Your little brother’s piano recital, that elementary school play your neighbor invited you to. Both presentations of hard work you feel dreadfully obligated to attend. Should you feel that way about attending film festivals?
Before I dive into this highly controversial topic and make some new enemies, please let me make myself clear. This is NOT an open shot at film festivals, or any particular one. Nor do I recommend filmmakers avoid them. However, I will say that the topic is highly misunderstood, especially when it comes to finding distribution. I write about this topic extensively in my latest book What Film Schools Don’t Tell You.
The film festival industry by and large preys upon the fact that filmmakers have a lack of knowledge about the industry and how things really work. Nonetheless filmmakers collectively drop hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions to submit movies with the hopes of getting noticed, finding distribution or getting to the next job.
To make things even tricker, every year a new festival pops up offering the allure of fame, prestige and fortune to dreamy filmmakers. But let’s be real – film festivals are an opportunity, not a guarantee of anything! They present you with the chance to either mingle and promote your film, or to sit back and let the moment pass you by. Often times, filmmakers miss the bigger picture, and waste valuable time and money attending. Here are some misconceptions about film festivals.
“Getting into a film festival will automatically and magically grant me distribution.”
If you couldn’t tell by the satirical phrasing, this is obviously not true. Outside of the major film festivals such as Sundance, London, Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, SXSW, and Tribeca, it’s rare to see legitimate sales agents in attendance. Now there are a few exceptions of course, but banking on a distribution agent attending the Anamoose North Dakota International Film Fest is highly unlikely. Even so, a play at Sundance cannot even guarantee you go home with a deal.
“The more shiny laurels on my movie poster, the more likely I am to get to find a distributor.”
The sad truth is, laurels make you feel good as opposed to doing good for you. Many distributors could care less about your stockpile of laurels. With most of the conversations I have had with reputable film distribution companies, they have paid very little attention to this overused graphic design practice. Unless you have played at a major festival like Sundance, its amateurish to see them on your art work. This is mostly in part because there are so many small film festivals eager to give you an accolade. There are even festivals that give awards without hosting any screenings. These are called award festivals. Basically, you pay for the right to put a laurel on your movie. In most cases, you have to purchase a meal ticket to go to get your award.
“Sundance, SXSW, Toronto or Cannes are the only means to success.”
While major festivals can be a meaningful way to connect and display your finished work to the upper crust of our industry, it is not your only gateway to success. Taking the time to submit query letters and digital screeners to distribution companies can be a much more effective strategy overall. It allows you to present your film with greater focus and less distraction from the noise of an event.
So why even enter film festivals at all? While they may not lead directly to a sure fire way to distribution, it is a meaningful way to interact and brush elbows with the local film community. These interactions can broaden your rolodex of filmmakers you wish to work with in the future, and one’s who wish to work with you. It not only gives you a chance to display your work, but to display your workability.
Use festivals to network. Take time to attend other people’s screenings and support their films while onsite. Pay little attention to your own ego, and do the networking. After all, you’ve already seen your movie, but you might learn something from seeing someone else’s.