How to Nail Your Festival Premiere in the Time of COVID

AFI Fest
Thinking about launching your film into the world? Here’s what’s working—and what isn’t—at film festivals right now.

Remember when the world wasn’t engulfed in a global fight against a virus? It seems like only yesterday you were furiously applying to all the big-name film festivals you could afford. After all, everything would be worth it if you could just get into Sundance. In the cool-off of the great dumpster fire of 2020, you might be starting to rethink this premise. Who sees your film at an online festival? What does it get you? And if a film festival no longer gets you exposure, is it worth it just for the laurels?

A few weeks ago, the Sundance Film Festival announced that it was opening registration to the 2021 festival for press and industry. Today, Sundance shared a teaser for the fest.

How do they anticipate the 2021 festival experience will look? Here is a message from the Sundance Communications team to press:

"We’re working to design a festival for the changing world we’re all living in, and our participants’ safety and health are top priorities. We are excited about the online platform we are custom building and testing now, and also about our Festival team's vision of preserving the ability to gather in person if and where we can safely do so. [...] We encourage you to think of the online Festival as the center of your Sundance experience this year. [...] Participating online this year increases the chances we can all gather in Park City in safety and health in 2022."

This sounds very different from past festivals, and you may be wondering, how will this work for filmmakers?

We're wondering the same thing. No Film School has been keeping tabs on the film festival landscape over the last month, and below we break down some of the biggest considerations for filmmakers releasing a new film.

'One Night in Miami' Drive-In Screening

Drive-in movies are where it's at

Last month, AFI Fest converted their once largely attended Los Angeles film festival into a mostly virtual experience.

Except for one big feather in the festival cap—a drive-in opening night movie. Billed as their Centerpiece, Regina King’s One Night in Miami enjoyed a massive drive-in experience in the Rose Bowl, which was offered at $40 per car with four people in the car max.

Fancy a drive through the red carpet? Don't walk like a chump, that's so 2019.

Behind the scenes at the AFI Fest Drive-In
Credit: AFI Fest

As we’ve mentioned many times on the No Film School Podcast, drive-in movies are awesome.

Sure, screening in a plush theater at a top tier fest is a great experience. (I’m told!) But what about all those smaller venues at smaller tests—in uncomfortable folding chairs at a converted firehouse or on a screen at the back of the room in a crowded bar?

In comparison, you can have a giant movie screen with people watching from inside the comfort of their cars, where everybody can individually turn up the volume on their car radio. That would be awesome. This is also likely to bring in the numbers like no other virtual screening. With a prediction of a long winter without a vaccine, a drive-in movie experience for film festivals might be a lifeline for filmmakers and audiences alike.

AFI Fest Drive-In
Credit: AFI Fest

Give your screening a virtual Q&A

Nobody wants to just screen a new movie at home alone on a computer. That’s what NetHuluPrimeFlix is for. So how are film festivals setting themselves apart from that experience?

Live sessions with filmmakers.

We’ve been seeing that at both AFI Fest and DOC NYC, with some Q&A events happening live on their Facebook page. While pre-recorded Q&A’s are better than no Q&A, it’s doesn’t exactly have the same effect on the audience. And they don’t get to ask questions. So if you’re going to play a virtual festival, keep that in mind.

Create Scarcity with sold-out virtual screenings

Another way festivals are differentiating their premieres over any other online streaming platform is by keeping strict attendance and time limits on their virtual screenings. At the DOCNYC, this has translated into premieres being sold out. How can an online screening actually sell out if there is no physical limitation to attendance? It just can, okay?

While many fests are giving viewers a window to watch the film they’ve bought tickets for, they are keeping that window small. (Some are only a few hours, while other windows are 24 hours or the entire length of the festival.)

If you are playing a festival, remember that you can and should always have a say in how your film is offered.

Take screenings further with simultaneous live virtual events, trivia

When you have a crowd together to watch your film, you get to hear when they laugh, gasp, or heaven forbid, get bored. But not everyone asks questions or comes up to talk to you after the screening. So in the real world, you'll never get a full picture of how engaged the audience was. If you do an online screening right, this can become the new best way for audience feedback.

I recently had the chance to watch a live virtual screening event of my documentary Brave New Wild. It was put on by the Bay Area Climber’s Coalition as a live event for members to fundraise for a great adaptive outdoor education non-profit BORP (Bay Area Outreach & Recreation Program).

While this isn't part of any festival run, the idea here could and should be duplicated at festivals. If we could do this with limited resources and raise money for a good cause, there is no reason a festival can't do something like this for your film.

The organizers set up a simple Facebook event page where viewers were given the link through Eventbrite, and instructed to start watching the film at the same time so they could compete in a trivia game that went on throughout the film. It was so much fun!

Not only could you gauge the audience as a filmmaker, but it also gave people a way to share in the collective experience without being in the same space.

While this is not a festival experience, this could and should become something that film festivals think about. In fact, if a festival does the work to set these kinds of successful events up for filmmakers, you could argue that a virtual film festival premiere could actually have much more impact (audience building, engagement, site traffic, notoriety) for the filmmakers involved than the traditional experience ever did.

Get paid or at least get something

What doesn't work for filmmakers now is what has never worked: screening your film for free.

A point of contention that we have discussed on No Film School as plaguing filmmakers in the festival world is not getting screening fees from film festivals. It has been all too common in the past for filmmakers to never see a dime, even from big-name fests.

The money that a fest makes off your screening goes towards the festival costs. We don't dispute those costs are real, but we argue that this is not a sustainable model for filmmakers.

Now more than ever, filmmakers deserve a screening fee. It is a very good policy to ask! And if a festival won't give you one, make sure that you get something concrete for your efforts (email list, link to your official site, a chance to sell your own merch, something) along with the strategies above.

You as the filmmaker have the power to ask a festival to do any of this on your behalf. It’s your film, it’s your career. Most festivals will be happy that you want to make the most of your film’s premiere.

Has your film played at a virtual festival? Share your experiences about the screening, or what you would want to see in future festivals, below.     

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