Taking Advantage of Film Festivals to Showcase Work and Expand Your Network

Film festivals such as SXSW, currently underway in Austin, are an invaluable resource for aspiring filmmakers but can be daunting and tricky to navigate. To gain a little insight into the festival world we went to April Wright, an award-winning independent writer, director and producer. 

Her recent documentary “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie” is currently playing at theaters and festivals around the country and will be available on VOD this summer.  April has an MBA from the Kellogg School at Northwestern and works as a Programming Associate for AFI Fest and the Sundance Film Festival.

There are so many film festivals out there, what are the major ones to know about? What are the differences between them? Are there festivals that tend to be friendlier to filmmakers without much prior experience or festivals that are friendlier to particular groups (women, minorities) or genre (comedy, horror, documentaries, TV)?

There are a lot of film festivals out there. The most well known for American independent filmmakers is Sundance, of course, where I’ve been involved with programming since 2005.  I like to call that one the lottery ticket.  Everyone figures they should give Sundance a shot, but really not everyone should.  If you look at what Sundance typically programs, you will see they have certain social mandates and actively program films made by or about under-represented groups.  And they like things that are really different and push the envelope.  If this describes you or your film, then maybe you should submit.  You never know!

Other festivals with good reputations are South by Southwest, Tribeca, Toronto, Cannes, Berlin – the names you know.  Most of these are well known because they tend to premiere films (which means they screen here first), and films sometimes get picked up for distribution at these fests.  There are just a handful of festivals that have buyers in attendance, and you hear about these festivals because of distribution deals in the press.  You should know these deals are not made randomly at these festivals. The buyers know about these films already, they know the companies who are repping the films at these fests.  Offers may have already been in discussion prior to the actual premiere.  The fest screening is usually the final step in securing the film’s distribution, not the first.

And if you look at the films each of these festivals have programmed in the past, you will start to see each festival’s particular slant in the types of films they tend to like.  And remember – it’s not the ‘best films win’, it is ‘programming’ certain films to appeal to each fest’s audiences and sponsors.  If you have a film that’s similar to films they’ve programmed in the past, then maybe you should submit.  But realize at these top fests, it really isn’t a lottery ticket at all. This is a business with a fairly small group of buyers, sellers, publicists, and programmers involved in this “business” of bringing the public independent films.

So we’re getting ahead of ourselves if this is the final step.  What you probably don’t know, is many of the top festivals curate their films, which means they are actively looking for films to program.  Which means you have to go back a step to when you’re making your film.  Did you submit your film to any labs?  FIND, Sundance, IFP in particular.  Were you awarded any major grants to make your film?  Do you have a writer, director, producer, or actor who has a track record with any of these festivals?  If you’ve gone through a prestigious lab to develop your film, or you’ve won major grants, or you or someone on your team has already screened at these top festivals, then you are ON THEIR RADAR – these festivals know about the film you are making now, and they are anxiously awaiting it and hoping to program it.  Have you signed with a big agency or producers’ rep to sell your film, like CAA or Cinetic for example?  If you’ve done that, you’re on the radar.  Did WME or another big agency or production company help package or finance your film?  If they did, you’re on the radar.  Basically, there are a lot of films already on the radar of these festivals because of their pedigree, attachments and affiliations.  These films are usually being requested, not submitted, and if you look at what these bigger festivals have programmed in the past, it seems clear that films with pedigree do have a better shot.

So starting with your script, during pre-production, as you’re assembling your team, as you’re funding your film – every step of the way, look for opportunities for attachments and affiliations that are going to get your film on the festival radar early in the process of making your film.  That is the best way to get into a top festival and puts the odds in your favor.

Let’s say you didn’t do any of this while making your film.  Or you applied for the labs or grants but didn’t make the final cut.  Or your film is a short or ultra low budget, and it wasn’t packaged by an agency.  Let’s say all you have is a completed film with you and your team’s passion on the screen.  So then you’ll be doing what’s called a ‘blind submission’ where you pay an application fee and send a copy of your film (or an online screener) and you’re hoping a fest will “discover” you.  Despite the machine that’s in place to develop new talent, the top festivals, especially Sundance, do want to discover new talent.  They want to find that needle in a haystack of submissions.  So if you’ve made an amazing film that might be like things they program, give it a shot!

WithoutABox.com is a great centralized festival submission resource which lists the majority of the festivals out there.  There is also a new service called FilmFreeway.com.  You can literally spend thousands of dollars applying to festivals, but you can create better odds for yourself by selecting festivals that are the best fit for your film, or will give you the best return on your investment.  So for every festival you’re considering, go to their website and look at the films they’ve programmed the last couple of years to see if your film will likely suit their tastes and mandates.

This is what I consider when submitting to festivals.  Is my film a short?  Try some of the shorts-only festivals.  They program up to 500 shorts instead of 20 or 30.  Better odds.  Palm Springs Shorts Fest is one of the best because it’s also a market (they list your film in a catalog for buyers and other festival programmers to see). Is your film a comedy?  Lots of comedy fests out there.  Horror?  Tons of horror fests.  A doc?  Many doc-only fests.  Are you a woman filmmaker?  Are you Asian? Are you Native American?  There are festivals for almost every heritage or nationality.  LA fests are great because they give you a local screening where you can invite cast and crew.  Is there somewhere you’re from or you want to visit?  New Orleans is a fun city.  Several festivals there.  Family and friends will come to a screening in Chicago?  Submit there.  Want to go to Hawaii? Or Australia?  Submit there.  Why not?  You could build a trip around the fest.  Does your film have a connection to a certain group or geographical area?  Submit to those fests too.  Select the festivals where your particular film will have a better shot.

Are there first timer mistakes that young filmmakers should avoid when submitting or showcasing their work?

There are only a couple of big mistakes I see repeatedly when I’m looking at submissions.

#1 is casting.

Please, please take the time to actually cast your film with good actors.  Don’t put your friend in the movie, or your boyfriend, or yourself in the lead role out of convenience.  The worst mistake of amateur filmmakers is poorly casting the lead roles.

#2 is the edit.

Don’t submit your first pass.  Don’t submit your rough cut.  I often get films where you can see the potential – they could be great if they’re able to find the spine of the story in the edit.  It’s in there.  Somewhere.  But so is a bunch of other stuff. Or it’s just way too long.  Be subjective. Find your story.  Make it tight.  We don’t care about the technical post stuff being completed – we presume your sound will be edited and mixed and your color will be corrected by the time it screens.  But what we can’t imagine is that you will find your best story and get your editing tight. People get so anxious to meet festival deadlines, they shoot and rush to get their first editing pass done so they can submit to a festival before a deadline.  Don’t do that.  You’ll regret it months later when you have your final edit and you realize how crappy what you submitted was.  I’ve heard this from filmmakers over and over again that they can’t believe the cut they rushed to send to Sundance.   They’re embarrassed a year or two later when they’ve actually completed post and the film has reached its true potential.  And yes, on most features, expect that post will take a year (or two.)  That’s normal.  Allow yourself the time to make it good.

What do programmers and judges look for when selecting and evaluating submissions?

This is actually the easiest question.  We judge each film against itself.  How well did the filmmaker execute their idea?

That’s what we’re looking for.  A complete idea that’s well executed.  If you’ve done that, you’re in the running.

And then as I said before, it’s not the best films win, it’s programming – they’re looking for certain types of films, to fill certain slots, to be programmed for certain audiences or sponsors.  So some of it is completely out of your control and has nothing to do with how good your film is.

Are all submissions considered? Is there a period in the application process that might be most favorable for applying? Hollywood is all about who you know, does that tend to be true for festivals as well?

All submissions ARE considered and watched by every festival I know.  At Sundance we are required to watch the entire film and describe all the beats in the story.  So yes, they are watched.

You’re really working against the odds if you submit at the late deadline.  Unless you’re one of those films that are already on the radar and they know it’s coming late, so maybe they’re holding a spot for it…  but if you’re a blind submission, you have to know that most fests start to temp slot their mix of films all the way along.  They have certain programs, they have a certain number of slots – and the later it gets, more of those slots are filled, and your film has to be so amazing that they’re willing to bump a film they really like and may already be feeling attached to.  Submit by the early or regular deadline whenever possible.

And yes, it’s not just who you know, it’s taking the steps to get on the festival radars while making your film.

Does it matter where your film lands in the program schedule?

Ah yes.  Programming slots.  Opening and Closing night films are the most prestigious slots.  Also Centerpiece films.  Anything that’s a big event for the festival that includes an after party the fest is paying for.  Then you’re big time.  Friday and Saturday nights are the best slots generally because most fests get bigger crowds at these times.  Evenings are generally better than matinees.  Early in the festival is generally better than later in the festival.  But it also depends on your film.  If you’re a family friendly film or a documentary, a matinee time might be ideal for your film.  If you have something really dark or raunchy, it could be in a midnight movie block.  This is part of the programming – trying to slot each film at a time when it will draw the biggest audience, based on previous year’s programming and attendance.

If your film has been rejected one year, can you resubmit for consideration the next year? Do you have to make changes to your film if you are interested in resubmitting?

Each festival has specific rules regarding re-submissions.  So check before you re-submit.

What are realistic expectations for someone trying to enter a film festival for the first time or for someone whose film has been admitted? How common do you think it is for filmmakers to find representation or distribution after showcasing their work at a festival? Even if they don’t get either of these things, what are the benefits of taking your work to a festival?

If you’re not at one of the top festivals with your representation and reputation  already in place as I described above, then realize you are not going to a festival for someone to buy your film.  You are going to experience your film with a live audience.  That’s the benefit of festivals.  And you are going to meet other filmmakers and see their work, and maybe you will find filmmakers you want to collaborate with.  One thing I’ve noticed no matter where a festival is located, your fellow filmmakers will mostly all be from Los Angeles.  And maybe a couple from New York, one from Atlanta or Chicago.  A handful of local people.  But mostly it’s other filmmakers from Los Angeles, just like you.  Go to experience that city, see your film with an audience, do the Q&A, and meet other filmmakers.  My documentary was just invited to the Sonoma Film Festival.  I didn’t submit, it was on the programmer’s radar because I met him at Sundance when I was making the film.  Am I going? Of course.  I love wine.  It will be fun.  That’s how you have to look at these things.

And that’s another good thing to note – I’ve been to Sundance many times without a film screening there.  And I’ve been to SXSW, LA Film Fest, AFI Fest, Austin, Slamdance all without films playing there.  I hear so many people say they don’t want to go to Sundance unless their film is programmed.  That’s like saying “I don’t want to go to my industry’s annual convention unless they invite me as a keynote speaker.”  It’s just silly.  Go to these bigger festivals if you can.  Submerse yourself in this industry and in this world that you want to be a part of.  Meet the filmmakers who are programmed this year.  Hear their stories.  Maybe you can get them to work with you on your next film so you can build your pedigree by affiliation.  Put yourself on the inside before you start submitting as an outsider.  Meet the people in this world.  See what’s programmed at these fests.  Find out how the programmed films got programmed. Then you’ll understand it better. The festival world is a community of indie filmmakers that you should get to know.

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Photo Attribution: yaokcool (via Flickr)