Whether you’re a film journalist, filmmaker, programmer or distributor, you likely experience a time of the year where it feels like you practically live on the film festival circuit.
Personally, I’m coming off an eight week stint where I did just that via stops at festivals in Toronto, New York, Reykjavik, London, Vienna and Copenhagen. I never bothered coming home in between, figuring it wasn’t worth the time or the carbon footprint. While that may sound a bit insane, it’s definitely not something I alone have experienced. And there’s certainly folks who will experience it for the first time soon enough.
So I figured why not offer up a brief, highly subjective list of tips I’ve learned over this and previous stints on the circuit that may or may not be somewhat useful to those of you that have a similar journeys on tap in the future.
1. Set realistic goals, and make a plan before the festival starts. A first glance at a festival catalogue can be daunting no matter your profession — especially if you wait until the festival’s already underway to finally look at it. So plan out your schedule as early as possible (programs are usually online weeks before the festival begins), but do so keeping in mind that you can’t do it all. Any half-decent festival is going to offer enough programming to fill every waking moment of your day (and then some), but if you actually try and pull that off you’re likely to feel overwhelmed and exhausted. You probably won’t even remember half the films or panels or whatever else when the festival’s all said and done anyway. So ask yourself: What do you absolutely have to see and do? Cross off films you’ll have the opportunity to see at other festivals soon enough or panels that you know are going to offer discussions you’ve basically already heard in a different context (“how to get your film distributed,” anyone?). It’ll give you some breathing room to both enjoy yourself and more thoughtfully take in what you do end up seeing.
2. Don’t go home in between festivals. Have a bunch of festivals to attend that are more or less in a row? Make it one big tour. Particularly if you’re a North American heading to Europe or vice versa (fall offers long stretches of important film festivals on both continents). Even if there’s a week or two in between festivals, going home during that time might not be as worth it as you’d think. By the time you settle in (and potentially adjust to a time zone change), it’ll be time to head off again and you’re unlikely to feel particularly refreshed. You’ll also be making a much bigger carbon footprint than necessary. So instead, find somewhere convenient (and interesting and cheap) to kick around in between festivals, preferably somewhere where there’s a friend or relative that can put you up. You can get caught up on work and sleep and you won’t have to subject yourself to exhaustion of two long haul flights. This also brings up the idea of subletting your apartment while you’re gone. That might seem extreme, but it could help offset your extracurricular travel costs and also rid you of any fear your apartment has burned down or been robbed while you were away.
3. Try not to spend any money on food or alcohol. I am not at all suggesting you don’t eat or drink. I’m just saying that most festivals offer enough freebies in both regards that you shouldn’t really have to spend too much money on either, especially if you’re somewhere where the currency exchange isn’t in your favor. So don’t skip out on the festival’s official social event calendar. Even if they simply offer hors d’oeuvres, one spring roll might not feel like a meal, but 10 or 15 certainly will. And if you are going to spend money on food: make it good for you. It’s so easy in a foreign country to immediately divert to those familiar golden arches, but considering the aforementioned free food you’ve been eating is probably really not good for you, that’s not the best idea. Google search or yelp a juice bar or health food store and even out your temporary lifestyle a bit.
4. Try NOT to drink too much free alcohol or eat too much free food. Unless you want to come back from a film festival having gained 15 pounds, restrain yourself from too many double digit spring roll intakes. And more importantly, double digit free glasses of wine. There’s nothing worse than taking on a full day and night of film festivaling with an extreme hangover. Or wondering what exactly you said or did in front of a bunch of potentially influential people you barely know. So while the art of restraint can be challenging when there’s no financial consequence, it is an art you must learn to master (at least most of the time, one night of letting loose at a festival is fair game — it’s just not the time and place for a bender).
5. Exercise. Aiding in avoiding the aforesaid potential to add a festival fifteen to your waistline is the addition of a mild exercise regimen to your festival schedule. It doesn’t have to be much. Maybe half an hour in your hotel gym or a dozen pushups and situps in your room. Or better yet, a good old fashioned run (which isn’t quite possible at say, Sundance, but with any reasonably weathered festival it’s a fine idea). The added bonus of running in a city that’s not home is can double as a sight-seeing tour. Take to Google maps and find an interesting route — perhaps one involving a big local park — and go to town (and screenshot that route so you don’t end up having to turn on data if and when you get lost trying to find your way back). You’ll feel refreshed and ready to take on another day at the festival. And you won’t get fat.
6. Be seriously careful with international phone charges. “Oh, I’m just call home for like one minute” or “I’ll just send one text” or “I’m just gonna turn my data for a second to check my e-mails and upload an Instagram” are thoughts you will most definitely regret. Especially if you make these seemingly harmless singular acts a recurring habit (I’ll admit personally to seeing said habit turn into a four-figure monthly cell phone bill once). Look into travel plans you can add on to your service, and be savvy about using wifi on your phone whenever you can.
7. See the sights! Not every waking moment at a film festival needs to be devoted to it. Especially when you’ve flown so many hours to a potentially interesting new city and culture. So there’s no need to feel guilty if you decide to blow off responsibility one day and go off and explore what there is to be offered, particularly toward the end of a festival when things may have slowed down (At Sundance? Spend an afternoon on the slopes. In Cannes? Go to the beach! Spending a week in Toronto? Uh… ). Some smaller festivals even encourage this of their guests and might offer discounts for various tourist attractions (if you ever get to the Reykjavik International Film Festival, they offer a free trip to the holy grail of examples for any accredited guest).
8. Find a local pool or spa. Kill two birds with one stone (#5 and #7 on this list) by venturing out to a local pool or spa, swimming a few laps and/or steaming off a few days of festival exhaustion. Either activity can truly wash away whatever damage consistent open bar exploitation and sleep deprivation has done to your face and soul. If you’re on the European film festival circuit in particular, pools and spas are abundant and cheap if you do a little research and find the ones that aren’t tourist traps. This also becomes a great way to get a sense of how local folks interact with each other, and learn about the remarkably varied rules of bathing culture in different countries (though if you take issue to public nudity, I’d do a little extra research first depending on where you are).
9. Don’t network to “network.” Network to make real friends! The truly glory of the film festival circuit lies in its ability to create a real sense of community, no matter what your purpose at the festival is. Essentially, you’re spending a week or so constantly interacting with the same people over and over, which creates a real opportunity to go from strangers to BFFs before the closing night party ends. And while there may very well be a strictly professional opportunity to network amidst the downright summer camp-esque vibe that the best festivals can mirror, try not to go about it just to get a few new e-mail addresses on your contact list. For one, people can sense that insincerity and are going to be unlikely to help you in whatever it is you might want in the future anyway. And more over, where’s the fun in that? A new friend can be the most meaningful thing you leave a festival with, and can create a further sense of community if you ever get to meet up on the circuit again.
10. Find a film festival girl/boyfriend. Taking the previous tip to a whole other level, this may or may not be kosher depending on your relationship status and isn’t particularly easy to find. But if you can pull it off: The film festival boy/girlfriend offers one of the greatest existing forms of a romantic relationship. And I don’t mean just hooking up with someone once or twice over the course of a festival. I mean utilizing the intimacy of a film festival to essentially create this mini, temporary version of a committed relationship. For 7 or 10 or whatever amount of days, you get this person that exists only the often idyllic bubble that is a film festival. You can go to screenings together, rely on each other for various schedule reminders, and make head to that local pool or spa hand in hand. Resisting the temptation to continue it beyond the festival’s end might be difficult, though believe me: What happens at a film festival should probably just stay there.