When there are 3,000 active film festivals in the world, which ones are meaningful? If you’re not careful, the costs involved can produce a net negative experience. Festivals charge submission fees ranging from $25 — $100. And if you get in, there’s travel. Festivals rarely cover flights, and occasionally cover lodging. Since almost all festivals are non-profits dependent on volunteers, they’re unable to allocate screener fees to filmmakers. The Ubers and dining add-up, and in a worst-case scenario, you spend $500 — $1000 to screen your film once to a handful of people.
Depending on your income and amount of festivals you plan to attend, this may be a reckless use of resources better spent on self-distribution. The process of independent film production will inevitably deplete your finances and energy. Your year of exhibition after production should be fruitful and productive, not an instigator of credit card debt.
At a few small festivals, I noticed filmmakers traveling from Europe and Asia for one short film screening in a collection. Unless these directors are well off, this is sad. I don’t mean to put a dollar sign on meeting good people, because more often than not, there isn’t one. But a successful independent film career is built on tactful resourcefulness, whether that be in production or picking which festivals to attend.
I’ve exhibited my narrative feature film Palace at ten film festivals since our October 2018 premiere, and have personally attended seven. We started our journey at Heartland International Film Festival (Indianapolis, IN) and were recently at RiverRun International Film Festival (Winston-Salem, NC). They’re the largest festivals we’ve played at, worth attending, and we’re honored by their selections. They’re well-supported by their surrounding populations, well-sponsored, and well-branded.
While people outside the film industry may only recognize the ilk of Sundance, SXSW, Cannes, etc… Heartland and RiverRun are well-respected regional festivals by the industry and have been listed on MovieMaker Magazine’s Top 50 Festivals Worth The Entry Fee. RiverRun also made USA Today’s list of 10 Film Festivals Worth Traveling To. Both festivals screened Palace three times, and brought in an average of 50 people to each screening.
But in the layman’s eyes, anything that’s not Sundance is not Sundance. This is fine for the layman, but a haughty attitude for a filmmaker. The opposite is cancerous — leaving worshipful FilmFreeway reviews for every tiny, and sometimes mediocre, festival that screened your film. (Let’s all agree to be a little more honest to guide future submitters, but polite enough to be welcomed back with a future project. Small festivals will improve with the constructive criticism of filmmakers.)
Independent film, like everything, has been revolutionized in the past ten years. For better and for worse, the work can be created and shared ad infinitum. But now that it’s easier to make and share, it’s harder to find placement in curation. Festivals offer that initial tier of curation.
It’s a miracle that Palace, a $13,000 narrative film shot in rural Indiana, has found any success. But a no-budget indie drama like Palace simply has no place in the “independent” “genre” as it has come to be defined. What Netflix and Sundance mean by “Independent” is $2,000,000, not $10,000. If it’s not the directorial-debut of an A-list actor, utilizing an A-list actor, or blessed with the stamp of a huge festival, favorable distribution deals are unlikely. So how does one make the most of an early feature from a marketing standpoint?
Festivals aren’t the answer, but they’re part of the answer.
I’m often asked “Did you submit to Sundance?” We didn’t, because $80 is better used on self-distributing than donating to the Sundance Institute. Sundance does marvelous work for the filmmaking world at large, and every filmmaker hopes to get in to that 0.74% someday, but for me, I knew this was not the film or stage of my career. And for those who want to shake me “You should’ve tried!”, I did submit to Slamdance, Sundance’s rebellious Park City cousin that favors first-time filmmakers. Like thirty other festivals, we were declined.
I knew from the start that mid-level festivals and self-distribution were the path for our little ensemble drama. Between Heartland, RiverRun, and putting on our own screenings, we also brought Palace to eight other festivals. Where do they fit in the equation? I’m still trying to figure that out, but in an effort to stay positive in this line of work, I’ve come up with some questions to help myself (and hopefully others) navigate the value of small to mid-level festivals. Because there is value. It just doesn’t outweigh the cost sometimes. We’ll get to that at the end.
Besides getting eyes on your work, festivals are about networking. My attendance at festivals has expanded my network (and Facebook friends list for what it’s worth). I have a stack of people’s business cards next to my desk to follow up with the day Palace hits streaming. The larger the festival, the more established and numerous your contacts will be. The smaller the festival, the primary networking you’ll be doing is with other coping filmmakers. Which often makes for funnier conversations, but filmmakers from different regions can only help each other so much. Also, retired guys attending small festivals want you to adapt their book into a movie. I don’t know why this keeps happening to me.
An unfortunate trend in festivals is the lack of Millennial attendance. This is likely a by-product of our current economy. The landlord generation is ironically the most viable target audience for underground indie films. Meanwhile, the renting generation stays busy producing them. There’s an entire demographic missing from festival chairs — my own generation. They’re too busy trying to get by (or screening their films at other festivals).
All festivals provide varying levels of audience-building.
It’s more holistic than “personal branding.” The verbiage of “audience-building” emphasizes why films are made: viewer engagement. What you get at large festivals you can get in smaller parcels at regional festivals. It’s up to the festival to provide the bulk of the audience, and for the filmmaker to make an impression that extends beyond the festival dates.
Filmmakers shouldn’t expect festivals to do all the marketing work. But festivals shouldn’t expect filmmakers to do most of the marketing work. After submission fees and travel expenses, it’s hard for me to print out unique posters with screening times and run ads for a screening that only sees financial ROI for the festival.
But put some time into making sure your existing audience knows about the festival. Bring half-page info cards (or if you’re cheap like me, papers) to hand-out to people you meet at the festival. Contact local press to see if they’ll review. They probably won’t. We almost always persuaded reviewers to cover screenings we put on. For festivals, you’re 1 of 100 films. Why should they review yours?
Audience-building is long term, it’s a slow process that covers a body of work. Some new filmmakers see a singular project as their ticket. First time novelists probably face similar naivety. Random House doesn’t want your first book, and Hollywood’s not asking for your micro-budget indie. No one is asking for it. One of my college professors, Tracy Manning, gave me sage advice before I shot Palace:
“It won’t be your best. It won’t be your last.”
The cultivation of a long term audience takes time, emotional energy, and money. The more films you make, the better they get. The larger the festivals you get into, the more festivals will invite you for free. Each of these experiences is a piece of a 1000-piece puzzle. It’s not a chicken or the egg of “I need the money”, “I need the star”, “I need the press.” All important variables. But the whole ecosystem of a modern independent film career is like a beach. You have to pick up a grain of sand one-by-one. Each grain is one person, one audience member, and your job is to make an emotional, aesthetic, and interpersonal impression that compels them to sign up for your email list, follow your social accounts, and watch your next film.
If you seek long term benefits from festivals and you’re not already thinking about your next film, it’s time to start writing. “What’s next?” is a common Q&A question. Have an answer and convince them to follow the journey there. The intellectual properties of blockbuster films are financed on the promise of a preexisting audience. It’s grueling, but I believe indie filmmakers can snowball their own with grassroots determination.
Email lists and social media help quantify audience building, but what qualifies online marketing are human events like festivals. And festivals are just as much about building relationships with programmers as they are with audiences. Be back in their inbox with new work every other year. I’d like to think the small festivals I’ve attended are valuable for the recurring relationship I hope to sustain. As they bring in bigger audiences, I work to provide a better film than my last one. We grow together.
It’s harder to audience-build from a small festival that plays your film without your attendance. But you have to ask if the travel expenses would be better spent on setting up your own screenings and running ads online. Maybe you could run a $300 Facebook ad for a screening in your friend’s basement and get 30 paying people there. Who knows. That would be audience-building that sees human connection and ROI at $10 per ticket. ($10 is pretty Mr. Krabs for a basement screening. Maybe include pizza and beer in admission?)
Let’s summarize what compels a filmmaker to attend a festival:
- Audience: people to watch your film who would have never watched it otherwise
- Distribute: companies to license your film, circulate it, and generate profit for the filmmaker
- Network: Meet as many experienced people as possible and stay in contact
- Films: Enjoy other’s work, get a pulse on the scene, meet your contemporaries
- Learn: Attend panels and presentations that educate
- Leisure: New life experiences, see a new place, meet new people, eat and drink well
If a festival isn’t seriously delivering on five of these six, it’s probably not the best use of your time and money. Short filmmakers should be even more cautious about buying flights to film festivals. It’s hard to audience build when you share a screening block with six other filmmakers.
And please don’t put every small festival laurel on your poster. Pick the most notable festivals with well-designed logos to occupy space on your film’s artwork.
Laurels and the false glitz of small festivals are tacky and meaningless. The viewership and relationships that may (or may not) be there are meaningful.
If you want to make one feature film and return to a day job, then I say live it up and attend every small festival you can afford. If you’re frugal and seek long term audience building, here are four questions you should ask yourself before depleting personal resources to attend a film festival:
- Is it a major festival known to open doors to distributors or more festivals? Go! If no, ask:
- Is it our movie’s world premiere? Uh, definitely go. If no, ask:
- Is it within a few hours of driving? Aight, why not go. If no, ask:
- Are they providing air travel and lodging? Feel bougie for a weekend, go ahead and go. If no, then:
Stay home, focus on your immediate community, host your own screenings, use whatever finances you can spare to market your work online, and make your next film better.
Making an independent feature film is one of the most disheartening and discouraging things I’ve ever done. It’s also the most heartening and encouraging thing I’ve ever done. The cast and crew of Palace have my gratitude and a part of my heart, the part of my heart that became a movie — a time capsule of a feeling I hardly recognize anymore. Those screenings we put on where we’ve had 64, 94, 170 people… They lit up my soul. Our sold out (and weirdly scheduled) Sunday morning premiere in Indianapolis, the filmmakers we hung out with in Lafayette, Louisiana, the Winston-Salem locals I met at RiverRun, the festival volunteer who bought me the tastiest beer ever in Beloit, Wisconsin… I have to cherish these things and hold them as close as possible. Because the failures scream louder than the successes. Indie filmmaking… Small film festivals… These are sad terms (if you’ve ever had a bank account). Accept that, and fight for happiness. Don’t cave. Beat your chest until truth fills the page. Fight for the days where you’re so full of the people around you the numbers don’t mean shite.
Andrew Paul Davis
Co-Founder of One County Film Company
This story first appeared on onecountyfilm.com/journal
Let me know what you think! Send thoughts to my Instagram inbox (@andrewpauldavis). I’ll be posting a follow-up blog about festivals toward the end of June — a strategy I just implemented to offset travel expenses.
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