Festival Tip: Know Thy Festival

OK, so we talked in Tip # 10 about not submitting at the final deadline.  Part of not waiting to submit late is about planning. Filmmakers are expected to spend a lot of time in planning their documentaries - from researching and planning what you want to film to how you are going to raise funds for it to your shooting schedule and shot list to logs and transcripts to your editing script or EDL to your added materials like music and archival. Often less time is planned for how the film is actually going to get out there. The plan often consists of "Get into Sundance. Get it into theaters. Sell it to a broadcaster. Move on to Next Film."  But even the minority of filmmakers who are lucky, talented, and savvy enough to actually follow through on this plan don't do so without a lot of research and planning.


For the vast majority of filmmakers who are going to make solid films but may not get a national broadcast or wide theatrical release, you need to think of film festivals as a part of a broader outreach campaign to get attention for your film. So why would you pay less attention to planning the festival run than you did with planning your edit? You made the film to connect with audiences, not to sit on a shelf.  Call it a "Festival Strategy" if you want, but you need to wisely research and plan for how festivals can help get your film out there. You need to know what you want from a festival and which festivals can help you get what you want.

Playing the A-List Circuit: If you want to get a broadcaster or theatrical distributor interested in a film, which festivals are they likely to attend? Generally these would be what are known as "A-List" festivals (Sundance, Tribeca, Berlin, etc.) but, even among these festivals, there are differences in terms of the kind of films they accept. Documentary filmmakers also should be aware that what is A-List for a Feature Fiction film may not be the same for documentaries (i.e., an all-documentary festival like IDFA or Silverdocs may be more realistic and ultimately more profitable than a festival like Cannes or Venice). But the key is to know which films are A-List and what they require in terms of premiere status. If you haven't already read the Docs In Progress interview with the Toronto Film Festival's Thom Powers, it still holds relevance...even four years later.

Know Thy Festival: Even among A-List Festivals, there are differences in the types of films programmed and what a festival can do to bring attention to a film. For example, a music documentary might receive more traction from premiering at South by Southwest which is held in conjunction with a music festival. A film about an international topic might be worthwhile trying to premiere at IDFA rather than a U.S. festival. A film on some aspect of southern culture might receive more attention premiering at Full Frame than it might at a larger festival where it could get lost in a sea of other films. Some festivals treat filmmakers exceptionally well, helping them to connect to industry. Some may be more fun festivals where you can connect with other filmmakers. And some will leave you fending for yourself. You need to know which is which. You can get some basic information on festivals from websites such as Withoutabox and FilmFestivals.com but these are often just the basic information provided by the festival themselves. To get a little deeper into what sets different festivals apart, you may need to look at a few books like Chris Gore's The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide,  or Chris Holland's Film Festival Secrets: a Handbook for Independent Filmmakers Another way is to hear first-hand from other filmmakers. Online communities like The D-Word have a space where filmmakers can share their experiences or ask questions about different festivals. There are likely professional development organizations for filmmakers in most cities where you can network with other filmmakers and ask about their festival experiences (in Washington DC, for example, not only is there Docs In Progress, but also Women in Film and VideoTIVA-DC, and the DC Film Salon). And, of course, as you start traveling to festivals, you will meet other filmmakers who you can trade stories with.

Be Realistic. Yes indeedy almost everyone would like to play the A-List festival circuit. But not everyone will.  That is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of your film. For example, if you have an archival-heavy historical film, what do you think the likelihood will be of getting in to a festival which primarily programs character-driven verite docs? Very small. But that doesn't mean there isn't another festival which would be perfect for your film. Similarly, the length of your film can have an impact on programming. If it's a short documentary, you need to know what that means to a festival. For some, "short" might mean 10 minutes or less. For others, it could mean up to 30 minutes. Some film lengths are more difficult for festivals to program than others. For example, films between 30-60 minutes are often only programmed if they can be paired or trioed with films on similar themes. Films which are more than 120 minutes can be difficult to program at all since they don't fit in the neat little two-hour-including-Q&A blocks which many festivals aspire to. The key is to know what the festival has done in the past since it is likely to do something similar in the future. Almost every festival will have an archives of its past festivals so you can see the kinds of films typically programmed.

Plan B: OK, you didn't get into an A-List. That's not an excuse to go crazy. There is a strange psychology that can sometimes take over when you don't have a planned festival strategy. Some filmmakers give up on festivals altogether when they don't get into any of the handful on their dream list. And some go wild, trying to get into anything and everything which might rectify their damaged ego. Withoutabox can be a bit of a drug here.  It is very easy to become dazzled by the options and to start applying to everything. This is not the best use of your time or money (since the majority of festivals charge a submission fee).

If you have a plan in place (call it a "Plan B" if you are obsessed with the A-List circuit), you can still find the right festivals for your film. It may be that there are some smaller regional festivals which might be more amenable to your film. It may be that the subject of your film might make it more appropriate for the niche festival circuit (women's festivals, ethnic film festivals, LGBT film festivals, etc.). While you may not get a Variety review or a distribution deal out of these festivals, what you may get are enthusiastic audiences who will help build the grassroots buzz for your festival - something which is tremendously helpful if you ultimately plan to self-distribute your film (something which is becoming more and more common) or try to convince a distributor that there is an audience for your film.

Even as you get into festivals, you need to have a plan -- for how you want to approach your outreach at a festival. Something which I'll talk about more as we begin to get further down the countdown.  But next we'll talk a bit about tips for communicating effectively with festivals -- both before and after your film is selected for their festival...and even if it isn't.

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