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Toronto, Toschmonto: Time for a Festival Plan “B”: 12 Steps to a Saner Festival Game Plan

Dan Mirvish at Slamdance

The author of this guest essay is a filmmaker whose most recent film is Between Us. He is also the co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival. — Editor

Okay, you didn’t get into Toronto and you’re crushed. Guess what? You also didn’t get into Telluride, Venice or the New York Film Festivals either. But I’ve got news for you: You probably didn’t stand a chance with any of those festivals anyway. It’s not you, it’s them. Don’t get me wrong: They’re all perfectly good festivals run by nice – frequently Canadian – people. The problem is the so-called big Four of the Fall Fests don’t cater to small independent films. Toronto did, for a while anyway, but in the last few years, they’ve found their niche as a pre-Oscar launchpad for studio and big-budget not-so-indie films. Good for them, but bad for the quintessential American indie that desperately wanted to get in. So where does that leave you? Crying in your ramen and cursing those toque-wearing, maple-lickers to the north. Fine. But now it’s time to dust yourself off and move on to Plan B:

1. It’s Just as Well. Your Film Wasn’t Finished!

Films aren’t finished anymore, they’re simply “output.” Back in the days of actual “film,” you were done when the negative was cut and the lab made a print and you could sneak it out without paying. And then you were REALLY done (or rather “abandoned” as we used to say). Because it was too much of a hassle and cost to change anything. But now, just because you sent in an output, doesn’t mean you have to stop editing, or doing sound or music. The worst thing a filmmaker can do is rush their post-production (or worse, their production) just to meet some arbitrary festival deadline. Look, in 20 years, this will still be YOUR film and you’d better be happy with it. Don’t rush anything just to satisfy any festival programmer who may or may not like it anyway. Yes, these deadlines are slightly useful in pushing yourself and your editors, sound team, and composer toward the finish line (since by now, you’re out of money any ay, you need SOMEthing to motivate them). But take your time. Plug those harddrives back in and keep cutting. So how do you know you’re really finished? When your hard drive finally crashes for the last time. THEN, you’re done.

2. It’s All About Sundance Anyway!

Screw Toronto, you really wanted to premiere at Sundance! So you’ll spiff up your “Toronto” version and output your “Sundance” version and send that in, and wait another three months. Oh, and maybe make a second copy, scribble out the “u” and the “n” and send one in to Slamdance, too. Well, yes, you should do that. Your investors, or even your mother will all expect you (and even pay for the entry fees for you) to go to Park City. And yes, both Sundance and Slamdance show way more American indies than the big Four Fall Fests combined. But guess what? Everyone else is submitting to them too!! So statistically speaking, you probably won’t get in. And if you do, then consider it a happy ending, not a fait accompli. I don’t care whether your film spent five years going through the Sundance lab, or your producer co-founded Slamdance – there are no guarantees when it comes to Park City. Come up with Plan C now. As soon as you submit your Park City output, get back in that edit room and start working on your next version. And if on the off chance you are reasonably happy with your film, then submit EARLY to both Sundance AND Slamdance.

Look, we’ve been doing Slamdance for 20 years, and I’m still stunned by how many people think they can wait for their Sundance rejection to submit to Slamdance. You can’t. It’s too late then. You know when Christopher Nolan submitted Following to Slamdance? In May! (of 1998, to be exact) He was literally the first film submitted to the festival that year. And that was after having gotten rejected the year before. Those are good lessons for everyone for most festivals: Submit early; submit often; and don’t be afraid to submit the next year. I’m always shocked when I hear people say they’re shooting in September and still expect to get into Sundance. Fat chance, sucka! (And then I’m shocked again when some do get in.)

So then you move on to Plan C, D and E (aka, SXSW, Tribeca and L.A., all salivating for your world premiere). The next thing you know, a year has gone by and you’ve got nothing to show for it, but a dozen FCP project files with different festival versions in the name. Your investors are banging on your door, and your mother won’t answer hers.

Let’s back up and think for a minute… what exactly is your goal for all these festivals?

3. To Get Distribution!

The odds of getting distribution SOLELY because you get into one of these festivals is slim to not much. But that’s probably because you still think the brass ring is Harvey Weinstein outbidding Michael Barker in the lobby of Eccles. Well, it is, but as über indie lawyer John Sloss put it at a panel at Woodstock last year: “I used to say the odds of getting distribution were 1%, but now it’s 100%. It’s just that the definition of ‘distribution’ has changed.” He’s right. One way or another, you can still get your film seen by people through some combination of third-party distribution, aggregation and self-distribution, with people seeing it via theatrical, VOD or streaming.

So, the question becomes, are festivals a necessary element to getting distribution?

Well, they’re nice, but they’re not necessary. There’s still nothing better for getting distribution than winning Sundance, but the odds of that haven’t changed in 20 years. But there are a lot more ways to skin the cat now: Set up a distributor screening, get a sales rep, send out screeners to distributors directly, etc. Now, you still may need some kind of a hook to get distributors to take the film seriously (i.e. name actors, critical attention, festival awards), but those don’t have to be gotten at an A, or even an A- festival. Honestly, there aren’t a lot of big deals getting made at any festivals outside of Park City. But that doesn’t mean there still aren’t plenty of good reasons to go to lots of other festivals.

4. Don’t Buy Into the Premiere Arms Race

Even before you hear back from Sundance, you will undoubtedly start submitting to SXSW, Tribeca and LAFF. And all three will tell you in no uncertain terms that they really, really just want premieres. F’real? They’re all nice festivals, but none of them get much of an audience beyond their local base. That means you’re now waiting almost a full year from finishing your film to showing it. And for what? So an audience member in New York, who’s never set foot in Austin, can be the first person to see your film? After being in this festival world for 20 years, I’m still dumbfounded and disturbed by this escalation of the premiere arms race. What ever happened to giving momentum to films that play at multiple fests? So, screw ’em: You should use their premiere paranoia to your advantage.

5. Play Them Off Against Each Other

OK, if that’s how they’re going to set the rules of the game, then you just need to play it better than they do. Use your festival virginity to the best of your ability – it’s your one ace in the hole. Play the festivals off against each other: If they want your premiere, then they need to give you a quick answer. And if they say yes, see if you can get a better offer from the next festival. And if you’re a true festival jedi master, you can find a way to play both anyway (I pulled that off last year, doing a “double premiere” at first the Hamptons and again at Woodstock a week later). If nothing else, playing these games gets the festival programmers to take your film seriously and brings your film to the top of their piles. The next best thing to a “yes” is a quick “no” so you can move on without uncertainty.

6. Volume, Volume, Volume

If you’re not getting into an A or even an A- festival (and even if you are, but don’t wind up with a deal or award right away) I’m a big believer in a quantity-based festival strategy. With my current film, Between Us, we’ve played in 22 festivals in seven countries, winning awards at a couple. That sounds impressive, right? Because it is. Not that many films pull that off these days. And it will continue to sound impressive to distributors, press, audiences and your own investors. What multiple festival dates gives you is the intangible sense of momentum that you don’t get even from a single A-list festival appearance.

There are literally thousands of festivals around the world, and it’s doing yourself a disservice by just applying to the top dozen or so. OK, but with so many festivals to choose from, where does the struggling filmmaker start?

Pick a season and go for it: Spring fests? Try Atlanta, Sarasota, Dallas or Omaha! Fall? Oldenburg, Woodstock or Napa Valley. Just think six months in advance and work from there. Don’t wait until you’ve gotten rejected from the biggies.

The best way to narrow your search is to focus on what your goals are from the festival circuit:

7. Get Reviews

Need to start building your press kit with blurbs? Then regional and international festivals are a great way to get reviews. If they’re good, then you sing their praises to the world. And and if they’re bad (unlike, say, a Variety review in Park City), no one has to know that you got them. With social media the way it is, you can pimp a great interview from a local blog through YouTube, Facebook or Twitter and get it seen by as many people as you want – frequently more than during a busy festival like Sundance, where the signal-to-noise ratio buries you in the static.

8. Meet your Audience

With all these wonderful “distribution” options these days, chances are good that you will not get a life-affirming theatrical release. Even if you do, you’ll be lucky if a dozen people show up at any given screening. Which means that if you want the unique experience of seeing your film with an appreciative audience, who are then eager to hear you at a Q-and-A, the festival experience is the only way you’ll get that. Even if you have a 3,000 screen studio release, at most you’ll only meaningfully be in theaters for a couple weeks. If you made a comedy, there’s no better feeling than seeing an audience laugh. If you made a horror movie, there’s nothing better than seeing them shriek. This is a big part of why we all make movies. So have fun with it and go to where the audiences are.

9. See the World!

Most people work to get money to go on vacations to see the world. If you just made a movie, chances are you didn’t get paid. But that doesn’t mean you can’t skip ahead to the vacations-around-the-world part of the great American dream. It’s no coincidence that Sundance is held in one of the best ski resorts in the US. A lot of festivals are held in really nice places around the world. Always wanted to visit the Parthenon? Then apply to the Athens Film Festival! Want to ski in an Olympic-caliber ski resort in North America? Then screw Park City and head straight to the Whistler Film Festival in Canada. Beaches your thing? Then try the Bahamas International Film Festival! If you made a feature, many festivals will fly you there. And almost all will at least put you up – if not in a hotel, then on some hot volunteer’s couch. You could do worse!

10. They’re “Romantic”

I remember hearing Kevin Smith talk at the 1994 Independent Feature Film Market, some nine months after he premiered at Sundance: “On the festival circuit, even I can get laid.” He’s right. If you’re a pasty-faced filmmaker who’s been bivouacked in your Williamsburg loft subsisting on LaCie drives and ramen for the last two years, then chances are you don’t have a girlfriend anymore. You need to get out there. Seriously.

Festivals are filled with young, eager volunteers looking for inspiration from the next Kevin Smith. Many of them are “actresses” or “actors” eager to meet “directors” or “producers” and won’t at all mind a little “air-quoting” at the closing night afterparty. If you’re happily married, festivals are a great place to wine and dine your spouse, without pesky children interrupting. If you’re unhappily married, they’re a great place to start over. In short, festivals are romantic. Last year at Slamdance, we even had one director propose to his girlfriend DURING his Q&A! Both romantic AND a brilliant PR ploy. (Mazel tov, Joey and Kendall!)


11. Meet New Money

You probably won’t ever pay back your investors, so if you have any hope of making another film, you’re going to need new ones. Think about it: Who goes to film festivals? Rich people, that’s who. If someone can throw a festival party in their mansion, they can certainly invest in a film or donate to a Kickstarter campaign. They’re also easily impressed by young shiny filmmakers who remind them of how their own kids have disappointed them. These are you new best friends. There are even some festivals that go out of their way to assign wealthy “hosts” to visiting filmmakers. And if you’re really lucky, you may even meet a wealthy young divorcee, widower or heiress (see #10).

12. Meet Other Filmmakers.

This is probably the most important reason to go to film festivals that you will not realize until after you’ve gone to film festivals. You’ve spent years asking every one of your friends for money or favors, and chances are you don’t have many friends left. And there’s no better place than a film festival to make new ones. You’ll retell war stories, compare cameras and lenses, bemoan actors and agents, warn each other about distributors, and dream up future collaborations. The good festivals know how to put all the filmmakers in one place, goose them up with alcohol and snacks, and let the friendships blossom. The better festivals stir the pot with jurors, honored guests, and special events. In the Bahamas it was filmmaker paintball on a deserted island, and a festival shuttle on a Heineken party bus. In Oldenberg, it’s all-night parties at a fire station, and screenings in a prison. In Napa Valley, it’s wine tasting and Maserati test drives (preferably not at the same time). And at Slamdance, we’re quite proud of our annual Hot Tub Summit, the wettest panel discussion in Park City.

The festival circuit is not just a means to an end. If you think it is, you’ll forget to have fun along the way. You’re stressed out enough making your movie, now’s the time to enjoy yourself. So remember to have fun and put the “festiv” back into “festivals.” (For more on this concept, see my Slamdance 2013 Opening Night Poem.)

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