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For indie filmmakers, the trick is finding an audience

An article in the Christian Science Monitor from back in May about a situation that is all too familiar to independent filmmakers.

In these digital days, it seems anyone can direct. But with hundreds of microbudgeted movies made each year, demand for venues and audiences is way up. Many films don't reach the festival circuit, let alone get a theatrical release or rack space at Blockbuster. Some go straight to DVD. Some find a specialized audience on the Internet. Some go nowhere.

Read the full article in the CSM now.

George Clooney to turn more festivals into fundraisers

From the Starpulse blog:

George Clooney is so impressed with the amount of cash his Not On Our Watch fundraisers have raised in Cannes, France and Las Vegas, he's planning to turn every film festival into a charity drive for Darfur aid groups. The actor and his Ocean's Thirteen co-stars staged dinners and galas at the Cannes Film Festival in May and recently at the film's Las Vegas premiere,raising almost $10 million in the process.

Now Clooney, who has become a leading celebrity advocate for action against the genocide in the Sudan after filming a documentary about the crisis last year, wants to turn every starry film event into a fundraiser.

He says, "I have every intention of doing this in other places. Film festivals sound like good spots."

This is without question a good thing in the larger picture, but I wonder how this will go over with the film festivals? Some of them have their own pet causes. Others have to work hard enough to raise funds to keep themselves going without the added competition. Not that the struggling festivals would attract Clooney in the first place, but it will be interesting to see the actual lineup of festivals he ends up visiting for this purpose.

10 or Less Film Festival extends deadline

I'll just let them say it in their words:

In the spirit of procrastination, the 10 or Less Film Festival has extended its regular deadline to July 15th and it's late deadline (late fees apply) to July 31st! So get off the couch, quit compulsively searching YouTube for episodes of Yacht Rock, and get that submission in the mail...before it's too late!

The 10 Or Less FF screens films of 10 minutes or, um ... fewer. The festival is held in Portland, Oregon, in October.

Music clearances - links

A couple of quick links with interesting info regarding clearing music rights.

  • Royalty Free Music - sells albums of "free" music.

  • All Clear? - a music clearance primer. A reprinted article originally from International Documentary magazine.

  • Festival rejection blues

    From the WAB message boards, Craig S. writes:

    I finished the film. Submitted to Sundance, Santa Barbara, and so on. So far have not be accepted to one festival out of 15 submitions. The agent just told me he can't find any interest, and wished me good luck on licensing. The people that are in the film are not even interested in seeing it. Woops! Yet, when I watch it, it is a good film. It has a good story, great characters, and some snappy dialogue. All the things I thought a good film is made of. Oh well, better luck next time...


    I can see why you're frustrated. And why not? At a guesstimated average of $30 per film festival, you've likely spent $450 or more on festival submissions up to this point with exactly bupkis to show for it. As that "better luck next time" phrase at the end of your post reveals, you're about ready to call it a day and get started on the next film.

    Here's my advice: don't give up. At least not yet.

    First let's look at a few good things about your situation.

    #1 - If you haven't been accepted to any film festivals yet, then you haven't given up your world premiere either. Your film is still essentially starting with a blank slate. It could be worse -- like if your film had already had its premiere at the NoPlace Film Festival and you couldn't even offer a more prestigious festival your world premiere.

    #2 - You can still go back and fix some of the things that might be wrong with your film. Maybe the sound is bad, or it needs a re-edit to excise ten or twenty minutes of footage that stop the story dead in its tracks. Maybe all your film needs is a bit of extra investment (time, money, talent) to make it acceptable to a wide range of festivals.

    #3 - $450 is still less than it would have cost you to hold a four-wall screening, and you wouldn't even have the benefit of experience to let you know that your film was less perfect than you thought. By now your movie been seen by at least two dozen people who watch hundreds of indie films every year; the rejection letters are their way of telling you that your film might need some work.

    What to do from here?

    A - Call every festival you submitted to and ask to talk to a programmer. Do this in the off season, preferably a month or so after each festival ends so that the new crop of films hasn't erased the previous set from the programmer's mind. That programmer may or may not have seen your film, but they can put you in touch with someone who has if you ask nicely enough. That person may be kind enough to give you some constructive criticism. With 15 festival rejections under your belt there must be someone willing to share an opinion with you about your movie. Ask specifically for constructive criticism and be respectful of the programmer's time. Expect some festivals to give you the runaround and call back if you don't get a return call within a week. Gentle persistence is the name of the game here, but in my humble opinion you've earned the right to be told why your film isn't getting any traction on the festival circuit. Per #2 above, it may be time to make some changes.

    B - Resubmit to the festivals that rejected you (and/or apply to a new set of festivals of equal or greater prestige than those to which you applied). After a re-edit (and sometimes even without a re-edit!) your film may still be eligible for submission in the next festival year. Yes, this means delaying your festival dreams for a while, but if you think your film has a shot at the top-tier festivals after your changes then you should start the cycle again from the beginning. (This also gives you some time to save up some extra change from your day job for submission fees.) Shoot for the moon and then adjust your sights downward.

    Even if you don't change your movie, consider resubmitting to the festivals for which you are still eligible. Sometimes a film rests on the edge of acceptibility, or simply faces a year of extremely stiff competition. Don't forget that your film is judged not only on its standalone merit, but also against all the other entries in the festival. Plus, the judges are human beings slogging through hours of mostly mediocre movies. A submission in the following year may be greeted with friendlier eyes.

    C - At some point you may come to the conclusion that a top-tier festival is simply out of reach of the grasp of this particular film. In the brutal light of the typical acceptance rates of those festivals, it's more than likely the truth. It's time to look at smaller festivals where at least your film can be played in front of an audience of independent film fans. Do some obsessively thorough research about the kinds of festivals to which you should be submitting. For every festival submission you send out, visit the web site of 25 festivals and get to know their characters. Look at their past lineups to get a sense of the kinds of films they want. You're searching for a philosophy and a programming style that matches your filmmaking personality.

    Once you find a handful of festivals that meet your criteria, arrange them in order of desirability and submit to them in as sensible a manner as you can given their arrangement on the calendar. If you must submit to festivals simultaneously (and it's difficult to avoid this), try to submit in waves to festivals of similar size and desirability. You want to avoid the sticky situation of accepting a slot at a less desirable festival, only to have to pull out when a more desirable festival accepts you at a later date.

    D - If you've done all of the above and you're still coming up empty but you still crave that festival experience, you can always try the shotgun approach. Pick as many small festivals as you can with low entry fees that you can cram into your already depleted budget and submit en masse. Someone somewhere has to accept you, right?

    I don't actually recommend this method -- it's just throwing good money after bad. If you've reached this point even after trying the strategies above, chances are your film is fundamentally flawed. Get as much feedback as you can from festival staff and fellow filmmakers, learn from your mistakes, and start funneling those submission fees into the budget for your next film.

    Indie films crave great reviews

    Check out this piece in Variety, based on a couple of panels at the Seattle Film Festival -- discussions of the future of indie distribution and whether film critics matter in the age of blogs and such. One camp argues that independent films have a bright future online, promoted and distributed digitally without the need for "real world" intervention. The other camp argues that with the proliferation of independent films made each year, the really good movies need the push of an established and well-read film critic even more than ever.

    The jobs for "established, well-read" film critics are vanishing fast, at least at print publications. Nearly every newspaper in the U.S. is owned by one of two networks who use a handful of critics in all of their papers across the country. The days of the local paper film critic are coming to a close. Of course, the demographics of those people who actually still read the newspaper are presumably getting older and older as the younger folk eschew newspapers for online media.

    On the web you can find all manner of amateur and semi-professional writers opining about movies, but few of them have a large enough audience to drive huge numbers of people towards any particular picture. As it becomes easier and easier to make movies, it is also becoming harder and harder to garner meaningful attention for your film. Grassroots outreach is easier than ever through e-mail campaigns, podcasting, and web sites, but there are always competitors for those eyeballs too. Other indie filmmakers are out there hawking their wares, YouTube gives surfers a sea of mediocre (yet strangely compelling) content for free, and of course there's always the distraction of Hollywood -- and that's just the film-related competition you face.

    What does all this mean? It means you need two things: a goal and a plan. What's your ultimate goal for your film? To be picked up for distribution? (What kind of distribution?) Maybe your film is better positioned as a calling card for a paying job in the film industry, in which case you might take liberties with your movie that you'd never risk with a film intended for traditional distribution.

    Your plan will of course depend largely on your goal, but it mostly boils down to identifying those people who can most help you achieve that goal and then getting your film in front of them. If you've made a very good/great film, word of mouth will take you a long way. The rest is all about smart marketing and persistence.

    Brief impressions of filmmaking books

    I went over to my local big box bookstore today to scope out filmmaking books. It occurred to me that apart from the books that actually cover film festivals as their main topics (most of which I already own or have coming to me from various Amazon resellers), the filmmaking books probably cover film festivals briefly as part of the process. Here are the books I perused and brief thoughts on each.

    Independent Feature Film Production by Gregory Goodell.

    General impressions: This book has many accolades from Amazon reviewers and well-known industry types, but it hasn't been updated since 1998. A lot has changed in filmmaking and in the festival world since then, so I'd recommend finding a more recent book that covers newer filmmaking technology and festival advice. However, enough people seem to still find this tome relevant even today so it's probably worth at least flipping through it as a primer on the "old school" methodology -- and to see if the author's style matches yours.

    Festival advice: Makes some good distinctions between festivals and markets and why you want to do both if possible. Also advises not to send your work to festivals incomplete. Mentions that 80% of all works submitted to Sundance are incomplete -- is this true? Would love to see some confirmation of that.

    The Everything Filmmaking Book by Barb Karg, Rick Sutherland, Jim Van Over.

    General impressions: I'm always vaguely suspicious of books that come out as part of a general "how to" series like this one, or the "Dummies" books. I'm sure that the publishers recruit knowledgeable authors for each individual topic, but when the series includes such wide ranging topics as weddings, college survival, and the Civil War, it puts me in mind of the "jack of all trades" adage. That said, I do like the action-oriented workbook style of this title, with checklists and such. Not nearly as comprehensive as the other titles here, but thorough in its way and undaunting.

    Festival advice: A pretty brief overview of festivals and how they work. If this were the only filmmaking book I owned I'm pretty sure I'd go running for another reference when it came to festivals.

    The Guerilla Film Maker's Handbook by Chris Jones and Genevieve Jolliffe .

    General impressions: This was the book I liked best -- tons of in-depth interviews with many well-known names in the indie film industry. Reading the book through can be a bit disorienting as the chapters are, in some cases, merely sets of interviews strung together with how-to lists. This weakness is also the book's greatest strength: the GFM Handbook is a massive tome that weighs about five pounds and covers just about everything with fascinating viewpoints from filmmakers, industry execs, festival staff -- everyone you can think of.

    Festival advice: The festival section is about as light as the festival sections in these other publications, though the authors do go a bit further than their colleagues by including interviews from filmmakers and Sundance director Geoffrey Gilmore. They also include a list of practical tips for attending festivals, not something I saw much of in the other books. Of all of the books I pawed through this afternoon, this is the only one I'm considering going back and buying -- if only because copies of it are going for $60+ on Amazon -- the list price is $30!

    Note for doc filmmakers: the authors have also written The Documentary Film Maker's Handbook -- probably worth a look and actually available at a discount from Amazon.

    From Reel to Deal: Everything You Need to Create a Successful Independent Film by Dov S-S Simens.

    General impressions: This book was the only other title that I had strong feelings about -- mostly negative. Full disclaimer: I only read the section on festivals, but the tone was so abrasive and dogmatic that it didn't inspire me to skim the other chapters as I did with the other books. The reviews of Reel to Deal on Amazon are universally positive, so I guess people like to be told what to do every step of the way, as if filmmaking were little more than a paint-by-numbers project. If that's what you want, Simens is more than willing to give you your marching orders and I don't doubt that much of the information is helpful to the clueless. This may be the indie filmmaker's bible for all I know, but if one listens to this apostle, the god of indie filmmaking is not a loving god. (Actually, that's probably pretty close to the truth.) I'll give this to Simens -- people seem to love his advice. He's got a whole industry of "2-Day Film School" products and a roster of famous people extolling his virtues, from Quentin Tarantino to Michael Jackson. Hey, if you pony up the $400 and enroll in his course you'll even get a film school diploma.

    Festival advice: the advice on submitting to festivals given by the author assumes that your film is the next Little Miss Sunshine. And if that's the case, the advice he gives isn't bad. Submit to the top festivals (Simens says the submission fees "won't be much, maybe $50") and eschew the rest, because acquisition execs won't be at the other festivals. Again, if your film is a surefire hit just waiting to be snapped up by the Weinsteins that's fine advice. If your picture is of even a slightly lesser caliber, however, it might be nice to know that there's a circuit of festivals out there where your movie might be appreciated -- and where you might find an audience for lower-profile distribution.

    The Complete Guide to Making a Movie by Lorene Wales.

    General impression: Oddly, the cover says "The Complete Guide to Making Movies," but it's listed in Amazon as just "Making a Movie." Either way, it's easy to find. Just a short blurb about this one as it had practically nothing to say about festivals, so I didn't read much of the rest. It does, however, have a CD-ROM included with a ton of forms for production and legal purposes -- some real nuts and bolts stuff that could be super-useful to a neophyte looking for concrete examples on how films get made. (Edit: Looks like there might have been a title change between editions.)

    Big Bang FF announces partnership with

    Indie Film TrailersThe formation of the new Indie Film Trailers site has been highlighted by an announcement of a partnership with the new Big Bang Film Festival, which holds its inaugural event this October in Philadelphia.

    IFTrailers positions itself as a YouTube for indie filmmakers looking to host their trailers somewhere with a specific bent towards independent film. I'm still not sure whether I think this will work or not -- there's a lot of noise to get lost within on YouTube, but is so tiny (there are only 40 trailers on the site at present) that there's not much to bring users back on a regular basis. The key here will be growth -- and lots of it -- coupled with good communication to remind users that the site exists and has new trailers coming in every day.

    Beyond that, the site needs to find a little more focus around what a user does once they've seen the video. Yes, you can view the trailer, but then what? There's no link to the film's web site, or a store to buy it, or a list of the festivals where you might see it. Unlike YouTube, where the videos are usually little stories unto themselves, trailers are an invitation to move on to a larger/longer experience -- and there's no way to do that from IFTrailers.

    I'm looking forward to seeing what the site does in the future. Below I've included a sample of a trailer as embedded in a blog post.

    Music clearances for film festivals

    A recent question from the Filmmaker magazine message boards:

    I want to know what the realistic pros and cons are of just screening the film at festivals without the rights. Will the festival refuse to screen it? Will we be disqualified from any prizes or competitions? What exactly is the danger?

    This is the Sundance answer to that question, and I suspect most film festivals would tell you much the same thing: you need clearances, but the festival can't take the time to investigate that you've done the legal and proper thing.

    From a legal standpoint, you must clear all copyrighted material included in your
    film before you can publicly screen it. However, Sundance does not check to
    make sure that you have cleared these materials at any point during the process,
    nor will we be held responsible for any legal issues that might arise from the
    inclusion of uncleared materials in your film. It is the sole responsibility of the
    entity submitting the film to secure permission from the copyright holder of the
    material in question, whether it is music, stock footage, or any other elements
    that could violate someone else's copyright. Quite often, rights-holders offer
    reduced rates for festival films, so you should contact them directly to avoid any
    possible rights infringements.

    (Taken from the Sundance submission FAQ at

    Slamdance has a similar disclaimer:

    Technically speaking, all we're interested in is if you TELL us you have all the rights to show the film.

    The festival directors/programmers I've met would probably never admit publicly that they don't care if you clear the rights or not. (Some would be risking professional relationships or even their jobs to do so.) However, I have learned from observation when screening submissions in their presence that they notice when high-profile music is used. Often they will scan the credits for some indication of clearance in those cases, but it's usually out of curiosity ("How much money did these filmmakers have in their budget?") than out of a sense of duty to make sure that the rights have been cleared.

    On a related note, I will say that the idea of just getting "festival clearance" for music can make getting distribution a lot harder down the road. An interested distributor will take into account whether they have to lay out a lot of cash for music rights -- and you can be sure the price for those rights will go up when a distributor is actually interested in your film. Go ahead and either pay for worldwide rights in perpetuity for all formats while your film is still unknown or opt for another, cheaper piece of music.

    States of the Art Film Festival

    There's a constant flow of ideas coming from the creators of film festivals these days as they all try to distinguish themselves from the traditional local film fest model -- and from one another. profiles the States of the Art Film Festival, which solicits all types of films, but will only select one film from each State. (I guess films from outside the U.S. are just outta luck.)

    It's one of the more interesting spins on the film festival concept I've seen lately but one wonders when the film festival bubble will pop.

    Visit the States of the Art Film Festival web site for more information.