Michael Collins on "Utilizing Your First Ever Film Festival"

Toronto International Film Festival begins tomorrow. Getting you film to a festival is a dream come true for most filmmakers. But it is so easy to overlook the great opportunities that are right before you when you attend a festival. Today, doc filmmaker Michael Collins shares some of the lessons he's learned from his initial experience at Tribeca. GIVE UP TOMORROW (Tribeca) Written by Michael Collins (Director/Producer)

For us, the road to Tribeca was extremely long, and sometimes quite grueling. Give Up Tomorrow is our first documentary feature and it took us more than 6 years to complete. Along the way as we navigated overseas productions, unraveled the mysteries of the funding world, and learned what post-production really entails, there are countless lessons that we learned - most thanks to a supportive community of filmmakers and advisors who have been there for us at every turn. But we quickly realized that the adventure doesn’t end when you finish the film and get into a festival, it is just the mark of a new chapter.

When we got the news that we would be premiering at Tribeca Film Festival, it was truly a dream come true. But along with all the excitement came a healthy dose of fear. We realized we still had a tremendous amount of work ahead of us, and we’d only have one chance to get this right. We immediately reached out to friends and advisors who had premiered at Tribeca in recent years and got some invaluable advice.

By no means are we experts, in fact quite the opposite.

Here are a few things that we feel made our experience at Tribeca a rich one:

We got to know everyone working at the festival At all festivals there are so many people working tirelessly behind the scenes to give you the best possible launching ground for your film. Introductions are usually made via email, but it’s so much better to put a face to the names. Leading up to the festival make an effort to stop by the offices if you can. Say a quick “Hello” and see if you can help them out in any way. Let them know you are available and eager to participate in any opportunities that arise, such as industry panels. And get to know the volunteers and theater managers at the screening venues. When you do need their help, it will usually be under serious time-constraints, so get to your screening very early and introduce yourself.

Utilize your networks, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Someone needs to take photos, video, hand out tickets to your guests, etc. You can easily get so caught up in all the legwork surrounding your screenings that you can’t be present to talk with press, talk with key guests, and maybe even enjoy yourself. Reach out to your network and see if you can get a few extra hands to be around at each screening to help with whatever comes up, because something always will.

Hire a professional publicist For doc filmmakers, a photo finish seems to be the norm, and we were no exception. Finishing a film for most of us means a whole lot of post-production expenses piling up at the very end. Hiring a professional publicist was one of the best decisions we made. We were blown away by Tribeca Film Festival’s press office and all the wonderful exposure they generated for us, but the fact remains we were one of nearly 100 films they were responsible for. We chose to work with veterans Winston and David at David Magdael & Associates. They already had relationships with many of the top publications and media outlets, and they also had a great working relationship with the festival.

Turn each screening into an event We invited high profile guests to join us, and organized a place to continue the conversation after the screenings. It was especially important to have a private reception following the premiere because we had all our film subjects with us, our family, friends, representatives from our media funders and foundations who supported us over the years. It was important to celebrate together as a way to thank them, and also to reconnect as we start planning for the next phase. Additionally, having this formal event made it easier to invite many key people such as distributers, NGOs, policy-makers, embassies and politicians who could directly impact the issues raised in the film.

A reception venue doesn’t have to be expensive. Take the time to check out the bars and restaurants within walking distance of the theater and get to know the managers. Tell them you have a limited budget and see what they can offer. Ask the festival if they have relationships with certain venues and about potential beverage sponsors. Reach out to your media funders and see if they are able to contribute. If you have a film about a particular issue or cause, reach out to organizations that might want to co-host the event. They may just give you a few hundred dollars, but it all adds up. If you have no budget at all, you can usually work something out with a local bar that would allow you to show up with a big crowd and get discounts on drinks.

Lay the groundwork for a social campaign If you made a film that you hope will change the world, take the opportunity to establish campaign partnerships early. There is so much excitement and good energy at festival premieres, so be sure to get key people from organizations you are hoping to partner with into that theater. It was at our reception when Larry Cox, the executive director of Amnesty International, was inspired to stand on a chair and give a passionate speech about his commitment to the film and to getting justice for those involved. We had been in conversations with Amnesty ever since we participated in the Good Pitch in 2009, but having him experience the premiere definitely sealed the deal.

Bring partners to every screening Establishing and maintaining relationships with partner organizations can be time-consuming and take expertise that not all filmmakers have. We decided to make the investment and work with Tracy Fleischman and Lisa Smithline at Cultural Front Productions on this. They helped us formalize the campaign and bring partners to every screening who would join our Q&A discussions. This elevated conversations by exploring larger issues raised in the film, and it also helped to fill seats because these partners were promoting to their networks.

Stay connected with your audiences If you have a social issue film, audiences are going to want to help immediately. Find a way to harness that positive energy by giving them a call to action. In our case we have audiences sign a petition. We gather their email and give them the opportunity to write a note to Paco, the main subject of our film who is in prison. We now stay connected with the audiences through Facebook, twitter and newsletter updates. As our journey continues, and Paco’s case evolves, they are with us.

I’m writing this from the filmmaker’s café at Dokufest in Kosovo (excited for our outdoor screening tomorrow evening under the stars for 450 people!) and it is exactly 3 months to the day after our premiere. This is our 5th festival and we have many more lined up for the fall. I know that the success of the film today is largely due to the time, energy and resources everyone put into launching at Tribeca. We try to replicate our experience at Tribeca, on a smaller scale, at each new festival. We never just assume that audience will show up, or that the press will feature us, so we do our best to arrive early and get to work. But now we take a little extra time to enjoy these beautiful new cities that we were lucky enough to find ourselves in – because we know this chapter will soon be over as well.

-- Michael Collins

Losing It: Reflections On The First Time

Today we are pleased to present a conversation between Keith Bearden and Jordan Horowitz, the first-time Director and first-time Producer of MEET MONICA VELOUR, starring Kim Cattrall, about what it was like to make the film, the lessons they learned, and expectations for the future. The film will premiere at the Tribeca International Film Festival on Sunday April 25th, and other screening times can be found here.-- Keith Bearden: I have to start by saying that having done well with short films and commercials, the important parts of feature filmmaking were there when I started (when I hear about writers jumping head first into feature directing I wince in sympathy pain). But of course, there were still a lot of challenges ahead.

My biggest lesson was learning what you don’t need in a screenplay. The original shooting script had long (4+) pages of dialogue, that while good, and relevant, we wound up cutting down after we shot it. I realized that if you cast well, and you and your actors know and inhabit the characters, so much of what I was trying to make sure people understood with all that dialogue gets communicated better by the performances.

Jordan Horowitz: I think I tried to get Keith to cut some of his screenplay before we started shooting, but he wouldn’t do it. And I get why he wouldn’t do it. At the end of the day, I think it helped with character development, so while it was, in the end, cut from the film… it had a lasting effect on the film. But I think I learned how to talk to a writer/director about what is needed in a screenplay, and what is not.

KB: Also, naively, as a greenhorn I assumed that everyone working in the movie business was at least competent, if not talented and trustworthy. Not so. To some people, even people with great credits, it’s a job, and people with little perception or creativity still work their whole lives in the biz. And they are liabilities to your movie, and need to be micro-managed or weeded out.

JH: I took this same lesson to heart. Frankly, we got burned by being too trusting of crew. There is just so much management involved with production: everyone is looking for direction. And I, like Keith, give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t get me wrong, in the long run, I still think this is a good thing and the right way to operate. It’s just a matter of going in with your eyes open and striking a balance early on.

KB: Movies become different things than you originally intended. MEET MONICA VELOUR was always intended as a dark comedy, with heart, and it still is, but the relationship that we captured, because of Dustin Ingram and Kim Cattrall’s performances, and their genuine love for each other on set, was bigger and sweeter and more dramatic than I perhaps thought of when writing it. It would have been stupid to deny audiences that, so we edited accordingly.

JH: This film changed so many times for me. For us. So many times. I can’t even being to think what it was like for Keith, who was living with it, creatively, for so many years. We cut and recut and had different editors and then went back to the original editor… but in the end, I (and I think Keith) am really happy with the final product. We took a longer road than we’d originally intended, but we got there. We did.

KB: Also, making movies on location is lonely hard work. You have no free time, local people have their own lives, you’re away from your family and friends, the mind is totally preoccupied. It’s kind of like going to war, but without all the blood and fire and stuff.

JH: I don’t know what Keith is taking about. There was fire. And there was definitely a good amount of blood.

KB: I’m very aware of the current situation in the American movie landscape; more indie pics than ever, and more moviegoers only going to the theatre to see the in-every-multiplex-in-America-remake-of-an-80s-movie-in-3D tentpole releases. Also, when you make a movie, you should only try to make the best movie for the audience in your mind (even if it’s only you) and not try to follow trends, maximize imaginary demographics, or think too much about its outcome when it comes to your career or life. Do I think that MEET MONICA VELOUR has the audience friendly potential to be one of the few breakout indie hits? Yes. Would I be happy to be a movie that people see in fests, a handful of US theatres, and grow to dig on DVD and streaming? Also yes. My goal with MEET MONICA VELOUR is to hear audiences laugh, and talk to people or read about people who really enjoyed it. I’m happy to take it one venue at a time. Where this film winds up in the end is really out of my control, and in the hands of my producers, our sales agent, our future distributor, the press, audiences, the Gods of Cinema and other mysterious forces.

JH: As I said above, the process of this film has been a long one, with changes at every turn, and I think it has helped temper my expectations. I am fully aware of the ever-changing distribution environment for independent film. We will find a buyer for this film, and with Kim Cattrall (I think al lot of people underestimate her market appeal, by the way), there will be a theatrical play, but more importantly there will be significant value in ancillary markets. So we’ll look for a buyer who can structure a deal around a big TV or DVD or VOD component and use theatrical as, in a worst case scenario, long-lead marketing. At the end of the day, with the right campaign, this film will find its audience and really speak to people, of that I am certain.

--

The facebook page for the film is at: www.facebook.com/meetmonicavelour An exclusive clip can be found on Cinematical here.

Jordan Horowitz works at Gilbert Films with producer Gary Gilbert. While MEET MONICA VELOUR was Jordan’s first feature, Gary has produced and financed GARDEN STATE, HENRY POOLE IS HERE, and the unreleased Ken Lonergan film MARGARET. Together, they also produced Lisa Cholodenko’s THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, due out for release by Focus Features on July 7th. Jordan can be found on twitter @jehorowitz

Keith Bearden's 2005 short The Raftman's Razor was named best short at the SXSW, Seattle, and Montreal film festivals and is in the permanent collection at MoMA. He is the recipient of Showtime's Tony Cox Award for Screenwriting and in 2008 received a Guggenheim Fellowship for filmmaking. MEET MONICA VELOUR is his first feature film.

Are you joining me tomorrow?

I am speaking at the Tribeca Film Festival.  I promise to say some lively things, even some things controversial.  I know it should be fun and informative -- there's a lot of good people on the panel.

This is the panel description: Is The Sky Falling? A Closer Look at the Future of Film Distribution Depending on whom you ask, the landscape of film distribution is changing either for the better or worse. So which is it? Is the sky really falling on the film industry? Join filmmakers, sales agents, and distributors in a discussion about enabling independent film and filmmakers to reach audiences and make money in this digital landscape. Panelists include Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, Ted Hope, producer/partner of This Is That Productions, Efe Cakarel, founder and CEO of The Auteurs, Arvind Ethan David, CEO of Slingshot Studios and producer of The Infidel, Paul Cohen, president of Red Hills Releasing, and Marc Simon, partner at Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP. Moderated by Geoff Gilmore, Chief Creative Officer of Tribeca Enterprises. Friday, April 23, 2:00 PM, SVA Theater 2

If you haven't already: buy tickets here.

If you missed it here is Tribeca's wrap up of it.

Thoughts on The New Festival Model

I love that the Tribeca Film Festival has facilitated an immediate VOD launch for some of the films premiering there this year.  This is a key step in freeing festivals from their geographic limitations.  With the collapse of print and the firing of local film critics, festivals have become our most vital curatorial voice.  Whether we like this or not, it is the time we are living in, and it requires festivals to aggregate their audiences and expand their base; that is if they really want to help film culture grow and deepen, which I thought was their mandate (maybe that no longer is what it about; maybe it is now, like everything else, primarily financially motivated). Unfortunately though the VOD experiment as currently structured (or at least as I understand it) is not the distribution or marketing solution for filmmakers that is necessary.  I worry that the lack of prior promotion,non-existant window, and filmmaker-led marketing will lead Tribeca's bold step forward to mirror the popular (and negative) wisdom that came from the Sundance YouTube experiment (i.e. Fail!).  This is totally avoidable.  We already have better answers.

It's great that most of the film industry now accepts a festival launch as the media launch and not the market launch for most films (okay, so-called producers' reps may still have motivations to think otherwise...).  But a media launch does not translate into immediate audience want-to-see.  Without want-to-see failure is a forgone conclusion. We still need to manufacture the desire for our films (and for the culture and world we want too while we are at it!).  It's not like the films with their festival slots were creating lines around the block, selling out shows with rapidity.  We need to harvest word-of-mouth, seed it, and corral it.  And that takes time, labor, promotion.

Festivals and Film Organizations need to launch Marketing & Distribution Labs akin to the Screenwriting & Directing Labs currently endorsed worldwide. Sending filmmakers into the distribution world without proper tools is irresponsible.  Granted filmmakers are not helpless creatures, and most are not ignorant of this necessity these days.  Yet, it is rare that filmmakers arrive at the festival having built a full campaign, armed with engaged and aggregated audiences.  The established players, and most certainly the platforms offering the opportunity, need to offer more support and guidance to their filmmaker constituency (or is that not really their constituency after all...).

If filmmakers are not prepared to exploit the opportunity of VOD or Online Streaming availability of their film, those that offer this opportunity are aiding in the destruction of a new model before it has been given the opportunity to prove itself.  One step forward, two steps back.

It is not as if we are lacking in good films to view.  It is not even as if we are lacking in good films to view instantly.  New films compete against the entire history of filmmaking.  What new films offer that the classic movies don't is the opportunity for an audience to engage with one another in a new and unexpected way all at the same time.  The launch of the conversation is a key component in the launch of a film.  You can't make movies by yourself (okay other than a few folks out there) and you can't start and lead a worldwide conversation by yourself.  Availability on VOD is not a conversation starter.  The big winner in the current model of festival VOD launch will be the content aggregators again.  Yay, right?  Not.

We need to pave the path to make this new model work.  AMPAS currently will deny films award consideration if the films don't first premiere theatrically.  Award consideration has historically been one of the most dramatic and cost effective ways to increase want-to-see; cross that out from your strategy plan.  Or maybe we should organize to get some rules changed...  and organize marketing & distribution labs while we are at it.

It seems to me that a more effective strategy would be to have released a series of transmedia content prior to the festival launch, using that content to create a robust database of engaged fans, tracked geographically.  As the festival approaches, utilize a crowdfunding campaign, not so much to raise $ -- but of course that always helps -- but to further engage the super fans.  In the final weeks leading to the fest, mobilize the audience to demand the film locally via a service like OpenIndie.  All the while feed the hungry with increasingly available updates to a site that offers a wide variety of related products for purchase (audiences do want to support the artists they respect).  With this crowd now identified and engaged, launch a series of regional (and ideally sponsored) screenings following that festival media launch, whereby the audience gets involved to help spread awareness.  And only after all of that, launch the VOD release.

Well, that's my two cents, but I only recently got up, and need my coffee -- and besides, I wasn't charging you for this (not that I do).  You may not agree.  I am sure you have some thoughts of your own and I hope you will share them.  This was all news yesterday.  We shouldn't be so damn slow to respond.  Let's figure out the right way.  I make myself pretty available. I would have liked to discuss this before, but happy to do so after too.  Share your thoughts.  We can make this work if we work together.

P.S.  Since posting this yesterday, there's been a lot of great comments and deep thinking going on.  Please make sure to continue reading below.

ADD 3/5: Tribeca's VOD has grown as an issue over the web.  Filmmaker Magazine and TheHotBlog here.

MIke Fleming addresses the marketing question head on and states:

Gilmore believes the festival's growing momentum creates a high awareness level among specialty film lovers for a dedicated Tribeca VOD channel. That effort will be helped by promotional clout provided by longtime festival sponsor American Express, which signed on to become Founding Partner of Tribeca’s VOD distribution program, as well as a separate online venture that will show short films and broadcast filmmaker panels during the fest's run from April 21-May 2. While it’s not exactly clear yet how much promotional might Amex will bring, one thing is for sure: promotional spends won’t be deducted from the film’s revenues the way traditional P&A costs are.

ADD:  The story is being covered really widely;  the NY Times has joined the fray.  Yet no one seems to be doing any real reporting.  Where's the facts?  How much are they paying for these VOD rights?  What's the filmmaker's split of the revenues? Where's the beef?