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Film Festival Strategies, by Kathleen McInnis

Kathleen_McInnisWhen’s the right time to plan your festival strategy? Before you’ve even begun your film. Palm Springs Shortfest film curator and festival strategist Kathleen McInnis shares the secret to festival success.

Upon the (very) successful celebration of the Galway Film Fleadh’s 21st Anniversary, I was asked to write a forward-looking essay on film festival strategies for independent filmmakers. It is particularly fitting that as one cinematic institution reaches ‘adulthood,’ we reach out to filmmakers and ask them to do the same thing – be adults about the destiny of their work and their careers.

It is an unusual paradigm to propose to those creative talents who are unused to – and often untrained for – self-determination regarding their work. Filmmakers will often tell you the greatest challenge was in getting the film done. Exhausted by the end of production, many filmmakers can barely summon the strength to finish editing and mixing sound before collapsing with well-founded joy about ‘finishing’ the film.
But they are hardly finished.

In this, our brave new filmic world, a filmmaker is not ‘finished’ until the current project has fulfilled its destiny. This now can mean anything from theatrical release (a cynical ‘ha’ should be inserted here), to broadcast, to VOD, to pay-per-view, to mobile download, to internet distribution (using that word quite broadly), to DVD, or to niche marketing to ‘known or any and all unknown universes’ –which is my favourite contract phrase currently making the rounds.

What once was the job of distributors and agents and managers and producers is now oftentimes the domain of the filmmaker. Gone are the days of easy negative pickups and three-picture deals. Gone also are those brilliant arthouse cinema circuits, a screening at which could springboard a film’s life and a filmmaker’s career. What remains for the filmmaker, then, is to ply his wares and increase his profile on the global film festival circuit.

There are currently, by generally accepted estimates, 3,000 film festivals worldwide. Of these, only a few dozen have the kind of profile and prestige to offer filmmakers 100 percent bang for their buck. Another few can offer their filmmakers a decent, if not complete, percentage of return. The rest? Well, the rest can do little more than offer films a way to be seen by audiences around the world in a theatre, as they were intended. No small change, that. But with submission fees, postage and deliverables costing an average of $75 (approximately €53) per application, applying to just one percent of the world’s festivals could easily translate to enough money to add more shooting days to your schedule, real catering to your menu, or even a day’s work from a top-level actor.

So the question remains, if filmmakers are to use the film festival circuit to their advantage, how do they prioritise? I’m going to ask filmmakers to do something they aren’t used to doing: plan ahead.
In the first moment of deciding to make a film, any film, I challenge filmmakers to ask themselves: ‘Why?’ All reasons to make a film are valid, but different reasons at this stage will reveal different paths to travel in achieving your goals.

For example, if your goal is to launch your career while telling a story deeply important to you, utilising local talent and local locations, on a shoestring budget as independently as possible, you have most likely narrowed your film festival choices down to a small few. There are only a handful of festivals that can literally launch your career; that celebrate (and risk) screening this kind of filmmaking, and that come with the kinds of audiences you need for these films. Fewer festivals still have the trade and international press attendance you need to propel the profile of your film.

Sundance may be the golden ring of film festivals for most filmmakers, but remember your odds of getting in are actually quite low. Seattle is a strikingly strong audience festival (170,000 audience members strong), but the majority of its international press attends only during the final, premiere week and trades often don’t review from there. Tribeca has recently redoubled their efforts to be an independent market but its timing just before Cannes can be tough. Edinburgh’s new dates help showcase remarkable new work, but you might have to weigh a premiere there against a premiere at Karlovy Vary. The same may happen between Venice and Telluride. And if you’re looking for potential prize money, the autumn is jammed with festivals like Toronto and San Sebastian that often require premiere status for award consideration, while spring pits Los Angeles and SXSW against each other.

So, what’s a filmmaker to do? Once you start the process of making the film, try this checklist to help narrow your choices. By the way, you should re-check this list constantly throughout production – in script development, during physical production, again in editing and again when you think you’re ‘done.’ Your film is going to change many times and with those changes so too might your set of goals and expectations become redefined.

Filmmakers’ Festival Top Ten Checklist:

  • Why am I making this film? Some answers: it’s a deeply personal story, it satisfies my filmmaker’s vision, as a genre film it can get made cheaply and sold quickly, I had a camera…
  • What do I want the film to do? Some answers: get reviewed, get interest from industry such as agents and producers, get you noticed as a filmmaker, get in front of audiences, get picked up for distribution, pay back investors…
  • What kind of film am I making? Honestly, you’ll never be able to answer this one yourself. At best, you’ll be able to say, ‘I thought I was making a…’ Get ten people you don’t know in a room together, have them watch your film and ask them to write down what they think they saw. Don’t ask them to talk about it – rarely can you get the same level of honesty in a conversation that you can in an anonymous ballot.
  • What kinds of film festivals play my kind of film? This is both a tough and easy answer. Once you know what kind of film you have (tough), research what kinds of films your target festivals are known for playing (easy).
  • When is my film ready to be submitted? Many filmmakers make the mistake of rushing to a rough cut in order to meet a festival submission deadline. Never cut to a festival deadline. Look instead at a 12-month calendar. Find the optimal festival season for your type of film, knowing that submissions generally happen three months prior to a festival. This may mean you wait a few months to start submitting once you are ‘done’ with the final cut. Don’t let that trip you up. Alternatively, if you must submit a rough cut for whatever reason, try to do so with at least a polished sound mix if not a final colour-correction. If you are submitting a rough cut to a festival that likes to be part of the final cut process, make sure you give them enough time to do so. And if you want to save money, submit during the early-bird submission window.
  • What do other filmmakers say about a particular festival? Check out those blogs and message boards to find out what filmmakers think of festivals to help you decide between competing fests.
  • What is the festival offering? We certainly aren’t trying to be greedy here, but sometimes it’s just as important to celebrate your achievement, as it is to make your film work for you. Is Dubai offering to fly you to a Middle East premiere to a country you’re unlikely to get to visit otherwise with an audience you’re unlikely to find anywhere else? Does Rotterdam offer airfare and hotel plus a food allowance and industry cocktail hours? Will Vancouver throw you a party?
  • What are your responsibilities to your cast and crew? Are you required to bring your lead actors to the world premiere of the film? If so, and you’ve chosen a festival 5,000 miles away, make sure the festival is willing to give them airfare and hotel or else your budget just tripled.
  • Why exactly should I care about a premiere status? There are three premieres that mean anything. They are: ‘World Premiere’ (exactly that, the first time your film plays at a festival anywhere in the world), ‘Country Premiere’ (the first time your film plays in a given country, such as the US, Ireland, Germany, etc.), and ‘Continent Premiere’ (also known as North American Premiere, South American Premiere, European Premiere, Asian Premiere and the double-whammy, the Australian Premiere). If, for example, you are a Canadian filmmaker and you first play your film at the Toronto Film Festival, you have just had your World, North American and Canadian premieres all in one screening. In general, you should be able to have one cast and crew screening in your country of origin that doesn’t count against your premiere status, and if you play any festival as a ‘work-in-progress’ that also shouldn’t count against your premiere status.
  • Why again do I have to know all this? Can’t I just hire someone? Of course you can. But be careful. Film festival strategists are a dime a dozen. Make sure you are speaking to someone who knows the festivals inside and out. This is a fast-changing landscape. Your festival advisor should attend most major festivals each year, know programmers and directors, have experienced festivals from many angles and know what it means to be you – to be a filmmaker with very specific goals and expectations.

These are the first ten questions I ask my filmmakers to answer when we first meet. I want filmmakers to look differently at their work: to understand that shooting and editing a film is only one third of their job. The other two thirds are split between working to get the film seen and working to make the film successful – on all levels and in any way you define success. If filmmakers start thinking about the last two thirds of the process when they start the first one third of the process, my guess is they’ll have stronger films and better experiences.

This article first appeared in Issue 130 of Film Ireland Magazine.