Your First Film Festival


So, you’ve finished your first film. Now what? For years, film festivals have been the way to connect filmmakers with audiences, but with all the modern distribution channels, from YouTube to Vimeo to Amazon, are film festivals still worth it?

Well, yes. Film festivals can match filmmakers with cinema-loving audiences, and their reactions to good storytelling can be the push you need to go out to tell the next one. Plus, just being at a film festival and viewing all sorts of movies that you won’t be able to see anywhere else is guaranteed to inspire you.

red carpet film festival

Looks like a film festival, actually Gorilla HQ

Where to Start

First, look at your festival budget. If you’ve made your first film on a shoestring, chances are you didn’t save a lot for festivals. Add up all available money and submit your film to as many festivals as you can afford. Keep in mind that you will also need to have the money to go to any festivals you might get in to, so factor that in as well.

One cost-saving measure can be to submit to the majors as a crap shoot (Sundance, London, Toronto, Cannes) and then put the rest of your money towards festivals closer to home. If it’s within a comfortable drive of your home base, that’s what you should aim for. Make sure to submit to all local film festivals. Those are the ones that will be most likely to support homegrown talent, and you don’t need a plane ticket or a hotel room to attend. Of course, if you have the money for it, submit to as many festivals as you can. Why? Because festivals are now inundated with thousands more films than they were ten years ago. THOUSANDS! With all that wonderful access to cheaper filmmaking technology, it now means that everyone is now making films and submitting them to festivals. So…

Plan on Being Rejected

Your film might only be seen by one, maybe two programmers per festival, and they will have their own personal tastes and programming agenda for this year’s selection. If your film doesn’t happen to meet whatever criteria that one person is looking for, or maybe the programmer just happened to have a fight with their spouse that day and just wasn’t in the mood for your little romantic comedy, that can play into their decision, along with the thousands of other things on their mind as they rank the gazillions of other films against yours. Don’t get discouraged over this. Plan on it, and you’ll be better suited to deal with the mountain of rejections that are about to come your way.

BUT, the good news is this will also make it that much sweeter when the ‘YES’ hits your inbox. And yes, there is nothing quite like the rush of getting accepted to a film festival, no matter how many times it might come your way.

So, you’re in. You’ve got travel money, you’ve got a hotel room booked. Now what?

red carpet film festival

Paparazzi, again at the Gorilla office

Plan on Standing Out

There are one hundred other movies playing at this festival that just chose your film, and you are competing with each and every one of them for the limited number of patrons that will come out and buy tickets on a chance.

Make posters, make postcards. Call the local paper ahead of time and try to get an interview with the entertainment reporter. Call the nearby radio stations and see if you can go on air once you’re in town to publicize both the festival as a whole and your specific screening time.

Think outside the box. My first major short film I shot on 16mm film, and it ended up playing at a bunch of festivals so I got a crash course fest etiquette (festiquette?). I showed up with some clothes, a backup copy of my film, and almost nothing else. What I was greeted with was wall after wall of posters and postcards advertising everything from two-hour features to 2-minute shorts. So, I improvised.

I grabbed a small notebook and hand-wrote reasons why I thought my movie was worth seeing, the screening time, and the venue. My producer Chris and I wrote dozens of these and taped them to the walls next to all the professionally produced flyers.

And you know what? We got sixteen octogenarians to come out to our eleven on a Wednesday morning screening and… they loved the movie. I had a Q&A with them afterwards and said that we were doing some unusual publicity and could they all stay afterwards and hand write their reviews of the movie on little pieces of notebook paper? All of them did. We took those sixteen pieces of notebook paper and taped them all over the theatres and the next screening was packed. Reporters came, filmmakers came, and we even got a positive write-up in Ain’t It Cool News that specifically mentioned our unique approach to marketing.

Plan on Networking

The last reason to submit to and attend a film festival is meeting people. I’ve met filmmakers at festivals that have led to some pretty lucrative jobs. I’ve met press that led to great write-ups in magazines. And I’ve met programmers.

Film festival programmers will frequent competitions and look for films they want to hand pick to take back to their own festival. That first fest I went to with my 16mm film? I met a couple of programmers who liked it and invited me to a festival in Georgia. I accepted and at their festival met a programmer from Israel who invited me to screen it in the Middle East. I screened it there and was asked to shoot a project with Richard Gere. Had I not gone to festival number one, I would not have met Richard Gere and the world would be a worse-off place. So if you follow all my guidelines you can…

Richard Gere at a film festivalPlan to Meet Richard Gere

Okay, that’s a pretty lame final point. But, for those of you who really like Richard Gere, you can find out if he’ll be a guest at any festivals in the upcoming year. And if you see him, tell him I say hi.


About Author

Jeremy Osbern is a cinematographer, writer, and director. His work has been viewed by over a hundred million people, and you can join them over at his website.

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