Standing Out From the Crowd

Insider secrets from festival directors

IF THERE’S ANY CONSENSUS ON what leads to success in the festival circuit, it’s this: you have to make a great movie. Cynics lament the star-catering and commercialism festivals give in to these days, but each year crops of virtual unknowns manage to find their way from festivals to distribution, proving that great movies still do get noticed. Let’s assume that you’ve made one of said great movies. Let’s assume further that you start submitting to festivals, only to find that there are more great movies than festivals have room for. How do you beat the odds? Festival organizers agree that small nuances in your presentation are worth paying attention to—and can help you gain an edge when competing for that coveted slot.

Every moviegoer knows how expectations can affect the enjoyment of movies. How a film festival submission is packaged can do the same. Sometimes the most obvious details are easiest to miss, which can trigger those little “red flags” in a programmer’s sub-conscious. Gregory von Hausch, of the Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival, is continually surprised by the number of moviemakers who simply ignore the basics. “I hate to sound like a college professor, but the application is important,” he says. “It might not make or break you, but an application that comes in a file folder, with its name on the tab, a label, and contact info, is off to a great start.”

Von Hausch adds that omissions and misinformation only create more obstacles in your movie’s trip through the administrative maze. His advice is echoed twofold by festival director Barbara Morgan of the Austin Film Festival. “If all the required information isn’t with the submission, it can get lost in the shuffle, especially if you’re waiting until the deadline.” Morgan believes that “small” detail is often overlooked. “Do not wait until the deadline,” she urges. “If you send it in at the last minute, your film is being watched with everybody else’s. It’s in at the point where people are bleary-eyed.”

Of course, moviemakers are notorious perfectionists, and many shutter at the thought of submitting a less than perfect rough cut. With that, Morgan says, it might be worth it to cheat a little, if it means getting your submission in early. “As long as it has all the elements-all the sound and music, maybe not the final music, but music you can use to sell the story. You can always fudge with it later, before the final print.” She cautions, though, not to go too far in the other direction by sending in something half-finished. “That’ll shoot you in the foot,” she says.

As far as presentation goes, festival organizers agree that adding an extra promotional item-something thematic, like a box of cigars to promote your Fidel Castro biopic-doesn’t hurt (though such tactics aren’t generally thought to make a huge difference). “It might mean somebody remembers your title a little longer,” adds Morgan.

Festival director Paul Marchant, of the Atlanta Film Festival, adds that a good, old-fashioned endorsement goes a long way in the world of first impressions. “A letter of recommendation, front and center, by a noted director, producer, or industry professional,” he says. “That’s always first rate.” Marchant also stresses not to underestimate the importance of a good-quality photo for the festival’s program guide, which extends to its website, the local press, and so on. In short, he believes it pays to take extra care in putting together a professional press kit.

An example of a director who used this strategy is Mulletville’s Tony Leahy, who made his own DVDs and submitted directly to distribution companies—landing himself a deal with Hart Sharp Video. “The better you, yourself, can make the overall package look, the easier it is for festivals and distributors to envision a finished product,” says editor Michael Cross, who helped handle Mulletville’s promotion. “Just the fact that it’s in video stores now, is so amazing. It makes all the extra effort we put in worth it.”

Naturally, it’s good to know how much is too much, and festival applicants definitely want to watch out for presentation overkill. Marchant remarks that, in the race to “stand out,” simplicity is fast becoming a lost art. “Don’t overextend yourself by packing your kit with a 20-page synopsis and life-history bios.” he adds. “That can exhaust interest quickly.”

Executive director Peter Scarlet, of the Tribeca Film Festival, has a similar stance. He stresses that an artist’s creativity should be poured into the movie and not the package. “Forget the bells and whistles,” he says. “The whipped cream and Roman candles that come with your tape, the programmers won’t even see all that.” A seasoned veteran of festival programming, Scarlet spent nearly two decades as creative director for the San Francisco International Film Festival before finding his current home at Tribeca. He’s seen his share of over-the-top marketing stunts and often recalls a particular incident when the subject comes up. “Years ago, in San Francisco, we premiered Madonna’s Truth or Dare. The publicity kid included a small plastic file with his pubic hair in it. It was good for a laugh at the office, but that’s not why we showed the film.”

Scarlet is firm in his assertion that getting into a festival will ultimately come down to the product. But what happens after you get accepted? According to most festival insiders, then comes the hard part.

Launching a campaign to get your movie noticed is a fierce undertaking, and moviemakers have to be prepared to do much of their own legwork. There are no hard and fast rules when devising a promotional strategy, and often it’s just a matter of knowing who your target audience is. In Ft. Lauderdale, von Hausch believes aggressive networking is a vital aspect of promotion across the board. “When filmmakers come to town, when they blanket the bars and bookstores with postcards and flyers, when they talk to non-fest people at their hotel and on the beach, they get so much more out of their participation.” Additionally, von Hausch stresses that it’s imperative for an artist to act as his or her own publicist, a suggestion backed by Marchant. “Promotional materials are a must,” he says. “And send them well in advance of the screening. Also, it’s a good idea to send a separate press release to local press outlets, as well as email newsgroups who may find your film of interest. Do a bit of your own niche marketing.”

At Tribeca, Scarlet thinks it’s best to work directly with the festival and discuss how the film can best be promoted. “This has to be taken on a case by case basis,” he says. “For example, maybe the film is about a grandmother who’s a stripper, and for opening night she and her 90-year-old cronies can come and dance at the premiere.” Scarlet adds it’s important to remember that self-promotion is part of what a moviemakers career has become, which reaches beyond the festival circuit.

As both a festival director and a filmmaker, Morgan has seen the issue from both sides. She believes that moviemakers rarely do enough to promote their movies and have a tendency to expect festivals to do all the work. “In Austin, we do our part by working with our promotional partners and the filmmakers, setting up radio and TV interviews, but then we’ve had filmmakers turn around and say ‘Well, I don’t want to get up at 6 in the morning to do a TV show.’” In turn, Morgan adds, those who make themselves a presence at the event are much more likely to have people in the seats when their movie plays.

For many creative types, of course, networking isn’t a natural inclination, and Morgan understands that. She offers this advice to the moviemaker who may not be a born salesperson: “Bring someone with you who is,” she says. “Get a mouthpiece for your film. We had a guy last year who brought one of his actors. That actor talked to everyone.

Few ventures require more collaborative effort than making movies, and the human interaction doesn’t end when the camera stops rolling. Film festival organizers agree, the best way to get the word out about your movie is to utilize every possible outlet at your disposal. “Outside of that,” Marchant adds. “Nothing generates a buzz like getting a couple of your buddies to post tickets to your screening on ebay for an exuberant amount of money.”


Originally published in MovieMaker magazine, spring 2004

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