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There was an elephant in the room during day one of IFP’s annual Marketing and Distribution Labs, and that elephant’s name was Sundance. The majority of the Lab’s 21 attending filmmakers submitted applications earlier this year, each one hoping and secretly sort of expecting an acceptance letter. What they all received instead was a courteous but crushing rejection.

Today’s afternoon session started out as something of a venting session. As the lab leaders tried to reassure these first-time filmmakers that their careers were not over, that they had many options still on the table, the mood in the room only seemed to worsen. Then, one filmmaker raised her hand and asked a question: “But what should we do when we actually are accepted into a festival?”

Yes, Sundance unfortunately only accepts a tiny fraction of the films that apply each year. But there are festivals – hundreds of festivals both in the U.S. and worldwide – hungry for that other 95%. If a filmmaker is talented and persistent, his or her film can and most likely will find a home.

Soon the focus of the conversation shifted. The lab leaders in the room – Jon Reiss, Scott Macaulay, Milton Tabbot, and Amy Dotson — brainstormed a list of essential points to consider when prepping for a film festival premiere. That acceptance letter is coming eventually, they stressed.

Here’s a to-do list that you should pull out when it finally does arrive:

Do your research
First things first, you need to learn the ins and outs of the festival you’ve been accepted to. In reality, very few fests are buyers’ markets. If you’re not playing one of the half dozen fests that the buyers are attending, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to leverage your screening towards a sale. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other huge benefits that B-level festivals offer. Some fests are known for being attended en masse by critics, others have a huge industry presence. Sure, you might not make a sale, but you could do a great deal of networking and perhaps even make some relationships that’ll pay off long-term. The point is – make sure to learn beforehand what the festival you’ve been accepted to has to offer so you can go in with clear and realistic goals.

Two questions to immediately ask yourself are, “Should I hire a publicist?” and “Should I hire a sales agent?” The answer to both questions, of course, is “It depends.” Take into account both your own budget and what kind of benefit these resources could provide.

If you’re premiering at a top tier festival, where your film will be vying for time and attention against innumerable other high-profile projects, it’s probably worth hiring a publicist, someone who has the resources necessary to help your film compete on a level playing field. But if you don’t have a lot of money left in your marketing budget, and you’re premiering at a smaller fest, these kinds of hires might not be worth the money required. Yes, without a publicist you’ll have to do more of the marketing leg work on your own, but if you’re worried about extending yourself too thin, that’s why god invented interns.

Become Press Ready
If you’re not bringing on a publicist, start preparing your press strategy early on. First, find out if the festival you’re playing at has a press office. If they do, they’ll be able to take some of the weight off your shoulders and introduce you to local press. If they don’t have an office, you’re on your own, and there’s a lot to consider.

First, there are some essential materials to prepare. Be careful to select eye-catching, indicative images for your key art, and make sure to prepare a press kit as well. You should also have both your social media tools (facebook, twitter, ect.) and your official website launched by the time the festival lineup goes public. If you can present all these materials to the press in a professional, organized, and timely fashion, they’ll appreciate it.

Two additional questions to consider – will you be holding pre-screenings before your premiere and will you be sending out screeners to select critics? There are pros and cons to both. You should also be careful not to overexpose yourself too early on in the process. It’s actually not ideal to have all of your major press reviews come out in conjunction with your festival premiere. Yes, you should capitalize on the exposure that your festival appearance provides, but it’s best to hold off on reviews in major papers until closer to your theatrical debut.

Start networking
Make sure to integrate yourself into the film festival’s community. Call other filmmakers who’ve played the fest in recent years to get advice. Befriend the staff… send a personalized thank-you letter as soon as possible post-acceptance. Once things are personal, and you have somebody to reach out to with questions, or even talk to at parties, you’ll have a much easier time navigating the festival itself.

Plan your marketing campaign
During the Labs, IFP Deputy Director Amy Dotson highlighted the success of Tiny Furniture’s 2010 marketing campaign at SXSW. In anticipation of their premiere, Lena Dunham and her team printed small fliers featuring memorable, witty quotes from the film, and posted them up all around Austin. The cost of these posters was next to nothing, and they resulted in a ton of buzz. The point is – you want to intrigue people; make them want to know more about your film. There are creative ways to do this for very little money.

If your film is issue-based, or targets a specific niche group, reach out to related organizations already established in the community where the festival is taking place. Invite reps from these groups to come see your film. This will pay off long-term – if they like what they see, they could become essential allies as you move into your wider marketing campaign.

Mobilize your audience
One filmmaker asked a great question towards the end of the discussion: “Once my film premieres, once audiences see and like it, what next? How do I leverage their support in the long-term?” Be sure to collect email addresses after the screening, and keep everyone informed about any developments or further screenings. It’s also always a good idea to ask audience members to review the film on IMDb or Amazon if they liked what they saw. Positive reviews can only lead to good things down the line.

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