Part 18, Playing the film festival game

buzz_mclaughlin_producerWhen you’re just starting out with your first feature film, playing the festival game can be a bit daunting.

The dilemma, of course, is to know—especially at the front end of a film’s festival run—which invites to accept. Everyone told us to be careful and strategize how we wanted to play this. The premiere only happens once and until that card is played, it has great potential value. Once it’s played, the top festivals are pretty much off the table, as “premiere-itis” among the major festivals is very much alive and kicking as it has been for many years.

So from the beginning the question was: given our timeline with Sensation, do we ignore respectable early festivals and hold out for possibly premiering at a later top festival and reap the potential subsequent greater publicity and more important press? Or do we begin submitting to several strong upcoming festivals and accept invites as they come in—first to last—and simply be grateful for those that loved our work and wanted to celebrate the film?

For better or worse, in the end we decided that to solve the dilemma we would carefully chose (as best we could) from the schedule of upcoming worldwide upper tier festivals and then submit to those, accept any invites that presented themselves, and not worry about “what ifs” or “should haves.” Looking back, to be honest I’m still of a mixed mind as to whether we took the right approach.

No doubt this decision prevented a lot of stress and possible heartache. Holding out to premiere at a bigger festival scheduled months down the road without knowing if an invite would materialize was and still is a risky business. You could find yourself looking at an empty slate after many months of nervous waiting, after other great festivals that actually could have wanted the film have already come and gone. And suddenly you find that your finished film has been gathering dust for a long time and perhaps even picking up the rep of having been already shopped around (I’ve heard that programmers at the major fests share notes) and it isn’t considered “new” anymore; other fresh films have now appeared on the scene and are taking the limelight.

On the other hand, holding out for one of the few biggies (if you think you have a genuine shot at one) and then laying out a festival and subsequent distribution strategy based on that outcome also makes sense, because the added potential push a major festival can give to a film is obviously enormous and the risk could be worth it. We felt some of that festival power with San Sebastian, but it’s much greater at others like Sundance, Toronto, Berlin, and Cannes. Nevertheless, when it came to our solution to this conundrum, we simply went with what seemed the wisest and most clear-headed at the time and proceeded accordingly.

So on the heels of San Sebastian, we were a part of the Sao Paulo International Film Festival in Brazil—one of the premiere South American festivals. Our subtitled print of the film was shipped directly from San Sebastian to Sao Paulo and Aaron quickly found himself on another long flight to the lower hemisphere. The festival paid for his travel and put him up for several days and he and our film were feted royally. The festival director Leon Cakoff was especially fond of Sensation, making the trip an especially good experience for our first time director. You can check out Cakoff’s comments on the film on our Synopsis – Reviews page on this site.

As we were hopping from Spain to Brazil with the film, The Starz Denver Film Festival, set for a few weeks later, also wanted the film for the US premiere. This very established fest in the mile high city was well known for programming strong indie films and celebrating independent film in general and we were thrilled to be invited. In fact, so was almost our entire principal cast who joined us on the red carpet for our homeland premiere along with all of our producers and some key crew members. It was the closest we have come to a reunion of the film’s production family. Needless to say, we had a blast in Denver.

Aaron with the actors (L-R): David Strathairn, Ian Somerhalder, Joe Mazzello, Elisabeth Waterston & Scott Wilsonwac

Aaron with the actors in Denver (L-R): David Strathairn, Ian Somerhalder, Joe Mazzello, Elisabeth Waterston, Scott Wilson

Ron Wyman, Elisabeth Waterston, Ian Somerhalder, Heavenly Wilson, Scott Wilson in Denver

Ron Wyman, Elisabeth Waterston, Ian Somerhalder, Heavenly Wilson, Scott Wilson in Denver

David Strathairn and me in Denver

David Strathairn and me in Denver

(Next: In the end, are film festivals worth it…?)

Share or Bookmark:
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Google Bookmarks
  • MySpace
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • ShareThis


  1. John Wayne Bosley said,
    December 8, 2009 @ 9:35 pm

    Great pics! It’s great when the cast are right there at the fest to answer questions and connect with the audience.

    The great delemia with the fests has always concerned me. So many. So many options. So many films that disapear out of the view of the audience. That is why I started to acquire and dislike about the fest option. I’m not planning on any more in the future with any of my other films.

    Instead I will pursue the fans. When the fans demand something they make things happen. When you notice certain parts of the country or world where you have a large fan base you can they focus on doing screenings there to help build more buzz for the film. Then the fans become part of your marketing force. It becomes a movement. Then it doesn’t matter what fest or not fests at all. They will catapult your film in the view of many.

  2. December 11, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

    Thanks for the thoughts, John. It’s going to be interesting the next two, three years to see what social media is going to do for filmmakers and how that’s going to shift the paradigm, including the role of festivals. Everyone’s talking about it. Did you see the Hermanez’s Indiewire piece this week on fests? Dec. 7th I think it was. There’s something fun about being in this biz as so much is shifting. It’s staying ahead of the curve that’s the challenge…

  3. John Wayne Bosley said,
    December 15, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

    Part of the problem with trying to “stay ahead of the curve” is that none of us really know where all of this is really leading. One moment a filmmaker does something a certan way and has success, then others try the same idea and get nothing. My best comparison is like acting on a stage when “everything that can go wrong does go wrong” in the middle of a performance. You have your lines (like a biz plan) but then you have to improvise because suddenly your finding things aren’t working out like they’re suppose to.

    Only thing I know is that a filmmaker (film company) has to find their identity, figure out their priorities and also what they’re willing to sacrifice because they have to adapt to a rapidly changing world.