Entry #27: Ten Early Observations from the US Film Festival Circuit

Part of the strategy that my producers and I developed to help get Bridge and Tunnel in front of audiences was to try and get into as many film festivals in the world as we could.  We felt as though with every laurel wreath we’d be adding a sense of legitimacy to the project, and that it would be a great way to get word of the film out there in different markets.

Thus far we’ve been pretty successful and fulfilling this strategy.  Right now we’re at a 33% success rate, which means we’ve gotten into one in every three festivals that we’ve submitted to.  That may not sound like a great percentage, but when you take into account that we’ve often submitted a “work in progress” cut and that some of these festivals get literally thousands of submissions, I’d say we’re off to a decent start.  If this were baseball we’d be well on our way to an All Star Game appearance.

We began our festival run a little over a month ago, and in six weeks we’ve had six festival screenings, and we have another one coming up this weekend before we get a couple of weeks off before our next big wave.  In this time span I’ve began to take note of some patterns I’ve noticed in the festival submission process, in the festival acceptance process, and in the actual festival screening process.  I figured I would use this forum to share this info with anybody who cares:

1. Strategize! – Festivals are expensive to submit to. If you spend too much money submitting to festivals you won’t have any money left over to actually attend them.  Map out where your film would do well and find all the festivals in those areas.  Then choose the ones that you think you have the best chance to get into and move on from there.  By the time you submit, create a press kit, and mail stuff, you’ll be surprised how much you spent.

2. Be Gracious – Nobody owes you anything.  Whether the crowd is one person or fifty people, just be thankful that there is someone there to watch the movie that you made.

3. There are No Guarantees – There’s no such thing as a festival that you will automatically get into unless you’re on the acceptance committee.  Every festival has its own standards and more importantly their own agenda and there is nothing you can do about that. Even if you know the programmer, don’t expect them to bend their business practices to accommodate you.

4. There’s A Lot You Can Tell From a Website – Check out a festivals website before you submit.  If they don’t have a website then don’t submit.  If the website has last years program, check it out and see if they program films like yours.  If not, then don’t submit!  They’re likely not going to change their style.

5. Avoid the Big Brand Festivals – You’re not going to get in unless you have A list talent in your film.  By A list I mean real A list.  Sundance, TriBeCa, Cannes, Toronto, even South By Southwest, they’re all run by sponsors who want eyes on their product and pictures of the girl from Twilight on the red carpet are gonna get a lot more traction in US Weekly than pictures of that guy you went to High School with on the red carpet, unless the guy you went to High School with is in the background of the picture of the girl from Twilight. The truth is that movies like Bridge and Tunnel may actually be better than what was programmed at the “major” festivals this past year, but ultimately we weren’t what was best for business.  It’s nothing to be bitter about, it’s part of the game.

6. Always Bring a Backup Screener – When attending a festival always make sure you bring with you backup screeners in multiple formats; You never know what can go wrong.

7. Promote! – If you want to screen to an audience the only surefire way to do so is to do most of the promotion yourself.  The festival has a lot of movies to worry about as well as all sorts of other Pony Show events.  You can’t expect them to get anyone in the audience besides their volunteers and tech people.  If you want an audience get to the town where the festival is early and promote.

8. Physical Mail is Still King – We live in an era where it’s definitely easier to just submit everything online but that takes the personal aspect out of it.  If a festival gives you the option to send a physical press kit to them, do so! It’s simply a different experience to hold a poster, post card, or booklet in your hand then it is to click open a few .pdf’s.  If you’re worried about nature and litter, just get your stuff printed on recycled paper.

9. Start Local – You have a better chance of getting into festivals close to where you filmed than anywhere else in the world.  This is because the festival will see dollar signs because you can likely sell more tickets than films from further away because of friend and family interest.  Sucks, but it’s the truth.  That said – if you can get butts in the seats in local festivals it creates the opportunity to get press and photos that can assist you in getting into other festivals around the country.

10. Make it Personal – Build a personal relationship with the audience, fellow filmmakers, and festival programmers.  Just because you have a movie doesn’t mean you’re a big shot. Learn names. Become facebook friends. You’re in film festivals because you’re not at a point where you are a name brand, nor are you working with name brand talent.  But if you can create fans and friends who will continue to support you on future projects every little bit makes a huge difference.

Jason Michael Brescia

June 17, 2014 6:10 P.M EST

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About jasonmichaelbrescia

Filmmaker. Writer, director. Comedy.
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