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.