IFP: Making the Most of Your Film’s Festival Premiere, Parts Two & Three

Due to Sundance hecticness in January, I delayed my monthly IFP “Ask the Expert” festival strategy blog post until this month. I found I had a lot to say on my subject – making the most of your film’s festival premiere – and expanded it to two separate posts, supplementing December’s entry, which featured my initial thoughts on the topic. Part two considers general aspects of attending your premiere festival, while part three focuses on your actual premiere and being prepared to answer the big question: “what’s next?”

Update: The original posts seem to have gone missing from IFP’s site, so I’ve posted the articles below.

Part Two: Attending the Fest

Dear Filmmakers:

This is the second of three posts addressing what you can and should do to make the most of your film festival premiere for your film and for your career. My last post covered essential preparation necessary before you bring your film to its festival premiere – including developing a PR/promotion strategy, potentially hiring a publicist, setting up a website, putting together a presskit, utilizing social media, possibly engaging a sales rep, and deciding if you should make DVDs available to the press before or during the festival screenings. This and the next post moves beyond preparation to your time on the ground at the festival, and what you should be doing to maximize your experience.

First of all – if you have gone to the trouble of making your film and sent it around for festival consideration, there should be no question that you should attend your festival premiere. I realize travel and accommodation is expensive, so you should have considered this financial aspect as you formulated your festival strategy. As indicated in previous posts for IFP, you should have done your research and selected reputable festivals that are supportive of filmmakers and their work, and you should have a very clear sense of what the festival’s audience is like, and what you should and should not expect from your time there – ie, it’s a festival that is largely community-focused and there’s no industry to speak of vs it’s a festival set in the heart of a smaller European city that draws a handful of local distributors vs it’s a large discovery festival that is on the calendar of every single film industry professional in NY and LA. It’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into – if you show up to the Smallville Film Festival thinking you’re going to clinch a deal for your next feature, you’re going to be sorely disappointed, but if instead you recognize that you’re playing that particular festival because it’s going to allow you to interact with a grassroots audience that can help spread positive word of mouth about the film, and you’re ready to have a great Q&A and more informal discussions with that audience, you’ll have a much better time.

An important note here – if you’ve perhaps not done your homework sufficiently before submitting to a festival, but you start reading up on the event after you’re accepted, and you don’t like what you’re finding out – ie, past filmmaker participants have written about their terrible experiences, the organizers don’t seem to be particularly interested in film but instead might be bilking filmmakers for submission and participation fees – it’s ok to say “no.” Better you don’t premiere your film for a little while longer than bring it to an event that you’re reasonably sure is not going to be a positive place for either your film or for you.

All this said, let’s assume a reputable festival has chosen your film, and you’ve done your research and have at least some sense of what to expect. If you have questions – and you will – ask your festival representative. Most festivals, as understaffed and volunteer-run as many are, will follow up their acceptance notification with information about who to contact for various things – print trafficking, press/promotion, and hospitality. Make use of these services. Even if they’re extremely limited in what they can do for you, ask them questions. Ask for recommendations on where to stay (if they’re not already offering travel assistance), ask about what press is coming, ask about what industry is coming (if applicable), ask about any special events you should be prepared for – ie galas or filmmaker receptions.

Keep track of all correspondence you receive from the festival. Note the basics – when you should arrive, where and when you can register to pick up your badge and tickets – so you can make sure that you’re clear on what to do from the moment you get to the festival. Pay attention to any advice the festival organizers provide you, especially if it’s coming from the Festival Director or Artistic Director. It’s in these individuals best interest that you have a good experience at their event, and the advice they impart is usually the result of years of experience at their festivals. Don’t take it lightly when John Cooper strongly urges you attend the filmmaker’s brunch at the Sundance resort, or if Janet Pierson recommends you show up at the SXSW awards ceremony.

Some fests are packed with events from day one, others not so much. As a filmmaker you ideally should have access to just about everything and it’s in your best interest to take part in as much as possible – this makes you a visible, and, hopefully approachable, presence at the event; allows you to meet other filmmakers, who might end up being collaborators on a future project, or might be able to introduce you to a future collaborator; and puts you in a position to get to know the festival staff, who might introduce you to significant contacts or do you favors, if your personalities gel. This is important – yes, you’re attending the event to work/network, but try to stay true to yourself. Don’t affect a new personality – especially if you’re at a larger event that draws seasoned industry professionals. Industry vets can spot a fake, and they’re not going to want to work with a fake. Don’t pretend to know things you don’t or people you don’t – chances are the people you’re trying to show off for might really know those things or people, and you don’t want to be caught in a lie when you’re trying to sell your film or make inroads to getting your next one made.

Regarding events, absolutely make sure you take part not only in the giant galas, but also and especially the smaller filmmaker-only events – the retreats, the cocktails, the dinners – whatever special/exclusive events the festival has put together to recognize and honor you. It’s often at these lower-key events that significant friendships or partnerships can be forged, outside of the relative chaos of the larger parties with all of their distractions. Some filmmakers might get a bit freaked out by everything that’s going on. Furthermore, they might have just worked non-stop for the past several weeks to finish their film in time for the premiere and are understandably exhausted. Some filmmakers may just be more introverted and not huge fans of parties. I acknowledge this – know your limits and, again, stay true to yourself. You personally don’t need to be at every single party, but you also can’t retreat completely in your condo/hotel room. Someone from your team – your producers, your actors, your subjects, your friends, even your family – should try to maintain some kind of presence throughout the festival at various events and receptions. This has always been the reality for independent filmmakers, and even moreso in the last five years – you are responsible for actively promoting your work. Your job doesn’t end when you lock picture. The impact of you, or some more outgoing member of your team, attending a party and talking to new people about your film, is hard to measure in a quantitative way, but it’s there. If your team isn’t advocating for your work – the people who know about it intimately – who will?

The next post will focus on your actual premiere, and how you should be prepared to handle both the actual screening, and what comes after.

Part Three: Your Premiere & “What’s Next?”

Dear Filmmakers:

This post wraps up my thoughts on how you can maximize your film’s festival premiere for the good of your film, and for your career. Part one addressed prep work while part two covered some aspects of attending the festival. This post focuses largely on your actual premiere and how you can best position yourself to have successful screenings and interactions with audiences.

Be prepared for your premiere. If your film deals with controversial subject matter, make sure you can speak intelligently about why you’ve chosen to tackle that issue. Run through hardball questions with your trusted advisors, crew, loved ones, etc. Don’t over-practice so everything you say sounds canned, but remind yourself of the key points you want to argue that are likely to come up. If you’re a documentary maker, don’t get so lost in your own stress about the premiere that you forget about your film’s subjects. If they’re traveling with you, make sure that they’re being taken care, are having a good time, are dealing with their own anxiety around their stories being told, and are prepared for public scrutiny. If you’re a narrative filmmaker, don’t forget about your cast and your writer. For all filmmakers, don’t forget about your crews in general – directors tend to get all the perks and attention at festivals, but this is also a premiere for the people who have worked hard for you to realize your vision. Film is collaborative – don’t lose sight of that. Make sure that the various members of your team are acknowledged in an appropriate manner.

Part of being prepared for your premiere is knowing how best to handle the question “what’s next for you?” This is especially true for shorts makers. You might have a really kick-ass short that everyone’s talking about, but given the limited marketplace for shorts distribution in the US or online efforts, there may not be much you can do with your film after your premiere aside from riding out the festival circuit. If you’re a shorts maker and you want to keep making shorts, that’s of course fine. Have your next short lined up and be ready to talk about it. There’s not a ton of resources out there, but you never know – someone who sees your current film may be in the position to help secure financing for your next short, so be prepared to pitch your next project when asked “what’s next?”

On the other hand, if “what’s next” is potentially a feature, then you had better have a script in your back pocket, and a 30 second pitch that you can deliver automatically. I won’t be surprising anyone by saying that the film industry is a fickle beast with a short attention span. If you’ve managed to get noticed for your imaginative 10-minute short at this festival, exploit that notice immediately. Let your suitors know that you’re not a one-trick pony, and that you could get started on your next project as soon as some angel fronts the money. Set up meetings – not just about the present film but about the other ideas floating around in various stages in your mind. Before the festival, practice your pitch. Develop some loglines and treatments. Have these at the ready when you meet with someone who may be in a position to help you.

This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised – if you’re at the festival, it’s your responsibility to be at every single one of your screenings. Period. Not just your premiere screening. I don’t care if it’s at 8:30am or 11:59pm – sleep and parties can wait. It’s of the utmost importance that you are physically at the screening representing your film and interacting with the audience. You never know who might be in that audience – perhaps a higher-level industry exec whose junior acquisition person clued her in to take a look after seeing the film at a previous screening. But that’s almost beside the point – the fifth audience for your film at Sundance should be afforded the same opportunity to ask you questions as the first audience had, regardless of if they can purchase your film or not.

Have a plan in place for how to manage invitations to other film festivals/series – depending on the film festival you’re attending, it may draw programmers from other events or perhaps from local film societies, museums, or institutions. Some of these programmers may be on strict deadlines and looking to fill holes in their schedules, and they may really want your film – but don’t let their urgency force you into making hasty decisions about your film’s festival plan. These programmers may have wonderful festivals, but agreeing to screen at them while you’re coming down off your first Q&A does not give you appropriate time to consider if those fests are the best move for your film – you could be agreeing to screen at a smaller festival in the same city in which you’d love to screen at a larger festival. Don’t commit in these situations – instead, accept their compliments, thank them for their interest in the film, and exchange business cards, or, ideally, put them in touch with the member of your team who is handling festival strategy to see if they can work something out.

As a corollary to attending your screenings, make sure you can handle criticism in an appropriate manner. Ideally, everyone will love your film, you’ll get fantastic reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, indieWIRE will love you, etc. But it’s not an ideal world – some critics, and some audience members for that matter, may not like your film. They might write negative things, or even say negative things in public. If you let a bad review incapacitate you, you’re just hurting yourself. If you lash out in a public way, you risk making yourself look bad. Try to take criticism with a grain of salt and remain gracious. Try not to complain in a public setting, because, honestly, you never know who’s around, or who they might know. Acknowledge that tastes are subjective and focus on the positive responses you get instead.

In addition to attending all of your own screenings, you should watch other filmmakers’ films. Take a step outside of yourself and your film, give yourself some breathing room, and remind yourself what you appreciate about filmmaking by seeing someone else’s project. Beyond giving yourself a mental break, this educates you on what other work is out there. You might spot the talent of a new actress or cinematographer who you might want to work with in the future. You may discover that another filmmaker has already developed that germ of an idea for your next documentary project that’s been rolling around in your head for the past few months. Attending other filmmakers’ films also puts you in the position of participating in the key social aspect of the event – the communal experience of cinema-going. You should stand in line or sit in theatres with audience members – the general public, other filmmakers, other festival programmers, the press, etc – and discuss what you’ve been up to so far in a casual setting. This can help you promote your work, but also make real human connections outside of the more structured setting of a theatre Q&A.

As you near the end of your time at the festival, make sure to thank the efforts of the festival staff that you’ve worked closely with – your hospitality coordinator or filmmaker liaison – as well as the festival programming staff who selected your film in the first place. When you get back home, send them a thank you. Ask that they let you know if any industry shares feedback with them. Request links to festival press coverage that mentions your film. Generally, try to leave a good impression, and position yourself as a filmmaker that the festival organizers think fondly about. Festival staffs talk to one another – they’re more than happy to report about the diva antics of a crazy filmmaker – you don’t want to be that filmmaker. Instead be the one that they all agree was a pleasure to have in attendance – the one whose next project they want to make sure to see, and, potentially, to program.

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