Think Outside the Box Office: CHAPTER 14
FILM FESTIVALS AND YOUR DISTRIBUTION STRATEGY
The festival world has exploded and morphed. These days, it is not only a way to screen films to hungry filmgoers or a marketplace for getting a distributor. Festivals are your next opportunity to develop your fan base and usually your first opportunity to engage your fans in a live event/theatrical context.
This chapter is not meant to replace books that have been written about film festivals or film festival strategies, such as Chris Gore’s Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide or Christopher Holland’s Film Festival Secrets, which I suggest you take a look at for traditional festival advice. (I will give my top 11 traditional festival suggestions at the end of the chapter.) The intention of this chapter is to talk about film festivals from a distribution and marketing perspective.
THE HIDDEN POTENTIAL OF FILM FESTIVALS
While a number of people have disparaged the explosion of film festivals around the world in the last 10 years, I think this surge is extremely healthy for independent film and filmmakers.
Festivals love film and gather film lovers. Festivals have spent years gathering audience data from their attendees. This is an invaluable resource for filmmakers. Some festivals are starting to create year-round screening relationships with their audiences. This development allows filmmakers an opportunity to collaborate with the one organization that cares the most about filmmakers in any particular town — the film festival. For all the film festival programmers and directors out there: Please continue this expansion of the concept of film festivals. It will benefit the film community in innumerable ways.
THE OLD MODEL
As outlined briefly in the introduction, the old relationship between festivals and distribution for independent films was for producers to use festivals as a way to sell their films. A few U.S. festivals became de facto independent film markets for the specialized distribution business: Sundance/Slamdance, Tribeca, Los Angeles Film Festival, South by Southwest, and a few others. (This is in addition to the already traditional international film festival/markets Toronto, Berlin, and Cannes.)
If accepted into a major film festival, most filmmakers had been advised to:
- Get a sales rep (often best before acceptance into festivals, so that the rep could help get your film into said prominent festival).
- Keep your film a secret so that distributors would be forced to see it in a theatrical environment with an unbiased audience of film lovers, without interruptions.
- Pack festival screenings to indicate audience potential.
- Spend money on publicists ($8,000 to $15,000 at Sundance and Tribeca alone), parties, promotion, and travel costs for stars to promote the film. All this was to build up hype to aid a potential bidding war. Many films would spend well over $30,000 on their festival premiere.
Since the deals that filmmakers used to occasionally get because of this strategy don’t exist as they once did, doesn’t it make sense to reevaluate this strategy? Of course it does.
RETHINKING THE ROLE OF FESTIVALS
Following this traditional sales path in lock step, without creating a strategy for your film before your festival premiere, can possibly hurt your best route to distribution. Perhaps your film should start its distribution at that world premiere festival. Holding it back for a potential sale might delay it from getting a release at the most propitious time.
One prominent independent director indicated that he wished he had had his theatrical release right after his Sundance debut, because it was nearly impossible to re-create the buzz the film received at Sundance. However, he was still thinking that a distributor would pick up his film.
Festivals are one of the best event generators that independent filmmakers have access to. They are often unprecedented at creating a level of hype and promotion that is difficult for independents to create on their own. Filmmakers need to be aware of this, and utilize this strategically in their distribution plans.
DETERMINING WHETHER OR NOT TO USE YOUR FESTIVAL PREMIERE AS A SALES PLATFORM
How do you take advantage of the buzz and promotion of festivals to help monetize your film? First off, you need to try to determine if you are going to try to be one of the few lucky films in this market that might be able to make a sensible sale to a distributor at a premiere festival.
If you are trying for an acquisition, a good sales rep should be able to help you determine whether your film is right and whether there is a market for it in advance of the festival. If no respectable sales rep feels that a sale of this kind is possible for your film, you should consider this a form of collective advice. However, don’t despair, you are in the same boat as at least 95% of the other films being made that year.
Even if a premiere sales oriented festival accepts you, it might make sense for your film to pre screen for distributors in advance of your premiere festival. Discuss this with your sales rep.
Here are a couple of potential alternative scenarios for most filmmakers:
FESTIVALS AS THE PREMIERE EVENT(S) FOR YOUR THEATRICAL RELEASE
Larger independent distributors have known for some time that festivals are a cost-effective way to premiere a film on the verge of a release. In essence, they use the festival(s) as a premiere screening party.
Utilizing the festival in this manner creates an event for the film to organize publicity around. The relative prestige of the festival gives the film some heat. The stars are out on the red carpet and bring the press to the party (literally and figuratively speaking). The reportage of the party gives another level of press coverage for the film — not just reviews, but coverage on entertainment news shows such as Extra, Access Hollywood, etc.
A side benefit is that it provides a relatively free cast-and-crew event to celebrate the film. For studios, the cast-and-crew party is common practice. But for independents, it has gone out of style over the last 10 years due to the expense, as well as the fact that it takes away from your opening box office.
The festival premiere provides a lot of exposure with much less expense for a distributor or you. Having the party at a festival makes it easier to attract sponsors or to use the festival’s sponsors. Because of the festival, you might get your whole party for free, like we did with our premiere party at Tribeca (we used the festival’s liquor and a bar gave us three hours of free door because we were a Tribeca film). The festival is also, of course, providing the theater, as well as using their PR resources. Ultimately this tremendously helps the theatrical release in a town. Or if it is a national festival, it can help the national release.
This is why an increasingly large proportion of festival slots are taken up with premieres a week before a film’s conventional theatrical release with a conventional distributor.
There is no reason that filmmakers without a conventional distributor cannot use festivals in the same way, but they need to plan accordingly. If your film is prominent enough, or the festival is small enough, or a combination of those two factors, you might be able to get the festival to create an event for you. If not, then this premiere creation needs to be done by you. Although festivals will usually try to support your event, they will generally only take an active part if it is one of their official events.
Some cautions if you are going to transition to a conventional theatrical release in the same city of your festival premiere: you have to coordinate it with the local theater, since many theaters are loathe to share their audiences with a festival. Some theaters, though, will realize the promotional value of the festival and be happy for the rollover audience.
You can negotiate with the festival to reduce the number of times the festival plays your film. You can also restrict the size of the venue. This will give you the promotional benefit of the festival, but will cut down on the number of ticket buyers taken away from your theatrical release.
An alternative is to make the festival be your sole theatrical event in that town (but still function to launch the rest of your nationwide release).
With Bomb It, we went all out promoting our New York premiere at Tribeca (to create buzz to sell the film). It was then hard to re-create that buzz and hype for our actual theatrical opening. Had I known then what I know now, it would have been smart for us to have had the Tribeca Film Festival be our NY theatrical run and let all of the press come out at that time. Perhaps we could have found a small theater to roll into in NYC – although that would have been unlikely. This way we would only have had to “open” NY once, and we would have done it with the most support from all sides.
Note: Doing festival “premieres” in cities doesn’t have to be restricted to your world premiere. You can use festivals in this way at any time in the life of your film’s release.
FESTIVAL PREMIERES TO PROMOTE AN ANCILLARY MARKET RELEASE
For many films that have not been able to obtain a theatrical release, a new phrase has popped up: the festival release is the theatrical release. This may still be the case for filmmakers who don’t have the resources to pull off any other types of live event/theatrical screenings in conjunction with their festival release.
For these filmmakers, just as they would use a theatrical release to promote their ancillaries (DVD and VOD, for instance), they should prepare in advance to use their festival release in this manner.
Thought of in another way: They want to have the buzz of a theatrical release but do not have the time or money to conduct one. Hence, the festival run will be their theatrical release and they will monetize it as such.
FESTIVAL PREMIERES AS A CORNERSTONE TO A LIVE EVENTS/THEATRICAL RELEASE WITH ANCILLARIES
My recommendation would be to use the festival release as a basis for booking other types of live events in order to create a combined live event/theatrical release during your festival run. I believe this is ultimately the future for many independent filmmakers.
This approach still requires planning and strategy. Part of the planning and strategy is to have those ancillary markets set up in advance of your theatrical release.
IFC is a pioneer in these strategies with their Festival Direct program. With Festival Direct, IFC uses a festival premiere and the festival run of the film to promote the film’s video on demand (VOD) release. The VOD is released at the same time as the festival premiere. This day-and-date release allows the VOD to take advantage of the film festival hype and press. (See Chapter 30 for an explanation of VOD.)
IFC released Joe Swanberg’s film Alexander the Last with Festival Direct at the 2009 South by Southwest film festival. Joe decided to go with IFC in releasing the film in this manner for the following reasons:
- IFC had spent a lot of money on the theatrical release of Swanberg’s film Hannah Takes The Stairs and they are still recouping. He felt they could get similar exposure with Festival Direct without the outlay of money that then must be cross-collateralized against other revenues.
- Swanberg wanted to capitalize on the attention that the festival premiere provides. In his previous releases, Swanberg felt that the six- to nine-month lag time between a festival premiere and a theatrical release killed the promotional momentum of his small films.
- Swanberg and IFC coordinated the festival premiere with a number of other theatrical releases in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland, creating a live event/theatrical release.
- Having a film on VOD day-and-date with the festival premiere allows people from across the country to see the film (as long as they have access to the VOD system releasing the film). This allows people who either missed the local screenings or were not in the cities of the local screenings to see the film in some manner.
- It allowed Swanberg to do one concerted press push for the film, saving him from having to do separate press for the festival, theatrical, and VOD releases.
DIY LIVE EVENT/THEATRCIAL DAY AND DATE WITH A FESTIVAL LAUNCH
If you do not want to be part of IFC’s Festival Direct program (or weren’t asked), you can set it up for yourself. You also have the advantage of not being fettered by pre-existing contractual requirements that a distributor might have.
Once you commit to this approach, you need to get as many of your revenue streams established to run concurrently with (or within a creative windowing strategy following) your festival premiere as possible.
Not only does your film need to be finished, but you need deals and materials prepped for any or all of the following releases: live event/theatrical, DVD, VOD, digital, etc.
The above approaches require filmmakers to have a distribution and marketing plan in place before their festival premiere. The preparation necessary might be overwhelming for first-time filmmakers, or ones just struggling to get their film to the festival.
Other times, just being in a premiere festival might not be enough ammunition to book the film into theaters, especially if it is a first time filmmaker. Filmmakers with a track record should have an easier time booking theaters without advance press (although it depends on the track record).
In these cases Swartz indicates that filmmakers might be able to participate in a premiere festival to determine if a sale can be made and to gather reviews for use later in a release. If a sale isn’t made, you can then regroup and at least know where the reviews for the film will be positive. You can then use the buzz of the festival to help book your film. McInnis notes that in this scenario, you can still use the festival to build buzz and connections with online press that you can utilize later.
You might get into a second prominent festival and can then launch from that, as was the case with Weather Girl (premiered at Slamdance, launched theatrical at Los Angeles Film Festival five months later.)
In my opinion, this can be a more difficult route. Any time you need to do additional media pushes, it’s more difficult. If you are the beneficiary of a lot of hype, the sooner you can roll out your theatrical, the better.
An alternative is to focus on just a few cities for conventional theatrical following your festival premiere (perhaps just NY and LA) and then flush out the rest of the release with grassroots/community screenings that can be mobilized much more quickly than conventional theatrical. This grassroots approach is especially wise if you have worked with some organizations throughout your production and post. They can help you organize these screenings.
It is still the wild west in utilizing these new distribution strategies. It is important for your team to determine what makes sense for your film.
I would recommend doing a full evaluation of your film and its distribution prospects and creating your strategy for your film’s release well in advance of your festival premiere, so that you can best take advantage of what festivals have to offer you. Having a PMD on board who is preparing for different scenarios will go a long way to helping you tackle this new world.
OTHER WAYS TO MONETIZE FILM FESTIVALS
1. Festival Screening Fees
Just because your film is in a festival doesn’t mean that you have to give it to them for free. No top festival will pay for a film (although I can imagine this changing over time). However, many smaller festivals are accustomed to paying for films, anywhere from $200 to $1,000 (the latter is mostly foreign festivals). In fact, foreign festival fees can be rather lucrative, especially for a popular film. Smaller U.S. festivals will often pay $200 to $300 if they want your film. We’ve made about $1,500 from domestic film festivals on Bomb It.
2. Convert Festival Screenings to Theatrical Screenings
As indicated above, a number of farsighted festivals are using their relationship with their audience to exhibit films year-round. Several, such as the incredible True/False Festival in Missouri and the Denver International Film Festival, actually have theaters that they program. If you are planning and/or booking a theatrical release for your film, you might consider trying to convert a festival screening to a theatrical booking (especially if the festival does not run during the time of your live event/theatrical release). That way, you can also get a share of the box office. You also add another city as part of your release, making your release appear more substantial.
3. Incorporate Festival Screenings Into Your Live Event/Theatrical Release
In the spirit of the new live event/theatrical model, if a festival can’t be converted into a theatrical booking, incorporate that festival into the fabric of your overall release. A screening is a screening. If you are looking for promotion instead of box office, this approach makes more sense since you are likely to get more exposure being in a festival than being out on your own, especially for a smaller film. Not only does having another screening/city as part of your national release give it more gravitas but it also broadens the national appeal of your film.
JON’S CONVENTIONAL TIPS FOR FILM FESTIVALS
Since we are talking about film festivals, I might as well provide my advice on having a successful festival run:
1. Make sure your film is finished before submitting. You normally have one shot. Put your best foot forward. As I mentioned before, use preview screenings, listen to comments, and then filter.
2. Apply strategically to fests that make sense for your film both in terms of genre and quality.
3. Research the festivals you’re applying to, especially if they charge submission fees. Talk to other filmmakers. Read online reviews of the fests. See how many years they have been around and what they have programmed before.
4. If you feel a festival is critically important to you, don’t be afraid to call ahead and talk to the coordinator. You don’t need to talk to the programmer. Just don’t be a pain.
5. Apply simultaneously to top, mid-level, and smaller festivals. Don’t just hold out for top fests and let your film get stale.
6. From Thomas Harris, a film festival programmer and consultant: Submit your film one-third of the way into a festival’s submissions window/cycle (between the opening and closing dates). This gives the programmers time to digest the films they have on their shelf but still gets you in before the crush of submissions during the final submission deadline, which you should avoid at all costs.
7. Follow instructions. If the festival wants information in a certain way, give it to them. Fill out all forms as requested.
8. Keep your cover letter short, direct, and infused with your personality.
9. Always send backup media, either two DVDs or a DVD and a VHS or DV tape. Most fests will reject anything that won’t play without a backup. They simply don’t have time.
10. Go to prominent festivals to meet people, even if you don’t have a film in the festival. Use these relationships for when you have your next film done.
FESTIVALS AS DISTRIBUTORS
A few savvy fests, such as Cinequest, are using their brands as a way to create a distribution label. Sundance also has an iTunes deal for its shorts. It won’t be long before festivals start their own online streaming channels. However, a few people I mentioned this to argued that festivals won’t want to compete with the distributors they need to get their premiere films from.
Perhaps echoing this view, a former prominent festival director confided in me that a number of theatrical chains had approached him, stating that they wanted to program independent films and that they had lots of available slots, but didn’t know outside of the usual suspects how to connect with independent filmmakers. They also didn’t want to be inundated with requests from thousands of filmmakers. They wanted a gatekeeper who already reviewed content and would provide a conduit for them. The theater chains felt that this major festival was a perfect candidate. I was aghast when this former festival director said, “But I don’t think we should be in the distribution business, do you?” I replied that festivals should do anything they can to help their filmmakers and their festivals. Acting as a gatekeeper for unreleased films (much like digital aggregators) seemed like a win-win situation for both. Unfortunately, he was unconvinced.
I feel that because the distribution landscape is changing so rapidly and many people are looking for solutions to help independent films, companies will stop looking at these issues of distribution in a black-and-white, win-or-lose way and instead will start looking at what works and what doesn’t work.
Many festivals are respected, known, qualified gatekeepers of certain kinds of content. Their programming staffs are very similar to a distributor’s acquisition staff. I think it makes total sense for festivals to be in the distribution business. There are plenty of films that festivals champion that won’t receive distribution. Festivals have proven branded curatorial power that can be monetized both for festivals and filmmakers. One problem that might arise is a potential conflict between some festival’s non-profit status and the for-profit business of distribution. However, considering how difficult the independent film distribution business is, perhaps all distributors who handle independent film should be allowed to take on non-profit status. I’m only half kidding.