Film Festival Advice From a Filmmaker’s Perspective

In the years that we’ve participated in film festivals, we’ve watched as many events have come and gone by the wayside. It’s exciting to see new festivals pop up, but I worry that they won’t be able to sustain themselves over the long haul. So it was exciting when Mark Den Blyker, director of Hollywood Divine International Film Festival, asked for my advice. He knew we’ve been to many festivals, and he wanted to know what were some of the best/worst things we’ve experienced, what festivals do for us that we really appreciate, and how best he could bless and take care of his filmmakers and attendees. I love it! I decided to provide my response as an open letter to all film festival directors.

– Film festivals can get COSTLY, especially if you’re making the festival rounds, so submission fee is the first thing I look at. I understand that running a festival isn’t CHEAP, however, you may need to CUT your COSTS or bring in sponsors in order to attract the best COMPETITIVE films.

– Make it simple for the filmmakers to enter. I know that sounds COMMON SENSE, but so many festivals make entry so CONFUSING, it’s scary to submit. It’s important to CLARIFY exactly who you are, what you’re looking for, and what filmmakers can expect. DANCES WITH FILMS does this the best of any festival I know. Not only do they provide a very CLEAR explanation of who they are and what to expect, but they offer a blog and weekly FB live videos helping filmmakers fine-tune their submissions.

– As you’re selecting your CAMPUS, make sure that it’s in a CENTRAL and CONVENIENT location near hotels and food. Attendees are going to come and go, so make sure they don’t have to travel too far.

– Once submissions start arriving, COMMUNICATE from the beginning. CONFIRM with filmmakers that you received their entry. Give them an estimate of when they can expect a further response. COMMUNICATE personally rather than expecting them to just watch Film Freeway to see when their status changes.

– Don’t accept every film that’s submitted. CENSOR out the weaker ones or those that don’t match your mission. Make sure it’s a COMPETITION. It’s very disheartening to filmmakers to get excited about their festival selection only to discover that everyone (or so it seems) made it. While it might seem nice to encourage everyone, in the long run, it accomplishes the exact opposite.

– CONSULT qualified judges with a film background. Don’t just get your friends to do it or try to do it yourself. Filmmakers deserve to be CRITIQUED by objective, unbiased experts who know what to look for.

– Pick films that COMPLY with what you say you’re looking for. We submitted to one festival that was very specific in what they wanted. When we saw the final selections, many of them did not meet those requirements. We can only assume they just gave those slots to their friends.

– CORRESPOND with selected filmmakers to find out when/if they’re COMING, and plug in their film when they’ll be there. It makes for a bit more work but is much appreciated by the filmmakers. Along those same lines, do not require that filmmakers attend in order to win. I know festivals do this to ensure attendance, but it will limit the submissions you get, as not every filmmaker can make it. It is ok, to encourage attendance as it really does make for a better experience, just don’t make awards contingent upon attendance. Whatever you do, do not CHARGE filmmakers to submit, require that they attend, then CHARGE them to attend. Provide two free passes to each selected film. Some festivals even offer free passes to not selected filmmakers, but that’s certainly optional.

– CURATE a film lineup that includes a mix of films that COMPLEMENT each other. When you put together film blocks of similar movies, it helps increase attendance of those films. BARE BONES INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL programs faith-based films on Sundays, horror films late at night. THE NARROW WAY FILM FESTIVAL had a Saturday morning children’s lineup. By grouping films, it helps attendees to select films and allows filmmakers to CONNECT and enjoy similar movies.

– CONDENSE the festival into as short of a time as possible. It’s tempting to want to include tons of movies and spread them out over a week, but it will CUT into attendance at individual events. Most filmmakers won’t be able to attend more than 1-2 days. At the same time, don’t try to schedule too much going on at the same time. It’s not fair to the filmmakers to have to COMPETE with three other movies. Very few festivals have the CROWDS to sustain that many screenings going on simultaneously. Try to have 1-2 tracks going on at a time. GREAT LAKES CHRISTIAN FILM FESTIVAL had one movie at a time except for Saturday when they had documentaries in one room and workshops in another. Also, they programmed the films into two-hour blocks with features and shorts, to make it easier to COME and go. It was one of the best schedules.

– Once you have your schedule, CONTACT the filmmakers and let them know. Then post it on your website.

– CREATE an environment for learning. Provide workshops and panel discussions relevant to the attending filmmakers.

– Fill your website with CONTENT. Include at the earliest date possible, official selections, schedule, workshops or panels, and any other festival information attendees will need. A nice touch is including a page for each movie with a screenshot, synopsis, and trailer.

– Share your CONTENT on social media. Every day for weeks leading up to the festival MID TENN FILM FEST shared screenshots and trailers of the official selections. Tag the movie pages and they’ll share with their followers.

– Avoid CHAOS. There’s nothing more disheartening to travel across the country only to arrive and have no idea where to go or what to do. So few festivals have signs on location directing attendees. Oftentimes, directors are running around taking care of last minute details that should have been attended to weeks ago. They may have posted schedules, but the actual schedule is nothing the same. We once arrived at a festival thinking our movie would screen in the afternoon, only to discover they’d moved it to that morning. That same festival, we went to eat supper and came back to discover the festival had concluded in the hour we were gone, a full two hours earlier than scheduled. The entire experience was chaos with speakers not showing up, films being moved around and eliminated. No one had a clue what was going on. Although the festival has continued, we’ve never gone back.

– Encourage COMMUNITY and socializing among attendees. GLORY REELZ CHRISTIAN FILM FESTIVAL  and MID TENN FILM FEST provided a Saturday lunch for all the attendees. GREAT LAKES CHRISTIAN FILM FESTIVAL ordered in pizza and wings Saturday night. FAITH FILM FEST had a lovely catered finger food meal. Some festivals have opening parties where festival goers can meet and mingle prior to the official festival launch.

– If you’re a faith-based film festival, include CHURCH in your schedule. KINGDOMWOOD CHRISTIAN FILM FESTIVAL had a great church service Sunday morning. It set the tone for an atmosphere of praise and growth.

– CHAT with each filmmaker or actor who attends the festival. Provide nametags so that filmmakers can get to know each other.

– CELEBRATE each accepted film and filmmaker. I loved the sweet letter I got from LANETT CITY FILM FESTIVAL letting us know we were accepted into the festival. Rather than a form letter sent out to everyone, it was a personalized letter specific to our movie. PAN PACIFIC FILM FESTIVAL did an amazing job of kicking off the festival with a filmmaker dinner and red carpet event. Whether we won or not didn’t matter. It was an honor just to be in attendance.

-CONNECT filmmakers with media. Some festivals like BARE BONES INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL provides a list of local media and their contact information. Other festivals like GREAT LAKES CHRISTIAN FILM FESTIVAL sends out press releases, letting the local media know about the movies screening.

– CONGRATULATE winning films with an awards ceremony. It can be simply handing out CERTIFICATES at the end of the festival or can be an elaborate dress-up occasion with trophies. Whichever, keep it short and simple. We once attended a ceremony that was almost three hours long. By the time they got to our category, I no longer cared whether or not we won. We’ve noticed a trend in Facebook Live recording the awards ceremony. It’s a nice touch for those who can’t make it, but be sure to let everyone know in advance, so they know to tune in. It’s also a nice way to CONFIRM that you did, in fact, hold a festival and give out awards. We’ve been in festivals that we seriously doubted actually held an event.

– Include CATEGORY awards – Best Actor/Actress, Best Music, Best Writer… If possible announce nominations in advance. This provides encouragement to filmmakers to attend since they feel more CONFIDENT about winning an award. It also encourages others involved to attend if they’re nominated. Don’t go overboard, though. 5-10 categories, perhaps broken down by shorts, features, documentaries, with 3-5 nominees per award is sufficient.

– Provide something to COMMEMORATE the wins. CERTIFICATES work. Trophies are nice. CASH or CHECK is always appreciated. Be sure, though, that if you promise prizes, that you actually give them out. We won at one festival that promised thousands of dollars in prizes, but afterward, we, along with other winning filmmakers we knew, received an email explaining that there weren’t enough prizes to give to all the winners. What? THE NARROW WAY FILM FESTIVAL promised a $1000 prize to the winner. We won, even though we didn’t attend, and were pleasantly surprised to get a check in the mail. Which festival do you think we entered and went to the next year?

– CONFIRM the selections, nominations, and winners on your website so that filmmakers have proof that they are indeed award winners. Keep this information up from year to year. So few festivals do this, but it can make a big difference in the submissions you receive. If filmmakers can see who was selected and won in previous years, it helps them to determine if that festival is a good fit for them.

– CORRESPOND with alumni. Encourage them to submit their newest work. Offer alumni discounts. If you provide a positive experience for filmmakers, they will return year after year and will encourage their friends to submit as well.

– If you want to CONTINUE from year to year, learn from each event. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. Study other festivals to see what they do.

Personally, I love film festivals. I love meeting other filmmakers and industry leaders. I love previewing movies before they’re officially released. I love learning from speakers and panelists. Some of my favorite festivals have been small and simple with no frills, but just an atmosphere of COMPANIONSHIP and COMMUNITY with industry friends. It doesn’t take much to make for a fun festival, just a COMMITMENT to provide a positive experience for those involved.

 

Not sure if film festivals are for you? Check out my article Why Filmmakers Need Film Festivals.

Are you a film festival director? Check out Film Festival Advice From a Filmmaker’s Perspective.

 

Author: Sharon Wilharm

Sharon Wilharm is a female filmmaker, blogger, and speaker with over a decade of industry experience. She and her husband, Fred, have produced seven feature films, including SUMMER OF '67, PROVIDENCE, and THE GOOD BOOK. Their movies have screened in theaters, festivals, and churches around the globe as well as multiple television networks. They've accumulated dozens of festival accolades including many Best of Fest awards and 4 ICVM Crown Awards. Sharon is passionate about visual storytelling, branding, and marketing and would love to speak at your upcoming event.

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