A Practical Guide to Attending Your First Film Festival

What to expect and what to do before, during, and after the festival experience.

“Film festivals act as gatekeepers. They add a layer of curation that assures audiences and distributors alike that someone already has done the hard work of finding the cream of the crop. If your film has been accepted, you’re in good company!”

Many aspiring filmmakers dream of what it will be like to one day sit in a movie theatre, while above the audience, light streams from a projector onto the screen, illuminating the fruits of their labor and passion. Getting a film in front of an audience so that people can experience its story and characters is the traditional end-all be-all be-all of the filmmaking journey. For some, the first time this happens is at a film festival, so it’s not surprising that festivals hold a special place in filmmakers’ hearts!

If you’ve yet to attend a festival, then you may be wondering what it’s like to go to one with your own film, and that’s what we’ll discuss today. We’ll also talk a bit about film festivals in general: what are they, and what do they have to offer us as filmmakers? Lastly, we’ll touch on ways you can find success at a festival, so that you’re equipped with some basic strategies when you score your first festival acceptance.

Festival films usually screen at multiple venues.

What is a film festival, anyway?

On a very basic level, a film festival is usually a multi-day event during which a selection of films is played for audiences. Film festivals tend to take place in a single locale that has several screening areas available, so that multiple films can play at once. In light of these considerations, small towns and cities with multiple screening locations are often good backdrops for film festivals.

So, for example, let’s imagine that a made-up film festival is happening over the course of four days. We’ll call it the Awesome Film Festival (AF Fest… One thing to know about festivals is that they’re often boiled down into acronyms)! During AF Fest’s four day run, 30 films will screen across four different theatres, all within walking distance of one another.

Festival-goers will look at the festival’s schedule and pick out which films they’d like to see. Typically, if you’re attending a festival as an audience member, you’ll receive a program and map out what you’d like to see and attend when.

A film festival screening often includes a Q&A session with the filmmakers after the screening concludes. This opportunity to dialogue with the filmmakers – both formally on-stage and sometimes informally after a screening – is one of the things that draws audience members to the festival experience. People love speaking with the artists who made the thing they just saw, and they love hearing those artists discuss their process. This proximity between the creators and the audience is one of the defining features of a film festival that sets the experience apart from, say, simply catching a movie in the cinema.

Plus, the films you see at a festival won’t necessarily make it to wider distribution in a cinema context at all. Granted, some film festivals – especially bigger, top tier festivals like Cannes, Berlin, and Sundance – exist in the sphere where top-dollar business deals and film acquisitions are made, fast-tracking the best of the best to the big screen. In this sense – and in the sense that a festival acceptance can act as a badge of honor, since it proves that a film was considered good and appropriate by the festival programmers! – film festivals act as gatekeepers. They add a layer of curation that assures audiences and distributors alike that someone already has done the hard work of finding the cream of the crop. If your film has been accepted, you’re in good company!

An audience catching a screening at a film festival.

What’s a film festival actually like for a filmmaker?

For a filmmaker with a film in the festival, attending can be a very exciting, valuable experience! Going to a festival lets you:

  • See your movie alongside an audience (sometimes for the first time). It’s worth acknowledging that this can seem like a scary experience, and if you feel nervous beforehand, know that you are not alone! Playing to a room full of strangers puts your creative soul in a vulnerable spot. Hang in there. Chances are high that the experience will be thrilling, especially if your film is well received! Either way, it’s a good exercise in letting go of your work.
  • Get feedback from the audience. Sure, sometimes you’ll hear negative things and get notes that run the gamut from “helpful” to “ridiculous”, but especially at smaller film festivals, audiences attend knowing that they’re seeing the work of up-and-coming filmmakers who still may be learning their craft or otherwise finding their unique creative voices. It’s entirely possible that audiences will be forgiving of blips here and there, choosing instead to latch onto the good and promising aspects of your work. Who knows, they may seek you out to talk your ear off about how much a moment in your film resonated with them!
  • Meet other filmmakers who are around your level in the filmmaking journey. Filmmaking is an incredibly collaborative craft that tends to require strong networking skills. Festivals afford you the opportunity to connect with other filmmakers who are at a similar stage in the game as you. These relationships can last long into your careers, and you can help lift each other up as you go.
  • See what other filmmakers are doing. It can be really inspiring when you catch a film at a festival that makes you say, “Wow – that was really good.” Remember, if you have a film in the festival, you’re in good company! You also can get a sense of what that festival tends to program and perhaps even where “the zeitgeist” is heading.
  • Depending on the level of the festival, you may be able to network with potential film distributors as well as influential programmers and agents and managers. Such meetings can lead to distribution deals and/or other future opportunities.

Accepted into a film festival? Here’s what to do when!

If you’re preparing to attend a film festival and represent your film, then you’re probably hoping for some nuts-and-bolts advice. We’ve got you covered. I attended my first film festival as a producer back in 2008, and there were definitely a few things I wish I’d known before I got there. So, here’s some super practical information for you that will help position you for festival success!

Before the festival:

As soon as you find out that you’ve been accepted into a festival, become aware of what the festival needs of you and when. According to Raindance organizer Elliot Grove, there’s nothing more frustrating than the incommunicado filmmaker: “I can’t tell you the number of times I have had to email, telephone and leave messages, call other members of the crew trying to reach a producer or director with important information about their film,” Grove explains. “Sometimes I just give up, and we won’t screen the film.” Don’t let this happen to you!

Plan ahead as much as you can. Festival schedules often are announced fairly close to the actual screenings, but as soon as you have the schedule, note when your screening time is and make sure that you can be there for it. Next, take a look at the schedule and note which other films you’d like to see. It’s not uncommon for several films to screen simultaneously, which can be confusing to navigate if you don’t make a plan beforehand.

“For me, the fun part of a festival is sitting down beforehand with my highlighters and calendar, feverishly rifling through the festival booklet and drawing up an expansive colour-coordinated schedule of what I’m going to see, when I’m going to see it, and who I could potentially meet at these screenings,” Jen Metcalfe shares. “It’s a Tetris organizational delight, and it’s the key to maximizing your film festival experience.”

For some, planning a film festival is "a Tetris organizational delight."

In fact, there are even apps to help you with this! “Never has a festival app been so perfectly built as the Berlinale 2016 app,” this article claims. “The official app is a wealth of information, syncing up with the berlinale.de website, your phone’s calendar and providing an intensive schedule perfect for planning. The Berlinale app lets you search by movie, by category, by location or by date/time. Even with all the printed programs and schedules freely available throughout the film festival, the app is the best tool for planning.” The fact that apps exist to help you maximize your festival-going experience should be an indicator that it’s worth planning seriously.

While you’re planning, make note of any social events that are open to filmmakers and plan to attend some or all of them. Most festivals have several opportunities for filmmakers to mingle: cocktail hours, receptions, even galas. Many of these events are free; others will cost you. For example, the end-of-the-festival gala is usually a ticketed event that filmmakers have to pay to attend. Since everyone already has screened their films, people usually are feeling celebratory at the gala, so it can be a great venue for forging friendships! It’s also where awards get handed out. If you can find it in your budget to attend, it’s a good idea to do so.

During the festival:

Most films festivals maintain information tables with volunteers and/or staff present to help answer questions. They’re there for the benefit of both the attendees and filmmakers. Don’t be shy! If you have a question, ask. Every festival is different, and you want to make the most of your time.

If you’re traveling to attend, ask the festival organizers in advance where most people are staying, how people get around, if there are any special hotel deals you can access as a filmmaker, etc. Because so many festivals are firmly rooted in their locale and run by people who live there, organizers can provide a great wealth of information about what to expect when you get there.

Have an extra digital copy of your film with you, just in case. Yes, you sent it to the festival organizers in advance. Yes, you can hope that the film gods will shine upon you and the screening won’t get messed up. But guess what? Stuff happens. The first festival I attended, my composer’s entire family had traveled in to see the film in the theatre alongside him. And then as the film started, we realized to our horror that, for whatever reason, the festival was playing the rough cut, with a temp track, that we had submitted in the application process, instead of the final cut – with the composer’s score – that we had sent to be screened at the festival. Luckily, we had an extra copy with us, and they swapped out theirs for ours.

Have business cards with you to hand out to other filmmakers, and consider making postcards and other promotional materials to advertise your film and its screening details. Everyone you meet will be excited that you’re a filmmaker and will ask you when your film is playing. Give them something they can hang onto so that they don’t forget you or your film.

Speaking of everyone getting excited about your role as a filmmaker, get ready to tell people what your movie is about – and quickly – a LOT. You know that two minute elevator pitch? Speed it up. Thirty seconds, tops. And get ready to say it over and over. And over. And over. And over. And over. As Taylor Kephart puts it, “be ready to sell, sell, sell the film, company, or service you are offering. Everyone else is, so practice your elevator pitch before you get there: the 30-second snapshot of what it is you are at the market for and what makes you, your film, or your service so special. Just as importantly, make the pitch memorable. It’s not just what you say but how you say it – you want them to remember you from the hundreds of other pitches they’ll hear.”

Depending on the size of the festival, “selling” the film may include interviews with press and/or participating in panels. It can be so much that filmmakers sometimes will hire publicists to handle navigating and planning these aspects of the festival experience.

One more tip for what to do during the film festival, inspired by a personal experience. Years after I attended my first festival, I was attending another as an audience member, in a small town where I was living at the time. As I was waiting for a screening to start, a group of filmmakers were standing together where I could hear them. They were getting to know one another, and the way they had chosen to bond was to make fun of the town the festival was taking place in (which I called home). This may seem like a small thing, but it really stuck with me.

When a film festival’s on in a town, it more or less takes it over for a few days. This can be really exciting and great for the people living there, but it’s worth noting that those people – not just the festival itself, but the people who actually live in the place where it’s unfolding – are the hosts of the festival. Frankly, it just wasn’t a good look for these filmmakers to be talking about the place like it wasn’t worth their time. I can’t say it’s not fine to feel that way, because of course, you don’t have to like every place you go. But I think it’s good advice to be aware of your surroundings at a film festival, and remember that it’s not just your fellow filmmakers who are there. It’s audience members you’re asking to appreciate your work, after all.

When you’re gabbing with other artists, know that people are paying attention to you. You’re the stars of the show, and – I know it’s cliché, but it’s really true – you only get one chance to make a first impression. A film festival can be a great way to convert strangers into fans, if you conduct yourself appropriately.

After the festival:

Follow up with the filmmakers, industry players, and friends you met at the festival! Watch their movies, like their pages, follow their social media accounts. Technology makes it so doable to stay in touch with people across the miles and integrate their work, thoughts, and interactions into your day-to-day life. Definitely embrace the connections you made at the festival and stay in touch with people. It’s worth repeating that film is a collaborative medium, and you never know what future opportunities may exist for you and your craft thanks to the people you connect with at film festivals.

Don't forget to stay in touch with the people you meet at the film festival!

In Conclusion

Have you attended a festival with a film before? What are your top tips for success at film festivals, what surprised you, and what do you wish you had known going in? Please share your experiences in the comments below – we’d truly love to hear them!

 Lauren McGrail, with

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