How to Make the Most of Your First Film Festival

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Congratulations! You just received your first film festival acceptance email!

Now what?

If you’re a new filmmaker experiencing the film festival circuit for the first time, you probably have a lot of questions about what happens next. This article is for you.

1. To Accept or Not to Accept

Let’s face it: all film festivals are not created equal. And that’s why you have to be intentional about where you choose to world premiere your film. To make the most of your first screening, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What is the reputation of the film festival?

  2. Does the film festival invite industry, press, and/or alum filmmakers to participate in panels and events?

  3. Will your film be in competition?

  4. Does the festival have a track record of distributor acquisitions (i.e. is there a market)?

  5. Does the festival offer travel and/or hotel vouchers to help offset your costs?

  6. What other festivals are you still waiting to hear from?

Deciding which invitation to accept for your world premiere is often more fraught for feature films than it is for shorts. As a programmer, I’ve had dozens of conversations with producers trying to weigh the pros and cons of each festival before committing to screen. I’ve also heard horror stories from producers who chose to pass up high-profile premieres because they were holding out for even higher profile premieres, and when those higher-profile festivals didn’t offer them a spot in the program, they had to scramble to make sure their film didn’t fall through the cracks.

Very seldom do I recommend that a filmmaker pass up a premiere opportunity, but if you don’t feel like the festival is a good fit for one reason or another, you should definitely take the time you need to consider your options. You only get one world premiere, so make it count.

By the way, these are also good questions to consider when you are submitting your film to festivals. Why submit to a festival that you wouldn’t want to attend, or that won’t do anything for your career. Think about your ROI (return on investment) and plan accordingly.

2. Hit the Ground Running

The last thing you want to do is show up to a film festival unprepared. Prior to picking up your festival pass, you should have the following elements on hand:

  1. Postcards. You don’t need 500, but it doesn’t hurt to have 25–50. You can store these in the plastic shell of your festival credentials and hand them out to filmmakers and potential audience members when appropriate. Don’t just set a stack of them on a table and walk away. Hand them out personally at mixers and events, but don’t be pushy about it. Think of them like very expensive business cards, and deploy them as such. Bonus points if you leave half of the back blank and affix festival-specific screening stickers before you hand them out to remind people where and when they can see your film.

  2. Your Next Project. One of the best things about going to film festivals is meeting other filmmakers in attendance. What’s even better is going to a film festival with your next project in your back pocket. Planning to expand your short into a feature? Finish your script before the festival. Want to find a producer? Hone your elevator pitch. You never know who you’re going to run into at a festival, so be ready for anything. And the best way to do that is to be able to answer the question “What are you working on next?” whenever it’s posed to you.

  3. Lock Down Your Logistics. Don’t wait until you arrive to book a hotel or find a cheap place for a good dinner. Do as much research as possible beforehand so that you can focus on networking and career-building efforts as soon as you arrive at festival HQ.

  4. Check ALL the Boxes. As soon as you accept a screening invitation, you’ll be presented with a list of elements required by the festival in order to ensure a smooth screening. These will normally include key stills, your logline/synopsis, a trailer, a DCP with a Blu-ray back-up, among other things. Make sure you provide access to these things in a timely manner. It will make things easier for everyone involved.

  5. Research Jury Members, Panelists, and Your Fellow Filmmakers.This can take some time, so it doesn’t have to be exhaustive, but you should definitely spend a few hours figuring out who is going to be there and what they could possibly do for your career. Maybe an acquisitions exec was born in your hometown. Maybe the keynote speaker went to the same college as you. To take advantage of synchronicities and happy coincidence, you have to first be aware of their existence.


3. Get Into the Mix

You’ve bought your plane ticket, booked your hotel, packed your bags, and checked all of the festival’s required boxes. Now is when the real work begins. Don’t go hide in a dark theater and watch movies all weekend. Get out and mingle with the other filmmakers who’ve made the trip. Go to as many mixers and panels as you can. Introduce yourself to festival programmers and staff. Thank volunteers (often). Share war stories with fellow filmmakers. Trade screener links and feature scripts. And then don’t forget to follow up once you get home. I mentioned this earlier, but it’s worth repeating: you never know who you will meet at a film festival, so meet as many people as you can. You might just find your next collaborator/financier/producer/partner.

4. Don’t Miss Your Screening

This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Seriously, don’t miss your screening. It’s embarrassing and one of the few opportunities you have to interact directly with your audience.

5. Don’t Forget to Follow-up

You had a great screening, met a lot of kindred spirits, took advantage of every free food and liquor opportunity, and have now arrived back home. Instead of taking a few days to “decompress” (i.e. be lazy), send out follow-up emails within 24–48 hours. You’ll likely have a stack of business cards an inch thick. The longer you wait to follow-up, the harder it will be to remember conversations and the less effective your emails will be. Don’t wait; take care of it right after you unpack your suitcase.

Film festivals are unique and eclectic, but your approach to attending them should be uniform and focused. The more you prepare ahead of time, the more you can enjoy the experience. It will help minimize the pre-screening jitters and give you peace of mind that you did everything you could to make the most of your first film festival.