Tales from the Trenches: Good Fests, Bad Fests: A Primer
Over the past decade, film festivals have grown into a year-round festival industry, one that seems to have spread to every medium-sized US and foreign city. By the year 2000, when my film Good Kurds, Bad Kurds was released, there were hundreds of festivals with paid staffs and budgets underwritten by chambers of commerce, public and corporate grants and, as every indie producer knows, spiraling submission fees.
Good Kurds, Bad Kurds didn't play at Cannes, Berlin, Sundance or Toronto, but the film's hearty reception at fine festivals like Vancouver, Sydney, Santa Barbara, Copenhagen, South Africa, Denver and Atlanta provided key exposure for distribution deals both in the US and abroad.
I submitted Good Kurds, Bad Kurds to approximately 100 festivals; about 35 selected it for screening. Here are some things I've learned from the overall experience:
1. Don't say yes to every invitation. The number of festivals is growing like weeds. Most are legitimate, but some will take your money and leave you wondering. Most of the rejection notices I received were form letters, at least, but a number of festivals where I sent the $50 or $75 submission fee never responded at all. If you have any doubt, research the festival on the Internet or ask the programmer to send you the catalogue from the previous year. I happened to be in Las Vegas, and I decided to hand-deliver my check and application to the address listed on the fancy brochure and was taken aback when I discovered the locked “festival office”—a third floor walk-up apartment, where yellowed newspapers, junk mail and a few outdated Fed-Ex packages with tapes from hopeful applicants were scattered at the doorstep.
2. Even if airfare and hotel charges are picked up, you spend scads of unpaid time away from filmmaking, incurring expenses you wouldn't at home. It was great to see new films, meet other directors and sit on documentary panels, but distribution came late in the rounds of festival visits and at times I wondered whether I was just duplicating the adventure travel I did in my 20s.
3. If you've made a political film, controversy engendered by festival exposure may help—but it also may hurt. At a festival in Korea, representatives of the Turkish embassy demanded to be seated on stage during my Q&A session with the audience. The festival director told them that if they wanted to be in a festival, they should make a film of their own. But at a series of films in Washington, DC, the Smithsonian Institute cancelled the invitation for Good Kurds, Bad Kurds, apparently concerned about member reaction or funding.
4. Nothing tops immediate feedback. At almost every festival the majority of the audience remained for the post-film discussion. It’s a 79-minute film, and lively give-and-takes afterwards sometimes lasted for 40 minutes. I never knew what to expect each time the credits came up, and I found it exhilarating.
5. Things are negotiable. While some festivals pay nothing for the director to attend, others will pay either the air ticket, accommodations or a needed rental car. If festivals really want the film, they'll pay for everything and, occasionally, even negotiate a rental fee.
6. Make friends with the projectionist and be sure to do a test well before the audience arrives. I had a special screening in the US Congress, which was delayed when the hired audiovisual firm turned up late without a valuable piece of equipment—the projector. At a New Mexico festival, both my screenings were ruined, the first by broken equipment and the second by an inexperienced operator who didn't know how to calibrate the Betacam projector.
7. Sometimes festival publicists can make your day. The houses were full when Good Kurds, Bad Kurds played at Lincoln Center in New York, at least in part because Human Rights Watch International had connections at The New York Times, which gave the film a good review. But at some festivals the publicists are spread too thin to give your film adequate attention. I found that sending review copies directly to reviewers, rather than to publicists, can boost the chances of coverage. Including a striking production still also increases the likelihood.
8. If you're self-distributing a film, festivals also help to sell videos. I used my film website (firstname.lastname@example.org) for both festival listings and ordering video copies by credit card. All festivals have their own websites, which, in turn, will link to yours. This helped with video sales, especially to colleges and public libraries, and it even resulted in opportunities to speak at universities located in the festival cities.
In the latter half of my year on the road, a number of festivals initiated contact, invited the film and waived application fees. Still, my estimated submission and attendance costs, including travel, press kits, posters, promotional photos and cassette duplication, was about $5,000 for the 12 months. In my case, festival exposure and a half-dozen awards finally put my documentary “on the radar” at PBS, and Good Kurds, Bad Kurds is scheduled for national broadcast this fall. The last year has been quite a ride, both exhilarating and exhausting.
Now it's time to go back to filmmaking...
Kevin McKiernan is an attorney-turned-filmmaker/journalist. He is the recipient of two Armstrong awards for PBS radio documentaries, and has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His reports and footage have been broadcast by ABC, NBC and CBS’ 60 Minutes. His films include the Frontline documentary The Spirit of Crazy Horse.