Film Festivals and Grants

Remember producer Dan Montgomery from this post a few weeks ago? Well, Montgomery and his business partner, director Kazik Radwanski, have had great success screening their films at prestigious festivals. Their 2008 short film, Princess Margaret Blvd., has generated numerous awards and accolades including the Best International Short Film Award at the 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival and a nomination for Best Live Action Short Film at the 2010 Genie Awards. We were lucky enough to have Dan talk to us about applying to film festivals – budding filmmakers take note!

KT: First of all, how and when can an average person see your films?
DM: Now that we’re starting to transition into some longer-form projects, we’re thinking about making our shorter films available online for free just so that people can be introduced to our work and use that as a tool to introduce people to our process. Right now the films aren’t online, but people can always contact me, and I’m very generous with giving out the links to our password protected sites. A lot of our work is just password protected online, and we can share those links around. Additionally, the Canadian premiere of East Hastings Pharmacy will take place on Monday, April 16th as part of the 25th Images Festival here in Toronto.

KT: Why festival screenings as opposed to just having your work out there and available?
DM: We still really value the role that film festivals play, and there’s something unique and special about having isolated screenings of the films. I think that people who go to festivals don’t want to watch it on youtube, and I think it’s appropriate for the type of films that we’re making that people discover them in a theatre as part of a festival. I don’t think they would have as much success if it was just available online and people were sending around links. They aren’t accessible viral films that would flourish in an online platform. If we were able to count up the number of estimated audience members who have seen our work in a theatre, I think it would greatly surpass the kind of numbers we could achieve if we were just to host it on Vimeo and send it around.

KT: Your production company, MDFF has had a great deal of success with grants and festivals; how many things have you won?
DM: We’ve screened at 50+ international festivals, and maybe we’ve won close to a dozen or so awards at those festivals. It’s really the main outlet for people seeing our work at this point. We’ve screened films at TIFF in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Last year we were filming a new project. At the Berlin International Film Festival we screened films in 2009, 2010, and 2011. And then a lot of other festivals in between.

KT: What would you say is the ratio of festivals you’ve applied for versus festivals you’ve been accepted for?
DM: When you submit to festivals you have to have the expectation that you’re going to submit to way more than you think you should in order to get a little success. We’ve been successful with maybe one in four festivals we submit to.

KT: Is the process of applying to festivals something that happens seasonally?
DM: There’s definitely waves, but it’s a year-round thing. Any time of the year there’s always a wave of important festivals coming up that you could think about submitting your film to. For us, the wave has always started in the autumn with the fall Canadian festivals. All of our work has always premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and then there’s a bunch of Canadian festivals throughout September, October, November, and the international start point for us is Berlin, which happens in February. But at any other time of the year there are always festivals you can work towards.

KT: How do you keep track of what you are or should be applying to?
DM: We’ve crafted this festival roadmap that we have a spreadsheet of. It’s a shared document hosted online so that me and the directors I work with can all go in and access the status of festival submissions. We built it selectively with festivals we’ve either submitted to, have screened at, or would like to submit to. It’s at about two or three hundred festivals that we have in the list now, and it’s the main resource that we go back to now. It’s got all of our screening history, and all of our current submissions. It’s all colour coded, you can organize it by date, or when the deadline is. It has notes and links, and our submission history…. It’s pretty elaborate and cool.

KT: Are festival submissions fairly standard in terms of what they want, and what’s the application process like?
DM: Yes. Generally, you submit a screener version of your film to the programming committee of the festival, and after a few months of waiting around they get in contact to let you know if they want to invite the film to the festival. The basic information you would apply with is a short synopsis of the file, (for us it’s only a few sentences long), a biography of the director, stills from the film sometimes, and that’s the bare bones. Some festivals will require a little more, but most festivals just say “send us the film and don’t send us anything else. If you send us any other materials it’s just going into the recycling, so just send us a disc.” If you’re accepted, you would then send a screening copy, and sometimes they’ll ask for a more detailed press kit with either bits of press about the film, director’s statement, promo materials, posters, postcards, any materials they can use to market the film on their end. If you have a teaser or trailer that ‘s online, they’ll link to that.

KT: What do you do when you attend a festival? Presumably, you’ve already sent them all the material, so you pack your suitcases and leave, and then what?
DM: Well…sometimes we’ll ship them the materials ahead of time, but sometimes to save on costs we’ll actually bring it with us. The last couple of times we’ve gone to Berlin I’ve had the 35mm print – which is this giant, heavy case – as my carry-on luggage, that we’ve physically delivered to the projectionist. It’s actually kind of rewarding to have this physical film that you’re passing onward. It depends on the scale of the festival. With short films, it’s pretty rare that a festival will pay for you to travel there. We’ve had some luck with a few festivals that will help pay for your flights, primarily for the director. Kaz and I will split any costs we get. We also get travel grants from Canada Council for the Arts that help to pay for the trip to promote your work.

KT: So once you’ve been accepted to a festival you would apply for a travel grant?
DM: It’s tough because by the time you find out about the festival invitation, it’s getting so late that you won’t be able to apply for the travel grant; even if you apply right away, the turnaround is going to be too tight. You pretty much have to commit to going, and it be a pleasant surprise if you get the travel grant that will retroactively pay off your expenses. With longer-format projects, like features, it’s more common that the director will be paid by the festival to fly out for the screening, and get a per diem. With short films, it’s rare for a festival to pay for you to travel, but it does happen occasionally.

KT: When you’re actually there, what do you do?
DM: The best scenario would be at Berlin; it’s a top-tier festival and they really do take care of their filmmakers when you get there, and there’s a lot to do. From Q&A’s after each of the four or five screenings, to separate artists talks that are organized by the festival that are purely a discussion point, not related to screening the film, to industry events. There’s a co-production market at Berlin which is sort of a meeting place for producers, distributors, and sales agents, and buyers who are going there sell films, or discover films. It’s really strange; it’s this giant hall and its like a fruit market for film. There are all these little stands. It’s organized by funding agencies so, for example, Telefilm (which is the funding agency inCanada), has a booth and a room where they are marketing your recently completed work, and the other films they have brought to the festival. It’s really strange. I haven’t done a lot of this, but you take meetings, you meet people from other countries who are maybe looking to do a co-production with Canada. There’s lots of industry-related business that can take place at a festival.

KT: What is the ultimate goal of showing at a festival?
DM: Primarily, finding an audience and connecting with that audience in a real, in-person manner. But on the business side of it, introducing the project to potential partners. Maybe someone who would be interested in licensing it to a foreign TV channel, or a distributor who might want to take the German rights to screen it theatrically, or meeting other producers who would want to partner on future projects with you. So beyond actually screening the film there’s a lot of business and industry opportunities that are involved in going to a festival. A lot of festivals will charge an entry fee, so I think you have to be willing to take a bit of a hit, but it pays off when you get to screen your work and get more exposure for it.

KT: How do you decide what to attend?
DM: If they give us money, we’re there…. ha ha. If it’s of a reputation and a level that would warrant us putting in a bit of money to experience that, we would try to attend as well. Or if there’s a significant industry presence that would make sense for me to be involved with, or if it’s close enough to Toronto that we can attend in a relatively easy way. More and more we’ve been focusing on producing new work and haven’t been as involved with attending festivals.

KT: If someone is thinking of submitting a film to a festival for the first time, what is something they should know?
DM: Submit, submit, submit. Don’t get discouraged by rejection letters. We’ve submitted work to a festival one year, got their form email saying they weren’t going to accept it, and then ran into the programming director months down the line who said “I remember your film, I remember watching it and liking it a lot, we couldn’t program it for such and such reasons, but send me your new work and I’d love to see it.” And when we sent them that new work it was programmed. View a submission as an introduction to a festival and the programmers who are watching it, thinking of it more than just that singular opportunity.

Click here for more information about the Canadian Premiere of East Hastings Pharmacy. The screening is this Monday, April 16th – part of the Images Festival.