How to get your indie feature into film festivals

Paul Tonta is the Theatrical Acquisitions & Film Festivals Manager at Madman Entertainment. He is one of the most knowledgeable film festival experts in the country. It’s his job to attend Sundance, Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals to acquire indie films for release in Australia. Sweet gig, right!

At a recent Lean Filmmaking event we spoke candidly about the challenges of low-budget features getting into top tier festivals and shared insights about how independent filmmakers can improve their festival distribution strategy.

Below is an edited transcript of this event.

Kylie Eddy: Let’s start with your job, can you describe your role at Madman Entertainment?

Paul Tonta: We’re an all rights film distribution company. I’m in the films department, releasing theatrical titles — currently we’re distributing Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Mustang, and Swiss Army Man for example. There’s a core team of three who look after acquisitions. We go to overseas festivals, we look at films and acquire the distribution rights for Australia and New Zealand. We read scripts — Australian, New Zealand and international titles — to pre-purchase suitable projects. My role is also related to film festivals, placing our films into festivals in Australia and New Zealand. I negotiate with about sixty or seventy festivals in our territory.

KE: It sounds like a glamorous job. Is it really? Do you just spend a lot of time in cinemas eating popcorn?

PT: We do, but we don’t sit there with our feet up just watching a film and meeting George Clooney for drinks afterwards. We spend a lot of time trying to determine whether what we’re watching is a good film, if it’s marketable and who’s going to see it. You’ve got all of that going through your head, so you’re analyzing the film as you watch it. It’s a business decision.

KE: Let’s talk about Sundance first. You’ve been going to Sundance for nine years now, can you describe what this festival is about?

PT: Sundance is really the Godfather festival of independent cinema. When it started, it was called the American Film Festival and it was created by Robert Redford. What it’s morphed into nowadays — even though it’s still got the independent sensibility at heart — is something more commercial. It’s also about both documentaries and fiction. For Australian films, recent successes have included Animal Kingdom, which is the most successful Australian film that’s come out of there. The Babadook is another one. Some Kiwi films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople have screened there. Actually all Taika Waititi’s films have all screened there.

KE: What do you think is the quintessential Sundance film?

PT: Sundance films — there’s a quirky American feel to it. Swiss Army Man is the first recent title that comes into my head as an excellent example. They tend to have a good cast who want to make a quality independent film. Then they go and do their Marvel films, and come back and do these small dramas. There’s a stack of great films that often go on to win Academy Awards like Precious or Beasts of the Southern Wild, for example. It is all about groundbreaking cinema.

KE: At Sundance this year there were no Australian films, how do local films get into this festival?

PT: Yeah, it’s tricky. First it helps to understand the categories that films can screen in. A festival like Sundance separates everything into doco’s and fiction, and then within that they have American and International. For the fiction side of things, they have a World Cinema competition, which has twelve films. That’s it, from all over the world. So it’s pretty tough competition! Australian films like Animal Kingdom and Partisan played in the competition section. They also have separate sections — one is called Premieres, that’s where Tiaka’s most recent film premiered. That’s for the bigger films and mostly if you’re a name director. Also I imagine — though I can’t speak for them — that they want to have diversity in their program, so they’ll look to have films from different countries. They’ll probably only going to have one Australian film. Then with documentaries it’s the same thing. You’ve got a World section. The other section is called Next — it’s for groundbreaking American films with no established big names. Films like Tangerine played there.

KE: Sundance just isn’t possible for every film. I think it’s great to use an A-list festival like this as a deadline, as a goal, and for motivation to make something, but I want filmmakers to be realistic about the challenge that’s ahead of them. As an Australian film, what are the realistic things that you can do to increase your chances of getting into Sundance— does it help to have a distributor, a sales agent, Australian film funding?

PT: I always say that number one is a good film. It sounds obvious but it is the number one thing. Everything thinks they’ve made a great film, and that’s fine — everyone needs to have ambition. But here’s the thing — not every film is a great film. And don’t ask your mum whether it’s good, she’ll just tell you it’s ace. Get some honest feedback, that’s the realistic aspect. I’ve been on selection panels for various film festivals — Melbourne Queer Film Festival (MQFF), Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), Sydney Film Festival (SFF) — so I’ve done both sides of it — watching films for selection at festivals, and also buying them. The thing about Sundance is that they get thousands of entries, because everyone wants Sundance, why wouldn’t you want to be at Sundance. You have to realise that there is a team of programmers, and people on selection committees, who get a big stack of films. They may only give each film five, ten or maybe fifteen minutes before making a decision to continue watching. They can’t sit through hundreds, or thousands of films, that are two hours each. That’s the reality of it. So make your first five minutes really good. If you’re a filmmaker making a first-time film and submitting it through WithoutABox, or FilmFreeway, or whatever you’re using — you’ve really got to make those first five to ten minutes count. Because if it doesn’t grab them, they’re going to turn it off. They’ve got the next one in the pile to watch.

KE: It’s the harsh reality of the film industry that’s very hard for us as creators to think about. Our film is our baby and we’ve focused all this time and energy on it. Then there’s the other side with programmers who’ve literally got hundreds of films to watch, who are all someone’s baby! They may be watching films for hours at a time and it might not even be their day job, the could be volunteers. Programmers are super passionate about film and they really do care, but on Sunday night at 11pm and they’ve got three more films to watch…it’s important to understand the context of how your film is probably going to be seen in the first instance. Particularly when you’re applying cold.

PT: In Australia, as most of you probably know, to get government funding like Screen Australia, you need to have a distributor attached, and you also usually need an international sales agent. That does make entry a bit easier, because you don’t have to submit it to the festivals cold, you’ve got the sales agent overseas pushing it for Sundance, and they’ve got relationships with them. For example, I have a relationship with MIFF — we approach the festival and have a conversation with the Festival Director.

KE: There’s another proven way to not have to go to programmers cold, and that is to have an award winning short film! Do you think that a successful short will help build relationships with programmers and distributors?

PT: I think it does. I absolutely look at short films. If someone pitches a film to me, and they’ve got a feature film script — I go “Okay, what have you got to show me in terms of vision” and they go “well, these are my short films” — and that really helps. Everyone wants to make a feature film, which is great, but you’ve got to cut your teeth on something like a short film. There’s no shame in having short films.

KE: There’s no shame at all! But I also think you should absolutely jump in and make a feature film. Just be self-aware that it’s probably not going to get into Sundance. That’s the difference. What you learn from making a feature film on your own — it’s a different beast to a short film. You can make twenty short films and that might not translate directly to the different experience of making a feature. But if you are making a low-budget independent feature, which I totally encourage, you need to be really clear about what your success looks like. You’re probably not going to get into a top tier festival and that’s totally okay.

PT: It is true that the traditional model — it works for some people and not for others, absolutely. But you can also make a short film using the Lean style. You can make something super quickly and get it out there and get your name out there. Because these days it’s all about social media and it’s all about content. If you have a great piece of content that is a three or four minute short film, people will pay attention if it’s really great.

KE: This segues into something we would be remiss not to discuss. It has changed the festival landscape dramatically in the last two years in particular, and that is the prevalence of Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) services. How do you think that has affected Sundance? For example, when you are going to acquire a product there, what is the impact?

PT: It’s huge. In terms of acquisition, Netflix are acquiring a lot of content. They have their original series like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, their new sci-fi show Stranger Things and in terms of their feature films, and they have Beasts of No Nation among others. But they’re buying lots of documentaries. If you’re a filmmaker in documentaries — they get paid a very small amount of money, they work very hard for a long period of time, and someone comes along and says “We love this film, and we’ll buy it for a seven figure sum for the world” that’s very appealing. For example, something that could premiere at Sundance is bought by a SVOD company, and it bypasses traditional theatrical, DVD, paid TV, free to air TV — the entire model that’s been in place for years. Everything is pushed aside and bang, it’s on Netflix. If you’re a filmmaker who’s spent three years making this film, pulling together so many resources from so many different places, and here’s someone who says “everyone in the world can see this film, and there’s the money to cover your costs, and here’s some more for your next one” — I’d do it. But that’s the thing for us as a distributor, there’s a lot of competition now because our business model has a lot of pressure on it. This year has been really interesting with Cannes where Amazon, who also has enormous amounts of money, acquired lots of films. The Netflix model is “we’re doing it first” whereas Amazon’s model is “we’ll give you the big screen experience but then we get it online soon after”. It misses out the DVD window and all the other windows. They’re the major two new models out there right now. This year at Sundance Fox Searchlight bought Nate Parker’s first film, Birth of a Nation. It’s very interesting that Netflix made an offer and the producers went with Fox, which is the traditional model, with all the windowed releases and a commitment to a wide theatrical release. You’ve got filmmakers taking a lesser amount of money because they want the traditional model. Everything’s been shaken up.

KE: As filmmakers we can’t ignore what these platforms. It’s also changes things in this country when a distributor can’t buy a product for the festival market because Netflix has bought the worldwide rights. What does that mean for Australian content? What opportunities are there for other films to be distributed?

PT: At the end of the day, all of these platforms want content. As blatant as it sounds, they need product. Red Bull’s another company who’s starting in Australia soon, as is Amazon. And these companies are buying worldwide.

KE: You also go to Cannes Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) most years. Are there any differences with European festivals like Cannes compared to a North American festival like TIFF?

PT: Toronto is a very large festival. It has something like 350 plus feature films. Every year the programmer for the region comes out to Australia and they program approximately six to eight Australian and Kiwi films. There’s always a really strong line up at Toronto. There are the big five festivals around the world — Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Sundance and Toronto. Sundance is a public festival — it’s great in public screenings because people erupt in all sorts of laughter and applause. They love it because there are guests at most screenings. Toronto is similar, except it’s on a humongous scale. Toronto has the best of every major festival’s films and they also have massive amounts of World Premieres. Cannes is not a public festival, it’s invite only. You have to apply to get in. Cannes is about a certain type of cinema, and recently there have been very few Australian films that get in — nothing this year, not even a short film.

KE: I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce writer/director Grant Scicluna who is here in the audience tonight. He’s just been through all of this! Last year his debut feature film Downriver premiered at TIFF and it’s Australian premiere at MIFF. Downriver has just finished it’s run at Cinema Nova and Ludo. He has also made many short films, several of which are award winning. Grant, can you speak about your experience of attending TIFF as a filmmaker?

Grant Scicluna: Yeah as Paul said, Toronto is very large. We were selected for a program called Discovery, which is for first and second time feature filmmakers. In that program there was about thirty or forty films from around the world. It’s very difficult to really be noticed in that festival. You have to hit the ground running and be aware that you’re just one product in a whole world of products. But for us it was fantastic because we got a sale for North America at Toronto, which I don’t think would have happened if we had not been selected for that festival. We also got invitations to other festivals particular in North America. There’s this thing where if you go overseas before you screen in your own country, which is what happened with us, you get that validation from people overseas and therefore given it a tick of approval. I think that helps you garner an audience for your cinema run or whatever you do. But it’s not an easy festival due to its size. You have to have a team, with a publicist.

PT: Was the publicist brought in through the sales agent or did you hire them separately?

GS: They were paid for by Screen Australia. When you get selected to a festival like TIFF you can apply to Screen Australia for a grant to attend the festival but also get money to promote the film when you’re there. But the publicist is up against the machine. They’ve got to sell your film against big movie stars — it’s a very star-driven festival. My experience was really wonderful but it was hard work.

KE: Thanks Grant for sharing your experience.

PT: Grant raises a great point. There’s a whole other festival for the industry and it’s all about the distributors seeing films to buy them. At any one time, especially at the opening weekend of the festival, there could be twelve films screening all at the exactly same time. If you’re up against the hottest film of the year, like Demolition last year, if your film is screening at the same time as Demolition

KE: …and Jake Gyllenhaal’s on the red carpet, you’re pretty screwed.

PT: It’s one of those things where you can never predict what’s going to happen with your film, when it screens, or how to get all the important people to actually see it.

KE: There are certainly benefits with screening in these top tier festivals but there are also a huge range of other festivals— is it valuable to look at alternative distribution strategies, and other more niche festivals?

PT: You have to ask yourself what you want out of the film. You may be gung-ho about having a film in Sundance or Toronto — which is great, but you have to realise there are very few films selected to screen there. But there are so many other festivals in the world. There are thousands! For example, if it’s a queer film — there are so many queer film festivals around the world. Kylie used to work at MQFF, and I’m on the selection panel — we watch a lot of stuff and they need good content.

KE: Seriously, I traveled for a year on the queer film festival circuit with my micro-budget feature. I got travel grants from Film Victoria and Screen Australia to attend queer film festivals overseas. I knew that my film was never going to screen in mainstream festivals but that’s the advantage of having a film that fits a very specific criteria. Would you say another niche is sci-fi?

PT: Sci-fi is a big one. Same with fantasy, anything genre is a good thing. I read a lot of scripts and sometimes I just think “if you made that queer you’d get a lot more chances of being selected at a festival”. There’s also money available– some of the festivals give you screening fees. If you get on the circuit for the whole range of festivals around the world, you could get some money out them.

KE: There are also horror, environmental, female-only festivals and so many other niches. Do not underestimate the power of all these second tier festivals. I recommend going on FilmFreeway to research festivals. You can also put your film on the site to submit to festivals. Just ensure that you read the submission guidelines for each festival so your film is targeted at the right audience. Working at a queer film festival, we strangely got a lot of straight films. You’re not going to get into a queer festival! That’s a big waste of time! Another thing that comes up a lot is how long is the duration. Can length make, or break, a film?

PT: I always say a five-minute film can feel too long, and a four-hour film can feel too short. For me, the film has to stand on its own. But generally, shorter is good. In Sundance most films are 90 minutes; it’s actually kind of weird how they’re exactly 90 minutes. Cinemas, and festivals, love shorter films because they can put in more sessions. But make the film is as long as it should be.

KE: If you want to increase your chances of selection in a festival, I always say, keep it short people. Is there anything else that helps selection?

PT: If you want to sell your film, you really have to have a great set of photographs. Stills are so paramount. I just cannot say it enough. When you’re on set, plan to shoot stills. Worst case scenario, take a high-res still from the finished film, however try to take as many production stills as possible.

KE: The MIFF program guide is out now, take a look at it and what photos jump out at you. Then look at what gets a half page. That is not necessarily based on how good that film is, it’s based on how good the photo is. There are a whole bunch of films at MIFF that will never see the light of day, and they’re fantastic films, but they have a crappy photo. To compete against hundreds of other films we want to see your sexy lead actors, we want something evocative, it needs a captivating photo that draws you in.

PT: When I used to work at MIFF on the program guide, the designer and I sat next to each other, and he first selected images. He didn’t know any of the films, he just picked the best images that his designer eye was drawn to. Also if you have a genre film, have an image that sells that genre. If it’s horror some gore will help because fans of the genre will like to see that.

KE: When I work at a festival — I’m selling the whole festival experience, not individual films. As a filmmaker do everything you can to make it easy for the festival to promote your film by giving them what they need.

PT: Also make sure you have a really good synopsis, a punchy one liner — nobody’s going to read a long, convoluted document. Just step back, and see what will sell and why. Social media content is also important — video is so important. Your trailer, sizzle reel clips, BTS footage — whatever you’re going to use for your campaign is hugely important. If you’re crowdfunding, then you want people involved from the start and keep them interested throughout the process. Then you can also use all of those marketing materials when trying to get your film into festivals.

Audience Question: At festivals, do you look at the marketing as part of your decision making?

KE: Yes, it definitely plays a part. There are fantastic filmmakers out there who are not marketers, and it’s also very hard when you’re doing everything yourself on no budget. Unfortunately you can have a great film but if you fuck up the marketing very few people will see it. There are films that are pretty awful but do really bang up job of marketing the shit out of themselves, and they get the attention.

PT: As shallow as it is, as consumers like seeing nice, pretty things. We see a really attractive poster, we’re likely to click on it. We all aren’t designers but I’m sure there are student designers out there who are willing to work for a certain amount of money for the experience.

KE: I also recommend Canva, which is a free online design platform, I love it.

Audience Question: You mentioned sci-fi festivals, could you elaborate on that?

PT: There’s Fantastic Fest in the US, which is in Austin, Texas, and it runs at the Alamo Drafthouse, which is a great place. They’re amazing people who are distributors as well. There’s a stack of other ones. There’s Raindance, which is an independent one, Monster Fest in Melbourne is also great. The list of these festivals is massive.

KE: Research is your best friend. If you want success in festival-land it requires research and hard work and good marketing materials and lots of emails and lots of rejection — but you only need a couple of acceptances to build your credibility and get your film out there.

PT: There’s a film called Scare Campaign, which we released on DVD but they also did their own festival self-release. Check out their Facebook page. Any time they’re at a screening; they’ll post about it. Follow what other genre films do, and work backwards as to where they screen so you can use that for the basis of your own strategy.

Audience Question: When watching the first five minutes of a film for festival selection, what were some of the things that made you stop watching?

PT: What matters is just “is it good?” — I know that’s completely subjective but it’s really intangible.

KE: I’m sure everyone has had the experience when you start watching the film you know within the first thirty seconds or so if you’re going to like the film or not. You might give it another five minutes to see if you gut feeling was right.

PT: Don’t just show your film to your friends, or people who love you, because they’ll be kind to you. That’s great because they should be nice to you but you also need tough, honest criticism and feedback on the film.

KE: It helps to divorce the ‘making’ and ‘selling’ part of the film, as sometimes tough decisions have to be made, particularly as indie filmmakers. It’s our own blood, sweat and tears to make these films so it’s really hard to cut a scene, or an entire subplot, even if it’s going to dramatically improve your film because you know how much energy it took to get that shot.

PT: We release a lot of films and can hopefully offer valuable feedback. It’s great to stand strong with your vision but you can also benefit from listening to other people who have expertise. Even the biggest filmmakers do that.

Audience Question: I’m a student filmmaker doing my Masters — should I enter as a student filmmaker or should I enter in the regular category for short films?

PT: It depends — there are festivals that have a special prize for student films and sometimes it’s a smaller entry fee, and a better chance of getting an award. I think it’s not a bad idea to enter it as a student.

KE: I would encourage everyone to really dive deep into the T&C’s of the festivals, particularly if it’s your first festival. We haven’t really spoken about the whole premiere status side of festival rules. You need to read the T&C’s because it will affect a lot of things. Depending on the film school where you study, they might own the copyright of your film and might have a festival strategy for student films and special screenings.

Audience Question: When you’re looking for films to acquire, how important is social media engagement in making that decision?

PT: It’s very important. Absolutely. It never hurts to have a strong social media presence. It tells me that you get marketing and that you’re aware of the marketplace, which is great. The film is the most important thing but a social media presence is helpful.

KE: Thank you for all of your great questions. Obviously we could keep talking for hours about this subject but unfortunately we’ve run out of time! Please thank Paul for sharing his incredible knowledge with us.

This is an edited transcript of a live event. If you’re in Melbourne we’d love to see you in person. Find out about our events on Facebook or Meetup.