Below is a first-person article from filmmaker Maxine Trump, on what she learned while attending film festivals and self-distributing her debut documentary feature, Musicwood. On November 1, 2013, Musicwood opens in NYC at The Quad Cinema and will be available on iTunes and other platforms. For more information, check out the film’s website at www.musicwoodthefilm.com
A little about me and our film. I have only been on the festival circuit once before, with a short film, and even then I only applied to five festivals. So this time it really felt like the beginning of a steep learning curve. And when you’re in the thick of it, it’s all happening so quickly and there are constant choices and decisions learning experiences. There were so many times I thought, “If only someone had mentioned THAT to me!”
Our feature film Musicwood is a political thriller. The most famous guitar-makers in the world band together on a journey into one of the most primeval forests on earth. Their struggle is with a Native American logging company; their hope, to save the acoustic guitar. Think more, After Tiller (which we can’t wait to see) than After Sunset. But as one distributor said our film is a thriller, and we like that.
As with so many things, there were a lot of known unknowns, things we knew we would learn. But I’m hoping to get at the unknown unknowns, the things we didn’t even know that we didn’t know and we wish someone had told us.
1. ONLY enter festivals when your film is finished. Yes, we all hear about rough cuts getting into festivals, but don’t, seriously, submit that rough cut. Remember, you’re going up against finished, polished films. When you’ve shown at least 10 people and they’ve all said it’s done, go for it. No rough narratives, no gfx still to be commissioned. Done done done. We learned this the hard way, we really wanted to get into Berlin, and you only get ONE chance to enter. We submitted a cut we thought was pretty close to done, only to work for another year on the edit.
2. Make PR materials BEFORE your festival run. Look, we know how it is, you’ve been scrambling and taking up absolutely every minute of every day until your premiere getting the film to be the best it can. You’re madly outputting the night before the screening and hoping against hope that everything looks and sounds ok. But in all of that you NEED to get a designer (or yourself) to make imagery for your film. Make a postcard, make a movie poster, make a flyer. You’re going to need this stuff. And have your precis and tag line, and short synopsis, and long synopsis, all this will save you time in the future.
3. Think hard about where you’re having your World Premiere. Premiere status is almost like a currency as you do festivals, and it can be hard to figure out how to make it work. We had the lovely Thom Powers wanting to screen Musicwood at DOC NYC, but since we are somewhat a music film, we also loved the idea of SXSW. Ultimately, because we knew our premiere was going to be intense and controversial (see our Q&A here for more), and DOC NYC was so supportive, we decided to premiere in New York, our home town. We were able to fill the theater and it was an amazing experience. Following that, SXSW were absolutely lovely to us and tried to program our film but because we had our World Premiere at DOC NYC they had to decline.
4. And while we’re talking about it, check out DOC NYC. It’s a fairly young festival but people may not have cottoned on to the fact that you can get great access here that you might not get at a huge, long-running festival. We made lots of connections here: Cinema Guild, First Run, IFC Films, Gary Hustwit, etc. We had distribution offers for digital, VOD and educational straight after our premier at DOC NYC, so not bad, not bad at all. They have a great line up for 2013!
5. Know what each festival is known for. It’s hard to work out a festival strategy as it’s not always easy reading about which festivals have particular leanings or genre favorite. But look into it, check the line up of films from previous years. Entering festivals is expensive, so if you have the time do this. Big Sky has a large Native American population. Cleveland has a very strong European presence. Santa Barbara has a fantastic Social Justice Award for documentaries. These are just a few tips we picked up.
6. Start looking into international distribution at the START of your festival run. Once you’ve decided and been accepted for your World Premiere, immediately start sending your film to international distributors, with a note about where you are premiering. One of the international guys said we should have brought them in *before* our festival run — who knew? So don’t just think of US distributors, think globally too.
7. So what happens when you do get into festivals? Remember to celebrate. You have made a feature film! This is a major accomplishment! And you’re in festivals! Don’t lose sight of that. Many festivals have submission numbers of over 5,000 and upwards, so you’ve got to celebrate. There’s so much always to be done on the film that we would lose sight of that quite often. We would post mantras around the office, to remind us about the great journey we were on. We especially liked this Sean Penn quote about the process of filmmaking, “Even if it doesn’t end up in the film it definitely ends up in you.” We have gained such a rich story on this journey, and we’re eternally grateful for that.
8. Figure out your festival goals. What are you really looking for from festivals? People to see the film? Press? Distribution? All of the above? The big fests do get distributors to take notice, but others might be tougher. Reviews from press rarely happen, but some festivals were actually fantastic at that. Cleveland were incredible, and Santa Barbara got us great press, helped by the fact that we were nominated for an award. Go into the festival knowing what you want to get out of it.
9. Get people to your screenings. Somehow, in the rush to get our film finished in time for our premiere, we never stopped to consider the fact that we were expected to help get people to our screenings! We had never done this before, and just sort of thought that once our film was in a festival, the work was over. This is NOT the case. You’ll be reaching out to press, social media, people on the street — anyone you can think of to get to your screenings.
10. Know the distributors. We had some great responses from distributors but there are so many of them out there. A good place to start getting some info on this is the Stranger Than Fictions Docs list.
11. Build your audience. People are seeing your film! At every screening we attended, we would pass around a clipboard for every audience member to sign. Now we’ve built up a great email list for those towns to get the word out about the next phase of “Musicwood” events, from limited theatrical releases to iTunes. Also, you might meet some great advocates for your film, who will want to help promote it, put a star by those names.
12. Get noticed. Think about how to go the extra mile for your festival screenings to get noticed. And maybe don’t spread yourself too thin. Decide which you “must” go too. We were scheduled at three festivals at one time and we missed out on going to Sarasota. We wished we could have been there.
13. Connect with some outreach partners. Listen, our film is an adventure-filled journey, but it’s also a social issue documentary. Find some groups that have the same goals as your film and connect with them to get the word out. It’s a win-win! For us, both Rainforest Allaince and Greenpeace have been have been fantastic partners, helping us with press, showing up for Q&A’s, and offering moral support.
14. Keep the crowd-funding love going. We ran our Kickstarter campaign in the early days, mid-2011, and it was an instant community builder. We felt supported and found the people that would encourage us all the way through our festival run. It was wonderful meeting some of those early supporters at festivals along the way, some might even want to be ambassadors for your film, tap into that if you can.
15. Very young festivals will invite you, and they will have teething troubles. We love the DIY nature of young festivals but maybe say yes only if it’s part of your strategy, because every fest takes energy. For example, maybe it’s your hometown and there’s a real reason you want to attend. You do really want to attend as many of your screenings as possible as that causes buzz around the film, but only if it’s part of your strategy.
16. Think BIG. Notice I used “film” in my description above, as this is a feature film. It may be a documentary but it was made to be cinematic, with pacing and visuals designed for the big screen. Try and think big in your press releases and blog pieces. We wrote a press release for every town we visited. We had mixed success, sure, but it did get us in some big papers like the Chicago Sun-Times.
17. Watch the calendar. For example, do not schedule screenings or try and contact people in May — everyone and I mean EVERYONE is in Cannes. Except maybe us.
18. Do Q&As after the screenings. This seems like a no-brainer, but make sure the fests and theaters know that you will be there and doing Q&A’s. We saw a few tough spots (thankfully never with “Musicwood”) when the film ended and the audience left because no-one had mentioned there was a Q&A. Then when you’re doing that Q&A, tell stories about your film because people really engage with stories. They love those behind-the-scenes tales that offer funny or thrilling stories about making the film.
19. If you’re gonna tour with the film, put the tour together EARLY. We self-distributed for our theatrical screenings and we had three separate big tours with the film. First with film festivals, then music festivals (awesome!) then a theatrical screening tour in the Pacific Northwest, and now we’re just about to start in the Northeast. Because we couldn’t arrange all of our theatrical together in one month we had to do ad-hoc flights to cities, and this got very expensive. If you have the time and know that you will be doing a theatrical tour I would say start planning this straight after your premiere. Some filmmaker friends hired a van and took off around the country with their film, not a bad thought. Oh and if you know you’re going to need tea in the morning, always take a travel kettle!
20. Do full-week theatrical screenings when possible. Two of our theatrical screenings weren’t full weeks and that makes it hard to get press. In that case, it’s even more important to make a special event of it and attend, so think how you can do this in a way to make an impact. We would occasionally have guitarists play before a screening, or make the Q&A a panel with someone from our outreach partners. This helps with PR as well, because the other people involved will help promote the event.
21. DIY distribution is more than box office. The very big feature distributors know that the smaller, self-distributed films tend to be lukewarm at the box office. So think of unique ways of distributing. Be realistic and set yourself goals, otherwise you will wear yourself out on the wrong goals to pursue. We were lucky in being able to sign with Cinema Guild for our digital and educational distribution. With them handling those paths, we could focus on limited theatrical and generating PR.
22. Have a team! It’s the only way you can keep up with festival requests, press and outreach. Interns are wonderful things, talk to local schools or advertise on craigslist and get some help, even if it’s part-time. You are going to need it, because there are forms to be filled and materials to be created for every single screening, every single press request. We heard from a filmmaker friend who got an intern that proved her mettle and quickly became the film’s AP. Check in periodically to make sure your interns are getting what they want from the internship too, maybe build in some training days.
23. Before you arrive at any screening check the cinema size. We did a ton of outreach and PR for a screening at a festival without checking this and arrived to find out the screening theater was pretty small. Subsequently, we packed the room. If we’d thought to check ahead, we could have adjusted our efforts accordingly, or asked the festival to give us a larger room. Conversely, if you know you’ll be screening in a huge room, you can step up the press push.
24. Check in on ticket sales. Related to the above, it’s great to know how many tickets are selling before your screening to be able to gauge and adjust how hard you are pushing the screening. If things aren’t looking good, start offering free tickets to press folks. You might have to cover ticket costs but it’ll be worth it for PR.
25. Consider a sales agent. This is a tricky one, because we heard advice from both sides. Some folks said they wouldn’t have had any success without a sales agent. A significant filmmaker said they didn’t want to give up a cut of any income for something they were essentially doing themselves anyway (DIY!) but he had a huge reach as a filmmaker already. We didn’t work with a sales agent because we had some pretty good contacts with the TV world. But a few doors didn’t open for us and in hindsight a sales agent would have been great, bring them on EARLY! From a consultant we used (which was very helpful) we were told a sales agent would be more useful than PR at festivals, save the PR for when the public can access the film.
26. Try to cope with radio silence. Get ready for this chain of events to happen a lot: you reach out to someone about your film (could be a press outlet, cinema, festival, TV network). You get no response. You follow up. You get no response. Sometimes you might get an initial reply of encouragement, “send us something.” Then nothing. Then more nothing. Sometimes all you want is a no. But you don’t always get it. Don’t let that get you down.
27. Recognize you’re not alone. Just when you feel worn out and no one understands, read this line from Joe Berlinger at Sundance: “The best decision I made in preparing for Sundance occurred with my most recent experience with ‘Under African Skies’ when I decided that you can’t control the fate of your film, so I decided to actually enjoy the festival experience and to experience the work of my colleagues.”
28. Talk to other filmmakers, embrace the sense of community. Other filmmakers may have done some of this before and have invaluable advice about what to do, where to go, or what festivals they’ve loved. At one point, a filmmaker we’d befriended told us if you want to feel like a rock star and really get that buzz of “yeah I’m a filmmaker!,” go to Cleveland! So we did. And the Cleveland International Film Fest is simply the best, an absolute joy of a festival. We got major press, packed theaters, huge screens. And they make you feel like royalty. We’ll be back…we hope.
29. Don’t deal with any assholes. During the early days of our festival run, we attended a Q&A with actor & filmmaker John Lurie. He was incredibly entertaining and intelligent, and we managed to have a quick chat with him in a bar afterwards. As novice filmmakers, we asked him for one piece of advice as we began to get our film out into the world and without missing a beat he said, “Just don’t deal with any assholes.” Life is too short..
“Musicwood” opens in New York Nov 1st at the Quad Cinema