How To Make the Best of Your Film Festival Run

When filmmakers finish their projects the very same question always arises: how to build a festival career for this specific film?

Besides the many question marks one has regarding the realities of the continuously changing festival circuit, the digital age with its additional opportunities complicates this stage perhaps even more. After thorough research, we conclude without doubt that the book Film Festival Secrets written by Chris Holland and published in 2008 still is the #1 resource to steer filmmakers on the right path. His advice on navigating the film festival circuit is invaluable. Nevertheless technological developments are about to reshape the festival landscape, therefore we would like to point out a few thoughts that came to our mind when re-reading the book and reflecting on a case study from the people behind Short of the Week.

Whether an experienced veteran with a feature film or a first-timer with a documentary short, all filmmakers get confronted with the same set of problems. All of them ask the same questions, and aspire to the pleasure of seeing their films play before a festival audience and gain the appreciation they deserve. Film Festival Secrets helps filmmakers to select the right festivals for their projects, prepare the festival screener, save money on festival fees, create a marketing strategy, and make a screening sell out plan.

Important festivals have been embracing digital technology, consequently additional opportunities for filmmakers emerge together with the festivals. Not only is it possible to be included in the festivals’ on demand (all year round) viewing channels, but there is also a chance to show films online during the event. Festival organizations increasingly initiate online activities simultaneously with the event itself. This makes it necessary for filmmakers to rethink their marketing strategy for this specific event. Not only to organize standard marketing activities, but also to make sure the film is included in the online program of the event in some kind of form as well.

Besides putting your film online within the framework of a festival, you can initiate this independently as well. The downturns should be kept in mind though. Of course putting the film on YouTube or Vimeo gives your film the chance to be seen by a larger audience. It gives buyers, agents executives the chance to see your film at any time and also to measure your success (by the number of views you gather) and thus the potential success of a future film or at least a core audience you can prove through the likes and follower numbers.

On the other hand it kind of destroys or at least puts the chances of distribution deals at jeopardy. It can mess up some premiere requirements if not restricted to specific countries. It can “devaluate” your film for the market if not done in a strategic and careful way. So, it’s something that should be planned really well and considered individually from film to film. For some small film with no real chance of distribution just looking to point the world’s attention at your super talent: great. For a nice independent second feature film with some vertical potential: not so great.

Anyhow the possibility of online viewing pushes us towards a different mindset. Or at least more in general it can be questioned whether film festivals have the same importance as a few years ago, as films can reach audiences online as well.

Andrew Allen and Jason Sondhi, the filmmakers behind the online platform Short of the Week did the following, which illustrates this very well. After an eight month festival run they decided to release their short film online on Vimeo and compared the success of it with the festival run of the film. In fact the number of views was way higher online (170.000 compared to 3.000), and the film got both industry and distributor interest resulting from the online release. This experience made Andrew and Jason change their thoughts on the festival-target-strategy. Meaning, next time they will likely aim for just one or two big festival premieres and then go directly online. The wide-release happens online. The extended one year long festival run doesn’t make sense to them anymore, because the medium and smaller festivals just can’t compete with the reach and impact of what one can do online.

This example reflects there is a shift within the festival climate under filmmakers. On the other hand, could one short film still be able to share the experience the Short of the Week filmmakers did, once more and more short films will embrace Vimeo or similar tools as self promoting and distributing channels?

We doubt this. We should realistically recognize that the attention paid to the Short of the Week guys was largely due to the fact that they were doing something for the first time. This was the news. Getting attention and bringing the audience to your Vimeo page will still remain a huge marketing challenge. And here is where festivals are interesting again – and why they will keep playing the role of curators, editors – dividing the “Spreu vom Weizen” (sorting the wheat from the chaff) as you say in German.

In the end festivals are still great happenings, but one should manage the expectations: festivals may not always be the best, or at least only, way to show your film to an audience. Festivals are more the time for connecting to fellow filmmakers, starting a PR buzz, possibly receive awards (money) and get additional financial support meet some distributors and sales agents and – what is not to underestimate in term of long lasting relationships – actually physically shake hands with people.