The Filmmakers' View: Fest Vets DeStefano, Hogarth and Green Recommend Doing Your Homework
In the last year I've been on a number of panels about film festival strategies. It's clear that there isn't one simple plan that will work for every film. But in order to have a positive experience on the festival circuit, filmmakers should do some serious thinking about what it is they want to get out of the experience—beyond getting into a festival and selling their film.
A number of strong documentaries have screened at numerous festivals in the past year, but have yet to find distribution. I spoke to Louise Hogarth, maker of The Gift , a controversial film about the practice of HIV self-infection (aka "bug chasing"), and associate producer Dana Graham, who, with Lorenzo DeStefano, made Los Zafiros—Music From the Edge of Time , a film about Cuba's answer to the Beatles. In addition, I spoke to Sam Green about his film The Weather Underground, which has had a limited theatrical run as it continues to work it's way through the international festival circuit.
These are all grizzled veterans of the circuit. When you travel to 15 or 20 festivals in the space of a few months, every other aspect of your life suffers. For both DeStefano and Hogarth, all of 2003 was consumed with festival distribution, with the intent of securing theatrical and TV distribution.
Los Zafiros ' Graham maintains that festival screenings have been a major part of the distribution strategy. "The most important goal for us was just getting the film out there to the public," he says. "And the festival circuit has been a great way to do that. We cast a very wide net early on, not being certain of what kind of response we'd receive. When Lorenzo and I first set out submitting the film to festivals, we were both much less knowledgeable than we are now. So there's definitely been a learning curve."
A year after premiering the film in Cuba, Graham and DeStefano have screened Los Zafiros at well over 40 festivals around the world. "There are a number of documentary-only festivals we have targeted," says Graham. "We played the Santiago Alvarez Documentary Festival in Cuba and had a screening in October at the Sheffield [UK] Documentary Festival. However, the disadvantage of going out there with a doc is that you often don't get the same attention as fiction/narrative films do."
Nonetheless, the filmmakers have had a blast with their film. With the simple goal of getting the film seen, they've traveled the globe and spread the word about Los Zafiros. "As it probably is with most independent filmmakers, the idea of using festival screenings as a chance to meet distributors and sales agents was always in the back of our minds," Graham maintains. "But our primary goal at the onset was exposure for both the film and Los Zafiros. Not many people in the US had heard of the band—myself included, before working on the film."
After The Gift got a good deal of attention at the 2001 IFP Market, Hogarth premiered her film at the 2003 Berlin Film Festival. She had hoped to make a big splash, sell the film and move on, but she hadn't had a strategy to reach that goal beyond showing the film at the festival and talking to buyers.
The problem with this plan is that even if your film is wonderful and provocative, at a major festival you're competing with dozens of other films. The majority of these films have some kind of representation that is scheming to make a big impact and a big sale. The way to reach that goal is different with every film, but simply arriving at a festival with a film in tow will lead to massive disappointment 95 percent of the time.
Not every filmmaker needs to secure a lawyer, a sales representative and/or a press agent to make sure that a film gets noticed. However, without the experience of having sold previous films, or attending festivals with other films, you should have at least one advocate working with you. After The Gift played the Berlin Film Festival, the film was invited to "tons of festivals," and Hogarth spent the last year traveling the globe. While the festivals all took note of her film in Berlin, she didn't make any sales there.
"Next time I would hire a press agent and possibly a sales representative," says Hogarth. Though she hasn't yet retained a lawyer or representative, she has learned a great deal by asking questions. "If you're talking to either a sales rep or a press agent, make sure you talk to several people they've worked with," she advises. Many reps work on a percentage basis, but press agents generally work on a fee basis. If you don't know where to look, contact a local organization like the IDA, AIVF or IFP to point you in the right direction.
Hogarth did have a well-known festival veteran on board as an advocate, which was probably helpful in terms of getting the film invited. He wasn't a sales representative, however, and they didn't have much of a strategy for alerting buyers about the film. If you don't have a sales representative, it's important to find out about buyers who are coming to the festival who might be interested in your film and make an effort to contact them via e-mail and/or invites in the mailboxes at the festival.
For Green, who co-produced and co-directed The Weather Underground with Bill Siegel, his festival plan was also simple. "The real big question in thinking about festivals was Sundance," he says. "It's so important in determining how the film is going to be received on the festival circuit subsequently. I didn't really have much of a strategy beyond just hoping that the film would screen there."
Sending a film in cold to a big festival is always a crapshoot. You might want to get tapes to different people who can help. Foreign festivals often have local reps who feed them films. Organizations like the IDA, IFP and AIVF can also help point you in the right direction. It's much better idea either to get the film to someone who has a good relationship with the festival for which you're aiming or make contact with someone at the festival to make sure your film doesn't get ignored.
Not every film can premiere at Sundance, Toronto or Berlin. However, it's best to aim for top-tier festivals because many of them will only screen world premieres. You don't want to blow your chance of getting into Sundance because you showed your film at a smaller regional festival. If you do get invited to a smaller festival first, you should contact the higher profile one to find out its position on premieres.
Luckily for Green and Siegel, The Weather Underground did get into Sundance. The filmmakers weren't looking for television sales, however, since the film was funded by ITVS and was already slated to air on PBS. Nonetheless, Green and Siegel did meet Ken Eisen of Shadow Distribution at Sundance. "When we signed with Shadow Distribution over the summer, Ken asked us to stop doing festivals in this country because he felt it undermined a subsequent theatrical engagement in that city," Green recalls. "Bill Siegel doesn't agree with this. I guess I'm on the fence, but we did stop with US festivals."
They continued to do some US festivals, however, but only if their travel expenses or screening fees were paid. "It's a little-known secret that a lot of festivals will pay screening fees," says Green. "Frankly, I'm all for it. Festivals often get a lot from filmmakers and don't give much back. What I do is say that the festival either has to pay for travel or a rental fee. Most of them are okay with that. The only way you're going to get a rental fee is if the film has a high enough profile so that they really want to program it." In addition, Green sought out festivals that had been supportive of his work in the past, like the New York Underground Film Festival, which screened the film on opening night.
"I really wouldn't have done much differently," Green reflects. "I guess I would have applied to more foreign festivals because they have lots more money than US festivals and will often fly you there, and that's fun." In terms of advice, he adds, "I think that much depends on what you are trying to do on the festival circuit. If you are trying to get distribution, then perhaps you really do need a publicist to try to get noticed. For me, a lot of the time when I was going to festivals in the US, I was trying to do the opposite: be as low-profile as possible. I was actually hoping that people wouldn't come to the screening. Everyone who came was just another person who wouldn't buy a ticket down the road when the film opened there theatrically. Festivals can be a great way to get people to go see your movie, which is a big part of making films, obviously. On the other hand, you don't make any money out of it."
Filmmakers need to have clear goals about what they want—and need—to get out of their festival participation. They should ask themselves how they stand to benefit from either attending a festival or simply having their film show there. As Green points out, if the film is going to open theatrically in a city, playing at the local festival can get in the way. Very few papers will write about a film more than once. If it's planned correctly, however, a festival screening can be used to spread the word about a film shortly before it opens theatrically.
Gary Karloby, director of the media arts organization Pittsburgh Filmmakers, points out that while his festival, the Three Rivers Film Festival, always pays rental fees, it's more than a festival. "We're a media arts organization and have connections to a school," he maintains. As such they are very conscious of not exploiting artists. "We don't always pay a lot but we try to pay something as a measure of good faith." Karloby points out that many docs get their only exposure on the festival circuit, so in a sense it is their theatrical distribution.
From the filmmakers' point of view, it's high time that festivals start to consider screening fees as a necessary part of their budgets and not something reserved for the few. "Large festivals need to lead the way in terms of paying rental fees," says Hogarth. At some point she started to ask for a FedEx number from festivals to send tapes to them. A few festivals later, she started asking for screening fees. She's encountered a good deal of resistance, but she says she's been pretty hard-nosed about it. Her blood still boils about the fact that one prominent festival screened The Gift to a sold-out, 800-seat theater and then couldn't find even one of the 500 volunteers to drive her to the airport. "They didn't give anyone a ride to the airport," she recalls. "From my film alone they took in close to $10,000 at the box office." However, she has had wonderful experiences as well. The Out of Africa Festival in South Africa and the Tall Grass Film Festival in Wichita, Kansas, were standouts. "The filmmaker came first at these events, and that was just a really great feeling."
As with everything else about filmmaking, being prepared for the challenges can only help make the experience more productive for everyone.
As we were going to press,, Louise Hogarth secured deals with the Sundance Channel for a February broadcast and with Lot 47 for a limited theatrical release of The Gift .
Michael Galinsky is a photographer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY.