Thursday, November 16, 2017

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film, Part 7: Festivals

The purpose of this series is to share my experience of making my microbudget feature film, Wait, while being as transparent as possible. This series is specific to my experience only. Please do not take these posts as universal How-Tos. Also know, this series is intended to shed light on the process of making a film, not on the quality of the film itself.

You made it. It seems like a blur. But you made it. You wrote the thing, planned the thing, shot and edited the thing, and now you’re ready for people to see it. Film festivals are a tricky beast. On the outside, submitting your film to festivals seems universally positive. But once you go through it, you realize there are a lot of highs and lows to manage while your film goes on its festival run.

In Part 3 of this series, I hammered home the importance of saving half of your overall budget for post-production. But really, you should save half of your budget for everything after production, because that money should most definitely extend into your festival run. 

Submitting to film festivals is simple yet sneakily expensive. Sites like Withoutabox and FilmFreeway make it incredibly easy to set up a profile for your film, search available festivals, and submit to them. And that’s the problem. It’s so easy to submit, you can lose track of how much money you’re spending on festival submissions. The sites have your credit card on file, and as you come across a festival you like, you keep clicking that submit button.

I submitted my first short, Full Circle, to three festivals, and didn’t submit my 2012 short, Earrings, to any. Wait was really my first crack at full-on film festival submissions, and I went about it all wrong. I initially submitted to festivals blindly. I was looking for festivals that sounded cool (whatever that means), took place soon, and were located in or around Los Angeles. The cost for festival submissions can range, but I didn’t care. This fest is $50, that one’s $75. Submit to both. Here’s one in LA next month for $90. Submit. Here’s one in two weeks, late submission is $110. Submit. I made a rookie mistake and got goddamn carried away.
Micah Parker in Wait. This was one of the main production stills I sent to festivals. Not a bad face to sell a movie on.
My advice for submitting is to set an overall submission budget for yourself, and don’t exceed it. There will always be that one festival you forgot to budget for. But that one festival turns into that other one and that other one and on and on. So, let’s say you cap your submission budget at $2,000. Good, now research how to spend that $2,000 as wisely as possible. Look into every festival closely. How many years has it been running? Where is the festival located? If you live in Los Angeles but are submitting to a festival in New York, can you afford to travel to New York if your film gets in? Have any prominent films ever premiered at the festival? Does this festival cater to the type of film you’ve made? When does the festival take place? The earlier you submit, the cheaper it will be.

Set a budget for submissions, and do research. Do not blindly submit to any festival just because you think you have a shot at getting accepted. Be smart. This is still your money you’re dealing with, so spend it wisely.

If this is your first microbudget feature film, I can all but guarantee you that your movie will get rejected by more festivals than it gets accepted to. This doesn’t necessarily speak to the quality of your film; many factors go into being accepted by a festival. But if you don’t have a thick skin for rejection, then seriously consider skipping your festival run, or do your best to develop a toughness quickly. Submitting to festivals is brutal. You spend money on the submission, and you’re never really sure if a representative of the festival even watched your full film. Some festivals send earnest explanations as to why your film didn’t get in. Most send boilerplate text commenting how there were X amount of amazing submissions, and we simply couldn’t include them all. Other festivals don’t even bother sending you a rejection notice. 

Every submission is a gamble. Just because you submit to 100 festivals, that does not guarantee that you will be accepted to any of them. Please know that going in. I’ve seen too many directors be crushed that their movies didn’t get into festivals. If you made your film solely to get festival play, then you made your film for the wrong reason. The film itself is the prize, not the acceptance into a festival.

The Cost of Getting Accepted
This is the biggest secret I learned during Wait’s festival run: once you get into a festival, you have to spend money to do it right.

Sure, you can go to a festival empty-handed and not spend a dime, but you won’t be capitalizing on the experience. To get the most out of your festival play, you need one-sheet posters for the festival to display, postcards of your poster to hand out, business cards to give to fellow filmmakers – and that’s just the swag. If the festival is local to where you live, accommodations should be easy. But if it’s more than a day’s drive away, you need hotel reservations, cost of transportation, money for food, etc. The festival is only going to give you two or three free tickets, so if you don’t want to make your cast and crew pay to watch the film, you have to buy their tickets in advance. Going out to dinner or drinks before or after the show? It’d be nice to pick up at least some of the tab. I mean, after all, you’re the director.

See how this snowballs? I spent $2,500 submitting Wait to film festivals, and $2,000 making sure I represented the film well at the festivals it got into.

And then there’s the output of your film, which I mentioned in my post-production post. Every festival has their specific way of showing the movies at their festival. Some festivals are only going to accept DCP copies of your film. If your editing software doesn’t support DCP (Adobe Premiere CS6, which I cut Wait on, did not), then be ready to upgrade your software (to Adobe Premiere CC, for example), or fork over cash for an editing house to create a DCP package for you.

Some festivals will accept Blu-Rays. Others will take Vimeo links. Some fests will demand that you overnight (via UPS or FedEx) two one-sheet posters for your film before the festival begins. Other festivals will want write-ups of the movie, cast headshots, production stills, and so on. Be organized. While you’re editing your film, get all of this shit together. Research your festival submissions thoroughly, and anticipate their marketing asks.

The Joy of Getting Accepted
I know this post has come off as mostly negative so far, but I think it’s important to relay the truth. And the truth is, submitting to festivals is expensive, demanding, and heartbreaking. But, of course, there is a plus side to submitting to fests, and that is the possibility that something you made from nothing actually gets into a fucking credited film festival. And that is worth celebrating.

If your movie gets into a fest, then for the love of God, enjoy yourself. Get all of your posters and postcards together, dress up, treat your cast and crew to a small meal and/or drinks, and enjoy it. 
Myself with the cast of Wait, enjoying our festival run.

If I could go back to Wait’s festival run, I would tell myself to relax a little more. I’m wired weird. I can handle rejection all day; it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Ultimately, I know I put everything I had into Wait, and rejection motivates me to try harder. Acceptance is where I get into trouble. I’ve never been good at receiving compliments or having the spotlight on me. During Wait’s festival run, I would deflect praise and push it toward another aspect of the film, like the actors or the music. And I was so anxious to watch the movie on a movie theater screen, with hundreds of strangers present, that I would try to sneak out and pace in the lobby until the movie was over. Matthew Tully Brown, who came on as a producer during Wait’s reshoots, stressed the importance of standing tall for your film. It was my duty to sit my ass in the movie theater and represent my film with pride.

We all have our shit. But if you make something as personal as a microbudget feature film, and a festival decides to show that movie to the world, then do your best to relax and appreciate everything that’s happening.

“What’s next?”
One thing you’ll learn very quickly when you put your work out there is that the main thing people want to know is: “What’s next?” Be ready to answer this question, even if you have to bullshit your way through it. If you don’t have another film in development, then say you’re enjoying the ride of the festival circuit, and what happens, happens. But be prepared to say something, because you’re going to get asked this a lot.

I touched on this earlier, but before you dive into the war of film festival submissions, really ask yourself what you hope to get out of it. Look, we’ve all heard the Clerks and Primer stories, about how a director made their first movie with hardly any money and became crazy famous as a result of premiering those films at festivals. Those are great stories, but they are incredibly rare. Chances are, your festival run for your microbudget film isn’t going to make you famous. It isn’t going to make you rich, either. In all honesty, showing your movie at a festival isn’t nearly as important as marketing yourself while you attend the festival. Walk around, meet people, shake hands with fellow filmmakers, make connections. That’s what your business cards are for. Invite filmmakers to your screening, and go to theirs if they invite you. Be open to collaboration. If you attend a festival and just go to your screening, you aren’t getting half as much out of the experience as you could.

I’ll tell you the best thing that happened to me from making Wait. It was January 14, 2015, and Wait had just finished its first festival screening. I invited the cast and crew for drinks at a local bar (which, coincidentally was the bar where we shot the sports bar and nightclub scenes for Wait). Early in the evening, Wait’s producer/co-star, Catherine Warner, pulled me aside and introduced me to her friend, Nick. Nick had been at the screening and was eager to talk to me for advice on a short film he was directing later that year. Nick and I agreed to meet when Nick’s film was in pre-production. A few months later, I met with Nick and told him all the lessons I learned from making Wait, most of which I’ve written about in this series.
Nick and I at the festival premiere of his film, There I Go.
Nick listened, he took notes, he asked more questions. He was in full-on movie mode. A few hours later, Nick asked me if I would shoot his short, There I Go, for him. I enthusiastically agreed; it was the first time I was the cinematographer on something I didn’t write and direct myself. We shot There I Go, and it turned out great. During shooting, Nick asked me if I would edit the film as well. I agreed, again, thrilled by the fact that I would be editing something I didn’t direct myself. Nick sat next to me every second I edited There I Go. Just as I had done with my sound mixer and colorist, Nick sat quietly, asked questions, and gave input. This went on for months. Nick and I locked in my small apartment, putting in hours of work to shape his film. And during those months, I formed the best, most personal friendship I’ve ever had with another person. I’ve never become so close to someone so quickly. We laughed, we cried – we made a damn movie. Now, the two of us create together constantly. We read each others’ work, watch our rough cuts, give editing advice, color and sound mix clips for each other, and so on.

It’s hard to make real friends as you get older. You create a path for yourself, you compartmentalize. Meeting Nick, a guy I love to be friends with and love to create with, is something I never expected, but it is easily the most valuable thing that Wait produced. Know what you want out of your movie. Know what you want out of your festival run. And don’t be blind to the unexpected greatness that your movie can cause.

Main Takeaways from Part 7: Festivals
—Manage your expectations with film festivals. Ask yourself what you really hope to get out of submitting to festivals.
—Set a film festival submission budget and do not exceed it.
—Get your marketing materials together before you submit. Posters, postcards, business cards, press materials – have them all ready.
—Understand that every festival runs differently. They will have different asks and require different versions of your film.
—When you go to a festival, enjoy it. Take a moment and appreciate. 
—While also at a fest, put yourself out there, meet other filmmakers. Talk, shake hands, make connections.

Primary Costs for Part 7: Festivals
—Festival submission fees: $2,500
—Festival marketing needs: $1,250
—Making sure people had fun at the fests: $750

Emotions to Expect for Part 7: Festivals
Excitement that you’re finally submitting your film to festivals
Heartbreak by the constant rejection from festivals
—Utter joy when your film is accepting to a festival
Anxiety due to the marketing demands of each festival
—Complete appreciation for watching your movie on a big screen, with tons of people present

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film




  1. I got irrationally annoyed at the thought that a festival wouldn't even tell you why you're being declined. That's just rude.

    I'm glad you were able to make a few great friendships along the way. That's a lovely consolation prize :)

    1. Oh, believe me my friend, few things piss me off more than a festival having the audacity to not even send a rejection notice. One guy wrote a blog post a little while ago, and he did something brilliant. Basically, he created a separate private Vimeo link for every festival he submitted to. That way he could see if they actually watched the movie to the end. Many festivals did not watch the full movie, and rejected him. He wrote the festivals saying he had proof that they did not finish his movie, and he wanted his submission money back. And they all gave him his money back. I wish I had thought of that for Wait!

      And yes, it has been one of the great joys of my life to meet and become friends with Nick and Dan!

  2. This is a great insight into the world of festivals. I do have one question, do you watch your own films with an audience?

    I'm not sure if I can do that. I heard Nicolas Winding Refn never watches any of his own films surrounded by a bunch of people he doesn't know as he often waits outside of the theater. I'm more likely to do the same as I want to know how many people walked out of my film just to observe what they didn't like about it.

    1. Yeah man, that's a tough thing. I sat through one whole festival screening of Wait, but for the others, I sneakily stepped out into the lobby. Maybe I could handle it today, but a few years ago, I simply got no enjoyment out of it.

      Thanks so much for your comments on these posts.

      (And ps: I was actually at the world premiere of Neon Demon in Hollywood and I totally saw Refn sneak out before the movie started.)

  3. First of all, let me just say that I think this is a great thing you're doing with these posts. Very, very informative, thank you.

    Bizarrely, I think what frightens me most about filmmaking is the neworking. I've always had some intense social anxiety, which is definitely a big obstacle because isn't success all about who you know?

    Then again money's pretty tricky. I got an idea for a system. Make an ultramicrobudget series on YouTube (like the frickin' Higgs boson of budgets), monetize the videos, set up a Patreon, hopefully in a few years I'll be rakin' in barely enough dough to make my actual feature script.

    1. Hey man, thanks so much, I really appreciate you reading and commenting.

      I'm sorry you have intense social anxiety. I won't pretend to know what you go through, but know that it is possible to make and promote movies, even if you're an anxious person. The good news is that you don't have to be a huge extrovert to make movies. You just need people in your corner (collaborators, producers, etc) who can network and be outspoken for you. As long as you have the art to back it up, you have a chance to create.

      And that system of yours isn't a bad idea at all. You should give it a shot!

    2. Are you going to post a Part 8 on distribution? I'm curious how you set that up.

  4. Dude, AW, this is some stellar stuff. Despite the dreams of my youth, I'm thinking there's a snowball chance in Hell I'll ever have a film of my own, but I still devoured it regardless.

    Man, it does get hard to make solid friendships as you get older, and I was smiling the whole time reading through how you and these dudes have become close through working and creating together. It all seems worth it in that regard (not to say all the other stuff is irrelevant...but I think you know what I mean).

    Very insightful, man. As always, good luck to you.

    1. Hey man, thanks so much. That means a lot!

      I definitely know what you mean. I thought it was important to share that little bit of appreciation. That while making Wait was very hard and expensive, I did get two life-long friendships out of it. And that is certainly enough.