By lance weiler, November 20th, 2007

If you’ve never dealt with trying to get into film festivals and that’s in the plans, go buy Chris Gore’s Ultimate Film Festival Survivor Guide. It was probably the singular most important thing to help us figure out how to get some kind of attention for 10 MPH in the industry. That being said, the festival scene is tough and it’s very competitive to get into the big festivals. Typically in the USA, festivals are categorized into tiers. The top tier consists of festivals like Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, Los Angeles Film Festival, etc. These are the festivals that drive the independent film scene. All the buyers (distributors) and all the main industry press attend these festivals, along with anyone else who’s got a career built around film. That’s why it’s critical to try to premiere your film at one of these fests. Obviously, not everyone can do that and it’s unfortunate because there are a lot of good films that never get the initial push they need to become successful. But don’t forget there are the 2nd tier and 3rd tier festivals. These two categories blend together, but to help clarify, I’d say Denver International Film Festival is a tier 2 fest and Vail Film Festival would be a tier 3 fest (though fast on its way to being a tier 2 fest). I make the distinction based on who attends the fests and not what types of films they are programming. And I bring up these two festivals because they are close to home and are part of the 10 MPH story. So for tier 2 festivals, you’ve got to have some industry influencers present and often these are tied to big film societies. Denver Film Society naturally runs the big festival here. Up in Vail, they put on one hell of a festival with some great parties, but don’t get much in terms of the types of people that will make a difference in your film career.

What happens if you can’t premiere at a top 1 or 2 festival? That’s what happened to 10 MPH. As Chris Gore and others suggested, we started submitting to top festivals like Sundance, Slamdance, and SXSW. But we also figured we’d throw out some submissions to a few other festivals like Denver (our home town) and Hamptons (which is fast becoming a important festival). We probably applied to a dozen festivals and like clockwork started receiving rejection letters about three months after submitting our film. We expected it would happen with Sundance, but were shocked to see some of these others turning us down. Some quick background on our film. To us it was obviously everything we had been doing for a year and half and we had built such incredible media attention and hype (3 national NPR stories, New York Times feature, CNN, Fox News, major blog traffic, and hundreds of other stories) that we were sure this would help get us an edge. Besides that – we believed we had a really solid film.

After getting rejections, we continued to tweak the film and try to improve a few areas that we thought might be causing challenges. We didn’t know what was wrong and didn’t have any idea that this industry was so difficult to break into. Making a film was tough enough – who knew we’d have to figure out this crazy distribution system? There was at least two moments during this ‘wait and see’ period that I was sure we were done. I figured those damn cubicle jobs weren’t that bad after all.

But the drive inside stayed alive and we started to figure out that these festivals and the films that are making it are all part of this complex scene. It’s not to say that you can’t make a great film and get picked to be in Sundance, but you have to put things into perspective for yourself. Sundance gets 8000+ entries from all over the world and anyone who is in the business (spending sometimes millions of dollars on a film) knows if they are going with the festival strategy that they want to kick their film off at a fest like Sundance. And all the buyers, producers reps, and sales agents of the world know people at Sundance and these other fests and they are doing everything they can to get their films noticed. So, if you are entry number 6578 and hoping to get recognized by one of the interns or assistant programmers that first views your films, then passed up the chains to the main programmers who pretty much have to unanimously agree that your film deserves to be in the fest, you are hoping for a lot, especially considering all the influencers that are jockeying their films into the key programming pool.

So that explains the rejection form Sundance…what about Denver. Why wouldn’t they take a cool, little flick from some up and coming hometown film dudes? Well, my guess is they probably had 10 of us competing to get in and what happens at fests like Denver (tier 2), they program a lot of stuff based on the other festivals a film has been in. And because Denver gets some industry attention, they also get influence from buyers and other industry people. So, we still had a lot of competition and while Denver wants some World Premieres, they don’t base their fest around that. They are trying to program a film festival for Denver and their place in the whole film scene. Wait? Doesn’t that still seem weird? Denver is trying to program a festival for Denver and they didn’t choose our film after all the attention we’d received around the country (and the world for that matter).

At this point, I started to feel like we had a pretty crappy film. I was certain I was victim to the goggles we all put on when we start a major creative endeavor like this. We’d never done this before and we must have completely flopped. I’ve now come to realize this happens to a lot of first-time filmmakers – we enter our local festivals expecting they will be automatic shoe-ins. Come to realize, it’s a competitive game out there and it’s not that easy. I understand it now, but at the time, I was pretty bummed.

Josh and I had probably spent about 500 bucks in entry fees when we finally got word from a festival that they wanted to screen our film. Enter the East Lansing Film Festival (ELFF). The funniest part about this was that we didn’t even submit to the festival. j.fred did. He’s the associate producer of 10 MPH who you see in the movie a few times. He and his wife had just moved to East Lansing and several months earlier, he insisted we enter the film to that festival, so we let him roll with it. I would have never guessed at the time that this would be where we first showed 10 MPH publicly. And when we got the invite, I was excited but also a little concerned because we weren’t selected for the main festival, but instead for the Lake Michigan Competition which is part of the festival. There were some crazy qualifications involving where the film was shot and where its producers lived that barely allowed us to qualify to be included. As far as I could tell, this was ELFF’s way to include local filmmakers (which they had a lot to draw from being that they held the festival at MSU).

Within a week or so of finding out about ELFF, we received word from Vail Film Festival and Longbaugh Film Festival (Portland, OR) that they wanted to screen our film. PHEW!! Finally some of our blind faith that all started when we bought the dang Segway was just beginning to pay off. This crazy project we’d poured so much of our heart and soul into was actually going to have a real audience. Vail Film Festival was one week after ELFF and since it was so close to our home and we felt it had a more prestigious feeling (sorry East Lansing), we decided to position Vail as the World Premiere of 10 MPH. When you launch in mid-tier festivals, I think the World Premiere status matters only somewhat for films – depending on how you use it. To the industry press at this time, it didn’t matter because they didn’t cover either of those fests, so naturally they would toss any kind of press release we tried to send them (we did of course). But to local press, our audience and ourselves, it seemed to matter a great deal. We got some excellent local coverage and the database of supporters were excited by the sounds of a World Premiere in Vail. I wondered if people mixed up the idea of Vail with Sundance, since that festival is also held in a mountain town of a neighboring state to Colorado. Regardless, I loved Vail and was excited about screening the movie there, especially so close to home.

ELFF turned out to be terrific and we picked up our first award for the film, winning 1st place in documentary. It was certainly the confidence boost I needed after all the hopeless film festival rejections we’d received. Not only that, but being at a public screening and seeing hundreds of people that were clearly energized by your film is certainly an experience anyone making films deserves. And the biggest surprise was when dozens of those people stopped by after Q&A to tell us how inspired they were. What? We made an inspirational film? A week later, we were in Vail, where sold out screenings kept both Josh and I (and many others) from seeing the official World Premiere screening.

We continued to enter lots of film festivals and our ratio on acceptances to rejections definitely got better, but rejections were still aplenty. Once we had picked up a few awards and gotten into some more fests, we were able to start asking festivals to waive our fees or at least give us a discount. This is a key point to remember. Do ask. It never hurts, because these festivals are very used to giving freebees. By the way, if you do get into Slamdance, Sundance, or SXSW, you can count on saving a bunch of money on submission fees. Festival programmers will seek you out and waive your fees.

We had a couple really cool festival experiences. The brand new Solstice Film Festival in St. Paul, Minnesota picked up 10 MPH and chose to screen it as the closing film of the festival. We screened in the Fitzgerald Theater (the same theater where A Prairie Home Companion is recorded) and it was truly an outstanding experience. They played First Flight, a Dreamworks animated short, before our film. We also got to screen at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival to a house that was overflowing. Josh and I had trouble getting by all the people to do Q&A at the end. Of all the festivals we played in, I think this might have been my favorite. There was something very alluring about the Southern charm and the blatant hospitality dished up for us filmmakers. And everyone in Birmingham comes out to support the fest. Makes for an unforgettable experience.

It was after playing in a few festivals when I started to understand things more. There is no cookie cutter approach to this industry, unless you are lucky enough and connected enough to get someone like John Sloss (Cinetic Media) representing your film and an invite to Sundance or Toronto. We decided to play at a bunch of mid-tier film festivals but realized these festivals probably wouldn’t turn up any serious distribution leads. We still hoped somehow somebody like Oprah would hear about us, see our film, and turn things around.

It would sure be nice to get that big deal you hear about where a film gets picked up at a festival and is on an instant path to becoming that cool, indie film that we all want to see. This wasn’t going to happen though. We did have some really cool fests that picked us up and at each of these, we got to know people who had experiences similar to us, but also shed light on some things we didn’t know. I strongly suggest going to fests with your film and meeting everyone you can. This was a great way to really begin to understand the industry.

I’d say it was after the 4th or 5th festival that Josh and I realized we weren’t going to find distribution very easily. We also realized a lot of filmmakers reach this point and completely burn out; the idea of taking on another film project feels next to impossible, especially when you are trying to pay off 40K of debt. But we had to keep answering the question – What are you going to do next? I think all filmmakers face this and it’s a pretty tough thing to process after you’ve completely sacrificed everything you have to get to that point. It?s also exhilarating in a way and we were hell bent on making sure we had an answer. Personally, I don’t like being in the audience and hearing a filmmaker hem and haw and not really have an idea or hope of making something else (though, I know this is a likely outcome at this point in the process).

Josh and I had been talking about this little short we did in a very casual way back in 2003 before we shot 10 MPH. It was basically a 20-minute video we cut together of a fantasy football party we throw every year with our buddies who all play fantasy football to keep in touch. j.fred (also in 10 MPH) is the commissioner of our league and every year he retires as the commissioner, so we have to throw this party. Everyone tries to fly in for it and it’s one heck of a good time. So this zaniness got us to thinking about how crazy-big the fantasy football culture is and thus the idea for our 2nd film was born. What started to seem logical to us was to gang up film festival travel with some of the shooting for this fantasy football film. This definitely gave us new energy and helped encourage us to make it to many of the festivals that we screened in.

Next Week – part 4  getting press

hunter.jpg

Hunter Weeks made his feature-length directorial debut with 10 MPH. He’s also the mastermind behind the creative marketing and distribution efforts that led to national recognition and critical acclaim for the film. Photographing the world since the early nineties, Hunter Weeks has developed an eye for capturing moments of humanity in off-the-beaten-path places, like Croatia, Morocco, and Indonesia. His photography background influences his work on documentaries, which currently focus on American pop culture subjects. As the follow-up to 10 MPH, he’s working on a documentary about fantasy football, currently titled 10 Yards.

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lance weiler is the founder of the WorkBook Project and also a story architect of film, tv and games. He's written and directed two feature films THE LAST BROADCAST and HEAD TRAUMA. He's currently developing a number of transmedia projects

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