Building a festival strategy is a lot harder than it sounds. One would assume it would be just to “apply to festival, show, hobnob with beautiful people, get acquired” but it doesn’t really work that way. Sure, every year we get a list of films that have been purchased at Sundance, Cannes, Toronto and SXSW, but we must also keep in mind the odds - there are maybe a dozen acquisitions for every two to three hundred films shown. And by acquisition I’m talking about films slated for a theatrical release. This year the festival darlings that are making waves in the theatrical space are Another Earth, Bellflower and my colleague Asif Kapadia’s Senna, all of which were bought / won at Sundance. They’re all tremendous films that have been smartly marketed.
But what about those hundreds of other films that are not purchased by a major or mini-major distributor? There will be other options such as video-on-demand, dvd and self-distribution, but those deals will not be struck at a festival.
Gone are the days of the bidding wars for the latest indie gem, of Harvey Weinstein screaming on a phone and making multimillion dollar offers hoping for the next Sling Blade or Reservoir Dogs. Today’s indie purchasing is far, far more modest, with acquisition figures in the six figure range for award-winning material, and the occasional seven-figure deal for something truly buzzworthy.
There are three factors contributing to this: the economy and shrinking DVD revenues, the dominance of the international marketplace, and the closure of art house cinemas. The DVD market, once seen as a larger revenue stream than theatrical, has dwindled as the economy plummeted. Many argue that a lack of interesting content and the high price of the Blu-Ray format has killed interest, others will insist that it is the emergence of Video-On-Demand (which is still expensive) and streaming sources such as Netflix, Vudu and Hulu which have killed the home video market. The closure of Blockbuster and Hollywood Video would support that. The studios will insist internet piracy is the culprit, which I don’t buy into, but I think all the other arguments are valid. In any case, the DVD is not as lucrative as it one was.
What has replaced the DVD is the international market. We see in the box-office reports the strength of overseas revenues. A failed film such as Green Lantern which made $114 domestically (against a $200 million budget, $400m expenditure with prints and advertising), has made an additional $176 million overseas, thereby making it’s ability to recover and break even a strong possibility. The take of the latest Harry Potter film was equally impressive, with a $356m take domestically, and a staggering $1.2 billion take overseas. The US is no longer the dominant theatrical revenue stream, it’s overseas where the money is.
But (and there always is a but) the consistent theme to this is that the movies that make money overseas are all A-list starred action tentpoles, animated family fare, or established franchises. Where does this leave the small indie? Can we count on an excellent film like Bellflower to triple its earnings abroad? Likely not.
The closure of many indie arthouse cinemas across the country (we just mourned the closure of Piper’s Alley here in Chicago) also means there are fewer screens to show indie films. And yet we still need to make independent films, because where else will we nurture new talent to feed into bigger films? Cinematic talent, not television talent.
Want to ruin my day? Then tell me that they chose Penn Badgley to play Jeff Buckley. Yup.
It’s not hard then to see why the independent film landscape is as bleak as it’s even been. Even with six-figure acquisition prices, the deals paid out hardly cover the average cost of production. But indie filmmakers persevere. Evan Glodell made Bellflower for less than $20k. Another Earth was made for a little north of $200k. Digital technology and DIY ethics have brought budgets down, but the micro budget films like the aforementioned - those that are able to turn DIY limitations into aesthetic beauty or come with strong performances and high concepts - are far and few between. The average independent film with a decent cast and solid production values is costing anywhere from $1-2 million, and the “indie darlings” like The Kids Are Alright and Black Swan each cost $4m and $11m, respectively.
All of the aforementioned films made splashy debuts at festivals, but the festival itself was not where they primarily found distribution. So our festival strategy must not be one towards getting purchased, but rather getting exposure. While getting acquired would always be welcome, we have to view it as a bonus happenstance as opposed to a festival endgame.
We want festivals that allow us to connect to our intended audiences, and if we don’t know who that audience is, we have to use festivals to allow an audience to find us. Once that audience emerges, we’ll have a far better idea of how we want to approach things like distribution channels and pricing. We also want to get favorable press reviews, hopefully from sources that understand both our genre and our audience. This is perhaps the greatest gain to be made from the festival circuit - good press.
Of course it boils down to how well your film is received, and also of how well the individual festival promotes your film alongside your own promotional efforts. For my debut feature 19 Revolutions I got favorable reviews, averaging about 2.5-3 stars on a five star scale, and was praised in Variety for my “Godard-like pranksterism.” It was enough to get me some industry attention, and I was able to sell the film for a very, very small profit (even the word “profit” might seem a bit strong in this case). But my buyers wouldn’t have even known of the film if the Cinequest Film Festival hadn’t championed it, and also if I didn’t personally invite journalists to come to the screenings. It’s a confluence of efforts that hang on the lynchpin of the great unknown, which is whether or not people will like your film. There’s no way to calculate or determine that in advance.
So we strategize as to what festivals will benefit us the most. Sometimes for a smaller film, a festival like Cannes, while prestigious, is a place where movies get lost and cannibalized. Got a DIY, handheld film about twentysomethings in Brooklyn? Try the Williamsburg Film Festival or South By Southwest, where films from the Mumblecore filmmakers like Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz and the Duplass Brothers have been showcased. For a horror film like Lilith, we’re looking at fests like Screamfest LA or Fantastic Fest in Austin among others. The biggies like Toronto and AFI would be nice simple for the fact that the world focuses its attention and media on those events, and you’re in esteemed company. But as small indies we’re also competing with films like The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire so the odds are against us even before we drop the screener in the mail. I’m not saying it’s impossible, in fact there are many programmers at the big fests that like to champion that small indie-that-could, but they have to select one or two from a pool of thousands. It’s a job I don’t envy because I’ve done that job before.
We also select festivals that benefit us geographically. I’ve looked into Denver and Chicago because they are the places I was born and currently reside. Festivals know I can bring in a crowd when it’s a hometown filmmaker. There are festivals I’ve looked into that showcase Asian-American filmmakers. There are literally thousands of film festivals all over the world for just about every niche and type. Which is another reason why it is important to have a strategy - if we simply carpet bomb our applications and send out to every festival under the sun, we’ll be looking at thousands of dollars in application fees, screeners and postage expenses. So we have to choose carefully. I spent almost a month researching festivals, and whittled my initial round down to fourteen festivals, of which I have yet to hear back from any.
And that’s where we stand, and it’s killing me. For two years I had absolute control over every microscopic element of Lilith and now I find myself powerless, waiting at the hands of others to decide my next move. It’s frustrating and humbling all at the same time, and that combination makes for sleepless nights and general lunacy. I’m driving my wife and cats up the wall with my anxiety.
Still no word from Toronto, fingers and toes still crossed to the point of cramping and skeletal damage. I’m ready to explode.
Please don’t forget to tweet a message of support for Lilith with the following hashtag (#LilithAtTIFF2011). Thank you!