Advice to Filmmakers Heading for Their Festival Premiere

Know your film, know your goals, know your audience

This article is for those who got in to Slamdance or Sundance, or will be getting into similar sales oriented prominent festivals in the coming months. First off, congratulations — you got into one of the premiere film festivals in the world for independent film.

This post was inspired by the recent completion of the first year of the newly formed Independent Filmmaker Labs run by IFP that I helped convert into completion distribution and marketing labs. (I plan to write more pieces about what we either learned as a group in the lab — or were stressing to the participating filmmakers). To be honest, this advice applies to all filmmakers — whether or not they are going to a premiere festival. 

1. Know yourself, know your film. When you are accepted into one of these prestigious festivals, you are accosted by many people who want to help you sell your film. You should have a sense of who you are and what your film is in order to evaluate what you are being told by those who want to help you.

In order to do this you must:

2. Know your goals. This is one of my mantras — in order to achieve your goals, or know if someone else is going to achieve them, you must know what your goals are. Not every filmmaker has the same goals. Often different members of the same team have different goals. It is important to discuss this in advance so that you are not operating at cross purposes. As important — not having defined goals will cause you to be swayed by other people's agendas. Some common goals to consider — and they are often in conflict with each other:

A. Money aka Fortune.

B. Career launch aka Fame.

C. As wide an audience as possible.

D. To change the world.

E. To develop a long term relationship with a fan base. 

3. Know your film. Consider the types of films that are selling in this tighter marketplace. Is your film realistically one of them? While there are always flukes (don't plan on being a fluke!) — if it is not (and most films do not make big sales at festivals) what is your alternative? Which brings me to:

4. Have a distribution and marketing plan before you bring on representation. It is important for you and your immediate team to have an optimal plan for how you wish to get your film out into the world and the understanding of what it will take to do this.

This plan is not "sell my film." This plan is specifically how you would release into each market, how you are going to engage with your audience and motivate them to attend, buy, watch your film. It won't be your final thoughts on this subject – but you need to start with some sense of what is the best path for your film. 

With this you will be able to evaluate what others tell you about what is best for your film, not just as you evaluate representatives, but also when you evaluate any potential offers.

5. Ask your potential representatives how they will help you achieve your plan. Is an all rights deal best for your film? If perhaps it is best for your film, and you don't attain it, what other options exist for your film and how will they help you achieve those?

6. Know your audience. This should be part of your M&D plan but it is so important that I felt it should be broken out. Be as specific as possible — not large demographics — but identifiable core and niche audiences. This will help you answer part 3 and help you be realistic about potential sales. It will also help you talk articulately to potential partners about your film.

7. Engage your audience. Your premiere festival will be one of the moments when your film will be known to audiences around the world, perhaps the most publicity your film will ever have. Don't waste this spotlight. Have a way to communicate with people interested in your film. Have an engaging website that allows people to connect with you. One of the lab films that is in World Dramatic Competition at Sundance "Kinyarwanda" has been working on their website and Facebook page for several months now.

8. Vet any potential distribution and marketing partners (and this includes your festival representation) in the following two ways:

A. Does the deal with them make financial sense?

B. Does the entity have a good track record with filmmakers? Research, inform yourself, ask for a list of filmmakers they have worked with and call them. Ask around. 

9. Have a plan, part 2: Since you most likely will be continuing on the festival circuit – and if you don't sell your film to a major distributor — how will you coordinate those festivals into the broader release of your film? Who can you meet at your premiere festival who can help you with this type of release. Be proactive — go meet them.

10. Conserve your resources. Don't shoot all of your distribution and marketing budget at the festival. Most likely you will need substantial resources to release your film, be aware of this. Make deals with publicists and other vendors, do what you can with small means. Tiny Furniture got very far with a Xerox machine and a few staple guns.

Finally, educate yourself. Read. Go to Ted Hope's blog Truly Free Film, Sheri Candler's site, the Filmmaker Magazine Blog, and Brian Newman's Springboard Media for a start. Much of what I mention above and how to do it are also covered in my book, "Think Outside the Box Office."