Part I: Film Festival Strategy: Withoutaclue to Withoutabox in 16 Steps

Part I: Film Festival Strategy: Withoutaclue to Withoutabox in 16 Steps

Part I: Film Festival Strategy: Withoutaclue to Withoutabox in 16 Steps

Mark Stolaroff
Mark Stolaroff
10 years ago

I don't consider myself a film festival expert, necessarily, compared to those who work or have worked for festivals, or those who write about them extensively or exclusively, or have written popular books about them, or teach courses on them, or whatever, but after attending countless film festivals for well over 20 years, often with films of my own, I've certainly accumulated a number of pointers with regard to developing a festival strategy for your independent film. The first rule is: develop some sort of a strategy! Too often filmmakers just dive into Withoutabox with no rhyme or reason, clicking the next deadline that comes along. I hope this article will give you a basis to put a plan together, and provide you with some helpful tips to make your festival experience a success.

First a little about me. I'm an independent producer in Los Angeles and I also teach no-budget filmmaking through something I created called No Budget Film School. I first started attending festivals in the late 80's when I was in Houston. Before many of today's top festivals were even around, (SXSW, Tribeca), WorldFest Houston was putting on a pretty good festival in my home town. When SXSW created the film festival portion of their annual music celebration in 1994, I was there, and attended religiously the next nine consecutive years. Once I moved to LA and began working at Next Wave Films, a finishing funds company financed by the Independent Film Channel, I started attending festivals all over the world, often to be on panels or juries, and most often with films. We put together the sales and festival strategy for the films we invested in - which included the first features of filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Joe Carnahan - and took seven films to Sundance and five films to Toronto. I have attended Sundance 17 years in a row now, and have gone to Toronto 10 times. I honestly can't count how many other film festivals I have been to.

When I became an independent producer, I was required to put together festival strategies for my own films, (my most recent feature, Pig, has been to over 30 festivals worldwide and won 9 awards), and here's where it became more interesting. When your film gets into Sundance, choosing festivals is a matter of process of elimination - festivals invite you to attend or apply and you decide which ones of those you want to consider. When you don't get into Sundance, like my last two features, (and while that doesn't mean the end of the world), you have a very uphill battle ahead of you to get your film noticed, and you can spend a lot of money and go through a lot of heartache in that process, even with a good film. I hope to minimize that frustration and cost with these tips.

  1. Be strategic. You have to possess a bit of knowledge about what you're doing, the film you have, the ecosystem of the film festival, what festivals are out there, etc., so you can step back and put together a workable festival strategy for your film. The first thing I suggest is to attend as many film festivals as you can. Just about every city has a festival these days, even the tiniest nooks of the world, (I am taking Pig to a festival in September called Trindiefest, where they have invited me to do a presentation. It's in Trinidad, Colorado. Trinidad. Colorado.) You can learn so much about fests by being at one: what the programmers are like, what the audiences are like, what the films are like, what the filmmakers are like, perhaps even what the industry is like, if it's that kind of festival. Then read whatever articles and books you can, just so you can get a lay of the land. I would say one of the first things you want to do, even before putting together a strategy, is...
  2. Decide what kind of film you have. Is it a festival film at all? What is a festival film? What kind of festival film is it? Is it a hardcore artfilm festival film? Is it a genre film festival film? Is it a soft, people-pleasing, feel-good film festival film? There are festivals that cater to many different kinds of films, but you can't be strategic if you have no idea what kind of film you have. If you don't know, get feedback. Show it to people who know, hold feedback screenings, (there are a number of reasons to do this - see HERE), and while nothing is ever that certain with any of this, sometimes it's just obvious that you shouldn't be applying to Sundance. Having said that, you will want to...
  3. Start at the top and move down. Maybe you're pretty sure you have a "Sundance film," whatever that means. And that may be true in theory, but really in practice, Sundance is the only one who can determine that. Even though it's expensive to apply there and a long shot to get in, an acceptance into Sundance can be so important to the eventual success of your film and your filmmaking career, that you pretty much HAVE to apply there, no matter what kind of film you think you have. You have very little to lose and so much to gain, in other words. The way this all works with features, though, is you have to START at Sundance. They only take world premieres, with few exceptions, and those exceptions don't apply to you. Most of the top festivals in North America (Sundance, Toronto, SXSW, Tribeca) want world premieres, or in the case of festivals after Sundance like SXSW and Tribeca, world premieres and films that have played in Sundance. So, while I hate to say this, you have to pretty much build your festival calendar around the order of these major film festivals: Sundance, (Berlin, Rotterdam), SXSW, Tribeca, and Los Angeles. Of course, this varies depending on the film and other factors, but the one certainty is to apply to Sundance first. But, here's what I'm also saying:
  4. Sundance does not decide when your film is done. Don't let festival deadlines determine when you're finished. If your film is half-baked, don't apply to Sundance. You pretty much only get one chance with these festivals, and you want to take your best shot. I'm not saying you necessarily have to have a locked picture, with final music, sound and color, but I'm also not saying you won't need some or all of those things in place to show what your film is. Different films are different. Some don't need all the polish, while others don't come together until the last spot is buffed clean. You have to determine this for yourself, (remember that "get feedback" suggestion?). I will tell you this, something I heard John Cooper, Sundance's festival director, say to a friend of mine: if you have a really unique film, something really different that they've never really seen before, then they are more willing to accept it even if they look at a cut that is clearly raw. But if you have something conventional, and it's rough, and they have doubts, they are not going to give you the same benefit of the doubt. Now, this I can tell you for certain: everybody submits rough cuts to Sundance, with temp edits, music, sound, effects, and color. I've done it numerous times, and gotten in. Then everyone who gets accepted goes through a mad dash to finish their films before the festival starts. I've been there more times than I 'd like to remember. But if you have a 2 1/2 hour cut of your film, chances are you're not done editing it and you shouldn't submit. But then you say, "well, then what, am I supposed to wait a whole year to apply to Sundance?" And the answer is: maybe. It can often take that long to go from a rough cut or polished assembly to the eventual masterpiece you have in that block of marble.
  5. See where you land, then hit the ground running. So, generally you'll want to start by applying to Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, etc., and likely you will get rejected, because it's so competitive and these fests are hard to get into. So, you'll also want to start applying to other festivals that seem right for your film - other Spring and Summer festivals. But at some point if you get rejected from some festivals, you need to realize that you are also likely going to get rejected from certain others, because there are certain other festivals that pull from the kind of festivals you were just rejected from. You want to figure this out as soon as possible so you're not just getting rejected from every festival you apply to. I can only talk about this in the abstract, because every film is different and there are a lot of festivals, but as an example: if you're not a Sundance/SXSW/Tribeca film, you're probably also not a Florida (unless you shot there), San Francisco Int'l., Hamptons, etc. film, either, (and probably not right for a whole bunch of top shelf international festivals, too, like Cannes, Berlin, Venice, etc.). So, you'll want to course correct and start thinking of the second and third tier festivals that you have a better shot at and start applying there, always remembering that your World Premiere status is valuable. And not to be crude, but it's your cherry and you don't want to give it up to just any old festival. Once you do premiere, however, once you do land, then it's off to the races. Success begets success, and you can use your acceptance into one fest as a lure to get into others. So, if you have a horror film that you think might be right for Sundance, even though it's just a straight-up horror film, and it doesn't get into Sundance and a host of other top tier fests, it's time to call off the search, regroup, and start applying to genre festivals, working with the best ones first. Of course...
  6. Research. You're going to do a bunch of research and put together a list of all the festivals you might want to consider and know what their start dates are, their different deadline dates are, and other information like cost, screening format, etc. If you're like me, you're going to have a big Excel spreadsheet with all these festivals on it, sorted by either start date, when you applied date, when you expect to hear date, or whatever.
  7. Budget for this. If all this trial and error, trying to figure out what you have and where you land sounds expensive, it surely is, so you're going to need to budget real cash for this. Estimate the costs of applying (festival application fees range from around $20 or $30 to as much as $100 or more, and I would say the average is about $50-$60); postage, (don't FedEx if you can avoid it); submission materials, (DVDs, cases, envelopes - I use for white inkjet hub printable blank DVDs & clam shell plastic cases and for 6"x10" bubble envelopes); marketing materials, (postcards, posters); travel; accommodations; screening copies, (blu-ray, HDCAM); publicist, (recommended for a fest like Sundance); etc.
  8. You need to run your application process like a campaign to get accepted. You will need to campaign for your film and get others to do the same on your behalf. You'll want to figure out (tasteful) ways to get a programmer's attention before you apply, so that you don't end up just another disc in the pile. If you know the programmer, call or email them. Get friends or colleagues who know them to contact them too. You'll want to start picking festivals based on your ability to stand out to those programmers. If you know them, if you shot in their city or state, if you've played in their festival before, if you grew up there, anything you can think of to give you an edge, you will want to express that. If your film has played other festivals or won awards, incorporate that info into the design you print on your DVDs, (yes, you'll need to purchase an inkjet printer that prints directly on discs, but these can be as cheap as $100. I love my Epson Artisan 725).

Mark Stolaroff is an LA-based independent producer. His most recent project is the award-winning feature Pig, written and directed by Henry Barrial. He is also the founder of No Budget Film School, a unique series of classes specifically designed for the no-budget filmmaker. Stolaroff was formerly a principal of IFC's Next Wave Films, which provided finishing funds to exceptional low-budget films, including the first features of directors Christopher Nolan, Joe Carnahan, and Amir Bar-Lev.


"The Art & Science of No-Budget Filmmaking"
Saturday & Sunday, August 4 & 5, 2012 * 9:30am - 6:00pm
Raleigh Studios - Los Angeles, CA

For more information and to register, visit:

No Budget Film School presents its famed two-day micro-budget filmmaking class in Los Angeles August 4 & 5, 2012. Specifically designed for no-budget filmmakers who are ready to finance their own projects, the lessons, tools, and techniques gained will maximize limited resources and minimize critical errors that can doom otherwise worthy projects. Producer Mark Stolaroff - former principal of IFC's Next Wave Films - and guest experts teach the specific methods, models and priorities unique to micro-budget filmmaking, whether the budget is $200,000 or $2,000, in this in-depth, one-of-a-kind class. Attendees will walk away with powerful ideas that they can use immediately, saving them time and money. These cutting edge techniques can NOT be found in a book, at film school, or in other film classes. Guest speakers include:

Peter Broderick (President, Paradigm Consulting). Considered one of the world's leading authorities on alternative distribution strategy, Peter will be giving an empowering presentation on Hybrid Distribution and Crowdfunding.

Drake Doremus (Writer/Director). Drake's micro-budget feature Douchebag, premiered in Competition at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. His next no-budget feature, Like Crazy, won the Grand Jury Prize there the following year and was released by Paramount, grossing several million dollars.

Michael Mohan (Writer/Director). Mohan's no-budget feature One Too Many Mornings premiered at Sundance in 2010 and his follow-up feature, Save The Date, premiered there this year, and was picked up for distribution by IFC Films.

Jacob Rosenberg (Chief Technology Officer, Bandito Brothers). A post production expert who devised Bandito's innovative workflow for Act Of Valor - a studio film shot partially on inexpensive DSLR cameras - Jacob will discuss no-budget post production.

Louise Runge & Samantha Housman (Producers). Their production company OneZero produced the recent no-budget Sundance hit 28 Hotel Rooms, written and directed by Matt Ross and starring Chris Messina and Marin Ireland.

No Budget Film School has partnered with Write Brothers to bring you an incredible offer. All attendees will receive Movie Magic Screenwriter software absolutely FREE! (a $250 Value!). Attendees will also receive special discounts on Budgeting and Scheduling software by Showbiz Software, on Quick Film Budget's innovative budget-making tool, and on LightSPEED eps' new cloud-based production management system.

If you're through talking about being a filmmaker and ready to become one, this will be the most practical filmmaking course you will ever take!

Stage 32 subscribers are eligible for a special discount: 20% off the regular prepaid price! Sign up before midnight July 21st and receive an additional Early Bird discount. And students with a valid Student ID save even more. Attend both days or either day individually.

To get the discount:

  1. Go to No Budget Film School Event Registration/Payment page:
  2. Click ENTER PROMOTIONAL CODE at the bottom right-hand corner of the Ticket Information section. Type STAGE32 and click APPLY DISCOUNT. You will see the prices adjust for your discount.


No Budget Film School is also presenting Tom Provost's "Cinema Language: The Art of Storytelling" class the following weekend, August 11-12, and I am offering a special discount for students who take both classes. More information on Cinema Language can be found here:

Can't make the class? For more information on future classes and to sign up for the No Budget Newsletter, please visit:

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About the Author

Mark Stolaroff is an independent producer and a founding partner of Antic Pictures, an LA-based production company producing a slate of low budget, high quality digital features.  Stolaroff recently completed principal photography on Henry Barrial’s "DriverX," a drama starring Patrick Fabian. This...

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