How to Do a Festival Q&A

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The credits roll, there is applause, and not too many people walked out. The festival premiere of your debut film is over. You relax, a year’s worth of stress magically departing your body. Sure, there will be tough times ahead; distribution is difficult. But, for the moment, you congratulate yourself on a job well done.

But don’t relax too much, warn a trio of festival heads. Your next big job as a director looms sooner than you think. The audience Q&A you’ll lead in just a minute or two is surprisingly important when it comes to your film’s future life. A great Q&A can leave your audience with good vibes that translate into strong word-of-mouth beyond the festival. Devastatingly, a bad after-film discussion can do just the opposite.

“The secret magic of film festivals is that they offer audiences direct communication with the artist,” says Sundance Film Festival Director of Programming Trevor Groth. “You can definitely elevate the impact of your screening by the way you introduce the film and handle the Q&A.” Explains True/False Co-Director and Co-Founder David Wilson, “A great Q&A can really guide your audience, making them feel better about your film and have a clearer understanding of your intentions in making it. And a bad one can hurt that initial buzz that all films depend on at festivals.” “Having access to you, the director, is what makes festivals special for audiences,” agrees SXSW Film Festival Producer Janet Pierson. “And the Q&A will affect how audiences interact with your work and how they’ll talk about it later.”

So how can directors ensure that their festival Q&As are as charming, thoughtful and inspiring as possible? Following are tips from these veterans, inspired by having witnessed hundreds of such postscreening sessions over the years.

  1. Take it seriously. You may be a modest sort, and maybe the bright lights make you freeze up, but “aw, shucks” and giggles are not attractive qualities on stage in front of several hundred people. Pierson says one of the biggest mistakes you sees filmmakers make involves their demeanor. “They can be beyond self-effacing,” she says. “They act embarrassed, or they make little jokes, or they say they don’t know what their film means.” So remember when you are standing on stage that if you want people to take your film seriously, then you have to act like you take it seriously too. “Own your creativity,” Pierson says.
  2. Anticipate the questions and have answers. “Think beforehand what questions are likely to be asked, and have answers for them,” Groth says. “Don’t be surprised.” Indeed, like a political candidate preparing for a debate, you should develop responses for the questions that are asked at every screening, as well as those that may be specific to your film. “Know how you’re going to answer ‘What did you shoot on?’ and ‘What was your budget?’” says Wilson. “And then hopefully you can move quickly past those questions to more interesting things.” It’s especially important to prepare a response if your film is something of a head scratcher. “A film with an ambiguous ending will always prompt a ‘What happens at the end?’ question,” Groth notes.
  3. Answer the question. Following up the previous entry, Groth offers his number one piece of advice: “Answer the question! A lot of filmmakers take the approach of, ‘I want you to interpret it,’ or, ‘I leave it up to the audience.’ I do believe that is a valid approach, but I’ve seen it deflate a room. There can be different ways to approach that question even if you don’t want to give an easy answer. You can talk with them about their interpretation, or provide alternatives as to how people might understand the film differently. You don’t have to put your film into a tightly wrapped package, but it is still worth talking about the issues behind the question.”
  4. Don’t be defensive. “Arguing with the audience” is what Wilson sees as one of the biggest mistakes filmmakers can make at their Q&As. “It’s a heady moment for most filmmakers,” he says. “You’re presenting something for the first time that you’ve put years of your life into. But if someone doesn’t get it, or doesn’t like it, you need to deftly respect and then deflect their question. You gain very little from getting into an argument with an audience.” Groth remembers one Sundance filmmaker “who was a real jerk at the Q&As. I saw this film not have the life it deserved because of this.” He goes on to advise, “Especially if a film contains provocative material, questions can seem aggressive. How a filmmaker handles that is crucial. If you get defensive and combative, it doesn’t serve you well. You could say instead, ‘It’s interesting you had that reaction, here’s what I was trying to get at.’ Make it more of a give and take discussion.” And remember, says Wilson, that “ultimately, you’ve got the mic. You can afford to take the high road because you’ve got the last word.” On a related note, make sure any bad vibes among cast and crew are resolved or placed under wraps by the time you get to the Q&A. Audiences can sense when everyone on stage hates each other and then will want to know why.
  5. Don’t bring too many people onstage. “It slows everything down and tends not to work with the vibe of a good Q&A,” says Groth about long lines of cast and crew marching to the stage after a film’s premiere. “Just bring the key actors and someone who played a crucial role — maybe a production designer or editor.” Groth admits, “It’s tricky with producers,” acknowledging that many filmmakers feel “an obligation to bring everyone up.” A solution, he says, is to have those involved with the film stand up for a round of applause, leaving the director and only a few others to actually field the questions.
  6. Don’t hog the mic. Once you do decide whom to bring up, make sure they get a chance to answer questions. “If a filmmaker is getting all the questions and an actor hasn’t had any,” says Groth, “there are ways the actor can be integrated into the Q&A. The director can refer a question to the actor and ask them to address that element of the film, for example.”
  7. Prep with the moderator. “The moderator plays a crucial role in the Q&A,” Groth says. “The filmmaker should connect before the screening to work out the logistics. Will there be multiple mics or just one mic? Work it all out so there are not those awkward moments onstage.” Wilson suggests a brief conversation with the moderator beforehand to make sure they’ve remembered key elements of the film. He recalls one disastrous Q&A in which the moderator clearly mistook the whole premise of the movie. (“I don’t like when the moderator monopolizes the conversation, especially when the audience wants to talk,” Wilson adds. But how to moderate a Q&A is a subject for another article.)
  8. Be articulate and/or funny. Obviously, this is not advice everybody can just immediately adopt. Still, if you are articulate, funny or both, you have the ability to rock your Q&As. Wilson remembers the True/False Q&A with Eugene Jarecki following his Why We Fight. “His Q&A, delivered to more than 1,200 people, was like someone dictating a book. Every answer was a perfect mini essay. I’d say that over the course of the 45 minutes, maybe five people left. And the next day other filmmakers were coming up to me saying, ‘Look, do I have to do a Q&A? I can’t follow that.’ Says Groth, “Richard Ayoade, director of Submarine, did the best Q&A I’ve ever seen. He could riff on anything and would go on a comedic monologue about each question.”
  9. Don’t be afraid to be emotional. “Showing your emotions on stage is great,” Groth says. “Some of the best Q&As I’ve seen have occurred when the filmmaker has opened up about how important their film is to them and what a labor of love it has been. Helping the audience feel the [filmmaker’s] emotion about the creative process goes a long way toward shaping their reaction to the film.”
  10. Compensate for your shyness. “If you’re shy, acknowledge and plan for it, says Pierson. “If you’re shy, bring someone from the film onstage with you who is not. You can also speak to the festival and ask for an assist. At SXSW, we think a lot about who the moderator is. I remember one strong, bold filmmaker who the distributor said needed me to stand onstage with him. He just needed me there to ground him, and the Q&A became an interactive discussion between the two of us.”
  11. Allow for the unexpected. Unscripted moments — and the filmmaker’s ability to roll with them — can produce some of the most memorable festival Q&As. Recalls Wilson, “After our closing night screening of Undefeated at True/False 2012, [director] T.J. Martin politely asked us if we thought it would be okay if he brought out his Oscar, which he won for Best Documentary Feature just seven days earlier. Not only did he pull it out, but he set it on the front of the stage, and we then watched as a parade of kids came up with their cameras to take pictures. Then, when the Q&A was done, the whole audience swarmed forward and, emboldened, began to take pics with it. Eventually, it was getting passed around the crowd. I was a little horrified and asked T.J. to see if he wanted me to step in. But, in one of the classiest, wisest moves I’ve ever seen from a filmmaker, he just said ‘Nah. Someday I’ll have a kid and that’ll be a thing worth protecting and guarding. But that statue? Let them have their fun. Tomorrow it will be on 100 different Facebook walls, and I’ll have 100 new friends.’”
  12. Treat your Q&As as future assets. “We live in an age where we can capture the magic moments,” Groth says. “Forward-thinking producers and filmmakers should think about capturing their first Q&As for their DVD release or for their Kickstarter. All of that material [generated] at a festival can be a powerful tool.” This advice is especially important, Groth says, “if the film is a doc and the subject is there. I was at the Q&A for Searching for Sugarman, and when Rodriguez came onstage to swelling applause, that was one of those magical moments. I even captured it on my iPhone.” Adds Groth, “Work out with the festival organizers what you can and can’t do” with regards to recording while there.