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Enlisting Your Audience as Soldiers of PR: A Film Festival Primer

By David Becker

For all the changes that are reshaping the way films reach audiences in this brave new world of hybrid distribution, service deals and Internet distribution, most new documentaries are reaching their first audiences in a familiar way: at a film festival premiere.

But how has the changing distribution landscape impacted what is--and will be--the most effective film festival strategy?

About a year ago, Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie, a film I produced, premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival. It has been an unforgettable year of traveling with the film, meeting other filmmakers and talking to enthusiastic audiences about a film that was 10 years in the making, by first-time director Michelle Esrick. 

The team behind Saint Misbehavin' has learned as we go how to best reach our audience in this era when distribution models are in flux. It turns out we're not alone.

 "We are forging our way," says marketing strategist Lisa Smithline, who helped launch activism-inspiring documentaries like Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price with director Robert Greenwald. "It's an exciting new world, but it's all different. We're looking at the new model of what a filmmaker is...and the fact that the ‘sign on the dotted line' situation is often not there. So what do we do?"

For starters, filmmakers can expand their concept of where their film will premiere. For most, a Sundance or Toronto premiere is still the ideal. But a successful launch can also begin at a growing number of other festivals.

To publicist and public relations consultant David Magdael, who helped launch Super Size Me (Dir.: Morgan Spurlock) and last year's "hybrid" hit Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Dir.: Sacha Gervasi) at the 2004 and 2008 Sundance Film Festivals, respectively, that you find your audience is more important than where you find it. "Maybe your film is better served at South by Southwest or at a documentary festival--[and] don't discount Slamdance," says Magdael. "It depends on who your audience is."

Regional festivals and themed festivals offer filmmakers audience-building opportunities that larger festivals sometimes do not. The intimacy, common interests and passion of these audiences make them important elements of a festival strategy.

Identifying your audience is something that filmmakers should do long before logging onto or mailing out their first festival application. Smithline notes, "One of the things I tell a filmmaker is that if you can start thinking of a release strategy before shooting one frame of film, the benefits are really incredible."

As filmmakers take on a more proactive role in the distribution of their films, audience building is replacing deal signing as the primary goal at festivals. "Six-or seven-figure deals are not as available as they were in the past," Magdael notes. "But as a way to launch your film, film festivals are still important and a way to position the film for a larger audience. I'm into letting core audiences embrace the film and make them our new soldiers of PR."  

Building and nurturing an audience at film festivals can provide filmmakers with a valuable resource. This army of fans spreads the word about films online and by word of mouth. They are essential to the success of any distribution plan.

Smithline cautions filmmakers against pigeonholing themselves and their audiences. "I challenge the [traditional] ‘core audience' idea...and look for the unusual suspects who engage in a way other people wouldn't. What I do advise is to look first at what will be the best audience for my film and help it get to the next level, get to the right people to impact my design."

That design, for Smithline and others, increasingly includes an amalgam of festival, theatrical and non-theatrical screenings. Smithline looks to museums, local organizations and even AA groups as potential venues and audiences. These screenings can happen concurrently with the festival run.

Festivals are often the place where filmmakers first meet local organizations, activists and others who want to partner for screenings or outreach. Different from traditional distributors, the relationships formed at festivals can become what Smithline calls "distribution partners." For filmmakers who are embarking on self-distribution, these partners are important parts of the outreach, advertising and word-of-mouth that will drive broader audiences to theatrical runs and non-theatrical events.

"I try not to go in the traditional stages," says Smithline. "But I look at what's best for your film. Waiting from one stage to the next is the old model, and that's not working well. Why not have DVDs available then and there at the festival, with the audience that is most motivated to buy a DVD?"

Smithline's question echoes the much-discussed "Declaration of Independence" by distribution consultant Peter Broderick, a proponent of "hybrid distribution." Although Broderick's "Principles of Hybrid Distribution" don't address film festivals directly, his proposals imply that festivals are the place to start building an audience in new and innovative ways.

Because each film and each audience is different, it's hard to prescribe a strict number of festivals to which filmmakers should apply. Other factors, such as the ultimate distribution goals and how quickly the filmmaker wants to start the next film, impact the festival strategy. 

Filmmakers, who are often neck-deep in creative and technical details up to the moment of their premiere, need to find ways to plan their festival strategy in advance. And festival strategies no longer simply answer the question, "Where do I want to premiere?"

A successful strategy will see the film from its premiere through the long calendar of festivals to its commercial release. Filmmakers should consider more than one path to their audience, since there are very few sure things in the world of film distribution today.

As films reach new audiences, ideally picking up a few awards along the way, a handful of high profile festivals and a steady pace of regional festivals can all build toward commercial success. 

 "Pace yourself," says Magdael. "It's not a sprint, it's a marathon. Sales do not happen overnight. Some might take a month, some might take a year."

Magdael strongly recommends budgeting for your festival premiere well in advance, citing at least a $20,000 price tag for a Sundance premiere, including publicity fees, marketing materials, and the cost of getting film subjects or talent to the festival. While some festivals offer screening fees and travel vouchers, filmmakers need to give themselves time to turn audience enthusiasm into revenue.

But at the same time, festivals offer much more than commercial opportunities. They can often be life-changing and affirming experiences for filmmakers. Once you get to the festival, "RSVP to everything," Magdael advises. "It's a small community and you are now part of it."

Building strong relationships with festival programmers, journalists, fellow filmmakers and potential funders is an invaluable part of the festival experience. Taking a film to the next level depends on those relationships, and festivals are where to forge them.

As for Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie, we realized on the run that the distribution models that existed a few years ago weren't necessarily going to best serve the film today. It has been an unforgettable journey--at times difficult, but at many more times inspiring and exciting. About a year after our premiere, we're weighing our options, with offers from traditional distributors on one hand and budgets for theatrical service deals on the other. 

Either way, we know there's a small, very peaceful army of fans just waiting to help us take the film out to the world. And that's why we feel our festival run was a success.


David Becker is a documentary filmmaker and Boys & Girls Club after-school counselor in Saugerties, NY.