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Life is Good Without Sundance: 6 Case Studies

By Holly Herrick | Indiewire December 15, 2011 at 9:00AM

The Sundance Film Festival isn't everything; it only seems like it. Holly Herrick makes a compelling case for a film's life spent on the regional festival circuit.
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Variance Films
"General Orders No. 9" premiered at the Atlanta Film Festival.

The Sundance Film Festival isn't everything; it only seems like it.

In this article by Hamptons Film Festival programmer Holly Herrick (originally published on the IFP website), she makes a compelling case for a film's life spent on the regional festival circuit. We thought it did a great job of balancing optimism with reality (and with real-life examples!).

As she points out,

What you won’t get at the best regional film festivals is the slew of buyers, publicists, agents, journalists and other various industry reps that are simply on site at any market festival. And without a doubt, the easiest way to get buyers to watch your film is to have it premiere at Sundance. However, many up-and-coming directors find it really hard to get the attention of the greater industry at a festival with so much to talk about and so many distractions.

Furthermore, she writes that failing to gain acceptance at one of the biggest festivals is no predictor of future performance:

It is simply a fallacy that regional festivals ignore films that haven’t played anywhere yet. In fact, programmers enjoy inviting these films the most, for they are the ones that give us the opportunity to discover new films and artists. That’s part of the reason why many of us are in this game: to expand our cinematic horizons and help others to do the same.

Kind thanks to IFP for reprint rights.

The Sundance announcement rollout is always a charged and emotional time. This year, I was so excited to see some of my favorite names in American narrative filmmaking listed in the lineup: Ira Sachs! So Yong Kim! Craig Zobel! Ry Russo-Young! There will be an abundance of tasty treats in Park City in January; so many that somehow it’s still possible to be excited to cram oneself into a snowsuit and march in line through mountains of dirty slush, nostrils filled with bus exhaust, to see some really invigorating new cinema.

The elation comes with some heart-stabbing moments. There were many projects, particularly narrative features, which I was hoping to see listed among the chosen yet that will not be premiering in Park City in January. I realize I’m not the only one who noticed that A LOT of good filmmakers made movies this year. This means we should be expecting some really all-star lineups coming out of festivals throughout the year, and I don’t just mean at the “top tier” fests.

If you are a first-time feature filmmaker, or are bringing a feature around the festival circuit for the first time in 2012, I think it’s pretty safe to say that competition is particularly stiff this year for those coveted spots at the next big target fests: Slamdance, SXSW, Tribeca and LAFF.  If you are being a good strategist, then you’ve already applied to these festivals. But if it doesn’t work out, what are your options to get the most attention for your film without a market fest or “top tier” premiere?

The good news is that it is far from the end of the world if you choose to premiere at a great regional festival. There are many great, successful, award-winning and critically lauded independent films that have had amazing festival runs without the filmmaker setting foot into Sundance, Slamdance, SXSW, Tribeca or LAFF.  And contrary to some kind of bizarre urban legend that I feel like we programmers are constantly trying to shut down, you do not need to premiere at a top tier festival to get noticed by the good regional festivals.

The best regional festivals take their submissions processes very seriously. While there are tips to making sure your submission doesn’t get buried in the pile, and while there are good films that constantly slip through the cracks, it is simply a fallacy that regional festivals ignore films that haven’t played anywhere yet. In fact, programmers enjoy inviting these films the most, for they are the ones that give us the opportunity to discover new films and artists. That’s part of the reason WHY many of us are in this game: to expand our cinematic horizons and help others to do the same.

Contrary to urban legend, you do not need to premiere at a top-tier festival to get noticed by the good regional festivals.

Another big question when it comes to the regional festival run is obviously one of priorities. What you won’t get at the best regional film festivals is the slew of buyers, publicists, agents, journalists and other various industry reps that are simply on site at any market festival. And without a doubt, the easiest way to get buyers to watch your film is to have it premiere at Sundance. However, many up-and-coming directors find it really hard to get the attention of the greater industry at a festival with so much to talk about and so many distractions.

But maybe you’ll go to a regional festival, and one or two of the industry’s finest will be on a panel on a jury, and you might actually be able to have a normal conversation. The same is true for meeting other filmmakers—regional festivals provide a great opportunity for this, sometimes more so than the biggest festivals. Sundance and Tribeca do not exclude these possibilities by any means—it’s just that regional festivals tend to be so much smaller and more easily navigable, that smaller films can often become bigger focal points.

Removing film sales from the conversation, I consider films to be really successful on the festival circuit when the filmmakers are able to meet some not-too-rigidly defined goals in their festival travels. Often these can be as simple as building a community and network of filmmakers, programmers and industry that like your work and will continue to be supportive of it.  When you can get your film seen across the US at good festivals that know how to build an audience for it, that’s quite a reward. And even if it’s not a monetary one, it provides the building blocks for a career that may eventually pay you.

Let’s look at some case studies.  Below are six low-budget independent narrative features that premiered, and got some serious mileage, out of top-notch regional film festivals. This is an incredibly limited list, but I think it offers a diverse swatch of situations and strategies (again, this really does not cover the options for documentary films, whose festival travels would look noticeably different):

THE COLOR WHEEL, directed by Alex Ross Perry. 
Alex Ross Perry’s undeniably original low-budget 16mm feature debuted at the Sarasota Film Festival in April 2011, followed by an appearance the Maryland Film Festival in May and a subsequent New York Premiere at the wonderful BAMCinemaFest in Brooklyn in June. International programmers began to take notice, including Olivier Père, and the film made its international premiere in Locarno, and recently premiered on the west coast at the Los Angeles AFI Film Festival.  While I’m not sure what’s next sales- or release-wise for the film, the prestigious festival run has made THE COLOR WHEEL a big part of the conversation about American Independent cinema this year, and Alex a sure-fire “someone to watch.”

FANNY, ANNIE & DANNY, directed Chris Brown
. Opening its week-long engagement at the reRun Gastropub in New York last Friday, FANNY, ANNIE & DANNY began its long and wildly successful festival run when it premiered at the Kansas City Film Festival in 2010, winning the top prize for US/International Feature. It went on to play a significant number of smaller festivals like Anchorage, Marfa and Charlotte, all the while hitting up some premiere regional spots like Mill Valley, Starz Denver, Florida and Independent Film Festival of Boston, and picking up some considerable awards, as well as positive nods from critics.

GENERAL ORDERS NO. 9, directed by Robert Persons
. (Note: While this film has been characterized as a documentary, it is so categorically defiant that it begs inclusion here.)
Robert Persons was pretty much a stranger to the film world when he began submitting his startlingly poetic, genre-defying feature to festivals. As he is Georgia-based, he began at the Atlanta Film Festival in 2009, and in January 2010 the film headed to Slamdance, where it won a cinematography prize.  Thus began a longer festival run: Hot Docs, Seattle, RiverRun, Indie Memphis, and many more; two years later, the film is still doing limited engagements at theaters and universities domestically and internationally.

IN THE FAMILY, directed by Patrick Wang. 
IN THE FAMILY was virtually ignored by the festival world, being rejected from thirty festivals before its premiere at the Hawaii International Film Festival in October, where thankfully, the buzz immediately began to build. It’s been getting rave reviews since it opened, and was subsequently held over at NYC’s Quad Cinema this fall, and has recently been nominated for best first feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.

THE NEW YEAR, directed by Brett Haley
. Brett confessed to being rejected by a very significant number of festivals before his ultra micro-budget film started getting some festival love. The film premiered at Sarasota in 2010 and was the dark horse of the festival, selling out screenings before picking up the festival’s narrative feature Audience Award. The film went on to play the Los Angeles Film Festival, Starz Denver, Philadelphia, and a number of other notable fests, as well as pleasing New York critics during its week-long run at Brooklyn’s reRun Theater. he New York Times noted that Haley has “a fine future before him.”

SAHKANAGA, directed by John Henry Summerour
. The Independent Film Festival of Boston and the Atlanta Film Festival teamed up to present the co-world premiere of this low-budget southern fable, which ended up getting the Audience Award nod in Atlanta. The film traveled to the Woodstock Film Festival, New Orleans, Sidewalk and others before joining the Southern Circuit Traveling Film Festival, hugely expanding its regional exposure.

Holly Herrick is the Deputy Director of Programming at the Hamptons International Film Festival and blogger for IFP Resources Blog.

This article is related to: Festivals, Filmmaker Toolkit Festival Strategy