Monday, September 13, 2010

Ask-an-Expert: Basil Tsiokos on What NOT to do for Film Festivals

Dear Filmmakers:

I recently launched a documentary focused blog entitled “what (not) to doc” where, among other topics, I discuss things filmmakers should (and shouldn’t) do in their documentaries, from my subjective viewpoint of course. For this month’s IFP blog post, I thought I’d take a similar approach, and address some of the things filmmakers in general should (and shouldn’t) do when dealing with film festivals, especially when you’re seeking your premiere festival screenings. This advice comes from years of dealing with film festival submissions and should serve you well to keep in mind. While you might think some of these tips sound like personal pet peeves, believe me, programmers talk to one another, and I’ve heard similar opinions from a wide range of fest staff.

If you’re a seasoned filmmaker who’s submitted work to lots of festivals before, this first point is probably not for you. As I mentioned in my first blog post for IFP: you have to do your research. Make sure your film is eligible for the festival to which you’re submitting. You shouldn’t blindly submit to any festival – not only is that expensive and time consuming, it could be a big waste of time if the festival won’t ever consider showing your film because it doesn’t fit their criteria. Visit the fest’s website and read their submission guidelines first. I repeat, READ the guidelines first. Do this before you email the festival to ask them questions. I can’t tell you how many times I would get a message from a filmmaker asking for such basic information as what my festival dates were or when the submission deadline was – information that was always available on the website and in the submission guidelines. While programmers are going to judge your film on its own merits, you are making a first impression of sorts personally when you send that email asking really basic questions.

Now, of course, if, after reviewing their website, you still have questions that are unaddressed, by all means, contact the festival. While this is an opportunity for you to potentially whet the programmer’s appetite about your project, it’s a good idea to keep your message brief. Often, but not always, the general informational email addresses that festivals use are answered by interns or administrative staff, and they may or may not have a role in programming, so attaching electronic presskits, photos, and going into great detail about your film is probably not a good idea.

Related to this is the generally naïve advice I’ve heard propagated many times over the years – that filmmakers should contact a film festival in an attempt to establish contact and “get to know” the programmers to give their films a better shot of being selected. Typically this has taken the form of a cold call – an awkward cold call. An awkward phone call that does you no good and, in fact, may have the opposite effect you’re intending, depending on your approach. A lot of festivals receive hundreds, if not thousands, of entries. Programmers simply don’t have time to get on the phone with every single filmmaker submitting a project in order to hear their sales pitches, essentially. I don’t mean that to sound as dismissive as it might – programmers of course should be excited to find out about new films: that’s part of their jobs. However, if you’re going to submit your film already, or if you already have, the festival’s going to see your film. Calling up a programmer to sell him/her on your film almost never results in you forming some special bond – the most the programmer can say is “sounds interesting, I look forward to watching the screener,” and s/he was going to do that anyway. The programmer doesn’t know you or your work, unless you have a track record of which s/he’s aware, and a single phone call isn’t really going to solve that, and, in fact, could take time away from the work the programmer needs to be doing. If you’re especially aggressive or too persistent in calling or emailing, it could also have a reverse effect than what you intended, and make the programmer remember you and dread your project.

A variation of this which I wouldn’t exactly say to do for every festival or for every film, but is a lot more sensible, is to have one of the programmer/festival’s known, trusted advisors (or a filmmaker who is an alumna/e of that fest) contact the fest on your film’s behalf. This is a lot different from you making a cold call – and it’s not because your advocate is someone famous or one of the programmer’s friends, it’s because the programmer has some sense of their taste and can judge accordingly whether to pay attention to their opinion or not. Hearing about a project from them is more of an informed endorsement than a self-serving sales pitch, provided your advocate has actually seen your film - a must before asking them to make contact! Keep in mind you are calling in favors here, so be careful about whom you ask and for which projects.

Once again, ultimately, always remember: your film is going to have to make its case for itself, separate from whatever praise your advocate or you yourself heap upon it. The proof will be in what’s on your screener, and how a programmer reacts to that.

In my next post, I’ll address a few more bits of advice regarding what (not) to do during the submission process, including the role of promotional materials/presskits, how to respond to rejection and to acceptance by a festival.

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."

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 and at

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