Film festivals hold a special place in the film industry. It’s a place where content creators, buyers, and sellers get together to appreciate great film and make some deals. If you make or invest in film content, there’s a good chance you’ll attend a film festival at least once, but you’ll probably attend several.
While you’re at a film festival, it’s important to maximize the value of your time. Tickets usually aren’t cheap, and in many cases, you’ll have to travel. In this article, I’m going to help you get the most value out of attending a film festival. This advice will help you make friends, grow as a professional, and avoid the Hollywood con man.
Pick the Right Festival
If you’re new to the industry (whether as a producer, director, actor, writer, or investor), it’s not all that important to be at the big festivals. I mean, go to them if you want to see good movies, but they aren’t right for amateurs. I’m talking about Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, Venice, Karlovy Vary, San Sebastian and Sundance. This is the major league.
These festivals are mostly studio promo events. Sellers go to these festivals expecting big buyers. Buyers go looking to make deals with proven filmmakers. Once they find out you can’t offer much, they’ll quickly move on. Some of those players aren’t there to make deals at all. They already have deals ready to go, they just want the buzz or the awards.
It’s better, therefore, to attend a festival more representative of your experience in the industry. Attend festivals like Los Angeles Film Festival, Telluride, Edinburgh, and SXSW. People at these festivals will be looking to make deals, find material, scout talent, etc.
That said, there are a lot of film festivals and most of them are worthless. They basically sell awards to anyone who wants to put a trophy on their shelf. Do some research before you buy a plane ticket.
Prepare to be Social
There’s no sense attending a film festival if you won’t be social and meet people. You’ll need to buy drinks, have dinner, ask questions, and introduce yourself all day long.
It also helps to have some answers prepared for typical questions like “What do you do?” “What brought you here?” and “What have you made recently?” Questions like these are common icebreakers people use to turn polite conversation to business.
If you’re going back to a film festival that you have attended in the past, you’ll want to call anyone you know that may be there this year. Invite them to meet up with you at some point for a drink, a meal, or to see a specific film together. Use this as an opportunity to connect with someone you wouldn’t normally see.
Meet Foreign Sales Agents
If you are a filmmaker or an investor it’s unlikely that a foreign distributor will work with you directly. They prefer to go through foreign sales agents who have vetted and screened your movie. These sales agents are an important and integral part of a filmmakers’ success in the worldwide market.
The sales agent will take your property to the foreign distributors and exhibitors to find local market exhibition (theatres and all other avenues to drive sales). This service comes at a cost, of course. Usually 10% to 15% (I’ve heard they can be as high as 25%, but I’ve never actually seen that happen).
Avoid the Con Men
Yes, the Hollywood Con Man pops up at film festivals, too, even though they aren’t in Hollywood. You’ll need to dodge these con men, especially if they find out you are looking to invest in films or have already raised money for your film (basically, they can smell money).
A Con Man can also take the form of sales agents. They hide in plain view. They make lots of promises and claims, but can’t actually show you anything. They might hand you a sheet with estimates or timelines or other impressive numbers, but it’s all bullshit. A sales agent is only legitimate if they introduce you to bankable distributors. Ask about deals they’ve closed, who they represent, and what they’re supporting at the festival.
Furthermore, you can tell if a con man is legitimate by how they dress and what they drive. Sales agents “eat what they kill.” If they aren’t killing (closing distribution deals), they aren’t eating. They display their ability to sell by wearing nice clothes and driving expensive cars.
Buy a Damn Badge
All of the film festivals have different prices and levels of access. Some people like to avoid paying the entrance fee by sneaking in. Others pay the general admission price but don’t buy tickets to see the actual films. They try to cop unused tickets or sneak into theaters. I don’t recommend these methods.
Just pay the fee (for the festivals where you can buy a ticket) so you can walk around freely, see whatever you want and meet anyone. Sure, some ticket can cost a lot (most are not too expensive), and of course you’ll have to travel to the festival and stay in the area. But that’s just the cost of doing business.
Meet Talented People
Festivals are big networking events. They’re full of talented people with enough skill to make movies people actually want to see. They have navigated their way through the system. They have lots of people pulling on their sleeves, trying to get their attention. These are the kinds of people who can make an impact on your career.
It’s tempting to stick to your wheelhouse. If you’re a writer, you can talk easily with other writers. But writers are just one piece of a film’s puzzle. Use the film festival to connect with buyers, producers, editors, directors, and other players who can collaborate on material.
Furthermore, meet some distributors if you can. Find out who the real ones are – the ones actually closing deals and making money. You may not work with them in the near future, but it helps to know which are legitimate.
Don’t Fall in Love
If you’re an investor and happen to mention that to anyone, you’ll get piles of paper (scripts, finished movies, etc): LLC documents, PPMs, and plenty of shit that doesn’t look legitimate. Everything will explain how that particular movie is “amazing” and set up to make buckets of money.
Try to not to fall in love with anything too much. Don’t make any commitments, either. Some of those pictures could have promise. Some will be garbage. You need someone experienced to look through it and tell you if anything has value.
Eat up all the Feedback
Let’s say you get your film into a festival. People actually watch it in a real theater. Don’t be afraid to ask for their opinions. Some people will flatter you with bullshit, but plenty will give you honest criticism if you seem open to it.
It’s important to take their feedback seriously. Filmmaking is a skill you build over time through repetition. Talent in the film business is having ideas. Executing those ideas is an operational element. You have to learn how to write with structure, how to block a scene, how to light it, how to find good actors, how to direct actors, and how to move a story forward (without a bunch of useless shoe leather). You can always get better.
If you take feedback seriously and polish your craft, you can move up into more prestigious film festivals where more people will pay attention to you & your work. In this sense, you can use your film festival performance as a barometer for your skill level.
Remember this: Winning a low-level film festival doesn’t mean you’re the shit. It just means you have enough skill to keep progressing. You still need to develop your skill set into something professional that the market wants, but you’re on the way.
Oh, and if you send your film to multiple festivals and no one will show it, learn to move on quickly. It’s not likely to get in anywhere else. There’s no sense beating a dead horse.
Most Importantly: Have Fun
Film festivals are great tools to meet people in the industry and set up deals. But don’t forget to take some time to appreciate the content. Film festivals are a front row seat to some really good movies. Even better, you get to see them before everyone else. If you love movies as much as I do, I know you’ll have a great time.
If you’re going to spend the time and money to attend a film festival, I strongly encourage you to take this advice seriously. If you follow my tips, you will maximize the value of your experience.