What you get out of them really depends on what you want to put in.
We’ve all been there. And by “there” I mean as a struggling independent filmmaker trying to shoot a short film (or perhaps a feature) trying to break into the filmmaking industry. We’ve shot on weekends with friends, on small budgets or no budgets, with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras and DIY camera rigs and makeshift equipment.
Once completed, the goal for any project is to get it in front of people. And while you can upload your short online, for many the best avenue to getting eyes on your film is having it featured at a film festival. Ideally at a major film festival like Sundance, SXSW or TIFF.
However, taking a recent visit to an up-and-coming indie film festival that might not be on everyone’s radar, the Oak Cliff Film Festival in Dallas, Texas for example, there are plenty of reasons why submitting and/or attending the smaller, indie film festivals can be advantageous.
If you’re willing to put in the work to get the most out of your experience.
Don’t Just Watch Movies!
Ostentatiously, film festivals are meant to show films. And to be fair, festivals are a great place to see up-and-coming films which usually aren’t available on your traditional streaming services or VOD just yet. You can glean all sorts of insights from watching some of the latest and most on-the-edge films making their rounds as many festivals act as a sort of “circuit” for the best and brightest films of the year.
At the Oak Cliff Film Festival, for example, standouts from Sundance and SXSW like Greener Grass, The Farwell and Pahokee were featured along with some interesting retrospectives like a 35mm print of the famous indie documentary American Movie.
However, if you’re really serious about growing your craft and “making it” in the industry, you’ll need to be prepared to do more than just watch some films. You can do that at home.
Build Your Support Network
I’ve been to festivals both big and small in my time, and while the OCFF is unique, it does share many similarities to other mid-major indie festivals around the United States and the rest of the world. They’re very much designed for filmmakers, critics, writers, directors, producers, journalists, film fans professional and casual alike to intermingle, mix and connect.
It takes some work, but take advantage of any workshops (the OCFF had a 16mm filmmaking workshop and submitting for grants workshop for example). There are often tons of other parties, mixers, and community events to dive into and make new connections and friends.
Depending on where you live, there may be one (or perhaps several) film festivals unique to your city, town or region which can be great places for you to network and meet other filmmakers. You never know what connections you might make, or who you might end up being able to work with in the future.
Find Your Niche and Dive Into It
There are some great resources for batch submitting your films to multiple festivals across the globe. However, not every film festival under the sun might be right for you and your project. I’d suggest making a budget, then doing your research into which festivals might be the best fit.
Consider things like your location (and how much it would cost to attend with travel and accommodations) as well as what niche your film might be. These could be genre specific film festivals for horror, sci-fi or LGBTQ+, or perhaps festivals specifically for web shorts, episodic content or even festivals for films shot exclusively on smartphones…
Whatever your niche, find one that resonates with you.
Are Indie Film Festivals Worth it?
In my opinion, I’d say yes. Taking the OCFF as an example, I’ve attended this specific one several times and even had a short film selected to play there in the past. It was also my hometown festival so it was great for networking and meeting tons of fellow filmmakers, collaborators, and friends.
Festivals like Sundance, SXSW, TIFF, and Cannes are great too, but I’d suggest considering attending those with regular passes or badges first to at least give you an idea of how they work and what types of films are often selected and featured.
At the end of the day, any film festival big or small is going to only be as beneficial to you as the amount of effort you put into attending one. Even if you’re showing a film, if you just show up for your screening and leave, you’re probably not going to get too much out of the experience besides some applause and some laurels for your poster.
We’re in a new age of indie filmmaking where the big blockbusters are weighing out the top end, but yet a new burgeoning scene of indie filmmakers and DIY content is starting to make waves on new digital platforms. If you’re serious about “making it”, finding the right festival for you and diving in can be totally worth it.