by Erica Ginsberg, Executive Director of Docs In Progress®

For many documentaries, film festivals are one of the most effective ways to build an audience and get in touch with distributors. Held every September, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is one of the premier festivals for both fiction and non-fiction films. Theatrically-released documentaries such as Roger and MeThe Story of the Weeping Camel, andThe Corporation all premiered at TIFF. Many documentaries which have topped this year’s list for critical acclaim and Oscar buzz premiered or screened at Toronto, including Deliver Us From EvilKurt Cobain About a Son51 Birch StreetShut Up and Sing, and The U.S. Vs. John Lennon.

I recently spoke with Toronto’s documentary programmer, Thom Powers. His background is also as a documentary filmmaker, having directed documentaries for HBO, PBS, Sundance Channel and other outlets through the production company he co-founded, Sugar Pictures. He also programs the Stranger Than Fiction series at The IFC Center in New York, teaches documentary at New York University’s School of Continuing Professional Studies, and is a guest curator for the Jacob Burns Film Center. He has written for the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and Filmmaker Magazine and is currently writing a book about the history of American documentary.

As Powers starts to prepare for another year of film programming, we caught up with him to find out more about Toronto and get his take on what film festivals mean more broadly for documentary filmmakers.

Q: So let’s start by talking about the Toronto International Film Festival. How do you find and select the films for your program?

At TIFF, we look at all the films submitted to us and pick a line-up to represent a spectrum of the best doc-making in that season. We try to program a range of styles, subject matter and international scope. It’s a rare exception for us to take a film that’s already played at a North American festival. Throughout the year, I’m always collecting information about what interesting titles are in the works, but we watch everything we get that meets our submission criteria.

In 2006, we received roughly 500 submissions of feature-length documentaries. Of those, I personally watch around 100-150. The surplus is vetted by pre-screeners who will pass on to me the titles they think are most intriguing. Other titles are screened by my colleagues who have regional specialties in Africa, Asia, Latin America, etc. I typically watch a film myself if it comes recommended by someone established in the industry – not necessarily someone I know, but an experienced sales agent, producer, broadcaster, filmmaker. Plus, I randomly pull things from the slush pile, if the title or subject matter intrigues me. That’s how I came acrossIRAN: UNE REVOLUTION CINEMATOGRAPHIQUE which I programmed this year. I had never heard of the filmmaker or the French production company. But the title intrigued me and I thought it was a great film.

Overall, we programmed about 40 documentaries at TIFF in 2006. I say roughly because it depends how you categorize certain films like ZIDANE that might be regarded as documentary or experimental. Roughly half of those 40 had strong connections to the U.S. or Canada, including several co-productions. Sometimes it’s hard to categorize. For example, THE PRISONER OR: HOW I PLANNED TO KILL TONY BLAIR is by a husband-wife team. He’s American; she’s German. The film was produced and edited in Germany; filmed in Iraq and Jordan; and received major funding from the BBC. But I lump that in when I say roughly half have North American connections. The other half come from the rest of the world, with a strong representation from Europe.

Q: Toronto is generally considered an A-list festival. For those who are not familiar with this term, could you tell us what this means? What other festivals are considered A-List?

So-called “A” level fests are those that command major attention from press and industry. At “B” level fests you might find some press and industry – and you might stand out better when the competition is less intense – but the “A” level fests create a unique climate for deal-making. In North America, Sundance, of course, is mythologized for deals and discoveries – though primarily for American films and subject matter. Tribeca and the Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF) also feature lots of world premieres and take place in media capitals. They’ve supplied a platform for distribution deals such as JESUS CAMP at Tribeca and DELIVER US FROM EVIL at LAFF. In Europe, Berlin and IDFA can be major launching pads for docs. So would Cannes if they programmed more docs.

Q: How important is it to premiere at one of these festivals?

Assuming you have a film that feels worthy of competing at the top, take your best shot at an A level fest before giving up your premiere to a smaller fest. Major festivals always prefer to have a world or continent premiere. It’s like your virginity, you only give it up once.

If you make that attempt and it’s not the right fit, then move to your B list.

There’s a long list of films that got rejected by one A-list festival, then turned up at another. This year I can think of one title Sundance passed that I programmed; and one title I passed on that Sundance took for ‘07. Ultimately, subjectivity and taste play a role. We turn down lots of well-made films that for whatever reason don’t fit into our scheme. Sometimes those films can do better at a smaller festival because they stand out more.

Festivals are an opportunity for you to gain as much press and industry as possible to facilitate your larger distribution and your future projects. Doc specialty festivals such as Full Frame, Hot Docs and Silverdocs can play a special role different from Sundance or Toronto. Because the specialty festivals tend to be more low key, filmmakers often have more time to network with the industry.

Q: How helpful are festivals to getting a broadcaster or distributor on board?

They can be very helpful when you have the right strategy; which often comes from a sales agent or a producer who’s been through the festival experience before.

Q: What does it mean when someone refers to a film as a “festival film.” Is this the Kiss of Death for films which don’t fit into the TV or theatrical markets?
Well, that label is self-fulfilling because usually it gets applied to films that have gone overlooked by broadcasters and distributors; or that for whatever reason seem too sophisticated or lacking a commercial hook. But I can think of a few docs that might have been dubbed “festival films” before they went on to gain other recognition. DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE, for instance.

Q: Is it possible to play too many festivals?

That’s the opinion of some theatrical distributors who worry that festival play in a certain city will take away from the later theatrical run in that city. But opinions vary.

Q: What should every filmmaker do to get the most out of their festival experience? How can they work best with the festival?
Festivals operate on short deadlines for gathering artwork, contact details, etc. for their programs and publicists. Your first priority should be meeting those deadlines. Basic communication helps – reminding the programmer when you’ll be in town and what are your goals.

Talk to lots of other filmmakers who have been through it before. You can always benefit from reaching out to people who have been through this process before – agents, producers, other filmmakers. Don’t just listen to me, take lots of different advice.

Q: You have experience both as a filmmaker and as a film programmer. As the latter, what do you wish more filmmakers thought about?
I can’t speak for every festival programmer, but I’d like filmmakers not to rush their films just to make a festival deadline. Better to take an extra few months and wait for the next festival. It won’t help your film to get accepted to a great fest when the film is not as good as it can be.

Wait until you have the best cut possible. If you’re pushing a deadline, it’s good to let the festival programmer know in advance to be expecting your film. So if, for instance, you’re making a film about Afghanistan and the programmer is watching lots of other films about Afghanistan, they’ll know to wait for yours before making a decision about the others.

The unhappy part of my job is that I have to reject a lot more films than I can accept. Sometimes filmmakers take that very personally. Which I understand because I’ve directed films and received plenty rejection letters myself. It sucks. But don’t feel stigmatized by a rejection. Frequently, I’ll tip off other festival programmers to good films that I didn’t have room for. There are plenty of festivals out there and plenty of chances for a good film to break out.


© January 2007, Docs In Progress®
This article may not be reprinted without permission.