SundanceFestivals have changed drastically over the years, growing over time in ways that have significantly benefitted film distribution. Festivals are no longer just a way to show a film or a chance to make a deal with a distributor; rather, they’ve become a way for a filmmaker to develop his fan base by gauging their likes and dislikes.

Some people belittle festival growth over the last ten years; nevertheless, their importance cannot be denied. Festivals are great for collecting data about their attendees, which is a vital resource for filmmakers. Year-round screenings have been put in place by some festivals in order to maintain a relationship with their audience. As a result, when filmmakers need to contact a local organization that truly cares about their craft, they have an automatic go-to organization waiting for them: the festival. Therefore, we must do everything possible to encourage the continued expansion of these festivals, as they benefit the film community.

The Obsolete Film Festival

In the past, independent film makers saw festivals as a way for producers to sell a film. Some festivals became the main conduit between independent filmmakers and distributors; a few examples would be  Sundance/Slamdance, Los Angeles Film Festival, South by Southwest, and Tribeca.. As a result, filmmakers often needed to do the following if they were accepted into a major film festival:

  • Hire a sales representative. In fact, this step usually had to be done BEFORE a film was accepted to a festival, since the rep could very well increase the chance of festival acceptance.
  • Keep the film secret until the festival. This secrecy forced distributors to watch the independent film in a theatrical environment without interruption with other unbiased film lovers.
  • Fill the seats. The bigger a film’s audience, the higher the profit potential in distributors’ eyes.
  • Spend, spend, spend! Filmmakers had to hire a publicist, and it was not unreasonable to spend between $8,000 and $15,000 just at Sundance and Tribeca. Additional money spent on promotion, travel costs for the film’s stars, and parties helped to hype a particular film. That hype could later result in a bidding war over the distributing rights to the film. All things considered, it was not unusual for filmmakers to spend upwards of $30,000 to promote their festival premiere.

These steps need to be reevaluated, since past deals made at festivals like these aren’t similar to the deals being made today.

Rethinking the Festival

Blindly following these steps without first creating a strategy for the film has a real chance of hurting a filmmaker’s access to distribution. Beginning the film’s distribution at the world premiere festival is one possible idea. After all, holding the film back in hopes of a future sale could delay the film from being released at the best possible time.

For example, if a film gets a lot of buzz at Sundance but then delays its theatrical release in hopes of snagging a distributor, it will lose the momentum of public attention. If the film doesn’t get a distributor very quickly, then its chances of having a successful release (or of eventually getting a distributor) drop precipitously. Festivals create so much hype; it’s difficult for an independent filmmaker to match that type of promotional buzz on his own. Festivals, therefore, are invaluable to the independent filmmaker’s distribution strategy.

The Sales Platform

Any respectable sales rep should be able to determine if there is a market for a film in advance of a festival. Filmmakers who are advised that there isn’t a strong market shouldn’t be discouraged, however, since they are in the same situation as roughly 95% of the other films being produced that year. When a film does get accepted into a premiere sales-oriented festival, the filmmaker should consider a pre-screen for distributors in advance of the festival.

Alternative Sales Strategies for Filmmakers

Use the festival screening as your film’s theatrical release premiere.

Festivals are an economical way to premiere a film that is about to be released. They serve as both film screening and celebration, allowing the filmmaker to stir up a level of hype that can be difficult to create in a different atmosphere. Stars coming to the party bring press with them, and the coverage of the festival gives a film the chance to appear on news shows like Access Hollywood. However, a filmmaker should use caution if he plans to transition to a conventional theatrical release in the same city. Many theaters don’t like to share their audiences with a film festival; still, they have also been known to see the promotional value of the festival’s hype.

Use the festival screening as the only theatrical release.

When filmmakers are short on funds, they can use the film festival as an alternative to financing a theatrical release. The hype and publicity from the festival can then be used to support their ancillaries (such as DVD sales).

Use the festival screening as the foundation for other live events.

Filmmakers can book their film to be screened at other venues in conjunction with the festival premiere. This provides even greater hype to support the film’s ancillaries.

Use Festival Direct.

IFC uses the festival premiere and run of the film to promote the ancillary VOD release.

Conduct a Do-It-Yourself Launch.

If a filmmaker doesn’t want to bring the IFC’s Festival Direct program into his plans, he can set everything up on his own. This option allows the filmmaker more freedom, since s/he doesn’t have to worry about contractual agreements. Filmmakers who choose this option must organize their revenue streams to coincide with the festival premiere. In addition to having the finished film, this option requires that other releases are ready to go, such as live event/theatrical, DVD, VOD, etc.

Some Additional Notes for Novice Filmmakers

For first time filmmakers, a lot of these strategies don’t work because of either a lack of understanding or, more likely, a lack of money. If a filmmaker is able to get into a festival but lacks the resources to follow these strategies, s/he can still use the festival hype to book alternate showings of the film. The resulting reviews from those showings will be great for future use.

A filmmaker can get into a second prominent festival, as well, which would allow a premiere at one festival and a theatrical launch at the other. However, this tends to be a more difficult route.

Yet another option to consider following a film’s festival premiere is to focus on a few cities for a film’s theatrical release. Then the film can branch out to the rest of the release with community screenings.

Overall, it is always highly recommended to do a full evaluation of the film and its distribution possibilities, in addition to coming up with a strategy for the film’s release, well in advance of the festival premiere.