Niall McKay on "Ten Do's and Don't About Programming A Niche Film Festival"

We have to build the audiences for the things we love.  We vote for the culture we want with our dollars. It's not enough to help bring beautiful & better films into this world; we have to find the ways to make them social, so that the communities can discover them.  I hold incredible respect for the curators.  I think such activity is part of the producers' job description.  I have run a screening series now for two years; it may not be easy, but it is rewarding. For these reasons, I am quite pleased to introduce you to Naiall McKay, who has some recommendations for all of in the arena of niche film festivals -- it is a bare knuckle affair.

Zero budget Festival Programming: Ten Do's and Don'ts About Programming a Niche Film Festival.

What had started out as a hobby has taken over my life and become a full time job - but without the pay - of course.  But that's the indie film biz for you.  Few people are going to make a killing from a small film festival.  This is my third film festival that focuses on Irish films.  I started the San Francisco Irish Film Festival eight years ago then co-founded the Los Angeles Irish Film Festival four years ago. When I arrived in New York last winter, I saw an opportunity to start an Irish screening series to showcase films that would otherwise not get seen in the Big Apple. My objective is to help Irish film and filmmakers make their way in the US. Seemed odd to me that an Irish plumber or bricklayer could arrive in New York and get a job in couple of hours, but Irish filmmakers  have a tough time navigating the US market.

Irish Film is a curious beast. It's not foreign enough to be considered foreign and not American enough to compete with US independent cinema. In Ireland, local films have a hard time going up against the US blockbusters and have an equally tough time competing with US indie flicks.  Local filmmakers shy away from American's obsession with the hero's journey and try instead and follow in the footsteps of European art films. It's taken time to grow the craft of filmmaking in Ireland. Now however, Irish film is at its most interesting juncture in history. The country produces some twenty to thirty feature films each year and while ten years ago it would have been unusual for an Irish film to be featured in Cannes, Sundance, Telluride, or Toronto. Now it's unusual if there isn't.  There's four Irish films in Toronto this year. Most years, at least one film, usually a short, gets an  Academy Award nomination.

There are ten to fifteen world-class filmmakers who are producing a steady flow of excellent films. Well-known directors such as John Carney (Once) and Kirsten Sheridan (August Rush) have joined forces with lesser-known directors such as Lance Daly (Kisses) and formed a production hub in Dublin called The Factory. Meanwhile, new directors such as Lenny Abrahamson, Ken Wardrop, and Juanita Wilson are producing critically acclaimed films that are beginning to do well in Europe as in the US.

This year, I've been fortunate because I will have the New York premiere of the documentary Knuckle, a visceral look at bare knuckle boxing among the Irish Traveller community (HBO are turning it into a dramatic series), the Galway Film Fleadh-winning feature Parked, with Colm Meaney, and The Runway, starring  Demián Bichir (Weeds).  All three films will get be released in the United States in the next few months. I will be bringing all three films and their filmmakers on a three city tour of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.  Irish Film New York is co-presented by NYUs Glucksman Ireland House and funded by Culture Ireland's Imagine Ireland Program, The Irish Film Board and Moet Hennessy USA.  So here are some of the lessons that I have learned about creating a new festival:

Top Ten Dos and Dont's

1. Do

Know your audience. Like independent film, each start-up film festival needs a base.  The base for the San Francisco Irish Film Festival and for Irish Film New York is Irish ex-patriots between ages 25 and 50.  They are a vastly different audience from the Irish immigrants of yesteryears. Find this core base that will be the foundation of your festival audience. But having said that,  your base will keep your festival alive, but it's not what will make it prosper.  You'll need to reach beyond the niche to independent cinema lovers.

2. Do

Program only those films that you want to watch until the end.  What are my criteria?  Films that make me laugh or cry, make me angry, frightened, or sad, films that crawl into a space in my brain and just won't leave.

3. Do

Create as many partnerships as possible. Partnerships are the key to a low budget and a big success. Where possible, partner with film distributors, cultural organizations, museums, newspapers and businesses. Partnerships are free and they help grow your festival's reach and presence.

4. Do

Low budget festivals like Blanche Dubois "always depend on the kindness of strangers." Your festival will get nowhere without lots of favors.  In turn, always treat your festival as an opportunity to provide services to others.  This can mean something as small as taking a filmmaker out for a pint or making sure you introduce a filmmaker to a potential distributor.  If you're only in this for what you can get out of it, then your festival will be short-lived.

5. Do

Be careful how you define your niche films. Irish Film has become a little tricky in the last few years. I define it as films made in Ireland or with an Irish cast. There are a number of  excellent films that are financed by the Irish Film Board and made by an Irish directors abroad that I'd love to program.  Irish filmmaker Juanita Wilson's "As If I'm not There," for example is beautiful film, but it takes place during the Bosnian war so it's a hard sell as an Irish film. I am not against programming these films but I may need to create a special  program called The Irish Abroad to tell my audience what they are getting.

6. Do

Go to events where your target audience may be and announce your festival. Nothing works better than a personal invitation. Tell them about the rare opportunity they have to attend your festal.  This is by far the best way get your audience.

7. Don't

Don't produce large gala events unless you want to spend your time producing large gala events. This will become your job. They generally soak up all the money they earn. They can be useful for building profile but building profile becomes its own job and you want to focus on screenings films.

8. Do

Do be aware that inviting celebrities and stars to come to your festival will cost a great deal of money. They usually fly first class, take limousines and bring their own hair and makeup people. And why not? They are at the top of their game.  But make sure you have an extra $10 K in the kitty jar.  Speaking of the kitty jar…

9. Do

Reduce your budget to zero or as close to zero as possible. Partner and profit share with your festival venue, if possible. Find sponsors who will underwrite specific costs. For example, perhaps they can give you a voucher for your postcard  printer or lend you their PR agency or pay for airline tickets out of their travel budget. Cash donations are hard to come by and all your time will be spent fundraising instead of putting on the festival.  Having said that find a way to pay yourself for your time. [OK, so I've not quite figured that one out yet but I'll let you know.]

10. Don't

Take it personally. Remember the people who let you down, don't give you their films, don't return your phone calls, ignore you pleas and walk straight by you at parties don't hate you personally. So move on and remember you're doing this for fun.

Niall Mckay is a filmmaker and festival programer. He can be reached at or at


Brooklyn's Answer To SXSW? Complete With A DIY Film Festival!!

The democratization of culture and the tools to create and share it is definitely been one of the more exciting trends of the recent past. We see it in all spheres and aspects of our daily life, but what symbolizes it best? Many friends and pundits characterize it as a dumbing down, but I truly perceive it as quite the opposite. People everywhere are asking all of us to look and reach up, to aspire to more, to inspire each of us to cross into new realms. Maybe this is most felt on the streets of Austin during SXSW (although the committed might nominate Burning Man), but it is refreshing to know that NYC is not going to abandon the terrain of the wild, weird, honest, and true to that Texas town. We've got on own thing going down in Brooklyn.

rooklyn has emerged as a new creative epicenter of culture, and Northside is the festival that curates this talent into a 4-day experience of Music, Art, Film, and Ideas, showcasing the best regional and national talent all within the walkable radius encompassed by Williamsburg and Greenpoint. It's June 16 -19th and I plan to be there. In fact, I will be one of the judges of the film component. But it is not just film, per se. It is lo-fi, hi-ambition, DIY variety.

DIY filmmaking is very much a part of this mission. It’s now a given that many of the most exciting films at major American festivals are the product of a handful of friends working on a shoestring (some of them right here in Brooklyn), and it’s time festivals gave these films the dedicated platform they deserve.

Last year, with the first-ever Northside Film Festival, copresenters like Rooftop Films, IFC, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Film Comment screened exciting local and upcoming films; this year, alongside these special feature presentations, Northside's new DIY Film Competition will shine a spotlight on the exciting new voices working with the materials at hand.

The submissions guidelines:

The L Magazine presents: The Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Film Competition, Northside Festival's first juried screening series. Open to all filmmakers with ingenuity and a hands-on approach, the winners will receive an exclusive screening with Rooftop Films plus cash and equipment rentals! For more information on how to submit your own dynamic short or brilliant feature before the May 1 deadline hits, please visit and click "Submit Your Film." The films must have been made after January 1, 2008.

The Post-Fest Era

In September, Christian Gaines wrote a provocative two-part article for Variety speculating on a new business models for film rights holders in terms of how they use film festivals.  It's required reading, and certainly got me thinking.

In this month's Independent, Paul Devlin has a piece on lessons he learned on the film fest circuit with his film BLAST.  He definitely has some good information for all, but again it was  's last paragraph that got me thinking again:

Of course, the film festival model will always serve some film very well. But diverging interests may mean that film festivals necessarily become a much less essential element of a filmmaker’s strategy for promotion and distribution. Just as we seem to be entering a “post-distributor” environment in which filmmakers eschew rotten deals and embrace DIY, we may be witnessing the emergence of a “post-film festival” environment as well.

A new model needs to be found for filmmakers choosing (or having no other option than) to hold onto their rights.
Festivals can be a great way to heighten awareness for your film, but generally only in the local community where the film is playing.  To make matters worse, many festivals these days are over-programed and as a result the films simply get lost and overlooked.  The festivals and the communities make money on the sold out shows but not the filmmakers.  With only a few sales happening and then only at the highest festival level, filmmakers can't be attending with the hopes of a deal?  So how can festivals be utilized by the Truly Free Filmmaker?
It would be ideal for local festivals to initiate deals with local theaters so that prize winning films would get an automatic one or two week booking three or four months after the festival.  I have to imagine this is done somewhere already but frankly I am clueless as to where.
It would be ideal for colleges and community centers in and around the local festivals to agree to bring filmmakers and their films out to lecture one or two months after winning at the festival.  This would allow for some local publicity to be done in advance of a future booking.
The most natural fit for regional festivals and TFFilmakers is for the filmmakers to use the festival to launch a specific DVD sale directly at the festival.  At the very least they could take pre-orders.
I found it very exciting when Slamdance announced this year that certain films would be available for streaming directly after their festival premiere.  When I have heard of a film playing a major festival, that is when my "want-to-see" is at its highest.  Six months later another 50 films have moved ahead of it on my queue.  TFFilmakers have to strike when audience desire is highest.

Unique Ways To Celebrate #1

I am glad we live in a world with Fainting Goats.  I am even more glad we live in a land where we can have a whole festival for them.  

Don't know what you are doing next weekend?  I suggest you hop on a bus and get to Lewisburg, Tennessee, home of the 6th annual Fainting Goats Festival.  
Don't know about Fainting Goats?  What tree have you been living in?  Better read up on them here.  Or visit the fest's official site.  Have a goat and want to bring it?  Rules are here.
Or just watch them...