You’ve made your little independent feature film, financed with love, credit cards and some spare change from mom and dad. Now you’re going to take it to Sundance, where it will be watched by excited buyers from all of the major distributors. One of said distributors will cut you a big check, gather your movie up into its warm, welcoming arms and sprinkle it into theaters all across the land. Right?
Guess what? This never happens. And even when it did occasionally happen back in the late ’80s and ’90s, it was an extremely rare thing.
Any independent moviemaker who has worked the film festival circuit can tell you that this “Myth of Sundance” is about as real as the “Rich and Famous” contract offered to Kermit the Frog at the end of The Muppet Movie. However, the media still largely covers the major film festivals—Sundance, Toronto, Cannes—as if it’s 1994 and little can-do features actually have a fighting chance to be discovered in today’s indie landscape, the way Kevin Smith’s Clerks did.
This disconnect between the fantasy and reality of film festivals led me and my producing partner, Scott Storm, to make Official Rejection, the first documentary to really show what truly indie moviemakers experience on the film festival circuit.
Ironically, Official Rejection is now playing the same circuit, which is a fascinating experiment. As a good friend of mine quipped: It’s like trying to play Super Size Me at McDonald’s.
Regardless, indie moviemakers seem to be connecting with our movie in growing numbers, as is evidenced by the massive amount of e-mail I receive on a daily basis. Many of these moviemakers, who have been frustrated by the politics and pitfalls of the circuit, have written to thank us for “calling these elitist bastards out on their shit,” as one of them so succinctly put it.
Now, yes, in Official Rejection we do take several festivals to task on certain issues, but that doesn’t mean we’re trying to condemn the whole festival world. We’re simply trying to bust the myths and give an accurate portrait of what the circuit is like because, for indie films, there is still no better place to introduce your movie to the world.
We cover a broad spectrum of festivals—ones run out of a sheer love of great cinema, and others more concerned with celebrities and nepotism; ones that actively seek out undiscovered voices, and others that work as puppets for the major studios while claiming to be all about “independent” cinema.
But put down that first stone before you cast it; it’s important to remember that good behavior cuts both ways. Before shaking a finger at any festival for its mistakes or misdeeds, moviemakers should take a hard look in the mirror and make sure that they themselves are not to blame.
If you think that once you’ve been accepted into a festival you can sit back and leave it to the festival staff to get your movie to the audience, think again. Get off your ass! It’s time to get to work. You cannot be passive; you need to participate.
There’s so much to know about how to “festival” that you could fill an entire movie with it. (Hey, I did!) But, with rare exception, everything can be broken down into four basic rules. Following these rules will do more than just make the fest directors glad they selected your flick. During every festival, one or two movies emerge as “it” films with a life and buzz all their own, and it’s usually not the token star vehicles which open and close the event. Want your indie to be an “it” film? Then make sure you do the following:
RULE ONE: SHOWER THE FESTIVAL WITH MATERIALS. • Let’s start with a cold, hard fact: Your movie will probably not get a theatrical release. The bottom has fallen out of the indie distribution game and the few companies that are left pretty much only acquire those same, multi-million-dollar star vehicles that fill out Sundance’s dance card.
The good news is that, over the last decade, the number of film festivals around the country has increased exponentially. So your movie’s run on the circuit can function, in effect, as a de facto theatrical release—that is, getting the flick in front of audiences across the nation (or the world) in order to build momentum toward an eventual DVD release or VOD sale, which is where most films (both studio and indie) make their money anyway.
With that framework in mind—the circuit as your film’s theatrical run—each festival becomes an “exhibitor” and you become “the studio.” This means that you have to provide all the materials and support that a studio does: Print materials (posters, postcards, flyers); swag (T-shirts, hats); screeners and press kits for the media; and the all-important and oft-overlooked electronic press kit, or EPK (a master tape that includes your trailer, broadcast-friendly film clips, interview clips with cast and crew and selected behind-the-scenes footage).
The EPK can be given to and used by any sort of audio-visual media outlet (TV, radio, Web) to create feature pieces about your film or the festival at which it is screening. Most moviemakers overlook the EPK, so we’ve often gotten coverage simply because we were the only film at a given festival to actually have one.
The best policy is to contact the festival shortly after acceptance, let them know what materials you can provide and then send the requested materials as early as possible. You’ll establish yourself as a moviemaker who can be counted on long before the event has even begun and your materials will automatically be included in any press screenings or local gatherings leading up to the event.
RULE TWO: YOU WANT TO GO TO THERE. • Sure, the economy sucks. And even if it didn’t, you’re an indie moviemaker, so your economy really sucks. You live paycheck to paycheck at that day job you don’t want to talk about, and your employment situation there is shaky because they can barely put up with the “moviemaking” thing you keep taking time off to pursue.
In spite of this, whenever possible, you need to go to the festivals that program your film, whether they cover your travel and hotel expenses or not. The people who run festivals generally do it out of a genuine love of cinema and are working their asses off to put on this big show. No matter how much remote support you give a film, if you don’t attend the actual screening, you really can’t be 100 percent behind the event. As a result, the organizers won’t be fully behind you.
Live moviemaker interaction is one of the biggest sales pitches festivals use to woo their local crowds away from Harry Potter and the latest Brad Pitt flick. So it stands to reason they’re going to push the movies where the audiences will actually be able to meet the folks behind them. If you’re not there, your film loses that endorsement. It also means less chance of media attention—and all of this translates into less people seeing your movie. Plus, since you’re now out of sight and out of mind, your odds of winning awards, both audience and jury, are basically nil.
So if there’s any way you can swing it, attend! A film festival movie without its moviemaker is like a DVD without any special features, and no one wants that.
RULE THREE: PROMOTE, PROMOTE, PROMOTE! • It can be humiliating, and you may feel like the most disingenuous bastard ever, but it’s time to stop being an artist and become a completely shameless huckster. You want people to come to your movie; this is what you must do.
It’s important to note that some moviemakers feel promotion is the job of the festival staff—after all, they’re the ones putting on the event—but this isn’t true. The festival’s task is to cull a local audience for the festival itself, a process which develops over years and creates a potential pool of people for any given movie. It’s your job to draw from that pool of people and get them to see your movie. If you don’t, these folks will happily see something else at the festival, made by moviemakers who did get out and bang their own drums.
First, right after you get accepted to a festival, ask to get in contact with the festival publicist. Early and polite contact with a PR person is crucial, because you not only need to account for the lead times required by the media you hope they’ll pitch you to, but because the closer the festival start date gets, the busier the PR people become.
Let the publicist know what materials you can provide, the dates you’ll be at the festival and that you would love to participate in any press coverage they may offer. You can also ask for a media list, enabling you to pitch to local TV, radio, Web and print outlets yourself.
Public relations folks tend to be overworked, and in my experience they appreciate three things: Politeness, patience and help. They often toil harder for moviemakers who aren’t wallflowers, but who also aren’t pains in the ass.
Prior to the festival, you should promote your film’s screening online via Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, your own Website and anywhere else you can get the movie’s name and screening info in front of receptive eyeballs. But once you get to the festival, it’s time to do the more humiliating—but crucial—step of promotion: Taking to the streets and slathering the area surrounding the venues with as many posters, flyers and cards as you can carry. (Yes, you sent a ton of these to the festival already, but you’ll need to bring more with you.)
Your promotional game plan can be as simple as asking store owners if you can put a flyer up in their window or as aggressive as standing on the street corner handing out postcards to passersby (just make sure local laws don’t prohibit this first).
Find the level of hucksterism that you almost can’t stand, and do that. It may feel awful, but you can create a real local buzz about your movie if it suddenly seems to be everywhere. Plus, when the festival director staggers into a Starbucks after two hours of sleep and sees a stack of your postcards at the cash register (essentially promoting his festival), you’ll make his day.
RULE FOUR: BE THE FESTIVAL’S BITCH. • Ask not what the festival can do for you, ask what you can do for the festival. Contact the festival early and offer yourself up for anything in which they’d like to include you. Whether they want you to participate in a panel, read and judge screenplays, speak with junior high students about the merits of film school, juggle chickens or hop on one foot—whatever it is, without hesitation, say “yes.” The more you participate, the more plugged in you are and the bigger your presence at the festival becomes.
At a recent festival, I found myself with nothing to do, so I helped the volunteers assemble lanyards. I was actually just completely bored and wanted to kill some time, but this simple act of sitting down and stuffing all-access passes into plastic sleeves simply blew the festival staff away. I was a favorite moviemaker for the rest of the event, had two posters up at the main venue (everyone else had one or none), was slipped an overabundance of drink tickets and was told (off the record) that they purposely stuffed my swag bag with extra goodies.
Moviemakers cannot change the system into which they will introduce their movies. All they can control is how they behave within that system, and therein lies the true secret of having a successful festival run. Sure, the best reason for being a “model moviemaker” should be to show respect and appreciation to the programmers who loved your film enough to make it part of the event they have worked so tirelessly to create. But if that’s not enough for you, let’s look at the situation on a completely selfish, pragmatic level.
First, festival directors speak to each other. Not everyone knows everyone, but everyone knows someone. The directors of the festivals you’re playing at already like your movie, but if they like you, they’re infinitely more likely to recommend you and your film to other festivals. Say goodbye to application fees and blind submissions—you’ll start getting invited to play.
Then there’s the matter of distribution down the road. When your film is being released, notify these festival directors; most festivals have massive e-mail lists of hungry film fans, and the festival organizers who like you will be happy to blast them with an announcement of your movie’s release date.
Lastly, assume that you’re going to make another film. When you do, the festivals you’ve pleased will still be there—ready and waiting to embrace it. MM
PAUL OSBORNE is the director of Official Rejection, a documentary about the experience of independent moviemakers at film festivals. He also wrote and produced the indie feature Ten Til Noon, released theatrically and on DVD in 2007, and will be interviewed in the next edition of Chris Gore’s Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide.