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5 Lessons On Filmmaking

Advice for Filmmakers from Someone who Ran a Festival.

Neil Rolland speaks with Laura Arten at Bootleg NYC, Sept 2013 - Photo Credit +Phil Gilley 

A while ago, I wrote a piece about the 10 key lessons I had learned as a filmmaker. Point seven was this:

Festivals are massively important and also highly irrelevant at the same time.

I then went onto explain the reasons for this oxymoron. And of course, part of that was informed from being on both sides of the film festival universe.

You see, from 2008, through till 2013, working with some incredible people, we headed up the Bootleg Film Festival — a traveling event that played at a variety of cities on both sides of the Atlantic. I retired the festival after it’s last showing in NYC (that announcement is here), but for five years, along with an incredible team, we hustled hard.

During that time, we programmed hundreds of films from the many, many thousands of submissions we received. They truly ran the gamut from bad to the truly inspiring, to total brilliance. Through that period, I learned an awful lot about filmmaking as an art and a business, and these are the key things I discovered.

1. Don’t ask for waivers.

Rule one. If you forget everything else, remember this. Burn it into memory: DO NOT ASK A FESTIVAL FOR A FEE WAIVER.

Why? Because most often, they won’t give it to you. And they’ll ignore the links you included in your email. And possibly ignore you forevermore.

You see, when you ask a festival for a free pass because you spent all your submission funds already, you’re saying that the festival didn’t count high enough in your consideration when you had the money. But now that you’re broke from submitting to Tribeca and Sundance (and not getting in), you need them to cut you a favor. Intentional or not, you’re being obnoxious.

If you want free festival entries, target those festivals — there are lots — just Google it. But if you want to screen your film in a fancy venue, where people have given up (usually) about six months of their spare time to select and promote the work, you need to pay for it. I can’t speak for any other festival, but Bootleg always lost money. Always. Why? Because venues are expensive, as is equipment hire, printing costs, administration etc. etc. In fact, it’s like filmmaking — time consuming, exhausting and costs way more money than most anyone realizes.

So again, unless you want to piss a festival off (which you don’t), DO NOT ASK FOR A WAIVER. Instead, be selective, budget for those festivals and charm the pants off them with a kickass movie.

2. You’ve got five minutes.

You know how it is, you watch a movie on Netflix, and if within five little minutes — 300 seconds — the film hasn’t got you, you’re already looking for something else to enjoy. Well that’s exactly the same when it comes to selecting screeners for a film festival. It’s rough, but if it’s boring, the team moves on.
It’s funny, but it used to feel like a guilty secret — that as a someone who has sat through many, many films, if something was not working within that precious window of time, it was done. I just could not force myself to watch it. It didn’t matter if the film was nine minutes long or ninety, if it didn’t land, I judged it down and went on to the next one.

I then started talking to programmers of other festivals — both regional and international — and the response was the same; if the opening five minutes are boring, chances are the rest of the film will be, and so everybody was turning it off after five.

Okay — that’s not the whole truth. I initially started at 15 (especially for features), thinking that some films just needed to get into their stride. But that changed after I spent too much time on films I knew we wouldn’t program inside of a few frames. And besides, you’ve got a pile of films to get through yet — even if this film is going to go supernova in the last thirty minutes, there’s still too much shoe-gazing to get through first, so tough love on that one.

So my advice? When it comes to telling your story, go one of two routes; Shakespeare or shock.

That is either treat your opening five minutes the way that Shakespeare spent his opening beats; give the movie a prelude where we set the rules, tone, theme (and often the key plot). One of my personal favorite prologues is Raising Arizona, but you could take 2001: A Space Odyssey or even the famous Star Wars crawl as an example.

If you want to go shock, think The Hurt Locker or Scream — flip the switch on the audience and compel them to continue watching.

Either way, consider this when writing, shooting and especially editing your film. It doesn’t need to be flashy, just give us a reason to keep watching.

3. Filmmakers who show up to festivals usually do better.

I’m not even going to pretend about this; if you show up, the organizers love that. Other filmmakers love it too — it means that they get to meet you, to hear about your film, share war stories, etc. etc. And on top of that, you stand a much better chance of winning an award. Why? Because photos of the ceremony always look better if the winning filmmaker is actually in them. Of course, your film has to be great. Or at the very least, good enough to win. But if you’re not in the room, you’re cutting your award chances in half, or worse, to zero.

In addition, when you show up, festival staff love to see you engage. It means you’re enjoying yourself, and all the sleepless nights they put in were worth it to see you smile.

I’ve been to too many festivals where, for whatever reason, filmmakers are less visible than the staff. This is crazy. I get that nerves will often play a big part in this, but when you get other filmmakers in the room, hustling hard, shaking hands and flashing smiles, they’re the people that get remembered. And I’m not talking about obnoxious or pushy people (everybody wants to forget an asshole), I’m talking about people who engage on a human and intellectual level.

So show up, be interesting (and more importantly, interested) and the rest will fall into place.

4. Tell people that your movie is showing. Lots.

I have never been more surprised than by the breed of filmmaker who avoids social media. I mean, to me, it’s counter-intuitive: you make a film because you want to share a story with (usually) the highest volume of people possible. So filmmakers who get selected to a festival and, you know,don’t talk about it on Twitter, Facebook, to their friends at the bar; that grates.

Again, a festival is a celebration of artists and their work. But so many filmmakers through the time we ran Bootleg seemed to get amnesia when it came to letting folks know about it. Whilst we were getting sore fingers and thumbs writing about or tweeting trailers on the movies we loved, many of the same filmmakers would go mute. It just didn’t make any sense.

I’m not going to postulate the who’s and the why’s — that’s for those people to ruminate on — but as a filmmaker, you are your first (and often only) publicist. You get noisy or you get ignored.

So when a festival picks you up, be proud and tell everybody. Because we all love success stories, no matter how big or modest the achievement. As human beings, seeing those we’re linked to (no matter how tenuous) doing well, it fills us with pride and hope. And we could all do with a little extra dose of hope somedays, right?

So shine your own light a little when get accepted to a festival. The victories don’t happen often, but when they do, folks (and the festivals) like to know that word is getting out.

5. Most films will not find distribution after their festival run.

This is that cold-water treatment part of this article: just because you played festivals does not give you a pass to distribution. I know. It sucks.

The reasons can be as simple or as complex as you want to make them out to be — too many films out there; not enough avenues; the struggle to get a sales agent, and so on, and so on.

I know the dream — you send it to Sundance, Harvey Weinstein wanders into the film, he’s blown away by the artistry, and instantly whisks you out to lunch where he scribbles a million-dollar, multi-film deal on the back of a napkin. I know this dream, because it was the same one that the indie film scene of the nineties sold to me. But this isn’t the nineties anymore (thankfully), and it’s time to hustle.
For me, the main reason not getting a deal is much more simple: most filmmakers don’t know what to do with their films after the festival run.

Oftentimes, filmmakers would email me after the event, asking what I think they should do next. The ride is rough, and it’s hard to know where to take a film, especially when you didn’t get that Weinstein lunch.

The fact is, when you don’t know have a plan, you usually flail. So get your shit together figure it out before you go to festivals.

Treat the festivals as part of the process — not the only strategy.

A rudimentary plan is to usually run the film at festivals between 12-18 months, then hopefully distribute wider after that. But getting into festivals is one thing, getting picked up is another. It can be like trying to infiltrate Jay Z’s inner circle. Unless you’re the hottest talent out there, or a rock-solid business investment (and how do you prove either of those?), game over.

Instead, think about all the options available; VOD, ad-supported, theatrical, even DVD still — there are a bunch of ways to get the film seen.

I’ll be honest, self-distribution and online-distribution is still the wild west, and getting onto the big platforms (Netflix & iTunes) is again, really difficult. There are distributors who run aggregation models (whereby they pick up the rights to a ton of films and put them out at once, hence lowering costs), but they can often end up burying your film amongst a mass-pile of other movies from people just like you.

Alternatively, you can go it alone, selling your film on your own site, or through a solid online distribution platform such as Vimeo or Distrify (disclosure: Distrify are a former sponsor of Bootleg Film Festival), but again, these aren’t always ideal either. The work needed to drive attention is hard (think crowd-funding-hard), and the returns are usually tiny (if anything).

Since we wrapped up Bootleg Film Festival, a couple of us have started Cinema Zero in an attempt to bridge the uncertain valley between festivals and distribution. It’s early days, and whilst we’re still working out the best way to bring noise to fresh films, we’re confident it has a place in film discovery.
But whatever the plan is, be sure you have one. And the proposals can be different for every film you make. For example, I have three features I’m putting out to festivals over the next two years, and the eventual distribution structure for each of them is different. Why? Because each film is different.

In the past, I’ve put features out on YouTube and VOD services, whilst other films I’ve made have had theatrical and DVD releases. The truth is, every film has its own audience, you just have to work out who they are, where they are and how to reach them.

A festival is sometimes the only place to share with them, and that’s fine. But sometimes it’s just the beginning, and if you get smart about it, you can really launch a movie at a festival.

This post originally appeared on Medium