Self-Producing Actors: Festival Strategy 101

The fruits of my most recent festival engagement included
 awards for the film, and a Best Actress nomination for me!

If you’re in the film-making business, including being an actor, then film festivals are your business conventions. They are "key net-working grounds for all film industry professionals", as the Film Festival Doctor rightly puts it. I had been to many festivals as ‘just’ an actor, but now that I’m all up into producing my own work, I’ve reached the point where I’m submitting to festivals myself. And, much like the time I first went scuba diving, I’ve realized there’s a whole nother universe to learn about out there.

There are literally thousands of festivals to choose from
Although we may only be able to name about ten film festivals off the top of our heads, there are literally thousands of festivals out there, and having a strategy about which ones to apply to will save you thousands of dollars and make you more likely to get programmed. As film-maker and The Beat blogger, Noam Kroll, writes: “Getting your film into the right festival is an art of its own.”

Size Matters:
Cannes, Toronto, Berlinale, Venice, Sundance-- these are the festivals we all know about. It’s tempting to go for gold and submit to these, but keep in mind, these festivals tend to program repeat winners with budgets over $1M, and films directed by and/or starring Hollywood A-Listers. Acceptance rates are extremely low and very few filmmakers will get their initial break at these festivals. Just as an example, Sundance received 13, 782 submissions this year. If you do get in though, they are absolute prime selling platforms.

Hollywood A-Listers at Cannes, 2016

Mid-Range Festivals such as South by Southwest, Slamdance, Snowdance have a higher rate of acceptance, and may also give your smaller film more exposure.

Niche festivals, such as horror, fantasy, comedy, human rights, and women’s festivals are a great target for genre films and filmmakers of specific minority backgrounds. Festivals that promote local talent fall into this category too; it’s smart to tap out your local festivals as they often have parameters in place specifically to support local films and filmmakers (plus it’s less expensive for you to get there). There is a higher likelihood of getting in if you fit the bill for these kinds of festivals, plus a higher likelihood of resonating with the audience that attends. Knowing where your film will be best accepted can be a tricky thing, though, and in some cases, your film might appeal more to a foreign market both in its content and the prestige of them including films from other countries. Just make sure you are applying to places you will actually want to go!

My director and I at a Horror/Fantasy Festival in Andorra

Another way of categorizing festivals is “business” versus “audience” festivals. This is about how they are funded, who attends and whether they are open to the general public or not. Not all festivals are “competition” festivals, that is, judge the films in the festival and give out awards.

Premier Status & Timing:
Premier status is extremely important to some festivals, and not at all to others. It refers to where your film has previously been shown and what kind of exclusivity the festival can boast with your film. World premiere means it has not been shown anywhere in the world before. International premiere means it has not been shown outside the country of its making. European premiere means it has not been shown in Europe, US premiere means it has not been shown in the US, etc. “A lot of filmmakers, especially if they’re new to the game, don’t realize how important premiere status is,” says Drea Clark, indie producer and programmer for the Los Angeles Film Festival and Slamdance, in the blog Moviemaker. “ Getting into one festival could mean you become ineligible for another, so it pays not to submit all at once or too far in advance for those festivals for which this is the case. With short films there is often more leniency, and sometimes you are more likely to get programmed once your short has gained some momentum at other festivals.

At my most recent world premiere, whose film had a similar gestation period
and world premiere to my human baby!

Additionally, most mid- to top-tier festivals want recently made films, and will not accept films that finished post-production more than a year ago.

One more word on timing, although many festivals will accept ‘drafts’ of films before they are finished, I have been advised by experienced programmers not to send your film before it is fully finished, as first impressions are impossible to erase.

There are even festivals that are completely online!

Submitting your film to a festival usually costs somewhere between US$20-$200. With the exception of Cannes, for which submission is free (Cannes Short Film Corner on the other hand costs about US$150), the bigger festivals tend to be more expensive. As mentioned, not all festivals are competition festivals and not all have prize money. It’s important to create a budget and create a plan as to which festivals you will submit to, and in what order. As you might for an investment portfolio, diversify-- mix it up with some high risk and more secure submission choices. Kroll suggests a percentage formula for submitting your films, but there are many ways to mix risk and safer bets. Some of the ventures will fail, and rejection is part of the process, just like in acting, so don't take it as a reflection on the quality of your film.

There are a number of film submission platforms, such as withoutabox and film freeway, which allow you to save time and money by uploading your film and all its supporting materials only once, and then submitting to several festivals through its platform. Many festivals will only accept submissions through certain platforms, while others have their own platforms and process.

A poster for one of my films,
made through 
Don’t forget you are in the business to sell your film, and yourself as a filmmaker, actor, etc., so you need to budget not only for submissions, but also for marketing, promotions, deliverables, and travel. Some festivals sell promotion packages that include advertising your film in the program, showing your trailer before popular films are screened, and even additional prime screening times. If this is out of your price range or not offered, at the very least you can print up some postcards and maybe a poster.

A festival consultant or strategist may be well worth their fee, in the end saving you on submission fees and helping you gain distribution and revenue.

Play to the Press:
The number of social media followers you have, your trailer, stills/poster, website, reviews, press kits and press releases-- these things factor into whether you get accepted sometimes, because they show you understand the business side and are more likely to get an audience to your film. So even though it’s extra work, get these things up, as well as an IMDb listing, preferably before you start submitting.

Many festivals give you a list of media contacts, so write up a press release and send it out. If you have no experience here you can hire an a la carte PR company, such as Spotlight to do it for you. Social media ads are another increasingly cost effective method of advertising.

The Importance of Showing Up:
I didn’t know this until I attended my first few festivals, but showing up makes all the difference. Some festivals even ask on their submission form how likely you are to attend. Not only is that the way you make connections, it significantly increases your chances of winning an award and getting your next film/s accepted. After you’ve connected, stay in touch. The fortune is in the follow-up, as they say.

Sweeping the awards at Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema

Valentina Valentini, writes in Moviemaker:
“Make a concerted effort to stay in touch with those programmers, and not just when it’s convenient for you. If you’ve never gotten a film into a festival, attend one, or 10. You’ll make your face familiar in the small world of fests. And knowledge of current films—who’s making them and who’s in them—will come back to aid you ten-fold.”
Plus, red-carpet photos never hurt any film-maker!

Above All
Do your research. Festivals have their own personalities and styles, so look at who is programming them and what kinds of films the festival has accepted previously. Clark writes, See if they’ve selected other films with similar tones, themes, budget range, level of cast, etc. You want to set yourself up to win, especially when it comes to your premiere.”

If your goal is to secure distribution, do your homework! Check this rather useful post from Indie Wire, try to make contact before the festival starts, and be aware of what a scam or just a plain bad deal looks like.

It costs nothing to find other movie makers who have been through the mill a few times, and get their precious advice :-)

With the director and producer of "54 Days",
which went to festivals before getting distribution
in the UK

Wishing you all the best this festive season from all of us at Actor's Gone Global!!!

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