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Legally Speaking, It Depends: Targeting Film Festivals

With this week's starting up of the Festival de Cannes film festival season is said to be in. But with at last count over 4,000 film festivals every year it's always festival season. Some festivals disappear, never to return, while new ones are popping up all the time. Pick any theme or a film-loving community and there's likely a film festival specifically geared to that narrow niche. The diversity is all inclusive.

So what's the interest to writers, you might ask? I'd like to take this column to areas of the industry where screenwriters and writer-directors may find themselves, even if, at first blush it seems a bit far afield. You see, it is not uncommon for film festivals to play a significant part in the career paths of screenwriters, writer/directors and makers of short films. (You are taking the advice of the previous articles and examples from the writers here on and are making short films, right?) This column will be less legal than usual but important to your career nonetheless.

Benefits of Film Festivals

Typical cue for film showing at a festival, this one at Telluride Film Festival 2012

A typical cue of film fans for film showing at a festival, this one at the Telluride Film Festival 2012.

Exposure – A film festival is where new filmmakers and writers can burst onto the scene overnight (or at least over the few days of the festival). I have walked into festival screenings shoulder to shoulder with fellow festival attendees who, two hours later, walk out as incredible filmmakers that all of Hollywood are talking about and want to meet.

Opportunities – Festivals often have markets or are market adjacent – Film Markets are where films get sold for distribution or projects seek advances so they can move toward production. But be careful, selling a new film in the heat of a bidding war or on the euphoria of a festival showing has far too often ended with horror stories attached to the experience. Short form contracts or Deal Memos are often used to speed the process along, but they depend on the details and definitions left out or listed elsewhere – so it is possible that they'll not always lead to a long form relationship. Read the fine print, and if there is no fine print yet, be careful what you commit until there is. Rushing in can often lead to overlooking important clauses in the contract that can lead to woe very quickly.

Networking – Meeting other artists/writers/filmmakers/film enthusiasts/creators/oddballs can lead to inspiration. As always, though, be careful what you share with whom. Talking about a project you'd like to do in the future to someone who can pull it off before you get to it can sting. (Remember ideas are rarely protectable.) But sharing ideas and experiences with like minded peers can build real relationships, which is always a good thing.

Unique Experiences – Screenwriting is king. Okay, maybe not king, but, is certainly not treated as a court jester. Festivals are one of those rare occasions where saying you are a writer carries a cachet. The film cognoscenti that frequent festivals respect the craft. You have an audience there that understands what you do and how hard it is to achieve. Soak it up.

Contests – Aside from the film competitions for features, documentaries and shorts, some festivals include script readings or competitions. These contests are often great showcases to be noticed by the real industry types who stop to check out the “new kid” between screenings. It's a great way to get exposure when you've got no other way in. But, as with any screenwriting contests, read the rules. You want to make sure you are not giving up rights that will hamper or completely dampen your shot at making your film all it can be. Some contests exchange the rights of the originator for so much less than what a contest winning script/film should be able to garner. Some contestants recognize this and accept it as the price to get notoriety. That can be a valid calculation, but, you must be aware of the potential cost of that “success”.

Things to Look Out For

Overexposure – Entering too many festivals and showing your wares too often will often backfire when you approach distributors. A film audience is an unknowable quantity. If the potential distributor thinks there could be a market for your work, even a small one, they might surmise that the entire audience has already had the opportunity to see the piece if overshown. In this case, less is more, at least in the mind of those you're trying to sell to. Picking the right festivals instead of the shotgun approach is often the better tack.

Going Unprepared – A script that is not ready or a film that hasn't gone through full post production poses a very significant risk to enter into a festival. If it comes across as unfinished or unprofessional, that reputation can kill that one venture and will likely stain the reputation of the writer/filmmaker as well. Better to skip a festival if you're not ready than risk digging yourself a hole. And if you haven't secured all the rights to the production or covered all your legal responsibilities before taking that step, you would be stymied from being able to take advantage of any interest shown. Showing a film that you haven't completely “papered over” or gotten all the contracts signed is risky. If you get a hot showing and buyers are ready to deal, you don't want to have to tell them, “Give me a week or two to finalize a few things and I'll get back to you.” You want to be able to sell right then and there. Hot properties cool very quickly and don't reheat. But definitely don't lie and say you have more ready than you do. That's the kiss of death not only for this project but for you as a professional in the business for the future and the legal repercussions can be very serious.

Festival Rights – Recognize when you are prepared for the festival, but, not further. Festival Rights is the term used for a limited set of rights garnered for elements of the film or script subject that are restricted. For a smaller fee you can get rights to use the element in question just for festival showings. For filmmakers that can extend to actors' fees or music rights, for writers that could be novel exploitation rights. This is great for getting a cash strapped production actually before an appreciative audience, but, when that audience is intrigued enough to want to take the film to distribution or the script into production the big question is, “Do you have all the rights?” They'll want an easy, “Yes”. Any stumbling block, especially one involving renegotiation of rights – which nearly always are more expensive after you've proven interest exists, cool negotiations quickly often blowing the fire out completely. But if that's all you can afford to negotiate to get the project out there, then realize there's an uphill battle ahead if interest is piqued.

Exclusivity – Submitting to some festivals requires exclusivity so that you cannot show your film elsewhere at all, or at least you must premiere with them. This isn't so bad if you make it into a high prestige festival, but, since those are highly competitive, you might be tempted to get into a lesser festival first. Then your shot at getting it into one of the big ones with all the notoriety that goes with it might have disappeared. Sometimes there is wiggle room allowed for the definitions, though. It depends on the festival. You may be able to have separate regional premieres that don't count as conflicts for the festivals involved or your previous showings might be considered “sneak peeks”, “previews”, or “private showings” – something other than a “premiere”. Finding out ahead of time what nomenclature and actions each festival considers significant will save a lot of disappointment come submission and consideration time prior to putting your work out there.

Selling Your Soul – When you do get the opportunity to make that deal, take the time to take a breathe and keep your head. It is easy to let your imagination run away with you. A tenet I give to all my clients is to separate their promises from your assets. Expectations and discussions of great rewards are nice to hear, but, if there is no weight behind them (meaning – something they'll lose if they don't deliver) then it's not an asset. An asset can be used to get something else or at least hold onto to make them deliver. A promise is just empty air until it is tied to something of value. And how do you tell the difference when the language used can be confusingly similar? As always, it depends...


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