Relatives and friends usually roll their eyes at me when I tell them how exhausted I am from the film festival I just attended. To them, these trips are all about going to exotic locations and hanging at crazy parties, eating mouthwatering food and watching amazing films. And I can’t really blame them; that’s all they see on my social media.
I have been attending film festivals since 2002. First as a cinephile, then a film student, then as a film sales executive who was empowered by companies to buy and sell films, and finally as a filmmaker. Over these 17 years, I’ve experienced film festivals from many different perspectives and I can tell you with certainty that it’s not all fun and games.
For filmmakers, they can represent make or break opportunities to get your film to distributors, sales agents and film critics who will eventually help you get the film out in front of the larger audience. For distributors, they represent an opportunity to scout hidden talent and unseen films which will help bolster their companies for the coming decades. For film festival personnel, they are an opportunity to find new work and meet sales companies to source programming for their festivals. And for nearly everyone, they are opportunities to further relationships and increase one’s network, get FaceTime with people in a relaxed setting where everyone is in a festive mood.
I recently got the call from the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Estonia to screen my most recent work, KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK, and I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to try and capture the filmmaker’s perspective of attending a film festival. The idea is to put you square into my process, take you through my preparation on attending festivals, being there and how I follow up. Or perhaps this is really just for my Mum, to try and convince her that I am actually working when I take off for these “overpriced vacations.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK is a psychological thriller set in Darjeeling; it’s sort of a cat and mouse game between an older Bengali man, DADA, sitting in this cafe and creating his crossword and this young Nepali boy, a tattoo artist, who decides to interrupt his day with the intention of befriending him. The oddest thing about the film is its 40-minute length.
I mention all of this because it informs the first step of our process: What do we want from this particular festival?
Barring major festivals like Sundance and Cannes, each festival has its strengths and some innate opportunities. Same with the film. So knowing your film and the festival you are headed to is key to answering this question.
Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival is a 23-year-old festival that takes place in the middle of November in the chilly, magical, Christmas wonderland of Estonia’s capital city. The light starts to fade around 4 PM and cinema hungry audiences descend into their phenomenal cinema halls to devour world cinema from around the world.
Given it is in an extremely rare list of 15 film festivals worldwide, including Cannes and Berlinale, that have been awarded the A-List accreditation by the FIAPF, Tallinn also attracts a wide swath of industry professionals, press and festival programmers looking to further their businesses in Europe, and more specifically in the Baltic region.
The festival has a main competition, a first features competition, an animation program, a children’s film section, a shorts festival — it’s HUGE. There is a film market but given the amount of product floating around, and my film’s unusual running time, trying to sell the film didn’t seem to be the way to go.
Instead, I wanted to focus on pushing the film out to more film festivals in Europe; help it acquire more of a brand. We had already started world premiered at Busan and had our India premiere at Dharamsala. Time to forge forward.
Attending film festivals, even when the festival covers your flight and stay, can be expensive affairs and you want to make sure you’re set up to make the most of it.
BEFORE THE FESTIVAL
Check The Weather
Crucial. You need to be comfortable so you can focus on the work at hand. Falling sick is also not an option. Tallinn, in my case, routinely sports zero and minus degree temperatures so I must pack accordingly.
Book Your Travel And Stay
Do this first. Especially if the festival isn’t paying for you. This will form the bulk of your expense. Ask the festival offices for recommendations on where to stay. Sometimes they have deals with local hotels. There is also, usually, a central point where the festival is headquartered. You want to do everything possible to be in here. Tallinn Black Nights is at the Nordic Hotel Forum in the centre of the city. This is where most of the industry stays and the large hall downstairs is where everyone meets for breakfast. A bulk of networking happens over these meals. Most of the parties will be at this venue so this is worth spending on.
Festival days are long days. You start early and you won’t get home late. A typical day will include casual meals, screenings, parties, formal events and a whole lot of walking. You won’t always be able to do outfit changes so the trick is to think versatile. Get one nice jacket that can take a casual denim-and-tee outfit from 8 AM screening to 10 PM after party. Make sure you have at least one good formal outfit with you. Formal government events, opening and closing ceremonies, certain dinners tend to veer this way. And don’t forget about the weather. Inners, legging, thick coat, gloves, hat — I dragged everything out and put together my snow uniform.
Make A Flyer
This is CRUCIAL. You’ll find yourself in innumerable conversations, sometimes in really loud clubs, where you’ll be telling people what film or project you’re attending with. You’ll also want to invite them to that screening and while they are nodding at you, you should know that no one remembers anything by the time they return to their hotel room. So make a flyer. Put your project’s poster on one side. Put the synopsis and the screening times or meeting booth or whatever pertinent business information you have on the other. Make sure it’s something they can fit into their pocket.
Clean. Accurate. Current. And make sure you have enough. Some cultures, Bombay for example, frowns on them. It’s considered a bit formal to offer your business card but it’s routine at film festivals. And you want to make sure you’re able to return the gesture when someone else offers you theirs. Business Cards are also a terrific way to do all your follow up. I usually return from festivals with a stack of business cards and use them to close the loop on the many, many conversations I would have initiated at film festivals.
Once you register for the festival, you can usually reach out to their Festival Office and ask for a delegate or attendee list. Sometimes they’ll have a P&I, or Press & Attendee List. Being patient and developing a relationship with the festival office really pays off here. A big festival like Tallinn will have many versions of this. Hannes Aava, the festival’s programmer and Communications Director, had become a friend since I first went to Tallinn with LOEV in 2015. He furnished the main Press and Industry List. But I was also in touch with Sten Sulaveer, who runs the festival’s Industry section, and organizes a very well reputed Film Forum during the festival. The Forum flies down reputable professionals from all over the world to host discussions on pertinent issues affecting the industry. I also got his list. Once you have these lists, study them. Google the names, look up profiles, cross off and highlight people so you have a hit-list of who you want to meet there.
Send Out Emails
Once you know who you want to meet, start emailing to set up meetings. It’s good to do this a week or two before the festival. Too soon and you’ll be lost. Too late and they won’t have slots. Do not send out MASS emails. Try to tailor your emails to the person reading so they feel that it’s specific. And expect a very low response rate. Don’t take it personally. It’s par for the course.
As a filmmaker, I never forget that some programmer sparked to my work and picked me out of a massive line up to invite me there. Programming staff, exhibition staff, hospitality folks; everyone who helped me make the trip happen is to be thanked when I arrive so it’s nice to carry small tokens and gifts you can share with them. If you do this often, you’ll develop a group of friends you only see at film festivals, sort of a festival-family, and you start carrying things for each other. In my case, I had gotten t-shirts made for KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK. These were also perfect for Q+As, to reward and entice audiences with. They also worked on social media. Plus, since the film was made in Darjeeling, I asked my family, who does make Darjeeling tea, to send me some boxes for me to carry to Tallinn.
As a filmmaker, the film has usually been delivered to the festival well in advance of the screening. I still carry a little drive with me which has the film in other formats and a back-up DCP should something go wrong.
Food + Medicines
Festivals can be expensive affairs and the schedules don’t usually allow for sensible meals. Try and pack some energy bars and some emergency snacks you can store in your room. Also good to build yourself a little first aid kit.
Okay, phew, so you’ve done all of this and maybe somewhere in there have also flipped through the programming book to see which of the amazing films you’ll want to try and catch but all of these are bonuses. I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who is there to work. (See Ma, we work at these things!)
Part two of this article will focus on what you do once you arrive at the festival.