Taking the Festival Route

There has been an explosion of film festivals around the world, giving independent filmmakers their greatest opportunity ever to have receptive and enthusiastic audiences see their work, even if the films don’t make a dime in the process.

Some distributors are beginning to charge festivals for featuring a movie in a prime programming slot, but little of that money makes it back to the filmmaker – most goes to recoup the expenses of the consulting firm, also called the producer’s rep, or distributor.

Getting a producer’s rep or festival consultant can be very helpful in bringing films to a festival’s attention. Being accepted into at least one festival and winning some kind of a prize will also bring attention from other festivals, who track festival winners with the passion of sports enthusiasts following league stats. The same is true of a positive review in trade publications such as the Hollywood Reporter, Screen International or Variety.

But entry fees are low; most festivals act responsibly in actually screening all films that are submitted; and a good film will inevitably rise to the top, because so much submitted work is bad. Professionally-made films that are well-told stories will definitely stand out, and many festivals love to showcase what they call their “discoveries.”

This should not get anyone’s hopes up. The independent distributors, especially those owned by the studios, do not attend that many festivals – most of the buying is confined to Toronto (September), Sundance (January), and Cannes (May), and some of the other major foreign film festivals like those in Venice (September) and Berlin (February). Exploitation films dominate markets like the American Film Market in Los Angeles and segments of the Cannes market, plus TV markets like MIFED and MIP. In Asia, BIFCOM (Busan International Film Commission and Industry Showcase) and the Asian Film Market, alongside the Busan International Film Festival are held in South Korea each fall.

Most films that play at festivals don’t get sold there, and probably shouldn’t be, because their likelihood of returning their distribution costs is negligible. Film festival programming is the ultimate niche programming, designed for adventurous souls who are going to a festival precisely to see films that will never play their neighborhood multiplex.

When festival audiences see a film they like, they tend to adore it, and this can sometimes breed a false sense of hope in the filmmaker. This has been identified as the “Sundance effect,” in which wildly enthusiastic audience reception at the Sundance premiere does not necessarily translate into box office success. This has made distributors even more wary of festival pickups, and recently both the number of films acquired and the prices paid for them have been in decline.

The enterprising filmmaker can still enjoy the festival ambience at no personal expense, since most festivals cover airfare and housing for a filmmaker whose work is admitted into the competition. Audience awards can be cultivated, and the party and sightseeing components can help make up for the now-distant pain and suffering that accompanied production and its aftermath.

It can also gratify investors to attend a festival screening and see that their investment was not wasted, and that an audience for almost every work does exist. Filmmakers can use this kind of opportunity to extend investor interest, and recruit new potential financiers into the fold. Despite their growing numbers, film festivals still hold out a certain prestige and pedigree than is certainly better than the alternative.

The Bottom Line

Some would say – get a film into any festival that will take it. Festival exposure can only benefit a film, its reputation and that of its filmmaker. But doing research on festivals, now that there are so many, worldwide, is a good idea as the entrance fees can add up for a filmmaker who is working on a shoe string.
Festivals do offer a filmmaker a life outside of her or his own world that revolved completely around making the movie. At festivals they meet other comparably obsessed individuals, and it is both a growing and self-reinforcing experience.

The best and only chance a film has of being critically discovered outside of the traditional or independent theatrical release is the festival review and award. Lightning does occasionally strike and the proverbial little picture has occasionally won a big award at Sundance, Telluride, Toronto and Cannes.