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

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