FILM FESTIVAL SURVIVAL GUIDE Pt 2: People Really Only Want to Talk About Themselves.

Last month I posted Part 1 of my personal guide to how to approach film festivals as an independent filmmaker. Here’s part 2.

In my first post I thought that perhaps I was being too 101 in my approach – but I don’t think I am. Whether you have a feature or feature documentary – or two – or you could be making your first short…the pitfalls and mistakes are the same. Bear in mind also the just because you may have someone representing your film that they’ll work for you. It’s important you smash your own path – or at least understand it – and the only way to do that is to be active. You need to know the space and how it works…it’s the only way to ensure you’ll get the best for you and your film. If you don’t, you’ll get ripped off.

So in Part 2 I’ll give you my experience (not necessarily advice) as to what are good approaches once you may be accepted into a festival and how to perhaps make the environment work best for you.

Firstly, if you’ve been accepted into a festival – kudos! You’re in the top 10% of films made internationally. That’s worth a lot and a rare opportunity. Take it seriously.

Here’s a shot I took on the Cannes red carpet. There’s photographers like this on both sides of the carpet as well as a battalion of others (including citizens camped out) right across the road)…

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So once you’re in…

Basic training.
Amazingly the business side of the industry is very poorly understood or completely unknown by filmmakers – including producers. It’s like “it’s all just too hard and that’s someone else’s job anyway”.

Wrong.

For instance, here in Australia for instance we have an annual film distribution and exhibition event – the Australian International Movie Convention – known in the industry simply as “convention”. It is the major annual gathering of most of the players in the business sector. Mum and dad regional exhibitors, heavy hitting distributors, metropolitan cinema chains, studios, journalists and commentators, companies selling new cinema technologies, seats and confectionary…they’re all there.

Held on the Gold Coast in a casino (which is fitting for an industry which is essentially gambling) it traditionally was also kind of a holiday for the small business regional exhibitors. Sun, city, casino, movies, functions, movies, sneak previews, chocolates…why not? As an aside, I wonder given the complete shift in the business how much the mood may have become more serious for those singular regional operators.

Anyway – of the hundreds of delegates it’s not an outrageous call to say that you can count on one hand the filmmakers and producers who attend – yet this is the end-point for their film.

It’s the point that decides whether your film will live or die and if it lives the people who decide how, when, where and for how long it should live are there. It is the point where your film can take unexpected turns and receive plastic surgery you never imagined. It is the point and place that filmmakers/producers can see why decisions are made, how films are positioned, what kinds of money is at stake and what kind of people will be poking and prodding your baby once you hand it over for adoption. Yet filmmakers are not there.

You need to be there – if only just once.

It costs money but this kind of investment will work for you in the networks you can build and in understanding the reality of what it takes to make a film work. I think state film agencies should fund three new filmmakers or one’s making their first feature to attend this event annually.

Likewise when the opportunity arises to experience a film festival you must do it whether your film is in or not. You must go to talks and panels. You must ask questions at them. You must keep your eyes open to see who is talking to who on the floor and where. You must observe the mechanics and look at the little details of how people move and flow and what they do and don’t respond to. Look hard at the floor.

Really throw yourself in. As a punter make yourself work hard and make your schedule demanding because when it comes to representing your film at one of those places it’s physically punishing – and confidence is key.

You must make a priority of understanding the business part of the sector by reading everything you can just as you need to understand the creative side by watching everything you can. You’ll get a sense of who’s who and what’s what internationally mighty fast. During any major fest or festival period – like right now – you should be reading the wires every day. You’ll see who’s buying what, how much they’re buying and how much they’re paying.

Here’s a couple of really good recent articles the type you should be reading. One about what Amazon are putting on the table. The other about the way Sundance is working this year.

Question a festival if they demand “premiere” status
Many festivals internationally require that films in selection or competition are world, international or national premieres.

While this may sound cool this is more for the benefit of the festival’s status than yours. If a fest is asking for it I don’t believe they’re not connected the speed of the industry today although they may not realise it.

By accepting this condition you can potentially be cutting yourself out of valuable screen space elsewhere. Your film now has 6 months on the festival cycle/circuit and losing months and limiting screening opportunity can significantly harm your film now whatever the festival…so don’t be afraid to question premiere status. I’ve seen films break at Sundance and then lose months everywhere else in the world while being held over for a single international premiere at a European festival – effectively killing the film.

A film’s fest life for acquisition or even release now is 6 months not 12. It’s not in your interest to wait to crank the festival scene. Films screened at the 2016 Toronto festival in September are already on screens big and small (lots on VoD) only three months later.

Strike while your hot
There’s a very fine line in when to move if there is interest or opportunity around your film but you need to strike while it’s hot. I think that moment is pretty easy to feel if you’ve trained.

Don’t however think you’re better than you are and hold off on making a move or making a deal for too long hoping something better will come along. As I said in this and my previous post your film’s got a year maximum in the festival cycle – if you haven’t closed a deal in that time it’s likely you won’t…sorry. Festival programmers and directors will all admit to having seen a large number of most excellent films with great commercial prospects/fest prospects simply slowly fade away by filmmakers holding out for a deal or money or audience that simply isn’t there.

Either way, each territory has a very limited number of good people to associate yourself with – and the world isn’t really that big and it’s getting a whole lot smaller. It’s not so hard to find out who’s who – but as a filmmaker it’s as much part of the film as story research.

Interestingly what I have seen in just recent times is there’s a new crop of agents and buyers who suddenly have considerable and specialised catalogues. You’d draw the conclusion here that this means it’s a seller’s market. A recent article noted how prices were being driven up by the Netflix and Amazon war but my feeling is this is for the big titles. With these titles being taken off the table in say Oz, distribs will my perhaps be bidding for a smaller pool of films which may in fact drive prices up. But is it sustainable in the box office is the question.

Here is a shot I took at the Cannes Grand Prix where I was fortunate enough to be guest of Melbourne animator Anthony Lucas. In the pic is Milla Jovovich and Sean Penn. I had an amazing seat. It was really something to see and a very beautiful dress…

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Study your festival
Once accepted and if you’re heading off to represent your film study the festival a bit. Find out how it’s structured and what’s on offer. Where is it close to for good bars, eating and transport. Really take a look at the layout on a map and find out the best way to get between things.

I like to get to festivals at least two days prior to the opening and if you arrive late in the day you really only have one day prior to get a lay of the land. Anyway, I like to:

  • Stock up on food
  • Get a haircut
  • Find the nearest supermarket, bottle shop, chemist, money exchange, tabac and internet cafe
  • Figure out the best way to get around
  • Go to all the venues (or as many as possible) to see where they are and what’s along the way
  • Register
  • Read the program
  • Check my diary
  • Have a drink
  • Take a deep breath.

If you get selected be brave
If you have the cash, go to the festival and learn the ropes of marketing your film – it’s good for you and good for the festival. Both you and them want audiences and media so learn how to drive both. A quick discussion with the festival comms person early can count for a lot and can embed you and your film into the program in very meaningful ways. It’s a very positive thing to do. Think about what you want to do and call them. Don’t be afraid to push a little and ask questions.

Ask the event if you can introduce the film prior to screening. That can be nerve racking but audiences love it and it’s a central confidence-building skill.

If you have a feature or feature documentary, don’t be afraid to ask for a screening fee – all the festival can do is say “no”. If you’re in they like your film and they believe other people will too which means those people are paying which means someone is getting the money…and it might as well be partly you.

With films that festivals screen that are licensed by Australian distributors the distributor will receive 25% of the box office or around $300 minimum guarantee. That’s a fair ask for a filmmaker…remember it’s a business for them and you. One screening fee can bankroll some festival entry fees for you. You lose nothing by asking and it’s well in the bounds of professional conduct.

Make sure your DCP or file works.
DCP drive formats can vary from venue to venue. It sounds like 101 but make sure your drive is compatible and is tested and send some kind of high-quality back up that doesn’t have a watermark. It’s also always good to have one ready to FTP/Drop Box/Vimeo or other download just in case. Make the location of that known. A festival will give you their screening specs – including the kind of format a drive should be in. Give them exactly that.

Don’t think that DCP’s cost a lot of money to create. They don’t and you can do them yourself. I have DCPs from various file formats for the festival in my house regularly (thanks Hudson!) – features, trailers, shorts etc. The software works and is free…here’s but one. Give it a go. I’d obviously suggest investing in something of a higher grade with greater control and functionality but for a quick, dirty and totally viable alternative you can’t miss with the free stuff.

The Revelation Film Festival screens a lot of short films and most of them come to us via Dropbox as .mov files or similar. From there we then make conversions to DCP. In the belly of the beast in delivery we don’t have time to make our own DCPs in house so we need to outsource this work…and that costs a considerable amount of money and opens up a range of logistic and potentially technical issues. It is also amazing how many DCPs we receive on the wrong kind formatted drive. It’s a DCP alright but not all systems are the same. So…make life easy and provide a DCP – even if that is Dropboxed – in the correct format.

Basic stuff but you’ll be amazed at how many times there are issues…that’s why we have a post-production facility on standby in the week prior Rev opening.

People really only want to talk about themselves
That’s really the key. It could perhaps be the key to everything! It’s most certainly the key to conferences, festivals, meetings, small talk, interviews. If ever there was a secret weapon it’s this.

At markets like Berlin or Cannes your meetings with sales agents – on the market floor at least – will be no more than 15 minutes. You need to make those minutes work. If you’re meeting at a trade booth you’ll be surrounded by noise, people, a hundred distractions, most likely Lloyd Kaufman from Troma Films doing some ridiculous stunt, people trying to catch someone’s eye and most likely an either tired or hungover (or both) sales representative.

Keep it short, direct and simple…same applies to any materials you may had over. Know what you’re looking for, from who and why. No time to kick tires. Be interested, interesting and to the point.

The markets are generally made up of the usual suspects in terms of international distributors and sales agents. Don’t wait until the last minute to set up meetings…you can be doing that two months out from the festival. Make early contact – the agents are much more relaxed then. That early introduction counts for a lot. Get that time in the diary early.

A market at Cannes for instance happens in phases. I found that in the first few days agents didn’t want to talk to festivals – the first days are the crucial “sales” days…they’re trying to sell their wares to as many people and for as much money as they can. After about the first or 5 days much of this horse trading is done so I found booking meetings with them in the secondary phase (let’s call it an ancillary phase) was the zone that we could co-exist in. The cultural market is a pick-up for them after primary business was done. If they hadn’t sold the film by then that’s when they look for any other business – and the cultural is that.

There’s three types of people at the markets: buyers, sellers and people squeezing the fruit – like  me. The buyers are distributors, broadcasters etc and sales agents. The sellers are also sales agents and of course you.

As to selling your film to a sales agent, I don’t actually know what phase is the best to approach them. There’s two things here. If your film has a buzz, they’ll come to you. As I’ve never sold a film in this context I’m feeling that you’d hit distributors in phase 1 of the market as they’re looking for content…it’s when cash is being splashed about and most do tend not stick around until the end of the market. Selling to a sales agent I feel phase 2 may be best. If your film has a buzz, the agents have already found you. If you have to do it the hard way I’d tend to do it once they’ve attended to their primary business – selling. Either way set up the meetings well before the festival.

Once you’re had a meeting or at the end of the day get all your business cards together and add them to you electronic contact address book. If you don’t sure enough you’ll lose the card and potentially the contact.

After the festival email all the contacts you’ve received cards for or met and let them know how great it was to meet them and look forward to doing so again.

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An extension of the floor and transitioning from one to another, functions and parties can be lots of fun and you never know where you might end up. They can also be boring…but in any outcome you’re going to have to small talk to get from one side to the other.

There is only one secret here: People only really want to talk about themselves. Let them…it makes it so much easier.

You can learn a lot of little thing that can go into the databank for later conversational use and make you look like you might actually know what you’re talking about. You don’t need to be phoney…phoney is everywhere. People are generally pretty interesting.

I like to ask questions I shouldn’t. “How does that work?” “How much does that cost? “How do you fund that?” “Are you finding that works?” “How do you measure that?”, “What’s your audience?”. They’re good, honest, innocent and interesting questions.

When I do radio interviews about a project I do everything I can not to talk about the project and actually make a real conversation. I’ll tag what I’m doing at the end.

As a side-skill you also have to learn how to look at the room at the same time as you’re talking. Ultimately you and likely them are there for business and they’ll be trying to do the same thing…no point trying to hide it.

Don’t spend your money on plastic shit to give away
There’s too much junk in the world as it is.

I recently saw a photograph on Facebook from a delegate at a conference showing the free stuff they received. It made me feel a bit sad and in the end angry. All the plastic and refined stuff…it’s just not necessary.

I also remember at Cannes a few years ago receiving a rubber hand-grenade which was a promotional thing handed out with a film – very realistic. Trying to get that through an airport post fest might actually succeed in getting you killed. Something like that is also impossible to get rid of even as soon as when it’s handed to you. You can’t put it in a public rubbish bin or just leave it somewhere or even carry it in a bag…at Cannes your bag gets searched often.

Anyway all you need is:

  • …your film on multiple thumb drives – or DVD still as thumbs are so tiny.
  • …a business card.
  • …a pen and paper. They actually work and allow you to hold yourself well…it’s like a lectern when you make a speech…it’s a kind of shield.
  • …a bag.
  • …flyers if you’re promoting a film.
  • …a website.
  • …a small personal portable pre-paid modem – or discrete way of accessing the net different to festival and other WiFi. I always have one in my bag.
  • ….a Vimeo and Facebook presence.
  • …the film or scene clip/trailer on a laptop ready to go at any time.

Remember from my last post you should have been working hard on building a web presence a long time ago.

If you have a meeting with a sales agent where there is a market, go to the stand prior and pick up their catalogue and printed materials. Know what they have and where yours fits.

There is no such thing as a standard deal
You’ll hear “here’s our standard deal” a lot. Don’t be afraid to haggle. It’s expected. But you also need to know what a film is worth and be realistic.

Be organised and use the resources
If you’re lucky enough to be accepted into an international festival that has a national film support agency office present (in this case Screen Australia), use that resource. It’s very capable. They’ve got a nerve centre/office set up just for you. At Cannes it’s perfect for meetings and if you keep your ear to the ground there’s much otherwise secret information that can be heard. Let them know early that you’re attending or selected and make sure you attend the various functions on offer. These are great to meet other people like you, share stories and make contacts. You can’t just rock up and expect the door to be open though. Let them know in advance and apply to them for funds to attend also.

I saw a funny thing at IDFA one time. There was a bar that was like the festival after-hub. Always full, great happy hour…everyone went throughout the day and night but it was public. One group basically claimed a table for the entire event. One or all of them (6 or so) were there all the time with their stuff on it. Flyers’ drink coasters, computers etc. It’s a trade booth/office in the heart of the event without paying a red cent. Personally I thought it was a bit too much at times but there was something there you had to admire – the guts and glory. It’s what it’s about.

Keep yourself pretty
I know it’s a huge temptation and everyone else may seem to be doing it but don’t get (visibly) drunk at festival parties…it’s the way you’ll always be remembered. Being hung-over takes way your power and motivation and you’ll need that.

Get drunk on the plane on the way home. You deserve it.

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