It’s summertime and you’re applying to the big fall and winter film festivals. It may be months until you hear anything, but it’s never too early to start planning and strategizing.
We reached out to some of our favorite narrative and documentary filmmakers and asked them what advice they’d give to filmmakers hitting the festival circuit for the first time.
The filmmakers who responded are listed below (along with the titles of their most recent films):
“Attend as many as you possibly can, big or small — don’t wait for your producers to submit or to be offered, get your hands dirty submitting everything, and when you attend meet other programmers, then travel the world promoting your film and having the best time of your life.” – Aaron Moorhead (“Spring”)
“Seek out other filmmakers whose work you admire and support their films as well. You never know who will become a future collaborator!’ – Leah Meyerhoff (“I Believe in Unicorns”)
“Play as many festivals as you can, but only personally attend the ones that are filmmaker-friendly. There’s a very stark contrast between film festivals as to what they provide for filmmakers and the differences aren’t always in line with what you might think. For example, the bigger and more prestigious premiere festivals generally give less to the filmmakers, which might seem counterintuitive. Even though they have deeper pockets, rarely are those funds extended to the people actually producing the content. This is due to the fact that they simply don’t have to– they know that you’re going to come no matter what and that the producers will likely pay to travel your cast and crew. They can save their sponsor money to throw big parties that entice random celebrities to pose in front of various corporate logos. The smaller, regional festivals are the ones that really benefit from filmmaker attendance and those are the ones that will pay for your travel, hotel and sometimes even a stipend or screening fee. Go to as many of these as you can. They are typically way more fun that the big ones because you’re not doing press and stressing out about industry stuff, you’re just doing Q&A’s, seeing movies and hanging out with fellow filmmakers. These smaller, regional festivals are typically run by volunteers because they genuinely love bringing indie movies to their community. They respect the art and the dialogue it brings. As a filmmaker, what you actually want out of a film festival is simple — engaged audiences. That’s why you hear filmmakers praising festivals like Maryland, Sarasota, Indie Memphis and Sidewalk. Also, if you play your cards right, you can end up with enough key chains, mouse pads, and Stella Artois glasses that you could sell them and fund your next project.” – Lance Edmands (“Bluebird”)
“It depends on the size and focus of each festival. If they are heading out to larger festivals where the focus will be selling the film, consider lining up a sales agent (who will only get paid if the film sells) and a publicist to help you create buzz for the film. (Only work with folks who are passionate about your film though!) If you are heading for more intimate, audience-driven festivals, where the focus will be on the films and filmmakers, then meet as many folks as you can, be open to new friendships! You might create wonderful bonds/creative relationships there. I met my editor Nat Sanders at a small festival back in the early days and our collaboration turned out to be one of the most important in my career.” – Lynn Shelton (“Laggies”)
“The basics. Postcards, business cards, etc. Keep in mind that the festival circuit, especially early in your career, is about business. You are there to sell your film and sell yourself. Connections with programmers from other festivals, fellow filmmakers and even critics are invaluable. Take the time to see films that won’t get wide distribution. No need to see a film that will be in multiplexes next week. Oh… see the sights of wherever you are. Sometimes travel is our only compensation for making these indies. Take advantage of it.” – Sean Baker (“Tangerine”)
“If you are lucky enough to have a film play a number of festivals starting in the winter through to the fall I would advise you to think of the festival circuit as sort of a summer camp for filmmakers and with this in mind to approach it in the following way. I believe most people go in with certain expectations and knowledge — such as taking advantage of being able to spend time with other filmmakers, going to lots of movies, attending great parties, meeting people they want to pitch a project to and, of course, seeing your film with audiences and participating in Q&A’s. But I always thought the best part of any summer is the unexpected things you didn’t plan on doing. At film festivals these might be the following: Start your day with an early movie, make an effort to meet patrons, staff, volunteers and board members. Go to a movie you know nothing about. Do not eat every meal with the same three filmmakers you are already friends with. On the first day go to a store and buy water, beverages and late night snacks, unload everything in the mini bar. Get a group of people together and go for a meal away from the festival surroundings — someplace where there are no other people in the restaurant with badges — it will feel like you snuck off the campgrounds and that always feels special. Drink too much and sing karaoke with other filmmakers. Try and organize or go to an after-hours party in someone’s room. Try to keep in touch when it’s over, just like summer camp.” – Douglas Tirola (“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead”)
“Have fun and meet lots of people. The people you meet when you are on the circuit with your first film are like the people in your freshman hall in college. Later, you’ll have more films and meet more people, but there’ll always be some special connection with those people from your first time out. Part of me thinks first of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady as the directors of ‘Boys of Baraka.’ And Laura Poitras as director of ‘My Country My Country.’ And Thom Powers as an NYU instructor/filmmaker, researching a book about documentary filmmaking. And Eugene Hernandez as a terrific writer for a little website called Indiewire.” – Marshall Curry (“Point and Shoot”)
For previous Filmmaker Surveys, visit here. Indiewire is striving to spur discussion in the indie film community about a variety of timely issues. If you’ve got a topic you’d like us to feature, please let us know in the comments section below.