You have to wonder what’s going through a filmmaker’s head when they choose to burn their relationship with a film festival because they don’t like the venue of choice for their film, or the quality of the projector or the size of the screen or the fact that it’s not a surround sound auditorium – or one of the hundreds of other reasons I’ve seen filmmakers go crazy at festivals. As an alumni of some amazing film festivals, on top of being a contributing programmer and director of several festivals here in the city, I feel I have enough experience on the issues of filmmaker/festival etiquette. Over the summer I’m going to publish a series of articles here on Film Anthropology to talk about my experience as a filmmaker working in the festival circuit on both sides of the festival system. I want to elaborate on how filmmakers should work with the festivals to make their screenings top notch – but to also help them understand when they are asking for too much. The goal here is to learn how to take what the festival is offering and to make the best out of it.
With the exception of only a handful of festivals, most film fests operate on a break even budget. This is why most of them are registered non-profit entities. Some don’t even have 501c3 status because they cannot afford to go non-profit. Many first time filmmakers entering the festival circuit are unaware of this and are often baffled by how so many festivals don’t have the bling and media attention as some of the majors like Tribeca or Sundance. The festivals I primarily work with are boutique at best, or local screening series’ that specialize in the exhibition of actual independent cinema.
Yesterday we wrapped the 7th Annual Manhattan Film Festival, by far one of the toughest I’ve worked thus far. MFF is one of the most filmmaker friendly festivals I’ve encountered, which is why, after attending as a filmmaker last year, I jumped on board to help them out this year. Last year the festival had a crop of really amazing personalities and this year was no different. The films and filmmakers were absolutely remarkable. This year, MFF was the first festival for a lot of new filmmakers and so a lot of confusions came up from filmmakers who had never been involved in the festival circuit. While this is something I am proud of, it’s also the cause of a lot of problems because there isn’t a concise expectations manual for first time filmmakers and what could go down at any given time at a film festival. With that, keep in mind that no two festivals are the same and so you’ll need to use the opening couple of days to get to know the event, the planners and volunteers and gauge the best way to “work” the festival that your screening at.
In this article I want to talk about information dissemination. It’s important to understand that most boutique festivals are run by two or three people tops, with a huge dependency on volunteers. Many break even at the end of the festival, others go into the red and are often financed by the organizer’s personal funds. Because of this there is very little resources available to disseminate information to the public on all the various aspects of the event. This includes the screening schedule, filmmaker PR, all the various venues that the festival requires for the screenings, panel discussions and so forth. This is why many festivals look for filmmakers who are working heavily to promote their work and their screenings. One of the things fests look for when programming are filmmakers in tune with the latest social media or have gained attention in other ways, either in the press or in the blogosphere. Obviously this isn’t make or break – I see plenty of films this year that haven’t been covered at all by the media, but it’s important that a good number of the filmmakers understand something about promotion.
This also ties into festival communications. Don’t expect the organizers to get back to you off the bat, and when they do, don’t expect the answer you want. While festivals do their best to please the artists they program, it’s not always possible to keep 163 people equally happy. Everyone has their own ideas about their work and what a festival should be and it takes a special kind of person to accept a festival as it is and just roll with it. This is what I call “working the festival”. Being able to work a festival regardless of its resources and operations is the kind of person a filmmaker operating in the circuit should become – because when you start to stress out because a festival isn’t allowing things to go your way, you’ll just end up making a fool of yourself.