5 Lessons Learned from Running a Film Festival (That Apply to Filmmaking and Life)
For the past year, I have had the absolute pleasure of being on the leadership team of the LA EigaFest, a 3-day Japanese film festival at the famous Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. We hosted thousands of moviegoers and a few very special guests like Oliver Stone, Ken Watanabe and Lee Sang-Il (screened the US premiere of their film, UNFORGIVEN), and Masi Oka. This was the first time I’ve been involved with a festival, and it really reinforced some of the lessons I’ve learned in the past, both as an entrepreneur and in working with filmmakers. I thought I’d take a minute to write a few of them down. :)
1) Focus on your audience
At LA EigaFest, we screened everything from period dramas to light-hearted films for children. We couldn’t simply hit everyone with the same logline – “Bringing the best of Japanese cinema to Los Angeles!”. Instead, we needed to craft a message for each group we approached – one for parents, anime fans, language learners, independent film fans, etc.
Filmmakers spend a lot of time perfecting their logline and elevator pitch, but often forget that they are speaking to individuals with unique interests and needs. We spoke to Adrian and Roko Belic, the filmmakers behind the Oscar-nominated micro-budget film, GENGHIS BLUES, at a FilmBundle.TV Live event last year. Adrian stressed that before they raised funds or started their grassroots marketing campaign, they sat down and came up with several types of people they thought would connect with the film, and then created individual pitches for each one. This was essential in raising money as first time filmmakers.
When creating products, I often have to remind myself that if you try to create something for everyone, you’ll end up creating something for no one. I find this holds true across the board. It’s always a good idea to have a few versions of a pitch in your hip pocket. The more tailored the pitch, the deeper you’ll connect with an audience.
2) 80 percent of success is showing up
I find Woody Allen’s old adage holds true in just about every case (of course, you still need to create quality work). Every year we put on the festival, more people take notice. This year, the Japanese government gave awards to several content producers including Guillermo Del Toro and John Lasseter – and contacted us to hold the ceremony on festival weekend. This wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t consistently produce year after year.
The lesson here is to be consistent and prolific. Screenwriters – finish your scripts, filmmakers – finish your films…and get them out into the world. The more quality swings at bat you have, the better your chances at success.
3) Plan for the best, prepare for the worst
Just like with any successful film shoot, a great event needs a ton of pre-planning. It may seem trivial at first, but getting even the smallest processes outlined on paper is crucial. Who is helping set up chairs for the Q&A and how many should they set up? Where do volunteers stand while they are waiting? Who do they talk to if problems arise? These seem obvious, but trust me, in the course of managing thousands of festival goers and dozens of films, things can get messy.
That said, no matter how prepared you are, problems will arise. We had one of our judges call just a few minutes before an event to say he couldn’t make it, and had to figure out a replacement quickly. Luckily, we were able to make it happen thanks to the support of an amazing producer who stepped in and helped us out. Plan everything to the last detail, but be prepared to be flexible.
4) Build your audience before you need it
Building an audience for a live event takes a tremendous amount of support from the community, bloggers, publications, etc. If you start reaching out to these people and building relationships when you need them, it will already be too late.
Building an audience for a film is no different. Just getting into pre-production for your next feature? Start building your audience now. They’ll be your ambassadors, when you have a product that needs wide attention. We learned that the single biggest seller of tickets for the festival was word of mouth. Having evangelists in place who will tell their friends is everything. Reach out and be helpful to bloggers and journalists, get the groups you know will be interested engaged, and make them feel like they are part of the production. We have all seen the fundraising successes of films on Kickstarter of late, but the truth is the main benefit of a Kickstarter campaign isn’t the money that can be raised, but the passionate fans it can create.
5) Team above all else
A common saying in HR is “slow to hire, quick to fire”. This may sound brutal (and to be honest is a bit hackneyed at this point), but when it comes down to it, team is the most important element to success. A-players hire A-players, B-players hire C-players. This is why the single most important thing venture capitalists look for when hiring is team. We were blessed to have a killer group of volunteers behind the festival from our event managers to our programmers. It couldn’t have happened with out them.
If there is one thing to spend the time on, it’s cultivating the proper team. In my opinion, there is no better indicator of future success than the team you can attract and maintain.
Bonus: Don’t Take it Personally
I know everyone has their heart set on Sundance or Cannes, and rejection can be brutal. If I’ve learned anything from the festival it’s that there are tons of amazing films out there, and they often don’t get selected for operational reasons rather than creative ones. Programmers may pick one film over another simply because it’s 30 minutes shorter and fits more easily into the schedule. Don’t get discouraged if your film doesn’t make it. Every year there are amazing films that get picked up for solid distribution that weren’t accepted to any of the majors.