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Ben Yennie: 7 Film Festival Myths and Gotchas

Since it’s Festivals month at ProductionNext, we thought we’d give a guide to our readers who are approaching completion of their first feature film on how best to use festivals in order to get the most out of them.  We’re not trying to replicate the 50 film festivals worth the entry fee in this blog, more to provide a meaningful framework to help you get it done, as such I’ll be breaking this into three separate blogs.  The first (this one) will be setting expectations and strategies when approaching your festival run.  The second being the broad sorts of festivals you should focus on, and the final being a few different festivals you should strongly consider. 

General advice and Strategies

1. Don’t expect to get distribution out of your festival run.

I know, I know. That’s the #1 reason you’re doing this, right? well, you may want to examine other methods to get distribution, as in the vast majority of cases, you will not get a distribution deal out of your festival run.  If you want distribution, you’re better off finding a producer’s rep or going to a film market.

2. You probably won’t get into Sundance.

I hate to say it, but if you’re a first-time filmmaker you probably aren’t going to get into Sundance, or any tier 1 festival for that matter.  Only about 1% of films that submit to sundance are accepted.  Unfortunately, that’s not the worst part.  Generally, the only way you can get in these days is to know a programmer, as the vast majority of films that are declined are declined in the first stage of the screening process.  Somewhere around 90% of the films that are declined are declined by an intern doing the first round of screening and looking for any possible reason to not let the film through. The majority of the films that make it in are submitted directly to a programmer. If you can’t do that, your odds of getting might be even less than 1%

3. Be VERY wary of any festival that offers a distribution deal as part of their festival.

Most of the time the festivals that offer this are just going to either aggregate your film themselves and take a huge slice of the pie or use it to bolster their own subscription channel.  If it’s the former, you have to read the terms VERY carefully. If it’s the latter, you need to keep in mind that taking the deal will likely close off bigger deals like Netflix, HBO, and others even if it’s non-exclusive.  Those platforms cannot have it streamed on any other platforms prior to releasing the film. There’s some wiggle room for transactional deals, but that’s not generally how these film festival distribution deals operate.

That being said, some festivals will actually connect you with real distributors.  Just do your diligence.

4. Use Festivals to grow the profile of your film and connect with your audience.

Given the current public perception of independent film, playing in festivals can often make your film feel much more “real.” As such the job of connecting with your audience becomes easier, and that’s vital. In order to make money in film these days, you need to cultivate and engage with your audience.  Festivals can not only help provide validation for you and your film, but they can also help you find your audience during screenings.  Of course, that doesn’t happen without work from you.

5. You’ll probably have to fill seats yourself.

Generally, film festivals don’t fill the theater without your help, and just playing at the festival isn’t always enough to put butts in seats.  If you get into a festival, you’re still going to have to get the word out about your screening if you want the chance to find and connect with your audience.

6. Don’t play too many festivals.

You can have too much of a good thing.  Your goal with festivals is not to perpetually screen your film for organizations that don’t share the profit with you.  If you want to make money from your feature (which you should) you need to transition from free screenings to selling units and using distribution channels that you can monetize.  If you play too many festivals, you may oversaturate the market so that everyone who would be interested in seeing your film already did before you made any money from it.

7. The most important thing to get out of a festival is the press.

As I said before, the number 1 goal of film festivals is validation and finding an audience.  The most cost-effective way of doing that tends to be getting press coverage and reviews of your film.  In order to do that, you’ll need to hustle reporters and make friends at the press office.  

Thanks so much for reading this!  Check back next week for more on how to plan out your film festival run, and a general strategy for the sorts of film festivals you should submit to.  In the meantime, if you’re at the beginning stages of your first feature, next feature, or even a short you should DEFINITELY check out our platform.  We don’t just write rather verbose blogs, we also provide software that can help transform your production company from a person or a few with a camera to a burgeoning studio by handling all the logistical work so you can focus on making better movies.  Check it out below.


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