Making a Film Is Only Half the Battle

For decades, film festivals have partnered up with great independent films to give them a healthy life. Filmmakers have relied on the hard work of festival programmers and organizers to get our films out to audiences and to reach wider markets through press and distributor attention. However, as I re-enter the world of film festivals with my new movie BLAST! I find the glut of films in the marketplace has changed the landscape drastically.

Several films I have worked on have enjoyed rewarding festival runs, including two I directed, SlamNation and Power Trip. Now however, I notice that the interests of film festivals and filmmakers are diverging in some uncomfortable ways. Filmmakers may find that we are entering a “post-film festival” environment in which even soon-to-be successful films can no longer rely on film festivals to reach audiences. “Alt-theatrical” venues may emerge as more valuable to many films.

BLAST! has already had its fair share of successes and mistakes with festivals. I would like to offer up my experiences and observations to other filmmakers. I believe we need to share information often and frankly if we are to navigate successfully the monumental changes in the market. Strategizing film festivals has always been crucial, but even more so in this transitional environment.

In many ways we were spoiled, and BLAST!, in particular, has been haunted by the film festival success of my previous film Power Trip. That movie, about the absurd culture clash of an American company trying to solve the electricity crisis in post-Soviet Georgia, performed remarkably well with festival acceptances and awards. Our festival strategy for Power Trip soon became deciding which invitations to accept based on what countries we wanted to visit and whether or not to insist on screening fees.

But none of my films have screened at Sundance. Like many filmmakers, my initial film festival strategy for BLAST! started and ended with acceptance into Sundance.

BLAST! is an adventure story that takes viewers on a journey around the world and across the Universe to launch a revolutionary new telescope on a NASA high altitude balloon. My brother Mark Devlin leads a tenacious team of astrophysicists from the Arctic to the Antarctic, through several catastrophic failures before achieving transcendent triumph. My unique access gave me the opportunity to break with conventional approaches to science material, revealing the sacrifices, obsessiveness, and even philosophical questioning of scientists.

After months of developing the trailer and other materials for pitching and fundraising, I only had about four more months left to edit the movie in time for the Sundance deadline.

Rushing to get the edit done for Sundance has ruined countless films. Don’t let it ruin yours! Festival deadlines should not drive the filmmaking. Finish the film and then figure out the festivals.

As Director/Editor, I knocked myself out, some days editing 16 hours straight, hiring other editors I couldn’t afford and doing whatever it took to get a cut ready in time.

One of our consulting producers, Robert Hawk, looked on in dismay. He has been a film festival expert for well-over 20 years and has consulted with many filmmakers. “Sundance Fever” is how he described my condition. “A film needs to take its own time, especially documentaries,” he warned.

But I had the Fever and wasn’t listening. BLAST! has about 200 hours of raw footage and we were trying to develop a traditional Hollywood structure out of this unwieldy factual material. More ambitiously, I believed I could make the scientific concepts and environment easily accessible and entertaining and do it using no voice-of-God narrator. In retrospect, these efforts served the movie well, but were tremendously challenging. As a result, BLAST! took about a year to edit.

However, after only four months and one week left to go, I managed to put together an initial cut from start to finish, well-over two hours long. I showed it to Hawk.

“Don’t submit,” was his response. Not easy for him to say and not easy for me to hear. Basically what I had was a rough assembly that was barely coherent. The Fever had blinded me.

It is increasingly rare for a rough-cut submission to be accepted, especially at a major festival. There are just so many other submissions, that it doesn’t make sense to accept a film that might not be finished in time.

As Bob outlined the problems with the cut, I knew he was right: “You’re wasting their time and not representing yourself well.” But the Fever drove me on! The next week produced a Herculean effort to make the cut watch-able.

“Five-hundred percent better,” was Bob’s response. “But now if you submit and then get in, you have to think long and hard about whether or not you will have time to do your best with the final version. If not, turning down an acceptance, for the ultimate good of the film, will take maturity as a filmmaker.” Not surprisingly, BLAST! was not accepted at Sundance, and I did not have to make that decision.

So eventually, the Sundance Fever broke. However, I continued to make the mistake of submitting my film before it was ready. I figured what the hell, we’ll just send what we have, and maybe we’ll get lucky. As a result, we continued to receive demoralizing rejections for BLAST! throughout the fall season, many from festivals where Power Trip was successful.

PATIENCE. A year passes quicker than expected, and we now have the opportunity to submit BLAST! finished and looking good to these same festivals. But will they be interested after already screening an inferior rough cut?

Finally, we arrived at the fine cut stage, and BLAST! started receiving acceptances. The looming question: Where to premiere?

Identify and capitalize on regional considerations to pique interest in your film. For example, my film SlamNation is about the National Poetry Slam competition, which was taking place in Austin, TX the year I finished. Promoting this connection led to a premiere at SXSW in Austin.

The Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto seemed like a great choice to premiere BLAST!. We had a very successful pitch there at the Toronto Documentary Forum the year before, and now we could return triumphantly with the finished film. Also one of the main characters in BLAST! is a professor at the University of Toronto, meaning instant audience and publicity support.

Our screenings at Hot Docs were great experiences—big crowds, lots of vocal responses during screenings and lively Q&As. (See my blog for The Independent). But we discovered too late that, despite the large commissioning editor presence, Hot Docs is not an ideal place to sell a film. The buyers are too eager to see “what’s next” and mostly attend the pitch sessions at the forum. Finished films, even premieres, are old news in that context.

Sometimes, small regional festivals can surprise you and prove more valuable to a film than the big splashy ones.

Our next screening was at Mountainfilm in Telluride (a more intimate event than the higher-profile Telluride Film Festival in September). Programmer David Holbrooke picked BLAST! early on in our edit process, sight unseen, based on the subject matter, locations and my track record.

We had a great experience in Telluride. The festival is promoted as a “conversation.” There are themed lectures, exhibits and symposia complementing the films. The audience was wildly enthusiastic for BLAST!. The festival was sponsored by National Geographic and attracted high-powered people. We made important contacts with Nat Geo, National Science Foundation, Explorer’s Club, ABC News, and others that are still benefiting the movie.

However, the fun of attending film festivals and being reassured that this difficult movie was now inspiring large crowds with laughter and spontaneous applause was also peppered with disappointment. We quickly realized that our prior relationships with festivals based on the success of Power Trip had little value when submitting BLAST!. Rejections from festivals where Power Trip had screened, including the Tribeca Film Festival and Silver Docs, were disheartening.

Be careful of premiering an independent film in the spring.

We found summer to be a slow time for film festivals, which made it difficult to keep momentum going after our premiere. If upcoming broadcasts from our co-production partners were not an issue, next time I might consider delaying the premiere of a film that was finished in spring. But now that summer is past, producer Claire Missanelli has submitted BLAST! to over 50 festivals this fall and winter. (For the BLAST! festival screening schedule, visit http://blastthemovie.com/screenings.html)

Festival entry fees can add up quickly, so make sure you put them in your budget. Film festivals may complain about being overwhelmed by thousands of entries, but the flipside is the entry fees are major revenue from this current glut. Festivals will always encourage you to submit, even when the circumstances of your particular film make the chance of acceptance remote.

In some ways, we are now taking a shrapnel-approach to festivals, but in other ways we have very clear targets.

Theme festivals often monitor other festivals with similar interests, so it is a good idea to identify and to capitalize on those opportunities. Think broadly; your film may fit an unexpected theme.

Based on the BLAST! screenings at Mountainfilm in Telluride, we have discovered a series of Mountain Festivals and have been invited to submit from mountain towns as far away as Kathmandu. Also, we expect that our screening at the first ever Imagine Science Film Festival in New York City will attract the attention of other festivals interested in science-based content.

Europe seems to be more welcoming to BLAST! so we are also focusing on overseas festivals. This fall we will be screening at Cork, Ireland; Bergen, Norway; and Sheffield, UK. BLAST! is one of ten featured films at Sheffield and we plan to take advantage of our co-production partnership with the BBC to maximize the promotional potential there.

In the U.S., even regional festivals are adopting increasingly extreme premiere policies. Personal politics may leave your film sullied in the eyes of one festival, after screening at another. Learn as much as you can about the personalities of the film festivals that are important to you.

The shrapnel-approach is generating more festival acceptances, but we have discovered that it can have dangerous side effects as well. Our screening at the Rhode Island International Film Festival was a disaster. Apparently the festival’s ambitious agenda of “300 films in six days” over-saturated that audience. Bad enough that only eight people showed (four accompanying the scientist who is in the film) and the DVD skipped frequently. But the real disaster was how this non-screening affected our chances at the Hamptons Film Festival.

When the Hamptons contacted us to express interest in BLAST! and asked where the film was screening, we were a little nervous about Rhode Island. We decided not to pull the film from RIIFF based on an unsubstantiated gut feeling, but in retrospect we should have. We have since learned that RIIFF is anathema to the Hamptons Fest and, for whatever reason, participation in the Rhode Island Festival essentially disqualifies a film from the Hamptons.

I appreciate that festival programmers are working hard and face a lot of competing pressures. And I don’t pretend that BLAST! is an easy sell. Science content is considered “niche” by general programmers, no matter how accessible and entertaining the presentation. We have also discovered that some segments of the core science market are turned off by BLAST!’s unconventional approach to the material, such as examining the personal lives of the scientists and their religious beliefs. We believe that the movie’s strong narrative and innovative storytelling will eventually overcome these prejudices, but that will take time.

On the other hand, I believe that programmers often make questionable decisions that do not necessarily serve the best interests of their audiences.

I see a trend, for example, of programming issue-oriented films regardless of the craftsmanship of the filmmaking. Many factual film programmers seem to see themselves as de-facto activists. This strains their audiences, who become overwhelmed by all the bad news. As one weary festival-goer said to me after several days of watching factual films, “I came to see your movie because I knew it would not be a wrist-slitter.”

However, by far the most destructive trend in film festivals is the paramount importance given premieres. These policies are profoundly unfair and shortsighted, their merits sadly overrated.

Festival programmers want virgins. So choose wisely where your film is going to lose its virginity, especially if you want to maximize press and sales potential. After the premiere, your film may have trouble being accepted into competition at the next festival, or even being accepted at all.

Robert Hawk characterizes “premiere-itis” as “a virulent disease that does no one any good – especially filmmakers and audiences.” Programmers insist that their festivals will suffer if the films they program play elsewhere. They demand premieres despite the fact that, except when festivals are in the same city, there is little overlap of audiences.

The truth is audiences come to see good movies, not premieres. Buzz from elsewhere may even promote another festival screening, especially when there is so little opportunity to see some of these films. It is hard to imagine a festival-goer saying, “Well, I heard amazing things about this movie that’s now playing in my town, but it has been over-exposed at three other festivals, so forget it.”

If there is audience overlap, it comes from inside the industry. Apparently, programmers are worried about losing press and sponsorships. Do premieres really make or break a festival, as programmers claim?

Two of the most prestigious film festivals in the country, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New York Film Festival and New Directors/New Films require only local premieres. As Hawk points out, “For the last two years the AFI Film Festival has ignored premiere status (except understandably, a Los Angeles premiere). Their programmers were interviewed in the press last year and said they still ended up with their fair share of World, North American, West Coast and California premieres.” The policy of de-emphasizing all but local premiere status has done nothing to diminish the prestige of these festivals.

Extreme premiere policies may actually hurt film festivals in the long run by creating an environment in which film festivals necessarily become less relevant to the life of a successful film. If these restrictive premiere policies mean that well-received films are able to screen at an ever-smaller number of film festivals, where else will they find an audience? The answer may be… many places.

If you are having trouble getting attention for your film, perseverance is the only answer. Your audience is out there but you have to work to find them. As you identify people who “get” your film, make every effort to maximize those opportunities and create more.

There are a growing number of possibilities for theatrical audiences outside film festivals. For example, BLAST! is in discussion with theaters in museums, planetariums, and universities across the U.S. all of whom are becoming more aware of the value of independent film.

A screening of BLAST! at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, for example, could carry as much prestige as a festival, and partnering with the International Year of Astronomy, with over 100 events nationwide in 2009, could provide much more exposure for BLAST! than a traditional festival run.

I believe these kinds of opportunities will continue to emerge and grow for more and more films. I propose the term “alt-theatrical” to replace the term “non-theatrical” to describe these venues. Many have large, attractive, well-equipped theatres, and dedicated, enthusiastic audiences. And they often pay significant screening fees.

Of course, the film festival model will always serve some film very well. But diverging interests may mean that film festivals necessarily become a much less essential element of a filmmaker’s strategy for promotion and distribution. Just as we seem to be entering a “post-distributor” environment in which filmmakers eschew rotten deals and embrace DIY, we may be witnessing the emergence of a “post-film festival” environment as well. As more and more filmmakers become empowered through alternatives to business-as-usual, we must keep in mind that, as the artists, none of this would exist – the festivals, the press, the sponsors, the audience – without our films.

For more about Paul Devlin and BLAST!, visit www.blastthemovie.com

Watch the trailer here.

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