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Helpful Hints for Weathering the Independent Feature Film Market from an Non-Hardened Veteran — by Robert Hawk

Since I've attended the IFFM for most of the last ten years, you might assume that I'm a bit hardened and burnt out from the whole thing. I've seen it grow from a market where virtually everything submitted was screened to a filled-to-the-brim event where everything submitted is not automatically invited, and where the atmosphere has been correctly likened to both a pressure cooker and a zoo.

It is intense, and there's much too much to see (and one has to wade through a lot of mediocrity to ferret out the hidden gems which do always crop up, thank God). But I return to the Market each year full of hope and enthusiasm--knowing that there are always riches to be mined. It's what keeps me coming back, and I'm never disappointed.

But what about filmmakers--particularly the first-timers? How should they approach and manage this daunting event? Over the years I've assembled some hints that might help you survive this eight-day extravaganza; herewith, a few:

Expect nothing.
In other words, if you leave the Market with no offers (few do), don't despair. You've had an opportunity to establish yourself as a living, breathing entity--a filmmaker. You are no longer a stranger in this wonderful world of independent film, and you may have planted seeds that won't germinate until later on, but you've had a chance to observe how things work and who the players are. This alone, to my mind, is worth the price you pay to attend. You have the opportunity to learn much more at the IFFM than you ever would at some of the over-priced one-or-two-day workshops and seminars presented around the country. Some offers may arrive after you go back home, and they should be carefully considered away from the hustle and bustle of the Market itself. Which brings me to my second hint:

Don't formally agree to anything at the market.
Oh, sure, if Miramax or Sony Classics offers you a $1 million advance for your masterpiece, say "yes." But, seriously, this is not likely to happen, and it is important for you to maximize your presence at the Market by waiting to see what fallout materializes after it's all over. You've got follow-up work to do with all those folks who attended your screening; any casual offers you might have received should be formally stated through letters of agreement or proffered contracts, and you should consider them in the relative calm of your home turf. And, needless to say, nothing should be signed before a lawyer looks it over. In addition, if you are invited to certain festivals, you might want to hold off and find out if you cause the kind of buzz to create a more competitive situation.

Don't wear your anxiety on your sleeve.
Everybody's anxious about what's going to happen to the project into which they've poured all their passion, time and talents for the past however-many years. Don't be so obsessive and self-absorbed that you can't tell when someone doesn't have the time or isn't interested in talking with you at the particular moment you approach them. Be sensitive to their body language, the look in their eyes, what they say to you (like, "I'm sorry, but I'm due at a screening that begins in 30 seconds. Could we try some other time?" That's pretty clear and direct, isn't it?). But some filmmakers, blinded by their own urgency, don't even listen and barge relentlessly into their pitch. I think you'll find that most people on "the other side" will give you a minute of their time (sometimes, literally, a minute). They know why you're there, they do understand where you're coming from--but try to be self-aware enough to know when you've overshot the overbearingness line (the sweat of desperation is not a pretty sight, or fun to be around). And there are some ways for you to keep from going over the top, which leads to the next helpful hint:

Take a walk around the block.
Don't feel you have to spend every waking moment promoting your film. Don't spend every minute that the Angelika is open in the Angelika. Do take a walk around the block, or spend 15 minutes visiting an art gallery in SoHo. Grab a fellow filmmaker, and go somewhere quiet where you sit down and have a good salad or bowl of soup and share war stories. (Remember, neither man nor woman can live on hors d'oeuvres alone, standing up and screaming over the din at the evening receptions. The evening receptions are good for extra shmoozing and getting to talk/scream with those folks who are elusive during the day, but don't depend on them for your minimum daily requirement of nutrition.) Also, take advantage of being at the Market by watching other people's work. It's healthy to forget about your film for awhile; you've been cooped up with it for so long, and it's good to get an idea of what others have been up to--it gives you perspective and context vis a vis your own project. Believe me, if you refresh yourself in some of these suggested ways, you'll be a lot more effective when you return to your main agenda.

Be prepared to concisely describe your film within one minute.
That is all the time some people will give you, and it's good practice for you--not only in mastering your ability to encapsulate your magnificent opus in a minute or less, but also in honing your pitch, so that by the end of the Market you've got it nailed. We know you're perfectly capable of going on at much greater length about your film (who could know it better than you?) and sometimes you'll be lucky enough to have someone give you more than a minute, to maybe even have a cup of coffee with you, or sit down on the steps with you for a few minutes between screenings. Should that opportunity present itself, take a deep breath, relax, share all the extra info you can, and still be sensitive to when the time comes to wrap it up and move on.

Don't hand anybody a videotape (or script, or press kit) unless specifically asked.
It's a real drag for us to go through a day adding more and more weight to our meager bags with unsolicited handouts (your snappy postcards or flyers are the exception, of course). If someone has missed your screening or won't have time to look at it in the videotape library or read your script while they're in town, they'd probably prefer you mail it to their business (given that their return luggage will already have grown heavier with all the stuff that they inevitably pick up along the way). Just ask for their business card. As for press kits, they should not be distributed promiscuously like flyers. They're too expensive to be stuffing them in everybody's box. Certainly, have them handy at your screening, and at other times for those who might ask for one. In addition, you might want to distribute a few to a carefully selected list of people you really want to target--and if they're that special, a short personal note is appropriate and recommended.

Remember, this rarified world of indies is a small one.
Everything you do counts. You never know when something you do may pay off--or blow up in your face--years later. You'll be meeting people--99% of whom are quite retentive--that you'll be bumping into again and again, year after year, at festivals and other markets. In other words, don't burn bridges and don't be an asshole. So, proceed with caution--and the confidence that is emblematic of the independent spirit itself.

This piece first appeared in the 1996 IFFM "unofficial" IFFM webcast presented by Filmmaker and the Sundance Channel.


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