Thursday, March 31, 2011

INDIE: Film Festivals

Nothing makes a filmmaker feel more accomplished than getting accepted and having their work screened at a film festival. It is an exhilarating experience that people strive for and almost always leads to bigger and better things. However, it is very easy to get swept away with the tide in the violent sea that is competitive filmmaking. What many people don’t realize is that the festival circuit is just the first step towards the business and marketing end of the independent filmmaking process. That is where the film will either float into the hearts of millions, or sink to the icy bottom of oblivion. The submission fees alone can sometimes cost more than the entire budget of the film. This is something many rookie filmmakers don’t take into consideration they are ready to submit and wind up paying for it in the end (no pun intended). Unfortunately that is only the first wave of misfortune waiting to crush novice filmmakers. There is also a whirlpool of promotion, politics, and phonies looking to pull you under. Just like the filmmaking process, the trick is to plot your course ahead of time so you don’t get lost and anticipate everything.

First and foremost, any aspiring filmmaker should make sure they do not begin any project they hope to share with the world without having a designated production manager. That way while the director is busy overseeing the day-to-day creative functions on the set, the production manager can begin doing research on festivals. This includes cataloging any and all information related to the festival such as: types of films accepted, submission deadlines and corresponding fees, what kind of screening formats are accepted, notification dates, and any fine print issues and qualifying information. Based on that information they can then begin setting aside money in the budget, or raising new funds to exclusively cover the costs. Once the submission dates and fees are known they can plan their own post-production deadlines.

H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival
Portland, OR
Depending on the size of the production the production manager may also have to double as the marketing coordinator. These duties include presenting the film before it is available to screen. Everything from writing summaries of varying lengths to cast and crew bios, to poster design for advertising, to issuing publicity stills and trailer distribution falls on the shoulders of the marketing coordinator. All of these materials are eventually compiled and packaged together into a press kit, which allows people to understand the film without ever seeing it. If the film receives reviews from any screenings they should be filed in with the promotional material as well. This lets the people making selections know that the film has a following and there is an audience interested in paying to see it. Websites like Withoutabox make the submission process easy by allowing filmmakers to host their press kits electronically and submit to festivals instantly.

The best way to increase your chances for getting accepted to a film festival is by being modest and effective with displaying your skills. That means don’t try to break into the circuit with a feature length production because your chances of getting accepted on a time oriented program drops exponentially. Always begin with a short subject and don’t let your ego get in the way. Skills are skills and they will have a better chance of being recognized, even in a block of short films as opposed to a rejected feature. That’s the rule and thinking you’re the exception will only get you a bunch of submission receipts and rejection notifications. Once you’re established as a talented, screened, filmmaker then you can start submitting feature productions. Remember, nobody learns to sail on a cruise ship.

The trick is to cast a wide net and hopefully catch attention in all the competing markets. Although they fall under the blanket term: film festival, there are several different kinds, each with its own unique atmosphere. Local film festivals may seem like a shoe in, but if the Twilight Zone has taught us anything its that people in small towns can have a funny way about them. They tend to be small and will sometimes sacrifice their sense of community for passing recognition or personal motives. Regional film festivals tend to take place in large cities and can also be known as “International Film Festivals.” Because of their geographical location they tend to have more competition and notoriety. They prey on first time Indies to fund their awards and prizes for selected winners. Finally, there are coastal festivals, which have the same lure as regional festivals, but offer a more exotic climate for the event. They can be cross-country or globally oriented. Again, this is where a proven track record comes in handy, because not having a representative on hand to promote the film will lead the organizers to not even screen it. Keep in mind, these are the situations to expect from festivals that are on the level.

Speaking from experience, I have witnessed and been involved in situations in the past where organizers straight up took advantage of the filmmakers supporting their festival. In one case a local filmmaker advertised, promoted and accepted submissions (with an entry fee) for a Rockland County Film Festival that NEVER actually happened. The filmmaker was simply looking to promote his own film, but didn’t take the time to organize the event, nor did he notify anyone that the event wasn’t going to happen, or return their money. When smalltime amateurs aren’t committing fraud, semi-established filmmakers are there to exploit you and your festival budget.

Me & Abel Ferrara @ 11AM
Village East Cinema
Sunday, September 21st, 2008
The New York International Independent Film and Video Festival (aka NYIIFVF), founded by King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1992) director, Abel Ferrara should be avoided like an Ebola plague. Their excessively high entry fee is stipulated as completely refundable if your film doesn’t make it into the festival, which never happens. The Internet movie database doesn’t even count them as a reputable festival for a listing qualification. Once in the festival they offer you all of these promotion packages that cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars and result in little more than being allowed to mingle with other filmmakers who only want you to come see their movie. Their overall promotion is exceptionally minimal and virtually non-existent for featured screenings. Their only interest is in raping the already struggling filmmaker. Even their award process is based on ticket sales as opposed to critical and artistic merit. It would be cheaper to rent a theater for a screening than to bother with these crooks.

There are even issues to face when dealing with a specific niche oriented festival. Recently my film, RIPHOUSE 151: Could’ve Been’s & Wanna Be’s (2008), was in consideration for the first ever Heavy Metal Film Festival in Los Angeles. The festival organizer stated that because the film had been out for a couple of years and was available online that it was “not very favorable for a film festival.” I had pointed out that despite the films pre-existence few people have seen or are aware of it, but that had no bearing on his decision. He did manage to schedule a screening of Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008), which was broadcast all over VH1 and featured in ever music magazine from here to kingdom come during the same time period as my film’s modest release, as well as a screening of the 17 year old G.G. Allin documentary, Hated (1994). The only thing that festival succeeded in proving was that it doesn’t care about the music, the musicians, or filmmaking, but like so many others it does care very much about money and marketing. 

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