Didn’t Get into Sundance? Don’t Despair

Helpful hints on how to market and distribute a film without the platform of a top tier festival

The Sundance Film Festival and Slamdance Film Festival announced their 2011 slates several weeks ago.  

These announcements have traditionally been a nerve wracking/depressing time for independent filmmakers who, in the past, have put so much stock into premiere film festivals like Sundance.  

They have traditionally done this because it has been believed that a premiere festival can either sell your film for lots of money (or at least enough to pay back your investors) or potentially launch your career (but normally only if the first one happened).

For the thousands of films that do not get into Sundance, or any other premiere festival, the world is a much better place than it was just five years ago. 

Here are six thoughts on the importance of getting into a premiere film festival for your film's distribution and marketing strategy. 

1. Premiere festivals are not the only gatekeepers to independent film anymore.  In fact there are no gatekeepers.  The knowledge and the technology exist so that anyone can release their films themselves.   I don't think I need to elaborate on this anymore – right?

2. Getting into a premiere film festival is not a distribution and marketing strategy.  It is common knowledge now that only a small percentage of films that go to Sundance, Toronto, SXSW, Cannes and Berlin end up with traditional all rights deals that make any kind of financial sense.   98% of filmmakers at least still end up being responsible for the distribution and marketing of their film anyway.  The less you mentally rely on what I call the Festival Acquisition Model, the better off you will be.    Have a plan for your film that doesn't rely on Fox Searchlight giving you $10 million for it – even if you do get into Sundance.

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3.Incorporate festivals into your larger release strategy.  This will vary for every film.  But just because you didn't get into Sundance doesn't mean that there aren't other, perhaps more appropriate festivals for your film.    These festivals can be worked into a robust Live Event/Theatrical release for your film that you coordinate with your other rights, as well as your audience outreach and engagement.   There are a plethora of good festivals that are connected with their community and/or provide great experiences for filmmakers throughout the world.

4. Just because your film didn't get into Sundance or any festival does not mean that it is not a good film.   There are many reasons for this.   Festivals and programmers have particular tastes and perhaps your film didn't suit them.  (Did you take a look at what that festival tends to program and see if your film fit?) In addition – they might have loved your film, but didn't feel that it fit into that year's program for one reason or another.   Some films are just not "festival films" and need to find their audience in different ways.

5. Festivals used to be one of the few ways for independent films and filmmakers to connect and engage with audiences.  Now there are not only a myriad of ways to do this – primarily through the web – but relying on festivals to do this work for you is not reality.  In other words they will do some of this work – but you are crazy to rely solely on them. And, you should be doing this work well before you get to your first festival anyway.

6. I would take the time to reevaluate your approach and your film.  Many films are submitted to festivals and released into distribution before they are really finished.  Have you screened your film to people outside of immediate friends and family?  Have you screened your film to a large audience?   What was the reaction?  Do you need to do more work on the film – shorten it, make it more understandable, make it funnier, scarier etc?

Are you submitting it to festivals that support the kind of film you have made?

Are you submitting it at the end of the submissions process when programmers are deluged with films?  Or are you submitting it earlier in the process when more programmers will have a chance to see your film and perhaps champion it? 

In sum – more filmmakers are finding distribution and marketing paths for their films (in other words – connecting with audiences) outside of the Festival Acquisition System than are doing it inside of this system.