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Festival Express: Can the Fest Circuit Empower Your Film's Distribution Strategy?

By Pamela Cohn

Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Toronto--the high mantra of any filmmaker thinking about his or her film's festival run. Where to world premiere? Which programmer to trust with watching a rough cut or work-in-progress? From whom to seek advice about the best possible rollout, domestically and internationally? Which festivals will provide the largest audiences, the most optimal screening times, the PR and marketing that will get people to buy tickets and show up to the film? Which festivals provide round-trip transportation, accommodations, per diems for food and drink, and other costs associated with taking a film on the road? Do you consider this your theatrical exhibition and ask for screening fees and other related costs? What kinds of networking opportunities will you have with other filmmakers, industry executives and commissioning editors? What value, if any, will playing at certain festivals offer for your professional future?

The considerations and deliberations can be endless, aggravating, bewildering--and not just for the novice filmmaker. But as Jim Browne, Tribeca Film Festival programmer and principal of Argot Pictures, a New York-based independent distribution and production company, says, "Your festival run is part of your film's release strategy--essentially the launch of your film out into the marketplace. So, have a strategy!"

The Sundance Film Festival is one of the few venues that can now offer some kind of built-in strategy for a select number of films that debut there. Sundance Film Festival USA, a traveling exhibition in which the Park City, Utah fest brings direct-from-festival filmmakers and their films to theaters in eight cities, premiered during the 2010 festival. The news out of Park City wasn't a total surprise, since talk of just this kind of extra-festival exhibition scenario had been bandied about in programming and filmmaking circles for a while, spearheaded for the most part by Geoffrey Gilmore, who left his leadership role at Sundance last year to creatively oversee Tribeca Film Enterprises.

These conversations center on the idea that film festivals could possibly play other roles besides a showcase for fresh, innovative work or a platform for filmmakers to meet potential audiences and fans. But can, or should, festivals act as hybrid discovery showcases, taking some films directly to cinemas? Should they be quasi-distribution mechanisms--or distribution enablers, if you will? And if so, can they stay true to their core values and missions?

 "Festivals struggle in the best of times," says Thom Powers, documentary programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival.  "Distribution is not an opportunity that looks like a winning financial one." Lest we forget, festival darlings and best sellers in the marketplace can be two very distinct things. Muddying already muddy waters is not the way forward, for either filmmaker or programmer.

Given that the community has seen a number of significant changes at the helms of many festivals over the past year or so, Documentary wanted to investigate how the current festival model is--or is not--working and, more importantly, what they need to continue to offer to stay viable. What follows is a very circumscribed snapshot of what's happening here in the US (with a couple of significant weigh-ins from the UK and Canada) in terms of how some of the top programmers perceive the terrain. We also spoke to a few filmmakers who have had the beneficial experience of doing a circuit or two.

All of the programmers with whom I spoke believe strongly in bringing festival films out into their communities in a variety of semi-theatrical or full theatrical settings, enabling audiences hungry for new and original fare to get a steady stream of it year ‘round-the opportunity to experience screenings "direct from the festival." In addition to his position in Toronto, Powers runs Stranger Than Fiction, a documentary screening series, out of the IFC Center in New York City. Sean Farnel, head of programming at Hot Docs, founded DocSoup out of Toronto; filmmakers who have screened as part of that series are astounded when they play to a packed house of 1,000 people. The San Francisco Film Society partners with the Sundance Kabuki Theater to bring week-long engagements of festival faves to that city's denizens, and new director Rachel Rosen has plans to expand upon that. There continue to be plans afoot among many other festivals to offer similar curatorial packages to extra-festival communities. Most programmers have already realized the value of that.

In an interview I conducted with Sky Sitney, SilverDocs' artistic director, in February 2009, she stated unequivocally that "Every film is its own universe." In terms of this ongoing conversation, she feels, "It glosses over something critical; what festivals provide are one of the few stable areas where a filmmaker's desire to connect with audiences is met." Filmmaker Havana Marking concurs: "The one thing I have learned from my festival experience with Afghan Star is that every film is different, every festival is different, and that a personalized approach to distribution and the circuit is required for each."

One grows up fast on the festival circuit, learning an infinite array of lessons and cautionary tales to take into the next go-round, and that's the best thing to come out of it. Everyone acknowledges that the filmmakers drive the circuit. They are the content-providers; they are the artists looking for support and community and some sort of infrastructure into which they can pour their deepest ambitions, and meet people who can help them further their careers.  In essence, this is what the best festivals currently provide, isn't it? The programmers like to think so. Most of them also think it's a bit misguided to keep having conversations wherein a festival run can be thought of as ancillary to a distribution strategy. It is part and parcel of taking a film to market, period--especially if one wants theatrical play.

But to throw something over the transom willy-nilly and hope for the best is naïve, and gives a festival acceptance or rejection far too much weight since, as Withoutabox's director of festivals, Christian Gaines, puts it, "Any one person's opinion is informed by the reality of his or her own business model." A festival's interests do not necessarily align with those of any given filmmaker submitting to that festival. However, when a filmmaker is given a slot, he or she should have a very specific list of objectives at that festival and then let the directors know what those objectives are. This is the best way to ensure that festivals will keep their focus on creating filmmaker-centric events.

In fact, a filmmaker can do a lot to enhance the festival experience that goes beyond the purview of the festival itself. "When we go to a festival and they are graciously paying our way, I try to take full advantage of being in the city," Ashley Sabin, who co-directs and produces documentaries and runs a distribution company called Carnivalesque Films with her partner, David Redmon. "I try to book one of our other films not playing the festival at another venue, which includes colleges, high schools, organizations and/or museums. With these screenings and the film festival screenings, it's possible for us to sell a healthy amount of DVDs afterward and collect names and contact information to build our fan base."

In the case of David Wilson and Paul Sturtz's True/False Festival out of Columbia, Missouri, filmmakers, programmers, fest directors, and especially the town of Columbia, agree that Wilson and Sturtz have created one of the top festival destinations in the country. Because it is such a highly curated event, in no way driven by market forces or the hottest thing out of anywhere, filmmakers feel a real sense of accomplishment when garnering a slot in the program there. Wilson, a filmmaker himself, maintains that he and Sturtz have no desire to become a market, or coalesce with other markets. What they can provide is a watermark of sorts; in years to come, True/False aims to become more like an old-fashioned record label, with something along the lines of a branded collection that can be sold on various sites, and also perhaps be a fully fleshed-out road show sometime down the line. There are still many ways in which festivals should be allowed to grow and partner financially with filmmakers.

But is moving over to the distribution side of things where those efforts should be concentrated? To be a nonprofit entity while trying to be a market-and-bottom-line-driven one seems foolhardy and counterproductive. Except for those deep-pocketed festivals, it's not a viable business model. Christian Gaines has over 20 years' experience programming and directing festivals, including all the fests run under the American Film Institute banner. He maintains, "Festivals need to go back to their core values--honoring the artist by showing his or her work with the best possible picture and sound and enhancing the audience/filmmaker relationship as much as possible."

Of course, some festivals and markets do provide a pretty close to perfect market experience if your distinct purpose is to do some business-provided that you're thoroughly prepared to do so if you get the privilege to attend a venue like Hot Docs or the Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK. Heather Croall, Sheffield's director, has been concentrating on cross-platform distribution since 2000. "We introduced the MeetMarket as an alternative to the public pitching forums," she says. "I did a lot of one-to-one research with commissioners to ask them what they wanted, and designed the MeetMarket around the results of that research, taking a user-centered approach to it to make sure it actually did what the buyers wanted. This is why we have designed the MeetMarket as we have, with a very sophisticated online match-making system in advance that makes sure the buyers, in the main, only meet the projects that fall within what they're looking for. We've seen growth so rapidly because of the bespoke treatment we give each project. So far, it's been very successful at getting real deals happening."

Hot Docs stages the largest and most important international pitching forum in North America, and has forged partnership deals with national theatrical distributors and created a DVD brand called "The Hot Docs Collection" with Kinosmith for a few select films coming out of the festival that get moved directly into public exhibition. Observes Farnel, "Given that film festivals appear to be thriving, at least in terms of audience growth, while other sectors, namely distribution and commercial exhibition, flounder, there does seem to be a growing consensus that film festivals could provide a spine to whatever new distribution/exhibition model(s) emerge in the coming years...The core change that is central to all of these so-called hybrid strategies, however, is that a film has to be 100 percent ready to enter the commercial market on the heels of--or even concurrent with--a festival premiere. That's a game-changer for festivals... If one festival, or an alliance of festivals, starts negotiating with rights holders to distribute a given film, what are the terms? Will the rights holders get their fair share of the revenue pie, which includes not only revenue from ticket sales, but also sponsorship revenues? 

 "Film festivals are the only arts-based events that do not pay fees for their content," Farnel continues. "Obviously, in a model in which festivals take on more ownership of the distribution life of a film, ‘free' won't sustain the production of new work to feed the market...We have to work together to transition to a model in which rights holders begin to tangibly share in the revenues generated by film festivals, modest though they are."

The year 2009 was a watershed, providing many exciting moments directly off the festival circuit, where we saw truly groundbreaking work in the ways that filmmakers marketed and exhibited their films. The array of choices will only grow as the technology advances and production budgets start to properly reflect the costs of DIY distribution and marketing, enhanced by a small team dedicated specifically to that phase of a film's lifecycle. This is no small thing to lose sight of.

Many have finally woken up to the fact that there are audiences in Alabama and Arizona and West Virginia and Kansas and Indiana that want what New York and San Francisco audiences have in abundance--the chance to see first-run features fresh off their festival run in the cinema. These places have great festivals, as well as a great art-house cinema culture. All you have to do is look at the theaters across the country where Emerging Pictures and Fathom bring the Metropolitan Opera or the New York City Ballet to big screens. A few documentary filmmakers have very successfully staged one-night-only special events that played in over 450 theaters across the country simultaneously, like Franny Armstrong's The Age of Stupid, Gini Reticker's Pray the Devil Back to Hell and several others.

In his "New Year: New Model" article, December 21, 2009, indieWIRE founder Eugene Hernandez observed, "Numerous filmmakers and producers are talking about these sorts of alternative approaches right now...There is a lot going on and I find it reassuring that months of talking about and experimenting with new models in 2009 will lead to more direct action among even bigger players in 2010."

In the same issue of indieWIRE, entertainment lawyer Steven Beer wrote, "For many independent filmmakers and producers, 2010--starting with the upcoming Sundance Film Festival-figures to be a watershed year and the beginning of a Decade of Filmmaker Empowerment. After years of disenchantment with traditional all-rights distribution deals, filmmakers and producers are poised to take matters into their own hands and forge a truly independent path to marketing and distributing their films."

It's a new decade with fresh beginnings. Get in the game.


Pamela Cohn is a New York-based independent media producer, theatrical outreach and social engagement producer, film programmer, and freelance arts journalist writing for many publications and sites including Hammer to Nail, Filmmaker Magazine and DOX Magazine. She writes a well-regarded blog on nonfiction filmmaking called Still in Motion.