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Frequently asked questions about film fests - Understanding Film Festivals part 3

Parts one and two of Understanding Film Festivals covered the annual festival cycle and the benefits of film festivals -- part three wraps it up with some often-asked questions and a summary of the essays.

What does "festival circuit" mean?

When a filmmaker talks about "doing the festival circuit," it generally means showing your film at a series of film festivals. There's no prescribed order of these festivals except by their arrangement on the calendar; you can submit to whichever festivals you want, whenever you want. Some festivals will refuse to show a film based on the other festivals that film has played. See Film Festival Secrets the book for more discussion on this.

Slamdance by jeffrey95112

What's the difference between a film festival and a film market?

A film festival generally has its origins in the celebration of film as an art form, while a film market is explicitly created as a marketplace for filmmakers to sell their films to distributors. Some festivals have become de facto markets (like Sundance) and others now have markets attached (like Cannes), but in general there's not a lot of buying and selling going on at film festivals.

So why shouldn't I just bypass the festivals and go straight to a film market?

Film markets are less discriminating when it comes to the films they accept, but they charge much bigger fees. The market model is really designed to foster interaction between distribution companies and the production companies or agencies representing groups of films. The market typically rents out booths on a trade show floor, arranges screenings on site, and provides meeting space. The American Film Market (AFM) is probably the most well-known event of its kind in the U.S. Held in October or November each year, AFM has many of the trappings of a film festival (screenings, parties, red-carpet premieres) but has no competitive aspects. Anyone can exhibit -- provided they can pay $7500 or more for the privilege.

As an individual filmmaker, it's unlikely you have the spare cash and experience to take your film to market yourself and sell it successfully. Even if you could, you'd be cheating yourself of all the cool things that festivals have to offer. Beyond the personal rewards that festivals provide, a successful run on the festival circuit with accompanying reviews and awards will make your movie that much more appealing to prospective buyers. In the process you might even find an agency willing to represent your film at market -- saving you the money and trouble of doing it on your own.


How can I learn more about the way a film festival works?

Volunteer. Film festivals always need volunteer help, both during the event and in the months leading up to it. Filmmakers have been volunteering at film festivals for decades in order to learn the festival ropes, make local film connections, and earn free festival badges. Volunteering can give you some highly useful perspective when it comes time to submit your own picture.

So all festivals work like this?

Well, no. Now that there are more than a thousand film festivals in existence (some say as many as 2500 -- it's difficult to say for sure), festivals are trying a lot of new things to distinguish themselves from the rest of the herd. Such efforts include diverging from the model described above in every way imaginable. There are festivals held exclusively online, festivals that accept only films in certain formats, and festivals that cater to every demographic, no matter how small. That means nearly unlimited opportunity for filmmakers, but also exceptions to every rule. For that reason, think of the advice in this book & blog as relevant to the nucleus of independent film festivals but not necessarily applicable to every individual case. Every film festival is different, but they all exist to provide the same basic things: a venue for independent filmmakers to find an audience, and a place for moviegoers to see new and exciting work outside the mainstream.

Professionals waiting by bigarnex


• Film festivals are year-round efforts that often require a full staff of people (often filmmakers themselves) to work for little or no pay. Respecting that fact is one of the single greatest things you can do to advance your film and your career on the festival circuit.

• The festival cycle begins with the call for entries, continues with the screening process, and culminates in final programming and of course the festival exhibition itself.

• Festivals often appear glamorous and crammed with willing moviegoers, but in reality the organizations are often starved for funding and audiences for some screenings can be difficult to find. Don’t be discouraged; take advantage of what the festival has to offer and be sure to seek out the other filmmakers in attendance.

AFI Fest Report from Austin Film Festival programmer Jesse Trussell

Special guest post by film competition programmer Jesse Trussell of the Austin Film Festival.

afi fest
AFI Red Carpet - photo shamelessly ripped from Shaz Bennett's Facebook album.

A pimp is out searching for a kidnapper in a crowded neighborhood. He comes to an intersection, and his Jaguar slams into the car of an agitated young man, covered in blood. Is this the kidnapper, or just another disaffected member of Beijing’s claustrophobic sprawl? We want our hero to find his man, but even if his gets the girl back she will just return to a life of prostitution. What can be called justice here?

All this happens in Hong-jin Na’s The Chaser, an intriguing and often disturbing South Korean take on the thriller genre which screened during the annual AFI Fest that wrapped up after the first week of November. A keen and incisive take on current world cinema is really the hallmark of the annual Los Angeles based festival. The 11 day event, thrown by the American Film Institute, had special sidebars this year on recent films from such far flung places as Argentina and Kazakhstan, as well as a look at the recent production from 6th generation Chinese auteur Jia Ziang Ke’s company XStream. Internationalism is also felt in AFI main competitions, where Uruguian Frederico Veiroj's Acne and the Ugandan shot Kassim the Dream won the jury prizes for narrative and documentary features, respectively.

In addition to the diverse world cinema programming, AFI screened some of the year’s best American independent films. A real highlight was writer/director Mike Gibbiser’s moving Finally, Lillian and Dan. In an American indie scene dominated by the solipsistic bent of mumblecore, Gibbiser’s small tale of love between the two most awkward people in the world aims for a lyricism and feeling far beyond the character dramas that litter the festival world. Shot on gorgeous and grainy 16mm, and understanding brilliantly the use of silence, Finally, Lillian and Dan marks an auspicious debut from a director still in his 20s.

afi fest
Filmmaker Trevor Anderson, Sundance programming coordinator Landon Zakheim, and AFI Fest's Associate Director for Programming Shaz Bennett. Photo shamelessly ripped from Shaz Bennett's Facebook album.

Another facet of AFI Fest greatly beneficial to their filmmakers is the Connect program. Now in its 8th year, AFI sets a one-on-one meetings between its filmmakers and over 100 industry professionals, in addition to a series of more informal cocktail hours and gatherings. This invaluable face time and advice is a fantastic bonus for any filmmaker, especially due to the caliber of industry participants the AFI is able to attract.

Overall, 2008 was an incredibly strong year for AFI Fest. From bold programming to a fun and friendly community, it is one of the real gems in the fall festival calendar.

Cinekink's "Final-Final" deadline approaches

I mentioned Cinekink before but wanted to give them another bump as their no-kidding deadline approaches. If your film has some sexiness to it or a sex-positive message, this could be a great NYC screening for you.

CineKink NYC - "the really alternative film festival" - is seeking films and videos, of any length and genre, that explore and celebrate the wide diversity of sexuality. Dedicated to the recognition and encouragement of sex-positive and kink-friendly depictions in film and television, we're looking to blur some boundaries and will be considering offerings drawn from both Hollywood and beyond, with works ranging from documentary to drama, camp comedy to hot porn, mildly spicy to quite explicit - and everything in between.

The final-final(!) postmarked deadline for entries is November 29th.

For more information and to download an entry form, visit

NewFest artistic director departs, reflects on state of film festivals

Basil Tsiokos in indieWIRE:

Over the past several months, even before news of the financial crisis broke, it's been an open secret that many film festivals around the U.S. have been suffering - while some have managed to secure enough funding to stay in operation, others (like the recently shuttered Jackson Hole Film Festival) haven't been so lucky. While I leave NewFest in the capable hands of my Board of Directors and on good terms, chiefly out of a desire to move on to new challenges elsewhere (yet to be determined), it would be disingenuous to not acknowledge that the difficult realities of non-profit funding had some role in my decision. Running a film festival, in my experience, is hardly a standard full-time job - it's an all-the-time job.

10 Benefits of Playing Film Festivals - Understanding Film Festivals Part 2

In the previous section of this article (rescued from an earlier draft of Film Festival Secrets the book) we covered what a typical festival year looks like. Now we'll delve into ten benefits of playing the film festival circuit.

1. Distribution. The possibility of finding a distributor by participating in the festival process is real. Festivals are one of the main sources that distributors tap when looking for films to acquire. However, even for filmmakers whose films are outstanding enough to play in the top-tier festivals, finding a distributor -- especially a distributor whose vision for the picture matches yours -- can be a struggle. The good news is that the festival circuit's usefulness in finding distribution isn't limited to the big festivals like Sundance, Toronto, and Cannes. A successful tour of well-established, respected festivals will build critical buzz for your film through audience word of mouth and reviews in the press.

2. Networking. This goes hand in hand with distribution. Though you may not find distribution for your movie as a direct result of playing at a particular event, festivals provide an unparalleled opportunity to make those critical connections that may eventually sell your film. This is also a chance to meet your contemporaries -- some of who may be able to help you in the future. Sometimes even festival staff members will take a shine to particular film and do their best to push it in the right direction. People who work at festivals are often the most well-connected people in the film industry. Why wouldn't you want to know as many of them as possible?


3. Exhibition. You didn't make your film to hide it in a closet -- you wanted it to be seen! Festival audiences contain the most appreciative and knowledgeable viewers out there. Not only do they love independent film enough to show up to the screening of an unknown filmmaker, but some of them will fall in love with your movie and ask you endless questions about it afterwards. It's your big chance to bask in the appreciation for all your hard work.

4. Cash prizes. A lot of festivals offer cash prizes for the best work of the season. Use those well-earned festival checks to make some token payments to your credit cards.

5. Other awards. Even if there's no cash involved, festival awards are a nice way to draw attention to your film. More media coverage is given to award winners and you can draw future festival audiences to your film with some laurel wreaths on your poster. Some awards are better than others, true, but even an award from the Podunk International Film Festival is better than none. And hey, that festival trophy can warm the bench for your future Oscar.

6. Learn something at panels and seminars. Lots of festivals are adding panels to increase the appeal of their events. Sitting in on panels is a great way to add to your filmmaking knowledge, and later on at the party you'll be able to identify the visiting industry reps by sight. Some festivals have full-blown conferences in addition to film screenings; make sure your filmmaker badge gets you into the conference as well.


7. Reviews. Festivals are covered by local and industry press alike -- the amount of coverage is naturally proportional to the size and prestige of the festival, but with the right strategy and persistence you can build a nice portfolio of press clippings. Reviews can make or break a film, but as a filmmaker you definitely want as many reviews as you can get.

8. Parties. It's the nature of the beast. In terms of networking, parties are where the action is at any film festival. Maybe it's the free booze, maybe it's the well-dressed people who never go to screenings but magically materialize at the parties, or maybe it's just the fact that everyone seems more confident when they're shouting to be heard over the music. Whatever it is, the parties are the place to hook up, career-wise and... otherwise. Try not to stay out too late.

9. Cool movies. You're a filmmaker -- you love movies! Film festivals are the place to see the new, the independent, the weird, and those guilty pleasures known as the pre-release studio pictures. As a participating filmmaker, you should be able to see as many as you want for free.


10. Free travel. Not every festival can afford to fly in their participating filmmakers, but you should make sure you apply to a few that do. You've always wanted to see Kentucky, right? Just don't trash the hotel room -- you want to be invited back.

11. Swag. Some festivals put together nice little goody bags (contents usually provided by sponsors) for their VIPs. Yes, participating filmmaker -- you're a VIP now. Feels nice, doesn't it? Maybe you don't even drink tequila but it's nice to get a bag of free stuff anyway.

Later this week I will post part three of this article, which will present the answers to some common filmmaker questions about festivals.

Susan Buice's "Smothered"

Nice to see that Susan is making movies again after all of the effort that went into selling and promoting Four-Eyed Monsters.

Understanding Film Festivals - an overview of the festival year

[An incorrect link from a recent e-mail newsletter may have brought you to this article – please use this link to visit the correct article! Thanks.] 

When I started writing Film Festival Secrets, I envisioned it as a much longer tome with a lot of in-depth background about the evolution of festivals, day-to-day life behind the scenes, and many more case studies than are actually in the book as it stands today. When it became apparent that filmmakers didn't need that sort of book half as much as I wanted to write it, I abandoned those plans and created the leaner, more useful manual to the film fest world. I expect that later editions of Film Festival Secrets will include some of those things but for now I want to share some of the "cutting room floor" material with you here on the blog.

This piece was initially written to be an introductory essay or perhaps a section of the first chapter.

State Theater at Night by farlane on Flickr

One of the most useful weapons in an independent filmmaker's arsenal is a general understanding of the way film festivals work. Few things will gain you more favor in the eyes of a festival director than a familiarity with the annual cycle most festivals go through and your attention to detail when it comes to the peculiarities of that festival. The less time you spend asking questions whose answers are readily available on the festival web site and the more you present yourself as an easygoing soul who is happy to make the festival's job as trouble-free as possible, the smoother the entire process will be for all involved. This is not to say that you should surrender all dignity at the festival door, but the books of festival lore are replete with stories of filmmakers who pestered festival staff with inane queries, displayed a sense of entitlement when their film was accepted, and then complained about the experience afterward. Those stories rarely end with the festival programming that filmmaker's next picture. A little knowledge and a bit of graciousness go a long way.

From the perspective of a filmmaker, the festival process begins with the call for entries. In reality there have been months of preparation leading up to the call -- analysis of the previous festival's successes and failures, reworking of the festival procedures and format, the courting of sponsors, and more. The period between the end of one year's festival and the call for entries of the next is also when staff turnover is likeliest. If you're submitting to a festival for the second (or third or fourth) time, be mindful of the fact that the relationships you established with last year's staff may need to be rebuilt with someone new. By the time they put out the call for entries, this year's staff has already put a lot of thought and work into the upcoming event.

Filmmakers responding to the call for entries fill out the festival's submission form, pay a submission fee (at this writing, anywhere from $20 - $50 and sometimes more), and send one or more copies of their film to the festival for consideration. There are often two deadlines: one "early" deadline with a reduced entry fee and one "final" or "late" deadline, after which no more films are accepted for review. (Though there are sometimes exceptions -- see the chapter on submissions for more.)

As the entries come into the festival, they are sorted by category and catalogued for review. The screening process usually begins as soon as the first films start to trickle in and really gets going as the deadlines approach. Depending on the size of the festival staff and the volume of submissions every film may be viewed by either a staff member or a team of screeners (usually volunteers) may be employed. Each film is viewed by one or more of these screeners (the better festivals make sure each film is viewed at least twice) and evaluated by a standard set of criteria. As the festival dates draw near, the programming team sets aside the best-reviewed films for deliberation and after much internal agonizing, lobbying, and the occasional cage match final decisions are made.

Once the festival decides which films to show the programming team notifies each filmmaker of their acceptance or rejection. As with so many other things in life, the happy news for those films accepted is often delivered first and by personal contact; rejections are usually sent en masse and by form letter. After this comes a flurry of communication and negotiations as filmmakers accept their placement at the film festival or, more rarely, withdraw from the festival. (Believe it or not, there are legitimate reasons not to show your film at a festival after you've been accepted. That's covered that in the chapter on submissions.)

Ann Arbor Film Festival

With a program set, the festival staff locks down screening times and puts the finishing touches on the thousands of details that go into a film festival: venues, travel arrangements, the technicalities of projection, print trafficking, party logistics, transportation, the creation of printed and online program guides, volunteers, ticketing, marketing, catering, media relations, and more. Film festivals have branched out from the mere exhibition of movies, offering a bewildering array of parties, panels, speakers, trade shows, seminars, concerts, live animal acts, and other associated events at a multitude of venues. The larger festivals often have a halo of unofficial proceedings during the event, organized by companies and individuals looking to capitalize on the festival's prestige -- and of course the influx of moviegoers and filmmakers.

In the weeks leading up to the festival, the festival staff and filmmakers ramp up their marketing efforts, publishing press releases and sending screeners to local and industry media. Larger festivals often receive preview and on-site coverage from industry publications, but even small festivals will get some coverage from the local press. At this point it's all about selling tickets and putting butts in seats, so the marketing department works overtime to promote the festival program. Savvy filmmakers will start their own marketing campaigns in the festival city, distributing posters and handbills at establishments near the festival venue and seeking coverage from community media to lure film fans to their screenings. This is often the most nerve-wracking time for both filmmakers and festival staff -- making sure everything is going to go off without a hitch (it rarely does) and hollering at the top of their metaphorical and actual lungs to be heard in a world whose collective attention is perpetually fleeting.


Eventually those final days tick down, however, and it's time for the opening night curtain. (Though sadly, few are the festivals fortunate enough to host their opening nights at theaters which employ actual curtains.) Filmmakers fly in with their marketing materials in hand, business cards in their pockets, and stars in their eyes. And why shouldn't they? Years of work led up to this moment, little of it glamorous, and for many of these no-longer-aspiring cast and crew-members, this is the first significant recognition of the merit of their work from someone other than their family and friends.
This is the point at which filmmaker expectations of a film festival meet reality and disappointment is bound to occur. Relatively few films actually play the well-funded festivals that can afford to fly their contestants in and put them up in lavish hotels; even fewer have the cachet to sell out every film they program. The anticipation of a world premiere with a packed house and an smiling acquisition exec in the crowd, checkbook at the ready, collides with the truth: audiences can be maddeningly elusive, acquisition execs even more so, and film festivals are filled with filmmakers just like you -- hungry, talented, and willing to work, but playing in an ever more crowded field.

This is not to say that film festivals aren't worth your time. Quite the opposite! In the case of many independent films, festivals act as a de facto theatrical tour for those films not destined to achieve theatrical distribution. Film festivals are also the front lines of quality control on the massive glut of independent movies made each year. Without the teams of film festival screeners wading through the sub-standard pictures and heralding the gems that appear, distributors and audiences would have an even harder time finding those unknown filmmakers whose work deserves to be seen. Filmmakers benefit from the festival process even more than the audiences. Not only do they get to see the amazing work of their peers, but they also have a place to showcase their own movies, find their audiences, garner publicity, and -- every so often -- get a real lead on some financial remuneration for their work.

On Monday I'll post part two of this essay, which covers more of the benefits of playing film festivals and some frequently-asked filmmaker questions.

That Media Show features "Film Festival Secrets"

That Media Show gave a nice plug to the web site and book on November 10th. That reminds me, I need to do a roundup of all the media mentions of the book so far. Many thanks to the TMS folks who gave me the shout-out, even if I am a little afraid of my own face blown up to that size. I wish I knew where the original of that photo is.

Read That Media Show - Nov 10, 2008 - That Media Show on

Interview with Fred Andrews of Kansas City FilmFest (formerly KC Jubilee)

Unveiled with very little fanfare, the first episode of the Film Festival Secrets podcast. In it I talk with Fred Andrews of the new Kansas City FilmFest, the joint creation of the festivals formerly known as KC FilmFest and KC Filmmakers Jubilee. You can listen to it on the web with this player:

You can subscribe to get future episodes with this URL:

(If you don't know how to subscribe to a podcast in iTunes, you can follow these instructions.) I have submitted it to the iTunes store, hopefully you'll be able to subscribe directly through iTunes soon.

I Heart Global Warming - November 12 10 p.m. e/p on Current

Current is establishing itself as a combination web/TV documentary powerhouse, and films like I Heart Global Warming are cementing that reputation. If you're a doc filmmaker and you haven't considered Current as an outlet for your material, tune in to I Heart Global Warming and see what Current is up to now.

Two new "no-fee" festivals

Reader Isabelle Vossart brings two new fee-free festivals to my attention:
The Blue November Micro Film Festival and the Flyway Film Festival. As with most such "no fee" festivals these look like small start-up fests, but if you're looking to rack up some additional festival screenings on the cheap this could be the way to go.
See the (always growing) list of no-fee festivals here.