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by Laurie Kirby
April 8, 2014 3:50 PM
27 Comments
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Here Are 10 Things Filmmakers Want Festivals to Do

Santa Barbara International Film Festival

The torrential feedback to last week's article 10 Things Every Film Festival Wants Filmmakers to Know warrants a response from filmmakers. As festivals know, filmmakers are the true heart and sole of a film festival. During my tenor with festivals,  I have spoken to, or consulted with, hundreds of filmmakers. In the spirit of helping festivals understand filmmakers and with homage to Law & Order, these are their (and my) stories. 


1. Be transparent. Festivals should provide filmmakers with a timeline, genre guidelines, clear submission guidelines, festival formats and prizes on their web site or wherever submissions are posted. If a waiver of the submission fee is possible under certain circumstances, explain. If a screening fee is available, let them know how they are eligible. Don't go MIA and be unavailable for filmmaker questions leading up to the festival.

2. Give Feedback. Rejecting a film? If possible, provide some feedback on why the film was rejected. Typically, filmmakers have paid to be considered for the festival. A helpful tip on why a project was rejected might help improve their odds next time around. When asked to review films, I tell the filmmaker up front I will be completely honest for what it's worth (and it's only one gal's opinion). They are universally appreciative of the feedback. A programmer once told me he wouldn't provide feedback because he didn't have time while another indicated that if she had the time, she would always do so (even over the phone, just not the week before the festival). Guess who has a better relationship with filmmakers in the industry?

3. Roll out the Welcome Wagon.  Let filmmakers know you appreciate them and prepare them for the festival by giving them a program in advance.  Share their press kit with media and help them to arrange interviews.  Filmmakers sure love it when they show up and are handed a schedule of parties, screening times, Q&As, and special networking events (and maybe even a driver to take them there!). At the very least, filmmakers deserve lodging. If you can't afford to offer it, get it donated (people love to have filmmakers stay with them and it builds great loyalty to the filmmaker and the festivals). They are guests in your hamlet, so treat them as you would wish to be treated -- only better. 

4. Get the Word Out. Empty theater syndrome -- Just the thought of an empty theater sends chills down my spine. You could hear a pin drop, if a tree falls in a forest, you get the idea. All of the programmers reading this are cringing right now. It's the surprise party where no one shows up. It is unfair, and often avoidable. Since we all know it happens occasionally, at least do your best to prevent it: 1) Don't hold your festival for a full week if no one comes to Tuesday morning screenings  2) If it's too late for #1, use social media, your publicist, street teams and bribes with free tickets (had to do that when a certain cult filmmaker showed up to his screening after being told he wouldn't be there) to fill the seats 3) don't bail on the filmmaker while he or she is experiencing this, but rethink what you missed in your calculations. I tried to convince a large, two week long festival that it was..well, too long. The director argued that he wanted to show all these films so he had content but no audience. One clever director took a large ad in the local paper advertising his film and sold it out three times.

"Just the thought of an empty theater sends chills down my spine."

5. Manage Expectations. Turn a Sow's Ear into a Silk Purse aka Make the best of a situation. For instance, when "empty theater syndrome" happened, a new doc filmmaker and the small audience bonded about the issue addressed in the film; namely autism. We warned the director that the reception would be intimate and we programmed it in a very small theater. By managing expectations, the filmmaker was delighted with the quality of the reception and he wound up with a committed donor and advocate. 

6. Be Kind.  Be kind when you reject filmmakers, be kind when you invite filmmakers, be kind when you pick them up, house them, see them at a party, pick their screening time and well, you get it. And please don’t knock them over to get to the Sundance filmmaker or star of the moment at your event. Film producer and festival programmer Ted Hope advises festivals to take a filmmaker to dinner. Filmmaker Michael Farrell implores that they "treat filmmakers like guests who accomplished something rather than lucky to be there." Remember, it costs you nothing to be kind (even if it cost you something to bring them there). Give filmmakers every opportunity to network within the industry and they will buzz about your festival. They'll be sure to spread the word about the festivals that took care of them and showed them a good time -- and those who didn't. A well-respected programmer who worked for the festival I ran once taught me that what matters most is how you treat the filmmakers. She is a now very important executive with a  preeminent festival and deservedly so. 

7. Get the Technical Stuff Right. Format, print traffic, projection - Measure twice-cut once.This is one that still gives me nightmares. After implementing a backup system with a back up to the back up system, the projectionist was unable to project Alex Gibney's stunning film (that went on to win an Academy Award), "Taxi to the Dark Side" at a festival I produced. We wound up projecting it on a DVD player (ugh) so be sure your films work on whatever format it is and that you have backups, key codes sorted and films pretested.  We once kept Nick Nolte and the film's director waiting for an hour in a limo (driving all over Newport to take them "sight seeing" because the print hadn’t arrived. A helicopter delivery where we grabbed the print off the tarmac illustrated the need to implement better measures for print traffic control. Filmmakers deserve to have their films shown on time, in the correct aspect ratio and with proper sound (need I remind you, they always want it turned up).

8. Acknowledge Sundance. Sundance -- The elephant in the theater. Everybody talks about Sundance but nobody does anything about it. All (yes, all) filmmakers want to be accepted there and festivals (many) want to be Sundance but the reality is, only Sundance is Sundance -- and the rest of us are not. Let's just get on with it and not focus on the "S" word.

9. Support the Film Community. And the point is- "It's important for filmmakers and producers and programmers to remember this: we're all on the same team. We are a community of artists, coming together to celebrate movies for the sake of movies. We are all going out of our way to try and give life to independent cinema. And that’s a beautiful goal. In other words, filmmakers are willing to bet the farm on their vision and programmers are willing to sift through 6,000 films a year with the hopes of finding a few gems."  Says who? Filmmaker Chris Lowell, an up and comer who is experiencing the circuit for the first-time. Good advice!

10. Have Fun. This Festival May Be Your Last.  Unfortunately, many film festivals and many filmmakers only get one bite at the apple (in other words, failure rates are high). When I say failure, there is only one film screened and/or only one festival produced. Why? Another article (cut to cliffhanger) and a multitude of reasons. That said, we are all very privileged to be in this industry because it was by design, not chance. Most filmmakers I interviewed to research this article expressed incredible gratitude for their chance to be screened at festivals and appreciated the hard work that goes into producing a festival (filmmakers are producers on a tight budget too). Or as filmmaker Katina Dunn puts it, "Festivals do a great job under grueling circumstances."

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.

27 Comments

  • Birgitte Stærmose | April 21, 2014 7:30 PMReply

    Good with some discussion of the festival business. I usually say that inviting a filmmaker to your festival is no different from inviting a guest to your house. You greet them, you talk with them, you introduce them to some other people you have invited over and you make sure that they get something to eat and that they are comfortable. Otherwise maybe do not invite the guest over. How about adding to the list: when you give an award to a film in the festival you notify the filmmaker. It has happened to me several times that I was not notified, and not just at smaller understaffed festivals.

  • HELPMATE | April 14, 2014 8:45 AMReply

    We need to thank Charles Judson and NOTANARTIST who, for lack of self-consciousness and in the spirit of self-celebration, have disrobed here and displayed arts administrator vanity and arrogance at its finest.

    And to think we're paying, or at least were paying, their salaries.

  • Charles Judson | April 17, 2014 12:57 PM

    It's not arrogance. Festivals should be providing filmmakers the services and support they need. If you're paying the fees, there should be something you get in return. Filmmakers have the right to not only demand that, they also have the right to be vocal when what festivals are offering don't match what filmmakers want or need.

    It is arrogance to ignore that to provide those services require infrastructure. That infrastructure could be built for little to no cost, but it wouldn't likely service many, or last long. If you want to make things better for filmmakers, its not enough to ask film festivals to change. You to know how film festivals work and ask how can you change them from the inside. If we get rid of fees, how do support the submission process? It's very possible there is a solution to that answer. Ranting and raving isn't going to get you to that solution. If you'd like to be posting about my arrogance again in five years, continue to make statements, and not ask questions and truly hold festivals accountable. Asking film festivals, do you need screening fees, what do you screening fees is a good place to start. If festivals can't answer that question honestly, with transparency, there's a problem. Another question to ask, is it the fees that are the problem? Filmmakers that feel shut out point to fees as the problem. They aren't the problem. You can get rid of fees, that won't mean more unknowns will be discovered. So the question to be asked is, are we doing enough to discover and support unknown talent? That's the goal. The fees maybe an obstacle, but tearing them down without options to achieve that wouldn't benefit anyone.

    So you call it arrogance. I call it being pragmatic, so I stay focused on what really matters.

    And if you think I'm being arrogant, I'm wondering why you aren't encouraging filmmakers who say they can make money on their own without festivals to do that. We've actually done that. Filmmakers who were doing well, would call and ask our advice. We'd tell them to stick with what's working. Film festival are only one part of the film scene. They are not the entire film scene.

  • Yaron Yarkoni | April 9, 2014 1:42 PMReply

    Not only do I find myself spilling my guts and funda into my films I then have to pay for submission and hope and pray that a festival will accept me. The beurocracy is never ending the wait is nerve wrecking and in the end u have to write the festival and remind them to send resulta. What are we paying for in the first place? Where is the strive for original voices and innovation? Seems to me the whole system is dimented.

  • Hisko Hulsing | April 9, 2014 9:45 AMReply

    In addition to the points made about Technical Stuff , I would like to mention one very important thing. Most festivals are probably delighted that they don't have to pay for traffic of 35mm prints anymore, but what has replaced it is not reliable at all.
    DCP is the only reliable digital format I know of.
    With any other digital format, like Quicktime Pro Res or MP4, one can never tell how the colors will look like. I can tell, because my film Junkyard has been shown on over 100 filmfestivals, so I have seen it all pass by. Washed out colors are the biggest problem (it has to do with the color profiles, but it's hard to tell what profiles are being used). DCP is always correct.
    Maybe I should not complain, because my film was very succesful and won lots of awards, but I have had many sleepless nights about the projection of my film.
    As you mentioned in your article, sound is the other potential disaster. Directors should always have the opportunity to either test or else have the volume changed during the screening. Especially in short programmes, where every film has a different mix.

  • Ant | April 9, 2014 8:37 AMReply

    DVD screeners - Why do so many festivals still not consider online screeners and will only watch a disc? Unnecessarily costly and time-consuming.

  • Mike | April 8, 2014 11:31 PMReply

    I feel getting "notes" from a programmer on why your film isn't accepted is quite problematic to me. There are MANY programmers out there who don't know much about cinema or anything about the current state of things, so for them to "give notes" to a filmmaker on why they didn't accept their film is very troubling to me. Especially because some young filmmakers (old ones too) may go and re-cut their films based on the notes of some dim wit who knows nothing more or less than anyone else. Just my two cents.

  • BRANDON | April 10, 2014 1:42 PM

    I pretty much agree on this point-- I don't think that Festivals should give feedback, regardless of whether or not the filmmakers are asking for it. In my experience programming at Festivals, plenty of people do ask for feedback when their films are rejected, and while I am happy to give it in some instances, it generally just doesn't feel right. The job of a festival is to present the work of independent filmmakers, and the great thing about independent film is that it's coming from a pure, unfettered place. I don't want someone to re-cut their original vision just to tailor it to what one specific festival might be interested in. Even if the Programmer in question actually knows how to make the film better, it isn't his or her job to tell someone what to do with their movie. Furthermore, giving honest feedback will quite often open up a whole can of worms. I've had filmmakers insist that I give them notes, then argue with me about why I'm wrong. It just isn't worth it at the end of the day. I think Festivals should simply be upfront and clear about the fact that a submission fee doesn't entitle the submitter to feedback in the (most likely) event that the film isn't accepted. In my experience, only a small percentage of filmmakers who demand feedback are actually open to receiving an honest opinion, and I've had instances where I gave someone feedback after a rejection, then had to reject the film again the next year after they re-cut it based on my notes. Giving feedback is just a lose-lose scenario for all parties involved.

  • Laurie | April 9, 2014 6:10 PM

    It's only if you ask for it as some filmmakers do.

  • Jon | April 8, 2014 11:07 PMReply

    It's been said there are too many films. Well, there are to many festivals. Festivals should be something special, not something for everyone. It's like if you can't get into a festival, just run one yourself.

    Also, how about the fact that press/sales agents can get you into a festival regardless of how crappy your film is? You want to get screened? Just grease the right palms, baby.

  • Doug | April 8, 2014 9:31 PMReply

    Pretty softball stuff. This reads like a festival consultant imagining what filmmakers want festivals to do, not what filmmakers really want festivals to do.

  • Laurie | April 8, 2014 11:12 PM

    As it were, as much as you might not believe it, I did ask many, many filmmakers their opinions (and have so over the last 15 years) and, besides a few disgruntled filmmakers that had concerns about disorganized festivals, it was not as combative as you might project (in the psychological sense) it to be.

  • Christen Kimbell | April 8, 2014 10:49 PM

    I don't know, they named the thing I desire most, which is communication. If you're spending several hundred dollars a month in a film fest fees, it's kind to at least get notification whether you're in or not. And the few kind souls who give feedback are my favorites.

  • ThickSkin | April 8, 2014 5:51 PMReply

    I don't want anything from the festival except "Okay, you're in.", or "We hate it...stop making films."

  • Filmmaker | April 8, 2014 5:36 PMReply

    'This year 6,500 were submitted' to one film festival. How does that work? How much money is that? How much time is that? How many reviewers is that? How fair is that? And, ummm, how possible is that?

  • JT | April 8, 2014 5:17 PMReply

    Thank you Student Filmmaker for adding the two things that drive me crazy about festivals. You beat me to it.

    Not getting told you're rejected is bad enough (and more common than it should be), but I've had several situations where, like you Student Filmmaker, a festival screened my feature and I NEVER heard a word from the festival. Found out either after the festival was over or by someone seeing the film listed on the festival's web site. Who knows where they got the exhibition copy from.

    And yes, I've had my feature programmed opposite the opening night party. Was told it was the only spot available. Any surprise the audience numbered in the single digits? I'd rather just not have been programmed thank you.

    I honestly don't care why my film is rejected. The film is finished and I'm not going to spend more money to re-cut it based on what some programmer tells me. If one programmer doesn't connect with it, fine. Another one will. I've spent enough time around programmers to know that not all of them know what they're talking about.

    And please don't send me an email saying that you really wanted to screen it but just had so many great films to choose from and it didn't make the final cut. I know you think it sounds encouraging, but it's actually more disappointing than a plain vanilla rejection.

  • helpmate | April 8, 2014 4:54 PMReply

    Here's another suggestion. Reject absolutely the idea that

    "It's important for filmmakers and producers and programmers to remember this: we're all on the same team. We are a community of artists"

    Whether the filmmakers are artists or not is for the public to decide, but festival programmers are not artists. Producers are not artists. Attorneys are not artists. The sooner the entrepreneurial classes learn humility, and that they would have no livelihood and no claim to this world without the efforts of others who take risk and/or possess abilities they don't, the better for everyone.

  • BingoBangon | April 12, 2014 7:49 PM

    To NOTANARTIST

    Seems to me that you've just exposed the truth about some film festival programmers and their utter contempt for indie filmmakers and their product.

    I think Indiewire can close their two week debate on the Festival Programmer / Indie Filmmaker relationship discussion now. They can just summarize it by choosing a polemic from the filmmaker side and use your comment on how all our films suck to represent the attitude of some but thankfully not all film festivals.

    Then Withoutabox can stick your post next to the 'pay to submit now' button so we can all read the views of a programmer before we click that all important 'pay' button, decide not to and send our films (and fees) just to those festivals who actually have some clout. Like Sundance, Berlinale or Cannes.

    Film festivals that are not the big three won't be curating anything if absolutely nothing is submitted and most won't be buying screening rights to Cannes Film Market product without our fees to pay the distributor with.

    And you won't be meeting your stars. Such a shame.

  • NOTANARTIST | April 12, 2014 3:23 AM

    To NOTAFILMSCHOOLGRAD:

    Really? Your argument is against the programming of so-called "celebrity movies"? First of all, our most esteemed INDIE festival plays plenty of non-celebrity independent films, a fact which more people would appreciate if the press talked more about those and less about the celebrity-driven vehicles, but what do you expect? The press picks up on those because people are more likely to read about a film with celebs than one without.

    Second, you can't just exclude films from being "indie" simply because they have a few well-known names in the cast. Those projects usually (not always) attract name talent because they're great f-ing scripts with great f-ing producers attached to them. Yeah, Sundance plays its fair share of stinkers that just so happen to include big name talent, but I don't think it's generally at the expense of better films with no name casts. Even with 4,000 or so feature films submitted to them, it's probably slim pickins when it comes down to finding a hundred that are actually great. You might accuse them of playing a game of "tie goes to the film with celebrity cast and veteran indie film producer," but they're at the bottom of the barrel at that point, and this is only a small handful of films at best. The majority of the "celebrity movies" that are played at high-level festivals made it in because they were simply better films. These people aren't just starf**kers. They pass on MANY celeb-driven films, and the ones they don't pass on are mostly just better.

    Sorry if that irks filmmakers who feel slighted because they didn't have any recognizable names in their credits, but if your project is truly great, it will rise to the top. Almost every no-name, ultra-low-budget film submitted has a cover letter that says "I know my movie doesn't have any celebrities in it, but please take into consideration what we were able to accomplish with a $500 budget". That just doesn't cut it anymore. Whether you spend $500 or $5,000,000 to make an independent film, it still has to be GOOD, or at least better than 3,900 other films that were submitted. If your movie sucks, don't blame your rejection on lack of budget or big name talent-- if you weren't able to raise the money to do it right, it's probably because it wasn't any good in the first place.

  • NOTAFILMSCHOOLGRAD | April 10, 2014 2:46 PM

    To NOTANARTIST:

    Unclear who you're responding to or who the despised film school graduates are here -- straw men abound in your post -- but this "garbage" you so lament explains a great deal about the indie film scene.

    It might be better if the few people who actually earn a living in the medium, thanks to administration jobs, WERE failed filmmakers -- it would probably enliven the producing choices and the programming. Just look at the job of curation they've been doing. Maybe you celebrate the programming of celebrity movies at our most esteemed "indie" festival, and the party line these people have insisted on for 20 years and more, but others have a different view of it.

    And really, you don't have to take anyone's word for the exalted regard in which many of these people hold themselves. Some actually insist they be referred to as "filmmakers". With such people keeping the gates, what do we expect of the medium?

  • NOTANARTIST | April 10, 2014 2:07 PM

    I've heard similar arguments as these for many years, and it's really just a bunch of garbage. I don't understand why people think that festival programmers (and film critics for that matter) are simply failed filmmakers who wish they could make movies but don't possess the artistic skills to do so. It's a ridiculous assumption that film school graduates like to apply to people they've never even met. People who program festivals don't need to claim to be artists in order to do that job effectively. The job of a programmer is to CURATE films for the particular festival that they program for. Whether they have ever stepped foot on movie set is wholly irrelevant (and if you think it is, I'd suggest you refrain from submitting to festivals). You don't have to know how to make movies to watch one and say "this would be great for the audience that comes to my festival". Perhaps you're right that the writer of this article should have used the term "arts community" instead of "community of artists", but it seems to me as if rejected filmmakers are the ones who are saying "you're not an artist" when programmers aren't even claiming to be that in the first place. If you want to slap the "failed artist" moniker on someone, start with your film school professors. If they had any idea what they were doing, they'd be out doing it instead of teaching a bunch of wannabes.

  • BingoBangon | April 9, 2014 1:22 PM

    Agree helpmate.

    There are some good festivals with good programmers and knowledgable select committees. This is NOT about them.

    But way, way, way too many "festival" film programmers have never been near a proper film set in their life and have no idea of the years of hard work it takes before either filmmakers or actors get to make a film.

    Nor of the years of planning and the huge (often self) finance thrown into making a film. Nor of the time and cost that it takes for each and every single film submission. Nor are they aware that some of us might have worked full time for a year or more, unpaid, on the film they can't even be arsed to watch let alone send a rejection notice for.

    Cos if they did ever go near a film set and know what goes on once we shout "action" and "it's a wrap", then they ought to feel real shame that they can't be arsed to even keep a list of submitter's email addresses so send a generic rejection email.

    The festivals are reading this. So word up. If you cannot comm with filmmakers and think you're more important than the filmmaker, maybe you should shut your festival down because you are bad for the industry. After all, comms with filmmakers ain't a film school module.

    Its called good manners and your mum should have given some. And I don't care about the submission page notice about not sending rejections. No excuses. You're damn rude and should just quit.

    And as for those who use submission fees but don't program from what's submitted and go shopping for big titles at other festivals and film markets instead or only program from the upcoming releases of the major distributor whose backhanded you - careful filmmakers don't find out because it's called fraud and one of us might report it.

  • Charles Judson | April 9, 2014 4:50 AM

    Producers aren't artists? That's not a producer I would ever want to work with. Are programmers by default artists? No. That doesn't mean they can't be. Just as a gallery curator can be a working artist, it's the same with programmers.

    Programming is curation. How thematically cohesive and enriching that programming is can reflect an artistic focus or not. If you believe there is no risk, or reward, which must not exist if the former is true, in choosing and presenting one film, let alone 200, then you are implying that a festival could select any 200 semi decent films with an audience and call it a day. You are also implying that when you suggest films you are not taking a risk. Recommending people or films, bad suggestions reflect, and a series of bad reflections do not make for a strong reputation.

  • Student Filmmaker | April 8, 2014 4:28 PMReply

    I have 2 adds to the above list.
    1) You are obligated to inform the filmmakers of their rejection or acceptance. The very, very least you can do is understand that the filmmakers have paid a fee (real $$) to enter your event. Not contacting filmmakers boggles my mind. I've had occasions where I found my film was screening when another filmmaker congratulated me after seeing a web post from the festival. I've also found out my film wasn't playing the same way. Twitter blasts are not an ok way to inform people.

    2) Please, pretty please don't schedule panels or meet & greets or worst yet PARTIES when you have films screening. Especially the short films. Will never forget traveling 5 hours to a festival, finding out my film was screening in the last block of the night and when the block before mine ended the festival director announced the, "Big festival party / mixer was happening in 5 minutes at XYZ location, hurry and don't miss it." Then introduced our short film block of 5 films...which played to 7 people. Please, please just use some commons sense. Pretend when scheduling things that YOUR film is the one playing at any given time.

    Thanks!

  • Indie-Producer | April 8, 2014 5:25 PM

    #2 #2 #2 - I can't AGREE with you MORE!!! It is really not cool when the fun thing to do (party with free food and alcohol) is scheduled at the same time as ANYONE's film (short or otherwise) at a festival. Especially at the smaller, more intimate festivals where they are lucky to see a few hundred attendees for the entire weekend. As a filmmaker, if I traveled far (on my own dime) to attend your festival and you scheduled a party, panel, or meet and greet at the same time as my film... I don't know that I would be interested in returning or even promoting your festival.

  • Filmmaker No Name | April 8, 2014 4:05 PMReply

    How about-Actually exposing new filmmakers and not accepting basically the Sundance and SXSW lineup to your festivals, knocking everyone else out of contention automatically?

  • Charles Judson | April 9, 2014 4:55 AM

    Going to keep saying this. Where are the numbers showing this? Sundance shows 200 films. Average regional festival is 200 to 400 films. What are the percentages? 10? 40? How many of those filmmakers are alums? How many submitted their films the same time they submitted to Sundance or SXSW?