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FilmHelp: Festivals & Distribution

Sundance Pointers

By Greg Pak
So I finagled my way to Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival this year by snagging a job as a videographer for one of the festival sponsors. No pay, but they hooked me up with a plane ticket and accomodations. I’ve just returned and I’m chock full of practical hints.

 
Cold weather clothing

 
I wore long johns and sweaters every day, and my knit cap was essential (although I managed to lose it before the week was out). However, I did not need the eight pound insulated snow boots I hauled out to Utah. My leather Redwing hiking boots served me just fine, worn with heavy wool socks and liners.
    Some folks dressed up for some of the parties, but cold weather casual ruled the days and nights.

 
Self promotion

 
The festival is aggressively flyer-unfriendly. Park City actually has an ordinance prohibiting people from handing out flyers on the streets and annoyingly officious Sundance volunteers quickly throw out any publicity materials unrelated to festival films which are left on tables or posted on kiosks. So much for the scrappy independent film spirit.

 
Transportation and Lodging

 
Shuttles to and from the Salt Lake City airport cost about $25. The company I used was Park City Transportation, 1-800-637-3803. The airport is about half an hour from Park City, without traffic.
    The festival venues are spread out widely — unlike Telluride, where almost all the theaters are within walking distance of each other. But Sundance runs an efficient shuttle bus service which trucks filmgoers from theater to theater. I never had to wait more than fifteen minutes for a bus.
    But be careful where you stay — not all of the surrounding condos are on the shuttle circuit. I stayed in several different places, with my level of convenience and luxury decreasing as the week wore on.
    First I was at the Lodges at Deer Valley, a pretty nice ski lodge which has its own shuttle to and from Main Street. It’s also on the Park City shuttle circuit. Very convenient, but expensive. My tab was picked up by my employers — I think it was around $250 a night.
    Then I stayed a night at the Best Western, which was 6 miles out of town. Only (!) $169 a night, but considerably less convenient. The hotel ran an hourly shuttle to Main Street, but it stopped running around midnight. After that, I had to catch cabs ($12).
    I spent the last few days in a shared condo with friends of friends. A mere $100 a night, but there were no convenient shuttles. I ended up taking cabs in and out of town, at $8 a pop.

 
Food

 
The Japanese restaurant on Main Street is terrible — congealed rice, sugary udon broth, tempura vegetables cut too thick. Ugh.
    The Thai and Vietnamese restaurants were pretty good, but wildly overpriced. One of the best little meals I found was the soup special at Burgies — tasty and good for cold weather.
    Warning — the condos and lodges don’t have adjoining restaurants. To get food, you’ll have to shuttle or drive into Main Street. For general provisions, take the shuttle to the Holiday Village Cinemas — there’s an Albertsons supermarket a few doors down.

 
Swag

 
If you get into any parties, grab the free stuff early. I was working plenty of swanky parties, shooting video, but invariably I’d forget to make my way to the swag tables until it was too late. Missed out on some nice stuff, too — people were walking away with free pagers and backpacks and whatnot. Ah well. We all have enough junk anyway, right?
 
Video equipment

 
I brought my camera along as back up and then had to use it for my gig when my employer’s camera turned out to be broken. So at the last minute, I had to scramble to find a video light on a Saturday morning. I ended up going to Salt Lake City — I found a camera store called Inkleys which helped me out. 127 S. Main Street, 801-328-0561.
    For extra batteries, try the Radio Shack next to the Holiday Village Cinemas. The theater shuttle will take you right there.

 
Schmoozing

 
I didn’t have a film in the festival, so I wasn’t there in maximum self-promotion mode. But the streets are full of Los Angeles and New York film industry people fairly itching to toss their business cards your way. If you’re even marginally friendly, you should be able to meet producers or managers or agents or fellow filmmakers — they’re sitting beside you in the theaters, sharing taxis, and standing next to you in line. Bring business cards.

 
Getting screened

 
When I found out I was going to Sundance on a videography gig, I promptly submitted “Asian Pride Porn” to TromaDance, one of Park City’s supplemental festivals. There are a slew of alternative festival screenings going on — and although no one’s offered me a three picture deal on the basis of my TromaDance screening, it was nice being able to tell people I had a film showing during the week.
    I met another TromaDance filmmaker who was even more savvy about getting his work shown — upon arriving in Park City, he talked to the organizers of NoDance and got himself a screening in their festival as well.

 
Seeing films

 
I got very lucky with tickets — a friend hooked me up with a number of comps and I was able to get into a few press screenings in my capacity as the editor of AsianAmericanFilm.com. If you don’t have an inside angle and don’t want to pony up the bucks ahead of time, I’d recommend going to the matinees rather than the evening screenings. Almost every evening show I attended was sold out. The matinees were very well attended as well. But screenings begin as early as 8:30 a.m. — if you’re willing to get up early, you oughta be able to see something on short notice.

 

Tip of the Day: A nifty trick for enlivening Q&As

By Greg Pak
I caught a clever trick at the Sundance screening of the Korean film “The Isle” last week. To encourage a lively Q&A session, the producers handed out free CDs of the film’s soundtrack to everyone who asked a question. Clearly, this could get expensive if you did it every time your film screened. But for critical screenings where press and distributors may be present, this kind of gimmick might be worthwhile… After all, the more questions people ask you about your film, the more favorable an impression you may be able to make about the film and yourself.

Keep Working that Film

By Greg Pak
Keep in mind that getting distribution for a short film is a fine and excellent thing, but if you want the film to sell, you still have to work it. An educational distributor, for example, will send out a catalog which will include a photo and description of your film. And you’ll appear in the distributor’s website. But buyers have dozens or even hundreds of other films to choose from — in the same catalog, even.
To maximize your film’s selling potential, make cards or flyers which include your distributors’ contact information. Hand them out or at least put ’em on the counters and tables whenever your film screens at a festival. If there’s an educator at that screening who teaches in a field pertaining to your film’s subject matter, he or she is a great target for a sale. But if you don’t put a flyer out there, he or she will have no idea how to find you.

Get a Website

By Greg Pak
Admittedly, merely having a website will not instantly result in millions of people clamoring for your film. But it’s an essential part of your promotion strategy. At the very least, being online makes it possible for interested people to find you and your films and distributors easily.
A website can also save you some grief and postage — when a festival calls you at the last minute wanting your bio or film synopsis, rather than faxing the material, you can say, “It’s all on my website!” I’ve even had a film festival in Japan pull my mugshot from my website, which easily saved me twenty bucks in international Fed Ex fees.
A good website also generates credibility. In college, friends used to claim they’d get at least a half-a-letter increase in their grades when they laser printed their papers. A clean, attractive website provides the same kind of clout — you look like a professional! an artist! an up-and-comer! — even if you live in a garret, work in a copy shop, and eat canned soup every night for dinner.
You may think it’s too expensive to get a website. But if you’re online, you probably already have one. AOL provides 2mb of free space per screen name for personal websites; most other ISPs have similar deals. If you have a free weekend, you can easily learn basic HTML and get some info online.
Now to make the site look great and possess all of the clean design saavy that makes for a painless and pleasurable surfing experience, you may need to invest more time and money or hire a designer. Yes, it could cost you anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand bucks. But you just blew twenty thousand on your film and a thousand just on festival entries — you’re gonna stop now?

Respond Immediately to the Press

By Greg Pak
If you’re lucky enough to get a call or an email from a reporter, respond IMMEDIATELY. Reporters often call at the last minute, on the eve of their deadlines. If you don’t get back to them right away, they’ll find someone else and file their articles without you.
On two different occasions in recent months, I’ve delayed a day or two in responding to calls or emails. And by then, the reporters’ deadlines had passed and they no longer needed my quotes.
Of course I had no time to deal with the requests the instant they came in, but I should have made the time. Being quoted in an article won’t lead to instantaneous fame and glory, but it may toss a few more people to your website or to your distributors. In short, publicity is good, and it’s dumb to miss opportunities to grab some.

Film Festival Strategies

By Greg Pak

 
So you’ve finished your short and want to show the world.
 
What to do? As you know, there are a few giant film festivals which everybody’s desperate to crack: Sundance, Telluride, Berlin, the New York Film Festival, Toronto, Montreal…
    Of course you should enter all of these huge film festivals, particularly if your ultimate goal is to get an agent, sell your screenplays, and make feature films. These are the festivals the big and small cheeses in the industry go to and talk about; it’s a great place to make a splash.
    BUT
    Do not agonize for more than half an hour when you get your rejection letter from Sundance. Sundance and these other giant festivals are not the be-all and end-all for independent films, particularly for shorts. Nor is getting into one of these festivals any guarantee of your film’s ultimate success — I’ve had friends who have taken their short films to Sundance and had little business result.
    There are dozens, even hundreds of decent venues for your short film. Any one of them can provide you with the exposure and contacts you’re looking for to further your career. And all of them can give you that all-important experience of seeing your film screened before an audience other than your family and friends.
    This point is worth emphasizing: you should jump on chances to screen your film not only for self-promotional purposes, but also because seeing your film screened will make you a better filmmaker.
    Furthermore, I’ve often find that excellent experiences and business contacts come from the festivals or screenings for which I’d had low expectations. More and more cities these days have tiny micro cinemas specializing in independent films and shorts — if all of your expectations have centered on Sundance, you might have ignored these venues. But screening at small local venues can be invaluable, introducing you to a community of local filmmakers, programmers, and film buffs.

 
So where should I submit my films, you ask?

 
I’d recommend reading the festival listings in “The Independent,” the magazine of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers. On the west coast, the Film Arts Foundation has a similar magazine called “Release Print” with even more extensive listings. Indiewire regularly posts festival deadlines; if you do an online search for “film festivals,” you’ll no doubt come up with many other resources.
    As you’ll quickly see, there are hundreds of festivals in the United States alone. Your next task is to decide where to send your film.
    I have a few criteria I use.

 
First, submit to the big fests.

 
You never know.

 
Second, submit to strong second-tier fests.

 
There are a number of well known festivals which, though not as huge as Sundance, are excellent places to show shorts and get a little attention. I always submit to South by Southwest, the Austin Heart of Film Festival, the Shorts International Film Festival, the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, the AFI Festival, the Hamptons International Film Festival, Slamdance
    Clermont Ferrand, a shorts festival and market in France, is a great place to get screened — short film buyers from around the world pick up films there. And other filmmakers tell me that the Aspen Short Film Festival is an incredibly fun place to screen a film.
    For documentaries, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, the DoubleTake Film Festival, the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival, Cinema du Reel, and the Margaret Mead Film Festival are good choices.

 
Third, places you like.

 
There are a few festivals which have shown my films in the past, which I enjoyed attending, and which I just plain like. Just because they know me is no guarantee they’ll accept my future films, but I like these folks, so I’ll always submit to festivals like Cinequest and Film Fest New Haven.

 
Fourth, the appropriate specialty festivals.

 
I always submit my film to any specialty festivals which are appropriate. Many of my films have Asian American content — I always submit them to the many excellent Asian American festivals around the country. Do some digging around and you’ll find festivals which specialize in everything from Native American films to gay and lesbian films to nature films to underground/subversive cinema to digital art to dance.
    I’ve found that some of the best festival experiences, particularly for short filmmakers, can come at these specialty festivals. These festivals often are run by idealists whose agenda is to celebrate their community and support their filmmakers. It’s a nice feeling, being celebrated and supported.
    Specific recommendations:
    If you have a gay or lesbian themed film, by all means submit it to the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival Since my short “Po Mo Knock Knock” played there, I’ve received emails or letters of interest from at least a half a dozen other interested festivals.
    I’ve had great experience at almost all of the Asian American film festivals — for contact information, visit the AsianAmericanFilm.com Filmmakers Network page.

 
Fifth, places nearby or where you have friends.

 
I look for festivals I can actually attend (or which friends and family can attend). I live in New York, so I tend to submit my films to just about every venue I hear about in the five boroughs, no matter how small. As I’ve pontificated above, there are huge benefits to seeing your film in front of an audience. I’m also more likely to submit to festivals in places like Texas or the Bay Area — places I have loads of friends and family.
 
Sixth, places with prizes.

 
By Greg Pak

Whether a festival gives prizes is an important consideration, particularly if you have a film like a documentary short or an experimental film which can fit into a less competitive category.
    Here’s the way I think about it:
    The vast majority of shorts submitted to festivals are fictional narratives, dramas or comedies. So if there’s a general competition category for “Short Narrative,” the number of films competing is enormous. Now, many fewer documentary shorts and experimental shorts tend to be submitted. So if there are separate categories for experimental or documentary shorts, your statistical odds are simply better. It may seem cold and calculating, but if you’re weighing the worth of coughing up another thirty bucks for another festival entry fee, a little cold calculation may be in order.

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