I’ve been fortunate to have my work screened at some pretty amazing festivals. Thin Line in Texas. The London Underground Film Festival. And most recently at TRIFI in my home state of Washington.
But I’ve also been turned down by a few that I thought would be a sure thing.
So why a thumbs-up from one, and a rejection from another? And even if you do make it into a festival, why do some films get all the attention while yours is virtually ignored? What’s the secret formula for film fest success?
I decided to go to the source and find out. And called up Lauren Wissot. Lauren is a feature programmer for Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas. As well as a contributing writer for Filmmaker Magazine.
I asked Lauren to skip the polite advice. And to give us a reality check instead. And came to the conclusion that both filmmakers and festivals need to evolve to be successful. And to stay relevant.
Kelly Hughes: We can’t ignore that there is a glut of product out there. So many movies. But there’s a lot of festivals too. And I think a lot of filmmakers are getting lost in the crowd.
Lauren Wissot: Absolutely. One of my close friends said, “The world needs another film festival like it needs another strip mall.” There’s way too many film festivals out there.
KW: So what should we do?
LW: You really have to be specific and target yourself. You have to be strategic now. You can’t just say, I’m gonna play SXSW. Well good luck. What are you going to do when you get there? It’s not just enough to be at SXSW. What’s your strategy? I think that’s been the problem. People have been going to these festivals and thinking their job is done. It isn’t done. That’s where the job starts.
KH: Say you luck out and you get into SXSW. What do the successful people do to promote themselves nowadays?
LW: First of all, be one of those buzzed about films with a big star. But if that’s not the case, then you’ve got to do your research. See who you can get to come out to see your film.
KH: How about at your festival? What are the successful people doing who get remembered and make deals afterward?
LW: You have to realize not every festival is a market. If you’re at Sundance you’re going to have a market. Hot Springs isn’t really a market. It’s more of a perceived thing. We’re the oldest non-fiction film festival in the country. In North America for that matter. And we’re also an Academy Awards qualifier for short films. But I don’t think people are going to Hot Springs to make a market deal. Telluride’s also like that. It’s laid back. A lot of those films already have their deals made.
KH: Filmmakers also enter festivals just to get a few laurels for their posters. To show that they have a track record. Is there still value in that?
LW: Once again I think you have to be strategic. Some filmmakers say, Hey, I’ve been in all these festivals. But big deal. What festivals were you playing? As a programmer I’m most focused on quality over quantity. I don’t care that you played twelve festivals. If you played twelve mediocre festivals that doesn’t tell me anything about your film. All it tells me is, Oh. You probably couldn’t get into Sundance. You have to be careful how you use those laurels. And make sure these are quality festivals. And don’t play everything.
KH: When I was in the London Analogue Festival last year, it was more of an art event. They had still photography. Workshops. Do you like when film screenings are included as part of other types of events? Do you like that trend?
LW: I think it’s necessary. I think it’s the way it’s going to go from now on. The majority of my films at Hot Springs have some event attached. We’ve had concerts by documentary subjects. We’ve had art exhibits. Look at my 13 Reasons blog post (http://beyondthegreendoor.blogspot.com/2014/10/13-reasons-hot-springs-documentary-film.html). I literally had thirteen events attached to film screenings. So I actually think that is the wave of the future.
KH: Don’t you think that’s why SXSW took off? Because it started as more of a music festival and then added film?
LW: Absolutely. They were very smart about doing what they did. Filmmakers have to separate themselves from the pack. And film festivals have to do the same. You can have a festival and show a bunch of films. And everyone’s going to be like, Oh. Wow. Maybe that worked twenty-five years ago when there were half as many film festivals. But not now.
KH: And even SXSW…
LW: Even SXSW is getting to that point. SXSW may have been special up till a few years ago. But a lot of festivals are copying them now.
KH: Are we going to see more niche festivals? That’s been working well for horror films. Horror was overlooked by a lot of traditional festivals. So people created festivals just for that genre. Not every festival can cater to a niche. But don’t you think niche is the trend?
LW: I think it almost has to be because, in society, we’re overwhelmed with information. There’s still a place for Toronto International Film Festival. But niche is important if you’re smaller.
KH: What’s a bigger festival that’s doing it right?
LW: I’m a big fan of the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. They do an amazing job. And they try to have their finger on everything. And that’s a lot to cover. But they do. I prefer quality over quantity. Whatever you’re going to do, just do it right.
KH: Since you made the transition from writing about festivals to programming festivals, what do you see as the biggest mistake filmmakers make in sabotaging their chances of either getting into a festival, or, once they’re in it, not having a successful screening?
LW: I think it all comes down to gratitude.
KH: What frustrates you most about filmmakers?
LW: It really boggles my mind how many people don’t know the market for their films. They automatically think, Well, I’ll apply to Sundance. Your chances of getting into Sundance are basically non-existent. Why are you doing this? Do you know someone at Sundance? Don’t waste your money by just randomly sending your film out to anything.
KH: Entry fees can really add up too.
LW: This reminds me of a documentary we received. It was shot in Santa Fe. It was about an iconic Santa Fe artist. And they did not even apply to the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Or any film festivals in New Mexico. And I thought, this is crazy. This is a Santa Fe film. You would pack in an audience. Almost guaranteed. Why are you so intent on targeting Hot Springs? You really have to target what’s right for your film.
KH: When choosing a film for your festival, does it ever tip the scales when the filmmakers can guarantee they will attend?
LW: No. Because a lot of filmmakers do that. Are you going to bring me something bigger than that? I’ve had filmmakers bring me concerts. Are you bringing me musicians and a band that are going to play? Then let’s talk. If you’re going to bring me that, a whole big extravaganza, then yeah. If you’re just going to show up for your film, then probably not.
KH: How can people use a film festival as one aspect of a film release? When people are in your festival, do they plan things in nearby cities to take advantage of a mini-run of their film?
LW: Not always. Surprisingly enough. I think it’s all about location. For example, right now I’m covering Doc NYC for Filmmaker Magazine. Well, if your movie is appearing there, or in another NYC festival, there’s your New York premiere right there. That’s a big prize. You can say you played New York. Even if you didn’t have a theatrical release in New York.
KH: What about targeting college towns? Ann Arbor, Boulder, places like that? Those aren’t always the biggest cities. But they’ve got the audiences that create word of mouth.
LW: I think you’re right. If you’re going to target university towns, I think it depends on the film. If it has a certain following in a certain area of the country then hit it. I also know filmmakers who have successfully used Tugg.com to arrange screenings in targeted areas.
KH: Arranging your own screening venues seems especially useful for documentaries.
LW: Yes. And I think you can do it with certain fiction films too. I remember a film called Happy New Year by K. Lorrel Manning. They took it around the country on their own. Why? Because the subject matter has to do with war veterans coming home. So even though it was a fiction film, they still reached out to the veterans community no matter where they went. They had ready-made audiences.
KH: One thing these groups have that a movie theater often doesn’t have is a mailing list. It might not be in a huge town. But a targeted group with a mailing list could spread the word effectively.
LW: Here’s a good example. The movie Charlie Victor Romeo. We screened it at Hot Springs. And they’re a big film. They were a New York Times critics pick. It was based on a play that used airplane “black box” transcripts. And they’re taking it around the country using Tugg.com. And it’s worked out great for them. Why? Well, they’ve certainly been helped by the social network of aviation people.
KH: But some filmmakers think all you have to do is get your film into a festival, and then you’ve hit the jackpot. That all the rest of the work will be done for you. Including getting you lots of good press.
LW: You have Filmmaker Magazine, which I write for, and there’s a reason people like us, IndieWire, and all the rest, why we don’t cover every festival.
KH: Why is that?
LW: Because a lot of these are crap festivals. It’s about being very particular.
KH: So what is the most compelling reason for you to want to cover a filmmaker and his or her film? And not only to write about it, but to get you personally passionate about it, to want to give this filmmaker a push?
LW: It’s kind of tricky. Even films I love, I can’t write about all these. Because first you need to have a national presence. That’s how you get into the NY Times, and all the way down. Or you need to be on PBS. If you want to be covered by the national press, you need to have national coverage already. I can’t just write about your film.
KH: That’s a bit of a Catch-22.
LW: I’m guessing that a lot of films I screen at Hot Springs are going to go on to theatrical. Or at least PBS. So these are films that I have in my back pocket. Because I know they’re that good. And once I get to the point where they’re going to have national exposure, then I can write about them. But I can’t just write about a film because I love it. There’s a ton of films right now that I’m chomping at the bit for, but I can’t write about them yet. I have to be patient.
KH: So it all comes down to timing?
LW: Yes. And it’s not me. It’s my editors. And it’s everyone there. And it could be that the film hasn’t even come to the US yet. I just have to wait.
KH: So get out your crystal ball. Over the next five years, with all the rapidly changing technology, how is the average indie filmmaker going to get their work released and noticed?
LW: It’s going to be back to the way it was at the beginning. It’s going to be do-it-yourself. You’re going to have to take your show on the road. It’s going to be doing a DVD release. I just think having a theatrical run in L.A. or New York City…it’s going to go out the window. It’s starting to already. You can’t rely on the theatrical anymore. I think it will only be linked to Hollywood films. Action. Batman type films. Superhero movies. I think that’s where it’s going. And everything else is going to go online.
Keep up with Lauren at her blog:
C. 2015 Kelly Hughes
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