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20 Tips for Strategizing Festivals & Distribution Today

20 Tips for Strategizing Festivals & Distribution Today

For an independent filmmaker, the prospects for distribution can seem daunting, if not downright depressing. Many studios have shuttered their specialty divisions, getting into the big festivals gets more difficult each year, and new media offer increasing competition for consumers’ attention. But for the panelists at “Ask the Experts: Strategizing Film Fests and Distribution Today,” an indieWIRE event sponsored by HSBC last week, the collapse of old models and the emergence of new media mean there are more opportunities than ever before. As Rick Allen, CEO of SnagFilms told the crowd, “There are no more rules.”

Held at HSBC’s New York headquarters on Aug. 11, “Ask the Experts” brought together leading independent film executives, festival programmers and filmmakers to offer their advice to a packed conference room of 150 filmmakers and industry professionals.

During part one, dubbed Strategizing Film Festivals, panelists included Jeff Abramson (formerly of Gen Art), Matt Dentler (Cinetic Rights Management), Sandi DuBowski (filmmaker), Marian Koltai-Levine (PMK-BNC), Rose Kuo (Film Society of Lincoln Center), Mynette Louie (producer) and Debra Zimmerman (Women Make Movies). Meanwhile in the second session, called Strategizing Distribution Today, the participants were Rick Allen (SnagFilms), Tom Bernard (Sony Pictures Classics), Arianna Bocco, (IFC Entertainment), Josh Braun (Submarine), Sebastien Chesneau (Rezo), Ira Deutchman (Emerging Pictures), and Tom Quinn (Magnolia Pictures).

While recognizing that every filmmaker dreams of making a splash at Sundance, followed by a lucrative theatrical run, nearly every panelist emphasized the need for filmmakers to be realistic. Planning, forming alliances and exploiting every available distribution channel are key for filmmakers who not only want to reach bigger audiences but perhaps, heaven forbid, even turn a profit.

Tom Bernard kicked off the event with a keynote address that focused on empowering today’s filmmakers. Later in the event, filmmaker Robert Bella recounted part of his dramatic thirteen year journey getting distribution for his film. “Colin Fitz.”

The event is one a series of programs and articles that make up our Filmmaker Toolkit, an online resource for filmmakers, available on our website with the support of HSBC and what follows is a list of twenty helpful from the program, specially prepared for filmmakers who were not in the room or forgot to take notes:

1. Don’t go to a festival expecting to be a huge underdog hit.

“You need to plan to be the average guy. You shouldn’t plan to be the anomaly. No one should plan to be ‘Paranormal Activity’ or ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding.’ If something fabulous happens, you just need to put yourself in the position to take advantage of that, but don’t expect it.” — Marian Koltai-Levine, PMK-BNC

2. Know what you’re doing when you submit a rough cut.

“As much as Caroline Libresco at Sundance [and many others at the event] disagree with me, and I really don’t care. One of the biggest mistakes that I’ve seen filmmakers — who are not veterans with films at previous editions of a certain festival — make is submitting rough cuts to festivals. Festival programmers and distributors, as wonderful as they are, are people, and we need to hear music and we need to see something developed. We need to be able to take the leap of faith, and if we don’t know your work, find it really difficult to do so.” — Debra Zimmerman, Executive Director, Women Make Movies

Zimmerman’s opinion was unpopular, but all agreed that you should be aware of how rough your film is when sending a rough cut, keeping in mind that without certain elements, it may be difficult for programmers to judge the merits of a film. Rose Kuo, Executive Director, Film at Lincoln Center, recommends putting a call in explaining the work-in-progress situation.

3. Don’t do anything fancy with your festival submissions (and read the fine print).

“Don’t send notes or gifts to programmers. Nine times out of ten, these things get separated from the film. Although I love gifts, don’t send candy, don’t send paraphernalia. Programmers only see the DVD. A lot of festivals are using Withoutabox now; read the fine print! If you don’t follow those rules, it slows up the process.” — Rose Kuo, Film Society of Lincoln Center

4. Know the fests you’re submitting to and plan accordingly.

“Do your research, don’t send blanket submissions. There are a lot of festivals out there. Try to tier your submissions, but also don’t limit yourself to just Sundance and one other film festival. A lot of times filmmakers will just apply to the ‘A’ festivals and disregard a lot of very important regional festivals that distributors and other people really look at (e.g. True/False for documentaries).” — Rose Kuo

5. Smaller festivals may allow for more access to important people.

“Pick your top tier festivals. If you don’t get into those, go to the next round. It’s surprising where acquisitions people and other festival programmers look for films now. Go to that second round, go to that third round. Sometimes at a festival in Austin or in the Hamptons or at Woodstock, you’ll actually have more access to the people you want to get to.” — Rose Kuo

6. Turn movies into movements.

“For me, it’s connecting more to people ‘out there’ than to people in this room. I’ve been involved for about a year and a half with this program called The Good Pitch, and I’ve worked now with 40 documentary film teams trying to leverage NGOs, non-profits, social entrepreneurs, philanthropist foundations, technology innovators, the UN, and government. I just think that for me, that’s where we are right now. With the collapsing models, it’s all about business assets. And in the documentary world, I’ve been concerned with what we, as filmmakers, can bring to the table as far as business assets. I’m not such a believer in having a distributor. I believe in having a partner in distribution.” — Sandi DuBowski, filmmaker, “Trembling Before G-d”

“We played at fifty festivals, and we ended up making a nice chunk of change just by selling DVDs at the festivals.” — Mynette Louie, producer, “Children of Invention”

7. Use festival programmers to your advantage.

“I called festivals all the time, saying ‘You should check out this movie.’ If you’re a filmmaker and you play a festival, you need to be proactive. The festival programmers are your biggest advocates. You need to ask them to make calls. And that doesn’t happen enough.” — Jeff Abramson, Gen Art

8. Strategize around the personality of the festival.

“Leverage it as a marketing partner for the film. I don’t think festivals are the best partners to distribute your film, but they are incredible partners for marketing your film. It doesn’t necessarily need to be right out of the gate of that festival. There are a few internationally renowned festivals, where that’s the best marketing you’re going to get, shooting out of the gates of those festivals. But otherwise, if your film plays a dozen festivals, when your film is ready to release, go back to all of them, get them on board. Have them communicate to their audiences, maybe even go back to their partners.” — Jeff Abramson

9. Submit early.

“You’ll have a better chance of getting your film seen by programmers who aren’t fatigued.” — Rose Kuo

10. Other filmmakers are your friend.

Information is your friend and other filmmakers are your friend. Talk to other filmmakers, and nobody likes to bitch about distributors or film festivals more than a filmmaker. And they will give you the honest to god truth of what the experience was, because they’ve got a lot to say.” — Debra Zimmerman, Women Make Movies

— continued on page two —

11. You don’t need to go to festivals looking to be acquired.

“We used the Sundance Film Festival as our theatrical release and then went straight into digital. We marketed that from the very beginning. We didn’t go to the festival looking to be acquired. We went to the festival using it as a marketing tool. I think that’s a bigger perspective than how people typically look at these festivals.” — Marian Koltai-Levine, PMK-BNC

The festival strategy panel at “Ask the Experts.” From left to right, Jeff Abramson, Sandi DuBowski, Marian Koltai-Levine, Rose Kuo, Mynette Louie, and Debra Zimmerman.

12. Don’t put your own money into your film.

“I made one of the biggest mistakes that any young filmmaker can make, and that was putting my own money into it. Unfortunately as result of that when it didn’t sell in Sundance I ended up with a tremendous amount of debt and not owning the film, and could not actually physically sell it to distributors for a very long time. Over the course of the last 14 years I slowly paid down all my debts and bought back pieces of the film from my creditors and various vendors.” – Robert Bella, director of “Colin Fitz”

13. Be aware of what your movie is.

“Our strategy is based on seeing a film that we fall in love with and that we identify with a characteristic that we think will appeal to a market of audiences and distributors. A good example of this would be “Tiny Furniture” which came to us at SXSW. Came to us totally out of the blue. We sort of knew the producer, we didn’t really know anyone else. I just put it in the DVD player like I do any movie and it completely blew me away. You sort of have to appraise these things, like all of us connected in the food chain. You have to decide whether you believe in it, whether it is something you can make a profit on as a business. To some extent it harkens back to what Tom Bernard was saying. Be really aware of what your movie is. It helps the process so much. Obviously you never know. These filmmakers all believe they have something good. From my point of view there is light at the end of the tunnel, but it isn’t going to be for everyone. Not only was the film sold, it’s going to released theatrically. The director has an agent, she has something with HBO. It’s sort of the Cinderella story. This can still happen. Find your level, and find people who will be able to help you get to that goal.” – Josh Braun, Submarine

14. You must have a goal to make your money back.

“There’s more opportunity to get your film seen now in various different marketplaces. The question is when you make your film what are you goals? Is one of them to make your money back. Right now that is probably a very difficult thing to do. So that goal is very hard unless an empowered person has come to the deal and brought stuff to the table, helped him understand how the film’s going to fit into the marketplace, and they get very fortunate and get distribution. I can say that’s always maybe Plan A. But I think right now there are more Plan Bs, Cs and Ds than there were certainly ten years ago. Just in terms of theatrical marketplace there are more theaters playing specialized marketplaces than ever before. Going into it, you should know what your options are in those areas.” – Tom Bernard, Sony Pictures Classics

15. Find the best home for your film.

“In a world where people are being bombarded by entertainment choices, how many opportunities do you have to get in front of them in a way that expands your audience and gives you the greatest revenue possible. We’ve believed from the beginning that it’s important for filmmakers to seek as many distribution options as possible, some of which we can help them with. You have to go after your audience wherever it exists. The old days of finding a single distributor, or finding a single platform and having that be the way that you access the audience, those days are gone. Provided that you are interested in finding viewers everywhere, you can do just that.” – Rick Allen, SnagFilms

16. Be clever.

“To answer your question if the sky is falling, well there never was a sky. People who think it’s more difficult now than it’s ever been, are just wrong. It’s always been difficult. You just have to be really, really clever. To get attention in a world in which the companies that are competing with you for audience are spending millions and millions of dollars requires a cleverness on a level that, by the way, they can’t buy. There’s an aspect of this that we kind of miss out on when we mix up studio driven movies that pretend to be independent films with truly independent films. The whole sky is falling came from the fact that the studios were getting out of the independent film business. If you’re making 15 to 20 million studio movies then yes the sky is falling. I think it’s the healthiest thing to happen to the independent film business that the studios are getting out of this business. I think that you’re already seeing signs of the audience rebuilding for truly independent films, because they’re not being distracted by multi-million dollar marketing campaigns. I’m extremely optimistic about the opportunities out there. We have to get rid of this notion that big budget films are part of this world. We have to create a structure that is completely separate, that acknowledges the audience that supports us.” – Ira Deutchman, Emerging Pictures

17. Knowledge is power.

“It’s changed quite a bit. You have to really research what all that means, because it is a new platform. There are many different angles to releasing films. We started four years ago and look how many companies in that time frame have gone out of business. In the interim, many more companies have gotten into the VOD space. I think the biggest misconception is that VOD is a cure-all. It’s not. We use different approaches with different films. Some do better with day-and-date theatrical/VOD, some better with longer windows. It’s not as easy as saying I’m going to put my film on VOD. The bottom line is, you can’t generalize with independent film. You can’t put it into a template. The more research you do, the more success you’ll have. We do release a lot of movies but we release them in a lot of different ways. Knowledge is power and there is no one model. You have to have the wherewithal to try different things.” – Arianna Bocco, IFC Films

18. Go to sales agents early in the process.

“Timing in terms of international sales is the essence. You should be approaching us as soon as possible. Most of you have a film ready for next year. We do see rough cuts all the time. It’s a good way for you to get a good sense of what the international audience’s reaction will be. I know more or less what’s going to be reactions from Japanese, Taiwanese, French etc. You should trust us and come to us so we can have that discussion. The way it works here and the way it works abroad is different in terms of the relationship you have with producers. Here you have agents, you have producers, you have filmmakers. The way it works here, for most of the films that go to Sundance, is that most of the producers will see it at the first screening to see what happens. That’s good for about five percent of the films. For most, the buzz goes down after the first screening. As a sales agent, we need to create a buzz before the screening. It’s a long process. We don’t have room to discuss with distributors enough. Everything goes fast abroad. That’s not the same case in the U.S. Most of the foreign territories, things go really fast. My recommendation would be to get the film to us as soon as possible, to be able to have that discussion. This is the opportunity for us to discuss these films with distributors so they’re at least aware of them and so it stays in their mind.” – Sebastien Chesneau, Rezo

19. Hold onto your international rights.

“To be able to hold onto your international rights I think is very important. Don’t just give them away in a world rights deal with a North American distributor. A lot of times I think films that don’t work here might work well in other countries. Jim Jarmusch for example is huge in Japan and Italy. Woody Allen is bigger outside of America. Pay attention to the international. It’s another revenue stream onto itself.” – Tom Bernard, Sony Pictures Classics

20. Don’t limit your distribution search to theatrical.

“Not everything needs to be in a movie theater and not everything deserves be in a movie theater and it’s very hard to get people to pay ten dollars to come to a movie theater. I think as a result you have to be open to it and you have to look at where that’s taking you. And the other thing is you have to be practical about what the financial ramifications are. ” – Marian Koltai-Levine, PMK-BNC

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