IFP: Using Festival Deadlines as Production Deadlines

The latest post in my contribution to IFP’s “Ask the Expert” blog is up, focusing on the pros and (mostly) cons of using film festival deadlines as your film’s production deadline. Take a look here.

Update: The original post seems to have gone missing from IFP’s site, so I’ve posted the article below.

Dear Filmmakers:

In my first blog post for IFP, I briefly addressed the issue of using a specific festival’s deadline as your own film’s production deadline. In this post, I’m going to expand a bit on this topic.

You have to plan out your production schedule anyway, so what’s the problem with using Sundance or Toronto’s final submission deadline as your own deadline for having a showable rough cut or even fine cut? At the basic level, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with this strategy. After all, you do have to finish your film at some time if you want to give it a chance of getting out into the world through festivals or potential distribution. Having a specific date or date range is a great motivator and helps you tackle the daunting process of editing and other post work in a tangible way. I’d frankly be concerned if you didn’t have some sense of when you were planning to be finished.

At the same time, any deadline you set for your film is ultimately an arbitrary date, and one subject to any number of delays and rescheduling both under your control and not. Barring being granted a slight extension by the festival, the submission deadline is not so flexible. As a result, some filmmakers lose sight of their own project and focus on that submission deadline as the end-all, be-all, and force themselves to come up with something, anything in time to get it in to the festival by that date. Putting the metaphorical cart before the horse, these filmmakers are convinced that they have to get into that specific festival, but they haven’t even finished their film properly to actually position it for programming.

If you follow this route, you may end up cutting corners, creating a cut of your film that looks or sounds sloppy, doesn’t make narrative or logical sense, or is missing key sequences, and yet you decide the programmers of a festival in which you desperately want to premiere should see it. If this doesn’t sound like a bad idea already, it should. You’re not doing yourself, your film, or your collaborators any favors by rushing a subpar project for the purposes of a submission deadline. While programmers, especially those at the top tier fests, are experienced at watching rough cuts and are able to see past the lack of color correction, sound mixing, or even minor missing elements to recognize the potential of the final cut, they can also tell when something they’re watching isn’t nearly ready and could have used a few more weeks, if not months, in the editing suite. Submitting with a cut that’s not there yet can lead some programmers to form a poor opinion on not only your film, but on your sense of judgement regarding your own work. If your film is rejected, and your re-apply the following year, your project may still have a chance at being selected, especially if it’s been improved and hasn’t screened elsewhere in the intervening months, but you also risk the same programmers seeing the re-submission and judging it at least partially on the first impressions they received from the first bad cut they saw.

Let’s say however, that while you rushed to get your film submitted in time, it’s such a promising project that it ends up getting selected. This can be a double-edged sword – it’s fantastic that you’ve made it into your desired festival, but now you have another one of those inflexible deadlines – the festival’s opening date – and your film is not finished. You have perhaps 6-8 weeks between selection notification and the start of the festival to wrap up all post work so that you have a final, completed film to screen at your premiere. Again, delays are inevitable, people and machinery are fallible. Anything that can go wrong likely will go wrong, at least a little bit. Do you have enough time, allotting some room for these kinds of delays, to get your project to the place you envision it needs to be before it meets the public? If you rushed to get your submission in on time, you are now having to rush even faster to get your finished film to your premiere on time. That’s a lot of pressure, and this can exacerbate even the smaller problems that may have been evident in your rough cut, creating a serious flawed final cut. You might end up with a film radically different than what you wanted, and one that ends up being unsuccessful as a result, even if it premieres at Berlin or Cannes.

I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom, but I do want to give you pause for thought. As with every aspect of your work, you should plan ahead and be realistic about what you can and can’t accomplish in a given timeframe. Create a practical timeline for all elements of post-production, including a back-up plan should you run into unforeseen delays that allows for some flexible cushioning by a week or two, just in case. By all means, use your dream festival premiere as the end point of your post, and work backwards from there to see if its feasible timewise to make it. If you’ve worked out a comfortable 26-week post schedule, and the festival is 16 weeks away, do the math. Bad idea. Don’t become too fixated on the idea that you have to premiere at a particular festival – there are other options that can serve your film just as well, if not better, depending on what kind of a film you have and what kind of exposure the festival is known for providing. On the other hand, if you are absolutely convinced that your number one choice for a festival premiere is the best for your film, you can make the difficult, but smarter, choice of waiting and submitting the next year rather than compromising on post and submitting this year with an inferior and premature version of your project. Take that extra year to hone your film into being the best that it can be, so that when you do finally get it into programmers’ hands, they will see the film you wanted them to see all along. Determine the rest of your festival strategy, beyond the premiere. If appropriate, look into sales agents and publicists who can hopefully help sell your film. Spend time on your social media marketing and other promotion to create and expand your fanbase for the project, so that there’s anticipation for its eventual premiere and, hopefully, for its distribution down the line. And, most importantly, take some time to sleep and to breathe – luxuries the other, rushed, scenario doesn’t necessarily provide the opportunity for…

ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, consults with documentary filmmakers and festivals, and recently co-produced Cameron Yates’ feature documentary “The Canal Street Madam.” Follow him on Twitter @1basil1 and read his “Dear Documentary Filmmakers” advice at WhatNotToDoc.com.


Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, Recommendations

5 responses to “IFP: Using Festival Deadlines as Production Deadlines

  1. LOVE this one Basil.
    As once upon a time editor, I still get twitchy at the end of the summer. I wonder why I am not locked in a basement somewhere with a fragile director, defying logic gravity and their own process to run for the dreaded Sundance Deadline.
    It’s been years, but that turn of weather still gets me looking over my shoulder like an escaped prisoner. I have seen so many films ruin themselves on that deadline.
    But, the other part of this is something I just learned. Kind of the hard way.
    You need to be ready to premiere. Not just the movie. You need a trailer, and a one sheet and a synopsis of every length imaginable that you don’t hate, and money for a publicist, with lead time of at least a month if not two, so that person can do their job.
    You need a whole new team.
    And, you need a plan, the tools to execute said plan and to be rested.
    So, just forget all the DIY stuff and MYM. Make your movie, the best you can. And then let it find it’s audience. Sundance is short. Life is long.

    • Thanks Carol. You’re absolutely correct – all of these things should be in place before you premiere, and working up to the deadline means that they will inevitably suffer too. Great point.

  2. Angela Tucker

    So I’m torn about this one. In some ways, I think festival deadlines are important and keep some filmmakers from editing endlessly. But I have seen many a film costs itself thousands of dollars of editor’s time and general stress, diverting from the creative process and simply focusing on getting something, anything in. Honestly I think filmmakers do need to be more realistic, pragmatic really, and have a real and honest conversation with their entire team about what’s best for the film. And Carol is right. Sundance is short. Life is long.

    • yay thanks for commenting Angela!

      but also, just to be clear, it’s not only about the Sundance deadline – (I’m obviously partial) – it applies to rushing to meet any significant fest deadline and by so doing sacrificing the quality of your work…

  3. You are right. But the Sundance deadline is the one it is near impossible to talk a director out of. It is the light at the end of the tunnel.
    But you are right. Unless there is something specific that makes that particular festival a good one. Audience support, the community’s involvement, something inherent to the film.
    It is very difficult, but very necessary to make the shift from everything perfect in the movie…to “I’ll notice but no one else will” so funds and time can be diverted to the release. That transition requires a serious deadline.
    When I was editing, I was like a gaffer, I tweaked until they said action…
    Locking picture is one of the tantric practices of film that you will never understand until you do it as a director.
    And then you can’t quite explain….
    REAL Deadlines are important.


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