Over the next few weeks, the fate of several thousand filmmakers will be decided as the 2011 programs for Sundance, Berlin and Slamdance will be locked and loaded. While dreams granted will trigger a publicity-enriched chain of events for the chosen few, several thousand filmmakers will be shot down as their films fail to make the cut. Thus, today we’re addressing what to do in both instances.

Key Points On Getting Accepted:

  • Get Representation ASAP
    One of the key mistakes you want to avoid as a filmmaker after getting into your first major film festival is to cop an attitude with the agents, managers and entertainment lawyers who come calling. Of course these are the same people who wouldn’t take your call the second before you got into Sundance, Slamdance or Berlin, but it’s not smart to let a grudge sabotage your budding career. You should meet with several suitors, and then choose who you best jive with before the festival. Waiting to see how your film does at the festival before you decide on representation is often times a fatal career mistake, because your film’s potential is far sexier and more valuable before its premiere. Once your film opens at the festival, the reality of how it actually does may be far less sexy than initially anticipated.  Should that happen, you might lose your best shot to land a substantial agent, manager or lawyer. Thus, signing before the festival premiere is a smart move.
  • Get Your Next Script/Project Ready To Go
    Contrary to your belief, and the belief of those who invested in and worked on your festival film, your “real money” is probably going to come from your next project, not the one in the festival. That’s why you should have your next project(s) ready to go. You need something your newfound representation can push before your current film plays the film festival. Just as stated in the prior paragraph about your film having more value before it premieres, your value as a filmmaker is also far greater before your film plays the festival (unless of course you win the festival and sell your film for millions). The key is to remember that when you’re starting your film career, your “potential” is your most powerful tool.
  • Don’t Make Promises you Cant Keep
    Don’t guarantee your producers producing jobs on your future films, and certainly don’t do the same with the unknown actors in your cast. While your intentions may be true, directors and writers are usually the only ones who get “plucked” from highly successful independent films, to do bigger and better things. Yes, actors are shown some love on occasion, but for the most part, producers are discarded like the last Kleenex you used. Studios already have their own stable of seasoned producers to produce your next production, and those producers will not deal with your producers. They don’t want them as producing partners, consultants, or otherwise, so promising a producing job that you can’t deliver will at best ruin your friendship with your indie film producer(s) and at worst tangle you into an ugly lawsuit.
  • Be Humble
    There’s nothing more powerful than a highly talented humble filmmaker. If you’re talented and humble, you’ll spend decades making movies and winning Oscars, because you’ll be given repeated opportunities to succeed even after you’ve had some bombs (look at Ron Howard). However, if you’re an egomaniac who is difficult to work with, the fate of your career will lay in the success or failure of your films. Meaning, the second you have a string of flops, Hollywood will determine you’re simply not worth the trouble to invest in again. Remember, being liked will get you far. Being loved will get you an Oscar.
  • Be Ready To Succeed
    When the machine that is Hollywood accepts you, it expects you to hit the ground running. Everybody assumes you’ve been waiting forever for an invite to their party, so be ready to have quite a bit demanded of you. Not being able to meet deadlines, network with hundreds of people, and ultimately sell yourself as an up and coming creative force, will send you back to the minor leagues before you even realize you struck-out.

Key Points On Getting Rejected:

  • Find Out Why – Without Anger
    Most film festivals don’t have the time, energy, or staff available to be able to tell each and every filmmaker why their film wasn’t accepted. But, if you’re gracious and appreciative, and if you inquire without any sign of bitterness and anger, you may get a clue as to why your film wasn’t accepted. The best-case scenario is that they liked it, but it didn’t fit into their programming agenda for this year’s festival. The worst-case scenario is they hated it, and they would have never programmed it in a billion years. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Your goal is to find as much of the truth as you can. Depending on the level of honesty, insight, or encouragement from the festival, you could be given some insight on either how to re-cut your film, or better yet, where else to take it. The key is to just listen and keep an open mind.
  • Find Your Champion – Every Film Has One
    Every film needs a “champion,” someone with more contacts than yourself, who is willing to utilize their contacts to help you find a good home for your film. You should first see if any of the programmers at the major festival that just rejected your film loved it. If so, they may be the perfect person to help you find the right home. If a festival programmer doesn’t come to your film’s rescue, keep talking to people about your film until you find someone who is willing to help. Try to target people who may be drawn to your subject matter, or to the location where you shot your film. If you look hard enough, you will find someone willing to help.
  • Look For A Notable Executive Producer
    This step is often times utilized by the films that were selected to major film festivals – but it’s just as valid for the sea of films that weren’t selected. The key here is to find a celebrity – the biggest one you can wrangle – to put their name on your film as the executive producer. You need to make sure they are a household name to the extent that most everybody (including your parents and your mailman) will know who the person is. Only then will their name get you attention and open doors for you. Only then can you be assured that every major film festival and distributor worldwide will look at the film. The tactic here is to get your film noticed. Once programmers take notice, then it’s up to your film to deliver the goods. However, if your executive producer is someone the industry likes, fears or respects, the festival programmer may slide your film into their festival as a favor to your executive producer.

    If you were wondering what the cost is of convincing an A-list gem to lend their name as executive producer, I’d guess giving them 10%-15% of the sales on your film should do the trick. Of course they have to love you and your film, and they have to be willing to associate with both. But, if you can jump that hurdle, you’ll be heading for a great finish soon thereafter.

  • Re-cut Your Film Based On Notes, Whenever Possible
    If you’re lucky enough to have a “pretty good” film, that could become a “very good” or an “excellent” film, after another edit, better sound or smoother special effects, then take your film off the festival circuit and reshape it. Doing so may give it new life at another major film festival. However, not changing what you have when you have the means to make it better will only hinder the heights your film could have reached with changes.
  • Assume Top Tier Festival Programmers Know Each Other
    Many top tier film festival programmers not only know each other, but they are aware of what films each other are programming. Therefore, if you get into Sundance and do well there, it’s likely you’ll get in invite to screen at Berlin or Cannes. Of course the same procedure works in reverse; if you get rejected from a few of the ultra-top tier, extremely well financed film festivals (Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Toronto, Venice), then you’ll probably get rejected from the others. Thus, it’s probably a good idea to only apply to one of them initially. If you get in, great! If not, pull your film off the circuit and reshape it, so you can have a better chance at the others.

    You have to look at your festival run as a journey – a marathon of sorts – and definitely not a sprint. Like any marathon, you have to condition yourself for it properly, strategize it with a clear mind, and be ready for the bumps and bruises you’ll have to endure before you ultimately reach the finish line.

Since the 2011 festival season is getting close, with Sundance and Slamdance at Park City in January and Berlin in February, I thought it’d be a good time to start prepping everybody on the upcoming festivals. I will write more specific articles about Sundance, Slamdance and Berlin as I attend them in the coming months. I will also cover SXSW and Cannes when they approach. In the interim, should you wish to get a bit more information on film festivals and strategies on how to submit to them, you can check out my June 8, 2010 Going Bionic article titled “Film Festival Strategies.” For now, I’ve got my fingers crossed for each and every one of you, hoping that your film gets into your festival of choice!

I wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving, thanks for lending me your eyes, and I hope to see them again next week!

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  1. This is solid advice. Too many indie filmmakers don’t have a sense of the business early on and get crushed. It’s a tricky world out there now, especially with digital distribution well on its way. Network as much as possible, and always consider the source of the advice.

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