I’ve been fortunate to have my work screened at some pretty amazing festivals. Thin Line in Texas. The London Underground Film Festival. And most recently at TRIFI in my home state of Washington.
It’s not only a thrill to know people will be watching your work on the big screen. It’s also exciting to be in the audience with them. To do a Q&A afterward. To rub shoulders with other filmmakers. To visit a new city. The whole package.
But sometimes your expectations don’t match your reality. The term “film festival” still conjures up images of Cannes glamour and Sundance bidding wars.
Most festivals out there are smaller than that. And increasingly niche. Which is a good thing. Do you really want your bloody monster movie competing with a sensitive art film (and vice versa?)
So if you’re fortunate enough to be attending a festival with your film, here’s a few things I’ve learned that will help you maximize your experience:
At the bare minimum, they will screen your project. But anything beyond that is a bonus.
Q&A - You’re not guaranteed a Q&A. Especially if you’re part of a line-up of shorts. So you should ask about that ahead of time. And stress that you’re willing to do it. And that you are fun in front of a live audience. Be enthusiastic.
Press - The festival won’t necessarily promote your individual project to the local press. So if you want personalized promotion, that’s up to you. But there’s nothing stopping you from sending out your own press releases. To local press and bloggers. Tell them you’re available for interviews. And provide intriguing photos. And a provocative angle for them to write about.
Selling Your Movie – Most festivals aren’t film markets. They exist to screen movies. Not facilitate sales between filmmakers and distributors. (At the bigger festivals, many films have already secured a distribution deal.) So even if your movie wins an award, you won’t automatically be showered with offers to buy the rights to your film.
I’m always surprised when people go to all the effort to make a movie, then pay festival entry fees, travel out-of-town, arrive at a festival, and then stand in a corner without talking to anyone.
You’re going for a quirky Andy Warhol thing? Not many people can pull that off. And if you can jump through all the hoops to finish a movie, you’re ballsier than you think you are.
So talk to audience members. Talk to festival organizers. Talk to the volunteers. Talk to other filmmakers. Mix and mingle. This is a time to celebrate. To soak up the admiration. And make professional contacts.
Here’s a little secret: sometimes almost no one shows up for your screening.
Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe everyone’s at the screening next door. Maybe the screening times were posted incorrectly. Whatever the reason, don’t take it personally.
Hold your head up high. Go ahead with your Q&A afterward. And if there are only five people in the audience for it, don’t dwell on it. Treat those five people like old friends. Use the extra time to elaborate on your answers. And use this as a low-pressure opportunity to hone your public speaking skills.
Sometimes quality is better than quantity. And you never know whether one of those five might be an influential blogger. Or a director from another festival who wants to screen your work. Treat the few people who showed up like royalty. And stop dwelling on the empty seats.
Awards are great. But the judging process is subjective. Judges have preferences and biases like everyone else. They view films through their own filters of experience, expectation, political correctness, and even jealousy.
Some festivals are more transparent about who the judges are. And what the criteria is. Some even give you written feedback.
If the feedback is technical (e.g. “Your sound was bad. Your subject was always slightly out of focus.”) then take note.
If it’s more artistic (e.g. “Your lead character seemed irrational. Your ending didn’t make sense.”) you should take that into consideration too. But realize that artistic feedback is more subjective than technical feedback. And there’s always a (slight) chance that your movie was too sophisticated for the judges. If you receive feedback from a variety of judges, and they all give you similar feedback, I would definitely take it to heart. They probably love films. And want to see you do well. So don’t hold a grudge.
And remember, even if you don’t win an award, you still get a laurel (“Official Selection of Fill-in-the-Blank Film Festival”) to put on your DVD cover.
I once went to this filmmakers panel as an audience member. And on the way to the room, I saw one of the filmmakers in the lobby. She was laughing and chitchatting with someone. So when I went into the room, I thought the filmmaker would be there right after me. But the panel started, and she wasn’t there. Just an empty chair between the four other filmmakers.
She finally arrived—about twenty minutes late. And took her seat, disrupting the others. And had a pretty smug attitude for the next forty minutes.
What’s the moral? Don’t behave as if other people are beneath you. That the rules don’t apply to you. Or that by being late you seem in demand. There’s a fine line between “edgy” and “insecure poseur”. Let the edginess show up in your work. But as an artist, be gracious. And be on time.
It’s easy to be obsessed with your own work. After all, you have to be a bit obsessive to follow through from initial concept to final edit.
But when you bring your work to a film festival, half the fun is seeing new work by other filmmakers. And when you meet the filmmakers, you’ll have much better conversations if you can talk about their work.
Filmmakers usually get a festival pass. So take advantage of it. And immerse yourself in the entire festival experience.
Much of your networking will pay off after the festival. When you’re back home with a stack of contact information.
So at the festival, don’t just hand out your business cards and expect people to follow up with you. Your chances are much better if you get business cards from other people. Or write their email addresses on the backs of programs. Whatever it takes. But it’s also important to jot a few notes:
Follow up within a week of the festival. While you’re still fresh in their minds.
Email is fine. But if you want to make a special impression on certain people, written correspondence really stands out. (An actual snail-mail “Thank You” card to the festival organizers is a must.)
And it’s also great if you send people photos you took with them at the event. Or email them a link to an online album. Photos get shared. And make the event seem more “real” to other people. And help them to remember you.
And don’t underestimate anyone. Today, fans become filmmakers who become festival directors who become movie studio presidents, etc. Learn something special about everyone you meet. Even the volunteers. (Especially the volunteers!)
Everyone is at the festival because they have a love of films and filmmaking. And they all did a lot of work to showcase your movie. And to show up and make your screening successful.
If you’re in this for the long haul, you’ll be running into many of these people again. At festivals, conventions, on panels, on movie sets, in interviews, etc. Take the time to build sincere relationships. And to stay in touch between festivals. And I guarantee you will up your chances of getting invited back to more film events. And to create a network for your success as a filmmaker.
About Kelly Hughes
During the Grunge Era '90s, Kelly Hughes used to write, direct, and edit a weekly series on Seattle public access TV. It was called Heart Attack Theatre. And it allowed Hughes to create a body of work (over 30 episodes.) And to create a cult following as "the John Waters of Horror". From there, Hughes created several underground features, including the world's first zombie drag queen movie (featuring Russ Meyer "supervixen" Kitten Natividad.) Recent work includes a documentary about his early work called Heart Attack!, plus an upcoming memoir called AUTEUR: An Analog Account of a No Budget Media Mogul in the DIY '90s. Hughes was also interviewed for two upcoming documentaries: Johnny Daggers' Blood on the Reel, and Channeling Yourself from Pavot Bleu Productions. Hughes is also completing principal photography on his new supernatural thriller The Mephisto Box which will be released later this year. You can network with Kelly on Stage 32 by clicking here.
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