Democratising the Filmmaking Process Volume 3 : DIY Distribution : How to Get Your Short or Feature into a Film Festival
This is our third DIY Distribution guide. Part 1 was how to make your movie available on Amazon Prime and Part 2 was how to get your movie reviewed and written about. Of course there are other options for getting your film seen by the public, and one of the most traditional is Film Festivals.
In recent years Film Freeway has become one of the most useful disruptors of the film industry, massively democratizing a vital part of film distribution, and allowing simple, cost-effective and easy access for submitting independent films to festivals from around the world, all from one source.
Unfortunately for the independent filmmaker there is still a dark art to navigating your film towards festival acceptance. This guide will hopefully shine a small light on helping you get your film screened at more and larger festivals.
Film festivals are full of unwritten rules, hidden codes of practice, and many strange surprises.
The first surprise is that for most well-known festivals, using an admittedly great service such as Film Freeway will actually do very little for helping your films chance of being accepted, other than providing a simple application solution. At a recent, well regarded festival workshop, an artistic director was asked what percentage of films are accepted at *insert name of very large UK festival* by blind submissions. Their response was, “I could count on one hand how many films were accepted that way”, to some gasps from the audience.
The most useful advice we can give is to emphasise this point: very few films are accepted by festivals using the traditional blind submission process. That is not to say you are wasting your time – or money – but submitting to a festival this way, with an unknown film, by an unknown director, and to a festival without whom you have any prior contacts will severely limit its chances of being accepted there.
Then how do you get your film screened at a festival?
Most large Film Festivals are businesses and understanding this, and how they operate, will help you towards having your films successfully shown at festivals.
A large part of a big festival's income is generated from ticket sales – essentially 'bums on seats'. To get bums on seats they need USPs – unique selling products, which for festivals is, unsurprisingly, films.
Unlike cinema multiplexes where a certain film is now released worldwide, and on the same day, Film Festivals need an extra something to sell tickets: Premiere Status, AKA exclusivity is the 'extra something'. Understanding the importance of premiere status is what will allow you to plan your first step towards a successful festival strategy.
It is also important to understand that not all film festivals are equal, and knowing that they themselves understand this is very helpful to us, independent filmmakers. There are very good reasons why the top 20 film festivals run at different times throughout the year, which are to allow the cascading of screening films and for festival curators and programmers to attend other festivals to choose films for themselves.
In simple terms, and currently ignoring the Market Industry model for selling films, the big festivals' business priorities are to screen the best, most interesting, most hotly marketed, exclusive or controversial films of the year – and they all fight to do this first. This is what will get them bums on seats, and that helps facilitate their cultivated public persona, thus getting even more bums on seats.
This all works amazingly well for the biggest sales agents, filmmakers and actors, and is often a perfectly symbiotic relationship. Unsurprisingly, festival-royalty filmmakers can take their pick and choose where they would like to screen that year and where; usually based on prestige, how hard they need to sell their current film, or just for good general publicity purposes.
Unlike the vast majority of us, these prestige films and filmmakers create a frenzy among festivals desperate to have the hottest ticket in order to generate their own publicity machine. The hottest ticket is a World Premiere status from a big filmmaker, with a good red carpet opportunity.
At the other scale of this high-end tier, filmmakers and distributors with less prestigious films will be woo-ing the festivals in order to convince them to show their own films, which we will discuss later as it is something which will also help us. It's important to note that none of these filmmakers or distributors will send in a blind submission.
After these premium festivals – Berlin, Toronto, Venice etc have fought for the opportunity to showcase that years most prestigious films first, and generate those exciting red carpet moments, it begs the question of what happens to these films after. This is where the second tier of festivals enter our guide.
As previously mentioned, every festival has a set of curators and programmers who travel to every big festival in order to select films for their own, smaller festivals.
While World Premiere status for the big hit of Toronto is off the cards for them, a Regional Premiere (i.e. US, British, Australian etc) is guaranteed to put many bums on their own seats, especially if they have been a success elsewhere, or if they fit an appropriate strand to feature at that year's festival. Each large festival catalogue will have had the contact details for each film available to the industry. All the smaller festivals who wish to program a suitable film then need to do is email the film's contact and try to convince them to screen the film at their very nice, but smaller film festival.
In theory, it is possible for a film to have a World Premiere at one of the big festivals then screen at many smaller, but still prestigious festivals throughout every geographical area, often with screening fees given. Films get publicity, or get sold, festivals get publicity and sell tickets and it is again a perfect symbiotic relationship. Mostly.
In simple terms this is how the big Hollywood or prestigious Independent film festival industry operates, with the usual 'surprise' exceptions to that rule which become the sleeper hit of that season.
This is to a large extent applicable to us too as almost all festivals do follow these general principles.
Start To Use This Information To Plan Your Successful Festival Strategy
Everyone tries to have their film screened at the biggest, most appropriate festival to them first but it can't be stated strongly enough that this process does not however work in reverse. You cannot have a film premiere at The Cumbernauld International Festival and then expect it to be screened at Tribeca later.
As soon as you lose your World Premiere status your film immediately becomes less marketable.
It is essential this is recognised otherwise you endanger your festival run. You need to negotiate your World Premiere – ideally at the biggest festival possible, and then work down the tiers, picking those which will give it a long and healthy run across the world. Your premiere status is a one-off opportunity that has potentially great value to you and your film.
As we discussed earlier, there is no accident to festival calendars -they are either trying to compete with each other (so run very close) or allowing a larger festival to feed into them, and for a smaller one to filter from theirs. Festivals can also get incredibly competitive with one another, which can be helpful for the filmmaker. As soon as a curator sees a film which fits with their proposed theme/strand/size they will likely email the filmmakers immediately in order to try and program that film, and you have the upper hand for negotiating a good screening.
You must choose your festivals wisely and not just go with whoever chooses to screen your film first. Read reviews, check dates and plan – especially if there is a better festival for you at a later date. Please do not make the mistake of going with the first festival who accepts your film, no matter how flattering they are! Aim your strategy for the start of season as festivals usually don't want to screen something from 'last year'.
How does this help us? Creating a strategy.
For the vast majority of us, unless we are very lucky we won't have the luxury of festivals chasing us or powerful sales agents or distributers working on our behalf, especially if it is our first film. So we need to convince festivals to screen our film ourselves – and have a strategy to do so.
From our experiences of patiently checking your inbox for 'that email' on a festival selection announcement date and hoping your film will be mentioned in their press release, it can be tough to plan so far into the future. To start your strategy, albeit very harshly, if your film is accepted you would most likely have been informed weeks, if not months before the public announcement date. If you are waiting and still hoping for good news on the day of the announcement it's likely not good news but knowing this allows us to keep planning. Everything is a chess game but you will be wasting precious time waiting for a rejection in order to submit elsewhere.
There is good news though...
We've discussed how big festivals operate in terms of premiere status and timing and our next step is to start targetting a suitable one for your film.
For choosing your festivals, you first have to be realistic in your expectations – just like the festivals are themselves. No matter how much you love your movie, if it is your first film, and made on a micro-budget then it realistically won't screen at Venice without powerful support, especially if you don't know anyone there. Likewise, Cumbernauld International Film Festival's first world-premiere realistically won't be the new Tarantino movie. Although both happening would be nice and there are always exceptions.
We will shortly discuss ways to circumnavigate the traditional submission process but there is still a little festival background information we need to know before we get there.
We mentioned that not all festivals are equal – we mean by size, recognition and funds. A medium sized festival will likely have some big regional premieres for their star attractions, which also means they will be looking for their own, unique World Premieres. Possibly your film. World Premiere status is still an incredibly important marketing tool for your movie. Use it wisely!
The smaller the star attractions at a festival are, the higher the chance of your film being accepted there is. Quality, is important – a poor film will only give a festival bad press, a death blow for their future, but marketability is often as important in their selection process. No festival will show a bad film -except for specific reasons but a 'pretty decent, or at least interesting' film will still have a chance due to its premiere status or other marketable assets. At the very least, in a scenario where a festival has to choose between two equally good films that fit one of their strands, a World Premiere will likely be picked over a regional geographic one. Do your research and see how often the amount of premieres status' is used for festival marketing purposes.
Beyond just Premiere Status there are many other aspects which can help your film towards becoming selected. It is important to research past festival selections for a potential appropriate place for your film.
Festivals mostly have themes, genres and strands. The overall theme of Raindance or Sundance is for virtuoso independent filmmaking, but at very differing levels. Look at past selections for an idea of the type of films they show. The better organised festivals often have strands which can be seen as mini festivals within their overall programme. A festival may have a strand focussing on local Independent Filmmaking - which is obviously great, however strands are often announced after the submission process begins so difficult to know if your film will fit. It really is helpful to research the previous strands from a festival you are interested in approaching. Often festivals are based around genres – so use common sense. Will your romantic comedy realistically be selected for a schlock-horror film festival?
Currently the market is saturated. FilmFreeway helps but can be a minefield with so many varied sounding festivals. From researching these carefully you can start to target the most appropriate for your film, budget and cast (a name always sells for festival marketing and red carpet).
Start to list those which feel a good fit for your film. And start to list your own film's attributes against them. You can soon create a spreadsheet of matching criteria.
Save money by targetting that list of appropriate festivals to submit to. Don't waste money by trying random festivals.
Submitting To a Festival
Don't start submitting your film just yet!
Through targetting certain festivals which seem like appropriate places for your film to screen you now have a good amount of positive elements to add to any submission application. You have a good film, that film is having its World Premiere, your film is local to the festival (always a good PR coup for both parties), your film fits in with the feel of the festival (researched from previous years) and the festival starts quite early in the festival season to give you a chance to screen it elsewhere later. You know where you would love to have your premiere take place so no longer have to submit to the first random festival you see.
This sounds great and positive, except.....
Of course you probably remember we mentioned that the blind submission process rarely works. This is true, it rarely does but there are a number of factors which you can overcome to increase your chances of success. So we should probably discuss our experiences of how we overcame this and how these can hopefully help you.
One of our films, Big Gold Dream had a successful UK festival run. It may be helpful to share its festival strategy to demonstrate some ideas which may help you with yours. Being honest, we didn't actually have a strategy to begin with. Luck, mistakes and hoping for the best was our strategy but we learned an amazing amount about festivals in a very short space of time. We really did make a lot of mistakes.
We should make a point here that our approach to festivals differed depending on whether they were traditional or independent. As our film was independent we recognised the importance of kinship and supporting like-minded people. Overall, our biggest surprise during the festival run was that size and money were actually often irrelevant to how well our film was received, and unexpectedly, how we ourselves were received. These were very, very valuable lessons and experiences when dealing with our later films.
The second most important advice we can offer you: if you don't know anybody at a festival then find someone who does. In order to have a small film screened at a festival it is imperative to build up a relationship with them. This can either be through a contact or by emailing/phoning to ask for somebody to discuss your film's suitability with. Use the opportunity to tell them why your film is a good fit for their festival (be realistic here) and for them to get to know you and your film better.
Sell your film. Submission forms don't always allow for the opportunity to sell your film properly. Make contacts and find the person who can offer your film the best opportunity of acceptance and speak to them. Convince them to show your film. Why go to all the effort of making your film and then just stop there and hope for the best?
Additionally, most local festivals will offer a waiver at the very least for local based filmmakers. Use the opportunity of contacting them to discuss and ask for this. Our suggestion would be to base these discussions around the size of the film festival. It is incredibly important for a sustainable industry to support smaller independent festivals who don't often receive the additional public funding of the larger ones, a submission fee can make a very large difference to whether they run again. We need independent festivals. We would however suggest that it is completely acceptable to discuss their screening of your film outside of the traditional submission process but if accepted to pay their fee, ideally via FilmFreeway (in order to support them too).
Big Gold Dream's Festival Run
Our film was accepted by Edinburgh International Film Festival for its World Premiere at an early stage. Filmmakers or distributors are almost always told their film is accepted a long time before any public announcements are made and have to adhere to strict embargoes to not reveal that to the press. In fact the press are usually also aware at a similar time and are themselves embargoed from telling the public until the festival announce their program. Large festivals offer fantastic marketing opportunities for your film and usually have their own marketing department.
EIFF were fantastic to us, and it was an opportunity which changed our film's future. A film's career can be made or broken depending on how a festival treats it. A micro-budget feature being screened at a large festival is a risk for them but we believed we had enough marketable elements for them to take that risk, which we thank them for.
While EIFF worked incredibly well for us there is a very real danger for small films getting into large festivals and completely slipping under the radar, never to be noticed by anyone. All you get is a laurel and a wasted premiere opportunity. Big festivals have big and exciting films and often the public and press would rather focus on them. Also, for anyone inexperienced with large festivals it can become quite an overwhelming experience when you are not adequately looked after. It's understandable to often go with the largest festival opportunity but please research the experiences of other independent filmmakers who have previously screened there.
For us, EIFF put every effort into promoting our film. Our previous article on DIY promotion discusses ways to get press attention. If you are lucky and a festival supports your film their very large PR team can gain you some fantastic press, which EIFF certainly gained for us.
We ended up with 3 sell-out screenings, which admittedly was to a mostly local audience but without that support we would not have had as much attention. In general it is important to understand that festivals are a two way process. In an ideal world you sell tickets and they sell you publicity. You must also benefit from festival screenings.
What Came Next
Without having submitted to any other festivals we assumed we would, after our sell-out premiere soon have to think about other screenings at some point. Much to our surprise though, our next morning's email inbox was full of offers from other festivals asking if we would like to screen our film with them. Of course we would! We obviously chose the biggest festivals offering a screening, which seemed like the most sensible move, especially after as EIFF treated us so well. This would turn out not be a wise move and a new learning experience for our new found festival experience, which we will discuss shortly.
Our next surprise was more unexpected and another steep learning curve, and revealing of Oz. As the festival finished, and we had arranged our next screenings we learned we had won the Audience Award prize, which was obviously very nice. From the second it was announced our mailbox was bombarded with offers from International festivals asking for screening copies, the first being Sundance.
We seemed, almost by luck have stumbled into not having to do anything and receiving fantastic screening offers – and even better – not having to pay for them. We'd be put up in hotels and have our transport paid for. If EIFF could get us this then what would Sundance do? There would be an inevitable crashing to reality for us.
The third most important advice we can offer is please do your homework. As warned earlier it is very, very easy to slip under the radar of a large festival. It's not fun to sit in a 300 seat theatre with only 10 people attending. This would be our experience of some of the other large festivals we screened at.
Our mistake was assuming that because we had sold out 3 large screenings and had a lot of press interest this enthusiasm would happen everywhere. Of course it didn't. We had not done our research properly and had to endure the embarrassment of Q+As to no audience as a result. We'd just been lucky rather than being clever. While we knew we had a good film (which later did win other awards and a TV screening) we'd failed to recognise it was actually a very niche film. The EIFF screenings were a perfect storm of press interest in a small film playing at a big festival, a world premiere, a home-town screening and the subject matter being of interest to journalists and critics rather than the general public. All of this could never be replicated at other screenings without some serious PR work, which some festivals just can't offer. Our lessons are choosing the correct Premiere wisely (which we did) in order to generate the initial interest but importantly choosing all subsequent festivals on a basis of the elements which would no longer be present for other screenings (which we didn't).
Don't fall under the radar. Do your research and don't just choose a festival based on its size or prestige. Laurels are nice but press and an appreciative audience who will publicly tweet about how much they enjoyed your film is far better.
We of course did screen at some very lovely smaller independent festivals as we'd always intended to. Our most enjoyable experiences were where our film fitted well within a festivals overall theme. Being a music related film, music festivals or festivals which had a musical strand that year were perfect. They could generate the correct press and often the smallest of festivals would generate the best press. One of our best experiences was a festival based in the back of a pub, with a DIY projector. Independent festivals often are in similar situations as we are and often go to greater lengths to promote your film, which helps them too. Work together. If you've screened at a big festival also screen at an independent one too and you will be surprised by the amount of love they show you. Often they are less business oriented and more film oriented.
From our UK festival run experience we can only re-iterate the importance of research, being realistic about your film and recognising where it may receive the best audience; which is not necessarily at the biggest festival.
We never screened at Sundance.
Another mistake we made was over-saturating ourselves. When it became time for our cinema run, because we had a niche film which had screened at a lot of festivals, to gradually smaller audiences everyone who wanted to see it in a cinema had mostly already seen it. This meant our cinema run – and revenue from that was limited when it could have been much larger.
It's very tempting to accept a festival screening, especially one which fits your criteria. They can offer laurels and some PR but be aware that if your audience is potentially relatively small you may be compromising another important area of distribution – the cinema run. Think carefully.
Some festivals will offer, or offer if asked a screening fee. It is also worth mentioning a point raised earlier – festivals should be a two-way process. If you think you can sell 300 tickets yourself then think about screening yourself. If a festival sells 300 tickets and does not give you good press PR or a screening fee is that money better in your pocket or theirs?
We've been incredibly lucky with our screenings and that is down to some great festivals and an incredibly loyal audience. You also have to do your own marketing and not rely solely on festivals. Read our previous DIY PR guide for some tips.
Lastly, while FilmFreeway has created a new era of festivals, mostly for the better there are inevitably some rogue elements around. In the last year they have significantly clamped down on these rogue elements. Many festivals sprang up, asking for submission fees and offered little beyond screening your film on a laptop in a cupboard. It's always great to support new festivals and researching these can be difficult. Don't feel you can't email them to ask questions.
And be wise about how you use laurels. While it is nice to display laurels on your film poster they can often have a negative effect. Laurels are intended to offer distinction. If your short film is including them in it's marketing in the hope a distributor or agent will take notice they are equally as aware of their origin as you are. They will be paying attention to those which offer distinction rather than the actual amount. If a festival offers a laurel just because you submitted a film regardless of it screening then its probably not worth displaying, likewise a monthly festival which offers everyone an award and has a grandiose title like 'The Hollywood Festival of Excellence' probably will put somebody off. Be wise and realistic.
Festivals can be fantastic opportunities for a film and for meeting people. They will always play an important part in the filmmaking process. Hopefully this guide will offer a little insight into their unwritten rules and help you on your film's journey.