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Quality Films v. Cocktail Chit-Chat: Navigating the Festival Circuit

Quality Films v. Cocktail Chit-Chat: Navigating the Festival Circuit

Quality Films v. Cocktail Chit-Chat: Navigating the
Festival Circuit

by Stephen Garrett

Last Thursday night at the Paramount Studios lot, the Gower Theater
played host to a seminar on the role of film festivals in today’s
fest-obsessed climate. “Getting Your Film into Festivals” was moderated
by Chris Gore, editor of Film Threat and author of the upcoming
insider’s book, “The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide;” and Steve
Montal, Director of the Chapman Producers Program at Chapman University.
The night was sponsored by Film Threat and the Hollywood film lab, Crest

Panelists for the packed-house, three-hour seminar included Peter
Baxter, Executive Director, Slamdance; Oren Bitan, VP of Marketing and
Acquisitions, Seventh Art Releasing; Robert Faust, Founder and Director,
LA Independent Film Festival; and Jason White, Director of Programs,
Austin Film Festival.

In today’s climate of over 1,000 film festivals around the world, making
the right choices as to where and how to submit one’s film for the best
possible results is more and more of a dilemma. “It’s difficult to
position yourself to take advantage of the different festivals,” said
Montal to begin the discussion, which was geared exclusively towards
helping filmmakers understand how festivals work. It was this impulse
that drove Gore to write his book. “I got sick of seeing filmmakers with
really good movies [at a festival], and then watching them fail,”
pointed out Gore, setting the tone for the evening. “Usually your
success as a director depends less on the actual film and more on your
cocktail chit-chat.”

“It’s a market out there,” continued Jason White. “Ask yourself: what’s
the scheme? What’s the plan? And that’s at the pre-, pre-production
stage.” He stressed the fact that filmmakers must ask themselves what
they are getting out of festivals, whether it’s just to have people see
the film, or to get reviews for a press kit, or to use the film as a
calling card. “Go to international film festivals,” he added. “They pay
you to go.” He also recommended going abroad to make money, since there
are more buyers, especially on TV, for short and feature films. “If your
film is incredibly strange, then go to German television — I swear to

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Another truism discussed was the simple fact that making a good movie is
the most important part of success. “Write a good script,” said Montal.
“Prepare it well — and raise the extra $5,000 to make it look good.” He
also warned against rushing or cutting corners simply to have a good
story to tell the press. “Realize that the ‘written in a weekend’ script
or the $20,000 film is just a marketing angle,” he said. Robert Faust
also emphasized the very fundamental fact (generally ignored by
filmmakers) that making an original film is important. “You have to be
distinct and you have to be different,” he said. “I cannot stress that

“Don’t compromise the film to make a deadline,” Gore also pointed out,
and White agreed. “If you can’t make the deadline [for a particular
festival],” White said, “then move on. There are other festivals.” He
also said that last-minute entries are usually the worst quality films
submitted each year. “Films that come in earliest are also usually the
best.” Another very important aspect of the submission process, and of
festival-going, is raising awareness about one’s film. “It is important
to make yourself known out there,” said Peter Baxter, by listing one’s
production with Film Finders and other tracking groups that follow a
movie through its life. That way, not only are programmers familiar with
it when they consider the film, but also distributors have usually heard
of it and are more likely to seek it out during festivals. IFP’s annual
Independent Feature Film Market every fall in New York is a prime
example of how to show works in progress, find investors, and most
importantly raise awareness.

The panelists also made the point that short films should be short,
primarily because they are otherwise difficult to program. “Shorts are
called shorts for a reason,” quipped White, who bemoaned the task of
putting any film longer than 20 minutes in front of a feature. Faust
also said that longer shorts generally get programmed together in a time
slot devoted to shorts, which some distributors and producers don’t
bother seeing, whereas short shorts are more likely to show with
features. “If your short plays in front of a feature,” he explained,
“The right eyes will be watching it and that will spark things
happening. So it’s better to keep it short.”

Once accepted by a festival, a filmmaker’s work is just beginning,
agreed the panelists. “Hire a publicist,” said Gore. “It will cost a few
thousand, but it will guarantee the right people in the theater.” Baxter
added a caveat to this, though: “Ask how many movies a publicist is
working on — don’t get lost in the shuffle.” But with or without a
publicist, said Baxter, the filmmaker “should be working on that
promotion morning, noon, and night. Don’t just show up and think you’ll
be promoted [by the festival].” And Gore repeated his earlier emphasis
on cocktail talk at festivals. “You want to know every single angle of
every party,” he said, stressing their importance for networking and
getting the word out. “And get to know the festival volunteers — they
know everything that’s happening.”

White made the best point of the night, however, by saying that not
getting into Sundance is not the end of the world. “Slamdance, the LA
Independent Film Festival — these are good festivals. They’ll work it
for you. And if your film is quality, it will definitely come through.”

Gore’s “The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide,” out in December from
Lone Eagle Publishing, gets into much more detail on all of these
topics. With over a dozen interviews with the right people, from
Sundance Film Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore, to producer’s reps,
publicists, agents, and filmmaker after filmmaker, the first-hand
testimony is invaluable. It also includes appendices on small but vital
details like screening rooms, travel agents, attorneys that represent
indie filmmakers and PR firms — in addition to a calendar of all the
important festivals as well as their deadlines, application fees, and
website addresses. Gore’s soup-to-nuts mapping of how to get into
festivals and what to get out of them will make the right filmmaker a
career director in no time.

[Stephen Garrett, an editor and writer based in Los Angeles, is a
frequent contributor to indieWIRE.]

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