Reel Truth: What to do When You Finish the Festival Circuit
“My short film is finishing its run onthe festival circuit. What do I do with next?” — Josh, documentary shorts filmmaker
Make another movie, of course. But before you do, you need to put your project to pasture, while trying to maximize any potential income and increased views. These tips and ideas have been successful for other shorts filmmakers. While the principles may correlate, the feature film world is a very different beast, so use with caution.
Have you thanked everyone? I mean really thank them. Your top funders, primary crew, actors, and your parents deserve more than a generic email. A written thank you card is an inexpensive way to send a personal message — and in this day and age when few people write letters, it will be remembered as a gesture of sophistication and genuineness. Personalized card are relatively inexpensive, and with stamps, the cost is less than $3 per person.
Write a one-page newsletter that can be printed and added to the thank you notes, and emailed to everyone else — the rest of your crew, funders, and even festival programmers who took the chance on screening your film. Include a list of festivals and events where the film screened, an approximation of the total audience, links or quotes from any press, a list of awards or honors, a short blurb about your festival journey and the people you met along the way, and what you learned from the experience. This wrap report is not only a great way to memorialize your circuit, but it is a great way to show potential new investors and crew what type of experience your next project may generate.
Remember to thank those you met along the way: The DP who shot an amazing action sequence; The producer who thinks your writing has a unique style; The actor who you befriended over a beer in the filmmaker lounge. Filmmaking is not a solo art — it takes a village, and adding new members to your community is one way to ensure future projects will succeed. Most festival directors work diligently to create a safe space where filmmakers can meet and connect. There is no greater sense of pride as when alumni filmmakers create new works together.
The Distribution Game
If your film did not play an event with an attached market, or you did not have the opportunity to meet any distributors, now is the time to reach out. Sadly, in the U.S., there are few shorts distributors, and even fewer aggregators. European distributors look for award winners or films that played more than one of the bigger festivals.
Send a personalized email, including information on how your project fits into their roster of films. That newsletter you wrote is a good tool to show how your film performed. If your film has a website, make sure it is updated with every press clipping you garnered. And if you know of other films the distributor is handling by filmmakers you know, with their permission, name drop and maybe even have your colleague send a quick not if their own. At this stage of the game, any attempt for distribution is a long shot — the films that they usually consider were already on their radar. But what is a few days work for a potential extension of the films shelf life.
Back to School
Non-fiction projects and narrative films with strong social themes may find a home in the education market. Unfortunately, many roadblocks, shrinking opportunities, and a lack of funding have hampered this avenue. But why give up hope? Many films are still acquired this way. Approach the same way as you would a traditional distributor, and make sure to include information on how your film fits in with different levels of education.
I know of a few filmmakers who have been successful contacting school systems and universities directly. For this approach, you will need to do a lot more work. With the help of a librarian, educator, media literacy teacher — or all three, you will need to develop lesson plans and activities for different age and grade ranges. This is a costly undertaking, but the payoff may be substantial: the price an educational institution will pay is might higher than a general consumer.
Taking it Online
For most filmmakers, this is the route of least resistance. If you don’t care about future revenue, upload the project to FilmFreeway, Vimeo or YouTube, send a bunch of social messages, and watch the views numbers rise. Ok, numbers will rise for a few days, but the wane until it is just one more online opportunity missed. To gain a consistent online audience, a strategic outreach program needs to be developed and implemented.
Paid services, such as Vimeo on Demand are a tough sell. A great deal of marketing needs to be pushed to audiences to inform them of the film, why they need to see it — and why they should spend money to watch it, when there is so much free content available. For shorts, it is even more difficult, as the average consumer values a feature at a price between $5-$15, but the idea of paying even as little as $1 for a short seems like an economic leap.
Major streaming services, such as Hulu, Netflix, and others are acquiring shorts at this time, and the ones that they do stream usually have been either commissioned, or have been represented by a distributor.
Four Walls and Special Screenings
Four-walling is the term used when a filmmaker rents a theater to screen their films. For a short, this is cost prohibitive, and the marketing efforts needed to bring in an audience probably outweigh any benefit.
Remember those friends you met along the circuit? Do their projects play well with yours? The why not get creative and program a 90-minute showcase of your films which you can either four wall, or shop to independent theaters, or even festivals for their year-round programming. This may take a lot of work, but the potential to work with your tribe is always an opportunity to explore.
Putting the Baby to Bed
At some point, you need to move on. Maybe that time is right after your festival circuit has ended, and you don’t choose to extend the life of your film. For others, that time may be years after the film has had its last online view. Whatever the time, there are a few things you should to archive the film and your experience.
Buy a hard drive or USB stick exclusively for the purpose of archiving your project. It will be safer in its own than living on your working drives, which by their daily use, are more vulnerable to drive failure issues.
In one folder, Include the highest resolution copy of your film you can export, along with a smaller version you may have used to for your online screener. If a DCP was created, include the files in a dedicated folder. In a separate folder, include all of the camera footage you saved, working files, and motion graphic images and files. And finally, create a folder to include all of your marketing materials, the newsletter/wrap report described above, your budgets, financial information, insurance certificates, correspondence, and the contact information for your funders, crew, and vendors.
Organize your information — think of the drive as a time capsule. If someone found the drive in 30 years, would they be able to ascertain the history of the project? What about you?
Of course, technology will change. One day, USB-driven drives will no longer supported, .MOV files will no longer be read by the latest operating systems, and cloud services will come and go — so unless you are vigilant in converting your archive to the latest standard, it will be lost to time. But that’s a burden for you to bear in the future, and will depend on the legacy you wish to leave behind.
Rinse, Lather, Repeat
Now, get back in the saddle and make your next film. You’re not as good as your last film — you’re such much better — with the knowledge gained from your previous experiences, and the community you befriended along the way.
You Have Questions — We Have Answers
Please send your questions about film festivals to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will respond to as many as I can over the next few months.
Jon Gann is a force in the film festival world, having created, consulted with, and fostered dozens of events around the globe. He has authored two books about festivals and programming available at festbooks.com, juried dozens of events worldwide, and has presented at over 120 universities, film organizations and film festivals worldwide. Jon is a founding Board Member of the Film Festival Alliance, and consults with both festivals and filmmakers through his firm, reelplan.com.