The Waterhole has now been released on DVD and as I polish up the script for our next project I wanted to jot down a few last thoughts (read: aggressive opinions) on my experience with film festivals. My first post on this “Why I Will Never Pay Another Film Festival Submission Fee (Unless I do.)” has been by far the most popular post on this lonely blog and with it I thought I had pretty much exhausted all I had to say on the subject. That was until I attended SXSW last month with a press pass and got a whole new perspective on what it means to have a film at a festival. It was eye opening.
Of the festivals I have attended, with a film or without, SXSW has by far been my favorite. This had little to do with their approach to film, but rather how they use the great city of Austin as the backdrop for one big party, where film, music, booze, wonderful food and a little bit of business mix easily and you don’t have to work too hard to have a good time. I was hooked after my first visit and vowed to return. This was also primarily my basis for it being a fest I would recommend any filmmaker spend money submitting their film to, if you get in, you get to premiere at a prestigious fest and are practically guaranteed to have truckloads of fun.
As the 2011 fest got closer, I was scraping together the money for a film pass when I was told that I could probably get a press pass for the magazine I have been writing for. Perfect, I thought as I imagined everything that such a pass would grant me access to. The press pass, as I would find out, came with very few perks and one great burden. When the first few emails came in from publicists I was excited. Especially the ones that included invitations to see some of the films in LA before the festival started. The novelty wore off quickly, when dozens of emails began to flood my inbox every day in great numbers leading up to opening night. There was the occasional party invite (yes please!) but for the most part each message was a desperate cry for attention. At first I felt a responsibly to know every film that was showing and try and give them them equal attention but after a while it was too much to process.
In the midst of this avalanche I remembered something. I was a filmmaker. These emails were coming from publicists on behalf of the filmmakers that were lucky to get into a festival like SXSW and the fact was, I was only going to see a very small fraction of films that they were hoping I could see. How could any filmmaker that did not show up to the festival with name talent or pedigree have any chance of getting anyone’s attention? Through this process I can only remember one or two films that stood out to me simply because of what a publicist sent me, and these publicists weren’t working for free. That is not to say that they weren’t earning their fees, but it definitely apparent that they were fighting for attention in a very crowded arena and only a few films had a chance of standing out. It was a daunting realization.
A bigger problem is that the filmmakers were not only competing for the eyes and ears of the press, but they are also competing for an audience. When I was planning my festival experience, I was overwhelmed by the possibilities. I wanted to see at least three films a day, plus listen to several panels and hear some of the thousands of bands that flood the city for the last half of the festival. I ended up averaging 1.5 films a day. The fact is it is very hard to see everything you want to. For the filmmaker your audience will have many options competing for their attention. I watched many world premieres where the theaters were half full. In fact, I didn’t attend a single film that was sold out. I can only imagine that the films that did sell out starred Mel Gibson or Jake Gyllenhaal.
Think about it. You beat all the odds and secure a slot at your dream festival only to have absolutely no guarantee that anyone will see your film. When I first embarked into the film festival world, my initial shock was how difficult it was to get into any fest, let alone a top-tiered fest. Now having been on the other side of a festival such as SXSW I now have a better picture of what the reality of getting into such a festival is. I am not sure how many films sold out of this year’s fest and most of the films that do have deals seem to have had them in place before the festival started. At the end of the day, the exposure has got to be better than nothing and if you position your film the right way anything is possible. The fact is, the only guarantee you have if you get into a festival like SXSW is that you are just another indie filmmaker trying to stand out, just like you were before you got that fateful call. Although, it has to be said, you will probably have the experience of a lifetime, and that is worth quite a bit.