I’ve been attending film festivals almost as long as I’ve been writing about movies, which is quite a long time. While I began mostly by attending the local Tribeca and New York Film Festivals, I eventually became a regular attendee of Sundance and Toronto (aka TIFF). These are two of the larger movie market festivals, along with the upcoming Cannes (which I’ve yet to attend).
There’s a number of reasons why an independent film might play one of these festivals, and getting a distributor is often one of the top reasons. Are these festivals really doing a good service for the films that play there or are they good for the week or two the festival runs and not much beyond that?
I’ve talked to a number of filmmakers whose films have played around the world at larger festivals and smaller regional ones. However well or poorly they’re received, it still comes down to whether the movie finds a distributor and whether that distributor spends the money to get word out about the movie. As they say, you often have to spend money to make money, and this being the movie business (emphasis on the second word), it’s often as much about a movie making back investors’ money as it is about turning a profit, which doesn’t happen as often as you might think.
To most filmmakers, they’re spending months, even years, making a movie. These are often passion projects or films that normally would have a fairly small reach. I’ve seen so many of these really great films fail to find an audience, at least in theaters. It’s hard to gauge whether VOD and other streaming options are making a difference since we rarely have concrete numbers that X number of people have watched a movie from beginning to end.
That brings us to the other important significance of festivals and that’s to create word-of-mouth. When a movie plays a festival, we assume it was good enough to get into the festival in the first place and wasn’t just a bit of nepotism from the programmers. When people see a movie at Sundance or Toronto or Tribeca, and it wins an award, particularly the audience award.
Once these movies are bought out of a festival, it often seems like the buyer doesn’t have enough money left to market the movie for a theatrical release, and that’s a shame, considering how much money is being spent.
One example is last year’s My Friend Dahmer, directed by Marc Meyers, which was picked up by FilmRise after it played at Tribeca, then it played a couple more festivals and continued to get love from audiences and attending critics. The movie grossed about $1.3 million when it was released last November but never really got into more than 100 theaters. This actually could be considered one of the bigger victories for a Tribeca premiere. Bart Freundlich’s Wolves, a fantastic sports drama with a strong cast that includes Michael Shannon and Carla Gugino, was dumped into a few theaters by IFC Films last March, and it hasn’t reported box office, so we can assume the worst. Demitri Martin’s Dean premiered at the same Tribeca Fest and was very well received, but even with CBS Films behind it, the movie barely cracked $250k and was gone in four weeks. Those last two cases should have been far more marketable prospects due to premise and talent involved, but they did nothing.
I recently spoke to the filmmakers behind The Endless, and they were telling me how having a year between the film’s festival premiere at Tribeca and its single theater release at the IFC Center helped to generate word-of-mouth as they did many interviews about the movie. It made $9,000 its opening which isn’t great but also isn’t terrible, as it likely was only playing on a single screen at the IFC Theater and was boosted by the filmmakers doing Q n As. Maybe that film would have done better with someone like Blumhouse or Magnolia getting behind it, but maybe not. This kind of thing is always about speculation and conjecture, but I’m confident that the work done on the ground by the filmmakers at festivals helped the movie more than anything else. (Unfortunately, much of the movie’s press came from out of the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017, and a lot has happened since then to make those who heard good things about the movie then to forget all about it.)
Much of a film’s success after playing a festival might come down to which festival it plays at. It’s much easier for movie writers like myself (i.e. free marketing!) to glom onto a film that was accepted into Sundance or Cannes, two of the tougher festivals to get into, then say, a smaller regional festival. A movie that does well at Cannes is indeed a rare breed, although many of the biggest hits from that festival are from established filmmakers who already have distribution whereas Sundance is much better at breaking talent both in front of and behind the camera.
As a filmmaker, you need to know the benefits of one festival over another and why you might want to wait until Toronto in September rather than going to Sundance in January, because they offer very different audiences and markets.
I personally have seen lots of great genre films out of Fantasia in Montreal, and there are other similar genre fests like Sitges and Fantastic Fest where you can get tons of free publicity for your movie. They’re not as much about finding buyers or the business aspect of filmmaking, but about getting the word out to genre fans that this is a movie they need to see. My friend Ted Geoghegan’s movie Mohawk (pictured above) played Fantasia last summer, and it was a really great place to see the movie. There was an excitement and buzz surrounding the screening, partially because so many people in the audience knew Ted and his previous film We Are Still Here, which premiered at SXSW.
I’ve also attended the amazing regional Oxford Film Festival a couple times, and I’ve seen some amazing filmmakers (many of whom have become friends) get attention and awards out of there, which have been quite significant for their careers. My good friend Victoria Negri is a great example of this as her film Gold Star has mainly played smaller regional fests that have helped people discover both her and her movie. I haven often tried and failed to convey my joy of seeing Heckbender’s superhero comedy Spaghettiman, because it’s a classic case of “You had to be there” in terms of how great the movie plays with an audience in a college town.
There have been some cases where films that premiered at festivals ended up doing very well, whether it’s Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which got a sneak screening at Sundance last year, or the trio of SXSW premieres A Quiet Place, Ready Player One and Blockers, which all did decently but these are all big budget studio movies with lots of money for marketing. In other words, they’re not the norm and probably shouldn’t even be considered “festival hits” because playing the festival was just part of the studio’s marketing plan.
IFC Midnight just released Fritz Böhm’s horror film Wildling, which also premiered at this year’s SXSW, but who knows how many people even realize this movie exists? It’s likely to do most of its business On Demand probably getting interest from the trailer, but otherwise, what did playing at SXSW accomplish?
Another great example that I hope to track is the case of Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, which Sony Pictures Classics just opened in New York and L.A.on Friday. That movie played almost every festival possible, beginning with last year’s Cannes, then Toronto in Sept, and both Sundance and SXSW in Jan. and March. The movie has received rave reviews from audiences and critics alike — that’s how I heard about it — but with no name stars and mostly non-actors, how many people will really give it a shot? I guess we’ll see on Sunday when box office comes in, but I know that this movie won’t find the sizable audience it deserves, and that’s truly a shame.
I could go on and on and on about the pros and cons of festivals and how they help or hurt independent filmmakers get the word out about their projects. Often, getting a film into a festival is the only way to get it seen by an audience, and that really should be the key motivation for anyone to decide whether to go the festival route to get attention and distribution.
I’m hoping this will be an ongoing discussion even as this past week’s Netflix vs. Cannes kerfuffle has become quite a bit topic of discussion on whether or not festivals are the way to go or not. As more films become readily available on Netflix, will it matter whether they played at Sundance or SXSW or Cannes beforehand?
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor