SXSW’s 90-Minute Film School: Pitching, Festival Circuit, Promotion, and Release
Art and Experience: Learn how to pitch, navigate the festival circuit, promote your film, and release it online, all in one handy resource.
The 90-Minute Film School panel at SXSW earlier this week pulled together both filmmakers and distributors to share their expertise on pitching films, finding the right film festivals, and promoting your film. The catch? Not everyone agreed on the same approaches. Below are the highlights.
There may be no group of people more experienced in the art of pitching than the animators at Pixar Studios. The company regularly holds meetings where the animators will come together to share their ideas, ultimately deciding what Pixar’s next short or feature will be. If John Lasseter likes an idea, it’s fleshed out through further rounds of meetings; eventually, he selects the idea with the most potential to be produced.
Needless to say, the animators go through a fair share of competition to get their idea made, but it’s healthy competition nonetheless.
The latest animator to land the opportunity to make his short was Dave Mullins, whose short Lou premiered at SXSW earlier this week. Mullins was one of the five speakers on hand to share his insight on what it takes to craft a successful pitch.
The secret to the art of pitching is something we hear time and time again from filmmakers: basically, “never give up.” Walt Disney actually took this sentiment a step further when he said, “The difference between winning and losing is not giving up,” and in Mullins’ case, it was nearly 15 years until he was given the green light.
Pixar films have three very simple, specific ingredients. According to Mullins, “They have heart, they have a setting, and there’s animation.” So, in crafting his pitches, Mullions had to focus on molding his own stories around the greater mission of the studio.
This is something we can all learn to do when pitching our own ideas to whichever production company we may be targeting, and the way to do it is by focusing on what Mullins calls “a core idea.” He defines it as “something you relate to personally, that’s going to keep you going when everything else is turning to shit. It’s an idea you can always fall back on, something you feel very passionate about.”
Pixar’s films are character-driven; as Mullins’ pitching efforts failed over and over, he placed his energy on rethinking characters. However, he made it an essential practice to keep his core idea intact. Soon, he found this strategy aligned with one of Lasseter’s main principles: “When bringing something inanimate to life, you have to think about its intended purpose in the world.” The core idea he’d kept throughout his many years at Pixar would lead him to discover his character’s intended purpose.
“When bringing something inanimate to life, you have to think about its intended purpose in the world.”
As Mullins continued to pitch, he continued to learn what was successful within the Pixar environment, which in turn helped strengthen his story. After his idea was finally approved for production, he recalls speaking with an animator who was discouraged by his own lack of success in the ideas room.
“How do you do it?” The animator asked. “I pitched once and he didn’t like it, so I said, ‘Fuck that, never again.’ How do you keep pitching after getting turned down so many times?”
Mullins responded: “I just didn’t give up.” He then addressed the audience personally: “And for those of you who are trying to make your first film, neither should you.”
The festival circuit
Next on the panel was Director of Programming in the Visual Media Arts at Emerson, Anna Feder. She laid out some very quick guidelines for filmmakers looking to enter the festival circuit with their first short film, placing a special emphasis on a few must-do’s if you want to have a successful run.
Feder insisted, over all else, that to get into a festival, the production value must be good. This means all aspects of production, from sound to acting to design to editing. Having experience as a festival programmer, she also advised that an ideal run time for shorts is under 15 minutes, with eight minutes being the “sweet spot.” She also stressed that within your short, you must have something interesting to say. This can be as simple as “a new angle on an old story, a subject rarely seen, a novel visual approach.”
To ensure a good run, you have to make sure you are targeting the right festivals. The first question to ask yourself: What are your goals? Are you looking to make money, build your audience, or establish connections with your short?
There are three types of festivals you can apply to: top-tier market festivals like Cannes and Sundance, regional festivals like Kansas City Film Festival, and niche festivals like Outfest that are genre-focused or already have a dedicated audience.
Look for festivals that show films like yours, prioritize festivals you can attend, and always remember to budget for entry fees when in pre-production.
Look for festivals that relate to your goals. 80% of the festivals Feder surveyed use Film Freeway and 61% use Withoutabox; you can apply to several festivals through these sites. Feder mentioned BFI as another good resource. Look for festivals that show films like yours, prioritize festivals you can attend, and always remember to budget for entry fees when in pre-production.
Submitting to festivals
When submitting, there are a number of reasons to do so as early as possible: it’s cheaper, the programmers will be fresher, and your competition won’t be as numbered. Again, Feder stressed focusing on submitting to festivals you can attend, so you can network and take meetings there.
Don’t ask for a waiver unless you’ve played a few festivals prior and can make the case for your film. Be prepared to pay fees. Don’t submit films that aren’t picture-locked. Have all your promotional materials ready.
Promoting your film
Know your audience and how to reach them. It’s essential that you generate some buzz for your film before it starts hitting the circuit. Feder even recommends starting to get the word out before you begin production.
Social media promotion
There are a number of ways you can do this. While a website isn’t necessary, according to Feder, social media accounts should be used across every platform. You should be posting trailers, clips, or high-resolution stills of the film—even behind-the-scenes footage from your shoot.
Tiffany Pritchard, Digital Marketing Content Curator, for Studio Canal, a renowned European production and distribution company, took her turn to give a few tips on how to market in today’s saturated social media landscape. As you do start getting the word out on your film across different platforms, it’s very important to consider who your audience is on each respective platform. We interact with respective platforms in their own unique way, so it’s important to tap into displaying the type of content that makes each platform unique. A presence on Facebook and Twitter is a must.
“Be one with the internet, be shareable, be everywhere.”
For Facebook, in particular, Pritchard stressed using videos. Look at interviewing actors and crew members, get behind the scenes footage and make short trailers or teasers. There are a wealth of options on how to do display video on the platform including Facebook Live, native video posts, and targeted ads. Don’t go too heavy on the Facebook posts, though, as it conflicts with the algorithm. You can save the frequent messaging for Twitter.
On Twitter, you should post as much as you can, and focus on tapping into the voice of your film with your text. Be sure and use horizontal images. Tweet at partners to share your material, as well.
Don’t rely on other people to do the promotion for you. Make the most of it, and get as heavily involved as you can. This includes being active when your film has been accepted into festivals and is making rounds on the circuit. Attend as many of the festivals as you can, and when you’re there, meet other filmmakers, curators, critics, and movie fans—and, of course, shake hands with the programmer. Make sure you have a shareable link for the short you’re traveling with (perhaps on a business card) and be prepared to follow up with everyone you meet.
Marketing for release
Kelly Wengert, Design Lead UXD at Netflix, has a great deal of experience with marketing strategy.
Netflix’s promotion ideology is based on three key components: “Visual Strategy,” “Diverse Assets,” and “Immersive Storytelling.” Visual Strategy is further broken down into “targeting multiple market segments,” and “connecting emotionally.”
“The more expressive the face, the higher probability it’ll have stopping power.”
What do they mean by targeting multiple market segments? Well, content will resonate with different people for different reasons, so it’s important to have various ads in place to reach every interest a specific demographic might have. For this reason, Netflix creates several variations of poster images focusing on such topics as thematic subjects of the film, the appeal of its lead actor, or the popularity of its genre.
As far as “connecting emotionally” is concerned, Netflix focuses on gathering images that show the content or its creator on a human level. In Wengert’s words, “The more expressive the face, the higher probability it’ll have stopping power.” So it’s important to capture images that show a whole range of expressions that are representative of the character, while also being flattering to the talent.
You can ensure that you get these images by capturing a “diverse group of assets.” As a filmmaker, this means you have to be on top of gathering these assets from the very beginning. Utilize your production schedule, know when you’re going to have shots that will make good promotional images, or if you have a great day of shooting, mark down some of the best shots you captured to come back to later.
These images should contain protagonists, antagonists, human diversity, environmentals, ensemble cast, supporting cast, duo shots, solo shots, motion shots, static shots, and whatever else you can come up with on set.
As you collect, log the resolution, formats, and aspect ratios they are captured in. You need to have these written down so you can use them later for promotion across different platforms. Assets should be flexible.
To Netflix, “immersive storytelling” is a key strategy in promotion because, as Wengert puts it, “promotion is not an ad if it is immersive.” This is something we see a lot of these days and one of the reasons video is such a popular choice for companies for marketing. Netflix itself has found that video is stronger for ads than pictures. This is something you can use to your advantage when you’re promoting your film.
Releasing your short online
The final speaker of the panel was Andrew Allen, co-founder of Short of the Week. He asked: Are festivals, in fact, outdated for shorts? 25 billion short form videos are watched online every day; Allen argues that the new generation of filmmakers will be discovered online. After all, short films aren’t about making money; they are about opportunity. You want to get the most exposure you can in the shortest window possible.
When he took his own short through the festival circuit, Allen found he got 2,000 views at festivals vs. 750,000 views online, had 12 media stories from festivals vs. 1,300 from the online space—all the while investing $1,200 on traveling the festival circuit versus spending $0 releasing his film online.
“Don’t worry about how many views, worry about the right views.”
While he still believes people should focus on “the right” film festivals, he advises everyone not to waste a year touring the circuit. It’s an especially compelling argument when you consider that 70% of the top festivals (including Sundance and SXSW) accept films that have already premiered online. This number increases steadily every year. What you should be focusing on, he suggests, is how to use an online release in tandem with a festival release.
Don’t lock up your film in exclusivity; protect your distribution rights. When looking for a place to upload your video online, don’t be loyal to one platform. In Allen’s words, “Be one with the internet, be shareable, be everywhere.” This means YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, everything.
Have an online release strategy in place to build buzz, but don’t try and build a fan base unless you know you can do it effectively. It’s more effective, in Allen’s opinion, to reach out to other influencers and media outlets who already have an established audience on social media platforms. “Be a filmmaker,” he stresses. “Not a social media guru.”
Perhaps it’s most important, according to Allen, to remember that views aren’t everything. The right people will see your film if it’s good, and you’ll get the opportunities you want based on its success. In other words, don’t worry about how many views—worry about the right views.