“I spent all my money making my film and have no money left for festivals. Will you please waive my submission fee?”
This is the start of many an e-mail film festival programmers seem to receive while their festival’s submission period is open. While it is likely a true statement in most cases, the question is why? Why are filmmakers not budgeting for outreach as a part of their planning? It is a bit like budgeting to get you through a pregnancy and not saving any money to help feed, clothe, or save for a child’s education.
Film Festivals are not free. Plain and simple. If you plan to apply to festivals, you need to make sure this is part of the outreach budget for your film. Beyond the submission fees (which can often run about $50 per festival), there are many other financial costs associated with festivals:
Mailing costs (while some festivals now accept online submissions through Withoutabox, quite a few still require that a DVD be mailed). Make sure that mailing envelopes are bubble-padded to avoid residue from other kinds of padding affecting the DVD. Do not weigh your mailer down with promotional materials. Until you are actually accepted into a festival, most festivals just want the DVD and maybe a copy of your submission form (though a few international festivals may also want a script).
DVD replication. I strongly recommend filmmakers submit professionally burned DVDs rather than homeburns since the latter are more likely to have issues with playing on screener DVD players. It may be more expensive in the short term, but do you really want to spend $50 on a submission fee and the cost of mailing just to have the festival toss your DVD because it won’t play (and don’t expect the festival will alert you to this and ask you to resubmit, especially if you submit for the final deadline). That said, don’t waste money on professional packaging for festival submissions - a simple but well-marked DVD in a plastic jewel case or DVD-shaped case is fine and will save you both production and mailing costs.
Printing costs for promotional materials. If you start playing festivals, you should have postcards, posters, and business cards. When I was programmer for a small all volunteer-run community film festival, I can’t believe how many filmmakers would send a PDF of their poster, expecting somehow that the festival had a professional printing press in the backroom to print their poster. The marketing department of a festival is usually open to putting out your postcards and posters but they will not print them for you. If you are not sure how many to send, ask. Make sure to include specific screening information on the postcards and posters - whether by doing a special print run with that information or by attaching a sticker or decal with the details. And no matter how much the festival says they will get your materials out, always bring more with you the festival since you may want to have them on hand as you are schmoozing.
Extra DVDs. If you are trying to get press reviews, you may also want to have extra DVD screeners. If your film doesn’t already have a web presence (either a website or at least a blog, Facebook Page, and/or trailer on YouTube or Vimeo), you should.
Screening Copy. Pay attention to what the preferred screening format is of the festival. Some will not screen DVDs so you need to include funding to make versions in HD or DigiBeta specifically for screening purposes.
Travel costs. Surprise Surprise. A lot of festivals have very little to no budget for filmmaker travel. While some may have special discount deals with airlines or Amtrak or may be helping with accommodations, meals, or a free pass to the festival and parties, you should not presume a festival will pick up anything for travel. While you don’t need to attend every festival where your film is showing, the beauty of festivals is that they are a major opportunity for filmmakers to interact directly with audiences. You should budget at least a little bit for travel.
Representation? Many filmmakers often wonder if they should also hire a press or sales agent for festivals. Unless your film is premiering at an A-List Festival like Sundance, it is generally not necessary.
Back to those Submission fees. While it never hurts to ask a festival for a waiver, don’t expect it. Festivals are often cash-strapped nonprofits who make the bulk of their income from submission fees, grants, and sponsorships. Especially in the current economy of dwindling sponsorships and more competitive grants, many festivals are limiting the number of fee waivers they offer or are only offering them to films they are trying to get for the festival. And whatever you do, don’t give a festival some sob story about being a poor filmmaker who is left with no money for festival submissions. This simply shows poor planning. Better to just be earnest and perhaps showcase some of the festivals your film has already played to make your film seem like a more attractive offering. It is also helpful to know more about a festival for background - if you are applying to an “A List” (or even an A- or B+ list) festival which gets upwards of 1000 submissions, the chances of getting a fee waiver are pretty unlikely unless the festival has already been tracking your film. Don’t assume that, just because you meet the festival programmer at some party or other festival and they encouraged you to apply, that automatically means that you get a waiver.
So how much should you budget for festivals? It really depends on how many you expect to apply to, how many you expect to attend, and what you want to get out of a festival. I would never recommend budgeting less than $1,000 and a more realistic figure would be close to $5,000. Again, if you get into Sundance or Toronto, you are in another realm and the costs may even be higher.
Hope I haven’t scared you off festivals altogether. The reward comes from knowing that your film is being seen by appreciative audiences and that you have the opportunity to interact with them (not to mention either selling some DVDs or building a mailing list for when your DVD is available). Festivals can also be a key part of a much larger outreach/engagement campaign (and it is not unusual for the outreach costs for a film to exceed the production costs). All I hope is that filmmakers retain a sense of reality not only in terms of festivals themselves but in terms of the cost of festivals.