Jump on the chance to have a tech check before a festival screening. Photo by Torley.
Many filmmakers forget that there are plenty of final touches to be made after the last edit is approved and digital formatting requirements are met for festival submissions. Even after festival acceptances flood your in-box, there are ways to maintain creative control over your film’s exhibition. Doing the proper prep work and building relationships with festival staff can help ensure that your film is screened exactly how you intended.
Film festivals and experienced filmmakers can’t stress enough the importance of prep work. Lori Draz, national press representative and master of ceremonies for New Jersey’s Garden State Film Festival , says that filmmakers need to be extremely knowledgeable about their product and should test contrast, audio, and color levels in multiple locations before sending off their film for festival review. Even before testing, filmmakers should do what they can to achieve polished look and sound.
According to Boston-based filmmaker Charlie Anderson, the key to even sound and smooth picture is professional mastering. While your film may look and sound great on your computer or in the editing room, there’s no way to compare audio or contrast levels without having them checked on professional equipment. This extra step can make a huge difference in the way in which your film is received, both by festivals and audiences. Another bonus—most filmmakers agree that more prep work equals less stress come screening night. Knowing you went the extra mile to increase the quality of the film will help you be more confident about your work.
Once your film is accepted to a festival, remember to engage with festival staff when possible. Many festivals, even high-profile, international events, do their best to communicate with filmmakers before screenings take place. Stephanie Noone, the film production coordinator and shorts programmer at Austin’s SXSW, personally contacts accepted filmmakers no less than two weeks before the festival. While SXSW generally only projects features in 1080i HD video or 35mm film, they accept short films in a variety of formats. Noone compiles all the shorts on an HDCAM master and does a quality check on each individual film. SXSW also allows filmmakers who arrive early the chance to perform an additional technical check before their film’s screening. Filmmakers should jump on chances like this–ultimately, the more opportunities you have to refine details before screening, the better.
Anderson adds that filmmakers should also establish a relationship with the festival projectionists whenever possible. While it’s unfair to assume that the crew will be riding audio levels all night, informing them of your needs can be another step to ensure a better screening. Anderson knows firsthand how this can pay off. “I was so pleased with the exhibition quality that I waved to the projection booth from the stage during the Q&A and thanked the projectionist in front of the audience,” he says about when his short film, Werewolf Trouble, screened at the Palm Springs ShortFest in California.
New Jersey filmmaker Michael Licisyn had a similar positive experience with the Project Twenty1 Film Festival. After having less-than-close relationships with festivals in the past, Licisyn says that changed when Project Twenty1 (whose quality control process is streamlined by only accepting films in the DVCAM format to screen from one master tape, similar to the way SXSW compiles all its shorts on an HDCAM master) went out of their way to establish a relationship with him. It makes sense, he says, since it’s in the best interest of the festivals to “get butts in seats.” The more buzz about films, the more people will want to come out to see them. Not only does perfecting those final details help out the filmmaker, but it’s mutually beneficial for the festival, benefitting the film community as a whole.
Producing a film festival, especially those that span multiple days, weeks, and locations is a challenge, and in many cases there isn’t enough time to provide each filmmaker with individual attention. To avoid this, Draz, of the Garden State Film Festival, says they provide written guidelines for accepted filmmakers in advance of screenings. Garden State asks that all submitted materials be labeled with visible contact information so the festival can easily get in touch about any quality issues. Draz stresses the importance of using the festival as a support system. While you may not have time to visit the theater and get a peek at your film beforehand (Garden State runs an average of 150 screenings per day at six locations each year), you can communicate any concerns or questions to put yourself at ease. Even better—try to contact filmmakers who have had success at that festival in the past to get tips and advice.
Don’t lose sight of what can be fine tuned even after the final cut of your film. Anderson says it can be painful to sit through a screening of your film if the quality doesn’t match up to others at the festival. The tools for filmmakers are there, both in the post-production world and on the festival circuit itself—you just have to know where to look and be willing to both communicate and collaborate.