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Diary of a Film Startup: Post #38: Whatever It Takes
Previously: Cutting Checks, etc.
Hot Springs Doc Fest
I’ve spent the past 4 days at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. I’m on the jury for Best Documentary Feature, so I’ve been watching and debating and selecting from a pool of outstanding films. Hung out most nights with the amazing Freda Kelly — secretary & confidente for The Beatles for ten years. Her film “Good ‘Ol Freda” opened the festival to a standing ovation.
Whatever It Takes
During opening weekend I gave a presentation on VoD distribution & marketing. The underlying message was “do whatever it takes to get your film noticed.” I opened with a story from when I was producing a doc in Saudi Arabia. I desperately wanted to film in Mecca. Trouble is, it’s a closed city — you can only visit if you’re a Muslim, and you have to have proof. Silly, really, since during Mohammed’s time there were Muslims and Jews and Christians happily co-existing in this holy city. So, in the spirit of doing whatever it takes, we all converted to Islam. Officially. With an Imam. Our on-camera guy was Jewish. Our cinematographer was a Hindu. Our sound man was a hippy-Buddhist. And me, a lapsed Christian. Next day the Imam showed up with our certificates of conversion from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. And off we went to film in Mecca, which was a spectacular experience. It’s my understanding that one can’t un-convert, so technically we’re all still Muslims! Whatever it takes, right?
Festival Edge/10 Tips
Today I interviewed Hot Springs festival Director Courtney Pledger, who gave great tips on giving your film an “edge” in the festival selection process.
Early Bird — Submitting your film early means screeners are fresh, they don’t have many films at that time so yours stands out, and they’re not stressed and in a frenzy of programming as they are after the deadline. Plus many festivals give an early-bird discount. If the film is ready — or ready enough, get it to them as soon as submissions open.
Stand-Out Filmmaker — Announce you’ll definitely attend the festival, tell them you’d be happy to speak on a panel, convince them that it’s not just your film that will be a festival hit, but you also.
Local Audience — Festivals program for their local audience, not just for movie buffs. Hot Springs, for example, loves films that are eccentric, or have quirky characters, since they’re proven winners with the locals over many years. Do your research. Call and ask.
Local Marketing — Help the festival with local marketing. Pitch your film (and you) to local press, TV, radio. Festivals (excepting the top 3 or 4) have limited PR resources. Take the initiative.
Ditch the DVD Screener — Provide a link to your film on Vimeo. It makes it SO much easier than DVDs, since volunteer on the screening committee may live in different cities, or even states.
Synopses, Sales Pitch & Cover Letter — Without-a-Box (which most filmmakers use for submissions) has space for short, medium & long descriptions, and festivals can use all of them. Do the extra work. Plus there’s space for a cover letter — this is the sales pitch where you showcase festival wins, standout press coverage and other unique selling points. Keep it lean, short, impactful.
Basics — As always, get the basics in place. IMDb page must have a poster. Website and Facebook pages must be up. Festivals look at these things. They matter.
Personal Note — It’s definitely worth writing a personal email to the festival director or program director. Not a plea for special treatment, just a short note that creates a connection. Without-a-Box is impersonal and generic. This helps overcome that.
Sub-Titles — If the film is subtitled, make sure they’re readable, and get a native English speaker to watch and check for typos.
Rejected? — You can consider following up with a friendly & gracious email, acknowledging how busy they are, pointing out what is unique about the film and relevant to the festival, and asking them to re-consider. Hail-Mary Pass? Of course, but it can and does work.
Changing the World
Among the many films I watched was one that actually did what every documentary filmmaker wants: it changed the world. “Mercy, Mercy” follows two toddler siblings from Ethiopia who are adopted by a childless couple in Denmark. Except they’re not orphans — they have loving bio-parents in Addis Ababa who are both HIV positive and can’t afford anti-retroviral drugs — so they’re dying. Hence their heartbreaking decision to give up their kids. Introducing the film, director Katrine Kjær told the audience they would find it very painful to watch. It’s a truly heartbreaking film, as the Dan-Adopt agency is revealed to be duplicitous and incompetent, and the new Danish parents are unable to cope with 5 year old Masho as she is tormented by being dragged from her parents, siblings, home, language and culture. Mercy Mercy premiered on Danish TV in prime time. The resulting public outrage provoked statements in Parliament, a government inquiry and the shutting down of an industry that preys on the poverty, ignorance and lack of access to HIV drugs in Ethiopia. The adoptive parents were forced to move to a safe house. That’s changing the world. I’m excited to help guide Katrina through the labyrinth of releasing Mercy, Mercy on worldwide VoD.
We Want Your Films
Roger Jackson is a producer and the co-founder of film distribution start-up KinoNation. He was Vice President, Content for digital film pioneer iFilm.com and has produced short films in Los Angeles, documentaries in Darfur, Palestine and Bangladesh, a reality series for VH1 and one rather bad movie for FuelTV. You can reach him at email@example.com.