A Film Festival/Distribution Strategy To Study

January 3, 2010
posted by sheric

My friend and emerging indie filmmaker Zak Forsman writes posts for the Workbook Project  site called NEW BREED. Zak has also made 2 films in the last year called Heart of Now and White Knuckles. He shared his film festival strategy on the New Breed site and I asked if I could reprint it here in case you missed it. You can also follow him on Twitter @zakforsman. If you like what you read, please leave a comment on his site.

The SABI Festival Strategy


Be honest with yourself and ask why you want to do this. It will be a financial, emotional and physical drain to be sure. So you must define your goals and the reason why they are goals. For us, we have solidified our plans to release HEART OF NOW and WHITE KNUCKLES through our own distribution company, CINEFIST. So we are not seeking traditional distribution. And by “traditional” I mean selling the domestic rights for 25 years, for less than $100,000 in advance and a tiny cut of the profit. Instead, we ARE seeking some rather important things to support a direct-to-audience distribution effort:

  • To meet new friends, filmmakers, fans and partners
  • To garner laurels, prestige, press and reviews
  • To announce a platform release to a larger audience
  • To make a little $$$ on DVD, soundtrack and merch sales at each screening
  • To get additional feedback from audiences

So, what does a modern, forward-thinking festival strategy look like? From the outside, it looks like a bucket full of submission packets amounting to $1500 in fees for 40 festivals. I’ve come to define our festival strategy by working backwards from our direct-to-audience distribution plan. We know we want to begin the latter in July 2010 so the focus had to go toward festivals that would play between now and the end of June. The intent being that if we are accepted, we can incorporate that opportunity into the distribution road map, without relying on it “for direction”.

So how did I decide which festivals to submit to?


I researched other films and the festivals they played. I zeroed in on two films that I felt shared enough similarities with HEART OF NOW and WHITE KNUCKLES that they could attract the same appreciation for content and form. They were THE NEW YEAR PARADE and MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY.

Festivals that accepted The New Year Parade:

  • SXSW
  • Slamdance
  • Ashland
  • Philadelphia
  • deadCENTER
  • BendFilm
  • Indie Memphis
  • Lone Star Int’l
  • IFF Boston
  • Cucalorus
  • Temecula Valley
  • Vancouver Int’l
  • Tofino
  • Torino
  • Woodstck
  • Starz Denver

Festivals that accepted Medicine for Melancholy:

  • SXSW
  • Philadelphia
  • IFF Boston
  • Viennale
  • San Francisco Int’l
  • Toronto Int’l
  • London
  • Sarasota
  • Maryland
  • Los Angeles

And I also took a good look at the festivals suggested by Chris Gore as being essential to any festival effort:

  • AFI Fest
  • Dallas
  • Atlanta
  • Austin
  • Chicago
  • CineVegas (on hiatus)
  • Denver
  • Florida
  • Los Angeles
  • Phoenix
  • San Diego
  • San Francisco
  • Seattle
  • Sidewalk
  • Wisconsin
  • Woodstock

I sought to make one final list of festivals that offered profit participation with the box office grosses, allowing filmmakers the opportunity to make some money off their own content. That list had no entries.

I entered all of this info in a GoogleWave and crunched through the data, noting their deadlines, doing searches on the Without-A-Box message board for filmmaker feedback and reading about each of them on FILM FESTIVAL WORLD as well as visiting each of their official sites.


Guidance came in two forms: from experienced people I’ve met in the last year and from books. My signed copy of THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX OFFICE by Jon Reiss has been a great resource for defining our upcoming distribution endeavor, allowing us to work backwards and plan a complimentary festival strategy. For festival-specific guidance, I picked up the 4th edition of CHRIS GORE’S ULTIMATE FILM FESTIVAL SURVIVAL GUIDE.

In addition, the heads of programming at SUNDANCE and SLAMDANCE both sent unofficial rejection notices that offered personal words of admiration for WHITE KNUCKLES, with the latter making suggestions for festivals that might also be receptive to it. It’s encouraging to know how closely we were considered for those two.

Next, Scott Macaulay of FILMMAKER MAGAZINE was gracious enough to lend his creative feedback and insight as we shaped the edit of HEART OF NOW. When I posted a plea on Facebook and Twitter for east coast festival recommendations, he offered a list for that film specifically.

In addition, festivals that programmed my short film, I F*CKING HATE YOU, fell into heavy consideration due to the existing relationships and friendships we had there. And finally, we’ve received direct invitations to screen HEART OF NOW from some smaller festivals who have been following SABI via Facebook and Twitter.

From those lists I shared above and the cumulative guidance of several people, I was able to identify which festivals would be our primary targets and which would be our second choices, submitting to both sets simultaneously. We made note of the premiere status requirements and the possible conflicts that could arise. A third list of smaller, more regional festivals lies in wait, to coincide with our direct-to-audience theatrical tour and home video releases. Those submissions will be made in the Spring of 2010.


I set a full day aside to burn and test each DVD screener and to build out each submission. I use a stack of pre-printed blank DVD-Rs from ARCHETYPE DVD with whitespace for tracking numbers, contact info, running time and other notes. Each packet included the number of DVD screeners they asked for, labelled in the manner they requested, a brief and concise personal letter drafted by me to give the submission a little personality, the Without-A-Box printout, and nothing else. Be prepared for the clerk at your local post office to look at you like your an asshole when you ask for dozens of packages of varying weights to be sent first class.

As for expectations, I’m committed to the idea that a festival run is ancillary to the real objective – to get these arthouse films in front of a paying audience through multiple platforms. So my expectations are tempered. I was about as heartbroken over rejections from SUNDANCE and SLAMDANCE as I would be over not winning the lottery. Which is to say, not much at all really. I’ll save the heartache should we face low theater turn-out, bad reviews, dvd manufacturing delays, getting rejected from itunes, struggles to find a way into cable vod, etc. And I’ll find solace in the knowledge that if rejection or failure didn’t hit in some form, it meant we failed to take the inevitable risk, we failed to experiment as we do with all things and we failed in our attempt to innovate with an evolving model of sustainability – all part of the distribution journey.

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