Independent Film Week - Show & Sell: Positioning for Festivals
Sunday was the first day of Independent Film Week 2008. At the Filmmaker Conference, I attended a panel on positioning for festivals that addressed once you've finished your film, what do you do next? How do you manage your expectations for film festivals? Below are some highlights of that discussion.
Independent Film Week
Sunday, September 14, 2008
FIT – Haft Auditorium – New York, NY
Howard Gertler, Producer – Process Media
Susan Stover, Producer – Laurel Canyon
Courtney Hunt, Director – Frozen River
Ryan Kampe, Partner, International Sales – Visit Films
Jarod Neece, Programmer – SXSW
Tom Quinn, SVP Acquisitions – Magnolia Pictures
Reid Rosefelt, Marketing Consulting and Publicity
Gertler: When did you submit Frozen River to Sundance?
Hunt: I submitted the film by deadline in September. We did not have a finished score. By and large, the movie was cut. In that instance, we felt we were ready. It was a real serious rush to get it done.
Gertler: What condition was the film in when you brought it to premiere at Sundance? What was your experience like?
Hunt: When we got into the festival, it was done. We brought in two composers. Once we were in, we were really quite serious about getting the score. We really couldn’t use the temp score. Once we got it to Sundance, it was already done. We had titles. We just hadn’t seen it in front of a crowd. In terms of positioning it, what happened in my case was, and I’m not sure how this happened, but I don’t think it’s a secret, the big agencies, William Morris, etc., learned about the film and started calling up and saying they wanted to get a sales agent to see it. That was tricky. We didn’t know if we were in Sundance or not. That seemed like a lot of trust. Do we show it? What if we don’t get in afterward? We did end up showing it…having no idea if anyone would buy the film. For me, the whole experience was about connecting to an audience. Did the film work? Were people getting it? William Morris would report that so and so saw it today. I think it sold on the fourth day before it won the Grand Jury Prize. I went into this little house and met Tom Bernard and Michael Barker from Sony Pictures Classics. It was really kind of mom and pop in that sense.
Stover: At any time when you were editing, when you’re finishing your film and get it into a festival, do you show it to an acquisitions person before it screens at the festival? Is it a pro or con doing that?
Hunt: We didn’t have any acquisitions people asking to see it. I don’t think I would have done that. Here’s the thing…it’s not like they helped me fund the film, so I felt like they could wait to see it. If you’re coming in with post money, that’s one thing.
Gertler: If you’re first-time filmmaker, how do you help to manage their expectations when submitting to your festival?
Neece: If they’ve already been accepted, it’s just a matter of getting calls from agents and sometimes acquisitions folks. You have to ask yourself the questions…are you going to get a publicist? A sales agent? I think publicists are worth the money, especially for the press. If you get press, that may in turn may get distributors to want to see the film. I don’t know about sales agents. It just depends on what you want. What are you looking for? Are you looking for exposure of people to just look at your film?
Stover: What’s the game plan for publicity at festivals?
Rosefelt: I can speak to what you might be doing as a filmmaker to take your film to a festival. Not all of you are going to be able to afford a publicist. The first thing when you’re creating your materials is you want to keep them really short, because you’re making this thing for a critic or a journalist who is seeing three or four films a day and doing interviews, going to parties. In general, reviews from festivals are very small paragraphs. When creating your materials, think about the person who’ll actually be using this. Keep it very economical. If you feel like you have to give them this long essay about your film, put it on your website because they’ll get that written piece of material when they go to the screening or at the press office. If it’s too long, they’re just going to give cast and credits. The other thing that’s really important is stills. You really want to have a picture that makes your film like something you want to see. It indicated what kind of movie it is. Let’s say your film has erotic content, whenever you shoot a scene, where the actors are naked, you usually ask the still photographer to leave the room so that at the end of the movie, you don’t have anything that looks like what the movie is actually about, because you never took anything. You can set up photos while you’re shooting. It’s commonly done. Francis Coppola does it. You just come in and pose everybody. You can talk to the producer and director and discuss what stills you would like to have. Just make sure you get them. If you get to the end of the movie and you don’t have a still, stage one. If you get into Sundance, they’re going to call and ask you to send them a still. That doesn’t mean send us a still next week, it means send us a still right now. You’ve got to think about that. You’re trying to get something that will make people want to see your film. You always have to create some kind of short synopsis. I suggest a book called I Wake Up Screening by Laura Kim and John Adamson. It’s really the best book I know of about preparing for festivals.
Gertler: How do you prepare for a festival?
Kampe: Primarily we’re doing international sales. We come in on two different scenarios. First is the easy scenario – Cannes, Toronto or Berlin. We would come on board after we see an announcement. What we want to do is come on board as early as possible because we need to put our marketing and PR people behind the film. There’s so many titles that are out for sale, we want to start to differentiate them. As soon as the announcement comes out, we ask for screeners. The second scenario is that we want to get on as early as possible to start selling the international options. If we’re on at the script or shooting stage, what that allows us to do is look at it and see which festivals might take it. As a first-time filmmaker, you probably don’t have the connections with Sundance, Toronto or Berlin. As a company, we place the films with the right programmers.
Quinn: We’re a little different then some of our competitors because we deal with a wide range of films. This month, we just distributed “What Just Happened?” “Man on Wire,” a small Chilean film starring a martial arts star. It’s a pretty wide palate. We travel to every single festival that we deem half important from Sundance to Cannes to Toronto, but we also travel to Austin twice a year to SXSW and Fantastic Film Fest. We basically track the crap out of these movies. At Toronto, there were 140 films. It’s a constant filtering process. The way we do that is look at the sign posts along the way, which are reviews, art work, trailers. How do we get to the point where we deem these films to be priority films. It’s a very long-winded process. My personal preference is seeing movies at 3am in my own house. I know it’s important for filmmakers to send their films to the right festivals, but by the same token, I have to say that we’re one of the few companies that buys a lot of blind submissions.
Stover: What’s the issue of showing your film to an acquisitions person before anyone else sees it?
Quinn: It’s a bad idea. It’s a constant barter of information. What is this other company screening? What do they think? It’s a very small circle. I call it a circus of acquisition execs who throughout the world really know each other well. That’s a bad way to launch your film. It’s very important for you to pick a company you trust and will not discuss your film with anyone else. Whether you want to sign a non-disclosure agreement, we’re happy to do that. There are other companies that are sort of like the mafia and work behind closed doors in not letting other people know about what they see. It’s a risk.
Gertler: When preparing for Sundance, what did you discuss with your agents about goals?
Hunt: It was more like, this is who we know. This is who may be interested in it. It depends on what kind of film you’re making. If you’re making a very experimental film, you have to be really careful about showing it to the wrong acquisitions person. On the other hand, if you have confidence in the work, there probably is a good argument for showing it. We didn’t really talk about strategy so much. We really talked about how the film impacted the audience.
Gertler: How many films do you see a year?
Quinn: I did a study in January looking at how people do in the marketplace, especially films I care about. $5 million and under grossing films. They’re independent films that are usually released on 600 prints or under. In the last eight years, that number has doubled and yet that audience hasn’t grown theatrically. Specialty, performance-driven films like Tell No One, Frozen River, and Man on Wire. I think there were fewer films in the marketplace, at least for that particular audience in the middle of the summer. I think “The Sky is Falling” and all that stuff going on around us, there’s going to be less films on the acquisitions side and would be distributed in the marketplace potentially. I would love to see less films. I would love to see festivals like Toronto decrease in size. I would like to see more quality over quantity in terms of premiere status.
Gertler: What’s the relationship between acquisitions and film festivals?
Neece: Premiere status is pretty important these days. You have to play the game. You have to do research. It’s competitive. SXSW gets 3,500 submissions and plays over 200 films and 90 shorts.
Quinn: We go to SXSW and Fantastic Fest to find an overlooked nugget, but also to see what’s really a healthy theatrical audience. My favorite theater chain is there, The Alamo Drafthouse. We bought films at both festivals last year. It worked really well for us. Same thing for the Woodstock Film Festival.