I'm often asked by filmmakers which festivals I'd recommend. Probably because I'm the guy who made OFFICIAL REJECTION. I get asked a lot.
Not that I mind, but there are quite a few good ones out there, and since they're not all alike, I find myself giving a long rambling answer full of endless qualifiers and an excruciating amount of detail. So rather than continuing to repeat the whole shebang time and time again, I thought I'd simply spill it all out here, in one concise place. Then everyone will be spared listening to me drone on and on and on. And on. And on.
Please note the following list of recommended festivals does not include any of what I'll refer to as the "Big Seven": Sundance, Slamdance, SXSW, Tribeca, Los Angeles, Toronto, Cannes or Berlin. It's not that I don't recommend them, but rather their value should be staggeringly obvious and if anyone reading this is lucky enough to be accepted to one, GO. Regardless of what the experience is like. These are "market festivals", meaning that the few remaining legit distributors actually attend them with the intent of acquiring films, and if your movie is playing there, it’s probably going to be looked at. Additionally, both national and international press cover these fests, giving your flick the potential for massive media exposure, so you better go wave it in their faces. And if nothing else, having the laurels from one of these bad boys on your resume, poster, or DVD cover is only going to help you by proving that, however briefly, a movie of yours made it to "the show".
But most filmmakers don't get into any of the Big Seven, nor are these usually the fests they're inquiring about when asking me for recommendations. What they want is to know what regional film festivals, hundreds of which take place all over the world each year, are worth spending their hard-earned dollars to apply to.
Before I give my picks, I should probably lay out the criteria by which I judge a festival's worth. The ones I think are worthy of recommendation all have these elements in common, so rather than continually restating the same justifications after each fest on my list, I'll spell 'em out now:
1) The festival is run for the right reasons: Each is put on by people who truly love movies, and want to use their event as a platform to showcase films that otherwise might not get exposure in their area. They favor art over commerce and talent over celebrity, and while it's impossible to always avoid making programming decisions based on big names or politics, they keep it in check. Festivals like this also tend to be extremely filmmaker friendly and throw good parties, so you'll likely have a good time.
2) They attract big audiences: While I believe every filmmaker should tirelessly promote their movie wherever they go, if the festival isn't well-known in its region or isn't generally well-attended, there's very little you can do to get people to show up to your screening. Festivals should strive to develop a good relationship with their local audience over time, and the ones I'm recommending have done just that. They've culled a crowd of potential moviegoers for you, leaving it your hands to lure them to see your specific flick.
3) They attract media attention: For most indies, playing the festival circuit IS their theatrical release. That said, you not only want to get as many people as possible to see your movie; you want to get as much coverage as you can as well. In addition to audiences, festivals should develop a good relationship with their local press. It's still up to you to swing coverage your way, but if that city's newspaper, TV and radio outlets don't care about the fest, they're not going to touch you. If you want to get written about, discussed or reviewed, a fest with solid press connections can certainly go a long way towards making that happen.
There are plenty of well-intentioned festivals that have yet to develop the latter two points, and some that certainly attract big crowds and press but lack the first. The ones I'll be recommending here, however, possess all three of these qualities. I’ve attended them, seen these criteria fulfilled firsthand, and therefore can heartily endorse them.
Now, there are also several others either OFFICIAL REJECTION or TEN 'TIL NOON played that I heard were great, but wasn't able to actually make it to myself. Since I can’t account for their quality from personal experience, I’ll include these but list them separately at the end.
PHOENIX FILM FESTIVAL - This one's my all-time favorite, which is the reason it's featured as the "example of what a festival should be" in OFFICIAL REJECTION. It's run by a trifecta of amazing guys - Jason, Greg, and Chris - and is the only fest I've made a point of attending whether I've got a movie or not. I could write volumes about what they do right, but in the interest of brevity I'll just mention a few things that really put them over the top:
One, the entire event is centrally located. The festival puts up a tent outside their venue, the Harkins Scottsdale/101 theatre, and everything that goes down - the screenings, parties, panels, awards shows and galas - does so right there.
I cannot stress how much such a simple thing enhances the experience. At every other festival, there's always this downtime where you're sorta waiting for the next bit of business on your schedule and find yourself on your own. When you've traveled to a city you're not familiar with, putting your life on hold to promote your movie, these pockets of dead time are a serious bummer.
But this doesn't happen in Phoenix. In the morning you wake up at your hotel (which is only a mile or so down the road from the Harkins), hop onto their free shuttle and head straight to the venue, where you're plugged into the festival for the rest of the day. Screenings start early and the parties go late, so all unnecessary downtime is eliminated. To my knowledge, no other festival can boast this.
Secondly, they don't program a lot of films. Their feature competition category usually only consists of around twelve flicks, and that's narrative and documentary combined. While that does make it harder to get into the fest in the first place, this is done in order to give the selected films a chance to screen several times, which allows serious buzz to build around each and every movie. "Oh, you missed that one? It was great – and you can still catch it when it shows again tomorrow night!" Phoenix boasts some staggeringly rabid film fanatics, and by the time you're showing your flick for the third time, they're literally packing themselves into the aisles.
STARZ DENVER FILM FESTIVAL - It's a wonder this world-class festival doesn't yet attract major national media and distributor attention. Sponsored by the Starz channel, this is a top notch event, with huge galas and three - yes, three - lounges for filmmakers to relax in. The programming is particularly strong; it's all about quality, with little interest seemingly placed on the size, scope, or star-value of the movies. The result is an eclectic mix of both higher-profile and micro-budget DIY films, and when I was there I didn't see a bad one in the bunch. The staff is super-friendly, and every year they organize a trip for filmmakers to Denver's legendary Casa Bonita, which is NOT to be missed.
deadCENTER FILM FESTIVAL - Although completely unrelated, this one functions as sort of a sister to the Phoenix Film Festival - it's run by three ladies instead of three dudes, and the vibe of both is, in the best sense, eerily similar. I've personally witnessed a lot of growth at deadCenter; when we visited with TEN 'TIL NOON in 2006 it was well-intentioned and promising, but when we returned three years later it had blossomed into something far larger and more impressive. Screenings are packed, and the press is everywhere. Carry copies of your press kit wherever you go. I'm not kidding.
The only minor drawback is that, unlike Phoenix, the festival is spread out all over downtown Oklahoma City, but they run a pretty effective circuit of shuttles for filmmakers. Or, for anyone possessing a pair of legs, you can work off all the free food by walking. It takes about fifteen minutes to cross the length of downtown OKC on foot.
FORT LAUDERDALE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL - This fest operates out of the coolest venue I've ever had the pleasure to screen in - the Cinema Paradiso. It's a funky converted church with plush stadium seating, state-of-the-art projection, and a full bar in the lobby. But the theatre's best feature is a hidden back staircase; this allows you to travel between the nose-bleed seats and said bar without disrupting your audience.
FLIFF owns and operates the Cinema Paradiso year round, so if you screen successfully at the festival, you might also try sweet-talking the staff into booking your movie as a regular engagement down the road. Something to think about, especially for those of you planning self-distribution.
SAN DIEGO FILM FESTIVAL - This festival excels at handling the press so well that, in the years I attended, they managed to pack their theatres using only their publicity team - no paid advertising at all. The fest is run like a big media event and it feels like it, too. If you make yourself available to their PR folks, you and your movie can get quite a lot of coverage. Their parties are also insanely good.
UNITED FILM FESTIVALS - This is actually six festivals in one, with editions in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, London, San Francisco, and Tulsa. So when you apply you're actually doing so for multiple fests, and acceptance can get you quite a bit of play. Plus, on the off-chance you're rejected, you can request constructive and detailed feedback on your flick, albeit for a nominal fee.
Another unique aspect of United is the company that runs it, Connell Creations, not only produces movies but is also starting to distribute them, and as of this writing has acquired and released two films that it discovered while programing the fest. Collapsing the gap between festival and distributor is a unique approach, and their model, thus far successful, is still evolving. Something to keep an eye on.
RIVERRUN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL - When we attended this fest in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I asked Executive Director Andrew Rodgers why he had actively avoided any mention of celebrities in their program and press materials. I was naturally curious: several of the movies on their schedule had famous faces, and exploiting their presence would certainly be an expected way to try and lure audiences.
His answer was simple: "The whole town knows what we do here, so I don't have to play the name game. And if I don't have to, I won't. I'd rather let the art speak for itself."
Wow. Just... wow. This festival is focused solely on presenting quality work, and their screenings are packed. They're doing something seriously right.
NEWPORT BEACH FILM FESTIVAL - A well-run, well-financed and well-attended affair that gets a solid amount of industry attention, presumably because of its propinquity to Los Angeles. There were a few actual distributors, albeit minor ones, wandering about when we hit this festival with TEN 'TIL NOON.
Newport throws a mixer where filmmakers can interact with representatives from other fests, which can be really helpful for continuing your run on the circuit. (In fact, I made a handshake deal with the director of the Delray Beach Film Festival while we were both standing at the urinals. Awkward but true.) Newport also assigns each film a specific contact person - usually a programmer who helped select that particular movie. This is a nice touch, because it means not only do you have a real-live human being you can always get ahold of, but it's someone who's a fan of your work.
There is one minor drawback: they program an alarming number of flicks, and each one only gets a single screening. If you're lucky enough to get a good slot on the program, then you're set; but if you end up with, say, 1pm on a Tuesday, you're boned. Unless you can convince people you know personally to show up, your screening is likely to be a bit of a throwaway.
ALSO WORTH NOTING...
Some strong up-and-comers I feel are more than worth considering:
CINCINNATI FILM FESTIVAL (formerly OXFORD INTERNATIONAL) - These guys had to endure a significant venue change just weeks before their 2009 edition but still managed to pull out a pretty damn good event. Attendance was understandably spotty in the beginning but grew significantly as the locals realized what was happening. Their new homebase, the terrific Esquire Theatre, is a perfect location for a festival - and the coffee shop next door, Sitwells, is a wonderfully friendly place to hang out between screenings.
Additionally, the HILL COUNTRY FILM FESTIVAL of Fredrickberg, Texas, has shown tremendous promise. Now only in their second year, this fest has managed to dominate their local press and as a result attendance has been really encouraging. Their venue, the Stagecoach Theatre, is equipped with state-of-the-art digital projection, and the opening night film was preceded with a wine-tasting trip. Nice.
I also really liked Boise's IDAHO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, but the 2011 edition has been cancelled so they can go through some re-structuring. Ironically, during the writing of this piece, their new managing director contacted me and asked if I would consult with them to "help shape the future of the festival." That's pretty flattering - hopefully I can come up with something useful to say.
Now, as promised, here are those festivals we played that I didn't personally attend, but I've heard are terrific nonetheless:
First, Birmingham's SIDEWALK MOVING PICTURE FESTIVAL has a reputation for being one of the best and most-loved stops on the circuit. It's said they do everything right and filmmakers won't have a better time anywhere else. It just about killed me when I wasn't able to go, but I'd already committed to being at two other festivals the exact same weekend by the time I found out we were accepted, and there was just no way to make it work. To their credit, the Sidewalk staff was extremely understanding and fully supported our movie regardless.
According to friend and filmmaker Chris Suchorsky, Saugatuck Michigan's WATERFRONT FILM FESTIVAL is just about as terrific as Phoenix, and for many of the same reasons. Elsewhere in the same state, my partner-in-cinematic-crime Scott Storm fell in love with Bay City's HELL’S HALF MILE FILM AND MUSIC FESTIVAL. And my pals Todd Giglio and Chris Springer, the guys behind the excellent DRAWING WITH CHALK, did nothing but rave about the NAPLES INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL.
So those are my picks. I warned you this list would be excruciatingly long. And please feel free to share your own festival recommendations in the comments below. I'm sure there are lots of great ones that haven't gotten onto my radar, and they deserve their due, too.