This is Part 2 of our guide to navigating film festivals. You can find Part 1 here.
So you've worked hard and made your movie and gotten in and prepped for the trip and emailed everyone and packed well and now you're here! Time to enjoy, right? Well, kinda. It's actually time to collect on that investment. Focus. Be organized. Take care of your health and make the most of it.
Get your registration badge. The festival's schedule, the Industry programs, the panels, maps, places to eat or tour — the best festivals always include a lot of amazing materials in these bags. Study them. The bags themselves are quite cool too. Tallinn's Shorts bag this year was made entirely out of recycled paper! At our Dharamshala bag, they included locally produced honey and tea. The Tallinn bag also had a guide for local places to visit and discount coupons to be used at the festival's official cafe partner Reval Cafe.
You can't start this early enough. Honestly. Look around you. It usually starts on the penultimate flight to your festival city. I flew from Istanbul to Tallinn and by the time I had completed immigration, I had already met an actor with a film in competition, another shorts filmmaker from LA who was in pre-production on his first feature in Kosovo, and re-united with Brett Innes, a filmmaker bestie I had first met at IFFK when both of our first films were playing there.
This is how the family starts to build and it always starts with hello. Say hello at the check-in line, hello when you're picking your badge up, hello at the parties and hello to the person next to you at the screening. Everyone here is alone. Everyone is looking for friends. Everyone is a bit wary of being rejected — it's the thing that unifies us besides our love for cinema. Push yourself.
Pro-Tip: "Where are you from?" "What brings you to Tallinn?" are both fool-proof ice-breakers.
You may think you know no-one but that's not true. You've been co-ordinating with so many people in the Industry, press and festival office since you got selected. Start there. These are your first friends. They've worked hard to get you here. They'll be excited to see you and you should be excited to see them. At Tallinn, people like Tiina Lokk (Festival Director), Dagmar Raudam (Programmer, head of Hospitality) and Hannes Aava (Programmer, Communications Head) have become family to me over the two editions I've attended. And this year, I added to that family new members like Laurence Boyce (Programming Director, POFF Shorts) and Kseniia Buhzbetskaya (my Guest Co-ordinator) this year. Say those thank yous. Without them, there is no festival. Simone, the volunteer assigned to me in 2015, when I attended for LOEV, is still part of my Tallinn family. He was assigned to different filmmakers this year but we still partied together and I still emotionally blackmailed him into coming to our screening 🙂
The organizers are also your best source of information. They will know the inside tricks and will have info on the best parties. They are the reason that one journalist will end up doing an article on your film rather than the 250 others playing at the festival.
And be patient with them. You can not imagine how overworked they are. Remember: you're just one of MANY filmmakers trying to get their attention. Be kind, be gracious.
My festival days typically start at 8AM. If you're staying at the festival venue, the breakfasts at the main restaurant is where all the insiders gather. At Tallinn, that's the Nordic Forum. These breakfasts are the best way to turn those casual party hellos into actual relationships. Get a good table. Say those hellos to strangers. Get to know them and invite them all to your screening. They may not make it but at least they know you exist. You can always follow up with a link.
You should also be looking for the people you identified in your program book and industry list before you got to the festival. Find your way to that table. Don't feel awkward. This is a place of business. Believe in yourself. They are looking to meet talented, cool people as well.
Don't forget your flyer. In fact, NEVER forget your flyer. You'll need it in every conversation. And don't forget to leave stacks of them at popular locations where potential audience members might spot them. Easy spots: ticket counters, festival information booths, popular cafes where fest goers gather before and after screenings.
It's Tallinn. They work their butt off to get the best films from around the world to play there. Look through the schedule and mark things off. Figure out how the ticketing works.
My little tip here: Screw the big films; those hot titles that rocked Cannes. Focus on your peers. You want to be taken seriously? Take your peers seriously. Go support every film playing in your section. Ask them questions. Buy them a drink after. These are going to be the filmmakers that will grow with you and likely cross paths with you down the road. If you're doing this right, you'll see them in the audience of your screenings. These are some of the most rewarding friendships you'll form on the festival circuit.
Festivals like Tallinn are A-List because they don't stop at screening great cinema. Their Industry programs are among the best I've seen at any festival in the world. At their TV Beats side-bar, I heard showrunner/writer Benjamin Harris (Dream Team, Ransom) share his perspective of participating in and building a writers room. At their Fireside Chats sessions, I heard Agent Marin Olson talk about how CAA Finance works with financiers, funds and producers to package project and the trends she is seeing in art house cinema. In their Baltic focus programme, I heard Lineta Miseikyte (Line Producer, Chernobyl) talk about the experience of pitching for a massive job like Chernobyl, getting the job and then successfully executing for a client like HBO.
Then there's the day long European Media Forum conference where leaders in media and technology come together to examine trends and where our business is headed. I was in the audience when I first got here in 2015 for LOEV and was on a panel this year talking about how to build your career as a talent in our business. I was on the panel with Lindsay Peters (Exec Director, Frontieres Genre Market and Fantasia Film Festival) and Isabelle Chalant (Sales Agent, Asian Shadows). One of my favorite memories of this year's festival, in fact, was a dinner arranged by the Forum the night before for speakers. It was inspiring being seated at a table full of so many diverse and interesting people who were pushing our industry in new directions.
PS: Must note the power of my aforementioned "Say Hello" rule. I was at that table, meeting these amazing people because I said hello to Sten Sulaveer, the Industry Programs curator. Sure, I'm candid and yes, I have my resume and experiences but so do a lot of other filmmakers. Sten only knew about me because I said hello.
The Industry days is also when most of the sales agents descend on the festival. Remember all that sorting and emailing you did before you came to the festival? This is where it should result in meetings.
Since my goal was to get the film to play at more festivals, I was keeping an eye on festival programmers attending the festival. I had already emailed everyone. Now it was about following up, setting confirmations and showing up on time. The ones who didn't respond are for me to spot and run into at parties and breakfasts.
Same with sales agents and producers. I might not have needed them on this one but there were other projects I was interested in making. Everyone pays a little more attention to you when you're attending the festival as a filmmaker. Use that. Tell them about what else you're up to. Listen, and genuinely try to understand what it is their company wants to do so you can identify opportunities of working together.
You're saying a lot of hellos and inviting a lot of people and a lot of people will tell you that they'll come to your screening but take it all with a grain of salt.
Every person is here with their own agenda. You and your film may not be on theirs. The goal of shaking hands and reaching out is to get on their radar. So don't take it personally if people choose to skip your movie in favour of a party. The film can be seen on Vimeo, the party can not be recreated in their home cities. Focus on making a strong impression during your meeting so your follow up email is taken seriously.
Oh yeah. The fun part. And the best festivals do make it a lot of fun. This year's Tallinn took me inside a tram, where 150 filmmakers, programmers, fest-goers were crammed in, snaking their way through the city as vodka shots and pickles made their way through the tram. Another dinner took me into an airplane hangar that had an actual submarine suspended from the ceiling. There were karaokes organized, and EDM parties. It's part of the experience. It's how you get everyone to let loose and have some fun and get to know others.
Some festivals are quite easy to navigate when it comes to parties. Some, you have to hustle for. The festival organizers are usually privy to all the information. If you have someone on the inside, a simple text will do the trick. Pay attention to other filmmakers. Also look out for countries and organizations that support the festival. The German party at Tallinn is always one to watch out for. Knowing a German filmmaker or sales agent is your best way into that one. For some, you can even just try showing up and walking in like you belong.
Be wary of that party envy phenomenon though. There is always some other party happening somewhere else that you didn't get invited to and you can spend your entire festival just chasing those invites. If you can't enjoy the one you are at, you'll be just as bored at the other one. Look around. There are some very cool people who fought super hard to get into this room. Say hello. Stop overthinking. Have fun.
You've got films. You've got panels. Industry Events. Parties. Press appointments. It will all get jumbled very quickly. Keep a schedule. Don't trust yourself to remember. Have it handy. Personally, I just have a notes doc on my phone that I keep updating but you can use whatever method that works for you.
My generic breakdown? Long buffet breakfast filled with many hellos. Morning Panels. Afternoon Screening. Evening Receptions. Night parties or a late night movie.
Do your technical check. Ask for this. Check the sound and picture level. Check the 5.1. Check the blacks. Make sure it's all exactly as you finished it. Ask for adjustments. And carry your back-up files with you to the tech-check and the screening. Watching the DCP breakdown during the world premiere of Qissa at Toronto is one of the most anxiety ridden experiences of my life and I didn't even work on the film.
Dress up. Make it a big deal. It's your kid's birthday. Don't wait for others to make it special. Mark the moment. Take lots of pictures. You'll need them later. And definitely get there early. You don't want to be the one causing panic among the festival staff.
Be honest and present for your Q+A. Be genuinely available. It's easy to get caught up in the business of film festivals but you're now finally standing in front of an audience that made time and picked your film over others. Be there for them.
I know it's hard but try and push yourself. Find your own style. It's okay to pick a spot in the corner and let one or two conversations happen. You'll probably have more meaningful interactions than the person working the entire room. It doesn't matter. Find your own way but do try. Give yourself manageable targets: try and say hello to five strangers if you want to go home. It's very easy to return to your room and get into bed, surf twitter or watch an episode of Netflix but that's not why you're here. There is a magical interaction waiting for you, just around the corner. Push yourself. It's hard work but that's why you're here.
But if it just feels too damn hard, that's okay too. Everyone has their own way. You'll find yours. The only non-negotiable in our business is doing your work to the best of your ability. Everything else is just the cherry on top of that.
All those business cards? Program them into your contacts. You'll need them for future projects. Add the ones you want to on social media. Send them thank you notes with scripts or links or whatever else you promised.
Crucial. Send emails to everyone who made the festival happen. And don't forget the ones who helped you get in. I always try to do a festival-wrap-up summary email and send it out to the cast and crew. Without them, there is no film. It's not enough to know this. You have to make sure they feel your gratitude.