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The 10 Things You Must Know Before You Set Foot on the Festival Circuit

The 10 Things You Must Know Before You Set Foot on the Festival Circuit

Independent film advice is the ultimate in self-help literature; most filmmakers can’t afford other options. (After making a movie, who has the money for professional consultation?) However, the Film Collaborative’s new book, “Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul,” looks to provide the next best thing. Comprised of case studies around successful (and not-so-successful) films, it takes a look at what’s really necessary for a movie to thrive under the new distribution models.

Written by TFC co-executive directors Orly Ravid and Jeffrey Winter in association with filmmaker/author Jon Reiss (“Think Outside The Box Office”) and Sheri Candler, “Selling Your Film” will be released September 13 via Apple iBooks, followed by Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook and ePub. The book will be available for free initially and then either free or at low cost, supported by premiere sponsor Prescreen and official sponsor Dynamo Player.

Over the next four weeks, indieWire will feature excerpts from the book and from TFC. First up: The 10 Things You Must Know Before You Set Foot on the Festival Circuit.

1. You need two high-impact festival premieres.
Target an impact festival for both your world and international premieres. An impact festival is one that directly leads to results, whether that means sales reps soliciting you, distributors pursuing you or other festivals requesting to see your film. If you aren’t sure which festivals qualify, consult several industry professionals; every festival will tell you that distribution deals are done at their festival… and that’s almost always a lie.

2. Don’t be provincial.
Remember that the U.S. film market is only 30% of the world. That means you may be faced with making that same high-impact premiere choice in several key territories around the world (esp. Canada, U.K., Continental Europe and Asia). However, there are just as many places in the world where your film likely won’t sell anyway, so you might as well take whatever invitations come your way as long as you don’t think you are opening yourself up for piracy. In other words: Don’t overthink your Slovenian premiere.

3. Think globally, act locally.
For many filmmakers in large markets, the best film festival close to home may be the best place to premiere. These festivals often have sections dedicated to local films that make acceptance easier; they also have locally themed prizes that often come with cash. Also, a local premiere may be easier to fill through regional word-of-mouth, and a packed house is always better than the alternative.

4. Know your niche.
Consider that for many films a niche festival may be an impact festival as well. Chicago Latino, San Francisco Jewish, Pan African Film Festival Los Angeles, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, the San Francisco Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, Fantastic Fest are all examples of top-notch specialty fests that may represent the best festival circuit in which to engage your particular audience.

5. Don’t spend before you have to.
Before engaging a sales agent, a publicist or throwing a premiere party, ask yourself exactly what you want that money to achieve. Hiring PR and throwing a party at a small regional festival where there is no national press and no industry attendees is unlikely to pay off professionally. Be targeted in the reasons you spend money at film festivals.

6. Include the festival circuit in your production budget.
Always remember to carve out a small percentage of your production and post-production budget to allow you to enter the festival circuit; we recommend 10-20% of the overall budget. Film festivals require submission fees (unless you can get them waived), exhibition deliverables, support staff, marketing materials and travel costs. A microbudget film might expect to spend up to 50% on film festival costs.

7. Don’t expect the festival to sell your film.
Actively market your own film. The festival won’t fill your seats; they have many movies and yours may not be their priority. You can nudge this process by requesting a prime slot and being in regular contact with the festival’s publicity and marketing teams, but in the end it’s your baby. And if you pack the seats with friends, you’re that much more likely to win an audience award.

8. Look for allies outside the festival.
Reach out to like-minded organizations to help promote the film. Offer perks like free tickets in exchange for email blasts to their partners. If the festival will allow it, let a local organization set up a table outside your screening for their literature in exchange for marketing support.

9. (Some) Films can start making money now.
Learn the game of monetizing your film festival run. If you have a world premiere at one the top film festivals like Sundance or Cannes or a handful of others, other programmers will request to see your film. The general rule is: if a programmer requests to see your film and then accepts it, you can ask for a rental fee (between $500 and $1,000 is a good place to start). If you submit on your own, generally they will not pay you. However, if you are represented by a distributor or a producer’s rep, they may have more negotiating power and be better able to get you a screening fee. Also, niche festivals are much more likely to pay you fees to screen your film, since there’s less product for them to choose from.

10. Your theatrical release starts now.
Most filmmakers experience a mental disconnect when saying that they want a theatrical release; what they really mean is they want their work seen on the big screen, not on a laptop. Film festivals are big screens; envision your entire festival run as an event-driven theatrical release. Once your premieres have been achieved and other festivals are asking for your film, let it fly. Every festival has marketing, PR and word-of-mouth value.

This Article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit and tagged



I find most of the tips useful and common film industry sense, but I wonder where some of the advice is motivated from:

– the US market is 30% of the world? For which films? I’m curious because many foreign estimates don’t even assign the US a sales number, given our domestic market’s volatility.
– Save 10-20% of your production budget for festival costs? I don’t know investors who would agree to this. It’s also questionable as a producer to take 20% of the film’s production value and crew payroll and put it towards festivals.
– Ask for $500-$1000 film rentals. This is great if you can get it, but filmmakers need to know the ability to demand this fee is the exception, not the rule.
– Pack the seats with friends to win an audience award. This may be true, but the strategy feels… depressing.

The article opens with a subtle exhortation to buy this book, because after making a film, who can afford professional consultation. Yes, absolutely. Yet in tip #1, it says “consult several industry professionals.”

I had to learn the festival circuit the hard way, so I fully support the concept of this book, and perhaps the case studies will provide more nuance and real-world advice.


This article has some great tips but overlooks one major thing. What about an online release? I didn’t make my short to make money, I made it to gain exposure.

After I finished my festival run and picked up a bunch of awards, I staged a YouTube and Vimeo release of my film and it went viral. Due to its popularity, I was discovered by agents and managers and have since signed with one of each.

So my point is (for shorts anyway), don’t get tied up in a distribution deal where you can’t put your film online if it’s exposure you want. You may make a small sum of money from distribution, but it’s unlikely anyone important will see your film.

Sydney Levine

Bravo. A great need for this book will be met. I want my free copy now!!


As usual, sage advice. But no one ever seems to looks at this from the film festival’s POV
I have been running Raindance Film Festival over here in London England, nad could write volumes about how to – and how not to’s.

When I read advice to filmmakers to ask for screening fees, for example, I know right away that I have a film festival darling whose producer or sales agent is trying to squeeze some juice out of yet another film festival for a film that most likely has little commercial value. At Raindance we pretty much say no to screening fees – on the grounds that we rarely recoup, and we have marketing and hospitality to pay on top. And what would you rather have? Some marketing? Or a few lousy hundred bucks?

Anyway, not foaming here – I know Jon and Sheri personally and they do much great work.

If you want to read what I think are the 10 Most expensive Mistakes Filmmakers Make BEFORE they go onto the festival circuit, then have a gander:
10 Expensive Mistakes Filmmakers Make


Awesome article. I would love to link it to my blog so I can share this awesome info with my readers as well.

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