Every year, filmmakers flock to international film festivals like Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, Venice, and SXSW in search for distribution deals that will take their work to screens around the world.
For many independent creators, the combined cost of travel, accommodation, meals and festival fees may eat up a large part of your marketing budget or personal savings.
Do the exposure and networking opportunities at festivals for new and emerging filmmakers outweigh the costs? It’s a question filmmakers around the world should ask themselves at the beginning of every festival season.
Last week, I did double-duty as a filmmaker and journalist at the 2013 Banff World Media Festival. Here’s what I found out from some key decision-makers at this year’s festival:
1. Cut your teeth at a smaller festival first.
Arriving at Cannes or Sundance as a filmmaker without a network or an understanding of how film festivals work is like arriving in Hollywood as an actor without a network or any training in acting. Sure, our inner Harrison Fords may tell us to go big or go home, but your bank account will probably tell you otherwise.
A regional festival close to your home will give you an opportunity to leverage your existing network to springboard to larger distributors. The cost of a festival pass (required to attend panel discussions, industry parties, screenings, speed dating-style meetings) may also be less expensive than the larger global festivals.
“A festival like Banff is a great venue to sit down with a producer or distributor because it’s particularly low-key and laid back—which is great because everyone here talks to everyone,” explains Noah Segal, co-president of eOne Films Canada. “Other festivals are harder for first-timers because there’s more selling of bigger pictures going on.”
A word to the wise: book your meetings in the weeks preceding the festival. Most festival websites will have a “connect” option that will help you contact those names on your wish-list. Do it before their schedules fill up.
2. Be a real person, not a real asshole.
How you approach people at festivals is like setting a dinner table. There is a lot you need to do before you pitch your film.
Michael Kennedy, the executive vice-president of Canadian exhibitor Cineplex’s filmed entertainment division, tells me that a simple hello is the best place to start. He advises, “Introduce yourself. Ask questions. Keep it simple.”
In other words, use festival encounters and meet-and-greets to find out more about a distributor or producer. You can always follow up later, so save your pitch for the right moment. Don’t lead off with it right away.
“I always want to talk to people,” says Segal. “That’s what I’m here to do. But don’t assault them with information at the wrong place or wrong time.”
It may sound like a good idea at the time, but never pitch someone in the bathroom. Ever.
3. Know who you’re pitching and perfect your pitch.
Make sure you have a heart-stopping elevator pitch that’s going to sell someone on you and your project. You only have twenty or thirty seconds to make an impression, so make it count.
“There has to be something about that project that is going to make people leave their house and go to a theatre, otherwise we’re not interested,” explains Kennedy.
When it comes to a great pitch, everyone is looking for something different. It’s a good idea to do your homework and customize your elevator pitch to your audience.
“Audiences make decisions on what kind of movies they want to see after seeing the trailer, seeing the poster, what kind of genre it is, and where it’s playing,” explains Segal. “Always know who your audience is and what they want.”
For legendary film and TV producer Robert Lantos, it all comes down to the story. He says, “You’ve got to have something to sell that will captivate people’s hearts and minds—and that’s the story. For me it’s all about the story. Everything else comes later.”
Sean Horlor is the director and writer of The Mill and the Mountain and a Top 10 finalist in the 2013 CineCoup Film Accelerator.