Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Film Festivals, or, The Agony and The Ecstasy

I've been to a lot of film festivals throughout the country, and, to one degree or another, I have enjoyed them all.

And why not?

You're going to a place that appreciates you. A place that selected your film out of hundreds, if not thousands, of entries. And, if you're lucky, they might even provide you a free hotel room! (That's the most a writer, producer or director can expect. The rule of thumb at festivals seems to be that they will consider paying for the travel of actors -- provided they have a big enough name to bring people to the festival. How big a name they need to be depends on the size and location of the festival.) At the very least you should get a meal at the gala opening and closing of the festival.

Then there's screening. An auditorium full of people who actually paid real, honest-to-God, money to see a film that you made actually made yourself. Afterwards you get to stand up, answer some questions and enjoy some kudos. Then there's what you can learn from other filmmakers who are further along down the line than you. I will always remember Greg Pak, writer/director of "Robot Stories." He was on his second year on the festival circuit and had parlayed his success in the festivals, and the relationships he developed with the theater owners, to put his film into limited theatrical release. Trust me, there is much to learn at festivals if you take the time to listen.

So where does the agony come in?

The first thing you might notice is the quality of some of the other films in the festival. Some of them are very good. Maybe even better than yours. Then you notice that they've been on the festival circuit for a year or so and they still haven't found a distributor. Yikes. Then you start talking with the people who made films you admired, and, if you can get beyond the normal filmmaking ego BS, you can hear all of the horror stories about the terrible deals, if any, they have been offered. How their investors are worried, if not angry. There's a lot of desperation behind the smiles in the filmmakers' lounge. And heaven forbid if a genuine distributor enters the room. Everyone pounces on him like wolves. Me included.

Are festivals worth it?

Don't fool yourself. Festivals are expensive. Forget the travel. The submission fees themselves tend to run about thirty to fifty dollars a piece, and you will probably be entering quite a few of them. A year on the festival circuit could cost you thousands of dollars, and I'm betting you didn't include that money in the budget of your film.

We, director Lee Bonner, producer David Butler and myself, were actually quite lucky with "21 Eyes" which began its festival life as "Replay." We had about a 33% acceptance rate from festivals. We were also able to use the festival audiences as a laboratory. "21 Eyes" has an unusual narrative style and we constantly tinkered with the opening to make it as easy as possible for the audience to understand. Three different versions of the film played at the various festivals, each one an improvement on the previous ones. I am thankful for that. However, I am not thankful that we hurried the post-production in order to make the Sundance submission deadline.

Don't rush your film to make Sundance.


Because you're not going to get into it anyway.

I say this despite the fact that I work with filmmakers whose films were screened and sold out of Sundance. Trust me. They are anomalies, particularly at today's Sundance where the average budget of the films hovers around $30 million. The odds are against you. You have a better chance of getting accepted into Harvard Law School.

That said, out of the thousands of films festivals around the world, Sundance is one of the few that can actually help your film. The other few include Toronto and Cannes. No distributors are going to be lining up outside of your door because your film played at Milwaukee International Film Festival -- which, by the way, was a great film festival. The people of Milwaukee love their independent films!

So why go to the others?

Let quantity make up for quality.

I know it for a fact that many distributors expressed interest in "21 Eyes" because it had appeared in so many film festivals. It didn't matter that most of them were little ones. The sheer number was enough. There is a certain herd mentality in the film business, and distributors are more willing to take a chance on films that other people had already taken a chance on. The programmers of all of those festivals can't be wrong....

I'll tell what's fun though.

Going to a film festival with a film that already has a distributor! That's the way it's been with my faith-based films. The distributors just send them to festivals to build a little word of mouth. No worries. (Hopefully.)

One final word of advice. Think twice before submitting your homegrown independent film to the local film festival as a premiere. Chances are you are going to sell out the theater with your cast and crew and all their friends and relatives. Why give that audience to festival which isn't going to share the box office with you? Rent a theater instead and have a cast and crew screening. It will help you recoup your budget.

Nothing wrong with that.

(Photo: Sean Paul Murphy, Lee Bonner and David Butler at a screening of Replay/21 Eyes at the AFI Theater in Washington DC. Sorry about the flash!)

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