You Made a Film—Now What? – Part 1 – Picking Festivals

Developmental Editing by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Editing and Posting by Sam Fegan

After college, I traveled from the East Coast and started AD’ing films and even directing in Los Angeles. I directed a lot of theater. However, life on set was not for me and I felt I would be better suited in a different area of the film world. I sat down and made of list of career goals. I realized I wanted to go into distribution, which was a man’s world at the time and on more than one occasion during an interview, I was told that a woman couldn’t negotiate a contract. I would reply, “Watch me.”

Luckily, the first company that I worked for had a theatrical department, a publicity department, and a distribution department, so I quickly observed, learned and grew from the generous executives who took me under their wing. I worked my way up the ladder and from attending Cannes and the AFM for over 20 years, as well as worldwide festivals and markets from Shanghai to Rio, I learned the tricks of what worked at festivals and what did not. I have also sat on juries and spoken at festivals, listening to pitches. Most importantly, as a distributor, I have had to acquire films for companies, and I am the one in those offices at AFM licensing your films. I know what the buyers want and why they want it.


The American Film Market in Santa Monica

The American Film Market in Santa Monica.


I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “I got into Cannes,” in which case I ask, “When are they flying you in? Where are they putting you up?” and the filmmaker looks perplexed because no one is flying them to Cannes because their film did not get in the Festival du Cannes. If you get into Cannes, they take care of accommodations. The filmmaker, as many others do, paid 90 euros to the Short Film/Producer’s Corner that accepts an average of 3,000 films. If you are planning to attend Cannes, by all means, apply to the Short Film/Producer’s Corner. If you get in, you can get a badge and attend festivities and make wonderful contacts, but if you are not going, you have thrown $100 away.

The Festival du Cannes Students’ Film Competition (Cinefondation) and Short Film Competition are free to submit. Cinefoundation is focused on student films while the Short Film Competition is open to filmmakers worldwide.  They announce the head of the jury prior and that person tends to pick films that they think are relevant. The festival films that are picked for those competitions usually number between 10 and 20. By all means, submit to those competitions if you feel your film has a chance—it’s free, after all.

Cannes has also a prestigious film market (the Marché du Film), but with the demise of the lucrative home video/DVD deals, fewer and fewer acquisitions/buyers are attending festival and markets throughout the world. The Producer’s Short Film Corner now is filling that void left from the diminishing market attendants. At the height of the DVD market, thousands of buyers came to the Marché du Film in search of DVD titles, as well as theatrical and TV buyers, Pay Cable, Cable, airlines, and buyers for various other rights. I have even licensed for buses in Thailand. In the 1990s, you would average 250 buyers from a small territory like Greece alone, while maybe 500 from Germany. With the advent of Netflix and the lack of sales for DVD buyers, fewer buyers attend many markets or festivals. Also, with the fall of economies in countries like Greece, attendance in general in many markets and festivals waned, but Cannes and other festivals have kept their festivals alive by brilliantly creating conferences and venues like the Producer’s Short Film Corner. If you want to keep up with world economies that reflect the film market, read The Financial Times. It’s the paper that’s pink at the newsstand. It’s insightful on world economies and interesting stories that quite often turn into films.  If a country’s economy is failing, so are film sales for the territory. When South Korea’s economy failed decades ago, there were no buyers from South Korea for several markets, as is currently happening with Greece.


Inside the halls of the Palais where the Marché has many offices.

Inside the halls of the Palais where the Marché has many offices.


But now that most festivals charge for submissions, filmmakers really need to research and make a concerted effort to spend their submission money wisely to get the most bang for their buck. They need to put as much effort into preparing their film for festivals and distribution as they did when entering pre-production and filming.

Before you start: Research, research, research. As you look at all the different sites for festivals and contemplate the various festivals, take the following tips into account:

1. Ask yourself why you’re submitting that particular film to festivals.

Are you looking for distribution? Are you looking for personal recognition? Are you looking for your next job?  The answer to these questions will also help you when you begin to market your film for the different film festivals. Begin with a festival submission list of A, B, and C festivals with all the fees and take some time to consider your options.

If you have a completed feature and you are looking for distribution, it would be a good idea to find out if there will be a list of distributors attending the festival. Also, you then could do your own research and contact other distributors to let them know that your film has been accepted to the festival. How would you do that? Start by making postcards to send them with screening times. It’s always good to mail something that the acquisition executive can hold in their hand or put in their pocket if they attend. Make sure all your contact information is on that postcard, and follow up with emails and calls. I have received many postcards under my door at festivals (yes, this happens) only to not see any contact on those postcards for the filmmaker. Sometimes I have received postcards but I am already booked for their screening, but if there is a proper contact at the festival, I have called the filmmaker to ask if I can meet them or see the film later. Don’t be mysterious at a film festival. There are far too many films and filmmakers for acquisitions executives to spend too much time looking for you. Make yourself gleefully available. For example, don’t just put your website on any material, add a phone number and you may find yourself having a drink with a buyer interested in you and your film. If you are looking for a job, contact the companies that you would like to see your film using the same methods.

Very important: I once worked for Swifty Lazar, the biggest literary agent in Los Angeles, whose clients included Henry Kissinger, Frank Sinatra , Roger Vadim, and Kirk Douglas, among others. Swifty, at that time, threw the biggest Oscars party in town. Everyone knew him and wanted to know him. First thing I noticed when I started working for Swifty was how courteous he was when he placed a call to whomever answered the phone. For example, you call an executive and you get their assistant. “Hi, I have a film at Waterloo Film Festival. I’d love to bring it to your company’s attention. Will you help me? What do you suggest?” Make the person who picks up the phone feel significant and a part of your journey. Most of the time this approach works.

The European Film Market that runs with the Berlin Film Festival.

The European Film Market that runs with the Berlin Film Festival.

2. Consider festivals outside your country of residence.

Many film festivals around the world are subsidized by their governments, hence they have small application fees. Some have none. There were no festival fees when I started submitting films as a distributor. Actually, most festivals came to me to request a film for their festival. A couple of things happened that changed the landscape for filmmakers, so now filmmakers are faced with exorbitant fees when applying to festivals:

1) Studios realized festivals could be a very cheap way to market their film and get it noticed. They began to offer films as “out of competition” events. A small film like Little Miss Sunshine, or most recently, Moonlight, might not have gotten any notice if it had an initial limited theatrical release. However, with a festival run, they garnered a following. Consequently, studios approached festivals saying, “If you show my film—out of competition—I’ll bring a big star, have a party, and get your festival more attention.”

2) The Internet came along and certain film festival submission websites, like Withoutabox, which started the new trend, and Filmfreeway, which became its main competitor, encouraged filmmakers to apply through them for convenience. This new model doubled fees as the submission website now gets a percentage of the fee. Instead of lowering prices, these submission websites increased them. Short Film Depot is a good sight for international festivals with lower fees.

Since all you need is one festival to get some attention, look at foreign and boutique festivals that will showcase your film. While everyone wants to get into Sundance, Cannes, or Berlin, they are getting thousands of films, so be honest with yourself on the potential of your film and research each festival to see how many films they receive versus how many they accept.

Fans outside the Carlton Hotel in Cannes looking for the King of Pop.

Fans outside the Carlton Hotel in Cannes looking for the King of Pop.

3. Watch for new festivals.

Make friends with new festivals. New festivals tend to be more open to speaking with filmmakers. I always pick up a phone first and introduce myself, leave a message, and ask if I can be of service. “Hi, I am Pat…I have a film that you might be interested in. I see this is your first year. Do you need any help in looking for films? Anything that I can do to promote your festival?” or send them an email. New festivals are more open to lower fees and eager to have entries. Offer your services unilaterally.

4. Find a “champion” to recommend your film.

I have a friend who paid someone $5,000 because they said they could get the film into Sundance. They did not. With all the powerful producers and actors in the world, a festival simply cannot acquiesce to accepting films based on a producer pushing it, but the programmers will look at a film, consider it—with no promises—based on a recommendation from such a person whose opinion they respect. So by all means, find a person who might “champion” your film and make a call for you. At least you know you got it into the right hands. It could be anyone from entertainment, sports, politics, or a filmmaker who knows that festival because they previously had a film in competition.

5. Have a strategy in place for when you get into a festival.

Let me tell you a story. I had a tremendously successful film that I distributed in the international marketplace. The director was not allowed out of his country so I travelled to over 25 festivals worldwide and did the Q&As. One festival ran the film twice because the first theater sold out and changed the venue to a 1,500 seat theater. (Some studios will not let their film be screened to a large audience in fear it will cut into ticket sales). The film screened twice to a packed theater. Add this up and with the film screening twice, that’s 3,000 seats at $10 a ticket. That’s right. In two nights my film made that festival $30,000 in 1998.

Even though you may have a short, the film festival and filmmaker have a symbiotic relationship. Your film is bringing in money for the festival and you have the opportunity to get attention for your film if you make the most if it.  Be very polite, but do not be afraid to ask about travel allowances, perks, etc. When you get in, always thank the festival upon acceptance. Don’t make any announcements on your social media of your acceptance until the festival allows you to, as usually they have a precise roll out of announcements for publicity reasons.

Be prepared to discuss the following topics with film festival organizers:

  1. Ask if they are offering any travel benefits to filmmakers because you would like to attend and promote your film and the festival, as well as fill up those seats (more money in their pockets).
  1. Ask if there will be a press office where you can send a hard copy press kit and DVDs. Later on, go and meet them, bring gifts, and see if they can set up interviews.
  1. Get the dates of your screening and venues. Find out how big the theaters are.
  1. Start making friends with everyone involved with the festival so they know it will be a delight to have you attend.
  1. Ask if they will have a Q&A after your screening. Plan on making sure you will be asked a question.

    Party in Cannes at the "Tropical Jungle" for Bruce Campbell. Mark Harris in the background, producer of Crash and Gods and Monsters.

    Party in Cannes at the “Tropical Jungle” for Bruce Campbell. Mark Harris in the background, producer of Crash and Gods and Monsters.

With these questions answered, you must decide if you can attend and go back to your original reason for entering that film into festivals in the first place. If you have a feature, you may be looking for distribution. That will predict who you want to invite to your screening.  If you have a short, perhaps you want to use it to get attention to get a job. Maybe you have never been to the Rio Film Festival and really just want to go see Corcovado.

The more you plan for your film’s festival premiere the more successful you will be in filling those seats, getting attention, and maybe winning an award which will go a long way. You can’t leave anything to chance; the more prepared you are, the more luck will come your way.

Having a film in a festival is like running for class president. It’s hard work, long hours, and you must have enthusiasm and joy, spreading that joy so that people will come to your film and hopefully vote for it. It’s very sad to screen your film to an empty room and see the theater across from you filling up. You are in total control of filling those seats. We’ll discuss that in Part 2 of my series on making film festivals work for you.

Now that you have been accepted and your questions are answered, it’s time to make a budget to attend the festival. This budget will cover what the festival is not covering, your marketing supplies, and maybe if you have the funds, a small event or cocktail.

Remember, it’s all about planning and making your screening into a joyful event.

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