HOLLYWOOD — Finding the right fest for a film is not always as simple as running down the list of most prestigious events. Festivals serve many purposes: Some offer enticing awards, others boast the best press, and still others are havens for domestic and international buyers. How can a filmmaker or producers rep determine the best platform to introduce a film to the world?
Most fest vets would say the first stops are Sundance, Toronto, New York and Cannes. For many filmmakers, producers and distributors, these top-tier film festivals offer the best attributes all the way around, with heavy hitters from the press, highly regarded awards, enthusiastic audiences and the concentrated attendance of buyers from all over the world.
After these, the planning gets much more involved as producers and distributors assess the pros and cons of regional fests and the smaller festivals abroad.
According to Emily Russo, founder of N.Y.-based distrib Zeitgeist, “Domestic festivals have become a big part of our distribution. They’re either promotional opportunities that help get a jumpstart in a particular market or they may be the only audience a film will have in a market.”
Russo explains that for the recent release of “Lumumba,” Raoul Peck’s film about the legendary African leader Patrice Emery Lumumba, she opted to screen the film at Filmfest DC, a Washington-based fest.
“It’s a good festival and has been around a long time. Raoul Peck went and did a lot of press, and then when we opened the film two weeks later, it broke house records. The festival helped get the press and good word of mouth, so when we opened, it was primed.”
While most festival awards usually don’t do much but honor the director, in the case of “Lumumba,” a kudo from the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles worked well.
“It was good because it’s a nice distinction,” she explains, adding, “But we didn’t go to the festival in hopes of winning an award. Instead, we wanted to link the film to that context and audience.”
But not everybody shoots for the top-tier fests.
“Many people think it’s Sundance or die,” says Scott Macaulay of Forensic Films. “But for Jesse Peretz’s ‘The Chateau,’ we chose Rotterdam for several reasons: Jesse had a history with the festival already, and the film had been shot in Europe with a half-European cast so we knew that there would be a good base of support there.”
The film fared well at Rotterdam, snagging two domestic and several European deals before moving on to the market in Berlin.
“Those sales helped tag the film as a success,” explains Macualay, “and we were able to work off the film’s momentum after that.
“The thing about festivals,” he continues, “is that so many people are seeing the film, from buyers to publicists to sales agents that the key is take any positive response you have and use it to continue your momentum forward.”
Cassian Elwes, senior VP and co-head of William Morris Independent, took Tom DiCillo’s “Doubly Whammy” to Sundance earlier this year and played on the director’s existing relationship to the festival.
“Thanks to his earlier films, Tom is a well-known Sundance director, so we targeted Sundance as the festival to start with,” Elwes says.
“Before we went, we deliberately didn’t hype the film, though — I’ve seen so many films that were great movies not get picked up because expectations had been built way too high.” The cast and director attended, but spoke only after the film screened.
“We also decided to play outside of competition — we felt the movie should live and die on its own merits and not be compared to others,” Elwes says. “Finally, we had the director talk to distributors prior to the screening so they could see where he thought the marketing should go. Once you arrive at a festival it’s a mad house, so it’s important for the director to talk about the film in an unpressured atmosphere.”
“Double Whammy” was eventually sold to Lions Gate.
Many filmmakers hope to find that kind of unpressured environment at the smaller festivals, and distributors and reps acknowledge the significance of Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago, and point to the growing importance of the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Santa Barbara and Hamptons fests.
Russo also highlights the significance of niche festivals, noting, “With ‘Aimee and Jaguar’ we hit the jackpot. Between the gay and lesbian festivals and the Jewish festivals, the film played at least 50 times.”
For most, however, still dreams of that Cannes screening.
“Many filmmakers will be bombarded by smaller festivals as they’re finishing their films, but they should wait,” explains Macaulay. “I will always try my top-choice festivals first — it can be hard to premiere at a small regional festival.”
Macaulay acknowledges how wonderful a smaller fest can be for a filmmaker, mainly in terms of screening for an appreciative audience, but reality prevails.
“When you’re an independent producer trying to get a film out there in the best way possible, you really have to think about the marketplace first.”