Whether it’s Sundance or Seattle, Outfest or Newfest, film festivals are a powerful marketing platform for independent films. But many filmmakers, especially first-time filmmakers, do not fully take advantage of these opportunities created by festivals. Too often filmmakers make the mistake of thinking that the real work in making a film is, well, making the film. But as difficult as shooting an independent film is, it is about love and passion, or should be. The real work begins after the film is completed and it is time to get the project sold, covered, and most importantly, seen. You can make this job a lot easier if you start working on it long before you get into your festival.
On the set
If you’re ambitious enough to write a script, raise God knows how much money, and sift through countless contracts and release forms, you also need to be ambitious enough to build money into your budget for a unit publicist and on-set still photographer. These people will be invaluable in helping you promote your film once it is finished. Too often, filmmakers decide these are either too expensive or too time consuming to worry about. But if you don’t have photos or a press kit, you will seriously hurt your chances of getting press coverage later.
Ideally, you should book a professional photographer to be on set for the entire shoot, but unless you can call in a favor, a full-time set photographer can be expensive. To save money, consider hiring the photographer for a few key days. These should be days when the main cast is working and shooting together. If you cannot afford to pay a photographer, check with local arts schools and universities. Budding photographers will often do set shoots for expenses to help build their portfolio. Avoid the compromise of having a friend with a camera show up every now and then to take snapshots. These inevitably turn out to be images more fit for the family photo album than a press kit.
A good photographer will come with a blimp to shield your camera from the sounds of the still camera. This will protect the integrity of each scene and allow you to continue working unobstructed throughout the day. If they do not have a blimp, instruct them to do the on-the-set shots during rehearsal takes. Make sure the cast is in full dress.
It is essential to have the cast interacting and not just posing in front of the camera. There should be action in the stills for the same reason you want action in your film’s shots–because it is more compelling. When shooting two actors together, make sure the photographer is able to get them in profile. There should also be 3/4 shots of each cast member. In addition, be sure to get photos of all the key creatives, including directors, producers, writers, and even cinematographers. There are publications and organizations for each of these fields, so promoting members of the off screen team is vital to broadening the appeal and coverage of your film.
When the photographer delivers the prints, it is a good idea for you to go through the shots and discard anything that is embarrassing or undesirable. Later, when you’re working with higher profile casts, the actors will have kill rights over photography, so you might as well start paying attention to the photos from the start.
The unit publicist
Yes, publicists talk a lot, and sometimes they are full of shit, but they are also really good at it. There are probably thirty or so accomplished publicists working independently in the film arena. The trick is finding one who you work well with and who you feel comfortable entrusting your film to.
You need to be realistic about what a publicist can do for you while you are still shooting. If there are well-known people in your film, a publicist may be able to get the project covered by electronic outlets or specialty print publications. If there are not any names associated with the project, the main thing a publicist can offer is their knowledge of how to build a press kit. If a publicist claims to be able to get a film full of unknowns into The New York Times, you should seriously question if he knows what he is doing.
The level and extent of the work to be done will determine the cost of hiring a unit publicist. On one hand, a simple press kit can be written for about $1,000. If you cannot afford this, you may choose to act as your own unit publicist and create your own press kit (see page 48). On the other hand, having a publicist on set day after day, interviewing the actors, hiring a camera crew to shoot behind-the-scenes footage, and garnering national press coverage will push your costs over the $10,000 mark pretty quickly.
When hiring publicists, ask them what they think they can bring to the table, in addition to telling them your own expectations. If there is a great discrepancy between what you want and what a publicist can offer, you may want to meet with a couple of other publicists to get their take on your film. It may turn out that your expectations are not realistic given the number of films that are made each year and the number of pages of press available to cover film. It also may turn out that the first person you met with just wasn’t entirely inspired by the material.
The master plan
Some seasoned filmmakers plan their production schedules around festivals such as Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto. In the US, the majority of directors are looking for a berth at Sundance, because it has a reputation as an annual feeding frenzy for acquisitions and a feast for the press. While all these festivals are obviously wonderful places to launch a film, the problem is that they can only take a limited number of films. Plus, they have become so large that even award winners can get lost in the crowd.
So depending on when your film is ready (according to whatever criteria you determine), start planning your festival run. As early as the first day of production, start looking into festivals you want to submit your film to, and ones you can pass on. Every festival is different, so you will need to tailor the strategy for introducing your film to the industry, the press, and the world to the specific festival.
The larger festivals cost upwards of $5 million dollars to produce, which is more than many of the films featured in them. They also have a reputation to protect. Certain festivals accept certain types of films. Target the festivals you really want to be in, and push to get into those first. Do not give away your world premiere to a lesser festival until you have gotten a “no” from your A-list of festivals. The Independent lists festival deadlines in the magazine (see page 59) and on our website, www.aivf.org, and the Variety website runs a good year-round list of festivals at www.variety.com.
Even though the profiles of some festivals may be greater than others, there is value in each and every festival. If your goal is to sell your film to a national distributor, you should go after major industry-attended events such as Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto. But do not overlook regional festivals such as Seattle, Los Angeles, TriBeCa, Hamptons, and Chicago. They attract a select number of buyers each year as well. Equally important are the niche festivals such as Frameline, UrbanWorld, Big Apple Anime Film Festival, and Los Angeles Latino, which bring in acquisitions execs looking for genre or specialized films. If you have made a film that fits into such a category, do not shy away from showing it in an event targeted to your audience. These are events where you will find people who are truly interested in seeing your work and appreciate it most. Films can speak for themselves only when they are seen.
The Path to Glory
Once you have been accepted into a festival, there is even more work to do. The festival will make the announcement of which films are playing. The first rule is to not take it upon yourself to make this announcement for them. This is guaranteed to irritate the festival personnel, which puts you in a very bad position to start asking for things. And believe me, you are going to be asking a lot from the festival publicist and press office from this time forward.
The first thing you will need to do is find yourself a publicist. If you hired one to do your unit work and thought they were great, find out if they are interested in working with you again and if they have ever worked the festival you are premiering at. If not, you may want to meet with a couple of other people. Do not put this off. The sooner you hire a publicist, the longer they can work on promoting your film. The size of the festival and the number of films the publicist is handling will be determining factors in both the publicist’s fee and how much time they will devote to you and your project. If you are premiering at a large festival, it is possible that the best publicist for your film will be handling six or more films. In this case, you may decide that even though you have a great rapport with them, you want to go with a smaller firm or someone with fewer projects who can devote more time to you.
The next step in preparing to embark on a festival run is to put together the materials necessary to gain the greatest amount of exposure possible. Most festivals will have a list of the type and number of materials they will need from you so that they can pass them on to the press.
It’s important to check in with the festival’s publicist, or have your own publicist do so, to see what materials are needed and get them to the festival on time and in the hands of the right people. The press office is an important conduit between your film and the press, even if you have a publicist. Journalists will not only pick up the material you provide from the press office, it is also where they will go if they do not know how to contact you. Depending on the number of years the festival has been around and on the event’s infrastructure, the press office will be either a highly organized machine or a small sweatshop of promotion and publicity for the event. As a general rule, older events have more organized press offices because they have had more practice.
At some festivals, a publicist will be assigned to each section, and at others there will be one major publicist and additional administrative staff. Figure out the structure early on and make sure you are dealing with the right person. At an event that can be screening from fifty to two hundred other films, the last thing you want to do is get lost, and it is your responsibility to prevent that, not the festival’s.
The master plan (redux)
After all the materials have been made and the publicists have been hired, it is time to start pitching and pitching. It’s necessary to start the ball rolling well in advance of the festival. By the time the event rolls around, the preview pieces that tell audience members what to see have been printed, the special issues have been distributed, and journalists have made their schedules for the entire event.
Start by contacting the festival press office again and get a list of the accredited press to get a sense of who is attending the event. People who are not attending are not likely to cover the event, so it is of little use calling everyone at Entertainment Weekly when there are specific writers, critics, and editors assigned to cover the festival.
Next, plan out which press make the most sense to you for your needs. If you’re looking to sell your picture, be sure to target the industry and trade press, as everyone is going to be reading them to find out (ugh) “what’s the buzz?” or “what’s hot?” Variety and Hollywood Reporter do special issues on many of the festivals around the world and they are the most direct line to acquisitions execs short of hiring a producer’s rep. Both publications publish their special issues calendars online. Find out who the editor is and supply him or her with a brief synopsis and key cast and crew list, as well as one or two photos to consider. Ask for their assigning deadline and follow up about one to two weeks short of it to remind them of your project and see if they need anything else. The usual answer will be “no,” but in the action of calling you will put the name of your film back in their minds at decision time.
If you’re looking for general exposure, go the route of the bigger publications like Premiere or the daily newspapers. These publications are harder to get into without any celebrity cast members, but many will bring in business writers to follow trends or trail a filmmaker on the path to glory. Find out who they are and make friends with them through e-mail or by sending materials via messenger or FedEx.
A publicist will take over most of this work if you choose to hire one. This is what publicists do for a living. And since they have done it for countless films before yours, they not only know what the journalists are looking for, but also know the journalists personally. They know what to send, to whom, and when.
So, to make full use of the opportunity your festival premiere offers your film, start planning during production, set a festival plan into action, prepare all the necessary materials, hire a publicist to do the work for you, and remember, at the end of the day, it’s just a film festival.