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The Beginner’s Guide to Developing a Film Festival Strategy

Three steps to a winning festival strategy for first time filmmakers and those new to the festival scene.
January 9, 2024

John Hadity

Blog title with movie theater in the background

Sundance. South by Southwest. Cannes. TIFF. From local exposure to the global stage, entering film festivals can be a brilliant way for filmmakers to get their creations out there, especially for those new to the industry. 

Film festivals provide a platform to showcase your work to a wider audience and get it in front of industry professionals and critics. You’ll also have the chance to make connections and network with fellow filmmakers, which could lead to future work or collaborations. And entering a film festival is not purely about winning; simply being selected can lead to attention and recognition for you—and your film—and can even result in a distribution deal

But entering festivals can get costly. Many charge an entrance fee, and there are additional costs for travel, marketing, and accommodations if you plan to attend in person. You may also find that a scattergun approach to entering won’t help you achieve your specific objectives, so it’s worth having a strategy in place. In this article, I’ll explain a simple but handy 3-step approach: plan, ponder and prep.

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Step 1: Plan

The first step in crafting your festival strategy is research. Spend some time examining all the potential film festivals for your project—and don’t limit your scope to the most renowned festivals. Consider mid-range festivals with solid audiences, niche festivals celebrating specific genres that may align with your film, and prestigious festivals favored by industry insiders, which can bring kudos and recognition among smaller circles. 

When researching, it’s important to check the submission rules and technical specifications. For example, many festivals impose a limit on how long a film is eligible after completion—usually around 12 months—as well as requirements for display resolution, formatting, captions and subtitles, and more. 

During the planning phase, you should also determine your budget. Film festivals can come with a hefty price tag, including submission fees, travel and accommodations, and the cost for marketing your film, so don’t forget to allocate resources for any promotional materials you’ll need. It’s also helpful to know the dates and deadlines far in advance so that you can take advantage of the early-bird submission rates offered by many festivals!

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Step 2: Ponder

Once you know what your options are, it’s time to decide which festival or festivals are right for you, and why. Submission fees will quickly mount up, so prioritize the festivals that best suit your objectives. 

As you build out your festival strategy, think carefully about what you hope to achieve by showing your film. If you’re aiming for a distribution deal, look for festivals where you know sales agents, distributers and buyers are on the lookout for new films—for example, Sundance or AFI. If feedback and critique are important to you, focus on festivals where you know this happens, such as the Austin Film Festival, Slamdance and the Nashville Film Festival, which are renowned for their feedback. Pro tip: Talking to previous entrants can help you to build a more thorough picture.

Some festivals will require that your film is a premiere when they show it, so be clear about which festivals you deem worthy of that honor. You can extend the life of your premiere status by offering smaller festivals your European premiere or your Australasian premiere, for example. And don’t worry—screenings for the crew and talent don’t officially count as premieres.

Step 3: Prep

Research and consideration finished, it’s time to start applying for the festivals that fit your goals. 

A word of caution to savvy filmmakers: you don’t need to wait for a response from one festival before you apply to others. It can sometimes be months between submission and acceptance, so it’s helpful to have a few irons in the fire at once. Don’t go too wild with this approach, though. If you find you have to pull out of one film festival because another becomes more appealing, you could risk damaging your relationship with festival organizers. It is in your best interest to maintain positive relations with as many festival, and other industry contacts, as possible. You never know what future films you may want to submit!  

When it comes time to prepare your submission package, you’ll need to prepare the following: a cover letter and synopsis, a trailer, a Vimeo or YouTube link for a direct digital upload, and stills from your film, among other things. If you plan to attend the festival in person, you’ll also need business cards, flyers and marketing materials to hand out.

And just as you would customize a resume for a job application, you’ll want to tailor your submission approach to align with each individual festival. Consider the unique characteristics and audience for that particular location and genre, and highlight aspects of your film that are likely to appeal to those particular viewers and programming staff. 

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In the run up to the festival, use social media to promote your film and its festival screenings; social media is a great way to share behind-the-scenes content and trailers to generate buzz. Even if the majority of your followers won’t be able to attend, the fact that your film has been selected adds acclaim and prestige.

Lastly, before the festival takes place, make sure you are ready to answer questions about your film. Bloggers, podcasters, media and more will be on location—use this time to your advantage! Outside of promoting your project, remember to be open to receiving feedback and critiques from festival audiences and industry experts. And don’t forget, distributors, sales agents, and financiers will be there, too, so have a clear strategy for negotiating distribution deals if the opportunity arises. 

Film festivals can be invaluable for filmmakers looking to gain exposure, industry recognition, distribution, or feedback. With the right strategy and planning, you’ll increase your chances of selection and make the most of your festival experience.

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