The Joys of the Regional Festival: Why You Should Attend Small Market Festivals (And How to Pick Out the Great Ones)

Moviemakers can’t attend every festival they get into. This is a matter of numbers: It is very rare to have any budget left to support this stage of your film’s life, when you finally get to it.

Because of this, a filmmaker has to look at these trips as investments in the future, and seriously evaluate whether or not he or she can attend each event. This is especially true for short filmmakers who are not usually subsidized by the festival for travel or paid a screening fee.

I spent much of the years 2010, 2011 and 2012 shuttling between the insanity that was post-earthquake Haiti and the unforgiving edit bay. I was shooting, producing and editing the feature documentary La Source alongside director Patrick Shen. After the years we poured into the film, it was sweet to premiere the film at AFI Docs, and the film had a robust life afterwards that included a theatrical run in L.A. and New York.

Though we thoroughly enjoyed the big festival spotlight, one of the experiences that really stuck with me came late in our festival run, when we were invited to two regional festivals: Boulder International Film Festival in Colorado and Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana. Since the festivals were in the same week, Patrick and I had to split up, and I opted for Missoula, heading north with an unconfirmed romantic notion about Montana.

Leaving behind the madness of LAX, I took a small commuter plane into Missoula’s tiny airport. We landed as the sun was setting behind the convergence of five mountain ranges that ring the small city. It felt like I had hardly gotten my bags before I found myself sitting in a very sweet volunteer’s Subaru, getting a tour of the town. She pointed out what she said was a great local bar just before we arrived at the hotel.

The charm offensive continued at the hotel. I received a growler of local beer, my festival bag and my new friend’s personal phone number in case I had any questions during my stay. After dropping my stuff off and consuming a locally made granola bar I found in my festival bag, I walked to the aforementioned Union Bar. What appeared to be a sleepy old frontier dive bar from the outside had a rowdy mountain energy inside, fueled by cheap drinks and a surprisingly great local band. I’d planned on just a quick drink-come-cultural field trip, but the night had other plans. I met two filmmakers from Utah (who are still part of my filmmaking circle today), also just in, and after a congratulatory cheers our festival experience was off and running. Over this first trip to Big Sky, I began to understand the crucial, nuanced role that regional festivals can play in your festival strategy and the the world of independent film at large. In the years since, I have had the fortune of bringing films to a number of really special regional festivals across America, encountering lasting collaborators, surprising opportunities and remarkable experiences.

A growler of local beer, one of the filmmaker gifts from Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

Here are some thoughts on American regional film festivals to consider when making the tough choice between festivals while promoting a film.

These Festivals Do Not Exist to Make or Break Films

Although some of these festivals have gained the momentum to launch the life of a film, their main function is to simply curate the best slate of films they can with their community in mind. They exist to shine light on talent and boldness, and are agile enough to do so. These aren’t big market or press festivals, so you won’t be consumed with selling your film or what that first review is going to look like. The press attendance is usually local—which can be a great asset. (I’ll discuss this more later.) You are able to have completely different priorities at these festivals than you would at an A-list screening of your film.

You Get a Better Sense of Place

The towns that house this type of festival usually inform the tone and style of the festival in a way that makes each wonderfully unique. Many are built around the identity of their town. Festival organizers and their teams spend the entire off-season working with the community to carefully curate the perfect experience of their town for visitors. You will eat the city’s best food on rooftops with the best views in town. You will sip on booze from local distilleries and listen to the town’s best homegrown bands. You will be lead on the most amazing hike to a secret lookout even some locals don’t know about. Although bigger festivals also invest in the sense of place, they tend to create their own world and ecosystem because they are such behemoths. They’re not usually able to highlight this level of detail and texture.

Plus, with the regional festival, you have a great chance at screening at their historic gem of a theater, instead of a tucked-away hotel ballroom at 9 a.m. on Sunday morning.

The Festival Curates the Right Crowd for Your Film

These festivals usually have the bandwidth and community connections to help you fill that theater with interested locals. With less of an industry “scene,” and great access to a dream test audience, you can get some real feedback in a community setting. Try looking for local individuals or business owners willing to host or sponsor a screening in the future. I’ve also found it much easier and more successful to do targeted niche audience invitations to groups or organizations in these smaller communities. It can sometimes be easier to get press in these markets as well, which can help you make a case to a distributor that there is a market for your film to release theatrically down the road. In 2016, I made a 37-minute documentary about a 93-year-old chaplain and, despite its awkward length, Big Sky programmed it and treated it like a feature, finding an invested community sponsor who presented the film and helped with community outreach in a targeted way.

Another big plus here is if you have it together enough to be selling physical copies of your film, people in these markets will actually buy it… especially if you just did an engaging Q&A.

You Get Up Close and Personal with Fellow Filmmakers

Making a film can be a very isolating experience, and this feeling is often magnified in post-production. Once you finally finish and emerge with new work, connecting with the community couldn’t be more important. Regional festivals provide a more focused and intimate opportunity to meet other artists who relate to the joy and despair that comes only in our chosen pursuit. It’s an opportunity to have a fully engaged four-hour discussion on workflow that would bore anyone else in your life to tears. It’s an opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes and make lifelong colleagues that raise the bar for you artistically (and who can also answer that 2 a.m. shutter speed question). It’s an opportunity to meet the people that will give you the honest feedback that takes your next project from “pretty good” to “truly special.” It’s an opportunity to meet the DP, or composer, or actress who changes the way you makes films.

One of the factors that makes this type of festival a great place to forge these relationships is that the competition between films largely stops once you have been accepted. You aren’t counter-programmed against three other films, a workshop and a party. You don’t have to win this festival for it to be worth attending. And you can actually attend the parties and events and meet these peers, instead of being holed up in your hotel room personalizing hundreds of press/industry invites for your next screening.

The Parties are Great

The atmosphere at Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama

Going off my point about the sense of place, these festivals often take parties to the next level. Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham is a great example of this. One year, on the occasion of the festival’s 16th anniversary, one of the parties had a “Sweet 16” sleepover theme complete with nonstop pizza delivery, ’80s jams and a huge blow-up screen playing Sixteen Candles. That year boasted parties in historic mansions and massive block parties, and the local high school drum corps was house band for the award ceremony. Outside of all the creative touches, it is important to note that the celebrations seemed to be engineered around facilitating actual meetings. They weren’t the shoulder-to-shoulder spaces—loud music, too dark to see—you come across sometimes.

Local Hospitality is Aces

Remember the friendly volunteer at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival? I had the same experience at Ashland Independent Film Festival in Oregon. I met the director of programming, Richard Herskowitz, almost right away, which at most festivals doesn’t happen at all. That sort of small-town hospitality was the norm in this beautiful and energetic small town. The proximity and inclusivity of the festival created an opportunity to actually able get to know members of the community, by seeing them at parties and screenings throughout the festival. The festival staff was very accessible, helpful and truly excited to meet you.

Brandon Vedder accepts an award at Ashland Independent Film Festival

How to Tell if a Festival Fits the Bill

The best way to suss out a festival [besides MovieMaker‘s annual “50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee” list, of course! – Ed.] is by asking other filmmakers. I have found firsthand accounts to be by far the most helpful thing in making these decisions. You want to be able to ask specific questions about projection quality, attendance and walkability, among the other factors I discussed here.

Another good way to predict if a festival is a fit is to look at the event’s programming from years past. What kinds of films do they program? How many films do they program? How many films are programmed against each other?

I have also found it helpful to look up pictures of the venues the festival is using. Try to find pictures of their screenings and parties from social media or non-official channels to try to get a realistic view of what to expect. Also, the screening format they require will usually tell you a lot about the festival and the level at which they are operating.

Having spent some time on the festival circuit, from top-tier festivals and big foreign markets down to cozy regional ones, it becomes ever clearer to me how special some of these small-market American festivals really are. There are very few good opportunities to put a film up on the big screen in front of both the public and peers, so festivals can be a rare treat for a filmmaker. Hopefully these factors will be helpful in getting you to one of these brilliant festivals. See you by the local whiskey distillery tent. MM

Brandon Vedder is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. His most recent film is In Pursuit of Silence, directed by Patrick Shen.

2 Comments

  1. Joseph F. Alexandre

    August 9, 2017 at 10:28 am

    I agree w the author whole heartedly. My suggestion is USA FF in Dallas, which is a bit of tweener, def a larger media market but not a large Distrib/market/Industry fest, a great regional fest that screens great films!

  2. Michael Raab

    February 17, 2017 at 6:16 am

    You find such great small film festivals existing in the same city as industry behemoths. Wilmington NC’s Cucalorus Film Festival is known worldwide, yet the Cape Fear Independcnt Film Festival thrives right alongside of it. The Savannah Film Festival has major names in attendance, but the Big River Film Festival is a charming new venue in the same Southern hospitality city. Both smaller festivals screened my short documentary, “The Disappearing Church.” And many of the regional film festivals I have been to exist solely to save an old theatre from passing into history. My documentaries may never make the majors, but I am quite happy with being a part of the regional festival scene.

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