by Mara Lesemann
I’ve spent the past year taking my first feature (Surviving Family – www.survivingfamily.us) to 18 film festivals in the US and Canada; we also had 2 invitation-only screenings for family and friends. While we didn’t hit the festival home run that everyone dreams of (Sundance, Tribeca, Cannes, etc.), we did get into several that have made the Movie Maker Magazine list of 25 Festivals Worth the Entry Fee (Central Florida Film Festival and Manhattan Film Festival) as well as their list of Coolest Film Festivals (Woods Hole and Trail
Dance). We also screened at an amazing array of small and mid-sized
festivals, each of which was fun and worthwhile in its own way.
After all of this, plus my experience over the previous 5 years or so with taking shorts to a range of festivals, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned (or at least, what I think) about what filmmakers should do before, during, and after a festival. I’m a big believer in attending festivals where your movie is screening if it’s at all possible. But even if you can’t, many of the points below still apply.
Before You Go
As soon as you receive the notification that your movie has been accepted (right after you stop jumping up and down for joy), start letting everyone know. Yes, you want to tell your spouse/significant other, mom and dad, your kids…but then tell your cast and crew, and anyone who supported you via a crowd-funding campaign. An email blast is a great way to start, then update your Facebook status if you partake of such things, the movie’s FB page if it has one, Twitter, the movie’s web site, and any other public forums that you participate in. Don’t forget to include the “official selection” laurel, and share the screening date, time, and location as soon as they are available.
If the festival is local to you and/or where you shot, remind people often when and where the movie is screening. Consider setting up an Event on Facebook and inviting people; it’s a great mechanism for reminding those who said they’d attend, and for getting a handle on who to expect.
Figure out how many passes you’ll get for your screening and be sure to get them to the people who you most want to attend – this might be your writer, or producer, or maybe one of the lead actors. Consider buying some additional tickets (if you can afford it) and giving them out – it’s a great way to make sure you have people at the screening (more on that below).
Find out what screening format the festival wants. Hopefully you’ve researched this before submitting, but even if you did, DOUBLE CHECK: festivals can change venues and/or they may want different formats for features vs. shorts. If you’re not sure, ask. And test it before you send it out.
We’ve screened on HD CAM SR, HD CAM, uncompressed QuickTime (loaded onto an external hard drive), blu ray, and DVD. If possible, bring an extra screening copy with you to the festival. If you can’t bring it in the expected screening format (e.g. a 2nd HD CAM SR would be expensive), bring the movie on blu ray and/or DVD, so you have something as a fall back.
Some festivals actively seek press releases from participating filmmakers; if they do, write one and send it – and be sure to send it by any deadline that they’ve indicated. They may also provide information on local publications that cover the festival and would be interested in receiving your release.
It can be hard to get your material published without a connection to the town or city where the fest is taking place, but that can come from some unexpected places. Keep your cast and crew informed of festival acceptances as they may have connections that you don’t.
Posters and Postcards
Some festivals let you/encourage you to send posters and postcards in advance, and you should take advantage of that as much as possible. It’s a great feeling to arrive at a festival and see your poster already on display, and postcards may be distributed in swag bags, or placed strategically around town.
We have both 27” x 40” posters (“standard” movie size) and also 11” x 17” posters; they each have their own usefulness. Some festivals will require you to mount your poster on cardboard (or similar) backing before you send it; otherwise roll it in a tube for shipment.
The front of the postcard should have some version of your basic artwork, but I prefer to leave the back mostly blank. This way I can customize them for each festival with an address label that includes screening information. Some festivals pre-announce awards and/or award nominations; if you receive any, be sure to include that on the label.
Respect the festival’s wishes regarding whether or not to pre-ship posters and postcards.
When You Are There
I can’t repeat it often enough: if you can go, do it! During my festival run with my feature, I met an Academy Award-winning actor and numerous other high-level actors and directors; actors who came to festivals with me got cast in other people’s projects as a direct result of being there; and I learned that audiences in Cape Cod, MA are not all that different from those in Duncan, OK.
Meet the Festival Honchos and Get the Schedule
The first thing you’ll probably do is pick up your festival credentials. While you do, introduce yourself to as many of the staff as you can: the director, their assistants, press people, whatever. Tell them how thrilled you are to be there, and make sure that they know what movie you’re with.
If there’s a hard copy schedule available, make sure you get one (or better yet, several). If they do everything electronically, make sure you have the site bookmarked.
Find out about any social events planned – cocktail parties, lunches, dinners, whatever. If there’s a separate awards ceremony planned, make sure you know where and when it will take place.
One festival that I attended hosted a free outdoor breakfast for attending filmmakers every morning. Not only did it save money on food (!), it was also a delightfully casual setting to get to know people.
Get Your Picture Taken
I hate this part – I like maybe 5% of the photos that are taken of me. But I do it anyway. If the festival has a step and repeat banner, get your photo taken in front of it ASAP. If not, they probably have a poster – use that as your backdrop. Then post the photo to Facebook. And twitter. Wherever.
Try to get your picture taken with the festival director – then send it to them. You may end up on the festival’s website.
Getting an Audience
Keep doing everything mentioned above: email everyone who might possibly come to your screening. Remind them on Facebook, and Twitter, and your Tumblr, and anywhere else that you frequent.
Some towns are wonderfully supportive of their local film festival, and local bars, restaurants, and even stores will welcome your postcards. Definitely get your information out there as much as possible.
At many festivals – especially smaller ones – the potential audience will be primarily other filmmakers. Fine. Do everything you can to encourage them to see your movie instead of the one screening opposite you. Introduce yourself and tell people (briefly!) about your movie and why they should see it. Then ask them about their movie and aim for reciprocity: you’ll come to their screening if they come to yours. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Use the festival’s social events as an opportunity to hand out postcards as well.
I’m in regular contact with many of the filmmakers that I’ve met at festivals over the years. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up collaborating with one or more of them in the future.
Q & A
Most festivals include a brief q&a session with the filmmakers at the end of each screening (for shorts, this may come at the end of a block of movies). This can be intimidating the first time you do it, but you WILL get better with practice.
If you haven’t done something like that before: (1) think about what points you’d most like to make about your movie and (2) consider practicing in advance in front of friends or colleagues. You can also make a few notes regarding points to cover.
When you get in front of the audience, speak loud and clearly. If you’re offered the use of a microphone, take it. If you’re on a stage with bright lights right in your eyes (which happened to me several times), now you have an idea of how stage actors feel! If it’s permitted in the auditorium/screening room, bring a bottle of water with you in case your mouth gets dry.
The best q&a sessions generally have a moderator, who will introduce the filmmaker(s) and get the discussion started. But sometimes there’s a deafening silence, with no one asking questions and everyone looking awkward. A filmmaker friend and I (who have often ended up at the same festivals) go to each other’s screenings no matter how often we’ve seen the movie. And when that awkward silence hits, we’ll raise our hand with our standard question: “What inspired your story?” It’s a great way to start a discussion, and frequently other people will chime in with questions once the ice has been broken.
Some of my most amazing q&a sessions have been with small audiences that were especially enthusiastic. I’ve been followed (in a nice way!) into hallways, cafeterias, and the parking lot by people eager to continue a discussion.
It’s great when festivals announce award nominations in advance: if you get one (or more), it helps to encourage people to attend your screening. Plus you know that you should go to the awards ceremony!
If you don’t get a nomination, or if they’re not pre-announced, try to go anyway. It’s good to support your fellow filmmakers, and you may be surprised and get something you’re not expecting.
What NOT To Do
The best advice that I can give is: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. Seriously.
Things will go wrong: festivals won’t meet your hopes or expectations, you’ll get a lousy screening time, the sound will be screechy, the audience will be small, the printed schedule will be wrong, and a dozen other things that will make your blood boil. Yelling rarely (if ever) helps.
If something is happening at that moment, and can possibly be fixed, approach the people in charge calmly with a suggested correction. Be firm, but polite. Don’t complain about all of the ways that you think they should be doing things, and how much better festival X is. No one wants to hear it.
Here’s an example of something that actually happened to me this past year: we were screening at a (delightful) local film festival, with many of the cast and crew in attendance. It was a prime-time Friday night event, so attendance was terrific. The previous screening ran late, so everyone stayed in the lobby, chatting and sipping champagne, very relaxed and awaiting an indication that they were ready to start. I wandered to the door of the theater, trying to decide if I wanted to sit down, as I was wearing high heels. And I found that the projectionist had started the movie, with 100+ people still standing in the lobby waiting to see it. I scrambled to find the festival director, who showed me where the projectionist was. I got the projectionist to stop while others corralled the audience, and the movie was re-started. No hard feelings, apologies all around, and we won a couple of awards.
When You Get Home
Add a selection of your photos to the movie’s web site, as well as to its Facebook page, if that hasn’t been done already. Be sure to add any awards information to your web site, and to IMDB. While not all festival show up in the IMDB Awards section, you can always add them to the Trivia section of your movie’s page.
If you received any press coverage, be sure to publicize that as well. And thank people for anything out of the ordinary that they did for you, or help that they gave you.
I LOVE screening my movie at festivals. I always sit in the screening so that I can hear audience reaction – some react more to the humor, others to the drama, and it all goes toward making my next movie better.
I really enjoy q&a sessions as well. I’ve become a better public speaker, can deal with lights that keep me from seeing the audience, and don’t get upset when something in the movie is criticized.
I’m looking forward to doing it all again….in a few years!