You probably know that one of the most valuable traits of a film festival is the access it affords you to others in the industry. Festival programmers, distribution companies, potential colleagues – they're all there.
That doesn't do you much good , however, if you don't talk to them.
If you know that your feelings of intimidation and awkwardness are costing opportunities to make valuable connections, try keeping these tips in mind.
1. Take yourself seriously and other people will too.
Internalize the idea that you have every reason to be where you are and every reason to be taken seriously -- especially if you have a film in the festival. Other filmmakers and members of the industry want to talk to you, for the same reasons you want to talk to them. You’re all trying to make some new connections, and that just doesn't happen if no one takes the first step.
Have ever felt a sense of relief when someone else got the conversation started, even if it didn't last long? Be the one to give someone else that feeling. Say hello and introduce yourself as if you have all the confidence in the world.
Not every encounter will be a winner, but in my experience you'll get more warm smiles and handshakes than blank stares.
2. Not all ice breaker questions are created equal.
It's good to have some questions prepared ahead of time that anyone can answer, but that require more than just a yes or no. Two of my favorites are:
“What’s your connection to the festival?” It’s vague enough that anyone can answer it without having to say “oh, I’m not a filmmaker” or anything like that.
This question is great because it's open-ended and gives you immediate context. Basically, the person has to tell some kind of story to answer it, which is what you want.
My friend Lisa tried this question recently at a festival with a table full of people loitering at a party. It turns out that they were friends of one of the bartenders! Now that may or may not be a useful group of people to know depending on your perspective, but at least she knew immediately that they weren't members of the industry.
“What have you seen at the festival that you like?” You always have common ground with a conversation partner in the fact that you're both at the festival and, presumably, both film lovers.
Asking your conversational partner about the films they love is generally pretty safe, but beware of the person who wants to complain, and never say disparaging things about a film you didn't like. You don’t know this person, the filmmaker could be their best friend, and that's a great way to close the doors of opportunity in a hurry. If pressed, you can always say "it wasn't my cup of tea" and changed the subject.
3. Help strangers get where they want to go.
Do your new friend a favor — connect them to someone else in the room, or someone else in the business. Or really, anyone who can help them solve a problem or reach a goal. Don't limit yourself to "film people." The promise of a small connection via email/social (or just to “think about who you might know who could help with that”) is always appreciated.
Find out what their current goals are and connect them to the right person to help them get there. You don’t have to do it for everyone, but if you can do it 2 or 3 times in the course of a festival, you can start building a roster of people who owe you favors.
Sometimes it's as simple as grabbing the arm of a friend, drawing them into the conversation, and saying, "Have you met ... ?"
4. (BONUS TIP) - never offer your business card unprompted.
Certainly you may ask them for theirs, but always wait for them to ask for yours in return. “Unwanted business card “ is just another way of saying “trash,” and it's best to avoid looking pushy or desperate.
Ready for more?
There's a lot to talk about when it comes to networking, and I've got more killer tips, battle-tested icebreaker questions, and trusted rules of thumb in the video recording of my webinar on networking.
How to Schmooze at Film Festivals Without Feeling Sleazy
You can also check out the podcast episode I did on this topic last year: Episode 14 - Get Ready to Network. (It's free.)