5 Reasons Screenwriters Should Dial in to the Film Festival Circuit: A Festival Organizer’s Perspective

Posted by Heather Waters
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto

Today’s guest post comes from the Founder & Producer of the Richmond International Film Festival and the Co-founder of the Creative World Awards, my friend, Heather Waters.  

Throughout her time at CWA and RIFF, Heather has been responsible for helping hundreds of writers develop material for the screen, and has assisted many in securing representation and option deals.  Heather is also Founder & CEO of The Media Industry Xchange, a creative directory and online development platform for creatives and industry executives.

But wait, there’s more.  Heather is also a producer, screenwriter, and director.  Her most recent films include Strive, Trading Ages, The Youth Roundtable Project, and Stillwater Lake.  She also has two films in pre-production which she is slated to direct this winter.

In addition to annually offering Stage 32 members a discount to the Creative World Awards, Heather is currently offering the community $10 off all entries into the Richmond International Film Festival.

I thank Heather for taking the time to share her insights with the network.



So, you've completed your script, now what?

Chances are you've now begun the long and arduous process of trying to get your script noticed. Noticed enough to generate recognition from your peers, and ultimately those professionals that can help get your project made. To do this, there are a few options at a writer's disposal, but one in particular that may be overlooked as a key platform that can give writers a slight edge. That is, film festivals.

A film festival is designed to help writers and filmmakers get exposure, and provide them with opportunities throughout festival week to mix, mingle, and network with executives, press, and other talented creatives. Additionally, some festivals offer unique production opportunities or perks that screenwriters in particular should be quick to take advantage of. Here's how:

  1. Creative Capital. Leveraging film festivals to gain recognition among industry peers is an effective way to grow and expand your creative capital. Without a great script, we know that movies don't get made. And yet, without access to filmmakers, producers, executives, and other key industry folks, let's face it; a great writer has very little chance of getting their great script noticed in the first place. Film festivals are an excellent way to do this yet are often overlooked by screenwriters because writers can wrongly assume that the festival circuit is saturated with highly accomplished writers. In other words, the emerging screenwriter feels they can't compete, so why should they waste their time or money on the entry fee? As a festival organizer, I'd venture to say that this is not always the case; film festivals can in fact provide an equally important platform for emerging and accomplished writers alike. Everyone gets a fair shot at the top finalist spots, regardless of previous experience or accolades. All that's necessary is writing a great script. And if you're fortunate enough to fare well at a competition or film festival, it can do exponentially great things for your reputation as a writer, not just among your writing peers, but potentially among the powers at be that have the capital to help get your project off the ground.
  2. The Festival Experience. But what if your script isn't selected as a top finalist? Unlike many general competitions, some festivals extend an invitation for a writer to participate in festival events regardless of whether a writer makes it as a top finalist. As long as you submit at least one project to the fest, some will cover the cost of attendance for select events throughout festival week. So regardless of whether you're a top winner, I encourage writers to use the festival wherever they can to engage, network, and participate in the many events it offers.
  3. Press & Networking Potential. Festivals can't afford to play favorites; the ever-changing industry relies upon fests to discover the hottest, new talent. Work this to your advantage. If you've entered a script, chances are you have an opportunity to attend the fest and rub elbows with some of the industry's finest. Various press opportunities may also present themselves at fests. If it's a reputable festival, members of the press will certainly be present covering the fest's screenings, the week's events and the talent in attendance that is competing for top awards. And if you know you're attending, go ahead and do your research beforehand, and prepare marketing material. Seek out networking and PR opportunities, leverage social media to your advantage, and publicize your script entry and talent wherever you can.
  4. Education & Production Opps. Outside of competing for top awards, many film festivals provide educational opportunities for writers such as participating in Q&As, Workshops, Panel and Industry Roundtable Discussions, all of which can be instrumental in providing you with a critical backdrop of various aspects of the film industry. Where else can you engage with all levels of talent in one week, from new and emerging to Oscar Award winning filmmakers from around the world? A few festivals also present unique production opportunities. At RIFF, we do this each year through the festival's, Short Film Production Award as a way to specifically give writers a chance at competing for a production. The winning project is produced by the festival, and premieres at the fest each year, in turn giving the winning writer imdb credit. There are many opportunities that other festivals offer as well, so make sure to research each festival's niche and take advantage of their expertise.
  5. Favorable Odds? Often times, the writing portions of film fests may not be as tough as a writer thinks. At Creative World Awards (CWA), we specialize in screenwriting alone, so the number of entries tend to be greater than what I know to be the case at many film festivals. Additionally, while film festivals may have high profile filmmakers involved, it doesn't necessarily mean that the same level of writing talent is present. In fact, I think some screenwriters avoid entering film festivals because they think the competition for the script category is as strong as the filmmaking categories. This may not always be the case partially due to the smaller amount of writers that enter them. While there of course is no guarantee, weighing the odds factor is an area writers may want to consider.

If you're looking to learn, to network, promote, and ultimately venture deeper into the world of film, the festival platform can be a unique and effective way to do that. As a festival owner, I encourage writers and filmmakers to come up with a short list of festivals and competitions to submit to. Each festival offers its own focus and niche, so choosing across a wide range each year can be beneficial (from smaller, niche focused fests to larger, more well-known ones).

So take the plunge, and submit to a few. Chances are if you do, it just might gain you that proverbial edge you've been waiting for.

Heather Waters serves on the Executive Board of the Virginia Production Alliance. She studied screenwriting & cinematography in the graduate program at Georgia State University (GSU), and holds a B.A. and M.A. in Political Science.

The next deadline for entry into the Richmond Film Festival is August 15th. To save $10 on all entries, please click here

Here's Heather speaking about the impressive lineup of films as last year's RIFF on Virginia This Morning:

Heather is available for all questions and remarks in the Comments section below.

Part I: My Big Move - From Visual Effects to Screenwriting
RB's Weekend Reading (and viewing) - August 1st, 2013
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