Three producers talked festival strategies and making the most of selection at Script to Screen’s Writer’s Room on Tuesday in Auckland.
Julia Parnell wrangled Tim Riley, Tom Hern and Paula Jones as they shared some similarities and differences of getting different types of projects to festival and market.
Parnell opened with the suggestion that it was important to identify desired outcomes for a project to be able to measure its success. High on that list of outcomes was simply achieving festival selection, and all three producers shared experiences on that.
Jones said that, with Hip Hop-eration, festivals hadn’t initially been an especially part of the release plan. The producers (Jones and Doc Edge’s Alex Lee) believed what they had was “a small commercial film”, which didn’t really start to contemplate festivals until about half-way through the process. Heading towards completion last year, the team didn’t get a cut together in time for last year’s NZIFF. The film wasn’t a good fit for Toronto, Jones believed, despite the success there of other NZ doco fare such as Leanne Pooley’s Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls in 2009.
Jones believed that Toronto had changed some since 2009 and that Hip Hop-eration, despite broadly occupying the same “quirky/feelgood film” space where Untouchable Girls sat, wouldn’t have worked there in 2014. IDFA, the world’s largest documentary festival, did select Hip Hop-eration.
Hern agreed, noting that it was important to keep abreast of festivals’ programming strategies and trends, how their brands developed. He recommended watching titles selected in competition at various festivals to get a good understanding of what fare they were favouring in any given year.
Knocking on the door
Hern acknowledged different approaches – and results – for different titles he’d produced. For I’m Not Harry Jenson he and director James Napier Robertson, armed with youthful naivety, submitted it to lots of festivals and believed it was fit for Cannes.
For Max Currie’s Everything We Loved, Hern said he and Currie had been “realistic about its A list festival potential”, but were pleased that the film went on a very strong run at what Hern described as “the top B list festivals”. (The film returns to Auckland screens tomorrow, playing a one-week season at Rialto.)
With The Dark Horse, a NZIFF premiere as the festival’s opening film, a strong critical reception and some fun and games in Melbourne, the film headed towards Toronto with some momentum.
Aiming straight for Sundance had always been the plan for NZ-Canada co-pro Turbo Kid, according to Riley. Expanding on Hern’s point about understanding what festival was programming what type of film, Riley said it was also important to build relationships with festival programmers – something the other NZ producer of Turbo Kid, Ant Timpson, had been doing for a long time.
They said yes
Having got past the first hurdle of achieving festival selection, the producers turned their attention towards what needed to be done to parlay that selection into something more than an enjoyable junket on the NZFC’s tab.
As with trying to achieve a selection, what that might look like did depend on the desired outcome but all agreed that, with the first festival a film played, the obvious and common goal was to attract as much positive attention as possible – be that in the form of festival awards, reviews, sales, invitations to other festivals.
Again, a clear understanding of the festival was important to that. Hern acknowledged that he’d been told that Toronto was such a well-supported festival that Dark Horse was all but guaranteed sell-out screenings, but he still packed a lot of fliers to hand out on the street to drum up ticket sales.
Obviously, existing relationships at a festival helped, and Hern noted that if you didn’t have useful connections yourself, you should get someone who did. Riley noted the difficulty of going anywhere at festivals with Timpson because he was constantly bumping into people he knew.
Even with those connections in place, doing it all yourself isn’t the best plan. Riley noted that for Turbo Kid they had a PR person on board for Sundance and that she did great work in making sure that everybody who should have been aware of the film, was. Riley also noted that giving away distinctive Turbo Kid-branded beanies hadn’t hurt in the sub-zero environment that is Utah in January.
Hern admitted to being something of a micro-manager and the importance of being across everything for festival launches – if only because there wasn’t another chance to make the splash that a premiere screening should make.
While Hern hadn’t expected to drive sales for Everything We Loved at its premiere at US festival Palm Springs in January 2014, he regretted not having a publicist on board for the visit. Nonetheless, Palm Springs was a successful launch for the film, kicking off a long festival run and helping Currie advance his directing career.
Having made several trips to support the film last year, Currie was yesterday named one of four directors DEGNZ has selected for next month’s workshop programme with Rob Marchand.
Jones noted there were some differences between dramatic and doco titles, when it came to festivals. It was, she reckoned, much harder to get attention from festivals that weren’t doco-specific.
Alex Lee’s relationship with IDFA goes back a few years. Lee was a judge there and IDFA boss Ally Derks was named Doc Edge’s Industry Champion in 2013. That relationship certainly didn’t harm Hip Hop-eration’s chances of selection in Amsterdam nor its inclusion in the small package of titles IDFA presented to European media ahead of the festival.
From that flowed good advance publicity, sold out screenings, audience love in the festival’s vox pop count and invitations to several other festivals. That (plus 3 Moas and vox pop award from Santa Barbara last month) all helps Berlin-based sales agent Rise and Shine, who are handling world sales for the title.
In the Family
While there’s been considerable debate about the importance of short films as a route to feature filmmaking, one advantage of successful shorts was that they did afford an opportunity to attend festivals and begin to establish relationships. Riley and Hern both spoke about “festival families”.
Hern pointed out the number of films selected in an A list festival’s main competition which came from directors with long relationships with that festival, be they based on selections of previous shorts or features in other parts of the programme, or participation in labs and on juries.
Riley cited Taika Waititi as an example of that, claiming Waititi’s recent trip to Sundance (as a judge) was his tenth visit to Utah.
Micro-manager or not, some things always remain beyond one’s control. Hern explained that the orignal sales agent for The Dark Horse had withdrawn due to health issues, and that he’d had to seek a new agent for the title at MIFF’s 37° South, shortly before taking the film to Toronto.
Despite the best will, the deal took longer than expected to complete, leading to less lead-in time in Toronto. Another factor compounding that was the slowness of reviews coming out of Toronto – not arriving until two months later inVariety’s case – which did nothing to help build buzz around the title.
Even with those things not going as planned, The Dark Horse did close several major territories at Toronto and went on to a market screening in Berlin, where Hern also sat on the Generation jury.
The producers talked a little about the different approaches for festivals and markets – especially in places with both such as Sundance, Berlin and Toronto. While the name of the game at both was drawing attention, tactics varied. Posters were great for festivals, collateral of any kind was less useful for markets.
“It’s landfill,” claimed Hern.
In closing thoughts, the takeway snippets of advice for getting the most out of the experience of taking a film to a festival were to have a slate to talk about, not just the film selected, and to book meetings before going.