivals. This is possible, but you have to be respectful and expect that you’ll usually hear no. Paying the fee is going to be faster and easier but if you really don’t have the money it doesn’t hurt to ask (festivals pay for themselves through submission fees and really need that money). A personalized letter about who you are and why you need a fee waiver might just get you one.
Thought you were out of money when you finished your movie? Well now that you’ve gotten into festivals it’s going to cost you more. Festivals ask for lots of different exhibition formats. While you no longer need a film print of your movie you might need a Digibeta , a bluray , an HD Cam or regular ole DVD’s. These cost a lot to format and also cost a lot for each individual tape (yes Digibeta and HD Cam are tapes). Don’t let them scan them at the airport. Pull a TSA scanner aside and explain that the tape can’t go through the machine and needs to be checked manually. Anyone who has traveled by air lately knows how fun this is going to be. Add the necessary time. Oh, you’ll also need backups of those. Maybe you’ll have one festival in Spain using Digibeta’s and one in Singapore using Digibeta’s playing at the same time. That means you need 4 Digibetas. Also that festival in Michigan is one week later. Will they ship in time? Do you want to risk it? You need 6. This can get expensive.
Unfortunately there aren’t a ton of resources out there to help you through this. Festivals can change, appear and disappear every year. Use your network. Ask your facebook friends what festivals they’ve enjoyed and expect your cousin’s friend to say they heard Sundance is good. There are top festival lists put out by Movie Maker and Filmmaker Magazine. There is Chris Gore’s Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide which is extremely useful but mostly about doing top festivals. There is also a great program put on occasionally by American Cinematheque with Thomas Ethan Harris called Navigating the Film Festival World. He is also a film consultant if you’re looking for one.
Doing research into what kind of films a festival likes can save you a lot of money. If the programmers hate horror films and you’ve just made a fine feature called “Blood, Blood Pus and Blood” then don’t bother submitting. I do however guarantee a prime spot opening night screening with that title at other festivals though. Know your audience.
The days of everyone getting huge distribution deals at festivals is pretty much over. Don’t expect it and you won’t be disappointed. In these early hazy days of self and multi platform distribution festivals are an important audience building tool. Make sure you have your social media strategy ready. You’re building the audience for your next film or your next Kickstarter campaign by going to festivals with this one. You also have an opportunity to make a little of your money back by selling DVD’s at your festival screenings. Some people might be hesitant to anger a future DVD distributor but they might never know and shouldn’t care. You probably won’t be seeing any money from them if you do get one so who cares what they think. Make your own DVD if you think your film is something people are going to want to own. You might at least pay for your hotel room and some snacks. These days festivals paying for a plane ticket or hotel room is a rare and nice surprise. It adds up. But you do get to go to cool places you might have never been to otherwise. Enjoy!