Film Festival Strategies

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Welcome to the first edition of Going Bionic. Our submissions just opened up today exclusively on Film Freeway, so I thought it would be a perfect time to launch this column. That, and the fact that today is my birthday, and who doesn’t want to launch something special on their birthday, right?

I’m Hammad Zaidi, the founder and festival director of The Lonely Seal Film Festival and I’d like to thank you for carving out a slice of your time to be reading this. First and foremost, I’m not lonely, nor is this festival a reference to some obscure 1923 film. I came up with the “Lonely Seal” name when I was seven years old, and my little sister was four. We saw a documentary on hunters clubbing harp seals, and all of them perished except for one, which they called The Lonely Seal. The term stuck with me just as much as my love for Dr. Pepper did, because “Lonely Seal”  became a constant reminder that success is always possible, even in the direst of circumstances.

Since this is our maiden voyage together, I’d like to share what to expect from this column. Not only will you get all of our festival updates, including added programming and events, but you’ll also be privy to some cool insight. You see, I am the sole creator and writer of a film distribution and filmmaker strategy column called Going Bionic which was featured on Film Threat every Tuesday from May 2010 to March 2015, (before it moved it to Furthermore, I own Lonely Seal Releasing, so I’ve spent the last 13 years traveling to places like Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Toronto, Tokyo, Hong Kong and beyond, buying and selling motion pictures, television, docs, etc. I keep an eye on emerging trends, what’s selling, what isn’t, In other words, I’m committed to helping all independent filmmakers, whether they choose to apply to our festival or not (although I encourage them to do so).

So, let’s dive right in.  With Sundance over, I thought I’d share some insight on Film Festival Strategies. Now every festival – big and small – have their own DNA, and the cinematic fabric they possess is what makes them original, “must attend” events. So, instead of sharing a snowdrift full of Sundance insight, (I’ll do that on Wednesday), today I wanted to give you some general strategies which apply to all film festivals. In doing so, I’d like to start by sharing one of my most magical film festival experiences: The Dawson City International Short Film Festival.

I was gazing at this stuffed bear in a glass case at the airport in Fairbanks, Alaska when the first eerie, “what the hell am I getting myself into,” feeling arrested me. The bear wasn’t a cute stuffed animal – he was huge and very dead, and was the proudest example of taxidermy that Fairbanks had to offer. My filmmaker buddy Steve Nelson and I were only in Fairbanks because we were en route to the Dawson City International Short Film Festival in Dawson City, Yukon. That’s right, the Canadian Yukon – incredibly damn north from everything and just south of the Arctic Circle. All I knew about Dawson City was it had been a thriving Gold Rush town and Steve, and I was staying at a hip B&B called “Bombay Peggy’s,” which used to be a brothel. Side Note: Owen Wilson, Steve Martin, and Jack Black stayed at Bombay Peggy’s while they were shooting David Frankel’s film, “The Big Year.” So, as I bid farewell to “Mr. Bear” and boarded our plane, which was no larger than a Dodge minivan – I almost went into cardiac arrest when I realized our flight attendant was also our co-pilot! But, my fear quickly melted in sheer fascination as we flew over some of the most breathtaking unbridled wilderness on the planet.

Steve and I were smitten when we landed in Dawson City. Nestled at the edge of the Yukon River and the Klondike River, this perfectly timeless location for a film festival sported gravel roads no streetlights and no cell phone service. In short, Dawson was a slice of Heaven itself and “Heaven” was graced by some of the most fiercely creative and wonderfully eclectic people I’d ever met.

David, the festival director, is a gem of a guy who had his beloved dog sled him to work during the winter months. Wendy, the owner of “Bombay Peggy’s,” was a treasure, John, an artist turned Webmaster, turned Mayor of Dawson City and John the town veterinarian turned animator, were also some of the town’s golden nuggets. I even befriended “Caveman Bill,” another fine artist who lives in a cave (I’m serious). Throughout the weekend, I realized The Dawson City International Short Film Festival is exactly what all festivals should become, or strive to become again: a place to celebrate films and filmmakers, without the politics of trying to get a sale. 

Here are eleven Festival Strategies:

1) Submit A Completed Film – Not A Rough Cut

Filmmakers should refrain from applying with a rough cut or an otherwise incomplete film because your first impression is just that, your first impression. Trying to get noticed off a rough cut would be like me back in my dating days, showing up on a blind date with my 5’4”, rail thin and somewhat disabled body, telling my date “Hi, I wanted to meet you right away, but don’t judge me for what you see. Please give me a few months to make myself look better, and I’ll come back a foot taller, far more buff and able-bodied.” Apparently, that tactic would never work in dating, nor does it work while applying to a film festival. Remember, festival programmers can only see what they can see.

2) Shorter Is ALWAYS Better

Of course, I believe “shorter is better” because I’m a short guy. But, with regard to films, this trend applies to both shorts and features.

Shorts – Keep the total running time in single digits, because the shorter your film is, the easier it is for the programmer to find it a slot. Most screening slots are two hours long including an intro and a Q&A session. So, a “long” short will miss out on several festivals that may have liked the film, but simply couldn’t find a slot for it. The other reason for keeping it short is that distributors, executives or agents can review it between meetings or over coffee. Conversely, a “long-short” may sit on their desk for eternity, because the thought of watching something too long is daunting.

Features – Keep your film somewhere between eighty-five and ninety-five minutes long, especially if your movie isn’t laced with well-known actors. When I was a screener for Sundance in 2005, I saw seventy-eight features in five weeks. When all you’re doing for over a month is watching movies from morning till moonlight, there’s a noticeable difference between watching a very good ninety-minute film and a drawn-out two-hour film that could have been a very good ninety-minute film.

3) Avoid Overly Used, Student Film Markers

Most student films are littered with drugs, weapons, nudity and foul language. While I love these elements when they enhance the fabric of the story, like in “Scarface” (1983) and “Raging Bull” (1980), several indies use them so incessantly that their film gets lost in the mix with thousands of other films just like it. I’ve always believed that doing something fresh and different is a far more potent weapon than using a potent weapon. Besides, most Oscar-winning shorts tend to be fresh and quirky with an impressive level poignancy or cinematic accomplishment.

4) It’s Where You Start, Not Where You Finish

Unlike most cases in life when your finish is more important than your start, the perceived value of your film on the festival circuit is based on the first one that accepts you. Thus, having your “World Premiere” at Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Toronto, SXSW or Tribeca is a dream come true. Subsequently, premiering at a small festival may lessen your film’s value. 

5) Be Careful Not To Play Too Many Festivals

Do you know what a distributor thinks when an indie filmmaker says their film played thirty-eight festivals? He or she realizes that since the film has already played in so many cities for free, most of the people the distributor wanted to sell it to have already seen it.

6) Hide Your Treasure Before Your Premiere

Never show anyone a copy of your film before its Worldwide Premiere – unless a buyer/distributor is willing to buy your film before it premieres.

7) Don’t Hold Back Links to Your Films  From Distributors

After your World Premiere, show distributors your film. Most distributors can’t make screenings, and it’s easier for them to watch it on DVD anyway. Don’t worry, if your film is solid on the silver screen, it should hold up on the tube.

8) Wine Is More Expensive Aged, But Films Aren’t

If the goal is to get your film distributed, then you should think twice about going on a full-fledged, year-long festival tour, because all you’re doing is making your film older and nearly worthless. Just play some key festivals, then get your baby sold. In the event that your film fails to get distribution, then play as many festivals as your heart desires.

9) Construct A Great Viral Campaign

Make your website and internet campaign hip and memorable by giving festival programmers and distributors a reason to visit it more than once. Just make sure that you don’t upload your actual film upon the internet, because doing so may quickly disqualify you from many festivals.

10) Get Film Festivals Engaged Early On

First do your research on what film festivals best suit the tone and genre of your film, and then contact them early on in your filming process. If you can get them engaged in your film, you may have a better shot at getting into their festival. Of course, your final product is what really matters, but a healthy relationship with a festival can often time tilt the chances of a “yes” into your favor.

11) Don’t Burn Bridges With Festivals

There are quite a few reasons why festivals may pass on your film. They either didn’t like it, they liked it but it didn’t fit into a time slot, or it didn’t fit into their program’s theme, to name a few. Either way, do not call festivals that rejected your film and give them a screaming piece of your mind. Always remember, not only do festival programmers have feelings, they have impeccable memory capabilities. Much like a teenager getting a driver’s license, getting accepted by a film festival is a privilege, not a right. Filmmakers should embrace film festivals as such (a privilege) because they may be your film’s best platform to capture an audience.

Okay, that’s what I have today. Before I go, here’s a link to a cool little video from “Film Riot”  about “How to Get Into a Film Festival.”

Furthermore, my podcast, Limping On Cloud 9, which is positivity infused, so it may serve as a short getaway from the pile of work you’re staring at this very moment. My podcast is available on iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.