Why We Didn't Wait for a Festival Premiere to Release Our Feature
Not getting into film festivals was built into the business plan.
Like many indie films, the road to distribution for CENTS, my first feature as writer/director, has been full of twists and turns. Only now that our film's release is imminent across almost all major VOD and Digital platforms do I have a better perspective on our journey and a deeper understanding about what I've learned along the way. This is the first post of a two-part case study sharing the lessons learned as we've worked to distribute CENTS. In this post, I'll explain our approach regarding the festival circuit and why we ultimately chose not to wait for a festival premiere to release our film. My goal as always when talking about CENTS is to be as transparent about our process as possible in the hopes of giving other filmmakers guidance on their own journeys.
We applied to the major festivals, but we didn't expect to get in
Before we even made CENTS, we created our business plan. Our business plan goal for applying to major film festivals was to attract a distributor for our film. You may think that's the obvious goal of every filmmaker applying to festivals, but I don't believe that's the case. Many filmmakers, for very good reasons, apply to as many film festivals as possible to gain exposure for their films and to find their audiences. Our festival strategy was built specifically around finding distribution for our film.
We decided to narrow our festival applications to a very specific set of festivals that we thought we give us the best chance of attracting a distributor. Those festivals were: Sundance, Berlin (Youth section), SXSW, Tribeca, San Francisco International Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival, and Los Angeles Film Festival.
The odds of getting into any of these festivals were stacked against us. In the year we submitted, Sundance received 2,309 dramatic features and accepted 79.
We knew from the outset that all of these festivals would be a stretch for our small film about a young girl learning to embrace her own brilliance while navigating the rough and tumble world of middle school. Our film features outstanding performances, but we have no name actors, and our story about a Latina math whiz and her frenemies using math to revamp a school penny drive isn't exactly the subject matter you find at many of the major festivals. Plus, the odds of getting into any of them were stacked against us. In the year we submitted, Sundance received 2,309 dramatic features and accepted 79. That's a 3.4% acceptance rate for those of you playing at home, and if you want to slice it even further, only 12 of those features were in the U.S. competition, or 0.5%. Given those odds, acceptance would be a long shot, but we knew if we were lucky enough to get into one of these festivals, our chances of finding a distributor would increase dramatically.
Because of those odds, however, it came as little surprise when we didn't get into Sundance, Berlin or SXSW. We had higher hopes for Tribeca. We had applied for a grant from the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) Sloan Filmmaker Fund because of our film's focus on mathematics. We did not receive it the first three years we applied, but each year the grant committee sent us notes saying that ours was the type of project they like to support, and encouraging us to reapply the following year as our project progressed. We applied one final time to the fund after our successful Kickstarter campaign and completion of the film to request funds to support our distribution and marketing efforts.
On the eve of the TFI Sloan Filmmaker Fund announcement, I received a personal email from the grant committee. The purpose of the email was to let me know, before I received the form rejection letter, that our film CENTS had been considered until the very end of the grant process, but ultimately wasn't chosen. As disappointing as it was not to receive a grant from the TFI Sloan Filmmaker Fund, I am grateful for their words of encouragement over the years. I truly believe CENTS exists as a completed film today in large part because we had to demonstrate significant progress between TFI Sloan grant applications.
Shortly after we received word about not getting the grant from TFI Sloan, we heard about our rejection from the Tribeca Film Festival. Perhaps we would have played Tribeca had we received the grant, but we'll never know. Rejections from San Francisco and Seattle followed shortly thereafter.
I was ready to move on to the next step of our business plan: prove the marketability of our film to distributors by building our audience directly.
Assuming our shot at a major festival premiere was probably over, I received a call from a programmer with the Los Angeles Film Festival. He had watched CENTS and loved it, but in order to program it for the festival, he needed to convince a majority of the programmers to vote for it. He asked for our direct screener link so he could pass it along to the rest of the LAFF team and start making his case for our film.
A few weeks later, I received an email from the LAFF programmer: CENTS unfortunately did not make the final programming cut. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't upset, but I still wasn't surprised. I was ready to move on to the next step of our business plan: prove the marketability of our film to distributors by building our audience directly.
Film festivals always want your premiere, so we kept it for ourselves
Our business plan for CENTS always recognized that we had a slim chance at acceptance into a major film festival, so we made contingency plans. At this point in the process, we could've fired off our film to dozens of film festivals, racking up the entry fees and hoping for a festival premiere, but for what? Screening at festivals would certainly help build our audience, but what exactly would we get out of these festival screenings? These festivals likely wouldn't pay us a screening fee because we hadn't premiered at one of the top tier festivals, and obviously we wouldn't participate in any box office receipts. Instead, we would pay the entry fees and probably the associated travel costs to attend these screenings. Would we get a distribution deal as a result of screening at one of these festivals? Maybe, but most likely not, and distribution was still our goal. And were the attendees at film festivals really our target audience?
If our premiere was so valuable to film festivals, why shouldn't we take advantage of that premiere ourselves to earn some money and prove to distributors that our film was marketable?
As an aside, I'd like to point out that I'm a huge fan of film festivals, big and small. I love discovering new films at festivals and meeting fellow filmmakers and film lovers. I've had wonderful experiences screening my short films at various festivals around the country, none of which are any of the festivals I've mentioned so far. Film festivals offer great exposure for films as they find their audiences, so I don't want our experiences with CENTS to come off as a knock against film festivals. Nothing could be further from the truth. But I'm not so myopic to believe our film would only succeed if we had a festival premiere and laurels to put on our poster.
Is submitting to dozens of film festivals a bad strategy? I'm not making that argument either, but it's a strategy that we ultimately decided not to pursue after weighing the costs and the benefits. If our premiere was so valuable to film festivals, why shouldn't we take advantage of that premiere ourselves to earn some money and prove to distributors that our film was marketable?
With this in mind, we shifted our focus to planning a short roadshow using Tugg, targeting key cities where we had networks and believed our film would find its audience. We premiered in Albuquerque and Santa Fe since we shot CENTS in New Mexico where the entire cast and crew lives. We sold out both screenings. In fact, Tugg moved us into three different theaters in Albuquerque as we kept outstripping the seating capacity, eventually landing in the multiplex's largest non-IMAX auditorium. We then took the film on a Northeast tour through Boston, New Haven, Wilmington, DE, Baltimore and Washington, DC. For each screening in the Northeast, we found partners to co-host and promote the screenings to their audiences based on their affinities for our film's themes.
Instead of losing money on festival fees and travel costs, we actually made money from our Tugg roadshow and raised money for our co-host organizations in the process. Even better, we added several more addresses to our email marketing list from our Tugg ticket sales—something we never would have received from a festival screening.
Traditional theatrical screenings aren't the only way to find an audience
Shortly after our roadshow, one of our partners, Latinas in STEM, hosted a special screening of CENTS in Los Angeles, bringing in Ford En Español to sponsor the event. Thanks to Ford's generosity, 120 girls from two different community organizations—DIY Girls and Los Angeles Promise Neighborhood—arrived via charter buses at Universal Studios CityWalk for this special screening. Ford's sponsorship also covered travel costs for me and our lead actress Julia Flores and her family to attend, as well as a Ford engineer to tell her story about pursuing a career in STEM. We showed a short film about women engineers at Ford prior to the screening and fielded questions from the audience afterwards. Two of our other actresses, Jy Prishkulnik and Claire Carter, made it out to the screening on their own to support the event.
Building on this success, we worked with various Girl Scout councils around the country to schedule community screenings through Tugg Educational. We created a CENTS discussion guide for the Girl Scouts based around the themes of friendship and relationships between middle school girls, using the film as a way to start conversations among the girls. Girl Scout councils continue to program CENTS through Tugg Educational as they plan their event calendars for the year.
Key takeaways from our successful screenings
Getting your feature film out into the world to attract the attention of distributors takes a lot of work and planning. Here are the key lessons we learned along the way:
- Know why you're applying to film festivals and budget accordingly. Seeking distribution deals and building your audience are two different goals. Decide which strategy you plan to pursue when considering film festivals, then research festivals to determine which ones will be the best fit for your film and your goals. Finally, make sure you have reserved funds to apply to festivals and ultimately to attend should your film get accepted.
- When your festival strategy doesn't go as well as you hoped, move on to Plan B. Major festival acceptances can be like winning the lottery, and with the numbers stacked against you, you need a backup plan. Your plan might be expanding your festival applications beyond your initial targets, or it may mean looking for alternative ways to screen your film to find your audience, like we did through our Tugg roadshow, special screenings and community screenings. Draw up how you will tackle Plan B even before you launch Plan A, so you know you will have the time, money and resources to execute what will likely come to pass.
- Find key partners to help you put together screenings and build your audience. Should you decide to move beyond a festival strategy and strike out on your own with screenings, be sure to collaborate with partners that have an affinity for your film and can bring their audiences to your screenings. Building partnerships should start as early in your planning stages as possible. Crowdfunding campaigns like Kickstarter, Seed&Spark and IndieGoGo not only raise money for your films, but help you identify your audience and champions within that audience. Find those champions that want to help you bring your film out into the world and lay the groundwork for co-hosted screening events well in advance. You will discover that your partners typically need a lot of lead time to create a successful event.
A new player in indie film distribution shifted our perspectives
Throughout the process of booking and promoting our screenings, we learned both the value and the challenges of marketing our film to find its target audience. Once we shifted away from film festivals, our goal was to demonstrate our film's marketability to a distributor that specialized in VOD and digital downloads. When we began our journey, the only way to access the largest VOD platforms—like iTunes and cable/satellite—was through a vetted distributor or aggregator in exchange for a distribution fee. Then, a new player in indie film distribution emerged that changed our entire approach. That's the focus of Part II of our CENTS Distribution Case Study, coming to No Film School next week.