Breaking the Rules: To Screen or Not to Screen Before the Festival Premiere

Today's guest post is from attorney Steven Beer. Steven's contributed to HFF/TFF before, and was one of the original Brave Thinkers.  With Sundance around the corner, Steven offers some perspective of a question on many filmmakers' minds.

To screen or not to screen for distributors prior to a festival premiere?  This question often plagues producers in the months prior to festival season.  Hypothetical Scenario: Shortly after you receive an invitation to premiere your film at a prestigious film festival, an established distribution executive calls to request a screener.  She congratulates you and says that she has heard wonderful things about the project.  Sadly, the acquisition executive reports that her company may not be able to attend a festival screening due to schedule conflicts.  If you screen the film for her company before the festival, however, the company may be able to make an offer and announce a deal at the festival.  What does a producer do?

In the past, cynical producers and their representatives viewed such requests as a professional seduction and respectfully declined.  Conventional wisdom discouraged filmmakers from screening their film prior to a high profile festival premiere for a variety of reasons.  Nothing compares to the satisfaction derived from screening a well crafted film in a state of the art theater -- the optimum venue for which the film was created.  After pouring vast sums and sweat into producing a film that was created for the big screen experience, who can blame filmmakers for resisting requests to distribute DVDs before their premiere.  Invariably, producers prefer to showcase their projects to acquisition executives in adrenaline-charged premiere screenings brimming with enthusiastic audiences.  Given this scenario, one can appreciate the cardinal rule against pre-festival screenings.

The traditional way of thinking is beginning to give way, however.  Industry colleagues are observing that more and more films are circulating this year in the weeks prior to Sundance 2011.  Why are producers and their representatives reconsidering their stance against pre-festival screenings?  Distributors are acquiring fewer films in general, and even fewer at major film festivals.  In times of cost cutting, the economies of sending an acquisitions team to a film festival are under scrutiny.  Consequently, distribution companies are sending fewer buyers to festivals and covering fewer films.  Given the declining number of indie film distributors and perceived surplus of films seeking distribution, acquisition executives are less motivated to compete with other distributors for a film.

Distributors claim they are ambivalent about film festivals.  While they appreciate seeing how a film screens and an audience reacts to a film, acquisition executives are reluctant to participate in an auction-like atmosphere where they risk overpayment for a title.  Moreover, distribution executives assume that many films will be available after the festival reviews are published and awards are granted.  In support of their DVD request, distributors claim that most consumers will view the film on a television or computer screen so they should not have to attend a screening.  Distributors feel it is more important to evaluate how a film looks on the small screen, outside of the comfy confines of the art house theater.  Without A-List stars or a headlining director, ensuring that the right people even screen your film, with or without interruption, can be very difficult.

The realities of today’s indie film marketplace compel producers to re-consider the cardinal rule against screening films prior to a premiere.  Some producers believe that pre-festival screenings can raise awareness and generate momentum for a film within the marketplace before the cacophony of a major film festival.  Such screenings can serve as a head start on the festival crowd and may contribute to a sale prior to or during the festival.

Other producers, however, remain skeptical of pre-festival screenings.  They advise others to consider the genre of the film when analyzing the options.  Certain film genres, such as comedy and horror, depend upon a crowd to set the atmosphere.  Screening such films without the benefit of an audience to laugh or scream with can lessen the impact and adversely affect the chance the film is acquired.  Some producers caution that distributors that have screened a film prior to a festival are incentivized to talk the film down to other distributors in order to lower the acquisition price for themselves.  Others state that even if a pre-festival screening is wise, the filmmaker or producer must be prepared to position the film for the distributor.  They will need to know and be able to convince the buyer of the story angles that can be pitched to journalists, who the target audience is and how they can be reached, and must also be able to speak on what they can contribute to marketing and positioning the film.  In short, the filmmaker’s team must be prepared to sell the distribution company on the marketability of her film.

The traditional rule against screening a film prior to festival premiere was based upon the premise of a more competitive market in which distribution companies had the time, money and desire to see as many films as possible.  These assumptions may no longer be valid.  Producers should re-evaluate their options in light of established goals and the challenges of the marketplace.  To screen or not to screen?  The answer to this complicated question requires careful consideration.

Steven C. Beer is a shareholder in the international entertainment practice of Greenberg Traurig’s New York office. Steven has served as counsel to numerous award-winning writers, directors and producers, as well as industry-leading film production, film finance and film distribution companies.