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

STEP ZERO: ASK YOURSELF WHY

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?

STEP ONE: MAKE LISTS

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.

STEP TWO: SEEK GUIDANCE FROM INTELLIGENT PEOPLE

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.

STEP THREE: WHAT TO SEND, WHAT TO EXPECT

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.

You Are The Studio

July 26, 2009
posted by sheric

Making it big in shortsSaturday’s coffee chat at LA Shorts Fest featured guest speaker Kim Adelman, indieWire columnist covering short films and author of the book MAKING IT BIG IN SHORTS. For those who missed the chat, I wanted to cover some of the finer points she mentioned because I think her knowledge can benefit the short filmmaker as well as the indie filmmaker in general.

Her first point was an independent filmmaker has to think of themselves as a studio, just like a Hollywood studio. When you have completed your film, you are opening your doors for business. What do you want to invest your time in? How much time and money do you have to invest in your product, your film? What strategy are you going to develop and follow? I believe you really should decide this before your film is made, but for sure it has to be set when you put it out to market. And then you have to market it.

She recommends starting with film festivals as a means of exposure. You, as the studio, must determine how much money you have to devote to this endeavor. Not only are there submission fees, but travel costs, promotional costs and the time associated with each. While there are a few festivals that pay a filmmaker to travel, most do not. Festivals give your film exposure to a paying audience, give you a chance to meet other filmmakers and people in the industry who could potentially help you in the future, and give you a place to enjoy the atmosphere where being a filmmaker is revered and celebrated.

Some festivals have markets attached. These are the first festivals to consider if you are looking for traditional distribution. Kim suggested that short filmmakers in particular should submit to Clermont Ferrand in France which takes place in January. There is no submission fee and there is a short film market attached. Even if you aren’t accepted for the festival, your film will get into the catalog and screen in the market for buyers. Same for Palm Springs Shortsfest and Worldwide Short Film Festival  in Toronto.  For the feature filmmaker, festivals with markets attached include Berlin (European Film Market is attached, but a separate event), Cannes, AFI (AFM is attached, but a separate event), Philadelphia, PiFan (Korea, for genre films), and Rotterdam.

Kim recommended that you submit to festivals specializing in short films and mixed feature/short films. Shorts festivals give you better exposure if you have a short film because the mixed ones tend to emphasize the features, but being in a mixed festival gives you exposure to feature film producers and industry people who can help you to make your feature which is what short filmmakers usually aspire to do. She strongly recommends that whenever you take part in a festival, you should have your next film idea packaged so that if you meet an agent, producer or distributor and they like your short but want to know what you have planned next and how can they help you, you are ready to present the idea. You don’t want to say “I don’t know” or be scrambling around in your mind trying to formulate a cohesive film idea.

She also warned about spending too much time on the festival circuit with one film. This comes back to the studio thinking. How much time, money and effort do you want to spend on this one project versus the time and money you could spend developing the next one? Too many filmmakers spend an inordinate amount of time on the festival circuit with the same film instead of moving on to the next one. Eighteen months should be your maximum. On the one hand, festivals enable you to meet more people, but they don’t earn you money unless you are selling a lot of DVD copies at the screenings. Going back to festival strategy, identify what it is you are looking to accomplish with festivals. Is it name recognition, showing your filmmaking talent off to agents or distributors, gathering an audience for your DVD sales strategy? Identify when you have accomplished your goal and can move on. 

The next strategy is digital distribution. This is where your film can either be downloaded or streamed online or put onto a portable device such as an iPod or a cell phone. One company that can help you get your short onto iTunes (because iTunes won’t deal with the filmmaker directly) is Shorts International.  iTunes actually gives the short filmmaker a way to make money like there never has been before. There are also revenue sharing sites like Bablegum, Blip.TV, Atomfilms and Metacafe. She cautions that while some money can be made in this process, it is not going to make you rich. It may not even help you break even, depending on how much money you invested in your production. Traditionally, short films were used as calling cards, a way to sell yourself as a filmmaker, not  a way to make money. With the proliferation of digital sites, a short filmmaker can either put their film out there for free and build an audience for their next project that may make money or use these revenue generating sites to slowly recoup some of their costs. Back to the need for marketing, you will only make money on these sites if you can successfully generate traffic and downloads. That takes time and consistent effort. Another company she recommended is a Canadian aggregator called OuatMedia who specializes in the worldwide distribution of short films.

Overall, her statement “You are the Studio” resonated the most. As an independent filmmaker it is all up to you. This is both an exciting prospect because you don’t have to ask any one’s permission to make films and sell them, and a nerve racking one because there is no one holding your hand and guiding you through the process. There is no magic formula that will work every time. Filmmaking is a trial and error process, even for big studios. The path to success is littered with mistakes and poor judgement, but there is no success if you never try.