Film Festival Strategies: What Every Filmmaker Needs to Know

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At a time of year when visions of sugar plums are dancing through the heads of many, filmmakers are making their festival wish lists and checking them twice. In anticipation, we recently held a webinar featuring Independent Lens Executive Producer Lois Vossen and the directors of the acclaimed documentary, Peace Officer, Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson. During this live conversation via our social platform OVEE, the panelists shared their thoughts and tips on how best to strategize and navigate the film festival circuit.

Here are a few of the takeaways that emerged:

Premiere Strategically

Top film festivals stake their reputations on premieres and will not screen your film if it’s already played at another major festival. Plan accordingly as you schedule your post production homestretch. Top U.S. festivals include: Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, True/False, Full Frame, AFI, Camden, and the Los Angeles Film Festival. For international premieres: Toronto Hot Docs, International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), and Sheffield.

Schmooze…You Can’t Lose

Film festival programmers and sales agents are always looking for great content. Attending festivals is the best way to meet these folks and build relationships…but don’t be afraid to cold call someone who might be a strong champion for your film. In following up, don’t be a pest, but be persistent if a contact has expressed genuine interest. Lastly, play nice: the documentary community is small, so don’t burn any bridges if someone says no to you. There may come a time when they could say yes.

(How to) Meet the Press

Public relations (PR) professionals can be key to getting your film on the radar of press. They’re also much better equipped to time press opportunities to support festival premieres, a theatrical release, or a broadcast when you’re in the middle of finishing your film. Once you know who your early fans are, create a list of everyone you meet who loves your film, then make sure to leverage those relationships to reach press and other influencers.

For additional tips on how a festival strategy can support your film, watch the webinar recording, below. And if you’re interested in more filmmaker-focused webinars, follow us on Facebook or Twitter for more info!


PBS Listening Tour: Next Stop, Chicago

PBS LIstening Tour in Chicago

On March 23, 2015 from 3 PM to 6 PM Central, POV, along with PBS, ITVS, WNET, Independent Lens and the Indie Caucus, will be in Chicago for the third and final stop in the National Listening Tour for Independent Films. The event, hosted by the Indie Caucus and Kartemquin Films, will be held here:

Chicago Cultural Center
GAR Hall and Rotunda
78 E Washington St
Chicago, IL 60602 (map). RSVP now >

More background:

In keeping with its commitment to independent film and filmmakers, PBS leadership is hosting a series of open forums around the country with independent filmmakers, PBS series producers, and other public media and community partners. At each event, participants are invited to voice their priorities and innovative ideas on how all can work together to strengthen distribution, viewership and community engagement through Independent Lens, POV and all kinds of independent films.

Watch highlights from San Francisco, the first stop on the tour in January, and here’s a report from the New York City event in February.

Death of the DVD Part Two: Filmmakers’ Reflections

ITVS’s Rebecca Huval discusses research, news, and trends that come out of ITVS’s IndiesLab.

While DVDs fade in importance and profitability, how do filmmakers manage? Two ITVS directors offered their perspectives: Isaac Solotaroff, director of Wham! Bam! Islam!, and Anne MakepeaceWe Still Live Here – Âs Nutayuneânhave used different coping mechanisms.

Both directors agree that educational DVDs make up a large chunk of their profits. Each educational disc is sold for as much as $500, and libraries will require physical objects for the foreseeable future.

But consumer DVDs? “I’ve absolutely given up on making money selling my project to individuals,” Solotaroff said. “If I make money on the back end, it’s selling to screening and educational institutions.” He half-jokingly added: “When you finish a film, you have DVDs made, and they sit on your shelf, you give them away as a souvenir, and use them for coasters.”

A better option is directing individual viewers to online streams, Solotaroff said. As a self-distributor, it can be prohibitively expensive to mail DVDs. But online streaming to consumers pays a fraction of what DVD or educational sales do. In total, Solotaroff estimates he’s sold 1,000-1,500 online streams and 30 DVDs to educational distributors. Still, the two have earned him about the same revenue.

In contrast, Anne Makepeace said she has sold more DVDs (including educational and consumer) than online streams for Rain in a Dry Land and We Still Live Here. “I haven’t really promoted the digital streams,” Makepeace said. “It’s more in my interest to sell DVDs, frankly, especially until I run out of DVDs of my oldest films.”
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Death of the DVD: Thoughts from New Day Films’ Jeff Tamblyn

ITVS’s Rebecca Huval discusses research, news, and trends that come out of ITVS’s IndiesLab.

The verdict is in: Filmmakers can expect to profit from DVD sales for only two more years. At least that’s what Jeff Tamblyn, Director of Digital Delivery at New Day, is wagering.

“We should start a pot at New Day, a betting pool,” Tamblyn joked. “I’d be really surprised if the DVD market was 25 percent of what it is now in two years. I think the shift to streaming is going to be sudden and immediate.”

Statistics are also sounding the death knell: DVD sales plummeted 20 percent in 2011 to $6.8 billion, while digital sales such as streaming rose 50 percent to $3.4 billion, according to USA Today. Blu-ray disc sales rose 19 percent, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the DVD’s slide. In 2012, more movies will be viewed online than in all formats combined, according to The Degree360. Continue reading

Find Your Audience: Building Long-Term Engagement with Passionate Viewers

ITVS’s Rebecca Huval discusses research, news, and trends that come out of ITVS’s IndiesLab.

Documentary filmmakers have complex motivations for producing films. Unlike the makers of, say, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, most nonfiction directors want their viewers to do more than simply pay for theatre tickets. They’re after long-term engagement. But how should doc makers find their audience if they aren’t a blockbuster like Waiting for Superman?

It starts with the selection of a subject. From the moment you decide to make a film about a certain topic, you’re also choosing an audience. Over at POV, Edward J. Delaney explained how to find a micro-audience, meaning, the viewers who already have a vested interest in your topic. One telling case is that of the 2007 Cannes award-winning documentary Zoo. Continue reading

Indie Distribution in a Post-Netflix World

ITVS’s Rebecca Huval discusses research, news, and trends that come out of ITVS’s IndiesLab.

Netflix might be a giant in the video universe, but like many behemoths (think: King Kong), it has suffered several existential crises. Is it a DVD delivery service? An online movie streaming service? Both? A movie and TV series producer? Or a meticulously programmed cable channel that could rival the likes of HBO?

All of the above have been tested or at least proposed. The company is still recovering from its 2011 flub when it hiked prices and tried to separate its DVD business from online streaming, resulting in a loss of 800,000 subscribers. Still, it rules the premium online streaming market. This winter, fear rippled over competitors when Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings talked with cable executives about the possibility of starting its own on-demand cable channel. Continue reading

DIY Distribution

ITVS’s Rebecca Huval discusses research, news, and trends that come out of ITVS’s IndiesLab.

If you have yet to reach the halls of filmmaking immortality (i.e., you aren’t a brand like Ken Burns), it might feel impossible to approach Netflix or iTunes on your own. Both companies receive a deluge of distribution requests from indies, and only the rare applicant rises above the masses.

Doug Hawes-Davis, co-founder of High Plains Films and director most recently of Facing the Storm, has made overtures to both platforms to stream his films online. Despite his extensive library of feature-length and short documentaries, Netflix sent an automated rejection letter to his production company. iTunes declines to return calls, even though High Plains Films meets its extensive requirements.

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The ITVS Indies Roundup

A curated list of indie news and recommendations from ITVS’s Rebecca Huval.

Want a work-related excuse to visit the Big Apple? Our friends at POV are hosting a hackathon for storytellers and developers on the weekend of August 11-12 in NYC. The call for participants opened this week, and the deadline is June 29. Thankfully, the filmmaker applications look like a breeze to fill out.

Sometimes, the technology to tell a particular story is just out of reach. The 1938 science short film Color Vision explained how human and other animal eyes see color, more than a decade before color film had been developed.

The filmmaker of Helvetica is back in style. Gary Hustwit was a master at crowdfunding before Kickstarter was even launched, and his latest Olympic Games photo project has raised $12,000 with 28 days to go. Continue reading

The ITVS Indies Roundup

A curated list of indie news and recommendations from ITVS’s Rebecca Huval.

If you want to turn a stale movie launch around, save your documentary for last. Filmmaker Liz Nord explains why she released some of her most precious interviews and multimedia experiences months before her film premiered.

You might know John Baldessari as the world-class artist who puts dots over faces in photos, but he’s so much more. Similarly, you might know Tom Waits as the gravelly singer who inhabits low-life characters, but he’s also a sassy narrator. This playful short documentary shows the lesser-known sides of both men.
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PBS Shines Light on Independents at 2012 Annual Meeting

By Lois Vossen
Senior Series Producer, Independent Lens

Lois Vossen, Senior Series Producer of Independent Lens

Each spring, PBS hosts its Annual Meeting, an opportunity for people from across the public television landscape to come together and see what worked the year before and look ahead to what the coming year holds.  The PBS Annual Meeting is attended by public television station staff including general managers, programmers, outreach and publicity staff, along with members of the minority consortia, series producers, presenting organizations, and staff from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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