Film Festivals: How To…

My desk is festooned with the fruits of two previous Independent Feature Film Markets: a cupful of pens, buttons, a mousepad, a key ring. And that’s not counting the baseball caps and t-shirts that are given out by filmmakers each September to promote their work.

Navigating the IFFM can be bewildering for newcomers. But the most important fact a filmmaker must realize is that the film’s the thing, and that no amount of freebies or promo devices will make your work more attractive to your target audience: buyers and programmers who might consider fitting it into their viewing schedule.

Yet there are things a filmmaker can do to make the most of the IFFM. Thorough preparation is key, according to Michelle Byrd, executive director of Independent Feature Project (which organizes the IFFM) and IFFM market director Milton Tabbot. They are at pains to stress that filmmakers should come with an advance plan of attack and not leave strategizing to the last minute, throwing together a scattershot campaign while standing at the registration desk.

Before You Set Out

While it sounds elementary, a feature applicant’s first and most important decision is which category to enter: completed film or work-in-progress. If you think you’re really not going to have the film ready, aim for the work-in-progress section. “There are a number of people who slip up in that area every year,” says Byrd, “so you’ve got to step back and be realistic.” “We have a little bit of room for maneuver,” adds Tabbot of those who change their minds after deadline day, “but not a lot.”

Tabbot urges applicants to pay attention to the basics: Fill out the application form properly and submit the requested materials. “We get people who walk in off the street on deadline day and start filling out the application in the office, when a lot more material is actually required.” The detailed application form [] requires applicants to submit filmographies, biographical information, and the financial status of the film (budget, how much money has been raised, where that money came from, and what the producer is looking for in terms of additional finance and production monies). “It’s simple, but it’s needed for them to be seriously considered,” says Tabott.

Byrd believes that synopses are often an afterthought written up at deadline time. As these may be the only shot a filmmaker has to entice buyers to their screening, it’s vital to make the best case for your film in the most attractive and concise terms. “Superfluous language should be avoided,” says Byrd, citing excessive use of adjectives or “self-congratulatory statements.”

Be sure to fill in all relevant details–market personnel find themselves supplementing the information if they feel a filmmaker has sold themselves short (such as omitting an interesting producer, credit, or award). “You need to divorce yourself from the creative making of the project,” continues Byrd. “You need to put on a new creative cap if you’re trying to interest someone who doesn’t know anything about you or this piece of work; you need to ask, ‘how do you position it and how do you sell it?’ ”

“The key selling point is the synopsis,” agrees Tabbot. “The other key point–and we hear this on panels all the time–is ‘are there stills?’ ” Ah, poor quality–or non-existent–photos: the bane of this managing editor’s existence and even more of a nightmare for a distributor or sales agent who may pick your work up from the market. Having an interesting or attractive set of stills (one of which will appear in the market program, don’t forget), taken by a professional photographer or one who has worked on film sets before, may be a crucial element in the consideration of your project by a buyer.

A vital resource for attendees is the market directory, which all successful applicants receive when they’re notified in July. The directory contains details of company reps who attended the previous year’s market (85-90% of whom return the following year, says Tabbot). A review of this will indicate which companies and individuals are the best to approach with your project. It is at this stage that you should make preliminary contact with industry folk; don’t leave it until late August when, with material from Toronto and IFFM starting to swamp their desks, your brief introductory note will get lost. It’s also important to let Film Finders [] know about your project (Film Finders is a tracking service for features).

This year’s more streamlined IFFM will feature a number of new developments that have been implemented in response to requests from filmmakers and buyers, including:

– halving the number of feature screenings to 50;
– a showcase for 10 feature-length works-in-progress (in addition to a larger number of 20-30-minute pitches);
– a reduction in the shorts submission fee to encourage a greater number of submissions;
– concentration of all screenings at one venue only: the Angelika.

An additional change is the request for two VHS cassettes for the videotape library. “The reality is there are a lot of people who, just because of the quantity of films they’re looking at, won’t go at a specific time to the Angelika and look at the print,” says Byrd. “But they might take 20 cassettes and look at them over the course of a couple of hours and then, based on whether they’re interested in the cassette, go walk over and see what looks like a good film. It’s a lost opportunity not to put the tape in the library.”

Finally, before sending off introductory notes to buyers, do a bit of research on more than the obvious big-name companies. Most distributors have web sites and a quick look at their catalog will inform you if you’re on the right track or not; Miramax, for instance, does not buy docs.

Negotiating the Melee

Byrd is emphatic in her dismissal of costumed individuals handing out promotional material or freebies to raise the profile of the film: “Gimmicks in general don’t work, period.” More subtle, less in-your-face marketing can work, however, with Byrd citing a large team from Joe Carnahan’s Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane who were identifiable in t-shirts bearing the film’s title and, when the film sparked off interest at the ’97 market, were easy to track down. If filmmakers are planning to raise the profile of their film above the ordinary, it can pay to have a simple t-shirt or baseball cap displaying the film’s title.

Some items that even 12 months ago might have smacked of gimmickry now are very real assets. A palm-sized mini DV player (used by Vince Offer, director of The Underground Comedy Movie last year) can show more than the 15 minutes of your feature that a buyer may have sat through. Another new development worth considering is establishing a Web presence for your film, which can range from home page basics–addresses, bios, contact info which you can set up for free with companies such as Excite and Yahoo!–to more elaborate set-ups where clips from the film can be viewed and photos downloaded. A web site can also be an important tool for filmmakers who are gathering addresses for an email list.

Guerrilla leafletting is one area in which the market is clamping down this year, although Tabbot is at pains to stress that the market isn’t preventing filmmakers from passing out leaflets; it’s just that they can’t do mass leafletting of mailboxes. “We’re not going to open every piece of correspondence and read it,” he says, “but as long as it’s targeted in a note, on a card to someone specific, we’ll accept it.”

“Everything we’re trying to do this year is about reducing filmmaker anxiety,” Byrd continues. “When there is that opportunity to go wild a little bit,” such as spending a small fortune at Kinko’s to get flyers printed up and blanketing all mailboxes, “people will do that. By making you think before you have access, we’re hoping that people won’t have that same kind of anxiety.”

It’s also important to come to the very first day of the market, register in the morning, read your new industry directory, and plan your daily strategy to ensure you’re going to get to the individuals you earmarked back in July. A structured daily schedule is an asset for filmmakers too, according to Byrd, so that those both attending and working at the market know generally where you can be found.

Panels can be a haphazard way to get access to buyers, and you must offer them more than a vague invitation to a screening. If you have had preliminary contact with a buyer’s associate, let them know it, says Byrd, and tell them, ” ÔSo-and-so from your company expressed a lot of interest in this project, and I just wanted to come over and meet you’, which actually winds up being meaningful.” A swift transaction of business cards or a postcard with your screening time and contact info (make sure you include New York contact details) is the best you can hope for from such an encounter.

Post Market

Once the market concludes, Byrd suggests creating a database from business cards obtained and recording data from screening reports. Follow up any leads with a personalized letter–no generic letters, which can be spotted a mile off, says Byrd–and in this way start a dialogue with interested parties, because even if individuals didn’t like your project, maybe they liked you.

Anyone who expressed serious interest in looking at your script or film should have it within a month of the market, at the latest. And if something significant occurs with your project–e.g., completion of principal photography, a major part of funding falls into place, acceptance into a festival, a festival prize–let those interested parties know. You never know–it might be the final element that’ll get them on board your project.

About :

Paul Power is the former managing editor of The Independent.