By Tadashi Nakamura
I have a love-hate relationship with film festivals. On the one hand, some of my most memorable moments as a filmmaker has been at film festivals. On the other hand, navigating the festival circuit is ridiculously expensive and can crush your ego harder than anything else. I’ve laid out some of the top lessons I’ve learned over the years.
1. Festival Budget
Most film festival submission fees range from $20-$100. This will add up as you apply to more and more festivals. And once you get into a festival you’ll need to pay for an exhibition copy of your film (i.e., DCP), create promotional material (i.e., posters and postcards), and travel costs if you attend the festival (and the festival does not cover your travel). All of these costs can easily get into the thousands, so I suggest creating a “Film Festivals” line item in your distribution budget to manage your funds.
Try and apply as early as possible. Most festivals have “Early Bird” submission fees that are less than its regular submission fees. If your film is in demand and a festival reaches out to you about submitting your film, your submission fee will usually be waived. Also, as your career continues and you start developing relationships with festival directors and programmers, you can always ask for a submission fee waiver.
2. Festival Strategy
Before you make any film, you should have a target audience. Your targeted audience can have multiple tiers, but you need to prioritize the different demographics you want to hit. You should also have specific goals for your film once it is finished. Are you trying to get a company to buy your film? Is TV broadcast your main goal? Where do you want your film to live? Theatrical release? In the classroom? Your target audience and goals for your film will dictate which festivals to submit to. As an independent filmmaker, there is no way you’ll be able to afford to submit to all the festivals, so you need to be selective.
The “Premiere Status” of your film is very important when navigating the festival circuit. Many of the top tier festivals require a World Premiere status, meaning that your film is ineligible if you publicly screen before that festival. Other festivals might require International Premiere (first screening must be outside the country the film created in), Continental Premiere, State Premiere, and City Premiere. You should still apply widely, but once you start getting accepted into festivals, you need to be conscious of what premiere statuses you will be giving up.
3. Get Butts in Seats
Your film will be just one of many films tightly programmed over a handful of days. You can’t depend on the festival to fill the theater for your screening; you need to do the leg work to get people to come. Have your promotional material designed ahead of time (you can use the same graphic design for different festival screenings), create your film’s website and social media accounts ahead of time. Hit social media and personal emails hard. Mass emails and social media posts will help get your screening on people’s radar, but personal emails and direct messages will get people to buy tickets.
Try and make your screening an event. I always try and work with the festival to program something more unique than just a film screening, especially for premieres. For our last film Mele Murals, many of our screenings included musical performances, food trucks and live paintings. This will make your screening stand out amongst the other programs in the festival lineup.
Mele Murals has completed their Film Festival circuit and have gone on to win several festival awards including:
Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival - Best Documentary Audience Award
Special Jury Prize - Hawaiʻi International Film Festival
Monarch Film Festival - Best Documentary
CAAMFest - Best Documentary Audience Award
Photo: Courtesy of Tadashi Nakamura.
(L to R) Director of Photography Justyn Ah Chong, Director Tadashi Nakamura, Executive Producer Keoni Lee, Associate Producer Aina Paikai