Survival Guide for a Small Film Festival

by Niall McKay
Starting film festivals seems to be a disease that I have. I founded the San Francisco Irish Film Festival,  co-founded the LA Irish Film Festival.  But, when I moved to New York last year, the idea of starting another Irish film fest in a town where these things come and go seemed daunting.   But this time last year we did it. We held the first Irish Film New York Film Festival in 2011. We hosted over 1000 people during the three-day event which included screenings, parties and industry panels. Now we're trying to get to the next stage - to build an organization rather than just an event. 
Some things I've learned along the way to have our small film festival survive: 
1.  Build partnerships with local organizations.
Yes, we have a niche, and that niche is Irish and we've embrace it, partnering with a number of organizations: from Irish Studies Program at NYU who provide us with a movie theater, reception venue and support to the various Irish cultural and business organizations in town. By attending their events, and getting to know the members and organizers, We've built meaningful connections between our respective organizations.  It takes time to nurture these connections, but its not work we've enjoyed creating some great friendships with people that support my work and the festival.  And even when there are Irish films at Tribeca or another big festival, we've partnered with them to host parties for the Irish contingent that come into the city, making everyone aware that we embrace Irish films wherever they are shown and champion Irish filmmakers as much as possible. 
2.  Cross promote your festival.
A friend once said to me that he doesn't take an event seriously until he sees it three times in his email box. That's where cross-promotion comes into play.  I'm not just emailing our own contact list three times, I'm also working with those organizations that I've made connections with to promote the film festival. I offer their members discount codes for film tickets and invite them first to the receptions, panels, etc. And I reciprocate the favor by promoting their events as well.  Social networking is all very well and good but Facebook events seem to fade from people's minds and tweets come and go in a second. Email on the other hand, the old workhorse of electronic communication, seems to be where it's at for our ticket sales.
3.  Provide funders and sponsors value. 
We always approach potential funders and sponsors with what we can offer rather than what we want. This means creating an event that actually rips people away from their 42-inch flat screens and puts them into theatre seats.  When Irish President Michael D. Higgins scheduled a visit to New York we worked with the Irish consulate and the Film Society of Lincoln Center to host a screening of Oscar-winning Irish shorts for the president, a known cinephile.  President Higgins enjoyed himself immensely and audience members got to hear him speak in a very small intimate setting. It was satisfying to all the organizations involved. Most importantly, it gave IFNY a cache that encouraged funders and sponsors to work with us. 
4. Build a solid team. 
The right people for our festival staff are those who can take responsibility for a task and follow it through. Seems simple enough, right?  Yet, out of the dozens of people who say they want to help out with our film festival, only a rare few can actually follow through on things. I've been fortunate enough to put together a dynamite staff, but we're all volunteers, so there's always drop-off.  And I'm also dealing with my own foibles, learning how to communicate with people, allowing others to help me instead of trying to do it all myself.  I guess it's like being the captain of a sports team.  You need the whole team to be on the same page going for the same goal at the same time.  You need good teammates to make the goal. 
Speaking of cross-promotion:
Please come and join us for our films and events:
Meet the Filmmakers
Thursday October 4th, 5:00 PM
Apple Store Soho
103 Prince Street  New York, NY 10012
Come and meet some of the filmmakers who are showing their films at IFNY film festival. 
Opening Night Reception 
Friday, October 5th, 6:00 pm
Glucksman Ireland House
1 Washington Mews, New York, NY
Join our email list and have a drink on us at our opening reception!
Irish Film New York October 5-7
Six great contemporary Irish films at the Cantor Film Center, 36 E 8th Street. 
For more information tickets and showtimes go to
Niall McKay is an Emmy award-winning independent producer and director. He's the founder and curator of the Irish Film New York. He can be reached at