Dear Documentary Filmmakers: First Impressions

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Submit artwork-free DVDs – don’t pre-dispose programmers to form opinions- it could hurt you.

Although I’m immediately thinking of film festival submissions, this DDF could easily apply to sending your film in for consideration by sales agents and distributors, at least to some extent. At the core, this advice is about the first impression your film (and you) make to those individuals who potentially may select your film to gain wider exposure.

While all festivals process their submissions in different ways, many separate out the screeners they receive from other materials – presskits, photos, letters, etc. Often programmers don’t look at these other materials in any depth or at all, wanting instead to approach a project without any predispositions. That’s the way I prefer to watch a submission – there’s time to look at presskits and filmmaker bios afterward if I have questions. Certain things you generally can’t help will have conscious or unconscious influence – your film’s title, or your name, if you have had a past body of work with which a programmer may be familiar, for example.

One thing you can control is the physical look of your DVD – something that programmers have to see. Consider the first, immediate impression it makes. I don’t mean to suggest that programmers would reject a film based on what the screener looks like – if they did, they’re not being fair and are probably pretty poor programmers. It does bear keeping in mind that programmers are often looking at hundreds of films in any given programming cycle, often in marathon screening sessions. A lot of those films frankly are pretty bad. We’re often crossing our fingers that the next submission we pop into our DVD player goes against the current and is actually pretty good – if we didn’t have that hope, I don’t know why we’d be doing this job. My advice here is basically not to do anything that can shift that optimism into pessimism. While it’s sweet that your boyfriend fancies himself an amateur graphic designer and has offered to blow up a low-res screen grab from your film to create a label for your DVD, best to pass on that. Beyond issues of labels interfering with playback, a cheesy-looking label can have an unintended influence on your viewer. Just follow the festival’s instructions, and use a Sharpie to write your film’s title and whatever other information they require on the disk.

I recognize that some screeners serve multi-functions – perhaps you’re already selling them to fans or have released your film in a different country, etc. If that’s the case, you may have worked with someone more advanced to design your packaging, and hopefully it looks better than an amateur approach – if so, then maybe this advice doesn’t fully apply to you. However, I’d still argue that a neutral screener with just the basic information needed is probably still best for submission purposes. When speaking specifically about submitting your film to acquisitions people, they’re likely to have their own ideas about packaging anyway – that’s not to say they won’t welcome your ideas or past approaches, but it would probably be to your benefit to give them a clean slate from which to work, at least initially.

Some of you might take this as a personal pet peeve, but I think it goes beyond that. This boils down to another variation of what I’ve said many times before, here and elsewhere: your film should speak for itself. You have to trust enough in what you’ve made to get your message across, and not interfere with it by throwing in potential obstacles. Ultimately, a programmer will have to base his/her assessment of your film on the film itself anyway, not on the packaging bells or whistles – so don’t even include the bells and whistles as possible distractions.



Filed under Dear Documentary Filmmakers, Documentary, Film, Film Festivals

3 responses to “Dear Documentary Filmmakers: First Impressions

  1. I’m going to respectfully disagree here. I have done pre-screening for a large doc festival and also work for a distributor and my first impression is that if someone has gone to the trouble of putting together some (decent) artwork and a press kit, then that tells me that they are on the ball as a marketer of their film. Often the packaging can tell me something about the film that the title alone doesn’t.

    And to be completely honest, when I’m trawling through large plastic bins of screeners submitted for a festival, looking for a batch to take home, my eye will be attracted to something that has had a bit of care put into its preparation.

    You are right in that if it’s amateurish it will detract from the appeal, but if done well, it will tell me something about the film even before I’ve put it into the DVD player.

    Just my opinion, and I know that in an ideal world, we’d judge films on their merits alone, but when dealing with thousands of submissions, it’s a bit like sifting through resumes. Being a little different, while remaining professional, can make a difference.

    • Thanks for commenting. You’re right that a very professionally designed disk can show that a filmmaker is more savvy regarding marketing, and maybe this is where the advice diverges for the case of potential distribution vs festival programming – a distributor may be more impressed by the way a filmmaker is already thinking about how to present his/her film (a necessity of course at the earliest stages of planning a film), but I think this is much less a factor for a film festival.

      Even so, I still maintain that, tastes being subjective, the best course of action is to leave the screener a blank slate, free of artwork, and let the judge base his/her opinion absent of anything other than what’s on the disk rather than what’s covering the disk.

  2. Pingback: Ask-An-Expert: Basil Tsiokos on More Festival Submission Dos & Don’ts | IFP

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