This past year, from mid-October to mid-December I embarked on a film festival season filled with five very different festivals. These are the valuable lessons I learned from each one.
1. Pick one film that you absolutely must see (London Film Festival)
Last year I was out of town during the London Film Festival, and had a pang of regret that I missed it. This year, I was determined to attend but the schedule for LFF is not only busy but scattered all throughout the city. You would think since I live here it would make things easier, but trying to fit in a festival amongst everyday London life proved to be quite difficult. I was determined to attend and see at least one film, and I chose well: ‘A Private War’, telling the fascinating story of war reporter Marie Colvin. Over the years I’ve switched from narrative to documentary filmmaking and it was inspiring to see a director who’d done the opposite. It’s an incredible film, and I was fortunate enough to attend the European Premiere with the entire cast and a red carpet and all! I had no regrets this year, even only attending one film. As you read below, I barely got to see more than that at some festivals!
2. Do your homework, email people ahead of time, book appointments, and be flexible (International Documentary Festival Amsterdam)
I’ve been to a reasonable number of documentary festivals, but the best are the ones with markets, and IDFA is right up there. I was a bit skeptical at first, but I truly think it is the best combination of curated content and market access. At times I have to be my own sales agent until I sell my film to someone else who takes on that responsibility. Cold calling is difficult, and emails tend to go unanswered or delayed. There’s nothing like a film festival to put decision makers into the festive spirit! The best ones like IDFA and MIPDOC give you access to the contact information for everyone attending in advance, which is half the work done. The other half is spending a day or two about a week or so in advance to contact decision makers individually about meeting with them. Not everyone will be willing or even able to meet, but the atmosphere of a festival makes everyone drop their guard a little, and I find usually they’re willing to schedule a follow-up after the festival finishes. If they don’t follow-up, don’t fear – its a lot of work for decision makers to attend a market or festival and they’re usually quite busy immediately afterwards. Be patient, and try again a week or so later.
3. Always take the opportunity to speak on panels, but don’t just speak about yourself (Aesthetica Film Festival)
The sixth and final festival screening for ‘Six Year Old Fears’ was ASFF in York, UK. It’s a BAFTA qualifying film festival nestled in the iconic northern city, and one where you can walk on a medieval castle wall to the festival! I was asked to speak on a panel with other documentary filmmakers, and while I hesitated at first I accepted and was very glad I did. It was a great opportunity not only to speak about my own film but to speak about shooting short documentaries in general and demystifying what a lot of aspiring short filmmakers wonder about the purpose and end result of short films.
4. It’s a movie marathon, not a single screening sprint – pace yourself (Global Health Film Festival)
Last weekend I attended the Global Health Film Festival, a 2 day international festival in London. Its my favorite festival of the year, with so many of the films well shot but also with strong meanings.
Festival Fatigue: the medical condition contracted by staring at a big screen, standing on your feet, or repeating your elevator pitch for your next project for extended periods of time.
With so many good films, workshops, and networking opportunities its very easy to fall subject to festival fatigue. The one thing they don’t always include in the schedule for festivals is time for yourself. It is important to have as many coffee meetings with people who will meet with you as you can, but you also deserve a coffee meeting with yourself (and consider maybe having a decaf tea or water to give your blood pressure a break from the caffeine). Festival adrenaline is also a real thing, so while you may not feel tired after 11 back to back meetings in one day as I had at Cannes once, you will crash – eventually. Just make sure there’s a soft bed and pillow underneath you before you do. And don’t beat yourself up over not getting to every event.
5. Submit to festivals you’ve been accepted to in the past (NYWIFT Short Film Festival)
You’ve been there, you’ve done that. But as an independent filmmaker it isn’t a waste to do it again, in fact I’ve found festivals who have accepted your work before are more likely to accept it again, and that is another set of laurels to add to the list. Last year, I submitted a couple of short films I made for organizations or charities to the inaugural year of the NYWIFT Short Film Festival. It was free for members of New York Women in Film and Television, which was ideal because I didn’t feel quite comfortable paying to submit to festivals knowing it was likely they would not get selected for the reason they were made – they would be too charitable or advocacy based. I was thrilled when they were accepted! This year, I had another series of three films that I loved making but felt again I couldn’t submit them anywhere – until this year’s NYWIFT Short Film Festival! And this time they received an award for third place (watch the trailer here) and will be on a SVOD platform in January, proving its always worth submitting to festivals you’ve had films selected for in the past.