When I was at the Oxford Film Festival last weekend, one of the things I was asked to do was moderate a panel called “Speed Pitch,” in which filmmakers had the opportunity to sign up to pitch their ideas (either the film they had in the fest, or other projects they have in the works) to a panel of distributors brought in for the festival. I thought this panel was a great idea — in fact, outside the panel on feminism and horror that I was on last year at AFI Dallas, this is the most interesting panel I’ve been on.
And as I was moderating the panel after the “pitching” portion and listening to the panelists dissect what they liked and didn’t, what caught their attention, which films they were most interested in and why, it made me realize that many of the things the distribs were saying they wanted to see and hear from filmmakers are also things that we, as critics, tend to grouse a lot about on the fest circuit. There are books on how to self-market your indie film and work the circuit, but from what I’ve seen, a lot of filmmakers haven’t read them.
For me, there few things worse than an indie filmmaker who gets lucky enough to land his film in any fest covered heavily by press and then shows up completely unprepared for the reality that, for the duration of the fest, he is no longer an artist, but a businessperson promoting a product. I think most of my artistically inclined friends have a very hard time both accepting this and acting on it. But unless you are a trust-fund baby with unlimited funds at your disposal (or are lucky enough to be BFFs with a trust fund baby who wants to pay for your brilliant films), or you made your film to be only ever seen by family and friends, you must learn how to aggressively market your film. You are the only one who is going to help your film rise above the slew of other films vying for the attention of the critics and distributors at at festival, so from the minute you are accepted you should start thinking about smart ways to do this.
For instance, this year at Oxford the team from the film Carried Away, which won the Narrative Jury Award, came to the fest remarkably prepared to get folks interested in their film.Carried Away is a road-trip/chase/family drama flick about Ed (Gabriel Horn), who decides to break his beloved Granny (Juli Erickson) out of the nursing home his domineering father has stuck her in, to move her out to Los Angeles with him. Unfortunately, Granny is having some hallucinations and dementia that require her to have medication, which Ed, in his haste, neglected to bring along. The Carried Away team passed out prescription pill bottles full of little minty gum things with labels printed that referenced the film all over Oxford. They also had stickers on which they wrote the times their film was showing. Their team was there en masse, meeting and greeting everyone, and they were all delightfully charming folks. Smart, smart, smart.
Last year Make Out with Violence, another film that premiered at Oxford (and also won the Narrative Jury award there), followed up Oxford by screening at SXSW. They came to that fest with a whole campaign of posting fliers of the missing girl from their film all over Sixth Street, and were also out talking to and meeting folks. At Cinevegas last year, the Easier with Practice team adorned each theater seat with a white sock printed with the film’s name — a reference that really stuck in your head once you realized what the main character in the film used a sock for. Ewwww … but smart.
Darius Goes West opted for more of a grassroots campaign approach, which may work well for you if you have a film with a sympathetic cause. The film won the Audience Award at just about every festival it played at (and it played at a LOT of fests), which says something about its appeal. But what the team behind the film has done is work their tails off with regular email updates, fundraisers for muscular dystrophy (the disease Darius lives with), and relentless grass-roots level marketing of the DVD. A different approach, but also very smart; they knew who the target market was for this film, knew they had a great, sympathetic story told well, and they’ve made the most of it.
And now a word from our sponsor: Press Kits.
Even if you don’t have the coin to snag a publicist, you must have a press kit, and it should be thorough and well-written and edited. Take the time to make it look like it was done by a professional, even if it wasn’t. Now, I don’t care how long your press kit is, but I want to know that YOU know what film you were making and why, and your press kit should tell me that. Also, it should tell me your cast and crew so when I sit down to write about it at 3AM after seeing four other movies that same day, I can refer to your kit both tell me who was in it and refresh me on what it was about. There might be a great undiscovered indie actress trying desperately to break into the business in your film, but if I can’t find her name, it makes it harder for me to praise her work in your film when I write my review.
It should go without saying that you should have a good film, but I’ve seen enough astonishingly bad ones at fests to know this just isn’t always the case. But even if your film isn’t perfect, know its strengths, and most of all, be enthusiastic about your film! Dazzle everyone you meet. Being a filmmaker at a fest is no time to be a shy wallflower. Take advantage of meet-and-greets, filmmaker/press/distributor luncheons, and smaller parties as opportunities to network and talk about your film. Go to the meet-and-greets, and don’t just stand there in a huddle in your safety zone with people you know. Get out there and shake hands — lots of them. Talk about your film.
Lastly, it isn’t always the size (or perceived “prestige factor”) of a fest, it’s what you do with it. It’s great to shoot for the moon and apply to the bigger fests, but don’t overlook opportunities to apply to some of the smaller regional fests as well. Look for fests that have a history of bringing in people who it might benefit you to network with, even if they aren’t obvious people to help you get distribution for this film.
That producer or distributor you meet and impress at a fest might take an interest in your project that helps it go somewhere … or perhaps he or she will be fascinated by another project you talk about over a couple of drinks, and end up helping you secure financing. Heck, that wealthy local hosting a meet-and-greet reception in their tony home might just be looking to be an angel patron to some struggling filmmaker. You never know what doors may open, when you open yourself up to the possibilities and really get out there and get passionate about your work.
After all, if you’re not passionate about your baby, who else will be?
– by Kim Voynar
February 11, 2010