9 Ways to Get Noticed by International Film Fests: TIFF Programmer Brad Deane
TIFF's "Deane of Admissions" reveals what it takes to navigate and make your mark on the international festival scene.
For the past seven years, Brad Deane has been programming films for one of the world’s biggest festivals. As a gatekeeper for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), his beat is the Cinémathèque, a carefully curated international program of independent, experimental, and avant-garde cinema which is both classic and contemporary, acclaimed and emerging.
“Here’s what I look for: films that have vision and are taking it somewhere.”
"This isn’t just about programming the French New Wave," Deane told No Film School. "It’s programming today’s art-house and indie filmmakers as well.”
But Dean finds that there is a notable lack of fresh talent to program. "These are dark times," he said. "We’ve been in a really conservative period for a couple of years now; people are afraid to take risks. You can see it in all stages of filmmaking, from the financing level all the way through to sales. You can see it in Hollywood. They’re making sequels of everything; you can see in the indie world too. It’s difficult to find funding for anything ‘different.’"
For Deane, this is precisely why film festivals matter. "We try to advance the craft," he said. "We go beyond the multiplex and mix the best of the best with less conventional films—films that push the envelope or break the mold in some way."
As a programmer, Deane feels a responsibility to connect artists with their audiences. But most of all, he hopes to move people. "We try to provoke lasting thoughts and emotions," he said. "Especially these days when Hollywood films are so detached from reality. We try to offer a place where we can all feel more connected.”
TIFF 2016 is all that and more. Despite the lack of innovation in Hollywood, Toronto has that back-to-school feeling: a buzz of anticipation and a sense that anything’s possible as crowds flow in and out of the fabled Bell Lightbox. There is an energy in the streets—a shared love of cinema—and Deane is one of the instigators.
"There are a billion festivals. You can skip the big ones and go to a smaller festival and still have a really great run."
"Each festival has its own identity," Deane continued. "What makes TIFF different is size and audience. Not only do we show more films than most festivals—397 films from 71 countries in 2015—but we show them to a regular audience. While other festivals are very industry-oriented, we actually have a community feeling. Out of 480,000 attendees, only 5,000 are industry professionals—and this means that filmmakers can actually sit with a real audience and see how they respond."
When No Film School spoke with Deane 10 days before the festival, he was preoccupied with his programming decisions. "My only regrets as a programmer are the many films that I have to turn down," he said. We asked Deane for some insider tips on how to be the chosen few.
1. Don't despair if you're rejected
“It’s true: there is a pecking order," Deane said. "A lot of festivals have regulations about where films have to premiere (although there are always exceptions). A lot of people apply to Cannes first, because of the status. The usual goal is to do Cannes, then expand from there. But if you don’t get into Cannes—or if the timing is off and your film isn’t ready—go for the next round of big ones: Locarno, Venice, Toronto, San Sebastian…There are a billion festivals. You can skip the ones I just named and go to a smaller festival and still have a really great run. Some festivals are better for certain genres—and some films are better off starting small and building more slowly. Some films simply get lost in the larger festivals."
"People get so caught up in awards, they forget that their own vision is what really matters."
"Each film will have its own life," Deane concluded. "The main thing is to aim high but remember that plenty of films get their start at a smaller festival."
2. Find your voice and explore it
“It’s not about making one film, it’s about many films," Dean insisted. "It’s about the long haul. And it’s not about winning awards. Look at Éric Rohmer: he made masterpiece after masterpiece. I don’t think he ever made a bad film, but he didn’t win that many awards. People get so caught up in that stuff, they forget that their own vision is what really matters."
"Don’t expect to come out of the gate like Orson Welles or Paul Thomas Anderson," Deane continued. "That’s not realistic. It takes time to understand who you are, to find a voice that is truly your own. And even that keeps evolving."
3. Block the fear and keep pushing
“Fear is contagious—especially when money’s at stake," Deane warned. "I see it wherever I go: from funders to distributors and even the filmmakers, most of them are searching for 'sure things.' They’re all way too constricted; they’re taking fewer risks and forcing self-expression into a very narrow box. They’re not making bold creative decisions."
This risk-averse attitude holds true for form as well as casting. "The films aren’t as adventurous as they could be— most of them stick to a traditional narrative arc," Deane explained. "In terms of content and casting: they’re still afraid to break the old molds related to race and gender."
"I truly believe that there’s room for everything: superhero movies, commercial hits, art films. Films that break all the rules."
“Frankly, it’s sad," Deane added. "And it’s foolish. The truth is, nothing is sure. The film world has been and will continue to be completely unpredictable. There are a million ways to make films—and I truly believe that there’s room for everything: superhero movies, commercial hits, art films. Films that break all the rules."
"So," Deane asked, "how do we encourage change?" His answer: "It has to evolve without being forced, otherwise it won’t work. At least we’ve begun the process: there’s a growing awareness of our need for diversity; people are talking about it. And some filmmakers are already doing interesting work. Let’s hope that people get used to less familiar forms and perspectives, not just the filmmakers but also the funders, the sales agents. The audience."
"Don’t let film festival deadlines dictate your artistic choices."
“In the meantime, keep pushing yourself," he said. "Don’t let fear affect you. Block it out. Things will get better—but don’t just wait and see. Once something new and different takes off, or some of the big stuff fails, boundaries will change. New doors will open."
4. Avoid last-minute submissions
"Once your film is ready for the festival circuit, choose an appropriate venue and apply way early." How early? Deane advised: "Send it in as soon as they start accepting submissions. The later you submit, the more slots will fill up. Programmers start screening films at other festivals way before their own submissions begin rolling in—and inevitably, they see films that they’d like to show. So even though most submissions come in close to the deadline, don’t delay. Get your film in early on, give them time to watch it, to think about it. Programmers love to discover new work—but if it comes down to choosing between your film and some famous filmmaker’s last minute submission, you know what usually happens."
5. Don’t submit rough cuts
Although it's best to submit completed films as early as possible, Deane warned not to rush it. "Don’t let film festival deadlines dictate your artistic choices," he said. "I see this over and over: filmmakers rush films out the door before they’re finished. Not good. Festivals always say that you can send in a rough cut, and sometimes that works—but the truth is, most successful rough-cut submissions are films with giant movie stars or films by a major director. With those entries, programmers can usually see past the flaws and fill in the blanks."
"Unless a film is a serious candidate, we rarely have time to watch it twice," Deane continued. "First impressions are powerful—and if they felt your film was flawed when they first saw it, that memory won’t go away. Make sure the film you submit is the one you want people to see."
"Positive attention is tough to get. A publicist can make a substantial difference."
6. Welcome new opportunities
"If you can’t meet the deadline for the festival you want, move on," Deane advised. "There are so many amazing festivals in the world, all year round—and just because you don’t get your film done in time for your first choice, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, it may turn out to be a gift: we all have set expectations of how we want our film to roll out, but when do things turn out as expected? Far better to be open to new paths, different possibilities. Different audiences. I’ll say it over and over: each time you make a film, wherever it lands, this is part of your learning curve."
7. Do your research
Deane advised that research is an essential element to getting your film in the right hands, no matter what kind of festival in which you choose to screen. He suggests looking into publicists, sales agents, media, and industry contacts, but not to “choose the big names; choose people who are a good fit for your film."
He also noted: "If you can afford it, hire a publicist. Getting noticed is job one at a festival—and it’s hard work to do on your own. Especially when all the big-name critics and programmers are focused on the obvious, and you’re an unknown quantity. Figure out who has repped films that resemble yours, then try to get them to come to your screening."
"Even when you don’t have a film in a festival, go anyway."
8. Forget the audience
Although it's tempting to do so, Deane doesn't think it's right to rely on initial audiences for validation. "You can learn a lot from an audience," he said, "but don’t let their reactions quash your long-term vision. Reactions can change on a dime, and even more over time. Take what happened this year at Cannes: at the first screening of Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, the audience booed the film—and the next night, they gave him a standing ovation. Even I change my mind. There are films that I’ve hated the first time I saw them, and now I love them. We all evolve."
Deane offered Ron Mann as an example of this phenomenon. "He made a great documentary on filmmaker Robert Altman, asking him about the highs and lows of his career, about why some of his films were successful, some not, and how he adapted to that," Deane said. "Altman’s answer should be everyone’s guide: 'I never adapted. I kept going in a direct line. I knew exactly what I was doing and the audience was like a wave: sometimes the wave intersected with what I was interested in and it was a big hit, sometimes it was a total failure because it wasn’t in fashion. But for me, that didn’t matter.' Great advice from a great filmmaker."
9. Enjoy yourself!
Dean's final piece of advice is arguably the most important. "Just remember: once you’re in a festival— even if you’re acting as your own publicist, even if you don’t have a sales agent— most of the hard work has been done," he said. "Your film is finally being seen! Awards are nice, but I could name you a billion of my favorite filmmakers who didn’t really win awards. Or even get good reviews. Yes, you hope that festival audiences respond well to your work, but this too is all part of the learning curve: you read the reviews, you learn from the responses. You meet people, you build a network. And most of all, you enjoy it."
"Even when you don’t have a film in a festival, go anyway!" he continued. "See films that you might not usually see; discover new perspectives. Talk to other filmmakers. Learn as much as you can from as many angles as possible— and then apply it to your own art."