Festival season is underway. Every season is, of course, festival season, but I find it really gets kicked off in earnest after everyone has their official rejection letter from Sundance. Everyone has a different take on the festival circuit: what success means, which festivals are what tier (and what that means for your film and career), and which fests are worth attending. I have highly subjective answers to those questions, formed over the course of my navigating the circuit. What’s more useful to share, however, are perhaps some strategies for making the most of your festival run, wherever it takes you. Like most opportunities in life, “the love we take is equal to the love we make.” (The Beatles have many answers that will save a lot of time.)
If you show up expecting the festival to do all the work and think they owe you some kind of magic pathway to distribution, you will more than likely be disappointed. If you see the festival circuit as your own personal pathway to meeting other filmmakers and finding your audience, offering community and building relationships with programmers to connect the dots of your career long-term, you will accept that you have some work to do and get exponentially more out of the experience (and, yes, maybe even a path to distribution).
You get the call. You’re in!
Usually it’s a call. Programmers LOVE getting to give good news and they often make a phone call to the producer on your submission. When they call, this is your chance to make a first impression – be enthusiastic! Thank them for supporting your film. They love your film and they want to love you – don’t give them a reason not to.
Next, you follow up with an email to the festival.
Remember that YOU’RE SO EXCITED and can’t wait to fill the house for your premiere (they haven’t set the times yet – so be visible and make them feel that you’re a good bet for a good premiere time). Local connections? Mention them. Got a great idea for a premiere tie-in with a local non-profit? Mention it!
- When can you announce on social media? Do not announce early or share the news before the festival authorizes you to – following the festivals PR strategy helps you in the end and shows respect to the other filmmakers as well. Let the festival roll out its press release and announcement, then go crazy with your insta.
- How many filmmaker passes will you receive? – when you get the answer to this question less than the 6 people on your team willing to travel to the festival and participate – you bet you are writing that email follow up to say GREAT NEWS, my DP, cast and writer all want to come be a part of the festival and Q&A, also willing to be on panels, any chance you can extend another pass or two to us? Of course you completely understand if they cannot, but this is another opportunity to show the festival what YOU OFFER THEM. Enthusiastic filmmakers who will help their PR and show up.
- Who is the publicity contact and is there anything you can do to help with publicity for the festival leading up to it? Often they will appreciate a Facebook live announcement – and retweet and coordinate with their own social media. Or they appreciate knowing you are willing to do pre-fest interviews about how excited you are about the festival. This press is great press for you. You do it regardless of if it’s about your film or not. Are there red carpet opportunities? Oh, only the Director of each film can attend the opening night red carpet? Your lead actress is travelling from the UK to be there. Is there another spot for her to walk the carpet (there is).
- What are the official hashtags for their social media? Use them. Encourage your team and supporters to use them. Tag your festival like your life depends on it. Suddenly the understaffed publicity department feels supported by its filmmakers seeing their notifications go up and reach extending out into your networks. Guess who they think of when they get an interview opportunity? Ok, yes, it’s the boy wonder everyone can’t believe made a film on his iPhone. But then NEXT they think of you!
- Who is the film traffic contact? Make friends with them. They are the gatekeepers to getting to test your film in the theatre prior to screening. DO NOT MISS THEIR DEADLINES. Even if there is not an official test time set up for filmmakers – ask for one. Worst case they say no, we don’t have the ability to test the film in the theatre. Best case, you get to check the projection and have a meditative moment of pride in your theatre before it’s filled. Some of my best festival moments, actually. If you are granted a test time, be on time (early) and watch a selection that has both dialogue and music. Check the aspect ratio and listen for sound levels. Make sure all the speakers are playing if it is supposed to be 5.1. This need only take 10-15 minutes.
Now you’ve made friends with the programming team, confirmed you’ll screen… OH WAIT, what if you get an acceptance and you haven’t yet heard about a big festival where you’re hoping to premiere? You hang up the phone and immediately shoot off an email or call to the programmers at the other fest. You ask for consideration for an early decision. Many festivals will give you a sense for where you stand if they can early in order to help you with your premiere status decision. Premieres are important to festivals. You usually have a few days to a week to accept the programming or decline it. Be transparent and everyone will understand. Just be gracious.
Part Two will cover festival prep – building your publicity materials and how to make the most of the lead up to your screenings and red carpet!