The torrential feedback to last week’s article 10 Things Every Film Festival Wants Filmmakers to Know warrants a response from filmmakers. As festivals know, filmmakers are the true heart and sole of a film festival. During my tenor with festivals, I have spoken to, or consulted with, hundreds of filmmakers. In the spirit of helping festivals understand filmmakers and with homage to Law & Order, these are their (and my) stories.
1. Be transparent.
Festivals should provide filmmakers with a timeline, genre guidelines, clear submission guidelines, festival formats and prizes on their web site or wherever submissions are posted. If a waiver of the submission fee is possible under certain circumstances, explain. If a screening fee is available, let them know how they are eligible. Don’t go MIA and be unavailable for filmmaker questions leading up to the festival.
2. Give Feedback.
Rejecting a film? If possible, provide some feedback on why the film was rejected. Typically, filmmakers have paid to be considered for the festival. A helpful tip on why a project was rejected might help improve their odds next time around. When asked to review films, I tell the filmmaker up front I will be completely honest for what it’s worth (and it’s only one gal’s opinion). They are universally appreciative of the feedback. A programmer once told me he wouldn’t provide feedback because he didn’t have time while another indicated that if she had the time, she would always do so (even over the phone, just not the week before the festival). Guess who has a better relationship with filmmakers in the industry?
3. Roll out the Welcome Wagon.
Let filmmakers know you appreciate them and prepare them for the festival by giving them a program in advance. Share their press kit with media and help them to arrange interviews. Filmmakers sure love it when they show up and are handed a schedule of parties, screening times, Q&As, and special networking events (and maybe even a driver to take them there!). At the very least, filmmakers deserve lodging. If you can’t afford to offer it, get it donated (people love to have filmmakers stay with them and it builds great loyalty to the filmmaker and the festivals). They are guests in your hamlet, so treat them as you would wish to be treated — only better.
4. Get the Word Out.
Empty theater syndrome — Just the thought of an empty theater sends chills down my spine. You could hear a pin drop, if a tree falls in a forest, you get the idea. All of the programmers reading this are cringing right now. It’s the surprise party where no one shows up. It is unfair, and often avoidable. Since we all know it happens occasionally, at least do your best to prevent it:
1) Don’t hold your festival for a full week if no one comes to Tuesday morning screenings
2) If it’s too late for #1, use social media, your publicist, street teams and bribes with free tickets (had to do that when a certain cult filmmaker showed up to his screening after being told he wouldn’t be there) to fill the seats
3) don’t bail on the filmmaker while he or she is experiencing this, but rethink what you missed in your calculations. I tried to convince a large, two week long festival that it was..well, too long. The director argued that he wanted to show all these films so he had content but no audience. One clever director took a large ad in the local paper advertising his film and sold it out three times.
5. Manage Expectations.
Turn a Sow’s Ear into a Silk Purse aka Make the best of a situation. For instance, when “empty theater syndrome” happened, a new doc filmmaker and the small audience bonded about the issue addressed in the film; namely autism. We warned the director that the reception would be intimate and we programmed it in a very small theater. By managing expectations, the filmmaker was delighted with the quality of the reception and he wound up with a committed donor and advocate.
6. Be Kind.
Be kind when you reject filmmakers, be kind when you invite filmmakers, be kind when you pick them up, house them, see them at a party, pick their screening time and well, you get it. And please don’t knock them over to get to the Sundance filmmaker or star of the moment at your event. Film producer and festival programmer Ted Hope advises festivals to take a filmmaker to dinner. Filmmaker Michael Farrell implores that they “treat filmmakers like guests who accomplished something rather than lucky to be there.” Remember, it costs you nothing to be kind (even if it cost you something to bring them there). Give filmmakers every opportunity to network within the industry and they will buzz about your festival. They’ll be sure to spread the word about the festivals that took care of them and showed them a good time — and those who didn’t. A well-respected programmer who worked for the festival I ran once taught me that what matters most is how you treat the filmmakers. She is a now very important executive with a preeminent festival and deservedly so.
7. Get the Technical Stuff Right.
Format, print traffic, projection – Measure twice-cut once.This is one that still gives me nightmares. After implementing a backup system with a back up to the back up system, the projectionist was unable to project Alex Gibney’s stunning film (that went on to win an Academy Award), “Taxi to the Dark Side” at a festival I produced. We wound up projecting it on a DVD player (ugh) so be sure your films work on whatever format it is and that you have backups, key codes sorted and films pretested. We once kept Nick Nolte and the film’s director waiting for an hour in a limo (driving all over Newport to take them “sight seeing” because the print hadn’t arrived. A helicopter delivery where we grabbed the print off the tarmac illustrated the need to implement better measures for print traffic control. Filmmakers deserve to have their films shown on time, in the correct aspect ratio and with proper sound (need I remind you, they always want it turned up).
8. Acknowledge Sundance.
Sundance — The elephant in the theater. Everybody talks about Sundance but nobody does anything about it. All (yes, all) filmmakers want to be accepted there and festivals (many) want to be Sundance but the reality is, only Sundance is Sundance — and the rest of us are not. Let’s just get on with it and not focus on the “S” word.
9. Support the Film Community.
And the point is- “It’s important for filmmakers and producers and programmers to remember this: we’re all on the same team. We are a community of artists, coming together to celebrate movies for the sake of movies. We are all going out of our way to try and give life to independent cinema. And that’s a beautiful goal. In other words, filmmakers are willing to bet the farm on their vision and programmers are willing to sift through 6,000 films a year with the hopes of finding a few gems.” Says who? Filmmaker Chris Lowell, an up and comer who is experiencing the circuit for the first-time. Good advice!
10. Have Fun. This Festival May Be Your Last.
Unfortunately, many film festivals and many filmmakers only get one bite at the apple (in other words, failure rates are high). When I say failure, there is only one film screened and/or only one festival produced. Why? Another article (cut to cliffhanger) and a multitude of reasons. That said, we are all very privileged to be in this industry because it was by design, not chance. Most filmmakers I interviewed to research this article expressed incredible gratitude for their chance to be screened at festivals and appreciated the hard work that goes into producing a festival (filmmakers are producers on a tight budget too). Or as filmmaker Katina Dunn puts it, “Festivals do a great job under grueling circumstances.” Laurie Kirby, Esq., president and CCO of the International Film & Music Festival Conference, executes an annual conference for film, music festival and tech leaders and oversees a magazine publication LINEUP for festival executives. A former attorney and former film festival executive, Kirby is a consultant and frequent speaker at film festivals and event conferences in areas that include event planning, nonprofit management, distribution, celebrity relations, film production, sponsorship, sports law, real estate and conservation law, grant writing, licensing, social media and traditional marketing.