Let's face it. If you're an independent filmmaker, chances are it was a challenge to get your project financed. Of course, some filmmakers are fortunate to have investors with deep pockets who will keep pouring money into the marketing and distribution of their projects, but that's not typically the case.
In fact, most are just scraping by to get through post, and then the next stage of the journey kicks in, playing the festival circuit. Start to finish, the festival tour costs a pretty penny, but we're not going to dig into the travel expenses detail for this post. We'll save that for Part II. Let's start with Saving on Submissions.
It all starts with your Submission Strategy, and thinking about how many fests you want to enter, right out of the gate, versus taking the more conservative "wait and see approach."
If you were committed, for example, to submitting to approximately 20-30 festivals, at an average cost of $75.00 for a credible event (shorts avg comes down closer to $50), that's a minimum of $1,500 bucks. Some filmmakers use the shotgun approach, just getting a big batch all out at once. I would argue that is not the most effective strategy.
Entering regular deadlines (or even early!) will save you money. Rates tend to go up from $5-$10 per deadline. This adds up. While you do want to catch early or regular deadlines, I think it's best to stagger and send some out each month, for a few reasons:
1. You can request waivers. You can plead poverty. Email fests and tell them you spend your last dime on your film, how you would love to play in their fest, but can't afford the fee. Or you can get more creative. You're getting married and have to get your fiancee a ring. Whatever creative story you want to make up, it's worth a try. You might be surprised and get a few fees waived. If you are a student, play that card.
2. You might get lucky and be invited early in the screening process. Then you leverage that invite with other fests. Once you dip below the 1st and 2nd tier fests, who really like to stack their slate with premieres, most fests see other invites as legitimacy. In other words, they want to take a look and will often waive fees to do so.
3. This applies to other fests further into your fest run. You might have some fest targets that fall months after your early fest participation. Again, fests look to previous fests to get ideas for invites. Hamptons will look at Seattle program, for example. If you just played a credible fest, possibly even winning an award there, you can request waivers for the next series of fest deadlines. It's worth a shot.
Enter Early in Deadline Cycle
As mentioned above, entering earlier deadlines will save you money. It may not seem like much to only save $10 bucks per entry, but it adds up. You enter 20 fests over a few months and save $10 per, that's 200 bucks!
Of course, you may be waiting on a few Notification dates (see earlier blog about following up), before you decide to pull the trigger on the next wave of entries, but have a plan, create that spreadsheet and analyze your track record before pouring money down the drain.
Cut your Losses
The sad truth is there are more than 10,000 shorts made every year, and typically over 5,000 features. Not all of them are strong enough to earn festival slots. Some may not even be "Festival" movies. I remember selling a genre picture to HBO a few years ago that was not a Festival movie. The filmmaker new this and went straight to a cable deal, without pouring money into entry fees that were going to translate to fest invites.
If you apply to 20-30 Fests and are not seeing invitations, this may not be the route for you. It may better to focus on alternative distribution models, and applying those funds towards marketing your project to your target audiences.
Another consideration is your targeted festivals. Most filmmakers shoot for Sundance and Toronto, and many believe they have a good shot. Less than 5% is not a good shot. You obviously improve your chances to move down to the lower end of the 2nd tier, and even 3rd tier fests, as long as you know they have some credibility and decent attendance for their screenings.
If you have come this far, give yourself a pat on the back, but really analyze your festival strategy. You want to manage expectations and give yourself the best chance to reach your goals, while being practical. Festivals can certainly be helpful for indie filmmakers, but navigating your festival journey can be tricky; and sadly, their decisions are beyond your control.
Think back to the goals for the movie, and for yourself. Be efficient with your fest strategy and assess along the way. Saving money where you can will help you down the road, whether it applies to your travel costs or your marketing costs, it will be nice to have a few extra bucks.
When it comes to playing the film festival circuit, it often takes more than just a good film to succeed. With thousands of movies competing for the few coveted slots, it has become increasingly important to have a strategy to support your journey. Once upon a time, quality would just shine through and be discovered. In our modern festival era, however, innovative campaigns can increase your chances.
It all starts with proper analysis of your targeted festivals, their rules and their histories. Assuming you have done the basic research to ensure the events you are considering have credibility and there is value in you participating, do the deeper dive. See what films they have played. What films have won the awards? Was there local press, and if so, what did they respond to?
It never hurts to see some of the highlights that have come out of the festivals you are considering. If you really want to do your homework, watch some of them! Even if your movie is already done, seeing some of the stronger films that have succeeded over the years can influence future projects and decisions. We're counting down the Top 50 Festival Movies on our Instagram page.
Take note if the festival has a history specific themes or categories, such as experimental films (Ann Arbor) or an emphasis on foreign fare (Palm Springs). That's not to say most festivals cover a range of genres and categories, but it helps to do your homework and know how their history may affect the odds for you and your film there.
Once you've settled on your list of festival targets, you're ready to begin your applications...
Now you're ready to apply, but don't rush through the applications. Note which fests ask for Press Kits and /or Stills, and follow their policies. If your film is a rough cut, be sure they accept films at this stage. And know that rough cuts better be AMAZING. Most fests won't take the risk. Over the years, rough cuts have been invited to some top fests but then were not ready as the event approached and had to pull out. This is bad for everyone.
Most fests will accept a cover letter. This is an opportunity for you to share something unique about your movie. Is it based on a true story? A hot topic? Any known actors? Did you shoot in the same region or state as certain fests? Find your angle and leverage it.
Festivals also like to have premieres. Be sure, if you have not played other events at the time of submission, to share how eager you are to premiere with their Festival. And if you have already played others, you can share that too. Awards recognition? That helps.
Do yourself a favor and have a friend review your materials and proofread. You don't want to come off as sloppy, and I'm the first to admit, proofreading is not my strength. It's worth another look.
Once you're ready with your first round of submissions, and materials are solid, go for it. And add submission dates to your spreadsheet. Submit for early or regular deadlines when you can. There are typically less slots for those waiting for the final deadline; but you can hold off on your next wave of submissions, for example, if there is a chance you could hear back from others prior to subsequent deadlines. Sometimes, you can leverage festival invites to get fees waived on future festival submissions. Saving money is always good.
Finally, be sure to note the Notification date, and add to your spreadsheet.
Once you've submitted, see if there is someone you know that can put in a word for your movie. Anything to get you on the radar. Here is a short video on the subject of Getting In. And then set reminders in your calendar to follow up with festivals.
Check Notification dates and back out 6-8 weeks, depending on the gap from the final deadline, and revisit the festival. Do you have any updates to share with the them? For a few tips on how to approach the follow up, see our YouTube video here. Just any excuse to get back on their radar before they make final decisions.
The good news is filmmaking is a creative endeavor and if you're gotten this far, you have the passion and resources to develop the right solution for your project. Every film will have its own formula for success, but it's important to find your angles, be innovative and differentiate whenever possible.
When you know you've submitted right materials, to the appropriate festivals, and are on the radar, you've done everything you can do to have the best chance to be considered. And that's all you can ask for. If the film is a fit, you will get a phone call. And if, for whatever reason, you're not invited, don't lose hope. You will likely have other notification dates just around the corner.
Keep the dream alive.
Film festivals have become standard practice for indie filmmakers. Whether you are looking to play a top tier fest in hopes of a distribution deal, trying to generate exposure for your latest work, or looking to create enough buzz to successfully move on to next project, there are a number of factors to consider.
When we started Slamdance in 1995, there were less than 500 film fests. Ten years later, there were over 3,000 and now...there are over 7,000 (or so they say).
Yes, there are plenty of books, blogs and podcasts floating around, offering input on festival strategies. I thought I would just streamline a few keys, on a macro level. Some of these may seem obvious, but if you're as serious about the future well being of your project, as you were through the blood, sweat and tears it took to get this far, it's really worth having a roadmap. So here are some ideas I hope offer some guidance, maybe even reflection:
1. Develop the Right Strategy
It really starts with knowing your endgame. What is your goal for the film? For you as the filmmaker? How does the projected completion date of your movie affect your festival and distribution strategy?
Once you know where you want to land, you can back into the right timing, the right festivals to research, the potential distribution platforms.
Make spreadsheets and track your progress, fest submissions, and the distributors you want to reach out to.
Consider your materials, your title treatment (yes, your movie is a "brand"), your poster, the press kit. Have you locked down the website url and considered social media?
Read blogs and the industry trades, from IndieWire to the Wrap, Variety to the Hollywood Reporter. Keep up with what's happening. See what films are working, which are getting acquired and for how much?.
And create a budget. I know it was hard enough to get the movie done, but there are costs for your film festival journey. More in another blog about how to save money, with strategic applications and waivers, but for now, just consider costs of the above, and know that most fests don't have airline deals AND it's going to benefit you and the film much more if you attend the events you are invited to.
2. Make a Great Movie
Of course, this is subjective to some extent, but the fact is, there are more than 5,000 independent features films made in an average year (and over 10,000 shorts). It may seem like this should be obvious; but you should actually be thinking about your goals as a filmmaker and the kind of movie you are making, before you actually roll cameras. For example, if you have an interest in making thrillers or horror movies, don't go and put a ton of your personal money (and time) into shooting a short comedy. Even if it's great, it may be tougher for you to set up that thriller as your next project.
As you are thinking about style, try to have a unique voice and put your personality into the project. Think about the locations, the camera set ups, the static vs fluid, the int vs the ext. An extremely high percentage of movies that get into to credible festivals present a real vision behind the project.
Be sure the script is ready. Get feedback from pros, and friends in the business. Do a table reading if you can. The biggest problem with most of the movies that DON'T get into festivals is the script. Writing is re-writing.
The second biggest problem is often the actors. Don't make the same mistake I made and hire a bunch of friends who want to be actors. There are plenty of very talented actors willing to work for peanuts, just to work. Do a casting call, and consider all roles. We had Emmy winners and nominees, but every part counts.
These are "moving pictures" so tell your story visually whenever possible, and when doing so, record quality sound. This, sadly ,is one fo the line items that tends to suffer on ultra low budget projects. Production value does count.
3. Apply to the Right Festivals
As mentioned above, there are a lot of festivals to choose from, and plenty of "lists". You can find many a top 10, top 100, and MovieMaker's 50 Worth the Application Fee and many more. The fact is, you really need to research which fests can help you achieve your goals. If you get into Sundance or Toronto, great, but if not, you have have your Plan B ready to go. In fact, don't miss out on other fest deadlines between the Park City deadlines and their notification date, planning for that elusive Dance card.
As you develop your strategy, hit the early deadlines when you can. Regardless of what festival associates represent, films are often invited throughout the application cycle. If a programmer sees something at another festival worthy of an invite, it could happen on the spot. In either case, the number of screening slots is being reduced. Yes, most decisions are made towards the end, BUT all the films entered at the final deadline will have to be that much better or balance out the other slots. It's about playing the odds. And obviously, it's cheaper to submit earlier, which helps in the long run.
Consider your "Premiere" status, as it's really important where and when you break into the festival circuit. Some fests actually have rules about World, International and US Premiere status. This also affects the rest of your calendar, as you want to budget accordingly, once your run starts, and this obviously impacts your personal schedule.
Being present for your festival screenings is important. It's good for you to get feedback on your movie, participate in Q&As and engage with your fellow filmmakers. Many a project has been developed out of new relationships hatched at film fests. And not that you should be planning on winning an Award, but it definitely increases a film's chances to "win" if the filmmaker is around to receive the award. Sad, but true in many cases.
Lastly, it's important to manage expectations. I can say this from experience. All of us Slamdance co-founders thought we would get in Sundance and our careers would take off. Didn't happen that way. We didn't get in, but we did earn invitations to other fests and enjoyed the ride.
With so many film festivals out there, and over 3,000 digital platforms, you will have your chance to find your audience. Just be sure to give yourself the best chance to achieve your goals by developing a strategy for your project. This is no longer an auteur business. In this bold new era, filmmakers have to be more than artists. You have to think like an entrepreneur, think of your project as a brand.
If you can create a quality product, and develop a comprehensive strategy, you will find the right path. When one door closes, another one will open.