How to run a successful film festival

With only two screens, Aberystwyth, may not seem like a logical home for a film festival, but in the 20 years since I’ve moved here, the town has hosted over 20 failed film festivals. And, I’m sure there have been many other failed festivals that I never heard about.

Over those twenty years, only three festivals have continued to this day, and only two of them are still in (or partially in) Aberystwyth.

Aberystwyth is not unique in being a home to failed film festivals.  In fact, film festivals are probably the riskiest part of the film business. At least with a film, you have a recorded document to show as a kind of proof of your hard work.

If you’re determined to run a festival anyway, make sure you do it right.

Step one: educate yourself.

I’d recommend the following book: The Complete Filmmaker’s Guide to Film Festivals. It’s written by two women who run a moderately successful film festival.  Of course, it’s written for filmmakers, and I bought it as a filmmaker.  But, when it tells filmmakers (and audiences) what to look for in a good festival, it also gives hints on how to run one.   Rona Edwards and Monika Skerbelis know what they are talking about. This is not only the best book on film festivals I’ve ever read, it’s one of the best books about the independent film industry, full stop.

If anyone in your community (see “find a team” below) has run a festival, ask them about their experience. Every location is different, and running a festival in Tucson Arizona, Brussels Belgium, or Aberystwyth Wales will have different challenges. Even if you’re looking at Nigeria, Indonesia, Japan, India, Hong Kong, Algeria or elsewhere, I hope some of what I write here will be useful to you.

I’d also recommend you watch a few stories about film festivals, including horror stories. After all, some of the most successful film festivals are horror festivals, some of the least successful festivals are horrors to the filmmaker.

Step two: find a team.

Okay, now you know what filmmakers want and don’t want, and what audiences want and don’t want, how do you keep everyone happy? And, who should be on your team?

I’d suggest you contact the following organisations: Libraries (locally, the National Library of Wales has participated in film festivals), Museums (there’s one coming up at the Ceredigion Museum), Universities, Art Centres (the most successful film festivals I’ve seen have been linked to art centres), Cinemas, art bodies, film societies, and others. You can build on their networks, use their screening rooms, gain from their experience, utilise their marketing networks, and you might even find that they’d run the festival better than you would.

Notice that I didn’t mention celebrities. Some of the worst festivals have celebrity participation. Sure, invite a celebrity to speak about their own film, but don’t expect them to give good advice. In general, film festival organisers are unsung heroes, too busy to be famous.

Don’t try to run a festival alone. It’s a huge venture. At least attempt to find some other people (and organisations) to come up with ideas and help with the marketing.

Step three: Find a USP

With your team in place, think of what makes your festival different. This will help you market your festival. The successful Aberystwyth Horror film festival calls itself Abertoir, a creative name which tells you exactly what to expect. WOW, Wales One World festival, shares high quality films from around the globe with a Welsh audience who otherwise wouldn’t get to see them. This ranges from Japanese family cartoons to gritty and extremely violent Australian art films, to German movies about construction workers in Eastern Europe. These aren’t entered into by the filmmakers as far as I can tell, but scouted out by the festival organisers, who strive to bring the best of world cinema to Wales.

The thing is, while you can always see the latest Stephen King film in Aber, if you want to watch horror short films, or independent international horror, or see classic horror in the cinema, there isn’t a lot of places to turn. While I’m not a huge horror fan myself, I can see the USP of Abertoir.

Likewise, I don’t get to see a lot of Japanese cartoons locally. WOW is great for film fans, it gives us the chance to sample films that we’d normally have to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to see (or at least be limited to seeing on DVD).

The thing is, if audiences know what to expect, they are more likely to show up. Too many failed film festivals just say “we want short films.” That’s usually a recipe for empty seats. Gay, Jewish, Latino, Christian, Horror, International, Black, Women’s, Conservative, Dance, Comedy, Shakespeare, Human Rights, Horror, those might not always draw the crowds, but at least it tells you something. (Note, genre festivals tend to last longer than identity or political film festivals. Try to be as inclusive as possible, unless you want to exclusively target part of the community.)

It doesn’t have to be a genre, there was a local festival last year where the films were made by war veterans. However, consider your audience as well as the filmmakers. After all, your filmmakers will want an audience for their films.

USP doesn’t have to be super unique, but enough to excite you, your filmmakers, your team, financers, helpers, and your audience.

Step 4: create a mission

The USP is not enough. What does your film festival offer to the community (especially audiences and filmmakers?) Remember, the vast majority of festivals fail, because no one can see the point of them. The team can help you with this mission.

Step 5: Plan.

Now that you know what you’re doing and why. You’ll have to find the money, organise screenings, and promote your festival.

I ran the website of the New Orleans International Human Rights FIlm Festival for one year. I was able to do this remotely, as a volunteer, and it was a lot of work. The festival organisers had to do even more work, booking the films, letting me and others know where and when, letting me and others know about schedule changes, co-ordinating audiences, locations, volunteers, filmmakers and others.

Running a film festival is like running a mid budget film, or even creating a new department at a university. It’s not something that comes automatically. Organise it, and get ready.

Step 6: Adapt

Just because you have a plan, that doesn’t mean everything will fall into place. Again, my experience as a web designer (as well as a film festival patron) has shown me some things that could go wrong, and how the wonderful people who run successful festivals adapt to it.

Step 7: Repeat

Running a successful festival one year doesn’t mean you can just sit back and relax. Next year will take a lot of work too. In fact, many top filmmakers will ignore your festival until you’re running for at least three years.

Most likely to fail

Writing this, I remember a lot of short films that I starred in, or helped film, or otherwise participated in, that have disappeared into the ether. I’ve seen a few of these screened at local film festivals, festivals that promoted short films.

Short film festivals aren’t as successful as genre film festivals. Remember, the entire point of creating films is to show them to an audience. The audience likes to have some idea of what to expect success. No one wants to wait in line to watch a bunch of random short films. I’ve been to quite a few screenings of excellent short films, only to find that the filmmakers and I are the only people in the audience. (And this is often in well organised festivals, with dedicated volunteers, professional fliers, and all the rest.)

Short film festivals fail because they don’t have a solid mission. They accept anything and everything, which means the audience might as well type in random words on youtube and hope for the best. No matter how solid the team behind them, audiences aren’t generally interested.

Okay, now, goodluck. And thank you to everyone who has run a festival over the years, and brought new films to audiences. I hope that my limited experience can help you make your festivals even better.

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