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Film festivals

The story on film festivals

For most filmmakers a film festival showing is the closest they will ever come to having an audience for their films. For most serious independent filmmakers it is where they hope to find a buyer for their film.

The world's first major film festival was held in Venice in 1932; the other major international film festivals (Berlin,Cannes, Moscow and Karlovy Vary) date back to the 1940s and 1950s.

The first North American film festival was the San Francisco International Film Festival held in March 1957 in San Francisco. It played a major role in introducing foreign films to American audiences. Among those films were Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon and Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali.

The Toronto festival (which began in 1976) has now become a major North American festival, and the most widely attended worldwide.

The important ones

Although the list of the most prestigious is subject to constant change, here are the international "A" list festivals. They generally all have exclusivity requirements so that new films must be premiered at one of them, and only one of them, before they are shown at any other festivals.

  • Sundance Film Festival (mid-January)
  • Toronto International Film Festival (early September)
  • Cannes Film Festival (late May)
  • American Film Institute (early November)
  • Berlin Film Festival (early February)
  • South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW) (mid-March)
  • Telluride Film Festival (early September)
  • Los Angeles Film Festival (mid-June)
  • Seattle International Film Festival (late May)
  • Tribeca Film Festival (early May)

Of these festivals Sundance, Toronto and Cannes (pronounced "Can") offer the best chance of getting distribution. By far the majority of the independent films shown at these major festivals still don't get distribution but stand a much better chance than at any of the other festivals. These are the main festivals attended by the acquisition agents from the major distributors.

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If you are convinced your movie is good enough for Sundance you will probably want to get a producer's representative to help you get into the festival and make sure the acquisition agents see it.

The rest of the festivals

In addition to the top ten festivals there are a handful of other domestic and international film festivals that nearly make the list and are also frequented by acquisition agents offering the possibility of a sale.

  • IFP Los Angeles
  • New York New Directors
  • Denver International
  • Cinequest San Jose
  • Rotterdam
  • Oldenburg
  • Durban
  • Tokyo
  • London
  • Melbourne
  • Vancouver

Even if you don't get into one of the "A" festivals you should still exhibit at as many festivals as you can. There probably won't be any acquisition agents at the smaller festivals but you can still build buzz around your movie. Gather any critical acclaim, awards and reviews that you can. They all go in your press kit.





The feedback you get at the festivals will give you a good idea if your film is good enough to continue trying to distribute. You will also make connections with other filmmakers, fans, reviewers and festival directors who can possibly help you create buzz or just be of help in the future with your next film.

Preparing for the film festival experience

If you've never attended a film festival then do so well before you submit a film to a festival. Ideally you should go to the main festivals you are interested in the year before you submit your film The first time you attend a big festival you will be overwhelmed by all the things that are going on. A scouting trip to the festivals when you don't have a film on the line will pay off big-tim when you are ready to submit your film next year.

Among the things you need to do is get a list of all the officials and judges involved in the festivals. Although they change from year to year if you've got names then you stand a better chance of making a contact at the festival before you submit your film. Your chances of success at a festival go way up if you have people pulling for you who are part of the festival.

Applying to film festivals

To get into film festivals you must submit a judging copy of your film, usually a VHS tape or DVD copy, along with an application and a fee and submit the film during the time period when the festival is open for submissions. The fees range from free to a few hundred dollars but are typically $20-$60 at most festivals.

Before you send anything in, do a test screening of your finished film for a group of people who've never seen the film. Listen carefully to their comments. If you don't get a 100% positive reaction then seriously consider doing more editing. You've been living with the film a long time now and it's hard to see the forest for the trees.

The judges at the festivals will react much like the audience in your test screening. Why waste hundreds of dollars and months of time on festival entries if you're going to be rejected from the best festivals? If a few more days of serious editing could improve your film--do it!

Check out the bulletin boards on WithoutABox to get a feel for what other filmmakers think of the various festivals, what experience they had.

You really want to get into one of the top festivals if you possibly can. Realize that you are competing against every other filmmaker in the world and all the so called "studio independents", but being able to claim "Official Selection Sundance Film Festival", will go farther to getting your film sold than almost any other thing you can do.

A serious filmmaker will apply to all of the top ten festivals as well as ten to 30 of the lower ranking festivals. Don't just apply to Sundance, then sit around waiting to hear back. Keep entering appropriate festivals as they open for submissions, first entering the top festivals listed above. Then do a round of entering any lower ranking festivals that are appropriate and you can afford.

Find out if the festivals you're interested in are ones where distributors go to discover new films. Frankly most of the film festivals are vanity affairs where filmmakers bring their friends and family and end up in an otherwise empty theater. If you're trying to sell your film this is obviously a waste of your time. Having additional "Official Selection" banners on your web site from lots of festivals, or winning some awards, has some value but you would be wasting your time and money to attend very many of these in person.

Keep in mind that you are entering festivals to make contacts and try to sell your film to distributors.

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Apply correctly and apply early. Going through WithoutABox will make sure you don't make a serious mistake on your application. Festivals have deadlines and by going through WithoutABox you are often able to submit after the official deadline but don't do it!

The fact is that most festivals make their selections as the films are submitted so if your's is the last film to arrive in the mail your chances of being accepted are significantly lower than if you are one of the first to arrive. A common mistake most filmmakers make is racing to get their film in under the deadline and submitting a substandard movie in the process. They would be better off giving the final edit the time it deserves and submitting to another of the top festivals or waiting until next year.

Never sacrifice the quality of your finished film to make the deadline on a festival. The best schedule slots get filled early.

Make sure your film is appropriate for the festival. All festivals publish a mission statement or other description of the types of films they are looking for. Sending a family film to a gay/lesbian festival isn't going to work.

Don't include any promotional materials in your submission unless requested, but anything you can do to make a personal connection with the festival programmers to make your self memorable (in a good way), such as a phone call asking a simple question that leads to a pleasant conversation.

The festival programmers are usually unpaid film fanatics who are overworked but would love nothing better than to talk with a real filmmaker. If you have an interesting story about your film or yourself that might possibly get a slot in the schedule.

Anything you can do to make you and your film memorable to the festival programmers will work in your favor. Just don't do anything unpleasant or that might get you labeled as a pest.

Make sure that your press-kit biography and film synopsis are as interesting and exciting as you can make them.

Typically you will be notified a few months before the festival if you got in. Statistically you have about a 1 in 20 chance of getting into any festival. Of course, your odds go way up if your film is really good but judging is extremely subjective and often biased by the mission of the festival to exhibit certain types of films.

Not all festivals notify you if you don't get in. You can find out from the Without A Box forums if people are getting acceptances and then check with the festival to see if you were selected. Or you can wait until the festival schedule is posted and see if you are in it.

Even the best films don't get selected to all festivals. Since festival directors often visit other festivals and talk with other directors, they hear about the best received films. The filmmakers of those films will then get invitations to submit their films, often with the fee waived.

Early planning

In addition to any friends, cast and crew members you can get to the festival to help promote the film, you should consider signing on with a publicist, lawyer, agent producer's rep and manager.

Get together your marketing materials. You want to have your press kit together and available in printed form as well as CD-ROM/DVDs. Printed posters, flyers, invitation to screenings and postcards. Your web site needs to be in place by now. Order some promo items like clever T-shirts and hats and other giveaways.

Many of the bigger festivals give gift bags to the filmmakers, usually full of sample products from the festival's sponsors, such as food, drinks or T-shirts. A good promotional idea is to turn this around and make a couple of hundred gift bags full of your film's promotional materials and little treats to give to festival officials, workers, reviewers, or anyone else that can influence the success of your film at the festival.

If you have a really, truly great trailer for you film have it posted on your web site.

One of the biggest mistakes indie filmmakers make is putting together a lame trailer and posting it on their web site, and most indie trailer look lame!

Making an exciting, interesting, high-energy movie trailer is an art form that few people know how to do well. Specialized editors in Hollywood make it their business to only do trailers and they get very good at it.

If your trailer isn't at least as good as the best that Hollywood can produce then it will look lame. If you show a lame trailer to someone they will assume your film is lame.

Film festival directors and acquisition agents don't want to see your trailer. They want to see the entire movie. After you sell your film the distributor will arrange to have a trailer made by someone who knows what they're doing that will really sell your film to audiences.

Check out the best of the current Hollywood trailers hosted on Apple Computer's iTunes site.

If the trailer you come up with isn't as least as exciting as the best of these then never show it to anyone. It can only hurt your movie's chances of getting sold.

Starting your film's festival buzz

Three to four weeks before your film shows in the festival contact the local press. This includes all the local newspapers, radio and TV stations. Since nothing will have been written about the festival that soon you can possibly get interviewed by the reporter assigned to write about the festival. You will be featured in the article about the festival or possibly get an article just about your film.

Everything goes into the press kit, and all this coverage will make buzz at the festival.

Surviving the film festival

Be sure you have your tickets or passes purchased ahead of time. Waiting in lines at the festival is a waste of your marketing time. Make plane and hotel reservations well ahead of time. At the big festivals, like Sundance, hotels get booked many months ahead.

Get the festival schedule from the festival web site and use it to develop a plan of what other films you will see and what events and parties you want to attend. Plan on being at any kind of social mixer where you can meet with other filmmakers and industry professionals.

Bring a large shoulder bag or backpack where you can carry your promotional materials and store any materials you pick up along the way. You want to be gathering ideas for your next film and getting all the business cards and contact information you can get.

Don't worry too much about clothes. Most festivals are extremely casual, even the big movie stars get casual at Sundance, except for the occasional formal party that you aren't going to get invited to, anyway.

The exception to the casual dress rule is that if there is any way you can draw attention to your film you should do it. This would include wearing brightly colored T-shirts or hats. The film business is all about getting people's attention and self-promotion so don't be shy. If you've got friends or family coming then get them all dressed in your film's official T-shirt and keep them roaming the festival in teams handing out your postcards and buttons and inviting people to your screening.

The one thing to be careful of is that none of your friends embarrass you by getting stoned, arrested or saying negative comments about your film.

If you're really serious about selling your film you should hire a producer's representative to work with you.

Above all else, be nice! Almost everyone involved in film festivals is working for free. They are there for the love of independent film. Whether it is the festival workers, film reviewers, buyers, audiences at the screenings or the other filmmakers and actors they are there to have a good time and participate in the magic of filmmaking.

Irritating a festival worker could guarantee you never get a film into that festival again. Copping an attitude could get you a bad review or a dis on someone's blog. When you are nice to the festival workers it's amazing how hard they will work to help you out.

More film festival buzz

When you get to the festival smooze with everyone. Pass out postcards you've printed of your film's poster along with Xerox copies of any local reviews or articles you gotten.

Have a drink at the opening party and talk to everyone you can. These people are filmmakers, reporters, future fans and collaborators. Attend every party, conference, and social activity. Talk to everyone, give out your cards, get everyone else's cards. Remember to contact them after the festival.

Put up posters and had out postcards for your film where ever you can. Give out cards on the street in front of the theaters and ask people to come to your film. Get as many people into your screening as you can.

Every seat you fill may be another vote for an award for your movie. If there is any local ethnic, political, religious or fan group that might promote your film find out about them and contact them. If they start helping you promote your film you are well on your way to the Audience Favorite Award.

An excited festival audience can result in interest from film distributors.

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During the festival and afterward collect any coverage you can find. All this becomes more quotes for the press kit. You will make copies of it to give out at the next festival.

Mixing and making contacts

The most important part of film festivals are the parties. This is where you will get to meet other filmmakers, acquisition agents, distributors, producers, actors, festival staff, entertainment lawyers. In short, all the people you need to know as an independent filmmaker.

Go to the parties. Grab a drink, but try not to get too drunk or start telling offensive jokes. Give out your business cards, collect everyone else's cards and following up with them after the festival. Introduce yourself to everyone, find out who they are and what they do. Don't be afraid to approach big-shots and famous people. Be serious and respectful and talk business. Invite people to your screening.

The big, important parties at the top festivals are often invitation only. Don't let this stop you. Chris Gore has wonderful, field tested, ideas for how to crash any party. I can't recommend his book highly enough.

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