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11 Tips for Starting Your Own Indie Film Festival

11 Tips for Starting Your Own Indie Film Festival

People always ask me why would I want to start such an event. Really, it comes down to three experiences. First, my family — my grandmother took me to matinees every Saturday when I was growing up. So I watch a lot of movies. As a festival founder, you will watch a lot of films, so it can’t feel like work. It’s got to be something you enjoy or you won’t inspire others to join in.

Second, I was inspired by my experience starting the Portland Film Club — we now have around 1,900 members. We meet at least once a week to watch a film and discuss it afterwards. Having a group of film lovers around you helps too. They’ll support your event both as volunteers and as paying attendees. You need them both, but mostly volunteers when you start. No one makes money in the festival business.

Third: a series of film competitions that I won, which culminated with my first short film, “Emptys,” winning Tropfest in New York. Watching my film with 15,000 other people (not to mention having Hugh Jackman present me with my award!) was just an amazing experience and I wanted to replicate that.

I went on to make a few other short films and even worked with some of the other filmmakers I met at Tropfest. Festivals are about building friendships that will last forever.

After my trip around the world traveling to festivals, I came back and pitched the idea of starting a film festival with Portland’s most amazing documentary filmmaker, educator, and just all-around nice guy, Jay Cornelius. He’s a better filmmaker than I; his taste is better than mine. Basically, everything he touches is gold. I knew if I could get him involved it would succeed. He came on board and spent so much time helping make the festival a reality. The Portland Film Festival may have been my idea, but it was his network of students and supporters that made it such a success.

READ MORE: Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Ignore Short Films at Festivals

After I acquired the domain name PortlandFilmFestival.com from a domain broker in Australia, Jay and I jumped in. We started the festival around April of 2013 and kicked it off the week leading up to Labor Day weekend. We programmed it so it would come at a different time than other festivals in Portland and also for a time of the year that people would actually like to come to Portland: in the summer. 
Here are some tips to keep in mind when starting (and running) your own film festival:

1. Do research.

Visit as many festivals as you can — it’s even better if you can go with your own film screening. You’ll have a better experience and get into all the VIP nooks and crannies. Go to all the events. Some filmmakers just attend their own screenings. That’s a big mistake.

2. Make friends at festivals.

You can turn to them for help and inspiration. (I have a programmer from Slamdance coming to help at this year’s festival.)

3. Find what works and copy it.

This year we are meshing elements from the Sarasota Film Festival and Sundance. We’re holding coffee chats with the day’s directors. It’s another way to get filmmakers to network with each other and also a way to record and get some content for future use.

4. Start early.

Get your program up as early as possible — at least 30-60 days. The longer it’s up, the more sales you will do and the better attended the events will be. We got our schedule online for sale two weeks before the event last year and we almost tripled sales by doing it a month out this year. Next year, I’m shooting for 60 days in advance.

5. Value volunteers.

It’s hard to pull off a film festival without volunteers. Find enthusiastic organizers and try to get a couple of volunteer coordinators. They are the lifeblood of any festival. The better organized you are, the more likely volunteers they will come back for a second year. Repeat volunteers are gold.

6. Bring in press and treat them right.

Supportive journalists can help get the word out about the festival. Pay their way if you can afford it and show them a good time.

7. Build partnerships.

Connect with the government, allied organizations, and businesses. We have Willamette Writers, the oldest writers group in the Northwest, as partners for our screenwriting events and SAG helping with our acting events. We also partner with our state’s largest film group, OMPA, Portland’s chapter of Women in Film, our state film agency Oregon Film, the City of Portland and the Portland Parks Bureau for our outdoor screenings, and other film networking groups in our area. A local photography and film store called Pro Photo Supply supports the festival not just financially but through use of their equipment and event space. They are hosting one of our biggest events this year with Jason Momoa and even introduced us to Canon. Find aligned organizations and businesses and work together. They will open doors.

8. Be creative.

Don’t forget: it’s a festival. Host free events and invite some bands. Make it fun. Make it a show. During this year’s festival, we’re hosting over 30 bands. We have two dedicated people whose sole focus is to bring music to our film events. For three nights of the festival, we have partnered with the City of Portland and Portland Parks Bureau to host free outdoors events with live music. Last year, our opening night film was about aerial acrobats, so we hired an aerial acrobat company to make it special.

9. Use technology. Go mobile. Be social.

This year, to help with organization we are using Google Drive, Google Analytics, Mail Chimp, Signup Genius, Sched, Eventbrite and a few other key organizational systems. It gives all the volunteers access and keeps all the information and schedules in one place. There’s no need to recreate the wheel. It’s safe and stored for next year’s event. Also, everything about our festival is native to small-format screens. And we’re on most social platforms. It really helps engage your audience.

10. Ask for what you need.

Remember what my grandmother always said: Closed mouths never get fed. Ask for help. Tell people why you need something and sometimes they’ll give you what you want. if you go through life just getting what you’re given, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities.

11. Document everything.

Don’t forget to take pictures and shoot video. Use the documentation to help promote and get sponsors for next year.

Josh Leake is a film director and producer. His first film, “Emptys,” a documentary about people who collect beverage containers as their principal source of income, won first place at Tropfest New York 2012, the world’s largest short film festival. Leake is the founder and director of the Portland Film Festival, which runs from August 26-September 1. Find out more information here.

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