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Dream Career Toolkit: How To Work A Film Festival

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This time of year is always great for me. It’s the time of year when I celebrate both my birthday and my anniversary. I met my husband at the LA Film Festival back when it was the LA Independent Film Festival and I worked there. Meeting him commenced one of the very best parts of my life and has made for an enduring love of film festivals.

film festival

I also find film festivals to be inspiring and a great networking opportunity. But, there’s a way to “do” them and not “do” them, I’ve found. These tips and strategies are learned from the two seasons I spent working at the LA Independent Film Festival, and from attending countless film festivals as a filmmaker showing a film and as a film-lover enjoying the films and networking.

Here are my 10 tips for making the most of a film festival…

1) Go.Really go. Buy a pass and get yourself to the festival as much as possible. Get the pass that gives you both tickets to 5-15 films and access to the filmmaker lounge or networking lounge or whatever they call it. “It” being the limited access location where you can hang out between films and where you’ll find filmmakers and other likeminded people.

2) Select your films with an eye to the people you want to meet, but different films will generate different types of attendance.

There are generally 3 different categories of films. By “categories” I don’t mean genres, I mean where the films are in the life of their releases. For networking purposes, you need to pay attention know the types of films. They are premieres, competition, and everything else.

Premieres and Competition: Films that are premieres and in competition will be more likely to have the filmmakers present. No filmmaker in their right mind will miss the world premiere of their film. A world premiere will also likely generate the attendance of the actors and crew, so you’ll have a house full of people who worked on the film and a really fun and generous crowd.

Often films that are in competition will also be premieres, but not always. Look for the designation “world premiere,” “U.S. premeire,” “West Coast premiere,” etc. World premieres and U.S. premieres are the biggies and it goes down from there in terms of importance. A film that has none of those designations and is simply playing the festival out of competition is the least likely to have the notable filmmakers attending.

3) Do your research ahead of time. Look at all the films that are playing. Research the filmmakers. See who is making the kind of films you are right for. Watch their other work even if it’s only their reel on their website. Think about what you’d like to acknowledge them for.

4) Attend the screening with a purpose. Once you’ve done your homework and are attending the screening, keep your eyes out for the filmmakers. They will likely have a “filmmaker” badge—a specific color—with their name on it. They will be lurking near the door of the theatre, hanging out nervously with an escort from the film festival. They will be introduced before the screening and brought up for a Q and A after the screening.

Often the director is getting most of the attention, but the producers, writer, DP, actors and designers are attending as well. This is an opportunity to introduce yourself and acknowledge these folks. Be ready to share yourself in a short and powerful way. (We work on personal loglines in Jump Start™ for exactly this purpose.) If you’ve got a project you are working on, this can and should be part of your share.

By attending with a “purpose” I mean set a goal for yourself. The goal could be “at these three screenings I want to meet and introduce myself to at least 2 producers and one director.” Make it specific. Give yourself some numbers. Play it like it’s a game.

5) Premieres generally have a party after them. Most of the independent films that are premiering have an after party scheduled. This is not the case for the studio films that are playing. But, the smaller, independent films that are premiering at some level, will usually have a party at a local bar or restaurant. And, if you go up and chat with the filmmakers after the film, they will usually be heading to the party and be happy for you, a supportive audience member, to come along. You need to have your ears peeled for this info and have allowed yourself the time to go to it. Go to the party! Even if you feel like you might not belong, you need to go. That’s where you’ll really get some good networking done.

6) Don’t ask them to look at your work or give them anything other than a business card or postcard. The introduction is the win. At the event, just start a relationship.

7) Definitely follow up. You might have made some connections that led to exchanging business cards. If so, that’s great. Follow-up with an email and a Facebook friend request. If it’s someone you’d really like to sit down with, invite them to coffee.

In your follow-up use all the same tools you used in first meeting them. Acknowledge, share yourself powerfully, and make a specific request that’s easy to say “yes” to if that is what you want to do. Then, articulate how you will follow up if that’s appropriate to the email. (For more on these steps check out my Audio and Workbook How To Open Doors.)

You might not have exchanged business cards, but I guarantee you that the film has a website with contact info. The filmmaker most likely will have their own website with contact info as well. Craft an email following up just like you would if you had their business card using the steps listed above.

8) Ask to be kept up to date on the progress of their film and their other projects. Most film projects have a newsletter, Facebook page, etc. that are used to build their audience and communicate with their community. “Like” the page and subscribe to the newsletter. Be generous in your support. It will serve you because you’ll know what’s going on with the filmmaker and the project. And, it will aid you in building a relationship with a filmmaker whose work you admire. This is the basis for jobs later on down the line.

9) Don’t neglect the people you’re sitting next to. Filmmakers go to film festivals. Producers, directors, executives, managers, agents, actors and designers go to film festivals. The opportunity to network with the people in the audience or hanging out in the lounge is as important as the access to the people doing the Q and A. Use all of the tools of Pitching Yourself Powerfully™ to make the most of these opportunities, too.

10) Pace yourself. It takes energy to watch films and meet people. The LA Film Festival is 10 days long. It’s a marathon not a sprint. You will get the hang of how things work after a few days and become expert at all of the things I’ve outlined above. But, you don’t want to burn out early.

Film festivals are also an opportunity to get re-invigorated creatively. They are an opportunity to be reminded of why you love the movies and wanted to be in this very challenging business.

If you operate from this place of love and creativity and generosity, you are far more likely to connect with people in ways that make for long-lasting relationships. I’ve made many friends at film festivals-- met new people and reconnected with old friends. As I said, I met the man who became my husband. I also reconnected with a friend I met on the first day of college who became my very best friend on the planet and was the maid of honor at my wedding.

Think of a film festival as both an exotic plant hothouse and the Rose Bowl swap meet. In that context, anything is possible. Enjoy!

Shawn Tolleson is a career coach working with screenwriters and other entertainment industry professionals. She gives you the practical tools you need to accomplish your dream career. Check out blogs, videos, classes and more at!

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