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Michael Curtis


September 17, 2014

‘GIFT’ Festival Journey – Part I

September 17, 2014 | By | No Comments

The festival run is in full swing for ‘GIFT,’ and things have been hopping. It’s been exciting and challenging in varying degrees. I thought I’d do a quick survey of what I’ve learned about the festival process on my first film. If you’re considering the festival route for your own project, maybe these notes will be helpful.  Prior to this film I had never had a film in a festival – at least as a director and producer.  I’d edited a number of films, but once post-production was completed for those projects, my work was done.  That won’t be the case at all if you’re the director or producer on an indie film.

With ‘GIFT,’ I underestimated how much time and energy it would take to manage all the submissions, emails, phone calls, and the wide array of deliverables, both print and film, required for various venues. You’ll need a considerable amount of time to juggle everything and meet deadlines.

One challenge is that no two festivals are alike.  They’ll all have at least a few things you’ll need to customize each time. Know that going in.

Building your film’s submission package on a site like Withoutabox or FilmFreeway goes a long way toward streamlining the festival entry process.  Of these two, I prefer using FilmFreeway, but there are other similar sites like FilmFestivalLife that you might want to evaluate as well. It can take a while to set up your project fully, so it’s easier to choose one or two and commit to those platforms. FilmFreeway and FilmFestivalLife do not currently provide access to the depth and breadth of festivals that Withoutabox does.  I hope that changes soon. I’ve used all 3 to send our trailer, electronic press kit, and online screener to different festivals we entered. You’ll find a modicum of basic information about specific festivals on each site, but you’ll still need to do your own research to find out if your film will be a good match for what they like to program.

Surprisingly, not all festivals accept online screeners for festival submissions. So be ready to send DVDs in order to be considered for those competitions.

I have mixed feelings on this issue.  Clearly it is much easier and cheaper for the filmmaker if a festival accepts links to password-protected online screeners on a site like Vimeo.  No shipping costs required, no time spent at the post office.

But then I start to wonder…  How often does a festival programmer (or intern) simply watch your screener on a laptop with nothing more than the built-in speakers for sound?  How often do they pause playback to check email or respond to some other distraction on the computer?  How often does a bandwidth issue crop up that halts your film in medias res?  Not exactly the immersive theatrical experience you’d choose for the people evaluating your work on the first viewing, right?

At least by sending a DVD there’s a chance your viewer will watch the film on a flat screen with a decent audio setup. If I had more time available, I’d probably choose to send DVDs to all of the festivals. But it’s hard to beat the convenience of an online screener. Of course, there are also festivals that only accept online screeners. So you will likely need both for your film.

Festival Materials for 'GIFT'

Festival Materials for ‘GIFT’

As the de facto publicist for ‘GIFT,’ I have had to opt for efficiency whenever possible. I’ve submitted an online screener to any festivals saying they will accept Vimeo links. But I have not used Withoutabox, generally, where online screeners are concerned. To set up an online screener for use on Withoutabox, you have to upload your film to their site. They then compress the file to stream from their servers.  The problem is that the compression they use is quite poor. The resulting image is considerably smaller than HD and just doesn’t look very good. In spite of the heavy compression and image loss, playback is not stellar, and rumors of unreliable playback abound.  So I’d advise you only send links to screeners if they reside on Vimeo or a comparable service.

Even on Withoutabox you can often include the link and password to your Vimeo-based screener in a cover letter that accompanies your film. Festival programmers don’t want to watch a low-quality screener either, so they will often include instructions for sending them Vimeo links even if you submit through Withoutabox.

Be sure to create a simple spreadsheet listing each festival you enter, the applicable notification deadline, the screening format sent, and the date the festival occurs.  You may also want to track what you’ve sent to each festival so you can easily see who’s received movie posters and post cards, and who hasn’t – but this can be added as your film is accepted into various venues.

All in all, the submission side of the festival process is a breeze (if you stay organized) compared to what comes next. If your film is accepted into a few festivals, that’s when you’ll have a slate of new tasks to complete.  ‘GIFT‘ has been fortunate in being selected to a number of festivals, and I’ve stayed fairly busy answering emails from festival organizers, developing and shipping our print materials, and doing a host of other tasks to keep the process running. A lot of this is deadline-driven, as festivals typically print programs or catalogues to share with attendees, and you’ll need to send in the information they need in order to have your film included.

Promo Card with selected laurels

Promo Card with selected laurels

It won’t matter to them that much, or even all, of the information they’re requesting has already been provided to the festival by way of your electronic press kit. Festival organizers don’t have time to parse through hundreds of EPKs for what they want. You’ll have to send in paperwork specific to their needs for each and every festival. Easily managed, again, if you stay organized.

Probably the biggest difference from festival to festival concerns the desired exhibition format. Many festivals will accept your movie as a Digital Cinema Package (DCP).  In my case, ‘GIFT’ fits onto a Linux-formatted thumb drive.  It’s pretty easy and cheap to send these out when needed. ‘GIFT’ was shot in 4K natively, so I had a DCP created for the film to allow audiences to see it in the native resolution.  That’s fine except for the fact that many festivals still do not accept DCP files for screening.  And that’s where more fun comes in.

Out of eight festivals ‘GIFT’ has been selected for so far, I’ve been required to deliver 4 different flavors of the movie for screening.  I use the DCP whenever allowed, but I’ve also had to deliver 1080p versions in ProRes, H.264, and even AppleTV3-compatible versions.  It will be interesting to see how many more versions will be needed by the time our planned festival run ends sometime next spring. None of this is difficult, but it does take time. And that’s where the gotcha will be for a lot of indie filmmakers, particularly those working on their films and publicity materials on weekends and evenings after regular work as I am. Next time around I’ll have a better idea of what to expect and I’ll be better prepared.

And speaking of next time… I am not certain I will go down the festival road at all on my next project.  I’ll make the final decision when my next film is completed, of course, and I may change my mind at some point. Why am I thinking of skipping it?

Festival runs are undoubtedly expensive – not just in terms of how much money you actually have to spend on entry fees, deliverables, print materials, and shipping. There will also be hundreds or even thousands of dollars in travel-related costs if you decide to support your film by attending festivals in person. Attending in person is the whole point, though, to network with other filmmakers, distributors, and to see how your film plays in front of a real audience.

Don’t neglect to consider the time and energy costs managing a festival run will take on top of the more obvious financial costs – especially if you will be a one-person-publicity-machine as I have been describing.  Filmmakers working in a team environment with a shorter list of targeted responsibilities may find this process easier to manage.

I’m happy that I chose the festival route for ‘GIFT,’ and I’ve learned a lot by doing so. Our first festival screening is coming up in a few weeks, and I can’t wait to see how the film plays in front of a general audience. That will be a pretty remarkable experience, I expect. We make films for other people, after all, not just our moms, friends, and cast and crew members. A nice thing about festivals is that random human beings can sit in a room with you and watch your story unfold. That can be a highly educational event. You’ll immediately see where your film is working, and perhaps more importantly, where it isn’t.

GIFT Movie Poster

GIFT Movie Poster

But even with all of that, I will still likely eschew festival submission for my next project for a few simple reasons.

Maybe all that time spent supporting your festival run could be better put to use writing your next script, for instance… Getting on with your next film instead of spending hundreds of additional hours on the one you’ve already finished.

Additionally, screening opportunities are increasingly limited at traditional festival venues. Every festival I’ve interacted with this year has been overwhelmed by a record number of entries in 2014. Record numbers. There are so many short films being made and submitted that many just can’t find an audience, and competition to get into festivals is intense.

In my case, I may likely defer future festival attempts until I have my first feature film to share.

So that’s what I’ve learned up to this point concerning festivals. I hope this overview will help some other folks plan for the festival circuit a little better than I did.  In the next few months I’ll have more perspective on what it’s like to have a film in front of audiences, to conduct Q&As, and sit on festival panels.  I think it will probably be a lot of fun.  I am certainly going to do my best to enjoy the ride.  Because who knows how long it will be until I make this kind of road trip again?

What about you all? What festival experiences have you had that you can share? Drop us a comment below.

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