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By Hammad Zaidi | September 21, 2010

Film festivals are like rabbits; every time you turn around they’re multiplying all around you. There are over 4,000 film festivals worldwide – with at least 1,628 of them in the United States alone. That’s about 1,000 more in the U.S.A. than there were in 2004. While there are no more than a handful of film festivals worldwide with the ability to change your life and tax bracket overnight, (Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, Sundance, Venice) there are several “regional” festivals that may help you hone your film’s release strategy.  Yes, I know; all you really want to do is walk the red carpet at Cannes, win the Palme d‘Or, and sell your ridiculously captivating, generation-defining work of cinematic art to a goliath movie studio for $16 million. Then you want to fly back home just in time to see your picture on the cover of Daily Variety as the major studios fight over your services. Of course you want this. Everybody does, and there’s nothing wrong with striving for greatness.  But, while most filmmakers expect to hit a grand slam on their first swing, they forget that all they really need to do is to get in the game.

Regional film festivals can help you get in the game.  My mission today is to show you how playing a few strategically chosen regional film festivals can enhance your knowledge, confidence and contacts, while giving you key insights on how to distribute your film.

First you have to understand that regional film festivals are primarily focused on supporting, educating and promoting filmmakers. Playing them will make you part of their family, and like a lioness protecting her cubs; they will always protect their family. Hence, regional film festivals are simply the best support group a filmmaker can have outside of their family, friends and film school.

Secondly, regional film festivals key in on making the filmmaker’s experience ridiculously fun and memorable. The parties are mind-blowing, the connections are honest, and the egos are virtually non-existent. Simply put, while a major film festival’s attitude is “you’re lucky to be here,” a regional film festival is more likely to say “we’re lucky to have you here.” Such a warm and welcoming attitude can do wonders for your confidence, while it can also help to shake out the incessant negativity that comes along with working in the film industry.

Thirdly, due to the emergence of opportunities in the world of self-distribution, regional film festivals have suddenly become an invaluable resource. Now filmmakers can see how their work plays in select parts of the country – or world for that matter – and utilize their findings to strategize their distribution plan. Remember, a film that hits in a few big cities and nowhere else is usually a film that nobody outside of film critics and rabid film geeks have ever heard of. The key is to be a hit in all of the places you think don’t matter, because it’s those places that matter the most. Thus, if you’re a hit in New York and L.A. you may win a few awards, but, if people in Kansas and Tennessee are talking about your film, you may buy a few mansions. That’s why several independent films released theatrically start on a few screens in New York and Los Angeles, and then work their way to the middle. It’s the middle that counts, because your success between the coasts will publicly define how successful you are.

Over the years, I have attended quite a few regional film festivals and I can honestly say I have never had a bad experience. Not once. Every regional film festival I ever attended, from the (now defunct) Blackpoint Film Festival in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to Media 10+10 in Namur, Belgium, has been magically inspirational and relentlessly valuable.

However, there are three regional film festivals that I have a deep love for because they have a deep love for filmmakers. These gems include The KC Film Fest (formerly named the Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee), The Nashville Film Festival, and The Temecula Valley Independent Film and Music Festival. I have collectively attended these three festivals nearly 30 times, and for the purpose of full disclosure, I have also been directly involved with each of them as either a filmmaker, judge, advisory board member, panelist or sponsor. Thus, I have a clear understanding of how they work and how they can enhance the lives of every filmmaker that attends them.

So, without further ado, let me dive in and tell you a bit about each of these wonderful regional film festivals.

KC Film Fest Reel Head

The KC Film Fest – (April) (formerly named The Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee)
I grew up in a suburb of Kansas City, so I was extremely excited when I learned my hometown was starting a film festival. I still remember attending the first Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee in April of 1997. The entire festival program consisted of ten short films screened one afternoon at Royal Hall on the UMKC campus. Of course it was beyond sold-out, as 450+ people jammed the room. Fourteen festivals later, they now screen 100+ local, regional, national and international features, documentaries, shorts and experimental films. Furthermore, the festival has awarded more than $200,000 in cash prizes to filmmakers since their inception. They also bring in excellent panelists, and hold some of the finest seminars I’ve ever attended at any festival. One annual panel/program not to be missed is the “Cross Cut Women Making Movies Symposium” – which showcases the accomplishments of women in the media.

Another very cool element to the KC Film Fest is “Cinema JAZZ,” which is described as “an annual event in collaboration with the American Jazz Museum and Mutual Musicians Foundation that unites the heartbeat of KC with a storytelling medium to capture KC’s jazz heritage.” There’s nothing like mixing classic jazz with images inspired by the essence of the music. Cinema JAZZ, much like the festival’s closing night party at the Mutual Musician’s Foundation, is something you won’t forget.

As for their tastes, I’ve observed their programming to be a refreshing mixture of single-minded independent voices, mainstream choices, and eclectic and avant-garde experimental films. Unlike other regional festivals that only program films that their locals are comfortable with, this film festival more than pushes the envelope – it pushes the paper mill.

The KC Film Fest creates a highly energetic, wonderfully positive environment that all filmmakers should check out at least once. But, one hit won’t be enough. It’ll suck you in and leave you begging for more. I know what you’re thinking, “Kansas City? Is he crazy?” Of course I’m crazy, all creative people are. But, trust me on this one; Kansas City is the most fun city you’ve never thought to visit and the KC Film Fest is the perfect host to shepherd you.

Nashville Film Festival (April)
I first discovered the Nashville Film Festival in 2001, when I took a one-semester gig to be an instructor at the Watkins Film School in Nashville. Since the writers in Hollywood were threatening to strike, I knew my projects back home wouldn’t have much movement until the strike resolved. So, I taught a class while continuing to fly back home to L.A. to take occasional meetings.

At first glance, the Nashville Film Festival is much bigger, better, stronger (and hence more bionic) than you may expect it to be. This is one hell of a well-run festival with excellent films and an extremely knowledgeable staff. Make no mistake about it; this is no small festival. Over 23,000 people attend the Nashville Film Festival annually, (which has doubled since 2004) with over 250 films shown from several countries. If these numbers seem bigger than you were expecting, consider the fact that the Nashville Film Festival is almost as old as I am (it started in 1969), so they have not only survived the test of time, but they’ve thrived throughout the decades. For filmmakers who want to see how their film plays in one of the most culturally significant and economically rich cities in the southern United States, The Nashville Film Festival is your perfect launching pad.

Besides, the music in Nashville is awesome (not just country music) and the festival does an excellent job in incorporating it into their very fabric as well as their events. I’m not saying your film has to be music related to play the festival, nor am I saying that music related films have a better chance of getting in – because both statements are abundantly untrue. In fact, if your film is music-related, it’d better be damn good because Nashville only programs the best of the best. What I am saying is that The Nashville Film Festival may be embedded in music heaven, (which is exemplified by their amazing opening-night party), but it is a highly competitive film festival that programs films based on their merit and quality, not their soundtrack.

Film festivals, like marriages, can’t thrive for over forty years without doing something right, which is proof the Nashville Film Festival, does a hell of a lot right!

The Temecula Valley International Film & Music Festival
By the time this article posts, I would have just returned from the Temecula Valley International Film and Music Festival’s extravagant closing night gala event – a star-studded, black tie shindig. The gala truly is quite classy and it honors independent filmmakers with the same style and grace that it gives its annual A-list celebrity honorees. This year’s honorees included Kenny Loggins, whose “acceptance speech” consisted of picking up a guitar and doing an impromptu mini-concert with “I’m Alright” (which was the theme from “Caddyshack”) “Danny’s Song” and “Forever in My Heart” (which he performed with David Foster). Rachel Welch and Eric Roberts were also honored.

It doesn’t hurt that the festival is nestled in the gorgeous wine country of Southern California, or that it’s just far enough out of L.A. (about an hour and a half) but not too far, for “the stars to come out” and enjoy a weekend in the wine country. In my almost 15 years of attending Temecula, I’ve watched it balloon from a small film festival location, into a hip film festival destination. In fact, attendance has grown from 600 in 1995 to more than 20,000 by 2009. I will alert you to the fact that the audiences in Temecula tend to be somewhat conservative, but this is a positive for you because you can gage how your film may play in the mid-west and south, while being in Southern California.

As for their programming tastes, I’ve observed that Temecula tends to gravitate toward well-made product doused with a heavy dose of passion from the filmmaker. Family friendly material is always welcome, as is anything patriotic.

Music also plays a vital role in this festival, as it not only showcases some talented new recording artists, but it honors some of the greatest recording artists of all time. I’ll never forget seeing national treasures like Ray Charles, Billy “The Fifth Beatle” Preston, and Etta James accept their lifetime achievement awards in front of several hundred adoring attendees. With its mix of location coupled with its intention to promote independent filmmakers; Temecula clearly should be on your regional short list.

It’s funny; I just realized that all three regional festivals I just showcased have strong music elements. That’s either because I love music as much as I love film, or because regional festivals tend to embrace how the cinematic experience intertwines with other vital creative forces like music – into the very fabric of their society. Either way, regional film festivals are often times married to the music that’s created within their region.

The KC Film Fest, The Nashville Independent Film Festival and the Temecula Valley International Film and Music Film Festival are all incredible oases in the vast desert of regional film festivals, but they aren’t the only springs to discover. A few other regional film festivals with great reputations are The Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival, which takes place in Birmingham, Alabama every September, the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri every March, and the Austin Film Festival in Austin, Texas every October.

Like always, I would recommend you limit your film’s exposure at too many film festivals – regional or otherwise, because you may saturate the very markets your film would sell to. But playing a few well-respected regional hot spots will give you some invaluable insight into how your film plays to audiences in various parts of the country.

In closing, the experience of playing regional film festivals will give you a few extra swings at the proverbial “ball of success.” You may not hit a grand slam right off the bat, but you’ll be in the game, and being in the game is your first step toward hitting that grand slam you’ve waited your whole life to knock out of the park.

Thanks for lending me your eyes, and I’ll see you next Tuesday!

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  1. Chris says:

    Retrospectively what festivals would you avoid? I was an actor turned filmmaker and Im making my first sets of shorts and such and I was wondering what festivals are bad to go to? Are there any bad to go to at the beginning? Ive always had this fear of association, that someone wont touch someone whose won or entered somewhere. Does that actually happen?

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