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Getting Your Film into Festivals

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So you made a short film, and now you have no idea what to do with it. You probably want it to be seen in theatres, with an audience, otherwise you have a really expensive youtube link to send to grandma, who will like it no matter what.

If you do a quick search on Withoutabox and Fillmfreeway (the only two film submission websites), you will see thousands of film festivals, from the smallest film festival in the tiniest town, all the way up to the most famous, most recognized, huge film festival markets (Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, etc.). Where do you start? What festival is right for you? How much money am I going to spend on submitting, and is it worth it? Which festivals should I go to if I get in?

I have two films making their New York premieres at festivals this week. The first one is “Vacation Rental,” which is premiering at Newfest in New York City (top tier LGBT festival), and the second is “Sins of the Son,” which is premiering tomorrow at the Adirondack Film Festival in Glens Falls, New York (amazing smaller festival that is all about treating the filmmakers like royalty-hotels, breakfasts, swag bags, the whole deal).

For my first film “Hide/Seek,” I spent about $1000 on festival submissions, at around $50 average a pop (some festivals are $20 to submit a short film, some can be just around $100). I submitted only to festivals I had heard of without doing any research or knowing anything about what they program, what they focus on, and what they have shown in the past. I just thought “hey, I like my movie, so everyone else is gonna like it too” without any consideration for genre, running time, festival location, etc. Lesson learned. It got into some festivals, got nominated for some awards, and was a fun experience. But I went about it all wrong.

I’ve also been to film festivals where there are like four people in the audience, and those four people are the other directors of the shorts in your block. Good times!

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For “Vacation Rental,” the second film I wrote and directed, I wanted to learn from my mistakes and be smarter about how I approached marketing it. As I wrote it, I decided to reverse engineer it to the film festival market (everyone wants laurels, right?). I wrote the film to be under 15 minutes (other people’s advice), with a simple story, one location, made it genre specific (horror, lgbt), tossed in some nudity, I hired a consultant to draft a list of 10 film festivals it was right for, and I submitted only to those. I created a website and an instagram, and built followers. I focused on 2nd and 3rd tier festivals in the horror and lgbt genre (specifically “short film festivals”, focused only on ones close by that I would actually ATTEND for networking purposes) researched the film festivals before I submitted, looked at the kinds of films they scheduled the year before, and submitted to the ones I thought would be perfect. Some were accepted, some were not. For every “official selection” email, there are four or five “Unfortunately you weren’t accepted blah blah blah we love your film blah blah blah.” Rejection sucks. I wanted to write back “I hate your ass face,” but instead said “thank you,” as I will most likely be submitting another film to that festival in the future.

But you know what’s really cool? When you do get into a bigger film festival and you see the film you wrote and directed up on a huge screen in front of a lot of people. There is no better feeling of accomplishment. All the blood, sweat and tears, and now you get to sit back and watch it with other people.

Over the last four years, I have experienced all sides of film festivals, the good, the bad, the waste of time, the overhyped, and the excitement and rejection involved around getting in.

So here is my advice as you begin your journey to create your own work:

  • If you are writing a short, keep it under 15 minutes. If you go over 15, it’s harder for a festival to program it, as they would prefer to program a bunch of shorter films in a block as opposed to one long film

  • Add a line item in your budget for film festivals. Should be between $500 and $1000. The whole point of doing a short is to get it seen, right? Don’t skimp on this.

  • Target festivals that have programmed shorts like yours in the past. But be smart. There are tiny film festivals where your film will play in front of only 4 people, and bigger festivals that are all about filmmakers and audiences, that are great at promotion, will do q&a’s, meet and greets, parties, and even put up all filmmakers in a hotel. How do you know? Go on the submission websites, look at “100 best reviewed festivals” and things like that. You don’t have to shoot for Sundance.

  • Submit mostly to film festivals near you. This is important for networking. New York has dozens of festivals. Why submit to Chicago unless you are going to actually go (they don’t pay for airfare, although sometimes festivals pay for hotels, which is cool). You want to go and network, and invite people you know (agents, friends, other filmmakers), and keeping it local is the best for this.

  • What is your goal? Is it getting “Official selection” laurels, or is it to win awards? If you want to have a better shot at awards, target very small festivals, as they tend to give lots of those out. Sometimes they give money and prizes to the winner.

  • Create a website and social media handles for your film. When you submit, this makes a huge difference, as the festival programmers will look at these.

  • Design an amazing poster for your film.

  • Plan on spending a year and a half or more on this short film, from pre-production, to post, to doing a festival circuit. Your actors may work for two days, but you will be with this project for a long time, so make sure it is a project you love and want to do.

Here are some websites and books that I find useful:

“Film Festival Secrets” by Christopher Holland.

“No Film School” podcast

Good luck!!!!

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This is Why Your Self Tapes Suck

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I’ve had many actors book tv and film jobs off of self tapes.   I’ve had even more actors send in dozens of tapes (hundreds?), only to never hear anything.   In the casting world, it’s easy to ask anyone and everyone to “send in a tape” from wherever they are, and weed out the ones you want to bring in the casting room for one of their precious audition slots.   Self taping is becoming more of a “pre-pre-read,” and it allows casting directors to open up a wider net, to scroll through the videos on their computer or phone whenever they have time (sometimes the director is looking too—wink wink), to decide whether an actor is good/right for the role after only hearing a few lines (as opposed to several scenes in the room).    Sometimes your slate is all they need to hear to decide “Nope.”  

This is why it’s more important than ever for you to be firing on all cylinders when you send in a self tape, whether it’s through a self-submission, or through your agent and manager.   I mean you need good lighting, sound, acting (duh), choices, be “camera ready,” understand tone, be prepared and memorized, have a strong point of view, the whole deal.  It should be as if you are stepping on set.   These little .mov files are everything.  Get. Good. At. It.  Don’t put mediocre work out into the world.  Treat every tape like it’s being seen by Martin Scorsese. Seriously.   ESPECIALLY if your agents and managers are watching it.  How you do on your self tape shows them how good/bad you are at auditioning, which directly results in how hard they push you to get into the room.  You feel me?

I am by no means a casting director, but have been on the receiving end of hundreds of self-tapes, both through directing a few short films, asking actors to show me their self tapes, being a coach all these years, and asking agents and managers their thoughts.    Let’s fix this, shall we?

Top reasons your self tapes suck:

1.  The Slate From Hell.   You know those “Actor Slate” things on Actors Access?  You can tell an awful lot about someone from just having them look into camera and say their name.  Don’t be crazy.  First impressions are everything.   You either seem like a nice, friendly person you want to hang out with on set for a few weeks, or you look like you strangle cats in your backyard.   For fun. On Sundays.  Just be normal.

2.    Lack of Prep.   Treat this like you are walking into a screen test.  You know how they say your eyes are the windows to your soul?  Well, your eyeLIDS are windows to… well, sucking (oh snap!).  The more you look down at your script, the more you put up a wall, and the more the viewer drops out.  If you aren’t connected, how can you expect the viewer to be?  This is one of the few things you CAN control.  Don’t drop the ball.  Don’t give them a reason to skip over your tape.  Memorize your script, but have it in your hand.   Be so familiar with the scene that you can really listen and connect to the reader.    Grab the viewer by the *&*% and hold their attention.  It’s crucial.   The most important parts of a scene are the little moments between the lines, where the thoughts form, the discoveries happen.   That is when most actors look down to grab their lines.   So.. no more of that, cool? 

3.  Hot Mess.  Why you look so tired?   Maybe comb your hair?   You should look like you are stepping onto set—hair, makeup, wardrobe, the whole deal.   Not that you are just returning from an all night bender with your 80 year old roommate.   Get some rest, put on some foundation (you too, guys), wear clothes that fit you and colors that flatter you.  It matters.   Always remember that someone else will be putting in more effort than you, will be hitting up Drybar the second it opens, and will be going to the Mac store to find some “male foundation.” (just me?)

4.     Blair Witch Lighting.   Chill with the overhead lighting, the iphone flashlight lighting, and everything else that makes you look like you murdered your best friend.    A properly lit tape makes the casting director WANT to watch you, because it lights up your eyes, flatters you, gives you dimension, and takes out all of those crazy shadows.   Look up 3 point lighting on Youtube.   Play around with it.   

5.  Your Reader is Loud and Sucks.   Love you, mean it.   You need to have a lavalier microphone that sticks onto your shirt and plugs into your camera.  Please?  Buy a $25 dollar one on Amazon and plug it into your iphone.  Good sound fixes a lot of things.  Bad sound makes a nice looking video unwatchable.   I know your mom/roommate/sister/best friend was an extra on All My Children 10 years ago, but if they are standing right next to the camera, they need to chill with the shouting.   The focus should be YOU, your ACTING, your CONNECTION, your EYES, not the wild animal that you are reading with.  

6.  Handmaid’s Tale Framing.  You know how they shoot actors on Handmaid’s Tale, and put their closeup in the lower left corner of the screen?  Awesome on that show.  So good. So bad in your tape.  So bad.  Keep it simple.  A nice medium shot, chest or shoulders up, with you in the center, a little room above your head.  

6.  Cheap things you need to have.   Soft box lighting, lavalier microphone, tripod, iphone tripod adaptor clip, gray or blue sheet for a backdrop, editing software (iMovie or Final Cut Pro), a friend who never gets tired of reading with you, and some good pomade.

Think of it this way: A breakdown goes out for a small scene in a big film.   Every agent and manager in town submits their clients for it.    Let’s say they receive 2,000 submissions.   Of those they ask 100 actors to send in a self tape.  Now switch sides and imagine you are the casting director.  Let’s say you are watching 100 tapes of people saying the SAME LINES.   50 won’t be memorized enough, 10 will have bad lighting, 20 bad sound, 15 will look like they just stepped out of a hurricane, and 5 will have it memorized, coached, professionally lit, have great sound, BE RIGHT FOR IT,and give the casting director/producer/directors no choice but to hire you.     The production value will be terrific, and people will all want to watch your tape.  

See what I’m saying? Now don’t go sending me emails saying how the “Stranger Things” guy sent in a self tape while he was sick in bed. Kay?   

Love,

Matt

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