Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Tip #92: The truth about film festivals -get a sales agent

By Dan Parkes (Director/editor)

Of course, once your film is done and dusted the next thing you most urgently want to do is to get it out there, and maybe even pick up some awards in the process! This is when filmmakers begin searching for festivals to enter, from Cannes to the small local festivals. But it is at this point that our novice production team learned a very important lesson that we hope to pass on to filmmakers who like ourselves, innocently believe that festivals are where films are found by distributors, or where awards can be given which in turns brings attention and the possibility of distribution. Neither is really true. Although we had a reasonably successful festival round, with six official selections, six award nominations and three awards (two for best film and one for best actor) the fact is that it could have been a lot, lot better.

1. The Festival Plan
A big mistake is to just simply start entering as many festivals as possible hoping to be picked up by a big one. The problem is that we often hear stories of films screened at Sundance or elsewhere that go on to be bought my major studios. But it is just not that simple. The fact is that firstly, most of the major festivals are looking for national or international premieres -not films that have been screened elsewhere already . This can get complicated, meaning that you end up putting all your hopes on getting accepted into just one festival (so as to abide by their 'premiere' regulations), and most likely the chances of being accepted into this are very small.

The truth is that filmmakers themselves should not be entering festivals on their own... they should firstly be looking at getting a sales agent.

Ambleton Delight production team
accepting an award for Best Film.

2. The Sales Agent

To reiterate, this is the person filmmakers should be thinking about long before festivals. Nobody ever told us that until we had already started our festival round, and in my mind was the single biggest mistake we made as producers. But it was down to complete ignorance. Nobody had told us -and we had all been to various film schools- that this was a necessity, or even how it works. But we started to find it strange how our film would disappear once submitted into festivals, and how it seemed like most of the festivals had their programmes worked out already and our entering it was essentially a waste of time. Maybe that's because it was. The fact is that if you get a sales agent first then they will know the best way to market your film and thus help you with a festival plan. Of course, once you have found a sales agent willing to pick up your film you must check the fine print of any contracts or agreements made.

3. The DIY method and awards
A sales agent is not essential. There are filmmakers who would prefer the DIY option in the hope of finding a distributor however unlikely that might be, or it could come down to the fact that they have no choice. If you are careful in your selection of festivals and set a festival budget then you can have the satisfaction of knowing that your film will be seen and that it also might pick up some awards, as did our film. But if you enter film festivals without a proper sales agent then be aware that it will look 'amateur' and you are likely to only be picked up by those locally run festivals run by enthusiasts.

Ambleton Delight production team
with the Best Actor award for the film.

4. The Expense
An important consideration (and another reason for getting a sale agent to help) is that entering film festivals can get very expensive, with not only sometimes exorbitant entry fees, but also the costs of providing the materials required. Some festivals will insist on 35mm prints or HDCAM tapes, the transfer of which can rule out any ideas of entering. But you may also find that there is some local funding for putting your film into festivals -we were assisted by Screen South in our festival round.

5. The Politics and the Scams
And then there is the simple fact that many festivals -except for maybe the small amateur events run by volunteers - are more often than not rigged, driven by mostly hidden agendas, have commercial motives and objectives and in worst cases are just pure money-making scams.
For example, if you have a named actor in your film you are more likely to be picked up because then they might attend which will raise the profile of the festival.

The key issue here is that as filmmakers we should be more aware of this. Our whole industry is about creating illusions, but somehow we sometimes seem to forget that festivals are also part of the facade. On the other hand, the 'small amateur events run by enthusiastic volunteers' can be terribly unorganised and result in your film being shown at the wrong aspect ratio to a room full of empty seats!

Ambleton Delight production team
with other award winning filmmakers.

If this sounds harsh or embittered be assured that this isn't the case and we are happy with our festival round and awards. However we did meet dozens of disillusioned and upset filmmakers at many of the festivals we attended. And we know it could have been better if we hadn't entered in ignorance.

The next blog will look at the next and most asked about step... distribution.


  1. There is a new-ish organisation called Universal Film Festival Organisation http://uffo.camp7.org/ that is trying to help sort the good from the bad in festivals. They have criteria or ethics for festivals and only list the ones that meet their standards. Might be a good start for deciding which ones to enter, as it can get expensive. Good luck to all.

  2. Firstly, congratualtions on your awards, nominations and successful festival exposure.

    A very interesting article, may I add something to it? - when you say the truth is that filmmakers themselves should not be entering festivals on their own (which is correct) and that they should firstly be looking at getting a sales agent, I think that they should rather be looking to get a film festival agent, which is what I am! -


    What I do is help producers get their films seen at festivals around the world in order to achieve successful film festival exposure.

    This is a new and exciting film industry related business model. I work in the film festival sector and I created this company in order to help producers out with this time consuming task.

    So far its working, as I've had a number of success stories :)

    Any questions etc you may have, feel free to drop me an e-mail on -

  3. Having been through the mill 19 times now with Raindance, it was refreshing to hear from a filmmaker who understands how the festival circuit works.

    We spend much of our time at Raindance educating filmmakers of what to expect, what to do and how to behave.

    Great article

  4. A wonderful blog post. I am producing my first feature at the moment and this is the kind of real world experience that I need.