Travel webisodes from Oxford Film Festival

Tate English and Lynn Mikeska (writer/director and star, respectively, of The Ballad of Friday and June) spent some time at the Oxford Film Festival recording a series of webisodes to document their festival trip. Rather than making the series a simple travelogue, however, they went out of their way to make each episode funny in a self-deprecating way. Well-made webisodes like these capture some of the local flavor of a festival town and involve fellow attending filmmakers involved whenever possible. (You want to give people a reason to link to your videos, right?) Off-the-cuff video blog entries are a fun, inexpensive way to build a fan base and to draw attention to your film's festival run.

See more Oxford FF travel videos at the Ballad of Friday and June blog.

Sundance/Slamdance Film Promotion Tips from Chris Thilk at Movie Marketing Madness

Chris ThilkWith the Park City festivals (Sundance, Slamdance, and other 'dances that come and go with the years) just a week away, I thought this was a good time to check in with Chris Thilk about some of the philosophies and techniques of promoting an indie film at a large festival. Let's say I'm a filmmaker with a feature film playing at Sundance or Slamdance. I'm aware that million-dollar advance checks are few and far between, but I'd like to give my film the best chance possible for finding a distributor and/or an audience. What are some realistic expectations to set for this experience?

The expectations you have going in should be in direct proportion to the leg work you've put in prior to the festival, whatever it is. If, in support of your movie, you've already done some outreach to movie blogs that might be interested in the film, have built up an audience on Facebook or Twitter and generally can go in to the festival with some wind at your sails already your chances are much better.

I don't have a lot of money for a publicist. How can someone with a limited budget be heard over the hype?

First off, dissuade yourself of the notion that you're going to be heard by a large audience. The best strategy for creators of niche products - whether we're talking about small movies or small beers - is to be heard by the right audience. That takes a lot of work upfront as you do research into potential communities of fans and such but then participating in those conversations is exactly as hard as having a conversation over email or even real life. You'll never break through the hype around something like Transformers, but that's not where your goal line is. Your goal line is finding the audiences and communities who are interested in what you have to say. Again, that takes a lot of upfront work, but it's every bit as essential to the movie's success as finishing the script so don't consider it an add-on effort.

Sundance PostersWhat are some of the most/least effective gimmicks and techniques you've seen at Park City?

Everyone wants to throw a party but good conversations are few and far between and there's little to no follow-up from those parties. If there's one thing that came out of Sundance '09 it's that connecting one-on-one with people you've only met on Twitter or Facebook has long-term value for a movie throughout the festival circuit, the theatrical release schedule and even in to the home video market. The least effective tactics are the ones that de-emphasize the one-on-one conversations and the best are those that maximize its potential.

Is it worth promoting a short film in Park City?

Sure, you know why? Because almost everyone has a plane ride home. So if you can promote it with a screener DVD that someone can use to fill in the 25 minutes before their flight boards you become not only useful but also potentially entertaining. In terms of at Park City itself I would say "yes" as well for the same reasons. If you can find a venue where you can have your short playing on a loop while people stop for coffee you can take advantage of those periods of down-time people are looking for in a way that features can't.

How do I get my film mentioned in the press?

Again we have to define "press" as being "the audience that's interested in your subject matter." And it's a matter of telling the story. Ask yourself what the story not only of your film is but what the story behind your film is. You may never hit Variety but if you can get mentioned in the weekly email newsletter of a film discussion group, on the blog of an advocacy group that's related to the issue in your documentary or in the print magazine of the sport your film depicts the world of that's what counts. It's all about 1) Finding the right outlets, 2) Finding the person to talk to there and 3) Starting a conversation with them about your film and why it speaks to the audience for that outlet, whatever it is.

How much of this advice applies to other film fests I might play?

Sundance is unique in that it kind of straddles the line between artistic showcase and buyer's market. Other fests are more one than the other. Sundance also has the branding cache that some others don't, especially among the general movie-going public. But most of the tactics that can be employed at Sundance are applicable elsewhere, though maybe not at the same level. You can still go where your movie is and invite people for a cup of coffee and a bit of conversation, you can still work to identify niche media that will be interested in your presence there and other stuff.

Chris Thilk is the author of Movie Marketing Madness, a blog dedicated to the intersection of two passions. For valuable critique of the ways that large and small films are brought to market (beyond the simple notification that a new trailer is available), I highly recommend MMM.

Twitter, File Sharing and Pink Slime

Brian Chirls on Jake Abraham's Tweet This.

What this is really about is taking advantage of Twitter and other communication tools to play a major part in the global conversation about your work. (If there isn’t one, you need to start it.) Piracy on Canal St. happened before the Internet, and illegal downloading happened before Twitter. As Abraham acknowledged, you can’t stop it. Beyond pointers to free downloads, people are going to be saying lots of things about your film that you don’t like, including bad reviews, off-brand descriptions of your work and possibly even lies or personal attacks. The power of the Internet is that you can be in on it. You can know it’s happening, you can respond to it and you can preempt it.

Read Twitter, File Sharing and Pink Slime.

Festival Exercise: Define Your Film, Define Yourself

Getting your film "out there" – whether that means out to the festival circuit or to a distributor or directly to your audience – is a sales job. A crucial part of any sales job is to figure out exactly what it is you're selling and thereby determining who might want to buy it.

In this exercise you will define your film and yourself in a number of different ways. While this may seem obvious at first glance, forcing yourself to formally document these things about your film can be extremely helpful in later stages of your film's life. 

Define your film

  • Start with the basics: Is your film a narrative or a documentary? (It doesn't quite fit into either category? Maybe it's experimental.) Documentary filmmakers have a variety of doc-only options in the festival arena; it's kind of a consolation prize for the fact that theatrical distribution is a rarity for documentaries.
  • Short or feature? A lot of people misuse the word "feature" when they really mean "narrative." The word feature refers to the film's length, generally over an hour. Anything else is a short. Just as there are documentary-only festivals, some festivals focus exclusively on short films.
  • Format - Is there something about the film's format that makes it stand out? There are festivals that focus heavily/exclusively on formats. Animated films, movies shot on celluloid, hi-def video – sometimes the medium is what matters.
  • Subject matter - this one's a biggie, and your film may qualify for any number of special-interest festivals based simply on what's in it. Go through your film carefully and really think about the people represented in it. What they do, what they like, where they go to shop and eat and have fun. All of these things affect the kinds of festivals and audiences that will be interested in your film. There are festivals for extreme sports, for individual ethnicities, and for films of particular genres. There's even a film festival for movies that feature bicycles. Find your niche and exploit it.
  • Location, location, location. Festivals love to play movies that feature hometown talent and settings. It's best if your film features recognizable landmarks around town, of course, but sometimes you can even get credit if someone in your cast or crew happens to be from a town with a festival. Exploit the "local filmmakers made good" factor by mentioning relevant facts in your submission cover letter. 
  • Cast and crew. It's something of a truism that recognizable faces will help your film get into festivals – fests need sure-bet movies with household names to pack a few showings. (If your film isn't one of those, try not to be resentful of the movies that do have stars. Without those tent-pole flicks to guarantee ticket sales, the festivals wouldn't have the ability to program films like yours.)Look beyond the faces in your picture to the crew around you – do any of them have alum status at film festivals? Those connections can help your film too. Don't be shy about it.

Define yourself

You're not just selling your movie. You're selling yourself, too, and there are things about you that can help spur an audience's interest in your film regardless of what appears on screen. Take a minute to think about the things that define you and how that will affect the list of festivals to which you will apply.

  • Demographics: Gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality. All of these things have festivals of their own. There are over a dozen festivals now that focus exclusively on the work of women filmmakers. There are few major metro areas left without a gay/lesbian/transgender film festival of their own. African-American festivals abound, sometimes under the code-word "urban." It may seem superficial at first but these are all audiences that hunger to see themselves (and the work of their fellows) on screen.
  • Your alum status. Festivals love to nurture the careers of filmmakers they "discovered," so be sure to stay in touch with all of the programmers who discovered you. When your film is complete, shoot each on an email and offer to send over a screener. Get that dialogue going and you will likely find yourself with a waived submission fee at the very least.
  • Your location. It may not help get your film into these festivals, but it's always a smart idea to submit to the festivals within easy driving distance. If you can't make a play for being a local filmmaker, at least you'll be able to attend the festival if you get in.
  • Places where your friends and family live. Anywhere it will be easier/cheaper for you to stay is a good candidate for festival submissions.
  • Where would you like to go? Submitting to festivals in towns you've always wanted to visit can increase your incentive to attend those festivals once you get in. Even if the festival experience itself proves lackluster, you will at least have the fun of sightseeing in your chosen destination.
  • Government assistance programs for which you qualify. Some national and local governments have filmmaking grants that can help you travel to or apply for particular festivals. Get in touch with your local film commission and see which grants are available to you, and what festivals they support.

Armed with this information you should be able to start your festival strategy. There's lots more to be done (you have to actuallyfind those festivals, which means more research), but this gives you the foundation to determine whether a festival's interests match yours.

(This article is an abridged excerpt from 7 Days to a Film Festival Strategy.)

Steal this idea: use your vacation email message to market your film/event

I got this excellent email "out of office" autoresponder from a festival contact recently:

Absence Alert! I'm out of the office and returning Monday, April 13.

I'll be warm and dry playing outside dressed in my Patagonia Cold Track jacket, Polartec fleece, OR hat and gloves and New Balance Shoes. I'll use my Deuter pack to carry extra gear and supplies from Gore-Tex, Mountain Hardwear, OR, Petzl and Mountain Equipment Co-op. You can find me in the beautiful pristince Yellowstone to Yukon region, making tracks at Mount Engadine Lodge, or skiing one of the fantastic areas of Resorts of the Canadian Rockies. Following a great day outdoors I'll relax with a Big Rock ale or a glass of Redwood Creek wine and enjoy reading about travel, exploration and adventure in National Geographic Adventure magazine. I may fantasize about tripping away with World Expeditions or Canadian Mountain Holidays.

I will check and reply to email only sporadicaly. If you need immediate assistance please contact [snipped for privacy].

Laurie Harvey
Manager, Strategic Partnerships
Mountain Culture, The Banff Centre

Laurie not only turned her everyday vacation message into something funny, she also mentioned her strategic partners (aka "sponsors"), guaranteeing that existing sponsors would smile and that prospective partners would get the message: even when Laurie is on vacation, she's doing her job.

If you're a filmmaker, you can use vacation auto-responders to send messages in a similar way. Set one up to cover your email while you're away at a festival, and be sure to include the screening times of all of your upcoming festivals while you're at it. Add a link to your trailer so that everyone who emails you will get a chance to check out your film -- even if they're just trying to sell you "mal3 en#anc3ment" products.

Steal this idea - Secret Party for your Twitter followers

Festival directors reading this can steal the idea outright, but filmmakers may need a little more creativity to make it work for them. Either way, it's a clever and subversive way to boost your Twitter followers – the Atlanta Film Festival withheld the details about one of their parties, releasing the details only on Twitter. (You can find them at

Below is a quick snap of the party page of the Atlanta Film Festival's program guide.

Secret Party

SXSW bids howdy! to Atlanta film fans

A clever bit of marketing from the Atlanta Film Festival -- interviews with indie film insiders (including yours truly) on the streets of Austin during SXSW, singing the praises of both Atlanta and Atlanta Film Fest. Fest director Gabe Wardell and his peeps shot the video using tiny Flip cameras. Festivals often use video to promote their events through film trailers and the occasional "festival trailer," but creative projects like this one really accentuate the fact that there are other ways to use the medium.

And speaking of video projects, I'm long overdue to plug parts 3 and 4 of Mark Potts' series of ads for the Film Festival Secrets book. I'll embed each of them here soon but if you were too lazy to go look for them yourself I didn't want to deny you the pleasure of watching them any longer. Part 4 is fabulously tasteless.

Film Festival Secrets Promo #1

Not wanting to limit myself to just the written word to promote my book, I took up these fine young fellows on their offer of some commercials for Film Festival Secrets.

These gents are all part of Singletree Productions, the creators of The Stanton Family Grave Robbery and the upcoming Simmons on Vinyl. If you're a festival programmer looking for quirky comedies to include from some up and coming filmmakers, look no further.

More to come!

On the writing of synopses

I'm back from the Oxford Film Festival (more about that in a future entry) and have been completely overwhelmed with backed-up B-Side work, neglected consulting clients, and watching a handful of SXSW films to write some promised synopses.

Distilling the plot and spirit of a film into a hundred words such that any random reader might happen upon them and be compelled to see the film is serious work. Not only is there the economy of language to consider but also the politics of the situation (how to approach a controversial topic without appearing to be glib or bigoted?) and the simple fact that one might not always like the film in question.

Still, it's not something that I encourage filmmakers to attempt for their own films, at least not if you can help it. Grab a friend with an English degree. Steal the synopsis from a festival you've played (you can always ask permission). Hire a publicist. Whatever you do, find someone with a gift for words and a love of movies to write about your film in a way that you cannot. You won't be sorry.

Last minute film festival prep tips part 4 - when you get there

In part one we covered some travel and film promotion basics. Part two highlighted the importance of a web site for your film.

Part three discussed some general organizational and travel tips that will make your trip easier so you can think about promoting yourself and your movie.

In part three I mentioned that filmmakers who want to work in the industry for a living should think of a film festival as a career fair, and it is: your peers and potential employers are there, looking to connect with one another. The difference is that it all takes place in a much less organized environment, where screenings and parties and general chaos provide a reason for gathering but occasionally get in the way of conducting business. The challenge lies in connecting to the right people and having the right conversations in the midst of all this, and if you don't prepare then you're relying almost entirely on chance to make this happen. Not that great conversations don't happen by chance, but you don't want that to be your entire plan.

So while you're on the ground at the film festival, do the following:

» Set discrete, measurable, attainable goals. Of course you should think about what your overall goals are for your film and your career, but for the purposes of any one event you need to write down the bite-sized goals that you can accomplish while you're there. "Find a distributor" is not a bite-sized goal. "Talk to ten distributors and establish contact with an acquisition rep at each" is more reasonable.

Put these goals in the front of your notebook (you did buy a notebook, right?) and refer back to them each day so you can stay focused. Check each one off as you finish it for that warm, fuzzy feeling of accomplishment.

» Do groundwork before you arrive so you don't waste time just getting up to speed. That means reaching out to the press and setting up interviews beforehand as discussed in part 3. If there is an attached exhibition floor, check out the trade show floor map and write down a list of the companies with whom you want to talk. You don't have to have every minute of every day mapped out, but you don't want to spend time at the festival making phone calls or writing emails when you could be enjoying the festival or talking to journalists and other filmmakers.

» Take advantage of panels and screenings. Keep a detailed calendar so you always have options if you're not actively promoting your film. At a large festival, the first half of the event is usually the busiest, so you should stick close to the center of the action to squeeze in as many interviews and marketing activities as possible. When you're not doing those things, check out the screenings and panels (if any). Even the occasional clunker of a panel will have some interesting people at the front of the room, so stick around afterwards and introduce yourself. With journalists and industry types alike, the phrase "I have a film in the festival this year" is the perfect icebreaker: it identifies you as someone with talent and of potential interest. Use it to your advantage.

The same goes for screenings; after the Q&A, approach the filmmakers and introduce yourself. Be sure to say something nice about the film and ask about their experiences at the festival so far. Chances are good that other filmmakers have met journalists who haven't found you yet, or have learned lessons about the festival experience that could benefit you. You want that knowledge. Be polite about this, and always present it as an exchange of information rather than an information dump. When you find someone who seems particularly well-informed, offer to buy the next round. The collected wisdom of the other filmmakers at a festival is well worth the price of a few drinks.

» Talk to the press. When Kissing on the Mouth played SxSW in 2005, Joe Swanberg wrote a travelogue with a nice set of tips for filmmakers about the festival. You should read it in its entirety, but I like this passage:

It's not a bad idea to spend a few afternoons hanging around the Filmmaker Lounge, which is conveniently located very near the Press Lounge. Stay visible, and spend some time walking between the two places, seeing who you can bump into. Sometimes press will be conducting interviews with other filmmakers in the Press Lounge, and you can piggyback and do an interview after they are finished. We got some good coverage just from being in the right place at the right time, but the right place was almost always somewhere near the Press Lounge.

The press have a job to do: present the most interesting news to their audience before their competitors do. In order to make sure you get good coverage, you need to make their job as easy as possible. That's where your web site comes in, and, if you're particularly prepared, an electronic press kit (EPK). An EPK is just a self-contained package with the basic facts about your film (press releases, cast lists, one-sheet, etc) and some supporting media -- high-resolution stills, trailers in Quicktime format, etc. A good EPK should let a journalist get a good sense of your film in a few minutes just by popping it into her laptop. These used to come on CD-ROM; nowadays I see them on cheap thumb drives or emailed as ZIP files.

One last word on the press: do not be intimidated. They are there to cover the festival, and you're part of the festival. So if you present yourself politely and provide compelling reasons that your film should be part of their festival coverage, the average member of the press will give you serious consideration. That's not to say that the media doesn't house its share of schmucks, or that anyone owes you coverage, but you have a right to conduct business the same as anyone else. Have your screeners and your flyers ready, and go get 'em.

» Stay tuned to the festival news. Subscribe to the newsletters, check out the official festival blog, and read some of the third-party coverage of the festival as a whole. You want to get a sense of where the action is and what events are likely to draw crowds. Most especially you want to be aware of last-minute schedule changes and additions -- things can change in the middle of a festival and you can't make intelligent choices about how to spend your time if you aren't in the know.

» Go to the parties. There are some of you out there who need to be told to do this. When it comes to film festivals, parties are where a lot of business relationships begin. You don't need to stay to the bitter end of every party, nor do you need to go everywhere you're invited, but get out and engage in the art of the schmooze. If your schmoozing skills are rusty, ask for advice from the schmooziest person you know. Be sure to pass out those flyers when the opportunity presents itself. Don't forget to ask for business cards from the interesting people you meet, and try to take it easy on the open bar.

» Take good notes. I mentioned this in passing back in part 3, but it bears repeating here. You don't need to scribble out every word you hear verbatim, but you should get in the habit of jotting down a note or two after each conversation you have. Make sure you take note of the person's name (even if you got their business card) and what the main points of the conversation were. Don't rely on your memory; it will fail you when you most need it. This is particularly important when it comes to encounters with the press -- a few weeks after the festival you'll want to go back over the contacts you made and see which of them actually wrote something about you. Someone who particularly enjoyed your film may be a good contact for other festivals or later works.

Notes are also important for remembering promises you made. If you owe someone a screener or a callback, you don't want to forget. Make a special symbol in your notes for to-do items -- a check box, an asterisk, whatever works for you -- so you'll recognize uncompleted tasks when scanning over your back notes.

» Keep in mind the overall goal of building your career and reputation, not just selling the film at hand. Too many filmmakers blunder onto the festival circuit with unrealistic hopes of a big paycheck and a distribution deal waiting for them right after their premieres. (I call it Weinstein Syndrome.) Watch the Q&As at the screenings you go to and you're bound to see it -- the cast and crew in attendance with eyes just a little too wide and smiles just a little too big. A serious examination of the state of independent film distribution today reveals that very few films get sold at film festivals, and independent pictures in general have a hard road ahead of them when seeking an audience. The good news is that film festivals are the front lines of indie film, and careers really do get built between panels and parties. Opportunity is there, but you have to know where to look and grab it when it shows its face.

» Have fun! I'm sure this all sounds like the least fun you could possibly have at a film festival, but try to balance your business activities with some play. There's no reason you can't do both at the same time. You just need to retain some awareness of you're doing and saying and what it might do for your future as a filmmaker.

This is part four of a revised series of articles originally written for South by Southwest 2008. The revisions add new and updated information and make the series more applicable to other festivals.

Next: 6 essential things to do after a film festival.

Last minute film festival prep tips part 3 - before you leave

In part one we covered some travel and film promotion basics. Part two highlighted the importance of a web site for your film.

If you've waited until the last minute to get serious about your festival experience, it's time to get moving on those last-minute steps you can take while you're still at home: making sure your trip goes as smoothly as possible and laying the groundwork for meetings and interviews before you set foot in your festival's town.

» Get organized about your travel and your appointments. Resources abound for putting your life on the road in order. Take advantage of them. The less you have to think about your itinerary and its details, the more brain space you'll have for promoting yourself and your film.

Some of my favorite travel & organizational tools:

» If you don't know your destination very well, get a good city guide with a map of downtown and study it beforehand. I like the smaller guides that fit in a back pocket, but go with what appeals to you. Just make sure you carry it with you. WikiTravel has entries for nearly every metropolis and small town you're likely to visit in your festival wanderings. Many festival web sites include recommendations for eating, shopping, and nightlife, but if not then Google is certainly your friend.

» Get a good pocket notebook and a couple of pens, and carry them with you. If you're a filmmaker and you want to make movies for a living, it's time to start thinking of film festivals as career fairs. Since a cornerstone of any good business is impeccable record-keeping, you should always have the means to take notes. I like the Moleskine Reporter, but a 99-cent memo pad will contain writing just as effectively. Your notebook should be the record of the people you met (you're going to lose one or two business cards along the way), the things you learned, and the promises you made. It sounds corny but I promise you'll get more out of any film festival if you write a few things down.

» If you have a pocket camera, bring it along. This is probably the wrong time to be lugging your DSLR and its thousand-dollar lens, but there are lots of amazing things to see at most film festivals. You're bound to want to take one or two pictures along the way (like the crowd at your screening?), and your camera phone may be sufficient, but do you really want to drain the battery? When you get home, make sure to upload those pix to your web site.

» Go mobile when at all possible. Make sure you're taking advantage of all of the features of your cell phone. Lugging a laptop around gets old in a hurry, so why do it when you could just as easily check mail from your phone? Make sure you do have a way to check your email regularly, though -- a lack of attention to your mail is a great way to miss out on press coverage and other opportunities. If you've shelled out the money for an iPhone or Blackberry, now is the time to milk the usefulness out of it. Don't buy a new phone just before you leave, though -- when in unfamiliar surroundings, you want a familiar device.

Similarly, every web service out there seems to have a mobile component, so learn how to configure and use them before you leave. If you try and figure these things out after you get to your desitination, you'll probably waste time and just end up frustrated.

And one more mobile tip: bring a lightweight charger that you can carry with you during the day. Take advantage of random electrical outlets when sitting in panels or waiting in line. You probably won't get back to your hotel room until the wee hours of the morning, and by that time your mobile phone battery may be as worn out as you are. You don't want to contend with a dead cell phone when you're half-drunk in a strange city at 3am. Trust me.

» Make as many media contacts as you can to line up those interviews prior to your arrival in the festival city. At large festivals there are scores of media outlets covering the event, from humble bloggers like yours truly to national film publications like Variety. Some Googling ought to reveal who these people are and nearly every byline these days is accompanied by an email address. Write up a quick cover letter with a description of your film and mention your availability for interviews. Don't be discouraged by a lack of immediate results; everyone is ridiculously busy during a film festival. The keys are to cast a wide net and to be persistent.

» If the festival provides one, use the registrant directory to identify good contacts at the conference. Some directories are even online and searchable by job title, etc. This is a great way to find contacts. Use it.

This is part two of a revised series of articles originally written for South by Southwest 2008. The revisions add new and updated information and make the series more applicable to other festivals.

Read part 4: when you get there.

Last minute film festival prep tips part 2 - warm up your web site

As a filmmaker, your web site is one of the best marketing tools you have. Long before the lights go down at your first screening, your web site is where people will learn about you and your film. Months (years!) after the festival ends, your movie's site will be the touchstone for those curious about your work. Dollar for dollar, there is nothing else you can buy that will work for your movie as tirelessly and as effectively as the electronic sentinel that is a web site. So make it good.

One of the best collections of advice for filmmakers I've encountered about their web sites comes from my friend Jette Kernion in her Open Letter to Indy/Low-Budget Filmmakers. Go ahead, click on over and read it. I'll wait.

Back again? Good. I hope Jette's words are sinking in and that you're ready to build a web site that isn't just attractive but useful as well. Let's review her advice with a few extra pointers.

» Include lots of text about the film, including the names of the cast and crew, so that the site shows up in Google searches. The fancy name for this is "search engine optimization," but the plain truth is that search engines grab onto text best. If you're rendering that text as graphics or you've embedded it into a Flash presentation or PDF, you could be shooting yourself in the foot. Keep it simple and leave the flaming logos to the site for the next summer blockbuster.

» Post a number of striking photos at different resolutions, and make them easily available for download. The less you make a journalist (whether an editor from Variety or a local blogger) work, the more likely you are to get good coverage. Cropping screen captures is work. Resizing photos is work. I think you can figure out the rest. Again, don't hide them inside a PDF, a fancy Flash slideshow, or assume that a trailer is a sufficient substitute for still photos. If you want the word to spread, you have to make the spreading easy.

» Publish your contact info, including e-mail, telephone, and snail mail. Your web site is your business card to the world. If the world can't get in touch with you, it can't write nice stories about you. Or ask you about a new job on a film crew. Or buy your movie. So get your contact info out there, and get a good spam filter.

» Post a trailer. Or five. Any halfway entertaining footage (bloopers, deleted scenes, etc) that didn't actually make it into the film should be present somewhere on the site. Include links to your previous work, especially short films that can be digested quickly and easily online. Make sure your trailer is on YouTube or a similar video site so that visitors can post it on their own web sites and blogs. (Get familiar with the mantra "Embed and Spread." It works.) Give away as much free entertainment as you can, because it's the way you win fans who will later pay to see your work.

» Start a blog. Yeah, you read that right. A blog. Most filmmakers like the idea of starting a blog but don't have a clue what to put in it. I'll cover that more in a later post, but for now start posting stories about the making of the film. Profile your cast and crew. Mention your other projects. Announce your upcoming screenings. Post recaps of your question-and-answer sessions. If your film is a documentary, post news about your doc's subject. (You can even get Yahoo News to email you the latest stories on your subject of choice.) It's a big world out there, and there's lots to talk about. A blog provides your fans with a reason to come back, so even if you just post once a week, post.

» Ask visitors to sign up for email updates. Both Yahoo Groups and Google Groups offer easy-to-run mailing lists where your visitors can subscribe to the latest news about your film. If you want more control over your e-mail newsletter, use a service like MailChimp for a more professional touch. Updates should be more selective than, say, your blog, but once or twice a month is fine if you have something to say. Be sure to announce upcoming screenings in your e-mails, and mention the existence of your blog. Every e-mail you send to the list should have a link to your web site.

» Take advantage of existing social networks. People spend hours each day on services like  Facebook; insert yourself there and take advantage of the tools they provide. A Facebook page isn't a substitute for a real web site, but you'd be foolish not to have a presence there at all. Sign up for a number of social networking sites -- as many as you can reasonably manage -- and duplicate your content across the services. Just make sure your profiles all link back to the mothership: your main web site.

» When you start receiving reviews, post complimentary quotes from those reviews on your site and link back to them. E-mail the author of the review mentioning your link and ask for a link back. You should be doing periodic Google searches for your film's title to find the latest mentions of your movie. Anywhere you find your film referenced, e-mail to make sure that an accompanying link is included.

» Your web site address or "URL" should be as simple and easy to remember as possible. In these days when every conceivable web address seems taken that can be a challenge, but do your best. Then spread the URL everywhere. It should be on all of your printed material and most especially in the signature of every email you send. Think about all the emails you send out in a day -- sometimes even your friends and family need to be reminded of your film's existence.

» Start a links section and link to your favorite films on the festival circuit. Link to your friends' films and projects, and ask them to link back. Yeah, a link exchange is pretty 1997, but you know what? It still works.

» Don't just set it and forget it -- a web site needs tending. Think of it as your end of an ongoing conversation with your audience. If you don't hold up your end of the conversation, the audience will get bored and move on.

» You don't have to do it all yourself. This all probably sounds like a lot of work, and you're not wrong. But you don't have to learn HTML or CSS or programming, and you don't have to write every word of content on the site. Recruit from within your crew or elsewhere in your personal network. Chances are your girlfriend's brother is just the nerd you need to get your film's web site up and running. You just have to ask.

This is part two of a revised series of articles originally written for South by Southwest 2008. The revisions add new and updated information and make the series more applicable to other festivals.

Read part three - before you leave home.

Missed part one of the filmmakers last-minute tips? It's right here.


Last minute film festival prep tips part 1 - a few basics

I originally wrote this piece to help filmmakers prepare for South By Southwest last year. I've referred to it so often that I figured a quick overhaul of the series was worthwhile, both to update the information and to make it more applicable to all (or at least most) film festivals rather than just SXSW.

If you're a filmmaker looking to build a career in the industry, a large film festival is the closest thing to heaven you can find: a target-rich environment designed specifically for the development of new connections and the communal pleasure of watching great (and sometimes, admittedly, not-so-great) cinema. Even a small or medium-sized festival can be a great stepping stone in your career, provided you're prepared to make the most of it. Over the last couple of years of attending film festivals, I've had the good fortune to meet a lot of filmmakers. I've also been surprised at how few of them seem to arrive at the festival prepared to promote themselves and their films to the fullest extent. Even if you don't have a film in the festival itself, you owe it to yourself to be ready to make the most of any festival you attend.

Let's get started with a few basics:

• If you're without lodging this late in the game you're not completely screwed, but you're either going to have to pay out the nose for something last minute or throw yourself on the mercy of the locals. The ever-trusty Craigslist may be helpful here, but you're more likely to find a couch to crash on with a friend of a friend. Reach out to your friends and acquaintances -- chances are there's someone who knows somebody who used to date someone who lives in your destination town. If you're comfortable with the idea of crashing on a total stranger's couch, try If your film is in the festival, use that as a bargaining chip. People love to feel connected to the festival community, even if they're only "doing their part" in a tangential way.

» If you're a filmmaker in the festival, you should be all set in terms of admission. Check with the festival to see what your filmmaker status entitles you to; usually it's admission to all of the films, parties, and panels (if any), though it's not true for all of them. If you're a filmmaker attending the festival but without a film in the program, buy the highest level badge you can afford. Going on the cheap in this department will literally leave you out in the cold while the good stuff goes on inside. And unless you're really good and talking your way past the bouncers, the right badge will make your entire experience better.

» If you haven't printed any promotional materials yet, you have a choice -- pay a lot of money for full-color materials printed in a hurry, or go lo-fi. Personally I think filmmakers waste a lot of money printing up posters and such that don't do them a lot of good in the end. There are only two essential pieces of printed material you should have, and you should carry them with you always. Always.

#1 - business cards, and lots of 'em. About 500 to really do it right -- few things suck quite as much as the statement "I'd love to give you my card, but I ran out." Because of their simplicity and size, business cards are still the primary method of information exchange during film festivals and conventions. The object of any professional gathering is to establish new relationships, and in the (often alcohol-soaked) haze of a film festival the business card is your ticket to remembering and being remembered.

You can get these printed at Vistaprint for not a lot of money or you can print some yourself on a laser printer with those perforated sheets. Go for the VistaPrint route if you have time; it's less trouble and they'll look much better than the homebrew kind. Don't worry too much about what they look like, though -- just make sure they have your name, the name of your film, and your e-mail address. If you're the outgoing type, include the number of the cell phone you're using while at the fest. If that sketches you out too much you can hand-write your number for those people you feel you can trust.

#2 - Screening flyers. When you introduce yourself as a filmmaker with a film in the festival, the very next question is usually "what's it about?" and hopefully followed by "when's it playing?" Your screening flyers should contain that information, though you should take the opportunity to answer the questions personally. Follow up the conversation by handing over a flyer with a smile and a question of your own: "Will you come see my film?" Personal commitments like these may be your best chance of filling your screening, so you should always ask. If they say yes, say "I'm looking forward to seeing you there!" If they say no or are non-commital, point to the flyer and ask them to hang onto it just in case they find their prior engagement has fallen through.

At the very least, your flyer should have your film's title, synopsis, and screening times and places, along with the URL for your web site. (More about your web site in the next post.) Include a strong still from the film, one that conveys a lot of emotion and that will reproduce well on a xerox machine. Keep it simple and to the point, and then have a bunch made at your local copy shop. Spring for some bright colored paper -- yellow, green, whatever works best for your film. If you're driving into town it's probably best to print 1000 or so and store them in your car rather than waste time making copies while you're in town. If you're flying, consider whether the time saved is worth the extra bulk and trouble of lugging flyers on the plane.

Since this is a last-minute prep guide I'll assume that it's too late to print four-color postcards or posters, but the same general principles apply. Posters can be attention-grabbing, but my feeling is that flyers and postcards posted or distributed at random on walls or in stacks rarely convince anyone to go to one movie over another. Rather the repeated reinforcement of the fact that the film exists is the goal, so that when a potential viewer encounters more concrete information about the film, they have some vague idea of a connection to something they saw earlier. That "oh yeah, I remember hearing about that" moment is an important psychological weapon -- people like to be in the know or at least have some familiarity with something (a film, a book, a musician) before they commit to the experience. The more you can prime that pump of the mind, the more people you'll see at your screenings.

There are usually plenty of opportunities for posting flyers around the festival venue and surrounding areas, but you should always do so with permission and without posting over others' flyers or posters. The tables and kiosks for flyers are obvious in most venues, but businesses in the surrounding area should be approached politely. Check in with the festival staff to find out whether it's even worth your time to post flyers around town, or if there aren't better places (the local college campus? other movie theaters around town?) to do so.

» Last but not least, have plenty of screeners on hand. Now is not the time to be over-protective of your intellectual property -- the way to get noticed is for as many people as possible to see your movie. That's not to say you should be giving out discs indiscriminately, but anyone in a reasonable position to give your film more exposure should be seriously considered to receive a screener if they ask.

Some larger festivals are crawling with scouts from other film festivals; since part of your business strategy should be to play as many festivals as possible, be ready to accommodate. Ditto for potential distributors and most especially the media. If you have any doubts about the legitimacy of a person who asks for a screener, play dumb and tell them you just gave out the last screener you were carrying with you. Ask for their card and offer to send them a screener after the fest. If they turn out to be a shmoe looking for free movies, you can conveniently forget to do so, but be sure to check them out online in case that person is actually an important connection.

Read part 2: getting your web site up to snuff.

Niche Marketing Tools Panel - Independent Film Week

These are my notes on the Niche Marketing Tools panel, including some of my thoughts before the panel and some of the more interesting concepts that came up during the panel. I've listed them below in no particular order and attributed them to the panelists where I could remember where they came from -- apologies to those whom I misremember.

- To speak generally, niche marketing is about identifying special interests in your film, researching that special interest, and contacting those heavily engaged in that interest to spread the word within the existing community. Tapping into existing communities who can spread word of mouth for you is the goal.

- The basics of marketing a film still apply -- still photos, well-written supporting material, making a good first impression. (Jon Gerrans)

- Jason Cassidy - On marketing "Blindness" -- speaking to the built-in core audience of people who loved the book was hugely important in marketing that film.

- Larry Fessenden - On creating a film web site: Stills, etc are important but it's also important to use the ability to customize to help draw visitors into the story of your film and the story behind the film. A director's statement (while it may seem corny) can very much influence press and audience perception of the film. Web site preferable to facebook or myspace in this way because you can customize a web site in ways that one cannot with facebook.

- Larry Fessenden - On building community -- your community consists not just of your fans but also of other filmmakers, journalists who cover your genre (including bloggers, etc). Recruit them to your cause and be a partner to them as well. Larry has built a network of horror/genre filmmakers who have their own stories that feed into the larger story of this filmmaking community. Like a mini-studio or unofficial releasing "brand."

- Jason Cassidy - On Facebook: New media like facebook can make marketing more efficient but the social tools only work if people are drawn to them. That can actually take a media/advertising spend to gain critical mass and make maintaining Facebook presence worth it.

- Jon Garrans - On Facebook: Facebook is a great place to store data like trailers, etc, which might otherwise cost you money to store and transmit (outgoing bandwidth fees).

- Aaron Hillis - On bandwidth fees - Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service) can also help with storage at low cost.

- Aaron Hillis - Facebook & MySpace can be oversaturated, difficult to attract an audience to any one thing -- get more creative, take steps beyond just setting up a social network page.

- Stephen Raphael, on communities - some communities are stronger than others and distributors make decisions based on that. For example Jewish community networks are very strong and can be relied upon to spread word of mouth but also have strong formal networks (community centers, email lists, etc).

- Stephen Raphael, in answer to question about tapping known niches - Don't self-distribute to a niche if you think you might want to beyond self-distribution. If you tap out a potential revenue source then you're reducing the value of your property to a distributor. Doing the research on that niche, however, is a selling point -- the more supporting evidence you have that there are people out there just waiting to buy your film, the stronger selling advantage you have.

Web sites for panelists:

Jason Cassidy, Miramax -

Larry Fessenden, "The Last Winter" -

Jon Gerrans, Strand Releasing -

Aaron Hillis, Benten Films -

Stephen Raphael, Required Viewing - ???

See also Film Tiki's Eyewitness report of the panel.

Lessons about indie film at a big box store


Let us not waste time bemoaning the current sorry state of indie film distribution; blogs and podcasts galore exist to do that. Instead let's take a look at how the rest of the world perceives independent film, and what lessons might be applied to promoting your really indie film at festivals and elsewhere. (Those people are pretty easy to spot. They're the ones not reading indieWIRE and MovieMaker.) While strolling the aisles at Target, my eye was caught by this display (above) in the DVD section of "IFC Indies."

If I made a practice of buying DVDs at Target I might have seen it before now; apparently it's the result of a three-year deal between IFC and Target that started two years ago. When it began, Target had its own night of programming on IFC called "Cinema Red Mondays," but I couldn't find any mention of that on IFC's current web site. But there it is, large as life: a full display of "indie" films recommended to Target by IFC. Check out the pictures at the bottom of this post (click for larger versions) to see some closer shots of the display and for the visual evidence of my completely nutty claims.

Lesson #1 - To the outside world, "indie" is synonymous with "arty." Independent films star all of the same people in studio films, but these movies feature stories either too complicated or depressing for Hollywood to touch. Target's definition of an independent film in this instance is largely academic -- arty, but not too threatening. Notice that in order to keep the shelves stocked with recognizable stars, the catalog goes back ten years or more (The Red Violin was made in 1998).

There are some films here that could be considered "truly" independent, depending on how much you want to torture the phrase (Hannah Takes the Stairs is a notable exception), but for the most part, this is grim confirmation that the indie titles that make it into big box stars are the yuppie-friendly ones with recognizable faces. (Is this starting to sound like an unclever entry in the Stuff White People Like blog?)

Lesson #2 - Don't just find your niche, dominate it. Lookit that -- an entire shelf of Tyler Perry movies. Granted, Perry's first movie had a budget of $5.5 million, so its status as an "indie" film is once again dependent on your personal definition of the term, but the principle applies: if you can speak to a sizable audience and make them love you that much, the big box stores will come find you.

Lesson #3 - Piggyback on the success of something similar. Notice how each shelf positions the movies on it as ideal for people who loved some other movie? That's what you want to do with yours. Figure out who your piggyback film is and practice the phrase "If you liked X, then you should see my movie." Hackneyed? Obvious? Yes, but also effective. Don't run away from comparing your film to another, similar (and more familiar) film unless your film really suffers by comparison -- in which case you might want to think about making a better film.

Lesson #4 - Documentaries should feature grisly death or rock musicians. Preferably both. Rock stars are the name actors of the documentary film department. (Maybe I should call it the doc film ghetto, since it's relegated to the very bottom shelf.) If you can't find a rock star to make your doc about, then make sure it either confirms the viewers' worst fears about the world or features someone being eaten by a bear. For the love of Pete, make sure it isn't funny -- unless you're Michael Moore, and even then the point is debatable.

Lesson #5 - Until you start making movies with million dollar budgets and Zooey Deschanel, you probably shouldn't roam the DVD aisles at Target. Not that there aren't some wonderful movies represented here, but the thought that the world at large views the state of independent film through this particular lens could really drive you crazy.



Festivals as distributors and other odd notions.

A couple of weeks ago Jonathan Marlow posted a piece to the GreenCine Daily blog that created a minor stir in the festival world. It's an essay called "They Didn't Build Their Sales Model For You" that raises a lot of questions about the festival circuit, the collective place of filmmakers within it, and what happens after a film has made its festival run.

Since the beginning of the independent "common era" (circa 1989), the traditional Grail-quest of acquisition-derived-from-festival-screenings was a relative uncertainty. Now, nearly 30 years later, such good fortunes are approaching the level of impossibility.

Marlow leaves it to others to answer the majority of questions he asks, but the piece echoes the examples and pointed questions that often come up when filmmakers talk amongst themselves about distribution of and compensation for their work. I don't have easy answers for Marlow or anyone else, but I let's take a minute to explore some of the notions expressed and implied by his piece.

Since I started writing this reaction there have been a lot of responses, most notably here and here, and a follow-up post from Marlow himself. It's a hot topic to say the least. I expect Marlow himself already has a clear understanding of everything I'm about to cover, but so many of the filmmakers and moviegoers I encounter at such festivals do not that I feel some discussion is warranted.

Notion #1 - The festival circuit is an "ersatz" distribution system. "Informal" or "unintentional" might have been better adjectives here, but the meaning is taken as intended. As art house theaters close or reduce their independent offerings, the festival circuit is evolving into the only growing form of theatrical exhibition left for indie filmmakers. (Over at B-Side we're working on new forms of audience-driven "theatrical" screenings, but programs like these are in their infancy.) That doesn't make the festival circuit a distribution method, however, because (as others have pointed out previously) the festival circuit is not a centrally-organized network with the stated purpose of delivering films to audiences and compensating the filmmakers for their work.

Berlinale crowd

Festivals cull through the mass of indie flicks available and put them on large screens in front of willing moviegoers, true, but (with a few exceptions) they do so as non-profit arts organizations. This is what allows festivals to select movies on relatively egalitarian and merit-based criteria, though festival programmers certainly feel the need to pack houses (more on this later). The good news for filmmakers is that festivals take more risks and display a wider range of movies than any other (non-Internet) exhibitor. If anyone in this wide world is going to show your movie, it's going to be a film festival.

Now for the bad news.

Notion #2 - The money collected by festivals in the form of submission fees, sponsorships, and ticket sales doesn't find its way back to the exhibiting filmmakers. This one is true -- filmmakers don't see a dime from these screenings, at least not directly from the festivals. There are plenty of filmmakers who think that festivals should cut them in for a piece of the action, and their rally cry is usually something along the lines of "without the films the festivals wouldn't exist." The flaw in this particular logic is that it assumes the festival staffers are lining their pockets at the expense of filmmakers. It's an easy mistake to make -- certainly the free-flowing liquor, high-end hotel rooms, and red carpet screenings project an image of glamour and success that the festival would like you to believe. That's the image they sell to the audience to entice them to show up. Pierce that thin veil of glitz, however, and you're likely to find a young, underpaid staff hunkered down in tiny offices, holding their festival together from year to year with the help of volunteers and masking tape. The vast majority of film festivals survive through a combination of government grants, sponsorship dollars, ticket sales, and of course the despised submission fees. (These fees are a much smaller portion of overall festival revenue than you might expect, which is why some fests dispense with them. Most of the time fees exist as a barrier to entry, keeping every schlub with a camcorder from submitting his home movies.)

So where's the money going? Mostly towards operational costs, including those meager staff salaries and office rent, but also towards theater and equipment rentals, hotel and airfare for filmmakers and other guests, printing, ground transportation -- the list goes on. Even for small fests the operating expenses can range into the hundreds of thousands of dollars -- larger festivals require millions per year to keep going. "The cost for projection equipment and venue rental alone can eat through our ticket sales for any given screening," Austin Film Festival programmer Kelly Williams told me recently. "On a good night, all expenses considered, we break even."

State Theater at Night

The notion that festivals could somehow share the revenue from ticket sales isn't completely without merit but it's a thorny problem. What if a festival increased its per-ticket price by a few dollars and promised to pass that "surplus" on to the filmmaker? The accounting would be nightmarish (and likely impossible in the case of short film programs), but the real question is: would filmmakers be incented to work even harder to fill their screenings, knowing that they stand to make a few hundred bucks on the deal? I have a hunch that the results would be mixed at best. Some filmmakers would kick ass to really make it work, others would operate about the same as they do now, and still others would find the rewards insufficient. After all, even with a medium-sized theater of 200 seats, you're only talking about making back the cost of a single plane ticket -- and that's if you pack the house.

I can tell you with near certainty that overall happiness at film festivals wouldn't be increased by this scheme. At any given festival there are always a tiny but vocal minority of filmmakers unhappy about the way they or their films are being treated. Introducing the almighty dollar into the equation could only make this situation more treacherous. Suddenly a smaller venue represents not just less prestige but also fewer seats to potentially sell. A less-than-desirable screening time or a perceived smaller share of the festival's marketing efforts would suddenly mean lost revenue in addition to smaller crowds. Festival programmers would be under pressure to take fewer risks, especially given that audiences likely wouldn't respond well to higher ticket prices. Given that the festival system works reasonably well now without the promise of remuneration, it's unlikely that even the most forward-thinking of fests would introduce such unwelcome complications and the potentially explosive situations that could result.

Some festivals do pay flat screening fees, though more often to the distributors of popular films that have already been acquired than directly to independent filmmakers. There is an entire class of festival that currently pays for a large portion of the feature films they screen: the gay & lesbian (aka the "GLIFFs" or GLBT) festivals. Demand for GLBT-interest films is high enough, and the material scarce enough, that most quality films in the category get snapped up by distributors quickly. Those distributors know that the target market isn't large enough to support a traditional theatrical run, but they can generally count on the festivals to pay a fee for the right to screen a popular festival film.

Festival de Cannes 2005

Such festivals are caught in a tough spot between what they can afford and what their audiences expect to see from other GLBT festivals. Lisa Kaselak, programming director for the Austin Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, admits that paying such fees makes her job more difficult, but as a working filmmaker she has seen the benefits of the system as well. "[Gay and lesbian] festivals across the U.S. are really struggling to pay the screening fees we have to pay. The margins are razor-thin and we often lose money on screenings. I can't blame distributors though, because they provide a valuable service." Don't expect this model to creep into the mainstream fests, however. Mainstream fests pay far fewer screening fees and some refuse to pay them at all. With a larger pool of fee-free films to choose from, they can well afford to do so.

With the notion that festivals are a potential source of revenue at least partially laid to rest, let's turn our attention to another implication of Marlow's essay that turns out not to be true:

Notion #3: There's money to be made in theatrical distribution. Filmmakers get starry-eyed at the thought of their flims playing metroplexes around the world, but when all is said and done even the major studios rarely make their money back after prints and advertising. Theatrical runs these days are basically promotional campaigns to sell DVD copies. There is a direct correlation between the number of people who see a film in the theaters and the eventual sales success of a film on DVD, but the revenue from the theatrical run itself is almost always negligible. (Harry Potter flicks and Spider-Man sequels aside.)

What does it mean for filmmakers? Well, if the festival circuit is the only "theatrical run" your film is likely to get, you'd better make the most of it. Gear up the marketing machine and pack those screenings, because the more people who see your film now, the more people who will buy it on DVD later. A more interesting idea buried in here is the thought that there is a direct correlation between the number of people who see your film (under any circumstances) and the number of people who will eventually buy it. This sounds obvious and simple, but some filmmakers behave as if exactly the opposite were true. They fret about piracy (you should be so lucky!), dither about putting their films online, and withhold screeners as if the discs were made of gold. If your film is that good viewers will pay for it -- but they have to know about it first. Try viewing every "free" screening of your film not as a sale you lost but as a marketing opportunity you gained.

I've written more about this elsewhere and expect to do so again, but it's a concept filmmakers need to wrap their heads around: hiding your light (or film) under a bushel for fear of "overplaying" it or tapping out a limited audience is old-school thinking.

ican8_  1372

Notion #4: Most films that play festivals deserve wider audiences than they get after their festival run is over. This notion follows on the idea that if a film plays a festival it must be a good film. Anyone who has been to a few film festivals can tell you that simply isn't true -- there are plenty of sub-par films playing festivals, especially those whose directors rely solely on a few hundred submissions to program their entire event. You can't really fault festivals for playing the best from a limited pool of submissions, but it doesn't make them good films and it certainly doesn't make them candidates for widespread distribution. As a filmmaker, you need to be prepared to recognize that even though you made a movie and even though it played the festival circuit, it might not be good enough ever to pay for itself.

Even technically "good" films can fail to find distribution after their festival runs. In casual conversation at festivals you occasionally hear the phrase "I'd even recommend that film to my mom." It's a telling phrase: it implies that the majority of movies one sees at festivals aren't suitable for mom, and poor mom is the metaphorical stand-in for the mainstream moviegoing populace. There are those distributors whose mission is to support indie filmmakers, but reality often intrudes: selling a movie that people don't already know they want to see is hard, expensive work. Wouldn't it just be easier to sell the movies you'd recommend to your mom? I believe that there is a layer of indie films in between the top 5% that get distribution and the 90% of indie films that are mostly unwatchable. But there again, you're only talking about a thin slice of movies that get overlooked or need extra help to find the right audience. The vast majority of even festival-selected films -- quite likely yours included -- aren't going to get picked up.

Paying attention to detail

Discouraging? Yes, but not quite cause for despair. Since the dawn of filmmaking, indie film has relied on an influx of cash from outside the system to survive. The filmmakers who eventually make it are the persistent ones. They continue to find sources for that outside cash (investors or day jobs or medical experiments) and continue to make movies until they create the picture that everyone wants to recommend to their mom. And who knows? Once you've done that, maybe you'll be able to sell your back catalog.

Just don't ask for a cut of the festival receipts.

LA Times - indie and studio films alike use festivals as box office launching pads

Film festivals are justifiably infamous for gluttonous parties, craven swag suites and break-the-bank bidding wars. But does having played the festivals actually help sell tickets when the movie finally hits theaters? The makers of two movies opening this week -- "Young@Heart” and "The Visitor" -- pray that the answer is yes.

Read the rest of 'Juno' set high box office standard for fest fare.

3 questions about your film and its distribution that you need to answer

As promised, a quick recap of the panel I sat on at the Ann Arbor Film Festival a couple of weeks ago, called "Multiplying Eyes: Film Distribution."

Panelists were myself, moderator Debra Miller (of Outfest & AFI), Bob Alexander of IndiePix, Mitch Levine of The Film Festival Group, and filmmaker Brooke Keesling.

The panel ostensibly concerned distribution but ranged to any number of topics related to making a living as an independent filmmaker. Below are some of threads of the conversation based on my notes and fuzzy memory. A lot of these ideas came up during the panel but I've also included my thoughts since then.

• Mitch Levine introduced his 3 essential questions as a starting point for the distribution of any film:

» What are your goals for the film? These should be as concrete and actionable as possible -- do you want your film shown on TV? How important is theatrical exhibition? Do you want to make all of your production money back, or is it enough to get the film "out there?" How long are you willing to wait before you move on to other forms of distribution? Don't close the door to opportunities you didn't think of, but you should definitely think about what you want.

» Who is your audience? Beyond just "moviegoers," think about specific segments of the populace who appear in or are otherwise represented by your film. Does the film appeal to senior citizens? 20-something skateboarders? Ice fishermen? Identify particular interests, hobbies, occupations, and pasttimes that appear in your movie.

» How do you reach that audience? Not just "by email," but what specific groups already exist to reach those people? Those groups have existing mailing lists, often segmented by geographical location, that can help you fill your festival screenings and sell your film. Are there current movements in popular culture related to your film or upon which you can capitalize? Exploit them.

• Brooke Keesling's Boobie Girl went to 80+ film festivals, and she went to as many of those film festivals as she could. Meeting so many different people helped her secure not only more festival appearances but also distribution for the film itself. Brooke emphasized the importance of keeping a short short - under 12 minutes if possible.

•  My main launching pad for conversation in this panel was a pair of concepts I encountered recently on the Technium, one of Kevin Kelly's blogs. The first is the concept of the concept of 1000 true fans -- that an independent artist could be supported for life if he captures the true fandom of 1000 people. A "true fan" is defined as a person who loves your work so much that he's willing to spend about $100 a year on just about anything you put out there. Read the whole thing, it's a compelling and thoughtful blueprint for the future of independent artists.

• The second concept is the idea that internet is a giant copy machine, and that trying to hold back anything that can be easily copied is essentially a losing proposition, especially if there's a large demand for it. Hence the decline of the music industry and (one guesses) the film industry, because their business models traditionally depended on selling things that couldn't be easily copied. This area is a huge tangle of laws and conflicting desires that I won't get into here -- read Better Than Free instead. Kelly argues that selling copies on the merit of simply having a copy is a business model that will diminish (if not evaporate altogether) -- rather, adding value around the copyable object by selling things that can't be copied (tangible and otherwise) is the winning move.

Kelly presents his ideas in a way that can be applied to many disciplines, but it is especially relevant to filmmakers, in particular those who specialize in shorts. (The ideas will be more applicable to features when they can be copied, transferred, and consumed in a way more convenient than is currently possible.) It's a fairly safe bet that your short film will be co-opted by YouTube or similar at some point in its life, so you're better off including YouTube in your plan instead of policing all the different video sites.

The ways that these two concepts can be applied to independent filmmaking are manifold and I'll continue to write about them. For now though, I'll simply point out two examples of filmmakers who have applied these principles to their work and seem to be doing fairly well at it:

Lone Sausage/Beyond Grandpa - the folks behind the amazing "Doctor Tran" series of films. The concept is simple but the execution is so amazing that true fans are created in mere minutes. In Doctor Tran, Breehn Burns and Jason Johnson have created a beloved character, but the real star of these short films is their warped sense of humor -- that's what people keep coming back for. So long as they continue to churn out depraved animated material (and it's been a while since the last short, though I hear another one is on the way), these guys could probably sell t-shirts and compilation DVDs until the end of time.

Bitter Films - Don Hertzfeldt may animate his films the old fashioned way, but he makes good use of the internet to connect to his fans and to offer them incentive to buy his shorts on DVD. And when it comes to selling things that can't be copied, Bitter Films is a great example: when the collected works "Bitter Films Volume 1" came out, Don included goodies (like strips of film cut from the 16mm prints and hand-drawn sticky notes) with the DVDs of those folks who pre-ordered. Not only are the shorts brilliant, but the marketing and delivery of the work (the DVDs are crammed with extras, etc) is top-notch.

• Some of the questions that came up in the panel were pretty basic. It's obvious that there's a hunger for the simple facts about film distribution -- how it works, what a "standard" deal looks like, etc. This is very likely because there don't seem to be any good, free resources about film distribution out there on the web. Those resources that exist offer sketchy, imprecise information up front, and often hide the real information behind a wall of paid membership or in the pages of a book or ebook you have to pay for.

This is not to say that information about film distribution and ideas about how to accomplish it for your film aren't valuable things for which one could logically expect to pay. However, I find it interesting that you can find reasonably good information about most other aspects of filmmaking for free. This makes me think that 1) film distribution is a murky and unpredictable subject about which few solid "facts" are known and 2) when money enters the picture, the knowledgeable are reluctant to give up information without compensation.

The facts of film distribution aren't that difficult to understand but are beyond the scope of this blog entry -- I promise I'll write something to illuminate the subject soon, and hopefully a bit more research into the subject will reveal some good web resources on the subject too. (Feel free to email me good sites if you know of them.)

• Don't be intimidated by the festival "rules." One of the better takeaways from the conversation was a reminder of the fact that festivals are desperate for great films -- if you have a real winner on your hands (and so very few filmmakers really, really do), a festival will bend the rules for you, especially if you're polite. Festivals put their submission rules into place for a reason, but a quality film will always trump a rule. The trick comes in convincing the festival staff that you have a really great film.

• Take advantage of whatever prizes you get for your film -- use it as leverage with distributors and other festivals. Do it quickly and don't be embarrassed by an award from a smaller festival.

• Use the low budget of your film as a selling point, not something to hide. Don't run down your own film by saying it was "only" made for $800, that you "only" had non-professional actors, etc. etc.

That's the extent of my notes and after-panel thoughts; thanks to my fellow panel members for their expertise, to those who attended (standing room only!) and to the Ann Arbor Film Festival for putting me on a panel and for creating an amazing event. I wish I'd had more time to spend there.