Due to the evolving independent film landscape and rapidly shifting financial markets, accelerated by the pandemic, film festivals are finding new ways to champion independent voices while leaning on experience. That’s why Film Fatales hosted a session to discuss the future of film festivals from the programmer’s perspective and delved into the best practice for submitting a film to a festival. The panel was moderated by Kareema Bee of Cinematters, and featured Celeste Wong of Mill Valley Film Festival, Faridah Gbadamosi of Tribeca Film Festival, and Lily Yasuda of Slamdance Film Festival, each of whom gave a candid view of their role in crafting a festival’s schedule.
Here are five key takeaways from their conversation that you can use to help prepare for the festival circuit.
1. Know and research your audience
Programmers do a lot of research. They check what’s playing at other festivals, investigate filmmakers in residency programs, read the trades, and talk to festival alumni to get a sense of who the new filmmakers on the scene are. Festival programmers expect you to do the same when it’s time to put your film on the circuit.
“Don’t apply everywhere,” says Gbadamosi, “your film needs to match the film festival’s audience.” The only way to know if your film makes sense for a festival is to do your research; look at films that have been programmed before, talk to alumni about their experiences, and consider that specific festival’s niche.
2. Connect with programmers and keep it professional
Making a connection with a programmer has its advantages, but not when it comes to getting in a festival’s lineup. In fact, if you become friends with a programmer, they will likely recuse themselves from judging your film altogether when it comes in for review.
“Knowing a programmer is useful to you when you need someone to champion your work,” says Gbadamosi. A programmer can also refer you to other relevant festivals, give you feedback on your film, or even tell you the best way to talk about your film. Gbadamosi also recommends bringing on a programmer as a consultant, or giving them a credit, in exchange for advice.
3. Pay attention to the details
To be taken seriously, you need to ensure your work and marketing materials are refined. Small things like a succinct director’s statement and a high-quality featured image speak volumes to how the film will be received. Rough cuts are acceptable but just remember that they’ll be watched alongside many other completed films.
“Make sure your links are up to date, update your screener and password, keep your logline tight and quick,” adds Yasuda. The small details make a difference. It’s important that your profile and screener, on whichever platform you’re submitting from, looks premium.
“Solid personal statements, a connection to the story, and a connection to the region where the festival takes place” is top of mind, says Wong. Programmers want to know why you made a film and if there is a personal connection to the festival’s region. If you’re portraying a community on screen that you are not a member of, what’s your connection to that community?
4. Ask for a screening fee
Most festivals are non-profit organizations, and don’t have much money left on the books at the end of the year. With that, you’re encouraged to request a screening fee if your film is selected to screen.
“Just asking for a screening fee makes programmers think about what they can offer filmmakers in exchange for all of their hard work,” says Wong. That said, programmers won’t retract an offer to screen just because you ask. The best case scenario is that the festival cuts you a check. More commonly, programmers will help you get into networking events and personally introduce you to the right people or help you find career-development programs.
5. Define your goals
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the independent film market and as a result, many festivals have had to adjust. It’s now more important than ever to explore options for bringing your film to the right audience. That means knowing what you want to get out of your film’s release. “Figure out what your priorities are,” says Yasuda. “Maybe festivals are right for you, maybe they’re not.” That’s something you need to know before choosing to get on the festival circuit for any amount of time.
A single, self-funded, well-marketed screening might be enough to attract attention and close a distribution deal. An abbreviated festival run may have greater impact than one that lasts for 18 months. Or a cost sharing platform like The Slamdance Channel might make the most sense. There’s a world of distribution channels out there waiting to show your film, you just need to find the best fit for you and your project.