The Seed&Spark Blog

Festival Survival Guide for Filmmakers

January 8, 2013

• Nancy Schafer

Festival season kicks into high gear soon, as the film world heads to Park City. What follows is a survival guide of sorts to help first-time filmmakers navigate their first fests. Full disclosure: I’ve had one film that I produced play in a festival—Robert Byington’s Olympia premiered at SXSW in 1998, when I was running it. (I promise I recused myself from the selection committee on that one.) My advice comes from nearly 20 years on the festival side, watching filmmakers make the most of their festival experiences.

I’ve limited this post to actually attending a festival; I will do another post on festival premiere strategy and where to go after you premiere.

Festival staff is there to help you.
The key with getting the most out of their support is to be nice—a good rule of thumb for most interactions. The staff works all year, and you and your film are their babies, their raison d’etre. So they will want to help you make the most of all aspects: press, industry attention, parties, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask; they will help you if they can. If you immediately don’t get the answer from them that you want, on any topic, just be patient. The staff wants to put you and your film in the best light possible, but they have a lot to juggle trying to make everyone happy.

Get help from others, too.
There is a lot to do at a festival, and although every filmmaker’s goals for his or her festival journey are different (connecting with audiences, getting press, selling the film, travelling to exotic places), there is still a ton to do at every event. If you are in a big fest—Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca—you need help from sales agents, publicists, friends and family, maybe a whole battalion of people. If you are taking your film to your hometown fest, enlist the support of friends and family to market your film to local audiences.

SIDEBAR: How do you get a sales agent, publicist, etc? There are people like me who can help steer you through this process, but essentially, you call them up, ask them to look at your film, and they will tell you whether they are interested in representing you. Not all sales agents and publicists are created equal; some are more appropriate for some projects than others. Do your homework.

Market your film yourself.
Whether it’s through publicists, sales agents or just through social media and handing out postcards, you need to guarantee that you have an audience for your film. The festival will be marketing your film as well, but remember they have dozens of other films to help. The better festivals do sell out, but there are awkward screening times at every fest. Drive awareness of screenings that need help. Ask the festival how ticket sales are going, or look online and see which screenings have not sold out. Sold out screenings = buzz.

Use your marketing tools.
You will need posters, postcards, a social media strategy (which, frankly, should start months before the festival, but that’s a different blog post), and your entire team. You and your producers, cast, and crew are the best ambassadors for your film. Ask them for help, and make sure they are spreading the word. The number of posters and postcards you need to make is of course entirely dependent on the size of the festival and your budget. You will only need a handful of posters, and you can get away with none at all if you are really strapped for cash. Also, and this goes without saying: if your poster doesn’t market your film, don’t print it. Don’t just use a picture you think is pretty/cool, get some people with marketing experience to tell you what images will drive audiences/awareness for your film. Use the same key art from your poster for your postcards. If your festival strategy calls for your film to go on to other fests, don’t print your screening times on the postcard but use stickers so the postcard is evergreen.

Your festival class will be important forever.
The other filmmakers with films in the festival are integral to your festival experience. You are not competing with them, for anything. They are your allies in the frenzy of the fest. Whether they are seasoned festival vets or novices like you, they are the most important people to get to know. You’ll see them at many events, and the friendships you make will fuel dialogue and projects in the future. You won’t have time to see all their movies, but friend them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and engage with them as much as you can.

Are you talking too much? Depending on your sales strategy, your festival premiere is probably just one stop for your film on its way to distribution (you hope!). Think long term – you want press, and that press is something to talk about on social media, leading to more chatter. Chatter is good. But don’t forget that some day your film is going to come out, and some of that press might be better to hold for that day. Your release weekend is the most important three days of your film’s life.

Be everywhere.
Festival events, networking, screenings, panels—attend everything you can. Marketing yourself and your film, meeting other artists, networking with the industry… it all pays off in the end. Take emergen-C, don’t drink too much, and sleep later.




Nancy Schafer

Nancy Schafer lives in New York City and is a consultant to both filmmakers and film organizations. Previously, she was Executive Producer of SXSW Film Festival and, more recently, Executive Director of Tribeca Film Festival.



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