Category Archives: Film Festivals

A Final Thought on Film Festivals

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.

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Filed under Film Distribution, Film Festivals, Film Marketing, Filmmaking, Independent Film

The Festivus Film Festival: A Reaction

Well, hello!  This is Daniel Menahem, producer of THE WATERHOLE, with my first KR7 Productions blog post.  While Nathan (as chief writer and creative director) has been in charge of our blog, I plan on relieving him of writing duties for a few updates strictly from a producer’s perspective.

I want to share my filmmaking experience in more depth in the near future, but seeing as we have just screened THE WATERHOLE at the Festivus Film Festival (www.festivusfilmfestival.com), I thought I’d share with the readers the rollercoaster ride that was presenting our vision to the paying Denver public. Ok, rollercoaster ride maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but as most of you reading this who have created and then presented to an audience know, there is a certain high (and low) that comes with the experience.

First, a word about Festivus Film Festival (aka FFF). I cannot speak highly enough about the job that Jonathan, Tim and the FFF crew have done in creating a vibrant, eclectic festival catering equally to filmmakers and the audience.  While all of our festival screening experiences have been great, this is the first festival that I had been intimately involved with.  The 2011 edition of FFF offered a variety of categories (comedy, docs, music videos etc) all populated by quality films.  In today’s market we are all competing for limited screen space, however it was refreshing to see such filmmaking talent that will definitely keep our KR7 Production humbled and inspired as we try and decide what project to bring to the screen next.

As far as the screening itself goes, well, I’m glad to report it was a surprisingly pleasant experience. Being that Denver is currently my hometown, I had many friends and colleagues in attendance, which always adds a new level of nervousness.  As in past screenings, I made a point of not watching the film in the months leading to the screening, so to try and get as “fresh” of a look as possible (as fresh as possible after 200+ viewings.)  The film is a character and dialogue-driven story with a very simple plot and there always exists the fear that the audience may not relate and grow restless.  It was great to see and hear the reaction throughout the movie.  People laughed and gasped in the “right” places, and the film definitely held their attention throughout.

The screening was held at the fantastic The Bug Theatre. A quaint and cozy little independent theater that one could have imagined had been there for many decades and many great films.  It even had a bar inside, which always helps any screening, especially one with a film about a bar.  We are always a bit nervous about the turn out, but the crowd steadily filled up all but a handful of seats.  Per usual ritual, I stayed through the first couple of scenes until nerves got the best of me and I bailed to Patsy’s “the Oldest Italian Bar in Denver,” checking the time every few seconds until I felt safe enough for my return.

The Q&A can always be a dicey proposition, but that night we were treated to a stream of compliments and thoughtful observations about the story, the characters and the ramifications within the themes. There is nothing better than hearing “the characters felt so real, like people you actually know.” One female audience member stated that she loved the idea that this was a relationship movie from a guy’s perspective.  I always take pride that every Q&A that we’ve had so far has gone over the time limit – people do get excited to discuss their thoughts and feelings. It’s nice to know that we’ve made a thought-provoking film.

There are many choices you need to make when making a film and while there are still many things we might have done different given a second chance, I think both Nathan and I are comfortable with what we’ve created.  Our screening at the Festivus Film Festival in Denver certainly served to validate our creation.  Now it’s on to the next project

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Become a Successful Filmmaker in One Difficult Step

Every day I read dozens of new articles, blogs and tweets piling on to the mountain of advice on how to build a career as a filmmaker.  Some of these posts have proven very valuable, some have spawn heated debates in the comment section, and others seem to beg the question as to why they were written at all.  It’s a lot to sift through.

Given all this information on film making I think it is helpful to remind those that aspire to make a film, are currently making films or even those that have successfully made films to the point where driving their Bentleys off a Malibu cliff side is a weekly occurrence of one simple fact.  You need to make the best film you can.  Duh, right?  I guess another way to put it is if you have an idea that you would like to spend years of your life getting made into a movie, you had better be clear with yourself as to the story you want to tell and how you want to tell it.  This must be the driving force behind everything you do to subsequently get the film before audiences.

If you cannot do this you are setting yourself up for failure.  Anyone can make a film, the trick is to make a good one.  If you have a good project that you have a complete vision for it will help you tremendously in making the decisions to get it made.  It will also help draw those who can help you get it made and made well into your fray.  I truly believe that talent rises.  Your work will be your best advocate, your best marketing tool.  Never forget that.

Nobody wants to make bad movies and yet so many bad films get made.  Hollywood tries to second-guess audiences or re-heats past successes but even after decades of experience they still make more flops than hits.  As indie filmmakers we are just as susceptible to these trappings.   If you think of all the greatest independent films what was the one thing they have in common?  They are made by artists that were true to their vision.  Artists that saw something new and exciting and fought for it.  This is why independent film found an audience to embrace it and this is what me must continue to do.

There is no “right” way to make a film.  When I was lucky enough to chat with filmmaker Gary King he shared the same sentiment and I instantly liked him for it.   I love this philosophy, a more constructive take on William Goldman’s famous statement about Hollywood that “Nobody knows anything.”  It is true.  The final product is the only thing that matters and the only tool you truly have to get to that point is your idea and the will to do whatever you can to see it through to the finish.  Depending on how you eventually decide to make your film, you will have to wear many hats.  If you get too bogged down with all the other things that can occupy your time it is easy to lose sight of the original goal.  If you spend too much time obsessing about technology or money or marketing or audience – although they are all important factors – the film will suffer.

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What We Would Do Differently

Occasionally I get asked for advice on the best way make a film.  This is a tough question.  What has become my favorite non-answer is that there is no right way to make a movie.  This may sound flippant, but I assure you, it is only meant to inspire limitless possibility.  I have discussed this with other filmmakers and we all generally agree, if someone tells you you have to do something a certain way, never listen to them again.  No two films come together the same way.  Ever.  The only thing a film must do to become a film is to get moving images on a screen.  It may or may not be good, but at the end of the day “good” is just a matter of taste.  You can’t teach that.

That said, there are many things we have learned through the process of making “The Waterhole” and now that we are fortunate enough to have a distribution deal I wanted to share some things we would have done differently.  In a nutshell, we really thought that if we made a good movie the rest of the process would take care of itself.  We couldn’t have been more wrong.  Things to consider as you make your film:

1. Audience Building: I had no idea what Facebook was until after we finished shooting.  I didn’t join Twitter until the week of our world premiere.  I still am not sure what I am doing with either or what ultimate effect they have on getting the word out about the film, but I can tell you this, they help.  Help in ways I would have never imagined.  At the very least they have led me to meet many terrific filmmakers and film supporters that are eager to discuss film and share experiences.   These are not the only tools we should have been utilizing.  I will always wonder what might have happened if I had used Facebook and Twitter, in conjunction with an active and interactive website with production updates and an active blog (seriously, I started writing on this blog almost three years after pre-production). I can tell you one thing, it would not have hurt.  It takes a lot of time and energy, but if you see a film as your baby, it deserves that kind of time and energy.

2. Budget for Marketing/Distribution: This idea is becoming more common place to the point where soon it will be simply accepted fact.  You can not rely on the hope that anyone else will buy your film and sink any amount of money into getting it out to the world.  We have a very fair distribution deal, but it does not include theatrical or much marketing.   We have no money left to effectively get the film into even a limited amount of theaters which, combined with a modest amount of marketing could mean a more-than-likely increase in DVD sales and thus money back in our pockets.  Instead we are scrambling to hustle whatever interest we can in whatever manner we can.  This money need not be anything great, but something – something done right – is better than nothing.  We are unfortunately are not in a position to find out.

3. Have A Festival Strategy: If you read my first blog entry, you know I think the festival system in general is broken.  The sad fact is that our rejections had less to do with the system and more to do with us not having a strategy.  Our fault.  We really thought if we submitted our film “cold” we would have the same chance of getting accepted as anyone else.  Cue the laugh track.  You have to apply to the top five or so festivals, but any fest you apply to must be done utilizing every possible resource to make sure that the film is viewed by the people who make decisions.  This is not an easy task, but it has to be attempted and the earlier the better.  Personally, I would have started this process well before the film was finished.  With a plan like this in place I would then greatly reduce the number of festivals I would apply for.  After a certain point, it is just money down a wishing well.  If you don’t get into few good festivals early, you are better off making your own screening events with the money you would spend hopelessly applying to small regional festivals.

4. Hire a Music Supervisor For many independent filmmakers this may be a luxury.  For our film we needed a lot of music, a lot of music in addition to the score.  Most of the songs we got were for free, but the few we didn’t were an unbelievable pain to secure and pay for.  Music companies are much more willing to deal these days, because something is better than nothing, and you would be surprised what songs you can get relatively inexpensively.  To do this, you will need a lot of time and tenacity or someone that knows the right people and how to get the paperwork in order.   In my opinion it is worth its weight in gold to hire a person with this knowledge, and it might even save you a chunk of money in the long run.

At the end of the day we made the film we wanted.  Barely.  It was a high wire act that was constantly one mistake away from falling apart, but we got there.  The problem is, there is nothing worse than reaching your destination and not knowing what to do next.  My co-producer mentioned that there were things he might have done differently, such as hire a known star or work the script over with potential distributors in advance and I know where he is coming from, but at the end of the day we have film we are proud of.  I just wish we had been ready to for what came next.

Note: My Co-producer and our sole investor, Daniel Menahem, has agreed to share in greater detail his thoughts from an investment perspective.  Check back for his post.  In addition, I will try and update this post as I think of new things.  Questions welcome.

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Why I Will Never Pay a Film Festival Submission Fee Again (unless I do)

Before I even dip a toe into this subject, a little background: If you had asked me two years ago what the hardest part of making our film ”THE WATERHOLE” was I would have answered something like “working with limited resources” or “time constraints.”  If you were to ask me today I would answer simply and without hesitation: “getting into film festivals.”  The film business is a freight train’s length of consecutive rejection.  You get used to it.  You have to. I really wanted to take the film to as many places we could, show it to audiences and get their reactions all while partying with other filmmakers and film fans.  That didn’t happen. Getting rejected to as many film festivals as we did hurt but it’s a reflection of reality.  There is a lot of competition and you take your chances just like anyone else.

For the most part, I still believe that film festivals are still great events and a vital part of the world of independent film. Film festivals have thousands of submissions to assess, and a lot of good films get passed over.  The point of this post is not a criticism of film festivals, but rather to one aspect of them, the submission process.

The fact of the matter is that submitting to film festivals can be a tremendous waste of money.  For our film we submitted to well over thirty film festivals with submission fees ranging anywhere from $25-$80.  At the end of the day this adds up to a lot of money spent, especially to an independent filmmaker with a dwindling budget.  This money could have been used to host our own screenings, hire marketing or self-distribution consultants or even used to make another film.  (Literally, what we spent was almost the budget of Gary King’s wonderful little film “What’s up Lovely.”)  Adding to the problem is Withoutbox, a wonderful tool to submit to festivals and manage those submissions, but with the side effect of making it too hard to be discriminating with too many options. (Hell yeah I would like to go to Dublin or Hawaii or Bermuda!)

Simply put, the festival submission process is the filmmaking equivalent to the lottery.  Worse actually, because at least all lottery ticket buyers are playing on the same level.  Do you think every film that submits to a festival gets equal consideration?  You don’t?  Good, I would hate to be the one to throw that bucket of cold water on you.  Here’s a fact: we did not submit to the first festival we screened at.  Didn’t pay either.  We got in via a friend of a friend and we were extremely grateful, but it was in no way something we planned for.

I won’t pretend to know all the inner workings of the selection process but many films that get in get in do so through back channels, who-knows-who and sometimes even through bribery – friendly and playful bribery, but bribery none-the-less.  Many films get selected after screening at a major festival or because the star of the film has connections.  There is no way to compete with that.  None.  My very favorite story was reading an interview with the festival director of the 2009 South-by-Southwest Film Festival joking that she was thrilled a film she acted in was selected.  She would have to be one hell of a great actress to make me believe she was really surprised.

If you simply send in the film the chances of someone watching it that actually has power to program it is slight.  I highly recommend that every filmmaker watch the documentary “Official Rejection” for a wonderfully frightening tour through the festival submission process.  I mention it here for another reason.  The filmmakers behind the movie endorsed “The Hill County Film Festival” that was founded by a duo they featured in the doc.   We submitted, figuring that given their history with festivals they would make an attempt to at least be conscientious enough to give fair treatment to those submitting.  We were rejected.  Fine.  I read the rejection letter for the salt in the wounds and see that they confessed that they were not able to watch every film.  I love honesty, but can I have my submission fee back?

So not to be the jackass that just complains, what would I recommend?  Festivals rely on these fees to help cover the costs occurred by running these large events, so we can’t expect them to do away with the fees altogether.  (Although bless those festivals that have no submission fees, what few of them there are.)  First, filmmakers deserve feedback. Maybe each filmmaker gets sent a chain of custody form, explaining who watched the film, a rating and a few comments.  It wouldn’t take much time and would at least provide a sense of where the film stood in the selection process.  Or how about a pre-screening process?  Have filmmakers send a trailer and/or a synopsis to weed out the ones that are not the right fit for the festival right off the top.  This would generate less submission revenue, but is seemingly a much fairer approach.  Any transparency is better for my money than just a rejection letter.

Will I ever spend money on a festival submission again?  I hope not.  In reality I could not look a filmmaker in the eye and tell him not to submit to Sundance, Toronto or any of the half a dozen or so major fests.  You just need to try to do everything your power to get it seen by a person who makes the decisions.  Are there other smaller festivals that are worth the fee?  Yes.  Ask other filmmakers.  Do the research and choose carefully.  There are thousands of festivals and you can’t submit to all of them and shouldn’t submit to most of them.  Buy Chris Gore’s “Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide” and read it cover to cover.  (We did not get this book until six months after we began submitting and what a difference it would have made.)

Making THE WATERHOLE was a learning process.  In many cases we learned only after making mistakes. Spending the type of money we did on festival submissions is one mistake I do not want to repeat.  If you have any interest in seeing our film, you can buy it hear now for $9.99: http://www.thewaterholemovie.com/store

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