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The Guerilla Filmmakers Movie Blueprint
The Guerilla Filmmakers Movie Blueprint

Chris Jones

Chris Jones has been making micro-budget features since he and Genevieve Jolliffe made The Runner in 1992. In 2009, his short film “Gone Fishing” was Oscars shortlisted, won the prestigious Producers Guild of America’s Best Short Film and collected over 40 international awards. He co-authored the bestselling Guerilla Film Makers Handbook in 1996, and also wrote the hugely successful Guerilla Film Makers Movie Blueprint. On top of writing and making films, Chris teachers new filmmakers and runs his business from the historic Ealing Film Studios in London. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2003

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Book chapter

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Film Festivals Blueprint

DOI: 10.5040/9781501340352.ch-023
Page Range: 479–491
Creating opportunity for people worldwide.

Film Festivals and Film Markets are often confused by new film makers. Markets are where films are Traded. Festivals are venues where are screened for pleasure To The general public, and hopefully one or Two media Types such as distributors. Festivals are often set up and run by film lovers who want To meet film makers and screen new and interesting films. They are an essential part of the marketing for new film maker’s movies, are a lot of fun and you can even win awards.

Reasons to go to a film festival…

Because it will platform your film…

Being selected for a prestigious festival, or better still winning awards, will give you something to put on your press pack and posters. Those little fig leaf thingies with Winner of… and Official Selection… we have all seen them. You will also get press reviews, hopefully good ones, all of which will help with international sales and platforming YOU as a film maker.

Because they will love your movie…

It’s a bitter pill but your movie is probably at best a pale imitation of your aspirations at the onset of production. The great thing about festivals is that the audiences are very forgiving of the weaknesses in your film, especially if you have tried to do something original or brave. Festival audiences are especially pleased when you have travelled halfway round the planet to introduce the film. Soak up that applause baby!

Because you might win…

Everyone loves a winner. Not only might you get a small golden statuette on a lump of onyx, but you might even win some cash. Cash prizes are often attached to some kind of theatrical deal on which you must spend the money.

Because you might meet a distributor…

Major festivals are often attended by local distributors on the look out for new product. There’s no better place for a distributor to see your film than in an enthusiastic, packed, festival screening.

Because you need a break…

It’s true, you need a holiday. Choose festivals in places that you want to visit and not places that simply invite you. If you are a Brit, the British Council may cover some expenses, the festival covering the remainder.

Because you will make new friends…

You will meet and bond with other film makers who share the common experience of surviving a low budget film. You might also meet and make friends with more established film makers. These friendships often flourish and friends can become allies. Oh and you might even watch some movies too!

Reasons not to go to a festival…

Because you need to write that new script…

Most new film makers are broke. It’s quite a novelty then, to be whisked around the world on other people’s expense accounts, to venues where people tell you just how amazing you are as a film maker. Rather than receiving a year long ego brush (as you become a festival junkie), you should be targeting a major festival where you will do well, using that to platform you as ‘talent’, then set up meetings to get a deal for your next film. It’s a year between ‘new and hot’ and ‘so last year… ‘There’s always someone ‘newer’ and ‘hotter’ behind you.

Because you can’t show it…

Most festivals only accept films on 35mm. If you shot on another format (DV, S16mm etc) you will need to make a costly blow up (which you might need to do anyway). Some festivals now project video, but not all. The tide is turning and in time, digital video projection will replace 35mm but for now (2002), festivals still want a 35mm print.

Because you are busy…

It’s all happened for you and you are on your next film. Movies are like love affairs, as soon as you have a new one, the last one seems like an albatross around your neck. Remember a lot of people helped you get to where you are at and part of your deal was to platform the film for them, as well as you. If you can’t attend, ask others (DoP, writer, editor, cast) to go in your place.

Film Festivals are where you get to show your film to audiences around the world, maybe win prizes, get press, travel, and generally enjoy the creative fruits of your labour.

Film festivals are one of the major perks of being an independent film maker. They generally run from anywhere between a few days and a couple of weeks and are located in major towns and cities around the world. They are often run by people who love movies, are attended by people who love movies, and also attended by distributors, sales agents and talent agents. Film festivals are about the best audiences you could ever wish for your film and accordingly, provide you with the best screenings.

Most festivals require your film to be supplied on a 35mm print, virtually none accepting 16mm prints. Digital film makers who don’t have 35mm prints face the problem that some festivals won’t accept their film, but with every day the tide is turning and by the time you read this it is quite possible that all film festivals will be screening digital content through a digital projector off DVD, MiniDV, Digibeta or a new HD format.

So how do you get to film festivals and which ones should you attend as it often seems that every large town on the planet has a film festival?

Simple plan

Firstly, you need a plan. What do you want to get out of your festival experiences and exposure? In no particular order, here are a few things…

An ego brush, it’s great to screen your film to an audience who is simply dying to love it. Great press, unless your film is totally incompetent, someone somewhere will recognise the rough diamond and write really nice things about it. Distribution, many of the major festivals double up as mini markets and venues for talent scouts. A holiday, yes you need it, you want it, enjoy it. New pals, festivals are a magnet for other film makers with whom you can share war stories and get drunk with in the wee hours. Awards, many festivals carry awards, some of which have cash attached (everyone loves an award winning film and film maker).

Festivals fall into two rough categories. Primary ‘A’ list festivals, such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes (festival, not market) and Toronto. These festivals are tough to get into and can directly lead to film makers careers being launched and their films securing distribution. You need to apply to all these festivals and you will do well to get into any.

Film Festival flow chart

The second category works on a kind of sliding scale of importance based on your needs. For example, on my third movie Urban Ghost Story (UGS), the Edinburgh International Film Festival was important. UGS was shot in London but set in Glasgow and premiering at Edinburgh helped seal the illusion that it was a Scottish film. It was also pivotal in securing a respect able talent agent for my business partner and director of UGS, Genevieve Jolliffe. Ask yourself… do you want to visit the place? … do they have awards? … is it a genre festival or specialised group festival (for example Horror festival or Gay and Lesbian festival). These ‘B’ list festivals rarely lead directly to a career launch or a distribution deal but they often help. Never discount the possibility that even the most obscure, far flung festival might lead to that chance encounter with a person who may well be pivotal in the launch of your career or movie.

The web is a terrific resource here, not only at the British Council website, but every festival worth attending now has it’s own site, often with maps, hotel guides etc. Do your research!

Rule Brittania!

If you are a British film maker, you will be in the enviable position of being able to work with the British Council. The British Council is Government funded and its sole purpose is to promote British culture abroad. The upshot is that if you make a film, the British Council will work with you to place that film at foreign festivals, often covering much of the expenses of attending, organising it, and even taking care of print shipping. If you are not a British film maker, then you will have to do much of the legwork yourself or do as many American film makers do and hire a Producer’s rep or PR company (although because of the British Council we have yet to do this).

So the movie’s completed. First off, contact the British Council and invite them to a screening or send them a VHS of your movie. Follow up with phone calls or a meeting to discuss a strategy for your film’s festival run.

Based on which month you are currently in, you can draw up a plan of attack of the festivals you want to attend, targeting the ‘A list festivals first. You only have one world premiere to give away, so choose carefully. Once your film is on the festival circuit, and if it is at the very least an interesting film, you’ll find that programmers from one festival will attend another festival to find films for their own festival. This way, you will start to receive invitations to many festivals you may not have even considered.

A word of warning …

You may find yourself turning into a festival junkie and attending festivals simply because you’re invited – travelling and attending festivals takes a physical, emotional and financial toll when you should be spending your time working on your career options and planning the next film. The other problem, which is less apparent, is that of print availability. Each and every 35mm print of your film costs about £1 k. Clearly, you’re not going to have a shed load of them.

A print can only ever be in one physical place at a time and often will need a week to get to a festival and a week to get to the next festival (assuming the print doesn’t get stuck in customs as it often can). The upshot is that you can’t just attend any festival, as you have to check print availability. If you have two or three prints knocking around the film festival circuit, just monitoring checking and chasing these prints can turn into a full-time job (especially when you consider you may well have to send press materials, EPKs, etc as well as organise your own travelling, and sometimes, accommodation).

To add to your headaches, a print has a certain life and often starts to fall apart after going to ten or more festivals. Who knows how the projectionist will treat your print at the Outer Mongolian Festival? Occasionally I have been to a festival where the print is quite old and been horrified to discover that the film had been re-perforated! On the whole though, the audiences will tolerate this as they are getting to see a unique film that they would never see if it were not showing in the festival.

Applications

Depending on the festivals that you approach, some will require you to fill out a form and send it along with a VHS tape and sometimes an application fee, usually $30-50, but it can be more. If the British Council has been involved in negotiating the festival attendance, they will often take care of this for you. If a festival accepts your film, the first thing to do is check your print availability and ensure that the print will get to the festival in plenty of time.

Shipping a print to a festival costs around $100, but there is an unwritten rule which stipulates that a festival will pay for the shipping one way. If you can get your print to a festival, the festival should pay for it to go to the next festival, who will then pay for it to go to the next festival and so on.

Separately from the print, you should send copies of your paper press pack, your EPK (Electronic Press Kit), a couple of VHS screening tapes and DVDs if available, posters and any other promotional material you feel is relevant.

Who is going to go?

OK, assuming it isn’t impounded in customs, your print arrives at the festival on time, your publicity material has arrived a week earlier and everything is set. The final variable is who, if anyone, is going to attend and represent the film makers. Festivals love Directors. It’s sad but true that festivals perceive directors as creative gods and producers as glorified tea-makers. The upshot is that the festival will often fly and accommodate the director aka film-god but decline travelling expenses for the producer aka tea-maker (although they will almost always accommodate anyone from a film who manages to make it to the festival, even if that ends up being at the foot of the director’s bed).

Let’s assume the director is going, all expenses paid by the festival and the British Council, and the Producer is also attending paying their own way to get there but being accommodated by the festival. (You may ask how the festival can afford to do this. Firstly, they will sell tickets for your film of which you will get zero. Secondly, they will have corporate sponsors that will often include airlines and hotel chains who donate a number of flights and rooms.)

Don’t forget your toothbrush!

Before you leave there are a number of things to check. Obviously your passport, but also whether you need any jabs (especially for far-flung equatorial festivals), fill your bags with as many posters and flyers as you can carry plus ten VHS or DVDs. You may also have produced some unique and tricksy publicity materials to help your film stand out from the crowd. As ever, you will have announced this ‘exciting breakthrough’ on your website which you will keep updated whenever possible.

Even though you have dressed like a slob for the last two years whilst making the movie, now is the time to replace your wardrobe. You are what you wear. Most of the time you can wear casual clothing but you will need some smart clobber for those fancy parties and premieres. For your Q&A wear something that stands out, not the usual posh black that most media types gravitate too. I have a number of offensive Hawaiian shirts that certainly raise an eyebrow!

Your limo awaits

When your plane touches down you will be greeted by a representative of the festival who will take you to either the festival HQ or your hotel. You’ll be given a festival pass to identify you, some local maps and a festival booklet outlining all the films screening and where and when they can be seen.

Depending on the festival, you will then either be left to your own devices or be introduced to a festival rep who will act as a kind of assistant, letting you know of special events and screenings. Most of the time you will be given an itinerary which will include evening parties, screenings of your film, (which you will be expected to attend), Q&A sessions and more often than not at least one formal sit-down dinner with the festival organisers, local dignitaries and one or two other film makers or attending actors. Depending on the festival, there be anywhere between a handful and a roomful of film makers in attendance with whom you may well form allegiances, make friends and get drunk.

Make first contact

As soon as you arrive at the festival, it’s a good idea to track down the press department where you can let them know of your complete availability for all forms of press, you can quiz them about the possibilities of fly-postering for your film and also ° leave them with additional press packs and posters. Some festivals will look down on vandalistic style fly postering, whereas others will encourage it as it simply serves their end (to get as many paying bums on seats as possible). You’ll probably spend one or two evenings with smaller posters and flyers, a staple gun and car, driving around the town…

On a technical note, it is always worth dropping by the projectionist and checking that they know in which aspect ratio your film is to be presented. Also ask them to turn up the volume, I have never been to a screening where the sound is too loud, but I have been to plenty where it’s been too quiet.

Why am I REALLY here?

Whilst attending the festival, aside from having lots of fun, there are two basic agendas. One is to artistically support the film, the other to pursue the commercial potential of your film and yourselves as valuable talent.

Artistically supporting the film will generally be the job of the director, and will entail doing newspaper, magazines, TV, radio interviews etc, introducing each and every screening of the film and doing a Q&A session at the end. Your introduction can set the tone and your nervousness on stage with the spotlight on you will endear the audience to you, so camp it up ‘Yeah baby!’ The Q&A is an opportunity to perform and be seen by the talent spotters in the audience.

Think of your Q&A as something akin to stand up comedy and not film school lectures. This is a business of entertainment. Following the Q&A, audience members sometimes like to come up to you, congratulate you and offer you their comments as to what they liked or disliked about the film.

At the same time as the director prancing about on stage and generally camping it up, the producer should be working hard with the festival to target potential distributors, TV reps and agents etc, who are in attendance and to convince these people to go and watch your film. In advance you might want to have called the major players (assuming this is a major festival) such as Miramax etc., to see who, if anyone, is attending, and get their cell phone number.

If you are lucky enough to convince a distributor to attend a screening, you have a golden opportunity to go out for dinner after it and attempt to cut a deal whilst the movie is still fresh in their minds and goodwill is at it’s highest. This doesn’t happen too often but it can happen. Only once have I managed to cut a deal directly following a screening at a festival (and then no middleman could take an unwelcome cut).

There will be a number of screenings, usually between two and five, starting anywhere between 8 am and midnight. Often the festival organisers will schedule these screenings over three to five days so that you, the film maker, will be able to attend all of the screenings without having to give up two weeks of your life. They always think you are busy on your next project and don’t realise that the festival is an opportunity to leave the country and the debt collectors behind.

Your presence, no matter how small or large the festival, should always be felt and your movie should always feel like a MUST SEE. You might want to consider hiring a professional publicist who will work aggressively on your behalf to place your movie at the top of the media coverage pile. It’s a good idea if you manage to get into a festival such as Sundance, or Toronto (the ‘A’ list festivals) but for smaller ones you might well save the couple of grand it will cost you to hire such a pro. You can do much of it yourself, assuming you have the energy.

You might want to throw a party to introduce your film, but that is also expensive. You’ll need to hire a venue, organise tickets and invites (and you only landed yesterday!) and worse still you’ll need to pay for the booze (unless you get a sponsor) as you just can’t ask people to buy their own drinks, especially the journalists.

Final thoughts on your way home

After all the screenings are completed you’ll be whisked off to the airport and flown home and the print will stay put awaiting shipment to the next festival. Hopefully, the experience will have left you wiser, with greater insight into the strengths and failings of your film. You might have some good reviews and press quotes, plus an address book full of phone numbers of new pals (who you will inevitably bump into at a festival on the other side of the planet six months later). You’ll also have greater confidence in your public speaking abilities, oh and a whopper of a hangover.

Upon reflection … Prior to completing your film, you will have started thinking about film festivals and perhaps may have even applied to some. Some people may advise you that this is a good plan. I do not. Complete your film in as much time as it takes, never rush to make it to a festival, there is always next year. The only important thing is to make the best film possible with the limited resources that you have. One cheap resource you will have in abundance is your own time. Hopefully this extra time will give you the chance to reflect upon your film and make changes in the edit so that you maximise the potential of the story you conceived, the rushes you shot and your initial aspirations when you decided to make the film in the first place. You can’t rush genius, doubly true when you ain’t even a genius!

It’s been mentioned several times in this book… but hey, let’s drum it home. Always be prepared to answer that simple yet defining question ‘so what do you want to make next?’, especially when asked by a rep from some company like Miramax. The process of making your film will have left you close to being comatose, but aside from finishing your film (a feat in itself), you need to have developed your next film! Should you then meet that all important person at a festival who asks you THE question, not only do you have an answer, you have a script in your backpack.