I repeatedly ask myself one question as I ready for a festival premiere: What’s my goal at the festival?
What am I looking to get out of the festival?
As you get to know the festival organizers and begin preparing for a premiere, the answer to that question may change or even have multiple answers. If you’re going to a festival with a film looking for distribution, for example, your priorities may and will likely differ than if your film already has distribution. You’d be surprised how many filmmakers I encounter who assume that the work is done once their film gets into a festival. However, the festival premiere simply marks a next phase in the life of the film, one that requires just as much focus and attention to detail as any phase in bringing the movie to life.
Step One: Caucus
Once accepted into a festival, I arrange a call with my filmmaking team, which includes the financier(s). This not only ensures that our group strategies and expectations are aligned, but also lets us check in with one another if we haven’t been in regular touch in a while.
Inevitably, this will lead to the question of who from the team is attending the festival—and how is that getting paid for? Production budgets don’t usually account for festival expenses, and not all festivals provide subsidies, so check in with your festival contact to find out what the festival will cover and what relationships they have. (I’ve found that regularly checking in with the festival staff is always beneficial.) Some festivals may cover director and cast travel and housing, while others may be able to provide a sponsor for a party. Some will only provide the platform to premiere.
This initial team strategy call is also the time to discuss a domestic sales agent, a foreign sales agent and a publicist.
Step Two: Hire Sales Agents
If you have a sales agent prior to getting into a festival, then they’ll likely have coached you on which festivals to be submitting to. If you don’t, once the festival makes its line up announcement, sales agents will likely reach out to you—but it’s OK to be proactive and reach out to a company if there is an agent that you think is especially well-suited for your film. If you secure a domestic sales agent, you’ll want to consult with them on who they partner well with for foreign sales and vice versa. When shopping for a sales agent it’s valuable to know how many other films they’re representing so you can ensure you’re being prioritized.
Step Three: Hire an Entertainment Lawyer
If you don’t have a sales agent (or can’t afford a publicist—more on that below), then it’s critical that you have an entertainment lawyer who can help coach the festival process and introduce you to sales agents and/or distributors. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having an attorney with a depth of entertainment experience. That experience can translate into a significantly better sales deal—and may mean the difference between making any deal whatsoever. Just because you have a friend who is a lawyer and will do you a favor does not mean they can actually help you. Some entertainment lawyers will want to charge hourly, whereas some may work for a percentage of the sale, so be prepared for either.
Step Four: Hire a Publicist
The same advice about sales agents goes for publicists: You want to make sure that whoever you contract to represent the film is able to focus on you and that their slate isn’t overloaded with projects. Having a publicist can be a critical sales tool as this is how your film will first make its initial contact and impression with audiences. In conjunction with the sales agent, they’ll help guide you through which still photo or clip makes the most sense to release, and it will be their media relationships that will steer the clip toward the optimal news and web outlets.
It’s important not to release more than one still and/or clip in advance of the premiere. Keep in mind that you’ll want to save stills and clips for when the film is being distributed. Releasing too much for a festival will leave you fewer options later. A good festival publicist can cost anywhere from $7,500 to $15,000, depending on the tier of the festival.
Step Five: Practice Your Spiel
Once the publicist, sales agent and/or lawyer are in place, I like to have weekly calls to check in. Your publicist will want to create “production notes,” a sort of press kit which will include a synopsis of the film, director’s statement and bios on all of your key cast and crew. This is the time to hone your language and talking points about the movie. Why this story now? If there’s controversy to the themes, be ready to have to engage in that conversation and figure out how to make it work for you. What is it about the movie and its story that will make audiences want to see it? What inspired you to want to tell this story?
As word gets out that your film is in a festival requests will start to come in from distributors and sales agents looking for a sneak peak link. To ensure the best premiere, its critical that no elements of the film are shared without your team being in sync with one another.
Step Six: Organize Paperwork
Now it’s time to get organized. Eventually you’ll have to deliver mounds of paperwork to your distributor so that they can release the movie without being in breach of anyone’s contracts. That paperwork will also determine when the distributor will pay you, so the more organized you are, the faster you’ll get paid. Are all of your above-the-line contracts signed and in one place? If you’re a union movie, do you have copies of your union paperwork? Did you copyright your screenplay? Did you order a copyright and title report? Do you have errors & omissions insurance? Do you have your music licenses? If you’ve only bought festival licenses, do you have a chart of how much full buyouts of each song will cost? These are critical, since a distributor interested in acquiring the movie will need to know if the expectation is for them to buy out the music and, if so, they will factor that cost into the number they offer. The same goes for any talent deferrals. Where’s your music cue sheet? What about your composer agreement? Have you created a screen credit statement? A paid ad statement? Name and likeness statement? Copies of the final main and end titles? A billing block? Have you gotten your stills cleared by the cast in the photo who have contractual photo approval?
Step Seven: Wrangle Cast
Which leads to cast. Your cast is the face of your film, so coordinate with your actors and their representatives to make sure they can attend the festival and that a day or two is set aside for them to do press. In addition to transportation and housing, their representatives may ask for hair and make up to be covered. Again, sometimes festivals have the ability to cover these costs, so be sure to check in with your festival representative.
Step Eight: Prepare Your Next Pitch
To go back to my initial “what do I want to get out of the festival” question, now that you’ve assembled the team for the premiere of this movie, you should be prepared to pitch other projects that you’re trying to get off the ground. Festivals are a great place to meet potential collaborators and if your film is well received, people will want to know what you’re looking to do next.
Step Nine: Toast
Now that you’ve done all of the above, you’re ready for your premiere. I like to get together with cast and crew in attendance two or three hours before the premiere to celebrate and reconnect. There’s a good chance it’s taken years to get your project to this moment, so enjoy it with the people who helped get it there.
Step 10: Take Meetings
Once the movie premieres, the (often excruciating) waiting game begins. What will the reviews be like? Will anyone want to buy this thing? With the myriad distribution and exhibition opportunities that abound, remember to approach each distributor with an open mind. As the theatrical market contracts and new means of exhibition arise, there are many opportunities for audiences to connect with your film. And if the initial meeting with a distributor is compelling, I like to arrange a second meeting to include the star of the film, since the cast will inevitably have more experience, having done more press junkets and promotion than anyone else on the filmmaking team. They can best speak to press, they have media relationships, and may have specific insights into cross-promotional opportunities. Many distribution deals are for years, if not longer, so think of partnering with a distributor akin to entering into a marriage. You want to make sure that after all of the hard work that’s been poured into making your movie, you partner with someone whom you feel understands it, the vision behind it, and has a sense of how to market it, so audiences can find it in the mostly cluttered and curation-deprived exhibition platforms.
Distribution deals come in many iterations and shapes, so if you’ve done your homework and have been thorough in your preparation, you’ll have assembled the right team to coach you through the process. Good luck! MM