How to Make the Most of the Festival Circuit
Why take your movie to a film festival?
It seems like a funny question—doesn’t everyone want to premiere at Los Angeles Film Festival or Sundance or Toronto? But earlier this month when festival insider Peter Belsito of SydneysBuzz came to Film Independent to talk about festival strategy, he asked it quite seriously. “They only cost money,” he said. “You don’t make any money at a festival. Why do you want to go there? To get a deal? You can probably forget that. Sundance in their biggest year had 30 deals. And even a lot of those were just representation deals—they weren’t distribution or anything. So why do you want to go to these events?”
The answer: Marketing. “To get the review,” Belsito said. “To meet the people from the trade. That’s why you go to these events. So when you look at your year and the kind of events you want to go to, you have to plan it very carefully.” Belsito laid out how festivals function in an industry capacity and gave his advice on how filmmakers should navigate them.
“When I was a kid in Flushing, NY, there were three film festivals in the world: Cannes, Venice and the New York Film Festival,” Belsito recalled. “The scene is always shifting on these festivals. They may seem stable, but they’re not. They’re always shifting, and you have to keep that in mind. And for you to then decide—should I go to this festival or that festival? You really have to look at the current picture.”
When making that decision, he noted, filmmakers need to be careful. You can submit freely to all the festivals you want, but it would be unwise to blindly accept the first one that accepts you. Most major festivals require that your film has its world premiere there, and the smaller ones will often insist on a regional premiere. Festivals almost always charge an application fee (though you can try befriending programmers via email, and they might help you out with a discount code), but smaller ones will sometimes pay to screen a film, especially if it’s already shown at a bigger festival and they want to add that prestige to their program. It’s a good idea to include festivals in your budget from the very beginning; publicists’ fees and travel expenses aren’t cheap.
“There’s two parts to film,” Belsito explained. “There’s the creative process of making the film, and then there’s the business process of distributing it. Both are absolutely necessary. You’ve got to do it. You just have to put on different hats.” Festivals fall into the business category, and the most significant ones happen alongside markets.
The five major film markets are Cannes, Toronto, AFM, Berlinale and, as Belsito called it, “a big one in Utah in January.” All of these except AFM have a festival attached to the market (AFI Fest happens around the same time as AFM but, Belsito noted, they can’t make people drive from Santa Monica to Hollywood at rush hour and still claim to be a single event). The Cannes Film Festival screens 100 movies; the Cannes Film Market, according to what the event’s director recently told Belsito, had over 5,000 new films and did over $1 billion worth of business last year.
If your film doesn’t make it into one of the big five, there are still a lot of benefits to screening at smaller, regional festivals, Belsito argued, and in the US, it’s best to aim for festivals in New York or Los Angeles. “That’s where the media is, and that’s where the film business is,” he explained simply. In addition, the big five festivals will screen films that are hard for smaller-scale films to compete with: “What I always say is, the best news and the worst news you’ve ever gotten is that you’re in Sundance,” Belsito said, getting a bit of a laugh. “I’m quite serious. How do you raise your head above the Brad Pitt or Ethan Hawke stuff? It’s a problem at Sundance. [I’m not saying] that it’s impossible, but these are serious things you have to consider, and there’s a lot to be said for regional festivals. And I’m talking about the Seattles, the Bostons, the Miamis, the Dallases…”
The list goes on and on. Belsito knows the ins and outs of the festival circuit better than anyone; he’s been around the world going to festivals and has stories and opinions about all of them. SXSW? “The only event in the United States you can go to and perhaps meet somebody from the trade that’s not in New York or LA.” NYFF? “Bigger stars, more money, bigger budgets.” The Hamptons “has gone up and down and up and down and up and down over the years.” Santa Barbara “is not an LA festival. [It] is a regional festival.” Cannes wants Brad Pitt; Berlin is “a bit more maverick.” IDFA is “a wonderful thing, and it’s in Amsterdam. I mean, what’s not to like?”
“So somebody says to me, ‘What am I supposed to do at Cannes?’” Belsito said. “I say, ‘Collect faces.’” These events are for building your network as much as they are for drawing up contracts. One of the great things about the big international markets is the potential for connecting with possible future collaborators from other countries. “An American passport is the worst,” Belsito said. “The US has zero co-production treaties in the world, as opposed to this little country up the block called Canada, which has co-production treaties with every country in the world. So Canada passport: very good. US passport: not good.”
Setting up a co-production with a producer who has a more flexible passport can open doors all over the world. “And you know, what are we doing in film? Every single stage, you’re putting together teams,” Belsito explained, “to write the film, to edit the script, pre-production, production, post-production, distribution… Same thing. You need to put together teams.” And festivals are a great place to start.
When you’re sitting in meetings at Cannes or Berlin or wherever your movie’s journey takes you, Belsito said one thing you have to keep in mind: “You are the only one in the world who is bringing anything of value to the table.” It’s important to him that filmmakers are paid for their work, and he couldn’t emphasize enough that “they need you. They need to meet you. They need to know you. You’ve got to understand that, going into these markets, feeling really tiny or lost or what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do, you’ve got to understand: you’re the most important person in the room.”