Markets and festivals aren’t the same. Filmmakers may find this confusing because some festivals operate alongside a film market, as is the case in Berlin and Cannes. Sundance is a festival; however, an informal market has now grown up around it, with distributors bidding to acquire rights to films.
Markets are generally only open to the trade, meaning industry professionals like sales agents and buyers. Moreover, the substantial fees charged for attendance discourage those outside the business from attending.
A member of the public can’t usually buy a ticket to see a film or participate in a market. Films are screened for buyers, although it would be more accurate to call these buyers “licensees” since they usually don’t buy ownership of a film, but are licensing distribution rights for a term of years. For example, one buyer might be a German broadcaster interested in acquiring films to distribute on a cable television service in Germany. Another might be a theater-chain owner who wants to exhibit films in Turkey.
Many buyers seek all rights (including theatrical, television, digital and home video), and then sub-license some of these rights to other distributors in that territory.
Markets are an opportunity for buyers worldwide to connect with those who license film rights. Sellers are usually sales agents acting on behalf of producers. In the course of a market, a buyer will communicate with numerous sales agents and view multiple films. Deals may be signed during the market or afterwards. The market is also an opportunity for sellers and buyers to socialize and build relationships.
Filmmakers are often dismayed when they observe how pictures are bought and sold at a market. The atmosphere is more akin to a fish market than an art gallery. Most buyers don’t spend much time contemplating the artistic merits of a film. They need to buy a lot of product quickly, and rush from one screening to another like contestants on Supermarket Sweep.
Buyers may license films on the basis of trailers, posters and cast without even watching the entire film. Or, they may hit the fast-forward button and quickly scan the movie. They often buy in bulk, purchasing packages of films. Motion pictures are a commodity for them—even buyers of art films are bottom line-oriented. They just serve a different market.
The primary concern of buyers can be boiled down to one thing: Can I make money with this film? This leads directly to the query: How can I sell this to subdistributors and/or the public? The marketability of the picture is of paramount concern. A brilliant film that’s difficult to market is less desirable than a mediocre film with marketable elements such as stars.
The major film markets are the American Film Market (AFM), Cannes and the European Film Market (Berlin). The important television markets are MIP, MIPCOM and NATPE. Specialized conferences also exist, including the Banff World Media Festival (attracting development executives for television and digital media), VidCon (a relatively new event for those interested in online video) and E3 (a popular annual video game conference).
Festivals, on the other hand, are open to the public. Anyone can buy a ticket to a screening although the most popular festivals may not have enough tickets to go around. Festivals provide a test of a film’s audience appeal and may be the first opportunity for a filmmaker to gauge how moviegoers react to their film. Of course, festival-goers tend to be better educated and wealthier than your average moviegoer. Nevertheless, a festival screening can provide useful feedback.
Festivals also expose films to potential distributors and festival programmers. Acceptance at a top festival will induce many acquisition executives to watch a film, either at the festival or by asking for a copy to screen later. Winning an award at a top festival may enhance the film’s value in the eyes of distributors and lead to a bidding war.
Festivals can draw both the film industry and the public’s attention to a film. Thus, after distribution has been secured, the distributor may want to screen the film in festivals to build awareness and generate reviews. If the timing of the festival is close to the release date for the film, the festival screening can promote the picture to the public.
Alternatively, if the film isn’t going to be released for another six months, publicity oriented toward the general public may not be helpful and could be harmful. In fact, when the film is released, such prior coverage may be forgotten, and the news media may not be interested in covering the film again.
Some festivals are better launching pads than others. Certain festival directors have reputations for selecting films that achieve great critical acclaim and/or box office success. Other festivals have different ambitions; they may focus on the work of regional filmmakers or exhibit films that have already secured distribution. These festivals may be more interested in obtaining popular programming for local audiences than helping filmmakers secure distribution. Regional festivals are often designed to attract visitors to the community and help local businesses by filling hotel rooms and restaurants.
Since acquisition execs have limited time to attend festivals, they prefer those that have a reputation for featuring the best films first. The top festivals want to attract industry executives because they know that their presence will make the event more appealing to filmmakers seeking distribution. As a result, festivals often compete with each other to premiere the best features. If the festival can’t secure a premiere for a film, it may decline to show that film entirely.
A film can only premiere once in each territory or region, and participation in one festival may make the film ineligible for selection in others. For instance, Sundance has a policy of only accepting films into competition that are U.S. premieres and haven’t been shown in more than two international festivals. Note that Sundance doesn’t count markets such as the IFP market as a festival, and also features other sections that don’t require a U.S. premiere.
Generally speaking, for independent filmmakers with feature-length films seeking distribution, the top festivals are Sundance, SXSW, Telluride, Slamdance, Hamptons, New York, Mill Valley and Seattle. Other significant festivals include AFI, Austin, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Springs and Santa Barbara.
The most important European festivals are Berlin, Cannes and Venice. The chief Canadian film festival is in Toronto, although Vancouver, Montreal and the Atlantic film festivals are also first-rate events. For documentaries, Amsterdam IDFA, Hot Docs (Toronto) and Marseille are vital gatherings for filmmakers and distributors.
There are many festivals, each with its own selection criteria and point of view. Some are specialized and concentrate on one type of film such as documentaries, shorts or animation, or focus on specific subject matters such as stories of interest to the Gay and Lesbian, Ecological and Jewish communities. Other festivals exhibit a broad range of motion pictures. Consequently, the decision of which festivals to enter will depend on the nature of the film. Withoutabox.com is a useful site for researching festivals and automating submissions.
Filmmakers participating in a festival should come early and bring plenty of promotional materials. If you show up the day of your screening and find your picture is playing to a half-empty theater, then you haven’t done your homework. Screenings at major festivals in prime slots may sell out on their own; but lesser festivals may benefit from the filmmaker’s efforts to build an audience
Launching a film at a festival is somewhat like mounting a political campaign. You need troops and ammunition. One should prepare professional one-sheets (8.5×11-inch mini-posters) to hand out, several full-sized posters and a press kit. Weeks before screening, filmmakers often mail invitations to executives.
Typically, it’s helpful to have your stars and director present, as these are the talent the media is often most interested in. For festivals subject to extensive media coverage, like Sundance, a publicist can be very helpful in scheduling interviews and maximizing coverage.
Mark Litwak is a veteran entertainment attorney and producer’s rep based in Los Angeles, California. He’s the author of six books, including “Dealmaking in the Film & Television Industry,” “Contracts for the Film & Television Industry” and “Risky Business: Financing & Distributing Independent Films.” He’s an adjunct professor at the USC Gould School of Law and creator of Entertainment LawResources. You can reach Mark at email@example.com; visit marklitwak.com.