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The Top 10 Things Every Film Festival Director Needs to Know

The Top 10 Things Every Film Festival Director Needs to Know

Last week, indieWIRE published The 10 Things You Must Know Before You Set Foot on the Festival Circuit, an excerpt from the Film Collaborative’s upcoming book “Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul.” Now, it’s time for a look at the circuit from the other side of the acceptance letter: The film festival director.

This piece was written by Laurie Kirby, executive director of the International Film Festival Summit. She says the Film Collaborative piece moved to write this, which originally appeared in this week’s IFFS newsletter. “As a film festival executive, I have seen too many excellent festivals lose their footing by losing sight of the big picture,” she says. “It is critical in our roles as industry leaders to remain focused on the role of providing quality independent film to our audiences.”

Of course, the number of festival directors in the world is a fraction of the filmmakers who clamor for their attention. However, much of the advice works for both sides of the table. – IW

1. Your mission is to boldly go where?

Nothing will destroy your festival faster than veering off course like an Indy 500 driver. Review and revise your mission statements annually, get buy in from the board or you will lose your direction faster than Columbus before GPS.

2. Location, location, location.

Do you really know your audience? Do they understand you and what a film festival is? Educate them and don’t assume they know anything about festivals unless they live next door to Lincoln Center. Don’t show three obscure and inaccessible Japanese films if they have never heard of “Rashomon.” Bring them along slowly and educate them and don’t make them eat broccoli if they have never tasted a vegetable. If you live in a community known for X… then exploit X. Local filmmakers score big points at festivals, not because they are the next Almodovar but because people think locally.

3. No good comes of deficit spending.
Living beyond one’s means is for reality stars and governments. Create a livable budget and stick to it. Measure it annually against what you really spent and retool. Be sure the budget contains a reserve for things that may go wrong and capture those contingencies. Don’t pay foreign licensing fees, celebrity pocket money, ridiculous theater rental fees or print high-gloss programs if you can’t afford it. Think twice before you spend money on things you can do without.

4. Board members need to understand their roles.
Contrary to rumor, they are not there to impress their friends or act as the surrogate executive director. Just as the ED must commit in writing to a job description, so should every board member. There are many good books and articles about the role of a board member. Have them sign a contract before agreeing to serve with the money to be raised, the roles they play (and don’t) and a thorough understanding of the mission. Let them evaluate you and you and the Chair evaluate them.

5. Never pay for what you can get in-kind.

This includes car rentals, off-season hotel rooms, radio, tv and internet, billboards, social media, local restaurants, printers, merchandise companies, airlines, digital advertising, mobile apps, screen companies, rental companies and human resources. They all can get a benefit from being associated with you. Have a nice sponsor deck ready to show them how, and barter for it. Always do a post-event report with the media impressions and get pictures and videos of their product in the mix.

6. It’s about the films.
Enough said on that.

7. What are you missing?
Are you analyzing your revenue streams correctly and building out those areas? Don’t keep buying T-shirts with your logo so they can sit in boxes for years to come. License out the merchandise (that’s not your business and as nonprofits it is unrelated business income), trade-out the program (or make it online or an app with just a bartered newspaper insert as your brochure). Don’t show 200 films where 50 will work. Theater you absolutely need charging you a fortune? Have them run a promo in all their chains as part of the fee for a month leading up to the festival. Have a contest for the trailer with a local arts school. Rent a really good copy machine so you don’t have to pay Kinko’s a fortune. Examine the theatrical formats and then pick the best for you. Partner with nonprofits that match movie themes for audience development. Have “Angels” sponsor a film and give them tickets, branding and accolades. Run specials for tickets, have contests, incentivize volunteers to sell tickets and build out restaurant-theater specials, create local retail decorating contests (winner gets tickets, but have twofers for those participating) and movie theme parties. Engage the community and local businesses and they will feel the love.

8. Be organized.
Every staff member needs a job description. Every volunteer must sign a worker’s comp release and waiver of employment. Every film should start on time! Have backup systems; batteries for wireless speakers and Plan B ready if the weather doesn’t cooperate for the outdoor screening, the projector doesn’t work and the star doesn’t show up. Have a bible for continuity with all systems enumerated in all places (with a management bible and a staff one).

9. Be kind.
Don’t assume you know everything. Yes, you. We are all works in progress and no one has all the answers. You got there because you were smart, but a fool thinks he knows it all; a wise man or woman, not so much. Be open to new ideas and suggestions, but make sure the buck stops with you. If you make a colossal mistake it isn’t the end of the world, but you should take the heat. There is no room for egos in this job and the staff deserves the credit as you are the face, but they are in the trenches. Thank each one personally for a job well done (or explain if not) and you will get greater results every year.

10. This is truly a labor of love.
There are many perks: Enthusiastic and appreciative filmmakers, finding that gem of a movie, lively Q&As. It is our passion and we are responsible for educating and entertaining our audiences. Many films are a call to action that engage audiences to think and perhaps act to improve our society. And at the end of the day, what greater contribution is there?

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