The Film Festival Scene: Raising the Curtain

Film festivals are cropping up all over the place, not only in North America but around the world. While it's difficult to say exactly how many festivals exist globally at any given time, over 300 are estimated to take place in...
September 1, 1999

Film festivals are cropping up all over the place, not only in North America but around the world. While it’s difficult to say exactly how many festivals exist globally at any given time, over 300 are estimated to take place in the United States alone.

On the surface, such an abundance appears to be positive for documentary filmmakers, since each new festival provides yet another place for screenings. ‘The more eyeballs that view a film, the more likely the film will get media attention, or be seen by a distributor or by a television executive, or maybe someone who knows one of those people,’ says New York-based producer Maxine Wishner (3,2,1 Contact). Liz Manne, executive vice president of programming for the Sundance Channel, agrees: ‘Having film festival exposure is the best possible way to get your film [into the marketplace].’

Not everyone agrees on the opportunities at festivals, however. Kentucky-based filmmaker Herb B. Smith (Down to Earth: The Ralph Stanley Story) says that in his experience, filmmakers shouldn’t expect too much from having their work screened at film festivals. ‘It’s nice and it feels good,’ he asserts. ‘It’s a real charge, but it doesn’t mean that all of a sudden there’s going to be fame and glory.’

Having a film screened at a festival doesn’t come free, either. While most international festivals do not charge an entry fee (the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, which has a US$50 entry fee for features, is an exception), most U.S. domestic festivals, for example, do charge (around $20-25). Then there’s the cost of having a dub made and shipped, not to mention travel and accommodation expenses. These financial considerations may not seem like much when entering one or two festivals, but many doc-makers submit their films to dozens, and the costs can quickly become prohibitive.

Short-term expenses aren’t the only consideration, however. Betsy McLane, executive director of the International Documentary Association in L.A., notes that film festival attendance offers significant benefits, if not immediate or tangible. ‘Selling a film is not the only reason to go to a film festival,’ she says. ‘It’s a place to find funding and people who may be interested in your project; a place to generate some publicity that can help get a deal later on or maybe the place to get your message out. There are all kinds of reasons to go to a festival.’


The sheer number of festivals is intimidating. Whether the goal is to generate sales or experience the thrill of seeing your work on the big screen, it’s important to evaluate the festivals and create a strategy. ‘I’ve seen filmmakers spend years and thousands of dollars on making their films, and then give little or no consideration to distribution,’ says Geoffrey Gilmore, co-executive director of the Sundance Film Festival. ‘You only get the opportunity [to have it screened] once, so filmmakers shouldn’t send their films out in a thoughtless way.’

Film festivals are not created equal. Distributor Jan Rofekamp of Montreal-based Films Transit International suggests film festivals can be divided into four basic categories. ‘There are the really big ones like Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, Sundance and Venice,’ he says. ‘They attract international reviewers, critics, distributors and clients from all over the world. Then there is the second group of about 30 or 40 festivals. That includes Rotterdam, Melbourne, San Francisco and even The New York Film Festival. If you can get in them, you can get national attention.

‘In the third category, there are the film festivals that specialize in docs, like the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, International Documentary Film Festival of Nyon (Switzerland), Cinema du Reel (Paris), Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival (Arkansas), and Hot Docs (Toronto). Then there are all the other festivals that don’t mean anything. They should be looked upon as a good place to take a vacation.’


The first step to selecting a festival is to determine what you’re hoping to accomplish by having your film screened. ‘Documentaries only extremely rarely have a real theatrical possibility,’ says Manne, whose Sundance Cable Channel licenses about 30 documentaries annually. ‘You must be terribly honest. If you do have one of those rare documentaries, like Hoop Dreams, and you want it to be picked up by a theatrical distributor, you want to pick and choose your film festivals very carefully.

‘You don’t want to blow opportunities in the regional festivals like Chicago, Vancouver, Seattle or San Francisco,’ Manne continues. ‘These are wonderful festivals that you eventually want to be in, but you don’t want to launch a film there. If you think you have a chance of being picked up theatrically, you want to keep those markets fresh so that your distributor can use those festivals later as a launching pad for the commercial release in that particular region. If you don’t feel like you have a theatrical film, it’s less important to be judicious about the festivals that you chose to be in.’

For those who have set their sights on TV broadcast, it helps to know which festivals those buyers attend. Donald H. Thoms, former VP of programming management for PBS (and now director of production at Discovery Health), mentions the Urban World Film Festival in New York as a new festival he is planning to attend, as well as the Toronto International Film Festival and South By Southwest in Austin, Texas.

Nancy Abraham, HBO’s VP of original programming and documentaries, says HBO executives attend or follow up on films at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA), Sundance, Double Take in North Carolina and Doc Fest in New York.

Tom Neff, president and director of programming for the Documentary Channel, a 24-hour documentary channel slated to launch in the first quarter of 2000, says he plans to visit a festival or market a month. He lists the Banff Television Festival, Sundance, Doc Fest, Berlin, Amsterdam, Toronto, the New York Film Festival, Cannes and MIP-DOC as the most likely places he’ll find his 700 hours of annual programming.

Regardless of the festival, however, it’s important to be in competition. ‘Competition is always the place where you get the most attention,’ says Rofekamp. ‘Some of the film festivals have very large, broad programs. If you’re not in competition or in the official section, you may end up in some sidebar show and nobody will see your film. The strategy should be to go for competition first.’


Richard Roe has mixed feelings about the outcome of his film festival experience, after an emotional ride of highs and lows. Roe and his son Chris had made their first documentary, a two-hour feature shot on 16mm and DigiBeta called Pop & Me, while traveling around the world together. They wanted to get a theatrical release, and submitted their film to Sundance.

The festival turned Roe and his son down, but a Sundance exec advised them to shorten and tighten the film. ‘He gave us great advice,’ recalls Roe. ‘We cut it down to 92 minutes. I’d advise never to enter a film into a festival that’s longer than 90 minutes. One hundred minutes tops.’

Their next stop was the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival where they won the Audience Award, the first documentary to have won it. ‘I was at the festival,’ recalls Roe. ‘We got two standing ovations. It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.’

After a spectacular reception in L.A., the William Morris Agency called to represent the film. ‘I thought we were on top of the world,’ recalls Roe. But two months later, Pop & Me still hadn’t sold. ‘The William Morris agent hadn’t picked up the phone to sell it,’ Roe complains. ‘Two months and nothing happened. He thought it was going to sell itself. Documentaries don’t sell themselves. The agency finally hired a sales agent who’s on the telephone making calls, but we lost precious momentum.

‘So few documentaries ever get theatrical release,’ observes Roe in hindsight. ‘There’s a good reason for that. Distributors can’t make any money with them. People will not go to the theaters to watch documentaries. They wait and watch them on television. We should have concentrated on getting network distribution.’ At press time, Roe’s film still hadn’t sold.


In filmmaker Ellie Lee’s experience, perseverance is key to success on the festival circuit. She had put a lot of time and effort into her first film, Repetition Compulsion – a seven-minute, 35mm animated documentary on homeless women – going to extra lengths to protect the subjects. ‘I interviewed homeless women and shelter directors so that the voice-over component was constructed like a straight documentary, but then I animated it to protect their anonymity. I finished it in the fall of 1997,’ Lee says.

When Lee decided to take her film on the road, she was forced to develop thick skin. ‘I had been told that only A-list festivals count. So starting in August, I submitted the film to the New York Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival in very rough form. It didn’t get in either. I thought, `Oh, now what do I do?”

The Boston-based filmmaker then submitted her film to more than 30 festivals. By the end of the year, she had been accepted by only two: the Denver International Film Festival and Nashville Independent Film Festival. ‘I was dejected,’ admits Lee. ‘I had been sending out a rough cut. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have bothered. It was a waste of time and money.’

But she was not to be defeated, even though she was putting marketing expenses on her credit card. ‘I decided that I wasn’t going to give up,’ recalls Lee. ‘I decided to try for the Berlin Film Festival. It was an A-list festival. So I went all or nothing. Instead of sending them a screening tape on vhs, I shipped them a 35mm print.’

Meanwhile, the Black Maria Film and Video Festival, which tours the United States, accepted her film, and she won a prize at the New England Film and Video Film Festival. In late January, she got a call from the Berlin Film Festival inviting the film.

‘After Berlin, my film got into 60 festivals,’ says Lee with a chuckle. ‘A lot of festivals that rejected me in 1997 came looking for my film in 1998.’ The film was then purchased by Canal+ and ARTE (which has a simultaneous feed to Germany and France). PBS bought the film for its series, POV. ‘That was the perfect audience for my film,’ says Lee.

‘I can’t imagine more coming out of a short film,’ concludes Lee, whose film recently received an Emmy nomination. ‘I’ve traveled to Tokyo with my film. They flew me out. From the Berlin screening I met my distributors, First Run Features based in New York. I was able to get back my $3,000 that I had spent on the marketing.’ (The actual making of the film was financed by grants.) ‘Sixty million people in Europe and U.S. have seen the film on television,’ says Lee. ‘I’ve been asked to speak across the United States because of the film. It’s positioned me to be able to raise money much more easily for my next film. I’m going to production in August. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened.’


GETTING IN TO THE TIFF: The Application Process

At most film festivals, entries must generally be submitted three to four months in advance. Several festivals now post applications on their websites (see Sidebar, pg. 57), which can be easily downloaded, or forms can be sent out by contacting festival HQ via e-mail or phone.

The Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF’s) Kelly Alexander, director of the Rogers Industry Centre, supplied this info about their application requirements. The Toronto festival, which runs this year from September 9-18, attracts more than 450 distributors annually.

To be eligible, all films:

* must be available to screen as a composite film print in 70mm, 35mm or 16mm by a set date (in the case of this year’s festival, by August 20)

* cannot have been previously screened commercially in Canada (exceptions may be made for French and foreign language films that have played without English subtitles)

* must be in their original language with English subtitles

On the submission form, filmmakers are asked to provide basic info about the film (title, original language, country/countries of production), production (executive producer, coproducers, distributors), authors and technicians (director, editor, production designer), and technical features (running time, film gauge, screen ratio, speed). Make sure to include your return address, if you would like to have your print or video returned.

Along with the submission form, filmmakers must provide either a 16mm or 35mm print, or a 1/2′ VHS (NTSC or PAL) video cassette of the completed film; press materials (max. 10 pages); a film synopsis in English; three to five captioned black and white, horizontal-format stills from the film; vertical format photo of the director; and a biography of director.

The festival’s rules and regulations clearly state that preference is given to premieres. ‘We’re very sticky about films having any kind of commercial screening in North America prior to the festival. If that takes place it excludes it from participation here,’ says Noah Cowan, tiff’s associate director of programming. ‘If it has another festival screening, or a private screening, that’s fine.’ Susan Rayman

GETTING CONNECTED: A short list of film festival dates and websites

Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival

Nov. 24-Dec. 2, 1999

Berlin Int’l Film Festival

February 9-20, 2000

Cannes Film Festival

May 10-21, 2000

International Film Festival


January 26-February 6, 2000

Melbourne Film Festival

July 20-August 6, 2000


Sundance Film Festival

(Park City, Utah)

January 20-30, 2000

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