MIFF artistic director Al Cossar. 

While many filmmakers still see festivals as the finish line for their film, they are actually the starting line.

That’s according to the artistic director of the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), Al Cossar, who spoke on a panel about film festival selection at the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) earlier this month.

“They are there to elevate and amplify the opportunity you create with a finished film. Go into them with that mindset; make the most of the opportunity. Don’t say ‘Now, the work is done’, but be there to back it up right through the festival and create opportunities,” he told the event.

Give yourself the best chance

Key among the panel’s advice to filmmakers looking for festival selection: have a festival strategy for your film and know to whom you are offering it.

Co-director of Kiwi festival Doc Edge Alex Lee told the conference filmmakers need to do their research about a festival’s profile. Doc Edge, for instance, has a focus on independent filmmaking, and building bridges of understanding between New Zealand and the world, with a particular focus on the Pacific region.

“It’s so important to find out what programming has been created in previous festivals and editions. If we’ve already shown a film last year on the same topic that your film’s about, it’s probably going to be lower in the selection process unless it’s a completely new take on it.”

It’s also vital filmmakers supply what the festival is asking for, and tailor it accordingly. For instance, Lee said if applying for Doc Edge, filmmakers should tell him why their particular film might have resonance in NZ. “When they ask you for a synopsis and a logline, think about what you’re writing; it’s not the same for every festival.”

Cossar agreed that filmmakers must know a festival’s personality and be attuned to what it’s looking for. “If it’s something massively out of orbit with prior programming and tone, then it might be worth your while to rethink strategy.”

Applying for festivals can be an expensive exercise. However, Cossar said if a filmmaker is approaching a festival for a fee waiver they should proactively pitch the strengths of their film in order to be considered.

“If we get those kind of approaches, 99 per cent of people will say ‘I’ve run out of money, I’d love for you to see my film, can you please help me?’ No detail about what the film is… We do sympathise with the fact that people are in a really difficult financial position [but] in terms of treating everyone equitably, that’s not something we can do.

“But if you take the approach of, ‘Hey, I know that music documentaries play amazingly at MIFF and you guys have a recurrent strand every year and program up to 17 of them. People love them, I’ve seen the impact of that programming and boy, have I got a film for your audience,’ – now our ears are pricking up.”

The panel also placed emphasis on marketing collateral, particularly trailers and stills, both in terms of getting noticed by selection panels and audiences alike. “Be very proactive with finishing your marketing materials and supporting deliverables as early as possible, and make them amazing – our audience is very visually motivated in the choices they make,” said Cossar.

Lee said: “One of the things that I find filmmakers seem not to understand is that a good still is a really good still – it’s not just a screen grab. If I’m going to program your film and I don’t have a good still, I can’t promote it.”

The selection process

Doc Edge generally receives films through FilmFreeway, sales agents or distributors, or via filmmakers directly. From there, it has a pre-selection committee made up of people from all walks of life – not just from the screen industry. “While we think it’s really important for us as filmmakers that we’re able to identify excellence in how a story’s being told, we also need to be able to understand how the story impacts people… it’s very important the film has an ability to resonate,” said Lee.

After that, films that are recommended are looked at by a final programming committee. “We will [then] start to consider thematic considerations. We start to consider what’s important in the world right now. What are the things that we’ve not heard about? What are the issues that probably someone needs to stand on a roof and shout about, to give voice to people that don’t usually get a voice?”

When it comes to the competition section Lee and co-director Dan Shanan tend to have the final call. As an Academy Award-qualifying festival, there is an urge to avoid having a film that’s won major awards elsewhere to go into competition in NZ. “We want to showcase documentaries that haven’t had the opportunity, that are just as good, to rise to the top.”

At Swiss documentary festival Visions du Réel, which has a focus on new talent and films that reflect the state of documentary today, a six person selection committee watches all the films – generally they receive around 3000 submissions – and makes pre-selections. As the festival is almost entirely competition-based, the committee then watches everything pre-selected together and argues about what should be included. “The discussion is very important in this process,” said programmer and artistic advisor Madeline Roberts.

Given the focus on world premieres, Robert’s tip for applying is not to wait until your film is finished – you can apply with a rough cut.

MIFF has a large and diverse program; last year it had more than 370 films, 19 VR experiences and a range of ancillary and public events. The festival has a programming team of four people, which is augmented by panelists and viewers with different specialties across various categories such as VR or shorts.

“We’ll leverage and use each other as sounding boards, but also go through different points of consideration across the program. That gives us some coherence in terms of a small group of people applying themselves across a large delivery of films,” said Cossar.

MIFF is not structured around a competition, and in that way Cossar called it an audience facing-festival.

“We’re always building the program at the level of context and combination, rather than individual titles, because we need to pitch towards different audiences, different interests, different levels of cinephilic ability – for want of a better phrase. We need to be able to reach out and develop new audiences; we need to be accessible or populist to a certain degree.”

German documentary and animation festival DOK Leipzig has a seven person selection committee who views all the films at least once. It occasionally works with regional consultants who may suggest films to the team. The committee meets twice; it opens for submissions in March, with the first round of selection by early June. A second selection date is in August for rough cuts and new films.

DOK Leipzig’s focus is on creative documentaries with an artistic handwriting and a directorial point of view, said head of DOK Industry Brigid O’Shea. Further, being based in in the old East Germany, one its main goals is to open up worlds to people that they may have never seen before, particularly those who may have not had the opportunity to travel. “It was always traditionally a space for these east/west encounters,” said O’Shea.

Diversity and subjectivity

In recent years, major festivals like Venice and Cannes have come under fire for a lack of female directors among those selected for competition. In this regard, subjectivity and unconscious biases in selection processes are top of mind for many.

On the topic, O’Shea said: “In the festival landscape I think it’s at total cop out to say we can only program what’s been funded, which on the one hand is true – if all of film funding is going to a certain kind of filmmaker, then that means the majority of the films that you are offered in the first round are going to be from that certain kind of filmmaker. But it’s 2019 and we have the internet, and we have each other, and we have to be better than that.”

MIFF has recently redeveloped the kinds of information it captures at submission from filmmakers, and has also rethought how it places panelists and viewers with respect to diversity.

“You’re there to high-scale and represent the world and represent a real plurality of perception and opinion; you’re there to be to topical and you’re there to be part of the cultural conversation as well,” said Cossar.

For Doc Edge, Lee said is important to have a geographical spread of films, as well as films that represent different cultures. Further, he said the festival is also starting to consider who can tell certain stories.

“We’re starting to have those sort of discussions, which are sometimes really uncomfortable, because part of us says that we shouldn’t stifle creativity. But the other part of us wants to be able to somewhat facilitate creativity from areas and from people that don’t really have a lot of opportunities.

“So there is, in saying that, a quality imbalance, because people that have got funds, training and opportunities make great films. People who are starting to learn to make great films are still starting. So therefore we’ve got to figure out how can we give that window of opportunity so that their films get seen, the filmmaker gets noticed, and as a result of which, they get to make better films.”

If you get a ‘no’

When it comes to rejection from a festival, Cossar said filmmakers should think about the best way to respond.

“Consider your relationship with the festival long-term, especially the first time you’re submitting… I think we’re all probably in the position of having to decline or pass on films that we are passionate about through the period. If you’ve got someone’s attention and you’ve got someone’s enthusiasm – maybe it didn’t happen this time – maybe it will next time. So think long-term, think about longevity and the importance of that festival strategically to you.”

O’Shea said she will offer feedback to people following a rejection, but filmmakers should be strategic about when they ask for it – it shouldn’t be immediately after the festival sends out all their rejection letters, nor the day before the festival starts.

“And it’s much easier if you don’t say, ‘Could you give me some feedback about this?’. If it’s something like, ‘Do you think that my trailer works?’, ‘Didn’t you think that my financing plan was something for you?’, ‘Do you have tips about how I can restructure something?’, in terms of the industry, I’m happy to give it.”

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