For an independent filmmaker, being accepted to Venice, Telluride and Toronto – the major festivals that launch the fall season – can seem like a dream come true. But as studios and independent distributors use the festivals to launch their fall titles and awards contenders, it’s becoming harder and harder for independent films without distribution to garner much needed attention and support. For every “Moonlight” that launches out of Telluride and goes onto acclaim in Toronto, the ground is littered with films that were never heard from again.
For the independent filmmaker, this becomes something of a double-edged sword. You want the prestige that comes with the festival selection, but need to understand that your film’s exposure may be limited. Managing your expectations is key and to that end, the independent filmmaker needs to determine what are the priorities and goals to be achieved at the festival.
Are you looking for representation? Trying to sell the film? Agents looking for new talent and acquisitions executives looking to buy movies are not there to see the studio films and awards contenders (SFAC). A savvy sales agent and a good publicist can drive those people to your screening.
The Toronto International Film Festival is the world’s greatest cinematic smorgasbord – with 255 films from countries and filmmakers the world over. This number is down approximately 15% from as many as 280 films in previous years.
On any given morning in the festival’s first week, there are 15 Press & Industry Screenings starting between 8:30 and 10:00 am. Many of those will be studio films and awards contenders (SFAC); other will be titles for sale, often with stars and name directors attached. Many of the press are there to cover those SFAC films and simply don’t have time to give their attention to other specialized titles. To illustrate: A trade paper once told me that of the 150 films having their world premiere in Toronto, they were going to be able to review 50. I don’t really like those odds.
Telluride is a cinephile’s paradise in the mountains. But again, the festival’s line-up usually includes a number of highly anticipated studio and awards contenders – often making their first public screenings. Telluride’s policy of not announcing its line-up in advance puts the independent filmmaker at a disadvantage. The SFAC films are being released in the near future, so they’ve already begun the process. For an independent film, not being able to announce your inclusion until the day before means that you can’t do valuable outreach in advance of the fest. And the journalists attending – who pay their own way and are not given any special treatment by the festival — are usually on assignment to see the SFAC films.
Venice does not attract many North American press or buyers and can be prohibitively expensive for independent filmmakers. And many titles screening there are also screening in Telluride and Toronto. Again, unless you’re a SFAC film, it’s often hard to realize a benefit.
Today there are fewer and fewer critics and journalists trying to cover more and more in less and less time. In the hothouse environment of a film festival, where there are always multiple screenings at any given time, it becomes harder and harder to ensure that your film is seen and reviewed by the trades and key websites. To this end, you must decide whether or not to screen your film ahead of time, in what format and for who.
In some cases, screening ahead of time is the only way to ensure trade reviews from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, Screen International and others. In order to do this, you may have to make your film available on a link, which is not an ideal situation for any filmmaker.
Focusing your efforts on a few key journalists, who may be inclined to like your film, can be a better tactic that casting a wide net. Looking at the selection and seeing if your film fits into any possible trends is another tactic to garner attention. Make friends with the press office liaison for your section. They may be aware of opportunities you wouldn’t learn about otherwise.
Ultimately, if you go into the festival with a battle plan to make a precision strike, the benefits can out-weigh the risks. And you always have the gold laurels for your poster.
Mark Pogachefsky is the co-founder and president of MPRM Communications , which has a long history of successful festival launches at major festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, LAFF, Toronto and Cannes.