Finding Your Festival

A guide for seeking out the best festivals for your film.


St. Lowery's first feature-length film, <i>St. Nick</i>, premieres at SXSW this month.
St. Lowery's first feature-length film, St. Nick, premieres at SXSW this month.

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With thousands of film festivals worldwide, and new ones added every year, it has become increasingly challenging for new and emerging filmmakers to tackle the options. For many independent filmmakers who, more often than not, find themselves scraping every last penny just to make it through post-production, the unfortunate reality is that gaining an actual audience comes with it’s own additional cost. With most festivals requiring entry fees, it pays to do your research and find the right fit for your film.

David Lowery, an award-winning filmmaker based in Texas whose work has been screened in festivals around the world, like any veteran in the field has learned a thing or two among the year. Lowery, is no stranger to the landscape of the film festival circuit. His latest—and first feature-length film—St. Nick (view the trailer here), about two siblings who run away from home, premieres this month at SXSW.

Below are a few tips for navigating the intricate circuit and finding your festival.

Know your film. Research the possibilities.

A great film deserves a great festival. “I believe the curatorial aspects of a festival is an art in and of itself,” says Lowery of his outlook on the festival circuit. “Nothing is blindly accepted.”

So, get to know what is out there. Film festivals take as much pride in what they are showing their audience as the filmmakers themselves.

There is a vast range of film festivals, from the famous spectacles of Sundance, Toronto, and Berlin, to the small regional events hosted by a city or town, to the showcases run by filmmakers themselves. Some abide by a particular mission or theme. It’s worth noting whether a festival is an industry-packed affair or a regional event. Many of the top-tier festivals will likely combine several aspects in one. While the status of some of the larger festivals may make it easier for a few emerging filmmakers to land distribution, other worthy films risk being lost amidst the sea of contenders. In recent years, regional film festivals have stepped up to fill in the gap and offer a grassroots platform for driving audience support and getting new work seen. Alternatively, more and more topic-specific festivals have cropped up among the years and may offer the perfect niche for a film.

“It’s sometimes better to be the toast of a smaller festival than be overlooked at a larger festival,” writes Chris Gore, editor of Film Threat Magazine, in his Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide—a book full of practical tidbits of advice covering most aspects of submitting to and attending film festivals.

Fortunately, the Internet has become a reliable resource and most festivals now offer detailed information, archives, and full schedule line-ups. So, before submitting an application, review festival programs from years past to get an idea of the kinds of films they accepted. Every festival has a program model. Consider how your film may, or may not be a good fit.

Whether you target a top-tier or a smaller festival, the more you are familiar with an event—everything from the sense and sensibility of the program director to a general profile of it’s target audience—the greater your chances of being recognized in return. You know your film, get to know your festival.

Seek out the perfect premiere.

Think strategically about the festival where you would most like to premiere. In his latest film St. Nick, Lowery began the process with a few clear goals to premiere at Sundance or SXSW. “Everyone applies to Sundance, so I gave it a shot,” he says. “But didn’t get in.” Lowery also briefly considered taking St. Nick to Slamdance. “Ultimately I didn’t think it would premiere well at Slamdance—it’s such an exciting experience—but I realized that it may not be right for St. Nick. Having that realization was liberating.” It also allowed him to more clearly pursue his attraction to SXSW as “a really open-minded festival” and recognized that his film (and he himself as a local filmmaker) offered regional significance to the Austin-based event.

“As a filmmaker, emerging or otherwise, you want to see a festival that can fill a theater,” says Lowery. After all, “you are celebrating your movie.” You are also stepping into a potential network of support and future relationships. “The best festivals foster a sense of community, facilitate filmmakers meeting each other.”

Some festivals have clear policies on premieres, and programmers often favor films that will be premieres for their festivals as, in many cases, a significant premiere equates to a notch on their belt. Read the fine print on festival applications to determine any pre-requisites for consideration, as some will require premiering on a national, regional or state level. Also consider your timing. Seasoned filmmakers, like Lowery, warn against rushing in the editing room in order to meet a particular festival’s deadline. Look instead, for a festival that may correspond to a realistic completion of your film. Your film only premieres once, so make it count.

Manage Your Expectations.

As an independent filmmaker it is above all important to remain positive about your work, yet securing a distribution deal is extremely difficult task and the best approach calls for a dose of reasonable expectation. The film festival can be an immensely rewarding platform for a new film. Still, according to Lowery, “There’s no formula for it. It’s a crap shoot no matter how you approach it.” Entering the process with a heart set on Cannes and a clear-as-day vision of landing the perfect distribution deal, the odds may seem stacked. However, there is a vast array of festival options out there that may award a similar shot at distribution and, most certainly, exposure. And it gets easier. “Once you can get a film in once—even a short film—you are through the first hurdle. People will be more open to you in the future,” says Lowery. Furthermore, with new alternative means of distribution and outlets ready to provide exposure for independent films—be it a television, theatrical deal, Internet or DVD release—there is always another path to pursue the success of your film.

Regardless of the outcome of your objectives (distribution, or otherwise) festivals provide great opportunities to travel, meet other filmmakers, forge relationships, expand your tap on the industry, and enjoy the unique experience of having your film screened. “Going to a small festival means giving people a chance to see a film that they might never see again,” says Lowery. “I’ve found, curiously, that excitement transfers over to the filmmakers themselves.”

Follow your film.

“Ultimately, it comes down to making a great film,” says Lowery cautioning that it’s easy to get carried away making a film in order to get into a festival, hooked on the romantic notion and red-carpet attention of the “film festival high.” At the core of the film festival model is the art of independent film, and, beyond the festivities and networking opportunities, they are programmed with this in mind. Consequently: make a film for the right reasons and it will be a great film. Then, follow up. When feasible, attending your festival screenings is an invaluable leg of the journey. “The work can speak for itself, but if you can be there to help it along, it’s a valuable thing,” say Lowery adding his parting advice, borrowed from a successful veteran. “Steven Soderbergh said ‘talent plus perseverance equals luck…’ I think festival success is the same way.”