My wife and I had just settled into a quiet evening at a friend’s house when I saw a call coming in from Sedona on my cell.
I decided to let it go to voicemail. My wife was shocked, but I have been an actor for much of my adult life and I know what waiting by the phone is all about. I was a first-time filmmaker waiting for my first festival acceptance. After we said goodbye and stepped outside, I checked the message. It was from Patrick Schweiss, director of the Sedona International Film Festival. We were in.
Almost every independent filmmaker has to confront the prospect of film festivals. In today’s filmmaking environment, where it has never been easier to make a film and never more difficult to sell one, festivals provide a clear path to exposing a film to audiences, buyers and publicity. The problem is that as filmmaking has increased, solid distribution deals have become harder to get and film festivals are now glutted with applications. More and more festivals are popping up every year, and getting into established, respected festivals is a challenge. Before getting into Sedona, I had applied and been rejected at about 20 good festivals.
Every filmmaker wants something different from a festival run, although most would agree that distribution is high on the list. With Stevie D, we felt we had a smart, entertaining and marketable film. A festival run was always part of our strategy, but we had hoped it would not be the means to an end. We began applying to festivals as we were finishing work on the film in early 2015, but we never lost sight of attracting a sales agent or producer’s rep. After we completed post-production in late spring of 2015, we cut a trailer, arranged for a private screening for cast and crew, and invited a list of sales agents and distributors I had been researching for over a year. This being my first feature film, I did not know what to expect. Some expressed general interest and many did not even respond, but one sales agent, Circus Road Films, immediately asked for a screener.
Circus Road’s strategy was to target a select group of festivals in order to build the profile of the film before going out to buyers. There are no guarantees, but a sales agent often has relationships with festivals after years of representing films. After applying to festivals on my own with very few contacts, I was anxious to have a representative in my corner to recommend the film. Circus Road suggested about a dozen festivals that were respected by buyers and we let the dice role again. Sedona was actually the first on the calendar of those dozen, so our luck had just changed dramatically.
Sedona would be the official premiere of the film, but this was not without complications. While Sedona is a very well-respected regional festival, it is in a very small media market. My dilemma was determining whether to seek publicity or wait for a festival in a bigger market. I was concerned that I might not get into another festival, in which case my world premiere would pass without having promoted it in any way.
Two things happen at the tail end of the filmmaking cycle. Either all of the money is gone and there are simply no means (or desire) to continue to support the film; or all of the money is gone, but you realize that after the tremendous amounts you have already spent, a few more expenditures here and there are worth it. We decided that with a festival acceptance, we needed to support the film, so we brought on a highly recommended publicist, Annie Jeeves, of Cinematic Red. I had read about Annie online and learned a lot from her about what a filmmaker can do at a festival to promote a film better, before I even hired her. In Sedona, we had one sellout and one near-sellout. Our audience reviews were over-the-top positive and it was an incredibly fulfilling experience as a filmmaker to be present for such wonderful audience reactions to the film. I had completely grasped the allure of a film festival.
When I originally called Phil Idrissi, one of the actors in our film, to tell him Sedona had accepted the film, he responded, “Let’s win this!” I was taken aback by his comment because after many rejections, I was just thrilled to be accepted. By the time the awards ceremony came on the last day, I knew the film had been well-received, that it worked as a film and that I could be proud of it on many levels. And thanks to Phil, I was also nervous about whether we would win. Very much to my surprise, the film was awarded one of three Independent Spirit Awards, which were given to a narrative, documentary and short for overall achievement in films that embody independent filmmaking. In the world of independent filmmaking where the investors are your friends and the cast and crew sacrifice immensely for your vision, reporting back with a festival win is incredibly rewarding.
At Sedona, I was fortunate that our film fell into the hands of the lead narrative programmer, who not only loved the film, but also seemed to understand how much we accomplished in making it. That is not always going happen for a variety of reasons. Even with the backing of the sales agents, other festivals were rejecting us. By the time I returned home from Sedona, only a few of the 12 festivals were still considering us. I immediately relayed the success of the film in Sedona to Annie and she continued to plug away for media coverage. One of the byproducts of the bottleneck at the distribution and festival level is the logjam it creates for filmmakers trying to publicize their films.
The remaining festivals we were waiting on were only days away from notification. I shared the great news about Sedona with the sales agents and asked if it would help us with the remaining festivals. They felt it would and did another outreach to their contacts. Before I even hung up the phone, we learned that we had been accepted at Sarasota Film Festival. About a week later, we were offered a slot at Newport Beach Film Festival.
With one festival award and two other acceptances, we revisited our initial strategy to determine our next steps. Our goal with a festival run was to build exposure to the film and bring, hopefully, a more credentialed film to the marketplace. Our festival run was designed to be limited, so it will end after Newport Beach on April 26. This means that we are peaking.
First up, we will continue to seek publicity. The two new festival acceptances will give us more opportunity to do this, as well as an opportunity to begin involving the cast members, particularly our leads and their representation. Many times with smaller films, there is hesitancy by the talent to promote a film until it has completely come together. Festivals and awards always help convince people that this is a productive use of time. I have personally been much more active promoting the film on social media over the last several weeks and have encouraged other cast members to post as well. This is really the first chance we have had to promote the film beyond our circle of cast, crew and friends, and we need to take advantage. Of course, the big push will be once we sell the film and it becomes available to the public, but it’s too late to start then. Again, it comes back to our initial strategy. The festival run gives us the benefit of time to put all these pieces in place.
Secondly, peaking means that Circus Road will be introducing the film to buyers as soon as possible. With Sarasota happening April 1-10 and Newport Beach April 21-28, we have a few more weeks to let the publicity happen. Being in a festival close to Los Angeles will give us a chance to promote the film to the larger media outlets. Of course, everyone has the same strategy and at the end of the day, L.A. is a star-driven town. Most indies cannot claim that kind of star power.
In the meantime, as a filmmaker, I can look forward to attending two more great festivals. In Sedona, because of its proximity to L.A., I had four cast members, two executive producers, my DP and my composer in attendance along with some family. Newport Beach is in our backyard, so we expect a good crowd from cast, crew and friends. Sarasota will be a challenge because of its distance. Kevin Chapman, one of my leads, is back in Boston prepping a new project. Torrey DeVitto is in Chicago filming her new series Chicago Med on NBC. Fortunately, my two executive producers are flying in from New York. And, of course, I will be there, anxious to see the film play in front of entirely different audiences and hopeful that we can rekindle some of the magic we had in Sedona. MM
Stevie D screens at the Newport Beach Film Festival on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. Top image features Kevin Chapman and John Aprea.