If there’s any consensus on what leads to success in the festival circuit, it’s this: you have to make a great movie. Cynics lament the star-catering and commercialism festivals give in to these days, but each year crops of unknowns still manage to find their way from fests to distribution, proving that great movies still get noticed.

Let’s assume that you’ve made one of said great movies. Let’s assume further that you’ve begun submitting to festivals, only to find that there are more great movies than festivals have room for. How do you beat the odds? Festival organizers agree that small nuances in your presentation are worth paying attention to—and can help you gain an edge when competing for that coveted slot.

Every moviegoer knows how expectations can affect the enjoyment of a movie. How a film festival submission is packaged can do the same. Sometimes the most obvious details are the easiest to miss, which can trigger those little “red flags” in a programmer’s subconscious. Gregory von Hausch, president of the Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival, is continually surprised by the number of moviemakers who simply ignore the basics. “I hate to sound
like a college professor, but the application is important. It might not make or break you, but an application that comes in a file folder, with its name on the tab, a label and contact info is off to a great start.”

Launching a campaign to get your movie noticed is a fierce undertaking, and moviemakers have to be prepared to do much of their own legwork.

Von Hausch adds that omissions and misinformation only create more obstacles in your movie’s trip through the administrative maze. His advice is echoed twofold by Austin Film Festival director Barbara Morgan. “If all the required information isn’t with the submission, it can get lost in the shuffle—especially if you’ve waited until the deadline.”
Morgan believes that that “small” detail is often overlooked.

“Do not wait until the deadline to submit,” she urges. “If you send it in at the last minute, your film is being watched along with everybody else’s. It’s come in at the point where people are bleary-eyed.”

But moviemakers are notorious perfectionists, and many shudder at the thought of submitting a less-than-perfect cut. Morgan says it might be worth it to cheat a little if it means getting your submission in early. “As long as it has all the elements—all the sound and music… You can always fudge with it later, before the final print.” She cautions, though, to not go too far in the other direction and send in something half-finished. “That’ll shoot you in the foot,” she says.
As far as presentation goes, festival organizers agree that adding a promotional item—something thematic, like a box of cigars with your Fidel Castro biopic—doesn’t hurt (though such tactics aren’t generally thought to make a huge difference). “It might mean that somebody remembers your title a bit longer though,” says Morgan.

Paul Marchant, director of the Atlanta Film Festival, believes that an old-fashioned endorsement goes a long way in the world of first impressions. “I’m talking about a letter of recommendation, front and center, by a noted director, producer or industry professional. That’s always first-rate.” Marchant also stresses not to underestimate the importance of a great photo for the festival’s program, which extends to its Website, the local press, etc. In short, he believes it pays to take extra care in putting together a professional press kit.

An example of a director who used this strategy is Mulletville’s Tony Leahy, who made his own DVDs and submitted them directly to distribution companies—and got a deal with Hart Sharp Video.

“The better you can make the overall package look, the easier it is for festivals and distributors to envision a finished product,” says editor Michael Cross, who helped handle Mulletville’s promotion.

Naturally, it’s good to know how much is too much. Marchant remarks that, in the race to “stand out,” simplicity is fast becoming a lost art. “Don’t overextend yourself by packing your kit with a 20-page synopsis and life history bios.” he says. “That can exhaust interest quickly.”

Peter Scarlet, executive director of the Tribeca Film Festival, stresses that an artist’s creativity should be poured into the movie—not the package. “Forget the bells and whistles,” he says. “The whipped cream and Roman candles that come with your tape, the programmers won’t even see all that.” A seasoned programmer, Scarlet previously spent nearly two decades as creative director for the San Francisco International Film Festival. He’s seen his share of over-the-top marketing stunts. “Years ago, in San Francisco, we premiered Madonna’s Truth or Dare. The publicity kid included a small plastic file with his pubic hair in it. It was good for a laugh at the office, but that’s not why we showed the film.”

Scarlet is firm in his assertion that getting into a fest ultimately comes down to the product. But what happens after you get accepted? According to most insiders, then comes the hard part.

Launching a campaign to get your movie noticed is a fierce undertaking, and moviemakers have to be prepared to do much of their own legwork. There are no hard and fast rules when devising a promotional strategy; often it’s just a matter of knowing who your target audience is. In Ft. Lauderdale, von Hausch believes aggressive networking is a vital aspect of promotion across the board.

“When filmmakers come to town, when they blanket the bars and bookstores with postcards and flyers, when they talk to non-fest people at their hotel and on the beach, they get so much more out of their participation.”
“Promotional materials are a must,” says Marchant. “And send them well in advance of the screening. Also, it’s a good idea to send a separate press release to local press outlets, as well as e-mail newsgroups who may find your film of interest. Do a bit of your own niche marketing. It pays off.”

At Tribeca, Scarlet thinks it’s best to work directly with the festival. “This has to be taken on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “For example, maybe the film is about a grandmother who’s a stripper, and for opening night she and her 90-year-old cronies can come and dance at the premiere.” Scarlet adds that it’s important to remember that self-promotion is part of what a moviemaker’s career has become, which reaches beyond the festival circuit.
As a moviemaker herself, Morgan has seen the issue from both sides. She’s believes that moviemakers rarely do enough to promote their movies and often expect festivals to do all the work.

“In Austin, we do our part by working with our promotional partners and the filmmakers, setting up radio and TV interviews. But then we’ve had filmmakers turn around and say ‘Well, I don’t want to get up at six in the morning to do a TV show.’” Those who make themselves a presence at the event are much more likely to have people in the seats when their movie plays says Morgan.

For many creative types, of course, networking isn’t a natural inclination, and Morgan understands that. “Get a mouthpiece for your film,” she says. “We had a guy last year who brought one of his actors. That actor talked to everyone.”

Few ventures require more collaborative effort than making movies, and the human interaction doesn’t end when the camera stops rolling. Film festival organizers agree: the best way to get the word out about your movie is to utilize every possible outlet at your disposal. “Outside of that,” Marchant adds, “nothing generates a buzz like getting a couple of your buddies to post tickets to your screening on ebay for an exuberant amount of money.” MM