Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ask-an-Expert: Basil Tsiokos on Film Festival Strategy

Dear Filmmakers:

When the IFP invited me to be one of their industry bloggers for the next year, I was happy to accept. I believe strongly that dialogue, accessibility, and demystification can only help filmmakers become smarter about filmmaking and navigating this industry. As those of you who follow me on Twitter (@1basil1) know, I try to do what I can to share information and advice on a variety of topics, from funding opportunities to feedback on what vexes programmers. For the purposes of this blog, I've been asked to focus on film festival strategy.

To that end, a good place to start for this blog is where all filmmakers should begin in their festival strategy: before you've made your film. Now, to be absolutely clear, I don't mean that you should try to cater to a particular festival - that generally won't work. People might say that a particular film is a "Sundance film" or a "SXSW film," but the truth is, Sundance and SXSW, and virtually every festival out there, don't look for one specific kind of film - and filmmakers who compromise their vision to try to copy the hit film from the previous year's festival will usually end up with both a film that they don't believe in and one that goes unprogrammed at that festival.

What I do mean by planning your festival strategy before you've made your film is that you, or your producers, should do your research. There are thousands of festivals worldwide, reflecting different genres and audiences. Some are high profile, others are small community affairs - depending on your goals, some will be worth considering and others won't be. You know your film better than anyone, and you should be able to identify specific target audiences that your film should have a better chance of reaching over others. I know - everyone thinks that their film should appeal to ALL audiences, no matter their age, gender, sexuality, politics, religion, etc - and that's a great goal to have. Realistically, however, it's often easier to get specific audiences to connect with your film, if they know it's in some way about them, rather than breaking through to that magical, diverse, all-purpose audience.

I'm not saying you should limit yourself - not at all. If your film is Jewish-themed or LGBT-themed, your Plan A can still be to try to premiere at a high profile general festival like Toronto or Berlin, but it's important to be very aware of other options - the specialized circuit of Jewish film festivals or LGBT film festivals - that can be supportive of your work as either your next stop after the higher profile festival, or as your Plan B.

Identify your film's themes and identify aspects of your film's production that may open up potential festivals to you (for example, if you or significant members of your crew are Latino/a, some Latino festivals will consider your film for programming, even if it's not Latino-themed) and create a database. Research potential festivals to which you can consider applying that match those themes or aspects. Importantly, pay attention to those festivals that DON'T match - don't waste your resources submitting your US feature narrative to a Mexican festival that only screens Mexican documentaries, for example. Be sure to note any festivals that also offer grants - Frameline, for example, offers a completion fund to help LGBT filmmakers finish their projects - and plan to apply for those grants when you are at the appropriate stage. Make note of submission deadlines, and start a calendar so you can keep track when it comes time to start submitting.

Many filmmakers use the submission deadline of a specific festival as their own deadline for getting their films finished. If this helps inspire you and keep you motivated and on track to finish your film, that's great. However, be realistic. The worst thing you can do is to set up an impossible schedule for yourself just to hit the Sundance deadline, submit a project that is absolutely not ready to be viewed by programmers, and kill your chance at being selected. Again, plan ahead. Educate yourself far in advance to the festival deadlines you'd ideally like to meet, and give yourself the proper time to make your film the best it can be before you race to prematurely get it onto the festival circuit.

I'll revisit the issue of using a festival deadline to plan your own production schedule at a later time. This issue and many more will undoubtedly come up during IFP's Independent Film Week, September 19-23. Join me on Wednesday, September 22 at Noon as I moderate the panel "Positioning Your Film for Festivals and Buyers."

Finally, in the interests of the dialogue, accessibility, and demystification I mentioned at the start of this entry, I encourage you to comment below and let me know the kinds of topics related to film festivals you'd like me to address in future posts.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, consults with documentary filmmakers and festivals, and recently co-produced Cameron Yates’ feature documentary “The Canal Street Madam.” Follow him on Twitter @1basil1

1 comment:

  1. Great post Basil.

    Having just finished a short film, The Choctaw Funeral Cry, and begun the process of submitting to festivals, this post has hit close to home. I definitely recommend doing your homework ahead of time and creating a calender, on google or ICal, which can send you reminders of when the Early Deadlines and Final Deadlines are. Just going through that process helps you think about what your film is and where it might best be suited.

    Secondly, I recommend sending your film out to as many festivals as possible, aiming for getting them early, well before the final deadline. It helps save you money to use for more festivals submissions, and theoretically gets your film in before the submission watchers get burned out.

    Thanks again!