Business of Art | Film Festival Strategies and Why You Need One

Business of Art | Film Festival Strategies and Why You Need One

Harness the momentum of film festivals with these best practices.

Before creating a film festival submission strategy, check out these tips and tricks from Kathy Brew, guest curator of MoMA’s Doc Fortnight. Brew distilled her wide-ranging experience for an audience of filmmakers at NYFA in the fall of 2018; we’ve summarized her advice below.

First off, why submit to festivals?

Festivals offer filmmakers a variety of benefits. These range from sales and distribution opportunities to publicity and the prestige of being accepted as well as the possibility, in some cases, of winning awards. Festivals are also crucial for networking and generating interest in your film.

When should I think about submitting to festivals?

Consider festivals and who your intended audience is while you work on the film. Your audience will determine which festivals you apply to and help you set goals for the film. For example, are you trying to gain a big commercial distributor or are you passionate about educating the public about a certain subject? It’s also helpful to know festival deadlines and plan accordingly.

When is a film ready to be submitted?

If your film doesn’t feel ready by a festival deadline, don’t submit. Finish your film. This doesn’t mean you need to have the sound mastered, the coloring complete, and every detail finalized by the submission deadline, but festivals don’t want to see a rough cut that’s still changing.

Finally it’s time to apply. What’s my strategy?

Research festivals and think about who might screen a film such as yours. What did this festival screen last year? Who selects the films? Is there a jury? It’s also important to be realistic. The biggest and most famous festivals aren’t always the best fit for your film.

Festivals come in three varieties: large industry festivals, regional festivals, and constituency festivals (aimed at specific communities or subjects). When evaluating a festival, consider its reputation and what it’ll accomplish for you. What promotion (if any) will the festival provide? Will you be paid to attend, and is the filmmaker’s experience at the festival a priority? Will there be networking events or professional development opportunities? Will your film be given a favorable time slot? 

Festival application fees add up, so do your research to find the right festival for you.

Hooray! I got into a festival. What’s next?

Attend your screening and the festival. If the festival takes place in a town or city in which you’re based or well-connected, try to fill the theater. Programmers will tell other programmers if the theater is packed. Also, be prepared with your own publicity materials on hand, like postcards and fliers.

Learn who attends the festival, identify all industry attendees, and always introduce yourself to the people you encounter. Someone you meet in line might prove to be an important connection in the future. Attend as many festival parties and events as you can.

It seems like one film can have many premieres. Why is that?

Yes, films often have everything from a world to a borough premiere. The industry ranks festivals according to prominence like so: world, international (first time screening outside country of origin), continental, national, regional, state, city, and so on.

Premieres exist to create buzz for your film and the festival. Some festivals will demand premiere status for a film to be eligible, which creates problems for filmmakers accepted to multiple festivals. In this case, your film can’t premiere at two festivals, and you will need to choose one. This is why you must consider what a festival will do for you. A name brand festival might sound like a good idea, but it may not offer you any coverage or it may screen your film at an inopportune slot. A smaller festival, though, may offer you the opening slot and promotion, which can ultimately lead to distribution opportunities and other deals.

What are my options for distribution?

Film distribution is the process of making a film available for viewing by an audience. Like festivals, distribution also follows a hierarchy with top-tier festivals seen as being at the top, followed by museums and theaters, semi-theatrical releases, TV/broadcast, educational market, home video, and VOD/SVOD (subscription video on demand). The thing to know about distribution is that it’s easy to move down the distribution ranks, but difficult to move up. Learn more about the various film distribution models.

If your film has commercial potential, consider finding a sales agent to represent you. Sales agents know festivals and will negotiate directly with distributors on your behalf.

How do I deal with festival rejection?

Different selection panels have differing thoughts on what makes a film the right fit for a festival. At some level, this process can be subjective; a rejection is far from a conclusive negative judgement on your film. Panelists can also change from year to year, so if you feel strongly that a festival is right for you, don’t hesitate to reapply. 

What are some common mistakes to avoid?

Don’t rescind acceptance, even if it means delaying your confirmation. The festival programmer recognizes that a filmmaker may have submitted their film to several festivals and will be aware of the various deadlines. That said, you may not want to delay acceptance because you’re waiting to hear from a large industry festival like Sundance but don’t have any assurance you’ll be accepted. It’s best to begin getting your film in front of an audience. 

And again, never send rough cuts. You want to be considerate of the panelists’ time.

What’s the general shelf life for a festival film?

Doc Fortnight only looks at films from the last two years. Many other festivals also follow defined time frames, so be sure to read the guidelines carefully. A topical film may have a more limited shelf life, while other films are more evergreen.

Selected Festivals and Helpful Resources

Capital A Festivals
Toronto International Film Festival

Documentary Festivals
International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam
Hot Docs
Visions du Réel
Full Frame
Sheffield Doc/Fest
AFI Docs
Dok Leipzig

Shorts Festivals
Tampere Film Festival
International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

Additional Resources
Docs for Sale
British Council Film
Festival Focus
International Documentary Magazine
POV Resource List

About Kathy Brew

Kathy Brew has been guest curator of the “Doc Fortnight: MoMA’s International Festival of Nonfiction Film and Media” since 2017. Previous positions include co-director of the Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival; curatorial consultant to the Reframe Collection, Tribeca Film Institute; programmer at Lincoln Center’s Scanners Festival (formerly the New York Video Festival); and series curatorial consultant, Reel New York, the WNET series for independent filmmakers. She is also a filmmaker whose award-winning documentary and experimental films have been shown in festivals, theaters, and online platforms.

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Image: Documentation of BRIC work-in-progress, Leigh Davis, Inquiry Into the ELE (Sponsored Project), Photo credit: Etienne Frossard

Amy Aronoff
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