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.
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.