What We've Learnt about Festivals - so far...
Now that we've finished our baby, we've sent it off to the university of short films: international film festivals. Submissions is a rather costly, expensive, laborious and frankly unpleasant process - much like rehab I think the first step is acknowledging that. But it is of course a path to potentially life-changing opportunity, and we never questioned whether we'd want to give our short a festival run.
Although I've dipped my toes into the festival circuit before (literally by applying to 2 London-based festivals, screening at them, not winning an award I was nominated for, then going home for ice cream), THE TRIP is our first real collective proper 'festival' experience. We've had to do a lot of research and have learnt a lot already, so I thought it may be useful to put our thoughts down for any fellow short filmmakers out there.
So here's what we've learnt so far...
1. Attending a talk about festivals is extremely useful
Even before finishing our film, Tim and I made sure to attend a full day of talks about festivals and short film distribution. Living in London we were lucky enough to attend the BAFTA: ShortSighted day, supported by ShootingPeople. This was honestly so useful- there were Q&As with festival programmers, a talk from the VP of short film distributor Shorts International, an interview with short film BAFTA winner and director Michael Lennox on deliverables and more. I've attended these sorts of things before, and really find that each time you learn something new even if the topics of discussion are the same. If nothing else, being in a room full of other short filmmakers gives you reassurance that other people are dealing with this administrative nightmare too (it can feel pretty lonely when it's just you and your producer versus the internet), and that no one really knows what they're doing. Also they gave us free notebooks and personally I LOVE stationary so that made the entry fee worth it alone.
The biggest taking I got from the day? Festivals are ultimately at the discrimination of the programmer - there's no magic remedy to getting in bar making a damn good film that fits their programme and will draw audiences.
2. Don't put your film online - yet
For the majority of shorts, you're shooting yourself in the foot if you put the film online right away. You're immediately disqualifying your movie from a majority of festivals, and what are you actually going to get out of it? Your friends can see the film sure, but why not just send them a private Vimeo link for now? There are some shorts with 'viral' potential that may do much better online than at festivals, but personally I think it's worth at least blocking out a few months to give festivals a shot, and then popping it online to rest when you're done. You also don't want to lock yourself out of any distribution deals which, whilst they won't make you rich, are an important 2nd life for shorts.
Personally we're putting on a private screening for cast & crew, friends, family and a few industry connections that we have. That way those close to us can see the movie, and it also makes a bit of an event out of it. By the time you're in the last stages of post it's likely that your full cast and crew haven't been together for a while, so we hope that it'll be good for everyone to check in and celebrate together (in a responsible, adult manner...).
3. Market the sh*t out of it
I honestly don't think you can do enough to market your film, particularly these days. Make a teaser trailer, make a full length trailer, make a poster. Create a Facebook page and keep it updated, and a Twitter and Instagram too if you've got the energy. Festivals want films that already have an audience - they're ultimately about putting bums on seats after all - and so you're not going to harm your chances of acceptance by growing your reach before you submit/screen. It's also nice for friends and family to see these previews of your movie - it gives them some reassurance that you're actually making something real and not just ducking out of social events and spending all your free time "working" for the sake of it.
You've also got to make a press kit (we'll upload ours here later in the life of our short) for a bunch of festivals and it's worth spending time on this. For example we sent interview questions to key cast and crew, as well as including production design sketches, visual references and on set stills. Don't worry if it's too late and you don't have all of this stuff, but try and work with what you have. No one's going to think your film's a big deal unless you make them. Put effort into making all of your materials look part of a coherent whole that the festival programmer will enjoy reading. It's also worth having a selection of key stills and pictures of the director and producer saved as Jpegs on your computer, as a lot of festival submission websites will ask for these. I would suggest keeping it humble though - I've read some press packs where there's a 10 A4 page interview with the director, for example. Thrilling if it's Lynch or Wes that made the short, less interesting if it's Bob from Northampton who's just finished his first movie (...I'm sort of from Northampton and so can make that joke).
Some festivals will ask for your press pack upon applying, whilst the majority want it after you've been accepted. Either way, it can't hurt to have everything ready to go.
4. Make a spreadsheet. Really.
For a while I thought we could survive with a neat email to do list of which festivals to attend. This is just not possible. I read the other day that there's over 3,000 film festivals out there. After having trawled through extensive lists of them, I feel like I can pretty much confirm this. Really the only way you're going to have any sort of idea where you've submitted, what deadlines are coming up and how much of your income you're spending on this is by writing it down.
Here's a preview of our submission spreadsheet. We keep it on Google Drive so that we can update it from anywhere, and both access it at all times (I'm not sponsored by Google I promise - I would have a much nicer flat if I was). Try and work out your own system for making information easy to digest - I try and put upcoming deadlines in red, and highlight whole rows in red or orange if they're coming up soon. Make sure you've noted down the premiere policies so you don't get yourself in knots; we've purposefully decided to wait till next year for some festivals that don't have a premiere policy as there's another festival in that city that we're targeting that occurs later in the calendar year. Then when you've submitted somewhere, mark it in a different colour and note down your submission reference. It's boring and it's long but it's important.
The best way to approach festivals is from a 12 month calendar, starting with when you film is absolutely completely 100% finished. Every article I've read and talk I've attended says don't submit a rough cut, even if the festival rules say it's ok, unless the festival programmer is a great friend of yours and you have a history of making incredible movies in a short space of time. Consider where you'd like your world premiere to be as this is important, as well as any national premieres, and then just break it down month by month. Where are you going to apply in July? What about August? Try and get your shit together as early as possible to avoid late nights or close shaves, or eye-watering late fees. Everything I've read or heard says to submit as early as possible. To be honest this is the cheapest way of doing it as 'earlybird' fees are often significantly cheaper, but there's also some theory that programmers are more likely to choose your film if they've still got slots open. It makes sense. If you're auditioning for a play and someone incredible comes in the first 5 minutes, you're going to have them stuck in your head for the next 5 hours and might not pay as much attention to later performers. Same logic. Don't make things harder for yourself. If you're on the very latest deadline for a festival then wait till next year - most festivals will give you a bit of leeway in completion date so you can tend to submit a year later if there's no premiere policy.
5. Work out what you want
With there being so many festivals out there, it's a minefield figuring out where the hell to apply. The conclusion Tim and I've come to is to first target the bulk of the big boys that are awards qualifiers. If you get a specific award at a specific festival then you qualify for the Oscar long-list, and if you get screened at either one A List festival or 2+ B List festivals as per BAFTA's list you can get on the long list for one of those statues. Obviously it's a hugely long shot for any filmmaker to target awards like this (frankly you shouldn't be making movies for award's sake in the first place anyway) but someone's got to win so why not think positive? Regardless of their qualifying status, these festivals have been chosen by the academies because they're top quality, so you may as well give it a crack.
From here onwards, I'd advise a sprinkling of mid-tier festivals - the British Council lists a great selection of worthy festivals here. Then go local - festivals are (apparently) much more likely to program your film if they think you can actually attend. Also if you fit in any niche then play up to that like crazy. I am a woman so thanks to years of Hollywood misogyny I'm eligible for a load of festivals trying to even out the gender gap. There are festivals targeted at LGBT movies/filmmakers, same for ethnic minorities and so on. Then there's genre fests - horrors, for example, I believe do much better on the horror-specific festival circuit than mainstream festivals. Think about it: if a festival has 5 slots for horror movies, you're already limiting your chances. If a horror-specific festival has 40, your chances are a whole lot brighter.
6. Don't be a dick in your cover letter
A lovely last minute surprise for Tim and I after thinking we had everything ready to submit our film as finding out that pretty much every festival these days wants you to write them a unique cover letter when applying. Seeing as Tim takes several days to fine-tune any piece of writing he's involved in this wasn't the best news for our schedule. But we plough on.
I've received mixed advice re cover letters, but the upshot is this: keep it short, keep it friendly, don't kiss too much ass but also don't sound too much up your own backside. Introduce your film briefly (remember they've got tons of press material they can read through if they want - this is a cover letter not a press pack), say why you care about being screened at that particular festival and whether it would be a premiere in that particular country if you get accepted. If you enjoyed a particular film that the festival screened in recent years, or if you've attended before yourself then say. If you're actually likely to turn up this year then say. If your mum's auntie's cousin's brother works for the festival then say. Otherwise, keep it simple and avoid shooting yourself in the foot.
7. There is a lot of waiting, and you will probably get rejected when you do hear
Not to put a downer on the whole thing, but word on the street is you're likely to get rejected for the bulk of fests you apply to. Frankly, mid-top tier festivals can only program about 3% of the submissions that they receive, so someone's got to miss out this time around. I'm told, though, that this genuinely doesn't necessarily mean that your film is bad. There can be so many reasons - they've already got a movie about introvert grape farmers that year, or it's between your 30 minute short or 3 x10 minute shorts to fill a pre-feature screening gap. I'm the worst person in the world for handling any criticism or rejection so I'm not fully warranted to provide comforting advice on this topic, but the best I can say is that if I can handle it, then you can too. (We actually haven't heard back from any of our submissions yet - we started applying at the end of Jan and won't hear anything until at least April. So maybe I won't handle it. Maybe I'll go off the chain. Maybe I'll buy a leather jacket and a motorbike and move to Santa Fe and work in a gas station and slowly develop an addiction to cough sweets and wind up in hospital and never make another movie EVER AGAIN. ...But I reckon I'll be ok).
I've also heard of movies that do awfully for the first 6 months of their submissions and then suddenly do really well and everyone's after them. Then there's movies which are a hit at Cannes but get rejected from almost everywhere else, or do well at a load of local fests but have zero traction beyond the pond. It's unpredictable so you may as well just enjoy any success you do have any roll with the punches.
8. Remember this is not why you make movies
This one's from my own head, not the words of others. Honestly I think the most important part of the whole whirlwind of film festivals is to remember that this is all a bit of fun. It's lovely to get accepted into a festival you respect and it's extra lovely to win an award (and that keeps your parents off your back asking when you're going to get a proper job for another year). But above all, this is all superfluous. You make movies to tell stories, to make audiences have feels, to get across your point of view (and to one day be on a yacht in Cannes with Eddie Redmayne.)
Don't let it get to you because, frankly, if the film isn't working on the festival circuit you can go back to the drawing board and make another one that's better. Focus your energy on being creative not worrying what a programmer the other side of the world thinks of your movie.
- Sophie King, director of THE TRIP (2016)