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TRUE INDIE: Film Festivals - A Guide to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Rebecca Norris walks indie filmmakers through film festivals - the good, the bad, and the ugly - to help you save valuable time and money.

Rebecca Norris is a writer and filmmaker with her production company Freebird Entertainment. Her award-winning self-produced feature film, Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, is currently on the festival circuit. Rebecca also writes the Writers on the Web column for ScriptMag where she explores the production process of creating web series, and enjoys teaches screenwriting classes and webinars through Screenwriters University and The Writers Store. Follow Rebecca on Twitter at @beckaroohoo!

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Any indie filmmaker loves to say they currently have a “film on the festival circuit.” And why not? Film festivals are exciting, offer opportunities to network with other filmmakers and distributors, and of course, provide a chance for your hard work to be praised and recognized with awards. Plus, you have an excuse to go shopping for red carpet gowns and jewelry, and get your hair and makeup done as a work expense. I mean, c’mon...

TRUE INDIE: Film Festivals - A Guide to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly by Rebecca Norris | Script Magazine #indiefilm #scriptchat #screenwriting

When people think of film festivals, it’s easy to jump straight to the top-tier ones — Sundance, SXSW, Austin, Cannes, Venice, Berlin, etc. — which are wonderful, but the reality is is that those festivals accept a very small percentage of films, and are bombarded with tens of thousands of entries from around the world every year. Not to mention they can be quite pricey to attend.

You actually don’t have to be accepted by one of the top-tier festivals to have a successful festival run and find distribution. There are thousands of festivals worldwide to submit to, of varying degrees of quality and pedigree, of course.

For features, the cost of submitting your film to each festival is usually in the $60-100 range, and since submissions are a bit of a numbers game, you want to submit to as many as possible to have a shot at getting into multiple festivals. That means potentially spending anywhere from $3,000-$10,000 just on submissions, with no guarantees you’ll get accepted anywhere (Yikes!). That doesn’t include the cost of marketing materials and travel to the festivals. Not every festival will be right for your project, so it’s important that you do as much research as you can beforehand to make sure you’re spending your money and your time wisely.

To help you know what to look for in festivals you’re submitting to, I’ve created this mini-guide to help you separate the wheat from the chaff. Based on my experience thus far, I’m going to break film festivals down into three general types: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. I won’t be sharing names of specific festivals but rather will give you an idea of what to look for and what to look out for.

The Good

Good festivals are organized and filmmaker-friendly. When they accept your film, they give you advance notice and a reasonable amount of time to get your deliverables (exhibition copies of the film, press kit, marketing materials, etc.) sent into them. They also give filmmakers at least 1-2 badges for entry into screenings, parties, award shows, and galas for free or a nominal cost. They often throw in a couple of comp tickets so a filmmaker can invite industry professionals like agents and distributors at no charge.

Good festivals also provide laurels quickly after acceptance so you can start promoting your appearance at the festival right away. They announce your screening date(s) within a reasonable amount of time so you have ample opportunity to attract an audience. They have dedicated festival directors and staff who answer emails quickly and respond to questions and/or concerns.

Good festivals understand that indie filmmakers aren’t rolling in dough, and will sometimes pay to fly their favorite filmmakers in, or create partnerships with nearby hotels for discounted rates. A great festival I went to earlier this year even offered free airport transfer from area airports to the festival hotels. Good festivals often announce award nominations in advance, so that filmmakers can promote themselves and also determine if they need to spend the money to attend the awards ceremony or not.

When it comes to selling tickets, good festivals have easy-to-navigate websites and ticket pages where moviegoers can easily find your film, and the ticket prices are reasonable. The screenings are generally held in movie theaters and/or professional screening rooms. Some large festivals may also incorporate additional auditoriums or venues that have screening capabilities.

Good festivals are often tied into their communities, and can sometimes offer press connections like interviews in local newspapers and radio shows so you can promote your screenings.

During the festivals, good ones usually have a filmmaker check-in to pick up badges, and often have a filmmaker lounge with gift bags, treats, and resources for filmmakers, as well as a place to relax and network between screenings. Screenings are often well-attended by members of the community and other filmmakers. They also tend to offer an array of panels with industry professionals that offer guidance and advice to filmmakers.

Good festivals usually have a red carpet with a step-and-repeat with lights, and professional photographers so filmmakers and actors can glam it up. During screenings, good festivals tend to have professional technicians that know how to project films in theaters.

Lastly, good festivals tend to have several award categories so there are multiple opportunities to be recognized. Categories for Best Film and Best Director are common, however, good festivals often branch out into Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Score, and Audience Award categories so that great work doesn’t go unnoticed. They may even break them down further into Best Comedy Film and Best Drama Film categories, and even Supporting Actor and Actress.

Good festivals often provide award statuettes or at least certificates for award-winning filmmakers to take home. If a filmmaker isn’t present at the awards ceremony, arrangements are made for the statuette or certificate to be mailed in a reasonable amount of time.

The Bad

Bad festivals may exhibit several characteristics of good festivals, like panels, multiple award categories and discounted accommodations, but tend to be disorganized and chaotic. There may not be a dedicated or professional staff, so emails either take a long time to get responded to, or go unanswered.

Disorganized festivals also tend to inform filmmakers late in the game that they’ve been accepted, yet often have a quick or almost immediate deadline for deliverables to be sent in. They tend to also send laurels late (or don’t send them at all), and take a long time to determine screening dates so there’s less opportunity to promote screenings. Badly-run festivals also tend to struggle with marketing and promoting so there isn’t much in the way of press interest or community involvement. Their websites and ticket sales pages tend to be outdated-looking, confusing, and hard to navigate, sometimes one endlessly scrolling page of films and panel listings that make it difficult to find a particular title.

While almost all festivals offer screening badges to filmmakers, bad ones sometimes make filmmakers pay high prices for all of the events, including the opening night ceremony, awards show, and after parties. They tend not to offer comps so all of the filmmakers’ guests, even industry pros, are required to pay.

At the festival, there may or may not be a filmmaker check-in, and it may be a disorganized process with untrained volunteers. Screenings may have technical issues, including DVD and Blu-Ray difficulties, and problems with digital files.

Bad festivals may not have a step-and-repeat for press pictures, or they have a shoddy one that looks cheapo. They usually don't have lights or professional photographers available.

Badly-run festivals also may have disorganized and chaotic awards shows. They may either give too many awards or not enough awards, and the presentations themselves may be long, disjointed, or have technical problems. If you’re not there to collect the award, you may never see the statuette that you earned. Badly-run festivals tend not to attend to filmmakers’ requests or issues once the festival is over, if they ever attended to them at all.

This all being said, no festival is ever perfect. There are a million moving parts and something is bound to fall through the cracks. However, when you've screened in a great or good festival and then screened in a bad one, the difference is obvious and significant.

The Ugly

A very small percentage of festivals could be considered scammy. Not only do they tend to be disorganized and not answer filmmakers’ emails, but they often feel like a bit of a money grab. I’ll illustrate with a few examples we’ve dealt with of scammy behavior to look out for:

  • The time I spent $85 to submit my web series
    to a “film and web series” festival only to find out after not getting in that they only set aside two slots for web series. In a multi-dayfestival. Wonder how many other web series creators got duped into spending $85 to submit when there was almost no chance of getting in (I found out later that the festival also required a DCP - Digital Cinema Package - for screening, which can easily cost anywhere from $1000-$4000 to get made, and the festival wanted it with only a few days’ notice. Whew, dodged a bullet there).
  • Then there was the time an overseas festival contacted us after seeing our short film in the Cannes Short Film Corner, to say that they were accepting us to their festival. However, they needed a DVD copy of the film right away. Spent $65 to overnight a DVD to Asia, only to hear crickets. I followed up, with no response for weeks. Eventually they sent us a rejection letter, thanking us for submitting. Wrote to them saying that we had been accepted — we weren’t submitting! They said that we must have misunderstood, that ‘accepted’ meant that they wanted us to ‘submit for consideration’. Um, I’m pretty sure I know what the definition of ‘accepted’ is.
  • One festival we were in never bothered to announce their award winners afterwards. They have said multiple times they’ll be announcing them but never do. Meanwhile, us filmmakers are left hanging. We noticed soon after that the festival closed down some of its social media accounts. It’s possible the film festival ran out of money or went out of business and rather than have to pay for awards statues to be sent, they’re just going silent.
  • The best story of all is the festival whose festival director was a filmmaker himself. My husband flew out to this festival and came back pretty irritated, saying that the whole event seemed to be a club for the festival director and his buddies. We took a look at the festival’s website again and noticed something we hadn’t before. Two of the festival director’s films were not only in the festival, but were the only two films advertised on the festival’s homepage. Along with big banner ads with his face plastered on them. Also, not only was the festival director screening and promoting his own films, he and his wife were on the jury! Conflict of interest, anyone?! We couldn’t believe we didn’t see this before - we wouldn’t have wasted the cost of that expensive trip.

How to Sniff Out a ‘Good Festival’

Most film festivals do have the best interest of the filmmakers at heart, and do their best to promote the films and put on a good show. You won’t necessarily be able to sniff out all the bad ones right away, because sometimes you can’t see that they’re disorganized or scammy until you’ve already been accepted and you’re knee-deep in the process. However, if you research these things beforehand you’ll have a better chance of submitting to the right ones and spending your money wisely:

    1. The festival website: Is it professional-looking? Is it relatively easy to understand and navigate? Do they have any photos of previous years’ events? Do the screenings and events look well put-together and well-attended?
    2. Filmmakers from Past Years: Many indie filmmakers have their information listed on IMDb Pro or on their films’ websites. Contact filmmakers from prior years. Many are happy to share their experiences and let you know whether or not it’s worth the submission fee (We used this technique and dodged a HUGE bullet recently with a particular producer’s rep. Whew! More on producer’s reps in a later article).
    3. Social Media Accounts: Are they kept reasonably current? Or have they not been touched in a year? Are there fans or followers?
    4. Venue: Is the screening in a movie theater? Or at least a professional venue? If the screenings are held someplace like a gymnasium or hotel conference room, be wary. It could easily be a sign that the festival doesn’t have much clout or money to work with and it isn��t going to be run in a professional manner.
    5. Events: Does the festival have an awards show? Or any accompanying events, parties, or panels? If all the festival offers is the screenings and no other events to go along with them, it could be a sign that it’s a tiny operation without much pedigree or much of a budget.
    6. Sponsors: Does the festival have corporate sponsors of some kind, even if they’re local businesses? If there are no sponsors or partner businesses at all, it could possibly be a sign that no companies felt comfortable putting their name and reputation behind the festival.
    7. Distributors: Do distributors or sales agents attend? Or if they don’t attend, do they at least know of the festival? Ask filmmaker friends or any tracking boards you’re on, or just pick up the phone and call some distributors of films in your genre. You don’t have to give your name, just tell the receptionist that you are a filmmaker and a fan of the company’s films, and wanted to see if they could share some of the festivals they respect or attend each year (besides the obvious like Sundance and Cannes.) What’s the worst that could happen?
    8. Reputable Guests: Many festivals have reputable speakers speak on panels and/or give presentations at festivals. Look up the presenters. Do they have credits? Do they seem legit?

    Another way to find good festivals is in the lists that get released each year from publications like MovieMaker Magazine. However, make sure that you still vet these festivals to make sure they’re a good fit for your film and your pocketbook.

    Okay, I’ve talked your ear off for long enough! But I still have more to say about festivals, so be on the lookout for more articles coming soon about how exactly to submit your film to festivals and what to do once you’re accepted, to give yourself the best possible shot at success!

    The Complete Filmmaker's Guide to Film Festivals:
    Your All Access Pass to Launching Your Film on the Festival Circuit

    Targeting the Right Festivals
    Promoting and Branding Your Film
    Promoting and Branding Yourself

    The Complete Filmmaker's Guide to Film Festivals: Your All Access Pass to Launching Your Film on the Festival Circuit