by Erica Ginsberg, Docs In Progress Executive Director

I recently talked to Jon Gann who wears many hats – with the DC Film Alliance,DC Film Salon, and DC Shorts Film Festival, one of Washington’s most popular and fastest growing film festivals.  Gann also consults with both filmmakers and film festivals on strategies for success through ReelPlan and he’ll be bringing a bit of that knowledge on film festivals to Docs In Progress on Monday, May 24, 2010 as part of our “Evening with an Expert” series.  Recently we caught up with Gann to get his take on why Washington audiences flock to so many local film festivals and what this means for filmmakers.

Q: First of all, there seems to be a film festival going on almost every week in the Washington DC region.  Why are there so many film festivals here? And what does it say about the audience for film — and particularly for documentary — in the area?

JG: Washingtonians are a sophisticated bunch, and greatly appreciate the arts. We are the number two theater town in the nation; there are dozens of private and public art galleries; Artomatic is unique to the world — and film festivals play a large part in satisfying the creative needs of residents.  With more than 70 multi-day festivals from Baltimore to Richmond, we have more film events per-capita than anywhere in the country.  Documentaries do particularly well in the are in part because of the highly educated residents, the number of white collar occupations, and the level of social consciousness which comes from living in the Nation’s capital.

 Q: In spite of the love for film here, the number of traditional movie theaters which play independent films and documentaries seems to be dwindling.  There are only two left in Washington DC itself and only a few more in the suburbs.  With a few exceptions, this seems to be the same nationwide.  From a filmmaker perspective, does this make film festivals the new theatrical run?  And is this a good or bad thing for filmmakers?

JG:For many films, festivals have become the default theatrical run.  The theater business and distribution companies are so different today then they were even 10 years ago.  Screen time is difficult to obtain, and often prohibitively expensive should a venue become available.  Festivals offer the opportunity to screen to interested audiences — sometimes paying screening fees for features which help offset lost ticket revenues for the filmmaker.  In a perfect world, there would be more theatrical venues available for first-run releases.  But we do not live in a perfect world.  Yet.

Q: So then it would seem to be important for filmmakers to check out film festivals as they are creating a festival strategy?

JG: I cannot stress enough how important it is to research your festival strategy.  This means looking for events which have previously screened films similar to yours, obtaining catalogs or film lists, asking questions of previous participants, and reading messageboards and blogs.  Submitting your doc about baseball into a fest known for horror films is just stupid, and a waste of time and money.  Withoutabox, and others are good starting points — but there are dozens of others which should be checked regularly in your research.

Q: Do you have a take on the whole notion of A list and B list festivals and how to plan a premiere?

JG: Of the thousands of film festivals, only a handful have a “the” reputation — and getting into these events is nearly impossible for most filmmakers.  If you have an extraordinary film which you believe will tickle the fancy of a distributor — then make these festivals a part of your plan.  However, if you just want your film to be seen — often by audiences who are more involved, and events which provide a more positive experience, then create a festival strategy which looks to smaller events.  The truth is: it doesn’t really matter where you play.  It matters how you reach out to the public to show your film to the best audiences possible.

Want to know more of what Jon recommends for your own festival strategy?  Register for the next Docs In Progress Evening with an Expert taking place on May 24, 2010.   Space is limited to 12 participants, so advance registration is highly recommended.  Registration has passed.