Night Owls - Analysing the festival run (Year Two)

   Hello, and welcome to part two of my blog posts about Night Owls' festival run. It's great to see how useful you guys found part one, and I've loved reading your comments. 

   In the last blog post, I broke down the first year of Night Owls' festival run, which ran from approximately August 2015 to July 2016. That year, we planned our submission strategy (which included defining our USPs) and started targeting higher-tier festivals. This year started on a high, with an acceptance and screening at the BAFTA-Qualifying London Short Film Festival - a festival we LOVED attending - but the year ended on a low, with a lot of rejections for the film.

   So, how did we change our approach for the second year of the festival run? Well, a few filmmakers will back me up when I say that the second year of any festival run is SO much more fun than the first year. You don't need to think about premiere status (both world and regional), and you don't need to spend your money targeting big-name festivals who, in many cases, won't care about you or your film. All you need to do is get the film out there and show it to people, and do that in any way possible. Finally, it's just about putting your film in front of an audience.

  It's a slightly wilder, less-structured time, during which you browse around Film Freeway and say 'ooh, that festival looks good - let's give that a go'. At least, that's what I did, and because I did that, I got to learn so much more about festivals; which ones were good, which ones to avoid like the plague. I've brought that knowledge forward with every film I've made since then, and I'm happy to share that knowledge with you guys.

   So, without further ado, here's the key screenings and learning points from year two of Night Owls' festival run:

YEAR TWO (August 2016 - Some time in late 2017...)

  The first thing to do is think about festivals you've got into previously, if you have any. Those programmers are so much more likely to be aware of you and your work, and the chance of your film even being watched, let alone accepted, goes up considerably. Plus, if you liked the festival, and particularly if it's one you'd like to attend again, then it's important to keep a good relationship going with those programmers. For example, the lovely people at Beeston Film Festival, The Short Cinema in Leicester, and Festigious in Los Angeles, had all accepted my previous short film, Ashes, and I still had the contact details for the programmers. I was happy to submit Night Owls to all three of those festivals, and they were kind enough to accept it again. 

  Although this method doesn't always work (and hasn't worked for me with every film), it's a much safer bet than sending the film out blindly and hoping for the best - but it does take time and work to build up contacts at film festivals. It's also a relationship that we as filmmakers can never take for granted.

[Above: With some of the Night Owls crew at Beeston Film Festival in 2017]

  There were a few festivals I targeted that I hadn't submitted to before. This goes back to the initial strategy planning, looking at cool venues which would appeal to our target audience, or festivals which celebrated our strengths (such as the performances, cinematography and music). So I entered a couple of actor-focused festivals, like The Actors Awards (owned by the same programmers as Festigious), who received the film very warmly. I also looked at festivals which weren't A or B-tier but which screened their films in interesting or appealing venues. With this strategy, I submitted to a festival which gave us our first ever physical American screening: Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema, in New York. Unfortunately, in spite of the film's original soundtrack, which we all loved, we weren't able to get into any music-focused festivals. But, at the same time, the film wasn't about music, so maybe the subject matter wasn't quite right for them.

   Speaking of The Actors Awards, anyone who knows Night Owls knows that it won a large amount of awards during its festival run. All of these awards came in the second year of the run, and there was a bit of a strategy behind that: because we hadn't done very well with higher-tier festivals, we knew that the only way the film would be seen as 'successful' would be if it had awards to its name, and that fed into our approach for the second year of the festival run. 

[Above: Night Owls' first trophy came from Beeston Film Festival in 2017]

   Let me stress right now: you should not make a film to win awards. The most important thing with your festival run should be showing it to people, and a lot of the awards-focussed festivals do not even screen the film, which is a downer. But if you really, really do want to win awards, here is how you can improve your chances:
  •   Play to your strengths, again. Look at festivals which offer awards for the categories you've identified as your USPs.
  •   Submit to festivals with 'Awards' in the title. When you look at the grand scheme of things, a lot of these places do not technically count as festivals. As I said, most of them don't feature a screening element, and some of them are just online sites run by a bunch of people in an office somewhere. But you do get a laurel for your poster, so at first glance, no one will know the difference.
  •   If these 'festivals' accept you, you will automatically get a nomination - because, if they are an awards-focussed platform, the acceptance IS a nomination. It's as simple as that. Your film just needs to be good enough to get accepted. 
   Follow the above three steps, and you're very likely to get a nomination. But the film still needs to be a certain quality to actually win an award, and that's where it comes back to playing to your strengths - such as the performances in Night Owls, which caused us to win 8 of the film's 17 awards, in spite of a last-minute casting change. (Jonny and Holly, you guys were AMAZING in the film, and I'm still so glad that your work has been recognized in this way).

  It's also worth saying that, sometimes you get award nominations even when you're not trying to get them - and those wins will feel even sweeter. We were really lucky to be nominated for five awards at Beeston Film Festival, and five at Out of the Can Film Festival (resulting in four extra trophies for the awards shelf). These were festivals we submitted to because, most importantly, they had physical screenings. Also, because they were local festivals, we knew there was a chance some of our crew could attend the screenings. Even knowing that we got awards from those festivals, those last two reasons are still the reasons I'd submit to them (and did submit again, when I finished Songbird - but that's another story for another day).

[Above: The four trophies I have from Night Owls' festival run - but we could've paid for more!]

   By the time we put Night Owls online, in October 2017, we had been accepted into 16 festivals and won 15 of the film's 17 awards. That's a completely different story to the previous year, when we were wondering if we'd even make 3 acceptances in total. In October 2017, we still had a few festivals to hear from - one of which didn't even accept us until December 2018 - but by that point, it didn't really matter either way. The film had been shown around the world, people had watched and enjoyed it, and all we had to do was to rest on our laurels. Literally.

   I end this section by saying, simply, enjoy your second year. The screenings will come, and if you play your cards right, the awards will follow. But don't forget about your budget along the way, and don't submit to every festival in the world, because there are some dodgy ones out there. I learnt by submitting, and I have been lucky, but you can do your homework first: check the Film Freeway reviews, or google lists of recommended festivals, to see if the festival you're looking at is worth submitting to. Some of them are scams, that will just take your money and never even watch your film - and you'll never hear from them again.


[Above: Night Owls playing at one of the smaller film nights we sent it to]

   So, those were two very different years of festival submissions. I had a lot of reasons to be proud of our film, but I'd also been through a vital learning curve. Along the way, I learnt which festivals I liked, and which ones I didn't, and I learnt how to be a better submitter as a result. 

   For example, you guys should be aware that not every festival will send you a notification if your film has been rejected: you need to find out the result by searching on their website or social media channels, which is no way to learn bad news. Five festivals kept us in the dark about Night Owls, and I won't submit to those festivals again as a result. If they won't take the time to even say 'no', why should you take the time (and spend your money) to submit your film?

[Night Owls in The Short Cinema's programme]
   There's something else you need to avoid, and that's press kits. I probably don't even need to say this now, but if you're considering getting printed press kits made for your film, don't do it. It used to be an important thing to do, but with the online press kit resources available on Film Freeway and Withoutabox, we didn't need them for Night Owls. More importantly, none of the festivals requested them. Our press kits look beautiful: I spent a long time designing them, and I paid to have them professionally printed, but almost all of them have stayed in their original box, which is currently taking up space in my office.

   So, don't spend money on press kits, but do think about your marketing and distribution budget. Some places will still want blu-ray copies (even though it's rare): do you have the capacity to make one of those, if you get a last minute request for one? If you get into a higher-tier festival, they are probably going to request a DCP (as LSFF did with us), and you'll need to spend money on that too - even if you know someone who can make a DCP, you'll need to buy hard drives or USBs, plus there's postage involved, so make sure there's money left in your budget for that. It's worth sacrificing the submission fees for one or two of your smaller festivals to pay for this.

   Also, although press kits aren't important, your poster is VITAL. It's usually the first thing your festival sees when you submit your film, and if it's good, then you're more likely to get a proper mention in the festival's printed programme (which is always nice!). Reviews are also a lovely thing to have - even if it's just to make the crew feel good about their work - so don't forget to submit the film to reviewers, or festivals which come with free reviews (like Largo Film Awards), along the way.

  Those are the biggest takeaways from Night Owls' festival run, but what are the stats? I'm sure you're all curious about money; I don't mind saying that a lot of the festival submissions were self-funded, and I could've saved a lot of money if I had the festival knowledge then that I have now. 

   I sent Night Owls to 56 festivals in total, and spent a whopping £686 on festival submissions (approximately, as I was going between dollars and pounds). £275 of that money was spent on festivals that actually accepted the film, and £206 of that went on festivals which gave us awards. That's something for you guys to think about: would you spend £206 to get 17 awards for your film? In some cases, you'll also need to spend extra money just to get a trophy sent to you! (My answer is that yes, of course I'd spend that money - particularly with all the awards my actors were able to get - but it's always worth considering your budget ahead of submissions!)

  You can make some of your money back, in a way, when festivals accept you; Two festivals recommended Night Owls to two other festivals, both of which requested and screened the film for free, so I essentially got four festival screenings for the price of two. If a festival is willing to recommend your film, take note of them and definitely submit to them again in the future. Not only is it good business, but it shows that these programmers are lovely people who genuinely care about your work!

  Looking back at the festival run, it's important to see where in the world your film was accepted: compare this with all the countries you sent your film to. It will help you to establish your audience as a filmmaker, and you'll learn where to send your work in the future. But, again, a lot of this comes down to the relationships you can build up with programmers across the world; these stats might change in the future, and your reach might grow, so definitely don't give up on submitting to different countries.

   Finally, and most importantly, not every acceptance resulted in a physical screening of the film: only 6 of the festivals which accepted the film actually screened it. If that happens to you, don't accept it: it defies the point of film festivals. A film without an audience is a meal without a mouth. Host your own local screening if you have to. We also submitted Night Owls to three local film nights, who kindly showed the film - two of which were based in actual cinemas. On top of this, Night Owls was requested for two more local film nights, one of which enabled our film to play back-to-back with The Shape of Water! All of these film nights were lovely, and they helped to address the screening balance for us.

    You can also contact your local cinemas to see if they'll show your short ahead of their main feature screenings, as we did with Stop/Eject. After your first year of festival submissions, when all the 'big names' have had their say, it doesn't matter what you do - just get your film on that silver screen!

   I hope all of the above has been useful to you, and I hope that it will help some of you with your own festival submissions. It's by no means a water-tight guide to festivals: we took a different approach again with Songbird, and some of the things I thought I knew about festivals have been thrown on their head, so I'll write another blog post when that festival run ends. For now, all I'll say is that there are no guarantees with festivals, so just enjoy every acceptance, and attend as many of those festivals as you can. There's one thing that beats an audience watching your film on a big screen, and that is you being in the audience with them, so that you can hear those reactions for yourself. (One festival which always has the most electric audience is The Short Cinema; submissions for this year have just closed, but the festival takes place in August, so make sure you can get to that one if you can.)


p.s. One more shameless plug! If you've enjoyed this blog, and if you'd like to watch Night Owls for yourself, don't forget that you can stream or buy a copy on Amazon Prime or Reelhouse today.


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