After the Acceptance: Pro Tips to Pack Your Screenings

Building buzz and filling seats is a shared festival/filmmaker challenge

By Greg Sorvig — Director of Film Programming, Heartland Film

Congrats filmmakers, the staffers love your film and you have earned a spot in the program! Now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and ensure your film stands out from the hundreds of titles being showcased.

There is a fallacy, usually held by first-time filmmakers, that the work is done once a film has been accepted and that every festival they attend is going to be like a TIFF premiere. They show up expecting a packed house and a line of paparazzi but end up leaving disappointed — it does not have to be that way!

Two things keep me up at night as a head film festival programmer: missing a great film through our submissions process and having empty houses at our festival screenings.

Reality is that both things will happen but year after year I strive to make sure they are minimized through more and more collaboration. Training and utilizing volunteer screening committee members, interns, outside programmers, and staff to fully realize our organizational and curatorial vision helps me to identify films that might otherwise fall between the cracks. Likewise, with hundreds of movies programmed over two major festivals (Heartland International Film Festival and Indy Shorts International Film Festival), the burden of promoting and filling theaters for so many unknown independent films does not solely rely on the limited efforts of a festival’s marketing team (generally working within a limited nonprofit scope and budget).

Over the years I have been to major industry film festivals with feature and shorts programs where I was among only a dozen or so people in the audience. Regardless if you made a major fest or super local event, you need to ensure that every effort has been made to build an audience for your film (especially for those dreaded but likely matinee screenings):

Laurels: Get Them Fast and Use Them Often

Festival organizers should be able to furnish an official laurel for your use. Add it to your website, social media, and other promotional materials as soon as possible. Not only will this help promote your film’s inclusion at said festival, but hopefully other fests will take notice as well!

Local and National Media Lists

I absolutely love it when filmmakers take the initiative to reach out to media outlets and get stories published far ahead of the film festival’s standard promotional period. We have a general announcement date, but it you have something major lined up ahead of time we will usually let you run with the news before our major announcement! At Heartland we supply a local media list and PR professional recommendations to get things started, but identifying someone on your team to handle media (or a freelance public relations) will definitely be in your best interest. Securing any advance reviews from local or national critics will also help tremendously.

Confirm Talent as Far in Advance as Possible

Have a recognizable face in your film? The earlier you can confirm and schedule that talent the easier it will be for the festival to promote those screenings than others with no filmmakers in attendance. In all likelihood there will be opportunities to elevate and eventize your film with a longer runway for promotion.

Be Present

Obviously scheduling can get hairy, but make every effort to be at a festival for more than just your few screening slots (even if major recognizable talent can’t make it). Network with other filmmakers and audiences to promote yourself and your film. I wish we could give every filmmaker travel support to make it to our city, but that is just not possible. The festival circuit may be your only theatrical run; make sure to budget so that you can attend regardless if you get fest travel support or not.

Postcards and Custom Invitations

Use the laurels and show times to create cost-effective promotional postcards. Send a bunch to the fest offices ahead of time (if allowed) and another stack for theater/venue distribution during the actual event. I will discuss boots on the ground promotion coming up, but handing out custom postcards and getting a personal invitation from the filmmaking team goes a long way! Additionally, the creation of Facebook and other social media event invitations targeted to people in the community have also been highly effective.

Group Sales and Community Outreach

Most festivals have a discounted group ticket rate. If you have a niche documentary or film subject that would play well to a certain target demographic or group, check with the festival to see if there are group rates or discounts offered to community groups or bulk purchasers. We had a documentary premiere a couple years ago focused on nursing that sold 250 advance group tickets by making a couple phone calls! We were able to move the screening to a bigger venue since we knew that there was an engaged audience so far in advance!

Boots on the Ground Promotion

Interacting with moviegoers, strangers on the street, and other filmmakers will be vital to your film’s success at a fest. Past Audience Choice Award-winning filmmakers have done an excellent job of drumming up support for their films, using tactics such as handing out free ticket vouchers (we give a 10-pack of ticket vouchers for each film), engaging with attendees across theaters and events, using giveaways, and more. Don’t stress: a simple “hello” and telling an attendee that you’re a filmmaker can go a long way!

In Conclusion

Some films have the Midas touch and barely need any promotional assistance, but those titles are often hard to predict or have some major star power to attract an instant audience. By working with the fests you get into and going the extra mile to make strides in the community you can rest assured that you did everything within your power as an independent filmmaker to make your festival screenings successful!

Have additional tips for successful outreach or questions? Feel free to reach out at gsorvig@heartlandfilm.org.

Greg Sorvig is the director of film programming for nonprofit arts organization Heartland Film, Inc. As head programmer in charge of film selection for the Academy Award-qualifying Heartland International Film Festival and Indy Shorts International Film Festival events in Indianapolis, Greg acts as the organization’s liaison with major studios, industry, and filmmakers. Learn more at gregsorvig.com and heartlandfilm.org.