"A large number of connections that were helpful in getting my first feature shot were made at film festivals," says filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff. Meyerhoff is an award-winning film director whose feature film I Believe in Unicorns was released theatrically after premiering at SXSW in 2014 and screening at dozens of festivals worldwide. Before that, her short film Twitch played at over 100 film festivals, many of which Meyerhoff attended. "Any time I could take a weekend, I would try to go. Festivals are a terrific place to meet people who are interested in your work and can help you make your next film."

I Believe in UnicornsPeter Vack and Natalia Dyer in 'I Believe in Unicorns'Credit: Chloe Aftel

Festivals provide spaces for filmmakers to get out in the real world and meet other filmmakers who are actually making work, from cast to crew to financiers. Meyerhoff finds film festivals to be terrific tools for casting, as watching films introduces her to on-screen talent. Film festivals can also lead you to key crew connections. After a watching a film where you loved the wardrobe, it's often possible to go up to the costume designer after the Q&A and connect directly. A large number of the crew on Meyerhoff's feature film were folks she met at Sundance, including her producer and her cinematographer, whose work she was able to watch at the festival.

Film festivals are attended by potential financiers as well, both current investors and people who just love the cinema and may want to become involved financially to help make your next film happen.

As SXSW kicks off, Meyerhoff shares some practical advice on how she approaches the festival experience.

1. Do your homework ahead of time

The more you can do your research ahead of time, the more you are making your own luck! Look through the program guide, decide which films you want to see in advance, and figure out who worked on and who starred in those films. For example, you may be interested in hiring a certain cinematographer; use this opportunity to check out her or his work on a big screen. You may want to attend a panel because you are interested in meeting with one of the panelists; look up who is speaking and who it may be useful for you to meet. Meyerhoff has found financiers for her work through people she has met at festivals by putting time and effort into her preparation.

SXSWCredit: Oakley Anderson-Moore

2. Go for a few days and make the most of your time

A festival can be a bit overwhelming. Go for opening weekend and try to stay for a few days beyond that so you can attend more movies and activities. Make a list of screenings and events you want to catch. The experience can be a whirlwind, so remember to check your list throughout the day so you don’t miss that panel full of producers with past work like the movie you are putting together!

"It's perfectly alright to say, 'It’s wonderful to meet you,' and politely exit the conversation. Festival parties are different than regular socializing."

Time is limited and there are so many potential collaborators to meet. Meyerhoff doesn't drink at festival parties so that she can keep a clear head. "Keep conversations short. If you find yourself chatting with someone and you aren't particularly interested, just move on. It's perfectly alright to say, 'It’s wonderful to meet you,' and politely exit the conversation. Festival parties are different than regular socializing."

3. Take initiative and say what you need

Ask for what you need. Meyerhoff was at the Sarasota Film Festival with her short film and at that time she was looking for funding for her next project. After each of her Q&A sessions, she would say, "I'm developing a feature based on a similar character. If you liked my film, I would love to talk to you because I am looking for financing for my feature." A gentleman came up to her after the Q&A and wanted to support her work. He ended up writing her a check on the spot.

A gentleman came up to her after the Q&A and wanted to support her work.
He ended up writing her a check on the spot.

Tell your fellow filmmakers what you are looking for so they can make connections. After screenings, walk up and introduce yourself to the filmmakers. You can discover who financed the film you just watched and ask them about the experience. If you appreciated the editing on a project and you will soon be in post-production, introduce yourself to the film's editor. Remember, filmmakers with films at festivals are there to make new connections, too.

SXSWCredit: Oakley Anderson-Moore

4. Take notes during credits and at end of the night

Meyerhoff scribbles notes during the credits: executive producers she wants to research to see if they may be a good fit for financing her next project, or the names of production designers whose work she admired. At the end of each night, Meyerhoff makes notes about the day, specifically whom she met that she would like to contact again. Festivals go fast and are full of introductions. Having notes to jog one's memory is essential. Once the festival winds down, Meyerhoff sends an email saying it was lovely to meet and suggesting getting together for coffee.

5. Meet a lot of people!

Get yourself out there in a way that's friendly and open to possibilities. Once at Sundance, Meyerhoff and her producer went to coffee with a woman and pitched Leah's feature script. The woman ended up passing the script on to her daughter, who connected with it and came on board as an executive producer.

You only really need to talk to each person for a couple of minutes before getting a sense of who they are, deciding if you click and could collaborate in the future. If you can't connect with a filmmaker directly after the screening, put a face to a name in case you run into that filmmaker over the next few days at the festival, then introduce yourself!

SXSWCredit: Aaron Rogosin

Meyerhoff doesn't carry business cards and recommends putting contact info directly into a cell phone. She thinks one mistake people make is networking too aggressively, and leaving with a ton of business cards but not real connections. It's a balancing act of being friendly and a real person, and knowing that you are there for both business and pleasure. If in the first few minutes of conversation it seems mutually beneficial to stay in touch, then swap info and connect after the festival.

Meyerhoff suggests riding that festival wave and being friendly and open and outgoing with everyone, "because you never know, you may meet someone sitting next to you on the shuttle and they'll finance your next movie!" 

Lauretta Prevost is a freelance writer and cinematographer.

For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.

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No Film School's coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Vimeo.