32 Tips on Making an Indie Feature Film: Working the Festival Circuit
32 Tips on Making an Indie Feature Film: Working the Festival Circuit
I’ve made a lot of movies. I started off as a Runner and worked my way up. I worked on 13 movies as a 1st AC & 2nd AC and Director of Photography before I became an award-winning Director & Writer in my own right. Having gone from Runner to director I have experienced the whole gauntlet of film making from the biggest shoots (Harry Potter and James Bond) to tiny micro-budget one-man crew shoots. I have seen many ways to do things effectively and simply.
There are 6 main areas of filmmaking for the indie filmmaker: Development, Pre-production, production, post-production, festivals, and sales. In my first blog, I cover development and pre-production. In my second blog, I covered production and post-production. In this blog, I will be giving my tips on the film festival circuit for indie filmmakers.
These are my observations from more than 1,000 days on set and 29 years in the industry! Hopefully, they will make your filmmaking journey more fun and more productive.
The fun bit of festivals is having your film screened in a big theatre. Just for a moment we can celebrate all the work that has taken months and possibly years to arrive. All the naysayers were wrong! You can promote your work, invite everyone, sales agents, talent scouts commissioning editor, your friends and family and of course all the cast and crew. Maybe even sell some tickets!
Festivals are a great way to say thank you to everyone who helped, impress your investors and meet as many people as you can. I met some of my very best friends at film festivals and it’s nice to hang out with like-minded people and talk about movies.
Having had numerous shorts and four feature films on the festival circuit, I have been to festivals all over the world. Here are 32 tips to make it a more pleasurable experience and hopefully more successful. These are all based on my actual experiences of things that actually happened. It’s all true.
The world is slightly different now we are in the covid-era but I think most of these Tips still apply, and hopefully festivals will come back fully in the future.
Feel Good Film Festival
Tip #1: Festivals come in tiers, like a wedding cake: top tier, mid, bottom and just for fun tiers. Top tiers are the ones you hear about on the TV and in Variety: Cannes, Sundance, Berlin, Venice, Toronto etc. These are tremendous fun with great parties. You might even meet a famous person. (I met Jeff Bridges at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and it was a defining moment of my life).
But you’ll almost certainly not get in to the top tier festivals unless you have serious backing. If you look carefully: all the films at these festivals are backed by major companies, or organizations such at Netflix, BFI, Sundance Institute etc. If you aren’t part of the gang you almost certainly won’t get in. You gotta be in it to win it.
But for the independent film maker these Top Tier festivals really aren’t for us. We should go for the networking, the parties and to see movies. (Because we love movies right? Don’t forget that). Aim for tier two. All the rest are just for fun, parties, low-level networking and experience.
Tip #2: Think why you want to apply to a particular festival? Because you want to win and move on with your career is a very worthwhile goal but it’s unlikely unless you have backing (see above) then you almost certainly won’t get into the top tier festivals. (Though you should apply, because you know, like destiny and fate and stuff). Getting a festival screening can also be used as a free cast and crew screening, but don’t forget - often a festival will only give you a few complimentary tickets. So your cast and crew will be paying to see their own movie. Far better for them to pay you for an awesome private cast and crew screening. (with a free bar).
Tip #3: Don’t rush your final edit to get into a specific festival. Chances are you’ll work round the clock and rush the edit to get it ready for a festival deadline and then they’ll reject your movie and all that extra work you did was for naught. Far better to edit your film to perfection, and then submit.
I once rushed an edit for a festival and could see errors when I watched it at the premiere. It was heart breaking, but I then went and made edit changes, so Version 2 was better. But I had to re-mix the sound and re-do the DCP etc which cost a load of money, I wouldn’t have had to spend if I hadn’t rushed it. In hindsight I should have waited for the next festival.
Tip #4: If your feature film is more than 100 minutes it’s less likely to be programmed into a festival, and more likely to be rejected. It’s just a question of time and how many hours are in the festival day. Do yourself a favour and don’t give programmers a reason to reject your film.
Tip #5: You have one chance to show people a movie for the first time, no matter how much you might be BURSTING with excitement to show someone your amazing film, if it has anything technically wrong with it: that is what they will pick up on.
Festival programmers say ‘we are happy to watch your film in an unfinished edit,” but they really aren’t up to it. I have lost count of the amount of times I have shown a film that has picture lock, but the sound is not finished for people to feed back to me that they love the film but sound is bad, and they are rejecting it. Even through I have told them the sound is not mixed. They are festival programmers NOT filmmakers.
Tip #6: Remember your film could be the best film ever made, but if the festival programmer does not know you, and a indie with Bruce Willis comes along, even if it is the worst film in the world, they will more than likely go with the Bruce Willis one, as it means more exposure and ticket sales. Bruce might even turn up! (He won’t). Some of the worst films I have ever seen have been at the Cannes Film Festival, and Sundance.
Tip #7: Film Festivals are the politics of the film world, and if you think politician aren’t corrupt then I have news for you. There are many and varied reasons that people and films win awards and not always because they are the best. But that’s just the way it is. Making friends with the festival directors can’t be a bad thing. Play the long game.
Festival programmers have many commitments. If a festivals takes 100 movies. Then half of those spots will already be gone with Alumni movies, mates movies, their own movies and famous people’s movies. Then there will the donors to the festival who will get their films in and any big studios will put money in. There’s the darlings of the programmer, and their favourite genre and all of a sudden there will actually only be two spots available.
Tip #8: You need a festival money war chest. By the time your film is finished you have almost certainly run out of cash as you spent it all on making the movie! But now you have this work of art you must get it out to the world or it was a waste of everyone’s time. You need a minimum of $1000 to do festival submissions. And if you do get into a festival – then you’ve got to get there, find somewhere to stay, pay for food, maybe even buy a new shirt or dress! It all costs. Start saving. Maybe put a swear jar in the edit suite?
As well as traditional film festivals there are the Cons which often have film festivals within them. Here I am with Actress/Producer Krista DeMille
Tip #9: If you get accepted into a festival check to see if there is any financial support in your area, city, state or county. In the UK there is support for filmmakers if they get in to top tier festivals. Never be afraid to ask the festival what support it offers. They might pay for travel or accommodation, or even the whole thing! I was at one festival that gave out meal tokens, which in the end were worth more than $300! Another festival met us at the airport saving $200 (round trip) in taxi fare. It all adds up.
Tip #10: Like dairy products, films go off. From the date of your first screening you have about 18 months to do the festival run, then it’s over. Old films don’t get programmed: Sad but true. If your film didn’t get into any festivals in the first 18 months, I’m sorry to say - but it’s dead, Jim.
Tip #11: If you don’t get selected. Move on. There is no point at all in phoning up the festival and complaining as they will never program your movie, and may well put you on the naughty list forever. Don’t take it personally.
Wonderful, appropriate films will be rejected and abysmal, inappropriate films will be programmed (usually for er, reasons). An average of 4 in 10 success rate is good. But if it’s only 1 in 10 and you get in a great festival then that is awesome too! If you are doing less than 1 in 10, then I am sorry to say but you might have a dud. Go straight to distribution.
Tip #12: The film festival portals such as Festival Freeway take a long time to fill in and are very boring but once you have done it, it is done. Set aside a whole working day to do it and then it is done forever! Hooray!
Tip #13: Be warned: film festival application is addictive. And with PayPal it is SO EASY TO SPEND MONEY. Some people play the slots or like the odd flutter on the Gee Gees. I get sucked into late night festival submissions. I think, “Vegas sounds nice. Oh, I’ve never been to Portugal. Ooh, this festival has got a five star review for the woman who was once in Doctor Who!” and I’ve spent $100. Like driving and operating heavy machinery never apply to film festivals when drunk.
Tip #14: Always try to apply Early Bird. There is almost no point at all in late entry unless you know the programmer. It’s just wasted cash. Some festivals entry fees are more than $100. Which is insane and an insult to true indie filmmakers. I generally don’t think you should apply if it’s more than $75. Lots of the top tier festivals are free to enter. I appreciate film festivals are a business (and have taken a large hit due to corona virus) but there are other ways to make money.
Always check that your film is actually playing - especially when overseas…
Tip #15: If you are selected for a festival and decide you A) do want to show your movie and B) are going to go - then attend to their email immediately. Every festival will have different requirements of what and when to send it. They’ll want DCPs, DVDs, MOVs, Posters, hand outs, Press packs and all sorts. So make sure you have that ready and do it immediately! Book your hotel, book your flight! Things sell out and get super expensive closer to the time.
Do not leave it to the last minute. Nothing worse than having a festival brochure with your name and a little holding sign saying “Awaiting artwork” where your face should be.
Tip #16: Do your own posters. Most festivals will ask for a poster at the last minute, so make sure you have a bunch. You can always sign them and give them away as prizes at the end of the screening. People will be really happy.
Tip #17: The first screening of your movie in many ways feels like the end of your journey. You can only have one premiere right? Wrong! You can have a Cast and Crew screening, a private premiere, a World premiere, then an international premiere, then a country by country premier, German, English, Tunisian etc and then City by city premieres, London, Berlin, New York etc and each one can be an event. Dress up – make it special. It‘ll be a few years before you have another movie out. If ever.
Tip #18: Winning an award is great fun and makes you feel good, but mostly it doesn’t make any difference. Awards look nice on the mantelpiece, but unless it’s a top or possibly 2nd tier award no one will hire you because of it. TV producers, especially, don’t understand what hell you went through to make a 90 minute indie, and unless it’s a BAFTA or an OSCAR they really won’t value any award. Trust me I know. Just enjoy the moment, get great photos and use it as an excuse to contact agents and companies.
Tip #19: Don’t be lazy. Take responsibility. It’s all too easy, once the movie is complete, to feel that your role as the creator is over and lesser minions should do all the tech stuff and sorting things out, but the truth is - if you don’t do it no one will. Just do it, ignore the BS and enjoy the highlights. The whole film festival thing is really hard work and you will only get what you put in.
Tip #20: Don’t tell fibs. People talk and know how to use the internet. If you did have a premiere at Cannes then don’t try to tell Toronto you didn’t - they’ll know. Or worse – they’ll find out after you told everyone, and then reject you. Shame.
Meet interesting people…
Tip #21: Remember no one will be as excited as you to see the film on the big screen 50% of your crew and 30% of your cast will never actually watch the movie. There are films I worked on that I still haven’t seen years after we shot them. It was just a job.
Tip #22: It doesn’t matter how good your movie is someone will hate it. Ignore them. There are people out there who don’t like Paddington 2. There are people out there who don’t like Raiders of the Lost Ark. I can’t even.
Tip #23: People love free things. If your film is in competition then give them free stuff. Stickers, posters post cards, anything. At one film festival I gave out Tea-bags, as it was a comedy and I am English. Everyone thought this was hilarious and we won best movie. (Note: winning best movie and handing out tea-bags are not necessarily linked).
Tip #24: Do a tech run. Check your film screens properly and looks OK on the big screen. Yes it might be the projectionist’s job, but they don’t really have time. It might be the Director of Photography’s job but they might be busy. But let me tell you - there is NOTHING on this Earth that feels as bad as sitting in a packed theatre, at the world premiere of your movie and it either won’t pay at all, stops half way or mysteriously all the blacks are actually heavily compressed blues. That’s a weird one.
Tip #25: DCPs (Digital Cinema Projection) are a horrid format. It’s impossible to check them at home. But it is essential to have one. So I really really recommend getting them professionally made and keeping them on a totally separate hard drive. You can find reputable people who will make one for £350 (ish), and you can buy a good hard drive from Amazon for less than £50 (your movie will probably be less than 250GB). This is money very very very well spent and will take away those sleepless nights. I still have flash backs from a screening where the DCP kept skipping. Horrid.
Label the DCP and screening copies with the correct ASPECT RATIO. I had to sit through one of my films that was shot in 16x9 projected in 2:35. Which makes everyone short and fat. It was excruciating and the lead actress was not impressed at all. However - we still won best movie, (and the audience award). None of the audience were aware it was in the wrong aspect ratio. I hate to think what their TVs look like at home.
Makes sure your bring posters and hand outs for the display table.
Tip #26: Try to avoid screening from a DVD or Blue Ray it will almost certainly skip or be in the wrong region. Always bring a .Mov on a hard drive with multiple cables, I now have a ‘festival bag’ which is full of different cables, pen drives, and adaptors etc.
Tip #27: Cast and crew screenings – whether to have them or not. If you are low budget you almost certainly can’t afford to hire a cinema screen plus projector and projectionist and all that. Also the cast and crew will, to be honest, do very little in the way of promoting your movie. One actress refused to even tweet about the film we had cast her in, as she said ‘It wasn’t her job to help promote the film.’ I feel it is. Weird.
However. I love a cast and crew screening, I value these people as wonderful, essential parts of our film making machine and I want to buy them all a drink and hang out with them one more time. On a low budget movie I think it is perfectly reasonable to hire a cinema and sell your tickets. Cast and crew will understand that you have to cover the costs and if you do a deal so the tickets are all £10 and they get a glass of wine or a beer or a vegan tree juice, then only the people who usually complain will complain.
Cast and crew screenings are a great way to say Thank you, as some of these people you will never see again.
Tip #28: Free bar. If you can possibly afford it, do it. After your screening there must be a party. This is what people will remember. Lots of brewing companies are really very nice (they work in hospitality) and might give you a crate of wine/beer/cider in return for a shout out at the festival and an invite to the screening. It can’t hurt to ask. Especially if you are in an area known for a particular beverage - try the local brewery.
Tip #29: Do dress up. It is wonderful to go to a premiere, so put on the DJ, grab your glad rags and have fun! Have an after show party. Walk the red carpet, and if they haven’t got one, bring your own! Get photos!
At the Cannes international Film Festival - Cinema on the beach!
Tip #30: Film festivals often don’t screen the credits of your film - especially if there’s going to be a Q and A, as audiences tend to leave immediately the credits start. Don’t get upset about this, it’s just the way it is.
Tip #31: Have something to say. I am always amazed at how many film makers don’t want to introduce their own film or won’t do Q & As, or if they do behave like deer in headlights. If you are a director you must have a vision and you must have something to say or, to be honest, you shouldn’t really be directing. How awesome is it to hear Steven Spielberg or Kathryn Bigelow or Bong Joon-ho in conversation? I was once at a Spike Lee Q&A and it was amazing and I could have listened for the rest of the week.
If you are happy to spend days in front of cast and crew telling them what to do on set, then you can entertain an audience for ten minutes. If you struggle with public speaking, then rehearse. Think of one good anecdote and just tell that. Audiences really want to be entertained. Be cool.
Tip #32: Film festival expenses are tax deductible. So stay a few extra days and have a break. If the festival is in a nice location, Eg: Sitges in Spain, then hang out on the beach. Go skiing at Sundance. You earned it.
About the Author
Martin then spent 15 years in the camera department as a 1st and 2nd AC (Assistant Cameraman), learning his trade on films like Judge Dredd, Harry Potter, James Bond: Goldeneye and The Muppets, including a year working in Australia and two feature films in Tunisia, as a training ground before becomi...