Filmmakers: What to Expect from Your First Film Festival

Photo by Cvitko BelasYou’ve finally done it. You’ve made a film — most likely a short — and you’ve been accepted to your first film festival. So, what should you expect? Well, first thing’s first. I don’t want to burst your bubble (after all, getting screened at a film festival is a big deal — it really is) but it’s important not to have any illusions about what this means for you as a filmmaker.

Getting into a festival is like any other career achievement. It’s something to enjoy; it’s something to put on your resume; it’s an opportunity to gain some exposure and make some connections. It’s very rarely, however, a giant breakthrough that results in funding for a major production. After all, there are hundreds of film festivals in the United States alone, with thousands of filmmakers screening their work every year, yet when you see commercials for upcoming Hollywood releases, almost none of them were directed by filmmakers who just got discovered at a festival.

So, let’s talk about what going to a film festival is really like. Unless you’re fortunate enough (or skilled enough) to get into a major festival, such as Sundance or Toronto, the festival you’ll be attending won’t be filled with red carpets and photographers clamoring to take your picture. As a matter of fact, if your film is a short and it ends up showing with other short films, you may only see twenty or thirty people at the screening, and most of them will be other filmmakers and their friends and family.

All right. Now that I’ve dashed all your hopes and dreams, let’s get to the good stuff. Outlined below are two of the most important opportunities in store for you at your first film festival:

1) Seeing the Audience’s Reaction

Except under rare circumstances, filmmakers don’t make films for other filmmakers; they don’t make films for their family, and they don’t make films for their friends. (Wow, that was a lot of alliteration.) Filmmakers make films for an audience, and that’s where a film festival comes in. A film festival is usually your first chance for a screening in front of complete strangers — in front of people who have nothing personal invested in your production. This means that a festival is probably your first opportunity to get an honest reaction to your work.

A few things to consider:

  1. While screening your work in font of an audience is invaluable, you have to remember that all audiences are different. If you’re unlucky enough to get a small, quiet, lethargic crowd, you’re not going to get the same kind of reaction you’d get from a large, excited crowd – especially if your film is a comedy. (After all, laughter is contagious, and that’s not just an old saying. It’s absolutely true.) In other words, the more audiences you can get your work in front of, the better chance you’ll have to gauge the quality of your film.
  2. If you’re anything like me, the thought of sitting there while other people watch your film is about enough to make you throw up. I get so nervous before a screening that my first impulse is to step outside while my film is being shown. Don’t do it. Moreover, you should avoid sitting in the back of the theatre. If you’re sitting in the back, you’ll miss a lot of the smaller — and often more telling — audience reactions. Try sitting in the middle of the theatre.
  3. Most screenings will have a Q&A session after the films. Even if you’re nervous about speaking in front of an audience, take the leap and get up there. Getting direct feedback from an audience is important. A lot of times their questions will reveal weaknesses in your work, and their positive feedback will reveal your strengths.

2) Networking

Most participating filmmakers, if they can afford to fly out to the festival, will attend. So if you’re at a festival and you see films you like, find the filmmakers. Even if you’re unlikely ever to see these people again, you’ll have a great opportunity to ask questions and exchange ideas about common indie-film problems such as finding locations and hiring a quality crew. And yes, you can always ask about securing funding, but don’t expect much insight. There’s just no easy way to do it.

Now, if you’re at a festival that’s in your own area, you have the added bonus of using the festival as an informal casting and crew call. Most small to medium-sized festivals screen a decent number of films, so go see all of them. If you notice a few great actors, make a note of their names. If you see a film with great lighting and camera work, write down the cinematographer’s name.

A few things to consider:

  1. If you’re a relatively new filmmaker — especially if you’re young — it can be intimidating to walk up to other filmmakers and strike up a conversation. Don’t let this hold you back. If someone walked up to you and told you how great your film is, wouldn’t you be happy to talk for a few minutes?
  2. Two things to have on hand at all times: business cards and postcards with the date, time, and venue of your screening. Filling the seats at your screening is as much your responsibility as it is the festival’s. Any time you talk to other filmmakers, let them know when your own film is showing and offer them your business card in case they want to stay in contact.
  3. In addition to screenings, most festivals hold meet-and-greet events and after-parties where the filmmakers can network. Make sure to take advantage of these. It’s your best opportunity to find an entire room full of people who can offer you insight. Granted, sometimes these parties are filled with incredibly loud music, which makes networking difficult, but go anyway. You never know who you’re going to meet.

So, there you have it. In most cases, screening your film at a festival isn’t going to be a miraculous, career-changing event, but that shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the moment and appreciating it for the opportunity it is.

Tags: directing, Film, film festivals, film screenings, filmmaker, indie film, producing

One Response to “Filmmakers: What to Expect from Your First Film Festival”

  1. Rokmanfilms says:

    Great information here! Thanks for posting this

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