FILM FESTIVAL TIPS, PART 1 / by chad walker

Now that our film KEI has been accepted to the Bermuda International Film Festival, we find ourselves in the now-familiar place of figuring out how to maximize the film’s exposure on the festival circuit.

There are a LOT of festivals out there.  And there are even more films in those festivals.  It’s not easy to stand out and make an impression when you get there (especially with filmmaker happy hours where presenting sponsors offer their wares on the cheap).  That said, when we were touring around with BROWNSTONES TO RED DIRT, we picked up a few things that might be helpful should you find yourself applying, or, better yet, accepted to a film festival.  There is so much to know that I imagine we’ll add to this post at a later date, but let’s just jump right in with what’s on our mind now…


KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE–it’s never too early to start targeting festivals.  Sure, you’ll apply to big festivals and you should.  Getting into one of the big guys will change the course of your film.  But what other festivals are out there that suit the theme of your film?  For example, a major component of KEI is soccer, so we looked at festivals with sub-categories featuring sports.  Kei plays in Kansas City where there’s a rabid soccer fanbase, so we’re applying to the Kansas City Film Festival–it’s a no-brainer.  Don’t just rely on festivals you’ve heard of.  Do your research.  Which leads me to…

WITHOUTABOX IS YOUR BEST FRIEND–You probably know this already.  But if you don’t, you will.  I always tell people that applying to festivals is like applying to college.  If that’s true, WAB is the common application.  Here, you can build your entire project, upload a screener and search for festivals.  WAB also suggests festivals based on your description of your film.  Once you’ve created an entry for your film, submitting to festivals is done in one click.  It’s a godsend.  Not every festival is on WAB, particularly the household name ones, but most regional festivals can be found there.

BUDGET–film festivals are expensive.  At minimum, you need to account for entry fees and shipping costs.  The advent of online screeners–which we’re taking advantage of with KEI–cuts down shipping considerably.  But if you get INTO a festival, it’s going to cost you a lot more.  While a lot of festivals offer discounts on airfare or hotels, don’t count on them bankrolling your trip.  Keep this in mind–nothing is worse than turning down an invite because airfare wasn’t built into your budget.  Another tip we picked up along the way is to hire a publicist… I know–you’re thinking that you can just paper Park City with flyers and Tweet your way to a buzz-worthy screening–and you certainly might be able to.  But don’t underestimate the value of someone that has contacts in the right places.  What’s it going to cost?  We’ve budgeted it out at $5,000… per festival.  You’ll also need to plan on spending money on publicity materials of your own: almost every festival requests a poster, postcards and press kits.  Everyone else will have these.  Unfortunately, you need them too.


AUDIENCE BUILDING–the more festivals we attended with BROWNSTONES TO RED DIRT, the more obvious it became that some festivals do a better job drawing an audience than others.  But, even without the support of the festival, you can do some groundwork that can help get that theater full.  Are there local organizations that would be interested in your film?  For example, with BROWNSTONES, we had a built-in audience in Seattle because Schools for Salone, the charity we worked with to build the school, is headquartered there.  We had two screenings that were both sold out and had a rush line 40 people deep.  We ended up leaving there finishing as a runner-up for the Golden Space Needle Audience Choice Award alongside the Oscar-nominated RESTREPO.  Not only was that an honor and a bit of an ego boost, but it led to calls from distributors.  Engaging a passionate, local fanbase where you’re screening is the quickest way to ensure seats are full.

Obviously, press relases and all forms of social media are great ways to find an audience, but don’t restrict yourself to those.  Find a local connection.  Make yourself available.  Make people WANT to come.

TAKE ADVANTAGE OF WHAT THE FESTIVAL HAS TO OFFER–in addition to panels and special screenings, the larger festivals with established film societies often give grants or offer other services.  Check these out.  When we were in San Francisco, we had a wonderful sit down with someone in filmmaker services who provided us with a great overview about their fiscal sponsorship program.  Our relationship continued to grow and we received invaluable feedback on our grant applications.  Not every festival has something like this, but be sure to research what’s available to filmmakers before you go.

DON’T BE A WALLFLOWER/PRACTICE YOUR KARAOKE–Ok, this one is definitely learned from experience.  If it were up to us, when our film isn’t showing, we’d be in another screening or chatting over a post-movie drink amongst the three of us.  But most festivals have some sort of filmmaker lounge that, aside from being a great place for swag, is packed with filmmakers.  It’s a great way to meet like-minded folks from all over the world.  You never know who you’ll work with down the road.  The most important thing you can do when you’re on the circuit is meet these people, tell them about your film, try to see their film and stay in touch.

And, for some reason, multiple festivals we attended had an epic (sometimes nightly) karaoke session.  Seriously.  Don’t be shy.  Grab the mic and let your inner Ke$ha take over.

I’m sure we’ll have more festival tips in the future, but feel free to shoot us questions directly about our experience.  We’ll answer them the best we can.