Red eyes, five cups of coffee down, I was furiously subtitling my film in my producer’s Mumbai apartment.

Gotta get done, gotta get done, gotta get done. My producer had managed to secure some screening time with a programmer from one of the big festivals, who was in Mumbai looking at cuts for the festival.

We had begged and pleaded to get the slot and it was now time to deliver. Sure, the sound design wasn’t all there and some of the dialogue hadn’t been cleaned up, but we would run the film through headphones and with full subs to make sure there were no clarity issues. 1 a.m. The door bell would ring in three hours and I had two more reels to go. Gotta get done, gotta get done, gotta get done. Final subs done, a quick prayer to the Lord of Renders and I started exporting the film as another AD stepped in to scrub, clean and wash the whole room while I showered. The right chair in the center, the screen calibrated, the curtains were taped shut and brand new headphones tested and connected perfectly. By the time the clock struck one, we were ready.

She came. She saw. She complimented. She praised. In fact, she doled out praise that would make anyone giggle. I had to pinch myself—was this actually happening? I saw my partners go from nervous to jubilant. Holy hell—maybe the film does work! She left, we all high-fived and decided it was time to up the ante. Time to really nail the film—we were, after all, going to premiere at one of the biggest film festivals on the planet! Or so we thought.

The film kept traveling up the ladder at the festival, with recommendations from high-profile mentors and gentle nudges from our end… but that official invitation never came. “You’re on the shortlist,” they said. We waited and waited until it just started to smell bad. And then they rejected us.

It’s relevant at this point to mention how cynical I am. This may be my first film as a writer/director, but I’ve worked on a lot of films before this as an executive for various companies. I’ve heard the stories and I know that most of the time, it doesn’t work out. Most of the time, the financing falls through, and the cut is awful, and the film makes no sense. So it wasn’t my first time at the rodeo… and yet I fell for it. The casual daydreaming about which jacket I’d wear for the press call—and now it was gone. But we had come close, so surely another big one would pick us up, right? We started applying accordingly and the rejections followed.

Loev, my debut feature, isn’t what folks expect from Indian art house. There’s no poverty or slums or migrant workers dying by the train tracks. Though it falls under the LGBT genre, it’s not your typical gay film, either—there’s no pretty twinks running around in their underwear, shower scenes, coming-out scenes—and no one commits suicide.

It’s actually an honest, nuanced, fragile love story between three men negotiating the boundaries between love and friendship. Since [the Indian] Supreme Court recently re-criminalized homosexuality, the film becomes political, but the most political thing about it is how blasé the characters are about their political reality. The film portrays their lives with dignity and truth, and focuses instead on how indiscriminatingly merciless love is. Love doesn’t care about your sexual orientation when it screws you over with its complications.

The film wasn’t gay enough and then it wasn’t Indian enough, not local enough or specific enough, and every other version of that feedback as each big festival turned us down. And I wasn’t looking anywhere else. Somewhere between that first screening and that first rejection, I had become entitled. I deserved a big festival, case closed.

A still from Loev

About then, a mutual friend recommended the film to Loic Magneron, a Frenchman with a world sales company Wide Management. He saw the film immediately and made an offer. Cynical and skeptical as I am, I didn’t understand why. We had no famous director, no famous actors and no big festival so why would he want to sell this thing? The negotiations began and I paid close attention to why he wanted the film. He felt that the film had a genuine chance at crossing over, that it would appeal to women and couples as a pure romance that happened to be between men. In feedback screenings in the past few months, I had discovered the very same thing. So down the aisle we went. Wide would now be our foreign sales agent and would have the contractual right to determine our festival strategy. He had the relationships, he knew who to call—it was not my problem anymore. I was perfectly happy letting him figure out which big festival we would play. So imagine my surprise when he emails me recommending a film festival in Tallinn, Estonia, called the Black Nights Film Festival. That’s where he wants our no-name, no-budget film to get lost into oblivion.

Tallinn. Where the hell is that?

I went to film school in the U.S. and have made most of my professional career in New York and Los Angeles, so I have a very U.S.-centric understanding of festivals. My producing partner from Germany, Katharina, knew the festival right away. In fact, she had already visited their co-production market 10 years ago. My other producing partner, Arfi, liked the sound of it. Yes: the sound of the word Tallinn. I was convinced I was in the middle of a bad dream.

I communicated my hesitation: Shouldn’t we wait for a big festival? Matthias, who manages all festivals for Wide Management, patiently explained to me why Black Nights was actually the perfect fit for the movie. The film was subtle and would need some love and care to stand out and be noticed. I wasn’t convinced. So Matthias reached out to the programmer and the next morning, I got a passionate email from Igor Gouskov, a senior programmer for Black Nights Film Festival. His email was a passionate plea; it demonstrated a thorough understanding of the film and detailed clearly why it should be at Tallinn. And he did it all without using the words “Indian” or “gay.” Maybe it was that email, or maybe it was Wide. Or maybe it was my worry that too much time had passed and without a premiere, the film would now become old. It was time to start.

I accepted the offer and googled the word “Tallinn.” It was time to understand where our film would begin its journey.

By the time all arrangements were made, our team would include myself, our lead actor Shiv Pandit, and Arfi Lamba and Katharina Suckale, the heads of Bombay Berlin Film Production and my producing partners. I was concerned there would be more people on stage than in the audience so I tried convincing the others to hold back until the next one, but everyone wanted to go. Overweight bags and several flights later, we were in our rooms, thumbing through the festival catalogue. Katharina and Arfi were already making lists of films they wanted to catch. I was focused on being grumpy. Why am I here? Where did I fail? Who would buy my film here? How would anyone even find out about the film? What press would come to Tallinn? Had I just given away my world premiere for nothing? Sure, the festival staffers were amazing—sweet smiles, high energy and German efficiency—but I couldn’t take that to the bank.

I then started meeting the programmers and as I introduced myself, they would hug me and tell me about my film and how much they loved it. Honestly, I was surprised they had all seen it. Surely they had enough to do. Maria, another programmer there, was surprised by my surprise. She assured me that every film there had been seen and passionately advocated for by the programmers for weeks. That might be obvious to others but to a cynic like me, that was heartening. It wasn’t a random accident—they actually liked the film.

The very first day, Hannes, their press person, walked up to me at breakfast and told me I had a Q&A scheduled with Screen International that afternoon. OK, this was big. My little movie at this festival was going to get actual coverage in the trades. Even as I was contemplating my good fortune, I ran into a random civilian who asked me if I had directed the Indian film. When I nodded, she pulled out her ticket and showed it to me. In tears, I took a picture with her. And then, the night before the screening, they told me we had sold out.

Sudhanshu Saria, director of Loev

Sudhanshu Saria, director of Loev

The reception we received at that first screening is hard to describe. The audience loved the movie—just completely got it. Things got so emotional, our programmer cancelled the Q&A and just let the audience be. I went outside the theater and waited. Then droves of people came, with hugs and smiles, for us. By the next morning, word had spread and we had a dozen press requests and three distribution offers for the local territory. Loic grinned at me. I was just understanding what he and his team had known all along.

My sales company had paired the right movie with the festival. The film festival programmers had paired the right movie with their audience, and somewhere in all this carefully, orchestrated dance, my film had had its world premiere. My film was able to breathe because it was focused and narrow. The press noticed it, the critics wrote about it and the sales started to go because the programmers were passionate about it. These same programmers are now my ambassadors around the world as they tell their colleagues about the film and why it needs to be looked at. The success of my film is attached to the festival and vice versa.

Over the next couple of months, we were invited to the Guadalajara International Film Festival, to Istanbul Independent Film Festival, to BFI’s Flare Festival in London and closed theatrical deals in Germany, Italy, Taiwan and Poland. Not bad for a little film that shouldn’t even have wrapped production.

The purpose of a film festival premiere is to get the film noticed. Its first audience talks about the film, puts the film in a public viewing context and gives some context for the press. The press attends the festival to sniff out interesting films to spotlight for the industry and distributors, and if the audience response is good, it helps attract their attention. With the right audience response and press, it becomes easier for your sales agents to talk to distributors. The festival gives them their test audience and the press gives them their validation.

As long as your film can get these things from the festival you’re considering, it’s a festival worth saying yes to. At a big festival, I might never have attracted a full house or any press. So while I might have gotten that wreath on my poster, that’s pretty much all it might have amounted to. I shudder to think what a mistake I could have made. Tallinn turned out to be a grand festival with huge, enthusiastic audiences, terrific press presence and a reputation that drew buyers. It took me a couple of months post-Tallinn to put it all in perspective. That nagging voice in my head that refused to let me enjoy any of our victories because we didn’t snag a big festival was dying down. I was beginning to tear down the fetishistic pedestal I had placed these big festivals on. It’s not about size; it’s about what fits your film.

I’m writing this from my hotel room in Guadalajara, where the film just had its Latin American premiere. I enjoyed this festival a lot more because of Tallinn. Instead of marching in with a barrel full of expectations, I tried to pay attention to the local atmosphere, the particular flavor of this festival and how it works. Folks in dark rooms sit and watch piles of movies and then they like ours enough to invite us over, pay for our tickets and make us feel special—if we can’t enjoy that, maybe we won’t enjoy anything. Tallinn had shifted my perspective and allowed me to focus on what I did have, instead of what I thought I deserved.

And only because I no longer craved it, the universe did what it always does—it threw me a big one. South by South West! The news was delivered to me by a Tallinn Black Nights staffer, and it happened because two Tallinn Black Nights programmers had written to the big festival recommending the film. Thank you for everything, Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival! Two days from now, when I arrive in Austin for our North American premiere at SXSW, I can’t wait to tell everyone what a perfect fit you were to Loev, our little film. MM

Loev premieres at South by Southwest on Saturday, March 12, 2016 at 7 p.m. Additional screenings are on March 14 and 18.

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