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What I have learned after a year of film festivals…

Posted on November 6th, 2012
Posted on November 6th, 2012

Article by: Coop Cooper

A.K.A. The Small Town Critic

It’s been one year since my short film “The Best Day” premiered and since then it has appeared in ten film festivals in Mississippi and across the country. Most of these festivals were small but I attended all of them and learned a lot about their functions. Each one has a unique style, method of operation and problems. Now that the festival run of my short is coming to a close, here is what I learned about film festivals (in general) over the course of one year…

  • Most smaller fests cater toward a niche. In most cases they appeal to local interests, showcasing work from local filmmakers, but they also survive by catering to particular genres such as horror or documentary. Without a niche, a small film fest is likely doomed.

  • The best fests do more than just show movies. They hold also panels featuring industry professionals giving advice on different aspects of filmmaking. They hold Q&As with filmmakers after screenings. They host parties and special events with musical entertainment. They hold awards ceremonies.

  • The best fests also excel at hospitality, especially toward the visiting filmmakers from out-of-town. The volunteers are well-trained, the facilities are well-prepared and the coordinators are out there making friends and shaking hands with every filmmaker, especially the rookie ones.

  • The best fests draw recognizable names and successfully integrate them fully into the program so they can speak to and socialize with minor league filmmakers in a friendly environment (I love to see a fest without velvet ropes separating different classes of filmmakers).

  • The best fests make filmmakers accessible to the public so they have a chance to get feedback and give advice to prospective artists.

  • The best fests have a dedicated staff that can effectively organize and problem-solve. The facilities are clearly marked and the staff in the information booth is well informed. The program guides are current and easy to understand/navigate. The films start on time and backups are on hand. All fests have technical issues, but the ones who are well prepared to quickly recover from a catastrophe fair the best.

  • The best fests communicate frequently with filmmakers before the fest, give clear directions on procedures and lock down the scheduling as far in advance as possible. They also have the filmmaker’s fest pass/credentials organized, easy to manage and labeled with names.

  • The best fests advertise, not only in local newspapers, but online and through grass-roots efforts. Many use special events or gimmicks to get an audience to the theater and encourage them to stay for films once they arrive. Catering towards the interests of locals (through music, local sports, local talent, etc.) is a very important step in a fest’s success.

  • When a fest grows larger it can offer more amenities to the filmmakers, the audience and the local community. For filmmakers it can provide more free perks (hotel rooms, meals, transportation, mixers, etc…). For the audience it can provide more entertainment (bands, meet-and-greets with filmmakers/celebrities, bigger facilities and more choices in programming, etc…). For the community a larger fest means a boost in the economy of the area and more world-of-mouth that could attract more tourism opportunities.

  • The best fests have refreshments available at all times. The most important item: Free water. A cash bar on location is also appreciated by nervous filmmakers who might need to relax a bit before their film is screened.

  • The best fests have gifts for the filmmakers, affectionately referred to as “swag bags.” While these are usually filled with flyers, keychains and other promotional junk that will probably end up in the trash, I’ve found the best swag bags usually contain snacks and bottled water that can quickly boost the energy of a tired filmmaker. Gift certificates to local businesses and CDs or DVDs featuring local musicians are also a welcome perk.

Not all film fests have the manpower or the funds to make all these things happen but each one is unique and has its own advantage over the others. If I were to pick one aspect that is the most important, I would say great hospitality can make even the smallest fest feel big.

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