I’m often asked how best to “festival,” and I suppose it’s a question I’ve come by honestly. The fact that I made the documentary Official Rejection, which covers the nuts-and-bolts experiences of moviemakers on the indie circuit, probably has quite a bit to do with that. Since the film’s premiere in 2009, I’ve gotten scores of e-mails daily on the subject. But it’s no secret that the independent film world is in a state of rapid evolution, and with the 2011 festival season upon us, the inquiry has shifted from “what do I do” to “what do I do now?”

Over the last few years, film festivals in general haven’t really changed a whole lot, and the basic commandments a moviemaker should follow once his or her film is accepted to one—attend, promote, meet, greet and be on your best behavior—haven’t either.

But what has changed is the role festivals can potentially play in this, the early life of your film. These are no longer just promotional platforms for you to get your movie in front of appreciative eyeballs and build an audience to utilize once you find distribution; more and more, festivals are functioning as an important first level of distribution.

With theatrical releases for independents already a rare commodity, the idea of the festival circuit becoming a default movie-house run for an indie flick is hardly new. But in the last half-decade, the entire world of distribution has been upended, and self-distribution has become not only a more viable option for independent movies because of advances in technology and the omnipresence of the Internet, but often a preferred and more financially beneficial route as well.

It’s time to think beyond the traditional festival strategy.

1. Have a Distribution Plan in Place When You Hit the Circuit.
It’s a hard choice to make before you’ve even premiered: Do you eliminate any chances of acquiring traditional distribution for your film by deciding to forge ahead with a plan to release it yourself? In the past, the accepted strategy was to approach distributors while playing the festival circuit, using your festival successes to interest would-be buyers, and then only once those possibilities were exhausted would you consider a self-distribution option.

However, the distribution landscape has changed; there aren’t very many distributors left to acquire independent films, and the few that exist are in the habit of paying so little for the movies they pick up, they often don’t even cover the cost of delivering your picture to them. In effect, you’re paying them to take your film away from you, leaving you with nothing to show for your years of effort except angry investors and crushing debt.

That said, if you actually happen to be one of the lucky few who finds yourself about to premiere at Sundance, Slamdance, SXSW, Tribeca, Toronto or the Los Angeles Film Festival, it’s still a good idea to stick with the old “wait and see” approach. These are “market” festivals, meaning that distributors attend these events with an eye toward picking up “product,” and among them are the few remaining mini-majors, the last places where the possibility of a financially beneficial distribution deal still exists.

But the reality is that 99.9 percent of indie movies don’t get into these “market” festivals, and 99.9 percent of film festivals aren’t “market” festivals anyway. The vast majority of festivals have theaters full not of distributors, agents and other industry types, but real, live moviegoers drawn from communities all over the globe. When you play the circuit, you have brief but direct access to this vast potential audience. If you’ve decided to function as your own distributor, you should consider the incredible opportunities this can afford you.

2. Utilize the Festival’s Relationships.
It’s important to recognize that a festival is, in a very real way, an actual distributor, although one with a very narrow, non-exclusive window and format. By and large, a festival gets to release your film only theatrically, and only for the brief number of days the event runs. Still, like any distributor, festivals have established business relationships with venues, press and advertisers. If you go through the festival, and ask politely enough, this means that you can potentially utilize these relationships if you mount your own distribution in their area.

For the theatrical release of Ten ‘Til Noon, a film I produced and wrote, the Phoenix Film Festival was kind enough to help negotiate a week-long booking for us at the Harkins Theatre chain, with whom they have a long-standing relationship, based upon the success of our festival screenings. Phoenix also allowed us to use their publicity staff—for free—to make sure we got proper press coverage, and managed to get us significant savings on local ad buys because of their own existing discount deals.

The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival is in an even better position to help its moviemakers find local theatrical engagements because they own their own theater, the incredible Cinema Paradiso. They also have a full-time publicist who can negotiate reduced-price advertising.

3. Sell to Your Audience in Person.
When your film plays at a festival, the people that come to see it are already predisposed to like it. If you, the moviemaker, are able to attend, the excitement in the air as you wrap up your screening with an energetic Q&A is electric. So what better time to offer your fans an opportunity to buy your DVD than right then and there? Several moviemakers have found great success doing this, so much so that the United Film Festivals are considering including a pricing special where $10 gets you a ticket to see the film, and $20 gets you a ticket plus a DVD.

Of course, it should be noted that if you decide to sell copies of your movie right at the festival, it’s important not to make them physically available until after your screening, so their presence won’t cut into the potential ticket sales that the festival needs for its success. For the same reason, you should also avoid having the DVD available to buy online. The goal should be to create an atmosphere of “right here, right now,” further encouraging impulse buys from your excited audience.

4. Make the Festival Your Partner.
Using a festival to assist in your distribution efforts requires cooperation, and what better way to foster that than by making sure the festival can profit from this relationship as well? For example, if you’re selling DVDs following your screening, offer the festival a percentage of the take-in exchange for setting up a table and dedicating a volunteer to actually do the selling for you. This way you can continue to glad-hand, autograph DVDs and generally work the crowd without having to feel like a complete huckster, physically taking people’s cash and making change. You can also ask the festival to sell your movie, T-shirts or other merchandise at their on-site store; but again, make it worth their while by giving them a healthy cut of all purchases.

The United Film Festivals, a kind of multi-city roadshow with editions in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Tulsa, San Francisco and London, have taken this role as partner even further. United is run by L.A.-based Connell Creations, a production entity that already self-distributes its own films, and has now begun acquiring, and even investing capital in, movies that have been programmed into their festivals. The first film to receive such treatment was The Rock-Afire Explosion, which Connell played through the various editions of its fest before distributing it on DVD and VOD. Recently, Maggie Sargent’s acclaimed documentary Divorcing God, an official selection of the Los Angeles United Film Festival, was also acquired by Connell for release through a similar partnership arrangement.

“You have to be open to the constantly evolving environment,” says Jason Connell, the man behind Connell Creations. “There’s no set way of doing things. It’s time to make your own rules.”

5. Use Your Alumni Status.
Once your movie has played a particular festival, it’s forever part of that festival’s history. More than nostalgia, this means that the local audience for that festival has been exposed to your film, and in forthcoming years, will likely remember it and you.

It may profit both the moviemaker and a festival to continue to market and sell its past crowd-pleasers. That festival where you sold out your screenings last year may be very interested in stocking your DVDs at their merchandise store this year, especially if they can get a percentage of those sales. They may also agree to add your movie to their online shop, or offer it as a streaming video-on-demand rental title.
The bottom line: The festivals have the filmgoers, and you have the film. So it’s time to get together and create some mutually beneficial magic. Be creative. Make your own rules. MM

Paul Osborne is the director of Official Rejection, the acclaimed documentary about the experiences of independent moviemakermakers at film festivals. Follow him at www.twitter.com/