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Festival Exercise: Define Your Film, Define Yourself

Getting your film "out there" – whether that means out to the festival circuit or to a distributor or directly to your audience – is a sales job. A crucial part of any sales job is to figure out exactly what it is you're selling and thereby determining who might want to buy it. In this exercise you will define your film and yourself in a number of different ways. While this may seem obvious and redundant, forcing yourself to formally document these things about your film can be extremely helpful in later stages of your film's life.

Defining your film

  •  Start with the basics: Is your film a narrative or a documentary? (It doesn't quite fit into either category? Maybe it's experimental.) Documentary filmmakers have a variety of doc-only options in the festival arena; it's kind of a consolation prize for the fact that theatrical distribution is a rarity for documentaries.

  •  Short or feature? A lot of people misuse the word "feature" when they really mean "narrative." The word feature refers to the film's length, generally over an hour. Anything else is a short. As in the documentary world, there are festivals that focus exclusively on shorts.

  • Is there something about the film's format that makes it stand out? There are festivals that focus heavily/exclusively on formats. Animated films, movies shot on celluloid, hi-def video – sometimes the medium is what matters.

  • Subject matter - this one's a biggie, and your film may qualify for any number of special-interest festivals based simply on what's in it. Go through your film carefully and really think about the people represented in it. What they do, what they like, where they go to shop and eat and have fun. All of these things affect the kinds of festivals and audiences that will be interested in your film. There are festivals for extreme sports, for individual ethnicities, and for films of particular genres. There's even a film festival for movies that feature bicycles. Find your niche and exploit it.

  • Location, location, location. Festivals love to play movies that feature hometown talent and settings. It's best if your film features recognizable landmarks around town, of course, but sometimes you can even get credit if someone in your cast or crew happens to be from a town with a festival. Exploit the "local filmmakers made good" factor by mentioning relevant facts in your submission cover letter.

  • Cast and crew. It's something of a truism that recognizable faces will help your film get into festivals – fests need sure-bet movies with household names to pack a few showings. (If your film isn't one of those, try not to be resentful of the movies that do have stars. Without those tent-pole flicks to guarantee ticket sales, the festivals wouldn't have the ability to program films like yours.)

    Look beyond the faces in your picture to the crew around you – do any of them have alum status at film festivals? Those connections can help your film too. Don't be shy about it.

Define yourself

Define YourselfYou're not just selling your movie. You're selling yourself, too, and there are things about you that can help spur an audience's interest in your film regardless of what appears on screen. Take a minute to think about the things that define you and how that will affect the list of festivals to which you will apply.

  • Demographics: Gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality. All of these things have festivals of their own. There are over a dozen festivals now that focus exclusively on the work of women filmmakers. There are few major metro areas left without a gay/lesbian/transgender film festival of their own. African-American festivals abound, sometimes under the code-word "urban." It may seem superficial at first but these are all audiences that hunger to see themselves (and the work of their fellows) on screen.

  • Your alum status. Festivals love to nurture the careers of filmmakers they "discovered," so be sure to stay in touch with all of the programmers who discovered you. When your film is complete, shoot each on an email and offer to send over a screener. Get that dialogue going and you will likely find yourself with a waived submission fee at the very least.

  • Your location. It may not help get your film into these festivals, but it's always a smart idea to submit to the festivals within easy driving distance. If you can't make a play for being a local filmmaker, at least you'll be able to attend the festival if you get in.

  • Places where your friends and family live. Anywhere it will be easier/cheaper for you to stay is a good candidate for festival submissions.

  • Where would you like to go? Submitting to festivals in towns you've always wanted to visit can increase your incentive to attend those festivals once you get in. Even if the festival experience itself proves lackluster, you will at least have the fun of sightseeing in your chosen destination.

  • Government assistance programs for which you qualify. Some national and local governments have filmmaking grants that can help you travel to or apply for particular festivals. Get in touch with your local film commission and see which grants are available to you, and what festivals they support.

Armed with this information you should be able to start your festival strategy. There's lots more to be done (you have to actually find those festivals), but this is a good first step.

Photo credits: Christian Razukas and sleepy sparrow.

Pigeon Impossible Podcast #12 - Pimpin' It

Lucas Martell's podcast is a companion to the launch of his short animated film, Pigeon Impossible. Each episode is entertaining in its own way (check out episode 2, "Writing is Rewriting") and most of them focus on the animation process, but episode 12 speaks directly to the festival circuit. In particular listen to Martell's advice about output formats and why the extra expense of converting your short to 35mm film might give you a leg up on the competition. Now that's what I call a film festival secret.

Web Series: 4 Things to Ask Yourself Before Starting

Felicia DayFrom the blog of Felicia Day. Apart from being adorable and talented, Felicia is pretty smart. She's been around the block a few times with the whole "original web series" thing which, at the end of the day, is the same as independent filmmaking. All four of these questions apply just as much to your indie doc feature as they do to her web series about online role-playing gamers.

The internet isn’t TV: It’s 20 million channels rather than 200. If you can’t sit down and easily identify what kind of person will like your show and name 5 places that person might go to on the internet, you will have a hard time getting the word out, no matter how good it is.

Read Web Series: 4 Things to Ask Yourself Before Starting on Felicia Day's blog.

Toronto After Dark film fest submissions deadline approaches

TADFrom Toronto After Dark's press release.

A quick announcement for any horror, sci-fi, action, animation or cult filmmakers out there. This is the final week to submit your short or feature film to the 2009 Toronto After Dark Film Festival. If you're looking to gain added exposure for your genre film it could be well worth your while taking the few minutes to enter.

Toronto After Dark has already established itself as one of North America's leading genre cinema showcases. Over 8,500 fans came out for last year's record-breaking Toronto event and all the films programmed including LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, REPO THE GENETIC OPERA, TOKYO GORE POLICE and I SELL THE DEAD scored extensive media coverage. This year's Toronto After Dark brings its cinematic mayhem for the first time to Summer and runs Aug 14-21, 2009.

To be considered, your film entry details must be completed online by end of day, this Friday May 15. Full details, including a fast and easy to complete online submission form, are available at the official festival website here:

Frank advice from Heidi van Lier

Lately I've had the privilege of sitting on a couple of panels with Heidi van Lier, filmmaker and author of The Indie Film Rule Book. Heidi's advice is no-nonsense, funny, and wastes no time. If you're not reading her blog at the Film Independent web site, you should be. There she dispenses similar wisdom; I've linked to a few recent samples below.

Samsung backs photography doc on the festival circuit

SamsungIn a smart move for the filmmakers and possibly for Samsung as well, Variety reports that documentary film Rock Prophecies has received funding from the electronics firm in return for some exposure to the audiences who show up. The film features rock photographer Robert M. Knight and presumably the audience who shows up to such a film will be highly interested in Samsung's new handset, which sports an 8-megapixel built in digital camera.

In your search for festival play and distribution, you should always ask yourself who your audience is and how to reach them. Then ask: who else wants to reach those people? Strategic partnerships begin when you identify those people & companies whose goals align with yours.

Distribution: What's the right way for my film?


I'm headed to Little Rock on Thursday and will be sitting in on a panel at the Little Rock Film Festival on Saturday.

Saturday, May 16th at 6:00 p.m.
Little Rock Chamber of Commerce
One Chamber Plaza, Little Rock, AR 72201
see more details

Also on the panel:

Groth Named Sundance Director of Programming - indieWIRE

Trevor Groth is taking over the reins as Director of Programming for the Sundance Film Festival effective immediately. Groth takes the position after John Cooper, who previously held the position, was appointed Director of the Sundance Film Festival following the departure of longtime event head Geoff Gilmore to the Tribeca Film Institute in March.

No word yet on how this will affect Groth's duties as Artistic Director of CineVegas.

Read Groth Named Sundance Director of Programming - indieWIRE.

Winnebago Man - Tubed from Hot Docs

Hot Docs uploads a series of videos about its programming to YouTube. Here's one of my faves, starring Ben Steinbauer of Winnebago Man.

(Via Agnes Varnum.)