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Good Press, Big Buzz and a Positive Experience: A Primer on How to Make the Best of the Fest

By Sarah Jo Marks

Film festivals are arguably the most important springboards for documentaries. It is of paramount importance to make the most of not only your film's introduction to the world but also your complete festival experience. The only way to start this process is by asking the ever-important question: "What do I want to get out of this experience?" The answer may be, to find a distributor, make a sale or generate publicity for a theatrical run. The trick is to use all available elements to get what you want from a festival premiere.

One of the most acclaimed documentaries of 2002, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in May of that year. With Artisan Entertainment already on board as a distributor, Jonathan Dana, the film's consulting producer, along with producers Allan Slutsky and Sandy Passman and director Paul Justman, used the festival circuit to generate buzz for the film. Motown played well in New York and attracted some favorable press in The New York Times (one of the few papers that can make or break an independent film). At the Toronto International Film Festival, the Motown team worked with festival programmers to get the proper time slot, and decided to take the risk of playing on the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The risk paid off; people loved the film.

"The net benefit [of screening at festivals] is hard to measure commercially because you're giving away a lot of tickets which you would otherwise be able to sell," says Dana. "But I do think it had an important impact on the critics around the country who had a chance to see the picture in that kind of a setting."

Do You Need a Publicist?

An added benefit to having Artisan on board as a distributor was that its publicity team was on hand to deal with press and press kits and work with the filmmakers to achieve their desired outcomes. But if you don't have a distributor, do you need a publicist? "It's helpful to hire a publicist that will help smooth the path for the director and the producers because they will have a lot of other things to think about," says David Magdael of the boutique publicity firm TC:DM and Associates. "The publicist can help be the liaison with the publicity office of the festival, as well as work with the press and the media."

But hiring a publicist also depends on the festival, the stage of the film and the cleverness of the filmmakers. Udy Epstein of Seventh Art Releasing offers a different option: "If I were the filmmaker I would actually put more effort into calling the press people at the festival beforehand and following up and making sure that they are getting videotapes to reviewers before the festival." A PR person at a festival can help strategize press and get to the right people, while a publicist will have connections to get attention and press for your film.

Good press for a film can create a huge buzz at a festival, even if few people actually attend the screening. When Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself premiered at a morning screening at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival, the film generated such rave reviews that buyers were interested before they even had a chance to see it.

But you only get one review in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, so don't waste it on a one-shot screening, especially if the film will open theatrically. You will need this press for the theatrical run. Be sure your film is included in festival previews and wrap-ups in these major print outlets instead. Then the reviewers will know you and your film when it's time to review it.

Additionally, a film that is only being handled by a festival press office could miss some critical ink or even screen time if a clip reel is unavailable because the press office is juggling every film in the festival. Both Magdael and the Sundance Film Festival press office stressed the importance of having a clip reel at the ready, should local news or even CNN hop on the showbiz trail.

If you're going to one of the top ten festivals, however, use a publicist. "Whether it's an opportunity for your director to be part of a panel discussion or a special evening where your director and your film could participate, it's that extra leg-up to the festival publicity office, making sure that as a publicist you're on top of whatever media opportunities that your film can have," Magdael maintains.

Standing Out in a Crowd

In 2003 South by Southwest (SXSW) screened 180 films, Sundance, 219, and AFI Fest, 130. What does your film need to stand out? "If you made a good film, the better the film is, the more you'll stand out," says Epstein. "This also involves which festival picks the film up. The better the festival, the more your chances are to stand out. If the film is about a musical group or a performer, time and again, it's good marketing; you'll see that group show up at Sundance and actually play there. Also, bringing talent or the subject of the film to the Q&A session can help. It definitely works for the audience. If a distributor is there or a journalist and they're interested, they'll stay and listen and get inspired by this. Giving good Q&A is very important."

Chris Gore, author of The Ultimate Festival Survival Guide, has attended hundreds of film festivals as a journalist and programmer. His advice: "Wear an orange hat. I don't mean necessarily to wear an orange hat, but it does help to wear an item of clothing which will make you stand out from the rest. The director of Nine Good Teeth, Alex Halpern, wore an orange flannel shirt at all the film festivals he attended with his movie. You remember the filmmaker who did his Q&A in the bright orange flannel shirt. You can spot someone with a weird hat, a weird hairstyle an unusual or outstanding item of clothing. Any way to stand out. It actually helps."

What about parties, gift bags and giveaways? All are fun, but not necessary. If there's a way to do something clever, sometimes it can generate press on its own merit. When The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, prods./dirs.) premiered at Sundance in 2000, TC:DM created an ice cream social at the local ice cream shop in Park City. This produced terrific photo ops with Tammy Faye and RuPaul, and it wasn't terrifically expensive. A creative gathering can generate buzz and get more people talking about your film. As for freebies and promotional items, a free t-shirt never killed anyone, but if you're going to give something away, try to make it useful. Scarves and caps are great for cold weather. People will wear them and think of your film—and it's great advertising.

"You can create your own buzz by instructing people how to talk about your movie," Gore continues. "Make sure that when you send out the synopsis of your film it's written in an extremely compelling way that would make people want to see the movie. Festival programmers and directors tend to be lazy and they'll actually use the copy that you send to them to describe your film."

Building a Better Press Kit

Another way to get press to pay attention is to have easy-to-access press materials that include all major components:

The Information: A good synopsis, bios of the key production team, cast and  crew lists, press releases, reviews if they are available.

The Images: The most important items in the press kit are high-quality, representative images—black-and-white or color, hard copies or digital—from the film. Photos of the production team should also be available.

The Key Art: Not always necessary, but can be an eye-catching addition. This is art that is representative of the film, and is often printed on a post card or one-sheet.

Bonus Item—The Clip Reel: The only way to make the local news is to have a clip reel available. This should include 30-second clips from the film.

Emergency Item—The Screener: There are a million reasons why you want to have a copy of your film in your bag at all times, but please discuss with your publicist, distributor, production team, etc., before handing your screener out.

To make things even easier to access, put your press kit on a CD-ROM. Anything to make it nearly effortless for journalists to use photos and quotes from your film is a bonus. Stickers, pens or any other promotional items can be included in a press kit, but they also can be an annoying waste of time to an overworked press person. Spend your money on good quality photos instead. Also, make sure that your screening dates, times and locales are listed somewhere within your press materials. A press release or postcard is appropriate for this.

Producer's Rep or Sales Agent?

Do you need a producer's rep with you at a festival? According to some industry executives, good representation can equal bigger sales, just as good press materials can equal better coverage. Josh Braun is a producer's rep and producer who works primarily with documentaries through his New York-based firm, Submarine Entertainment. "My job is to get buyers to come to the screenings," says Braun. "We're talking about Cannes or Toronto or Sundance. It's much more of a sales market; buyers will be there and you want to get the buyers to the screening. And get the publicist to be in touch with you so that the minute we hear that CNN wants to interview the filmmakers we can factor that in with our communications with the buyers. That builds on word of mouth and whatever buzz is building for any given film. Coordination and information being shared on a very up-to-date basis is probably the No. 1 thing."

"You should start by finding a proper agent, someone to handle the film sales for you," says Micah Green of Cinetic Media, which has secured financing and distribution opportunities for many major documentaries over the past five years. "You get someone good who knows what they're doing, who has a lot of experience, not just acting as an attorney for a documentary filmmaker but acting as a sales agent or a consultant for a documentary. Then that person oversees the process for creating a market for the film and selling it."

"We do not represent films that have been screened for any buyers, agents or other sales companies," Green continues. "Our process involves really controlling the entire introduction of that film into the marketplace in order to create a market. Once pieces of the film have been shown to buyers or sales companies—because the nature of this business and the fact that people share a lot of information—it becomes really difficult for us to create a viable market for something that has already been out there."

Green also strongly recommends not showing your film to distributors or even contacting them directly about your film. "Some people become complete pushovers once the film is completed," he observes. "As soon as they're contacted by a company that would like to release their film, suddenly they're all weak in the knees and they basically bend over backwards to accommodate them, forgetting for a brief moment that distributors contact hundreds and hundreds of filmmakers every year. And they only take a handful of films."

Using the Festival

SXSW is known for its documentaries, having screened the world premiere of Spellbound in 2002 and the North American premiere of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised in 2003. Festival Coordinator Cathy Ross makes herself totally available to filmmakers, from when they're accepted until when they're happily flying home. She says it depends on how much the filmmaker wants to be involved. The more the filmmaker does around the festival to promote and be available, the more the festival can help them by introducing them to distributors and press, for example.

It's also important to note that filmmakers are your allies. "Support other filmmakers by attending their film, and a lot of times they'll return the favor," advises Edward Stencel, a festival consultant and producer. "Plus, you never know who they might know or who they will bring to your screening."

Many of the above tactics can be applied to smaller or regional festivals as well. You have the added benefit of working with local media and organizations to fill your screening and generate local press. "Every little bit helps and it also helps train you as a filmmaker how to deal with the media," says Gore. "You have to make your film important to them. If you're proactive about it and you do it far enough in advance and you offer screener copies of your film to media, I can guarantee you'll be one of the ones that gets all the press, thereby packing your screening."

"Documentary filmmakers should be confident that what they're doing is important," Braun maintains. "I would encourage filmmakers to be bold and believe in what they're doing."

You are not in this alone. There's an entire world of festivals, programmers, publicists and industry reps who want to help you succeed. Whether you form a team or go guerrilla style, if you've made a fine film your supporters will eventually find you.

Information and inspiration for this article came from Chris Gore's essential festival tome, The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide.

Sarah Jo Marks is currently producing two documentary projects. She is also a distribution consultant for IFP/Los Angeles and a film festival enthusiast. She can be reached at

13 Tips for Prepping for a Festival

1) Make a good movie. This is the most important thing you need to know.

2) Analyze the situation, be realistic and decide what you want to get out of the experience.

3) Work directly with the festival press office and/or your publicist to find out what they've done and what you can do to generate more press, buzz and ticket sales.

4) Talk to programmers about getting a good time slot.

5) Have complete press materials readily available.

6) Give good Q&A. It can get audiences and press riled up and generates better reviews and word of mouth. If appropriate, bring the subject of your film with you. If there is an audience award, remind people to vote for your film.

7) Participate in everything the festival offers. Sit on panel discussions, go to mixers and talk to other filmmakers; they can provide a bigger audience for your film.

8) Hand out postcards. They contain all the info about your film in a digestible format. Be sure to include contact information.

9) Use your premiere status. Don't show your film to buyers before the festival. A great screening can escalate sales dramatically. Tell people there are no tapes available and hand them a postcard with your screening times.

10) Have a second project. Be ready with more ideas; a meet-and-greet can easily turn into a pitch session.

11) Arrive early. It will help you get your bearings and adjust to high altitudes, bad weather and other logistical factors. Plus you'll have time to put posters up around town.

12) Don't forget to eat, sleep and take your vitamins. Festivals are exciting but can also be exhausting. You don't want to get sick. You have to be ready for anything.

13) Have fun! You made the movie, now go out and enjoy it.