“What would get you to go to a local film festival, Joseph?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never been to one… maybe an invitation?”
I guess that makes sense. Just inviting my friend to go see a movie with me is probably enough to get him to come to this film festival. Is that enough though? Will people actually come and will the film festival survive?
I have personally seen half a dozen film festivals disappear before my eyes over the last 8 years. I have attended, networked, enjoyed, and made friends and then when it comes time to submit again… they have disappeared. It’s expensive to run a film festival. It is hard work. It is actually too much for a small group of people to do- coordinating 2-4 days of events spanning meals, panels, entertainment, and making filmmakers feel like a million bucks. AND an awards ceremony after all that?! And you have to take into account a year’s worth of business paperwork, scheduling, planning, and maintenance that fits between each major event. It is a wonder that any festivals survive.
“It’s very costly to host a weekend film festival in an area where there aren’t really any corporations, but rather small businesses that only can afford to donate 50-100 dollars–” Zack Gold is the Festival Director of Film Fest Twain Harte, set in a luxurious forest in Northern California. I’ve had the pleasure of attending this gem in Twain Harte with our production team. We rented a big house as a group and made lasting memories relaxing in nature. Great find for my list of places for a weekend away from the big city. “Our greatest expense comes in the fact that there are no real theaters in the area, so we have to rent out all of the equipment to build the festival (physically!) from the ground up. It’s been taking about 10-20K per year to throw it the right way…” Zack continued to share that a supportive community that isn’t wealthy may not be enough to keep fests like these running year after year.
Why do we need small to mid-level film festivals at all then?
Because the filmmakers need them.
Thousands upon thousands of films cannot make it into the top 10 or 20 film festivals each year- there are just too many films and not enough slots. Not every filmmaker is ready for the world stage or appeals to the niches that bigger film fests attract. Sometimes you want a fest that gives extra consideration to niches that may not get traction at some other fests… maybe you need a shorts fest, a web fest, a short doc fest, an animation fest, a music in film fest, a women’s fest, a Hispanic fest, a LGBT fest, a western fest, a gangster fest, an experimental fest, a no budget fest, … sometimes you want a family festival set in a small town surrounded by your loved ones who really need to see the real you. As a filmmaker, you’ll receive some very honest feedback from a small town audience- this is the real audience about which distributors are talking.
I spoke with award-winning film director Marc Hampson about his time on the festival circuit with me. I know he didn’t enjoy being dragged to festivals at first, but he has come to value personally attending each one- even driving across the country to represent his films, “I like seeing other people’s films. It’s also nice to see other people are doing what you’re doing. It’s reassuring to know other people are also making poor life decisions: sacrificing for their art.” His hilarious yet grim perspective captures my feelings perfectly. Film Fests are where you meet like-minded artists with which you may have more in common than most people in your family & circle of friends.
The community needs them.
Grassroots in-person spreading of ideas and art is actually more impactful than most of the features sweeping your local major chain cinemas. Watching a short documentary by a local filmmaker student about your local government, seeing the world through her eyes, and then asking her questions in the Q&A is a memorable experience. Seeing a dozen or so films made through blood, sweat, and tears is an art gathering worth exploring together. Cinema moves hearts and minds through the weaving of visual and auditory mediums that inspire and evoke emotion in ways that cannot be described. Storytelling is magic and we need magic in our lives. And the stories in the chain cinemas are just not varied enough to reach us all. Getting together with others that value local art is a worthy experience in and of itself.
The economy needs it.
Look at the bottom of that local film fest’s website or on the screen before the film starts or on a billboard at the after-party –what do you see? Sponsors. Someone is sponsoring each part of this festival. Someone is donating the time, the food, the space, the money, the exposure, or lodging. Someone is supporting the local arts. Those people are rock stars. The Sponsors are the reasons film festivals of ALL sizes exist. These sponsors see something WORTH celebrating and want to be a part of the event. Sponsors see an opportunity to align with good people having a good time. Sponsors are fabulous. They make this regular event seem amazing, fun, special, and inviting.
I’ve been to several film fests that brought me to cities I might never have visited. I show up to a great, welcoming group of locals who love cinema. I party with the locals each night and meet a good handful of other filmmakers I might never have run into at a big fest. We get to giggle over how lovely we’re being treated here. We watch interesting movies made from people with very different backgrounds. We eat delicious local food in the green room and meet some business owners. We get bombarded with business owners of all types trying to lure us into filming our next project here with all the amazingness they have to offer. We have a smashing screening in a tiny room with a projector followed by a thoughtful Q&A. There are lots of blue hairs (the older artistic supportive community… basically retired folks) and a few spirited young people in their 20’s & 30’s trying to run the place by literally running around to take care of everything themselves. There is quirky local swag and lots of antique shops in walking distance. There is a feeling of ease and time to enjoy the town. My husband and I make plans to come back and hope our new filmmaker friends will do the same. It’s a lovely experience that gives me hope and pride in my work.
I can get that type of experience several times a year with film festivals in driving distance. I cannot get that with big film festivals at my level. There isn’t enough room to be the ‘it’ filmmaker with the trending film at every big fest every year. I need those networking festivals with each film. I need a trusty list of 10-20 fests that I know will be a good time, trustworthy, a great networking opportunity, and a place I want to see their film program. I need to have a rotating list of places I look up to see what films won awards this year and I should check out. As an actor/producer/writer, I need a list of film fests that I can count on as a place to find other filmmakers on their way up with which I want to collaborate. I need small to medium film festivals that are REALISTIC to get into with the right film and are REALISTIC to win an award. I want to help make these fests big, great, & successful with my relationship with them as my career begins to make traction.
Not bragging, there is a point, trust me- I’ve won some awards (writing and filmmaking) for several films. I’ve been asked to speak on panels, give filmmaking workshops, and review a book on film festivals for the Producer’s Guild Magazine “Produced By.” I have a good relationship with a few types of film festivals and in the right situation, I was able to ask a California fest to reconsider us for a slot in their program because I could guarantee a full house for our West Coast Premiere and they KNEW I was telling the truth- not because they knew me personally, but because they knew my reputation professionally. There are perks to relationships with film festivals. I am just a filmmaker, but have a much nicer bio than some of my peers because of what I’ve made out of good ol’ fashioned handshaking and facetime in-person at some fabulous smaller film festivals.
I need these places to ‘stay in business’ – but how?
Go. Invite a friend. Personally invite them. Go see a few films. Ask some thoughtful questions. Shake someone’s hand. Go to the Sponsor’s businesses and eat/shop/splurge- tell them you heard about them from the film fest. Talk to filmmaker people in person and become social media acquaintances. Keep up with them and follow their career slowly. After a few years, it’ll mean a whole lot. It may be the thing that boosts your economy. It may become a HUGE local event you have been a part of since before it was cool. Volunteer at these fests. Just for a few hours for a day or so. It’s a great way to meet people and get a discount on tickets. Be a part of your film community. Anything in driving distance. It’s worth it.