Perhaps this topic is particularly on my mind because I have recently returned from a trip through Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi where I had a chance to see some of the places which formed some of the most powerful images of the civil rights movement - Little Rock Central High School, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the Lyceum at Ole Miss. Until the moment I saw those places firsthand, I could only imagine them through written descriptions of what happened there and from the still and moving images of what happened at each of them more than half a century ago. Iconic images which tell a story so much more deeply than the written texts or even on-camera interviews which accompany them. They help connect me to a world before I was born, a world it is sometimes hard to believe existed if not for these images as everlasting evidence.
So how is this all relevant to your film and festivals? There is a reason you are making a film and not a radio program or a book and that is because you believe that the most effective way to communicate your vision is through image. Your film shows rather than tells. Powerful images are a necessity - both in the film itself and in what you use to promote it.
Just as it is human nature to judge a person within 10 seconds of meeting them - based on how they look, walk, dress, or use body language even before you have any verbal interaction - so too is your film being judged on first impressions. Though few festivals would ever admit that the people screening their films do anything less than watch every submission thoroughly, the reality is that a judgment is being made about your film within the first five minutes of watching it. Do the images capture the viewer's attention? Do they intrigue? Do they communicate a story we may not know or may only think we know? Do they make one want to watch through to the end? Or do they make the viewer confused? Zone out? Push the fast forward button? Or worst of all, eject and move on to the next submission?
Even after you have overcome the hurdle of the screeners and programmers and made it into a festival, you still have to make your film stand out to an audience which will be overwhelmed by the choices at the festival. Most festivals will include a still image with your film's description on their website and printed program but how do you make sure your film doesn't get lost in a sea of 30-100 other films at the festival? The best synopsis in the world still can't compete with a compelling image which stands out on a page.
Here's a few thoughts on what makes an image compelling?
- A close up to medium shot of one or more characters of your film in the middle of an action which conveys something about the story of the film.
- It could be a verite scene from the film (ideally taken as a photo during production rather than a screen grab).
- It could be an archival still from the film.
- It has to intrigue us and make us want to know more about this person or this story.
What should generally be avoided?
- Talking head interview shots.
- Wide scenery shots unless they convey something powerful about the story.
- Posed shots of your characters (with rare exceptions such as a old family photo for a documentary about a family).
- Production stills - Unless the festival has requested images of the filmmakers making the film (or the making of the film IS the story or you are Michael Moore), don't confuse production stills with film stills.
- Vertical images. Keep them to the same dimensions as a video screen (4:3 or 16:9)
- Images which were created with graphics - save these for your postcards, posters, and other promotional materials. This includes subtitles - if your film has them and you must do a screen grab for your film still, make sure to do so before the subtitles are on your film.
The other important point to make about still images is to provide them to the festival in their preferred format and deadline once your film is accepted. There are still some festivals which want printed stills. There are some who want them on a CD or Thumb Drive. If they don't specify, the best way is to make your photos available online - preferably as part of the press kit on Withoutabox and/or easy to find on your own website. They should be available in high resolution formats for printed programs and press and in a web-friendly format. Offer several options of images if possible with what you consider your strongest image first.
In terms of other promotional materials, most festivals welcome postcards and posters but know in advance how many they suggest sending in advance. Do not expect a festival to print anything out for you - promotional materials should be part of your outreach budget. Always plan on bringing additional postcards with you to the festival since you want to have them as calling cards as you meet people and can replenish supplies if they run out at the festival. Postcards and posters should also have compelling images as well as a logline and information which includes the title, the name of the director, the name of other principal production team members, distribution information (if known), and the website address. They should also include information on when/where the film is screening at the festival (these can either be included as a special print run of the materials or with affixed stickers).
While compelling images alone can't get you automatic entrÃ©e into a festival - there still needs to be a compelling story, they are critical to making that first impression be a lasting, positive one.