As the director of The Portland Film Festival, I was recently invited to speak on a panel with other festival organizers called, “Maximizing Your Film’s Success on the Festival Circuit.”
To prepare my presentation, I reached out to colleagues from other festivals to ask for their tips on how filmmakers can get the most out of their film festival experience during every step of the process. I compiled some of their tips below:
1. Do your research before applying.
“Research the past programming of the festivals you intend to submit to. No use submitting to festivals who aren’t interested in your type of film.” – Alan LaFave, Hell’s Half Mile Film & Music Festival
“Research the festivals that seem to make sense for your film. Check out the festival’s website and previous programs. Ask other filmmakers what festivals they think would be a good match for your particular film.” – Shannon Franklin, Naples International Film Festival
“Find out how many films are selected through blind submissions versus selected by invitation. This will give you a sense of what you are up against. If the festival can’t share this information there’s a good chance you are wasting a submission fee.” – Peter Baxter, Slamdance
2. Don’t submit until you’re absolutely sure your film is done.
“Make sure you’ve made the best film you can BEFORE you start submitting to festivals.” – Christopher Holland, Atlanta Film Festival
3. Spend time perfecting your title and description.
“No more titles like ‘Mother’ and ‘Box’ and ‘The Gift’… They’re not archetypal, they’re bland and forgettable — and I keep seeing more films with those same names coming in every year.” – Sven Bonnichsen, NW Animation Film Festival
“Work that description! Don’t just give me a plot summary; give me words that describe the genre, the tone, the feel. Sell me on why I want to see this film.” – Michael Dunaway, Sarasota Film Festival
4. Have a festival strategy in mind before you apply.
“Always have a real plan for what you want to do with your movie—find a film whose festival strategy you admire and emulate it. Apply to the same festivals your model did, build relationships there, etc.” – Tom Hall, Montclair Film Festival
“Know your ultimate goal for going to festivals. Research the festivals you want to attend and see if they fit into your festival strategy.” – Anne Chaisson, Hamptons International Film Festival
5. Don’t take rejection personally. And be a good sport.
“Don’t take a rejection as a reflection on your work; sometimes a really good film just doesn’t fit well into a given year’s program.” – Michael Dunaway, Sarasota Film Festival
“If you get rejected, and the notice comes via an email from an actual programmer, I would recommend swallowing your pride and replying with a short note thanking them for watching your film and wishing them the best of luck with their upcoming festival prep. And, if that’s too difficult, at least don’t shoot back a scathing indictment of the programming team and its taste.” – Brad Wilke, Seattle International Film Festival
“Film Festivals are about community not about winning or being accepted. Red Rock once had a filmmaker who was not accepted; so we approached the director to allow us to show the film as part of a ‘worst of’ screening. The filmmaker entertained the idea and submitted another film a couple of years later that ended up winning at the festival. Moral: Whether it’s your direction, storytelling, an actor or just your professionalism; your work can be remembered. It’s all how you play the game.” – Matt Marxteyn, Red Rock Film Festival
6. Leverage social media.
“If possible, maintain an active (and positive) social media presence before and while attending the festival.” – Brad Wilke, Seattle International Film Festival
7. Support your fellow filmmakers.
“Try to be a cheerleader for fellow filmmakers in your program. Yes, there might be a competition, but you will end up crossing paths many times more should you all continue to make movies, so get those relationships off on the right foot. There might be one or two winners, but the only real losers are people who don’t make authentic connections with other up-and-coming filmmakers.” – Brad Wilke, Seattle International Film Festival
8. Be nice.
“Communicate. Answer emails. Keep deadlines. Be nice.” – Deidre Haj, Full Frame Doc Fest
“Be nice to festival organizers—they work their asses off for no pay so that people can see your film. I’m sure most festivals would say that they take an objective look at all the films and their relationship with the filmmakers isn’t part of the decision. But I’ll just throw it out there—I like to show films by people who I think are doing good things in the world = with their films and their lives. Nice people should finish first. They do at Cucalorus. Oh yeah, except we don’t give awards, so no first places.” – Dan Brawley, Cucalorus Film Festival.
9. Stay in touch.
“Keep in touch with the festival after it is over. If your film goes on to win awards or distribution, or there is a good interview or article about you, email your Festival and let them know. There’s a good chance they will post it on their website/Facebook page and give you some more exposure. They also will be interested in seeing your future work and may be able to help you network.” – Steffanie L Finn, Winter Film Awards and 48 Hour Film Festival