Festival Strategy 101: Plot the Right Course for Your Film

We’ve all heard the tired homily about a Sundance premiere being the festival holy grail, without which your film is dead on arrival. That just isn’t true anymore. There are myriad festivals worldwide that offer chances to boost your presence in the circuit, get representation, sell your film, and find funding for your next project.

It’s not that you shouldn’t try for the big guns—it’s just that the circuit is so much richer than that. “You always go for the gold,” said Ron Najor, producer of Short Term 12, which got rejected from Sundance and premiered at South by Southwest, ultimately taking that festival’s Grand Jury and Audience Award in 2013. “At a certain point, you’ll realize what the right path for your film is.”

Thomas Ethan Harris, founder of the Los Angeles Film Festival, longtime programmer, and now consultant, has a rule he makes his clients follow: “If your film does not get into Sundance, SXSW or Tribeca, you have to change your strategy, because you do not have what the bigger-business festivals want.”

A common misstep in independent moviemaking is not having a clear goal in mind. As an indie moviemaker, you should be thinking about film festival strategy, budget, and both short-term and long-term effects to your career—by the time you’re in pre-production.

A crowd gathers at the Camden International Film Festival.

A crowd gathers at the Camden International Film Festival. Photograph by Ben Krebs

What’s Your Status?

Premiere status is very important for features. Like a car that loses value once it’s taken off the lot, your film loses novelty once it has premiered. In terms of your festival strategy, it’s important to base your decisions on your expectations of where you’ll be premiering.

“A lot of filmmakers, especially if they’re new to the game, don’t realize how important premiere status is,” said Drea Clark, indie producer and programmer for the Los Angeles Film Festival and Slamdance. “Taking the time to figure out where you’re going to debut, both domestically and internationally, is essential. You want the best possible launching pad for your film. If you don’t get into one of the major marketplace fests, it’s imperative to research other options to figure out which of the lesser-known festivals would be a great premiere home for you, based on the audience, press and industry members they attract.

“When you have a list of festivals that seem like good goals, do research to assess the kind of films they’ve previously played. See if they’ve selected other films with similar tones, themes, budget range, level of cast, etc. You want to set yourself up to win, especially when it comes to your premiere.”

A little-known strategy, mentioned by an anonymous source, is leveraging your premiere acceptances: “You should definitely use [this tactic] sparingly. But if you get into a festival and you’re waiting to hear back from a bigger or more prestigious one, you can alert the latter that you’ve gotten into the first one, and request for an expedited decision. Believe it or not, a lot of programmers are very kind and will respond to that.”

Truth be Told

Nothing beats a good movie. You can strategize until you’re blue in the face, but if your film isn’t resonating with the festival programmers, it’s not meant for that route.

Ask for help. It behooves you to be your biggest critic, but you can be so blinded by favors begged and tears shed that staying objective becomes impossible. Find other moviemakers who have been through the festival merry-go-round and ask them— nicely—to take the time. Harris suggests befriending a consultant (he’s not plugging, he promises!) or, if you’re lucky, a festival programmer that really cares.

“Most of us are sappy suckers and just want to see cool things being made,” said Clark. “Even if it’s not the right timing for their particular festival, a programmer can give notes or offer suggestions. It’s not a bad idea to ask, as long as you remember, if they turn you down, to take it graciously. Everyone’s time is precious.”

If you’ve ever played a film at a festival, make a concerted effort to stay in touch with those programmers, and not just when it’s convenient for you. If you’ve never gotten a film into a festival, attend one, or 10. You’ll make your face familiar in the small world of fests. And knowledge of current films—who’s making them and who’s in them—will come back to aid you ten-fold.

Do Your Homework

It’s not that hard – it just takes time. Visit the festival’s website or withoutabox.com and find out what they played last.

“Film festivals all have a different flavor to them,” says Clark. “Once you’re in the festival circuit, you begin to nod your head and realize why a certain festival picked up a certain film, but that takes time. It’s like trying to teach someone about wine for the first time. You can’t read a wine label and know if it’s good or not. You need to become familiar with the vineyard and with different years, soils and varietals.”

Beyond the Cool Kids

International festivals vary and you have to study them, as well. For example, an American comedy might do well at a few, but, in general, European festivals aren’t looking for that genre. In both Europe and Asia, the prevalent tone is a bit slower, a little more avant-garde.

“Film festivals abroad are quite incredible,” says Vincent Grashaw, producer/director of Coldwater, which premiered at SXSW in 2013, and producer of Bellflower, which sold at Sundance 2011 and went on to play almost 40 film festivals worldwide. “There are even a handful that don’t charge submission fees.”

Champs-Élysées Film Festival in France, now in its third year, programs only American films in their main competition, “offering Parisians a chance to enjoy the exceptional diversity of the latest independent productions from the U.S.,” according to their website. It was at Champs-Élysées where Grashaw sold Coldwater to KMBO Films, which played it in over 85 theaters in France that summer. He also raves about horror-themed Sitges Film Festival in Catalonia. “They come by the thousands to see the films there. It’s like the Cannes of genre film festivals.”

“Karlovy Vary International Film Festival made me feel like the prom queen, complete with a bouquet of flowers,” says Rebecca Green, producer of the feature It Follows. “When they found out my director couldn’t attend, they extended the invite to me, including covering accommodations.”

Opening night party at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Photograph by Pamela Gentile

Opening night party at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Photograph by Pamela Gentile

Community or regional international film festivals (i.e. non-prestige fests), can be just as valuable as ones abroad—sometimes more so if you play to the press.

“Festivals like Chicago International, Seattle International and San Francisco International are very critic-based,” says Harris. “Look at what I deem ‘emerging talent’ film festivals—what the industry community and other festival programmers watch because they’re exquisitely programmed. They may not have a ton of films with stars and glitz and glamour and distributors, but they have the right intent, which is, ‘We’re going to take care of new filmmakers.’ Mill Valley would be one of these, and others include Cleveland International, Cinequest, and a particular favorite of mine, Sedona Film Festival.”

Playing the Genre Card

If your film fits into a particular genre—even imperfectly—target festivals that screen that type of cinema.

“The genre festival is always in your back pocket because you’re not competing against every feature that’s submitted,” says Harris. “You’re competing against a smaller number and hopefully you’re the cream that rises to the top.” He cites San Francisco’s LGBT-focused Frameline as “one of the world’s most heavily attended festivals, with thousands more attendees than Sundance, Toronto or LAFF.”

“However,” he continues, “There are two exceptions to the genre-festival card. One would be for documentarians. Festivals like International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, Hot Docs, Sheffield Doc/Fest are extremely important for you to consider alongside the standard top-tier festivals. It’s very hard to get a documentary into Sundance, whether it’s an international story or an American one. Amsterdam and Hot Docs are two gigantic documentary film festivals that bring together all the press, all the buyers, all the seekers of documentary film. That’s a really great place to have your film.”

The second exception to the genre-card trick is for short films. Premiere status for short films does not matter in the same way it does for features. Many of the short films that play each year at Sundance, for example, have previously screened at other festivals. Instead of fixating on a premiere, then, it might be a good idea to try for an Academy Award-qualifying festival—winning an award there might be the road to an Oscar nomination for your short. One such fest is France’s Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, which Short Term 12’s director, Destin Daniel Cretton, says “blew [his] mind with the sheer number of attendees coming to see short films.”

Closing Night

“You don’t live and die by any one festival,” says Clark, “though it feels like it. Submitting, waiting and then hearing about other people you know getting in—that’s the absolute worst. But the reality is, it’s never the end. There are so many great festivals. And if you get in to one that you don’t think of as big and prestigious and glamorous, you can still do really well by your film. All these festivals, they’re building blocks.” MM

This article was originally printed in the Complete Guide to Making Movies 2015 issue. Top photograph by Mitchell Weinstock, courtesy of Cinequest.

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