Write, Direct, Repeat: Film Festivals and the Short Film, Part 1

Last week I had the thrilling opportunity to premiere my second short film, Deal Travis In, at the New York International Short Film Festival. This was the second consecutive year I premiered a short at this festival and my mind was flooded with memories of how I felt at this time last year.

Rocking the mic at the Q&A after my "Deal Travis In" premiere at NY Shorts Fest.

Rocking the mic at the Q&A after my “Deal Travis In” premiere at NY Shorts Fest.

I had never made a film before and I remember hoping for a robust festival tour. But no matter how much I’d read about film festivals to prepare, I couldn’t know what to expect until I went through the process myself.

For this second film, I have a year of screening at festivals under my belt. Before jumping back in, I evaluated what worked, and what didn’t, as I crafted a plan for taking my new film out into the world.

In this two-part article, I’ll share what I’ve learned and keep the focus on short films. I found there’s a big difference in how you put out a short than a feature. The opportunities, goals and expectations are for the most part quite different.

The one choice I never considered last year was to bypass film festivals altogether and go directly to online distribution. This time around I felt I had to make a thoughtful decision about this. The investment of time and money warrants this careful choice.

SHOULD YOU GO THE FESTIVAL ROUTE WITH YOUR FILM?

Thanks to the Internet, you can now make a film and share it with an audience the moment you’re done. In addition, an online release and a festival run don’t have to be mutually exclusive. If you decide to go after festival screenings, once you’ve compiled your targeted list of festivals, check to see which of them do NOT allow films to be available online. Short of the Week recently posted “The Essential List of Festivals and Online Eligibility” and it’s a great addition to your research when deciding how to get your film out to an audience.

What do you truly hope to achieve with your short film?

For my first short, my goal was to learn everything I could about making a film from concept through distribution. This is in large part why I wanted to try it all, including marketing my film, attending festivals and exploring distribution strategies.

What are your goals? For example:

  • If you’re aiming to learn how to make a film, but not looking to dive into marketing and distribution at this point, an online release may be the perfect match.
  • If you have a feature-length script and plan to make a short from that script to help sell your feature, build a plan around achieving exactly that. A hybrid of online and a handful of film festivals (particularly in Los Angeles) may work best.

Figure out your goals first and then build your plan. And be more specific than “to be discovered.” What do you want discovered? And by whom?

Do you have an Internet-friendly film?

Certain types of films are more primed for an online audience than others.

  • Did you make a 3-minute comedy or animated film? Then consider going straight to the web and build your plan around online promotion.
  • On the other hand, do you have a 20-minute relationship drama or experimental film? No matter how brilliant it is, even your mother may struggle to focus on your heart-wrenching drama with all of the candy-colored distractions of the web.

Depending upon your film, you may be better served screening in a festival setting if your film requires removing as many distractions from your audience as possible.

How connected are you to other filmmakers?

Having not gone to film school, I realize one of my greatest challenges is building strong relationships with other filmmakers.

Festivals are about the people. Friends made, friends kept from Dragon*Con: JT Seaton (L) & GB Hajim (R)

Friends made, friends kept from Dragon*Con: Filmmakers JT Seaton (L) & GB Hajim (R)

  • Everyone knows film is a collaborative medium, but it is also one that requires honest feedback at every stage and access to a network much wider than one person can hope to build and maintain. Relationships are key.
  • The filmmakers I met at festivals last year are a truly special group. We met while supporting each other through our screenings and the rush of becoming fast friends in a new city created a collegiate relationship that’s hard to find outside of film school or a film set.

I ultimately decided to go the film festival route with my latest short in large part for the chance to meet and re-connect with filmmakers and festival programmers and to screen with a live audience. For me, the personal interactions at film festivals became an irresistible draw.

If you decide to go the festival route or a hybrid of online and festivals, the next choice you’ll need to make is where you want to screen your film.

HOW DO YOU CHOOSE FESTIVALS THAT ARE A MATCH FOR YOUR FILM?

Sundance. There, I said it. What the heck, Cannes and SXSW. What’s the festival you dream of and believe if accepted into it will completely change your life? By all means submit to that festival. I’m nobody’s dream killer and they have to accept somebody’s film right? Why not ours!

Okay, now that that’s done, let’s consider other ways of selecting festivals for your short that go beyond sorting them by popularity. Assess your film and look at its unique qualities and strengths, then seek out festivals that have a strong track record of programming, and loving, those films.

What is the genre of your film?

  • If you’ve made a comedy, horror, animation, LGBT, culturally- or religiously-themed film or a film with a really specific hook, like a charitable cause, then most likely this is your film’s winning-est trait. Will you get into general interest festivals with these films? Absolutely. But the first pass you take at building a submissions list should be to festivals that made a commitment to exactly the type of film you made.

We’re still talking shorts, right?

  • Then submit to some shorts-only festivals. This naturally improves your chances of getting accepted because all of the programming blocks are filled with shorts.
  • People will tell you shorts-only festivals don’t bring out the media, production companies or distributors the same way as festivals that screen both features and shorts do. And they’re right. But unless you’re screening a feature, you’re unlikely to be privy to much of that high-end attention anyway.

What is your hometown audience? Who are your hometown filmmakers?

  • Festivals need to get butts in seats and for the most part their audiences are made up of people coming to see a specific film or filmmaker. Even with social networking, you’ll still mostly likely draw your biggest audience from your hometown. When you submit to local festivals, consider mentioning in a cover note that you look forward to bringing out your dedicated hometown supporters to your screening. Hey, it can’t hurt!
  • One of my mantras for getting started making your own films is to first support your local filmmakers. As you learn your craft, seek out those a step ahead of you in your community and see their work and follow their careers. If you’ve been doing that (and if not, start today), where are those filmmakers screening their work? What were their experiences at those festivals? Ask and they will answer, and you’ll begin to find festivals that matter in your professional circles.

What is your budget for a film festival tour?

  • Everyone thinks about the cost of submission fees, and they do add up fast, but submission fees are peanuts compared to travel costs.
  • Each person has their opinion on this, but I’m not one who cares about collecting laurels for a short film. I’m submitting to festivals to get in and to attend those festivals. Is it possible to attend every festival you’re accepted into? No – life is bound to get in the way – but your intention should be to attend when invited.
  • Submitting to a hundred tiny festivals you don’t plan to attend will cost a lot and accomplish very little. Only you, there in person, can get someone to watch your film and realize that the whole amazing package that you are (film + filmmaker) is worth being in business with.

After you’ve decided which festivals fit your criteria, cross your fingers and submit away. The truth is you’ll get plenty of rejections; that’s just the way it works. But one day an email will come, and instead of another, “We regret to inform…,” it’ll say, “Congratulations!”

Pop some champagne, re-read that email over and over again and enjoy the moment. Once that’s done, you’ll need to get your butt in gear because then the real fun begins – it’s festival time!

For the second part of this article, I’ll give you my best tips for preparing for film festivals, attending them and following up afterward. Getting into a festival seems like a huge hurdle but it’s the splash you make while you’re there that really counts.

Read Write, Direct, Repeat: Film Festivals and Short Films, Part 2

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