10 Things Every Film Festival Wants Filmmakers to Know

10 Things Every Film Festival Wants Filmmakers to Know

Although the viewpoint from filmmakers is that festival programming is as opaque as midnight fog, it is assuredly not the case when you speak to the festivals. They may be gatekeepers but they definitely do not want to lock you out of the process. To build a bridge between programmers & filmmakers, I offer some insights that I have gleaned from years of managing film festivals, programming the International Film Festival Summit and speaking to hundreds of programmers and festival directors.

1. Programmers love filmmakers. They want to discover your film because it is good for their festivals, not to mention their egos. One well known programmer revealed she views each premiere screening as potentially finding the next “Fruitvale Station.”

2. Don’t tell every festival you are waiting to hear from Sundance. It’s a bit like saying you’ll go on a date if your first choice says ‘no.’ Virtually every filmmaker believes that Sundance is the Holy Grail. Yet, filmmakers often have better audiences in regional festivals that embrace the film. Better to premiere at Austin Film Festival than be lost in a larger event. Surf movies do well in Maui, according to filmmaker Sam George, and garner a lot of media attention. This is particularly true for documentary filmmakers and genre festivals. For example, buyers do attend LGBT festivals looking for product to acquire.

3. There is no conspiracy against you. As much as filmmakers like to believe, there is no payola, payoff, conspiracy or edict against your film by the festivals. If you didn’t get it in, please don’t assume this. There are a multitude of reasons it may not be chosen. Don’t get paranoid about it.

4. Festival programming is a balancing act. Festival programmers have to balance a lot of competing interests. Distributors, audiences, formats, genre, timing, and balance are just some of what they must consider when choosing films. I personally would almost always select a local filmmaker’s film (i.e. Michael Corrente) all things being equal because he would get out the vote & make sense for our audience.

5. Don’t harass festival programmers. Programmers don’t mind hearing from you once in awhile  but please don’t make them seek a restraining order. I actually have encountered festivals that have had to do this when a film is rejected for lack of legal clearances. That is an altogether different issue.

READ MORE: Here Are 10 Things Filmmakers Want Festivals to Do

6. Don’t ask for a screening fee. The festival is already broke; the free marketing, publicity, awareness is all the love they can give. Use this opportunity to network, promote your film, leverage the publicist and create future collaborations. I have seen producers and directors connect at a festival and then strike deals, which is way better than any $500 screening fee.

7. Don’t take your screening time personally. Your screening time is based on a number of factors. Thus, everyone can’t have the Saturday night at eight o’clock slot. There is a method to this madness and programmers spend countless hours serving many masters to get it right. The fact is your experimental film, as groundbreaking as it may be, probably won’t appeal to the mainstream audience…yet. After programming a rather dark but brilliant closing film starring  Chiwetel Ejiofor (when half of the audience walked out in full view of the director), I learned this valuable lesson.

8. Behave yourself. Please don’t a) get drunk and make a scene at the hotel that the festival put you up in b) charge dinner, Grey Goose and room service to the festival c) steal the rental car that they provided. p.s. —  Yes, I have personally experienced all of the above.

9. Show some appreciation. Plan on making another film? Send a thank you note to the programmer after your showing. Show them the love. It goes a long way. No one exemplifies this better than first time director Chris Lowell who, after winning accolades at both Austin Film Festival & Mill Valley, sent flowers to the festivals’ staff.

10. Festivals cherish filmmakers. The festival is not the enemy. They love filmmakers — even if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes.

Laurie Kirby, Esq., president and CCO of the International Film &
Music Festival Conference, executes an
annual conference for film, music
festival and tech leaders and oversees a magazine publication LINEUP for
festival executives. A former attorney and former film festival
executive, Kirby is a consultant and frequent speaker at film festivals
and event conferences in areas that include event planning, nonprofit
management, distribution, celebrity relations, film production,
sponsorship, sports law, real estate and conservation law, grant
writing, licensing, social media and traditional marketing.

This Article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit and tagged ,


Comments

Gio

I once had dinner with a programmer. I have never met a more arrogant, vain, and pretentious individual. Mind you, I hold 3 BA degrees, make more money, and have had more life experience than the egotistical imperious *itch I was talking too. I thought I was in the presence of the Almighty Himself; however, I was just talking to a 33 year old under-educated feminist.

Michael

Sadly, I know someone who is a programmer for a very big festival. She is in charge of the short film program and freely admits that if a short film hasn't grabbed her attention in the first minute or two, she just shuts it off. So if your film has a slow build or isn't what she likes, oh well…

John Hancell

This is a badly written article.

David Brown

Here's my problem with the whole festival circuit, big and small. I have assisted in some festivals and I can tell you that most judges are clueless as to what quality is and what is not. The reality is that they might get 1000 submissions but can only exhibit 100 at max, and only have a few weeks to view these films before opening night. I got news for you, once the first 100 are filled the rest most likely will not even be viewed. But the festival collects none-refundable fees from all. Not fair you say? You're right! It's really like the Lotto; you hope that your film gets viewed as one of the 100 picks. If you have A-List or B-List talent in your film you override all of this of course. You're better off submitting your film to distributors directly. At least they don't charge to view it.

Brian Rose

Where are these festivals you speak of, because I've sure never encountered any like this. My last feature was accepted by two festivals. One festival screwed up and showed my work-in-progress screener DVD instead of the final piece. Another festival accepted my film, and then when I flew halfway across the country for the premiere, they announced that due to a venue snafu they had no place to show it. The programmer even had the nerve to complain that I didn't promote the film adequately, and they thought I would be supplying the audience. The f*ck? They then took 8 months to refund my entry fee, and only after I started writing their sponsors about my experience, and posted my story on their facebook page. (By the way, the offending festival was the DC Independent Film Festival…avoid like the plague).

My experience has been most festivals do a piss poor job of promotion. They pocket fees from filmmakers who worked their asses off and just want a chance to get their work seen, and they all just get a damn form letter.

Filmmakers and festivals should be a team, a symbiotic relationship, and instead it's a parasitic one…unless you're fortunate enough to have an "in" with the festival programmer, or you're an A-lister making his/her directorial debut with an "indie" film budgeted at "only" three or four million, featuring all your A-list buddies working for scale.

It's a corrupt system, and my dream is to become notable enough as a documentary filmmaker that I can get funded through foundations, I can get shown on PBS, and I can tell festivals to f*ck off.

Bob

If a festival can't afford to pay for the films it screens it needs a new business model. Festivals have access to advertising revenue and sponsorship dollars that filmmakers do not. If the festival has a policy not to pay people for their work, the filmmaker can decide whether or not to accept the invitation. To suggest that they are obliged to give their work away for free is insulting, and de-values the artist's work – the one you claim to "cherish." This list does not give that impression.

Matt

"if you aren't comfortable with a film festival, can't you just opt out? Nope."

Disagree. So many options these days for getting your film seen, it's ridiculous.

Calamity Jones

As a filmmaker who got to attend dozens of festivals in the past year with my film, I consider myself fortunate and grateful for the experience. But there are plenty of things we would love to tell you….

1) Thank you. Your job is certainly hard and thank you, seriously, for providing this service.
2) Offer travel support. When you say you don't have enough money for travel expenses but you show our film 3 times to over 800 people, many of who bought tickets, it's hard not to feel a bit used. And when we meet other filmmakers that you paid for their travel expenses, we know where stand on the totem pole. I say this having been on both sides of it.
3) Pay screening fees. Related to #2. Films aren't free to make and most of us don't make any money off of them. If our own industry doesn't support us, why should we expect small theaters, community screenings, and individuals to pay for their content. (Yes this goes for you Sundances and SXSWs out there. We know you are big but thats no reason to skimp on filmmaker support)
4) Don't do that. Don't go up to a group of filmmakers and gush all over the one who's film you like best. Each festival has their favorites and sometimes its my film, but we are all professionals and no ones is THAT much better than anyone else there. Also don't go up to two filmmakers, one of which you like better and heap praises on her for premiering at TriBeCa and all of those festivals she has travelled to while ignoring the other filmmaker who premiered at SXSW and has screened in many more festivals -because this happened. Not that its a competition, but you should acknowledge all filmmakers success and contributions or don't acknowledge any.
5) Don't be predictable. We all know you want to be one of the festivals that screened the big films of the year, but it's frustrating to see 60% of each festival being the same films as the last one. Sure it's nice to be one of those films, but it also shuts out a lot of other great films that deserve some exposure.
7) Don't get a big head. For you smaller festivals, keep in mind you are just one of literally thousands of smaller festivals (just like our films are one of thousands). Sure you might be the biggest thing in your population, 50,000 town, but please don't act pompous or act like we are lucky to be included your festival, its embarrassing for you when you do this.
8) Don't burn bridges. Not all filmmakers (especially first time filmmakers) are going to stop making films after this one. So invest in newer filmmakers instead of treating them like anomalies. It might make the difference between them wanting to make another film and moving on to something else.

Jon

11. Even if you get accepted, don't quit your day job.

dialogue coach

On the topic of festivals, IndieWire could acknowledge the rivalry among regional festivals that filmmakers are forced to internalize and reconcile. How about an honest appraisal of the influence that film festival stakeholders have over programming decisions. What about the delusions that regional festivals maintain about their identity (for example, that arbitrary need to have the word "premiere" next to a title) in order to appeal to sponsors, or the press and industry who won't be there anyway.

Festivals are not a service to filmmakers. We actually support film festivals with back-breaking work. We would do well to understand what we are supporting: start with the structure of the organization, its goals and cultural mission. Is it in line with your film work and your values? Where are the conflicts-of-interest in the organization?

The frustrations that people feel about film festivals are rooted in reality: that festivals most often pretend to be something that they're not. Festivals bring people through the door, whether through submissions or ticket sales with an egalitarian ideal that they ultimately must compromise. A filmmaker's anxiety may look like the obnoxious insecure behavior of a neophyte to this author or to a festival programmer; but don't ignore that it's rooted in a valid anxiety which film festivals create. I mean, if a film festival is a profit-making enterprise selling overpriced tickets while fueling the effort with massive sponsorships, inflated egos and social events, as many are, well . . . that organization has brought this reaction upon itself. Add to this any list of complaints and activities that have nothing to do with film.

But as a filmmaker if you aren't comfortable with a film festival, can't you just opt out? Nope. Filmmakers don't have a choice but to apply to every film festival. And no doubt, we're subjected to all manner of vagaries and rejection through this process. The festival landscape is a filter that's full with conflict. And this article tries to soften that, but why? Acknowledge it and face it honestly.

Filmmakers, once you're at the venue, get to know one another, make friends, find the like minds, and challenge each other, and be challenged; and find the festivals that you want to call home because you see the potential for mutual support in the long term. Festivals have a vital role in providing touch-points for the creative community and for providing instances of dialogue between filmmakers, and filmmakers and audiences.

The festival directors, the parent organizations, the staff, must maintain this primary responsibility to the filmmakers and the audiences. I know that it's hard to keep a focus on this, given the balancing act you have to maintain, and the basic nature of an economic exchange which lies at the root of every film festival. But as film festival leaders, this is your responsibility to us. If you can't hack it, get out. Stop trying to flip your problems onto the filmmakers. We've done our part.

Here's my offering:

1. Programmers love filmmakers and filmmakers love programmers.

2. Be honest with every festival. Who cares. Everyone knows you're waiting for Sundance . . . for obvious reasons.

3. There is a conspiracy, it's called popularity. Festivals need it too.

4. Understand and engage with the undisclosed parts of the festival balancing act. It can be very ugly, get to know it.

5. Get to know the programmers and be normal with them. They are good people.

6. Get a screening fee every chance you can. You deserve it.

7. Fight for the best screening time you can get. This is the most important aspect of your festival success–and the programmers and the festival know this. As does the author of this article. It just may not be at the time you think it is. Early morning or mid-afternoon can be good in the right venue. Engage with the festival about this in a real way.

8. Have as much fun and get as drunk as possible. This is where the best deals are done and the relationships are created. After all, it's called a "festival". . . get crazy, as long as you aren't hurting anyone, fair game.

9. Become friends with the festival, and they'll know your appreciation is sincere.

10. See above.

matt

I'm still waiting for sundance to at least acknowledge they got rid of the "NEXT" section.
It started out as a section where unconnected , truely low budget movies can have a chance- Yet this year it was budget in the millions, connected producers and stars ( just like the rest of Sundance) – so out of 14000 submissions filmmakers thought they were competeing for 7 spots when in reality it was 0 spots. All about pedigree.

If we had known that the "next" section had morphed ( something an outlet like Indiwire should have noticed) we would have saved that submission fee for a fest that would watch blind submissions-

john

I'm very frustrated with festivals right now. My film received good reviews from many indie film websites; however, I've submitted it to over 35 and haven't been accepted to one, yet when I book theatres myself and take the movie on tour, I not only have full houses and audiences who enjoy the film, I make money. The entry fees are getting too high to make it worth submitting, and really when festivals get over 5 thousand submissions (or insert your number here) what's the point? Plus, many of the regional festivals that rejected my film ended up showing work that was clearly inferior by other regional filmmakers, but was more "commercial" (dumb romantic comedies or Tarentino knock-offs). With my next movie, I don't see film festival participation at all – and maybe that's something more lower/mid-level indie filmmakers need to consider; then perhaps festivals and their programmers will give more thought into supporting work made on a shoe-string budget with no stars.

GLV

10 THINGS FILMMAKERS WANT FESTIVALS TO KNOW

1. Filmmakers love themselves: We know that if one of you programmers pulled your head out of your ass long enough to see us for the geniuses we are really are then the world will become a better place for everyone.

2. Don't tell us your festival is better for us than Sundance: Unless you are flying us in a private jet plane and putting us up in a villa overlooking a crystal clear body of water that locals believe to be the fountain of youth. And after our screening, which is obviously opening and closing night of your festival, you will encourage the entire audience to lift us on their shoulders and carry us through the streets chanting our name and vowing to never watch another film besides ours again.

3. There IS a conspiracy against us and you are obviously part of it: Unless of course you are programmers of Sundance and you accepted our film or you do as requested in number 2.

4. Balancing Act Shmalancing Act: Just program our film already. And if you don't, it means you didn't like it and we deeply mistrust your taste and worth as a human being. Frankly it scares us that one person with such little sense would be given such power over our lives and the state of art in the world. We recommend that you give up your career as a film festival programmer and take on profession like gymnastic or tightrope walking which utilize yours skills at balancing that you are always yammering on about.

5. We only harass you to make you a better person: Face it, if we are harassing you it is because you have made an awful decision and we are deeply concerned about the effect your decisions will have on your life and those around you. Think of it as an intervention, although you might not know you need help, you do. So that's why we are calling you at 3 am…it'€™s to save you from yourself. And if you don't care about yourself then do it for the children.

6. Please give us all your money and your house: Chances are if we are applying to your festival, we are poor and barely have a pot to piss in. If you don't own a house, please buy one, preferably the villa mentioned above, and give it to us. Thank you.

7. We take our Screening time very personally: We are very sensitive souls, so in order to avoid hurting our feelings, just program our film for the entire festival.

8. Behave ourselves?: Is that what they tell Justin Bieber (unfortunately he's the most badass musician I can think of these days) when he's in town for a show? We made the f*****g film that is going to make your f*****g festival! So if we want to drink glasses full of LSD and recarpet the hallways with our underwear before we turn our hotel room into a champagne hot tub, then you better well let us or we are going to start harassing you even worst than we did when you rejected our films from your miserable, no fun at all film festival. Except this time we will be hallucinating heavily and will not be wearing underwear.

9. Show some appreciation: You can start by sending us flowers everyday for the rest of our lives. That is the least you can do considering we just screened our film at 5:30 am at your festival that is not Sundance, for no screening fees and we weren't even allowed to one take beer from the hotel room mini-bar.

10. If you cherish us so much please stop writing these lists: And as I've proven above you ARE the enemy and we will treat you accordingly.

GLV

10 THINGS FILMMAKERS WANT FESTIVALS TO KNOW

1. Filmmakers love themselves: We know that if one of you programmers pulled your head out of your ass long enough to see us for the geniuses we are really are then the world will become a better place for everyone.

2. Don't tell us your festival is better for us than Sundance: Unless you are flying us in a private jet plane and putting us up in a villa overlooking a crystal clear body of water that locals believe to be the fountain of youth. And after our screening, which is obviously opening and closing night of your festival, you will encourage the entire audience to lift us on their shoulders and carry us through the streets chanting our name and vowing to never watch another film besides ours again.

3. There IS a conspiracy against us and you are obviously part of it: Unless of course you are programmers of Sundance and you accepted our film or you do as requested in number 2.

4. Balancing Act Shmalancing Act: Just program our film already. And if you don't, it means you didn't like it and we deeply mistrust your taste and worth as a human being. Frankly it scares us that one person with such little sense would be given such power over our lives and the state of art in the world. We recommend that you give up your career as a film festival programmer and take on profession like gymnastic or tightrope walking which utilize yours skills at balancing that you are always yammering on about.

5. We only harass you to make you a better person: Face it, if we are harassing you it is because you have made an awful decision and we are deeply concerned about the effect your decisions will have on your life and those around you. Think of it as an intervention, although you might not know you need help, you do. So that's why we are calling you at 3 am…it’s to save you from yourself. And if you don't care about yourself then do it for the children.

Daniel Delago

Good advice and so true about young filmmakers believing that Sundance is the be-all and end-all film festival. Even from a film critic's point of view, I find the smaller, boutique festivals a less chaotic and more enjoyable experience. The wait-list system for obtaining tickets at Sundance makes you feel like a herd of cattle. Robert Redford even states that Sundance has turned into a monster.

MRandall

Someone should start a festival or add to an existing festival a grouping of a selection of great films that were rejected by other festivals that are known to be political in their selection/rejection.

MRandall

Your tips seem very much like those of an author of a book on film festival secrets. He recently got a job at the Atlanta Film Festival, so his strategy worked. Trouble is, he was billing himself as a consultant to filmmakers the whole time he was applying for jobs at festivals. Unethical conflict of interest. Also many alleged reviewers of his book suspiciously slammed a competing book. In the interest of more full disclosure, do you have anything to share, Laurie? You clearly are writing from the same perspective he did. Change title to "10 Things Some Film Festivals Want Filmmakers To Believe". SXSW in particular sends out a very arrogant rejection letter, and they are not even number one.

I volunteer pre-screened for a major LGBT film festival. Due to politics, no doubt, the best Gay film I ever saw was not even selected by them despite the fact I gave it my only 5 out of 5 stars and that they select for screening over half of the films submitted to them. It went on to screen at major straight and gay festivals around the world and won audience awards. The same director just finished his first feature film and it has already screened or been selected by festivals around the world including Berlinale and Tribecca as well as other major European festivals. I'm sure he won't hold a grudge but if I were him I would not let this festivals be the film's US LGBT premiere. What advice would you give festivals that don't select the best films and show garbage instead?

Josephine David

I have been a festival coordinator for many editions of few festivals. I certainly agree with all the points. I am a supporter of film makers and strongly recommend that the film maker must ask for screening fee only if their film is invited by a festival programmer.

Laurie

Stay tuned. I will turn the table on festivals (so to speak) next week with what Festivals Need to Know about Filmmakers. I don't have all the answers (obviously) but better understanding between festivals & filmmakers begets better collaboration.

FP

I really want to make it clear that I agree with much of content and purpose of this piece. However, a few points irk me:

– Flowers? Seriously? If my team was flown in, received the rental car, meals, hotel for free, then I could see it. That saves us the cost of all of it, so even though we're already broke as it is, a nice bouquet seems fine, if overkill. If a festival doesn't do all that (and since we shouldn't even ask for a fee, even though programmers have literally said the opposite to me and others), aren't such levels of unnecessary flattery yet another cost we're being asked to undertake? I've found that a simple and plaintive email or letter can do the same as such a gift. Can we agree not to ask poor indie filmmakers to extend themselves even further, especially to those programmers you claim love us already?

– The conspiracy theories that creative people make up about festivals come from one thing – unless they're truly off the wall and think their mini DV epic short is the next Von Trier – programmers and directors who are incapable of recognizing the efficiency of a gentler rejection notice. Some of the major fests don't bother to offer more than one paragraph that are self-congratulatory about how many more submissions came in this year. If the last film cut doesn't even merit a "we really tried, but couldn't find room in the schedule," then it's no wonder people freak out. That part has to be owned by festival staff who don't differentiate chancers from those who barely missed out, or worse, don't even bother with that one paragraph email. It creates ideas in people's heads, and most films are personal. Rejection of your personal story will engender ire, so mitigating it seems so much easier.

On that final point, you may also want to let the world know that Sundance programmers openly brag at festival panels how they print out egregious responses to rejections and post them on a wall in their offices. Which begs the question, which offense is worse?

N

Film festivals are a questionable endeavour.
You charge the filmmaker to enter.
They think they are competing for a certain number of spots but after the executive directors wife's film takes a premium slot there are only a handful of places left.
Your film does get accepted.
The festival charges the public to see the film.
You get nothing.
And if you're lucky the film will screen through a beautiful new digital projector, but you'll have to pay another two grand for the DCP.
The majority of festivals are a business capitalising on the wealthy's crap ego project.

Cornelius Dubois

While I don't think there's a conspiracy against filmmakers, I do think their is a culture among festival screening committees vying for the friends' films, regardless of merit, at the expense of others. Nothing wrong with it, cause it's a community, but it just seems to happen and someone always comes up on the short end of the stick.

I'd like if there were some sort of supplemental online component to film festivals, where quality work that there wasn't room for is available to stream for a limited time.

I think showing appreciation is a great tip, and I will be sure to do that in the future.

M

I disagree with two points. There are only a handful of festivals that occur post-Sundance that may let a filmmaker know they were accepted before Sundance. If that festival is offended b/c you are waiting on Sundance, that's idiotic. It's a business decision, not a creative one. Every film has a better chance of finding a wider audience if it premieres at a top tier festival like Sundance. You'll even have a better festival run if your premiere is at Sundance. It's as simple as that.

Secondly, there's absolutely no harm in asking for screening fees, unless you know full well that the festival doesn't provide them. If a festival is offended b/c you simply asked, that festival was not worth playing anyways. Most of the festivals I've played at have said no to this, but there was absolutely no harm in asking. Some of the other festivals I've received screening fees from (sometimes as little as $50) only give out screening fees to those who ask. And that $50 was absolutely appreciated given the financial state one can be in when traveling the circuit.

Giulio Vita

Thank you so much for this article. This is exactly what we want to tell to all the filmmakers we deal with.

@La_Guarimba

H

Laurie has spoken to hundreds of programmers and festival directors, now she needs to speak to filmmakers to hear the other side.

H

And now for "10 Things Every Filmmaker Wants Every Film Festival to Know"

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