Four years ago, I'd never even been to a film festival. I was a filmmaker with no place to screen my documentary and when I had the good fortune to find a venue, I wanted to share the opportunity. So I launched chashama Film Festival (November 10-13 this year), which screens international submissions that examine socially conscious themes.
The experience meant learning by trial and error — the opposite of the way I produce film projects — but with the help of industry friends and lots of research, I figured out the how-tos and how-not-tos of creating a film festival. Here's what I learned so you don't have to make the same mistakes.
1. Know what you're trying to market.
cFF was hardly the first festival in town; its identity had to be fresh and compelling. I started with the theme "Films That Other Festivals Are Afraid to Show" — until I realized that wasn't right. cFF was showing films that said something important, but they weren't necessarily controversial. And what if people thought I was debuting the next sequel of "The Human Centipede"? I wanted to create a forum for international artists to inform audiences beyond what's offered in commercial news feeds. So cFF became the "Festival of the Worlds," but that didn't express more than the international part.
This year, I defined a theme for filmmakers to explore in their work: "Chaos Theory: The Rise and Fall of Societies." All the submissions speak to this concept in whatever way the artist chooses. This makes for more creative and thought-provoking marketing, too. I launched a newsletter that offers not just event updates, but substantive content relating to the theme — articles on political issues, man-on-the-street opinion polls on current events. cFF now represents the ideas I want to put forward as well as the films exploring those ideas.
2. Cede some responsibility. It makes things work better, not worse.
When I started cFF, I created all the web-based material because I thought it was easier to do it myself. But I was juggling so much, nothing was as good as I wanted. Bringing in someone to handle web design and programming was a huge relief. I knew how I wanted things to look, so I could quickly sketch it and send him off to do the time-consuming part. Then I was free to concentrate on other tasks.
That said, I've discovered that while New York City is crawling with amazing artists, there's also a fair number who just claim to be amazing. I still have to keep close tabs on anyone to whom I assign work. I try to recruit people with not only experience, but also a passion for the work. I rely on my leadership to drive the quality of the product.
3. Watching hundreds of movies is not always fun. Remember that you have an obligation to assess all of them fairly.
Human nature apparently dictates that no matter how much lead time you provide, people always submit things right before a deadline. A huge part of the more than 300 movies submitted to cFF this year arrived right before the cut-off date. This was also the first time I accepted submissions to be watched online, but I was unaware that the administering system doesn't contact you in that case (another thing I wish I'd known). I'd see all these submissions logged and wonder why the DVDs weren't arriving in the mail. When I finally looked into it after cFF's deadline passed, there were more than 75 movies online that I still had to watch. There is not enough popcorn in the world.
I watched movies almost constantly for two straight weeks. But even if I didn't like one or knew it wouldn't show, I'd still finish it. I've taken on the responsibility of running a festival, which means I owe it to my fellow filmmakers to watch the movies they submitted in good faith. And when I see one with a great story, but, say, poor video quality, I can look past the not-so-good part and value the filmmaker's raw talent. Production values are easy to repair, but a good story is hard to find.
4. Gearing a film festival to commercial productions doesn't help most filmmakers.
I've gone to established festivals, like Sundance and Cannes. I didn't want cFF to be concerned with red-carpet gowns and afterparties. Instead of trying to feature celebrities and work that's passed around from festival to festival, cFF's goal is to highlight what the filmmakers have to say. If there are drawbacks to a commercial application, I see no need to copy it. The fact is, even for those filmmakers who win prizes and attention at the major festivals, their day in the sun usually ends there. They're back to being waiters and executive assistants the next week. If a festival's goal is to find the next big moneymaker, then the judging isn't objective and the event isn't aimed at presenting films based on artistic merit.
5. When your budget is small, there are specific ways you should allot it.
One year, I brought on a staff person whose greatest talent turned out to be spending my money. He advised printing thousands of flyers and posters, then paying people to distribute them. The result: piles of leftover, wasted paper. A small festival is not going to attract stadium-sized audiences, no matter how many flyers you tack on coffee-shop bulletin boards. You'll reach more people cheaply and rapidly through social media platforms across the web.
When I make a budget, I stick to what's absolutely necessary to produce a small festival. That includes web development, vehicles for soliciting movies (like withoutabox.com), an event space, staff to help run the event (an assistant, stage manager, techie) and refreshments. It's all add-ons from there. Take what you can get. If you're offered a space, even if it's not ideal, say thank you and use it. Your audience will be sitting in the dark most of the time, anyway.
6. Getting corporate sponsorship is not as easy as you'd think.
Whether you need money, supplies or space, corporate support is difficult to nail down, especially when you're new and have no reputation. Those guys are wary of what they attach their names to. I pestered corporate representatives, had friends try their contacts, took a class on getting sponsorships. Nothing paid off.
Corporations usually sponsor events that support groups like charitable organizations and cultural institutions. I started to think about how to present cFF, already a nonprofit, as a "good works" venture. Since I fell in love with filmmaking in high school but had no resources or mentors, I liked the idea of inviting high school students to learn about the craft through cFF. This year, we're aggressively building partnerships with public schools that teach film and arts-education advocacy groups. It's also become the crux of how we approach businesses for sponsorship.
7. I didn't need to be so deadly serious about the whole thing.
The filmmaking industry is full of serious people. I believed cFF had to be serious, too. But its greatest distinction is that it's my festival, so it should reflect my personality. My instincts told me to feature films that personally moved me, not a collection I assumed the industry would smile on. And I wanted my event to be fun. It's free. We involve kids who want to be filmmakers. Everyone talks about the films with each other and the artists. We have industry experts to judge, but there's no distraction of celebrity guests or a glitzy opening night. cFF is what it I want it to be: A festival about making, watching, and learning from film.
Rick Kariolic is the founder and artistic director of New York City's chashama Film Festival, now in its fourth year. It runs November 10-13 at 217 East 42nd St.