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Five Things We Learned About Festival Strategy and Film Distribution at IFFR

Samara Bliss, Winnie Cheung and Dan Rosato pose on the red carpet at IFFR 2023.Samara Bliss, Winnie Cheung and Dan Rosato at the Residency World Premiere at IFFR (photo credit: Vera Cornel).

We did the impossible. We made a feature film. When our docu-horror Residency was accepted into the International Film Festival Rotterdam, we learned that we needed yet another miracle—we needed a sales rep to get our film in front of the right audiences. It used to be that getting selected by a festival like IFFR meant automatically getting acquired by a sales rep, but those days are long gone. 

On a predictably gray day during the festival, Residency director Winnie Cheung sat on a panel to speak about this very issue: the drastically changing landscape of indie distribution. Moderating the panel was Marika Kozlovska (sales consultant at Komarika). Other speakers included were Wouter Jansen (sales and & acquisitions at Square Eyes Film), Lidia Damatto (managing partner at film agency More Than Film), Kathleen McInnis (Producer/PR Strategist with See Through Films) and María Vera (festival distributor and sales agent at Kino Rebelde). 

“There are more films than ever, but the market for them has become smaller since the pandemic” remarked Wouter Jansen. “Without a big festival premiere, it can be tricky to find your space. You have to be very proactive with reaching out.” This was our biggest take away from the panel: Be proactive!

After consuming what could arguably be considered a few too many bitterballen and stroopwafel, we (being Cheung and Residency EP Samara Bliss) compiled a list of other takeaways for fellow filmmakers culled from the IFFR panel. Frankly, these are tips we wish we knew before we embarked on the festival circuit. 

  • Reach out early: “Don’t wait for your film to screen at a festival before reaching out to agents, but try to have them in place when you are celebrating that world premiere.” said Jansen. “It’s good to reach out early enough that the agent will have time to work on a festival strategy,” added Lidia Dammatto. 

Luckily, our film caught the eyes of alief sales and distribution from the list of unrepresented films Rotterdam released prior to the festival. “Finding Residency was a happenstance,” said Miguel Angel Govea, partner at alief. “We have been successful booking & licensing docu-fiction/hybrid as alternatives to our standard €2-3 million narrative fiction fare. We are lucky that programmers are familiar with our content curation and send their referrals. This was the case with Residency.” 

You can also reach out to sales agents with a project in development, but that’s when things get extra selective. “[Sales agents] will only sign a project in development if the people behind it have made other successful films or if the project is selected to a prestigious development event,” said Damatto.

  • Do the work: “Basically this is common sense 101—don’t send form letters. Don’t aggrandize. Don’t compare your film to their films. If they already have a film like yours, why would they want another?” PR strategist Kathleen McInnis said. “Instead, read what they are about (web pages, trade news, panels and discussions, etc), identify how your film fits.” 

Kozlova recommended mentioning your own previous success, selection in the festivals, box office figures or previous selection at film industry events. “And compliment the sales agent on their recent success,” she added.

On top of doing the work, show the work. “You have to have the deliverable materials to sell your film. This isn’t negotiable,” said McInnis. “You can’t sell your film without them.” By the time alief reached out to us, we were armed with a website, stills, electronic press kit and a teaser. Brett Walker, president of alief, added: “Their preparedness and aesthetics were a key acquisition factor. Winnie married her film themes & style into mesmerizing materials with a dash of kink that teases what we’ll find in Residency.’’

  • Don’t be late: “Really try to market your film early on for big festivals” said Jansen. “If you know you’ll be finishing your film next year, you can already start telling the big festivals about it so that they have it on their radar and in the back of their minds while programming. This is more difficult if you don’t yet have a track record with your previous work, but an agent can help out with this.”
  • Stand up for your film: Film programming is a two way street—so don’t forget that you are also providing value for the film festival. As a rule of thumb, if a programmer reaches out to you directly, the submission fee is waived. Once you are accepted, there are things that you can negotiate to maximize the success of your film at a festival, including screening times, theater priority and social media mentions.

“A festival will generally offer either hospitality or a screening fee, not both,” said McInnis. “Clearly, at major festivals, it is more than likely you will want to play anyway. This is not hardball negotiations, but rather a conversation you can and should have with the festival before you accept their invitation.”

  • Know thy niche: By breaking out your film into niche topics and audiences, you’ll discover spaces to show your film outside the festival circuit. These spaces can be universities, cultural institutions, professional conferences, community centers, art galleries or music venues. By tapping into your film’s niche, you’re giving it a long tail shelf life that lives beyond the festival calendar.

In the case of our film, a docu-horror about a real life artist residency in New York City, we know that it caters generally to arthouse audiences, but we also think it will land with documentary, horror and fine art lovers alike. We plan to tour Residency at genre-specific festivals but we’re also looking for alternative screening spaces like art galleries, museums, and other cultural institutions around the world to reach our niche audience.  

Overall, we learned that selling a film these days shouldn’t be just about selling the film, especially as first-time feature filmmakers like us. We should be looking at big picture goals, and McInnis agrees. “If a filmmaker wants to use their films on the premiere festival circuit to merge their creative and business development, traditional benchmarks like sales are still important,” she said. “If, instead, a filmmaker wants to maximize viewers without considering financial recoupment or career-ladder climbing, there are more options available.” 

Our micro-budget feature was produced right under $30k. The hope is to make a profit, but the bigger return on investment for us is finding our audience, establishing relationships and creating opportunities for our upcoming films. All in all, IFFR 2023 was a great start to Residency’s festival tour.

Until the next festival,

Winnie & Samara

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