Chris McDonald talked festivals at last week’s Screen Edge Forum in Auckland, discussing ideas for both festival organisers and filmmakers during keynote and in conversation sessions.During his tenure as CEO of Hot Docs (until 2013) McDonald oversaw significant growth at the festival. Audience numbers grew from 4,000 to over 200,000 – although not all of those are paying audiences.
In roughly equal measure, he attributed Hot Docs’ growth to three factors: a strong strategy, aiming to improve what was possible; stealing, taking things that seemed to be working well elsewhere; and serendipity, the unexpected and unintended results that occur from plans you thought you had control over.
One thing McDonald did early on to attract audiences was to make the festival’s daytime screenings (including on weekends) free for school-age students and pensioners. It helped boost the festival’s profile significantly. Now the festival is huge it’s dsomething that’s just hard to cut from the offer.
A festival’s primary responsibility is to its audience, because without one it will wither and die. McDonald noted that he considered the Doc Edge Festival (currently in its 10th year) was in better shape than Hot Docs had been at that stage of its development.
While Toronto has advantages New Zealand doesn’t – a own significant population base, film and TV production infrastructure and 350 million people within a 5-hour flying radius, to name a few – McDonald was positive about the prospects for Doc Edge.
“We had no money (in the early years) but it doesn’t cost anything to be nice,” McDonald explained.
The worst thing, he reckoned, was something common to all festivals: they only run once a year and so there’s only a short window in which to try out new ideas and assess their success or otherwise.
“We learned a lot from TIFF,” McDonald said, “both what they get right and what they don’t.”
He also noted that the festival expanded as it grew. More titles and more screenings meant more screens, and Hot Docs now runs across half a dozen cinemas in Toronto.
For filmmakers McDonald suggested having a very clear strategy for festival submissions: decide what you want to achieve from a festival selection, and target the festivals that can deliver on those aims.
Those aims could vary considerably from film to film, from filmmaker to filmmaker. It was possible, he suggested, to make reasonable money from festivals which pay screening fees. “Some people’s model is to get screening fees, and that’s fine – especially if you don’t have a sales agent it can add up if you get it into a bunch of festivals.”
However, Hot Docs doesn’t pay screening fees. “We’re of a status where it’s good for your film to get in,” he explained – not that Hot Docs was trying to take advantage of filmmakers and save a buck or two.
The festival does invite the filmmaker of every feature it screens (some 140 films this year), flying them to Toronto and accommodating them rather than paying them cash. McDonald noted the number of films that were applying with two directors credited, which further bumped the cost for Hot Docs. He shared that Hot Docs had received one submission this year with three directors, but it wasn’t selected.
He said that the festival wasn’t ideologically opposed to paying fees, but something would have to give it did. Other festivals pay a fee or invite a filmmaker, so maybe that option could work.
For those wanting to make connections, the invite to a festival such as Hot Docs might be more valuable than cash. With market events running alongside the festival, there were many opportunities to advance projects in development or make sales of completed ones.
Hot Docs attracts 300 buyers and received 2,700 submissions for this year’s edition. All those titles are able to promote themselves through Hot Docs B2B videotheque, through which other festivals and potentia buyers can check out titles.
Hot Docs doesn’t make money from the videotheque but it’s part of the service, striving to deliver value and good experiences for all parties who come into contact with the festival organisation.
McDonald noted that commitment to service as an important part of the offer, from making sure the cinema was clean for every screening to making sure filmmakers were looked after, doing as much as it could to develop opportunities for filmmakers.
In return, McDonald suggested filmmakers should also bring something to the table, even if only good manners. “Don’t be a dick. Festival organisers talk to one another.”
He also talked a little about premiere status, and the importance or otherwise of being able to offer that – whether it be world, international, country, or whatever. That particular patch ground was also covered by Sweet Micky for President producers Pras Michel and Karyn Rachtman in their masterclass. While McDonald acknowledged the marketing benefits of premiere status, he also believed that (unless a title had already had a general release) its status was unlikely to influence audience numbers. Most festival-goers didn’t make their selections on whether a film was premiering or not, but on whether there was something about it that interested them.
Which led neatly on to another benefit some festivals might deliver more than others, such as media coverage and reviews. Noting that the major US trades reviewed out of Hot Docs, McDonald also noted that a review could help encourage festival programmers and boost audiences in future appearances.
Lest the whole business was beginning to seem a little incestuous, McDonald also noted that Hot Docs went to some effort to erect Chinese walls between the parts of the organisation that supported filmmakers, particularly via its various funds, and the festival selectors.
As Hot Docs was established with a board mostly made up of filmmakers, the organisation had got used to saying no to people it cared about quite early on in its life.
With its own cinema that plays documentary fare pretty much year round, Hot Docs has regular interaction with its audiences, although McDonald noted that programming a cinema rather than a festival had been a learning curve.
“We do surveys throughout the year,” McDonald explained before cautioning, “You can’t always do what they want when they want it, but you need to try to listen.”