How to nail your film festival Q&A

Adele and Everything After Director Melissa Dowler (me) and cinematographer Megan Lovallo at IFF Boston, courtesy of Leah Haydock

I’m back on the road promoting my debut feature documentary, Adele and Everything After, at film festivals — which means I’m participating in post-screening Q&A’s. After writing about why film festivals are so great and how to get the most out of them I thought it was time for a deep-dive into how to kill it during your Q&A.

The Q&A, short for “Question and Answer”, is one aspect that sets the film festival viewing experience apart. For audiences, it’s a contributing element that makes attending film festivals experiential, and therefore more interesting than curling up on the couch with Netflix. For filmmakers who spend years working on their movies, having people ask geeky questions about the inspiration, the process, the equipment and the creative choices is a dream come true.

But that’s not the only reason why the Q&A is so great. It’s a valuable platform for you and your film, which can help you:

  1. Go deep into the key topics explored in the movie
  2. Let people know how they can continue to engage with the film
  3. Raise awareness about other issues that are important to you as a filmmaker

As with all other aspects of your film festival strategy, go in with a plan for your Q&A so you can make the most of the opportunity. After working my way through several Q&As this year, here are my top tips:

Have answers ready for questions you expect your film will raise.

While you never know exactly what audiences will ask, we get a lot of the same questions, including:

How did you find the story/what was your inspiration?
This is a great film festival question, the kind of thing most people will never know about your indie film. Prepare a compelling answer. Mine is all about how Marty and I were neighbors, and how my badly trained dog almost kept us from ever talking, as he would bark at Adele every time he saw her coming.

What was your biggest challenge making the movie?
No one cares about the day that craft services gave you the wrong kind of nut milk in your coffee. Be vulnerable here. I often share about the struggles I had getting Marty to open up to me, and the moment when we were filming in Texas and I thought that we didn’t have a documentary at all and locked myself in the bathroom at Marty’s best friend’s parent’s house so I could ugly cry without anyone seeing.

What did you learn making the movie?
 If you are a living, breathing person, there is no way you can make a movie without learning a lot of stuff. I could give so many answers to this question, but I choose to focus on the lessons that are most in line with the overall themes of the film: how important relationships can shape our lives, and the power of being seen and understood.

Where can people learn more about the movie?
 I ask the Q&A moderator beforehand to ask me this question, so I don’t miss the opportunity to share our social media and the easy link to sign up for email updates (adelemovie.com/subscribe in case you were wondering).

Don’t be shy about doing this. Film festival audiences love to share about movies they’ve discovered. Make it easy for them to do so by telling them where they can find you online, and have printed promotional material handy that people can take with them (postcards are always great, and cheap to print).

What are your goals, and who else can be part of the Q&A to support those goals?

Our major goal for film festivals was to build our audience and create a deeper connection with them, and we knew that many people were there because they wanted to know more about Marty’s journey and/or they wanted to learn more about service dogs or cared about dogs in some way.

For that reason, whenever possible we have Marty attend the screenings and participate in the Q&A. Audiences love the opportunity to talk with Marty directly and to learn more about her journey. Many people resonate with the challenges Marty overcomes in the film and I’m convinced that we won our Audience Awards because we created a meaningful experience by allowing viewers to have an unfiltered conversation with Marty; who is a wonderful spokesperson for the film and for issues related to service dogs.

Marty signing autographs at NorthwestFest, where Adele and Everything After won the audience award

While Adele and Everything After is a documentary about a powerful relationship and is not an “educational” film, we recognize that the movie provides a lot of insight into service dogs and creates a platform for discussion about how they are trained, the laws governing their access and what impact they make on lives. We’ve found that audiences have a lot of questions about service dogs after the film, so whenever possible we have a representative from Canine Partners for Life, the service dog organization that trained Adele, participate in the Q&A and answer more detailed questions about the dogs.

We’ve also used people’s interests in service dogs, and dogs in general, as a way to extend our Q&A sessions into an interactive experience. At several film festivals, we’ve had special sessions after our screenings where audience members can talk directly with cast and crew and meet service dogs and “demo dogs” (highly trained dogs that you’re able to pat and interact with) from Canine Partners for Life.

A pup meet and greet after one of our screenings at The Cleveland International Film Festival

The next special screening like this will be at the Chagrin Falls Documentary Festival on Saturday, October 7th, in case you want to join us!

Holding these events has gained us press coverage and provided the opportunity for lots more audience building, so I’d highly encourage you to think about whether your film inspires opportunities for discussion and engagement beyond a 20-minute Q&A and pitch the idea to the organizers of any film festivals where your movie is screening. Many festival programmers love the idea of special events that help the festival stand out.

You are going to stand up and represent your film. Be proud (or act as if you are).

I find it frustrating when film directors stand up at festivals and squirm, giggle, or talk down about themselves, the movie or the festival. I get it: you’re used to being behind the scenes and you chose this profession because you wanted your work to speak for you. That’s all well and good, but if that’s how you feel, ask someone else to stand up and represent the film who will hold their head high and talk about it with pride, confidence and passion.

I recently attended a film festival in Los Angeles in which amazing directors from the Sundance Film Festival showed their work and participated in extended, juicy Q&A sessions. Most of the directors were so eloquent and so grateful to be there that listening to them made me love their films even more. But one director shuffled out to introduce his film, mumbled into the microphone and acted as if he didn’t care that he was standing in one of the most beautiful theaters in Los Angeles, sharing his work with an eager and interested audience of fellow filmmakers, critics and tastemakers.

I don’t know if it was a coincidence that I found his film to be the worst of the festival, but his surly, disinterested attitude certainly did nothing to make me feel a deeper connection with his film.

This is your moment, own it. Stand up straight, speak clearly into the microphone, give honest and thoughtful answers to the people who spent money and time to come out and support your work. And express some gratitude: thank the people who got you there by acknowledging your team and the festival programmers and staff who work so hard to create events that promote filmmakers.

I offer this advice for all directors, and want to underscore it for female directors, particularly because many women have been taught that it’s more feminine to speak softly, self-deprecate, deflect praise and generally act as if you’re not worthy. You are worthy, so behave accordingly!

Talking with the audience at the Milwaukee Women’s Film Festival

When I stand up and speak for my film, I believe that I am representing all female directors and that it’s my responsibility to put to rest any notion that we are not every bit as strong, articulate and self-possessed as our male counterparts. When someone praises the film, I thank them. I resist the urge to duck my head and wave away the applause. I give the audience every bit of attention and enthusiasm I have. I’m genuinely grateful to be up there. Every single time.

Document the Q&A

Film festival Q&As make really great content for social media and online promotion for the film.

I typically travel to festivals with other cast and crew, and not all of us stand up for the Q&A, so I usually ask one person to be in charge of taking iPhone photos and videos during the Q&A which I can then post on Facebook and Instagram. It can also be cool to stream the Q&A live on Facebook or Instagram, so people who can’t be in the room can still find out more about the film.

If you don’t have anyone with you to document the Q&A, check in with the festival about whether they are sending their official photographer, and find out if they’d be open to sharing any photos with you and allowing you to repost.

Savor the moment

I remind myself of this at every festival. Making an independent documentary film takes years of toil. Completing it and getting it out into the world is a minor miracle. Being chosen by festivals is an enormous honor, and certainly not easy. So when you stand up there for your film, bask in the glory.

Melissa Dowler is the director of Adele and Everything After, 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

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