Who Do You Really Need To Meet At Film Festivals?

Film Festivals are a bit like conventions or auto shows.   The bigger ones get the entire industry and they transform from a cultural celebration to one big networking showdown.   The energy is driven by the potential more than the reality: will your film be discovered and you be given a pot of gold and the keys to Hollywood?  Many try to adjust to reality and just hope to meet some agents and distributors that they can follow up with later?   The ambitious dream of meeting financiers or movie stars.

For years, I have recommended that filmmakers concentrate on just meeting other filmmakers that feel simpatico with, folks that they can share information with, that can become their de facto support group.  Forget about the distributors.  Forget about the agents.  I mean they each can be very helpful -- but mostly for a select few filmmakers.  And I still think that's good advice, but now there is another class of individual to add to the list of whom you should really want to meet.
Sundance 2009 will be remembered (among other things) for the year that the programmer and booker became rock stars.  Now more than ever, we need curators.  We need people who can filter the stream of films that come begging for our attention.  With more and more filmmakers not just recognizing the need for, but embracing, filmmaker-driven distribution, filmmakers need direct interaction with these bookers and programmers.
How great would it be to have a party or something at Sundance where filmmakers and curators could actually get to meet each other face to face?  Great for the curators.  Great for the creators.
Now's the time for filmmakers to build their checklist and try to meet the bookers who truly love art film, indie film, truly free film.  Seventy independent theaters are getting together in Salt Lake in the days prior to the Sundance festival to figure out how to make all this work better.  The Art House Convergence is a promising program; you can't tell the players without a program.  Imagine if your sales agent and rep could introduce you to these bookers, instead of just buyers who might offer you tens of thousands for a twenty year license.  Then they'd really be working for their percentage.

Film Festival Plan A: Having Film Festivals Help You

Another post courtesy of Jon Reiss:

Besides launching your film and helping to put it on the map there are a number of other known reasons for being in film festivals: potential for reviews and awards (which are still good ways to create notice for your film - especially if you blog about them on your website!); meeting other filmmakers from around the world, boosting your confidence in your filmmaking abilities, getting to travel to fun locales (hopefully at the festivals expense).

However as there are ways to actually monetize your film festival experience. Here are a few ways that we did it for Bomb It - after we got tired of showing our film for free at festivals. (Remember servicing all those fests can take time and money)

1. Some festivals - especially foreign festivals will pay. You just need to ask. These are not the top 10 or 20 fests. It is the next level of festivals. We have been paid from $300 - $1000 to screen the film in some festivals. (Few fests will fly you and pay you though)

2. If a festival can't pay, perhaps they can provide something else. This is particularly true of foreign festivals again. If you don't have a PAL copy and they require it. Often times they will do the dub. You can insist on having that dub given to you (they don't need it after the festival right!). We obtained our first PAL version of Bomb It from a documentary festival in Lisbon that then went around on the circuit.

3. Think of other things that you might need for your distribution. Again - foreign festivals need to translate your film. Although we had already created a transcription for Bomb It - you can ask a foreign fest to do it - and also provide the translation. We have received Spanish, Portuguese and Russian translations of Bomb It that we will be using on our self produced multi-language, PAL, region free DVD. (more on this in another post in the future)

4. Some festivals are actually connected to theaters in their community - and sometimes the people running the festivals actually program those theaters. One of my first theatrical bookings came from Wilmington, N.C. when I told Dan Brawley of the Cucoloris that I would rather have a theatrical engagement in his theater as an alternative to being in the festival, and he wonderfully obliged.

Further - although it would have been better for me to go to the wonderfull True/False festival in Columbia, MO (I had teaching obligations), I asked Paul Sturz if he would book me into the Rag Tag as part of our theatrical run and he agreed.

For more about my self distribution experience with Bomb It - check out my article in Filmmaker Magazine this month. 

Jon Reiss

Film Festival Plan A: DVD sales

Your film screens and everyone loves it.  They want their friends and family to see it too, but there are no more screenings left.  Your audience loves your film, how are you going to mobilize them into action?

Festivals are a great place to sell DVDs of your film, but will the Festival let you? It's probably a good idea to inquire in advance. Will you be able to set up a table outside the theater? Will you need to have a website in order to sell them? Will you need to have some one do the fulfillment? Figure this out before you show up.

People that buy your DVD at a festival are your core base and they want to help you out.  Give them your card and ask them to email you.  Get theirs and email them.  Let them know that this is a special sort of DVD they bought; tell them that is a DVD for house party use.  Let them know that if they can get a certain number of friends to come over (25? 50?), you will do an iChat with them live for an hour and discuss how you made the film.  Let them know that you will get them more of these "House Party DVDs" for their House Party that they can sell on your behalf and keep a cut for themselves.  Trust people; it will do more for you than the harm the few times you do get ripped off will hurt.

Film Festival Plan A: Online Screening

Major Festivals are great for media exposure, but they reach a really limited audience. Sundance is predominately film industry professionals and wannabes; what about the real ticket buying people? If someone hears about your film and they can't attend the festival, how will they get to see it?

With your audience's interest piqued, is it a good time to get your film online soon after the festival screening? What method will best serve your film: streaming, ad-supported, pay per download? There are many variations on this, but the point is you need to have it figured out before your screening if you are going to take advantage of it. And you need to have some way to let people know.
Some festivals, like Slamdance, are doing this directly themselves, and I think that's a great idea.

Film Festival Plan A: Getting The Word Out

Word of mouth is the key thing in generating want-to-see and future revenues for your film.  You want to shape that conversation as much as you can.  
It once was that film critics truly helped shape these discussions, but most have them now have been fired and lost their platforms.  Even before that, many had shifted to a simplistic way of reviewing, reducing things to a yay or nay and a synopsis.  But whom is doing this now?  There certainly is a galaxy of film bloggers out there.  And they are a lot easier to reach than their prior generation of film critics.  
If you got your film into a major film festival, I am sure the blogosphere will want to hear from you.  But why not go that extra step and get them a DVD in advance.  It's hard to see more than 25 films at Sundance and since there is five times that amount there, why not make sure that they see yours in advance?

Film Festival Plan A: Corporate Sponsorship

Corporate Sponsorship of a film, in any way, is a tricky thing.   A viewer who becomes aware of multiple agendas in a film, generally is no longer going to be "with" the film.  They become suspect.  But sponsorship is not the same as turning your art into a commercial.  There are many methods and many benefits to consider when considering corporate sponsorship (I will try to cover the negative side in another post in the future).

Perhaps the most important consideration regarding sponsorship is does the brand have a natural fit with your film (I know some will argue that the amount of money is the most important thing, but still).  If the film and sponsorship is not aligned, it will read to the public as a crass money grab (which maybe it is) and they will approach the film from a feeling of distrust.
Brands have their own audience.  Corporations maintain their own data on their "audience".  This is what you want most from the alliance: audience sourcing.  In considering sponsorship, ask them what they will do to reach out to their audience.  This may very well be a much longer term relationship with many phases to it, but it's hard to leap into such an arrangement.  As people like to say about investors and other supporters: "you have to get them pregnant first".  It's surprising that such a caveman philosophy dominates in so many areas, but you get the logic.  I prefer the "one step at a time" way of thinking myself.
You do need to keep the long term forever in mind though in working with a sponsor.  You want them there with you ever step of the way, hopefully deepening their commitment with your combined success.  Work the relationship.  Give them new opportunities.  
What do you want from the sponsorship from the get go though?  Well, beyond building for the long haul, you want to do something that has immediate impact.  Generally people think that is a big blow out party.  Personally, I am not a fan of this approach, particularly at Sundance.  They don't have much impact as they are over a few hours after they start.  Further at many festivals, you are competing with many parties.  And all parties get unruly; they just aren't a good experience and they don't leave much of a memory.
I am a big fan of dinners for fifty close friends.  This approach only works if your publicist can get you high end journalists to attend.  But who doesn't like a nice meal?  The question is though how would this benefit the sponsor.  Depending on your film and your sponsor,they may very much like the one on one interaction with your stars and team.  They might want to offer this to their top level execs, as Sundance has become a bit of a corporate getaway, another perk in their arsenal.  This approach can certainly extend beyond dinners: skiing with the stars, one on one sit downs, presentation of the movie at different branch offices.
Publicity materials are a relatively high cost item that you will need to have every step of the way.  Will your sponsor pay for the cost of posters and postcards, t-shirts and hats?  What can you offer them in return?  Is it such a big deal to have their corporate logo on the poster?  Is that too much to give away for such an investment?

Film Festival Plan A:Postcards

(Today's post courtesy of director Jon Reiss)

Create a piece of striking key art. 
Easier said than done. This can be expensive (starting at $5,000 - $10,000 and up) - but it does not have to be. Chances are you have a few friends that are good at graphic design - ask them. If not - try a post on Craig's List and/or Mandy.com. Since you are in a festival - you have the ability to say that their work will get a lot of exposure. Also you might consider outsourcing your graphic design. For Bomb It we had a Uruguayan group do some of our key art for Tribeca. Try to get the designer to give you a variety of comps to choose from.

Get the key art sized for a 4x6 postcard as well as at full film poster. Its way too expensive to offset your film poster now. But you can get single printouts from most digital printers for about $50-$60 each and you only need one or two.

For the postcard, have your key art on the front and have film, contact and screening information on the back. Printing postcards are very inexpensive now. You can get 4000 for $100 at NextDayFlyers.com (and 1000 postcards for $39.95). For super low budget create one postcard with your general contact and film information on the back and leave room for putting stickers for your show times. BUT since postcards are so cheap now - I really recommend printing your screening time on the back of the postcard. It can take a bit of time to print and stick the stickers on the back of the postcards and you are very busy. A compromise is to print your first festival screenings on the back (esp since this is often your most important screening) and to use the rest for other fests putting the label over your first set of screenings.

Don't forget business cards - I recommend putting your film title treatment on the front with your films website so that people remember why they have your card. Again these can be printed very inexpensively - 1000 for around $10-$20.

In a couple of weeks I will start putting downloadable PDF samples of Key Art on my website www.jonreiss.com

Film Festival Plan A: Still Need To Hire A Publicist

When I first started going to Sundance, it was just a bunch of filmmakers and a bunch of filmlovers.  Filmmakers had no entourage.  No one told them what to do or what they thought was right; instead they shared information and secrets.  But that was then.

For the last ten years, it has seemed that filmmakers arrived at major festivals with a horde in tow: lawyers, agents, managers, producer's reps, foreign sales agents, and publicists.  The list actually goes on from there.  But that was then.
These days, recognizing that a sale is very unlikely, how much do you really need?  There's definitely another few posts worth of material in that question, but I can tell you that the one I think is critical is the publicist.  After all, it is all about getting the word out about your film.
The traditional media still holds the most weight (okay, that's debatable), and any a publicist worth their salt will know how to reach them.  More importantly, the publicist will know what these critics and journalists look like, and will be able to find out what they thought of the film immediately.  Their opinion matters as it influences everyone: buyers, festival programmers, independent bookers, and other journalists.
The publicists also know the distributors and as long as you want to keep Plan D (sell your film) alive, that is invaluable as the publicists can help facilitate meetings with the buyers.
A publicist will help you draft your press notes in advance of the festival and arrange key interviews.  Sometimes they can even help find a corporate sponsor for a party (more on that later).  The publicist will collect all of the press you receive, and survey the journalists on their response.  They will collect all this material so you can share it with everyone you reach out to later.
How do you find your publicist?  Well these days they often find you if you get into Sundance or a major festival.  The key filmmaking community organizations like IFP and Film Independent can also help direct you.  Maybe I can put together a list and post it here (I will get back to you on that).

Film Festival Plan A: Beyond Bonding

For years, I have recommended filmmakers do all they could to bond with the other filmmakers they met at festivals, for as the films travelled festival to festival, these other filmmakers would become their support group, their friends, perhaps even more. 

As we enter the Post-Festival Era, this support group needs to be transformed into a far more important alliance. It remains a top priority to find like-minded filmmakers, but now these fellow conspirators should be sought out as fellow distributors. With five united filmmakers you have a booking block, a touring film festival of your own making. 
If there was a way to locate all the other festival programmers, community center programmers, or independent theater bookers that attend the festival, this alliance would be in business.  Hopefully this type of independent booker will recognize that this is a new era and they can go to the filmmakers directly for an engagement.  Somehow I don't think that's going to happen this year, and these people remain hard to find.  Filmmakers need to share this information where ever they can find it.
I recognize that some may be hesitant to pursue this approach immediately after the festival.  The dreams of acquisition will still be strong.  Yet this sort of booking engagement is not a theatrical release in the traditional sense.  It is closer to a publicity tour -- a publicity tour on someone else's dime.  Field publicity is direct communication with the audience and that is the most successful way to build word-of-mouth on your film.

Film Festival Plan A: Basic Web Stuff

It seems ludicrous to head into a festival these days and not have a website or blog for your film in advance. It seems silly not to have that web address built into you film end credits. It doesn't have to be a final or even a polished site, but there should be something. How else will you tell your audience how they can participate in the experience or even see your film?

Beyond a website or a blog, filmmakers should do the simple outreach chores. Build a Wiki page for your film. Create a MySpace and/or Facebook profile for your film. Make sure all the info is in IMDB. 

And don't forget images. Post some stills. Hell, post some clips up on YouTube. For years, filmmakers have been told to make presskits, but why not do the things that let the audience find them directly?  Why wait for the journalists; they have all been fired!

Film Festival Plan A: Logic & Strategy

If you are so fortunate as to have your film selected for Sundance, there is a good chance that your festival screening will be the peak point of media activity on your film. Unless your film is going to be released by a major distributor, more attention will be paid during this period ever again. Are you going to take advantage of this attention or are you going to squander it?

We all know very few films get picked up these days for distribution, so why are you going to bet on that?  Well, you're not.  Over the next few days I will explore some of the questions you should ask yourself and strategies you should consider in heading to the festival.  And I won't avoid the obvious either, because these days it is still being overlooked.  I am sure I will miss a lot and I hope others write in to fill this out.
People are going to hear about your film when it plays at a major film festival; their "want-to-see" will be at its highest point when folks are talking about the festival in traditional media, online, and through conversation. What are the options before you headed into a festival in order to exploit this want-to-see?  This is the reason you are headed to the festival, isn't it?

Preparing For The Film Festivals

Its that time of the year when filmmakers nationwide get all antsy.  Sundance generally starts to let filmmakers know whether their work has been selected for the festival around the end of October.  This ritual extends for about four weeks until Thanksgiving gives everyone a break.

Generally speaking, for fifteen years now, filmmakers approach Sundance with a single plan: to sell their film for a big profit.  The logic of this singleminded pursuit is non-existent.  For several years now, great films with clear audiences screen without getting picked up.  The amount the lucky few achieve has been dropping consistently with a few exceptions.  Simultaneously, the need to work with the mainstream distributors has been dropping rapidly.  One could even argue that these distributors have defined their acquisition strategy so specifically that they need to even bother to attend the festival.
Filmmakers need to recognize that what once was the holy grail now needs to be regulated to Plan C or even Plan D.  I wish it wasn't so and I wish many of the filmmakers could walk off the mountain with their wildest dreams of wealth realized.  But we all need to recognize what Plan A and B really should be these days.
Plan A has got to be that you will need to be the leading force in the distribution of your film.  This is the DIY model.
Plan B is that various experts will all want to work with you on Co-Distributing your film, albeit for a fee.
Plan C is that buyers for different media will want your film and you need to be able to evaluate how to mix and match these offers -- or even accept those offers at all.
Plan D is that someone will make an offer of such an amount that it is worth considering giving up all your rights to your film for the next twenty years.
There are many aspects of each plan that need to be considered in addition to these various plans.  I will be doing my best to examine these aspects in the days ahead.  Although Plan D doesn't really need any further thought than where to find a good lawyer; the indie world has relied on this plan long enough.

Navigating Film Festivals

Scott Macauley linked to yesterday's post on the Filmmaker Magazine Blog and included a link to Chris Holland's book "Film Festival Secrets".  Seems like a good thing to read up on as you dream about being selected for Sundance.  I am going to give it a look.  You have to sign up, at least temporarily for Chris' newsletter and then they send you the book -- so I haven't gotten to look at it yet.

I am going to be posting some basic advice over the next few days on how I personally recommend viewing the festival circuit, and in particular Sundance, -- once you are in.  Chris' book is a very comprehensive overview on selecting your festivals,  how to get in (and manage when you don't), marketing, building your team, preparation, troubleshooting, and followup.  It's a quick read and an incredible resource.  It compiles what took me years to learn.  It does though take festivals a bit as an end into themselves, whereas Truly Free Filmmakers must see them as just the first step in building awareness about their films.  
Festivals have to be used very judiciously these days.  Festivals are going to change from many diverse and singular events to much more of a unified community focused on year round programming.  They are the keepers and maintainers of aggregated film lovers and cinephiles nationwide.  They will be able to leverage that community into a truly valuable resource for TFFilmakers, but a new model needs to be found.