Invariably, the question filmmakers always get at festivals is, “So what’s next?” For the past year, my answer in regards to Connect To has been “we’re still screening and waiting to hear from other festivals.” But here we are, nearly a year since we shot Connect To on a freezing weekend in November before the first snow fell in Seattle, and our festival circuit has come to a close. What now?
Where do short films go to die live post-festival? The answer is very different than it would be for a feature, and that has to be taken into account. None of us plan to sell Connect To at a short film market (if one even exists!), much less recoup any costs. It has to be stated that my goal for making the short in the first place was specific: To get off my ass and stop waiting. To show my film community what I’m capable of. To create my own work.
If my goal was to go viral with a million hits, sell the film at AFM, or get programmed by IFP, then I would have been involved in a drastically different project. You can perhaps always hope for lightning in a bottle, but going in, I often described Connect To’s ultimate mission as a calling card. Being clear about this from the outset often saves my sanity when faced with festival costs or wanting to increase my project’s reach. Have we met that goal? Well, that’s a lot trickier to quantify, and what lead me to look at the practical breakdown.
Consultation and Application
I initially contracted with Chris Holland of Film Festival Secrets to provide consultation. For a very low fee, Chris watches your film a hand full of times and provides a comprehensive breakdown of strengths/weaknesses, and a list of festivals he feels might enjoy your film.
Filmmakers Kris and Lindy Boustedt tell us about the supportive tight-knit filmmaking community in Seattle and the resources they have available to them.
His assessment was great; it pointed out strengths and weaknesses we already knew, and others we hadn’t thought of before. The best thing we got out of it was an objective viewpoint from a trusted source and a fantastic pull quote to start us on our path. It was enough to spur me on to film festival submission land, wading into the waters of Withoutabox for the first time.
Chris provided us with a list of potential festivals he thought would be good targets. There were 56 festivals in all, broken into Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3. From his book, I knew that the trusted route was to canvass Tier 1 and 2 fests first. If you start striking out, consider a re-edit and move on to Tier 3.
Did the tier level really matter? Maybe. But how much? I’ll be the first to admit my pride probably suffered the most. I hoped we had a solid Tier 2 film, but based on our acceptances, it would appear that we really have a solid Tier 3 film. If I’d known that going in, I could have planned better (or maybe made a better movie, har har!) but I always planned to hope for the best. (On the other hand, our short film is just under 17 minutes, which people constantly reminded us is difficult to program.) Also, I didn’t know any other way to approach festivals other than to start with the majors and work down.
I didn’t submit to all 56 fests on the list because frankly, I couldn’t afford it.
Unfortunately, the top down approach also meant that the bulk of the festival budget was spent earning rejections. From Chris’ list, I submitted our short to some of the Tier 1 fests, most of the Tier 2, and only a few of Tier 3. Only one festival from his list programmed our film – a Tier 3.
Ironically, the Tier 3 festivals are incredible fests that I really want to go to – fests like Hollyshorts and Sidewalk. I can hear the festival directors saying, “Hey! We’re not Tier 3!” and dammit, that’s how I feel about Connect To. These are festivals that I wasn’t aware of before I started submitting, but I’ve come to know about through the magical power of Withoutabox + Twitter. They are the fests I’ll be submitting my next film, The Summer Home to, regardless of tier-schmier. However I’d have never known about them until actively going through the rigors of submitting a film. The actual trial and error process created the level of obsession necessary to find the right fests.
The true cost breakdown
Overall, Connect To was entered into 23 festivals via Withoutabox, and two festivals directly – the only two, by the way, that didn’t charge an entry fee: Local Sightings, and Flyway Film Fest. It was programmed into eight festivals, and won five awards. Eight out of 25 actually seems like a fantastic acceptance rate.
Of the 23 festivals that charged an entry fee, one waived the fee because we were local, and the others ranged between $30 and $100. Assuming an average of $40, I estimate I paid $880 in submission fees alone, and another few hundred bucks for DVD replication, shipping and handling, and shipping/printing supplies. Totaling up my receipts, from April – October 2011 I spent nearly $1300 on festival submission fees, postage, and supplies – not including travel or any promotional materials that I also created (posters, postcards, and stickers).
I was able to travel to two of the festivals in California, averaging $300 each in round trip tickets, and a very expensive hospital bill when I ended up with strep throat before one of our screenings (we had also just finished shooting The Summer Home, my grandmother died, and I went to work the massive gaming expo at E3 two days later, so things were stressful).
Out of these total costs, not one penny came from our Kickstarter campaign for post-production costs. I could ask backers to help fund a sure thing – finishing our film and being a part of the resulting journey – but I couldn’t in good conscience ask people to fund what is essentially a gambling habit.
The Human Touch
Of the festivals we were accepted into, a few really made an impression. I fell in love with Dances With Films because of their “no-star” mantra. It was refreshing after getting rejected by top tier fests with big budgets. We were not only accepted, but they also chose one of my songs to use as pre-roll/lobby music. They were incredibly involved – I got constant emails from creators Michael and Leslie, and when we met in L.A., they not only knew my name, but they gave me a hug. All the warm fuzzies were incredibly worth it, and it felt like being home.
I became aware of Bill Ostroff’s FirstGlance Film Festival after following him on Twitter and being amazed at the constant championing of others’ Kickstarter campaigns. I started thinking of Kickstarter campaigns in terms of being able to get that Sunday boost from Bill and his #SupportIndieFilm hash-tag, and I was especially drawn in to the exciting finale for Victoria Wescott’s Locked In A Garage Band that had myself, Bill, Film Courage, Lucas McNelly, and others giddily RT’ing as the clock ran out. I knew then I was going to submit Connect To to FirstGlance, if nothing else to support them. We ended up winning Best Drama in the Short Narrative category – a phenomenal moment for us.
Here locally, we submitted to Tacoma Film Fest which was also on Chris’ list. This is a small but growing festival in a gorgeous old theatre committed to screening films you can’t see anywhere else like Sundance winner Circumstance and Martha Marcy May Marlene. Much like FirstGlance, organizer Emily Alm went above and beyond to connect with filmmakers. She found me on Facebook and Twitter, sent out timely emails and responded with alacrity. At the fest, the theatre was sold out for each screening (even for shorts!) and yet the atmosphere was wondrously intimate. It had a special vibe, as if we were part of a fiercely loyal secret club. We won Best Regional Film.
Hindsight is 20/20
If I could do it again, I’d …
• Make a film under 9 minutes. I find this difficult (time to make a feature!)
• Get a consultant involved with a very early cut of a short film to get his feedback while still editing. Even though we got Chris Holland a work in progress cut, his schedule is so busy that we didn’t receive his assessment until long after picture lock. For a first timer, it’s great to have a road map of suggested festivals, since the sheer amount of fests across the country (much less the world) is daunting. If you don’t know what fests you want to submit to, this is a huge help.
• Forget about Tier 1 festivals, or just submit to two or three of them, tops. Most people’s first films aren’t that great, and that’s okay. It’s more important to build an audience, get feedback, and let your work actually be seen by movie lovers. It’s not going to do that if you spend a year submitting to the majors and striking out.
• Accept that part of learning about individual festivals is submitting to them and either being accepted and attending, or being rejected. Every strategy guide says to get to know what festivals program and their past years – but that’s a daunting task for an independent small potatoes filmmaker. We found that even our research didn’t prepare us as well as actually traveling to the fests and experiencing them firsthand.
• Cherish the festivals that put filmmakers first. Keep in touch with them, thank the profusely.
• Submit to fests that offer prizes. Hey, we became award-winning filmmakers on this journey, and we’re very grateful for that! Submit to fests you like – ones that look like fun, that you would want to attend. If you’re not having fun, what’s the point?
We are going to take a page from the Thomas Beale Cipher, and release Connect To online. I have no interest in tying it up with potentially exclusive distribution agreements – I want as many people to see it as possible. I’m setting up accounts with Short Film Central and Renderyard Film, plan to submit it to Short of the Week and Mubi, and we’ll host it on Vimeo as well. We’re planning a modest launch with cast and crew live-blogging the film as it streams.
With The Summer Home, we’ll re-submit to most of the majors but also the smaller more intimate festivals we’ve come to know about. Remembering our goal keeps everything in perspective: the festival experience is essentially Step 1 of our distribution plan. Most importantly though, we learn, absorb, and move forward on a new project armed with these experiences. Adaptation and growth are the most important part of what’s next.
Wonder Russell is an actor, the Minister of Culture for @RunicGames, Falcor guardian, organic & vintage enthusiast, and proud Seattleite. She produced and acts in "Connect To" (2011) and is the writer/producer and actor in her current project, "The Summer Home." Connect To has been accepted into the Seattle True Independent Film Festival, Dances With Films Festival, and The Park City Film Music Festival....so far.