“So You Think It Would Be Fun To Take Your Film To Festivals”: PART 1

 PART 1: The Festival Journey of “Jes and Lora” Begins
(or “Episode IV: A New Hope”)
by Patrick Coleman Duncan


When coming up with the title for this series of articles, the line from “Citizen Kane” popped into my head. “He thought it would be fun to run a newspaper.” This was the lead character’s response to the question, “Why had he purchased a newspaper?” He thought it would be fun. “Make it fun while you make it” is one of the core values of We Make Movies.

Ultimately, Charles Foster Kane built an empire. But look how he wound up! In the end, he had no fun. Why?Because he embraced the same strategy as most of the filmmakers on the festival circuit. That is, he sought to control people and circumstances through strength of will. There was only one result he would be satisfied with and that was HIS preordained vision of what the future should be. This is a recipe for disaster and certainly, no fun.

Chances are, if you are a filmmaker looking to make a film that does well on the festival circuit, you are working crazy hard and not having a lot of fun. Like Charles Foster Kane, you are not open to anything other than your plan for your film and your career. Well, change that! What if I told you it could be even better than you imagined if you “make it fun while you make it”? Like all We Make Movies values,” make it fun while you make it” is a personal choice and one that I have found draws more good fortune and helpful people into your life than viciously pursuing your goal. Besides, unless the process is fun for you, there is little point in all that hard work since you cannot control anyone else’s response, only yours.

Hat Grab 5x3If you are a filmmaker, festivals should be, like making your film, FUN!  It is networking, meeting other filmmakers, actors, writers, directors, producers, distributors and technical people … THEY ARE ALL THERE!!! OH, and lest I forget, AUDIENCE for your film. The people you want to see your film, who you want to hire and hire you, will all be in one place, and if you promote well they will be in the audience for your movie! Your work is being celebrated as an “official selection” which means someone who looked at possibly hundreds, if not thousands of films, liked yours enough to include it in their program.  How could you not want to be there? One word, “Disappointment.” Things might not go as you hoped or planned. But then again, they MIGHT. They might even go BETTER than you planned. I hope to help people navigate the waters of the film festival journey through a blow-by-blow description of what my short film, “Jes and Lora” has been through, as of writing these articles. Hopefully it will be fun. Why else are we here?

So, who am I to write an article that people might interpret as a “How To” for film festival participation? Firstly, “Jes and Lora” has been doing very well in getting into festivals, so clearly I have done something right. At this point it has about a 37% to 40% ratio of acceptance to submissions and that is really good. I don’t expect that ratio to hold, but it is a stronger start than I could have imagined. It has even won a few awards so far, so my instincts have sent me to the right festivals. Also, my background in film festivals is twofold; I have experienced them as both a participant and coordinator/programmer in the early days of NewFilmmakersLA.

Disappointment is no stranger to either end of film festival life, but there are great joys too and I have seen plenty of both. Until recently, I was on the side that the disappointments far outweighed the benefits. “Everyone watches short films on the internet now,” “It’s all political, it’s who you know,” “There are so many people vying for attention it’s impossible to stand out from the crowd.” I could have easily written a piece called, “Why Filmmakers Should Avoid Festivals Altogether.” In fact, I had made “Jes and Lora” with the idea that it would only serve as a demo reel for the feature film I wrote (“From Here On”) and would never see a big screen at a festival. I said many times, “I am NOT making a festival piece!” Festivals are a blast when they go your way, but you cannot rely on that and I wanted to play it safe this time.

What changed my mind? Simply put, “the product.” As I was making it, I knew we had something special that deserved to be seen. Also, it was the team that motivated me beyond all else. And let me say there is no group of people with whom I would rather work with and spend my time. I can name them now and I will: Terri J. Freedman (lead actress, “Lora”), Brendan Weinhold (lead actor, “Jes”), Sam Rosenthal (Director of Photography), Peter Mares (Camera Assistant), Sky “Skyko” Tavis (Sound Mixer), Brynna Yentz (Producer/Production Designer) and Kristen Pickrell (Producer/Hair and Makeup).

WP_20150503_015_editThe product was easily the best thing I had ever done as a filmmaker. It deserved to be seen and celebrated if not for my sake, then for the sake of the good people who had worked so hard for  “deferred pay”. It became more important for me to express my appreciation for their work and good-will than to remain safely in my comfort zone. It’s not always all about just ME!  Shocker, I know. So I decided, for them and for the film, to brave earth-shattering disappointment and expense, and gamble putting my dream project through the hoops of festival submissions.

Yes, disappointment, the pain of rejection if not selected, the loss of income on submission fees (some as high at $100.00 for each film submitted), going to a festival that you feel is not run properly and your projection copy won’t play, or the sound is too loud or too soft, or the aspect ratio is off the screen, or there is a small audience or worse yet NO audience. You have to pay to travel, to stay in a hotel, to purchase promotional materials like posters and postcards. All this and you may have a film thats distribution is only the internet anyway. All I can say is, hey, I am ACTOR as well as a filmmaker, so I swim in disappointment like a shark swims in water and I am used to it. Bring it on! I’ll just keep moving forward “Cause, hey, it just might be different this time.”

It should be said here, that the expense of submitting and travel was one of the main reasons I was gun shy to pull the festival trigger. The disappointment of rejection can be NOTHING compared to looking at a credit card bill. So, my advice, for what it is worth, is “be very careful.” Make a budget ahead of time for submissions and travel, and stick to it. If your project is crowd funded, there is no excuse. Build a certain amount of submitting and travel to festivals into what you ask from your patrons. Of course, most of you, to keep costs low, will probably not even budget for post production. Your funeral (says the editor).

If it is all your own money, as “Jes and Lora” has been for me, pay your cards as you go. Decide which festivals deserve a submission fee even though they might never show your film (it is a LOT like gambling). Decide which festivals are worth the travel expenses if you are selected. Although every film is different and the jury is out on whether my specific strategies for “Jes and Lora” will pay off, I am hoping these articles help fellow filmmakers make some of those decisions.

2015 0611 WMMFest_Brendan and Terri with One Sheet For  Press KitThough I have many experiences with festivals, no one has all the answers. “Life (like filmmaking) is pain, Highness, anyone who says differently is selling something (apologies to “The Princess Bride”).” This is a chronicle of my own journey with one particular film. Hopefully, I will have great results to report and I will encourage some very discouraged people, namely, FILMMAKERS. Now, please remember, every journey is different because every film is different and every festival is different and every year is different. A friend of mine who won Best Feature Documentary at South By Southwest (SXSW) in the mid 1990s said that just a few years later he did not think his film would have even been an Official Selection. So, festival submissions are not an exact science, but hopefully I can offer some nuggets of insight based on practical experience that will help a fellow traveler. What I hope NOT to talk about is the pre-production, production and post-production process. That is for other articles. This assumes your film is done. You made it the best it can be and you don’t want to change a frame. “Make the movie YOU want to see,” is another core value of the We Make Movies community. In my opinion, that works better than trying to make a movie that FESTIVALS want to see any day.

Most of us filmmakers usually have to contend with the film festival circuit if we want to “build our empire.” For those of us who make short films, “building the empire” is simply getting some much deserved attention for our work that hopefully leads to something that … well, let’s be honest, PAYS.  In the case of my film “Jes and Lora,” the goal is a bit more specific and ambitious. I am looking to inspire confidence from investors to get a feature film made. A feature film that “Jes and Lora” is a direct excerpt from (again,”From Here On”).  In ages past, one would expect to take a meeting with James L. Brooks (“Terms of Endearment,” “Broadcast News”) after their short got into Sundance, and he would then say, “Love your vision kid, here’s $7 million. Now go make your feature.” This happened, to Wes Anderson with “Bottle Rocket,” but can it happen for you? Here’s the thing, I don’t know. It might happen in a different way or it might not happen at all. But, what else am I here for? I have to keep trying.

This is the first part of a two week series about film festivals. Be sure to check out the next installment tomorrow!