The Complete Filmmaker’s Guide to Film Festivals

So many festivals, so little time!

If you’re an aspiring indie filmmaker looking to shop your production ideas to industry movers and shakers, participation in a film festival may be just the ticket. The question is, though, how do you find them, which ones should you attend and what do you do once you get there? Co-authors Rona Edwards and Monika Skerbelis not only address these issues and more in their latest release, The Complete Filmmaker’s Guide to Film Festivals, but also took the time to share their mutual passion for movies in the following feature interview.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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CH: Let’s start out with your respective backgrounds, when/how you decided you were attracted to a career in film, and how the two of you met.

MS: I’ve always wanted to work in entertainment and started out as an assistant in the Paramount Pictures Story Department and worked my up through the studio system. After Paramount I went to 20th Century Fox where I was promoted to a Story Editor and then Universal Pictures as an Executive Story Editor promoted to Vice President of Creative. While working at Universal, a mutual friend suggested Rona and I meet.  We ended up doing a guest speaking gig together for a screenwriting conference in Colorado that lead to us teaching and working together.  

RE: I started as an actor/singer – I can’t remember when I wasn’t acting or singing. I graduated from California Institute of the Arts with a degree in theatre.  After graduating, I did some acting gigs when a friend of mine asked if I would help do some location scouting for this Saturday children’s special – in actuality they had the locations, they just wanted me to get releases signed by the neighborhood. I had ulterior motives – thinking I would hang around the set and the producers would cast me. Instead, they liked what I had to say and asked me to come on board as a development exec at their company.  I told them I was an actor and they said, “You can still act!” Well those were the famous last words as everyone knows, a development exec has no life except reading scripts.  From there I wrote a script that was optioned and not produced before working for John Larroquette’s company at Warner Bros. We made a film together, One Special Victory.  When I left John, I wrote another script that was optioned and not produced before landing at Oscar winner Michael Phillips’ company where I straddled the fence developing both feature and television projects for him.  After that I say I was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of independent producing and have produced 10 films mostly for TV while having countless others in development for both feature and television.

CH: Who were your mentors in the early years and what do you know now that you didn’t know when you started?

MS: I started as a “temporary” employee at various entertainment-related companies until I landed at Paramount Pictures where I met Lora Lee who ran the story department and she became a fantastic mentor.  When I moved to Universal Pictures, Cari-Esta Albert helped guide me along my career path. In retrospect, I would be less shy about meeting people and really stay connected to everyone I met. You never know where your friends will end up and hire you for a project.

RE:  I would say my mentor was Fern Field, the first development job I had was with her company, Brookfield Productions. I blame her! Haha! She is still my mentor today and is very well respected for her good taste, the fact that she’s a helluva producer and also very kind and considerate.  However, I think if there was one thing I didn’t know then and what I certainly know now is that it takes forever to get something made in this town!  As Laura Ziskin once said, “Movies aren’t made, they’re forced into existence.”  And to be a good producer, you can never take “no” as an answer – I always say, if something is good, it’s just “no” for now.

CH: What were your favorite movies before you started making movies yourselves?

MS: I am fond of classic films like Citizen Kane and Casablanca. However, I was a big fan of John Hughes films and romantic comedies.

RE:  So many!  I love Gone with the Wind – the big epic love story but I was also deeply affected (should I admit this) by Mary Poppins and The Wizard of Oz!  I think I wanted Julie Andrews to be MY nanny!  A Streetcar Named Desire, Susan Hayward films, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Cary Grant, Montgomery Clift, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Judy Garland, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Julie Christie – I was very affected by strong women characters – I think I wanted to be Susan Hayward when I grew up – sexy, strong – what a great walk she had. I was also a big fan of the original, The Women, Wuthering Heights, and I love musicals and David Lean films like Doctor Zhivago  and Ryan’s Daughter. Almost any Billy Wilder film.  Of course there are the prerequisite classics, which I have a great appreciation for, so it’s hard to just nail down a few movies – I love all genres and love to be taken on a journey! 

CH: What’s the latest movie you’ve seen that made you say “Wow!”

MS: So far this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild.  From last year, Midnight in Paris, The Help and Hugo.

RE:  To be honest, not much has made me go “wow.” There were some good movies but none that have bowled me over much. I liked The Hunger Games very much as I did The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel so far.  Last year, The Artist was a big risk that paid off – beautifully done, unique and innovative considering it was a silent film.  And, I laughed like crazy at Bridesmaids. I think television is offering more “wow” moments lately than feature films.

CH: For Rona, what did being an actor teach you about being a producer?

RE: Everything!  I approach everything from the sensibility of an actor.  When I teach my students screenwriting, I always ask them who they think the writer has the most affinity with on the set, and inevitably they answer, “the director.” Wrong!  It’s the writer.  The writer approaches writing the material much like the actor approaches the material.  A scene is set up in which the character has an objective (a goal) and will do anything they can to achieve it.  So the writer and the actor will ask, what does my character want? What does he or she do to get it? And what’s in the way of getting it?  That’s the basic questions of conflict and drama – and both artists ask those same questions – therefore, in my humble opinion, the writer and the actor have the closest relationship. The director will bring the writer’s vision to life (and hopefully make the actor look good) but they are concerned with the camera and what the audience sees not just the minutiae of each scene and overall objectives of each character.  That’s not to say some directors will work as closely with the script as a writer or actor does but suffice it to say they may not approach it the same way. So when I look at a script as a producer, I look for characters who have strong objectives, have great obstacles in their way (a formidable villain or opponent) and make choices that may dig them deeper into the hole before they can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and become true heroes.  I look at characters that are flawed and have to overcome or use those flaws to help them get where they need to go.  Good writing is all about the character driving the action rather than the premise driving the character. And as an actor, you always approach it from character (again this doesn’t mean you don’t look at the overall picture but in order to create a fully developed character, you need to dig deep into the choices, the background and baggage of the character and use it throughout the story).

CH: For Monika, tell us about ESE Film Workshops Online and why the distance learning concept is appealing to aspiring filmmakers.

MS: ESE Film Workshops Online provide an opportunity for emerging and seasoned filmmakers and students to learn what they may not have been taught in college. Colleges teach nuts and bolts but don’t necessarily prepare students for the real world. We fill that gap by teaching about the Hollywood development process. Students learn how to write development notes and coverage and have a deeper understanding of why and how the players fit together in what is commonly called “development hell.”  That’s the basis of our first book, I Liked It, Didn’t Love It (Screenplay Development From the Inside Out).  We offer several courses “Screenplay Development from the Inside Out”; “Creating a Production Company” which highlights the necessary tools needed to kickstart a production company; “Finding & Developing New Ideas” helps writers develop stories, with different exercises for them to think outside the box and “Maneuvering Film Festivals” takes the filmmakers through a step-by-step process on how to prepare for the film festival circuit. In this day and age, we live in a global highly digital environment – distance learning offers everyone, worldwide, an opportunity to learn from wherever they are – they only need to “click, type, download and read.”  Plus our workshops are offered in 4-6 week increments making it affordable time-wise and our students get us as their mentors during that period, where they can ask us anything and we hand hold them through the process – we’ve had great success stories from our students applying what they’ve learned from ESE Film Workshops Online in the real world of filmmaking, film festivals and screenwriting. 

CH: What was the inspiration behind your new book?

MS: We’ve been teaching “Maneuvering Film Festivals” online for the past five years as well as providing film consultations for filmmakers on how to prep and target the right festivals for their films, so the natural progression was to write a textbook to help filmmakers understand that there are more festivals out there besides Cannes and Sundance.

RE: In addition, we felt it was important that filmmakers realized they may think the hard work is done when the film is in the can but such is not the case. The real work begins after it’s in the can.  You need a strategy, goals, and you need to understand it’s not just about the film you have in the festival, it’s about your future as a filmmaker.  You need to be part filmmaker, part marketing guru, part advertising director and promoter.  With both our books, we found there was a lack of understanding and in both cases felt that if only we had had these books when we were starting out, life would have been so much easier – and we’re now hearing that from the students and filmmakers who have bought the books and those that have taken our courses.  It’s very gratifying.

CH: As co-authors, what was your writing process for putting it all together?

MS: We would target what we wanted to say in each chapter and then write chapters and edit each other.  I’ve spent many years on the festival circuit attending film festivals and programming films so I would impart first-hand experience that we would work into the chapters.

RE: We outlined each chapter – in the case of this book, I was in Singapore most of the time –so we had to work via email and Skype. Basically there would be what I call a throw up draft – which we would then hone and hone till we were satisfied.  This book took a lot of research – and we kept having to research until the publishing date to make sure all the information was up-to-date and accurate.  We did interviews in person together with sales reps, distributors and filmmakers. Monika is a great researcher and very organized. I would oftentimes write the chapters, instilling a throughline; trying to bring in a conversational and sometimes a humorous voice to what could be “dry” material rather than just a laundry list of criteria.  Being a journalist helped in asking questions, the kind of questions we thought filmmakers would want to know the answers to, and ultimately, we would then go back and forth via email for each other’s comments.  Also, like our first book, we wanted a cartoon to start every chapter that would set a fun tone.  We were lucky to have Steve Tatham (who works at Disney) sketch out our ideas.  We had the quotations and subtitles already, told him the kind of cartoon we envisioned and he did a great job translating it into the graphics that are in the book.

CH: In terms of advantages and disadvantages, how does participation at a film festival compare to marketing a new film through non-festival venues?

MS: Advantages of Festival participation is the networking involved, exposure for the film and filmmaker and possibly catching the eye of an agent, manager, producer or talent who may want to collaborate on a project.

RE: Well an indie film won’t have the advantage over a studio film in non-festival venues without a festival to help create the buzz.  It’s harder and harder these days for indie films to get exhibitors to showcase their films, and distributors to sell their films.  Studios can afford a P&A budget, most indie films don’t have that – so a festival offers free publicity – and helps the distributors save advertising/marketing bucks if the film is lucky enough to get great reviews and buzz.  A new filmmaker can also capitalize on the buzz their film gets at a festival.  Sometimes they come out with representation as Monika stated above, but sometimes they can come out of it with a studio deal or money for their next indie film.  That’s why we can’t articulate this enough, and we state it over and over in the book, that the filmmaker has to take advantage of all the publicity opportunities a festival may have to offer.  The disadvantage however is that if the film isn’t well-received, well, it can kill it before it gets out of the starting gate.  You have to be a realist.  But hopefully the film is good and it will find its audience and accolades.

CH: How does a prospective participant decide which film festivals are going to be the right matches and provide the best or most exposure for their work and their talents?

MS: First they need to understand what their film has to offer – does it fall into a niche theme – LGBT, Native American, Environmental, Jewish, Asian, African American, Latino, mountain activities, etc. There are many festivals that screen a specific theme or a sidebar theme that a film might be right for. If they have a short film, then they would want to target the Academy Qualifying Film Festivals first because if they win that festival, they will be in the pool of potential Oscar nominees and that will help elevate the filmmaker and their work. The list is updated yearly and can be found at oscars.org or in our book. There are five top film festivals (Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto), but 4,000+ festivals worldwide.

RE:  But it’s not just the top tier festivals – filmmakers should look at smaller festivals and who is behind that festival – who attends it?  You can check this out easily enough on their respective websites.  You want to make sure there’s an “industry” presence. Who are the jurors?  Who are on the panels (most festivals have an educational component with workshops and panels)? Will your work be seen by people who can make a difference in your career, in your film?  So, sometimes the smaller festivals can be more intimate but still have a strong industry presence – don’t discount those.  All you need is one person who sees your work, wants to represent you, or buy it!   Again, it comes down to your strategy and your goals.  Sometimes you may just want to go to a festival because it’s what we call a “destination” festival – you just want to go to that place so you use the acceptance into that festival as an excuse to visit someplace you haven’t been before. 

CH: Where does one find out where film festivals are being held?

MS: The back of our book has an intensive listing of film festivals by region and country. Also, if you go to our website www.maneuveringfilmfestivals.com you can request an updated listing of film festivals.

RE: Yes we plan to keep the list updated via our website as a freebie for anyone who wants it – it changes all the time.  Pretty much every big city has a few film festivals (some more genre specific), and more and more are cropping up every day.  But we offer a list of a thousand plus film festivals with their websites which should give filmmakers a good start!

CH: What does it typically cost to attend a festival?

MS: We have a great expense estimate form in our book that helps filmmakers break down the cost to attend a film festival.  A three day trip to Sundance Film Festival could cost the filmmaker close to $2,000 with entry fees, lodging, transportation, additional tickets, food, drinks, advertising, etc. A day trip could cost the price of gasoline, cost for drinks or snacks.

RE:  Most filmmakers make the mistake of not including film festivals/promotion in their budgets – big mistake.  As Monika stated a 3 day Sundance trip is upwards of $2,000.  So you have to be smart how you strategize, which festivals you will attend, which you will just show your film at without your presence, and also include the promotion of that film (posters, postcards, giveaways, etc).  It can really add up.  Six festivals could cost 10 grand depending on where and what you plan to do at them (as well as who you bring with you).

CH: What does the first-time visitor to a film festival need to know in order to best prepare himself/herself for the experience?

MS: Evaluate the website fully so you get an idea of the box office location, schedule of films, panels, seminars, location of where events are taking place and local lodging and restaurants. Some festivals have an app that is useful. If you are spending the night, secure your accommodations in advance. Once you arrive, pick up a film program then hit the theaters. For filmmakers with films in the festival, you will want to locate the filmmaker lounge or filmmaker hospitality suite so you can display any posters or postcards.

RE: It’s a good idea to also try and contact the local press and send them an EPK (electronic press kit) – we help you with that in the book as well as in our online course.  Try and get interviews with the local newspapers, radio and television stations a week before the festival to help promote the film.  It helps to come up earlier than your screening so you can scope out the best places to promote the film and yourself, know where things are and make sure everything runs smoothly.

CH: Economics and accessibility have made it easier than ever before to break into filmmaking. Given the amount of competition this has created, however, is it actually harder than it was, say 20 years ago?

MS: We feel it is easier today since for less than $5,000 a filmmaker can have a digital camera, editing software, etc. and make a film. However, because of this, the quality of films can be challenging to watch and festivals receive lesser quality films.

RE:  If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage!  Yes it’s easier and cheaper to make films for the younger gorilla filmmaker – but you still have to be grounded in structure and have a solid understanding of how to make a film (film schools are more prevalent now then, say, 20 years ago – so hopefully there is a solid ground for this kind of education). You still have to know how to tell a story.  There will always be good films and there will always be bad films.  Though no one starts out to make a turkey.  The competition for an audience is more difficult and costly, and the same old people are making films for the studios because they are taking less chances with new people – as they want you to prove yourself first.  This opens the door for indie film but in the end it all comes down to a good story and characters you want to root for.  There is no magic bullet.  It takes a lot of hard work.  It’s always been a difficult business – however, conversely, because the equipment is easily attainable, it gives way for the real talent and cream to rise to the top.  I think it’s an advantage to cultivate talent and I am always in awe of my students’ films made on inexpensive cameras and edited in Final Cut or Avid.  They surprise me with the quality and their storytelling abilities. It’s very rewarding to see.  That doesn’t mean I don’t’ see bad films too but the majority are darn good and having less expensive equipment gives them the opportunity to experiment and try things they might not have been able to do if it cost a lot more money to do so or if someone else (i.e., a studio) was footing the bill.

CH: If a high school student came to you and said, “I don’t want to go to college because I only want to make movies,” what would your advice be?

MS: Go to college and get your degree!  You can make short films while in college and submit them to festivals. The films are a calling cards, so it is great to be able to meet industry professionals at festivals and by the time you leave college you will have networking skills and have a better understanding of how films are acquired. If your film career doesn’t take off, at least you have your degree to seek out other employment.

RE:  I would go one step further – go to graduate school, too.  Just in case!  Do it while you’re young.  Also, you get to use your college or university’s facilities. I remember my last year at CalArts, I walked the halls realizing I would no longer have these rooms to rehearse in, or film in, and it would always cost me after that – there’s a support in college – plus so many of your cohorts will end up climbing the ladder of success with you.  That’s where real relationships are forged – lasting ones.  Production Designers, Editors, DPs, meet Directors and Producers who they continue to work with long after school. You don’t realize when you’re in school all the relationships and equipment that are at your fingertips let alone the support from your fellow students (who work on your films) and faculty (who help advise and guide you) – most times you work without that kind of a net.

CH: What’s something that most people would be surprised to know about you?

MS: I am first generation American and there is no other Monika Skerbelis in the United States and possibly beyond. I love to travel and have backpacked throughout Europe, hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, went horseback riding in Patagonia, biked the Canadian Rockies Icefieds Parkway from Banff to Jasper and drove my car by myself from Los Angeles to Alaska up the Alcan Highway. I also enjoy visiting lighthouses and the serenity they evoke.

RE:  I have a great singing voice (even if I say so myself – haha). Most people in the industry when they come hear me sing usually say, “I know you said you sang…but I didn’t know you <u>sang</u>!” I play a few instruments – self taught, have done musicals to great reviews and love photography. I’m also a great cook! My colleagues here in Singapore love coming to my place for a meal – they say I view food like I do art – with a strong aesthetic in both taste and visual.  There’s probably a lot that would surprise people to know about me – that’s probably a good thing – I even surprise myself sometimes!

CH: What’s next on your plate?

MS:  ESE Film Workshops will be gearing up for more classes to teach online and we have other books in the works in the near future. At the moment, I’m finalizing the films for the Big Bear Lake International Film Festival where I’ve been programming films for 13 years, then I’ll be gearing up programming films for the American Pavilion’s Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival for my 5th year. I also have a short documentary and a script I’m developing.

RE: I’ve got a few movies that are slowly making it to the launch pad in both feature and television plus I’m looking to produce movies as co-productions in the Southeast Asia/Australian regions.  I’ve been developing a few ideas of my own along with a fictional novel.  It’s just finding time to write with everything else going on.  There’s always so much to keep me busy and make life interesting.  In actuality, I’d just love to find time to read a book for pleasure!

CH: Anything else you’d like to share?

MS: We will be doing a book signing at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena on January 10, 2013 and a lecture for the Scriptwriters Network in Los Angeles on June 15, 2013.  We are also working on getting more book signings in the near future.

RE: We had a book launch at Kinokinuya Bookstore in Singapore in April, followed by signings at Book Soup and Bookstar Barnes & Noble in the states.  We always give a short presentation and Q&A at these events which gives our audience something more than just buying the book.  We’re also looking to lecture at film festivals and filmmaking/screenwriting events worldwide.  It combines our love of travel and film!  Plus we love giving back, sharing our knowledge as well as helping and nurturing filmmakers and screenwriters – so it’s a win-win situation for everyone.

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