Sandra Hebron: How to navigate the film festival circuit
By Danny Kelly
01 July 2021
Film curator, events host, critic, NFTS course leader, and former Artistic Director of the BFI London Film Festival, Sandra Hebron, shares her advice to MetFilm School students on how to navigate the film festival circuit.
With many parts of the world beginning to open up again, so too are film festivals. Last month saw the announcement of two seriously exciting 2021 line-ups: Cannes and Sundance London. And in Germany, the Berlinale took to the outdoors for its ‘Summer Special’, with audiences kicking back at 16 open-air cinemas across the capital – including one at MetFilm School Berlin’s BUFA Studios campus.
Here at MetFilm School, we’re particularly excited for audiences to see our directing tutor Prano Bailey Bond’s horror debut Censor, as well as MetFilm Production’s captivating documentary Misha and the Wolves– both of which premiered at Sundance back in January.
Before things well and truly kick-off again, we were thrilled to host a virtual masterclass in May with curator, event host and critic Sandra Hebron, who offered our students some tips on how to navigate the film festival circuit with their own projects. Here are some highlights from the discussion…
How to Navigate the Film Festival Circuit
Why do you want to put your film into a festival?
Asking yourself what you want to get from your film being in a festival is a good starting point. Do you want to raise visibility for the film? Or to make contacts to develop your career? Or do you just want the opportunity to travel to some nice places and network? What are your priorities?
The festival circuit is competitive and – unless you’re submitting to a specialised or niche event – you are probably competing with thousands of other filmmakers. You have to have a plan and you have to be strategic. Asking yourself this question will help drive some of the decisions that you make.
Here are some tips for getting the most of your time on the festival circuit…
- Know your festivals – You need to look at when and what the festival is. Is it international, national or regional? Does it have wide-ranging programming, or does it specialise with a certain type of film or genre? Is it focused on the industry or more towards a public audience? Is there a market place attached? Is it important to you for the festival to be BAFTA of Oscar-qualifying? Asking these types of questions is an important place to start.
- To compete or not to compete? – From a filmmaker point of view, the value of going to a film festival that has a competition is debatable. If you enter into a competitive festival and you win an award, that can bring profile and in some cases a financial benefit. But I wouldn’t rule out the non-competitive festivals, certainly in the world of short films, as they will still bring opportunities.
- Don’t underestimate the power of audience buzz – While a festival like Cannes is primarily focused on the industry, there can be real advantages to putting your film into a festival where there are public screenings. This will help you get a sense of how your film works with an audience, and the industry figures in attendance will note that too. If they see that your film is well received, that can be valuable when it comes to sales or to seeking finance for your next project.
- Be realistic and professional – It is a waste of your time and money to submit your film to lots of festivals where it will never get selected. Look at the festival’s website and assess what they’ve screened in the past. Pay attention to the eligibility criteria and respect the submission process. Lobbying festival directors or programmers to take your film should be approached with caution; you can be gently persistent, but do try to be gracious in success and rejection. Not getting accepted doesn’t mean your film is terrible, it may just not be the right fit. Tell them you look forward to submitting your next film. The relationships you build are important.
- Bigger isn’t always better – If you put a small film in a big festival the danger is it could get completely overlooked. Take a festival like Toronto – how much coverage will a small film get? Probably not that much. Instead, think about a different festival where you get more profile. If you’re a big fish in a small pond you’re more likely to be written about than being 1 of 400. Of course, if a festival really wants your film, you have to hope they will help to promote it. Just because an event is an “A-list festival”, don’t assume that it’s automatically a better place for your film to be – it’s a question of finding the best fit for your film. And don’t dismiss student film festivals, as they can be useful for meeting people and making contacts.
- Programmers look for different things – People will always talk about wanting to see something original and different, but personally, what I look for is a film that somehow works within its own parameters. It doesn’t have to have massive production values, but it has to get my attention and hold it. If you don’t engage the viewer early on, they won’t make it through the film. I like tone, atmosphere, mood, and I want to be moved by something. But that’s just my taste; that doesn’t apply across the board. If you look at a festival programme, you can see what the programmers like. But they will always be working beyond their own personal taste to find the best work for their festival’s remit.
- Be mindful of the film’s length – If you make a “short” that is 38 or 45 minutes long, then sadly it will be hard to programme. Make sure your film is the right length for the subject – I’ve seen many 17-19-minute films that would have worked even better at 11 or 12 minutes.
Sandra Hebron currently leads the MA in Film Studies, Programming and Curation at the National Film & Television School.