The Festivals Thing


What are film festivals for, anyway?
I‘ve been a filmmaker for around ten years. I was always aware of film festivals growing up, but it wasn’t until I became a professional that I really got my head around their nature and significance.

If you’re familiar with the business end of festivals, don’t worry, I’ll keep my explanations brief.

On my current project I’ve been lucky enough to receive quite a bit of traction – the laurels in the slider are all for Barry’s Bespoke Bakery (as of February 2013). It’ll be nine strong by the end of this month, and getting so involved with the work whilst feeling on top of it, I found myself examining my relationship with festivals over the years and thought I’d share a little.

When I was making my first film I had no idea what I was doing, and was so focused on getting the thing done and trying to figure all of that out, that I didn’t really think about what came next. When the day did come and I’d finished it, I realised that I hadn’t looked at film festivals and didn’t really know what sales and distribution were. That stuff had seemed so far away at the start I had forgotten all about them.

That changed when I began working at a production company in 2007 and submission to and attendance at film festivals became part of my duties, which is how I started to learn about their value. Up until that time the only film festival I’d been to was the JDIFF, a fine festival and a lot of fun, but it’s aimed primarily at an audience, rather than filmmakers.

I still remember my first submission. It was right against the deadline for a major Irish festival. I gave myself about an hour to get it done and ended up panicking, typing up a few things and printing out a form with a DVD, throwing it in the post. I never heard anything back, unsurprisingly. It wasn’t until I attended my first festival only a few months later that I realised that I’d never really been to the kind of festival that I, an aspiring filmmaker, could enter. It suddenly seemed so silly that I’d blindly stabbed at trying to gain entry to a world I had no experience of.

Barry's Bespoke Bakery - Michael Bates as Barry adjusting a cake

It helps to think of it as less like a festival, and more like a conference.

Michael D. Higgins at JDIFF


What needs to be done, when, and why. The business end of planning for film festivals as a filmmaker

Sure, festivals don’t seem important now. You’re “too busy” trying to rent goats for half price and figure out how to make the dude’s head explode in the second act, but this is the only time you’ll have the TIME to think about them. This is where you need to make decisions that’ll impact your applying to festivals down the road. One of the few luxuries you have at the start is time, so you should spend that time preparing.
  • Booking a great stills photographer. Good images will matter.
  • Making a list of all the stuff you need to send to festivals so they can evaluate and screen your film, those NTSC DVD transfers and DCPs don’t make or pay for themselves.
  • Researching any niches your film may qualify for.
  • Making a list of festivals with submission dates you should be aiming for.
Nice. The real work. The real heavy-lifting. If you are into macho things, this might be a manly time for you, a time for yelling at people in the rain, for laughing at would-be muggers before you counter their knife with a 4KG camera to the head. If you are more genteel, this could be a time for meaningful reflection. Long walks. Conversations about subtext and meaning. Either way, this is where the magic happens, and as far as festivals are concerned, it’s important the magic happens on time.

If you aren’t under any other restrictions, festivals can act as a useful deadline. Sometimes you need to push back post-production because you’re sticking to your guns creatively, and that’s ok, but I like to make an informed decision and know what festival opportunities it will cost me. If you take the time in pre-production to work out which viable festivals will be closing their submissions around the time of delivery (completion), you won’t have to add to the stress of triage that usually goes with a last-minute schedule change.

Whether you’re lounging on couches in a full-bore post-production facility, or sleeping on your own couch so your homeless digital genius friend can experience a bed in exchange for posting your film, you will need to prepare for the technical and logistical aspects of submitting and delivering to film festivals. If you have been funded, the good news is that a lot of this you’ll be doing anyway for delivery to your financier. To whit, you’ll need to generate:

  • PAL DVD
  • NTSC DVD
  • 1080p or 720p h.264 QT

Those are what you will need to submit to a festival, but what’s the point in submitting if you won’t be able to screen if selected? To screen, you’ll need some or all of the following:

  • DCP
  • 35mm Print
  • 1080p ProRes QT
  • 1080p h.264 QT
  • Beta SP
  • DigiBeta
  • HDCam

Then there’s the paperwork. This is not to be underestimated or ignored. You will have to do this at some point if you’re serious about putting your film out there and it’s better to get it out of the way at the start. It’s the whole “doing your homework on the Friday” business all over again. It sucks.

  • Timecoded dialogue list
  • Official synopsis
  • Official logline
  • Full credits
  • Director’s Bio
  • Producer’s Bio
  • Writer’s Bio
  • Biographies for the cast
  • Images from production
  • A poster
  • An EPK
  • Tech Specs
  • Director’s Statement
  • Billing Block Credits

 

 

Time for a cocktail, you’re done. Kinda. If you’ve laid the groundwork, you’re kinda set, you just send your film off the festivals with the standard materials you’ve put together, and hopefully getting into a few. The ideal scenario is that your film’ll catch fire (not literally) and start getting (literally) invited to other festivals. This is great because it’s cheaper, it feels nice and it improves your prospects of getting distribution hugely.


That first working trip I took to a festival was to the Galway Film Fleadh in 2007, and I learned an awful lot about why so many filmmakers attend. It helps to think of it as less like a festival, and more like a conference, like an insurance brokers’ conference, or a medical professionals’ conference. They’re far more similar than they may sound.

You’re there because everyone else is there, there’s free booze to be had, new interesting work to see and talk about, and at some festivals, there are deals to be done. Galway, Cannes, Toronto and many other festivals around the world feature markets – for buying and selling films for distribution, and some form of matchmaking – setting up creatives with money and logistics people.

Sunset at Galway Film Fleadh

I could write a lot about attending festivals, but it’s an area I don’t consider myself an expert in, for all of my hours logged. Instead, I’d like to talk a little about what it’s like getting your film in.

Preparation

Screen Shot 2013-02-22 at 01.40.03The process of thinking about which festivals you’re going to go for should start while you’re in pre-production. Once your film is finished many months later, hopefully on time, you put together your package. Just about every festival asks for exactly the same things, so you collate them all into a .zip file which you host on a website or, more often, the Public folder in your Dropbox account. If you’re curious about what’s involved, take a look at our one for Barry’s Bespoke Bakery.
Screen Shot 2013-02-22 at 01.40.03You put this together once and keep it in one spot so that you don’t have far to look when you’re filling out an application for a festival. The next thing you do is go to withoutabox.com, sign up and enter in ALL of that information. Withoutabox is a platform used by most American and many European film festivals. You just enter all of the relevant details once, and then when you want to enter a festival, you login, select the project, pay the fee and you’re done – it’s great! That does bring me, however, to the next point.

Dosh

The fees for film festivals tend to stack up quite quickly. It’s a little cheaper these days since you don’t have to post off quite as much stuff as you used to, more and more festivals are accepting password-protected Vimeo links and Withoutabox online screeners, but almost all festivals charge to submit your film, and there are still plenty of fests around that require a printed submission form and DVD screener.
Some of the bigger festivals are free, or very cheap, but it’s the mid-tier festivals that will have you spending a lot of money. For our current project, on three festivals, we spent €50, £40 and $50. Three or four of those a month along with some smaller ones and it quickly adds up – especially when it’s a total gamble! Those aren’t fees to get your film shown, they’re fees to get your film in with a chance of being shown. Filmmaking, like most media, is very speculative, and this process is no different.

Bummer

The sad reality of course is that, no matter how good your film is, you’re not going to please everybody all of the time, and so you have to make peace with the fact that you will get rejected from time to time. Sometimes those rejections make sense. Sometimes they don’t. The rejections that make sense are the ones where all of the films that do get selected are so brilliant, you have to take it on the chin. The rejections that don’t make sense are the ones where you see who gets selected and cannot figure out what they failed to see in your film, or what they found in the films they did select, but even then you have to let it go as a subjective decision, a matter of taste. These things just happen.

The practical reason for pushing so hard is that most festivals have a twelve-month window for selecting films in competition, meaning that if your film screened more than twelve months before their festival is going to start, you’re probably not going to qualify for selection at all. This gives you a finite amount of time to make an impression. You will still see films doing the rounds after that window has passed; there are flexible festivals, and a lot of fests will have an “Out-Of-Competition” programme for films which they like, but because of their internal rules, cannot consider for a jury or audience prize.

Barry's Bespoke Bakery - Beautiful Cake

There are a few reasons one strives for prizes. First of all, it feels good for the hard work you put into your film to be recognised as significant and having value. Secondly, many festivals offer money or otherwise valuable prizes, and thirdly, you get to change your laurels from this:

Barry's-Bespoke-Bakery---Laurels---OS

into this:

Barry's-Bespoke-Bakery---Laurels---BF
Which will add a certain something to your posters, artwork, website etc. In a competitive business about relationships, improving your first impression is a valuable endeavour. You also become an “award-winning filmmaker”. Looks good on any CV.

 

W00t!

Barry's Bespoke Bakery - Beautiful Pastries

Congratulations! You got your film into a festival! Once all of the champagne corks have been swept up, you get to work. If it’s a big festival overseas you can apply to Culture Ireland for a travel grant to cover some of your travel expenses. If you’re not going to be attending, you’ll still need to be aware of a few dates:

A possible press embargo

We were embargoed for the BFI London Gay and Lesbian Film Festival for a few weeks, though it’s not terribly common.

The deadline for your images and copy

They’ll be going to press with their programme a month or so before the festival so they can have a proper launch with a band and bubbly and all the rest, and your images and copy are going to have to be in it! That’s usually the first thing a festival will start shouting for once you’ve been accepted, and it’s a serious pain in the ass for them if you’re late with it.

When they want the print

There’ll be someone on the staff called the Print Traffic Co-Ordinator, or sometimes just the Print Co-Ordinator. Their job is to ship in all of the screening copies and ship them all back, or on to other festivals. As you can imagine, it’s a very stressful job that only really suits very meticulous people. They can be understandably inflexible, but in my experience can also be great allies if treated with the proper respect.

When the screening is

The festival will publicise the event and a couple of headline events, but they probably won’t publicise your film past putting it in the catalogue, so having the date as far in advance as possible is a great help as it allows you to start advertising your screening everywhere you possibly can.

When they can give your print back

If you’re on a roll, you’ll want them to send that print on to another festival, if not, you’ll just want them to send it home, but it’s important not to lose sight of this date. It very rarely happens, but sometimes the print manager isn’t as meticulous as you’d expect, and the print just…hangs around at the festival until someone remembers and gets it shipped back.

The Sweet Smell of Success

Success changes everything. If you get a couple of notable wins, your film “catches”. Instead of you pushing it, the market changes its attitude to you and begins to pull. You get invitations to festivals, offers to fly you over, and even screening fees, where THEY pay YOU to show the film. Like a fine balancing act, the judgement, restraint, patience and persistence that you try to show in pushing the film to festivals, suddenly needs to gracefully switch directions. You can’t accept every offer, you can’t fly to every festival (though you can have a lot of fun trying), you still need to stick to a strategy. You’ll find that you don’t have enough DCPs or HDCAM tapes to go around, that you can’t sift through the correspondence from people who have seen your film or just heard about it fast enough to tell the shysters and charlatans from the genuine attempts to communicate.

Wrap it up

I‘d like to write a lot more about it – if there’s anything you’d like me to expand on, please sound off on the comments or shoot me a mail – ben@ben.ie