What to Expect at Film Festivals

Sundance Film FestivalA short time ago, the following message was sent to me via Twitter:

“@TRLocke– Morning! I need your feedback. What are your expectations and/or objectives when attending a film festival?”


With one of the world’s top four film festival, Sundance, right around the corner (January 21-31st), I thought the answer to that question would be helpful to the readers of this blog as well.

I have to admit that my initial answer to this question was less than favorable. I’ve attended about 20 film festivals in my life—only four of them intentionally.

The first film festival I attended was as a student reporter for my high school newspaper. It was a foreign film festival in Cleveland Heights at the Cedar-Lee Arts Theater. There I saw an amazing film shot in Port-Au-Prince Haiti with English subtitles. My memory of it tells me it was similar to a French version of Slumdog Millionaire without the game show device. Despite my flattering review, I doubt seriously anyone from my high school went to see it.

The other three film festivals I attended because I had a screenplay in contention (Chicago) or because a friend had a film in contention (Hollywood), or because I’d scored free tickets to the L.A. premier of an a movie that won the prize at another bigger film festival (Los Angeles—to see Hustle and Flow with Craig Brewer, John Singleton and Stephanie Allain ).

The rest were by happenstance–usually simply the result of living or working in some artsy district like River North and Wicker Park in Chicago or The Heights in Cleveland, or Burbank (and nearby NoHo—North Hollywood) now. The scenario often plays out like this—I’m walking down the street with family or friends, only vaguely aware a film festival is running, when some young filmmaker pops out of a near-empty theater and desperately begs us to come in and watch his movie for free. We look at each other, check our watches, ask what the film’s about and how long it is and then… sometimes we go. Sometimes we don’t. Suffice it to say, not all film festivals are created equal.

Although film festivals are primarily the domain of directors and producers, there are a few objectives that can be gained by anyone looking to attend. What you can gain is related to whether you’re a film director, producer, writer or actor, etc. Either way, having a plan and reasonable expectations definitely helps.

What follows is a list of what you can expect. The information is gleaned from my own experience as well as a number of other artists and books I’ve read over the years. I’m presenting this information in no particular order.

Contacts.  Regardless of what role you play in the movie business, film festivals are a place to meet people who share your interests and professional goals. These people often show up later at different places along your career path. Networking and meeting different people may help down the line. There’s no real guarantee it will help, but I’ve never seen it hurt.  You may have the opportunity to meet and befriend someone just before their film or yours blows up. Such a person could prove invaluable to helping you in your career. It would be rare—namely because people blowing up as the result of film festivals is rare, but it could happen. Actors and writers particularly stand to gain by meeting directors and producers who may be looking to hire you. The same can be said of cameramen, cinematographers, make-up artists, etc..

Parties. If you’ve been cooped up in an editing room cutting your film for the last six months, a party could do you a lot of good. When liquor’s involved anything can happen.

Education.  There are usually a lot of great panel discussions during film festivals. You can learn new ways to finance your film, new routes to submitting your screenplays to production companies, new ways filmmakers are making money through distributing their films in various markets around the world, cheaper methods of production, new insights into the latest technologies, how the business is changing, or you may even find me there talking about some topic from my book like what to expect in trying to get your film into Hollywood, etc.. Writers can learn about trends affecting the types of screenplays that are being purchased and new avenues for writing in emerging media.  According to a friend on Facebook, Nickelodeon and other studios often present discussion panels at film festivals in hopes of finding new talent for their writing programs or even to staff their shows.

See a Few Good Movies. Though you will likely see some films that make you wonder how in the world someone would put their time and energy into making it, you will probably see a few good films as well. If you’re really lucky, you might get to see the premier of a breakout film and maybe even meet the creators before they become famous and you have to go through their assistants.

Meet an Occasional Celebrity.  Most likely the ones you may meet would be of the B, C, and D-List variety. You likely don’t know their names, but you recognize them, right?  A-Listers are usually kept in a separate room/section/party—popping out to promote their pet pro-bono project (the film that will likely go on to win the top festival award) just before it premiers. But here’s a good chance to get some pics and impress some friends back home.

For those who actually get accepted into a film festival, here are some additional ways you can benefit:

Distribution. This is the grand prize of any filmmaker attending a film festival. “The winner gets a distribution deal.” That’s why most filmmakers enter. But because it’s only a prize for the winners, it’s not really something most should necessarily expect. In fact, even winners are finding the distribution channels for independent films are bottlenecking, according to the festival director at Sundance.

Get Your Movie Seen. Exhibition is another major goal for those entering film festivals. If your film is selected to be shown at a festival, you have the opportunity to be seen by industry professionals and audiences, which could end up opening doors for you. The key here, though, is that you must know that the festival itself is not going to hype and promote your movie for you. Just because your movie is showing in a festival does not mean people will see it. You have to promote it like mad. You went through all the work to make a movie and get it accepted to a festival. Don’t drop the ball now. Finish the work of packing out the house.

Prizes. You may not win the distribution deal, but if you get any kind of recognition to your film, you could use that recognition to help drive promotion later. Any type of prize at any festival looks good on the one-sheet—even if your prize was nothing more than a new Blue-Ray player.

Publicity. Local news media is sure to cover most film festivals in some form or fashion. If your film was selected for a film fest, use that opportunity to score an interview in local press or TV that might help lead to more exposure for yourself or you film.

These are all fairly reasonable goals you can have when attending or having your film in a festival. On top of these direct benefits, sometimes being in an atmosphere with other creative people can really get your juices flowing. Maybe you’ll meet someone who will become your producing or writing partner on your next film. Or maybe you’ll make a connection with someone who has equipment or an editing suite you can use on the cheap. If nothing else, perhaps you’ll meet someone who’s going through the same struggles as you and you’ll realize you’re not as alone as you may have thought.

Most importantly though, look not only for the benefit others can be to you, look for the benefit you can be to others.

Good Luck,

T. R. Locke

Posted in For Filmmakers, For Writers, The Business of Entertainment and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .


  1. I think this is pretty hot how you bring this info to some that may not have even thought much of it before keep up the good work i like the site

    • @Rondu–Thank you. Hope it helps. I appreciate the comment. –TRL

  2. Great article – love your pragmatic optimism.
    My two closest associates – Jonny a VT editor extraordinaire, and David a gifted DOP – and me, an award winning Director/Producer, have never visited a film festival. Can you believe it? We’re all ex BBC so where should we go to press the flesh and with a great idea? We three have always fancied Sundance as our first foray. What’s your recommendation?Keep up the good work and looking forward to hearing from you. Rob.

    • @Rob–Thanks for your comment. From what I understand Sundance, Toronto, Cannes and Berlin are the most industry attended film festivals. If you’re looking to meet more people within the industry, I’d definitely start with those. Esp. with Sundance being right around the corner. America seems to be in love with the Brittish lately, so I’m sure you guys would be a big hit. Of course, closer to you would be Berlin, which is equally prestigious and loaded with industry insiders, so I guess it’s budget verses a desire to see the wild American West and maybe a few more US movie stars.


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  5. good blog. you’re right, nothing will happen if i sit at the house, might as well go. LOL!


  6. Justin "Hydraulic"

    I am a director of a film festival for the first time, and I’m glad that this info has been put in front of me. Now I know who to target for an audience, and what they will expect. Thanks

    • @Justin–Great to hear. I wish you all the best with that. Thanks for the reading and commenting. TRL

  7. Raleigh Photographer

    Thank you for posting this article! I was looking for something similar and it was helpful to read thru it!

  8. Now and then I’ll stumble across a post like this and I’ll recall that there really are still interesting pages on the web. ^_^. Thanks.

  9. wow, great, I was wondering the same thing. and found your site by google, learned a lot, now i have got some idea. I’ve bookmark your site and also add rss. keep us updated.

  10. Jeremy Rummerfield

    Thanks for the info.

    • @Jeremy–You’re welcome. Thanks for checking out the site.

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