Last year, four short documentaries have been produced within CinemAsia FilmLAB. After their premieres at the CinemAsia Film Festival the question arises: what to do next? As the maker of one of those documentaries, Holding Silence, the amount of festivals I could choose from overwhelmed me. Where to start and how to spend money to entry fees wisely? For that reason, I submitted my documentary to Docs 4 Sale at IDFA. Not to sell my documentary, but to gain access to the industry program of the festival, and the informative talks and expert meetings. One of the talks gave me exactly what I was looking for: Festival Strategy for Short Film, by Wouter Jansen and Marija Milovanovic. Apart from being programmers at Go Short Nijmegen, they help filmmakers with the distribution of their short film. Their added value to a successful festival run is hard to overestimate, in terms of their valuable network, as well as financially; if they submit films to festivals, 80% of the fees are waved. Nevertheless, Jansen assured the audience of the talk that it can be done by filmmakers themselves, too. The strategy includes 10 steps.
Step 1: Know your film
Whom are you making this film for? What is its genre? What is the length? Jansen warns not to cheat the length to make your film fit the submission requirements. For Go Short Nijmegen the maximum required length is 30 minutes, so if the submitted film is actually 32 or 33 minutes, it will be found out and not even been watched.
This step is in fact also a quality check and feedback should be taken very seriously. Not from friends or family, but from professionals, even when it is cruel feedback. Their feedback will help you judge the best fitted festival strategy for your film.
Step 2: Know what to achieve
Do you want your film be represented at a lot of festivals, or only at the best – Oscar Qualifying or EFA nominee – festivals? Or are you immediately aiming for an online release, and the wider audience that comes with it? When these answers are clear, you can decide the way of your film. Bear in mind the difference between US and Europe. European festivals have a different financial base than festivals in the US, where they depend more on the entry fees, and so these fees are much higher. They start with 45 dollars and up. It would sat you back 1500 dollars if you would go for all American A-list festivals, so you need to make a selection. While in Europe fees are much lower. Go Short Nijmegen is an Oscar qualifying and EFA nominee festival, but charges only 17 dollar for international films. The national ones even don’t pay anythings.
Going for the established festivals may or may not be the right choice. Jansen had an Eastern European short. The filmmaker wanted to submit to the established Sarajevo festival. But from Jansen’s perspective DokuFest in Kosovo would have done more for the film, as a lot curators and programmers present there would have seen it. You have to decide for yourself if you would like to go for the name or for the smaller festival that is better for the film.
Step 3: Know where to premiere
In the case of our FilmLab productions, the world premiere was given to CinemAsia. But assuming you want to go for the big and established festivals. For short documentaries it is a difficult route. Venice even didn’t have any short documentaries in competition this year. Moreover, these festivals are difficult to enter anyway. Sundance had 11.000 submissions and selected only 78 films this year. More than half of those are US films, meaning only 30 are international titles. On top of this, timing is key. This means you have to think of it in an early stage; if your film is finished in June, it can be sent to summer festivals. A documentary can be aimed at IDFA later in the year, or Dok Leipzig. If all these festivals say no, you could aim at Berlinale. If that festival says no, you may wait for Cannes in May.
The expiration date of a film after its first premiere is usually 1,5 to 2 years. Some festivals only accept films not older than 1 year. So, you have to do the big festivals in this period. Only after that period, submit your film to smaller festivals. Fortunately, a film is only finished when it premieres. If you would have now a film finishing, and the premiere is half a year later, then that is the real finishing date. Jansen kept films on the side like this for even a year. However, often it isn’t worth the waiting, and you get more from playing different festivals, especially for shorts. He has now a Serbian-Croatian production, that would be ideal for Sarajevo. But that is a festival only half a year from now, so that would have meant that the film couldn’t be screened anywhere in that region because of the Sarajevo premiere requirements up to that moment.
Alternatively, you can send your film to any festival. A premiere on a big festival is not always necessary for having a good festival run. Last year, Jansen had a film submitted as a premiere to a small short film festival in Switzerland, while some of the A-list festivals where requesting that film. He decided to go for the Swiss festival after all, where he knew there would be a lot of short film industry present, and he didn’t want to wait too long to have that premiere. In the end, it didn’t impact the success of the festival run at all; it was later screened at the A-list festivals IDFA, Hot Docs, Slamdance, Clermont-Ferrand and 120 other festivals. So, depending on each case, a festival can push your film, but at the other hand also not.
Step 4: Find and categorise other festivals
The next question is: how to find and select other festivals? Programmers of festivals often say to filmmakers: ‘Look at our selection, then you know if your film is fitting for our festival.’ But that is according to Milovanovic difficult for a starting filmmaker, because how should you know what that means? She would suggest instead to look for what kind of films are being made in your own surrounding and what selection do these films have? If these films are similar in topic or style, than it does make sense to also submit there. Also, when you are traveling to festivals for watching films, write down the titles of films that are like yours. Then you can see where these films travel.
When you have all the festivals listed where you want to submit to, you should then categorise these festivals. Because some of them request national or regional premieres. So, you should mark which festival comes first. It may mean that you have to keep your film back from other festivals for a while. However, when it comes to shorts on smaller festivals, Jansen actually tries not to care too much about the premiere status.
Another option is to find festivals on the submission platforms. Festivals are there as well, so you can submit to a lot of festivals easily. However, Milovanovic highly recommends not to make a strategy based on what you find on submission platforms. Do it the other way around: Think of the festivals first, and then go to the platforms where the festivals are and submit there. It can be quite inviting to go on Filmfreeway, Shortfilmdepot, Filmfestplatform or Festhome and see the approaching deadlines, and think: I should submit to all of these. This is in fact keeping you away from the strategy you have. Some filmmakers even filter on ‘no submission fee’ and click everything. That’s not a strategy at all. Because festivals that are present on online platforms get a lot more submissions than festivals that aren’t. That’s why festivals like Sundance get so many submissions, diminishing your changes to be selected.
Step 5: Be well prepared
When one of his films was selected for Sundance, Jansen had to deliver everything within one day, so he advises to have your press kit in order as soon as your film is finished. When choosing stills, bear in mind that they should also be attractive when printed in a small catalogue. If you have a great image, festivals will push that image more than images from other films, they may even use it to portray the whole short section of the festival. A poster and trailer on the other hand, don’t do anything for selection of shorts. Why watching a trailer of a minute if I can watch the complete film of 10 minutes? But for audience engagement it can help. Some filmmakers put the laurels in front of the film. As a programmer, Milovanovic don’t care about that, when selecting for Go Short.
As distributor, Jansen has all the material of the films in his current catalogue online, each in a separate Dropbox folder. So if he is on the road and get a call, he can send all information about his films immediately. It surprises him how few filmmakers realise the importance of this. When he is scouting films for Go Short in other festivals, in 60 to 70 percent of the cases the filmmakers are online unfindable. So it is important that you have some kind of online presence, even when it is just an email address and a still.
Step 6: Submit
If you submit, it is important to read the regulations. Obviously, look for the deadlines, sections in the festival, premiere requirements and award money, but also for questionable rules that some festivals may have. For example, do they ask for the online rights? Milovanovic would not submit to those. In China there is a big festival that take television rights. Some festivals ask rights for screening it for ever. So always read regulation. Even respected festivals can change regulations; Jansen had a film selected, and then the festival said: ‘If you win, it will be on Mubi. But were we getting paid for this? Moreover, the film still had a lot of festivals coming up, requiring national premieres. Concerning that premiere status: festivals always double check its status. If your film is no longer eligible any more in a specific region, it will always come out.
An early submission is what may have influence on a successful selection of your film. Milovanovic knows that programmers will become more stressed later in the selection, when more and more films arrive and they have to watch films 6 hours in a row. However, if a late deadline is the result of a film that is not jet finished, it means that your film is super new. For bigger festivals – eager to having premieres – a late deadline is in such a case no issue (particularly when it concerns shorts which are easier to program). Just email the programmers about it, they will understand it, and look out for your film. You can always send a picture locked version when the deadline approaches, and send the final version later.
Even if you don’t have a finished film jet, go to the festivals and meet the industry, just to let them know you have something coming up, and reach out to programmers of festivals where you want your film to be screened.
Step 7: Get selected
Be critical of festivals: have you been selected inside, or outside competition? Out of competition are often older films, or may be thematic films. In competition are films programmers are watching for their own upcoming festival, because those are the newest films that are premiering. Those are also considered the favourites of the selection committee. So out of competition doesn’t have the added value of people that are important for you film seeing it. The competition is also the program that get pushed a bit more. So, if you are out of competition try to ask for something in return, maybe a screening fee. It could also be that in return they ask you to come to the festival and that they offer you hotel nights.
Step 8: Be present at festivals
Festivals can be very hectic. Stay calm and be yourself, is the advice of Milovanovic and Jansen. A lot of festivals send out guest lists. Check these, to see which programmers you would like to meet. Have business cards and flyers at hand, and make sure all info is on them, like screening dates, if you would like to invite them. At festivals are a lot of industry events: panels, talks and workshops. Going to these events, and meeting and staying in contact with the people can be very helpful for your network. And don’t forget to watch films: for inspiration, but also for connecting with fellow filmmakers.
Step 9: Go online
Selling a short is difficult. Online, however, are some possibilities. Jansen was able to sell shorts to platforms like the Guardian, Topic and OP-Docs. He got a few thousand dollars for them. If your film has won one or more awards, or if it is better known, than usually the money is more. But depending on the rights, any price can be reasonable. OP-Docs is keeping the rights forever, but deals with Topic are only valid for two years, non-exclusive. Apart from money, platforms are important for reaching an audience. Jansen had a film that wasn’t selected for Sundance, but he wanted the film to reach a wide audience in the US. For that reason OP-Doc was the right platform. The film went also to the Atlantic, a platform that doesn’t pay at all, but generate a lot of exposure. An online release doesn’t necessarily cause issues for shorts in the middle of a festival run, if the films is good enough.
Step 10: Make a next film
Every filmmaker with a successful film have made a lot of mistakes. Both Jansen and Milovanovic have made mistakes too, when they started out. In your next film you can correct all these mistakes and reconnect with all the people that you met before and of whom you know they liked your film. Just write to them: ‘Hey I know you liked my film’ or ‘We met there and then’. Make use of everything you heard during the previous festival experiences.