A bitter sea of rejections poured out of Park City this week, crushing the souls and stealing the innocence of an entirely new generation of independent filmmakers. That’s a lot of young directors and producers weeping in their mother’s basements, staring at the bills of the credit cards they maxed-out to pay for their movies and asking themselves, “What now?”
Well, here are a few truths for you, kids: 1) statistically speaking, more of you will die in car accidents in the next month than will ever get into Sundance your entire lives (this goes for ALL indie filmmakers, myself included); and 2) there are still plenty of other places you can submit your flick to. So don’t give up.
Now, a few years ago I got a lot of inquiries about what fests might actually accept true indie films and still be worth the submission fee. I’d just directed OFFICIAL REJECTION, a documentary about the circuit, so I guess I seemed like maybe the guy to ask. I then put together a list of my favorites, which was a convenient way of answering the question in one big, easily-referenced piece. At the time, I’d foolishly hoped this list would be definitive, but there have been a lot of changes on the circuit in the last few years. Festivals are, after all, living, breathing beasts… they evolve, grow, are born and die. Hell, even some - like the San Diego Film Festival - come back to life as zombies.
Having just completed the 2013 fest run of my new flick, FAVOR, I felt compelled to amend this list. If you’re one of the many just served one of those dreaded Park City rejections, maybe it gives you a little guidance -- or at least a modicum of hope -- as plan your next move.
Please note the following 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 that their value should be staggeringly obvious and if anyone reading this is lucky enough to be accepted to one, GO. 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, DVD cover, iTunes meme or trailer is only going to help you by proving that, however briefly, a movie of yours made it to "the show".
But as so many brutally discovered this week, most of us filmmakers never get into any of the Big Seven, nor are these usually the fests folks are 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 any good.
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 keep 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 local community. 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 these also tend to be extremely filmmaker friendly and throw fun 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 and isn't generally well-attended, there's very little you can do to get people to show up to your screening. Festivals develop a 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 only 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, but you want to get as much coverage as you can as well. In addition to audiences, festivals should develop a relationship with their local press. It's still up to you to swing coverage your way, but if that city's newspaper, broadcast and web 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.
There are also several others FAVOR, 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 not only remains my all-time favorite but somehow improves year after year. 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 takes over multiple store-fronts adjacent to 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 ten flicks - 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.
NAPA VALLEY FILM FESTIVAL – It’s astonishing that NVFF is only in its third year. With 12 screening venues in 4 different villages, multiple parties every night, celebrity guests and an open bar literally everywhere you turn, there are clearly some serious funding and sponsorships fueling the festival.
For FAVOR, which was programmed merely as a minor out-of-competition title in the “edgy” Lounge sidebar, the fest covered airfare and lodgings for not one - but three - representatives of our movie. Yes, that's three separate round-trip airline tickets, three separate hotel suites. I can’t imagine what sort of treatment the actual competition films received. Movie stars like Colin Farrell were in attendance and A-list filmmakers like Joe Carnahan sat on their jury, yet the festival never turned into a celebrity jerk-off event. The focus, by and large, stayed on the actual indies in its program.
Of course it’s advantageous to us filmmakers that NVFF is fairly new and not yet terribly well-known. Once word gets out about how much fun is being had so short a distance from Los Angeles, Napa’s bounded to get completely flooded with people from “the business”. Apply now before it’s bum-rushed.
AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL – Partly because it’s an extension of the Austin Screenwriters Conference - and partly it happens in the same city as some other giant film festival – the AFF is a huge industry event. Major behind-the-camera talent like Vince Gilligan and Shane Black flock to this every year, giving the festival a tremendous amount of street cred, and the educational program they put on is astonishing. If you’re a fledging filmmaker, you’re far better served attending the panels here than party-hopping at Sundance.
AFF smartly assigns each film a liaison to make sure you get where you need to be when you need to be there, including all the parties with free food and booze. If you feel like networking, you can hit the bar at the host hotel pretty much any time of the day or night and are guaranteed to be neck-deep in writers, agents and producers. And the AFF experience isn’t hurt by the fact that Austin is one of the most enjoyable cities on planet earth.
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 separate 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 - 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.
WATERFRONT FILM FESTIVAL – There was a lot of wine in Napa, sure sure - but Waterfront somehow still easily takes the prize for the most drunken fest I’ve ever attended. Seriously, make sure you find time to eat, because you will never be offered or handed anything here but hard liquor.
Last year WFF migrated from it’s long-time home in Saugatauk to South Haven, but that didn’t seem to hurt the festival’s attendance. If you’re fortunate enough to be programmed into Waterfront you’ll find yourself in a charming lakeside community somewhere in Michigan, with a welcoming audience for your screenings and a hard-partying staff who will be daring you to drink tickles of booze poured down a massive ice-shute at 3:30 in the morning. It’s a really good time.
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 just opened a second Paradiso in Hollywood, Florida, and operates both venues year round. If you screen successfully at the festival, you might try sweet-talking the staff into booking your movie as a regular theatrical engagement down the road. Something to think about, especially for those of you planning self-distribution.
HILL COUNTRY FILM FESTIVAL – Located about an hour outside of Austin in Fredrickberg, Texas, this event has quickly evolved in a few short years from a well-intentioned start-up to a pretty serious contender. Local audiences have discovered that the region has more to offer than just wineries and bed-and-breakfasts, and filmmakers programmed here benefit from it.
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 distributes them. 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.
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.
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 screening slot, 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...
Here are some festivals I didn't personally attend, but I've heard are terrific nonetheless:
First, from all reports the TALLGRASS FILM FESTIVAL was the best event I had the misfortune to miss due to being triple-booked with fests over the same weekend (yes, I know, good problems to have, but still…) My lead actor Blayne Weaver endlessly bragged to me about the sold-out screenings, excellent staff, press coverage and bonding time with the other attending filmmakers. Their Stubbornly Independent Award carries a serious cash prize with it, too - $2500.
My other lead actor, Patrick Day, had a terrific experience at the FLYWAY FILM FESTIVAL in Pepin, WI, which is supported by a tightly-knit local community of movie enthusiasts that do things like let visiting filmmakers stay in their homes. The SONOMA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL has similar local support, and showed Team Favor such a good time that one of our producers came back pregnant. Really.
Birmingham's SIDEWALK MOVING PICTURE FESTIVAL has a reputation for being one of the best and most-loved stops on the circuit, and I’ve nothing but great things about both VAIL and OHAMA.
AND NO LONGER ON THE LIST…
Both the SAN DEIGO FILM FESTIVAL and CINCINNATI FILM FESTIVAL are under new management, so I can’t account for how they’re run these days. And the IDAHO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL stopped operating in 2011.
So those are my picks – but that doesn’t mean those are the only good ones out there. Know a good festival that’s not on my radar? Please share your own festival recommendations in the comments below – let’s get the word out.