Hitting the festival circuit: developing your festival strategy
Festivals are an important part of getting your short film seen, and building your profile as a filmmaker. But the odds are not in your favour. There are – to use a technical term – HEAPS of festivals of all sizes around the world, and many more filmmakers vying for a spot. First things first: you need to create a plan. Do this before you have finished your film. Here’s some guidance around how to choose the right festivals for your film and increase your chances of selection.
Ask yourself what your priorities are and what you hope to achieve from the festival circuit. Know what your film is and where it belongs. Then tailor your approach to target festivals that will help you reach your goal most efficiently, and plot out which of them you’ll target over the 12 months following completion.
TIP: Want an international distribution deal for your short? Target festivals with a market attached – such as Clermont-Ferrand, Toronto, Palm Springs and Edinburgh – where sales agents, distributors, buyers and festival programmers are on the lookout for new films.
If your film is outstanding at all levels, from script to cinematography and everything in between, you will be targeting A-list festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Sundance. If you’re a first-time filmmaker, getting accepted here is unlikely. Lower your expectations.
Be aware that the numbers are against you. The big festivals get tens of thousands of submissions each year. Consider entering lower-profile festivals where there’s more chance of getting selected, or look for genre festivals that fit your film.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
Pick the right festival for your film. Your zombie comedy won’t even get past the receptionist at a children’s film festival. Look at the films a festival showed the year before to get an idea of their range, and ask filmmakers who’ve had films accepted about their experience. If your film covers a particular niche or social issue (documentary, LGBT, female filmmaker, human rights, environmental concerns), make sure you include festivals that focus on those sorts of films. Your chances of acceptance are much higher.
TIP: Wait until your film is ready. Don’t send it off incomplete if it’s still subpar (but if it’s just the colour grade, that’s probably OK). Many festivals will also give you an extension if you contact them before the deadline closes – especially if you promise them your premiere.
A lot of film festivals accept online submissions through Withoutabox, a website where you can upload and submit your film, and browse a list of hundreds of international festivals. Withoutabox can be helpful in narrowing down your festivals and good for deadline reminders. Short Film Depot is another popular website.
These platforms are just the tip of the iceberg and there are many more you can use, so don’t just rely on these two. Do your own research and talk to other filmmakers you know and respect.
HOLD YOUR PREMIERE
Many of the top festivals insist on a world premiere or international premiere, so save yours for where you can make the most of it. DON’T put your film online or commit to smaller festivals until you have entered the top ones on your list. Most international festivals do allow you to have screened in your home country first, so it’s usually fine to enter film festivals in your home country at the same time as the big international ones.
TIP: Cast and crew screenings don’t count as premieres.
The pinnacle of a short film’s career – nomination to the Oscars – also has a number of rules, such as no TV or online broadcast. These rules are strict, so make sure you check out www.oscars.org if you’re considering aiming for the top.
TIP: You can extend the life of your ‘premiere status’ by offering smaller festivals your ‘European premiere’ or your ‘Australasian premiere’, or other variations of this.
FOLLOW THE RULES
Once you’ve decided which festivals are at the top of your hit list, read the submission instructions carefully and follow them to the letter. It seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many filmmakers don’t read the application form properly or fill in all the information required.
TIP: Not all festivals have entry fees (especially in Europe), but for those that do, get in early. The early-bird deadlines usually have lower entry fees attached, which saves you money. There’s an upside to being organised!
DVDs are fast becoming a thing of the past, so use the online screener option through the festival entry platform wherever possible. Or create a password-protected Vimeo screener – this option is higher quality and increasingly preferred by programmers.
Don’t wait for a response from one festival before submitting to another. It can take months from submission to acceptance date, and it’s wise to have a few irons in the fire. Just be aware that you might have to pull a film from one festival if you suddenly get into a larger one that requires a premiere, and that doesn’t endear you to programmers.
YOUR FILM WAS ACCEPTED! WHAT NEXT?
You’ll want to jump up and down and celebrate, but you may need to keep it secret for a while until the festival announces its programme. Use this time wisely to prepare any marketing and communications material you can provide to help promote your film screenings.
The festival will have its own publicist who’ll be working hard to get bums on seats, so send them your EPK (electronic press kit). Check out this handy guide we prepared earlier about how to help build buzz for your film.
TIP: If you don’t get the best screening slot, don’t take it personally. Programmers have a lot of considerations to balance, so focus on making the most of your screening.
If you or any high-profile actors, award-winning crew or even a hot new band featured in your film are available to attend key festival events, let the organisers know. It helps them generate publicity if they know they’ll have some stars attending their events. The more notice you can give an overseas festival about your intention to attend, the better.
TIP: Some short film festivals pay screening fees to filmmakers, particularly in Europe where festivals often receive significant government support – but that isn’t possible for most short film festivals. Instead, many offer prizes and acknowledgement for award winners.
MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR FESTIVAL EXPERIENCE
There’s a fantastic energy at festivals. Everyone’s interested to see new and exciting work. It’s also a great place to network with industry contacts, meet programmers from other festivals and make friends with fellow filmmakers. Go to all the events you can: filmmaker drinks, panel discussions, the opening-night shindig, and so on. There’s nothing like making personal connections and feeling part of a community.
TIP: When your film is premiering at a festival, have a wider sales and distribution strategy ready to go as soon as the festival ends. Capitalising on the publicity and buzz of a festival can help you secure a better deal.
BE GRACIOUS IN DEFEAT
Didn’t get accepted into that festival you’d pinned your hopes on? Don’t take it personally – many factors go into a programmer’s decision not to take a particular film. If that festival is happening near you, go along anyway. Introduce yourself to the organisers and let them know what you’re doing. They may be more likely to accept your next project if they know you personally.
AND FINALLY… SHOW THE LOVE
Festival organisers work long hours for little pay because they love films and filmmakers. After your film screened at a festival, follow up with a thank-you note to the organisers, and update them on any other success you have had with the film – they’ll enjoy hearing your feedback. It also builds long-term relationships, which will help you next time you submit a film to them. It’s not a coincidence that many filmmakers return to premiere their work in the same festivals each year.