RONA’S REEL TAKE: Tips for a Successful Film Festival Experience, Part 1

Rona Edwards is a film and television producer, having produced eleven films, some of which have won awards at film festivals, with many more in development. She was Vice President of Creative Affairs for Emmy-winner John Larroquette (Night Court), Academy Award-winner Michael Phillips (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind) and Emmy-winner Fern Field (Monk), before she was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of producing. A contributing writer to Produced By, she wrote the critically acclaimed books, I Liked It, Didn’t Love It: Screenplay Development from the Inside Out and The Complete Filmmaker’s Guide to Film Festivals (Your All Access Pass to Launching your Film on the Festival Circuit) with former studio exec, Monika Skerbelis. Together, they are the founders of ES Entertainment and ESE Film Workshops Online, providing online film courses without leaving your home. Twitter: @ronaedwards @ESEFilm

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RONA'S REEL TAKE: Tips for a Successful Film Festival Experience, Part 1 by Rona Edwards | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

British director Andrea Arnold and award winners celebrate onstage at the 69th Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

With 4,000+ film festivals around the world and a festival in just about every city, it can be overwhelming for any filmmaker maneuvering through the film festival circuit – especially after most filmmakers have maxed out their credit cards producing the film in the first place! What festivals do I submit to? And…then what? Read on and learn the Cannes Do, Tell U Right approach to your festival journey.

Getting into one of the top tier film festivals (Sundance, Toronto, Berlin, Venice and Cannes) will certainly bring a lot of exposure for your film, but smaller film festivals can also be beneficial and jump-start careers, depending on who is behind the festival itself. You want to make sure that the festival has an industry presence to make the most out of promoting your film and your career. No matter which festival you submit to, you need to have a plan of attack, rather than submit willy-nilly. In our book, The Complete Filmmakers Guide to Film Festivals, Monika Skerbelis and I have organized some strategic tips to help make the process easier and to also aid you in organizing a successful festival run. I’m going to be sharing some of those tips and more in this four-part series.

First off, it’s important to set goals of what you want to achieve at a festival. Consider these, what I call “Four Gets and a Win,” as some possible objectives:

  • Get a distribution deal for your film (even short films can negotiate them as interstitials for foreign networks and some domestic as well);
  • Get attention for the film and the filmmaker;
  • Get considered for other projects based upon the notoriety of the current film in the festival;
  • Get representation from agents and/or managers;
  • Win awards – whether an Academy Award, Independent Spirit Award, or film festival jury or audience award to help create buzz for the film and thus elevate the status and appeal of the filmmakers.

Understanding what needs to be accomplished and how to tackle the festival circuit can be quite all-consuming so I’ve outlined a 3-act structure for filmmakers to follow.


Script EXTRA: Musings from a First-Timer at Cannes Film Festival


ACT ONE – The Submission Process:

There’s prep work to be done before you even consider spending dough on entry fees. This can be very costly. So what should you consider before spending any more money? Here’s a few tactics to help you on your way:

  1. Make sure you have film festival entry fees & travel expenses included in your budget;
  2. Target Academy Award-qualifying film festivals if you made a short film or short documentary;
  3. Target festivals that have an industry presence with industry pros presenting educational seminars, panels or who are jurors at the festival;
  4. Target festivals that are right for your film or highlight a particular niche or genre showcased in specific festivals (some festivals have sidebars that highlight a certain subject, lifestyle or ethnic background);
  5. Pay attention to the festival guidelines (each festival is different) – don’t ever assume they are all the same and require the same deliverables or have the same rules;
  6. Have a great logline (this is good for pitching but it’s also good for the festival program);
  7. If you are using withoutabox.com, FilmFreeway or other submission platforms, make sure you fill out all the information;
  8. Do not submit a DVD with an Avery label, sticker or paper label (Yes, some festivals still require DVDs, but most are switching to data files or private Vimeo links for submissions while using DCPs for exhibition). If you do submit a DVD, it’s okay to just write your info legibly with a marker as labels and stickers can jam the Screener’s DVD player;
  9. Asking for a waiver doesn’t mean you’ll get one. Be careful, as most festivals want to keep the playing field level for the competition. Asking for a waiver may compromise that. Don’t be insulted it you are told “no” – it has no reflection on your film. Most smaller or mid-size festivals need the entry fee to help cover costs. It’s hard enough for these festivals to break even so if everyone asked for a waiver, understand the festival’s point of view. That being said, it doesn’t hurt to ask but know to ask in a nice way and don’t get bent out of shape if they say “no.”

Script EXTRA: Film Festivals – A Guide to the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


One of the biggest faux pas a filmmaker faces from the get-go is not including the cost of film festival entry fees ($25 to $75 per festival usually) and the expenses it takes to attend festivals (travel, lodging food, drinks, extra tickets, etc.) into the overall production budget of the film itself. It should be a line item in your production budget under promotion. In our book, The Complete Filmmaker’s Guide to Film Festivals, there are blank expense forms that help you calculate what it might cost to go to various festivals for a mere three days – it isn’t cheap! So, you have to be smart about how you spend your money. However, if you’ve finished your film and you have no money left because you didn’t allow for the additional expense of exposing your film at film festivals, then you are left with nothing but a film in the “can,” a DVD sleeve, or a dangling private link on Vimeo as the case may be. Securing additional funds as a line item in the budget to help cover costs for promotion once the film is completed will save a lot of heartache should you find yourself cash poor and unable to attend any festival except the one down the street from your house.

Just because the film is wrapped doesn’t mean your job is over as the filmmaker – you now can enjoy the laurels of taking your show on the road, exposing it to audiences globally, and networking with like-minded people from all over the world. There’s a lot that can be done during the process of making the film that will make the job of promoting the film afterwards easier. ESE Film Workshops Online offers a 4-week intensive class called Maneuvering Film Festivals in which Monika Skerbelis and I guide you every step of the way as you navigate the festival circuit. Feel free to check it out.

Filmmakers should be thinking about the end result even when they begin prepping their film, by taking photos during production so they have stills that might be used for the poster, press, and the film’s website. Interviews with the actors and key production people for the press kit should also be done at this time. Building a fan base by teasing your Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter friends with trailers or a behind-the-scenes look at the film, blogging about your experience shooting it; all of these, albeit hard work, will begin the process of promotion and build your tribe at the get-go. So start early. But how do you choose which festivals to submit to if you’re on a limited budget or is it that you are just overwhelmed by the myriad of choices? Where do you begin?

Learn that and more in Part Two of RONA’S REEL TAKE: Tips for a Successful Film Festival Experience.

2017 Copyright Rona Edwards – No reprinting without permission from author.

If you need tips for developing your screenplay, take Rona and Monika’s upcoming online class,
Screenplay Development from the Inside Out (starts March 22nd)

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