Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What I learned from the festival circuit

After more than a year and almost 40 festival screenings, Enter the Dark's World Tour 2010 - 2011 is finally at an end.  It's been a great experience and I've learned quite a few things that will help me as I move forward with new projects.  I figured I might as well pass along some of these hard-earned nuggets to anyone who dares venture forth into the world of indie filmmaking.

First, in order to keep track of all the festivals I submitted to, I created a big-ole spreadsheet, including festival name, date of upcoming deadline, cost of entry, dates of the festival, location of festival, date when they would notify filmmakers of their decisions, whether I got in or not, and if we won any awards.

From these magic columns I can extrude the following data:

YES:  40
NO:    42

Almost a 50% batting average - not too bad.  I can tell you this - in the future I would not submit to as many festivals.  Since this was my first time, my main goal was getting as much exposure as possible and finding out which festivals were worth the entry fee.  Having submitted to that many festivals, I now have a pretty good idea which are the good ones, and which are the shady ones.

And let me tell you this - there are quite a few shady ones.  Look, here's the deal - there are way too many festivals.  More and more are popping up every day.  If you jump on withoutabox (which I'll get into later), you can see literally THOUSANDS of them.  And what I've found is that many of the smaller, newer ones are being created by filmmakers simply looking for a way to screen their (and their buddies') films.   Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but you should be a bit concerned when you see the following:

- Festival with less than 2 years history
- Disorganized website with more info about the festival organizers than the films
- Very little updates to their Facebook page or website
- Certainly, any festival that outright promotes the festival director and his/her films
- Poor communication with the festival - not responding to emails, or it becomes obvious that only one person is in charge of everything - festival programming, marketing, filmmaker liaison, etc.

And this is a really big one - a couple of festivals I was accepted to immediately started to send emails promoting "special extras" to me.  These were usually opportunities to attend distribution seminars and filmmaking workshops all at additional expense.  It soon was obvious that the "festival" was really a scam for these folks to push these seminars to a naive and desperate indie film community.

At one of these festivals, it became clear something was fishy when the times and venues for screenings kept changing, the website never had final info about films or screenings until less than a week from opening night, and when the festival awards were finally posted, one film among all the entries garnered almost all the wins.  It turns out that film had connections to the festival director. Yeah - big surprise there...

You may also come across these film "competitions" that are not really festivals, but ways to generate accolades and publicity for your film by having them win "awards".  Now, as a first-time filmmaker, this is not necessarily a bad thing - but just be aware that these "awards" are not really recognized as such by those in the know.  The submission fees are pretty steep, and most of them also will try to encourage you to submit to as many categories as you can - all at additional expense.  I'm not going to outright say that every one who pays up and submits will actually "win" an award - but let's just say that the list of "winners" is three pages long. And of course when you do win, you have to shell out an additional few hundred bucks if you actually want that hunk o' acrylic taking up space on your shelf.

I will say that of these competitions, the Maverick Movie Awards was different.  There was only one fee.  I was fortunate to be nominated for multiple categories and there were not tons of "winners".  Also, when I did actually win an award, I was eventually given the option to buy that chunk o' acrylic, but at a much more reasonable price.

One other type of opportunity for horror filmmakers to screen their films are the horror/sci-fi/fantasy conventions.  My experience with these was not the greatest.  Most of these are run by a small staff who have many responsibilities on their plate - wrangling up genre "stars" for the event, dealing with vendors, securing the location (usually at run-down hotel ballrooms with no air conditioning), so they have little time to deal with filmmakers.  The films are usually an afterthought and are screened straight from DVD with crappy projectors and horrible sound, in out of the way ballrooms, with little promotion or care.

One of these conventions was too cheap to pay for more than one room to screen all the films it had accepted, so it decided to run the programming 24 hours a day for three days straight.  My film screened at 5:00am in the morning.  Needless to say, I wasn't thrilled.

Of all the conventions however, I will say that Dragon*Con was the best.  It is a well-organized, massive convention that draws over 40,000 attendees.  The festival staff was very attentive to the filmmakers - even having a separate website for the film festival.  It is well-worth the submission fee.

Speaking of submission fees,  let's take a second to think about the total costs for entering all these festivals.  My total for all submissions was $2,745 - an average of around $32 per festival.  Add to that shipping costs, DVD screeners, additional materials like postcards and HDCAM and BluRay festival copies and you get closer to $3,800.  That's almost twice what it cost me to produce my short film.  However, when you look at all that as marketing costs to have Enter the Dark screened almost 40 times in venues around the world, that's really not all that much.  That comes to about $95 per screening.  Just try to rent a theater and market and produce a screening yourself and you'll see that $95 is quite a bargain.

However, an argument could be made that all this fuss is a waste of time anyway - you could just put your short up on YouTube, let everyone see it and generate buzz that way - and not have to spend a single dime.  Although this may be true, I think the festival circuit still holds merit - especially for horror films.

First, the horror community is a rabid, dedicated bunch.  Getting the movie directly where they are is critically important to help generate buzz.  There still is no better way to see a film - especially a horror film - than in a theater, projected onto a large screen, in front of an audience.  I can't tell you how rewarding it is to experience an audience actually "getting" your film - laughing at the right parts, peeking from behind their programs and jumping at the end.

This is another reason to get your films into festivals - to meet your fans.  Take the opportunity to do a Q&A session whenever you have a chance.  At one of these festivals, I had the amazing experience of having one person say to me, "That was the best movie I've seen all year - I mean ALL MOVIES - not just short films, not just indie films - That's better than anything Hollywood has produced. You really need to make it into a feature film."   Wow - how much is an ego boost like that worth to a new filmmaker?

I think today's filmmaker needs to look at all avenues of getting their work seen by the public.  So, my approach was to get it in a bunch of festivals (including some that included online screenings), and once it had run its course in the festival circuit, then post it on YouTube and Vimeo for all to see.  I took every opportunity to have it reach more people.  "Would you like to be part of our online festival?" YES!  "We are thinking about a horror-based iPad app that would include short videos." SIGN ME UP!  "Can we embed your film on our website." OF COURSE.

Take every available opportunity to have your film seen by as many folks as possible.  It is not a matter of should I do this, or that - DO THEM ALL.  Do not allow yourself to be frozen into inaction trying to protect the intellectual rights of your work.  EFF THAT!  In this day in age, your art will get ripped off by many - do not fight it - use it to your advantage.  Now, feature-length films are another matter, and that's why I'm not making them (yet).  But for short films your strategy should be to be lucky enough that people would actually want to "steal it" and make copies available for all to see.

I think I lost some potential eyeballs by being too protective early on.  I signed up with IndieFlix to have them provide DVD and streaming versions of my film.  I felt like I wanted to try to capture some of this revenue stream, but for short films, it really is a joke.  My last quarterly payment recently arrived from them and the check came to a whopping $1.20 - not much more than the stamp it cost them to mail it to me.  With my next project I will be much more willing to have it available online for free while it is also in festivals - I no longer think there's an issue with this. 

One problem with being so protective of my film early on is that it cost me a lot of potential fans (my most important resource) at a time when I was getting a lot of press.  As soon as I was finished editing the film, I contacted a ton of available websites and bloggers to have it reviewed.  I was lucky enough to have 25 or so actually provide a write-up (which, for a relative unknown was pretty good), and almost all of them were very favorable.  So, I had potentially hundreds, if not thousands of fans out there who would have been thrilled after reading those reviews, to follow a link to YouTube and watch it right then and there.  But I didn't have it up there yet - I wanted to drive sales to IndieFlix, or have them see it in a festival, so all those leads probably became dead ends.  I may never be able to get them back to see my film.

If there's one thing I've learned about this whole new world of content delivery via the web it's this - you have to hook them when they first hear about you.  If they've bothered to read a review about your short film, there sure as hell better be a direct link to see that film RIGHT THERE AND THEN.  It has to be immediately available - the simplest and most pain-free route to see your work before they are sidetracked by that cute kitten video with boobies, or they bop over to Facebook to check out what their high-school ex is up to.

And it has to be free.  Not kinda free, not almost free, not 99¢, but FREE.  Not only are people on the 'net easily distracted, but they're cheap.  There is now an assumption that content should be free.  Now this surely isn't a good thing, but that's just the way it is - deal with it.  Let's say you just got a nice write up and someone follows a link to see your movie on IndieFlix for 99¢.  They spend just a second contemplating if it's worth it or not.  Then they remember there was another review for a cool horror short that had a link to it on YouTube.  Guess what they're gonna do.  What would you do?

That's what I thought.

As hard as it may be for artistic content-creators like us, you just have to bite the bullet and embrace the free.  What other choice do we have?

After all has been said and done - after all the hustling: more than a year's worth of festivals, screeners to reviewers, downloads and YouTube viewings, I estimate that my short has still only been seen by about 1,500 folks.  That seems pathetically small for all the work I've put into it.  Not so much the work making the film - that was easy.  It's the work marketing and distributing it that's the hard part.  All that for 1,500 pairs of eyeballs.

Don't get me wrong - I'm immensely grateful that anyone would actually want to take the time to watch my little tale of chills and thrills, but considering the worldwide population of all folks connected to the 'net - its really nothing at all.  However, I do know that all it will take is just one online taste-maker, one influential reviewer in the horror world to off-handedly tweet about how much they liked my short and BLAMMO - everything changes in a nanosecond.  Suddenly the hordes will come swooping in.

But for now I'll just wait - start working on my next project, and see what happens.


Indie film resources:

- Withoutabox  This one's pretty obvious to any filmmaker.  Almost all festivals now use this as their source of contact.  Upload all your info to withoutabox once and from there you can submit to thousands of festivals with a click of a mouse.  Use their search tools to find festivals that match your film.  Take the time to create and upload an electronic press kit (cast/crew info, director's bio, film synopsis, poster, stills, trailer, etc.).  You can also upload a digital version of the film for submission screenings as well - this will save you postage costs of sending out all those DVDs.

Be sure to note the submission deadlines and always send as soon as you can to save on late fees.

- Short Film Central   This one's really cool - a hub for filmmakers, film fans and festivals.  Sign-in to create a page for your film, including upcoming screenings, awards, reviews and your trailer.  It also has a nice database of festivals (some not on withoutabox) and you can see ratings of festivals from other filmmakers - very useful!  Once your film has played in a festival, you can rate it yourself.

The other cool thing about this website is that festival programmers search it to find new films for their upcoming festivals.  I've had a few contact me after finding my film on this site, and the best part is that when you are invited to submit by a program director, they will waive the fees!

- IndieFlix  If you do want to try to generate some cash from your film, this one way to go.  They were very easy to work with.  They used to provide DVDs to order, but now are only offering streaming downloads.  I'm not sure how much traffic they get however.  After a year of being listed on their site I've only had 11 streams and about 20 or so DVDs (most bought by me or cast/crew members).  My total take has been about $30.00.  You decide whether it's worth the effort or not.

For feature-length films, IndieFlix will also act as a distributor to get your film onto Netflix, Amazon and iTunes.  

Unfortunately, there still is not one single agreed-upon website for streaming short movies - where the artist can actually get paid.  There are a lot of players out there (like IndieFlix) but no one clear winner, which makes it hard for an audience to find the good stuff, and even more difficult for a filmmaker to reach a mass audience.  This is something that iTunes could own in a second if they wanted it, but for now, short films are still the ugly stepchild that gets forgotten.

It is because of this that YouTube will probably wind up being the defacto method of short film distribution on the web.  It is easy (and free) to create your own channel and upload your films.  The potential audience is massive and you can theoretically make some money through Google Adsense.  I say theoretical, because unless you have massive hits (like hundreds of thousands) you will only be generating pennies.  And of course, they only pay once you've accrued $100.  Good luck with that.

Again, they key is somehow generating buzz to point to your YouTube channel.  Just tagging some keywords to your film clip is not enough.  Work all the angles - festival screenings, blogger reviews, tweeting, creating a facebook page, short film central page, jump up and down and send out semaphore signals - whatever.

Good Luck!

Here are some film festivals that I found to be worth their submission fees.  Some I got into - some not.  I'll skip the more obvious ones like Sundance 'cuz... well unless you're Brad Pitt making a little home-movie on the side, you're not getting into those festivals anyway!

General Indie Film Festivals:

Austin Film Fest
Bare Bones Film Fest
Cinequest Film Fest
Dam Short Film Fest
Dances With Films
First Glance Film Fest
Indie Spirit Film Fest
Love Your Shorts
Maverick Movie Awards
Mill Valley Film Fest
Palm Springs Intl. Film Fest
STIFF Seattle True Independent Film Fest
Toronto Indie Film Fest
Tulsa Intl. Film Fest

Horror/Fantasy Film Festivals:

A Night of Horror
Another Hole in the Head
Atlanta Horror Film Fest
Big Bear Horror Film Fest
Bram Stoker Intl. Film Fest
Buffalo Screams
Buried Alive Film Fest
Dark Carnival Film Fest
Dead by Dawn
Dragon*Con Indie Short Film Fest
Famous Monsters of Filmland Imagi-Movies
Fantasia Film Fest
Fantastic Fest
Fear Fete
Freak Show Horror Film Fest
Killer Film Fest
Maelstrom Intl. Fantastic Film Fest
New Orleans Horror Film Fest
New York City Horror Film Fest
Puerto Rico Horror Film Fest
Rhode Island Intl. Horror Film Fest
Sacramento Horror Film Fest
Spooky Movie DC Film Fest
Thriller Chiller
Toronto After Dark


  1. Great advice, glad you had Tulsa on there. My short screened there too and that's where I caught this gem. I totally agree with posting shorts online the sooner the better.

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  2. Great resource, thanks for taking the time so the rest of us can learn from your process! I'm filming my first 'big' short in March, and I will definitely refer to this when the time comes.

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  4. Whoa. Thanks for sharing this with us, Todd! While some of these festivals really don’t help anyone to further their film career, at least it’s a chance for them to improve on their craft, right? We all have to start somewhere, even if it’s at the most trivial of contests with the most trivial of awards. Everything will eventually lead somewhere.

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