How to get the most out of film festivals as an indie filmmaker

Melissa Dowler
Aug 3, 2017 · 6 min read
Me introducing the movie at IFF Boston, one of the awesomest moments of my life. Photo: Leah Haydock Photography

I’m in the middle of a stint sharing my feature documentary, Adele and Everything After (formerly known as Letting Go of Adele) at film festivals around the country. It started with our April world premiere at the Cleveland International Film Festival, and stretched from there to IFF Boston (where much of it was filmed), up north to Canada (where we won the Audience Award at NorthwestFest) down south to Knoxville (where we won the Audience Award at Scruffy City Film & Music Festival: you like us, you really like us) and this fall we’ll screen at festivals in California, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio and Massachusetts.

Last week, I wrote about why it was meaningful to me to share my work at festivals; today I want to share what I’ve learned about making the most of a film festival run for a small, independent documentary.

Have a strategy from the start

There are thousands of film festivals out there, and almost all charge submission fees that start at $25 and go upwards from there (most festivals have tiered pricing, with the fee for submission going up as it gets closer to the deadline.)

When you’re working on an indie film budget, you need to make your dollars go as far as possible, which means you can’t enter every festival. Nor should you. Much like you have a production plan before you start filming, you also want to have a festival submission strategy before you start submitting.

We created our festival strategy using a shared Google Doc that we updated with festival information gathered from our own research and from information provided on FilmFreeway, the main engine we use for festival submissions (the reviews, or lack thereof, on a festival’s Film Freeway page are extremely informative). We identified a number of festivals that we wanted to apply to because they’re the ones that everyone applies to: Sundance, South by Southwest, Tribeca, etc.

In my heart of hearts, I knew these were probably long shots for us as unknown filmmakers with a smaller, more intimate film that connected most with female audiences. Still, we decided to take a few “hail Mary’s” on bigger festivals (spoiler alert: we didn’t get in), but mainly focus our efforts on mid-range and smaller festivals where our “little movie that could” would make a bigger impact.

We identified festivals which focused on issues and attracted audiences that best connected to our film (health issues, animal-focused stories, movies directed by women, festivals that draw women attendees, festivals in or near places where we had filmed), and those were, indeed, the festivals that ended up choosing us as Official Selections.

Work those connections

To support the submission process, we reached out to our network and asked if they knew anyone at a festival who they could introduce us to. We also connected with festivals which had screened our previous short documentary, and therefore already knew us, as film festivals are typically open to supporting their alums.

This isn’t something anyone likes to admit, but having a connection or getting an introduction at a festival is helpful. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything for your film, but it might get you noticed in a crowded field: perhaps watched by a main programmer as opposed to a volunteer who whittles down the first round. This is significant.

Does this feel icky, schmoozy or awkward for you? Do you feel weird asking friends for introductions, or emailing someone you met at a party in passing five years ago? If so, get over it.

Do the hard work

You get into a film festival: yay! Pop champagne, jump up and down, tell your parents they were all wrong about wanting you to go to law school… and then get to work.

Most festival programmers I’ve met are awesome people. They’re passionate about film and frequently artists themselves. Many also work another job, travel around making their own movies and have the unenviable task of trying to sell tickets, engage audiences, find sponsors, keep filmmakers happy, serve as de facto cabs… and I can’t even imagine what else.

What that means is that they are not going to devote endless hours to promoting your film. That’s your job, and it entails:

Show up: Attend the festival and make yourself available to introduce your film and participate in a Q&A. This will teach you so much about who likes your movie and what resonates and gives you an opportunity to create engaged and connected ambassadors for your film: people who not only watch the movie, but talk with you about the deep and meaningful stuff that went into making the film that you’ve been hoping someone cares about.

Showing up gives you time to network with other filmmakers who are just like you, or if you’re lucky, even smarter and more experienced than you. Hang out in the lounge, go to the official parties, chat with people in line, drag yourself out of bed for that networking brunch. This is a great way to learn about which other festivals you should have on your radar, which distributors fellow filmmakers have had good experiences working with, or even meet your next collaborator.

Plus, showing up gives you the opportunity to support the festival by attending films, asking smart questions of other filmmakers, giving business to locals and generally contributing to the strange and wonderful ecosystem that is the indie film festival circuit.

PR and marketing: A festival screening is a great time to catch the attention of local journalists, so make sure you let the festival PR person know that you’re interested and available for media coverage and send along your Electronic Press Kit (if you don’t know what that is, Google it and create one), press release and any other relevant information about your film.

Doing this helped us get our movie included in the “Top 5 festival picks” article for our world premiere at Cleveland International Film Festival, and inclusion in the Boston Globe’s write-up about films to watch at Independent Film Festival Boston.

Some festivals will provide you with a press list, if you ask nicely, and you can do your own outreach to journalists. Do not, REPEAT…. DO NOT send out a mass email to everyone on the list. Instead, undertake some research (Google is your friend, yet again) and find out more about the journalists and identify who might be interested in the themes of your film. Then, send those reporters personalized, specific emails about your movie and why you think it’s a relevant story. I promise this will get you more attention than a “spray and pray” email assault.

Have postcards and posters available for each festival, and send those materials in by the required deadlines. At one festival, another filmmaker asked me: “How have you managed to get your poster all around the venue in so many places? Did you pay for it?” I said: “No, we sent the festival a bunch of posters and they put them up.” It’s not difficult!

I also try to carry postcards with me at every festival. People will ask you about your film, and it’s handy to whip out a postcard with information about the movie, the screening, your social media links, etc. so they don’t forget about you. Bonus tip: the plastic lanyard that holds your festival filmmaker’s badge doubles as an easily accessible postcard holder.

And speaking of social media: make sure you have Facebook, Instagram, and other channels where you promote the film and use these to shout loud and proud about your festival screenings. We announce each festival screening to our mailing list, post about it multiple times on all of our social media pages, tag the festival when we’re talking about it and we share behind the scenes photos from every screening to give our audience an opportunity to see what we’re up to, and encourage them to spread the word to their friends.

Adele and Everything After is my first feature film, and getting into festivals has been a dream come true. It’s also been hard work and a big investment, but one that has already paid dividends in terms of getting the movie in front of distributors, journalists, audiences and advocates. I’d love to hear from other filmmakers on the topic: what have you learned about film festivals and what are your top tips to get the most from each one?

Adele and Everything After is a feature documentary about a woman with an untreatable heart condition and the service dog who transforms her life, produced by Long Haul Films. Want to stay up-to-date with news about upcoming screenings, service dogs and our filmmaking journey? Text DOG to 44144 or go to adelemovie.com/subscribe

Melissa Dowler

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How to live a meaningful, inspiring and empowering creative life; from film director, globe-trotter and co-founder of longhaulfilms.com and shesees.org.