5 Tips for Your Film Festival Strategy

The film festival circuit can be a tricky, daunting task, even for the fairly season documentary filmmaker.  But for the first-time filmmaker, it can be so overwhelming, it can either scare you off completely, or it can cost you an arm and a leg in submission fees.  

My first exposure to film festivals, was with the film ‘Bombhunters’. I wasn’t involved with the festival strategy, since I was not the Director of the film, but because I’d spent so much time working on the film I had a keen interest in how the film did.  So I tried to keep up on the various festivals and distribution for the film.

It was during the making of my first doc, ‘Journey to Kathmandu’, that I learned much more about film festivals. Actually, it wasn’t during the making of that film, it was more like after the making of the film.  As in, a long time after. Which is my first tip right out of the gate is…


5 Tips for Your Film Festival Strategy:


1.  Form Your Strategy Very Early On

Look at the various film festival timelines, and don’t get caught up tailoring your films content during the making of it.

Know when the festivals that you’d like to submit for are going to be accepting submissions.  If, for example Sundance is your number one priority – then it’s not going to do you any good to finish editing your film in October, when submissions are being taken from early August to mid September.  You’re going to have to wait an entire calendar year just for the opportunity to submit your film to Sundance. And this will greatly inhibit the release of your film anywhere for the next year.

Forming a strategy early on gives you a guideline and timeline that you can be thinking of all the way back in your early pre production stages.  Think of it as putting something down in your calendar, a goal if you will, that you want to meet.

When you write down a commitment into a calendar you will do everything in your power possible to make that goal happen.  Conversely, if you have a loose idea of when and how you’d like to make a goal happen, it makes it easy to keep pushing it out as things come up.

So forming your film festival strategy early on will allow you to constantly be aware of your timeline on your project.


2.  Build a Festival Database

It’s important that once you’ve decided on a number of festivals, you start to build a database – we use a simple Excel spreadsheet – that includes the festivals that you want to potentially submit to; what kinds of films they take; when their deadline is; a contact person for the festival; and the best way to submit.  This is a wonderful way to be starting to track film festival strategy.

I can’t stress enough the importance of doing this, of getting all of these items down on paper. Don’t try and remember when target dates are for certain festivals. First off, you won’t remember them.  And secondly, it’s not enough information. Less information discourages you from researching other important information that you may need later on.  You know, the kind of information that could keep your film from qualifying for a particular festival.

You should be researching each and every festival that you think that you might want to apply to.  And by keeping this festival database while you’re doing your research, you won’t have to try and remember the festival off the top of your head and you also won’t have to do the research all over again, because you will have already written down the pertinent information in your film festival strategy.


3.  Find the Festivals that Fit Your Film

I’m sure you already know this.. don’t just simply submit to every festival that is out there.  Find the festivals that are appropriate for your film.  This is key to your film festival strategy. If you haven’t read a particular festivals guidelines and you apply with your sports doc to a festival that specializes in environmental docs, there’s really no point of submitting your film for consideration. Your doc will probably not even be watched.  You’ve wasted your time, the festival’s time, and anywhere from $25 to $100 dollars.

After going through all of a festival’s guidelines, take a look at the festival’s programming from the prior couple of years.  This can give you a nice feel for the types of films that the festival likes to run in its programming.

Do not overlook very topic-specific festivals.  These festivals might offer the perfect niche for your film. Chris Gore, who wrote the ‘Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide’, says “It’s sometimes better to be the toast of a smaller festival, then be overlooked at a larger festival”.  

And by the way, speaking of Chris Gore, are there any #doclifers out there who remember the print magazine from the 90s called ‘Film Threat’? Man, I miss that magazine!


4.  Get the Word Out

As in, get the word out about your film at festivals.  You cannot count on the festival to do this, they’ve a lot going on. It’s great that they selected your film to be a part of programming, but they don’t have the time to promote your film alone, when they might have about 50 other films that are playing their festival as well.  

So take a minute and pat yourself on the back for getting into the festival, share the good news with your family & friends and your social media following – make sure you have a social media following! – and then get to work promoting your screening.  

Get people to your film, fill those seats! I’ve been to those screenings, where I’m like one of two people. My heart literally hurts for the filmmaker. Especially if the filmmaker happens to be in attendance or is giving a Q&A. Don’t take attendance for granted!

Do what you can to pack the proverbial house. Use your social media platforms.  Send out to your email lists. Look for facebook groups in the town where your film will be presented.  Hang posters on telephone posters. I’ve done it, and they do get seen, depending on where you place them!  Hand out cards during the festival, and meet people face-to-face encouraging them to come out and see your film.  

The more people you see and speak with, the more people know to go and see your film, which helps to create a buzz around it.  The festival will appreciate your efforts – remember, you’re not just promoting your film, you’re promoting their festival – and if you do fill seats, the festival is going to remember that the next time you submit to them.


5.  Be Smart About Your Premiere

It’s very important that you think seriously about where and how your film will premiere.  A film’s premiere is gold for festivals, especially the big ones. Festivals may want to be able to claim that they are premiering your film.  If you premiered your festival at a local festival, then were able to get into Tribeca, but then Tribeca found out that you’d already premiered at a festival… forget about it.  You’ve lost out on your Tribeca festival. Not a good film festival strategy, #doclifer!

Drea Clark, who is a programmer for the Los Angeles Film Festival and Slamdance says, “A lot of filmmakers, especially if they’re new to the game, don’t realize how important premiere status is.  Taking the time to figure out where you’re going to debut, both domestically and internationally, is essential. You want the best possible launching pad for your film. If you don’t get into one of the major marketplace fests, it’s imperative to research other options to figure out which of the lesser-known festivals would be a great premiere home for you, based on the audience, press and industry members they attract.”



Host and TDL Founder, Chris G Parkhurst

Chris is a documentary filmmaker and the founder and host of The Documentary Life, a platform which aims to inform and inspire documentary filmmakers from around the globe.

Leave a Comment