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FIND's Filmmaker Forum 2009: Getting an Education about Film Festivals

By Tamara Krinsky

Amid widespread pronouncements that indie film is dead, Film Independent held its annual 2009 Filmmaker Forum October 9 to 11 at the Directors Guild of America headquaters in Los Angeles. Despite the fact that the majority of the studios have jettisoned their independent divisions, the crowd at the Forum was generally upbeat. Filmmakers mingled with executives during cocktail receptions and tasty lunches, and had their choice of approximately 15 panels throughout the weekend aimed at "empowering participants with the tools to create a strategy for their films and their careers."

I missed Saturday's festivities, but Sunday I attended a session on "Cracking the Educational Market" and another on "New Uses for Film Festivals." The former was a solo presentation by filmmaker Johnny Symons, the producer of Daddy and Papa and Ask Not. He's a member of New Day Films, a democratically run, member-owned and operated distribution cooperative for social issue films. Their main clientele is educational and community organizations.


From Johnny Symons' Ask Not.

Much of Symons' presentation focused on the specifics of how New Day works.  While it was valuable to learn more about the cooperative, I wish there had been a few other panelists on board to offer additional perspectives on this potentially lucrative sales area. New Day has been the right solution for many filmmakers who want to be actively involved with the marketing and distribution of their films, but it's not the best way to go for everyone. The good news is that along with the rundown on New Day, Symons offered some great general tips on taking advantage of the educational market no matter what company you choose to work with.

He started by going over the buyers that actually constitute this market. Schools and universities are obvious, but Symons ticked off a whole slew of others to take into consideration. His list included social workers and social service agencies, community organizations such as Planned Parenthood, lobbying organizations, and religious institutions. Hospitals buy films not just for their staff for research, but also to show in waiting rooms. Likewise, museums buy films both for staff education and for exhibits, and corporations use documentaries for research and for diversity training.

Next, Symons offered an explanation of how the market works. The simple version: you can take the same film that you sell to a home video buyer for $19.95 to an educational buyer for $200-$300. And just why will an institution pay so much more? The higher price tag includes public performance rights, which means they have the right to show the film to groups and to keep it in their library. When you buy a film as an individual, technically you're only supposed to watch it your living room.

Could a shady person buy the film for the lower price and just show it to a group on the sly? Sure. But fortunately for filmmakers, most institutions want to do things by the book. The same can be said for public libraries and schools, though their price point is usually $90-$100 per title, given their tighter budgets. Most distributors offer filmmakers 20-30 percent of the profits; New Day filmmakers keep 60-70 percent due to its cooperative structure.

When it comes to marketing your film, all buyers work differently. Some like catalogues, some prefer postcards, while still others are partial to e-mail newsletters. Endorsements and word-of-mouth from colleagues can also persuade a professor to purchase a film.

Symons also suggests taking advantage of pre-existing relationships when formulating your outreach campaign. For example, if you worked with a not-for-profit organization during the making of your project, you may be able to access their mailing list or sell your film to their local chapters. It can also be helpful to create a document with basic pointers about how your film can be used for teaching or training. If you get really enthusiastic, you can create a full study guide.

Online outreach is no longer just an option--it is a key part of your campaign. Symons says that with New Day, the number of people ordering off of the Web has skyrocketed from 20 to 80 percent in the last five to ten years. While this doesn't necessarily mean people are finding the films online, more are definitely turning to the Web to make their purchases. A website with up-to-date information about your film is crucial, and you should try to build visibility for your project through social networking and by linking to others who are interested in the same topic covered in your film.

The session ended on a cautionary note. When considering the educational market, it's important to take into account how this piece of the distribution puzzle fits into your overall strategy. One of the audience members asked how educational sales affect a broadcast window, and Symons said that there is no definitive answer. If the broadcaster feels like you're making so many sales that the market has become saturated, that can be a problem. On the flip side, strong sales can show that there's an audience out there for your film and excite a broadcaster about acquiring it. 

Film festivals used to be the hot spot for independent film acquisitions, but the combination of the bad economy, collapsing exhibition windows and effect of new technology on alternative delivery methods has changed the role fests play in the life cycle of a film. Director/screenwriter John August (Go, The Nines) moderated "New Uses for Film Festivals," where a group of experts shared stories and passed along advice on how to deal with the changing festival landscape. Panelists included WME agent Mark Ankner, journalist/screenwriter Mike Jones, publicist Laura Kim and director Ondi Timoner (We Live in Public).

All agreed that the film festivals are going through a tough time right now. "Film festivals are losing money and they are closing," lamented Jones. "CineVegas is closing for a year. Jackson Hole [not the Wildlife Film Festival] has closed completely. Sponsors are pulling out, so festivals are dealing with budget cuts in other ways, such as taking fewer films. When the festival outlets dry up, we lose a critical distribution mechanism. I consider film festivals like art galleries--they are the only place where you can see particular films onscreen." 

Film festivals also used to be the place that the mini-majors spent a lot of money on acquiring product, but that is going away, in part because many of the companies no longer exist. But several of the panelists voiced the idea that perhaps that's not such a bad thing, since for awhile the perceived value of a film was becoming synonymous with its purchase price.

"Film festivals don't need to be a market to auction off films," said Ankner. "They can launch a film, they can generate great press, they can market movies. But they are not necessarily a place where people are sitting in back rooms all night making deals anymore."

Instead, film festivals are evolving into events where you can generate reviews from top tier press, network with potential collaborators, and begin to build a grassroots audience for your film. You can also potentially make money at film festivals from screening fees, such as the 750 Euros Timoner has been charging many European festivals to show We Live in Public. While the money isn't going to lead her to an early retirement, screening at these festivals has been very helpful in exposing the film to different territories, which can aide in securing foreign sales.


From Ondi Timoner's We Live in Public.

Domestic deals do still happen at film festivals, though they are generally less frequent and the price tags are significantly lower than the $5-6 million that was a common goal for a hot title several years ago. What hasn't changed is that if you're heading to a premium festival with the intent of selling your film, working with a savvy publicist or a sales agent is key.

Advises Ankner, "You should be able to ask your publicist what they've worked on, what's the strategy for the film, who will want to talk about your movie and what kind of access they have. A sound bite from the right journalist can prove crucial when selling a film." A good sales publicist or sales rep can also help you figure out exactly which individual at a distribution company might respond best to your film, what night to play at a festival and how to shape your overall festival strategy.  

Jones, the former Film Festivals Editor at Variety, added that now that so many publications have made staff cuts, having a publicist who actually knows which writers are left to take their calls is very important.

For a major festival like Cannes or Sundance, a publicist can run anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000, including travel and expenses. But as Kim points out, "If you're going to sell your house, wouldn't you paint it before you show it?"

How do you go about finding that über-publicist or sales rep? Timoner and August both suggested that festivals serve another purpose: They are fantastic places to network with other directors and producers. "The greatest resource you have is the opportunity to compare notes with other filmmakers," says Timoner. "They can also clue you in to which other festivals are good."

Choosing where to debut your project is extremely important, especially as more and more festivals refuse to show films that have already played in the area. For example, if you're lucky enough to be accepted to Tribeca, the New York Film Festival and New Directors/New Films, you're going to have to make a choice about where to play. You won't be able to play all three of them. This is another area where feedback from your fellow filmmakers can come in handy.

No two filmmakers are going to have the same exact experience at a festival--in  fact, our panelists got into a debate about the merits of debuting documentaries at Sundance--so ultimately, you need to do your own research to see how films that are similar to yours have fared on the circuit.

Jones offered two just rules to follow. He advises, "Don't premiere at a 'first annual' festival, and don't show anywhere that charges you to be in their festival."

Much like the previous panel I attended, threaded throughout the conversation were references to taking advantage of online tools to connect with audience members. Blogging, tweeting and building a website are all now a part of the business of filmmaking. People are no longer content to be passive consumers of entertainment; they want ownership of a film. They want to have a relationship with the filmmaker.

It's an interesting Catch-22. Says Ankner, "For independent films and documentaries, the tech developments that are distracting people from going and sitting in a theater also present an opportunity to market those films."

Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary and