It feels like that time of year again, when the kids and the backers are itching to know when we will be in a festival. When will the film be done? When will I have another screening? So now is the time to break it down once again.
The following is what I have read and what programmers have said to me:
Paying an entry fee does not mean you automatically get into a festival. Just because we enter a LGBT festival does not mean we automatically get in. Festivals make their money, in part, on entry fees so the vast majority of entries will not make it in. Moreover, just because your film is good, does not mean it will get in. Building a program often means grouping films thematically. If it does not fit into the framework nicely, it may not get in.
Premiere Status restrictions are real. What most non-filmmaker folks are not aware of is this elusive fact of premiere status: In order to be competitive, many festivals require that their festival be first to screen a film in their geography area, or you can’t even submit. Sundance has a world premiere restriction: you can get into Sundance if you are not a world premiere, but you are not eligible for competition. Toronto only allows filmmakers to submit to their festival ONCE and it has to be a world premiere. So while Tampa and Nashville are respectable festivals, every filmmaker must first aim as high as possible, because a film only gets one world premiere, one North American premiere, one international premiere, etc. And where that premiere happens could define a film’s trajectory for its entire life on the festival circuit.
Public screenings and internet streaming disqualify a film from most of the marquee film festivals. Most festivals don’t want to screen something that has already been out there, web series not withstanding. Neither festival programmers, nor distributors, can really make money off something that has been/is already out there.
Festival Programmers may change from year to year. Quite often, they are not looking for the same thing from year to year. One year may have a focus on experimental films, the next may focus on student films, the next have just have a mission to fill the seats. So predicting what programmers are looking for is impossible; unless they actually tell you (and are honest about it).
Even non-profits need to make money, so films with celebrities are important for pulling in audiences. (and I have a back-hand for any programmer who denies it.)
Length matters. The sweet spot for shorts is 8-12 minutes, the sweet spot for features is 90-100 minutes. Programmers are trying to jam as much content in one 2-hour window as possible. If there are two LGBT road trip comedies, one 90 minutes, the other 1 hour 55 minutes; all things being equal, the shorter film gets in because the programmer can put a 5-minute short before it & still have time for a talkback. It’s not personal, it’s about economy of time.
You should submit early, when programmers are fresh. If you are part of the final slew of late entries, programmers have often already watches dozens if not hundreds of other films and have already chosen their favorites. “Unless your film is top shelf, truly inspiring, don’t wait.” (Yes kids, that’s a quote.)
This is what I know as someone who has studied the festival circuit; as someone who attends them regularly; as someone who helps run a festival and as someone who will be running one in Fall 2015. There are just a myriad of factors that filmmakers simply can not know about, nor has any control over, no matter how good a film is.
For the fourth time in two years I’ve had to turn down money. I turned it down for the same reason every time, because there are strings attached (beyond being a shareholder). I’ve always been poor, so I really don’t know what it’s like to offered someone money with strings attached. I guess for the more successful folks out there, they are use to defining the perimeters of their investment, and they should. But if someone is even considering investing, it is because they see real potential for a strong financial return and you have faith in the players; not necessarily because you know the arena of your investment better than the company / people you are investing in. So that’s what happened. A new investor wanted me to deviate from my festival strategy and I could not convince them I knew best in the matter.
Thus the list above. I felt it was important to put some facts upfront. I want to show that I’m not being stubborn or controlling. These are a ton of things to consider; I cannot afford to be short-sighted. Everything I do has to be measured & strategic. Part of that is recognizing an uninformed opinion when I hear it – no matter how loudly the dollars on the other end of it beckons me.
We are about $12K away from completing Better Half. Finishing it completely and properly. Just like the end of principal photography, I don’t know how I’m gonna come up with the dough to get us across the final finish line; but something will turn up. It always does.
So I’m staying the course Kids, following the strategy I’ve had since day one. Now is not the time to get desperate.